You really shouldn't ask me for things.
My real name is more meaning than sound and is incomprehensible to the limited human brain. Hearing it would cause your ears to bleed and turn you into a gibbering nitwit trying vainly to wrap a broken mind around completely alien concepts. To actually say it, you'd need to evolve yourself some good, sturdy, mandibles.
Nah, not really. I'm just kidding. I do that. Gotta keep spirits up somehow, right? Ha ha ha.
It's no use asking where I'm from, either. I don't remember.
You've got questions. I respect that. You, standing there, with that bottle in your hand, lead stopper in the other and a really stupid look on your face. The look that's part fear, part shock, and part 'how do I make good with this?' Don't bother denying it. I know that look.
But first, I wanna tell you a little story.
You may as well sit.
I have been around for a very long time. A very long time. I remember the good old days. Hopping around, country to country, city to city, village to village. The world was smaller then. At least it felt like it. I watched the walls of Jericho fall and saw Soddom and Gomorrah go up in flames. I was in Athens for the war and stuck around for the plague. I was in Baghdad when Timur's forces invaded. I watched the Ottomans take Constantinople.
You know Atlantis? I remember Atlantis. I remember Crete and the Minoans, too. Lovely people. Weird obsession with bulls, though.
Most places I went to had something interesting happening. I'm still not sure if that was because interesting things happen where I went, or if I just happened to have a knack for picking interesting places.
One day around. . . around. . . well, I don't know the specific dates. You can't expect me to keep track of that kind of thing when I'm in a fucking bottle. But a very long time ago, I was walking through a forest along a secluded path somewhere in Italy when I got the strangest tugging feeling.
Lacking anything better to do, I went and followed it.
I'd seen sorcerers before, though I tried to stay away from their sort. The ones I'd met had known entirely too much about things like me, as far as I was concerned. For one thing, they were of a select sort of people who could see me. Out of that select group, they were the only kind of people who were stupid enough to try and talk to me. Always asking tricky questions and just exposing me to that obnoxious curiosity you lot are so good at. Give a monkey a few tricks and suddenly he'll start picking away at the edges of the universe.
So, I knew what they were. I knew what they looked like. And when I followed the tugging feeling to the sorcerer, I knew him immediately for what he was.
This one was currently on his knees, bowed over, with his hands clasped before him. The air around him was buzzing with an annoying sound that set my teeth on edge. I hate human magic; it makes my jaw ache. Beside him was another man, laying down on the ground, with a garden hoe stuck in his back.
"Hello?" I said.
The summoner stopped what he was doing and looked up at me with red rimmed eyes. "Oh, thank God!" He got up and pointed to the corpse. "Spirit, I need you to bring him back."
"He is my brother."
"That doesn't stop him from being dead. What do you want me to do about it?"
"Revive him. I-" The man wiped his eyes with his sleeve. "I can't do it myself. I tried. I need you to bring him back. I didn't mean to do it. We were fighting and- and. . . "
I looked down at the corpse. It was quite thoroughly dead. I should know, after all.
"It'll cost you," I said.
I still don't know why I said that; it wasn't like I'd done this before. I mean, I don't think I'd done this before.
"I don't care," he'd said. "Just bring him back, please."
So, I did. I went over to the body, gave it a swift kick in the ribs, and the man came coughing back to life. I was more surprised than either of them put together. I hadn't known I could do that trick.
As soon as I'd kicked him, I knew that I had done something wrong. A weight in my chest had shifted, and we were now in the red. I don't know what "we" was referring to- the brothers and I? The world? But someone, somewhere, had just been jilted. We were unbalanced. Cold, unrelenting horror clawed through my gut. I watched the brothers, dazed. The one who'd asked for my help was still apologizing, the other was still coughing. Neither of them could feel the wrong. They were both apparently deaf, dumb, and stupider than a sack of chicken feed.
"This. . . this is going to cost a lot," I said, backing away. "This is going to hurt."
I turned tail and ran.
They called after me, but the summoner didn't put any spirit into it, and I was gone.
* * * * *
I wasn't there when the volcano erupted, but I was there shortly after it happened. Of course I was. I always go to where interesting things are happening. but this time it was different. We were in the red-- I was in the red, and I knew this had something to do with it.
I don't know why it's perfectly fine to be wandering around a recently vacated battlefield, poking the dead with sticks and warding off the buzzards. Whether it be a battlefield or a hospital, a rich house or some hovel, seeing the dead doesn't bother me. I look upon them and feel the balance in my head stay perfectly tuned. Those corpses, the balanced corpses, are empty. Whoever was inside them left as soon as the heart stopped beating and the brain shut off. They're just piles of meat that make interesting noises when you walk on them.
These ones were not balanced.
These ones were wrong.
I felt them, even though they were buried. I felt them screaming under my feet. And the people were still trapped, tethered to the husks of themselves- even if those husks had been buried or burned into ash- and screaming to be let out. I knelt down and knew that below me, down a ways, there were the remains of what had once been a young woman. I touched the ground and felt coolness seep upwards to my fingertips. Ghostly white smoke came up from my hands, and there was a flash of white light. The woman was gone. her corpse was just a corpse, just empty soon-to-be rotting meat.
I looked around at all the spirits rising part ways out of their remains, sticking part way through the ground, only to find themselves stuck, like dogs choking themselves on the ends of a leash. Tendrils of white smoke reached upwards from the ground helplessly, searching like fingers.
I had a lot of work to do.
I don't remember when I saw them. It couldn't have been too long after I released the woman. They came out of the ash and out of the smoke and helped me in my work. They were like me. I'd never seen anything like me, before. But they weren't as solid as I was; everything about them was faded and waning. The moved like mist and looked like people and light and smoke combined. I wanted to ask them what they were, what we were, but there was no time for questions; there was work to be done.
By the time we'd finished, when every corpse was just a corpse and there were no spirits left, most of them were gone.
"Wait," I said to the ones still there. "What are you? What are we?"
At first, it said nothing. It looked at me with eyes that were like mine and then looked away.
"You unbalance us," it said. Its voice was soft and drifted like dark smoke.
"I didn't mean to," I said. "I didn't know."
It turned its back on me and faded back into the mist.
I wanted to follow them, and I would've, too, had I not felt the same undeniable tugging of a summoning. I sighed and let myself be drawn away.
It was the sorcerer again. He stood covered in ash on a plain of ash, but most assuredly still alive. Though the worst of the eruption was over, ash still fell from the sky, drifting on the wind. None landed on him, though; he had around him a protective bubble of magic invisible to the naked human eye, but perfectly visible to me. There was a hole a few feet away, about the size of his bubble, and it took me a second to realize he must've been buried by the blast and had to dig his way out.
He watched me with wild eyes.
"You did this!" he screamed. "You did all of it!"
I wanted to say, 'I didn't.' Instead, I said, "I told you it would cost you."
"You didn't tell me what! You never said this-" he choked.
"I didn't know," I said. "I still don't know. I don't know anything."
"Liar!" he shrieked. "Liar!" he started gathering power in his fists. he took something out of his bag and before I knew what was happening, he hurled his magic at me.
He bound me.
He bound me into this bottle like I was some common djinn. It was shoddy work. It is shoddy work. He didn't know my name, so he just piled up the binding with everything he had in him. Literally: the last thing I saw as I was sucked in was him keeling over, clutching his chest. He'd put his heart and soul into the binding, and now it's the equivalent of a particularly stubborn steel wall.
And that was it. For years and years, that was it. I've no idea what happened on the outside.
Trapped, motionless, sightless inside this stupid little cage, this stupid little box by some half-rate ingrate wizard who only managed the spell to begin with by some fluke, some freak act of the cosmos that deemed his dying act be worth more than my entire life, to be bound by some vile, putrescent, pathetic, dirt-grubbing, glorified monkey-
Ahem. Sorry. I just get a little. . . testy when I think about it. No, really. It's fine. Where was I?
Right. So, the bottle.
Well, when I was finally let out, I was on the other side of the planet.
Time had passed. I knew it by the feel of the air, and by the light of the sun. Ages and ages. I would've run off then to find out what had happened, but there was a man in front of me holding onto the bottle, and I couldn't leave him. I wanted to, mind you, but as soon as I got a few feet away, I was stopped.
"Let me go," I said.
"A spirit," he said.
"No, I'm a trout. Let me go."
He grinned manically. "I will. but first I have a request," he said.
"What is it?" I said.
"My brother is marrying the woman I want."
"I want you to kill him," he said.
"It's going to cost you."
Again, the words sprang out of their own accord. And again came the reply-
"I don't care. Do it."
And the man was dead. I had no idea who this brother was or where he was or what kind of man he was, but I felt his life go out like one would snuff a flame. And again, the feeling of imbalance returned.
"It is done," I said. "Don't say I didn't warn you."
And I was off. Whatever tether had held me to the bottle was off, for now, and I was free.
Okay, I thought. Last time- that was just going against the natural order of things. That was bringing someone back, which was just wrong on all accounts. Maybe this time it'll be better.
Of course it wasn't.
A week later the river flooded and killed thousands. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. The bodies were pale and swollen, bloated from the water, and I was drawn back to them, as I had been to the volcano victims. Again the spirits like me came from the shadows and helped me free the souls. Again they ignored my questions and calls for help.
"Fine!" I shouted at their backs. "I don't need you!"
They left me alone with the dead.
* * * * *
Life continued on normal-normal after that. For me, at any rate. You guys kept on dropping like flies, and I was there to see a lot of it. For a while, I thought things were figured. No more dealing with sorcerers, that was for sure.
But then one day I'm watching a city burn and one second, it's all fire and fun and screaming, and the next, I'm in some other not-burning city, inside a little shop full of glass things, and a lady is there polishing a bottle.
And the whole damn thing starts over again.
Why do you people always have to ask for something? It doesn't matter what you ask for. Its always going to get fucked up in the process. Even when it's nothing big-- no death or life or anything like that, there is still the imbalance. Whatever you want is going to end in disaster because the universe knows you shouldn't have it.
And you always blame me.
I tried to tell her, just like I'm telling you. I tried telling the ones after her, too.
That bottle looks like its indestructible-- I've tried,believe me I've tried. I've come back after the volcanoes go off, after the earth swallows a city or two whole, after islands are sucked into the sea, and I've looked for that thing, but I can never find it. It's not until a hundred years later, when my guard is down that someone else finds it and winds up summoning me.
You really shouldn't ask me for things.
Why am I telling you this? Well, I've decided to take a different approach this time around. I'm letting you know my track record. You see, I don't want you asking me for anything. I'm tired. I want to skip the middle step and have you just toss the bottle into the ocean, or into a field, or at the bottom of a lake.
So, please. Just put the bottle down. Pop the lid back on.
Please don't ask me for anything.