The first release happens on everyone's 18th birthday. It isn't supposed to end in horror.
| The night sky spread out above us as we made the late hike through the forest to the altar. We had spent the whole day aiding the village with repairs from last night’s storm, but my mother insisted the ritual happen before the day was done. So, though it was dark, though we were exhausted, and the rest of the village lay sound asleep, my mother and I wearily trekked towards the sacred grounds.
“Can’t this wait?” I pleaded, not for the first time.
“No,” she replied sternly. “You know what happens if we keep too many for too long. Our bodies can only handle so much. You wouldn’t want to lose yourself, would you?”
I sighed. Everyone knew this. “I hardly think an extra couple of hours is going to make me go mad.”
“You owe it to your lumutis to release them promptly. This is our—”
“Duty,” I finished. I couldn’t argue with that, and we continued on in silence.
The air was warm and the moons were full, the gentle rustling of leaves and calming smell of the forest eased my weary souls. We slowly made our way through the elder trees towards the clearing. The vastness and weight of our purpose took my breath away once we arrived. Though it wasn’t my first trip to the grounds, it would be my first release.
The alter stood on the ledge between the foliage and the canyon. I looked beyond it into the darkness beyond it. It the daylight, the canyon walls would sparkle with rare gems, but at night, you’d never know they were there. I felt drawn to it, impressed by its darkness despite the moons’ greatest efforts to illuminate it. However, the looming canyon was not why we were here. We were here for the land’s special energy, energy that the whole world used to emit. These grounds were sacred, were peaceful. Its power the most welcoming for the release. That’s why the founders of our village placed the alter here, and set up our village two miles away out of respect, as was custom.
Since before I could remember, my mind always housed a crowd of voices, and I became slightly nervous for them to leave. However, I had now reached the age to begin my duty.
“You know, I only had eighteen souls to release on my eighteenth birthday. The group of them nearly drove me mad,” Mother said to me, as we stood before the altar, before paying our respects.
“I don’t even remember how I came by half of them,” I replied, half in protest, half in worry. My statement was met by a flurry of voices reminding me exactly when and where we met. I consciously focused my attention on my mother so I wouldn’t become lost in their memories.
“You know I don’t mean it like that. It means you’re special.” I knew that, but others in the village thought it was excessive, that I was too different, dangerously different. My mother simply said I was strong, and we’ve come to fear strength. We’re not a people who desire strength. We left that vice to the Thians.
The villagers tried to mask their jealousy with concern. They thought I should stay in the village, and stop collecting souls. They worried I would gather too many before my birthday and go mad from the voices. So they said, anyway. I was determined to wait until my eighteenth birthday. I was determined to keep collecting souls. The madness stayed away. It was something to be proud of, I thought. I can fulfill the Kimoni duty like no one else can. I could travel to other continents, collect souls there, and bring them back to the grounds all without losing myself. I just wish the villagers could see that this wasn’t a bad ability.
We approached the alter, a discreet stone marked only by the passage of time, weathered by storms and wind.
“Just relax and take a deep breath. Wish them peace, and they will go,” Mother said, as we stood before the alter.
To demonstrate, she took a deep breath, raising her arms ever so slightly. I followed her lead, closing my eyes and raising my arms as she did. My mind touched on every single soul within me, wishing them peace and releasing them to their final home. I could feel their joy and anticipation burble inside me. I peaked an eye open to make sure I was following along correctly. At the same time, we released our breath, and the sky filled with thousands of tiny blue and white lights, all moving towards the heavens. Tears poking at the edges of my eyes as I watched them go.
“It’s hard to part with them sometimes,” mother said regarding my tears.
“It’s not that I’m sad,” I replied, “It’s just…I know I’ll miss them later, but right now… I’ve never felt so happy, so relieved. I can feel their joy.”
Mother smiled knowingly. “Yes, their joy is how we know we’ve served them well. You’ll feel better when you have an ancestor to stay with you after release. It helps you not feel so alone.”
I smiled back at her, and watched as the last lights disappeared into the sky.
“Now you know how it’s done.” My mother’s face changed, then, as if she was confused. “Did you not release them all?”
My heart pounded. I felt it too. However, this soul, I couldn’t read. It was a faint little thing, unsettled and unsure, with no thoughts, and no language. Not yet.
My mother read my face, hardening her own with understanding. “He’s a good man,” I said.
“This is a conversation for the morning,” my mother declared, rubbing her temples, and I agreed.
We turned and made our way back to the village.
We were halfway through the woods when I felt it, in the pit of my stomach, where I sensed souls. We weren’t alone. I looked at my mother as a rustling sound picked up around us, gaining on us fast. A few heartbeats later, they were near.
From somewhere close by, I heard, “They’re alone!”
“We’re too late,” I heard another voice from behind.
“Not that one, she’s not alone,” said a heartbreakingly familiar voice somewhere in front of us. I looked around but all I saw was darkness. They must have been hiding in the tress, while being on the well-worn path, we were brightly lit by the moon.
My mother whispered the word we both already knew. “Thians.”
A wave of panic shook through my bones. I looked at my mother to see her face more pained than mine. Her face held the terror of knowing the inevitable horror that the Thians thrived from, and knowing we lacked the ability to stop them. We weren’t fighters. The fighters were all back at the village, undoubtedly asleep.
I could sense at least seven souls, meaning there were at least three bodies surrounding us. I sensed more in front of us than behind. I paused, and my mother took another step forward. They breeched their tree cover and overtook my mother with a single leap. Two Thians advanced from the sides, becoming a wall between my mother and myself, with another creeping up behind.
“Run, run!” she screamed as the man to her left drew his sword. I couldn’t move.
In all my life, I’d only seen one Thian. Of course, I was raised on stories about the guild, but this one was kind. Tony. He was unlike anything I’d been told. He was strong and duty-bound just like us. He would never attack the village.
The man with the sword began to change, I noticed. His blonde hair glimmered into a deep blue black, and seemed to grow right before my eyes. I’d never seen a lumutis manifest before, and Tony never showed me. As he swung the sword, his hair swept behind his back with the force of his movement. The sword swung true, reaching the opposite side of my mother covered in blood. I was mesmerized by his change and horrified by his actions. It occurred in just an instant; I blinked and his features returned to normal.
My mother laid still, her life extinguishing.
I knew what happened during the death of a Kimoni from when my uncle died of sickness. He was lying on his bed, doubled over in pain as the cancer ate him from the inside. Then, he stopped moving, and his body began to shimmer ever so slightly. The glimmer rose above his body, righted itself, and sat on the edge of the bed.
“So, who’s taking me home?” he asked, with a smile on his face. He couldn’t be with us any longer, but he also was no longer in pain.
My aunt involuntarily released the sob, before telling him it would be her, of course. She left with him the next morning to the sacred grounds. I could never understand why she didn’t keep him with her, as an ancestral lumutis. They were so much in love.
As my uncle did before her, my mother’s spirit rose up from her body, and then split in two as Kaiya emerged as well. Cheers rose up as the Thians realized my mother harbored an ancient spirit. My mother moved as if to go around her attackers to reach me, seeing that I was still with fear, but as she did, two more Thians emerged from the woods, and they were alone, empty vessels, looking for souls.
Kaiya, ever loyal, reacted before my mother did in the exact way I wished she would.
“We must flee.”
My mother’s eyes shone with sadness and understanding. They would never reach me in time, and would just be caught in the process. The goal during any skirmish with the Thians is to leave them with as few souls as possible, and to especially keep ancient and Nether souls out of their hands. They fled into the forest before the ready Thians could take them.
I was different. I was alone. Dead or alive I was useless to them, there were no spirits to steal from me, but they looked to attack me anyway. My stillness broke as I watched my mother and Kaiya run. I rolled away from the man nearest me, and took off into the woods. My woods. They couldn’t catch me there, especially not in the dark. Especially not when I had no lumutis emitting its aura, though the unsettled fetus’ soul could cause a problem. A single man followed me, a scowl of determination on his face. My mother was right, of course. Everyone was right. A Thian was a Thian. Even Tony. I wondered if we could sense it, as he chased me from behind. Could he sense the faint soul? Did he know what it meant? But, these were not Tony’s woods, and I evaded him easily enough. Eventually, he gave up his pursuit and rejoined the rest on their warpath to my village.
It wasn’t too long before they came back, my mother and Kaiya. Through my tears they looked like anyone else, they looked alive, and only my memory was there to tell me I was wrong.
“I’m so sorry, baby,” my mother said.
All I could do was shake my head. They caught us off guard. We weren’t fighters. It wasn’t her fault they took her life.
Kaiya knelt beside me. “It’s going to be okay, love.”
I didn’t really believe her. I lost my mother. I was more alone than ever.
I slowly picked myself off the ground, unsteady from my fear. My mother and Kaiya watched as I brought myself to my feet.
“Walk back to the altar with me?” My mother asked.
I nodded yes and we made our way back to the sacred grounds.
“I want you to feel joy for me, like you did for the others, okay?”
I nodded my head yes, but felt the lie in my heart. “Do you need my help?” I asked, reaching out my hand to take her imbibe her into myself.
“I think I can manage,. I love you, honey,” she said, smiling at me one last time, before bursting into a hundred tiny yellow lights, all rising up into the night sky.
Kaiya approached me as the last of the lights disappeared. I looked at her solemnly, and could see watching my mother go pained her as much as it did me.
“As I was with your mother and grandmother before her, I will be with you, if you will accept me. I will stay with you as you free others into the heavens, and you need never be alone again. I’ll offer my guidance and advice, should you seek it.”
Overtaken with grief for my mother and thankfulness for Kaiya, all I could do was once again nod my head yes, ever so slightly. I raised my hand in welcoming, as you do for an ancient spirit, palm to the sky, as she moved closer to me, and her soul merged with my body.
With that, I turned around solemnly to make the journey back home. The grief in my heart made every step painful, and I felt the weight of fear for my village with ever step. I tried to tread lightly so as not to attract the Thians, but every step, every snapped twig and crunch of dried leaves felt light an exploding cannon in the stillness of the night. Through the deafening thumping of my heart, I neared the village.
I felt an artificial hushed sound, and looked up. Moving towards me through the woods were faces I knew. Many faces I knew. Only the years of training made me able to see my friends and family for what they were, deceased. We acknowledged each other silently. They knew I knew what happened, and that I didn’t return unscathed myself. There was no need for words.
I walked numbly on, down the path, too far gone in my despair to even give way to those who made their way to the sacred grounds. Disrespecting them, I let them pass through me as I trudged on towards home.
I counted half of my village on the path that night, as they made their way to the alter to release themselves, and I made my way back home to salvage what little village the Thians left us with.
Exhausted, I stumbled through my street, lined with blazing houses and cries from combat in the distance. It was too much. I made it as far as I could. I collapsed in the middle of the road in front of my home, unable to go on. I woke up to a broken village, but we would continue. We would rebuild. We always did.
Not just for ourselves, for our duty.