Chapter Twelve: Emptiness
Content warnings for this chapter:
The majority of this chapter is an explicit, detailed narration of an experience of depression, including anhedonia, dissociation, negative self-talk, and being coerced into obeying authority. From my personal experience with depression, I know that it's sometimes valuable to avoid exposure to content like this. Thus, I've prepared a summary of this chapter, with only short factual descriptions of the depressed feelings, so that you can read the summary instead of the chapter if needed. Skipping this chapter and reading the summary instead is an officially supported way of reading Ravelling Wrath.
This isn't the only chapter which contains details of depression, but it's the most severe one. I don't have summaries for the others, because they're less self-contained (they have occasional details of depression mixed in with other important details that are harder to summarize).
If you see other material that should be marked (such as common triggers or phobias), e-mail me. I am serious about web accessibility, and I will respond to your concerns as soon as I can manage.(hide content warnings)
It slammed into place. The pattern. The bright, uncompromising pattern of the Stern.
I was crushed between iron walls. Chains locked themselves around my bones and jerked me into place, forcing my body into immobility. Calipers closed over me from every side, measuring the boundaries of my soul, diagnosing weaknesses in places I could never have even understood how to measure. Bars slid and rotated into position, clamping me into a different shape, packing me like a sack of clay into a mold.
I held on tight, struggling to keep my original shape.
Wrong, came the overwhelming force of the god. Every part of me that didn’t conform to the pattern was wrong. If it would not fit easily, then I should force it into place. And if it couldn’t be squeezed into place, then I should rip it off myself.
I twisted and fought, trying to get out. But when I pulled my arm against the chains, it burned with pain and rejection. This arm is betraying me. It is not a true part of me. I should rip it off.
No, you’re wrong, I tried to think. But my will was already cracking from the strain. Wedges drove themselves into my mind, turning me against myself. A thousand spikes were forced into my body, stretching me out like cloth over a frame. Brutal sigils burned all over my flesh, symbols of law and judgment. I was being labeled, diagnosed of my principal impurities and failings. Other marks summarized my lesser impurities for later review. Scarcely a pore of my skin was left untouched.
And then, when I had been burned and carved, I was peeled from the frame and set down to cool, left in a mangled form that was sacred to no one. Little more could be expected, for a first pass on a soul so resistant to purification.
The presence receded, leaving me wobbling in a more physical space, trying to pull my mind back together.
The Stern God’s world awaited me.
My body crumpled onto the floor.
Everything felt heavy. I had been dumped on a hard stone floor, surrounded by square walls of white marble. Above me, a dim orange glow filtered through a sky dark with clouds. My shoulders were in pain from the hard floor, but I couldn’t bring myself to get up.
What was even the point? If I got up, I was just going to have to go look for Yali. Again. How many weeks had I spent grinding through the Seeking God’s puzzles, for only minutes of her? And now I was in the world of the Stern. It would probably make me break my back and never give me what I wanted at all. Why did the gods have to put me through this? I felt like a defeated, burned-out shell. I was never going to be with Yali again.
And even if I found her, what good would it do? She would just be taken away from me again. And again, and again, until the day I died. And then they would all walk over me. They would all walk over me. Everything I’d ever tried to be, everything I’d ever tried to accomplish, would be trodden into the floor, would be…
Did that… make any sense? I tried to shake my head clear. Was it the Blood God? Right, I was supposed to watch out for the Blood God “trying something” in this layer… it was supposed to be mad that I hadn’t killed Yali… but these thoughts had a completely different feeling. But if they weren’t my thoughts, the Blood God was the only other option… I tried to listen for the Blood God’s will, the way I had learned in the last layer. But there was only gloom. Emptiness. A hole inside of me.
I ought to get up, I thought. My back was killing me. I really ought to get up. But somehow, it just didn’t happen. I couldn’t summon up the motivation to move.
What had happened to me?
I had never felt like this before. Up to this point, the Ravelling had been… not always fun… but I had basically felt the way I would normally feel about all of it. But this… I had never felt like this before in my life. Listlessly, just to try it, I lifted up a hand and made a fist. It didn’t even feel like my hand. The fist didn’t feel kickass. It was just… a hand that happened to be connected to my arm.
I dropped my arm down to the floor again. If I didn’t get to feel anything, what was the point of even getting up? Even the rhythm of my heart only felt like a distant echo.
I don’t know how long I lay there. The moments stretched out into a trickle of agonizing time.
And then… it appeared.
It was a burning haze pressing in on every side of my mind. An iron pillar jamming into my soul, trying to force me up. A spear of anxiety and guilt, a driving need to do what I must. I MUST get up. I MUST get up. I MUST.
I didn’t have to guess what this was. It was the Stern God.
Why was the Stern God allowed in my head? I didn’t have the energy to question it. I had to get up. I ripped my tiredness aside. I yanked myself to my feet like a puppet. My muscles burned with the pain of being used before they were ready. They still weren’t ready. I forced them to do the next thing anyway.
I must perform the preparations, I thought. I stumbled to the center of the room. In front of me, there was a pedestal with a uniform neatly folded on top of it. I was to put on the uniform before continuing. Across from me, two grim-faced, white marble statues blocked the doorway with their spears, waiting for me to obey. They wouldn’t let me pass until I was wearing the uniform. I didn’t know how I knew that. I didn’t care enough to think about it more.
I held up the uniform shirt in my hands. It was made of heavy, stiff cloth, all white except for a narrow red border. And on the back of the shirt, in the same red as the border, there was a simple version of the Burning Heart symbol, as if to label me.
Mechanically, I stripped off my clothing and changed into the uniform. It was ill fitting, and the stiff cloth chafed at my skin. The uniform shoes were hard and black, and made a sharp sound each time I took a step. It was hard not to stand up straight while wearing them. I felt like a soldier forced to march in a ceremonial parade.
I looked down at my old clothing, sitting limply in a heap, looking tiny in the big white room. Belatedly, I realized that I could have just unmanifested it rather than taking it off normally. Just like me, always missing the obvious and getting fucked over.
Where had that thought come from? I didn’t remember having a problem with missing the obvious. Ugh, I couldn’t stand this place.
I bent over to grab my phone from my old clothes. Once I was holding it, I realized that my uniform had no pockets. I felt stupid. I tried to manifest a pocket onto the uniform, but only ran up against the coldness of the Stern God’s will. So I carried the phone in my hand.
I approached the statues at the room’s exit. They blocked me dismissively. That is not to come with you, they seemed to be saying.
I didn’t want to leave my phone behind. It was the last real object I still had with me. Even before I had changed into the uniform, all my clothes had been replaced with manifested versions long ago. But I just wanted to get this over with. Feeling empty, I set my phone down with the rest of my things and stepped away from it.
I presented myself before the statues again. They seemed to acknowledge my presence. An iron demand radiated from them. It had no words, but I could feel it in my head, my heart, my bones. It felt like this: Bow down.
Normally, I would have fought against it. But now, I didn’t even care anymore. Joke’s on you, Stern God. You can’t humble me when I don’t give a shit in the first place.
I bowed. The statues stood aside with approval.
I stumbled forward, in the Stern uniform, down the Stern corridor, leaving everything behind me.
The hard shoes pinched my feet as I walked. The corridor seemed endless. Straight rows of rigid stone blocks formed the walls and floor. More pairs of statues flanked the corridor, watching my every move. They didn’t move to stop me, but I was never out of their sight.
Despite the rigid walls everywhere, there was no ceiling. Every room and corridor was open to the sky. Dark clouds loomed ominously above. A low-angled glow of light hinted at wide-open spaces just out of reach. From time to time, I glanced up at the walls resentfully. Why couldn’t I just climb up one of the walls and then take a shortcut across the top? But that was forbidden. I had to stay on my own path. I lowered my head again and kept walking. Wait, what the fuck? I was supposed to be Rinn Akatura. Since when did I ever not do something because it was forbidden? Struggling to hold on to my own thoughts, I manifested a ladder and set it against the wall.
I took one step up the ladder, then another. Why was I climbing this way? It wouldn’t work anyway. No, it was trying to make me forget! Stubbornly, I held on and kept climbing. Each step was harder than the last. Gravity weighed me down. I felt like my arms and legs were made of lead. With an earth-shattering effort, I forced my head almost up to the top of the wall. Just one more step, and I’d be able to see over the edge.
Terrible gravity slammed me down, breaking my ladder to splinters and crushing my body against the marble floor. I was face down, my jaw twisted to the side and my bones grinding against the rock, defying all my efforts to lift them. And moments after the pain began, my stomach churned with the horrible realization of how badly I had failed. A wave of guilt and anxiety threatened to drown me. I had done wrong, wrong, WRONG. And now I was being punished. I could not hide from the Stern.
In the mire of guilt, I stopped struggling and just lay there. The sides of my elbows pressed hard into the floor, but I just left them there. There was no point in fighting back. I’d only lose anyway. I waited and waited, wondering if the Stern would ever let me go.
Slowly, the gravity let me rise again. I dragged my leaden body to its feet, badly shaken. Could the Stern God just do that to me? I looked up at the wall where I had just fallen. At the thought of trying to climb again, I shuddered and shied away.
Defeated, I walked and walked. There were no forks in the corridor, only a long, straight hallway. After a while, it ended in another door, also flanked by the same grim statues. It had been so far to walk, for so much the same. I stumbled towards them. As I came before them, my body was burdened down with an overpowering demand to go down on my knees. I sank to the floor. The statues approved. They allowed me to pass them, crawling on hands and knees.
Two rows of statues stood over me as I crawled, as if I was being forced to humiliate myself in front of a crowd. I didn’t even want to look up at them. I just kept my eyes to the floor and crawled along without thinking about it.
The first time one of them poked me, I almost didn’t notice. My mind was too dulled to react to it. But as I went on, more and more jabs hit my ribs, from the statues’ feet, from the handles of their spears. Not hard enough to be painful, just hard enough to jolt me in my fatigue. The more it happened, the more I built up a grinding irritation, a dull rage that they would treat me so degradingly. But I didn’t do anything. A slow lethargy was draped over me, weighing down my urge to fight back. I just kept crawling.
Finally, even with the lethargy clouding my thoughts, something started to break through. My irritation built up and up, tipping over the edge, building up enough to just barely rouse me to action. “Are you fucking serious?” I mumbled, grabbing one of the spear handles before it could hit me. I hung in that position for a moment, unsure of what would happen. Then the guilt hollowed out my stomach again. How could I have done something so stupid, so ungrateful? The world moved around me. I felt myself sliding back, back past all the statues, all the way back to the first ones that made me kneel.
I was going to have to crawl past all of them, all over again.
What was the point of trying? I sank all the way down to the floor, lying face down on the hard stones again. I was never going to get through this. I wasn’t good enough. Tears welled up in my eyes, pouring uselessly onto the rock. I would never make it through this. She would go on without me. She, the, the, the Waiting God’s, what…
There was that word again – the Blood God’s word, if you could call it a word, for the Farseer. So the Blood God was still inside me, if only barely. Despondently, I held the word in my mind. It felt clearer now. I could feel that it was actually two separate ideas joined together. The first one was obvious. It meant the Waiting God. I could tell because the “word” had the same feeling as what I’d felt when the Waiting God was pulling me into the Otherworld. But the second…
“Lask… ueh,” I mumbled into the rock. It didn’t sound anything like it sounded in my head, but it was the best I could do. Was it the word for a Raveller? If the Farseer was Waiting God laskueh… I tried thinking of myself as Blood God laskueh, but from the part of me that was the Blood God, I felt a surge of frustration, distress at the idea that I would think of myself that way. I checked the others. Justicar was Stern God laskueh, but Morrow wasn’t Seeking God laskueh and Alchemist wasn’t Broken God laskueh – they just weren’t.
Thinking about the other Ravellers brought the things I had to do back into my mind. Crying into the floor wasn’t getting me anywhere. If I wanted to get to any of them, I would have to get past this corridor.
With a tremendous effort, I hauled myself up to my hands and knees again.
By the time I reached the first intersection, I had already fallen to pieces. Not physically, but as good as physically. I had been made to stand stiff and still for hours at a time waiting to be let through. I had been made to wash pieces of dirty cloth by hand and hang it up to dry, then do it all over again because I’d missed a spot. I had been made to repeat long statements, saying that I was unimportant, that I would do what was asked of me, that I would accept it when life did not give me everything I wanted. And every time I got impatient and said anything beyond what was prescribed – or even when I just yanked out the damp cloth with irritation – they made me redo the process all the way from the beginning.
I don’t know how I ever made it through. It just happened. My body stood straight-backed at the intersection, carrying the tatters of myself that I had dragged through the grind.
At the intersection, there was a pedestal with a map. Not a cool, magic map like the one from the Endless Maze. Just a diagram with bold straight lines defining the routes each Raveller must take, each marked with the symbol of their god. It seemed that I was standing on an intersection between the Blood Child’s Path and the Alchemist’s Path. Each path wove back and forth along the grid, crossing over the others. The four paths eventually met at the center, probably the location of the portal into the next layer. You’d get there much faster if you just zigzagged straight towards the center, switching between the paths, rather than following your own path the whole way back and forth across the whole grid.
Wait. Four paths…?
Justicar was missing. Ugh, this was the Stern God’s world, so it would probably let her do whatever she wanted. Wrong. The Justicar was required to walk along every path.
Whatever. That didn’t matter. What was I supposed to do again? Right, if I wanted to meet up with her, I should be looking at the Farseer’s Path. The closest way to cross over to it would be to take the Alchemist’s Path from where I was standing, then the Imminent’s Path from the next intersection. Unless the Farseer was making slower progress than I was, which would mean I should… never mind. Thinking was too much work. I just turned and walked towards the entrance to the Alchemist’s Path.
Naturally, there was a row of statues blocking it. They didn’t quite seem like the vigilant guardians I’d been seeing on the Blood Child’s Path. They were standing around in a disorderly pattern, not looking in my direction. And there were lots more of them, densely packed, like a crowd of people just jammed into a narrow space.
I stared at the statues, wondering how to approach them. I could feel the Stern God watching me with contempt. It had made sure I knew it was wrong to take a different Raveller’s path. But it was going to allow me to do this, and let the mark of my wrongdoing hang over me.
It didn’t really matter how many marks of wrongdoing were smeared onto me. I wasn’t going to live long enough to care.
Mechanically, I bowed to the statues. They didn’t react. Was it because I wasn’t the Alchemist? I tried kneeling, begging, everything I had done to get past the statues on the Blood Child’s Path, but nothing worked. I couldn’t even sense a demand from these statues. I listened for one, but they were silent. They didn’t even move to stop me. I tried to squeeze between them, but they were too tightly packed.
“What do you want me to do?!” I complained out loud. My voice didn’t sound like myself. It sounded like a normal person’s voice. The sound echoed uncomfortably around my mind. What had happened to me?
I was getting sick of this. Part of me wanted to yell out bitterly, ripping into this world for all its bullshit. Another part was desperately trying to silence the first part, insisting that the Stern God would punish me for my selfishness. But the second part was increasingly weak, unable to hold on to its insistence after so many hours of struggling. “Ugh, just get out of the way, you stupid statues,” I said dully.
The statues lifted their feet and shuffled out of the way, squeezing themselves against the walls.
“What the fuck,” I said.
I began trudging down the Alchemist’s Path. Every time I came to more statues, I ordered them aside. Any time I spoke decisively, they moved. Any time I begged or asked politely, they stayed in place. This was too easy. But I didn’t have the energy to question it.
Another eternity passed. The routine of the Alchemist’s Path became so ingrained I barely noticed what I was doing. So I was more than halfway across the next intersection before I realized I wasn’t just in the regular corridor anymore.
The next intersection had a map just like the first one. I leaned on its pedestal and stared at it. It was the same as before. I just had to take the Imminent’s Path next, like I’d planned. Then I’d be at the Farseer’s Path. If the Farseer hadn’t gotten that far yet, I could just go backwards along her path until I found her. If she had gotten that far… what would I do then? I couldn’t think of anything. I was just screwed. Well, it wasn’t worth worrying about. I was probably screwed already.
I didn’t see any statues on the Imminent’s Path. It was just one long, blank, white marble corridor. So I started walking down it without thinking twice. The moment I stepped on it, I heard a tapping sound behind me. I looked around, but I didn’t see anything there. So I kept walking. A few more steps along the path, I felt something brush the back of my neck. I whirled around, but again, there wasn’t anything there.
I looked back at where I was going. The intersection was around me. I was right at the beginning of the Imminent’s Path again.
So that was the challenge of this path. You had to suppress your curiosity about the things you heard and felt. Shit, Morrow was fucked. It was exactly the most impossible thing for him. The most impossible thing for an Imminent.
A slow, cold dawning of realization settled over me. Each of us was forced to sacrifice the thing most important to us. The Imminent had to sacrifice their curiosity. The Blood Child had to sacrifice their pride. The Alchemist had to… well, that was the path where you had to be decisive? That really was unlike Alchemist, yeah. Could you sacrifice indecisiveness?
So this was what would be done to us. The Stern Temple would rule over the world, erasing everything that made us who we were. And where my temple should be, an aching hole, starving so long as to forget the feeling of hunger. We had already lost. What was left to fight for? It was hopeless to struggle…
But I could not stop. I set off on the Imminent’s Path again.
The easiest way to handle the Imminent’s Path was just to let my senses go dull. Every time I felt something move behind me, I just let the feeling echo off of me without really listening to it. It all just passed over me meaninglessly.
Loud and sudden noises. Slow feelings of unease. Flickering, colored lights seeming to shine from behind. But none of it reached me. It wasn’t the real Seeking God, anyway. All these weak imitations just slid off of me and faded into the background. They blended into the hard and droning sounds of my feet as my body kept lurching forward.
The stark, square intersection arrived at last. The connection to the next place I needed to go.
It was the Farseer’s Path.
I looked to the left. I looked to the right. Left was backwards along the path. Backwards was the way I needed to go, I remembered saying. I dragged my feet that way.
It was just another blank hallway. A hallway with a trap you couldn’t see, with no choice but to walk in. I stepped into the hallway. I took the first few steps on instinct, waiting for something to happen. Nothing happened as I walked. But then I stopped to think, and as soon as I stopped, I was sucked back.
Was I not allowed to stop? That would be no surprise. That was exactly the kind of challenge the Stern would give to the Waiting. I tried again, walking in a straight line without stopping. I was sucked back again. I felt like I had gone in the wrong direction. I tried another angle, and it felt the same way. And another. Finally, I stopped even trying to understand it. I kept stumbling along, not even caring where I was putting my feet.
Time passed. I hadn’t been sent back. My feet fell in weird pattern, stepping left and right at random as I moved forward. I was going on instinct, but it was distorted. Maybe the Stern God was directing my footsteps. My thoughts wandered back a little, wondering what the pattern was, where it would go next –
I was back at the beginning again.
I didn’t even stop, I complained dully. But I was used to it by now. I just had to do what the Stern God wanted. I just had to not do… whatever I had just done that messed it up. I had…
I had thought about it.
The Farseer’s Path didn’t allow you to think about what came next.
That was fine. I didn’t want to think anyway. My thoughts were just making everything feel worse. So I tuned them out. I just trudged along, my mind turned to fuzz, a gray blur that didn’t mean anything. All I had were the clacking of my uniform shoes on the ground, tapping out someone else’s idea of where I should go.
In the corner of my eye, something was different. I struggled to lift my head.
How long had I been trudging? I had no way to guess. I was at another intersection now. Another…
Someone was there. She was standing right there. It didn’t feel real. But she was right there, as if she was waiting for me. And there was… another body there. The Alchemist.
Something wasn’t quite right. Something about how… when I saw her, I would run and hug her? I was supposed to love her? But that wasn’t actually happening. She was just… A person. Over there. Was I supposed to feel something?
My feet started walking toward them. This was what I was supposed to do, right?
“Are you ready?” the Farseer asked the Alchemist. “You remember what’s about to happen?”
“I, am, as ready as I’m going to be,” said the Alchemist. They were gripping a potion, tightly, in shaking hands. My eyes glanced over their face. There was terror there?
What were the two of them talking about? What was about to happen? Well, it didn’t matter. I thought of opening my mouth to greet them, but it was too much work. Dutifully, I stepped up to where they were standing. I stared at the Farseer. The Farseer stared back.
“Rinn, can you hear me?” she said.
I was probably supposed to answer that. But there was something else I was supposed to do, too, that was kind of more important, I just couldn’t remember. What was it…?
Oh, right, of course.
I made a blade and stuck it into her body.