Warmth over the skin. Freshness below. The scent of grass on her nostrils, of earth still drying from the wetness of morning dew. And a distant sound of flowing, splashing water.
Alma opens her eyes to a bed of green grass stretching over a hill lined with trees that slopes down toward a bank of pebbles and a natural pool. A blue sky spreads above her, lit by the still not too warm sun of a lazy day of late Spring. She blinks and sits up, recognizing hill and pool in that detached, hazy way of a reality the mind is prepared to accept in spite of its inconsistencies. The grass is green, the trees are tall and rich with foliage, the water blue and crystalline. And she sees all this without effort, without the ever-competing fore-image of the sparkling souls of each and every being, of plants and animals big and small that has become her regular sight for the past few days. The waterfall which should feed into the pool is nowhere to be found; the ledge from which her children have taken turns jumping into the water is gone.
And in the water, four furry creatures swim. Otters, three brown and one white, frolic happily, swimming, grooming themselves and each other, diving and surfacing with crabs and small fish in their mouths. Two of them float gently, belly up, holding each other by the front paws so as to not float away. Alma watches the scene, feeling her heart warm to it, incapable of smiling but touched, deeply touched and holding onto the sweetness and peace that so starkly contrasts with what she knows is her reality in the Wakenworld. For she has visited this reality enough times to know that this is a dream and that it will collapse if she allows her conscious mind to refuse it.
Of all the things I miss about life on the Insula, a day like this is very near the top of the list, she hears the calm voice in her head.
She turns her head to find him sitting by her side, in his humanoid form, his legs bent at the knees and elbows resting on his thighs, hands hidden between his legs in a position that reminds her of a sitting foal. She is not in the least surprised to recall that he was not there just a few seconds ago. Arion…
The god of reality and keeper of dreams nods, his eyes still looking at the pool. You were drifting in slumber, mind wide open to anything that might take an interest in it. I had no difficulty finding you. And bringing you here.
It has been awhile since we met in dreams, she notes. Her mind feels vacant, numb. But at the edge of her awareness, she can sense it. The pain that bides in waiting for her to acknowledge it.
Oblivious to it, Arion smiles softly. I am not surprised. Your heart has turned its affections elsewhere and thus your mind followed. He looks at her with mild amusement, perhaps catching the change in her expression, the way she hesitates in discussing such issues now that her world is so full of other, more pressing worries. Oh, please… Why that guilt? My time in the Insula may very well have been and gone, Alma. To expect you to remain alone and, worse, lonely in an attempt to be faithful to our love would be rather selfish of me, don’t you think? In time, you might even grow to resent me for expecting such sacrifice of you while I spend my eternity anything but alone. He shakes his head in dismissal and looks at the happily swimming otters again. If I could somehow trade places with young Gwydion, enjoy his good fortune for holding you in his arms and spending his days in your company, you would not find me hesitating. But as it is, my love for you can live only in my wishes that you will find happiness. Even if it is not by my side.
Alma is quiet for a moment, feeling the sadness of her memories of years waiting for his return to the Insula, alone and with the Bunnies hidden away in their stasis bubbles, return to her mind. She had come to let go of it, lately, slowly finding relief in a present shared with a lover whose mind and her heart she feels closer to her own. But bitter as it may be, she knows Arion deserves the dignity and consideration of having this discussion with her, to her speak of what has happened, of what her heart dictates for her future. Even if it is merely to say goodbye.
This easiness with which you let go of something you want has always baffled me, she says, leaning against him, feeling tired even though she knows that at least a part of her is currently sleeping. Fate knows I am not capable of it. And how strange is it to hear you speaking of my choices in romantic partners.
Arion puts an arm around her, holding her close to him in that caring, protective way of his that has always felt so soothing to her. I know… But who else knows your heart this well, my dear? He leans and presses his lips to her head, stretching the kiss as he speaks with the easiness of one who does not require a mouth to converse. I assure you that there is nothing easy about it.
A touch of his hand to the line of her jaw and she looks up at him, into those black eyes and their silvery lines that seem to hold the whole of the infinite Void. I love you, he says. As I have always loved you. Today or in a thousand years, this will not change. And though there is pain in letting go now, I would rather let my love be generous and live on in whatever form we find for it. His lips curl in a smile. Besides, I like young Gwydion. He has a long and difficult path ahead of him but he will rise to it. As will you by his side – Alma?
She throws her arms around him, her tears rolling freely, released by his words, by the feeling of finality that is this ending of their romance, a love which had been dwindling, fading into time and distance but that nonetheless was there, like an umbilical cord attached to her past, to her growth. The sadness in saying goodbye to it, for as much as this is not a goodbye to Arion and the affection he holds for her, is enough to break the dams of the dream, to awake the slumbering pain of her conscience, of her knowledge of the Wakenworld, of her present, of Nua and her torture. Of Gwydion and the way his soul looked ripped to shreds as if attacked by the claws of some vicious spectral beast. Pain over pain over pain, wave over wave of it mounts and crashes against Alma’s mind, stealing her breath, threatening her sanity. She holds Arion as if he could save her from falling into madness with his touch alone.
Alma, what happened? he asks, concerned, his arms folding to wrap around her. None of this can be making you suffer so. We both felt it coming. Speak to me. Why is your mind in such poor condition?
We went after Sky, Alma replies before she remembers that Arion may not recall one dream in millions. After my friend that you found being tortured and told Gwydion about. And it–
She hides her face against him, the fact that he can read her mind the only thing making their conversation possible through her convulsive sobbing. They did terrible things. To all of us.
He holds her, quietly, letting her cry freely until the strong and reliable affection of his embrace wins over her momentary burst of anguish and grief. Eventually, he says. You are safe here. Do you need help in the Waken World?
Alma shakes her head against his chest. No… We made it out though I don’t know how. She feels her throat well up with the excess water that her eyes are draining into her nose. She…she gave them terrible dreams. Stole my body. Tried to bind my soul to my sword.
The dreams must have been the disturbance I sensed, Arion notes absentmindedly. But by the time I reached it, it was gone. He strokes her hair reassuringly when a whimper escapes her lips. Now, now… It is over. It is all over. And you are safe.
She straightens to look at him, feeling her eyes burning and swollen from the tears. Can you…can you sense them? Any of them?
The question makes Arion look up, at the sky, his ears twitching slightly as if he is listening to the sounds of every dream being dreamt. Gwydion sleeps. The others are beyond my reach.
Please, spare him from nightmares, she pleads.
The humble, heartfelt request has Arion looking down at her again, a small and sad smile on his face. He sleeps in a blissful void of thought. No dreams good or bad will disturb him. The Void Rider kisses Alma’s forehead, gently, lovingly. And no nightmares will disturb you. I will keep watch over your mind and theirs. And whenever they are open to my influence, you will dream of nothing but peaceful days like this. Though I cannot promise that this will be the case every night.
The goddess closes her eyes at his kiss. Thank you, nonetheless. That you would take care of them… It means the world to me. She shakes her head, breathing a sigh. I don’t know… how we will heal from this.
I knew when I met you, Arion tells her, his cheek grazing the ridge of her brow, that within the subdued young lady hid an untameable strength. I gave my heart to it. And still, my love, it amazes me how very nearly indestructible you are. She feels his cheek rise with the gentle curling of his sips. You will heal. There will be pain and anger and fear. But you will rise again. And you will be just as strong as they need you to be.
It hurts so badly, Arion. All of it, she confesses, too tired and overwhelmed to be ashamed at her weakness. In this place within their embrace, there has never been space for such fears.
Then stay here for now. He strokes her hair, holding her, and for the moment she is grateful that he is simply everything she needs him to be. Cry as much as you want. Rest as much as you like. And I will hold you until you are strong enough to return to them.
Time goes by. She does not know how long. All she knows is that the dream with Arion slowly fades away into the darkness before wakening, the memory of tears still searing her throat (and screams…she remembers screams) as she feels the touch of an arm around her, a familiar, soothing scent teasing her nose. Voices speaking.
“…no good reason for her to continue this…this folly! She has nearly been killed multiple times, nearly lost her soul, nearly condemned to Hell! And all because her children were not accepted. Well they are accepted now! Or they will be – I will see to that. It is time for her to come home and take her rightful place within the Clan!”
Lyria’s voice. Her mother’s voice. Alma catches the concern, the distress in the older goddess’ tone and grimaces at it as she tries to remember how to command her eyes to open.
“She must leave Three Rats, yes,” Varah’s rough voice, this time. Anger with a strange hint of fear in her words, alien to the fearsome goddess Alma has come to know. “But not to go back to your lady-in-waiting little games. She was raised to be a warrior for the Clan and that is what she will keep being. And she will remain Guardia.”
Ah… Of course, eyelids fold up. She opens her eyes to see Gwydion, or better said, his soul. His beautiful, vibrant soul, damaged and ravaged by Nua’s efforts. She instinctively reaches to cup his cheek with her hand and cringes internally at the lazy way her arm responds to her command, muscles contracting at their own leisure, making her movements slow and clumsy. Still, she manages to touch Gwydion’s face without slapping him and he turns his head just enough to brush his lips against her wrist, breathing a little sigh against her skin.
“Why?” Lyria cries, her voice pitched higher this time. “You have led her down this path of danger and misery and bloodshed, when she is a mother, a healer. And now she is our Spinner. We need her safe or the Wheel will have no living soul to connect us to it!”
Gwydion is lying full length beside Alma, his arm draped over her side, holding her to him. He pulls away a little, his head turning downward, in the direction of his feet. In the direction of the voices, Alma realizes. She rolls slightly and looks toward them as well.
Fencer’s soul is as crimson as her hair, as her eyes, swirling and bubbling like blood flowing from an open wound or coating a slashed windpipe. Her growling tone, tainted as it is with nervousness, is still filled with the determination and steadfastness that is the hallmark of the warrior goddess. “Just because your Clan’s weaklings cannot handle more than that one task it does not mean all Spinners must act that way. It takes strength and certainty and we all know the cost of acquiring such things. She’s stronger now than ever before. We just have to dial it back, return her to safer environments.”
“That at least we can agree on,” Lyria concedes. “But I resent your insinuation regarding my clan. The last I checked, my Clan is the same as yours, dear sister!”
Bickering… Endless bickering while they discuss Alma’s future for her. As if she weren’t capable of making her own decisions. As if she weren’t even in the room. More of the same. More of the usual. Their plans drawn over her life, over her pain. Blind to her will. To her suffering. What is it to them, but an excuse to do as they please, an argument to throw over the table and justify their choices?
More of the same…
“Enough…” Alma croaks, cursing herself for how weak and inaudible her voice sounds to her.
“Were your clan the same as mine, your child would not have grown amidst fevers and illness,” Fencer goes on, mindless of her niece’s words. “Had she been a full death goddess, she never would have faced the Council’s wrath in the first place!”
Again…try again. With all you have now.
It is not by far the strong, confident bellow she would have liked it to be. Her cry comes out like a harsh, half-drawn out screech. But it does the job of capturing their attention. Alma struggles to rise to her feet but her legs are not yet fully responsive, and even her arms have difficulty bearing her weight. It takes the support of Gwydion’s strong arms to get her to a sort of uncomfortable sitting position. It will have to do.
“How dare you?” she hisses at the two older goddesses. “How dare you see our pain and act like it is yours? Do you have any idea what we have been through?! How can you entertain yourselves blaming each other and planning my future like that?!”
The goddesses stand still, looking – or Alma hopes they are looking, curse these changed eyes that make it so difficult for her to see into the material planes – at her.
Lyria is the first to speak, her voice still high-pitched with bewilderment. “Alma, I just want what’s best for you–”
“Because you wanted the best for me,” Alma interrupts her, feeling the lines of her face contort into a growl, “I was practically a prisoner in my own house for over a century! A century of being called weak and worthless.” She glares at Varah, remembering a long-gone fencing lesson and being accused of being on track to becoming a burden to her family. “How many of my brothers and cousins still bother to even acknowledge my existence? How many of them have placed bets over how long it would take me to die?”
But it is Lyria, not Fencer, who speaks. Stutters. “I never… You were…”
The words die in the throat of the goddess of life, sentence interrupted before it reaches its all-too-predictable finale.
“Weak?” Alma bitterly completes it for her. “Yes, I was. The only place I could hope to be strong in that house was in Varah’s practice room.” She gestures toward the Fencer’s red soul. “And still, I wasn’t. I was always too slow, too crude, too…everything! Nothing I did was ever enough, for any of you! Not you, not to my father, not to anyone!”
Her fist hits the mat beside her, not with any of the force she would have liked to infuse into the gesture but still with a certain level of assertiveness. She looks down and spreads her fingers, breathing in deeply, the texture of the woven material taking over her sense of touch as tears of frustration and a century of self-loathing well up in her eyes. “And I accepted it all because that was all I knew. I believed every word, every last cruel comment for the truth.” She raises her eyes to her mother and aunt. “But then Arion happened and it all went wrong for you, didn’t it? Even he sought to guide me in his one way. But at least he was kind!”
“Kindness is an invitation to slack off,” Fencer grunts.
“Kindness also validates a person’s path!” Alma nearly spits out. “It softens a hard life. I did not learn that until my children were released. That being kind can be more important than being right. I tried to treat them the way you treated me! But which of you even tried to guide me the day I went to you for advice with Rosemary and Cherry in my arms?”
“I did try to help you!” Lyria argues.
“You sent me straight to Nekh,” Alma hisses, cold and final, lip curled in a sneer.
Silence falls in the room. Only the soft hummings of breath vibrate the air, Alma’s breathing feeling too harsh and loud to her own ears. She lets it stretch, lets the awkwardness and guilt grow and spread their roots in this absence of arguments, of excuses. Allowing her elders’ imagination fill in the blanks and spin accusations in their minds far more damning than anything she could possibly find the heart to say.
And when she can no longer bear the weight of this pregnant pause, she speaks again. “You lost your claim to my future that day. You don’t get to decide whether I stay or return with you. I made my choices. Calling Somrak, staying quiet, going in, in spite of the danger, they were my choices. We all chose. Any of us could have refused to go in, refused to go against orders. We’ve been through Hell in there. There isn’t much more the Council could throw at us that would even make a dent now.”
“But Alma, this place, it’s a life of constant danger,” Lyria somehow finds the nerve to insist. “Your children were attacked by demons! We fought them off, but we’d never even have known if I hadn’t come by for a surprise visit. Please…come home.” Her voice breaks, fighting for control. “Bring them home.”
At Lyria’s words, Alma freezes, her eyes wide, spine frozen in a solid block with fear and fury. And even though Lyria immediately assures her that the Bunnies are alive and unharmed, Alma cannot make herself move or speak. Numbly she feels Gwydion’s arm wrap around her back, pull her unresisting to lean against him.
“They are safe,” he whispers in her ear. “We prepared for such an event, remember? Geryon was there.” He strokes her head, soothingly, holding her close to him. “I’m free to go as I please. I won’t leave your side if you want to go with your mother. I just want you to be safe.”
She takes solace in his touch, feeling her body relax into his embrace, her mind running at full speed even though she feels exhausted. Defeated. “I am so tired… I’ve been running for over twenty years with those Bunnies. I thought…I had made a home for them here. That this was home for them. For us.”
She feels him nod against her head. “It certainly feels that way, most of the time.”
“And besides, the Council wants me down here,” Alma adds.
“We can change that,” Lyria says pleadingly, barging in on their whispered conversation to push her point. “Surely we can.”
“Stop pushing. She’s made her choice,” Varah grunts almost immediately. “I have to go report this in. I’ll release the mortal’s soul before you kill yourself trying to do it in the condition you’re in.”
“The mortal?” Alma asks, confused. “Do you mean…?”
“Saira,” Gwydion explains. “The last I saw her, Margrave’s demons were attacking her viciously. It seems the wounds were too much for her to handle. We have her body. And her soul.”
Alma closes her eyes, lowers her head. She knew. She knew that the chances of Saira making it out of that Hell alive were nearly non-existent. She accepted that, the moment the woman insisted on accompanying them. And yet, a part of her had hoped, a part of her blames herself for not being there to heal the woman – the young woman with a whole life ahead of her – and save her from the jaws of the death she had long sought.
From the call of the very Wheel that Alma serves.
A soft thud and a sudden feeling of contact and pressure against her legs snaps Alma out of her grim thoughts, making her reach for the vale formed by the adjoining of her legs, stretched full length in front of her. She grabs what feels like a small, round stone that she is surprised to see glowing faintly and fitfully against the background of her own soul.
“Your catch,” Varah says by way of explanation. “Good job, Sergeant.”
And then the goddess is gone, the echoes of her words, spoken as if they were nothing important, ringing in Alma’s ears. Her jaw drops in disbelief.
“Did she really say…?” she asks to no one in particular.
Good job… She had never heard Fencer say those words before. To anyone! And oh, how she had longed for those words, she realizes… From so many people. But from Fencer, her mentor and role model for so long in all things concerning strength and courage, more than most.
“She did,” Melinor says beside her, making her look to her left.
She is not surprised to find him there. A part of her knew he was here in the room, by her side the whole time. His soul flares before her eyes and, though she cannot see his expression, she can almost feel the radiance of his pride. Of his empathy. She wonders if this is how he has expressed himself all along, emotions confined to his soul, revealed now by her newfound ease at soulscrying. Though her lips refuse to curl in a smile, Alma nods and stretches an arm toward him, her hand closed tightly around what she now realizes is a soulstone, a prison for Nua’s demented soul as it awaits trial, her aunt’s present of a bargaining chip.
She feels Gwydion’s embrace loosen, allowing her to tilt toward her brother, who takes the initiative of embracing her, for once in so many years. “I will have to leave soon, but I am here until you no longer need me.”
“Thank you for all you did,” Gwydion says, voice filled with heartfelt sincerity.
“She is my sister,” Melinor replies to him. His embrace tightens a little around Alma, his deep voice sculpting the words into something of a justification, a blessing and a warning, all put together.
On any other occasion, Alma would chuckle at the rare demonstration of brotherly protectiveness. As it is, she simply leans back toward Gwydion when Melinor releases her and gently pushes his sister toward the arms of the god of magic, who holds her just as closely.
“I want to see the others,” she says after a moment.
“Of course,” Gwydion replies. “Let us just figure out how to get you on your feet.”