They all felt it when it happened. It rocked, then tilted back, like a lurching boat righting itself against a rogue wave. The world sailed onward, yet the water still rippled. They tried not to speak of that irreversible moment, and in muttered conversations, they loudly refused to ignore it. The Veil had cracked, a pointless sliver quickly swallowed up again by the Space between Here and There.
A spirit had given up their spirithood.
No one had bothered to look for what he might have left behind. The damage was already done, his fate, already written. He-Who-Laughs-In-Darkness was no longer among them. What did it matter, anyway? It had been his fault.
The rain poured across the surface of the lake in sheets of light and dark waves, shattering the glass reflections of the grey water and scattering any image of the rippling footprints treading over the lake. The figure of a woman shadowed through the faded silver fog. Mist curled around her in an ethereal shawl as her silhouette flickered through the distortion of the slanted rain.
It is said that some mortals who die are welcomed into the spirit world. It was the destiny they chased, almost above all else; leaving offerings of gold and fine food and sweet incense burning faithfully at the altars, looking to the empty statues in reverence and envy.
She-Who-Walks-On-Water had been human once. She never regretted her death. Mortality, she knew, was pointless and sad, and that was why she benevolently left small blessings and miracles rippling in her wake. Mortals, she knew, were powerless in their world, and that was why the Red Maiden did not weep when they died, no matter how the villages chose to explain the sudden rains falling in apparent sunlight. She did not know where they went, nor did she care. They were mortal; their fate was already written.
The black sand hissed softly with the lapping little waves of the wind swept lake. Dark pebbles shifted beneath her sandals as the Red Maiden walked onto the shallow beach and towards the low houses outlined in the mist.
Dark emerald fronds bowed to the cool spring rain, swinging out of the spirit’s path as if pushed by a light breeze. Dark red mud clung half heartedly to her sandals as she walked onto a wooden pathway, gliding silently into the reed-thatched village. Red spirit markings tattooed in fluent swirls patterned across her lips and down her chin, dripping down her neck in beautiful permanence until they vanished beneath her brown and white robes.
It is said that some mortals who die attain spirithood. The mortals who became spirits were already dead, their identity was already severed from their substantial form. There was no such thing as death to a spirit. There is an End to all things, but few spirits have truly been forgotten, only changed.
The spirits all felt it when the Veil shuddered, then snapped, then mended itself in a heartbeat, like nothing had even changed. It was never considered that a spirit could cross the Veil and revoke everything that they were, and it had happened. It was a different kind of death.
She-Who-Walks-On-Water approached a house worn with the lashings of old winds and sun. The door swung open obediently. An old woman weaving with dry reeds abruptly lay down and closed her eyes. Stray droplets of water fell from the spirit’s dress, and wet footprints pooled shallowly on the platformed floor as she walked closer to the carefully crafted basket resting near the unconscious guardian.
He-Who-Laughs-In-Darkness had given up his spirithood– his Everything– to save the life of an inconsequential child. She needed to see it. She needed to know why. The Red Maiden knew this village well. She had walked amongst its people more times than they would ever count.
He-Who-Laughs-In-Darkness had no dominion in the mortal world. He could only travel there when the timing was right, upon the black nights of the solstice or equinox. He had never been mortal, like She-Who-Walks-On-Water. He was not a patron of healers, or poets, or even children who laughed wildly around warm campfires. Pale Frost had never been well worshiped or even recognized by name, he was little more than one of the voices echoing through the nights when the Veil was thinnest. And yet, he adored mortals, for no reason at all.
Was it the novelty?
There was nothing novel about death, nor life. Red Maiden had known both, she would understand that much. No matter how much she or any other spirit had agreed, Pale Frost never seemed to understand it himself.
She-Who-Walks-On-Water approached the basket hesitantly. The rest of the spirit world could act as if nothing had changed, that nothing about this boy was different than any other, but they all knew. He should have been buried weeks ago, yet he breathed. This was the one that Pale Frost chose above himself.
Her fingers rested on the lip of the basket as she peered over the rim at the creature lying within. Peach-fuzz black hair upon a little round face peeked above a carefully wrapped blanket. The child stirred, opening wide brown eyes and staring up at her. The spirit gazed back tensely, waiting upon something, though she wasn’t sure what.
She lifted the child into her arms. He seemed so human, yet this was the incarnation of a spirit. There was nothing more it could be.
“Hakeanu,” She addressed him in a whisper. The child blinked up at her with bright eyes. “Hakeanu,” She insisted. “It is me, Ula’a Wahi.”
The boy smiled at her as if by reflex, staring in fascination at her intricate red markings.
“Pale Frost? Say something.” She pleaded.
The boy giggled up at her, an ironic distortion of Hakeanu’s sharp cackle.
Ula’a Wahi recoiled.
The rain pattered down on the thatched roof in returning waves shepherded by the wind. The Red Maiden stood in silence, wrapped in the mounting horror of what she had never let herself to consider.
No intricate fern-leafed spirit markings graced the mortal’s weak skin. There was nothing more behind those simple brown eyes. She knew the consequence of the tear through the Veil– the finality of that temporary damage.
The boy lived. He-Who-Laughs-In-Darkness did not live inside him.
Shimmering water gradually streamed from her dark eyes as she felt the tears carving tracks down her face. She shook her head, dark hair cascading from her head mournfully as she stared at the thing in her arms.
His decision was so useless. The boy was only destined to die.
The child gurgled softly and the Red Maiden blinked slowly at him. She curled her arms tighter around him as hollowness clawed through her chest. The boy squirmed with restless energy while his stone-still guardian settled inside a shawl of hopeless resignation.
She looked down on He-Who-Should-Have-Died with nothing but empty questions that he could not answer.
The child finally wrestled his arms out of the soft fabric cocoon and reached upward, sometimes attempting to latch onto her tattooed lips and chin, and other times reaching ambitiously toward the sky. She held out her hand to meet his own, his little fist wrapping around her finger. He had a strong grip.
Ula’a Wahi stared down at the blank canvas of his petal-soft skin in reluctant veneration. Fresh tears dripped silently from her face as her lips bowed downward.
The rain poured.