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Rise of the Phoenix
part 5
by J.(Channing)Wells


* * *

"This," says Jossu'wa, "is _Kaharis._" He solemnly holds forth a crudely-blown glass bottle, sealed with a cork of some porous wood. Its brown contents slosh about unappetizingly. "It gives strength. And courage."

I eye it quizzically. "What is it made of?"

"The fermented juice of the sour cactus pricklefruit." Says Jossu'wa, matter-of-fact-ly. "When I am in a favorable mood towards it, it tastes like a mixture of vinegar and k'tanik-droppings. When I am not, it just tastes like the k'tanik-droppings." He shrugs. "I don't very much like it, but ritual purposes dictate, on occasion. Some Kiri-ahn grow _very_ fond of it, however. Kawna'wa used it extensively, to relax. Or so he said."

"Er." I say. "And I... ah... have to drink it now, do I?"

He shakes his head. "No, Bennu. We take this strap, tie it to the bottle, and put it around your neck, like so."

He does so.

"I look stupid with this thing on." I say, straining to bend my water-bird's neck around to get a better view of the new addition to my wardrobe.

"Nevertheless, it is highly symbolic." Says Joss, in a businesslike tone. "Don't 'freak out' on me or anything, Bennu. We're just getting started here."

Joss's attempts to pick up my lingo are probably motivated by the same religious zeal that motivates everything else about him. But I'm not gonna stop him--so _what_ if it makes him sound stupid in my eyes. It'll probably only enhance his prestige amongst his people to use mysterious and sacred words such as "smarmy" and "wanker", for instance. From what I've seen, the kid needs all the political clout he can get at this point.

"Now." Says Jossu'wa. "We must give you a token of the Sky-his-Father. Let me see." Joss turns back to his sacred shelves, and begins shopping around again. I take this moment of lull to once again look at the magnificent room around me.

When Jossu'wa and I first entered the rude mouth of rock that picked its way into the base of the mountains west of K'aliko on our final Holy Approach, I had had no idea as to the exotic grandeur that would eventually be revealed to me here in Joss's Temple of Sky. There is an overpoweringly _ancient_ feel to this natural domed cavern deep within the rocks, a feel that is only enhanced by the Julian columns of long-since-fused stalactites and stalagmites, which form this place into some primeval basilica. Adding to the sacred feel of the place is the pillars' decoration with extensive banks of ancient, glyphic characters and occasional mural-like carvings, depicting, apparently, important scenes in the history of the Kiri-ahn. For all their seeming randomness, there is a method to their madness; all of the murals, and carvings, and _everything_, subtly draw one's eye inwards to the far center of the room, where sits a broad, table-like menhir which Jossu'wa has described as his famous "Place Where Weird Things Show Up." Furthermore, it is doubtless to which of the two Kiri-ahn-ish deities this sacred place is dedicated. If there _were_ any doubt in one's mind, it would swiftly be erased upon the beholding of the pale, opaline grubs that line the cracks and crevasses of the great vaulted ceiling; by some trick of distance and their own ghostly bioluminescence, these fat little inch-long worms have been transformed into nothing less than an emulation of the starry night-heavens above. If one ceases to think about it, one might almost mistake this for an ancient stone-gated temple, roof open to the sky. It is a beautiful place. In a way, I have not seen a place more beautiful, I think.

Jesus fuck. Even the words in my head are changing, now. Keep this up for very long, I'll start to sound like Joss. But perhaps that wouldn't really be so bad a thing after all.

"I'm sorry, Bennu." Says Joss, turning back to me, his voice echoing slightly in the vast limestone cavern. "I can find nothing here that feels right except this." He holds out Dad's NASA pen to me. "I know that this disturbed you the first time I showed it to you, but I ask your permission to reintroduce it into your presence."

"Granted." I say, attempting to sound as solemn as possible.

Jossu nods, quietly, and then in a vaguely comical series of events, attempts to figure out the best way to have me carry it. Eventually, he ends up getting it to stay by clipping it deep within the rose-colored feathers on my breast. While he works, I idly look over the contents of the nearby shelf, and grin, inwardly, to myself. The 'relics' of the Kiri-ahn are an odd collection, a strange juxtaposition of primitive-looking tribal fetishes and assorted detritus from what must be my own world. Small flashlights, pens, keys, pairs of spectacles, cameras--even an old bottle of some variety of California White wine, whose label is now, in this world, incomprehensible to me. Tourist stuff. Little mundane items, things that I wouldn't give a second glance to back home, placed on tiny pedestals next to surprisingly-skillful beadwork effigies of... well, _me_, and other figures from Kiri-ahn mythology. It's very much like a dream, in many ways.

"A token for the Earth-her-Mother." Says Jossu'wa, then, holding out to me a long hide sash decorated by all manner of sparkling silicate beads in a fire-and-earth-toned blaze of red-brown color. I dutifully bow my head, and he places it, too, around my neck. He then goes back to the shelves, pondering further.

"Er... Joss." I say. "How many of these things am I going to have to carry, exactly?"

"Just a few more." Says Joss, his back still turned.

"'Cos I'm... kind of worried about... you know, wing ratios and all..." I say.

"Don't be." He says. Then, making a selection, Joss turns back around, holding in his vaguely-clawed forelimbs what appears to be a thick hide belt with a matching dagger-sheath dangling from one side. In the sheath is a long, curved knife, made of some black material, possibly chitin from the harder portions of the k'tanik. "For the Kiri-ahn. Herdsmen and makers of tools. Maintainers of the balance, summoners of the Bennu and keepers of the Spire. We give you this." He drapes the belt, too, around my neck, and goes back to rummaging.

I'm beginning to look a bit like a tourist myself, with all these things hanging off of me, so it is with little surprise that I greet Joss's final totemic token; an old Polaroid Instamatic.

"Who's this for." I ask, quizzically.

Joss kind of grins at me in a sheepish fashion. "Me." He says. "This is a Thing That Draws What It Sees. I... er..." He pauses.

"Spit it out," I say, my other assorted tokens clacking dully against each other as they wobble on their thongs and straps and whatnot.

"I have... never actually _seen_ the Ssayre, Bennu. None of us have. When you win your battle, I know you will be anxious to return to the Forever-Sky. But if you could... perhaps... take a moment... and..."

"All right, all right." I say, brusquely.

"You just point this end at whatever you want to-"

"I know how a camera works, Joss." I say.

"K'amera." He says, inspecting it.

"Close enough." I say.

And, in the manner of a medal given to the conquering hero that I am supposed, by divine prophecy, to be, Jossu'wa, with great reverence, places the camera strap over my neck.

"Done." Says Joss, looking up at me admiringly.

I nod. Strangely, it is only now that the nervousness begins in me. Hell, for all I know, this could be the final hour of my life. But somehow, even if it is, there is something... different about it. As though I am just one cosmic player in a vast celestial production of _The Music Man_, my destiny mapped out in the libretto-pages that are to come. Finally, for the first time, things seem... _right._

For the glory or the slaughter. Win or lose. Either or. What matters is the doing of it at all. What matters is how you _play._

Yes. Definitely starting to talk like Joss, now.

"Let's go." I say.

And we do.

* * *

And, shortly thereafter, upon the completion of a tiresome walk down another corridor deep, deep down into the very heart of the mountains, we find ourselves in Hell.

"The Temple of Earth." Intones Jossu'wa in a quiet whisper, as we tentatively cross the threshold into the second, far deeper, cavern. It is as different from the first as the... well, as the earth is the sky. While the former was wrought patiently of cold limestone by the slow, quiet hand of hidden subterranean waters, the high chamber we find ourselves in seems nothing less than blasted out of porous basalt and obsidian by the fires of the earth herself. Edificial statues and leering bas-relief sculptures line the walls haphazardly and in what appear to be curious states of half-completion, as though their creators feared what they wrought and left the work unfinished or hastily done. Faces--or what I only imagine to be faces--are crude travesties of the skilled carvings that I have seen above, either appearing slick, hot-melted and burned solid in ebony glass or cancerous and pocked in the rough basalt. And the Dantavian feel of the place is culminated by its one source of illumination: a vast, jagged, vertical cleft poised above and behind a broad, black altar at the very far end of the room. It is as horrible as the first was sublime.

"We are now at the very base of the Spire." Intones Jossu'wa. "Not the base where it touches the sand and rocks above, but here, where it touches the very core of the Earth." He looks timidly up at the high, blasphemously monumental stone-cast figures around us. "I do not like this place." He says, unnecessarily.

"How often do you have to come here?" I inquire, peering cautiously about.

"Once yearly, now that I am Kiri-ahn-wa, to offer formal prayer to the Earth." He says. "And once more several weeks ago with the ampoule of _Pajome_ for your initial summoning, Bennu."

I nod, my fetishes clacking against one another again.

"Any formal prayers here?" I ask, after a moment.

"No, Bennu."

"Not even, 'Jesus H. Christ on a Popsicle stick, what the fuck am I doing here?'"

Jossu shakes his head noncomprehendingly at me. "I do not understand that, Bennu."

"Didn't figure you would." I say.

He ponders, philosophically, for some time.

"Don't bother thinking about that one too hard, Joss." I say.

"Okay." He says, and I can see, via the bright, _tabula-rasa_ glow in his eyes, that his thoughts are instantly clear. What a mind he has...

"Are you prepared?" Says Joss.

"Yep." I say.

"Come along." He says.

And he leads me onward into the room, towards the mammoth, sanguinely-glowing cleft that subjugates a considerable portion of the far wall.

The temperature only grows as we progress.

* * *

I had first thought myself in Hell when I entered the Earth Temple. Now I realize that the temple was only its gateway.

I peer down into the naked fires of the earth.

"...jesus..." I murmur.

"Frightening, isn't it." Remarks the brave, but still-cowering Jossu'wa at my flank.

"This is... Fuck, Jossu'wa, this is a goddamned volcano!" I say. "This _is_ the Spire, right? I mean, we're looking up from the central core of it, yes?"

Joss nods his agreement.

"That's impossible!" I say, shaking my head in disbelief. "No volcanic cone _should_ be as tall as this, without a little girth to it. I mean, this is like a fucking needle! Let alone the fact that it's made out of solid obsidian, this is... I mean..."

I crane my head upwards inside the colossal shaft that vanishes into the vertiginous heights above.

"Jesus!" I conclude.

"You see what I meant about thermals, Justin'Bennu." He says. And I do. The rising, superheated air ruffles my feathers up and back even as I stand here on the lip of the cleft leading into the volcanic cone.

"Your ascent should be relatively effortless." He continues.

"Yeah." I say, peering transfixedly into the glow of the burning rock below. "It'll be the _stopping_ that'll be tricky."

"Perhaps." He says.

We stand, voiceless, for a time, in the quiet roar of the heated air from below.

"No more preparations?" I ask.

"Nope." Says Jossu'wa. "It is time."

More silence.

"Thank you for supporting me, Bennu." He says. "I shall never forget the look on my adversary Chukku'ni's face when you snuck up on him and scared him with the awking and the rustling like you did." Joss grins faintly at the memory. "Thank you."

"Hey, no problemo." I say, casually.

"Actually, thank you too for coming back for me at all. I am the youngest Kiri-ahn-wa since time was counted to complete the Ritual. Chukku'ni shall not find disparaging me so easy, now." He smiles again. "I feel that my spiritual primacy, for the moment, is secure."

I nod to him. Live or die. If I win, Joss says I return home. If I lose, I probably perish in the jaws of the Ssayre. But either way, I have helped one, single, fundamentally nice guy, by the name of Jossu'wa, attain what he truly aspires to in life. It's _already_ been worth it, on a metaphysical level.

"No prob." I say.

More silence.

"You just go whenever you're ready, Bennu." Says Joss, attempting to buck me up. "It probably would be best for you to kind of stand on the edge there and then let yourself fall forward, making sure your wings get spread out just as soon as you are through this crack and off the ledge, just like we tried outside on the foothills. You shouldn't have to flap much. Try to keep yourself broad rather than narrow, so you can really make use of the warm air. Stay away from the sides as best as you can, and whatever you do, don't turn upside-down and spill the air from your wings." He grins in that mind-numbingly innocent way that he has. "You should be just fine." He concludes.

"You make it sound so easy..." I murmur, sardonically.

"Of course, you realize I have never done this myself." Continues Jossu'wa, as usual, oblivious to the concept of sarcasm.

"Uh huh." I say, inspecting the roiling flames of perdition below. "Pretty much too late to back out now, is it." I note.

"No." Says Jossu'wa, simply, looking at me.

I look back at him.

"This is that whole thing with virtue and free will again, isn't it."

"Probably." Says Joss, cheerfully.

"Right." I say.

Clambering ganglingly forward, in the manner of the stork-like bird that I am, I make my way to the extreme edge of the precipice, onto the impossibly narrow ledge that suspends me above the geothermal furnace far below. In the dull red-orange light, my brilliant plumes positively _glow_, in coruscant rainbows of fire. I appear every image of the god that I am not.

And, but for the steady, subsonic rumbling of the Earth-Mother, all is in impeccable silence.

"Is there something I'm supposed to say, here?" I ask, stifling my coughs at the hot gases from below, the hellwind ruffling and misplacing my luminant feathers.

"Only what feels right." Says Joss.

I pause, then, spinning through various profundities and morsels of knowledge. This will be the last time Jossu'wa sees an avatar of his deity on earth for what will probably be many, many years. I should make it worth his while. Give him a quote, something to wrap his symbological brain around, something to base his sermons on, to pattern his life after, to shape the future of the Kiri-ahn...

Ach. To hell with it.

"Jossu'wa," I say, "Thank you."

"Thank _you._" Says Joss.

And with that, I cast myself into the abyss.

* * *

Man's perception of time is, of course, a subjective thing. If Jossu'wa had, for some obscure (and highly symbological) reason given me a little stopwatch on a lanyard as a token of who- or what-ever the fuck, and I had clacked the start button with my beak immediately before making my initial fall, I am certain that, at the end-all-be-all, my entire ascent, from step to stern, would amount to less than one minute of total time. Could have fooled me.

I fall, for a thousand years.

After the first thousand years, my brain jolts into action, reminding me that flight, even with thermals, is not entirely a passive process, and I lift my wings. However, tiny irregularities in this simple action so alter my aerodynamic profile that, while my screaming descent is halted, I am given an unruly axial spin which sends me reeling, directly towards one of the slick, undulating, obsidian walls of the Spire. I hold in my breast the awful, sickening feeling of impending doom for yet another thousand years.

Then, with a flick of one wing, more by reflex than by any calculated attempt at salvation, I spin right. At first, it is too tight a turn, and it sends me zigging backwards towards another wall for, yes, another thousand years of time. Rapid course corrections, however, ameliorate my hook, and my ascent becomes, for a moment, an easy rising turn around the perimeter. Momentary relief. I had planned, as best as I could, on a nice, simple, looping spiral ascent, on the exhaustive criteria of not being able to think of a single other thing to do. Things are resolving.

Naturally, it is then that the first outcropping appears in my vision. A sullen ledge of stone, jutting inexplicably from the rock. The lighting is far from perfect here, and I am almost buried in it beak-first before I even see it. With a sickening _whump_, one wing strikes the projection, spinning me around just enough so that the camera strap catches on a jutting prominence of obsidian. The damn thing is surprisingly strong, whipping my neck around and smacking me into the wall before itself snapping, sending Joss's hopes for a photograph down into the burning red-blackness below. Frantically, I attempt to recover, pushing spasmodically off the wall with one leg, an action which sends me tumbling head-over-hocks downwards. It is here that the loose, beadwork sash slips from my neck and follows the camera down to the fire. A token for the Earth-her-Mother. But I do not take the time to relish small and vaguely non-humorous ironies now. Flap. Strike wings out like a parachute to slow my descent. Another thousand years.

And then, after struggling for resolution of my course in a manner not unlike a mariner at the helm, I manage a return to the wobbling spiral. The muscles in my breast ache from me clenching them in fierce control, and my left wing hurts like hell where it hit the rock. I grit my... well 'teeth', though that's not technically appropriate, and shut out the pain from my mind.

Three more looping circles. The Spire grows narrower as I ascend, and the hot gases are not as noxious. I gulp air, to attempt to ward the ever-increasing lactic burn away from my muscles. There is no soaring beauty in this particular flight. It's just damn hard work. Another projection from the wall materializes from the dark, but I am ready, and banking smoothly upwards, I bypass it. However, despite missing the actual impact, I have neglected to take into consideration the alteration in the rising air-stream that the projection creates simply by its very existence. I am caught in a lull, then a fierce turbulence, but rather than try and fight it, I attempt to ride it out, gently shaping it back to my intended course. It's not easy. At least twice, I have to resist the urge to veer away in panic, seeing an oncoming wall; it is only through fierce concentration that I manage to project my course ahead and convince myself of which looming walls I am not in danger of hitting, regardless of how close they _look_.

An eternity passes, of calm-hysterical mental tugs-of-war, pointed arguments over the mental-map table in my mind, and internal struggle, played against the backdrop of my constant, rapid ascent. So consumed am I in my task that I do not recognize the pinprick of light above for what it is until it is well into view. The vent of the Spire. Way, way high up. Of course, as a result of this realization, that damned childish-wonder part of my brain takes this moment to muscle in and steal a glance downwards. Vertigo. Although my _corpus_ is that of a flyer, my _mentes_ is still one-hundred-percent Jesus lovin' land-dweller. A split-second of sickness and down-staring, which, of course, distracts me from the third ledge, a huge affair circling the greater portion of the circumference of the Spire. With a terrified "awk", I dart inwards and down, losing control to my reflexes again, The angle of my neck jolts the bottle of _Kaharis_ from its resting-place there, and it begins its fall the whole, long way. I wrench my eyes away, resisting the temptation to follow it, and climb again, this time clearing the ledge by a narrow foot.

It is as I pass the shadow of the ledge that I see the first opening. It's lit, for one thing. And the glow doesn't appear to be anything resembling the earlier bioluminescence. It looks... crafted. This must be my goal. Naturally, it is all well and good to make an assumption like this; Acting on it, however, ends up being more difficult, considering that by the time that all my senses have registered and I have made my judgment, I am well past it. Correcting, I attempt to narrow my wings and find the wind-shadow of the ledge to ease my way down. Too late, I realize that I probably should have done one, or the other, not both. My descent is too rapid, freed from the grip of the thermals, and I end up dropping towards the ledge in a sickening plummet. Hastily, I spread my wings again for some retroactive thrust, but by the time I can do so it is beyond the point of correction, and, spinning gracelessly out of control, I crash to the smooth surface of the ledge and skid across it for several feet before ramming into the softly-slanted wall in a tangle of legs and feathers.

It is some time before my brain registers that I have even stopped. When done, I untangle myself from myself, and stand, weakly, taking stock of myself.

I've lost all but two of Joss's precious tokens, for starters. The knife-belt hangs limply around my neck like the sole survivor of a disaster flick, its corresponding blade still, miraculously, present, and I can still feel the pen buried deep within my breast-feathers. Not that either of them will do much good against the Ssayre, unless it relents and challenges me to, instead of a duel to the death, some kind of fish-scaling race or perhaps an editorial-writing contest. Aside from that... despite the fact that I'm bruised, somewhat battered, and gasping for breath, I am, fundamentally, okay. Miracle of miracles. You know what they say about any landing you can walk away from...

Next, I take note of my surroundings. The third ledge, upon which I now stand, is, as noted from below, a broad, ringing affair. Here and there around the perimeter, other manufactured openings of considerable size, suitable for the passage of some large creature, disappear into the dark, glassy rock, giving this place the feel of some Mephistophelean rotunda. Dim orange light bubbles up from below, set in unusual counterpoint to a scrap of pale luminescence from the pinpoint hole above. And there is another light. From the mouth of the tunnel behind me.

Quietly, steeling my nerves for the upcoming battle, I plod towards the light.

There, in the mouth of the tunnel, set in an ancient, tarnished-black fixture of artistically twisted steel, is a white-glowing sphere. From the trivia-fund of my brain comes the note that this is some variety of carbonate lamp, powered by careful chemical interactions of water with certain select minerals. Obviously man-... or whatever-... made. Peering onwards into the tunnel, I can see that more of these same fixtures line the glass-like obsidian walls, alternating side-on-side. Either the Ssayre habitually keeps this tunnel lit, or... she expects my arrival.

For a moment, I consider turning around and investigating one of the unlit passages. After all, why in Bob's name do exactly what the enemy expects you to? But, if there are similar fixtures in the other passages, they are not lit, and right now, my gangling legs are having a hard enough time traversing the slippery and vaguely uneven floors _with_ the lights on. Thus uneasily resolved, I gather myself and set off down the passageway.

From ahead, there comes a devilish thunder, like the snore of a gigantic beast.

I pause. Never too late to retreat. I could turn around right here. Back to the rotunda, into the airstream, right out the small vent at the peak. Joss would never know the difference. None of his people would. No one would miss me.

No one is forcing me to be here.

But somehow, that single fact makes it all the more important that I _am_.

I continue, head high, towards the rumble.

* * *

It's not the Ssayre, of course, that I find. I'm not sure what the hell it is. The mammoth chamber into which I cautiously emerge is filled to its roof with banks of huge machines, which hiss and roar and clatter, illuminated all about by the dim, white witchlight glow of the carbonate lamps and more of the omnipresent dull orange smudge-light, signifying some connection to the geothermal fires far below. Gingerly, curiosity overcoming my caution, I approach. All before me are bewildering arrays of black, faintly-rusted steam-pipes, vents, valves and switches, all bearing a slight patina of steam-condensation, the sum purpose of which I cannot fathom. My new vantage, however, yields another interesting tidbit, not immediately noticeable from the mouth of the chamber; propped up against one wall is a huge, irregularly-edged but smooth-finished flat chunk of slate. Lying nearby are certain rough, blobby chunks of a white, chalk-like substance. A few scant seconds later, I come to the brilliant conclusion that the reason that the lumps appear chalk-like is that they are, in fact, chalk. And covering the monolithic... blackboard... are cubits and cubits of mathematical calculations, written carefully in a calm, wiry hand.

This in mind, I take a new mental perspective on the hissing, growling machines in front of me... the giant black-steel boilertank, the twisted, yet somehow logical, array of roughly-bolted steam conduits, the Boolean switches, and a new discovery: a naked, skeletal matrix of large, depressable platforms cast in ancient, oiled hardwood and bearing upon their surface...


"Shit." I murmur appreciatively. "It's a fucking computer."

Probably little more than a complicated multi-functional steam-powered adding machine, actually, interjects my rational brain, and I cede the point, but it's of little importance, because regardless of the exact capabilities of this machine, its discovery gives me pause. It's... not exactly what I had expected. Not at all, in fact. But I waste little time in resolving my perception shift. Without any real foreknowledge of the nature of my foe, I had sort of envisioned a horrible, mindless beast lurking in some natural cleft-cum-den atop the Spire, its floor littered with a haphazard collection of rent bones, left to fall where they might. That's changed, of course; the presence of this savage, yet somehow Victorian scientific equipment has indicated that my foe is a horrible, yet, rather civilized and _intelligent_ beast living in some clearly-manufactured caverns atop the Spire. That's okay, I reason. Plenty of evil things are intelligent, and civilized. It just makes them all the more evil.

Firm in my convictions, then, I choose a path from among several leading from this room, again, the best-lit one, and continue my hunt, a warrior in the grip of prophecy.

I do not even make it to the next room without stopping again. Midway down the long corridor, I am brought to a halt with wonder at a huge, glazed, ceramic wheel, mounted gallery-like along one wall, complete with carefully-engineered carbonate lighting to maximally bring out its colors. It is a beautiful piece of artistry, its designs teetering excitedly somewhere on the edge between mid-20th century Cubism and neo-classical Grecian Abstract. The colors are _astounding_, and all the whorls and shapes sparkle with a giddy, romantic fire only barely kept in check by their absolute mathematical precision. I once took a class in analysis of visual art for a humanities elective, so even if I don't have a fucking clue what's going on here, I can at least speak expertly on the subject of my confusion.

Okay. This changes things again, but, hey, I can handle this too. It's all right that my adversary is, now, a horrible, (yet civilized and intelligent) beast _with good taste in art_ living in some (clearly-manufactured) caverns atop the Spire. That's okay, too. Evil people and things frequently do. Have good taste in art, I mean. You know. The whole tropical fish cliche. That sort of thing.

With increasing disorientation, I continue towards the light, finding myself eventually in a vastly different chamber, this one lit by a long, slitlike crack in the far wall, which floods the room with pale, milky daylight from without, my walk having taken me to a room on the exterior wall. The gap to the outside only serves to remind me of how far up I have come in my wild ascent, and there is a distinct chill to the glassy walls here, ameliorated by three intricately wrought-iron steam radiators spaced evenly around the room. All the remaining wallspaces, and some of the floorspaces as well, are covered with shelves and shelves of _books_, books and scrolls of every description, in humidor-like preservation cabinets, fronted with great sheets of irregularly-blown glass. Most of the works are of considerable age.

A... er... _well-read_ horrible (intelligent and civilized) beast (with good taste in art) living in some caverns (of strangely ever-increasing architectural complexity) atop the Spire...

And then, in my perusal of the shelves, I notice a few anomalous works. Ones that don't look quite the same...

Well and truly burning with curiosity, now, I slip the latch with my beak and edge aside one of the doors. Reaching up with my foot, I clumsily pluck one of the small, pulp-paperbacked volumes from the shelf.

The title is incomprehensible to me, written in the same gibberish-language that marked the inscription on my dad's Administration pen. But the cover art is unmistakable. Despite the irregularities of the circa-1940's block-color printing, two figures are instantly recognizable; a pale, tragic-looking Interchangeable Woman and a burly, handsome, passionate, Interchangeable Man.

So. Let's sum up here. To date, we have, living in some really astoundingly complicatedly-engineered caverns way up here at the top of the Spire, a horrible, intelligent, well-read, hideous monster, with vaguely Victorian sentiments, good taste in art... and...

...a fondness for trashy old romantic novels...

"Hello." Says a demure voice from _above._ The one direction I hadn't yet looked.

It is She. She clings, batlike, to a well-worn perch of rock above, her great, membranous wings wrapped around her serpentine form in the manner of rest. She is _huge_, well more than three times my own considerable height, but though there is a natural, ponderous reptilian bulk about her raw physical form, something about her poise and carriage gives an overwhelming impression of waifish, willowy slenderness. There is a starved look about her, but it is not the mad-starved mouth-frothing appearance of a hunger-crazed uberpredator. In fact, her poise, accentuated by her dark, deep-set eyes and strangely fragile form, is more reminiscent of Dickens' Little Nell or that little match-girl chick.

Like a dandelion seed, she drops, smoothly reversing herself from upside-down to rightside-up in a rustling ballet of deep crimson wings.

And then, she stands before me, subtle, dark, and most of all, unbelievably _fragile._

"Oh, good." She says, with quiet relief. "Dinner."

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