The warm night air of summer feels cool compared to young Alma’s fevered forehead. She sleeps fitfully in her bed, her black cotton nightgown soaked in sweat. Sitting by the edge of the bed, Death strokes her beautiful silver-white, albeit drenched, hair away from her face and hums a lullaby to soothe her dreams.
Through windows now streams
And with you forever I stay…”
“Daddy…” Alma whimpers in her sleep, reaching blindly for him.
Death takes her wandering hand, holding it gently in his. Her pale skin feels like burning coals against his cold fingers but she seems to calm down almost immediately at his touch. Her father exhales deeply as he watches her sleep. Little Alma has always been a frail child, prone to these sudden fevers that can last for days at a time. At the young age of eight years old, she has already been examined by the best healers of the Inner Rings and still, no cure to her condition has been found. No matter the specialist, the answer is always the same: deep within her, her conflicting spheres compete for dominance. It is up to the young goddess to find balance between them or to succumb under the heat of their quarrels.
Each bout seems to last longer and weaken her further. Soon, Death may be left without his only daughter. He has already started to say goodbye to his little Bunny Rabbit.
“It would mean the world to her if you were to be here when she wakes instead of when she sleeps,” a gentle, warm, feminine voice says. “You were never the same to her since the whole bunny incident.”
From behind, Lyria drapes her loving arms around his shoulders and strokes his chest. She kisses his temple before pressing her cheek against his.
“She still hates me for it,” Death replies, emotionless.
The bunny incident had been a complete disaster. Even if not very strong, little Alma had until then shown a natural inclination to souls and their gathering, just like her brothers. But then a friend of the family had gone ahead and offered her that damned bunny and the child had just been overwhelmed with adoration for the furry creature, so much so that she had created ten copies of it. The next morning Lyria had found her garden being ravenously destroyed by a horde of adorable bunnies that seemed to listen to and obey Alma’s every word.
She dismissed it as a normal event in a child-goddess attuned to Life. Of course, creating bunnies, regular rabbits like those found in nature is not by itself a crime, since they are not a new species. Although irritating to the Death Clan, it would not have been more than a simple faux pas.
But it was how Alma had created them that made her newfound powers so very dangerous. Somehow, Alma had been able to reach into the spectral realms, pull out half-cleansed souls and bind them to newly created bodies. They looked perfectly normal, beyond any suspicion at first glance…until they started to speak, in different accents of Urbia, relating stories of whatever lives they remembered living before they had become rabbits. And yet, their souls were rabbit souls, registering as nothing out of the ordinary, in spite of the human memories.
Death had been appalled at hearing them speak. They were half-formed but fully-incarnate abominations, no longer human but not entirely rabbit either. The scandal that had been the Anubi would be nothing compared to what the news of the creation of these…things would mean to the Clan. It should not even be possible for such a young goddess to pull souls that far through a renewing without a Spinner around to activate the Wheel. If she began doing it indiscriminately, pulling the dead back into life like the necromancers had done to build their hordes of undead slaves… No matter how young and weak, little Alma would have found no mercy in the Council.
They had to be destroyed and steps had to taken to ensure that the young goddess would never again create such creatures, that she would become solely dedicated to her death sphere and stay away from the dangers of creation. Death had forced her to watch as the little furry monsters were destroyed, one by one, victims of her sin. Her cries and tears had been soulcrushing, even for the hardened, calculating heart of Death but it was nothing compared to what she would have endured, had anyone outside Death’s estate found out about it. He had to make sure…he had to show her that her actions carried dire consequences.
That moment had destroyed their bond, inflamed a passionate anger in Alma towards her father, but it had broken her will to create anything else. Now, there is only spite left between them. And even that may not be for long, if she falls victim to her own nature.
“She resents you, yes,” Lyia concedes. “She is too young to understand. But she would not call your name in her sickbed if she hated you.”
Death gently squeezes his daughter’s hand. For a moment, it glows white with her mana. “She is again out of balance. One moment she is sending her life force through me, trying to heal wounds that aren’t there. The next she is trying to steal my mana for sustenance.”
The non sequitur statement achieves its purpose. Lyria nods and lets the bunny issue go. “She is a child infused with two very powerful antagonistic natures. It is normal for her to struggle for balance.”
She is right, of course. At such a young age, any divine is prey to the whims of his or her or jys spheres. Many child gods may not know an affectionate touch, the certainty of ground under their feet, even the taste of food and the scents of the world well into their adulthood, if their spheres awaken early and take too long to master. Alma may never again feel the warmth of sunlight on her skin if she does not manage to defeat this fever.
“These fits are becoming more frequent and severe as she grows,” Death argues, shaking his head. He lets go of Alma’s hand. “We must be ready to put an end to this condition should it become…permanent.”
The unspoken words in his statement make Lyria jump. Her usually warm voice blazes with anger. “I will not let you eliminate my only daughter, Azreh,” she hisses. “Our only daughter. The child that everyone thought we could never have…her fate will not be so petty as to die sick in bed!”
Death sighs as he rises to his feet. For as amiable as Lyria has always been, this is a conversation that has been triggering most of the arguments between the couple lately. As much as she has mostly conquered the hearts of the Death Clan with her kind, caring nature, Lyria is yet to adapt to the reality that her will and that of her husband are nothing when compared to the future of the clan.
“Some gods never find their balance, Lyria,” he says patiently but peremptorily. “And I must think of the greater good of this clan. I am Death. I cannot be weak and allow weaklings to corrode the strength of our family.”
“She is your family,” Lyria insists, pointing at their recumbent daughter. “And she is no weakling. She is a child, burdened and blessed to be your daughter and mine. Do not give up on her just yet. Do not close your heart to her.”
“My nature does not allow me to heal her,” Death notes. “Her nature stops you from healing her. She is on her own. And she may very well not make it.”
In the moonlight filtering through the window, Lyria’s green eyes turn a pale, shimmering grey with her tears. She moves closer to her husband, cupping his face in her hands. “Can you not at least allow yourself to feel a fraction of the love I know you have for her? I can feel it in you. Love. Pure and endless.”
Her pleading feels like a blade plunging into his soul. Still, Death knows better than to raise her hopes with a merciful lie. “Should she not overcome her weaknesses, she will be able to contribute to the good of her family with nothing but her sacrifice. My personal feelings must not get in the way of that.”
“Give her a chance to grow out of it, at least,” Lyria begs as her tears roll down her cheeks in moonlit streams. “She is at a difficult age for any child. Give her a chance to show you that she can rise to the challenge. Your Bunny Rabbit…”
For as much as he tries to resist, Death cannot ignore her pain any longer. His arms wrap around her waist, pull her closer to him. His lips meet hers halfway. The mouths of the world have deemed their relationship to be a political hoax, a mutually beneficial arrangement to unite the families and score popularity points for the Death Clan.
Had that been true, Lyria would not have ascended so quickly in harem hierarchy. Had that been true, her kiss would not be able to light a spark in Death’s lifeless heart.
“You were always my weakness,” he whispers.
Lyria smiles sadly, stroking his cheek with her thumb. “You were never stronger than you are with me by your side, my love.”
It is true.
“If your hopes fail us, Lyria…” Death warns her as he holds her tightly to him.
She closes her eyes, nuzzling his neck. “They won’t.”
Alma lies on her childhood bed, in her old room in Death’s estate. Books, toys, trinkets, scents. All have been kept in the exact same place as when she used to sleep here. However, she is in no condition to notice it. The ceremony has drained her into unconsciousness and she sleeps fitfully, grimacing occasionally as if in pain.
Varah and Lyria sit by her side, each holding one of her hands, paying close attention to her every breath.
“No fever,” Lyria notes. “This is not one of her crises.”
Death stands by the window nearby, collecting his thoughts as he glances at Sharia, who smiles beatifically at the young goddess.
“Of course it isn’t,” the old goddess says in serene tones. “It is the end of all crises, if anything.”
Death raises an eyebrow at this. It has been years since the Wheel has been spun with such force. And by such a young goddess. A young, untrained goddess with no idea of her true skill. He curses himself for not having foreseen this. The signs were always there, after all. But Spinners are so rare, always born into the Life Clan…and Sharia had kept her knowledge of this a secret well-hidden.
“Using her to awaken the Wheel without any preparation?” Death accuses her. “You could hardly have thought of something more idiotic to do, Sharia.”
Venomous, treacherous Life Clan snake, he thinks bitterly. And still you wonder why you were never welcome in this house.
“Oh boo hoo!” Sharia retorts, her benevolent façade distorted by irritation. “She’s not dead, is she? No permanent damage? What do you care if she is used for what she is actually meant to do?”
Their mutual dislike of each other is nothing new. Sharia would have long ago taken control of both clans if allowed, despicable and spiteful little would-be tyrant, thinking herself above Life and Death for her balancing power as a Wheel goddess. But for all her scheming, she has always failed in her purpose. The clans may come together at the call of her sphere but never, never at the call of her will.
“Maybe you two would like to save it for some other time,” Varah growls. “She’s starting to come to.”
On her bed, Alma stirs. “Hmm…?”
Death waits to see if the young goddess is truly awaken before resuming the conversation. When she seems to fall back to sleep, he again turns to Sharia. “She is still my daughter, Spinner.”
And you cannot have her to do your bidding.
Sharia tilts her head, staring at him in apparent fascination. Her eyes flare with vibrant, sharp intelligence. She looks nothing like the staggering, half-senile old bat from before.
“Is she?” she asks sweetly. “Funny that you choose now to act like her father.”
“Sharia!” Lyria cries in shock, turning her head almost 180 degrees to stare at the Spinner.
Sharia pays no attention to Lyria. Her words trickle like poison from her mouth as she walks toward Death.
“Face it. Even now, you are more bothered by the fact that you never realized she could belong to the Wheel than by any of my actions. You are angry at yourself for your blindness. And then…” she stares deeply into Death’s eyes. “You are already thinking about how you can use this to your advantage. Spinners have always been born to the Life Clan, after all. Your little scheme of marrying a Life goddess proved fruitful, finally.”
Lyria shoots to her feet, hissing in outrage as she dashes toward Sharia. “It was no scheme and you will not speak of us in that fashion, Sharia!”
Unafraid of the comparatively young goddess, the Spinner merely looks at Lyria and blinks. Her long years have left Sharia pretty much immune to fear. Of course, as a member of the Life Clan, the old goddess also enjoys the safety provided by the notion deeply imprinted within every life god that one must never, under any circumstance, attack one’s elders.
As if manipulated by a master puppeteer, Lyria freezes in her tracks just a step away from Sharia.
“Leave us, Lyria,” Death orders, keeping his eyes on the Spinner. “You as well, Varah.”
Lyria stares at him in shock. “Azr–”
“Do not fight me on this,” Death cuts her off in a cold voice that will not be denied.
Predicting Lyria’s impending outburst, Varah moves swiftly from behind and takes her by the arm. “Come. She’s going to be fine.”
Half-dragged across the room under the Fencer’s iron grip, Lyria follows Varah, glancing over her shoulder at her increasingly impatient husband. Death waits until they are out of earshot to return to the conversation.
“What is your game, Sharia?” he asks.
Sharia looks almost offended at the question. “My game? There is no game. The Wheel needs a Spinner and soon, that will not be me. She is next in line. I will have my successor in spite of all the stupid little ways in which you almost destroyed her spirit in your quest to bend her to your will.” She shakes her head, clicking her tongue in disapproval. “All these years, waiting for her to be strong enough to spin the Wheel without losing herself in it… And all because you cannot think of her as more than a disappointment.”
Not far away, Alma stirs again in her sleep.
“Do not presume to know my thoughts, Spinner,” Death replies frigidly, glancing at his daughter above Sharia’s head. “Now, leave.”
“She will need to be trained,” the old goddess warns him. “She is balancing three spheres now.”
“You will have your chance,” he states. But I will be watching you closely. “Now, go.”
Sharia stares at him for a moment, then merely shrugs. “I will leave you with your daughter.”
Soon, she is gone. Death walks up to the bed and sits by Alma, stroking her silken, silver-white hair. Her eyelids flutter at his touch. Behind them, like a wonderful scar of the ceremony, vibrant, electrical shades of green and blue slowly mutate, moving endlessly like ocean currents, and make her eyes look like the nacred inside of a beautiful seashell.
“Hmm – Father?” she mumbles.
“Yes?” Death replies.
“Did I do something wrong?” Alma asks sleepily.
“No,” he says. “Rest, now.”
Alma focuses her gaze on him for a moment. “What happened? Am I sick again?”
She is not fully conscious, Death realizes. Her tone, her words…she sounds younger, childish even. In her exhaustion, she seems to have reverted to her childhood years. Her lips purse with sudden agony.
“You spun the Wheel and acquired a third sphere,” he explains, knowing that she will probably not remember any of this by the time she awakes. “Your body and soul are adjusting to the strain.”
Alma does not even seem to grasp his words. “I remember… being sick.”
“You are not sick,” Death states sharply, turning to leave her. “Sleep. Your escort has been warned. Melinor will accompany you to the Fourth Ring once you feel better.”
Just as he begins to rise to his feet, her hand shoots out to grab his wrist, clutching it until her fingernails dig into his flesh. The muscles in her arms spasm, making her whimper.
“Please, don’t go,” she begs. “It hurts. Stay with me, Daddy.”
Death’s eyes soften at the word he has not heard her use in over a hundred years.
“By the time you wake up, you will not remember any of this,” he says softly, regretting that it must be so. “It will make no difference if I stay.”
“I’ll know,” Alma insists, her eyes already closing again. “I always knew. When you came to stay with me.”
Death’s eyes widen at the revelation. She had never said a word. All this time, he thought she resented him for not visiting her when she was ill.
“I’m scared,” she says weakly as her hand lets go of his wrist. “Please, stay.”
Death nods and slowly lies down by her, wrapping an arm around her shaking frame, holding his daughter close to him. “I will stay this time.”
Her shaking and spasming stop almost immediately. Alma snuggles in his arms, already falling asleep.
“I make you proud?” she mumbles.
Death kisses her forehead and whispers, “More than you know, Bunny Rabbit.”
Alma smiles and wiggles her nose in her sleep.