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A long, long time ago, when gods and men still walked the earth together...

...souls were not quite as they are now. In those days, a soul was a huge living thing, so potent that the body it was in seemed almost an afterthought. Each person that was born had one complete soul - they lived their life, full of adventure and mystery, the stuff of legends, and when they grew old and were tired of life, they would lay down to dream of the cool waters of the river Styx, where all the dead cross. Dreaming thus, they would die, and the soul that gave them such a potent life would be bathed in the healing waters. Refreshed and rested, the soul would then be brought back to be placed in the body of a baby about to be born.

Souls are precious things, powerful things, and they were not treated lightly; ten demigods and demigoddesses, child gods, cast nets woven of moonbeams, babys' breath, whispers, and silver thread. They dip these nets into the Styx and with them, fish up each soul, drawing it out of the waters and placing it carefully in a basket lined with lamb's wool and peacock feathers. The baskets are gathered up by the Stiyon, a race of little imps who also spend their days beside the river Styx. Each basket is brought over vast distances to the Appointing, where the soul within is wrapped with flesh, given form, and sent out to be born.

Make no mistake, the Appointing is a grave task, as it is not only humans who have souls; every living creature, large or small, fierce or friendly, foolish or wise, has a soul. All of these souls are fished out by the child gods and carried by the Stiyon, brought to the Appointing, and there it is decided what a soul will become. A faithful hound who gave his life to save his master may be reborn as the son of some great wizard, a girl who always pulled her sister's hair and spit in her brother's tea might become a little newt, scampering in a swamp. At the Appointing the deeds of each life that soul has lived are read off, and it is based on those that the choice is made.

To aid in this sorting a Grand Machine had been built, back when the world was new. Cogs and gears, sprockets and whistles, springs and levers, switches and dials, chips and diodes, wires and pipes and chutes and drains and things that spun so fast you could barely see them, millions of parts were used to fashion the Grand Machine. It was an important machine: as each soul was brought to it, dropped into the dark mouth that waited, the machine would whirr and click and spin and pulse, fashioning the beginnings of the body it would wear. The soul passed through the Grand Machine, spent days and days inside learning the things it would need to know when born, the instincts that each creature and person have. Eventually the soul would arrive at the other end of the Grand Machine, clothed in the flesh it would need to grow with, shaped into the creature it would become, mind at peace. From there, it was only a few steps to reach the swirling waters of Lethe's pool; water from the river Styx, from geysers deep within the earth, from rainclouds that gather around the highest mountains, from tears shed, all of this water gathers in Lethe's pool and when a soul dives into that warm liquid, it is reborn.

Now, the gods are not much different from us. They have more power and knowledge, and some certainly have more wisdom and patience, but some do not, and instead have fiery tempers and quick tongues. It was the fault of one of those tongues and one of those tempers that Allana, the goddess who gathers the souls as the Stiyon bring them in and places each one within the Grand Machine, was so miserable on this particular day. She had long been dreaming as she worked, watching a particularly beautiful soul as it passed through each life, gradually coming to love it. This would have meant nothing, if her sigh of longing hadn't reached the ear of Loki, a trickster who instantly understood what it was Allana wanted... and, like many jesters, could not resist teasing her about it every time he saw her.

Poor Allana was miserable; she could never be with the soul she desired, could only hold it briefly as she passed it on to the next life, and Loki was constantly taunting her, not out of any real wish to hurt her but simply because it was his nature. Allana's frustrations grew day after day, each sunrise making her feel worse, each sunset marking an unpleasant day, until finally she could bear no more.

The next time the soul she so desired was brought to her by one of the Stiyon, she looked around... bit her lip, not even breathing, deciding...

...and tucked the soul into the folds of her gown, letting it rest against her skin, hidden, hers.

Do not think that such a thing could go unnoticed; the gods are attentive enough when it inconveniences someone, and Allana was indeed inconveninenced when Loki caught sight of her next. The trapped soul was pulsing warmly between her breasts, covered by layers of velvet and silk and her own folded arms, but even protected like that, the gleam of a soul is hard to stifle. Loki took one look at Allana and shook his head.

"Allana, not even the gods may keep a soul here when it wishes to move onward, you know that. Let go of what you carry, send it on, and I'll not speak of this to anyone," he murmured, wanting to save her the punishment he felt sure would befall her if her deed was known.

She shook her head as well, dark hair tossed wildly, the soul (which truth be told was rather fond of her as well) sparkling brightly, every inch of her determined to hold on to what she had. Loki took just one step toward her...

...and off she leapt like a startled deer, no thought in her mind, no plan, no cunning, simply desire and misery twining together to keep her running, running, running faster and faster...

...unfortunately, the Grand Machine was designed to withstand earthquakes, fires, flood, famine, thunder and lighting, rain and hail, snow and sleet, sandstorms and tornados, but not an over-emotional goddess running full-tilt into one of the most fragile and important bits of its' mechanism.





The Grand Machine whirred and clicked, spun and buzzed, tried desperately to keep working, even as it began to collapse. Beams dropped left and right, gears rolled everywhere, and if you were there you would have thought it was raining springs, with thousands of them bursting out of the Grand Machine every second. With the din of a hundred car crashes, a hundred boats run aground, and a hundred precious vases shoved off the tallest building in the world, the Grand Machine came tumbling down!

When the dust settled, the Stiyon gathered around the Grand Machine and around Allana, waiting, watching, angry and fearful. Allana climbed out of the wreckage...................

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