Strange, rusted shapes crunched beneath Mantaj’s feet as she approached the ruins, holy book clasped in her hand. When she was young, she and the other children had come here often, rummaging through the rubble in search of these ancient artefacts from before the dark time. This place of excitement was now one of terror, for her even more than for the other villagers. But they were not priests, and so the exorcism fell to her.
With trembling steps she walked through the high doorway, the flames of her torch making shadows dance around the hall within. A fresh pile of rubble lay ahead of her, a dark stain at its edge. The stain of her mother’s blood.
As she approached the rubble, a ghostly figure appeared in the air further down the hall. Terrible, wrenching loss at the sight of her mother’s face was replaced by fear for her life. This was the unnatural thing that had sent others running, a spirit from the beyond. It was said that the walking dead could devour your soul, and the fear of the beyond that had led Mantaj to become a priest now made her feet falter.
“It’s all so beautiful.” The ghost smiled, then looked up in alarm. Some invisible force struck it to the ground, head caved in just as her mother’s had been. A moment later it was upright again. “It’s all so beautiful.”
As she watched her mother die over and over, Mantaj’s fear was replaced by guilt. She had been fearing for herself, not mourning her mother’s loss. The feelings twisted up together, freezing her in place.
“I shall make shadows out of loss,” she said, reciting her favourite scripture for reassurance. “Angels shall become demons at my hand, and demons shall become angels.”
She walked with trembling steps across the hall, forcing herself not to flee as the invisible rubble crushed her mother and the roof creaked overhead. Her duty was to keep the village safe, and to help her mother move on.
A hiss came from the side of the hall, a feral cat prowling through the ruins. For a moment it seemed to glow, and the ghostly image was broken by the animal’s silhouette. Behind the cat, something glowed.
She turned and walked toward that point of light. One foot sank into a hole in the floor. Yelping, she fell to the ground.
As she pulled herself back to her feet, her mother’s voice was replaced by an echo of that yelp.
Mantaj looked back. The ghost no longer took her mother’s form. Now it looked like Mantaj herself, caught over and over in the act of tripping at that hole, crying out again and again in alarm.
She trembled with fear. If that was her ghost, then what had happened to her body? Had she fallen and cracked her head open? Was she now just a remnant waiting to pass on, her mortal flesh lying dead on the ground? She forced herself to look down, to face the terrible reality of her fate.
There was no body. Only the hole, the ground, and Mantaj standing on it.
Relief lifted her spirits, and she walked more confidently toward the glowing light.
“Demons shall become angels,” she said, holding the book out in front of her like a talisman. No-one trained village priests to perform exorcisms, but she knew that holy words could drive out unholy spirits. “Demons shall become angels.”
“Demons shall become angels.” The ghost echoed her voice, and as she glanced back she saw that it too walked confidently forward, though without moving from its spot.
Approaching the wall, she saw that the light was coming from an ancient device embedded in the base of the wall. It was dirty and rusted, and a lump of rock had recently fallen against it, pressing on two protrusions that glowed like fine gemstones, one blue and one red. Was it some sort of trap, confining the spirits that haunted this place? A blue gem to display benevolent spirits and a red one to trap demons, as she had heard of in legends?
She lifted away the rock at its base. Both gems ceased their glowing, and the light went out. Behind her, the ghost fell silent.
Mantaj was surprised to feel a surge of sadness. She had lost so much with her mother’s death, and the transformation of that spirit from an image of death to a message of scripture had given her hope. For a moment she had believed that death was not the end, not for good things.
She stroked the blue gemstone, and the lighted flashed again. Leaning the rock against the gem, she saw it resume its soft glow and heard her own voice coming from behind her.
“Demons shall become angels,” the ghost said again.
“Thank you.” Mantaj bowed her head to the spirit trap, and turned to leave.
“Demons shall become angels.” The voice followed her out through the hall. “Demons shall become angels.”
* * *
This story is a return to the world I set up in ‘Pale Wings’, one where advanced technology has come to be seen as magic. That original idea came from Ben Moxon, while this story came about because Steve Hartline said he would like to see more of this world. Mantaj is named after a friend of mine, who this week gave me some of the best writing feedback I’ve ever had – I wanted to provide some sort of tribute.
If you enjoyed this story then you can find links to many more of my flash fiction pieces here, read more in my books, and even get a free copy of my short story collection Riding the Mainspring by signing up to my mailing list.
And as always, if you’d like to leave any feedback or an idea for a future story then please leave a comment below.