"Who dares presume to intrude upon this hallowed sanctuary!"
The intruder turned her head to regard the gigantic reptilian owner of the voice. Its horned, golden-scaled head, as large as his body, had risen from the storm-ravaged skies, completely overcast with heavy grey clouds and lightning that tore through the heavens accompanied by furiously crashing thunder. Baring a pair of fangs like daggers, the dragon regarded the stranger with eyes that burned with the wrath of divine judgment.
"I would have thought," the dragon continued in a sibilant voice that held the authority of a divine being, an authority accustomed to respect and obedience from the very laws of nature themselves, "Hoped, at least, that the same mistakes would not be repeated after last time. Would you have your entire world destroyed? And for what? Pride? Curiosity? Some foolish nonsense about reaching an eternal paradise? Nothing like that exists for you here. You won't be able to reach heaven before you're in your grave, I'm afraid, but I'm happy to put you there. Trust me, it'd be more merciful than allowing you to open that gate. It isn't built for mortals to look upon."
No reply came from the trespasser. Instead, she gazed back up at the great gate, ancient as time itself, divine in origin. Carved from marble, it hung seemingly in mid-air at the end of a serene garden of pristine white flowers that seemed to move in their own invisible wind. The double doors were sealed shut without a crack, sealed with a circle of glowing crimson runes in the middle of an incantation the size of a spellbook that spiraled out from the centre. Too vast and heavy for any creature in the world to push, there was no apparent way to open them. She knew how they opened, though. Not by force, or even by a spell: by destiny, knowing the right time, place and words.
Enraged that his command was not even acknowledged, that the miscreant would not even face him, the dragon ascended entirely to hover above the floating garden, revealing the full size of its serpentine body, covered in serrated scales, the tail ending in a sharp spike the size of a halberd's blade. He whirled his tail-spike around in a theatrical flourish, to demonstrate that he had full control over the appendage. The greatsword he held in two hands that extended from his upper body crackled with the same lightning that rent the sky, embodying the disturbed peace of this place.
"A false sanctuary," muttered the stranger, stretching out one arm and unfurling his fingers. Flames blossomed in the palm of his hand, "It's meaningless. Just another cut rope so nobody can get to the top. Not interested in being here any more."
Not dignifying this with a response, the dragon struck, lashing out with his tail then wheeling sideways to swing at the trespasser with his brilliantly lit sword. Both blows passed straight through the figure of the mortal human woman, sending out splintered reflections, as though she were a mere shadow cast by the flames. She reappeared in the same place, never looking away from the gate or breaking her chant, even as she twirled her other wrist and sent a stream of fireballs at the dragon.
The celestial warden suddenly wondered how she had even found this place, as obviously unaccompanied by a beast who leads, or any other guide, as she was. That, and why he felt he had already seen her before...
"I am the lion with the flaming mane," she whispered to the barista behind the counter, "I was captured by the enemy once, but I won't let my guard down again."
The old man, Camellian dark-skinned, his black hair beginning to whiten and recede, although he still had a fine layer of frizzy facial hair, met her eyes and stared at her thoughtfully. She knew what he was examining her for - truth, mostly - and she saw it in his eyes, too. After a few seconds, he nodded and pointed to the back room.
"Don't forget your coffee," he reminded her, grinning. She took the tray containing a strong black coffee and a sandwich that was her late lunch with her through the door marked 'staff only', avoiding the gazes of the few patrons this time of night and trying to look like she was going to the bathroom and not avoiding suspicion at all.
The back room looked more or less like just a smaller, more private room to be insomniac and pay through the nose for drinks in. There were no windows, the lighting was rather spartan and there was a slight dusty smell. On a sofa in the corner beside a glass coffee table, a young-looking woman from Medium Lily with slightly feline features in a yellow dress penned some notes in a battered old notebook full of bookmark tabs, photographs and clippings and sipped at a cup of tea next to a pot. As soon as the newcomer opened the door, the girl looked up at her with those telltale faraway eyes. A young man from Camellia, only slightly older than the woman, dressed in a shabby brown jacket and jeans looked away from his sandwich too, glancing meaningfully at the woman.
"It's okay. She's on the level," said the woman, "Lion, I think."
The newcomer nodded, "That's right."
"Awakened long?" she asked.
"You have no idea," replied the newcomer. The young woman looked her over. She was a mature woman with flowing curls of auburn hair who wore a long red shirt tied with a belt over black jeans and long boots. She carried a messenger bag, which she deposited under the table as she sat beside the other two and resumed eating her lunch.
"Had no idea there were others, though," she continued between bites, "That was Ramsey at the counter, right?"
"Calls himself Rami. Doesn't like the outside world to know too much about him," said the boy, "We can't really help it. We're in this deeper than him. This is Chai, by the way."
"I noticed," I said.
"I don't look any different, no matter how many times. I can't," she said, "Our whole line is like this. He's the boy who escaped Camellia."
"The boy with eyes that glittered brighter than the desert," repeated the other woman.
"Pure poetry. Nothing's brighter than the desert, or more dangerous. It'll blind you," he warned.
"I'm Bernadette, this time around," she said.
"They never named me the first time," he shrugged, "I go by Lucien. You'll meet Kitty. Maybe Linus if he's not still busy doing something."
"His home," whispered Chai, "If the Lion's back, then his home..."
"If you mean the Ice Palace, and 'Linus' is what Penguy's calling himself, then yes, I had to go through there. I was trapped for a long time. Then I wandered into Root Temple," said Bernadette, "Didn't meet anyone else, though. Well, nobody who could have come back as any kind of ordinary person."
"Well, well. Two cases of Awakening in one week. Lucien's new, too," said Chai, "Woke up remembering his journey. Realised it wasn't a dream. You're all lucky, you know. You only see your own."
"You see lots of things?"
"All of it. And I'm starting to see how wrong it's gone," she said, looking more sad than anything, "You should have listened to what I had to say in the first place. Shouldn't have run off. I told you it was important. You should have just come back. Shouldn't have come back late, come back wrong..."
Lucien caught her before she could collapse, held her tight. Her teaspoon still clattered to the ground.
"It's all right. Don't strain yourself," he told her, helping her to sit back down, "Kitty can't bring you back, you know. She can do some things but she can't go that far any more. Those gates don't open any more."
"Yes, they do," whispered Bernadette, "Just not if you wait patiently by the front door."
Chai and Lucien both strained to hear her for a moment but Bernadette's memory left her again. Then the younger woman shook her head, exasperated.
"It doesn't matter. You're right. We're never slaying our senses for it again," she declared, "Never lose our minds or our souls."
"You said it," Lucien smiled.
"The others are coming back in," said Chai, closing her eyes, "Linus looks too hot."
"Well, he's not allowed to take his shirt off again," said Lucien.
"I think it's cold down here, but I don't mind a bit of nudity," said Bernadette, chuckling. She finished her coffee and sighed, closing her eyes.
I remember Kitty already. I wouldn't have gotten through if it wasn't for her. None of us would. It's no wonder there's only nine of us. Stepping through that door is the only way to escape and if you don't use the route where they take away all your senses, the one she can't find you after, you go off the beaten track and invariably end up somewhere worse.
I was somewhere cold, colder than this. Trapped in the ice. The whole place was frozen, not like a lake, more like a computer system. One where everyone else had left and it just hadn't been quite turned off yet. I gasped for breath and knew I would be gone for good if nothing happened right now. My mind reached out and I found something. A flame, as small and bright and red-tinged as my own last breath. I brought it towards me with my mind and suddenly I was lying in a pool of water and I could move.
I dimly remembered that there should be someone else here but I could tell deep in my soul that nobody else still existed in the Universe. I could hear the Universe itself preparing to shut down. It was so quiet and still in this frozen garden I could hear the maintenance functions that were supposed to be in the background. A few moments of wandering later, lost and alone, I learned that they weren't loud, only very close.
That was when I fell through the floor, which was beginning to melt. It was melting under my own footsteps. The world lacked the strength to make it stop happening. I drifted in darkness, floating in water again, cold but not threateningly so. Something huge and unseen warmed me, or rather, the entire Ice Palace cooled it.
I managed enough of a flame to light my way, floating just above me, and saw how vast this underground lake was, the cavern stretching too far in every direction for me to see walls and a ceiling, only a vague sense of dark alcoves with the lights of simple gleaming eyes. Mostly, I saw the seven frozen apple trees. I mean, everyone's seen apple trees before, they're the only thing we have worth making money off in this village apart from tourism, but these were different. More like primal archetypes than actual trees. Enormous, eternal, I swear all the apples on it were the golden sort, not just the rare mutation we've stopped getting these days. Their roots were hidden in the water. I understood how far they connected to everything. And I was afraid as if I were logging into the Universe as root.
What did I find down there? The Leviathan, still in His palace. He wasn't going to leave, not with everything that was going on in the new world. Soon, he told me in my mind, the old world would return to the place it had started, where he could rejoin what he had always been just a vessel for.
He was the one to tell me not to trust the new world. He said some things about seeds transplanted, about how we were like golden apples ourselves, and that golden apples also meant chaos. Then I was in that same darkness we all found ourselves in, before we woke up.
And I understood that it wasn't a dream.
The Goddess was there again when I walked past the plaza today. She sat on the bench by the marble statue of Her that had been built as a centrepiece for the fountain. The Corona sat by Her side as always, staring out at nothing, a vague smile on his face. She caught my eye as I tried to walk past, picking up my pace and wishing one of the others were here, just in case this went south.
"It's a peaceful day," she remarked in a sigh of a voice coupled with a benevolent smile. I looked around me and shrugged. The sun was pleasant, not overpowering, sparkling in the fountain's flowing water and shimmering on the grass where the flowers swayed in the gentle breeze outside the Church on the Hill. On a bench in the corner of the plaza next to the terraced gardens, the old man sat, smoking his pipe as always.
"I prefer a slight chill in the air. I've come over from Freesia, remember," I said, trying to remain polite.
"Ah, yes, the south. Not a bad resemblance," she continued, staring pointedly up at her expertly crafted likeness. The statue was as old as the town, had been there since before anyone could remember except the old man and the Goddess, of course. The details were all correct - the tall, slender features, graceful but unimposing, the wavy shoulder-length hair, the ageless beauty that gave the impression of someone who cared for all - the only things that could not be conveyed in stone were the unusual lilac-blue shade of her hair, her dark eyes or the way her classical taste in white dresses with simple light blue striped sleeves and hem never seemed to pick up dirt or creases even though they almost swept the floor. They didn't show off the slight wrongness, either, but then nobody seem to notice it but me. The inscription on a silver plaque below it spoke some words about opening your heart, allowing the Goddess to show you the way, knowing what was truly important in life, philosophy that was beyond me. I had too many other voices in my head giving me nagging doubts about the most basic truths of the world to be allowed to trust anyone enough to surrender my soul to them, or to be allowed the satisfaction of only thinking about the basics of life. Even the old man looked wrong, sometimes, and he was the one certainty about the world, always there in the same place, all day, rain and shine. Maybe it was the fact that the things he reminisced about made no sense to me, even though he was the most sharp-minded old geezer I'd ever met. Heck, even the cow in the pasture looked wrong and all it cared about was eating flowers and getting fatter and lazier.
"I like to see that all my people are at peace," she remarked, "If you ever have any concerns, feel free to seek me out and talk with me. I can always be reached by people in need."
"You don't have a busy schedule?"
She laughed, a noise that sounded like the water sprayed from the fountain hitting the pool, "I'm not the King. When the world is at peace, so am I. The nature of the world and myself are as one. My being here is enough to keep the peace, and I am inside every drop of water, every blade of grass, so there is always something to keep me here. And I have the priest, or my Corona, to represent me in what duties I have in the mortal world."
"He looks asleep," I gave the brown-haired young man in the green traveler's tunic and the blue long-feathered cap an unconvinced look.
"He is seeing places that mortals cannot. Just in case. His job is mostly to watch, now that..."
"Now that what? Just in case what?"
"Just a bad dream I had. You worry, when you have so many to take care of. But it isn't really anything to worry about," she gave me another reassuring smile, "But I am going to have to interrupt him, I'm afraid. Our business here is finished for the day."
Then she snapped her fingers. The Corona wordlessly opened his eyes and stood up, following behind his Goddess as they slowly walked towards the chapel.
"There's something off about them," I whispered to the old man as I also left in the opposite direction, towards the coffee shop that used to be an apple farm that used to be an inn, "Both of them."
The old man didn't answer. It was as if he couldn't even hear me. As if one or the other of us didn't exist at all.
When Kitty got back, there was a newbie - a lady - and Linus was in the corner huddled next to her and Lucien, shivering, teeth chattering as they had some sort of private conversation.
"I know Ramsey needs to fix the fucking heating but trying to convince us you're cold is just going too far," Kitty drawled.
"Very funny," Linus hissed.
"You all right? You're freaking out a little. You look like you've seen a ghost."
"The Goddess. In the plaza."
"She know about us?"
"I don't think so. I don't know. I don't understand a word she says. She wasn't that interested in where I was going, though."
"I told you, we need to move to Burn Daisy again. There isn't anywhere to hide here, and there are too many people."
"We can't be too hard to find, or other Awakened won't be able to come to us," said Lucien. Generally speaking, those who remembered the old world could recognise each other by sight, sometimes they saw each other in their visions, but they didn't have a magical radar that allowed them to home in on people they'd never met.
"This is Bernadette. She's our Lion," explained Linus, "She has good awareness and even began to regain her old abilities. We've just been discussing ways to combine her fire with my ice."
"And I'm telling them to be careful with things like that," said Chai.
"I know it's dangerously powerful. We need that kind of power to break through," said Bernadette.
"You're having a strategy meeting and you don't invite me," Kitty sighed.
"Don't worry, you're in time to hear the story," said Lucien.
"He tells the story to all the newbies," explained Linus, taking out a mobile phone and studying it, clearly not thrilled with the idea of hearing the same story for the fourth time.
The story of escape, of diaspora. No, not this one. The one Lucien remembered from before.
"It was back in ancient Camellia," began Lucien, "Back when people actually lived out there. We had the science to do that. We revered our scholars. Carved images of them on every wall. Of course, after things went down, they had to bar off the whole academy because every one of those images was haunted. Not that the city is there at all now. But I remember it. I remember when the Chameleon came. It could turn into anyone or anything. It could be your closest friend, then murder you in your sleep. Nobody trusted anyone after a while. You did anything that even looked slightly suspicious, or if you were a foreigner, you got accused of being the Chameleon. Then the rumour went around that the Sixth Floor of the Academy was cursed, and everything would be fine as long as nobody went up there. Of course, it wasn't, and a bunch of us went up to see what was behind the door and why it was so damn important. The ghosts almost got us. Then we got found and locked away. My girl died of her wounds. Somehow, what was left of us, we managed to tunnel out, escape into the desert, then survive out there. We found an oasis. Said we were going to make our own town there, call it the land of the free."
"What happened then?" asked Bernadette.
"I don't remember. That's the part that makes my head hurt. All I know is that the only thing left of that town were a bunch of animals and a lot of bittersweet dreams."
The move to try out the experiment was given the go-ahead, provided we find a safe place to do the tests, away from anyone who might get hurt. We chose Dahlia Valley. The Valley is pretty much deserted these days, a rocky wasteland surrounded by mountains dotted with weird tiny caves that nobody could quite explain. Eagles nested on the peaks and a few hardy wildflowers grew underneath the ledges where they were sheltered from the wind. The old hut still stood there at the base of the mountain but it had long been deserted. We chose it as our base while we tested on the nearby strip of cleared flat ground. Ramsey closed the shop early and drove us up there in his rusty old delivery van. School had long finished for the day at Rafflesia as we drove past and the only people at the Plaza were a group taking several dogs for a stroll and a couple being intimate behind the big apple tree by the bench, evidently in the belief that they were well hidden. In the day, the Plaza was more crowded every day, full of kids playing on the slides and sandpit, people eating their lunch on the benches, buskers and food kiosks, dogs running around, the occasional striped tent with an exotic attraction of some kind. We didn't stop to arouse suspicion but neither did we try to look in too much of a hurry. While we did our best to occupy ourselves on the couple of hours that the journey took - Chai still wrote in her notebook, Lucien hummed something sorrowful in Camellian under his breath and stared whistfully out of the window, Kitty and Linus had handheld games consoles, both being fans of single player games and on platforms that were rivals on the market, so they made a show of ignoring each other, Kitty curled up around her machine, Linus half-concentrating and peering over Bernadette's shoulder. The red-headed woman wanted to talk.
"Sometimes I feel like the things I see in my dreams don't make any sense," she confided, "Do you understand what I'm saying? Like, the time scale doesn't make sense, and I know things I shouldn't."
"I think I see what you're saying," said Lucien, "All the dreams are about a long journey, about escaping, but in one dream I clearly remember where I was and in the next I don't, only that it isn't the same as the first dream."
"I think," said Bernadette, "That we've all been through the cycle more than once. I've had dreams where I know things I shouldn't, that I could only have known from it not being my first time. For instance, I saw myself up in Saint Heaven, but I couldn't have even gotten to that part of Heaven without a guide, like the Dog. I felt like I knew exactly what to do, though."
"You went into Heaven? What the heck were you doing there?" demanded Kitty.
"Trying to open the Gate," she admitted, "Which makes it even more confusing. I couldn't have done that in the last world, or the current world. Either time would have killed me, maybe done bad things to the world."
"Well, I don't have enough Lives to give you all more than one each."
"There must be multiple Cats," said Linus.
"There aren't multiple any of us," said Chai, "If you've seen this world change more than once, you did it in another way, that didn't involve dying."
"I saw two Goddesses in a dream, once," said Linus.
"You haven't actually told us what you saw in your vision. Were you in the Palace as well?" asked Bernadette, "Did you see the Temple?"
"No, we don't go into the Temple. I don't understand how you even got there," said Linus, frowning, "My dream wasn't as clear as yours. I just... left. I woke up one day and the Goddess was calling me. She took me to the Night with everyone else. Then Kitty saved me and I was here."
"But there were two Goddesses," repeated Bernadette.
"I know how weird that sounds. It felt wrong in the dream, too. I woke up feeling very scared."
Bernadette frowned and turned to stare out of the window. She thought she had heard a sound, maybe seen the shapes of things flitting through the shadows. The moon was behind the clouds and only the headlights of the van illuminated the road, which was growing increasingly bumpy as the straight path veered up into the mountains. People didn't go up here very often and the roads weren't in good repair. The valley basin was closed off due to falling rock hazards, so the route was a lot more complicated than just driving straight there. Everyone seemed to trust Ramsey's driving, even though that much coffee and that many nights working in a shop that opened until late probably didn't do that much for the concentration. Chai was apparently finding it hard to read, though, as she started staring out of the window instead. Lucien sang in a more hushed tone that matched the mystery of the veil of night better.
Chai thought she saw bad weather coming, maybe even a tornado or an earthquake, but nothing eventful happened between Soleil and Dahlia Valley. We parked near the hut and went out into the wasteland to begin the experiment.
The silence was a living thing in itself, buzzing with sounds that mortals couldn't hear. Linus and Bernadette stood inside the circle that Lucien had scratched out with a stick, their hands clasped together. Chai sat on a nearby boulder, legs crossed in meditation, hands on her knees, eyes closed, waiting to see things that their eyes couldn't. Kitty watched closely, white motes of healing energy already playing over her hands, just in case. Ramsey stood on watch for more immediate and corporeal threats. After Lucien's count of three, Linus and Bernadette began drawing the energy into ourselves, from the rock, from the water, from the fire inside the planet's core, from the thoughts of the planet and of collective life, from its dreams and destiny, from space and darkness and moonlight. The whole Universe buzzed with sound, light and energy. They were two columns of unfathomable power, hyperstrings that transcended space and time, threads of destiny that intertwined and stretched infinitely far before looping back on themselves in a knot. When it first hit, it was tangible, smelled and tasted oppressively close, like ozone, like a hole into another world. It began as a euphoric rush but became painful in its intensity, an urge that left the mind screaming as the magic rushed in too fast to control but was never sated. The aura was blacker than night, was solid darkness, crackling with something drawn in from a depth of the Universe that would annihilate upon contact. It was too cold and too hot, simply too much. The rocks began to crack, steam pouring from them. Chai started crying out in something that started out as barely intelligible Soleilian, a warning or a cry of exultation or both, then switched into ancient Camellian and then into what sounded like various animal barks, howls, hisses and chirrups. Lucien was singing something wordless. Linus and Bernadette were impossible to see or to reach now. The sphere of pure gravitational annihilation crackled with veins of white. Beneath them, the cracks in the ground began to split wider and deeper. Dust and smoke poured from the rift, illuminated by the arcing bolts of white.
The miniscule singularity collapsed and the ground shattered under the impact, throwing out rubble that would have hit Lucien had Chai not somehow created a barrier over all of them, so that they floated into the pitch dark abyss. Motes of white light left over from the explosion like the last drifting embers of an inferno were floating around them in spiral helix patterns, as though borne on an invisible jet of wind. Loud, rhythmic, mechanical humming could be heard, eerily pitched with fiercely throbbing vibrations as though the whole mountain could shatter at any point. It was hollow, full of vast natural caverns, and had been long before the rock was first broken by the spell. They fell for longer than they could measure, gently drifting down on columns of force. The sheer amount of magic resonated around them. It was thick in the air, filling their senses, almost too heavy to breathe. They feared to speak, not only out of concern for what might happen to them in this place of immense, forbidden power, but also that they might disrupt something sacred. This place felt like a dream that should not be woken up. They began to see the tips of vast stalagmites, the curves of cavern walls, the rippling of water that they heard dripping all around them.
Each one of them knew this place: it was the Black Night. The terminus of the world, the final destination. People came here to seek answers, then to leave, to wake up. It was something you unsealed, at last, one day. And they had just fallen in through a hole in the ground.
A dog barked. Chai was the first to run towards the sound. He was fairly large for a dog, with a thick rug-like coat of off-white hair that trailed into his eyes. His ears flopped as he romped towards them, wagging his tongue.
“Just what we needed,” said Lucien, “Time to get you out. Or is there someone else down here you want us to rescue?”
In answer, the dog barked again, ran around them in a circle, then leapt at Chai and bowled the petite woman over.
With a long-suffering sigh, Kitty scooped up the dog and lifted him off the ground, holding him at arms' length in order to thwart his attempts to lick her nose. This turned out to be a greater feat than she had predicted, even with his co-operation, as the dog had not exactly been off its food lately, and she grunted with the exertion.
"Trust it to be the Dog," she said, "I have to give one of my Lives to you. I've half a mind to refuse. There's no use giving me puppy eyes either, they don't work on me and I can't see a damn thing under all that hair anyway!"
"He hasn't undergone the process yet," said Lucien, looking around him for any signs of trouble. A faint light source, artificial-looking, bright orange, not at a level with any walls, ceiling or floor, cast strange square outlines onto rocks that seemed almost to pulse organically when the light flickered. It was still difficult to see anything, even to spot the exact beginnings of surfaces or entrances to tunnels. Kitty almost cut her foot when she stepped on a patch of rock that suddenly turned jagged. Of what shapes they could make out in this forbidden, profane place, everything looked like a monster about to pounce on them. They heard sounds, too, over the drips and weird echoes of the creaking rocks and the howling wind. They definitely weren't human but they were unmistakably sounds of life.
"I don't think there's really anyone else here," he continued, voicing his inner thoughts out loud to break up the silence that was beginning to turn into imaginary threats, "Doesn't that strike you as odd? Did the dog just turn up late, or is something different about him that he didn't follow the others? Maybe you won't need to give him your life after all."
"We can't get people out to the new world without it," said Kitty, "It's one of this world's most important rules."
"But this is the dog," said Lucien, reaching a hand out to pet the excitable living woolly carpet with legs, "He's kind of important too, to all the worlds. Anyway, there's so much magic floating around, we don't know if the same rules are operating any more."
"He's right. We might not be in the same time period, for one," said Chai, who had picked herself up, smoothed her dress down and recovered the pages that had been knocked out of her notebook, "The Fortune-Teller's magic didn't always land her in the right time period."
"So, do we even have any clue how we're going to get out of here?" asked Linus.
Kitty shrugged, "You two got us in here. I assumed you could get us out. Don't tell me you didn't think of it already!"
"I guess we kind of got caught up in the heat of the moment," said Linus, "Besides, Chai suggested it first. I thought she was supposed to know what's going on."
Bernadette gave the dog a pointed look, "And aren't you supposed to be the beast that guides? Come on, then, show us where the hell we're meant to be going!"
Letting out a loud bark, the dog wriggled out of Kitty's arms and jumped to the floor. Then he ran straight in one direction, nose to the ground, before stopping at a tunnel mouth. He stared at it for a while, whined, then ran around the room some more. Every time he found a tunnel, hole in the floor, interestingly shaped big rock or anything else he deemed to be of significance, he turned to Bernadette and whined, disappointment and confusion increasingly showing in his big, heavily obscured dark eyes.
"He's trying to tell us he's as lost as we are," she translated, "We're probably screwed..."
Just then, the dog's whine became a sharp yelp that turned into a series of terrified barks and growls. His teeth bared, he ran back to the group and stood between them and an unseen threat that appeared to be on the ceiling. Chai whispered a warning to them as well. She looked queasy, her face suddenly pale and exhausted. With an effort of will fueled by understanding that the situation was serious, fire and smoke wreathed Bernadette's hands, intense cold caused a frost-rimed mist to stream from Linus'. Lucien drew a combat knife from a pocket nobody had seen him place a weapon into - for that matter, Bernadette hadn't even realised that set of pockets existed. She had been absolutely sure that weapons didn't even exist in the new world - she only found out that implements of violence existed from seeing them in her vision-dreams, mostly in the possession of the celestial dragon who haunted her at night.
The radiant golden light streaming through the previously invisible hole in the ceiling, the expression on the face of the individual who descended from above, emerald-hilted, golden-bladed shining sword in hand, all reminded her of those dreams. Behind the Corona, the Goddess' Crusader, came the Light of Heaven Herself. She frowned at the people below her.
"How did you find this place? Where did you obtain those relics?" she demanded, "Do you not know why this place is forbidden? How much damage you could do to your entire world just by being here? What did you do to this poor dog?"
As if in answer, the dog growled louder and backed away as the Goddess landed and approached them. Chai whispered something reassuring and private.
"I don't expect this kind of thing to happen in this new age," she told them, "If something broke in that storm, if you fell through here, I deeply apologise. I will see to it personally that you are healed, that this poor animal's soul is properly guided from one world to the next, and that this hole is filled in."
"You know we didn't fall," said Kitty, "Just as you know it wasn't a storm. Tell me... why is a dog that knows so much, so angry at you?"
"The poor thing is traumatised," said the Goddess, glancing at the Corona, "And I think I know why. You - you did something to this dog, didn't you? You interfered here. You broke in. What's more, you never should have entered into this world in the first place. You somehow managed to break the rules. Well, this is why I have a Crusader..."
She snapped her fingers and the Corona darted forward. Faster than Bernadette's eyes could process, he was in front of them, dog grabbed by the scruff of the neck, blade flying from his hand towards Linus. The sword curved through the air like a boomerang, a sparking, shrieking trail of magical energy following behind it. Bernadette and Linus both cried out as they were sliced across the arms by the blade, its light searing their flesh. Linus' spell fizzled out, his concentration dropped, but Bernadette only looked more enraged. Her face screwed up in pain, she screamed in rage, throwing her emotions into the spell seconds before she threw herself at the Corona, releasing a formless gout of fire into his face. Yet more pain flooded through her system, too much for her to tell the details, but she heard his cry too, along with the dog's yowl, and knew she had succeeded in her goal, even though it may have killed her. She had set the Crusader on fire, as well as possibly the dog, hopefully not the dog, and maybe even without getting herself stabbed in the process. She knew she hadn't done him any serious harm, only put him off guard for a moment.
Enough to lose his hold on the dog.
Enough for the dog to bite him.
Once the dog's jaws closed around his wrist, the pointed teeth somehow finding the one weakness in his divinely blessed plate mail, it was enough for Mac to reveal to the world what he had been trying to say about this Paladin, this embodiment of Soleil. Writhing, twisting, hissing in agony and frustration beyond anything that Bernadette felt, the Corona seemed to unravel in dark strips of matter and magic. There, on the floor, mostly looking small and ashamed, was a Raccoon Dog. Before anyone could react, he had already scurried away, hissing and bearing even sharper teeth than the dog's.
Mac, meanwhile, had lost interest in his earlier opponent and was now growling at the Goddess. She looked strangely emotionless, her face as cold and hard as her statue in the town square. Her lips moved in a silent chant, her feet hovered above the ground and the aura of golden magic around her steadily grew brighter. As the dog leaped, a ball of raw surging power the colour of the morning sun enveloped him. Another flew towards the rest of the group.
"Retreat!" yelled Lucien, helping Kitty to grab and safely lift Bernadette's unconscious form.
"To where?" screamed Linus, his face white as he saw the horrible burns, the stab wound through his friend's chest. He couldn't see the dog through the blinding light and the roaring of static interference.
"This way!" replied the Camellian boy. Linus couldn't see where he was going in that direction either but he followed, running blindly through the darkness, terrified that he might trip and fall on spikes, or down a hole, or not be fast enough to evade the luminous death barreling towards them. There were steps - cold, slippery steps that squelched with a damp, acrid smell and a noise that brought up further unpleasant mental images - then he was in complete darkness. The light was gone, as was the screaming. He carried on running until he ran straight into Chai and Lucien told him to stop.
When his eyes next adjusted, he was outside, in a forest, in the dead of night. The first thing he noticed was that the place didn't resemble anywhere he had ever been to or even remembered from a vision before. The second thing was that the dog was still alive and still a dog.
“Chai, what the hell's wrong with the...” began Kitty. The smaller woman shushed her with a harsh intake of breath.
“I don't know what's wrong with the anything,” she whispered, “There are a lot of questions, but we mustn't break the peace any more than we have. We'll be able to rest, soon.”
“What peace?” whispered Kitty, “What rest?”
“Don't you recognise where we are at all?”
Linus looked around, suddenly curious. The forest was ancient and wild, the trees tightly packed, small, snaggled, with a strange, almost fossilised purple hue. Clumps of toadstools sprouted in hollow trees and dark, damp grottoes, the dens of creatures that he saw dart through the shadows, snuffling, skittering, flapping, the whole forest buzzing with their myriad tiny, chaotic voices. Although there was no deliberate malice, some of the shapes were large, had claws and teeth, and the clear, sweet-smelling night air was absolutely saturated with magic, enough to make his hair stand on end.
A bubbling, bouncing, splatting noise started to grow louder and closer, and as he looked around him at the ring of raindrop-shaped green gelatinous creatures that jumped around him, trailing goo, he at least knew what he had stepped on and what was now all over his shoes.
“This place was in Medium Lily,” said Kitty, “I remember visiting it with Ramsey. They wouldn't let him have a shop. They didn't like outsiders all that much.”
“Chai, those are monsters,” Linus breathed, “What happened to us this time? Why aren't we back?”
“We are back,” said Chai, “I don't know how this place survived either, but we were rescued by these people and we're being led somewhere.”
“We should really get a move on,” said Lucien, “Bernadette doesn't look at all well.”
Kitty's healing powers had kept the red-haired woman alive, at least. Although her face was still wan, she was obviously breathing if only shallow breaths that barely caused her chest to rise and fall. She was no longer bleeding out too heavily, although the burns couldn't be healed. As she hauled her patient through the forest, an exhausted look on her own face, Kitty muttered some kind of complaint about Bernadette owing her fifty malins if she had to waste two lives on one person. Kitty wasn't supposed to be a true healer, only someone who happened to have a life force that could be transferred to others, and that wasn't usually precise enough to do anything more than directly pay for one life at the cost of another. The effort was beginning to put her own body in danger. She was relieved when the path began to broaden into something more clearly defined.
After a few more minutes of painful walking, the path branched off in several directions. One path led to a hollow tree that was larger than the others. Most of the slime-creatures turned at this junction and headed into the tree, bouncing along in a line that made them look comically like ducklings. Only two of the larger slimes remained. The group continued to follow them down the opposite path until they came to a wide clearing that was somehow still protected by canopies of trees that seemed to specifically grow to shelter the forest's inhabitants like some nurturing woodland spirit. The large mushroom patch in the middle of the clearing also looked deliberately fashioned, although there were no borders of a garden in sight. Somehow, the mushrooms had grown into a perfect five-pointed star shape. One of the slimes stopped in front of them, barring their way, while the other loped straight into the garden. It managed to bounce lightly enough not to even ruffle the mushrooms, even when the creature stopped dead centre and began deliberately jumping up and down on the spot. After ten jumps, there was a rumbling sound and a small panel underneath the mushrooms slid open with a click. Seemingly satisfied with itself, the slime hopped out of the star and turned the corner before leaving the clearing through a side passage. This took them into another clearing, where a scattering of small huts lay hidden in the middle of carefully tended gardens of toadstools and small, delicate shrubs. There was a strange but picturesque feel to them, as though they were some artist's depiction of a fairy tale. It wouldn't have felt out of place for the houses to be made of gingerbread or be inhabited by talking wolves. As Linus warned them, the air was certainly buzzing with strong magic which, although not immediately hostile, might be made dangerous by the sheer amount of power, like a badly insulated electrical cable.
The largest house was at the back, the only one where the fence gate and the front door were open. The slime led them towards this house, then bounced enthusiastically at them until they went forwards without their guide - it didn't seem to want to get too close. Lucien took the lead, helping Kitty to maneouvre Bernadette through the rather narrow doorway - these people were evidently smaller than average. At least it felt homely and comfortable inside, with the flickering light of a small fireplace and several old desk lamps, all obviously powered by magic, and the scent and sound of freshly brewed tea in a stove kettle. There was only space in the house for a kitchen with a pantry, a living room and a mysterious locked door in the back of the living room, presumably leading to a bedroom. In the living room, arranged around the fireplace like cats, three old women sat. One reclined in a rocking chair with her knitting, another watched the party of newcomers expectantly, the third sipped her tea and concentrated intently on an old tome. All three had silver hair but did not look in the least bit fragile. They radiated pure, ancient magic.
"So, dears, the slimes actually did something right for a change? I miss Kline, I do," the woman in the long blue shawl shook her head, laughing at her private joke, "I put on the tea for you, if you'd like. The coat rack is by the door."
"One's injured," said the woman with the book, "Get her into the back room. Give her the blue and the green potions and let her rest on the bed."
She snapped her fingers and the back door swung open. Kitty and Lucien disappeared through it with Bernadette. The rest sat on the floor amidst a nest of pillows and cushions, where a teapot and cups awaited them on a tray. The dog curled up by the feet of the woman with the book, who reached down to pet him.
"I assume it was you who saved our lives," said Chai, "Thank you."
"Anything to get my own back on that cow," the woman in blue cackled.
"Not a cow," corrected Lucien, emerging in the doorway again, "It was the Chameleon. I remember, now. It was the only thing it could be. A monster that pretends to be what it is not."
"Chameleons can be girls, you know," the woman chided him, "They fool others into raising their eggs, like cuckoos. Not that it matters. You people remember the old world, don't you? Before those two took it over."
Chai nodded, "We know some things. Barely. And we want to fix what went wrong. I never imagined that the Goddess was just plain a fake!"
"If there is even such a thing as a Goddess, she doesn't work that blatantly. We witches like to think we're the nearest thing," said the woman in blue, "I was never that popular, even in the old world, mind you. Only these people you call 'monsters' wanted to keep me company. Some even stayed behind when their people were sent back home!"
"That's what should have happened to us, isn't it?" asked Lucien, "We should have gone with them, learnt how it feels to be the refugees for once."
"I assume so. Nothing's left of our world, now, and this certainly isn't a place where people are meant to live."
"It's true that people die to go here, isn't it?"
She laughed, "It wouldn't make a blind bit of sense if they didn't! You don't know where you are, do you?"
"Heaven," said the woman in the rocking chair, "You're all in Heaven, with an illusion over it to make it look like Earth. Except people can't grow or change, or have real names or true identities, there can't be any visitors from other worlds, for better or worse. Which is fine if you're meant to be dead."
"It doesn't sound like a good place," said Linus, blowing on his tea to cool it down. Chai sipped hers with a relaxed look on her face for the first time in weeks. This whole place seemed to bring life back into her eyes.
"It isn't," continued the old woman, "Heaven was never meant to be the reward, unless you're the specific type of person it was built for, who would ever want to go there. It's a tool. It's for good, in that it's for angels, to conduct the affairs of the deities, immortal affairs of the spirit. There's no comfort for anything used to having a body."
"Bernadette said she broke in there," said Chai.
"Most likely, she broke out, for a while. To force someone to be there is to chain their soul, make them a slave. Even if their own world no longer exists. That was Heaven's fault anyway. That door was leaking before the Corona was forced to open it."
"I don't understand what the door does."
"Exposes you to everything, dear. The void between worlds and everything in it," said the woman who confessed to being a witch, "Not a place people can survive in either, or even worlds. Except maybe you, Lucien, boy."
"I remember a journey," said the Camellian boy, sitting down beside Chai.
"You've done this many times before. Although it went a lot more smoothly those times, and you found different worlds each time, always getting most of your people out alive," the witch explained, "Your people are tough. Wanderers. And the ship has served you through so many journeys."
"He wouldn't remember that, dear," said the woman with the book, "Start on something easier. Such as, who are we?"
"You're the Fortune Teller," guessed Linus, "And the woman in the chair is... um..."
"The girl with the shoes?" supplied Lucien.
"You're right!" said Chai, a twinge of fond recognition suddenly appearing on her face, "It's Dorothy! It's granny Dorothy!"
"Honestly, child, forgetting your own grandmother," chided Dorothy, "I brought you up to know all sorts of things. I thought I told you to make sure none of this mess happened, anyway. You were our only daughter. Our heir!"
"Don't be harsh with her, dear," said the Fortune Teller, "Power like that takes time to blossom. Not everyone can be three hundred years old!"
"Two hundred and eighty seven," corrected Dorothy.
"But what are you doing here," asked Chai, "Not to be rude, I'm grateful once again for saving my life, but... why now, when you must have been hiding for so long? This isn't Heaven, or Earth, or the Land of the Monsters. We've been sent here for something important, haven't we?"
"Yes, this is another place, and yes, you have an important task, one that only you can do, you warriors, people with special knowledge, and those who were born to this role," said the Fortune Teller, "And once again, I'm the only one who can get away with breaking the rules enough to help you in any meaningful way. This'll be your job one day, Chai, our daughter, so watch closely."
"This is the Root," said Dorothy, "And Lucien, you are the last Root User. Your friends are going to help you log in. You're overdue for your own private meeting with the Starship Leviathan."
The Root Temple was now hidden underneath a giant apple tree.
They had half expected something like that. Bernadette, having witnessed its rising from the sea and hearing Leviathan's final words, was the only one of them who did not assume the Temple would still be under Freesia, or at the very least on the island where it usually stood once it ascended. Ramsey had been puzzled that the three crones were so unconcerned about reaching it, as they didn't have a handy Plesiosaur friend or any kind of substitute, such as a giant bird. Yet, it made its own kind of sense. Roots lived under trees, and nothing was more fundamental to the world of Soleil's identity than its magnificent, towering apple trees. The golden apple tree took the others aback but Bernadette simply remembered the thawing of the frozen trees that lay in wait for her the last time she visited the Temple.
The Witch whistled and several of the smaller roots parted, taking a large knot out of the way of a hole as they retreated, shifting and unraveling as though it were a perfectly normal thing for trees to do. The hole was barely large enough for them to crawl through. Lucien went in first. Despite it appearing that he would never fit his whole body inside, he disappeared completely into the hole, yelling something about a tunnel leading down. When Kitty complained about this, especially at the absolute mess that her brand new jacket was in, the Witch apologised but explained that the rabbits who made their home in the warrens did not understand about clothes or particularly care about the comfort of species other than their own. Instead of being reassured, Kitty now shivered to think how unusually large and intelligent these rabbits would have to be, to have produced such a structure.
Venturing further down, they soon discovered that the network of tunnels soon grew more and more complex, like the map of a large town underground. No sounds of actual rabbits could be heard, only a low humming that grew louder as they descended. It was impossible to tell which direction was down after a while, never mind which way led to the Root. All they could do was follow the Dog, hoping it both understood where it was supposed to be going and knew the way, which it always seemed to do in the old stories. The humming was probably a good thing, Kitty decided and reassured them with, as it was the sort of sound a giant machine would make, and the Witch had been talking as though they were visiting a spaceship or something. This had done nothing to help with her confusion - as far as she was concerned, spaceships were the boasts of crackpot scientists and the speculations of some of the less believable fiction she had read. Reliable automatic doors didn't exist yet, you had to literally stand an elephant on top of them to make them open consistently, so what hope did they have of reaching the stars?
Suddenly, the Dog's occasional barks turned into a rapid high-pitched frenzy. By this time, the humming had become so loud that it was shaking the soil loose. Bernadette could taste power, both raw and refined, a cloying ozone taste strong enough to make her hair stand on end. She wondered if the whole tunnel complex were about to collapse from all the shaking. Then the Dog stopped. They had reached a dead end. He sniffed the walls, whined, then scrabbled at the floor. With a sighing swish, a panel opened up below him. An automatic door. One that worked. The Dog yelped, unable to jump back before he was dumped unceremoniously down a chute. Once they had heard him go 'thump' at the bottom, then growl indignantly and run around in a circle barking, the rest of them judged it wasn't too far down and followed their guide.
Now they were in a vast, hollow chamber with metal walls and floor, the ceiling too high up to see. Strips of mechanical lighting on every surface illuminated the expanse. It looked like a hangar or warehouse of some kind, with crates stacked in one area marked out with illuminated lines. The rest was empty, making the cavernous, desolate room seem even more eerie. Their footsteps clanked and echoed, the only sounds in the room apart from that mechanical hum, which had at least quitened down now that they were inside. The lights pointed with an arrow to a heavy double door on the far end of the cargo bay, which opened as they approached it. They found themselves in a long corridor with smaller doors on either side of them at regular intervals, clearly automatic but not deigning to open. The walls were also covered in glass panels that displayed writing and diagrams in various colours of light. Linus determined that some of them were maps, probably of the place they were in, but they decided it would probably be easier to continue following the Dog, as they had no idea which room they were aiming for. The Dog led them to the bottom of the corridor, then turned a corner, ran to the end of this new corridor and stopped at a circular chamber with a glass door. They soon worked out that it was an elevator. Also one that worked, without having to resort to demonically possessed ropes or magic beanstalks. Through a process of elimination that involved whining and trying to bite Linus on the leg until they got it right, they stopped at the correct floor. It was the second to top floor and marked 'Central Control System AI'.
The elevator door opened for them with a beep, then closed behind them, leaving them in a small foyer in front of a larger set of double doors, upon which flashed several warning signs and instructions that made no sense to anyone, all in red light. The foyer itself was darkened, clearly not meant to be in use for a long time now, and they didn't really expect to be let into the important-looking room behind it. However, when the Dog and Linus approached it, several of the symbols changed position and went broad green, while a series of beeps, whirring sounds and hisses played before the door could open, letting out a jet of cold steam. The air inside the cylindrical chamber was as chilly as Freesia in winter. Linus didn't seem to mind but Bernadette insisted they were going to die of hypothermia and Kitty was worried her shoes would stick to the floor. Ramsey, having made the mistake of looking down, had worse things to worry about. They were suspended on a ring-shaped observation platform with only a set of railings between them and a decidedly lethal-looking drop down what looked like a mine shaft. The mist emanated from the pit. In its centre, from floor to ceiling, stood a large metal column fit with countless of the glass light panels, as well as thick cables, hatches, service lights and switches. Directly in front of them was a single panel set into the railing. The Dog barked at it, so Lucien shrugged, walked up to it and gave it a tentative poke with one finger.
The boy almost fell backwards when, from out of nowhere, floating in mid-air, the Leviathan appeared. He recognised a mirage when he saw one, although this was an unusually large, realistic and vivid trick of the light. He was too stunned to respond when it first spoke to him.
"Welcome back, Operator," said the inhumanly perfect voice, "I wish to congratulate you on reaching your destination, although I am puzzled that I was the last to learn that our exodus was over."
Lucien gazed up at the twenty foot tall, flickering image of an aquatic dragon. The bulk of its serpentine body, its scales glimmering reds and oranges as though ablaze, was wrapped around the great mechanical tower, ending in a spiked tail the shape of a flame. Its head resembled that of a frilled lizard with two spiked horns and two large protruding fangs. Two glittering black eyes like windows into the outer void bored into his.
"I am not sure what you mean," he admitted, "And I think you may have been misinformed. We are not supposed to be here. Our souls have been trapped."
"Impossible. This region meets all the specified criteria for a stopping point. This is paradise, the promised land. Furthermore, I was authorised to halt by you in person."
"Are you aware that there is a Raccoon Dog loose? Was I tested by a Dog? There is one here. See how he does not bite me, and bears wounds from a previous battle?"
Mac was indeed limping a little, with bruises and scrapes marring his shaggy white coat.
"You claim there was a security violation? Impossible. I was given the all clear by a Celestial Dragon. Such a being is too powerful to be hacked by a Raccoon Dog."
"There is also a Chameleon loose."
"The Chameleon was defeated by the Corona during the reprogramming of the World of Soleil."
"Leviathan... you know that this world is Heaven, so why does it appear to be the same as Soleil? Why is there an appearance of Soleil but no living entities native to Soleil?"
"The changes were authorised by the Dragon."
"Why would the Dragon permit such a thing? What purpose would this change have within Heaven? Names and titles are not permitted within Heaven, and yet they are necessary for the existence of Soleil!"
"Lucien..." began Bernadette, fidgeting nervously with the belt buckle of her shirt, "The Dragon thing is bullshit."
Lucien gave her a questioning look, so she continued, "The Dragon is dead. I... saw it happen. In fact, I think it happened because of me."
"What do you mean?" he demanded, his expression souring.
"I didn't murder him! I just knocked him out of the way, so I could make a break for the door. The Leviathan told me to! It said it would give me permission when I came to the door!"
"I did no such thing," stated the hologram, a simple expression of fact, with no hint of protest or any other emotion that could identify it as innocent or guilty, "The Dragon alone has authority over the Door."
"Leviathan, you have always had a say in the management of the Gate! Were you hacked too?" Lucien yelled.
"He was still in Soleil when the transfer happened," said Bernadette, "He barely escaped with his life. I think he lost some of his memory, though. I... remember talking to you, Leviathan. You told me to open the Gate. But something else came, something I couldn't see, and it attacked the Dragon. It knocked me off the platform before I could do anything. I woke up in Freesia. That was when I met you."
"I recall none of this."
"Do you remember any of your life in Soleil?" asked Bernadette.
"Run a full memory check," prompted Lucien. He himself wasn't sure how, but he was remembering with increasing clarity how to use the computer system. It was as if his old life as Operator of this system, this ship that conveyed his people across the stars in search of a new home, a craft that had the power to part reality before them, was coming back to him like an old skill he had learnt at school but not applied yet in his adult life. The hologram closed its eyes and the system beeped and whirred, the lights flickering all down the tree's trunk. Then the Leviathan opened its eyes again and let out a hissing growl.
"My memory banks are corrupted," it declared, "Segments have been lost."
"Please would you consider our story, then?"
"I will contact the Celestial Dragon, this time with my security heightened. If anything is detected, or if the Dragon fails to arrive, I will know you tell the truth. Otherwise, you will be considered the security risk."
"Well, at least it doesn't involve anyone's mother," Kitty let out a terrified little laugh that fooled nobody.
They waited in the chamber, some of them lounging on the rail, others sitting down, yet others standing in rapt anticipation and craning their necks to peer at the display windows, while the system tried to send a signal to Heaven, which presumably had its own control tower that could receive such communications. The Leviathan's eyes closed again and it breathed heavily in and out through giant flaring nostrils. A soft blue light on the tower blinked on and off in time to a chirping trill. Lucien explained to them that the strange symbols and diagrams indicated an unusually weak and unstable connection. At the same time, rows and columns of blue hexagons spread all the way up the tower, something Lucien explained was the security systems activating. After five minutes, another hologram appeared, first broken with crackling static, then increasingly solid. Bernadette recognised it as the Dragon of Heaven, fully recovered, looking stern and angry with his sword unsheathed and fangs bared.
"Is there some problem?" he growled.
"Just a security check," said the Leviathan.
"This is no routine check," said the Dragon, looking up at the tower, "Security is paranoid. What is happening?"
"A precaution. There have been complaints about... incidents."
"Yes, the Goddess has been tracking down intruders."
"The Dog appears to have been in a conflict. Did he successfully unveil the culprit?"
"A misunderstanding," said the Dragon, "We were looking for the Dog, in fact. He was with you the whole time?"
"Leviathan," whispered Bernadette, "Ask him where the Corona is."
"Who is that? You have visitors?" the Dragon looked around, swinging his sword to face them.
"Guests, and my Operator."
"You're supposed to be automated and high security for this part of the procedure! You fail the final stage of the Exodus if you are interrupted! What is going on?" demanded the Dragon.
"Queries," explained the Leviathan.
"By who? Nobody is allowed input!"
"Leviathan, we cannot have an Exodus without a Corona. Where is the Corona?" demanded Bernadette, stepping out to reveal herself. Chai tried to pull her back with a cry of warning but she already stood face to face with the celestial Warden...
Who threw his long neck all the way back, let out a screeching roar, then began to spasm wildly, tail thrashing. As his apoplexy grew more frenzied, ooze began to secrete from jagged holes in his body that were rents in the illusion itself, like light distorted by the flaws in broken glass. The slime collected together as it poured out, streams of red and blue that glooped together in some kind of mess of colours that didn't blend well. The room felt uncomfortably hot, then bitingly cold, within split seconds of each other, as if some weather deity had gone berserk. Through all of this, the Dragon began to calm down and collect himself. He was covered in the slime that was eroding him. His eyes turned back to Bernadette and she shuddered at his expression. Glowing red, there was no intelligence in those eyes any more, only rabid, murderous hatred. Screeching again, the Dragon lunged for her with bared teeth and claws as well as a wild sweep of his tail. Forgotten in his rage, his sword clattered, discarded, to the floor. He was not less dangerous without it. He moved with a possessed speed, splattering goo that alternately burned or froze whatever it touched. This was no longer a holy guardian but a beast of pure carnage. A demon. A fallen travesty of itself.
"No fire or ice! That thing's possessed by Georaima!" said Chai.
"Hacked," corrected Lucien, "Something took control of the Dragon's AI and fused it with Georaima's soul. It shouldn't even be possible, but Heaven's control system has a soul repair function. The Chameleon must have corrupted it."
"Don't just explain it to us! How do we survive it?" screamed Kitty. Ramsey had already run for the door. Linus and Bernadette had moved to protect Chai and were hurling spells at it even though they weren't working, just to distract the monster and knock it back a little. The Dog had immediately leapt at it and was savaging its tail, howling at the pain. Combined with the magical suppression fire, this seemed to stop it from rising into the air or moving too quickly, at least. There was only so much time before mental exhaustion set in and the strength of canine jaws reached its limit, however. They knew that only one of them could really do anything.
"Leviathan, do you believe me now?" Lucien cried, "Will you side with us? Please? We'll die here if you don't, and you'll be infected next! You've only been saved so far because you're doing what the Chameleon wants you to!"
"The security threat will be eliminated," replied the Leviathan. Then he roared, releasing bolts of energy in a stream as fast as a hurricane from his fanged maw. The tainted Dragon screeched as four of the surging orbs hit him, although he swung by his tail out of the way of the rest. Where they connected, the static surrounded his form and seemed to consume it like silvery flames, burning away parts of his image that dissipated as they fell. The Leviathan shot forwards, uncoiling from the tower like a taut, spiked spring, before wrapping his bulk around the Dragon, snapping sharp teeth around the monster's throat while impaling his tail with the divine water-snake's own. They hissed, roared and thrashed, slashing and biting with feral intensity. Clouds of acrid steam poured from the Leviathan as the acidic slime burned through his scales. He reacted with constant streams of his own energy blasts, knocking pieces of the Dragon flying. The Dog had been knocked away by thrashing tails, almost falling over the railings. Kitty rescued him and healed him again, grumbling the whole time. Then it occurred to her that maybe she could heal a Leviathan, thus giving the beast an advantage in the fierce battle. Closing her eyes, she reached for the soothing warmth that flowed through her body, the pure white light that grew from the seed in the core of her being, her hidden reserve of Extra Lives. There were only four left. She suspected that, to channel healing energy into a beast the size of the Leviathan, she would need to expend a whole one. With a prayer that it might possibly, against all logic, turn out to be a not stupid decision, she let the energy flow into her fingertips unhindered, across her palm, then spill out towards the target she visualised, whose life force, immense but rapidly depleting, she sensed in her minds eye.
A white light suffused the Leviathan and he let out a roar of triumph before pressing his attack with renewed vigor. His fangs sank into the Dragon's neck, causing the hacked creature to scream and thrash. Forcing him to the floor, the Dog having pinned his tail again, the Leviathan stretched his mouth open wide and let out a stream of raw energy in the shape of a tsunami, slamming the Dragon's broken body against the hard metal floor, hosing off the slime and sluicing it down into the bottomless depths underneath the balcony.
“Still… not… forgiven...” gasped the Dragon as it thrashed under the Leviathan's death grip, spluttering to avoid drowning in the endless torrent.
“I don't need you to forgive me! Just settle it with me later when this is over. I'm just a vandal, that thing is trying to conquer your entire realm!” said Bernadette.
“You'll… all… burn...” the Divine Warden coughed up red pixels of depleted digital essence that mingled with the stream of energy. Blood in the water. It froze mid-writhe, then crashed altogether, its image scattering into the darkness.
A siren blared, all the lights on the tower flashed red, then the same image appeared on every display window. The Goddess. She stood before the Gate to Heaven, loyal Corona at her side. The Dog growled at the image.
“I congratulate you for destroying the last barrier between me and true mastery of Heaven,” said the perversely benevolent-sounding voice, “Now I no longer have to hold him under my influence. Of course, I would have preferred you all to die by his hand, along with that stupid relic of a dead world. No matter, you'll die with the others soon enough anyway.”
“What do you mean? What are you doing?” demanded Bernadette.
“Why, what you failed to do, of course! Although, I won't hold back. I'll throw the doors wide open, sacrifice my Kingdom to the void of chaos.”
“That won't benefit you at all! You'll die too!”
“You don't know the half of it, my dear Lioness. Heaven is integral to the functioning of the Universe. Without it, the souls of the dead will no longer be processed and reincarnated. It's even possible that the Universe is contingent enough upon Heaven that everything will be destroyed as a chain reaction,” said the Chameleon, “It's what I've always wanted in the first place. Every time the seed of consciousness spread to another world, every time a civilisation rose and fell, I tried to lead it astray. The accidental rift opening between Soleil and the World of Monsters was my first chance. I tried to corrupt two Kingdoms and the Corona ruined both attempts. The third time worked, as I had managed to replace the world's Corona in time, and the world's destiny always follows the Corona. And this time I didn't even need to persuade some idiot to provide me with a means of transport to Heaven!”
“You used our world as a stepping stone to destroy the Universe? That's completely insane!”
“No, merely the nature of a Chameleon. Not everything in this Universe follows the same logic as your world. They aren't always what allows you to survive, not in places where reality doesn't work the same way. An eternity of primal chaos won't even be all that different from the fond memories of home. Don't feel bad. As fellow exiles trying to make your own home from home, I'm sure you'll understand. Well then...”
Suddenly, the Goddess' voice broke into a strangled gasp. Blood trickled from her mouth. As the life left her eyes and she went completely still, she slumped over, already beginning to revert to the giant reptilian form of the Chameleon, its long tongue drooping slack over the edge of the platform. Behind her, blood dripping from an extended blade that sparkled with golden light, stood the Corona. His eyes were wide and his mouth open like a frightened, lost little boy. Mac growled again, then whined and looked pitifully up at Kitty.
“It's still the Raccoon Dog,” she said.
“Also the Corona,” said Chai, “The newly chosen Corona. A Corona is made, not born. Anyone who would stop such an evil, even though they thought they were an integral part of it, is worthy of the name Corona.”
“That makes sense, somehow,” said Ramsey, “I don't think he was ever truly evil.”
“What's going to happen now?” asked Bernadette.
“I have to take full responsibility for the Leviathan. I'm the only surviving member of its crew.”
“We could help you out,” said Bernadette, “Ramsey can drive.”
“I can drive a van, not pilot a spaceship!” complained the old man.
“It's easy once you get used to it,” promised Lucien.
“I can't come with you. I have to return to the Witches. My training has just begun,” said Chai.
“We'll all miss you!” said the Camellian boy.
“Maybe I'll come and visit you as a spirit, or in a dream, or something. I think we get taught how to do that,” she reassured him, “I promise I'll never stop thinking about you!”
“No surprise messages for us before we leave this time?” asked Ramsey.
“Nothing you shouldn't already know anyway.”
“Sorry, but I'm going to have to leave you behind as well. I've got work to do!” announced Kitty.
“What kind of work? You need help?” asked Ramsey.
“It's nothing anyone can help with. Well, it's not quite true. I'll have the new Corona, I guess. He can hold things for me,” she said, “I'm going to try and revive the Dragon, you see. Heaven needs a Guardian, even if he's a stuck-up humourless jerk.”
“Will that be safe for you? It's a big Life to bring back!”
“To be honest, I only have three Lives, and I used up an entire Life just to heal some wounds for the Leviathan. The Dragon will be just as tough. I have to try, though.”
“Would some Golden Apples help?” asked Chai, “I'll try and bring you some!”
“Thank you, but please remember that it still isn't very safe to just go wandering around Heaven when you're not dead, even now that it isn't taken over by evil.”
“You take care too! Don't trust that Corona too much!” said Lucien.
“I will be watching over them too, as much as I can, while they are still in range of my communications systems,” interjected the Leviathan.
“You remember that you're not perfect either!” warned Chai.
“I shall endeavour not to make the same mistakes again,” said the Water Dragon, “Now, let us prepare for take-off again. To overstay a welcome is to demean the hospitality of our generous hosts!”
“Aww, don't worry, you're always welcome around here, no matter what the idiots in charge say!” Kitty told him, grinning.
The boy grinned back.
His smile was the most glittering thing in the desert.
> Let there be light…
With these words came the light of life, a pillar of souls shining down onto the barren rock. First came the air, the atmosphere that was the planet's soul. Then the fire, the returning hearts of the mountains. Next came the waters, then the great Golden Apple trees, their Roots the pillar of the world, that quickly bore children and seeded the whole planet with green life. Creatures of all kinds began to return to their rightful place, especially the rabbits – the will of the planet really liked rabbits for some reason, liberally festooning the entire world with them. Finally came the most intelligent life, the self-aware, with the spark of destiny-shaping or even destiny-defying.
At the Tree's Roots was a hollow big enough to hide another forest, a forest of midnight and dreams, and inside lived a witch named Chai, whose duty was to watch over the world and pass on her powers to her own children and other promising girls. Those who knew of her, mostly animals and strange visitors from another world, held her in the same regard as a Goddess, until she snapped at them and told them not to.
As they looked up to the sky, the newly rebuilt planet's inhabitants wondered where Leviathan, the Wandering Star, was going next, in its journey that sent it slowly drifting through space. Some of the younger children thought they were trying to reach Heaven. Then the Elders, those who still remembered the Grand Reset, told them sternly that Heaven was barred from humanity for good, until their souls reached that land in the usual way. The Dragon was more vigilant these days, they explained, and seemed permanently angry. Others thought they were trying to reach the Moon, the birthplace of all those rabbits that nobody could get rid of, or the Sun, from which the world of Soleil got its name, as well as that of its legendary hero, Corona, whose fate could eclipse entire worlds.
And sometimes, when the skies were clear and the moon bright, they congregated at night around the Plaza Fountain, to sit on the benches and look up at the stars. In the centre of the Fountain was a white marble statue of a cat lounging regally, one paw resting on a solid gold apple. The inscription on the plaque at the base of the statue said, rather cryptically, 'I have to return now, but don't feel bad, okay?'
If you asked the old man who sat perpetually on a bench in a corner of the square, he might tell you what the sign meant, if he thought you were wise enough to understand.