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Rite of Passing

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They send him off to wash himself, in enough hot water for an entire dormitory of slaves. An attendant rubs his skin with scented oil and drapes him in a robe of soft, rich cloth. It is the cleanest and most physically comfortable he has ever been, and, with a small surge of hope, he wonders if perhaps attending the Scarran elite will not be an unpleasant experience after all. He very carefully tries not to think about the Stykera before him, dragged from his chambers a gibbering, drooling wreck and taken off to an uncertain but probably unpleasant fate. Stark will be stronger than that, surely. He has already crossed over many thousands of Baniks, and dozens of members of other species. A few Scarrans in his mind will not harm him.

They take him to the bedchamber of the one he is to attend. Stark doesn't even know his name or who he is, but clearly he is someone important. Someone who rates a private death ritual and the attendance of a Stykera slave.

It does not take a Stykera to tell that he is dying. The entire room reeks of death. The Scarran lies on his intricately-decorated bed-pallet, his hard skin clammy and green-tinged, his limbs twitching at random. Nerve poison, Stark thinks. Well, perhaps nerve poison. Perhaps the symptoms mean something else in Scarrans. He has never seen a Scarran die.

Those who have brought him here bow their heads respectfully and Stark, having been carefully taught, kneels before the dying man. The room fills with sound: not quite chanting, not quite speech, in that peculiar Scarran dialect the translator microbes so often fail to render. He wonders if it is a prayer. He had not thought Scarrans prayed. He wonders whether, once he has crossed this man over, he will be able to understand the words.

Claws dig into his shoulder, interrupting his thoughts. "Get up. Attend him."

Stark rises to his feet and moves to stand over the dying man. He is clearly in pain, and Stark thinks it cruel that he has not been brought in sooner to ease it. But it is hardly his place to say so. Instead, as he unbuckles his mask, he chants softly in his own language, a prayer and a blessing for the dying.

His hand is jolted from the buckle, his mask falling askew, as a heavy hand strikes him between the shoulders. "You will not disrespect the Minister with your filthy slave tongue! We've said the words over him. Do your duty!"

Stark nods, cringing a little. His concentration is broken, the state of inner harmony he requires to protect him from the dying as they pass through him is shattered, but he knows better than to hesitate. He strokes the Scarran's forehead gently and removes his mask.

He senses the Scarran's soul immediately, a complex tangle of pain and fear, so familiar in the dying. Less familiar is the hard, savage knot of rage, and for a moment Stark is startled into pulling back, withdrawing into himself in search of elusive focus and calm.

He does not get far. The Scarran's dying soul latches firmly onto his. Its time is near, and its will is strong. Stark is dimly aware of his body shaking. He takes a breath, and then another, drawing on meditations he was taught, incompletely, as a child. His own fear recedes -- not gone, but stored away in a private place to be released, at some cost, later -- and concentrates on his duty. He reaches out with compassion, with light, to soothe the fear and the pain. The rage... The rage is more difficult. It fights him, rejects him, until at last he leaves it be. Every soul knows what it must cling to, to take with it into the afterlife, and this one, it seems, must cling to rage.

So he accepts the anger, opens himself to it, lets it in... And that's all it takes. Bathed in Stark's light, the Scarran's body gasps and convulses once, and one by one the half-sensed threads that bind it to the burning spirit snap. Stark reaches out, gently, to soothe and guide, but his efforts are rejected with condescending disdain, and he finds that, rather than holding the spirit in his own gentle embrace, it has instead seized him. Its grip is painful, like claws on his shoulder. Slave. Convey me!

Stark has crossed over souls who regarded him as a sacred savior, souls who feared him as if he were Death itself, souls too bewildered to understand what was happening to them at all. He has never attended one who looked upon him simply as a tool.

Convey me!, it demands again, and because he is Stykera and it is his duty -- or perhaps because he is a slave and has no choice -- he obeys. Here, he says to it. Go! Rage is bubbling up in him, whether his own or the Scarran's he cannot tell. Perhaps it doesn't matter. He sends the soul along its destined path, not with a careful guiding hand and a word of reassurance, but with a savage shove. Go! His soul is screaming it now, and perhaps his mouth is, too. Go!

It departs, swirling away in a cloud of cold laughter and vengeful thoughts, to a destination hot and dark and full of welcoming anger.

The voice is gone, the soul, the life. The rage... remains.

Stark replaces his mask with trembling hands, scarcely noticing the wetness on his corporeal cheek. He slumps across the body, shaking. For a moment, he fears he will vomit on it, and then the others will punish him, and he will have to kill them, kill them or let them kill him, as the strong must kill the weak...

"It is done," one of them says, as if from a great distance. "Stand up, slave," says another.

He takes a deep breath, then another, and he straightens.

There is a ceremonial dagger at the Scarran's belt. He does not seize it, does not strike out. Meditation. Calm. I am Stykera. I am still me. Calm. He can do this. It will be all right in a moment. Calm.

The Scarran shoves Stark aside and draws the dagger, positioning it carefully over the corpse. There will be a ceremony, Stark knows. Ritual mutilation of the body. He has never seen it. He does not want to see it. He wants to go somewhere and be sick. He wants to kill these people and escape. He wants... He wants to be alone.

The Scarran pauses, dagger poised to thrust, and glances at Stark. "Take him out of here," he tells the others. "Let him recover. But keep him close." He looks down at the body again and smiles, a jagged Scarran smile. "Politics being what they are, he'll probably have much more work to do soon." The dagger falls.

Stark whimpers and howls as they lead him out. Three arns later, they come to bathe him again.