Alma awakes to complete darkness. Lying on her back, apparently floating amidst the shadows, she slowly gains consciousness of herself. Sustained by nothing, her delicate arms lay relaxed and slightly open, her legs following their example. She doesn’t attempt to move or speak. Yes… She knows this place. She has visited it many times before.
As silence and stillness spread around her, Alma allows her mind to drift and shatter, her every thought falling into the darkness like a pearl fallen from a broken necklace. Slowly, her memories of the world she once inhabited escape into the Void. A city… No, there was never a city. People… She remembers no one. Dreams… No, she has never dreamed before.
Images of gods and Bunnies cross her mind, fleetingly, leaving nothing but a blurry trail behind them. Voices… Does she hear voices? No… She is beyond sound. Memory, touch, fear, anguish, pain, nothing can dwell in here for more than a second. She opens her heart to the darkness, offers her mind to the Void and waits, patiently, for it to take everything away. The silence washes over her, leaving nothing but sweet, gentle, forgiving numbness behind. She is nothing, now. Was she really something, before?
Held in the sweet embrace of nothingness, Alma closes her eyes and surrenders to it, feeling herself fade away, her whole being consumed in sacrifice to the Chaos and Void outside which all things exist.
I did not expect to find you here, a voice resonates, deep within her mind.
Ah, yes… nothing can survive here. Nothing, except for him…
Arion, the goddess remembers. How long has it been since she last dared to even think of his name, let alone speak it?
You do not belong here, dear goddess.
I don’t belong anywhere else, she replies.
Anywhere else will not destroy you, should you remain there for more than a few minutes, Arion admonishes her.
As Alma reopens her eyes, she realizes that she no longer lies in darkness, but instead stands in a gloomy, endless meadow. Arion stands before her, a majestic black stallion, his black and white mane blowing in an absent breeze. His ghostly body, slightly translucent, seems to hold within it a piece of the very Void they both stand in.
This is Chaos, my dearest Alma, not Death. A force and an essence that not even you can bear, Arion reminds her.
And yet, here I stand, the goddess says, walking towards him, extending a gentle hand. Unharmed…
Yes, you do, the horse appears to smile, as Alma’s hand caresses his jaw and then his broad, powerful neck. But not for much longer. I cannot sustain you, my dear. I cannot protect you here.
I know I can’t stay. Alma presses her forehead against his, placing a hand on each of his cheeks. I wish I could.
You belong elsewhere, goddess, Arion replies in a strict, yet caring tone. As I belong here. Now, please, go.
With a gentle nudge of his imposing head, the horse sends her flying away from the meadow and the Void, and back to realm of the living.
I miss you. The goddess throws him that last thought as she begins to fall back into her body.
And I you… she hears, right before she awakes again, this time to the twilight filling her bedroom.
Her eyes, her real eyes, now wide open and taking in the familiar shadows of her room, the goddess takes a moment to re-establish communication with her body. She lays on her back, like before, a comfortable mattress holding her relaxed body. A slight pressure to her right, a feeling of weight holding down the covers, makes her look that way. Sage sleeps peacefully and silently by her side, his head resting on a soft, silver-over-black embroidered pillow, one of the many Alma usually keeps on her bed exclusively for decoration.
Slowly, so as not to disturb the slumbering Bunny, Alma moves to the other side of the bed and gets up. Looking around, she finds the rest of her Bunnies sleeping in their comfortable and safe little alcove, the three younger ones gathered around Mayumi while Rosemary and Cherry hold each other in a sleeping embrace.
Once again looking down at Sage, she now notices that there is no blanket covering him, as if he didn’t expect to fall asleep by her side. Alma moves toward that side of bed and, whispering a simple spell, summons a blanket to cover him. She then leans over and softly kisses his head, eliciting a quiet, contented sigh from the resting Bunny.
Not five minutes later, Alma is again dressed in her long robes, ready to leave the room in search of some fresh night air. And just as she is about to close the door, humming an old nursery song about icy peaks and mountain streams and safe in the knowledge that the protective anti-intruder spell she’s cast on the door will make sure the Bunnies are not disturbed as they sleep safely within, an alien thought brushes against her mind.
Kori…Is that my name? My name… Kori.
Turning back, she sees the three younger Bunnies lost in sleep. She will have to test that name tomorrow, to see if one of the males has finally managed to become aware of himself. They are growing so fast…
Her steps take her out into the night, through empty streets and silent alleys. The gloom holds no secret or fear to her. Death gods soon learn to walk in shadows, seeing as clearly in the soft darkness of the night as in the piercing light of day. Glad to find her mana headache is no longer a problem, Alma spends a long time walking the slumbering streets, listening to their empty silence and following the glimpses and whispers of Three Rats. Out of a reflex honed by a lifetime of practice, her eyes scan the world around her, seeing more than just the shadowy outlines of buildings and statues, her ears capturing more than mere sound. Opening her senses to become fully aware of everything around her, Alma looks at a world of brilliant lights and glittering paths, of souls trapped in human flesh and godly lives contained in ever-changing divine vessels, sculpted after the common belief of their mortal followers, all of them linked by the insubstantial threads left as lives connect and destinies become connected. Difficult to master, impossible to hold for long, this is a skill she only uses when patrolling the streets.
But she is not a Guardia Dei tonight. The minor street gang scuffle in that shadowy corner holds no interest to her. The men will not see her, they will make sure not to see her, and she will pay no attention to them. Tonight, she is a daughter to her father, hunting for a prey that cannot evade her. She is Death tonight, and her target is just around the corner, lying in a ditch with a hand over his heart and an already absent look on his milky white eyes.
She comes to stand by the old man, listening to his failing heart and looking down as his body breaks into the final convulsions of death.
“Do not fight it, little soul,” she advises him in a soft, reassuring voice.
“Am I dying?” the old man says, through unmoving lips.
“No, little soul,” she lets him know. “You are dead.”
“Aahh…” The corpse appears to exhale, releasing a small cloud of pure, shapeless energy that comes to hover in front of Alma’s eyes. “It was faster than I imagined.”
“It often is,” she says as the soul-cloud takes the only shape it remembers having, a spectral copy of the body that once contained it.
“And you are?” it asks.
“Here to collect and deliver your soul.”
The greenish-white ghost takes an appraising look at her. “I always expected Death to be taller, scarier… and male.”
“I am afraid Father is otherwise occupied,” Alma replies with a smile.
“Ah, well…” the ghost shrugs. “I cannot complain. If I had known Death could be beautiful and kind, I would not have feared it for so many years.”
“Kind, little soul? What makes you think that I am kind?”
For the first time, the old man’s soul looks down at the body it once brought life into. Gesturing at it, he explains, “You are here, keeping an old, broken man company as he departs this world instead of being off somewhere, enjoying the attention of other gods, as young and beautiful as you. I call that kindness.” He looks back at her. “I was afraid of dying alone.”
“No one dies alone,” the goddess states. “My family exists to ensure that this much is true.”
“Thank you, dear,” the old man says, nodding in grateful approval. “Now, let me repay you with a little piece of advice from an old man at the verge of eternity. Do yourself a favor, and make sure you don’t live alone either.”
Alma gives his strange words a minute to settle in her mind before answering. “I appreciate your advice, little soul, but your time grows thin. I need to know where you wish to go from here.”
“You mean I can choose what happens after I die?”
“Your soul will be restored to the endless cycle of life and death,” Alma explains. “This, you cannot change. But how you get there is completely up to you. A long journey or ascension into the Heavens, or a brief stay in a lavish dining hall, all are acceptable options to keep your soul busy as it is absorbed by the inner workings of Time and Fate.”
The ghost seems to consider these options for a while, rubbing a spectral chin with a ghostly hand. “I’m done walking and am really not that hungry. But… there is one thing I wish for myself, if it’s not much trouble.”
“Speak it and I will see what I can do.”
“I was a slave my whole life, shackled and beaten,” the old man says, looking at the arms of his soul as if they were still held bound by shackles, the marks of which Alma can see adorning the corpse laid by her feet. “And if I can have anything I want for my afterlife then, please, turn me into a mayfly.”
“A mayfly?” Alma asks in confusion.
The old man’s ghostly lips part in a nostalgic smile. “When I was a young man, I was sent to work in a workshop near a lake. Worked there for twenty years, and every year, when the time was right, the Change would happen and mayflies would invade the area, flying frantically in the sunlight and disappearing the next day.” His lips part even further as he says, “I was happy there…”
“An adult mayfly will only last one day,” the goddess notes.
“Yes…” the old man nods. “And that’s what I’ve always wanted. To live only for a day, but be free for a lifetime.”
Alma nods back and assures him, “I will see what I can do.”
“Thank you,” the ghost utters its final words.
As the final strands of the bond connecting the old man’s soul to his body finally break, Alma gathers what was once a grown man’s soul in her cupped hands and quietly leaves the rapidly cooling corpse to be found by some late-night stroller. Moving in solemn haste, she makes her way to the bridge she knows exists nearby as she feels some of her divine power being replenished in the fulfillment of her calling. She stops in the middle of the bridge, looks down at the waterfalls and then up again, to the little glittery form she holds in her hands.
“It is not a lake, I know. But it is the best I can do right now,” the goddess says apologetically.
She opens her hands, releasing a bright, glowing mayfly, made of nothing but energy and promise. As the goddess turns to leave, it flies away, tumbling and twirling in newfound joy, slowly fading away against the bashful light of the rising sun. Heading back to the station, Alma sighs as the old man’s words echo in her mind.
“Free… for a lifetime…”
…Nasceste, ser pequenino You were born, little being
Para ser livre e ser feliz To be free and happy
Nas tuas mãos jaz um destino In your hands lays a destiny
Construído de raíz Built from scratch
Para ser chão sob os teus pés, To be a ground beneath your feet
O horizonte à tua frente. The horizon in front of you
Nasceste para viver como és You were born to be as you are
E morrer, por fim, docemente… And to die, at last, gently…