The whole universe seemed to shift, twist and bend, even constant forces like gravity and atmospheric pressure rippling in fluctuation. With a violent 'pop', and a static-like tingle across her flesh, Emephira finished manifesting, popping her ears and feeling the sensation of dry, freezing air stinging her bare skin. Despite the inhospitable climate, before doing anything else she looked herself over anxiously; no matter how she knew the manifestation process was harmless, she had not yet quite grown fully comfortable with it, and the irrational fear that she might end up with her parts in the wrong places or something was foremost in mind.
Her smooth, healthy pink skin was suitably flawless and unharmed, nothing out of place from her dainty toes to the tips of her slender fingers, aside from the profusion of cold-induced goosebumps. The immaculate white of her beautiful, feathered wings was similarly untouched. Letting out a private little sign of relief, Emephira turned her attention to the surrounding area, since one could never be sure what was lurking around on a material plane.
Blue and white dominated the landscape. Felarya was known for its dense, verdant jungles, but the plane was not bereft of other climates. The ground was frozen solid, only sparse clumps of grass and shrubbery surviving in the brutal cold, leaves seemingly bleached white by the frost that clung to them. Cruel winds howled across the icy landscape, whipping up tiny bits of ice into uneven sheets of frozen fog, obscuring vision. A massive grouping of stones towered near to where she stood, icicles hanging from every perch. The wind also sounded . . . wrong, somehow, and even the sky was strange; no sun was visible, and bizarre angular patterns of light could be seen in the dim illumination, giving the area an eerie, unearthly atmosphere . . . even for an entity comprised partly of energy as Emephira was.
Despite the strangeness it was rather strikingly beautiful, she had to admit, but for all the natural majesty, it was clearly a harsh, inhospitable land, in contrast to the gentle, ordered gardens from her home. But she was not here for sightseeing in any case, and had a job to do.
Nothing dangerous seemed to be nearby, aside from the weather itself, which meant the first order of business was to get her defenses up. Contrary to what many mortals believed, a Psycopomp (or angel of death, or soul-reaper, or whatever term they preferred) was neither intangible nor indestructible, and in fact rather low on the angelic (or demonic) chain of command. Destruction on a foreign plane would (almost) never be lethal, but getting shunted back home to reform made it rather difficult to perform one's duties in a timely manner, not to mention being horribly embarrassing. And this frozen tundra, while definitely no hell, looked like an easy place indeed to have one's physical form destroyed.
Emephira focused her senses, calling upon the spell that most in her line of work knew some variation of, weaving a magical field around her body which would protect her from the elements, and bend light, ensuring that she was (mostly) invisible to the living, and would appear as the culturally appropriate angel-of-death figure when observed by a soul. Once done, she cinched the spell into place, feeling it settle comfortably against her body, a small sigh of relief escaping her as the cold was banished from her person. The cost of sustaining the effect was a small strain, but trivial compared to the effort of simply maintaining her form on a foreign world. But however new to the soul-collecting field she was, her training had included a great deal of practice in enduring extended sojourns into physical realms, so there was no immediate rush.
With a delicate little hop, Emephira propelled herself into the air, wings fighting with the violent winds for a few moments, before feeling out the best way to maneuver through them. Working to achieve some altitude, she stretched out her senses, seeking the familiar feel of a soul attuned to positive energy. The background 'noise' produced by the extremely magical nature of Felarya made it a bit hard to focus, but she soon picked out the signature of a rather powerful soul. It was distant, and oddly 'fuzzy' compared to the ones who resided in her home, but still unmistakable.
Hopeful that she might get through her time in Felarya without an embarrassing 'death', she angled her wings, and made off towards the soul at a brisk pace. The unpredictable winds made the going tough, but she was a strong, sure flyer, and that coupled with her invisibility allowed her to traverse the bleached tundra with little worry.
The first sign she was nearing her quarry was a trail of dark red, almost black splotches frozen onto the otherwise ghostly terrain. Blood. The angel swooped down, landing lightly next to the grim evidence, unsure how recent it was. But even as she watched, the never-ending onslaught of wind-born frost gradually covered the dark spots with white; within an hour the evidence would be completely gone. The body, at least, had to be close by.
The trail of blood made her course easy and clear, flying low over the frosted earth in search of the source. After a time, she was lead to another of those strange rock formations, the frozen stone towering over her like some petrified god. The trail circled the obelisk for a short ways, before leading to a great deal more blood, and a couple of bodies. Not human, the corpses were of some snow-white reptilian animals, sporting sharp teeth and vicious talons. Thier makeup was quite alien, but the large gaping holes in the bodies left little doubt regarding the cause of death. Some sort of conflict had clearly taken place, but the angel hurried on, following the blood.
The trail soon lead to a wide opening in the pillar of stone. Uneven, seemingly a natural occurrence of the way the stones piled together, but also quite deep, and Emephira had little interest in further sightseeing in this frozen wasteland, plunging ahead in her mission.
The still, dead air of the cave was somehow even more unsettling than the winds outside, and some strange illumination was further evidence of an intelligent being having passed through. Thin plastic cylinders were wedged into cracks in the walls at even intervals, eerie green light emanating from them. There was nothing magical about the strange light sources, however bizarre they looked, so the angel pressed on with growing trepidation. The blood trail here was quite fresh, but Emephira no longer needed it, as she was close enough to feel out the soul clearly. It wasn't exactly the most good or pure soul, she noted with a bit of disappointment . . . in fact, far from it. But neither was it particularly corrupt; and by her assessment noticeably closer to light than dark, though definitely somewhere on the 'grey' spectrum. Which only meant it was all the more important to bring home; a truly good soul would almost always find its way to Heaven (eventually), but borderline cases were fair game for both Heaven and Hell, and this one had a pretty strong aura, even if it was more gray than light. The only problem being; the soul's body was still very much alive.
Reaching the end of the tunnel, Emephira spied the human in question; wrapped in layers of thick white and grey furs, face covered in a hood, it was impossible to even determine gender. He or she was huddled up in a sitting position against the far wall, facing the entrance, holding some sort of large firearm over their knees. A crude bandage was wrapped tightly around one leg, red soaking through and having pooled on the ground. It also clearly had some kind of magical obfuscation, or else she would have know it was alive from the beginning.
Despite the unexpected turn, Emephira felt a surge of sympathy and concern for the being, but it was generally against the rules for a Psycopomp to interfere or be seen in any significant way, which was part of the reason she was out in this desolate wilderness. New Psycopomps were often sent to places where screwing up and being discovered by the living was unlikely to have any serious repercussions.
Still invisible, Emephira found herself in the awkward position of standing around waiting for the human to die, since his/her prospects as a member of the living did not look all that good. She withdrew to the cave entrance, trying to stay quiet as possible, not fully confident in her camouflage spell at such close quarters. The pressure from the material plane trying to push her out was starting to grow uncomfortable too, and she found herself silently wishing the human would just hurry up and expire, while feeling rather guilty about the selfish desire. Then, she felt a presence, quite close, seemingly pop into existence.
" . . . Huh?" A new, female voice asked, from less than a dozen yards away. Emephira whipped about, startled, eyes picking up a silhouette in the freezing expanse outside the cave, her other senses zeroing in on a unpleasantly negative aura, its owner unquestionably nonhuman.
"A demon!" she half-gasped, a shiver of revulsion running down her spine.
"Gha! An angel! I'm just a Psycopomp, don't-" the demon squeaked in a surprisingly nonthreatening tone, breaking off mid-sentence. She seemed frozen for a moment, hands raised defensively over her face, before relaxing a little, arms dropping to her sides. She was as nude as Emephira, her skin a darkish blue color, and two long, slender horns curved from her crown of pitch black hair. She lacked any sort of wings, and a prehensile, barbed tail hung behind her, shifting and curling in nervous motions. "Um. Judging by that lame camouflage spell, I guess you're here for the same job I am. I'm not in the mood for a fight, and there's really no reason to, so. . ."
"It's not lame . . ." Emephira managed, at a loss for anything else to say. The demon's suggestion was uncharacteristically reasonable though, and she couldn't think of any reason to argue. "I guess you're right . . ."
"Good." The demon paused a moment to put on her 'angel of death' spell, though she didn't seem to bother with any kind of invisibility or protection from the elements. "Now just stay out of my way. There's a soul in that cave there, and I don't want to stay here longer than I have to."
"What!? No, no that one's mine. It's more light than dark anyway, what do you want with it?"
The demon paused for a moment, as though concentrating, and then smirked. "No, you're wrong. It definitely leans to the corrupt side. Now just move . . ."
Emephira set her jaw, retreating a little ways into the cave and spreading her wings, taking up a defensive stance. "No. You're just lying! Go away and I won't have to hurt you."
"Ha! Whatever. Out of my way, love freak," the demon said without remorse, walking right up to Emephira and shoving her. Never having dealt with any sort of physical confrontation before in her life, the angel squeaked and stumbled back.
"Ow! Hey, at least put on some kind of protection or concealment-"
"There's nobody here but you, me, and the soul, and my great grandmother is an ice succubus, so this weather is nothing to me!"
"Aren't you a little short for a succubus?"
"Well . . . you know. Technically my great aunt. Twice removed. By marriage. But whatever! I'm still from Acheron, so I don't mind the cold." The not-even-remotely-an-ice-succubus 'humphed', pushing past into the cave before Emephira could remember why it would be a bad idea. A pair of yelps followed, and a new voice shouted something threatening. The angel briefly considered just abandoning the whole thing right there; return home and let the demon and the dying human sort themselves out. But no. She had a job to do.
Creeping in, Emephira could see the human on its feet, pointing that gun at the rather shocked and embarrassed-looking demon, her disguise not tuned to work on the living. The hood was back, revealing the human as female, she had dark, short hair, her face weathered and a bit rough, perhaps making her look older than she was, features hard and not at all friendly. Her figure was impossible to tell under all her gear, but she was probably in pretty good shape given where she was trudging around. Emephira had to remind herself this human wasn't having a good day either, with her impending death and all.
Emephira edged to the side of the standoff, staying away from where the weapon was pointed, before speaking in a clear, helpful voice. "She's a demon. She wants to take your soul back to hell; you should shoot her." The human jumped a foot in the air in surprise, and then proceeded to point her weapon in Emephira's general direction, and fire. The angel covered her head and cried out, the shot echoing violently in the confined space. Having fallen into a sitting position, she had somehow also avoided being shot. Invisibility has its benefits.
"No! Please don't shoot me!" After a moment of hesitation, she allowed the invisibility component of her concealment spell to fall away, exposing her natural form to a living human for the first time ever. She tried a friendly smile. "See? I'm just here for your soul." The reassuring statement did not have the desired effect, the human narrowing her eyes and tightening her grip on the weapon.
"My soul, huh?" she growled. "You'll have to rip it off my cold, lifeless corpse, you . . . whatever the hell you two are."
"That's pretty much the idea. Though 'rip' isn't quite right. The soul comes loose pretty much by itself after death . . . without some serious necromantic intervention, anyway." The demon said, somehow casual. Maybe she didn't care as much about the embarrassment of getting blasted back home. But the human looked ready to shoot, and her weapon was currently pointing that Emephira.
"Look, this is all getting completely out of hand! You're not even supposed to see us until you're dead." The flustered angel paused, watching as the human became even more suspicious and aggressive at her statement. "Um! No, that came out wrong! We're not supposed to interfere with the living at all, but when you die of natural causes, we come. But because of that concealment magic you're using, I thought you were already dead, and . . ." Getting very close to crying in shame, the angel instead took a deep breath, and reordered her thoughts. "I'm Emephira, and I'm supposed to guide good souls to heaven . . . without getting shot at or into fights with demons."
"Oh perfect! We're doing introductions now?" The demon rolled her eyes in disgust and sat down with a huff. "Ugh, this can't really get any more botched, I guess. I knew there was something off about this one, didn't think it'd be still alive though. Well, I'm Calypsotie, and I live in hell. It's nicer than you've probably heard."
"So you two are . . . what? Manifestations of my good and evil impulses?" The human backed away a bit, keeping her gun aimed at the air between angel and demon.
"Ha! Sure, why not!? Except she's useless and annoying, while I'm interesting and helpful," Calypsotie said, apparently amused by the premise.
"Not much point shooting a hallucination, I suppose," the human said, wincing as she returned to a sitting position, though her gun remained pointed in the general direction of the pair.
"No. We're not hallucinations or anything, we're very real, and your soul's in very real danger so long as she's here!"
"Oh really? Tell me; how can you be so sure little-miss-lovey isn't the danger? She even admitted she wants your soul." The demon smirked.
"You admitted you're from hell!" Emephira turned to the human, who was looking rather annoyed by this point. "Please; she'll take your soul back to hell if she has her way. I'm not sure I can beat her by myself . . . but if you just shoot her, when you die, it'll be just me."
"When I die?"
"Uhh, well . . . you know. You're pretty hurt, and it's cold and dangerous out here . . . it seems pretty probable." The angel tried to smile reassuringly. "It's not the worst thing that can happen."
"For someone who claims to be 'good', she sure is advocating violence against me, and hoping you die." Calypsotie interjected.
"It's not like that!" The angel turned and pointed at Calypsotie accusingly. "She's pure evil, and they'll feed you to a succubus in hell . . . or, or something else awful!"
"Oh, 'pure evil', am I? Couldn't be 'partly evil', or even 'mostly evil', eh? No no, surely not; we've only just met, but this angel can tell I'm comprised completely of 'evil'. Whatever that even means."
Emephira was frustrated to the point her voice was growing a touch shrill. "She's trying to confuse you! But the fact is, she's from hell, and wants to take you back with her!"
"And? Two thirds of what you 'people' say about my home is propaganda anyway. Sure, hell might not be the nicest place for damned, but 'heaven' is worse. Nothing but non-stop tentacle rape 24/7." The demon was grinning ear-to-ear now.
"Wh-what!? That's a horrible lie!" Emephira, half-shouted, appalled. "There are no tentacles at all! Er, well, I mean, we don't arbitrarily bar chlaena from getting in, but they're certainly not allowed to-"
"Yeah. Sure sure; stick with the party line. Heaven is still a nasty place."
"Will you two shut up!" the human growled through clenched teeth. Emephira did not feel she was winning her over.
"She's lying." Emephira continued, but in a more subdued tone of voice. "Heaven is wonderful; everything is always calm and peaceful; none of this running about and trying to kill each other than happens elsewhere. . . . at least where I live."
"Ugh. That sounds even worse. I'd rather be eaten by a succubus and be done with it than spend an eternity bored out of my mind." Calypsotie added with infuriating casualness.
"Noo! That's not what I meant! It's not boring or anything . . . just, not a constant brutal struggle for survival."
"Ha! You wouldn't know 'brutal' if it came up and swallowed you in one gulp." Calypsotie huffed with disdain, but the angel could only smile at the misstep.
". . . So you're saying that life is pretty rough in hell, even for a demon?"
The blue-skinned demon looked a touch taken aback by the turn of conversation. "Er, not exactly, I just-"
"My. I imagine it's got to be far, far worse on the poor souls you drag back there. I wouldn't know, since I've been so sheltered by the tranquil luxuries of heaven. Where I'm from. Where I'll be taking her . . . if she just shoots you!" She pointed at the demon for emphasis, hoping to see her form exploded by gunshot in the next moment. No shot was fired, to her disappointment.
The human broke in before a slightly flustered Calypsotie could retort. "Just to be honest; at this point, I'm either shooting you both, or neither. Don't trust either of you freaky hallucinations as far as I could pole-vault with you. This stupid little debate is kinda entertaining though, so if you wanna just keep going at it, be my guests." Her voice was a tiny bit slurred, and her face pale, but she was holding up surprisingly well given the amount of blood-loss.
Emephira couldn't help but feel rather insulted, folding her arms over her chest, and wrapping her wings around herself in a manner her friends often referred to as her 'sulking mode'. Calypsotie just rolled her eyes again, and said; "Oh sure. You're stranded and injured alone in this arctic wilderness, but we're the stupid ones. At least this little twit is trying to perform a useful service for her people."
"Huh, at least the blue one's got some spine. Kind of a bitch, though. Not that I'm one to judge."
"Since I guess we're stuck here until you . . . er, stuck here for a while; why are you in Felarya, anyway? It's not the most hospitable place, for humans especially." Emephira asked, doing her very best not to look sulky.
The human paused for a second, as though considering her answer. Finally she spoke: "There's a plague going back on my homeworld. Really nasty, necromantic stuff; people who die of it get back up the next day, and then shamble around trying to infect others. Healers and doctors can't seem to do a damn thing about it. I was on a team sent here to see if we could bring back some of that supposed healing mojo the soil here has. Got ambushed by a bunch of those lizard things while we were trying to dig the frozen ground . . . and I ended up separated."
Emephira couldn't help but smile. "Oh! That's so noble! Braving danger and risking everything to help your people." She gave the demon a severe look.
"Ha. Nah, I'm just a mercenary. The police and regular army pretty much fell to pieces trying to evacuate civilians and keep the dead in check, but my group was smart enough to hole up where it was safe."
"Oh . . ."
"By the time what was left of the ruling body realized that we'd need to go off-world for a cure, they didn't have enough manpower for the expedition. So they pretty much promised us the world in exchange for lending our support to this one mission. Plus, if the world really did end, we'd die too."
"That's . . . somewhat less noble."
"That's what I said. To be honest, I was actually thinking about ditching and seeing if I could make it here, but all this ice is worse than the damn zombies. Not to mention those freaky snow lizards."
"Nothing wrong with some good old fashioned self-interest. Keeps the universe running." Calypsotie said with a little smile.
"I'm . . . oh damn . . ." the human said, her voice sounding rather woozy. She leaned back, resting her head against the uneven stone behind her, eyes closed and breathing hard.
"Sooo . . ." Emephira said too the evil creature across from her, as the human slipped quietly into unconsciousness.
"First one to snag the soul when she dies gets it?" Calypsotie suggested after a moment. Despite her reservations, Emephira couldn't think of anything better.
Unconsciousness crawled away from Talmira like a carpet of beetles, bizarre dreams of little angels and devils dancing about and mocking one another blurring in her mind. She could almost still hear them:
"Even though I wasted my time here, I'm glad you're going to live . . . but remember: your soul is a pretty even split between light and dark right now. But if you live a principled life upholding the ideals you believe in, when you do die, they won't want you in hell, and maybe we'll meet again!" One seemed to say.
"I'm not that glad. But here's a rebuttal anyway: maybe we're both just hallucinations brought on by blood loss, and this spiritual stuff is all garbage. Instead of wasting your fleeting life doing 'good', wring as much enjoyment as you can out of it before the end, and the consequences be damned," the other replied, her voice seeming distant. Then a third sound broke in; the familiar and welcome one of a snowmobile idling nearby.
Her eyes snapped open, full consciousness hitting her like a bucket of freezing water. Her grip tightened on her weapon, and she half-expected the strange creatures to still be there . . . but not a trace of them remained. Nearly dying could do odd things to the mind, she told herself.
Feeling too relieved to worry over her recent hallucinogenic episode, Talmira pushed herself to her feet and took a few steps toward the cave entrance, ignoring the searing pain in her leg. She could already see someone wearing the same uniform as her, clearly silhouetted against the opening.
"Hey! Mira! Is that you? You alive?" The familiar, gravelly voice of her partner was music to her ears. Seeing her injury, he didn't wait for a response, putting one of her arms of his shoulder and leading her out. She didn't resist, but couldn't stop thinking about how vivid, how utterly real the devil and angel creatures had seemed. It was only as she was being strapped into the snowmobile, a flask of some hot liquid shoved into her hands, that she noticed a footprint, mostly filled in by the perpetually falling snow, but still clear. Human in shape and size, but bare.
She didn't say anything or point it out as the vehicle roared to life and started speeding through the endless fields of white, but what she had seen kept playing through her mind. Not a lot of people she knew went barefoot in this weather . . .
Maybe the occasional good deed wouldn't hurt after all.