Faust didn’t know where he was.
He knew he was here, because he could feel his own presence, but where ‘here’ was escaped him. He could not describe his surroundings, not because they were unfamiliar or outlandish but because they were simply indescribable. It was as if, as he stared at the space around him, the image slipped away the instant his brain had processed it. By the time he moved on to the next image, that was gone too, and the next and the next and the next, until he gave up trying to identify anything.
Faust had the sense that he was existing now. There was no future or past, only present. Could there be present without past or future?
Without time, he could not say how long he stood - was he standing? - stood there alone, until out of nowhere it appeared.
Faust drank in the sight of it, so welcoming after enduring nothing for no time at all. He reveled in observing each small detail, in attaching every adjective that he possibly could to what he saw before him.
Feet, humanoid, petite, five-toed, bare, clean. A skirt, crisp, white, ankle-length, clean, no, he had already said clean, spotless. Cloth drapes, one red, one blue, straight-edged, angular, patterned with inverted crosses. Silver hair, long and fine and almost translucent, and it looked so silky, oh, how he wanted to touch it, another sense stimulated. A deep blue eye and a burning red one, set inside a dark, smooth face, some would call it ageless.
It was only after he looked at all the pieces together that he realized. A Holy Woman. They jigsawed into the image of a Holy Woman, not any one in particular, not one that he knew, but unmistakably a Holy Woman.
Fear rose in him then, as he didn’t know what horrors this divine executioner had planned for him. As always, he smothered his fear in anger.
“Well?” he shouted, his voice falling harsh on his own ears. “I was wrong then, huh? There is a God after all, because here He is, right in front of me! And He has exciting plans for me, too, I’ll bet, Faust who bullied the other students, Faust who swore all the time, Faust who didn’t believe in Him! And that’s only scratching the surface of my sins, right? Well, guess what, guess what, all your grand plans are worthless, they mean nothing, because there isn’t anything else You can do to me! Nothing that hasn’t already been done! My parents beat me, starved me, shamed me, hated me, and You think You can add to that!? Well, of course You do, You’re God, You can do anything, except for answer my fucking prayers, apparently! You never helped me! Why didn’t You help me?” His voice broke on the second ‘help’, choked by the tears he held back, that he refused to allow into his eyes.
The being didn’t respond at first, its face emotionless, and Faust thought about turning his back and walking away, but he couldn’t seem to will himself to.
Finally, it spoke. “I am not the God you think I am.”
“Meaning what?” Faust sneered.
It seemed to come a bit closer, although its feet did not move. “I am not the God you worship, the God that created your river and your energies and your families.” It paused. “I am the one who listens to your prayers.”
“That doesn’t answer my question,” Faust growled through gritted teeth. “Why didn’t He help me? Why didn’t you?”
“Because I am not the God, I do not have that power.” Faust wanted to interrupt, to yell again, but it plowed on, and he found that no sound passed his lips. “That God has the power, but he has not intervened in anything in centuries. It became too tiring for Him, to listen to so many prayers, especially after the sects developed and split and He had so many more roles to play, so many different names to wear. So He created us to oversee the sects, to do His job in His stead. Each sect has its own overseer attached to it. I am Phada’s. And yet, despite entrusting us with such responsibility, He did not trust us to carry it out. We were created with less power than what He has. We cannot directly influence the heart and mind of an individual. We can only nudge.”
Now its expressionless face breaks. Faust had always been good at reading faces. Its regret was plainly written there for him.
“I heard every single one of your prayers,” and its voice is the same volume, yet it feels like a whisper. “I heard how you begged Him for help, but He had left you with only me, and I was naïve and foolish. The first time they punished you, I sent misfortune to them to dissuade them, to show them it was wrong. But they only kept doing it, so I punished them again and again, until I realized that their bitterness always found its way to you in the end. By then, you had stopped praying, and what little power I had in your house was even more diminished, and it was too late to correct my mistake.”
Faust found his voice, deep in his lungs, and reached for it, desperate to hurt this being, to make it feel the smallest fraction of what he did. “So it’s all my fault, then?” he asked accusingly, eyes narrowed. “So everything would have been better if I’d just been a good little boy and kept praying? For how long, for how long did I have to keep going before things got better?” His breaths came sharp and short, almost like wheezes as he waited for the being’s pathetic defense.
It only shook its head. “No. No, your fate was not your fault. The fault is mostly mine.
“I’m sorry, Faust.”
The being’s voice was heavy with emotion, not because of him but for him, and it was this that forced the tears up his throat and over his lashes despite his efforts to quell it. He let out a sob and fell to his knees on the ground that was not ground, and he cried. Not in the same restrained way that he had for as long as he could remember, but freely, loudly, unashamedly pitiful. He let the ugly screams tear themselves from his lungs, let the salty tears run down his face and come together under his chin, let the snot drip over his lip and into his mouth.
He cried for the things he had done; the animals he slaughtered and dissected and threw into the river, the torment of Mercy and Clara and all the others, especially Mercy, God how he had known how wrong the things he did to her were, the things he did for the sick twisted pleasure of it. He shuddered with disgust at the memory of the pole plunging into her flesh even as a little thrill of excitement ran through him, a faraway echo of that sadistic enjoyment.
He cried for the things that had been done to him, the beatings and the beratings and the starvings. He cried for the life that he knew he should have had, based on the few small moments snatched from that withheld life. His mother, cradling him in her arms as he wailed into her shoulder, ever so gently bandaging his scraped up knee, showering him in sweet assurances, treating him with that rare kiss on the cheek to ensure he believed them. His father, big hand draped over the back of Faust’s neck, not tight and angry like usual but warm and proud, as Faust haltingly stuttered his way through his scripture, reading aloud in an uncertain voice, coaxed carefully onward by his father's restrained praise, the grudging smile when he had reached the end.
He cried because now he knew that someone had cared, that whole awful time.
It felt like a detox, like the years of hurt and anger and poison that had festered within him were swept out by the tears and the screams.
When he was finally done, he wiped his face on his still-bloody sleeves and sat back in his heels, too worn out to stand. The being had moved closer again, its presence comforting like a warm blanket around his shoulders. He registered dully that perhaps this was what a hug felt like, because he knew what they were, of course, but he didn’t really know, not exactly.
“So what happens now?” he asks, his calm, even voice sounding alien. “Still some sort of punishment, I’m guessing.”
“That is the usual consequence of a life led like yours,” the spirit agreed. “But you died young. There is another option open to you. I can allow you to try again.”
Panic seized Faust’s body. “Please don’t send me back there,” he pleaded. “I would rather the punishment. Anything but that.”
“Of course I won’t send you back to that shithole,” it said, and it was equal parts shocking and comforting to hear a holy being curse. “You don’t deserve that. No, I can allow your spirit to shed its experiences and start anew, in another time and place.”
This was more than Faust had dared to hope for. “If you would… please,” he asked softly.
It tilted its head in a graceful nod. “It is done,” it said. “You will leave this place very soon, and retain no memory of it or your previous life.”
Already Faust’s mind was growing hazy, the disturbing details rubbed out like wrong answers on his tests, with their imprint still noticeable but no longer at the forefront.
“What happens to you?” he asked while he could still remember the bodies. “Now that I’ve… I’ve killed most everyone in Phada, what will you do without the believers to pray to you?”
“I suppose I’ll die.” The tranquility of the spirit’s answer surprised him.
“You aren’t afraid?”
“Are you?” And Faust realized that no, he wasn’t afraid, it was painless, to pass through this in-between world, whatever it truly was, memories and consciousness smoothed off gently, not like whittling with a knife but like sandpaper on wood.
“Thank you,” Faust says, and it seems too little to express the depth of his gratitude for a second chance, but he has nothing else to offer the spirit, and so he vows to himself not to waste it and he closes his eyes and he is gone.