She was crying.

The ritual was a simple one, which she was thankful for: if it were any more complex she may have had difficulty performing it. All she needed was thirteen black candles, white lily blossoms, red sand, and willow twigs. She had already had most of those on hand, and the rest were easy to procure. Not for the first time, she wondered if this had been designed to be simple, if the Goddess of Solace had foreknowledge that those calling for her wouldn't have the clarity of mind to cast anything too complicated. It was true that She was certainly a compassionate emkras.

She had once met an emkras. The luminous, transcendent being had been wearing the guise of a middle-aged man, His unassuming nature eloquent in modesty. He hadn't come as a god, or a saviour, a prophet, or any of the other roles the emkras usually played. Instead He had come merely to observe. He had asked her questions, as He had all others He had come across, such simple things about her daily life that she was astounded something such as Him would ever find it interesting. It was said the emkras found humans endlessly fascinating. He had come to see what all the fuss was about. No one could ever understand the emkras, their passions and their motivations so unlike those bound to the physical realm. She wasn't sure that was a bad thing. No worshiper should ever understand her god; there should be a certain mystery in religion, and the emkras were certainly skilled at maintaining that.

Turning her attention back to her magic, she arranged her candles into the proper configuration: one in the middle, five surrounding it, and seven surrounding those, representing the four holy numbers. Symbolizing the Thirteen Prophets, who brought enlightenment to the world so long ago, the Seven Truths, which all humanity acknowledged, the Five High Spirits, which bound the world together, and the One to which all living things belonged. She believed all was One; she knew that the joy of all was reflected in the joy of one, and that pain in one could harm all. Perhaps this was why she was submitting herself, this religious guilt. She didn't want to hurt anyone; that it was unintentional made her no more innocent.

This was the simplest circle she had ever cast: there was no need for incantation, or other more ostentatious action. Such a private ritual was for the supplicant and the Goddess alone, and there was no need to verbalize it. As she poured the sand, marking an even circle around where she sat with her candles, she focused on her pain, bringing her grief as much to life in her as she was able. Her all-consuming love for her husband, for her child. Her absolute devastation when she'd learned of the accident. Her love turned to pain in equal measure. Her knowledge that there was no solace, no escape, for as long as she lived. Her desire that it just stop, for only one day, even just for an instant, a desire so powerful that she would give of herself to have it. In reciting her emotions, her crying redoubled, but she did not choke the tears down. This was as essential of a component as all the others.

When that was complete, she sat facing the candles. This would require basic sorcery. She reached deep within herself, and through herself into the world around her, and invoked the spirits of fire. So many times had she done this that it was like second nature to her, as easy as breath. Once she had been granted proper control by the powers that dictate such things, she reached out with a hand toward one candle, and straddled one wick with finger and thumb suffused with fire. She whispered the First Truth ("To live is to one day face death.") and closed her fingers around the wick. There was a flex of power about the digits, so she let go. The candle, with an ease that only sorcery could bring, was now alight. She repeated the process with the other six, speaking each Truth as she went, then the five with the traditional naming of each element, then the one in silence. There was no need to name the One that was All.

With that, the Goddess would be listening.

Carefully considering the potential progression of the flames, she organized her bundle of willow twigs into a heap. She attempted several times before she was satisfied. Then, with a repeat performance of that most basic sorcery, she set another flame at the base of the pile. Bound as it was by the circle, the fire would grow enough to support the ritual, and be sustained at such a height by the magic around her. Before too long, she had a small fire going, stretching higher than should be possible with so little fuel. With gentle hands, she picked up the first lily, a beautiful blossom of white petals streaked with gold down the middle, and held it over the burning willow. She recited the first verse: "I invoke thee, o Goddess of Solace, who brings comfort to the grieving." While speaking, she touched the blossom to the willow, and the white flower burst into supernatural flames. She waited for the petals to burn down, then cast the remains over the fire. With each verse, she repeated the process, stumbling a little over the somewhat dated language, but managing it just the same. Soon she was finished. A very simple ritual.

She didn't have long to wait. Almost immediately she felt a slight pressure on her thoughts, the mental equivalent of a friend touching her hand in greeting. She drew in a gasp of surprise and reverence. The Goddess had answered her prayer! This could only mean she would gain the release she so desperately needed, enfolded in Her holy embrace. She waited for the transformation to come for long moments. Nothing happened. The gentle touch stayed at the edge of her thoughts, spreading no further, and for a moment she worried she'd been judged and had somehow failed. Quashing her disappointment, she reigned in her tears and simply waited.

Don't fear my child. She wasn't entirely sure how she had understood. They weren't words, not exactly, but thoughts implanted directly into her mind. It was a strange sensation, to be so directly touched by such a respected deity, and she found herself shivering in religious ecstasy. Even so, she did her best to suppress her reaction. She didn't want to seem too eager. I have heard you.

For a moment, she considered speaking her response aloud. But what was the point of that? The Goddess was already in her head, so couldn't she just think back at Her? It wasn't like She had ears to hear with anyway. A non-physical entity required non-physical communication. I thank you, my Goddess.

Please, the radiant Goddess of Solace thought, call me Eshiral. Somehow, she knew the Goddess was amused. Was it something in the way the thoughts had been placed within her, some subtlety in it that she couldn't perceive? Or did she simply assume it so? There was no way to tell, she decided. You are confused, why I do not simply take you.

So the Goddess—Eshiral, she corrected—had noticed that. She needed to take a moment to beat down her shame before responding. Yes, Eshiral. It is what I desire.

Are you sure? Eshiral persisted. You know how this works. I wouldn't want you entering into such a contract without the proper thought. I've heard it can be somewhat unpleasant for the host. We emkras can be rather harsh sometimes, on those who are not prepared for our touch.

Was Eshiral really offering her such consideration? That a Goddess would care so much for a single human such as herself! It was unthinkable. She reeled in her shock for a moment, so baffled as she was by the very idea of it, before she could pull her thoughts together. I understand. It's what I want. I promise you, I will not resist and I will not regret. That was a powerful phrase to speak, for lack of a better word, to an emkras, she knew, an oath more powerful than any human one. It was a vow of total partnership, one no emkras could resist.

Alright, my child, if you insist. The transition started immediately. It was subtle at first, the pressure on her mind simply increasing by the barest amount. Then she could feel Eshiral moving within her, insinuating herself into her memories, her very thoughts, drawing across her mind like water through sand. It was somewhat disconcerting, to feel a foreign presence sift through her most private depths so casually. She stifled her budding revulsion with all her strength.

Then it spread into her body. There was a wave of tingling that crested across her skin slowly, painfully slowly, leaving behind it complete numbness. Inch by inch, her body was given up to the Goddess. This process was somehow more disturbing than the previous, and she fought not to squirm, not to make any movement at all. She had promised Eshiral she would cooperate, so she would hold herself to her word. Still, it was difficult to remain still while an alien presence worked its way into and through her, but she did her best to remain pliant.

Already it was ending. She had completely lost contact with her body; she could feel nothing, and she was sure her limbs would not respond were she to try to move them. And even now her vision was fading, the world went silent. Soon she couldn't even smell the willow anymore. All was black.

Something shifted in the back of her mind, and somehow the darkness changed. Suddenly she was floating in something warm and soft, that soothed every fold of her psyche the way something physical would her body. It was as though she had been buried in a mound of expensive blankets. Of course the metaphor fell short: blankets were a physical thing from a physical reality, but it was the only way she could get her mind to make sense of it. She felt herself removed from the world, from her stolen family, from all that had brought her pain. In the darkness there was warmth, and there was comfort. And, finally, there was solace.

Eshiral had forgotten how disorienting it was to enter the physical realm. The emkras were beings of consciousness rather than of flesh, matterless and timeless. Well, not necessarily timeless: there was a sense of what was past and what would come, even if such concepts were muddy and inconsistent. But it felt so strange, to be stuck in a moment the way humans were. And for these moments to progress so linearly the way they did! And to be stuck in a single position like this, when she was so used to a life without distance! It was so awkward, limiting.

Though she did find human senses wondrous. For long moments, themselves a foreign concept, she sat taking it all in. The cloth against her borrowed skin, the pressure of gravity and the weaker one of air pushing inward. Even the beating of the heart within the body, the rasp of breath, the slightest movements of the other organs, the rhythmic tensing of muscles and tendons. And there was the smell and sound she knew was willow burning, though she didn't have enough knowledge of human terms to describe it. All so strange, all so beautiful. This was certainly worth the trip every time, she thought, marveling in the simple feeling of it all. She knew when the time came she would ache for her home—the omniscience, the freedom, the electric thrill of touching thoughts with others of her kind—but for now this was all she wanted.

After a second of hesitation, she opened the eyes. There was shape, there was color, in such a visual maelstrom that she couldn't make any sense of it. Gradually she separated objects. There was the floor beneath her, the walls around her, what might have been a table to her right. Yes, she decided, that was a table, such a strange spindly thing made of a few planks of wood and a larger slab of it between them. Furniture was weird. And of course the trappings of ritual before her. With a short invocation of the spirits, a minute and quick gust of wind was raised, efficiently snuffing out the small fires.

Now to stand up, that seemed the reasonable next step. But how to go about that? She had gone so long without standing, or doing anything physical for that matter, that she couldn't seem to remember how. So with a gentle touch she reached into the girl's muscle memory, and pulled out the necessary reflexes. Before she knew it the body was on its feet. She tottered a little—bipedal creatures had such awkward balance, especially those without tails—but within seconds she was used to it.

She would certainly need to speak to interact with humans, so she decided it was best she practice that. All the necessary information was in the girl's head: how sounds were made, the syntax that held words together, the lexicon itself. She gathered a single thought in her head, and, careful to make sure it was properly translated into Common, projected it into the air.

"I'm coming, Mother."