Time for another story! This one is actually one of my favorite. Perhaps not my absolute best writing, but one of my more clever ideas, I think. It’s a bit hard to pin down the genre it falls into, so I’m not gonna bother trying to do so. Following my usual themes, it covers the perspective of a spirit who has a rather unique job….
No One Considers the Spirits
By Jacen Aster
Sam grimaced internally, struggling to keep the pain of the sword impaling his gut off his face. The wound was apparently mortal, so he only had to hold on for a few moments before “his” body began dissolving and his essence was ejected back to the office. It took long minutes for his spirit form to recoalesce and he let out a shuddering breath once he had his ethereal body back the way it should be.
Adventurers were jerks.
Not that villains were any better.
Neither of them considered just where the controlling mind came from when they summoned doppelgangers of themselves or their enemies. Be it a villainous attempt to defeat the hero with emotionless mirrors or heroes duplicating themselves to solve an impossible puzzle, all of them unknowingly paid the Duplicate Emporium a tithe of raw magic to get an intelligent duplicate rather than a useless shell. Magic was the only currency that mattered here in the spirit world and the amount they could demand from mortals for any level of doppelganger, from the stupid versions run by new hires to the perfect mimics controlled by spirits with centuries of practice, made the Duplicate Emporium one of the best magic-mining corporations in the ethereal plane.
It paid pretty spectacularly at Sam’s level too, but there was a reason for that. Namely, the aforementioned fact that adventurers and villains alike were jerks. For every magical prodigy that summoned a duplicate to cut class, there were a dozen who summoned them straight into the worst sort of deadly conflict. The latter type usually summoned their constructs with the full intention of throwing them at their enemies to die in some grizzly manner.
Frankly, the job was miserable and disturbing. Sam was one of the best, called in for perfect duplications that demanded near-instant reading of a targets entire memory. He often had only the handful of seconds as a duplicate body was constructed to “master” all the skills and tactics that he would be expected to use against the original, or the original’s enemies. It had taken him nearly two centuries to get as good as he was, to be able to process all of that information and unhesitatingly apply it to a body that wasn’t his. So, Sam was one of the best, but that just meant that he’d been stabbed, shot, poisoned, harpooned, bludgeoned, tortured and otherwise killed in any number of ridiculous or creative ways across dozens of worlds and spanning all the ages of mice and men.
Worse, far worse in fact, was the lack of a filter on the memories. He didn’t just get the target’s relevant skills, but their entire life story. Just last week he’d seen a talented rookie carted off to the mental psychosis treatment department when he’d been upgraded from a Tier I to a Tier II position. The poor lad’s very first spirit summon at his new level had been to copy and kill an adventurer madly in love with a noble lady, and the adventurer had lost the fight. It happened all too often, and this time the rookie spirit had been compelled by the contract to kill what his new memories insisted was his dearest love. The poor rookie had apparently been promoted a bit too early and he hadn’t been able to separate the copied memories from his own. He’d broken down, gone catatonic as his mind looped over and over through “him” murdering “his” most cherished love.
Winston, Sam thought that had been the spirit’s name, would never work for the Emporium again. Not even if he recovered completely, which was honestly unlikely. Everyone knew the dangers of the job. Ethereal beings like spirits were far more effected by their own power of belief than merely mortal beings would ever be, and trauma like what Winston had fallen prey to could rarely be undone. But the Emporium would take anyone willing to sign the relevant waivers and the pay was truly awe inspiring, so there was a constant trickle of new astral entities to fuel the company’s bottom line.
Only a rare few made it to Sam’s level, and almost all of them were more than a little odd by the time they reached such elite status. Even Sam himself was no exception, having picked up entirely too many of his own quicks from particularly strong-willed spell targets. He looked over at the time and sighed. Lovely. He had his latest appointment with the spirit-shrinks in fifteen minutes. He’d had no idea that battle would take so long, and wasn’t looking forward to dealing with Matilda with a death so recently on his mind. At least it hadn’t been a bad one, as death’s go. He drifted up from his chair, ethereal form still experiencing entirely too many phantom pains from his recent loss to bother walking. Floating through the cubicle farm was considered rude but he just didn’t care enough at the moment, and people generally made allowances for the rare spirits that reached Tier V status.
Technically, he was entitled to an office rather than just another cube in the farm, but he personally didn’t see the point. There were few enough spirits covering Tier V summons that he was rarely in the office itself, and he found the rougher quality astral connections in the cubicles actually helped him separate his own reality from the duplicates and doppelgangers he played puppeteer for.
He drifted over the cubes rather than taking the proper paths, ignoring a few cross looks as he went. He waved to Harriet as he passed, she was the only other Tier V not currently deployed as far as he could see. He got a rude gesture in return. Apparently, she hadn’t yet forgiven him for the disaster of their last date. Oh well. He grimaced as he set down in front of Matilda’s door, not looking forward to any part of this, least of all entering her office. The door never opened, for privacy she claimed, so he was forced to shift his aching astral energies to a frequency that would let him push through. Normally that was no big deal, but with such a recent disincorporation by mortal sword strike…ow. Really, just ow.
He phased through the door and tried not to let the agony it had caused him show. All the Tier V’s new the rule with Matilda. Never let her see you bleed. Well, proverbially at least, most spirits didn’t bleed. The woman meant well, and was honestly insanely skilled at her job, but she didn’t understand the most important thing.
All the Tier V’s were willfully insane, and feared sanity above all other things.
It was an ugly truth, but a truth nonetheless. Oh, they were all extremely high-functioning psychopaths, or sociopaths, or really any number of other ‘paths, but that high-functioning didn’t change the fact that they were crazy and that the crazy was deliberate. There was no other way to reach the level they were at, let alone to sustain the job for the centuries required to get there. In order to handle the thousands upon thousands of lifetimes of memory, many of those lifetimes from species who lived for millennia themselves…. Well, the only way to deal with that, while remaining a mostly functional being, was to deliberately chose your type of insanity before the worse forms of it came for you by force.
All the Tier V’s understood this, and every single one of them carefully concealed it behind a collection of quirks. The last time Matilda had unknowingly repaired the sanity of one of the Tier V’s, an elder spirit named Sae-lin, the cured woman had gone suicidally out of control on her very next deployment. She’d willfully violated her summons contract, which meant certain death even for a spirit, and devastated the entire empire of the evil wizard who had summoned her. A last tragic act of defiance from a being who could not live with all she’d seen and done without the protective blanket of her insanity.
Poor Matilda didn’t know of course, didn’t understand what she’d done, that she had fixed Sae-lin. She’d taken it hard as a “failure,” but that was better than her knowing the truth, better for all of them and for her as well. Sam shook the memory off, leveling his gaze with the mind healer’s as she stood up from her own desk. He had to defend his insanity, for her sake as well as his. Well, at least she’d gotten stuck on one of his more obvious quirks.
“Are you alright Bartrum? Your essence looks a little thin.”
After all, his name wasn’t Sam.