From the middle of a quiet forest in the Dzalion province of Avet rises a three story redbrick house run and populated by children, where citizens pilgrimage for the recalibration of their souls.
Four villages surround the forest perimeter. Sprawling, dirty villages with the kind of people it is unpleasant to talk with. If you ask them how they are doing they will reply suspiciously, “Why do you want to know?” If you mention the beautiful weather they will tell you it was better yesterday. If you compliment them they will insist the object of your praise is in fact a blemish, or that it comes with a secret curse. These people sit in the sun all day slurping flat beer and chewing unsalted peanuts. They scowl at the pilgrims who pass through their towns and try to discourage anyone from entering the forest.
“Those children are under a witch’s spell,” the villagers say. “And they are fat.”
“Don’t believe the rumors,” they say. “No one is there to help. They mean to eat your soul.”
But the villagers never speak with conviction, and if you offer any resistance they simply shrug and bid you suit yourself.
What does it mean to recalibrate a soul? The biological structures of the phantoms of Avet resemble the rings of trees. Each new day adds a new phantom-thin layer to the phantom soul–accumulated from the detritus of a day’s events, challenges, emotions, decisions, insights and mistakes. Usually, these layers are evenly spaced (you can estimate a phantom’s general age by their size) and the past abides tranquilly beneath the present. But on certain troubling days, in which bad decisions leave lingering regrets, where circumstances remain unresolved or apprehensions unfulfilled, where self-doubts find no ease or reparation, these layers will thicken and harden and heap upon the soul-body-age disproportionate to the phantom’s years. The worst will vibrate restlessly below the surface, sending ripples of anxiety from the past, through the present, and into the future. When the pressures become too great, when the age of the body no longer accurately reflects the age of the soul, a phantom may attempt to seek out shamanic adjustment to shed unresolved time.
Which is where the house in the woods comes in.
Upon arrival, the children of the house will bring you to a stone well in the middle of a garden clearing. While bathing therein they begin the process of surgically loosening the grip which troubled layers lord over their adjacent layers. Sometimes the result is the revival of a memory, other times memories are amputated. Most of the time the memory is corrected to reflect a broader perspective and replace the distorted version of what the patient believed about themselves, their past, and their world.
During the process all children not directly engaged in expurgation will chant, light small fires, and walk on their hands.
Ideally, most of the oversized layers will find peace and return to a mean diameter. Vibrating layers are encouraged to chill the fuck out. However, some layers are beyond repair. Once the ceremony is complete, the patient must wander randomly through the forest until the irreparable layers are shed. Corrupt layers will slip off the body, either to sink into the ground or scuttle up the side of a tree. These are rarely missed. What cannot be corrected must be cleaved, as the children often chant.
But should a patient contain an excess (or, ghosts forbid, a majority) of septic layers, the consequence will be greater than the occasional dead tree or fallow patch of earth. Such extreme examples rarely return to their old lives. Many remain lost in the forest, shedding for months or years. This purgatorial state is typically viewed as the worst that can happen to a patient, but new data supports a more sinister claim. Though it seems these lost souls do in fact find a sort of liberation (it is now known that their remaining unshed layers will return to the house of healing, no longer recognizable, but now in the form of a child to dedicate its life to healing others), what becomes of the lost and tumultuous layers they leave behind remains unclear. My own exploration of this region has drawn my attention back to those outlying villages surrounding the forest, and the air of mystery surrounding them. When and how did these villages first arise? No one can say. How do they relate to the major social network of Avet? There seems little connection–no history of migration, no postal routes, no vacations to visit friends or relatives in any of the major cities. Who are these people? And why do their villages seem to grow at a rate proportional to the influx of terminal pilgrims who enter the forest and remain?
I will not attempt to speculate beyond what can be inferred from the questions themselves. For even devils need their rest, and poison in the well is preferable to poison in the river. Perhaps I will regret my complacence in another thousand years as villages become cities and cities increase in heat and agitation. Should the hypothetical personification of exercised trauma ever cast their hungry gaze toward the resources of Avet’s heartland, perhaps I will be condemned for not raising a more clamorous alarm. But even if I could be certain, what can one poor writer really do?