On this day, the forest was tranquil. It was like many days, the trees rustling gently in the breeze and the chorus of nature billowing through the woods. On days like this, Tori would wander. He could disturb the grass, for he had no body, and he could not scare the animals, for he had no voice. He simply was. Just like every other nature spirit in the green glades and thick wooded forest. In one moment he would watch the dreams of the tired opossums tucked into the nooks in the tree branches, and in another he was whisking through the trees with a galloping herd of deer. He listened to the trees, they were happy on this day. During the night he would watch the dreams of the morning dwellers, and gently lay the elderly flora and fauna to rest forever.
Other spirits would pass by, and he knew them, but all were far too occupied to acknowledge one another. In the hundreds of years of his existence, Tori had never interacted with the other spirits. It never crossed his mind to, though he could feel their auras. He could feel when there was disarray or celebrations, but the spirits themselves did not feel. They only emitted what they saw in their forest.
This day was quiet, it was coming to an end. A symphony of peeping frogs and chirping crickets lulled the forest to sleep. The trees rested, awaiting another starburst sunrise, and the nocturnal animals crawled out of their holes and skittered out of their trees. The forest always breathed life. The forest always breathed. So why was it suffocating.
All around him, Tori could feel the panic. The spirits were scattering and the air rippled. The deer woke and trampled the grass as they zoomed past. Mice wove through the grass. Birds screamed and took off in disorganized flocks. In the distance there was an orange glow. It bent the atmosphere and was choking the trees. Tori whisked over the fleeting crowd of animals and straight towards the problem. It became hotter the closer he got. Below him, a stag yelped. Its tail and back were burned and it bolted away from a raging wildfire.
Tori paused and felt the auras of the others. Closeby one had found a strange beast, one only known to the eldest of spirits. Tori came to have a closer look. Silhouetted by the roaring blaze behind it, was the odd creature. It stood upright on its hind legs and had an enormous skull compared to its body. It breathed a toxic smoke made of foreign, burned elements. It sparked fire in its hands with the help of a box made of ground metals. But the most distressing thing about this creature was that it wore the skins of others. One large flap of blackened, shriveled cow skin covered its top half, and another flap covered its hind legs. Even its hind feet were covered. They weren’t even from the same cow. Even with the burning forest behind it, this creature seemed to take pleasure in setting leaves and sticks ablaze in its wake.
The other spirits didn’t know what to do about it. Tori felt the trees burning, their clear blood sizzling from the heat. He tried to feel the other trees through the roots in the ground. There were only a few acres of wood left unscathed. He felt no spirits either. They had all died with the forest. He could see now that the fire was surrounding them. There was no way out. All of the animals, the trees, the spirits, would all be engulfed. Tori felt the last deer die. And then, Tori felt. He didn’t know what to call it, but he felt heavy. With that weight came a snarled knot. It was almost overwhelming. Seeing the beast that had desecrated the woods only made this weight heavier. His thoughts erupted in reds and stark whites. They were so disrupted that he hadn’t noticed he’d uprooted a tree. It mangled the earth and churned the soil. The sadistic creature stared up at it. He would go down with them, Tori made sure of it. He shoved the tree over. The roots creaked and snapped and the heavy log crushed the moss and charred grass. Tori could feel the creature’s bones break and it yelped into the open air. The billows of black smoke captured its cries. And it captured Tori. The forest wasn’t breathing. He was not breathing. Tori was the only spirit left. The flames had swallowed the rest. He could see nothing, but he could still feel. The knot was gone. Something in his being plummeted. The fire bit at the last patch of green. Smoke engulfed him. A heart stopped.
“I dunno, this one’s kinda skinny.”
“We’ll find a job for it. Not like these come around often.”
“Well, alright, but you’re grabbing the shoulders this time. Those antlers look pointy.”
“Pft, and you call yourself a demon.”
Something felt strange. Tori felt pressure on his being. No, not his being. He didn’t know what they was, but he could feel it. He panicked when he couldn’t see, but when he jolted from his place he suddenly could again. He was on the ground. The land below him was black and jagged, like melted stone. Tree bodies reduced to coal stuck out from the ground around him. Everything smelled like ash and smoke. He had the sinking feeling again and went to shoot up from the ground, but he didn’t move. Something anchored him here.
“I told you they were pointy! Erg, you idiot, let me see it.”
“Don’t touch me, just grab its legs!”
He felt pressure again. Below him was a pair of legs, and beside him a pair of arms. Weighing them down were the darkened flesh of cows. He could feel them. The dried up skin choking the limbs below him. He panicked and tried to escape the feeling, but it couldn’t leave. It was on him. He heard a frightened gasp and the limbs started thrashing. He could feel them kicking the ground and felt bones grind into the stone below.
“Alright, alright! Put it out!”
“Why do I have to do it?!”
“Because you didn’t get stabbed. Do want to be late to the throne room or not?!”
“O-Okay, fine, fine!”
Tori found himself face to face with… something. It almost looked like the fire creature, but not quite. A tuft of black hair sprouted from its head and it had six small horns around its hairline. Its clawed hands reached out and grabbed Tori. He felt them on him. Something in him jumped and he heard another gasp.
“Hey, easy.” It spoke to him through carnivorous teeth. “Hold still.”
Tori thrashed again to try and get away. Every time he did the limbs below him would move. Or maybe… he was moving them. The heavy skin casing he wore around his hind foot kicked into the creature’s leg.
“Ah! Hey, quit it!” The creature forced Tori down. He felt the back of a skull knock into the stone. His skull. The feeling was discomforting. He’d felt it in wounded animals before.
The creatures hands squeezed his head. The choking feeling came back, only this time he could breath. Still, everything was going dark.
“Sure we can’t just damn this one? It’s a pain in the ass!”
“Oh, sure, and when Mammon finds out we can join our skinny deer friend here in the seventh circle of Hell. Sounds great.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever.”
The voices faded and everything went black. An ominous orange glow surrounded him. The cries of the animals rang in his ears and the scent of burning bark and flesh made him feel sick. The rotting flesh of hundreds of cows were slapped over his shoulders. The blood and pus poured down the thin body of the awful fire creature. But he was that creature now. He felt its body. He felt the old burns on its fingertips and the healed cuts on its body. They were his now. His spirit was trapped in here. The soul of the creature was gone.
He could feel heat on his skin and the glow closed in. Flames roared and bit at him. He stood trapped in the dark space. He could feel hard ground underneath him. The fire whirled all around him in tall, impassable walls. Smoke filled his lungs. He was choking again.
Tori jolted awake with a gasp. He was suddenly somewhere else. Oh, it was a dream. Just an awful dream. His knees were dragging across a solid floor. The cow skin gripping his legs squeaked against the unnatural gloss of marble. The solid marble confined him in the hallway that two creatures were pulling him down. His legs were slack behind him. He kicked a little, but wasn’t sure how to use them. His shoulders folded against his neck as the two pulled at his arms. One of them was the creature that spoke to him before.
“Shit, it’s moving again.”
“Calm down, we’re almost there.”
“Well excuse me if I don't want to get gored again!”
“Do you want Mammon to hear you? Can it.”
Now that he was more coherent, Tori realized that he could understand the odd grumblings of these creatures. Words. He’d never heard them, or of them, until now. It was as if language was embedded into his mind. Perhaps it had been left behind in the creature’s body that he now inhabited. He tried to communicate with the creatures the same way they did with each other, but nothing came from his mouth when he opened it. He tried again, this time with some force. He managed an odd groan. It didn’t get him far. One of the creatures looked back at him.
“Eager son of a bitch.”
“Hey, if it’s figuring out how to talk already that’s less work for us.”
“If it’s figuring this out in three hours how much do you think it’s gonna have figured out in three days, hm?”
“You’re just mad ‘cause it got you.”
“I’m ‘just mad’ because this is exactly what that raven was like.”
“Oh? … oh, right. That poor bastard.”
“What?! You can’t be serious!”
“What? It never actually escaped. Mammon gave him quite the punishment.”
“Yeah, because they killed any demon in their path! You haven’t noticed the new guards posted up front?”
“Oh. I uh, never heard that part.”
“Well you didn’t hear it from me. Mammon doesn’t want us getting nervous around the slaves.”
Tori picked his head up and looked down the hall. Two large, intricately carved doors creaked on bulky hinges. From the opening crack between them he could see flickering fire dancing on the walls. He managed a few more mumbles.
“E-ehw… ww.. Whh…. hhh.... Mmng.” Talking was hard. It didn’t exactly come out at ‘where are we’, but he still looked up at the creatures and expected an answer.
“You catch that?”
“Yeah, I caught that. It’s intelligent.”
“No, no, no, it’s trying to say something.”
“Great. Now it’s trying to communicate.”
“Didn’t you say Mammon didn’t want us to be nervous around the slaves?”
“Quiet you. He’s right inside.”
The doors thundered as they were pushed open. The two figures pushing them were fuzzy until Tori was brought closer. They were two more creatures. When he got right up to the doors he noticed they weren’t quite the same. One had a thick mane of fur growing down their back and the other had flakey scales on their skin. These creatures had animal features. Now that was odd.
He could hear the clanging of metal as they entered. His pants were being pulled by a strip of blood red carpet and there were feet pattering all around. When he picked his head up he saw more of those strange amalgam creatures. Some were on the ground, others were suspended on rope pulley systems, but all were barefoot and picking up little circles of pure gold that were scattered on the floor. On the long walls they were stacking these perfectly round pieces to the ceiling. Tori gasped and jumped when one of the stacks toppled crashed against the hard marble. While the pieces clattered and rolled all eyes were now on Tori. There was something haunting about the white of their irises and pupils. He met a few of their gazes. A fox, a horned owl, a black rat snake. Those were just the ones he could recognize. Others bared resemblance to birds with rainbow colored feathers or husky white bears. Many of their bony hands were wrapped and their eyes were glazed over and sunken into dark pits. Even the larger few had gaunt cheeks and their clothing hung off of them like lake weed on a broken twig.
Looking up ahead there were slats of perfectly square marble leading up to a large stone structure. It the fire on the torches around it gleaned off of its unnatural shine and seated on this precise formation was another horned creature. He did not recognize the horns, but from the strong aura it gave off Tori would realized it was not like the meek, frightened creatures surrounding them. The creature was adorned with rare metals and gemstones, including the silky cloth pants covering its legs. When it stood its shoulders stayed squared to support the thick loop of engraved platinum weighing them down.
The two that had a firm grip on Tori instantly fell to their knees and bowed their heads. Tori was laid on his stomach between them.
“You may rise.” A thin, leathery tail whipped around behind the jeweled beast. It gave a sharp grin right down at Tori. The two beside him stood once more.
“We found another, Mammon.” The injured creature on behalf of them both.
“Mmm, yes, I see. Stand it up.”
Tori’s arms were grabbed again and the two creatures beside him hoisted him up. The tops of his feet slid up until only the point of his boots were touching the ground.
The creature, Mammon, stepped down the marble slats and walked right up to Tori. He tried to lift his head to look at him, but it felt a bit top heavy. He managed to lean it back so he could see. Mammon snapped his fingers and an immense weight was lifted from Tori’s shoulders. The thick cow flesh disappeared from his body and he felt like he could fly. He could see how lanky his limbs really were now. Balancing on these legs looked nearly impossible.
“Bless…” Mammon grabbed something just above Tori and was able to pull his head upright. He felt a tug at the front of his scalp. “This one is beautiful, isn’t it? It would be a shame for this face to get burnt.”
Mammon’s sharp claws grazed the underside of Tori’s chin and a chill went down his spine. He could feel his heart pumping in his chest and the weak muscles in his legs twitched and quivered. This was fear. He’d felt it in the animals before. Mammon’s yellow stare bored into Tori’s eyes.
“Where should it be stationed, my lord?”
“Now, now, let us not be hasty. Get it walking first, let it talk among the others. Once it has its bearings then I will decide.”
“Of course, Mammon.”
Mammon didn’t break eye contact. Tori’s stomach was in knots. He could feel the stares of the other creatures on him too. Sweat beaded up on his head. Then Mammon let go.
“Go on then.”
The two creatures supporting Tori bowed once more before walking through an open doorway to the right of Mammon’s throne. More animal amalgams wandered these halls. Their hands and faces were covered in soot and burns. They all stared. Some were nervous, but others seemed more sympathetic. When they all rounded a corner two of the creatures gasped and ran off. Just before they were at the end of the hall the two creatures returned with another. This new one approached.
“Give him to me.” It held out a clawed, leathery hand.
“Yeah, here, take ‘em.” The two horned creatures threw Tori in its direction and it quickly caught him. Tori seemed a bit heavy for her and both of them slowly sank to the floor. The other creatures snickered and walked away.
Tori watched from this creature’s lap as it scowled in their direction. The tuft of fur around its neck ruffled in annoyance and it’s dish-like ears pointed straight up. Once they were gone it looked down at him.
“Those demons didn't hurt you, did they?” The creature’s rough palm touched Tori’s cheek and he could feel its aura. Young. Female. Human. Bat. Spirit. He took it all in before she retracted her hand. Her large, moth wing looking ears folded back into her neck fluff.
“Mmmmn… n-n… nnn…”
She sighed softly. “Easy, don't force it.” She looked to the other two and they all worked to sit him up. When the two smaller creatures touched his arms he could read them too. Child. Female. Sparrow. Human. Spirit. And the other. Child. Male. Bluejay. Human. Spirit. The bluejay held his head up and Tori tried to find the muscles to hold it up himself.
“Where are you from?”
“What kind of antlers are those?”
“Hey, leave him be for a bit. He’s only just gotten here.” The bat looked between the two birds. “Help me get him to the barracks.”
With two enthused nods they helped hoist him up and carried him down the hall. He could see through a few doorways. There was one full of coal, another full of glittering metals, and many full of coal-smeared spirits. He was brought into a quiet room. Only soft mumblings and shuffling could be heard in the dim candlelight. The bat set him down on a crushed pile of dirty, woven fabrics. The birds stood over him, huddled close and playing with their fingers.
“Don’t worry you two, I’ll take care of him.” The bat dropped her serious gaze and offered them a smile. “He’ll be just fine, but you should get to work, okay?”
The two nodded in unison. The sparrow gave Tori one last look before the bluejay pulled her away and back into the hall.
The bat’s smile dropped once they were out of sight. She gave a sigh and looked back down at Tori.
“Well… you’re already trying to talk at least.” She picked up his wrist and let his arm dangle from her fingers. “Moving might be a bit tough for you, but you’ll manage.” She set his arm back down and tucked a pillow under his head. Some soot from her hand rubbed off on his wrist. “I’m Manni. I suppose I’ll learn your name later.” She gave a small smile. “I suppose you don’t know what’s going on here, do you?”
“Don’t worry, we’ll get to talking. You should know what you’re in for though…”
Tori clicked his teeth back together and listened.
“Something must have happened to you… you’re a deer, aren’t you? So, your forest then. Whatever part you were connected to… it’s dead. You’re dead.” Her ears lay flat against her fur.
Tori’s vision started to blur. He felt warm streaks of water pour from his waterline. Manni sighed and brushed it away with her thumb. The water came with an awful bruise deep in his chest.
“I’m sorry. But that might be the least of your problems. You’re in the afterlife now. And you have a body, I know it’s strange, we’ve all been through it. You’ve probably never even spoken with another spirit before… I know I hadn’t until I got here.” She sat down on the backs of her legs and clasped her three-fingered hands in her lap. “When you got here, when we all got here, we landed just outside of the gates of Hell. On The Scorch. The demons figured this out quickly… and ever since Mammon has his underlings patrolling that awful place and collecting more of us to do his bidding. It’s easy because we’re all just about as useful as you are right now. N-No offense. I just mean you’re not used to having a body yet.” She sighed and flattened out the fluff brushing against her jaw. “Mammon is the Archdemon of greed. Once he has you… he’ll never let go. Believe me.”
Manni’s face pinched a bit and she looked away for a moment. After a deep breath she returned her glassy gaze back to Tori. “So, we’ll need to get you walking, then Mammon can put you to work. Just pray it won’t be too hard.”
“Manni, I-” Tori walked into the barracks for the night, sitting down on his own pad of blankets and looking across to where Manni was sat. Her hands were wrapped in bandages. “O-Oh dear, what happened?” The fur of his long ears brushed against his neck as he pulled them back in concern.
“Just a forge accident. I’m okay.” Manni gave a half smile up at Tori. He knew she was just trying to reassure him, but he wasn’t convinced.
“Let me see it.” His voice was as gentle as his hands as he reached across the walkway and took her bandaged fingers.
“Tori, really, it wasn’t that bad.”
There was blood blotting through the wraps and he carefully unraveled them. Manni winced when the fabric pulled against the gelatinous puss of her wounds. When he got them off the putrid smell of burnt flesh was released. Manni’s fingers were glassy with smooth burns and clear puss. One of her claws had fallen off and another finger had an exposed bone. Tori gasped and quickly let go of them, not wanting to injure her further.
Manni wouldn’t look at him. “Th-There’s nothing we can do, okay?”
“But… how will you work? You said Mammon only keeps you if-”
“I know what I said!” She threw him a desperate stare. “I-I know…”
Tori shook his head. “N-No… he can’t damn you, he-”
“H-e won’t... damn me.” Her voice cracked and her breath skipped.
“He’ll put me away with Civi…”
Tori cocked his head. “Manni… she was damned. You told me, after she tried to escape.”
Manni sniffled and shook her head. “Sh-She wasn’t damned… I didn’t want to tell you.”
Tori felt his heart sink and he got up to sit right beside Manni.
“Didn’t want to tell me what?”
It took Manni a moment to compose herself. “Behind the throne… there’s a secret room. I-I used to work in there. It’s full of display cases… rare stuff they find in the mines or w-wherever. But in the back there’s another room full of tanks… small ones. The spirits that can’t work anymore… M-Mammon just puts them on display. Civi’s been down there for years…” She teared up and Tori pulled an arm around her shoulders. “I-I try not to think about it… but now...”
“Manni, you can’t go down there.”
“B-But I’m going to! I can’t-” She let out a huff and started to cry. She held her melted hands out in front of her and dropped her head into her lap.
Tori felt a whimper being forced from his throat and he hugged her. He couldn’t let her rot in that trophy room, she’d been his best friend for decades. When is arm overlapped hers he could see the contrast of her scarred flesh compared to his own unscathed skin.
“W-We have to break out…” Tori realized it was the only way to keep her from going in there. Manni shook her head, still sobbing into her lap.
“A-Are you insane? That’s how Civi-”
“I-I know, I know, but I-I can’t let this happen. I won’t.”
“Tori,” she sat up and looked at him, her eyes red and puffy, “Civi knew this place inside and out, she’s a raven. Even if we managed to get out Mammon would know we were gone. He would know you were gone.”
“Then… I-I’ll break you out.”
“No, wait, hear me out.” Tori crouched in front of Manni and hope returned to his heart. “I work in the throne room, I’ve followed Mammon out into The Scorch, I know the route out.”
“The way out is full of demons, Tori.”
“I’ll find a way, I’m going out there with him tomorrow.”
“Tori, this is crazy.”
“I know… I-I know it is, but you’re not getting stuck in jar forever.”
“If this doesn’t work you’ll end up down there with me.”
“Manni.” Tori took her shoulders. His ears perked up and he gave a hopeful smile. “Let me try.”
Manni looked at him for a moment. She dried her tears on her arm and gulped.