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The Pink Ravyn

The Hearts They Steal

Chapter One

by Nikki Mahlia

The Year 6381 OI

The dark blue river crashed against the rocks beneath, a descent of silver and white rushing against the river’s banks. The cold was brisk and sudden, trapping with its waters, the many hidden gems a river could carry, from pebbles to nuggets of precious metal that only showed up when the river threw itself against the banks. If for a second the river stopped and went still, a glimmer of its gems would be seen lying on the bed, waiting for a new hand to pick it. 

However, the river was angry, the curtains of waters opening up to swallow anything that dared crossed its path, and what remained was spit out against the cliffs of the banks. On this side of the river, the soil was dark and rich, though weathered, with the roots of trees clinging to its edges, curling into the dirt. 

The waters’ fingers stretched toward the banks, scaling its sides as it climbed higher, threatening to take whatever clung to the sides. Across from the river, a sanya’s body floated in the waves, shreds of cloth covering most of his skin. It seemed obvious that the river had dealt a harsh hand to the sanya. His body was twisted like mangled branches of an old, withered oak tree, sheets of blood glistening against his brown skin. 

He wasn’t dead. Not yet. 

Within minutes, the river pulled him under, only to spit him out again, and his chest caved, taking in a breath, before sputtering water from his lungs. 

Yugi pulled closer to the river’s edge, the soles of his shoes firm even against the slippery film that covered the rocks. 

Embers twisted around the sanya as he choked each breath; his eyes weakened. 

Time stood still, watching in the darkness as death lurked close by. 

Death always hid somewhere in the frayed edges of life, when a soul was worn and old, hanging to its body by nothing but a string of breath. Death lurked within the DNA of every creature, and it waited for its moment to slip into the open air, to steal that last breath, to claim a life. 
Yugi had learned to identify death by its smell: a sweet mixture of honey and mint. If the air was still enough, or if the wind blew a certain way, Yugi could also smell the brandished metal that hid itself underneath layers of honey. It always reminded him of blood.

In this moment, he wanted to believe that this soul was stolen by the river, but he’d known better than to let his emotions tell him what was true. The river’s angered twists and fatal dance seemed to be the result of death’s presence, because earlier, before the body floated down into the streams, the river had glistened in a still and soothing calmness, the sun’s light bouncing against its waters. 

A bit of silver and violet flickered from the mortal’s weakening soul, and soon, he would be forced to succumb to his fate. Yugi was called—no, summoned—to be here as any Reaper would. 

He’d scratched off on his wall this morning the nineteenth soul he’d collected earlier today, two of which had been aingeals. 

Several of the deaths happened in the early morning hours, when the sun still lay behind purple ice-capped mountain ranges, waiting for its chance to showcase beams of red and orange lights. Once the day had broken and night came to its close, another death took place, the oily soul slipping through a velvet sheen, like scales against his fingers. It took everything in Yugi not to recoil; he was a Reaper and this was his job.

Now, while the sun was up, another empty soul waited in what was once a calm river, but as death neared the sanya, the river knew it wasn’t alone, and with panicked strides, it fought against the unwanted visitor, hoping for just a second that death would leave. 
But death stayed.

The mortal was now being yanked and pulled across the river, his skin tearing up against the determined waters as it tried to rid itself of the near-dead body. 

Yugi’s sẹda twisted to his fingertips, Nyoki willing and excited to collect a soul, but no matter what his sẹda felt, Yugi understood that death was never a happy god coming to offer peace. Death was a tune etched in the soul of every creature, and once it was the last days of that creature, the rune would suddenly burn to life, bringing with it a song hummed by wasps, not to ease the pain, but to torture the soul.

When the last of the sanya’s soul loosened from his body like broken threads, the cords of life untwined, and silver dust glittered the air, weaving its way through the breeze and droplets of river water. Nyoki stretched from Yugi’s fingertips like a scythe ready to reap, ready to cut the threads away from the body. With one quick snap, and a wince, the soul became undone, slithering toward Yugi like a snake free of a branch. With the last of his sẹda still active, Yugi allowed Nyoki to curl around the soul, compressing it into a tiny pearl that glittered in the palm of his hand.

For a few seconds, the soul looked like blue liquid, glowing against its glass encasing, trying to get out, but it soon settled into a dark gray, staining the glass with a putrid black. At last, the soul was at rest, a single pearl in his hand. 

He pulled the satin pouch from his coat pocket and dropped the pearl inside, along with the other pearls he’d collected earlier in the day. 

The twentieth pearl. 

Yugi shuddered, his shoulders tensing as a bitter breath escaped his lips. The pearls’ colors dictated how the person died. A pure white pearl indicated that the creature had died at peace, sleeping away the last of its breath. A hazy gray meant that the elements of nature had stolen the breath, perhaps a harrowing sickness or a failed limb, a drowning or a fire. But black meant that blood had been spilled—that murder had taken place. 

It took Yugi eons to understand that not all pearls were worth the same. He would take this satin pouch to the well, north of the Kalér Mountains, and the Keepers would count and sort the pearls. High Reapers would sit around a wooden table and extract the memories of each soul, sorting them in a book, before the rest of the soul, now unconscious, would sit in a pool as currency. 

Death did not bring the sort of afterlife that most believed, though Yugi came to understand that in the past, the Ancient Gods once took the memories and spun them into fine threads, the cloth pinned against a wall as a tapestry. This cloth was meant to be kept in the Xsekki Temple, guarded by the Stone Keepers, whose only duty was to ensure that nothing, not even a single thread, was lost from the tapestry, for the legend goes that the isāti would take the tapestry at the end of time and examine each memory captured, then determine which memory would then be gifted another chance at life. If selected, the isāti would extract from it the DNA that shaped the creature, and then he would fashion a host, just like the creature’s former self, and embed its memory within, bringing the creature to life once again. 

Yugi wasn’t sure if such a thing would happen, if such a legend was even true. But he knew one thing: that the tapestry had burned down Dynasties ago, and the first memories of Xhian had long disappeared into endless darkness, those earlier souls lost. 

Now, the Reapers simply collected the pearls, and the memories were recorded in books. No longer was there a tapestry, nor were there talks of resurrections of souls that once breathed. Even if resurrection could happen, even if Yugi was led to believe that the Asayli could restore life, he knew that it was difficult. So difficult in fact, using the spell was outlawed, and the rune was burned and forgotten. Only if a creature was at the brink of death, and an Asaylin was nearby was there to see the breath leave, then could the Asaylin return the breath to that host. The Asayli were the Life Givers, but for so long They were gone, no one ever died in Their presence, and They didn’t grace anyone with the gift of resurrection.

There was no second chance at life, no tapestry, no resurrection. Death was the end. 

The satin burned in Yugi’s grip, a tear threatening to fall from his eyes. 

Why did creatures have to die? 

No matter how many times he asked the question, or who he asked the question to, the answer remained a void space in the aether of the realms. There was no reason given that satisfied Yugi, no god who could answer. 

His stomach emptied at the thought of knowing that one day, a Reaper would come to collect his soul. As a Reaper, he always understood that he would outlive other celestials, but he also understood that even the Ancient Gods had an end to their life, and so did he. The only beings that had true immortality were the Asayli because They were not made. They were the Creators of time and life; Iyùn spun itself into three timeless beings, who were unaffected by either life or death. Yet … Yugi understood that They could create immortals, and in some distant history, They once did, though now, as to where those immortals were, Yugi didn’t know. 

Perhaps Luce was right: in some odd way, Yugi understood why Luce had been adamant to overthrow the Asayli. If the Asayli truly were the Creators of all life, and They could gift any creature They chose with immortality, then why was there death? Why did They craft such a horrid and painful rune. Why did They insist that all creatures have an end? 

Why was there pain and suffering? Why did They let it happen if They could stop it? 

A glimmer of light pierced through the canopy of trees, and Yugi then noticed that the river was still, glistening in the light like aquamarine stones. Beyond the banks, a figure stood, covered in a black cloak that hid the figure in darkness. Rays of light twisted about the figure, an odd fashion of gold and blue. The wind howled in the distance; Yugi squeezed his eyes shut, then opened it. 

The figure was gone.

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