Alma… the voice calls her.
She fights its call for a moment. Something about the fear of waking up to unpleasant images makes her hesitate. And yet…she feels strangely safe. Arms embrace her gently from behind, a soft breeze fills her senses with a subtle flowery scent. The light that filters through her eyelids feels pleasantly warm against her skin.
Wake up, Alma, the voice beckons.
Her eyes flutter open. Strange green leaves that spread like fans hover in the breeze, hanging from the branches of a massive tree that stretches toward the setting afternoon sun and pulses with the slow, cadent life force of an ancient being. Before her, downhill, a green, wooded ward populated by short, stubby houses with roofs of ceramic tiles begins to settle in for the coming night.
Behind her, back against the trunk of the great tree, arms holding her closely as she reclines against his chest, Arion emanates peace and safety, filling her with a sense of tranquil bliss as she watches cherry blossoms dance in the warm, rising air that blows through her hair.
What a terrible nightmare, my love, he says in that unsettling habit of his of using telepathy when spoken words will suffice.
I thought– Alma starts, turning to wrap her arms around him and nestle her face against his chest.
I know, he interrupts her, sparing her from saying words that are too painful to form in her mind, let alone her throat.
He holds her closely for a moment as one would hold a frightened child, stroking her hair, letting the sound of his calm, slow heartbeat soothe her thoughts. He has always been like this with her. The older one, the wiser one, the stronger one. The one who always knows what to say.
And maybe that is why she has always loved him so, because in his loving arms, full of adoration for her, she has always felt safe, accepted, cared for, a world of difference from what she has always known from the other males in her life. To a helpless, hopeless young goddess, fated to be her parents’ puppet, the love of someone like Arion had been like the first rain after a lifetime of drought. He was her hope, her protector, her strength.
Until she was left alone to stand.
Where are we? she asks, turning back to look at the landscape around her. You have never brought me here.
These are the Dreamlands, the broken pieces of reality created by the idle activity of mortal and immortal minds as they rest from the effort of vigilance, Arion explains, gesturing to indicate the world around them. It is here that they linger long after the memory of them fades and it was here that our children’s minds dwelled as their bodies were trapped in stasis.
The dream world they speak of with such fondness… Alma notes with an edge of pain and bitterness.
Please, do not resent them for it, dear one, Arion requests, his cheek resting gently against her forehead. Imagine what it would be to live half a lifetime only to discover that you have been living in a dream and that you must now rebuild your entire life from the ground up.
Alma snorts at this. Has she not had to rebuild her life at least twice and every time she was assigned to a new station? I have learned a thing or two about starting over.
Ah, but it was different for you, was it not? Arion rebukes. You never believed the dream was real.
I wish it could be, Alma sighs and leans her head back against his chest. I miss you so.
Arion kisses her ear. And I you, my love.
Listen, about my behavior lately… Alma says, straightening and turning to look into Arion’s eyes.
No, he cuts her off, placing three fingers against her lips as if she were about to speak. Still, his mouth does not move as he adds, We are gods, Alma. Do not reduce us to the narrow visions of love that mortals share. What is a lifetime of loneliness to a creature who knows its days are numbered and running quickly away? Do we have the benefit of knowing that forever has an end to it?
He strokes her cheek and leans closer to her. No…among us who know never how long an eternity can last, the word ‘forever’ should never be spoken. And love should be more than a prison binding people together.
She pulls away from him. Shouldn’t love be a willing commitment? For all she has learned through the years, love has always been one thing: sacrifice.
You know that I am a daughter of a harem and that I do not look kindly at the idea of becoming a harem wife, she states. Or having a harem of my own…
Arion smiles and kisses her forehead. Your path is yours to follow, Alma, and your choices yours to make.
His fingers find her chin and gently lift her face to bring her gaze to his eye level, Love is generous, dear one. And I will never hobble you in its name.
Of course you wouldn’t, Alma retorts, turning around again, feeling something within her chest break at his words. So…does this place have a name?
Sawara-machi. Named after its Wakenworld, Third-Ring counterpart, Arion replies. Mayumi was raised here.
Why did you bring me here? Alma asks, her thoughts as cold as her voice would be.
I thought that Nekh might leave us alone for a moment if he were distracted enough by all the strange things in this other world, Arion explains, his patient, condescending tone ripping into Alma’s nerves. Why do you keep a piece of his soul within you, my love? Why not release him whole to the Wheel instead of allowing him to haunt your every waking hour?
And my every dream, for the past week… Alma concedes in conversational tones. Although Nekh’s absence is much appreciated, she could do with a swift ending to this dream. I never expected him to be strong enough to cling to me and stay behind, let alone to disturb my thoughts the way he does. I should have known better.
Speak to your father, dear, Arion insists. Have him help, please.
I would rather be haunted for eternity, Alma states matter-of-factly. I will take care of this myself. Besides, who knows if he won’t prove useful one of these days?
I rather doubt that Nekh has ever been useful to anyone but himself, Arion comments, seemingly distracted. Ah, there he is.
Alma glances at him to see where he is looking. She follows the line of his sight to where it hits the figure of a man, at the end of his middle age, running through the street on a straight path toward the hill and the tree against which the gods sit.
Who is he? she asks.
Sueyoshi Ishijima, Mayumi’s adopted father, Arion tells her. She is very much yearning to see him again, in the Wakenworld.
In the sky just above the man, Starfax (or the dream of her) soars, catching the breeze with her deep-blue wings. The man seems to be following the phoenix and the phoenix seems to be flying straight toward Alma.
Alma springs to her feet, her eyes narrow with angry suspicion.
“And you are putting me in his path,” she hisses, forgetting herself. “Arion, I resent being manipulated like–”
Please, my dear, Arion says, standing up himself. Sooner or later, this will have to happen. You cannot go on pretending that these people did not exist.
Alma sighs, knowing all too well that it is Arion who is in control of the dream.
Very well. But you cannot go on being a ghost to our children, either. I cannot keep hiding you from them. They need to meet their father, she demands in return.
I will arrange it, my love, Arion promises, smiling beatifically.
Thank you, Alma replies, focusing her sight on the ever-closing man. That is a Guardia Popula uniform. Is he Guardia in the Wakenworld?
Arion chuckles audibly at this. Does he look like he could be anything else?