The Never: Part One – Feathered

sword hilt

Her eyes open. Bright golden light fills her vision, blinding her a moment before it dulls to a faded glow. An imposing figure stands before her. Massive, white feathery wings sweep about as he gestures to the imperious structure behind him.

“Welcome to the Stronghold of Glory.”

She blinks, hoping when she opens her eyes again, they’ll find something familiar. She does not know this man. She does not know this stronghold. She does not even know…


“Where am I? Who am I? Who are you?” Her voice quivers as she hugs herself, eyes trained on the stronghold. They stand on the edge of an arching bridge leading to pearly, iridescent walls. Brilliant copper statues of warriors stand sentry at intervals on the bridge, flanking the gates leading into the fortress, and atop turrets circling the perimeter wall. No warrior looks the same; each one wields a unique weapon and wears distinctive armor, all indicative of different places, cultures, and time periods.

She just can’t name any of them.

The male before her is calm; serene like a marble sculpture, his wings slowly and soundlessly undulating in the air behind him. “You are Estrid, a pneuma. A soul passed here from the mortal realm to the Never World. I am Anatolius, your guide. A mentor.”

Realization gradually dawns upon her, like an ascending theater curtain revealing a hidden scene. “The Never World. The plane of death.”

I am dead.

He nods. “You have been chosen for the Stronghold because of the goodness of your soul, the fierceness of your heart, and your readiness to serve others before yourself.”

She looks down at herself as unfamiliar hands run down the foreign tunic that drapes her body like a short dress. Her skin is ashen, dull gray like death. Only a faint pink ring encircles her wrists like a shackle. No matter how hard she concentrates, eyes straining in their sockets, no memories grant her insight into her life. Not even to the name that is a stranger to her ears. Estrid asks in a cracked voice, “I remember nothing of my past life. How do you know I am worthy?”

“King Numen decides the fate of all who enter the Never World by measuring their efforts in life. He is not mistaken in this decision. You have the spirit of a warrior. Your memories are sealed for your own protection, so that you might best serve in your new role.”

A hollow pang rings through her chest, which she tries to ignore with a dry swallow. “And what is this role? What does it mean to be chosen for the Stronghold?”

His smile is warm and inviting, like the sunrise. “You will train and ascend as a defender: a soldier and protector of the Never World, rising to the call of duty whether it is guarding the pneuma who travel here or safeguarding the realm from other threats. This is a noble pursuit, one of the highest honors the king can bestow upon the pneuma.”

She looks at her hands again, the pink lines blurring with a sudden spring of tears burning through her eyelashes. “I do not know how to do this. I know nothing of fighting,” she whispers.

Anatolius holds out a hand, aurous and radiant, large enough to eclipse both of hers. “I will help you.”

She places a timid hand into his warm grasp, and the halcyon touch surges through her with a wave of peace.

Anatolius watches the training grounds from afar, hands clasped behind his back. He liked to survey the new pneuma. The legionaries improve their reflexes, resilience, and conviction every day. His own charge, Estrid, among them. She began as an uncertain recruit, but quickly proved herself and King Numen’s decision. She is a fierce warrior, as she was in life. The most auspicious recruit by far.

Lysis, the primus, approaches from the southern turret. Anatolius smooths his face over with a mask of indifference, but Lysis does not spare a glance for him. Her gaze is focused on the training yards as the pneuma spar with each other or their mentors. “How are the recruits faring?”

“Promising.” Few words were always the safest bet with Lysis.

She turns to him, the intensity of her commanding eyes unmistakable. “And your legionary in particular?”

Anatolius does not break his gaze from Estrid as she maneuvers around her opponent with ease. “I am confident in her abilities.”

“And have things improved with the bell?”

Anatolius says nothing. There is only the tuck of his wings, the ruffling of the pristine feathers.

At last, Lysis releases him from her penetrating gaze. She watches the training for a few silent, calculating moments. “The bell is not a measure of honor.”

“Just of ability,” he finishes, echoing her sentiments.

She nods. “To be defenders, we must master the darkness inside ourselves.”

Words slip from Anatolius before he thinks them through. “We’ve taken her memory. Surely that is enough.”

Lysis does not move, but the thick silence quivers with malice. Her muted voice is almost deadly. “You know that is not a permanent solution. Your feelings for her should not interfere with your duties.”

“I fear only for her suffering. She has endured so much and faced the bell numerous times with the same result. Perhaps she is not meant to confront her past. Perhaps we should learn from her experience. What if she cannot master the bell?”

Lysis’s deadly voice does not soften. “You know this already: There is only the path. She will triumph, or be destroyed.”

Estrid and the other legionaries gather in the central courtyard for the new cleansing ritual. Excitement ripples through the air, and even she cannot help her smile while surrounded by exuberant faces and delighted murmurs. Today is a chance for all of them to ascend to defender and earn their wings in service to the Never World.

This is the day they have trained for.

But her smile wanes with bubbling nerves in her belly. Estrid cannot share their excitement for long; she knows this pattern all too well. Her heavy footsteps drag against the stone, slowing her pace until she is at the fringe of the gathered crowd. They circle around a tall, ancient bell that looks to be made of gray stone. Estrid knows that once one steps closer, they can see tiny veins of black and white that fan across the surface like arterial cracks in marble. She does not draw closer to marvel at its bygone construction, instead hanging back to rub warmth into her upper arms.

“This is a day for hope. You should share in it.”

She does not startle at the voice of her mentor. Estrid has become used to the enigmatic presence of Anatolius and his penchant for sneaking up unannounced. She spares a glance at his towering stature next to her, his massive wings enfolded in such a way that takes up as little space as possible, a position that looks uncomfortable. She has often dreamed about her own pair of wings, and soaring through the air with them.

She has long realized the dream’s futility. “I wish I could,” she mutters.

His head swivels to her slowly, like a stone grating on the mountain. His cheeks and brow betray nothing save for his customary impassive, timeless expression, but there is a unique flicker in his eyes. A flash so unlike him she struggles to name its emotion or expression. It disappears before she can further read into it.

“You deserve hope,” he says at last, almost like a whisper carried in the breeze. “It is attainable for you as well. My faith in you never wavers.”

She looks away. Despite never feeling hunger in the Never World, her stomach tightens with more than her nerves. Anatolius’s quiet conviction is undeniable; she merely wishes she had that faith in herself.

One by one, legionaries take their turn at the bell, swinging the soft-padded mallet Lysis hands them. With each strike, a low note reverberates through the air, setting Estrid’s teeth on edge. She remembers how the feeling is worst for the one ringing the bell, as the sound pulls something from its creator. Those bellowing tones resurrect every darkness hidden from their mortal life until it manifests into creatures for the legionary to defeat in combat.

They appear in a variety of shapes and sizes, often as a wild boar or a small pack of wolves, the largest of which the size of an enormous cat, shoulder height to the legionary who must fend off its attacks. Everyone is successful; with a well-timed slice or jab of their weapon, the legionaries reduce the dark creatures to curling smoke that wisps away as the droning of the bell fades to silence.

Estrid is the last one to approach the bell for the day, her confidence bolstered by the success of her fellow recruits. After the cleansing ceremony, Lysis will select the lucky ones to ascend and gain their wings. Estrid hopes she is one of them. She tries to ignore Lysis’s intimidating presence as she passes the mallet, focusing on the task ahead of her.

She has strength. She has will. She can overcome this. Anatolius told her so, and he does not give praise lightly.

The mallet lifts at her bidding and sweeps in a slow arch around her before making contact with the primeval bell. Estrid feels the musical note shatter through her bones before she hears it rolling across the courtyard. Her limbs shake from the impact, electrifying her veins and blurring her vision. The courtyard grows dark, but Estrid can never tell if this is because of the sky overhead or her own faulty senses, feeling as though a sack has been pulled over her head. Everything is muffled through a thick layer of… something. Smoke? Thunder? Her teeth chatter with a toe-curling sharpness that rattles her entire body. She stumbles back a few steps as the pain rocks her. Each wavelength of sound crashes into her like a turbulent sea.

She blinks away tears as tendrils of darkness spool from her body. Images flash through them like forms gathering just inside a murky bank of mist, but they pass too quickly for her to understand their meaning. If this is the darkness of her former life breathed into existence, Estrid suspects they are memories. But they are whisked away before she can catch them, like mist in the brume.

The tendrils move slowly at first, then accelerate like a rushing current, ripping out of her body like a fractured soul. She falls to her knees, screaming in anguish as she feels her entire existence cleaving into separate fragments. Jagged pieces of a puzzle that will never fit together. She is broken.

Estrid blinks back hot tears to find a creature before her, its size and ferocity tethering her in place. Never has another legionary produced so large a creature, so well-defined in shape and… rage. She recognizes it as a manticore: a pacing lion—taller than the bell, taller than the primus or any other defender—with a spiked poisonous tail and curling, leathery wings that buffet the courtyard with their own wind. Not only darkness and shadow bind its form like the other creatures, but also fire, smoke, and ash streak through it like veins.

The gasps of the legionaries behind her echo her own fears, despite being too stunned to voice them. Even Lysis looks on with surprise, her ever-calculating eyes wide. Estrid cannot move, not even when the manticore rears his maned head to release a terrifying roar that trembles the ground beneath them. It fixes its gaze on her with amber, hate-filled eyes. Staring into them leaves Estrid too paralyzed to raise her spear in defense. Her breath catches in her chest. The spiked tail flicks an agitated warning. There is no escape.

A blade slices a diagonal path across the creature. Its high-pitched shrieks fade, and suddenly light shines on the courtyard once more. As the smoke parts, Estrid discovers Anatolius standing there as her savior, his unchanging face set in unmistakable grim lines.

Lysis’s sharp voice pierces the ensuing confused silence. “The cleansing ritual is over. We will reconvene at sundown to announce all who have ascended.”

The primus throws a dagger-like glance at Estrid, still huddled on the ground, before suddenly taking off into the air, her powerful wings beating in incensed strokes. The legionaries quickly clear the courtyard, disappearing either into the stronghold or to the training grounds on the other side.

Only Estrid and Anatolius remain. She scrambles to her feet, her gaze to the ground. “I’m sorry for failing you,” she mutters miserably.

She waits for his customary reassurance; after all, this is not the first time she has failed a cleansing. She has even succeeded in a few of them. However, a truly successful cleansing completely purges all the darkness from one’s soul. In that case, nothing would appear as she rings the bell.

Still, this is the first time a manticore has appeared. Anatolius remains silent, studying the ground for some time.

Eventually, he volunteers, “You are capable of overcoming this, but this darkness in you grows. You allow it.”

She frowns, taking offense. “I do not.”

“Self-doubt plagues you. You think each failure confirms this insecurity, bolstering the shadows in your heart. You should realize King Numen would not have chosen you if you were unworthy.”

“Is my worth really in question here? What happens if I cannot pass the cleansing?”

He flinches, as if this is the worst question she could ask him.

Reluctantly, he holds out a hand. “I will show you.”

They take off in the furious beating of his wings. He keeps an arm secured around her waist as he carries her through the Never World. Her eyes scan the plane of death with renewed interest. She never realized the Stronghold of Glory sits on a floating island of its own, with waters from the River of Memories flowing around it, seemingly of their own accord, sometimes barreling to the bottomless depths below. She sees the Timeless Palace nearby, the abode of King Numen, a glistening spire against the bleak, stormy landscape.

But Anatolius does not take her there, nor to the Fertile Fields, the Forest of Visions, or Mount Inspiration. Instead, he plunges down into the endless blackness. Into the Abyss, she realizes.

Darkness swallows them with a greedy gulp. She can only see the light from above, fast disappearing, and nothing else. The rushing waters of the river crash around them with a hollow echo, but she cannot see where the water touches. She does not know how long they fly into this pit, but after some time, new light greets her eyes as the rotten odor of sulfur assaults her nose.

Estrid knows very little of this place. Only certain pneuma are selected to atone for their deeds in life within the Abyss; a much different sort of cleansing. The rest of it—the guardians who run the Abyss or what happens to the atoned souls—remains shrouded in mystery.

The light searing her eyes is red like churning magma, revealed by countless fissures in what looks like porous volcanic stone. Anatolius sets her down carefully, and she can tell from his tense shoulders he does not like to be here. The air is thin and seems to hum with a primal war beat of a leather-skinned drum. It thrums through her veins, urging her with impatience. Leave. Leave. Leave.

At first, she does not see anyone. Then, in a curl of purple steam, someone appears before them. He does not look like a pneuma, at least not like one she has ever seen before. He is tall, like the primus, his skin watery-pale and thin enough to show black veins streaking across his gaunt face. She wonders if he is a guardian or an aspect, immortal souls bound to the Never World, rather than a mortal who had passed away.

Anatolius introduces him, “This is Nikome, a guardian of the Abyss.”

Estrid does not miss the shadows flickering across her mentor’s face. She thinks she sees him grimacing when he turns to Nikome to say, “Show us one of the cleansed.”

Nikome clasps his bony fingers together eagerly. “A lesson, or a warning? You’ve come just in time.” His voice is raspy from disuse but strangely giddy. When he grins, his cracked lips reveal rows of gray, rotten teeth. “This isn’t like your cleansing, little legionary. The Abyss is a place of atonement. If you cannot cleanse your own darkness, we cleave it from you in a most painful process.”

He turns to gesture behind him and an altar appears. Two pillars of the same black stone tether a prisoner between them with chains. Estrid does not see the prisoner’s face, only a curtain of midnight hair concealing it. His hands are slack at the shackles stringing up his arms. Limp and almost lifeless, he is on his gray knees, scraped raw and white from unforgiving rock. Pity sears through her chest for this soul.

Her voice shakes. “Is he… a legionary who did not pass his cleansing?”

Nikome cackles. “She trembles, and yet she does not know. Has not yet seen—”

Anatolius speaks over him. “No. He was never deemed worthy of initiation. King Numen saw the darkness in him was too much.”

Nikome’s rasp lowers. “You shall see.”

Estrid watches the scene before her with growing horror as Anatolius explains. “There is no room for darkness in the Never World, but every soul ferries some over with them here. It is natural, expected. Defenders are strong enough to purge it ourselves. The tenders sweat and toil it away. The dreamers sing or sleep it away. It is how pneuma achieve peace. Some reach inspiration. But there are those who cannot control it, who have too much, who led a life full of darkness that cannot be forgotten… or forgiven. They become the cleansed.

“And sometimes… King Numen never makes a wrong choice. But sometimes, the pneuma chooses wrong and are relocated here, to the Abyss.”

The pillars glow, first red, then yellow, and then the brightest white, brighter than any light Estrid has ever seen from Mount Inspiration. Heat shimmers in the air around them as the glowing fire travels from pillar to rock to chain, and finally the pneuma.

“What are you doing?” she gasps.

Nikome answers, cold and deadly. “Burning the darkness from him.”

The prisoner throws his head back to release a pained roar that shatters the air. Estrid wants to cover her ears, to shield herself from his agony—but as before, she is paralyzed. A layer of black ash spreads across his skin, from hands to chest and neck, then lower and higher. His screams carry every note of sadness, grief, and rage ever to plague his mortal life. Spools of darkness stream to the pillar, releasing at the top like an explosion of billowing smoke, carrying the stench of burnt flesh.

Finally, it is over. The heat recedes at Nikome’s command. The ash crumbles away to reveal charred flesh. The man’s midnight hair is no more, burned from his scalp during the cleansing, allowing Estrid a glimpse of his face.

A sharp breath pierces her throat with ice.

That face—scarred and scabbed and bloodied, even hairless—she remembers it.

It follows her everywhere. Death and undeath. A blessing and a curse.

Two fellow knights share a single bedroll in a smoky, frozen camp the eve before a tumultuous battle. The air thrums with expectation, sleeplessness, and doom. Not them. They reach for each other in comfort, in warmth. Exchange smiles.

Then in sunlight, his face is wide with terror as he reaches futilely for her. Thralls restrain him as the Necromancer King faces her, a willing sacrifice to save everyone else. Her life in exchange for his. What makes her so special?

Estrid stares at her own face. The Necromancer King wants her for some unbidden power. She casts a final glance at her restrained companion, who struggles even more—frantic, uselessly frantic. Seeing his face is a final, sweet gift, her last in this life.

The King’s athame pierces her belly with a wet sound, releasing dark rivulets of blood that spray against her and the King. The screech of the mountain wind carries her lover’s voice.

The cursed blade claims her. Undeath waits, permanently painting her face frosty white, her hair silver. Years later, her lover discovers her locked in a forbidden tower, wired to machines and experiments, each breath a labor of blood and torment.

He is different as well. His face is dark, grim, and gaunt. Hollow. He chokes out a cry, falling to his knees as she begs him with hardly a whisper to end her suffering.

“We will see each other again,” she promises, wan lips curling into a weak smile.

Another wet sound of a blade piercing flesh, this one of mercy and grief and love rather than cruelty, ambition, and vanity. He carries her prone body away from that blasphemous tower, trekking miles through the tundra to lower her in a place of rest. He wraps her in the bedroll they shared on their last night together. He bends over her, embracing her one last time before dragging the knife across his own neck.


A gasp of realization escapes her lips. She approaches the altar slowly, crouching near the pneuma. His eyes, glassy orbs, search her face. When he recognizes her, they clear like rain clouds to reveal the sun.

His voice is broken, barely a sound through the slices of scars that make up his lips. “Estrid.”

She drops to her knees, cradling his face, rough against her fingers. Despite his burns, he leans into her touch. The movement is inviting enough for her to embrace him, arms tightening around his neck. He does not recoil from her, falling against her frame as much as the chains will allow.

“I remember everything,” she whispers against his ear, a jagged shell of skin. “My love, please forgive me.”

Tears spill over her cheeks, landing on the burned flesh of his shoulder. A hiss of steam rises from the contact, revealing healed and unbroken skin in its wake. She marvels at the sight before pressing a gentle kiss to his neck.

This heals him too. His voice sounds stronger. “There is nothing to forgive.”

She grips him tighter.

“Estrid?” A new voice. An interloper. Anatolius.

Tears still falling, her eyes narrow at this intrusion. When his cautious footsteps pad against the rock behind her, closer and closer, she releases Casmir and stands. Suddenly, his chains are gone and the shadow of an old pain fills her belly: Betrayal.

She whirls on Anatolius and Nikome, and that warmth rips through the bleak air of the Abyss like an electric crackle. It pricks her throat. “How could you do this?” she demands in a hiss, the question a strangle in her tight throat.

Guilt flashes through Anatolius’s marble features, glowing under the red and orange light of the Abyss. He seems to understand her accusation, and his explanation is floundering. “This is the path, our path. We are either victorious or destroyed.”

Rehearsed words, hollow words, recited like a mantra for the desperate to cling to. A glance at Casmir’s huddled form reaffirms the truth she just learned. “No. This is no path of destiny or honor. No victory can be had this way. Not while Casmir burns here in the Abyss.”

Anatolius braves a step closer. “King Numen decides these things. They are not for us to understand.”

“You’re right. I don’t understand. Why am I training in the Stronghold when the best of us is here, abandoned to the whims of a torturer?”

Another step. Too brave. Too close. “Estrid, you were chosen for this, to be the best of us. A defender of the Never World.”

“I was chosen.” Her voice is warm and wrathful.

She understands the arrangement. The theft of memories. The imprisonment and torture of souls. Docile defenders deemed weak enough to bend. The Never World is not a place of peace. It is a machine to control, no different than the Necromancer King and his experiments of undeath.

The warmth rages into a fire, and two manticores of brimstone ignite on either side of Estrid. Their heads lower to the ground, preparing to lunge at her command. Angry snorts of breath mist before their maws.

“What have you done?” Anatolius gasps. He stumbles back. Nikome is gone.

A weapon appears in Estrid’s grasp, a spear of gold and stars. She brandishes it against Anatolius. “I know what this is.”

She slams the spear against the rock, drumming a war beat. A call. A summons to every other afflicted soul. The sound carries on a new, unbidden breeze, hammered out by feathery folds of night. Stretching wide and powerful. Estrid stands tall with wings of ebony, gripping the shining spear with white-knuckled rage.

Anatolius flinches at the sight of her.

Her eyes narrow in determination. “My eyes have opened. And to this I say: no more.”

Copyright 2022 Seluna Drake

Photo by Ricardo Cruz on Unsplash

Story notes

This happens when my rage at exploitative systems of power combines with my skills in speculative fiction. Estrid is a catalyst seeking to break the cogs of the oppressive machine, to branch out and make her own decisions. Her black wings symbolize the subversion of expectation rather than formalist views of morality. Even in death, her story is just beginning, and everyone has a role to play. These characters will return in future installments.

Seluna Drake

Seluna Drake (she/they) is a southern writer from the US, as well as a teacher, poet, and occasional artist. Her work primarily spans the speculative realm. She identifies as asexual/ace. She is also active on Twitter at @SelunaDrake.

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