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Rise of the Phoenix
part 2
by J.(Channing)Wells


Acting utterly on reflex, I bring my wounded finger to my mouth and--

* * * a shower of golden sparks the world goes away and stays away for quite some time while i float in the warm amniotic blackness of beinglessness and consciouslessness and...

* * *

I open my eyes to the sun.

* * *

Many are the tales told of the _Bennu_, the sacred bird of the Kiri-ahn. First and foremost-- this fact above all-- it has been impressed onto me that the Bennu is to be a beautiful creature, sleek and elegant, with golden-rose breast feathers and wings the color of mist-water-arcs. Tall and slender it is, I am told, with long legs for wading in the heartbreakingly clear waters of its home and a long beak for plucking the brightly colored fish and frogs from that same water for its food. Sometimes I wonder what it is like to eat the frogs. But Kawna'wa my master told me that the frogs are for the Bennu and the Bennu alone to eat. He told me once of a disobedient Kiri-ahn-wa who was so tempted by the beauty and the bright colors of the frogs that he tasted one of them before even he sought out the Bennu. The Bennu, subsequently, grew angry with him and smote him until he was dead. That is what Kawna'wa my master once told me, and I believe the teachings that Kawna'wa once gave me because he was the wisest of us all.

Kawna'wa told me, too, of how the Kiri-ahn came to be the holy people of the Bennu. He told me of the disobedience of the Ssayre, and how, long ago, the Ssayre quit the Earth-her-Mother in search of freedom, as many daughters do. He told me of how the Ssayre left the Earth-Fires that spawned her because she grew weary of her mother's bossy nature. He told me of how the Ssayre built the Spire beneath which our humble village lies, a tower as high as the sky so that the Ssayre could sit atop it and thumb her nose at the Earth-her-Mother from ever-so-high.

Kawna'wa then spoke of the Bennu. How the Bennu, son of the Sky-his-Father, was sent to do battle with the disobedient Ssayre, because, (a) the tower that the Ssayre had built was an affront to the domain of the Sky, and, (b) the Earth-her-Mother complained loudly all night and all day of the faithlessness of her child, and this kept the Sky-his-Father up at nights so that he could not sleep.

And how every several years, when the Earth-her-Mother would begin to grumble, the Bennu would again return to do battle with the horrible Ssayre. If the Bennu were to win this tiny war, the Ssayre would descend her tower ever-so-slightly, easing the pain of the Earth-her-Mother. If the Bennu were to lose, he would be eaten, and the Earth-her-Mother would wail and cry until the very hills would fall to the far-distant sea.

Kawna'wa then spoke of _us._ The Kiri-ahn. How we were created to fulfill one sacred duty: to listen for the complaints and grumbles of the Earth-her-Mother. And when the Earth-her-Mother begins to complain, it is the job of the Kiri-ahn to bring down the Bennu from the Sky-his-Father by sacrificing to him the _Pajome_, a drink of fruits which the Bennu finds especially pleasant to the taste. And when the Bennu comes...

We direct it as to where it is to go for its tiny war. We direct it to the tower where lives the Ssayre. To begin its deathlong struggle once more.

This I believe.

And it is _important_ what I believe.

For I am Jossu'wa. And I am the Kiri-ahn-wa of my people.

I am the Speaker of the Bennu.

* * *

It is early morning when I first catch a glimpse of the Bennu, and the very sight causes the breath to catch in my throat and tears to come to my eyes. Truly, _this_ was what my aged master had spoken to me about. Once, when old Kawna'wa had become tipsy from imbibing too much of his beloved _Kaharis_, he called me to his presence, and left me standing in the uncertain firelight for many minutes. And when I did ask him as to why he had called me to his presence, he began to weep and tell me of the tremulous spirit that entered his breast when first he beheld the Sacred Bennu. I never knew or could fathom what exactly could drive my old master to tears, but now that I behold the glorious crystal-prism spectacle of the divinely elegant creature before me, everything makes sense. My breath halts and shatters in my throat, and I gaze, enraptured, for only a moment, before my knees give way and I kneel in the strangely lush vegetation of this oasis within the burning depths of the desert, letting my bindlestaff fall heedlessly to the ground. Truly, this creature _is_ the Bennu, holiest and mightiest of creatures, first child of the Sky-his-Father.

It is then that the Bennu trips and falls. Sploosh.

Apparently, the Bennu was attempting to capture one of the brilliantly-colored frogs of the Oasis with his long, elegant beak. I presume that the Bennu had wished to eat this frog, because it was his sacred right to do so. At any rate, the brilliant orange-black-cerulean frog which had been sitting so peacefully on the blazingly verdant water-lily-leaves, ripe for the Bennu's taking had, at the last moment, seeing the rush of the Bennu, leapt artfully off to one side. Subsequently, the Bennu's headlong rush carried him forward much too far, and in an attempt to extend one long, graceful leg to support his weight, he got himself tangled in himself, and, flapping his scintillating wings wildly, he plopped thrashingly into the achingly clear waters of the Oasis.

"FUCK!" Exclaims the Bennu, promptly thereafter.

And then, "FUCK, FUCK, FUCK!"

The Bennu proceeds to slap his wings frustratedly upon the surface of the water.

"FUCKING FROGS!" He exclaims.

And then, "FUCK!" Once more.

I nod, calmly, to myself. Another wisdom that Kawna'wa bestowed upon me was that the Bennu has a mind borne of a different, higher world, and that to judge his actions based on the core assumptions of the People is to invite a good smiting. I begin to meditate upon these, the actions of the Bennu, and after significant and profound thought, I realize that the Bennu's actions were in allegory to the futility of mortal life, the endless struggles that we, the People, must endure simply to fulfill our corporeal beings, and in doing so, the neglect that we pay our spirits, as illustrated by the harsh and sullying words that followed his failed attempt. The meditations are coming easily and quickly to me now, and I am inwardly thrilled. Kawna'wa's confidence in me was _not_ misplaced. I _can_ serve as this Age's Speaker of Bennu! So many nights before this one, I lay awake, in worry, worry that all my meditations would become for naught when first I looked upon the Bennu, that its mythical wisdom would prove far too deep for my mortal brain to comprehend. But now, I see this is not the case. I laugh, mockingly, at the memories of Elder Chukku'ni's taunting, who claimed before the assembly of the People that I was too young and unfit to hold the post of Kiri-ahn-wa, calling me, publically, a 'whelp still in swaddling-hides.' How _happy_ I am! Such is my joy that I let out a quiet whuffle, unable to suppress these feelings without a physical manifestation of some kind.

The Bennu turns, like heat-lightning across the sky. He has _heard_ me...

There is silence for some time, as the Bennu scans the vegetation in my general direction from his semi-recumbent posture.

"Who's there?" Calls out the Bennu.

More silence. My heart thuds in my breast, and my face prickles with anxiety.

"Is anybody there?" Repeats the Bennu.

My excitement grows to be a force more than I can control. "IT IS I, SACRED ONE!" I bellow, ecstatically, rising to my feet and throwing my forelimbs wide.

There is a pause.

"Who the _hell_ are you!" Says the Bennu, after a moment.

"Sacred Bennu!" I say. "First Son of the Sky-his-Father!" I say. "I am called Jossu'wa, Your Speaker on Earth!"

"My _what_?" Says the Bennu, shaking his elegant head at me, confusedly. Of course, this is not confusion, I remind myself. The Bennu is _not_ confused. In actuality, he is challenging me. 'I do not recognize you as a Speaker of Bennu, Mortal one.' That is what he is saying. I am resolved to prove myself worthy in his eyes, however. I did not expect not to be judged by him.

"I am your Speaker on Earth, Glorious One!" I say. "Though I am young in years and unscarred of skin, I am yet wise, and tutored well by my venerable master, Kawna'wa, now returned to the Elements from whence he was formed!"

Another pause.

"_What_ the hell are you?" He says, attempting unsteadily to rise on his... ungainly... no. No. The Bennu is _not_ "ungainly." His legs are long and elegant, but the fact that he cannot _use_ them is to be interpreted as a statement of how we are all unable to live up to our Divine Potential through our own weaknesses and failings.

So caught up in my meditations on this issue am I that I forget to respond to the Bennu.

"Hell-O!" He demands. "You! What the hell are you supposed to be? Huh?"

"Forgive, Bennu!" I say, contritely but ritualistically; it was in this fashion that Kawna'wa had instructed me to respond whenever the Bennu has been slighted or not paid proper respect. "I was engaged in meditations on your words and actions. Chastise me at your will." I await my smiting.

Agreeably, my smiting does not occur. Praise be!

"Look, I'm not into the whole chastising business here..." He says, 'uncertainly.' (I place this emotion in quotes, because, even though this is not his true emotion, it is how I, in my mortality, interpret it.) "I just want to know what the hell you _are._ Some kind of... what. Armadillo, or something?"

Aha. An easy question. Kawna'wa prepared me well, and for the thousand-and-first time, I am glad of his memory in my life. "No, Bennu!" I say. "Though we, the Kiri-ahn, your sacred people, bear some superficial resemblance to the Gray Nine-Banded Armadillos that wander these deserts, we are in actuality far larger and capable of upright speech, tool use, and..."


My tongue has betrayed me! 'Upright Speech' indeed. I falter for a moment, my ritual speech disrupted by a simple transposition.

"My apologies, Bennu." I say, hurriedly, stumbling over my words, with visions of smiting strong in my mind. "I did not mean to reverse the words of my discourse. What I had _intended_ to say, was--"

"Forget it." Says the Bennu, 'weakly.' Good. I stand still in his good graces, and what's more, I have been absolved of the responsibility to complete my litany. Surely, the Bennu is both majestic _and_ beneficent. I am proud to be Kiri-ahn.

"So, basically, you're a large, talking, burlap-clad armadillo with thumbs. Yes?"

I nod.

There is a pause.

"You any good at catching frogs?" Asks the Bennu.

* * *

And that was the beginning of things.

We had a bit of hashing-out to do, as might be expected, because of my own weaknesses and failings of communication. The Bennu 'didn't understand' when I explained to him that I was unable to touch the Sacred Frogs because of ancient decree of the Kiri-ahn-wa. This caused the Bennu no end of 'consternation.'

* * *

"Look, you semi-evolved little _shit_," says the Bennu, "I am _not_ doing well, here. I have been sitting here knee-deep in this fucking water for going on five days now, and all I've had to eat is _a_ fish. Not even multiple fish. _A_ fish. I think it was born without one of its fins or something, 'cos it was swimming all weird. I've eaten _One_ _Congenitally-Deformed_ _FISH_. Two days ago I spent three hours trying to eat one of those bushes over there." He gestures with one wingtip. "_Yesterday_, I spent three hours throwing up that selfsame bush. And these fucking frogs _Don't_ _Stay_ _Still!_ Not to mention the fact that I don't even have any GOD-be-DAMNED _MANIPULATIVE APPENDAGES_ anymore! So now _you_ show up, conveniently possessed of manipulative appendages and dressed in about twenty-five square yards of a lot of nice holey cloth to make a net out of, and now _you're_ telling me that, sorry, you _can't_ because IT'S FUCKING 'TRADITIONAL' THAT YOU NOT TOUCH THEM?!?"

I'm not exactly sure how to interpret this utterance, in the grand scheme of things.

"It is not only the _tradition_, Bennu." I say, finally deciding that he is attempting to quiz me on my knowledge of religious dogma. "The Lore of the Kiri-ahn-wa states that I will be smitten if I do so much as touch one of these creatures."

"So." Says the Bennu, calmly. "Where's this smiting supposed to come from, then?"

"Well, from _you_, of course, Bennu."

The Bennu 'falters', but I recognize his ploy. He is feigning noncomprehension in order to get me to continue speaking and, perhaps, trap me into making a statement that is not canonical with the Catechism. He shall not find in me so easy an opponent! I am determined to make the Bennu proud at my wisdom.

"Uhm. Ah... 'scuse me..." Says the Bennu. "_I'm_ supposed to be the one smiting you if you touch one of the Sacred Frogs?"

"Yes." I say, proudly.

He pauses.

"But... _I'm_ the one who _told_ you to catch the frogs in the first place!"

"Ah." I say. "But perhaps you were testing me."

The Bennu lets out an 'exasperated' breath. "_LOOK_, you." Says the Bennu. "You don't have to touch the fucking frogs. Just strain 'em out of the water with your... cassock. Whatever the hell that thing is. Then, you open your little strainer-bag up, and I pick them out of there. Are we understanding each other?"

I am uncertain. "That is against the Canon." I say, quietly.

"You wanna get smitten or something?" Says the Bennu, 'angrily', shaking his wings at me.

"No!" I say, quickly.

"Well then!" Says the Bennu. "You gimme a frog, or you get smitten. Simple as that. And I warn you, I'm capable of a _hell_ of smiting in my own right." He looks at me intently.

Kawna'wa never prepared me for this. I stand uneasily, pondering my options.

An uncertain silence.

"Look." Says the Bennu, after a time, in a voice that might be said to be, perhaps, anxious and/or pleading in a non-allegorical situation. "I don't think you get it." He shakes himself out all over, displaying his brilliant plumage to me. "_This_ is not me. I am not a goddamned Technicolor Stork, okay? I'm a student at the UW-Milwaukee College of Business Administration. I have a _life_ outside of your little la-la-land fantasy world, 'kay? I don't know _what_ the hell I'm doing here, or even what the hell this place is. All I know is that half a week ago, I cut my hand on a goddamned hunk of rock crystal and about ten seconds later, I find myself sitting here in this goddamned pool of water in the middle of the desert surrounded by happy little goddamned frogs." He pauses. "Do you _know_ how hard it is to _SLEEP_ with all these fucking frogs jabbering away all night?"

"No, Bennu." I say.

"Pretty fucking hard." Says the Bennu. "And I'm _stuck_ here. First day I got here, right before going into my delayed psychological-shock state, I took a look around. _This is all there is._ Goddamn desert, all around, miles and miles. I practically died of exposure before finally crawling back here." He pauses for a moment. "Where did you come from, by the way?"

"K'aliko. The Village of the Spire." I say. "It is beyond the desert."

The Bennu looks at me, nonplussed. "Well, you're probably better at wandering around in the desert and shit than I am."

"'Wandering', Bennu?" I say. "My apologies, sacred one, but I am confused, now, all throughout the last few talkings. You... are... walking? When you talk to me about your travels on the first day?"

"Well, yes." Says the Bennu.


"You are not flying?" I ask.

"Don't be stupid." He says.

"I do not understand, Bennu. In every other Age you were able to fly, and fly very well."

"Look, I don't give a fuck about what happened in any other 'age'. I can't fly, all right?"

"You _look_ as though you can fly, Bennu!" I say, consternatedly. "You have wings, and strong breast muscles, and lithe bones, and-"

"You wanna get smitten?"


"Shaddup, then."

I hedge.

After a moment...

"Have you _Tried_ flying, in this Age, Bennu?"

"No." Says the Bennu, sourly. "You don't feel comfortable catching frogs, I don't feel comfortable 'flying.' Capice?"

Oh, my! This is _very_ symbological! Gleefully, my mind begins deriving morals and aphorisms and distilled truths that I will use at my very first official Sermon to my people. I am in rapture. Perhaps, with the skill that I find myself to be having, I will be the _greatest_ Kiri-ahn-wa that my people have ever known! Perhaps...

Oh, Jossu'wa, perish to think...

Perhaps even greater than Kawna'wa, Wisest of All...

"ARE YOU LISTENING TO ME?!?" Bellow-squawks the Bennu, bobbing his head angrily.

Heavens! I have let my own pride in my station come before my duty to Listen to the Bennu, or so he informs me by this statement.

"I am sorry, Bennu. My hubris is beyond belief." I say.


"_What?!?_" Says the Bennu. Then, "No. Don't bother explaining. Your brain is obviously on some different plane of reality or something." And then, to himself, "Look who's talking."

I just nod. There are still some utterances that I cannot correctly interpret. Patience, Jossu'wa. It is your first day.

When the Bennu next again speaks, his voice is heavy. "Look." He says. "I'll make a deal with you. I will _try_ this flying shit for the purposes of furthering this misguided religious rapture that you seem to hold."

"Wonderful!" I say.

"_IF_!" Says the Bennu. "_IF_ you are willing to strain some frogs out of the water for me." Pause. "Deal?"

I ponder.

A new Age. A new Canon. A new Speaker.




"Wull, allrightythen." Says the Bennu.

* * *

Our few precious days begin to pass at the Oasis. This is the most critical time period for the Kiri-ahn-wa. For when first we prepare the _Pajome_, the Bennu comes, and then he goes. It is the job of the Kiri-ahn-wa to state the case of the People, and to convince the Bennu to _return_. For it is only upon his return that the Bennu may fight his tiny war. And if the Bennu does not return, as has happened in the past, the Earth-her-Mother will grow ever ever angrier at her disobedient daughter until one day we all perish from her pent wrath. And that would be Really Really Bad.

Right now...

I'm not sure how well I am doing.

"Okay, okay, okay." Says the Bennu, picking at the iridescent flesh of a wholly beautiful and wholly dead Sacred Fish nearby on the pristine shore of the Oasis. "I'm supposed to do _what_?"

"Age upon age, you have returned to do battle with the Ssayre, Bennu." I say, gazing off into this evening's gathering sunset. "Age upon age, you ascend the Spire and engage the Ssayre in ritual combat. If you win, the Ssayre descends within the spire to be closer to the Earth her Mother, and we will be spared her wrath."

"And... what exactly _is_ this horrible beast? This... 'Sair'?"

"'Ssayre.'" I best correct this as well, on the off chance that he is testing me even on the pronunciation of the names. "A lizard, Bennu. A _huge_ reptile, maroon and crimson in hue, crested of head and neck and wing`ed of forelimb. Borne of the Fires of the Earth-her-Mother, and now, dwelling far away from her at the top of the Spire."

"How big we talkin' here." Says the Bennu, clacking his beak 'nervously.'

"The Lore states that she is of prodigious size and power, Bennu. None of the People now alive have gazed upon her, however. So I am sorry, Bennu, that is one question I cannot answer."

"Justin." Says the Bennu.

"Pardon?" I say.

"Justin. My name is 'Justin.' Not 'Bennu.'"

"Justin'Bennu." I say. "Like 'Jossu'wa'?"


"'Bennu' is an Honorific, then? As I am named 'Jossu', and I am called 'Jossu'wa' for my position amongst my people?"

He nods. "I guess you could say that."

"Very well." I say, carefully noting this fact in my mind.

"So anyway." Says the Bennu. "A big red winged lizard. Living at the top of some big pinnacle of rock. And I'm supposed to just climb up the ol' sides and challenge it to a fight?"

"Why yes." I say. "Except for the fact that the Spire is impossible to climb. Many foolish Kiri-ahn have tried and failed before."

"Why?" He asks, shaking his head. "I mean, why climb it?"

I shrug. "Some have gone in an attempt to reason with the Ssayre themselves, to entice her to return to her mother. Some have gone in search of the fabulous wealth that the Ssayre is said to keep within her domicile. Others have simply been curious. Whatever the reason, the end result is always the same." I attempt to inject a note of grim finality into my speech, but it still comes out sounding somewhat foolish.

"Right. So this is where the flying comes in."

"Yes, but I would not worry. The thermals within the Spire will help your ascent."

"I don't understand. If I'm going to be flying up there, how the hell will thermals _within_ the spire help anything?"

"In the past, you have flown within the Spire."

"It's that big?" Says the Bennu.

"Yes. Here, let me draw you a diagram." I remove from my bindlestick-pack a fragment of k'tanik-hide vellum-paper and my marvelous Thing Which Writes Better than Charcoal, and am just about to go about designing for the Bennu an approximate height of the Spire as it compares to, for example, me, when suddenly the Bennu's eyes go wide.

He darts at me. I fear, at last, that I have overstepped my bounds; I had not known that my actions would startle and fear the Bennu so much. Perhaps he is insulted at my implication that he does not understand. I admit the implication was there. There is something odd about the Bennu, a growing suspicion in my breast... and perhaps now, I remember Kawna'wa telling me of me of this, too, a long, long time ago. It has almost been as if he has forgotten _everything..._ what he has been and what he ever will be...

I am confused.

Even more confused am I, however, by the actions of the Bennu. Quickly and without great thought, I begin to cower, curling myself into my instinctive meditative shell; humility is within the nature of the Kiri-ahn. "Forgive, Justin'Bennu!" I say, groveling in what I hope is a pleasing fashion to him. I am about to go on and list all my possible offenses, when I stop, noticing the look on his face.

The Bennu _concentrates_. On a spot on the ground.

The very spot where, in the flurry, I have dropped my Thing Which Writes Better than Charcoal.

"Where did you get this?" Asks the Bennu, quietly, after a time.

"It was at the Place Where Weird Things Show Up, Bennu." I say, uncurling myself somewhat and peering humbly at him from my semi-protected posture. "As Kiri-ahn-wa, it was my place to lay claim to it if it pleased me."

The Bennu struggles for a moment, and then grasps the Writing-Thing in the claw of his leg and attempts to hold it before his eyes.

"The runes on it interest you, Bennu?" I say, mildly, from my still-cowering position.

"I can't read these," says the Bennu, "but if I didn't know any better... from the colors... and the... shape of it..." He trails off.

"There is the one that looks like a broken stick..." I say, attempting to be helpful in my own quiet way. "Then one that looks like a hut, then a side-winding snake, then a hut again..." I trail off, too.

"Dad's NASA pen." He murmurs, quietly.

"I had _thought_ that it was a gift from the Sky-your-Father, Bennu. I seem to have been correct...?"

"But..." Says the Bennu, ignoring me. "This is impossible. Mom..." He trails off again, then starts anew. "Mom told me in her last letter that she had... lost... it..." He fixes his now-intense gaze on me. "How did you get this?"

"As I said, Bennu..." I say, rising to my feet. "It was at the Place Where Weird Things Show Up. One of our holy places. It writes better than the charcoal sticks that we typically use, and so I named it... the... er..." I hedge. "The Thing Which Writes Better Than Charcoal." I conclude, firmly.

"Pen." Says the Bennu, his eyes returning to the artifact.

"P'en?" I attempt.

"Jesus H. Christ." Says the Bennu, distractedly. "_Must_ you put one of those weird clicky-stop-things in every single word you use?"

"It is our way." I say, simply.

The Bennu stares at it for a while. "Jaysus." He finally says, clumsily handing the artifact back to me with his long, claw`ed foot. "I'm not getting _any_ of this."

I nod quietly to myself, although inwardly I am worried. The Bennu is simply confused. I am now certain of it. And if he is confused and has truly lost his memory, it is my fear that he will not return to us. Not in time.

"Jossu'wa." He says. "You're my spiritual guide here, apparently. What the heck am I supposed to be doing here?"

An opening. I must act soon. Although the time of the First Visit always varies, tonight is the beginning of the end. By the morrow, it is possible that the Bennu may be gone, and I _must_ make my plea before he goes, or else all may be lost. Bravely I sweep aside the clinging despair that is gathering around me like desert-mist and begin making my Request.

The words are not the Canon. Something about the Bennu shatters the dogma in my mind and digs instead into my heart. As though his presence challenges me to put my beliefs to the test. Straining the frogs from the water. Speaking what I _believe_.

It is important what I believe.

"Bennu, I have told you of what you have done in the past, age after age. You are sacred to us, Justin'Bennu. Sacred to us all. Age after age, the Ssayre, chief of the devils, born of fire, demands a challenger. You are the Bennu, son of the Sky-his-Father. You are the only creature who may face her wrath. She hungers for our mortality, Bennu. She is corrupt, and foul, and distant from the Order of things."

"She's pretty bad then, this Ssayre."

"Yes, Justin'Bennu."

"'Distant from the order of things?'" he asks.

"Yes." I say. "When the Ssayre tore herself from the Earth-her-Mother, her spirit grew black and sullen. And it shall remain so, from here until forever, until the two are joined once again. She _must_ be coaxed from the Spire, Justin'Bennu. Age after age, your battles have done that. And now you must face her again. You _must._"

Justin'Bennu nods, heavily. "All right, all right. What the fuck ever. Just tell me one thing. What _happens_ to your goddamned Bennu after he gets done facing the Ssayre?"

"I presume that you return to the Sky-his-Father."

"You _presume_?"

"Well, yes." I say, the worry growing in me. "We do not see you again until the beginning of the next Age, so it is presumed that you return to your home in the Forever-Sky."

"Great." Says Justin'Bennu. "Just so long as I get to go home after this fucking spirit-quest is done with." He sighs, heavily.

Resigned... but accepting. I am vastly relieved. We are no longer in danger. The Bennu has accepted. I smile, wearily.

"Then you will return?" I ask.

He looks at me curiously. "What?" He says.

"When you leave here. You will return to us."

The Bennu frowns. "I'm not reaching you here."

"Age after age, the ritual is the same. In a matter of days, you will suddenly vanish back to your home in the Forever-Sky. And then, we ever hope, you willingly return to us for the Second Visit."

"You mean... I get a _choice_ here?" He asks, looking at me, eyes narrowed.

"Of... course, Bennu." I say, uncertainly. "What value is there in a virtuous task performed without free will?"

"I get a _choice?_" Says the Bennu, again.

Worry enters my breast. "...Yes, Bennu-- but if you will allow me a little more time, I belive that I can state my case in a more conv--"

"Jesus Christ!" Exclaims the Bennu. "Here I thought this was the whole Quantum Leap 'we gotta finish this quest to find the way back home' schtick! When do I get to go back?"

"Soon, Bennu." I say, quickly. "But it is our hope that you will--"

"GREAT!" Exclaims the Bennu. "Shit, you had me scared for a while there, Jossu'wa. What the _fuck_ would _I_ do against a goddamned hell-spawned dragon, huh? I'm a fucking _stork_, armadillo-boy! _Think!_"

" have _powers_, Bennu... powers given to you by the Sky-his-Father..."

"Listen, kid." Says the Bennu, exuberantly. "My daddy is not Father Sky. My daddy _was_ an astronaut. Pride and glory of the USA, all that shit, did himself in on amphetamines one dark night. And he sure as _shit_ didn't give me any powers."

I do not know what to say. I feel as though I have been kicked.

"Bennu..." I say, an infantile pleading creeping shamefully into my voice. "If you do not face the Ssayre, she will climb unabated the Spire, and the Earth-her-Mother will loose her fury upon us all. So says the Lore. People may _die_, Bennu! Please, at least _consider_ the request that I make..."

"Jossu'wa." Says the Bennu. "You seem like a good sort. A bit of a dope, but a sweet one. You're not half as much a bastard as about ninety-nine percent of the people that I meet day in and day out. And so I tell you this, because I think you've got potential: Lose this whole Old Time Religion bit. God is not gonna reach down from the heavens and slap you upside the head just for eating two or three of these goddamn frogs. And Mother Earth is not going to freak out just because _I_, of all people, refuse to fight your little allegorical battle for you, okay?"

"Bennu..." I say, shaking my head in noncomprehension. I... can not believe this. There must be some mistake. This can not be the creature to whom I have dedicated my life ever since I was young. It _can not_...

Shamefully, I think that I feel a tear at the corner of one of my eyes, hidden somewhere safely behind the lid.

"Not 'Bennu.' Not 'Justin'Bennu.' Just 'Justin.' Got it?"

I nod quietly, not meeting his gaze.


"Learn to think for yourself." He says, with a note of finality.

"I will be waiting here for you if you change your mind." I say, in quiet despair.

"You do whatever the fuck you want, Joss. But when I'm outta here, I'm _outta here_."

I nod again.

"You want some of this fish?" He asks.

I shake my head.

"It's just gonna go to waste."

I shake my head again.

I can hear the disgusted croak in his throat. "Suit yourself." He says, promptly.

And without another word, the Bennu wades back out into the crystalline waters of the Oasis.

* * * * * * * * * * *

And there, somewhere in the dark of night, deep within this one solitary spot of color in the vast, earth-toned desert below, far beneath the maddening stars above and in the deafening presence of a billion bright-hued frogs and a single, meditative armadillo, the Bennu, glorious and sacred bird of the Kiri-ahn...


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