“So, you don’t remember your name? And she doesn’t either?”
“Nope. Ain’t usually an issue, though – folk usually go by whatever distinguishing characteristic they arrive here with if they don’t got no name,”
“So what did you show up with?”
“Nothing but my uniform, couple memories and a service rifle,”
“Weird world you come from, people making sentient dolls fight with rifles. Wouldn’t something with more blunt force make more sense, to, y’know, shatter?”
That statement gave the commissar pause, tilting their head like they were pondering whether to say something or not. Regardless, shortly, it raised a gloved hand to point into the mist, past the fields of stagnant green to a mess of wood, dirt and stone… hovels, would be the best way to call them. At that time, the moon loomed above them – or this time, two of them. That would take a while to get used to.
“Right there. Folk call it Purgatory,” the Commissar spoke.
“… That’s a bit morbid, isn’t it?” I could only raise an eyebrow of concern in response.
“Eh. Rot here what feels like a few hundred years waiting and I’m sure you’ll have the same sense of humour as the First.”
“A few hundred?”
“… Well, best as anyone guesses. Could be centuries, millennia, millions of years – not much way of tracking the passage of time we’re used to, here, see,” it cocked it’s chin up towards the sky, and I couldn’t help but give a soft chuckle.
“So… What am I to do when we get in to Purgatory?”
“You mean… Oh fuck, the Big Empty took that much of your memory from you?”
“The… The Big Empty?”
The Commissar stopped in place, and I matched it – only to fidget under a long, uncomfortable stare. I couldn’t meet its eyes – or, well, lack of them. Finally, another voice broke the silence – harsh, low, but effeminate, a doll what looked like an athlete’s uniform with a compound bow slung across it’s back approaching us.
“Commie! Anyone promising this time?”
“If she gets over the culture shock, this one seems to have some spunk in them,” the Commissar responded.
“Spunk?” I almost choked in surprise.
That reaction got a cackling roar of laughter out of the archer, with the Commissar giving a short cough.
“Energy. You’ve got- look, don’t worry about it. You take Bangs here and head down the road ‘til you get to the square – got a big obelisk in the middle, can’t miss it,”
“Right. Obelisk. And then?”
“To the right, you’ll see a larger building made of stone. Head in there, Kaine will sort your questions out, set you on the right path, and you’ll figure what you want to do with your time here. And no matter what, don’t head through the big door until he’s-“
“Hah. Look, you say that, you’ll make ‘em more curious!” interrupted the chortling laughter of the bow-woman.
“As I was saying, don’t go through the door until you’ve got your questions answered. You don’t want to go alone, and not many people can come back once they’ve gone through.”
“As much as I hate agreeing with this stiff, he’s right,” the archer’s mask was constantly plastered in an unnerving grin, matching the cackling, upbeat attitude she seemed to have. “I’m Quinn. Lookin’ forward to workin’ with’cha.”
Before I could respond, Bangs, as the Commissar called her, started to walk forward in the directions given. Giving the pair a hasty nod, I scampered to catch up, looking around nervously and taking in the sights as we entered the ‘town’.
Huts and hovels in various states of rot and disarray, with dolls of various shapes and sizes milling around were the sights I was treated to. Most were made of porcelain, with various expressions carved into their heads, some with hair, some not, all with varying outfits and with implements, tools and weapons they clutched to like their life depended on it. Instinctively, I felt my hand squeeze my sabre in it’s holster a little closer to myself – and I understood why they did. The silence, however, was killing me – I still hadn’t heard Bangs say a word.
“Hey, um… Bangs,” I spoke in a reproachful tone – and she turned up to face me, brushing her hair out of her eyes. She was receptive, at least. “It’s, uh, nice to meet you. I’m Belisa. You just arrived like I did, right? You seem to be taking all this… well.”
She simply nodded. Okay, well, if that didn’t get a response.
“You seemed to get on with the Commissar, is… there any reason for that? Is it just because he’s like you?”
“You know… A doll,”
To that, she hummed thoughtfully, before shrugging those bleached bone-white shoulders. Cool. Okay, so, no answers from her either. Instead, I stopped the next person we passed – a doll with a mask in the shape of a fox, this time, more expressive, but with eyes just as empty and mouth as hollow as the rest.
“Uh… Hey. So, what’s up with all the dolls? Where are the humans?” I inquired.
In response, I got that same odd look that the Commissar had given me. And then a deep, booming chuckle, and a shake of the head.
“Oh, good one. Comedy’s good here – keep that up,” A pat on my shoulder, and he was off on his journey again. I furrowed my brow, before hustling to catch up with Bangs, who set off shortly after he did.
“That’s… weird. I didn’t think I was telling a joke,”
“You’re one too, you know,” the little voice beside me piped back up, and gave me pause.
“A doll. We’re here,”
And at the obelisk, we were. A huge obsidian-black square pillar extending in to the sky – etchings of all different languages set into it from the base, extending all the way up to the black abyss above, far beyond what I could see. I couldn’t really focus on it, though – what she said, and the fact that she was already off towards that stone building the Commissar mentioned.
“What do you mean I’m a doll? I have hair, I have skin, I breathe, I’m a human, not-“
Ignored, I watched her disappear in to the open archway – and I took a moment to look down at myself. Leather jeans, combat boots, t-shirt with the words “PENETRATOR” emblazoned on the front along with the silhouette of a foil along with my favourite navy-blue jacket. God, that’s an embarrassing shirt – why was I wearing it in public? Still – I checked my hands, lifted my shirt to check my skin. I was pale, sure, but my skin dimpled when I pushed on it, and it felt like skin. It must have been a joke.
A poor joke, and I quickly followed her in to protest – and lost that train of thought almost immediately when met with the towering doll sitting at a comically small desk in the centre of the room.
Despite his huge size, he was dressed in dark, scholarly seeming robes. He even wore glasses, held to his mask despite all logic. Bangs seemed even smaller when stood in front of him, and it took me a moment to collect myself before stepping forward to stand behind her.
“Two newcomers, huh? Who brought you in?”
“Um… A doll in what looked like Russian commissar’s uniform. He had a rifle, and he told me to look for someone called Kaine?”
“Ah, him. Yes, that is me. You called him a doll – how much do you remember?”
“Uh… That I’m dead, and that I’m called Belisa. And that I worked as a barista?”
“Hm. It took more than you than most, then. You don’t know why you’re here?”
“N-no…?” my voice wavered – his inquiries were quick and to the point, almost accusatory, and I didn’t really know how to react to them.
I could hear his fingers drumming on the table as he stared at me, nodding slowly, seemingly to himself.
“Then I’ll explain to you what we’ve all come to know. This one does not like to speak, seemingly, so it will serve to kill two birds with one stone,”
Our earth, across all of our time, is intertwined with the fate of many other worlds. Some, like our own – some, very different. Upon our deaths, the unsatisfied souls that have died too early are subjected to the call of another – and our fate has brought us to this one. This world calls out for a saviour, for someone to cast it free of the encroaching shadow that lays claim to more and more of it each passing day. And so, in this world, our souls are bound to dolls – what was important to us in life taking shape in our forms here, in the tools we wield, in the skills we have.
But that creeping dark – we call it the Big Empty. As we are brought into this world, we are exposed to the worst of the Big Empty, so that we know what we must defeat – and it claims from us our memories, our personhood. Some… Some do not make the transition – you may have seen empty shells where you awoke. Each of them has been subjected to too much of the Big Empty, and they are often little more than unthinking husks. At worst, they are driven mad by the Big Empty – and turn upon us. That is why we stay here and guide those who are new to this world, and make sure that those that did not manage to come over are put quickly to rest, so that they may pass on to the next world.
As to how we are to fight the Big Empty – what we know is fragmented. Through that big door you may have seen in the town center, is another fragment of this world, split from these plains that we inhabit. The door, once opened, will always lead to another place – and once you are through that door, your ability to return by your own volition will be difficult, as there is no guarantee that going back will lead you to the same place. Through each door, this world’s inhabitants roam – but they are corrupted by the Big Empty, beyond reasoning, beastly and feral. They are for whom we fight to free. It is not without risk – if you are hit by one corrupted by the Big Empty, you will have what little remains of yourself stolen away bit by bit, until you become one of them. So if you wish to remain, I do not blame you.
But we are brought here to be this world’s saviours. Our lives, stolen away from ourselves, are to be given meaning and redemption here.
After Kaine’s monologue, I stood there for a while, silent. He sat there patiently, with Bangs seeming to stare up at me as I took in his words.
“I’m not a doll, though. I’m human. I have skin, see?” I spoke past the lump in my throat, pointing at my hand. Kaine responded with a soft, pained ‘oh’, as he reached below his desk.
“Belisa, was it? The human mind, it is both cruel and kind – the things that it does for us to shield us from the realisations we least wish to see, a mercy. But to live here…” he shook his head as he spoke, and as I looked down, I noticed he was holding out a mirror to me.
“I’m not a doll, Kaine. I’m human,”
“We are simply vestiges of ourselves, Belisa. The remnants of the dead given form to do one last task, for the betterment of another world. See for yourself,”
I took his mirror, one hand trembling. The other touched my face – feeling the soft skin, the soft tears beading and rolling down my cheeks, splattering on to the stone floor. The soft locks of curly hair brown that cascaded down my shoulders, still damp. The soft bumps and scars from the acne I had when I was young. The soft fuzz on my upper lip.
“We all are,” came the soft voice beside me, with a gentle touch of a pale, ball-jointed hand to my own. “But we’re still dolls.”
I brought the mirror up, and looked down.
Yet all that stared back was two circular voids, and a sinister, permanent smile carved into a porcelain-white face.