Aeron escorted the autumn spirit through the village without really seeing any of its interactions with the people. They welcomed it, and once she was sure all was well, she wandered off to the Greywoods to be alone with her thoughts.
In spite of herself, she found the Iel occupying her mind for the rest of the day. They weren’t like the Ivo, the nature spirits thrúils dealt with on a regular basis. The Iel were older, stranger. The were unpredictable. Their reasons for any actions they took were their own, couched in riddles and agendas and ancient feuds that had raged half again as long as humankind had shared the planes with them. They did not take kindly to being controlled by bonesong, and so they required specific and complex compositions that clearly defined the nature and limits of the request.
Aeron had only contacted them once before, when a winter spirit was wounded in a landslide. Spirits’ bodies didn’t work in the same way as human ones did; healing them was a task well beyond her abilities, and a wildwinter would have wiped Toth Dail away without trace. She’d never played such careful bonesong, but a single missed note in the instructive clause left the Iel that answered the call too much freedom, and when it had done as they asked, it took young Donal’s soul. Poor lad. No more than seventeen summers old at the time, and never the same afterwards. Still the same boy he’d always been, but unable to know that with his essence stolen. A stranger in his own head. His mind splintered more and more every season. He’d had twenty-one summers now, so far gone by now that Aeron doubted he’d see a twenty-second.
That kind of cruelty chilled her blood. What reason could the Iel have had for stealing Donal’s soul? If they still had it, would she even be able to release the boy to the eternal plane after he died, or would his consciousness be trapped in the deep plane forever? What would happen to him if his soul had been consumed or destroyed? Aeron had no answers for her questions, and now she faced another.
What if the Iel could save Caoile?
Aeron held her head in her hands for a few long moments, then took a step in the direction of the circle. And then another. Am I really doing this? I can’t. But if I can help Caoile, I have no choice.
She walked northwest until she found the trail. It lead to the Mount of Souls, a massive spike of earth rising up out of the Greywood, and spiraled up until it reached a plateau just below the summit, encircled by old, tenacious trees clinging to the mountain at odd angles. Evening rested on the world as she stepped to the edge of the circle and knelt down.
Just as there was a thrúil in every region, each also had a circle, carved into the stone in ages long past; even the scholars of Martath had no records in their archives that could recall the time. The circles were all the same; three concentric rings of runes and channels feeding into a small well at the middle, out of which a standing platform rose, a rack of unused bone instruments on one side.
Aeron stared at the circle. She wasn’t sure what she intended to do. It was too dangerous to call up an Iel without specific instructions. Ripping a spirit from the deep plane without song to control it once it arrived crossed the borders of madness into stupidity. She couldn’t wake a dragon to ask it a question. She thought for a long time.
At last, inspiration came, and the solution filled her with dread. Aeron could not call the Iel here, where it could pluck the souls from her people on a whim.
She had to travel to the deep plane.
The resolve that had carried her here faltered. She could still turn back, go home. She could still hold Caoile, wait for her to die. She could mourn, pluck a bone from her wife’s body, and hollow it into a flute. She could release Caoile’s soul to the eternal plane. She could live her life alone until her own time came, lost from her love for fifty summers, sixty, seventy if her health held. Even as the thoughts flashed through her mind, Aeron realized that they were all lies. She could do no such things. She drew a deep breath and stepped into the circle.
Each rune had a tiny spike at its center to pierce flesh. Her scarred hands announced her as a thrúil even to strangers. She walked around the outer circle and laid her hand on three runes. Call, Ivo, need. She broke a new wound in her palm at each rune and let a few drops of blood drip into the channels leading inward from them. She stepped down to the next level and chose two more runes. Passage, life. Then, at the innermost circle, she chose three final runes.
One. Return. Deep.
Her blood trickled down into the well as she climbed onto the central platform and bound up her hands. She looked over the rack of bone instruments and chose an ocarina made from a skull. Bones held a link to the souls that had once held them, and certain bones allowed greater control than others. Under usual circumstances, souls were released within days, but the instruments stored here had belonged to murderers, rapists, and oathbreakers. Sometimes favors had to be asked of spirits that had nothing to do with burials. None objected if a criminal’s soul was held in the deep planes a while before release.
Aeron placed her lips to a hole at the back of the skull and began to play a familiar song. The notes instructed the soul to return from the deep planes. The already darkening sky dimmed as a luminous red mist coalesced above her, swirling until it took the form of a woman. Aeron did not recognize her, but whoever she was and whatever she had done must have been serious. Skulls were powerful bones, seldom taken unless the crime was truly horrific.
She continued to play. The song no longer called a human soul, but instead activated her chosen runes. As she finished the second movement, her blood, by now settled into the well, turned to a column of white flame around her. An Ivo faded into visibility before her, a wind spirit. It was impossible to see its true shape; she perceived it as a large, winged creature made of warm ripples in the air. Her song shifted, became more complex, weaving the human soul and the Ivo together until they were one. She drew the white flames into her lungs and played them out into her final note. They suffused the soul and spirit. She dropped the skull ocarina to the ground, where it crumbled spent into dust and blew away. The soul and spirit reached out a hand to her, and she took it.
The world rushed away in beams of color, and the wind of the space between planes buffeted her as she spun through it at impossible speed. For close to a minute she felt as if she was falling into a cold sun, smashing through clouds of lightning that shattered at her feet and surrounded her with strange patterns of light and the smell of ozone.
She landed so hard it brought her to her knees, gasping for breath. A low thrum of sound and pressure vibrated in her skull from nowhere in particular. When at last she opened her eyes, she found herself kneeling on the hard surface of boundless space roiling with impossible, shifting shapes and unfamiliar colors. Vertigo flooded in behind her eyes, and she retched and coughed.
The voice came from behind her and sounded like the rasp of years grinding against youth. She turned to see—almost see, at least—an Iel. It had to be. Most Ivo had familiar shapes, whether human or animal. This was something else entirely, though it was impossible to tell what. It seemed to reside just on the edge of her perception, a blurred mass of angular, silvery appendages writhing and raveling in boneless knots. It had a disquieting habit of disappearing altogether when Aeron was halfway through a blink or if she tilted her head the wrong way, reappearing with too many or too few limbs almost before she could even register that it had gone. It resembled nothing she’d ever seen, not even the only Iel she’d seen before now. That, at least, held little surprise for her; no two Ivo she’d encountered looked alike, and even season spirits only resembled one another in the way distant cousins might. No reason the deep spirits ought to.
“You are not meant to be here.”
The spirits she knew rarely spoke. If they could speak at all, they spoke in untranslatable spirit tongues. This one, though, spoke common Galrithim in an accent no human throat could have produced, making familiar words seem utterly alien.
“I’m sorry. Should I have knocked before I let myself in?” No sooner had the flippant words left Aeron’s mouth than she regretted them.
The Iel made a thick, wet, crunching sound. Aeron jumped.
“Not angry.” The tone of the thing’s response made her realize the noise must have been a chuckle. “Simply curious. Humans that come to Ramath so seldom bring their bones with them.”
Aeron tried to inspect the formless infinity that surrounded her without moving her eyes. That only earned her more nausea.
“Ramath… is that what Iel call this plane?”
“No. This city is but a small piece of the deep plane.”
“We’re in a city?” Aeron resisted the urge to look around this time. “But there’s nothing here.”
“A human thing to say. Your kind deals poorly with what you can’t see. If you do not decide it is not there, you worship it. Not certain which is worse. Both are always wrong, somewhere.”
Aeron struggled to process that for a moment, but the creature continued before she could draw any meaning out of it.
“Ramath is not empty. Pieces of it that wish to be seen will be seen on their own terms. The rest will not.”
“Who are you?”
The Iel tilted, a motion that managed to read as thoughtful. “You ask that question as if there is a simple answer.”
Aeron pressed two fingers to her temple. Between the creature’s flickering presence, confusing words, and the droning pressure of the plane itself, she felt as though her head would split. “Your name, then. What are you called?”
“You have not crossed the planes to ask names.”
“No. Please, I’ve come to ask for help. My wife has taken sick. Human medicine can do nothing for her.”
“You care much for her.”
Aeron nodded. The Iel considered that in silence for a few long moments.
“Perhaps there is something. Must look through you to see her.”
A presence filled Aeron’s mind, massive and foreign, flowing into every corner of her memory. Just as she feared it would overtake her, it recoiled from her. The Iel spasmed. Aeron, alarmed, sat up straighter.
“What is it?”
“Sheida!” The Iel’s voice had an edge of fear. “She has Sheida in her heart. The touch of undoing.”
A spike of dread and panic ground its way into Aeron’s chest. “What does that mean? Can you cure her?”
The Iel shook. “I cannot touch her or Sheida will spread to Ramath. There is no cure.”
Shock spread through Aeron’s body. Darkness fringed her vision for a moment, and she held out a hand to nothingness to try to hold herself upright. “I… what is Sheida?”
“Corruption. Hunger. Older than your race and mine together. Dead, we thought; unseen for thousands of years. Eats the life from all it touches. Human, Iel, Ivo, all the same. It strangles her heart. Tied to her; to heal her is to heal Sheida. Cannot help her; must not raise Sheida. It must die with her.”
Aeron’s mind reeled. That was it, then. No cure. No hope. Only to wait through the pain, forced to watch Caoile suffer, to hold her hand until her heartbeat ceased. And Aeron’s own heart would keep its rhythm as if breaking meant nothing to it, bastard organ.
But not yet. Aeron squeezed her eyes shut. No tears today. She’d save them up for a time when they’d mean something, for when she could afford to let them exhaust her.
“How long does she have?” It took all her strength to hold her voice steady.
The Iel sighed. “Hard to say. Sheida could take her tomorrow or moons from now.”
“Is there any way to slow it?”
“Perhaps. You will not like it.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.”
“Deep medicine. Cost is high, both to learn and to administer.”
“I’ll pay it.”
“Dangerous to make agreements without knowing the terms, human.”
“I’ll pay your damned price, spirit!” She spat the words with such venom that it hurt her throat. The Iel lay silent for a long time.
“As you wish.”
She felt its presence in her mind again, searching.
“Do not resist, Twinsoul. This will cause you pain either way. More if you recoil.”
Aeron felt a sharp pressure, like something icy piercing behind her eyes. She felt pain for a few moments, intense and pulsing.
And then she was pain.
Everything went white. Perhaps she screamed; in the eternities that passed, she forgot how it had begun, forgot the shape of self, forgot consciousness. She shattered into fields of stars and frost. She felt a scar deep within her being reopened and pried apart, unlaced. She felt it ripped away from her. With a start, she remembered who she was, but she was Aeron no longer. She fell gasping back into her mind.
“What have you done?”
“Opened the seal between your souls. It will not heal.”
She trembled and held her knees tight to her chest. She felt the gap within herself, a yawning divide that split her down the center. Her souls no longer fit together.
“Who will I be?” Her voice was small. The Iel did not answer her.
She’d always known herself. Her identity was not simple, but she’d always understood. Fused souls did not oppose one another. They formed an equilibrium. She allowed people to think of her as female because her body was, but Aeron was not man or woman. She was both and neither. Now, what was she? Both, but not neither. At odds. The unlacing had hurt her, but the imbalance scared her.
The Iel’s voice interrupted her fear. “The seal will lend strength to her heart for a time. But the second cost is far higher than the first.”
Aeron shook herself. She’d have the rest of her life to find herself again. For now, there was nothing as important as Caoile.
“What second cost?”
“A season spirit.”
Aeron blinked. “What do you mean?”
“A heartseed. Drain a heartseed into your wife’s heart, and it will give her the strength to survive perhaps a few more summers.”
She opened and closed her mouth several times. If she drained a heartseed, it would end the entire bloodline. With no season spirits, Toth Dail would spiral into wild seasons. At best, tens of thousands of people would be forced to leave their homes forever as the land recalled its independence and shook itself free. At worst, they’d all die.
“I…” She could find no words.
“Weigh your choices well. Your bone-spirit will return you now. When your wife dies, burn the heart immediately. If you do not, Sheida will begin its cycle, use her body. It must not return.”
Aeron tried to ask what that meant, but the speed of the rush between planes crushed the words from her lungs. Lights resolved into the circle. The moon hung low in the sky, unmoved since before her sojourn into the deep plane.