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Rise of the Phoenix
part 4
by J.(Channing)Wells


* * * * * * * * * * *


A small community, by many standards. A cove of desert in the mountains, a harbor of sand nestled against the titanic limestone fault-block and igneous mountains to the west. An unassuming community of simple herdsmen, whose principal method of defense against other, more warlike tribes consists of the imposing mountains westward and the burning expanses of the desert to the east, and whose secondary method consists of having nothing whatsoever of value to take in the first place. Day in and day out, the Kiri-ahn live their pragmatic lives here, herding and keeping the huge, leathery, vaguely-beetle-like k'tanik, watching over them as they scour the blasted landscape for dry, quick-growing desert lichen. A small people, with little to no contact with the world without. A people who are content to stay that way.

A people living in the shadow of the Spire.

Inspect it, now. An obscene finger of black obsidian jutting apoplectically from the ringing mountain peaks about it. Take note of the circular shear-patterns on the glassy rock, conch-like depressions with edges like diamond. After a cursory inspection, shift the gaze downwards, to its earthly base, where the grey-brown abruptly becomes the black. A place of dust and ashes and the broken, dessicated bones of Bellerophonic climbers of countless ages, their corpses never interred, as a scathing reminder to the horrid price one pays for hubris. Note the sheer width of the blackness, a foundation to rival modern skyscrapers'. And on that note, cast the eyes up, up, _up_, along the twisted, gnarled surface to the dizzying heights of the very peak, a peak which seems literally to brush the clouds. And yet, for all its height, there is no straightness to the Spire. No hint of upright Law in its construction. It is bent and turned as a dowager aunt, goitered and pocked and arthritic. It is a horrible thing.

It is the _reason_ for the Kiri-ahn.

And yet, when the sun courses the sky, and the impossibly thin shadow of the Spire sweeps, sundial-like, across the village--as a result of the village's slightly oblique placement relative to the site--there is not a one who does not feel a sense of foreboding, despite his ancestral, communal post among Its earthly keepers. It is good to be within your k'tanik-hide hut when the shadow of the Spire crosses it. It is good to tie the door flaps and hide-windows shut with bright-colored cloths, to keep away the hawk-like demons who serve Her. It is good to gather one's family together and seal one's dwelling and spend the hour that the shadow passes your home each day in fearful prayer. Fearful prayer to the harsh, burning, growling Earth, violent and wrathful as any other mother estranged from her daughter. Fearful prayer to the comparatively beneficent but disturbingly enigmatic Sky, father of the Bennu and bringer of storms. But to whomever one chooses to pray, it is _vital_ that, regardless, it be done. It is not good to be out upon the ranges with your beasts at the very time that the shadow is passing your home. _Things have happened._

A tiny village of peoples, ruled by ritual, and fear, and a firm belief in the power of the unknown to harm and to kill.


Village of the Spire.

* * * * * * * * * * *

We breathe, together. In with the hot, dry air of the desert. Out with the hot, dry air of our lungs. In. And out.


The morning expands around us like the vast desert that stretches away to the eastern sky. There is nothing but sun and scrub and sand, backwards. It is a savage land, unstung by the sharp darts of power conduits and telephone lines, and unsmothered by the hot, feverish hand of asphalt. It is a land that does not, in short, give a fuck, and we have crossed it.

To the west are the brown mountains, rising like thunder. They are, in a word, impossible. I cannot think that anything like them exists where I once came from. These sharp contrasts of land are unfamiliar, unknown in the world that I knew. Mountains do not fall from jagged cliffs, plunging like divers into the sand sea of the desert. Foothills! Where are the foothills, for Christ's sake? Perched within the red-grey brick walls of High School, studying dull paper maps, I had learned much of foothills. Intermediary zones. Places to ease your transitions from one way to another. Dare I say it: Grey areas. There is nothing of that here. The lines are sharper, having been drawn by a Creator wielding a chisel of some variety, instead of an orbital sander. Gloria Dei, but make sure you wear those safety-goggles.

Another breath. In, and out.

And, of course, the culmination, the apex, the philosophical omega of this abruptness is the Spire itself. There is a dark sort of distortion to the structure that is not entirely explicable as due to simply the effects of distance and heat. Structure? It must be... Goodness, it must. Nothing like that could _possibly_ be natural. No god, not even a chisel-wielding one, would have conceived of such a thing. No being responsible for having crafted the Spire could have mustered the courage to go on and continue making the rest of the world.

I have dark thoughts.

Imagine an omnipotent deity, seeking to create a world of goodness and light. Imagine him blithely beginning his creation, full of hope and joy and wonder, full in knowledge that _his_ world, himself-damnit, would be _Better_ than all the rest. That it would contain nothing but beauty and a mist-laced hazy pastel glory. Sic him at this task, humming away, for a thousand thousand years.

Then, when he is on the verge of completion, all done and ready to go except for a little tiny pocket of land in western North America... when he is there, destroy his soul. Concentrate all the lesions of the mind that you can imagine. Inflict it upon this hapless creator. Cast him flailing into a thousand thousand years of torment. And then set him free and slam him back down at his workbench. And watch.

Watch as he sits there, staring. Watch the many long nights that he looks, with an almost (but not, oh no, _not_) comical expression of shock and betrayal, upon his almost-finished creation. Watch, then, as he valiantly tries to pick up the pieces and continue with his work, with the knowledge that there _is_ darkness, even within himself, a darkness that he had never before seen. Watch as the one little uncreated bit begins to form itself in his mind, as it strives, achingly, for the purity and innocence of the previous. Watch him spend another thousand thousand years on the state of Nevada alone, a period of time in which he previously wrought a whole world of wonder but in which he now is barely able to craft a single desert into being.

That is the desert that we have passed, through the strength of our legs and the endurance of our hearts.

Now, imagine that all that is done. That there is only one tiny speck of land remaining, blank and white on the eternal surveyor's map. Imagine the creator again, haggard and sunken-eyed, surrounded by bottles of cheap gin and overflowing ashtrays, after a long night at the seed-shot bars, the places where the lost souls go. Imagine him looking with scorn and mockery on the little area of desert, this cheap imitation of the glory that once he wrought. Imagine him flying into a rage, an apostasy, smashing glass, letting alcohol dregs spit and ruin the painstaking watercolors that once he applied.

Imagine him taking into his hand a black knife of glass, his eyes red.

Imagine him driving it into the earth.

And that one final act being done, imagine him howling madly out into the streets of the city, out into the endless malefic void, never to be heard from again.

Leaving nothing but that.

_That_ is the Spire.

Breathe in. Breathe out.


I had thought Jossu'wa's fear to be comical, in a hapless sort of way, before. But he grew up having to look at that thing every day of his life. I would like to have seen myself in his place. Or rather, I wouldn't have liked to have seen that. Not in the slightest.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

"I must apologize, Bennu." Says Jossu'wa. "There will be little fanfare for your arrival. In the times of Kawna'wa, my master, the village was ever-respectful of him, and when he returned, there were people with drums and tabors to greet him." He blinks, and narrows himself into himself. "But you knew that." He says, wistfully, as if not at all sure of that fact.

In a moment, he emerges again. "Alas, I am not in so good a standing as my master. My parents were... disreputable. They were having of strange beliefs. No one ever understood why Kawna'wa chose me to be his one apprentice, when there were plenty of youths abounding who would have been far 'better' to the task than I. Many parents with young sons boiled their jealousy in covered pots, waiting for my ascension."

"I don't get it." I say, quietly, barely wishing to disturb the hot desert wind. "Kawna'wa was the most respected man in your tribe, in his time, if I'm hearing you right. I mean, I can understand why you might be a target for an envy-reaction from the muckety-mucks. But why not blame Kawna'wa, too?"

"Ah." Says Joss, rocking slightly back and forth. "Kawna'wa was not to be questioned. It was _he_ that kept the Ssayre at bay through his magicks. It was he that warded away the bird-demons. It was he who kept us all safe. Me, I am just a whelp. The elders do not wish me to hold this post in the first place. They say..." Joss hunkers up and attempts to comically gruffen his voice in apparent mimicry of his tribal elders. "'Who cares that Kawna'wa chose this one as his apprentice! Kawna'wa never expected to die when he did. This little one might make a fine Kiri-ahn-wa in twelve or fifteen summers, as Kawna'wa probably intended, but until then, let us put someone _decent_ and _powerful_ in the Hut of Words, lest his shoddy wisdom bring the doom of Ssayre down upon us all!'"

Joss de-hunkers.

"So you see." He says, almost morosely, gazing off in the direction of K'aliko. "Simply bringing you back to my village does not mean the end of my trials. It is a start, a beginning, to the proof that I am capable of being the leader that Kawna'wa saw in me. But I have not won, and this is not the final step. Far from it, to be exact."

"So this ain't gonna be no picnic." I add, to demonstrate my comprehension.

Jossu'wa blinks innocently at me, his face clouded.

"I mean, we're not out of the woods yet."

He blinks again.

"_Despite being grateful for my return, you are informing me that you will still face many trials in your future._" I say, a bit louder than is probably necessary.

Joss's face brightens. "Yes!" He says. "That is exactly what I have said."

"Ya know, Joss, I just don't get you, sometimes." I say, shaking my head and following suit in turning to look in the direction of Joss's increasingly hostile-seeming village.

"You mean you do not understand?" Says Joss, openly.

"No." I mutter.

He looks puzzled for a moment, and then continues, "But what is there not to understand? Surely, you already know everything about me! You have been watching me from the skies since the moment of my birth! _You_ are the one with all the mysteries and the secrets and the god-brain and such. I should be the one who is worried about that sort of thing. Not you, Bennu. Not you..."

He trails off, gesturing vainly. Eventually, that too stops.

A moment of silence. Breathe in. Breathe out.

"Joss," I say, at last, picking through my words. "You have... a quality to you. Something I can't place, or put my... er... finger on." I idly inspect my right wing for a moment, my thoughts momentarily distracted. I return to the topic. "Point being, I don't know if it's just you, or your people, or what. But I've never met anyone like you."

Joss nods, silently, more to show that he's hearing me than to demonstrate his understanding. "I am special to you?" He asks, after a moment.

"Different." I say, looking for the right word.

"Different how?" Asks Joss, in that inevitable penetrating way that he has.

"You just _say_ things, Joss! You are the single most up-front person I think I have, personally, ever met. When I'm around you, it's like... hell, Joss, it's like being around nobody else I've ever met. You have _faith,_ Joss."

You have faith in _me_.

You don't realize how much that means.

You can't possibly realize how much that means.

"Do you see?" I ask, wincing at having left off the most important part.

Joss says nothing for a moment or two, engaged as he is in drawing a sort of glyph or mandala in the sand before him. When he finally speaks, it is a tone suggesting that he is deep in thought.

"Why is my zeal so surprising to you, Bennu?" Asks Joss.

I shake my head. "It's just nice to be believed in." I say.

Joss nods quietly to himself.

"And the other?" I ask.

"What was the other?" He asks, blinking.

"How do you _do_ that? You aren't hiding a _thing_ right now, are you, Joss? There is _nothing_ that you wouldn't tell me, right now, if I asked."

"Of course, Bennu!"

"_How do you do that!_" I say, in exasperation.

"What... is there not to understand?" He says, gesturing with one forelimb. "I know what it is that I feel, and my feelings tell me how it is that I act. How is that strange?"

"Nothing, Joss." I say. "It's just... refreshing."

"Good." Says Joss uncertainly, patently striving for understanding. After a moment or two of thought, he presumably achieves it, and his face clears.

I just shake my head wistfully and sigh.

If my beak would permit it, I _would_ be smiling right now.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

One more cycle. One more round.

One more glance towards distant K'aliko.

* * *

There is no laughter.

By all accounts, there _should_ be laughter. That's how these things always go, isn't it? Young misfit heroes like Joss, unloved by their villages and scorned by unsympathetic elders, being greeted upon returning home with laughter, at least of the mocking variety?

There is no hint of laughter here. In fact, every square inch of this village seems carefully constructed so as not to draw attention to itself. The huts are low and leathery, as are the strange and alien beasts of burden nearby. And the people are little different from their dwellings and constructions; They are not an unstriking people in their own vaguely reptilian fashion; technically, armadillos are mammalian, of course, but anything actually open and fluffy about them would be found on their "underbellies," and those are well covered in hide wraps and strange burlap cloths made of some cord-like fiber. The rest of their compact forms, from their slightly hunched backs to their angular snouts to their tiny little tails, bespeaks a vast and profound introverted defensiveness.

In fact, the very concept of a Kiri-ahn actually _attacking_ one of their own seems a foreign one indeed.

That, of course, does not stop Chukku'ni from doing so.

Joss identified him to me early on. He is a bulky creature; it seems written in some universal law somewhere that hostile village elders must needs be more massive than the heroes that they face down. He, amongst all the Kiri-ahn, seems to bear some measure of ostentation about his dress; it's still pretty plain, nothing more than a few designs of silicate beads on his surplice, but by K'aliko's standards, it seems nothing less than decadent.

By contrast, _I_ am brilliant. If it were me standing up there in front of the assembly of Joss's people, I would be standing out like a fireworks display.

Joss had asked me to stand with him. I declined.

This was his moment, I had said, magnanimously. I didn't want to rob the glory from him. Go on. Have your fun. I'll just be waiting here in back when you get done.

Right. And what was the _real_ reason?

My wings are folded, and my head is low. I can't believe I'm doing this in the first place. _Me_? A _god_? I know well what Hollywood says I should be doing right now. I should be living high on the hog, exploiting the pitiful little native village, forcing them to give me grapes and burn incense for me. Well, I want no part of it. I'm better than that. Yes. I outright _refuse_ to become an object of worship for these confused little buggers. Millie didn't know what the fuck she was talking about. This isn't some mythical self-worth fantasy that I'm engaging in here. I'm more sensible than that. I'm older than that. I'm wiser than that. I'm way, way, _way_ beyond that.

"Won't you... come up? With me?" Joss had said, his eyes wide.

"Naw." I had said, pish-tosh-ly. "I don't want to steal your thunder or anything, Joss. Go on. Enjoy yourself. You got your Bennu, right? It's your moment of glory, right?"

"But!" Joss had said, protestively. Then, he had flipped his purposeful meekness switch. "But Bennu... I... I _want_ you there with me!"

I had gotten pissed, of course. Told him about how it was all well and good for me to stand there up in front of everybody like some prize from an exotic trophy-hunt, but that if he was _really_ interested in gaining true respect from his tribe, he should start _now_ trying to stand on his own two feet. After all, I wouldn't always be there for him. Hell, I wouldn't be there for him _at all_ after this one single appearance. Best that he not get too attached to my support or start using me as a crutch or anything. Just go up there, I had said.

"But..." He had said.

"No." I had responded. "I have faith that you can do this alone, Joss." I had continued.

Then, after a moment's thought,

"Don't let me down."

There was nothing, of course, he could respond to that. But it's all for the best, in the end. I know it is.

"Do you _realize_ exactly how long were you away, Jossu ni Kiri-ahn-wa?" Says Chukku'ni, in as pugnacious a fashion that he seems to be able to muster. He'd be _nothing_ back where I come from. Chukku'ni seems to be displaying K'aliko's equivalent of an almost melodramatic wrath, but even for all the cringing going around on the faces of the armadillo tribesmen, he can't seem to work up a rant even equal to Millie's typical daily angst roundabouts the fifteenth of each month.

It is enough. Jossu's cobby little form shudders with every word spoken by the pugnacious Elder.

"Answer the question, Jossu." Says Chukku'ni.

"I... was away for many days." Says Joss. "This I know, and I repent and ask forgiveness of the People for my lack of skill in convincing the Bennu's return."

"And what... _harms_ has your impotence caused?" Pries Chukku'ni, knowing full well the answer, but wishing to force Jossu into a public confession.

"The devil-birds came again in my absence." Says Joss, eyes downcast and voice low.

"Exactly." Says Chukku'ni. "Exactly. It is not that we believe that your small charms would have completely saved the beasts that Pia'ivor lost from his herd that night. I am certain that the village is already well familiar with your somewhat... irregular record on these matters."

Joss flinches.

"In fact," Continues Chukku'ni, almost idly, "In my memory, there have been more beasts lost to the devil-birds since your ascendance to the post of Kiri-ahn-wa than in my entire youth spent under the protection of your master. But we are an understanding people, Jossu. You are quite obviously not as skilled, nor as wise, as your master was, when he walked amongst us, and we do not expect such great things from you."

Joss flinches again.

"But the very _least_ that you might have done, Jossu, little one, would have been to have been here, amongst us, to perform what small measures that you could. Instead, you seem to have thought it best to abandon us here, while you dallied in the desert on your 'sacred duties.'"

"But the summoning of the Bennu _is_ my single most sacred duty!" Cries out Joss, suddenly, seeming to appeal to the masses as best he can, his voice ringing in the tones of loss and confusion. "So it is stated in the Canon! So I was taught by my master!"

"Pshaw." Says Chukku'ni, turning to the assembly. "You invoke the name of your master, when you know full well that were he amongst us instead of you, he would have finished his duties with the Bennu and been back here with ample time to save us from the attacks of the devil-birds. Is this or is this not true, Jossu-Ni-Kiri-Ahn-Wa?"

"Possibly!" Says Joss, despairingly. "But my efforts were not in vain! I have returned with the Bennu!" His arm seems to want to gesture towards me, but does not. Instead, he simply gazes at me.

Now there is a laugh. From Chukku'ni, it is a harsh, gravely sound.

Still chuckling, he ambles towards me, until he is standing before me full aface. I only lower myself further, never having wanted to be involved in this conflict in the first place. There is a moment where he regards me, smirkingly. Then he turns back to the crowds.

"_This_ is the fruit of your labor, little one?" He exalts, smugly, gesturing in a mock-theatrical fashion. "_This_ is the avatar that you labored for so long to bring here? _This_ is your reward to poor Pia'ivor, whose beasts were killed as a direct result of your inattention?"

I hunch further into myself. What am I supposed to say, here? How the hell am I supposed to defend myself against accusations like this? I hate to admit it, but Joss _is_ mistaken here. I _ain't_ a god. I'm nothing. I'm just a guy who found, no, whose damn _mother_ found, no, _stumbled across_ one tiny little hunk of crystal in the desert while she was on vacation. I'm worthless with women, I suck at pool, and I can't even control myself well enough to avoid pissing off everyone who even comes in casual contact with me, no matter what their intentions.

Let's face it. He's right.

"He _is_ the Bennu!" Says Joss, pleadingly, aching to meet my gaze. I only duck my head lower. "What right have you to call him these things?"

"_Is_ he, now." Says Chukku'ni.

"He is." States Joss, firmly, with what appears to be an armadillo's equivalent of a stiff upper lip.

"And _how_, pray tell, can you be so certain of this?"

"He _told_ me so. He would not lie to me."

I duck my head even lower.

"Pshaw." Says Chukku'ni a second time. "If a snikit-lizard speaks to me and claims to be the One True Son of the Sky-his-Father, do I believe him? If a burrowing vole calls himself Bennu, should I take his word? I have _seen_ the Bennu come when he was brought by Ancient Kawna'wa. This," He gestures indistinctly at me, as if not sure at which part of me to point, "thing, this strange and depressingly medium-sized bird, bears no more than superficial resemblance to the Bennu of old."

He's right, of course he's right, I'm not _the_ Bennu, I'm just a goddamn bird and a former business student. I'm sorry for having lied to you, Joss, but the point is, it's done, it hasn't worked, no one is buying it.

"YOU!" Says Chukku'ni, his voice actually lofting above all expected barriers of humility, turning his back to me to face Joss, up there in the limelight. "You have cost Pia'ivor his beasts to bring us a 'Bennu' who is patently _not_ that same, but who is rather more likely a pathetic creature whom you stumbled across while wandering around aimlessly in the desert, with the presumption that we would actually be so _stupid_ to believe that this... _thing_ is actually He who will save us from death at the hands of the Ssayre."

Joss looks smaller and more alone than I think I have ever seen him, even as Chukku'ni's wrath grows ever more powerful.

"We would forgive this of you, Jossu," he says. "were this your only offense against the weal of our people. But, _but_, even taking into consideration your relative _youth_ and _inexperience_ at this post..."

He spits the words, no longer pulling his punches. Jossu'wa stands very still.

Hell, it's not as though my heart doesn't go out to him. They never even gave him a chance. It looks like they're working up to stripping his office from him, but he's too good for them anyway. He doesn't belong here. Bastards. All of them. I never expected it to get this bad. I would have helped him out, if I had known how this was going to go. Joss is way too innocent for this shit.

"_Even_ taking this into consideration," continues Chukku'ni, "You have shown virtually _no_ promise for the admittedly demanding post of Kiri-ahn-wa. Far be it for us to doubt the wisdom of your most holy master, Jossu. Far, far from us to do so, but I believe that I speak for the assembly of the People when I ask you..."

He's going to do it.

" please..."

Wait. He's giving Joss an out. He's going to give him a chance to voluntarily resign the post. _Good_. The last thing he needs right now is to have himself stripped of his title in front of everyone. Despite my bile towards Chukku'ni, I am quietly glad for his offering Joss this way to retire with dignity.

"...resign your title..."

I nod, internally, my suspicions confirmed. It's what I would have wanted in his place. We've lost, Joss, best we can do is pick up the pieces and try to move on as best as we can.

" someone better qualified..."

Let's end this gracefully, Joss, please. It's over.

" hold this post."

There is a moment of quiet. I close my eyes.


My eyes snap open. _No?_ _NO?!?_ Joss, excuse me, but what the _hell_ are you thinking? Do you _Realize_ what you're doing, here? God_damn_ it, Joss, don't do this on my account, huh? I'm not _worth_ it, for Christ's sake! You're throwing your whole goddamn life away, here! I mean, you'll be lucky if they don't turn you out of the goddamn village, now! One little acquiescence is all that it would have taken, you'd have been welcome amongst your people, you'd have left this damn fiasco with your dignity intact. What's gonna happen now, Joss? I can't protect you from them! They'll run you out of town, you stupid idealistic little SHIT! What the hell were you _THINKING?_

I meet Joss's gaze.

And in that moment, I know what the hell he was thinking.

I believe in you, Justin'Bennu.

A shudder wracks my body as I stand there, staring into Joss's pitifully open and honest countenance.

I believe in you.

"In _that_ case..." Says Chukku'ni, his voice darkening and souring...

I believe in you.

"I will bring this to the consensus of the community. Jossu son of Tu'ivor..."

I believe in you.

"...has denied express offers for a graceful acquiescence of the position of Kiri-ahn-wa..."

I believe in you.

"...and has such denied the right to leave his ill-suited post with his dignity intact."

I believe in you.

"I bring this to the consensus, then. I ask that Jossu, son of Tu'ivor, be removed from his position of Kiri-ahn-wa and stripped of all privileges and duties thereof. Jossu, son of Tu'ivor, contests."

_I_ _believe_ _in_ _you_.

The storms of Chukku'ni's wrath gather themselves together into a final imprecation, apocalyptic in scope and apostasic in its quiet rage.

"With whom do you stand?"

I scream.

The entire assembly of the People leaps a foot in the air, but none leaps further than Chukku'ni, directly before me and thus in receipt of my full volume. I _am_ sound. I _am_ fury. Chukku'ni's pitiful attempts at anger seem hollow and pale, products of a mere cut-out being, compared to the glorious, croaking _AWK!_ that escapes my throat. Many of the People are startled nearly into curling into themselves, as I had seen Joss do before at the Oasis. The Elder before me is utterly paralyzed.

I let off a few more violent croaks, and then raise myself to my full height, outstretching my wings to such a breadth that they startle even me with their span. The plumage is... glorious. Unheard-of. Prisms and peacocks and meteor skies, silk and brass and raw red fire. Chrome and blue and silver-green fizzing violently against turquoise and amethyst and saffron. I am splendor. I am glory.

I am _pissed_.

I take a step towards the hunched and wide-eyed form of Chukku'ni, my wings still in full spread. And then, another. And another. At the second step, I begin a faint rustle in my outstretched limbs, and the colors become ever more magnificent as they shudder and shimmer against each other, new borders and potentialities wrought with each shake. At the third, seizing at some unconscious and potentially ingrained memories, I begin bobbing my head angrily and simultaneously, I slacken my lower beak, working quickly to an exaltant clapboard cadence of clacks. And at the fourth, I am virtually upon him.

His eyes are already dazzle-glazed by the time that I first meet him. His former self-possession is already spent. He is already beaten.

Tough shit.

I stand there for a few seconds more, clacking and awking and surrounding the hapless elder with a violent kaleidoscope of color, _my_ color, god damn it all, watching his eyes crumble out from under him as he grows ever more fearful at my presence. He and I are very alone, standing here in the scabious dirt; the remaining villagers have scrambled to give us a very wide berth indeed. Clouds of dust swirl around us as my dance-like gyrations grow ever more frantic and violent, and all sight of we two is lost in blinding rainbows made indistinct by the raised wall of sand-haze.

I cease.

I thrust my wings before me, surrounding Chukku'ni within their depths.

And then, very privately, I scream at him, one last time.

The noise dies.

In a mild voice, I direct a question to the huddled figure before me.

"Give up?" I ask.

Jossu'wa strides easily down from the front to our position. "People of K'aliko." He states, in a surprisingly loud voice, turning and turning slowly to address all who now surround him. "Elder Chukku'ni wants consensus from you. He wishes to forcibly remove me from my position amongst the People. I, on the other hand, want me to stay in my position. His final question was a good one."

There is almost the faintest hint of a smile on Jossu'wa's narrow face.

"With whom do you stand?"

There is nothing for a moment but the noise of hedging and shuffling, undercut by a few faint whimpers from the fallen Chukku'ni.

The noise dies to silence.

"I think we go with you," says a voice from the crowd.

Everyone, _everyone_, hastily agrees, and does so in a fashion that creates no less than a cloud of pleased affirmations surrounding my friend Joss, here with me in the center of it all.

I meet his gaze again.

He _is_ smiling, now. It's very tiny, very faint. But it's there. Amidst the bustle and hurrumph of the village flocking to his side, Jossu ni Kiri-ahn-wa, standing here with me in the middle of everything...


Jossu ni Kiri-ahn-wa is smiling.

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