Aphelion Issue 244, Volume 23
October 2019
 
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Soul Searching

by Saki Channing


"Spare them!" I begged, falling on my knees.

The witch just laughed. Pendarson and Sharon banged on the walls, flustered at finding themselves inside small concrete cells, when we'd just been in front of the theater seconds before. I could see them through the transparent fourth wall, but they could not see me. They had had no warning. They had done nothing wrong. My fault.

Oily green ropes, slack against the walls, came to life and wrapped around their wrists and ankles, necks and waists, binding them against the walls. Then the drops of water began to fall. I saw them start, at the cold wetness, but they could not look up. The drops ran into their heads, down through their hearts and innards, speeding rapidly through until, one by one, they began to drip from the bottom of their feet, disappearing into thin air.

Their faces twisted in horror and I watched, impotent, and felt it was a mercy when they fainted and their bodies went still and pale as plaster.

"They're being cleaned," said the witch. "The liquid is washing the essence from their vessels. Right now, you see, their feet are almost gone. Once their minds go, they will be dead."

I saw. The skin of their toes had already gone transparent, a silver liquid glittering within. I trembled, and the witch laughed and laughed until I hoped her guts might rupture.

"It's your night off, you said!" she howled, doubling over. "I can't hurt you, you said! But your owner's protection doesn't extend to your friends, does it? Not so arrogant now, are you? Teach you to refuse a Goddess's request. Yes, go ahead, try and save your friends. I'll even give you a head start..."

I took off at a run, out of the punishment area, into the compound. Information. I needed to know how to stop the process. I needed to know where their essence was flowing to. It wouldn't just vanish into nothing. Souls didn't just vanish into nothing. Somewhere -- it had to reconstitute somewhere.

Luckily, the witch was large on bureaucracy. That meant mountains, trails, rivers of paper to follow. Once I tied up the administrator in the office I needed, it was easy to track the money trail, and come up with an address for a small shop on Gold Street.

I ran down the dozen flights of stairs -- the witch was too cheap to put elevators in her buildings, despite all her talk of modernization. On the third floor landing I met with resistance in the form of a man, short and rodent-like, and a girl with big hips and pigtails.

"Where are you going, comrade?" asked the girl, pushing me into the corner with a solid palm. "Where's your identification?"

I didn't have time for this. I was trying to decide whether to con my way out or just start punching when the door to the third floor slammed open, banging into the girl's hips. She cursed and the two whirled on the intruder, forgetting me.

It was a boy who appeared about my age, with Asiatic features and spiky black hair. He was well formed and carrying a stack of boxes piled precariously over his head, which all clattered to the ground when he collided with us.

"Mandate," the girl snarled, and the two of them commenced on an abusive rant, complete with slaps upside the head, in which the word 'mandate' was repeated many times. I wondered why he would put up with that.

He looked up at me through the rain of blows. His eyes were brown and clearly too intelligent to be hauling boxes.

"Who are you?"

"An intruder."

The other two remembered me and left off him, advancing. I was debating whether to run or fight, when the Mandate-boy decided for me by punching the girl right in the face. I took down her companion, then kicked her a few times while she was down, just because her hairstyle annoyed me. Then I ran.

The boy was following me, I noticed, when I ran out through the fire exit, setting off the alarms. We made it to the streetcar just as people began to pour from the exits.

The car lurched into motion with a flash of sparks on the blue overhead wire, and I sank into the very back seat with relief. The boy sat beside me.

"What did you help me for?" I asked, when I'd caught my breath.

"I was bored. Dead-end job anyway."

I saw the logic in this immediately, and cheered up. It seemed I had found a kindred spirit.

"What's your name?" he asked.

I thought awhile. "People usually just refer to me by my classification, so I guess I don't really have a name."

"Really?" his brow furrowed. I thought he was trying to figure out my classification when he said, "You're a girl, right?"

I glared at him.

"Of course you are!" he saved, putting his hands up. "You have so much yin, you couldn't be anything else. I'm sorry, I just can't see your face so well. You really have a lot of yin...almost no yang."

"My brother has all the yang."

"Aah, you're a divided soul -- one half of a whole. I've never met one before. That's why I can't see you well, isn't it. Well, I'll call you Yin then. I'm Henry."

That was an odd name. He noticed my thought and hurried to explain. "It used to be something else, but since we've modernized...Henry sounds really modern, doesn't it?"

I didn't have the heart to tell him it was considered old-fashioned. Plus mentioning I'd been downside recently would detract cool points. "Why did they call you Mandate?" I asked instead.

"Oh, that's short for 'Mandate of Heaven'," he said. "When the Jade Emperor fell, and the Red Goddess took over the administration, her own followers came with her. They call ones like me, who were left over from the Jade Emperor's administration, 'mandates.'"

And no doubt regulated them to second-rate jobs too. This Red Goddess he was talking about was the witch. I'd forgotten that's what she called herself.

"Where are you going now?" I asked.

"With you." He shrugged. "I can't go back to the administrative compound now, not for another century at least."

"I'm surprised you're going back at all."

"I'm just a minor clerk. If I stay away a hundred years or so, it's possible my actions will have been forgiven and I'll be able to slip back into my old job."

"Or you could reapply when the witch is overthrown."

He prudently looked scared at my blasphemy and didn't comment. "So where are you going?"

"To save my friends," I said. "The witch is washing their essence out of their vessels."

He nodded. If he found anything weird about the whole thing he didn't say.

The car stopped at the Strip and most of the passengers, including us, emptied out. The Strip was different from the district of colorless concrete, boxy buildings we had just left. That district had formerly housed the Jade Pagoda and the Gardens of Eternal Beauty -- not so eternal after all, but that was the way it was here. Things that endured for millennia vanished in a day and were replaced by new monuments.

The Strip was a cacophony of neon lights, masses of noisy people, loud drunken laughter and techno and hip-hop music. Gravity-defying buildings of metal and tinted glass leaned at impossible angles. The car stop was in front of a popular night club. As expected, it was crammed with people, some even pressed against the glass wall. I craned my neck to look at them and saw a face I knew.

"Niichan da," I said.

"Huh?" asked Henry.

"Look, that man up there with spiked hair, the Land of Thousands Gods man, is my older brother." I waved at him. He spotted me and was joined by my friend, who put one arm around his waist and waved to me with the other. "That's his girlfriend and my best friend," I explained.

"You don't look alike at all. Is he your yang half?"

"No, that's my real brother. This one was just my brother for a little while, but we keep in touch." The pair of them were motioning for me to join them. I shook my head and pointed at my watch. "I'll come later," I mouthed. My friend pulled out her cell phone and pointed to it. I pulled out mine to show her I understood.

"You have a message," chirped my phone. I searched for the message, which was a hidden one of course, while making my way towards Gold Street. Hidden messages are annoying, because you have to peel away layers and layers of security to get to them. But they were necessary -- the ether rodents were breeding like mad nowadays, and if you didn't protect your messages the stupid things ate them before they could get to your phone.

It was a message about my brother. Apparently he'd been promoted, but it didn't give details. Trust her to let me know. Niichan was so lazy about things like that.

"If she's your best friend, why are you bothering with the others?"

"Huh?"

"You said she's the best one. So why are you going through all this trouble to save the others?"

"Listen, friends aren't things you can replace. No matter how many you have, each one has value. Not to mention what happened to these friends was my fault."

"Are you a mortal soul? I didn't think you were, but you sound like it." He made a sniffing motion. "And you smell like Red Dust."

"I used to be mortal," I said. "But I've been modified. Look." I opened my collar a little and showed him the red scars that crisscrossed my chest.

"A modified soul...I'd fire your surgeon by the way. Those scars look awful."

"It wasn't voluntary."

"So what did you do to offend the Red Goddess?"

"I refused a summons to serve her."

"Why would she summon you in the first place? You don't belong to her, do you?"

"I don't belong to any God. I just work for anyone who can contract my Service."

"Why didn't you just serve her then? Are you morally opposed or something? I was loyal to the Jade Emperor, but he wasn't exactly kind to everyone either. Once, he got angry at some dragons for trying to save a village from drought, and to punish them for meddling, he destroyed not only the village, but all the lands around it. But he left the dragons alive, to suffer in their guilt."

"No, no, I'm not a morals kind of person. It's just that it was my day off -- do you know how many days off I get in a millennium? Not many. So excuse me for not wanting to answer her summons when I had plans to see a movie with friends. Plus she's not the kind of master I care to serve -- I really happened to like the Gardens of Eternal Beauty, and I don't like the way she redecorated."

A mortal soul would never have taken that for an answer, but Henry seemed to find it a reasonable excuse.

"So what does the Red Goddess want you for?"

"She didn't say. But usually when a God goes out of their way to find me it's to put me back into the Red Dust and make me do their bidding."

Henry looked fittingly appalled.

"Gods are supposed to go through my Handler, you see. But some Gods just don't have any respect for protocol. Like the God of Jerusalem. Just because I was born in one of his countries, he kept trying to recruit me by sending me nightmares about the Apocalypse."

"The next Apocalypse isn't for a long time."

"I know, but try remembering simple facts like that when you've Red Dust coursing through your veins."

He narrowed his eyes at me and I wondered if he'd figured it out yet. I'm not one of a kind, though you could say that within my kind I'm a bit of the odd-man out. I never get invited to sing with the choir -- even though I have a really good voice.

We reached the address. It was a shopping plaza, a two-story building that housed various shops, but out-dated and run down.

I went through the glass revolving door, scratching absently at a strip of fossilized scotch tape. The inner plaza was missing tiles and most of the shops were empty and boarded up.

There was a light in one, a dry cleaner.

I went in, Henry following. The dry cleaner was small, well-lit, and perfectly normal, with suits wrapped in plastic hanging on a rack. An old lady with a wide mouth smeared in red lipstick sat behind the counter.

A bell dinged and a hatch in the wall opened, revealing two new suits, cleaned and folded. As I watched, the old lady shook the suits out and hung them on the rack.

"New items?" I asked, indicating the two.

"Yes, freshly pressed," she intoned.

"I'll take them," I said, slapping down a stack of virtues on the counter.

She eyed the virtues greedily. Virtues, or good deeds cashed in, are the hardest form of currency around here. Instant karma points. She took the two suits in her ancient claws and folded them, wrapping them carefully in paper.

I watched, trying not to let my impatience show, lest she get suspicious.

But I didn't breath until the packages, tied together with string, were safe in my arms.

I bowed and backed out, but as I did the phone rang. The old lady answered it and looked up with a Command in her eyes.

I froze, feeling like a ten-ton weight had been dropped on my back.

"Yes, yes someone of that description did come into my shop," the old lady was saying into the phone. "Yes, I understand." She hung up and said to me, "That was the Red Goddess."

"Really?" I said, working, sweating. She moved a finger and Henry and I stepped towards her.

With a twist of effort I broke the Command and put my arm around Henry's head.

"Do you know who he is?"

The old lady hesitated and I took the momentum. "This is one of the Red Goddess's drones. One of her favorites. Make a move and he's dust! I swear on the Thousands Gods I'll do it!"

She lowered her eyes in acquiescence and, holding Henry, I backed away.

I held him until we got out the door. Then I pushed him away and shouted, "Run!"

"But -- "

"Run!"

I separated from him and followed my own advice. The hall was short but I couldn't get outside. Places were like that here -- you could walk just about anywhere in five minutes but sometimes you just couldn't get somewhere no matter what you tried.

I ran into the men's bathroom instead, thinking that they would expect a woman to hide in the ladies room. Then I remembered, too late, hovering behind the sinks, that Henry hadn't been able to tell if I were a boy or girl.

The bathroom door slammed open. Two men in suits walked in. I hugged the essences of Pendarson and Sharon's souls to me, heart beating wildly. I was afraid. I didn't know the dead could be this afraid.

A light flashed, forming a barrier of brightness between the men and me and lighting a window that, in my panic, I had forgotten to call into existence. I jumped up the wall and scrambled through it, taking care not to rip the souls' packaging.

####

I found Henry waiting for me outside. There was no sign of pursuit, but I pulled him along quickly anyway.

"Sorry about in there," I said. "I wouldn't have really hurt you."

"I know. It took me by surprise though. For a split second I actually believed you."

"Really?" I asked, flattered.

"What are you going to do next?"

"I don't know," I said mournfully, looking down at the precious packages I held. "Even if I could get their vessels back from the witch, I don't have the spiritual level to perform the miracle necessary to put the two back together, and I spent most of my virtues at the dry cleaners. But if I don't get these souls back into my friends they'll never be born and I'll never get to meet them."

Henry got a serious look on his face. He reached out to touch me and I jerked away, too late.

"You're not all here," he said accusingly.

Great. He was figuring it out. There went our budding friendship.

"I'm here and I'm there," I said defensively.

"You're in the Red Dust right now."

"Not technically...well only a little. According to my internal time stream I am in the middle of an incarnation but in this external stream it hasn't happened yet."

"That's why your features are unclear."

"Yes, and it's why I smell. I get it. Sorry, but there's nothing I can do about it. And anyway a drone whose God is in eclipse really has no room to look down on me."

He turned and walked back the direction we came and I stopped, ashamed.

"Look, Henry, I'm sorry. That was uncalled for."

He kept walking.

"I know you're not really a drone," I called, and saw a stutter in his step. "I know you're the one who saved me back there, from the witch."

He stopped.

"Thank you, Henry," I said, approaching him. "I owe you a Service."

Offering a Service was a big deal and Henry knew it. "Do you usually go around offering pieces of yourself so easily?" he asked.

"It's all I have to offer. Though I don't really own it. You'll have to negotiate the terms of it with my Handler when you decide to collect."

He sighed, and turned to look at me. "If you went to the Red Goddess willingly she might restore your friends."

"She won't. I insulted her. She's not just going to forgive me, no matter what I offer."

"You're so sure?"

"You know her better than me. What do you think?"

There was a pause. "The Red Goddess is still young. I think you're right."

I shifted Sharon and Pendarson in my arms. My fault. If I couldn't save them, then it would be the same as if I had murdered them. And the murder hadn't been forced on me by a contract. I'd done this all myself -- through my arrogance. It was just as the witch had said. I was arrogant. I thought that since the worst had already happened to me then nothing else bad could.

Henry noticed the change in me. "Hey, don't despair. They're not completely dead. It takes more than that to destroy a soul. And you've taken their essences back from the Goddess at least."

I nodded, trying to focus on the small hope his words gave.

"Is there anyone you can go to?"

"My Handler," I said. "I don't know what he will do, but I can consult him."

"Then that's what we'll do."

####

Sometimes no matter how you try there are some places you can't get to. But to make up for it, there are times when you take a step and all of a sudden you're there. Maybe it was Henry's presence, maybe it was the urgency of my mission, but this was one of those times.

Stretched out before us was a valley filled with clear pools. In them you could see the reflection of the clouds, though there were no clouds overhead. Beside one pool was a youth, blue of skin, with hair and eyes that mirrored the void, and a robe that looked as if he'd cut out a piece of nebula and wrapped it around himself. He was squatting down, chin on his knees, peering avidly into the contents of the pool.

I stepped around the pools, careful not to look directly into any one of them, though I caught glimpses. A woman crooning a lullaby, attendants pulling a white shroud over a corpse, a city burning to the ground. I shuddered and moved on.

"Too much TV is bad for your eyes, you know," I said, when I was beside him.

He peered up, irritated. He gave Henry a second glance before going back to his show.

"What do you want this time?" he asked. "I don't have anything for you."

"I've angered the Red Goddess."

"You're always angering someone."

"I need to restore my friends' souls," I said, holding out the packages.

"So?"

"So, I'm already contracted out for this mortal span, aren't I? I want to know who it is so I can ask for help."

"You know you can't know that until it is time for you to know it."

I squatted down beside him and tried not to get frustrated. There was a reason we'd been able to come here so easily -- he had some piece of help or advice to offer me. That was the way things worked here.

"The Red Goddess took my friends, separated the essences of their souls from their vessels. Is there no law against that?"

"She's a Goddess. She can do whatever she wills."

"Even to those who belong to other Gods?"

"Do they belong to other Gods?"

It was on the tip of my tongue to say that everyone belongs to a God. But then my brain caught up with me. I didn't know which Gods my friends belonged to. And maybe the reason I didn't know was that they didn't belong to any single God.

"You've realized it," my Handler said, hearing my thoughts. "The stream you're in is in a period of transition and loss of faith. Old Gods are becoming obsolete and new ones are coming into being. It's a dangerous time to run afoul of anyone. The Laws are less clear."

"Then what can I do to save them?"

"Whatever you're willing to do."

"I would go back to the Red Goddess if I thought it would work. But I don't think it would. I need to go in with some leverage...When does my next term of service start?"

"You'll know when it starts."

"Okay, let me rephrase that. You know when my service starts because you negotiated its terms. Can you get me a buyer -- someone willing to take Service in exchange for saving my friends -- or at least putting their souls back together?"

He looked away from his pool then, but only to look into my face so that I could see him laugh.

"You're trying to offer Service? You are aware, aren't you, who owns your Service?"

I gritted my teeth. He could be such a bastard sometimes. Then again, I could be one right back.

"You seem to have a lot of spare time on your hands," I said. "Get promoted again recently?"

"Yes."

"Must be nice, sitting around painting skies while the karma points march in on their own."

His shoulders stiffened and I felt a twinge of guilt. He had, after all, raised me to a brief moment of significance by choosing me to be the instrument that saved the living world. The realization that the world needed saving in the first place was his doing as well -- all the other Gods, not bothering to observe the time streams, put all the ominous signs down to the scheduled Apocalypse. You'd think he would have been promoted to the next level of existence for that catch, but here he was millennia later, still an Artist.

The first Law of Heaven I ever learned was the Law of Truth. At the time, I didn't know how to work around it -- how to bend the truth or avoid it or veil it in riddles in order to fool your opponent without actually uttering a lie. I had a hard time with it at first, but after millennia of being forced to tell the truth, I've discovered there are times when honesty really is the best policy.

"Henry, can you give us a moment?" I asked.

He nodded and tuned us out, kneeling to look into a pool. I watched him a moment in concern, but he didn't seem about to fall in, as lesser beings were apt to do.

I turned to my Handler, dropped the sarcastic shields I'd put around my emotions, and beamed at him, letting my affection shine freely.

"You play dirty," he muttered, as the blast ate through his shields as well. We used the sarcastic shields to save face -- to fool others into thinking we felt as it was natural to feel. On his part, the contempt for a lesser being he'd tricked into servitude. On my part, resentment at being tricked and enslaved. But the truth is we quite like each other.

This truth embarrasses him a lot more than it does me. "I'll post a bulletin," he grumbled. "Just make it stop."

"Thank you," I said. Then I smirked and the veneer was back. I called out to Henry, breaking the spell so that he could hear me, and at that moment a message dropped like a rock into my phone, so heavy I thought the thing would rip through my pocket.

I wrestled it out. The message was an official notice, written on a stone tablet. No wonder it was so heavy. Some people just don't know how to upgrade.

"We need to make a side trip," I said to Henry when I'd read it.

"No problem."

As we left I looked back once at my Handler. He had already forgotten us, and was in the posture we'd first found him in. He was watching the pool avidly, his eyes lit and his lips parted in fascination. It was unfashionable to show such love for the living, but he did it nonetheless. Maybe that's why I cared for him so.

"You sold your soul to an Artist?" asked Henry when we were away from the pools. "Don't most of your kind sell themselves to the higher classes of Demons at least?"

"He's not just any Artist," I said defensively. "He once saved the world." To prevent further argument I activated the summons on the tablet, bringing us directly to our destination.

####

The Gates were tall. So tall they seemed to about to fall upon you as you craned your neck looking up. The sky behind them was dark and stormy, lit white with flashes of lightning and red with falling brimstone. A strong smell of sulfur mixed with wails of Despair wafted over on an inopportune breeze and Henry covered his nose with his sleeve.

"We're not actually going in there, are we?"

"No, I just have to pick up a friend."

"You have a lot of friends," he said accusingly.

"I'm a very sociable person. Will you hold these for now?" I handed him the souls. "If he attacks me, take them and run. I'll catch up later."

"I thought he was your friend."

"He is."

The ground shook slightly and the Gates rumbled ever so slightly open. Henry backed away and I moved in for a closer look. I was interested to see what it looked like. If I hadn't sold my soul into servitude, I probably would have had to do time in there as well.

But all I managed to see was a blur as my friend shot out of the Gates and tackled me.

He was wearing an avatar that was humanoid, but with scales and horns. After whirling me around he dipped me, as if in a dance, and planted a big, wet kiss on my mouth. He reeked of brimstone.

"Enough of that," I gasped when he let me come up for air. I put a hand over his mouth to prevent him from doing it again.

"Come on, darling, show a little love. I've been behind bars for four millennia."

"How was it, by the way?"

"It was Hell. What do you think? Let's get out of here and go somewhere quiet. I need a drink like you wouldn't believe."

My pile of virtues was steadily shrinking, but a friend was a friend -- and I owed this friend big.

####

My recently liberated friend didn't even notice Henry until he sat down at the same table as us, wrinkling his nose at the dirty bar.

"Who's this then? Keeping exalted company these days, aren't we, darling."

"It's a long story."

"That calls for a drink then! Barkeep, three holy waters."

"You know I don't drink."

"Fine, make that two holy waters. My girlfriend will have a nectar."

"That's your boyfriend?" Henry asked in an undertone.

"No," I said, just as the Demon answered, "Yes."

We glared at each other. "Still devoted to my former roommate, then?"

"Yes."

He laughed. "Fine. Just give it a little time. Now that I'm out I can show you what a real Demon's like."

The drinks came and I sipped at my nectar, thinking that maybe going back into the Red Dust so soon wasn't such a bad thing after all.

Henry drank his holy water without a hitch, but the second my would-be boyfriend touched his glass the water in it began to sizzle and hiss. Unperturbed by this, he took a gulp.

"How can you stand the stuff?"

He smacked his scalded lips in satisfaction. "Burns all the way down. So what have you been up to, darling? A birdie inside told me you were empire-building."

"Not at the moment. I'm in a spot of trouble actually."

"You? No."

"Do you know the Red Goddess?"

"Who's that? New girl in town?"

A plan was forming. "Yeah. She tore down the Jade Emperor's Gardens of Eternal Beauty and built a bureaucratic complex on top of it."

"Young and ruthless, just the way I like them."

"She's a virgin too, I hear," I said slyly. "She refuses to take a consort. She's very into her ideals."

I saw him perk up. "You don't say. She lives where the Gardens use to be?"

"That's right. My friend and I were on our way there when your summons came, actually. Care to tag along?"

"Why not. I'm free anyway." Then he laughed at his pun and took another swig.

####

The administration complex was in an uproar. Aides and guards were running around with mounds of paperwork in their hands.

"What's this all about?" I asked Henry, who shrugged. I hadn't thought the Red Goddess would make this big a deal over me.

The wind shifted, blowing the stack of flyers out of an aide's arms. One of the sheets came flapping over to us and I caught it out of the air.

It was a missing poster, and it had Henry's face plastered on it.

I stared at Henry. "Want to tell me why she's panicking over losing a minor clerk?"

Henry shifted guiltily and I smiled, a bit evilly, thinking maybe I'd found the leverage I needed.

"You're only guessing it now, darling?" asked my Demon friend behind me. "Just look at the guy."

"My eyes aren't as good as yours," I said, but I was putting two and two together.

So was Henry. "I don't want to go back. It's boring."

"You'll have to go back eventually."

"Yeah, eventually."

"The Red Goddess is bound to find you soon and drag you back. None of the other Gods will hide you. It's against the Laws."

"So you're asking me to turn myself in now, in exchange for your friends."

"Not just for my friends. If we play this right we all stand to gain. Look -- I kidnapped you, all right? Me and my Demon friend. If we threaten to hold you hostage, the Red Goddess will acquiesce to our terms -- she has to keep you safe, right? Or else risk breaking the Law."

"You've become quite the little lawyer, love," said the Demon. He looked at Henry. "Best listen to her, mate. I've never met anyone better at double-crossing and betrayal."

"We'll ask her for whatever you want. Days off, higher pay, more respect -- anything you want. All I want out of it is my friends."

"What about me?" said the Demon. "I'm in on this too, I assume."

"You can ask for whatever you want, so long as it doesn't hurt our chances for making a deal -- you're the negotiator by the way. I'm too low a classification to be taken seriously."

"I'll think about what I want then -- but I want something from you, too."

"What?"

"You know what."

"Fine! But only once, and not until after my next contract is up."

"Can I make your boyfriend watch?"

"Only if he wants to."

The Demon snickered with glee. "I'll look him up and ask him. So what is it you want, mate?"

This last was addressed to Henry, who didn't look happy.

"Still not convinced?"

He looked at me. "How can I trust you?"

"I owe you a Service, remember? I'm smarter than to try and double-cross a future employer."

"Mind if I Look at you?"

"You can still do that?"

"To some extent."

"Then go ahead, if it'll help you trust me."

He Looked, and I felt cold and naked as my past, possible future streams, and emotions were laid open for him to see.

When the Look ended I gasped and adjusted my clothes, which, of course, were exactly as they'd been when the Look began.

Henry met my eyes and held them for a long moment before he said. "I want festivals and red Days off and access to the Library. And one mortal life."

The Demon whistled at this as he disappeared to go see the Goddess.

"A mortal life?" I asked when the Demon was gone.

"Yes. It looks interesting, judging from you memories."

"But...it's the Red Dust! You're in pain all the time, from the minute you're born to the minute you die. And your nature is confined by its physical form. You'll forget everything and go along your entire life in uncertainty and ignorance."

"You don't."

"I don't even begin to remember until ten years have passed -- and then the remembering is painful and incomplete. Imagine knowing you have a purpose but not knowing what. Or feeling the guilt of a crime you can't remember, or not being able to love anyone because you've already devoted your heart to someone you've never met."

"It's not as bad as you're saying. I've seen your memories. You like being alive. Or liked it. That's why you're still wearing that form. You look as you did the day your life ended and your period of servitude began."

I shouldn't have let him Look. But I tried to play down the significance of his words, saying, "Most people who come up here want to look like they're in their teens or twenties again, right? Since I was already there, it was more convenient to just stay the way I was."

"Scars and all?"

"I changed them to scars. The way they were before, they kept bleeding all over my clothes."

"If you weren't fond of your mortal life, then why would you keep this form to remind yourself? Even those in the lowest choir of the lowest sphere are entitled to wings, at the least."

"Okay, so I was fond of it. I'm just trying to tell you it's not like taking a vacation. There is suffering involved. And the Laws are completely different. People can lie in the mortal world, you know -- and they do. They'll say whatever they want to trick you."

"That's why I'll wait until you're free and contract you to go with me, as a guide and guardian."

I scowled, but couldn't keep it up. My heart was already telling him how his words honored me.

"Even an Emperor can learn from humility," he said. "What better way to learn it than by returning to Dust? Maybe then I can experience compassion and friendship firsthand...it can only make me stronger, as a ruler."

The Demon returned then with a grin, smelling no longer of brimstone but of ink and perfume.

"That girl is not nearly so uptight as you made her out to be," he said to me, handing me two pendants, one of wood and one of metal. "Negotiations complete -- couldn't get red days off for you, sorry, mate. But you have festivals and the Library and she's not sure about the trip to the living world, but she's willing to discuss it with you personally."

"I see. That's acceptable." He nodded to the Demon, then at me. "I'll be awaiting your return to collect my Service."

"May you ascension be swift," I said, keeping my bow until he'd walked into the complex.

The Demon seemed amused. "You get around, don't you, sweetheart. We'll have to have a talk about that when you become my girlfriend. But for now, I'm off to collect my payment from the Goddess. Don't wait up for me." He gave me a quick kiss then disappeared as well.

I held the pendants up in the light -- Sharon and Pendarson's vessels -- feeling a beautiful relief. Hugging the various pieces of my friends, I proceeded to the valley of pools.

####

"There was a bite," my Handler informed me. "A permit for two miracles, to be performed by me."

"What was the price?"

"You can't know. But you have an idea how these things go. Are you willing to pay it?"

No regrets, that's my motto -- not because I've always lived as I pleased, but because if I was to start regretting things I've done or been made to do, then it would be a one-way ticket to Despair.

"I'll pay it. Whatever the price. So long as it saves my friends."

He nodded and I handed him the packages and the vessels then walked away. It wouldn't do for someone as lowly as me to watch -- might jinx the miracle.

"It's done," he said after a time. "Sharon's gone to be born already. Pendarson followed to wait on the wing."

I was to be born before Pendarson but after Sharon, if my future-memory served me correctly.

"Which pool shows Earth?" I asked, for that was where I was to go.

He pointed and I knelt beside the pool, eager to witness Sharon's birth.

But her birth was not what the pool showed me. Instead it showed me large events, happenings that slipped from my memory as soon as I saw them, leaving me with nothing but the knowledge that I'd seen something terrifying.

Tears fell from my eyes, causing tiny ripples in the pool, but I wasn't powerful enough to pull myself away.

"Don't worry," my Handler whispered in my ear, kneeling beside me. "You'll forget it all once the Red Dust courses through your veins. You'll be able to proceed in ignorance, for a time."

I felt his hand on my back and my eyes widened. "No, not yet. I don't want to -- "

"Be strong," he whispered, and shoved. I tilted forward and fell into the sky.

THE END


© 2008 Saki Channing

Bio: Saki Channing was a student of Political Science and Asian Studies in New Orleans, fortunately graduating before the Hurricane Katrina Urban Renewal Program. She currently resides in Japan, where the ramen noodles are presumably fresher... Her most recent appearance in Aphelion was The Door, May 2007; since she is on the verge of entering law school, we may not hear from her again for some time!

E-mail: Angel Tenfor, a.k.a. Saki Channing

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