Am I alive?
It’s a question I’ve been asking myself for over three hundred years. A good friend once told me never to think about it. “You’ll only make things harder for yourself like always,” she scolded, but these days I have plenty of time to reflect as I struggle through these icy fields and clamber over jagged mountain tops alone with nothing but my mind to keep me company. It’s too bad that I don’t have the strength to stop these dangerous thoughts which continue to assault and torment me.
I’m no fool. I know good and well that I died long ago and left my body rotting far behind, but I continue to exist in this godforsaken wasteland just like all the other miserable living people here, so doesn’t that make me somewhat alive?
If you were here right now you’d probably laugh at the crazy soul who thinks he’s alive, but luckily for you these are only written words so I can’t punch you in the face and tell you to shut up. I guess if you’re reading this it means that you managed to find my pitiful notebook out in the snow, so I should introduce myself so that at least someone will remember the name of the miserable soul who was fucking stupid enough to believe that he could get away.
My name is Ethan. It’s not my real name, and it’s only one of many that people have called me over the centuries, but my last master liked it, so I’ve decided to stick with it for now. A long time ago I apparently lived in some place called Earth. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It exists in some dimension far away from here and once you die you can never go back. Too bad for me right? Judging by my appearance I must have lived there until I was sixteen or so, but then one day I decided to make a deal with a demon and sell my soul away. I’ve heard that plenty of stupid humans do it for selfish reasons like money or fame, but whatever I wanted resulted in centuries of suffering so I better have gotten something decent in return.
I don’t know if this is the truth, or some fiendish lie they made up to pacify me, but either way my body soon died and I was taken to this shit hole, otherwise known as The Underworld.
I wish I could tell you some happy stories of my childhood or what things were like on Earth, but it’s impossible. All souls have their memories erased when they come to Hell and it’s impossible to get them back. Trust me, I’ve already tried. They supposedly do it for our sake (because we’re far too fragile to cope with leaving our past lives) but I’m certain that those bastards did it so that we can’t remember how badly they screwed us over.
As a soul we’re all just ghosts of our former selves. Our skin is transparent and if you beat us too strongly your fist will pass through. I guess the only good thing about being dead is that we can’t feel pain, but that doesn’t do much to protect us from all the other despicable things that those masters can do.
Here souls are just slaves to whoever has enough money to purchase their lives. We’re puppets who dance to our master’s commands until it all becomes too much to bear and we lose our minds. I might not be as bad off as some of the nutjobs I’ve seen out here, but even my mental state has taken a beating over the years. Crazy souls are treated like trash before being destroyed and disintegrated into thin air. I’ve seen it before and I’m certain that those fucked up bastards probably enjoy ending our lives.
That was going to be my fate too if I continued allowing myself to be passed from one monster to the next, but I’m not anything like those other stupid passive souls.
I ran away.
I decided to flee before they could collect me to be resold. Maybe not the best idea in the world, but what other choice did I have? It was actually her idea not mine, I guess someone as beaten down and bitter as me would never have enough hope to consider rebelling again. She asked me to do it, and in my grief stricken state I agreed without any idea about how difficult it is to flee from those who are masters at enslaving the weak. I guess it’s fortunate that I picked up some tricks from old masters that I can use to stay one step ahead of them, but no matter where I go they’re always at my heels. Coming closer and closer like they can sense where I am. I’m certain that they must have some sneaky and unfair way of tracking their souls, which is why after weeks of running I’ve fled to the coldest and most dangerous part of Hell.
Hell is mostly red mountains and scorching deserts, but in the remote mountain ranges it snows almost every day. Here my ghostly body is immune to the cold, and an accidental fall from a dangerous cliff won’t destroy me. The deep snow and freezing blizzards have finally begun to slow them down, and this could be my last chance to figure out a way to get rid of them once and for all. Unfortunately those sad excuses for life have got all the villagers out here searching for me. Normally it’s no challenge to outsmart a bunch of dull farmers, but looking for me is the most exciting thing that’s happened for years, so they’re almost more persistant than them. I fashioned myself a brown coat that I hand sewed together from old vegetable sacks. It’s covered in mold and I look like a fucking potato, but it’s just enough to cover my transparent skin and make me look like a beggar.
I guess you must be wondering why a nutjob like me is even writing in this notebook instead of fleeing for my life. I guess I must have snapped again and leveled up to a whole new level of crazy. This is what happens when you spend too long in Hell. I told others about the crappy things that happened to me many years ago. My friends, other souls, the masters who actually gave a damn, but now they’re all dead and gone and there’s no one left who knows what happened to that strange soul named Ethan. I want to believe that I can somehow make it out of this, but if I don’t this could be my last chance to tell anyone about the shit I’ve seen and the suffering I went through.
I guess it’s best to start from the beginning when everything wasn’t so fucked up and sad. I’ll start by telling you the story of my very first master. Some crazy guy called Alistair who deluded me into thinking that hell wasn’t the pit of suffering that it is.
It all began back then, or at least I think it did. It’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not anymore. Decades of memories are all blurred together and difficult to tell apart, but one thing that stands out like a bright torch in the darkness was my first master. I have no idea why I can remember that guy so well while others have submerged into the back of my mind. Maybe because I often thought of him and how things may have turned out if fate had been different. Perhaps if he had lived a little longer I may have been spared from some of the awful shit that happened soon afterwards.
My first master was a demon by the name of Alistair. I say demon, but he didn’t look much different from myself other than actually being alive and breathing air. He looked like a young man in his early twenties with long blonde hair and green eyes, but in reality he must have been over two hundred. He was my master, but he was actually a master, that’s what they call people here who have mastered over a thousand magic spells. If you’re one of those peasants who dwell out in this frozen wasteland you may have no idea what magic is, but in the larger cities there are hundreds of people who dedicate their lives to learning different spells and incantations. The rich use magic rocks to power their street lights and lamps, and there’s always some destitute scholar performing tricks on the street for extra cash. With all these different spells you’d think that someone would put some effort into cleaning up the corrupt and filthy Underworld, but all those magical scholars just use their talents for fighting and improving themselves. I once had a vain master who used to kick the poor on the street, but spent over thirty years learning magic just to make her nose look smaller.
One of the most sort after incantations is the famous immortality spell. If you master this highly dangerous piece of magic it’s possible to live for eternity, or until you accidentally slip up and kill yourself by not performing it perfectly like her. The only other way to become immortal in this world is to sell yourself and become a soul slave like me, but only idiots and lovestruck fools would possibly reduce themselves to that.
Luckily for him, my late master Alistair came from a well renowned family which had the money to waste on an expensive magical academy for their precious only son. There he mastered over one thousand magic spells including the one for immortality. He also wasn’t malevolent for a demon, and he was so old and lonely that he eventually snapped and began treating his soul slaves like they were real people.
“How fortunate you are,” said his driver as he took me to my new master’s mansion one rainy afternoon. I had just arrived in the underworld and I stared out the carriage window in bewilderment like a child seeing the world for the first time.
“Most master’s round these parts treat their soul slaves like trash,” he continued. “But the master’s a decent bloke, and immortal. We’re set for the rest of eternity without having to suffer like those unfortunates out there,” he pointed to the street outside and I looked to see an old man dragging his soul slave along by her hair. I shuddered and felt thankful that it wasn’t me, but that was mild in comparison to what some masters will do.
“You’re so lucky,” were the words I would continue to hear over the years. “Your master is so kind, and he will never die, so you never have to worry about being resold to some terrible monster.”
What did they know? I was so fresh and naieve back then that I swallowed their lies and believed in my master without a doubt, which only made everything more painful later. If I was so lucky then what the fuck am I doing on this mountain out in the fucking snow with nothing but a soggy notebook and pen to keep me company as I flee from them. I almost wish that I could go back and slap my past self for being such a fucking idiot. Even better, I’d tell him to start figuring out some way to escape from the Underworld or end his pathetic existence. There is pain and suffering no matter where you go in this place, and it’s only a matter of time before it comes to find you with vengeance.
But enough about that shit. I need to write down everything about my old master while I still have time. I guess you could’ve almost called that guy a soul’s ideal master. Alistair was rich, optimistic, perhaps a little eccentric but everyone seemed to love him. He was also an intense party animal and socialite who regularly held late night gatherings in his large mansion.
Unfortunatly he had no concept of savings and burned through his inheritance and salary without any regard for the future. I guess there’s no reason to care about money when you can live forever.
He also merrily flirted with everyone, men, women, and even his soul slaves including me.
“I love you all!” He would cry out in joy and lavish us with expensive gifts which were wasted on a bunch of ghosts who’d soon be gone. I don’t know if he was intentionally trying to mess with us or just did it on a whim, but my master had successfully turned my fellow soul slaves against each other as they all fruitlessly struggled for his affection. I was at least bright enough not to involve myself with their mindless fighting, but it was unavoidable when he showed me a little too much attention at one of his many evening parties.
“Traitor!” Mira screamed and threw a knife at my head when I walked into the kitchen carrying a tray full of empty wine glasses. Mira was another soul slave who looked like a teenage girl with long hair. She’d lived with the master longer than any of us and thought that made her our boss. I used to fear and despise her back then, but it’s difficult to hate her now that she’s gone.
“Trash! Filth! Useless piece of shit!” Mira screamed as she continued throwing knives one after another at my body. Being a soul they all passed through me like air, but I dropped my tray in shock and the wine glasses all shattered against the floor with a crash.
“So you think that you can have the master all to yourself now do you pretty boy?” Said a soul named Alphonse who was leaning on the kitchen bench behind her. His arms were angrily crossed over his chest and he glared down at me, which was probably the only frightening thing a dead guy like him could possibly do. Alphonse was a large man with short hair who always acted tough, but was reduced to a giggling mess in the presence of Master Alistair. I wonder if he was like that when he was alive, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he sold his soul in order to get some stuck up guy’s attention.
A year earlier Alphonse and Mira had both desperately competed for the master on a daily basis, but they’d recently decided to join forces along with Angela who must have also been there. Angela looked like a small girl no older than seven, but in reality she was more than four hundred. All her centuries in Hell had warped her childish soul into something dark and unrecognisable, and I think she must have somehow deceived the master into thinking that she was an adorable young girl. I could never imagine Alistair intentionally buying someone who could suck all the joy out of a room.
“Slit him open,” she said with a wicked smirk which looked out of place on such a cute child. My suffering probably brought that bitch great joy.
Alphonse and Mira began to encroach on me, and being the naive idiot I was back then, I completely freaked out. What a joke. As if a ghost can actually make a ghost bleed? I stupidly pressed myself to the wall in terror and prayed that I could somehow pass through, but unfortunately the shitty gods of Hell weren’t kind enough to give us such useful skills.
Anyway, there I was, completely terrified of an angry ghost girl and her transparent sidekicks, when suddenly my only friend in Hell, Anya, burst through the window dragging Felix behind her. Anya was a boyish girl with long curly hair who’d been working for our master for over a decade. She was strong, forward, and didn’t let rotten souls such as Mana and Alphonse walk all over her. Maybe I was in love with her, or maybe I wanted to be like her, but it was so long ago that it doesn’t matter. Either way she was completely infatuated with our charismatic master and didn’t bother to hide it. Perhaps we were only friends because she saw me as a useful ally in her constant struggle against the other three, or maybe she honestly viewed me as a friend, but Anya’s long gone now so I can’t exactly ask.
Felix was someone who I could almost consider a friend. He was the calmest guy in the mansion and he had no interest in our master or involving himself in the other’s feuds. He was a young looking man with messy hair and glasses even though I’m certain that souls don’t need them to see. Our master had unsuccessfully tried to hit on him several times, so Felix had retreated to the garden and barely came indoors. I’d even begun to forget the sound of his voice.
“You!” Spat Mira like refusing to address Anya by name would somehow make her more inferior.
“Mira!” Yelled Anya and she angrily pointed one finger towards her. “Looks like your pea sized brain has finally figured out that the master will never love you, but there’s no need to take your pent up frustration out on Ethan.”
“What do you know bitch!” Said Mira with a knife in her hand. “I’ve been here longer than any of you. I know things about the master that you never will!”
“Oh dear Mira,” said Anya. “Knowing what time the master poops shouldn’t be considered a big secret.”
“I know more!” Cried Mira. “I’ve seen him naked!”
“I saw him naked once too!” Anya yelled back.
“Liar! Everyone knows that he was only half naked that time!” Yelled Anya.
“Was not!” Said Mira. “I saw everything!”
“Why am I even here!” Cried Felix as he desperately tried to escape Anya’s grip on his wrist. “I’m just a gardener!”
“Quit struggling and back me up!” Snapped Anya. “You’re supposed to be on my side.”
“I never agreed to be on your side!”
“If you’re not on their side, that automatically makes you on my side!”
“Even Felix can’t help you now!” Yelled Mira and she threw a kitchen knife at Anya, but the other girl easily dodged it.
Knowing my fellow soul slaves they probably descended into some pointless argument and began threatening to kill each other despite already being dead. The fight only came to a close when Anya got her hands on the frying pans and began tossing them at Mira and Alphonse like frisbees. The two of them ducked behind the kitchen counter to avoid her assault, while Angela just stood there and yawned like she was bored.
“Come on, let’s get out of here,” said Anya and she reached out her hand towards me. I hesitantly took it, and we ran out of the kitchen and down the corridor like a pair of small children. The skirt of her black maid uniform billowed behind her as we dashed down the halls, past expensive oak furniture and exquisite works of art. I didn’t know it back then, but most people in the Underworld live in poverty, and very few people can possibly afford to live in a mansion as majestic as that one. Alistair inherited everything from his late parents. Faded paintings of a large woman and a tall looking man glared down at us from the walls with disapproval. Sometimes I could also spot small pictures of a young and miserable looking Master Alistair dressed in a black dinner suit.
At last we arrived at the library and Anya dragged me inside and bolted the door behind us.
“They shouldn’t be able to find us in here,” she said with a grin and collapsed on the carpeted floor. “That’s what you get for messing with team Anya!”
“What about Felix?” It seemed cruel to leave him there to deal with Mira and Alphonse alone.
“He should be fine,” she said with a shrug. “They don’t have much against him with that guy being neutral and all.”
By neutral she meant that he wasn’t involved in their daily battles to become the master’s favourite.
“That reminds me,” Anya quickly spun to face me with her hands on her hips and a scowl on her face. I knew that she was doing her best to appear frightening, but she just looked like a small child throwing a tantrum. “Is it true what they’re saying? Did the master really kiss you in front of all the guests tonight?”
My mind was suddenly assaulted by images of what happened earlier, and I tried my best to push them back down into the depths of my memory where they belonged. I’d been serving drinks at his party like always, when master Alistair suddenly grabbed me by the wrist, spun me to face him, and then crushed his lips against mine before everyone. Obviously I’m just a walking ghost so I couldn’t feel anything, but it was the first time that he’d been so overly affectionate towards me. I’d seen him do it plenty of times with his other guests, so I suppose that something like that must have been meaningless to a playboy like him.
“So it is true!” Cried Anya and she jabbed one finger at my chest. “I can tell from that look on your face!”
“No, it wasn’t anything like that!”
“Oh no,” she cried dramatically. “Don’t tell me that you also want the master!”
“No, no, you have it all wrong!” I cried. “I didn’t ask him to do it, he must have just done it because he was drunk and there was no one else around.”
“Really?” She glared down at me. “How do I know that you don’t secretly like him too? They say that it’s always the quiet ones that you need to worry about.”
I couldn’t take her glare so I had to look away. “There’s no way that I would ever like a guy like that. He’s vain and cares only about himself.”
There were plenty of other negative things that I wanted to say about Alistair, like he was an irresponsible playboy who was going to end up destroying himself, but I had to stop there because I knew that Anya loved our master more than anything, and she would certainly become mad if I continued to disrespect him. I could remember wishing that Anya would pay that much attention towards me.
“I suppose you’re right,” she sighed. “But I’m worried about him. You should have heard what those people were saying tonight behind his back. They’re all so civil and pleasant to his face, but they’re like monsters when he can’t hear them anymore. They kept saying that it was wrong to be so affectionate to souls like us. They think that we should suffer. Everyone think’s the master’s snapped and gone nuts.”
“I’m sure that’s not true,” I said to reassure her, but looking back on it now I’m certain Alistair must have been mad. “They just don’t know him as well as we do, that’s all.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right, it must just be something like that,” she smiled nervously. “Imagine if the master actually did go nuts?” She laughed. I began to laugh along with her while hoping that she wouldn’t resent me for what happened at the party.
Our lives continued on like that in the mansion for decades. Every day was much the same. We’d start by doing the chores the master had assigned us, but then we’d get on each other’s nerves and end up arguing until Anya and I ran away, or the master came to break up our fights. Then we’d all go to sleep and wake up and do the same thing the next day for another forty years. We all foolishly thought that we could exist there forever in our own sheltered hideaway, but of course it was impossible to hide from the terrible world which existed outside those four walls.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when things began to change. I suppose like everything it began gradually. The master’s mortal friends got old and stop visiting, the mansion fell into disrepair, and the townspeople around us became anxious like there was something terrible looming on the horizon.
Alistair changed too. Our relaxed and overly friendly master became withdrawn and paranoid until I wondered if he’d been murdered and replaced with a stranger. Soon all the majestic night parties and splendid gifts were gone, and that guy spent his evenings staring out windows for reasons that simple souls like us couldn’t understand. Sometimes he was working, sometimes he was drinking, but he always kept one eye outside like he was too terrified to look away.
I guess his unusual fascination with the window must have started when the war did.
I can’t remember which war it was. People screaming in pain as they cut each other down has become a monthly event. You see, there’s always some pointless fight going on in the Underworld, and I suppose that even a mountain peasant like you has already figured that out. It’s like those demons get a kick out of ripping each other apart and they don’t care about who gets stuck in the middle.
Perhaps it was the war against the southerners, or Azazel, or Heaven, or just some ridiculous fight that began because a lord decided that he needed to do something to pass time, but this war was worse than the last. It began on the outskirts of the province and then slowly began creeping towards the cities until we could see smoke on a clear day. I guess that I should have been afraid, but back then I couldn’t comprehend the horrors of war. I was still all pure and innocent, and I was certain that terrible things only happened to others who weren’t me.
Of course I was wrong.
A century later there was a civil conflict in the town where I lived. My master back then, a pompous rich man named Beflamont who lived on a hill, sent me across town every morning to fetch him bread and milk. Every morning he would point his chubby finger at the door and grunt like he couldn’t be bothered pronouncing the words. He didn’t have to. I knew the routine so well that he didn’t need to say anything, but even when the streets around us descended into a battlefield that old man still sent me across town like he was too old and dusty to change his routine.
The world outside was chaos. Buildings were burning and anyone who was foolish enough to stay was running away screaming. The streets were full of rebels and demons who chanted “Down with Azazel” as they lit pictures of the king on fire. The other side of the river was full of royal soldiers who mercilessly launched magic attacks towards us. I desperately dodged flying projectiles and scorching beams of light as I dashed through the town hugging the groceries tightly to my chest. Because regardless of walking through a war zone Beflamont would certainly punish me if I shattered his precious milk.
“Hey soul boy!” Called a blood red demon with two giant horns protruding from his skull. “Can you hold this for a moment?”
He didn’t wait for my answer. Instead he grabbed my arm and forced me to hold the handle of his magical canon as it sent out a scorching beam of light across the river.
I stood there too terrified to let go as the large demon lit a cigarette and took a drag like he wasn’t in the middle of a battle. I was thinking of the best way to politely request him to take his canon back, when a stray magical attack passed by me and hit him through the chest. The demon’s body exploded right before my eyes and splattered me with blood. I instantly let go of the weapon and tried to ignore the screams of the rebel I’d accidently hit. The idea of harming someone left me sleepless for weeks, but he was going to die no matter what, so I should just get over it already.
After that I nervously staggered the rest of the way back, and desperately tried to clean the blood off my master’s groceries before I presented him with the spotless goods. He merrily ate his bread and jam that morning like nothing was amiss.
The next day when I made my trip through the town everything was silent, and the streets were littered with the rebel’s bloody corpses. Turns out that the King of the Underworld is a master of dealing with unrest. I guess you’d have to be in order to rule over this place for seven hundred years.
Anyway, back to Master Alistair and his strange obsession with the fucking window. It’s only now when I look behind me to see this endless wasteland of snow that I can finally understand what that guy must have been thinking. He obviously knew his time was coming to an end, and I guess I must be as old as he was, as creepy as that sounds.
Alistair was my master, so of course I cared for him like an old friend, nothing more, which is why I felt the need to check on him that evening. I found him in the sitting room leaning up against the large front window, staring into darkness like death itself was going to come strolling up the front path to abduct him.
“Master,” I called out from the doorway. Alistair jumped in shock like I’d caught him off guard, and a wine glass fell from his hand and shattered against the wooden floor.
“Master!” I called out to ask him to remain still, but it was already too late, and with a crunch my master took one step forward and stood on the broken glass. He didn’t cry out in pain, and instead just silently stood there staring at his foot which had begun to bleed.
“Please don’t move Master,” I rushed over and began to pick up the glass around his feet. The sharp shards couldn’t injure someone like me who has the hands of a ghost. I then rushed to the bathroom and fetched a small medical kit that I’d seen Alphonse use to patch up the guests who partied too hard.
When I returned Master was still standing there like he was too tired to move, and I gently guided him over to one of the plush velvet chairs. There I carefully removed the glass from his foot with a small pair of steel tweezers and watched the blood drip from the wound.
I tried to hide my fascination with his cuts, but I couldn’t help but wonder what it felt like to bleed. Is it really as painful as they make it out to be? When I first arrived in the Underworld I felt nervous around sharp things like my soul still remembered what it was like to get hurt, but after centuries of dulled senses I no longer have any concept of pain.
“You’re good at this,” said Alistair as he watched me bandage his foot with awe. “How did you ever learn that?”
“Someone has to know Master,” I said with a nervous smile. “Who else is going to patch you up when you get hurt?”
I could have sworn that I saw his cheeks turn red and he quickly looked away. I was just relieved that Master believed my lie. He always seemed to believe anything I said without question, and I often used it to my advantage. Perhaps I’ve been a rotten soul from the very beginning.
The truth was that I had spent hours studying his books about anatomy and medicine because I was desperate to know what it was like to have a body. Maybe I hoped that it could provide some clues about my previous life. Everyone around us was always changing, while my fellow souls and I constantly remained the same. I had spent hours studying mouldy textbooks and I could recite most of his vital organs by heart, but I am still no closer to finding the answer about life and death.
“How long has it been Ethan?” Asked Master. “Since you came here.”
“Forty years,” I obediently replied.
“Forty years, huh? Has it already been that long? I remember when I first met you,” he said with a small smile. “Do you remember Ethan?”
“I’m sorry Master.” My memories of that day in the Underworld are hazy and I can barely remember anything. It must have been a side effect from whatever those arseholes did to erase my memories.
“Well I remember,” he said. “You were just staring into space with some blank look on your face, you couldn’t even talk. I asked if you wanted to come back and then you smiled. You actually smiled Ethan.”
“And then I,” he paused and I patiently waited for what else he had to say. “I suppose that the rest doesn’t matter.”
He went silent and watched as I finished bandaging his foot. I found the silence unnerving; I was so used to a flamboyant lively young man that I didn’t know how to act around this new quiet version.
“How about Anya Master?” I asked. “What about the day that you met her?”
“Anya?” He muttered. “I had a friend pick her out for me. I suppose that he must have asked for the most violent and strong willed girl they had. Perhaps it was his idea of a joke, but she has served me unexpectedly well.”
“Yes, she’s great,” I said. “She seems to care for you very much, and she’s kind and thoughtful and beautiful as well. She might just be a soul, but anyone in the Underworld would be so lucky to be together with her.”
I may have already mentioned how I felt towards Anya, but all I wanted was for her to be happy, and if making Master Alistair like her was the way to do it then I would have said anything. You probably think that a soul and their master getting together seems ludicrous, but it wasn’t unheard of amongst immortals who didn’t want to watch their loved ones die. Master Alistair even had one friend who sold his soul in order to be with his immortal boyfriend forever. I guess it’s not so bad if you value companionship over warmth and intimacy, and even I’m guilty of allowing one master to give up on physical love. Looking back on it now, I should have encouraged her to warm up to others instead of relying solely on me. Perhaps I was too cruel and selfish to let go.
I thought I’d done a brilliant job at supporting Anya, but against my expectations Master just let out a frustrated sigh. “Don’t you think that’s something that you should say to her yourself Ethan?”
“I,” he was staring at me so seriously and I stood there unsure of what to say. I never voiced my true feelings about Anya to anyone and I kept them to myself like a teenage crush. Could it be that Master Alistair saw through me?
There was a knock on the door and I was thankful that someone had come to save me from what I thought was a horribly awkward situation.
“Master,” said Alphonse from the doorway. “There’s someone here to see you, he looks like he’s from the barracks.”
Master’s face turned pale, and when he looked at me I could see fear in his eyes for the first time ever. We all stood there in silence for what seemed like forever before Alistair pulled himself out of his chair and went to meet his guest. “Thank you Ethan,” he said with one last glance at me. “That will be all.”
Angela, Alphonse, Mira, Anya, Felix, and I all lined up in the front garden the next morning to wish our master a safe trip. The army forced him into the latest war, and there was nothing that anyone could do to stop it. I don’t know why they were so interested in a rich pampered aristocrat like Alistair, and I can only assume that the shitty king thought that conscripting magical users was the best way to crush his adversaries. This cruel strategy worked in the end, but my master had even less experience than me when it came to combat and war, which is probably why he didn’t last very long. I guess even the immortality spell couldn’t protect him from the enemy’s onslaught of merciless attacks.
The other souls and I were all dressed in our best formal suits or skirts which had been presented to us by our beloved master. Alphonse nervously brushed a crease in his butler uniform for the twentieth time that morning, and Anya kept readjusting her hair. Mira was sobbing uncontrollably like Alistair was already dead, and I was certain that I saw a small glimmer of sadness within Angela’s dark lifeless eyes. Felix also looked anxious, but as concerned as I was for our master I hadn’t considered the possibility that he wouldn’t return. I don’t think I even knew that people could die back then, and even now I still expect him to appear at any moment with some weird lecherous smile.
“Did you miss me Ethan?” I can imagine him saying, and then he would pounce on me like he did in the past.
But on the morning he left Master wasn’t smiling. His face was cold, passive, and I could tell that he was trying his best not to cry. He had to quickly turn away once or twice to wipe stray tears from his eyes.
“I will be back soon,” he said sternly as his gaze flicked between us like he was desperately trying to memorise our faces. “I expect you all to be on your best behaviour during my absence, so that means no throwing sharp things. I expect the house to be in perfect order until I return.”
“We’ll try Master,” muttered Alphonse, but I remember him and Mira getting into several knife fights over the upcoming months.
Alistair then hugged each of us goodbye. I was last, so he hugged me longer and more tightly than the others like he was too afraid to let go. I think he may have also run his fingers through my hair, but that could just be a different memory from another master.
Alphonse began loudly clearing his throat and Master Alistair reluctantly let go. I glanced behind me to see a teary Mira furiously glaring back, and for some unknown reason Anya also looked hurt. I tried to make eye-contact with her, but she quickly glanced away.
“Farewell dear souls,” said Alistair as he climbed into his horse drawn carriage as slowly as possible. There were army officials impatiently standing by the gate in their stupid little magenta uniforms. One guy was obnoxiously tapping his foot against the gravel road, and it was obvious that Master didn’t have much time left. “Words can not describe how much I will miss you all. I hope that we can be happily reunited by the end of the year.”
“I’ll miss you too!” Sobbed Mira.
“Come back soon Master,” said Alphonse. “It won’t be any fun around here without you.”
“Slice them to pieces,” said Angela in her morbid childlike voice. “And then dance on the bodies.”
“Good luck out there Master,” said Anya. It was easy to see how much she loved him even though he didn’t feel the same way. “If anyone can come back alive it’s you. I’ll be here waiting for you, for as long as I live, if not longer.”
“Thank you dear Anya,” said Alistair with a sad smile. “I’m eternally grateful to have found such kind souls who all believe in me.”
Master then looked directly at me, but I didn’t know what to say, so I said my goodbyes with a small awkward wave. He looked at me with eyes that expected something more, before he let out a sigh and took his seat in the carriage. Maybe if I’d known his fate I would have said some more heartfelt words, but I replayed that moment in my head for years and I still don’t know what I should have said. It’s impossible to go back and fix things like that once somebody’s dead.
The carriage began moving away from the house and we all stood there waving without any idea that we would never see him again. Mira collapsed to her knees and began crying out in pain like an injured animal, and I can remember her being like that for hours. Alphonse crouched down to comfort her, and when I took a closer look at his face, I realised that he was also quietly sobbing. I assumed that someone like Anya must have also been suffering, so of course I reached out to support the girl who I thought was my best friend.
“Anya,” I said kindly and placed one hand on her shoulder, but she angrily shrugged off my touch like my presence was revolting.
“Don’t talk to me,” she snapped before spinning on her heels and dashing back into the house.
I stood there frozen in shock with my hand still reaching out towards her, and it was then that Angela started giggling at my misfortune. That crazy brat picked an amazing time to start acting like a real kid.
“Girls, huh?” Said Felix with a smile as he jabbed me in the ribs with his elbow. I didn’t know if he was trying to tell a joke, but either way it wasn’t funny. I think he suddenly realised how devastated I was, and then attempted to give me some better advice. “Don’t worry about Anya, she probably just needs time to adjust to him being gone, that’s all.”
His words seemed logical enough and I desperately hoped that he was right, but in the following days Anya continued to shut me out like she despised my existence. Until that day she had always talked to me no matter what, so I had no idea what I did to upset her.
“Anya!” I called out nervously when I knocked on her door for the tenth time that week. I stood there silently listening to her shuffle around the room but she never replied to the sound of my voice. “Please come out Anya!” I desperately begged, but perhaps the master leaving was a bigger shock for her than it was for me.
“It’s all your fault you know,” said Angela with a creepy grin from the shadows at the end of the hall. “He likes you more than her so now she hates you Ethan. She’s never going to speak to you again. Never ever ever. You should just go somewhere dark and never come out. That’s what I do.”
I don’t know what other crazy shit she had to say because I walked away and Angela began chatting to a painting of Alistair’s grandfather. I heard that after her next master the soul market decided that she couldn’t be fixed, and her existence was erased a few decades later. I despise the way that those bastards think, but she was so twisted and broken that it would have been cruel to force her to continue living.
After Anya locked herself away, Mira and Alphonse’s alliance soon crumbled, and they renewed their animosity towards each other. You could hear their screams all over the house, so I eventually retreated into the library and locked myself in. There I could read all my favourite books on biology and human anatomy for hours on end without anyone coming to bother me. With the master gone I even began neglecting my chores and passing out on the carpet once my energy ran out. I must have spent weeks staring at dusty outdated medical textbooks until I could recite most of the pages by heart. Such information was irrelevant to someone like me who was already dead, and the best I could do was use those facts to try and imagine what being alive was like. I tried to picture what it felt like to breathe and eat food, but I was surrounded by immortals so it was difficult for me to understand the concept of aging and death.
Sitting at that desk in my own little fantasy land was fine in the beginning, but after a while I began wanting to know more about souls. Unfortunately as much as I searched I found nothing about what a soul is, or what will become of me if my existence is erased from the Underworld. Everyone used to prattle on about how my eternal imprisonment as a slave in this hole is something I agreed to when I was alive, but that shitty soul market has always been vague about the real details, and I refuse to believe any of their crap anymore. If using dead people as slaves is so justified and legal then why must they erase our minds? I’m certain that those sad excuses of life must be twisting plenty of facts for their own sick benefit.
That day in the library was different from all my previous visits. I finally had a breakthrough in my forty year search for some answers about myself. I looked down at the page that I’d been staring at for hours and tried to work out if I was missing something. It was the only clue I’d found about explaining my existence and what happened to me on Earth, and it was one small sentence that went something like this.
Once the soul is removed the body dies.
I repeated that sentence again and again in my head as I tried to comprehend what it meant. You may think that it’s obvious, but you need to understand how stupid I was back then.
I slowly opened the reading desk draw and pulled out a sharp silver letter opener. I gripped it firmly in my hand and positioned it just above my arm. I began to nervously shake, but with one deep breath I stabbed it through my arm until it clanged against the wooden desk. It went through my body like I was made of smoke, and I could easily move it back and forth through my hand without feeling anything. I didn’t stop there. I tried stabbing it through my arm and thigh, but as much as I mutilated myself I couldn’t find any of the vital organs or arteries that I hoped to see. All I did was confirm what I already knew. Once a soul is ripped from their body they die straight away, and my current form is just a ghost of what I used to be. Some weak little shadow that can be used without limits to serve rich hellish beings.
I growled in frustration and flung the letter opener across the room. It bounced off the wall and landed somewhere under the shelves. I wanted to rip that book to shreds and cry over all the terrible mistakes that I made when I was alive, but instead I just sat there laughing like I’d begun my slow descent into insanity. For some strange reason everything just seemed so fucking funny. I’d wasted decades searching through books all about skin and bones, and for what? I knew as much about being a soul as I did the first day that I arrived in the Underworld. I at long last realised what a stupid pathetic being I’d been all along.
In the middle of my laughing fit I suddenly remembered Alistair’s words about throwing things, and how miserable he looked as he went off to war. Even though he wasn’t there to see me disobey him, I felt terrible for ignoring his request and I got up to retrieve the letter opener.
I found it under a large bookshelf at the back of the room. That stupid hunk of silver had rolled all the way under and was resting against the wall. The space was too narrow to fit most of my arm, so I had to slowly ease it out with my fingertips until it rolled into my hand. I sighed in relief and went to return it to the desk, but it was then that I caught sight of an odd book sitting on the bottom shelf.
I would have never noticed it if it wasn’t for my violent outburst, and that one little book is probably the only reason that I’ve survived until now. It was small, thin, green, covered in dust, and it was wedged between two books on exotic insects where I’m sure it didn’t belong. I found the title on the spine intriguing, and I tilted my head to the side to read it more clearly.
“Magic for anyone,” I muttered out loud.
I had no idea what a book about magic was doing outside the master’s locked study. It was unlike him to leave such valuable materials lying around, and I began to doubt if it was even a book about magic at all. I thought it was probably just another strange romance novel that belonged to the master’s late mother. Perhaps my fellow souls would have left it there, but I always found the concept of magic intriguing. I used to watch Alistair perform magic spells from the crack in his study door, and if I was lucky, he’d even let me hold his materials as he conducted one of his many experiments. I was always impressed at how he could do such amazing things, and I suppose that it was one of the good things about that guy. When I first got there, I often daydreamed about becoming a magical scholar like Master as I mopped the floors, but I had long given up on the idea of using magic myself. Such things required a body, which I didn’t have, so I thought it was stupid and childish to even consider the possibility.
But then again, if it really was for anyone, then technically even a soul like myself could use it.
I carefully pried the book off the shelf and a chunk of the spine crumbled away at my touch. It probably sat there forgotten for centuries. Magic for Anyone; Easy techniques for the magically impaired, said the cover in bold golden letters.
I curiously opened the book and read the first page. I don’t remember the exact words, but it must have said something that sounded like this.
Tired of your magic wielding friends showing off at parties? Had enough of people mocking your inability to do spells? Well you need not suffer any more my friend, because with Otis Vandagear’s guide of magic for anyone, even a monkey can pull off the simplest of incantations. All you need is the book in your hand, Otis Vandagear’s sparkling magic channelling crystal, Otis Vandagear’s gateway to dreams chalk, and an undying determination to upstage your friends and acquaintances.
It then showed a picture of a crystal and chalk with an insanely high price tag, and only someone as rich as Alistair could possibly afford them.
I sighed and flipped through the book anyway to see what was so great about Otis Vandagear’s techniques. It was full of diagrams of strange circles and how to replicate them in a few easy steps. I never knew that it was possible to do magic with just a crystal and chalk, but it did explain how even ordinary people can use magical weapons on the battlefield.
I slowly read the first diagram in the book and nervously tapped my finger on the page. Had it been a different day, I may have brushed the book off as nonsense and placed it back, but I desperately needed something to distract myself from Anya and my miserable existence.
“Yes, perhaps this could work,” I said to that empty room.
My old master accumulated a collection of magical artifacts during his time alive, so I knew that his study was the best place to search for the things I needed. Alistair was probably paranoid of intruders stealing his precious shit, so he diligently locked it before he left, but I, and every soul in that place, knew where he kept the key.
I silently snuck into his bedroom that afternoon, past Mira who was sobbing into Master’s shirt, and took the key from a small drawer beside his bed. None of us were allowed into the study when he wasn’t there, but I foolishly believed that Alistair wouldn’t notice if anything was out of place. Even if he caught me there was nothing to worry about. Master rarely became angry, and he would just pout and cross his arms whenever we misbehaved.
“You’ve made me very angry Ethan,” he once said when I accidentally smashed a vase when running through the halls. He didn’t look the slightest bit frightning, but the idea of disappointing him made me feel terrible. Why was it that other masters treated me like shit and it didn’t matter, but Alistair could affect me like that without even raising his voice?
I stood before the study with the key and book in my hands. There was no one to stop me from going through that door, but I still paused to reconsider my actions. Alistair lectured us dozens of times about how fragile and delicate his magical things were, which is why he probably locked that room so we couldn’t throw them at each other. I didn’t want to go against his word, but I couldn’t imagine putting that book back on the shelf. If I returned it to the library I’d only think of those magical techniques for days, and then I’d eventually snap and return to that door. It was better to just get it over with than spend weeks dreaming about magic only to find it impossible.
I nervously glanced down the hall to make sure no one was around, and then I silently slid the key into the lock and let myself in.
Master had left the curtains shut, so only a small beam of sunlight shone through a crack to illuminate the room. It hadn’t been used in months, and I could see specks of dust merrily floating through the air.
The study was smaller than the library, but still large enough to contain three cabinets of magical artefacts, several bookshelves, and a desk in the corner which was overflowing with notes. The floor was littered with books that Master had pulled off the shelf, and then aimlessly discarded when he couldn’t find what he wanted. There were also maps of the Underworld pinned to the walls, and I’d later regret not examining them more closely. Running would have been a lot easier if I’d known more about this place.
“Sorry for the intrusion Master,” I apologised and quietly crept inside.
I first wandered over to the closest cabinet and wiped the grime with my sleeve to look inside. It was full of strange animal bones and a skull that may have been human. There are many types of magic in the Underworld so that creepy shit must have been useful for something.
I shuddered and moved over to a bookshelf which was stuffed with mouldy encyclopedias on magic. I’d attempted browsing through them before, but unlike the book in my hands the language was too old and complex for me to understand. I was always envious of how a party boy like Alistair could recite them out loud with ease, and he pulled off most of his magic by chanting that ancient shit. I pulled one of the books off the shelf to take a closer look, but the cover was so old that it immediately ripped into two and the pages crumbled to the floor. I stared at the pieces in horror while trying my best not to cry. I grabbed a bunch of stray books and piled them on top of the ripped pages. I thought that it was an ingenious idea, but such a childish trick would have never fooled Master.
After ruining that book I lost the courage to snoop through his things, and I went to one cabinet in the corner which was emitting a faint glow. Inside were various colorful magic crystals which were all different shapes and sizes. Some just looked like regular rocks, but others glowed brightly enough to light your way through the dark. I opened my book on easy magic and turned to the first page. I compared the black and white sketch to the crystals before me, but it was too difficult to work out which one I needed. There were no labels, and without a color picture it could have easily been any one of them.
I decided to try a white crystal which had the strongest glow, but when I wrapped my fingers around it, the rock sent a shot of searing pain up my arm. For that one small moment I suddenly knew what it was like to physically suffer, and I let out a scream of pain and immediately let go. As fast as that pain hit me it suddenly disappeared, and I could barely recall feeling it at all. I looked down at my hand which glowed red for a moment before returning to ghostly white.
I didn’t know it back then, but that stupid rock is one of the few things capable of hurting us souls. The soul market has plenty that they use for erasing our existence, and I’ve had to dodge their sneaky weapons while running from those arseholes. I don’t know what Alistair was doing with something dangerous like that, and I can only assume that some of Master’s late relatives weren’t so kind towards dead people.
I nervously examined the remaining crystals like they would bite, and I decided on a safe looking purple one that had a faint glow. I cautiously touched it with my fingertips, but unlike the white one it didn’t try to destroy me. I took it from the cabinet and went to find some chalk to draw with.
I eventually found a small stick at the back of Alistair’s desk drawer. It didn’t seem especially magical, but I hoped it would be enough. I then sat cross legged on the rug in the center of the room and placed the crystal and chalk on the floor before me. I turned to the next page in my book and scanned the instructions for the first technique.
“Welcome to the mystical realm of the unknown, my soon to be magic wielding friend,” I slowly read out loud. “If you’re reading this it means that you’ve decided to take your first step towards becoming an elite spellcaster, or at least showing off like one. And what better way to display your new found powers but with this great technique. Simply draw this easy diagram onto any flat surface, and sit back and let the powers of magic do the work for you. It’s a hit at children’s birthdays and creates the right abience at any dinner party,” I squinted at the diagram of a chalk circle with a ball floating above it. There were many strange symbols and every line was neatly joined together to form some sort of circuit. I’m no artist, but I had enough confidence to try drawing it myself.
I rolled back the rug in the center of the room to unveil the floorboards underneath. The wood was already scratched and burnt from previous spells, so I didn’t feel bad about drawing all over it.
I began reproducing the strange circle with my chalk. I was careful to copy every line and squiggle on that page, and after hours of drawing it was finally complete. I took a step back to proudly admire my work. The book didn’t specify how large it had to be, and I’d unknowingly made a circle so big that it consumed half the room. I meticulously compared it to the one on the page, and carefully scrutinised every line and curve to find any mistakes, but as far as I could tell it looked almost perfect. Perhaps I could have drawn one line a little straighter, but that book was written for idiots so such a minor detail wouldn’t matter.
“Once your diagram is complete,” I read. “Be certain that there are no lines overlapping that shouldn’t. You wouldn’t want to blow yourself up now would you?”
I nervously glanced at my seeming harmless chalk drawing and wondered if it was a joke. I should have taken those words more seriously because I’d soon find out that it wasn’t.
“Next, draw one line away from the top symbol, the length matters not,” I drew one line leading away from the circle like the book instructed. “Otis Vandagear highly recommends using a light blanket, rug, or table to cover your diagram and give the illusion that your magic seamlessly appeared out of thin air. Once your guests are gathered to see your amazing techniques, simply place the crystal at the end of the line and watch your friend’s jaws drop open in awe.” I put the book down. “Surely it can’t be that easy?” I muttered to myself. Until then magic always seemed so far out of my reach, and I found it difficult to believe that it was as simple as graffiting my master’s floor.
I carefully picked up the purple crystal and placed it at the end of the line which linked up with the circle. I didn’t expect anything to happen, but to my surprise the effect was instantaneous. The chalk began to glow and a faint ball of yellow light suddenly appeared a meter from the floor in the center of the room. It was only the size of my fist and far dimmer than an ordinary lamp, but it was enough to help illuminate my surroundings. That one simple technique would come in handy over the years, and it’s the only way that I can continue writing my sob story well into the night.
I walked around the outside of the circle and examined it from all sides, but no matter what angle I looked at the orb there was no denying that it was magic.
“Amazing,” I whispered in awe as I stared into that light and began to ponder what other techniques I was now capable of.
“Master?” Said a voice from the doorway.
I immediately glanced up in terror to see Anya curiously peering into the room. I watched the hope in her eyes disappear when she realised that I wasn’t the guy who she wanted to see.
“Oh, it’s you Ethan,” she said. “It’s so dim in here that you kind of look like him when you stand there like that.”
I looked at her blankly with no idea how to respond. I wasn’t sure how to talk to the girl who ignored me for weeks, and I was in the middle of doing something I shouldn’t.
“I’m such an idiot,” I moaned and collapsed face first to the floor. I lay there wallowing in self pity for what felt like eternity. I had vandalised my master’s precious study and I had inappropriate thoughts towards my best friend. I was obviously a rotten human being who sold myself away for my own benefit, so it seemed natural that I was only capable of terrible things.
“This is all your fault,” I said while glaring at the magic book which lay discarded halfway across the room. All I could think about was how nothing would have happened if I hadn’t decided to try difficult things. Perhaps there was a reason why souls aren’t supposed to do magic spells.
I was about to shuffle the picture to the back of the papers, until I caught sight of a small sentence at the bottom of the page. My darling master had written, can souls become human again?
Today I continued my never ending trek over treacherous mountains and through fucking snow that comes up to my knees. Every white valley and frozen field looks the same to me now, so there’s been nothing eventful worth writing about.
I’ve been careful to avoid all human villages and towns like a plague. I like to think of myself as a ghost who haunts this depressing wasteland and leaves nothing behind, but today I ran into my first living person in weeks. I was so wrapped up in my own fantasyland and memories of dead people, that I didn’t even catch sight of him until it was too late.
It was an elderly man with white hair and a long untamed beard. He was rugged up from head to foot in several layers of tatty woolen clothes, and he waddled through the snow with a slight limp on his right side.
I suppose I could have fled, I should have fled, but he was already so close and I was so certain that I could crawl myself out of that shitty situation without running. The soul market’s minions probably told the villagers to keep an eye out for any dead people, and those sly bastards would promise starving mountain peasants a nice reward in return for any information about me.
I decided to act natural and pretend that I was just another decrepit farmer aimlessly wandering through the snow. I covered my face with my hood, and I hunched over and stumbled like my back was permanently bent. I did try to subtly veer away from the old man, but the sharp cliff on my left side meant that it was impossible to avoid him, and I had to watch in terror as he slowly wobbled closer and closer. If I had a heart it would have frantically pounded in my chest just like the way living people describe it in books.
At last I glanced up to see his ancient body before my own, and I quickly looked down so that he wouldn’t notice my ghostly complexion.
I nodded my head like a real mortal to acknowledge the old fool, and I even went one step further and croaked a strained “good morning,” because that’s how fucking kind and generous I am.
The old man mumbled a quiet “hello” and continued on his way. I was so sure that my superb acting skills and centuries of experience had fooled him.
But then that shitty old man spun around and looked back.
There was no denying that he realised that something wasn’t right about me and my potato sack coat, and I could feel his beady little eyes examining me from head to foot. Perhaps he was just interested in a stranger who was wandering these lifeless fields, but my paranoid mind screamed out that I’d been exposed.
I quickly hobbled away before sprinting as soon as that old fool was out of sight. All I could picture was that mortal going straight to the soul market’s doors, and spilling his guts about the odd vagabond he encountered on a frozen mountain road.
I ran for hours until my energy depleated and I had to stop and rest for the night. Maybe now I’m finally safe in this deep dark hole that I dug for myself.
But there was a time long ago when my vagrant lifestyle of running and hiding was completely unimaginable. I knew nothing about suffering and pain, and my biggest concern was what to do with my abundance of freedom and time.
It had been almost a year since Master Alistair left us, but perhaps it was longer. There was no reason to count the days when I knew I’d live forever. My fellow souls and I continued on with our daily chores in the hope that our beloved master would soon return, but there wasn’t any sign of him since the day that he left. Of course we still received regular mail from his bank and his friends, but there was nothing from the man who claimed that he loved us.
“Let’s play a game,” said Anya one sunny afternoon. She, Felix, Angela, Alphonse and I were lifelessly lying around that mansion’s sitting room wasting time. It had become our daily habit since we no longer had a master and his guests to wait on.
I looked up from my book on magic to see her enthusiastically clap her hands together to grab our attention. I’d given up on doing spells ever since the explosion in the study, but I still found the book interesting and I hoped to one day show it to Master. I must have been reading an incantation on how to slow down moving things. I doubted that I would ever need it, but I found the diagrams fascinating regardless. Even now I can still draw some of those strange symbols.
“What sort of game?” Asked Alphonse. He’d begun spending more time with us and I could almost call that guy a friend.
“How about tag?” Suggested Anya.
“Tag?” Laughed Alphonse. “Isn’t that a game the street children play?”
“Well, do you have any better ideas?” Anya snapped.
“I’ll play,” said Felix and he smiled at Anya who happily grinned back. I don’t know why, but the two of them had become unusually close in the previous month, and for some strange reason just watching them together was enough to ignite a small blaze of jealousy in the pit of my stomach.
“I’ll play too!” I said and slammed my book down on the small table beside the sofa.
“Well, I suppose that I don’t have anything better to do,” sighed Alphonse.
“You’ll play too, right Angela?” Said Anya. “I heard that lots of kids love this game.”
“Can the winner have their eyes scratched out?” Asked Angela. “I would like that.”
Anya screwed her face up in horror before deciding to ignore that crazy girl’s question.
“Who’s going to be it?” Asked Felix.
“Ethan!” Said Anya.
“What! Why me?” I protested.
“Because I say so of course,” Anya said with a mischievous grin. I’m sure it must have been some sort of joke, but if felt like she was deliberately bullying me.
“Fine,” I said and crossed my arms. “But you’ll be my first target.”
“If you can catch me,” smiled Anya.
“We can be a team,” said Felix and he put one hand on her shoulder. I tried my best not to let them see how uncomfortable that made me.
“How do you play this stupid game anyway?” Asked Alphonse.
“Well,” said Anya. “First Ethan has to close his eyes and count to ten. Then we run away and he has to chase after us as fast as his little legs can go.”
“That’s so lame,” moaned Alphonse but he didn’t back down.
I took one last look at Felix and Anya before I covered my eyes with my hands. “One, two, three,” I began to count as my fellow souls dashed away. “Five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.”
I removed my hands from my face and glanced around the room. Alphonse, Anya, and Felix were gone, but Angela was still happily sitting on a sofa staring into space. Her young childish legs couldn’t even reach the floor, and she looked completely unaware that the game had even started.
“Angela, you’re supposed to run away,” I said.
“Shhhh,” she whispered. “I’m listening to them scream. Can’t you hear them screaming in the basement Ethan?”
I closed my eyes and listened, but I could hear nothing but the house creaking with age, and the breeze rustling the trees outside.
“Angela, I can’t hear anything.”
“I can,” she said. “They’ve been down there for so very long. Master Balthazar should really let them see the sun every once in a while.”
“Angela, Alistair is your master now.”
“I know, but Master Balthazar is still here. He talks to me all the time, can’t you see him over there?”
She pointed to an empty corner where there was nothing but dust and an old arm chair. I sighed and gave up trying to communicate with her. I always brushed Angela off as crazy and obscure, but after everything I’ve seen I can now understand what that little girl went through. Perhaps I’m just one step away from becoming like that myself, and all my late friends might be a figment of my crazy mind.
“If you want to play you should go hide now!” I yelled over my shoulder as I dashed out of the room and went to search for the others. Little did I know, that was the last game we would ever play together.
I dashed through the mansion’s hallways searching for my friends. I already despised being it, and I regretted chatting with that crazy little girl instead of pursuing my fellow souls. I guess I’m far better at running than chasing after others.
The dusty paintings of Master’s stern ancestors angrily glared down at me from the walls, and back then I didn’t know the invisible social barrier that exists between the living and beings like me. Those stuck up fossils would have disapproved of their mansion being used as a playground for board soul slaves.
I circled the halls and walked up and down stairs, until I arrived at the guestrooms which used to host Master’s friends who were too intoxicated to return home. The white bed sheets were all perfectly ironed and arranged like some rich arsehole would walk in to stay at any moment. I glanced into every room to see if my friends were hiding beneath the furniture, but every room was dull, uneventful, and unnaturally quiet.
I walked past the furthest room down the hall which had pale lace curtains billowing in the breeze. I paused to watch them sway back and forth like white waves until I realised that none of the windows were meant to be open. The floor may have been damaged if it began to rain, so I walked inside to close that window.
I desperately tugged on that stupid handle with all my strength, but the hinges were rusty and us poor souls are far weaker than you regular mortals. After pulling on it for ten minutes, it finally began to budge and suddenly slammed shut with a loud bang. The force was enough to knock me backwards and I foolishly landed onto the floor.
“What was that noise?” Echoed Felix’s voice from somewhere down the hall.
“I’m sure it’s just the mansion falling to bits,” said my friend Anya. Her voice slowly became louder like they were moving towards me. “Just yesterday the dining room table collapsed when I was in the middle of redecorating. Master really needs to put more money towards fixing things instead of new party decorations.”
“Do you think that Ethan could be hiding somewhere waiting for us?”
“Don’t be silly,” said Anya. “Ethan wouldn’t ever think of something smart like that. He’s terrible at games. He once attempted to hide behind a lamp and you could see his body poking out behind it and everything. You should have been there Felix, it was hilarious.”
I peered my head out the doorway to see Anya and Felix strolling down the hall. Any idiot would have hid behind the door and waited for them to come closer, but I was too stunned by her words to do anything that intelligent, and Anya soon spotted my head poking out the guestroom door.
“Oh shit it’s him!” Anya dramatically cried. She grabbed Felix’s arm and the two of them dashed away in the opposite direction.
I sprang out of that room and chased after them as quickly as possible, which isn’t really that fast considering my pitiful ghost like legs. Our faint footsteps echoed throughout the mansion as we ran around corners and down wooden stairs.
Despite promising to catch Anya first I found myself instinctively targeting Felix instead. Watching him slowly replace me as Anya’s best friend was mortifying, and I don’t understand what she saw in a guy like him. Perhaps he was more like Alistair and more useful than I could have been.
I began gaining on them as we flew down the stairs and ran through the ballroom. I was so accustomed to the parties that it was odd to see it so empty and lifeless.
I could almost reach out to touch his shoulder, and that bastard was just inches before my fingertips, but then the two of them dived into the kitchen and slammed the door in my face. I quickly lunged for the handle to push it open, but I heard the lock click, and that hunk of metal refused to budge.
“No fair!” I yelled and slammed my palms against the door in frustration, but it was pointless and I could hear the two of them giggling like children inside the room.
I growled and dashed back through the ballroom and exited out of a different side door. I ran down another corridor until I was before the front kitchen entrance. I hoped to head them off before they could escape, but the kitchen door was wide open and neither one of them were inside.
“Shit!” I swore under my breath. I had always been so calm and composed, but my rage was finally starting to take over. Perhaps I’ve always been angry and bitter from the very beginning, and my real personality was just patiently waiting beneath the surface for the right opportunity to show itself. No normal person sells their soul after all.
A flash of movement from outside the kitchen window caught my eye, and I took a closer look to see Alphonse creeping around the garden. His large muscular body hesitantly moved behind bushes and trees like I would jump out and grab him at any moment. Even though tagging him could have been easier, I was too focused on Anya and Felix to even think of chasing after that guy.
I jogged back down the hall and towards the front door. Felix knew the garden better than anyone, so I assumed that he must have dragged Anya off to a place where I couldn’t reach them. I resented how foolish it was to let them get away so easily, but to my surprise I saw them both in the front entrance way. They were just standing there frozen while looking straight ahead at something I couldn’t see, and Anya’s mouth was wide open like she was gasping for breath. I didn’t stop to consider why they’d ceased running or why they were both so shocked, but I suppose comprehending the situation wouldn’t have made any difference.
I joyfully rushed up to Felix and slapped him on the shoulder.
“You’re it!” I said with a giant grin, and I was so very proud of myself for finally catching him.
I jumped back so that he couldn’t tag me straight away, but the guy just stood there frozen while blankly staring at something over my shoulder.
“What’s wrong?” I taunted with a smirk. “Is being it too much for you flower boy?”
Felix’s eyes finally made contact with mine, and his mouth awkwardly opened and shut before he screwed his face up in anger.
“What the hell is wrong with you!” He shouted. “How can you just keep playing a game at a time like this?”
“Not again,” sobbed Anya and she covered her face with her hands.
“Hey,” I said hesitantly. Their weird behaviour was beginning to freak me out. “What’s up with you two?”
They didn’t have to say anything because the answer spoke for them.
“One young woman with long curly hair,” said a man’s voice from behind me. “One young man of average height with short hair, and one teenage boy of average height with hair down to his shoulders. Looks like we still need to locate another three souls Sir.”
I spun around to see three men standing before the open front door. They were dressed in crumpled grey suits, large top hats, and they appeared far less sophisticated than the rich aristocrats who usually walked through that hall.
The one who just spoke was a tall thin guy holding a clipboard overflowing with messy notes. His mouth curved into a frown and he certainly didn’t look like he wanted to be there. He pulled an ink pen from his pocket and began frantically scribbling away while muttering something incoherent under his breath. Beside him stood a large human like green demon with blood red eyes and large teeth. His horns protruded out from under his hat and I’d never seen anything like him before. Most mortals tend to stick to the northern parts of Hell, but the deep south is full of many strange demons and creatures. Some come to the larger towns to search for work, but none of them had attended Master’s parties before.
I found myself completely mesmerized by the demon’s appearance, until the third man hobbled forward with the help of his oak walking stick. He was a short middle aged man with black hair and a moustache. He was going bald at the sides and his mouth shaped into what looked like a friendly smile, but he was probably just excited over the thought of our future suffering.
“What are you guys doing here?” Yelled Felix. “We are the property of Master Alistair! You just can’t walk in here like this!”
The demon growled.
“Who do you think you are soul,” he hissed. “Didn’t your shitty master teach you not to talk back at civil servants!”
“Obviously his master was one of those,” sighed the man with the clipboard as he continued to scribble away.
“Now now Florence,” said the short man with the walking stick as he attempted to calm the demon. “Allow me to handle this. Alistair was it?” He said to us in a voice dripping with fake sympathy. “I’m afraid that your master has had a little accident and won’t be returning for a while. A very long while, forever in fact.”
“Liar!” Cried Anya. “Master Alistair is a genius who’s mastered over a thousand magic spells, and he’s immortal. There’s no way that a great man like him could possibly die!”
“Die?” I asked in disbelief. “What do you mean die?”
“Mathew,” said the man with the walking stick. “Where did you say this Alistair was last spotted?”
The man with the clipboard quickly flipped through his notes before he landed on one page.
“It says on the eastern front Sir, in the fight against the New Province rebellion.”
“Ah yes,” said the man with the walking stick. “Now I remember. I’m sorry to say that your poor master has been blown to bits. Sneaky little bastards those New Province people are. They have a terrible habit of hiding their weaponry in the most difficult places, and your dear master just didn’t see that one attack coming. All they managed to find was one hand, and that’s already been shipped off to his remaining relatives on the other side of the Underworld.”
“I don’t believe you!” Cried Anya as her body began to shake with grief. “It isn’t true!”
“But I’m afraid it is little girl,” said that shitty man. “And given his sudden demise and absence of a will, you will all be collected and resold at his Majesty’s soul market.”
I blankly stared at the three men in suits as I attempted to comprehend their words. I thought it had to be a misunderstanding because I couldn’t accept that we belonged to them.
“Property of the Soul Market?” I asked. “What does that even mean?”
“Exactly what he said,” hissed Felix. “They’re here to take us away and sell us onwards to new masters.”
“They’re going to what!” I cried in disbelief, and Anya began to sob louder.
I fearfully took a step back to put some distance between myself and those sad excuses of life. The green demon maliciously grinned back like he knew it was impossible for me to run.
“The truth hurts doesn’t it boy?” He growled, and he was right.
That was my first encounter with the Soul Market. The first one that I can remember anyway. I’m no expert on the detestable organisation which enslaved me, but I know that the soul trade has existed ever since the Underworld discovered that they could utilize dead people. Their filthy agents roam Earth making deals with mortals in exchange for their enslavement in Hell. I’ve heard that they offer plenty of majestic things such as money, fame, or anything that a corrupt human being could possibly desire.
Fallen on hard times? They can turn you into a king. Want someone dead? They can probably do something about that too. People around here try to justify the soul trade by claiming that we willingly signed ourselves away, but I’m sure that’s just shit they made up to make masters feel better about mistreating us. No matter how terrible my previous life was, I can’t imagine agreeing to put myself through this torment.
Most of the Underworld’s industry is supported by our free labour and the soul trade has markets in most large towns. We’d soon find ourselves in one of those cesspits later that evening.
“So if you’d be so kind,” said the short man with his crappy walking stick. “We’re on a tight schedule today and the clients are waiting.”
He gracefully took off his worn top hat and gestured towards the front door. Everything he said seemed like a well rehearsed act, and I wish I could have ripped that fake smile from his face.
I wondered what would have happened if I had the guts to walk up and punch him with all my strength. Maybe it would have been enough to ease some of my pain, but one of those bastards would have probably come up with a magical barrier to stop my attack.
“Come on,” said Felix grimly. He put one arm around Anya’s shoulders and began leading her forward. “You heard what he said.”
I thought Anya would struggle. I thought that someone who claimed to love Alistair so passionately would never leave, but to my surprise she began obediently walking forward without ceasing her crying.
I stood there bewildered, caught between following them or refusing to go.
“Ethan,” Felix called out to me. “It’s a lot easier if you just do what they say.”
“But-” I tried to protest, but he cut me off.
“Ethan it’s over! Let’s just go!”
My weight shifted to my back foot. I momentarily thought of running, but I knew nothing about the world outside the mansion and I had nowhere else to go. The green demon with his blood red eyes also terrified me, so I hesitantly put one foot in front of the other and followed them outside.
There was already a horse and carriage waiting for us before the front doors. Unlike the expensive gold plated carriage that Master used to travel, this one looked more suitable for transporting live animals. There was a large rotting wooden crate attached to the back. It must have been about two meters tall and resembled a cage. The man with the walking stick pulled open a small door at the rear, and I climbed in after my friends. The inside didn’t look any better. The floor was covered in dirt and there was moldy food scattered everywhere. There was already one other soul inside, but he nervously backed away into a dark corner as soon as we entered.
“Let me go you piece of shit! Don’t you dare put me in that fucking box!” Cried Mira’s voice from somewhere outside. I peered through a gap in the wooden cart to see the demon effortlessly carrying her over his shoulder. Mira was kicking and screaming with all her strength, but that monster just kept walking like he was used to it.
I noticed Angela obediently following behind them like it was a stroll in the park. That crazy bitch didn’t seem the least bit concerned about our situation as she merrily pulled herself into our cage.
“Did you hear the great news,” she laughed with glee. “We’re all moving house, I do hope that our new master has a decent torture pit.”
“What the fuck is wrong with you!” Said Anya in between her sobs, and Felix reached out and hugged her closer. I felt like I should have been the one to comfort her instead, but that wasn’t the time to fight over Anya’s friendship.
The demon casually tossed Mira into the cart and bolted the door behind her. Mira furiously pulled and scratched on that wood with all her might, but she eventually gave up and lifelessly collapsed against the door. She then began to wail out in pain like an injured animal and started banging her head against the wall. None of us were brave enough to console her.
“It says here that there should be one more,” said the tall man as he tapped his pen against the clipboard.
“Can’t find him,” growled the demon. “Must have done a runner.”
“Did you even search the whole estate?” Asked the tall man. “Because by my calculations that should have taken you a lot longer.”
“Not to worry,” said the man with the walking stick. “I doubt that a soul will get far in this town. I’ll send someone to collect him as soon as we get back.”
“Yes Sir,” said the tall man with a bow, but he angrily glared at the demon as soon as the other man walked away. “If we have to hire someone to track this one down it’s going to come out of your salary.”
“You think you’ve got the guts to cut my pay human,” the demon growled back. He deliberately puffed out his chest and leaned over the other man to try and intimidate him.
“Well, that’s for accounting to decide,” the tall man quickly mumbled before rushing off to join his boss in the carriage passenger seat. The demon climbed up onto the roof of our cage and the wood above us bent under his weight. I was afraid that it might suddenly snap and he would fall through, but fortunately it held for the whole journey there.
Someone whipped the horses and the cart began to roll forward.
“That idiot Alphonse,” whispered Felix. I can’t believe that he tried to run.”
“But there’s a chance that he might get away right?” I asked.
“Don’t you know anything!” Said Felix. “Even if you think you’ve escaped they will always find you eventually.”
I found this hard to believe so I looked towards the others and expected at least one of them to disagree, but they all sadly looked away like they knew it was true.
Everyone except for Angela who was grinning from ear to ear. “Do you think they’ll put Alphonse in the-”
“Shut up Angela!” Snapped Anya.
After that everyone stopped talking and the only noise was Angela and Mira’s sobs. Felix didn’t break down because he hadn’t been close to Master, but he looked anxious like he knew what was to become of us.
I looked through the crack in our cage and watched the carriage move through the front gate. I hadn’t seen the world outside our estate in over forty years and it shocked me.
The houses around the mansion were well kept, but once we moved down the street the reality of the Underworld’s living situation began to kick in. The buildings were black and grimy, the roads were filthy and littered with trash, and there were all sorts of destitute humans and demons wandering through town.
I caught sight of one soul like myself dressed only in a paper bag. He wearily dragged a large cart full of garbage as his master screamed at him to go faster. The gap between the rich and poor in this world is huge, and people either live in mansions or out in the slums. That shitty king doesn’t give a damn about helping anyone who isn’t useful to him.
I sadly watched the carriage move further and further away from the only home I knew, and I suddenly recalled the first day that I entered that mansion.
Everything back then was still new and great, and I was so excited over the opportunity to explore my new surroundings. I remember looking in awe at the size of the estate, and how the large glass windows seemed to sparkle in the morning sun.
Master’s driver led me out of the carriage and handed me over to Mira who was patiently waiting at the front door. Her maid uniform was spotless and her hair was perfectly arranged into a neat bun. She was civil that day, and showed no hints of the crazy animosity that would later occur between us.
“Most souls can only dream of living in a place like this,” she lectured as we strolled through the halls. “Master Alistair comes from one of the most renowned magical families in this town. They’re owned this home for several generations and they expect nothing but the best from all their hired help and souls.”
“Uh huh,” I said while curiously examining everything we walked past. A small statue of a dog caught my eye, and I stopped to brush my fingers over the surface just to see what it felt like.
“And that means no touching things that you aren’t supposed to,” she slapped my fingers away. “Honestly, I don’t understand what Master sees in guys like you.”
We continued walking down the corridor until we were standing before the library. Mira politely knocked on the door.
“Come in!” Called Alistair’s muffled voice from inside.
Mira pushed open the door and I was taken back by the size of the room. Thousands of books had been haphazardly crammed onto the shelves and I resisted the urge to run in and explore.
I caught sight of Alistair hanging off one of the ancient bookcases. The tips of his toes were balancing on one shelf, while his hand gripped onto the top one to prevent himself from falling. He must have been meters above the ground as he casually scanned his collection on demonic languages.
“Master!” Cried Mira. “How many times have I told you to use the ladder!”
“There’s no need to worry my darling,” Alistair merrily replied. He then stretched his arm to grab a book that was just out of his reach. “There’s no chance in Hell that I’ll fall.”
“But Master!” Mira protested and stamped her foot, but her words had no effect on that shameless playboy.
Alistair glanced over his shoulder and finally noticed me there.
“Oh, so this must be him,” he said and leaned back to get a better look.
Suddenly, his grip slipped from the top shelf and Alastair fell backwards and plummeted towards the floor.
“Master!” Cried Mira and I was certain that Alistair would go crashing down, but to my surprise he suddenly flipped and floated to the ground like he was falling through water. I suppose that he must have summoned the mystical powers of Hell to ease his descent. That’s something else that I can add to my list of useful things that a soul can never do. Alistair then gracefully landed on his feet and confidently strolled over to us.
“See, nothing to worry about,” he said and affectionately ruffled Mira’s hair. He messed it up and it was poking out in all directions, but she didn’t seem to mind.
I watched my new master in amazement while trying to figure out if what I saw was real. Magic may be a regular everyday thing here, but perhaps it didn’t exist back on Earth when I lived.
I didn’t have long to think because Alistair spontaneously reached out and grabbed my right hand.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” he said with an excited grin. “Mira, can you go prepare him some new clothes. We can’t have him walking around in these drab Soul Market pajamas forever now can we?”
“Y..Yes Master,” said Mira hesitantly with a bow. She walked out of the room, but I saw her take one last look over her shoulder like she didn’t want to leave me alone with her favorite person.
Master soon edged himself even closer until our faces were almost touching.
“Wow,” he said. “You’re even cuter than what I remember.”
“Ah, thank you,” I akwardly mumbled. “I think.”
I couldn’t remember our first meeting and I was taken back by how friendly that guy was. I would soon find out that he acted that way towards almost anyone, and I’m sure that half the town had a crush on my old master.
“Do you have a name pretty boy?”
“I..I..I,” I stuttered and realised that I couldn’t remember. I felt certain that I had one, but for some reason it was suddenly gone from my mind.
“No one’s given you one yet have they? Not to worry, you can have any name you like, except Alistair, that one belongs to me.”
“I don’t mind what you call me, Master.”
It felt strange to address him that way. Like I’d never called anyone Master before.
“Hmmm,” said Alistair. He cupped my chin with his hand and turned my head from side to side to examine my face. “What’s a good name for a cute guy like you?”
I felt embarrassed that he was analysing me so closely.
“Ethan,” he finally decided. “How does that sound?”
“It sounds fine Master.”
“Then it’s settled,” he backed away. “From today onwards you will be Ethan. I have a feeling that the two of us are going to get along splendidly. Don’t you agree?”
I wasn’t sure how to reply so I just stood there speechless until he turned towards the door.
“Anya!” He called out. Alastair stood there and waited, but all was quiet and she didn’t come.
“Anya!” He called out again at the top of his lungs. I could hear the thud of someone running across the mansion as fast as they could, and Anya suddenly burst into the room.
“You called for me Master?” Said Anya as she began readjusting her lopsided skirt. Her shirt was also inside out and her hair was a mess. Anya was also new and didn’t know much about waiting on aristocrats.
“Show Ethan around the house and find him some chores,” Master ordered. “I want him to know that he’s more than welcome here with us.”
“Yes sir, I mean yes Master,” she said with a hasty bow and beckoned me to come closer. I followed her out of the room and took one last glance at Alistair who had resumed climbing the shelves. I already felt anxious about my future in that large house with its eccentric young master.
Anya closed the door behind us and glanced over her shoulder to make sure no one was around. She grabbed my shirt sleeve and pulled me towards her.
“I just have one question,” she whispered so that Alistair
couldn’t hear. “Are you falling in love with Master?”
“What! No!” I hastily replied. I was shocked that she asked me something like that, and if her face hadn’t looked so serious I would have thought it was a joke. I’d only just met the guy and there was no way that I could possibly like him that way.
Anya’s face lit up at my reply like I said the right thing.
“That’s great!” She said with a giant smile. She latched onto my arm and began leading me down the hall. “I’m sure that the two of us will become the best of friends.”
But that was all a different time back when Master was still cheerful and acted like he’d live forever. We were all like naive children who knew nothing of the real Underworld, and such a peaceful place in Hell inevitably had to come to an end.
The carriage slowly rocked as it rolled through the town, and our cage grew dimmer as night began to fall. I leaned back against the grimy wooden wall and glanced at the outline of Anya who had fallen asleep against Felix’s shoulder.
Everything changed that day. Master Alistair was dead and I would never meet him again.
I was overcome by a profound feeling of sadness and my body began to shake. I was thankful that it was dark enough for the others not to see me cry.
Other stories by M.C.Queen Available at most ebook stores.
“How I was Murdered by a Fox Monster”
“Tales From A Land Of Gods”
Outside our world exists one of gods. Meng is a unique god who becomes lost in an endless forest. His only chance of escape is an old dying mortal who brings back memories of his past which he would prefer remain forgotten.
“Khan And The Kingdom Without Gods”
Outside our world exists one of gods. A place where gods reign supreme and humans live like days of old.
Khan is a dashing thief who travels to a small kingdom without gods in the hope of seducing their beautiful princess. He is instead drawn to her unusual bodyguard who has a few secrets of her own.
“Earnest Young is Forever Young”