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Rise of the Phoenix
part 6
by J.(Channing)Wells


* * *

"And this," she says, "is the alchemy lab."

"Alchemy?" I gutter, distractedly.

"Alchemy. The manufacture of elixirs and potions. I would not blame you if you didn't believe me--I had thought it a perfectly absurd idea, myself. _Magic_. Pfeff." She smiles, distantly, to herself. "Of course, now we are both knowing that _something_ is going on which is beyond that which we can easily explain. I daresay that you did not look much like a rainbow-colored bird back where and when you came from, yourself."

"Hm?" I say, looking up out of my own thoughts.

"You are distracted today." She says, not unsympathetically.

I clack my beak at her. "Let out a little slack for me, awright? This isn't exactly the sort of thing I was expecting from She Who Lives Atop the Spire."

"A guided tour?"

"A guided tour which ends in you eating me." I say, with some degree of uncertainty.

She nods.

"Perhaps I was a bit blunt."

"Perhaps you were." I say, a bit testily. "I don't know how much more blunt you can _get_ than, 'Oh Good, Dinner.'" I glare at her.

"Forgive me." She says, contritely. "When the moiety of one's passing years is spent clinging to a rock perch in a torpor-like state with the feeble intention of conserving what strength remains to one, issues of social propriety tend to grow decreasingly important." She smiles, faintly. "You are the first person I've talked to in twenty years, Justin."

"Funny." I say, bitterly. "Did you eat the last fella too?"

"Yes." She says, looking downcast. "And the one before him, as well."

My clever and rather acidic rejoinder dies in my throat. Something is wrong, here. In a matter of hours, I've had most of my perceptions about the true nature of the Beast of the Spire jerked out from under me, suddenly re-instated, and then jerked out from under me again in an entirely new direction. It would be _different_ if she didn't... Well, hell, if she didn't look so _sorry_ about it...

I'm wallowing in uncertainty, here, wondering where exactly I'm going with this, what exactly is going to happen, and, bluntly, who exactly it is that I'm sitting here in very close quarters with. As a result, I miss some of my host's explanations about the nature of the strange and titanic room that we have found ourselves in. Casually, I tune back in, jittering uneasily to myself.

" from our world to this one and back again, and in the doing so, place you rather abruptly in the body of one of the beings native to this same world. From what I have learned, there are other things, portals, gates, and suchlike, that allow people and things to pass through untransformed. We, of course, are among the former group."

"Hold on." I say, inclining my head curiously, picking up on something that I really should have caught before. "We?"

She smiles.

"You're... from the other world? Too?" I shake my head.

She nods at me. "My name is Wilhelmina Goddard. I fear that I did not introduce myself properly upon our first acquaintance."

She extends a wing-claw, to shake, as if it were actually a hand. I offer my foot. We shake. It's a weird experience all around, a ghostly and aethereal reminder of a shared human heritage now turned and changed almost beyond recognition. But we do it, and in my mind, it is nothing less of a handshake that there are no hands involved.

"Wilhelmina." I say.

"Mina." She says. "I'd very much prefer that, thank you. I mean no disrespect towards my parents, but frankly, 'Wilhelmina' is an awful name. I now believe that my father had originally wanted a boy, very deep down."

I beak-grin, despite myself. "So how long you been here, Mina?" I say, in a wry, chummy fashion. "Twenty years, you said?"

"More in the area of sixty, actually."

"So... what." I say. "Back where I come from, we were in the late, er, Nineteen Nineties. So does that mean..."

"The Year of Our Lord One Thousand Nine Hundred and Forty-Four." She says, with classic elocution. "Berlin."

"America." I say.

She nods. "Pleased to meet you more fully."

"We aren't speaking either of our usual languages right now, are we. German or English. That was my next question."

"No." She says, turning me away from the oddly Spartan Alchemy Lab back towards the comparative baroque comfort of her Library. "There seems to be a common language overlaid upon our own, supplanting it. This, at one time, had prevented me from enjoying many of these books, and as a result, I had to go through the effort of relearning them, one language at a time."

"Ah." I say. We crest into the voluminous Library at the asking of my next question. "One language at a time?"

"I know a number of languages." She says, casually, without any real pride. "I was forced to re-learn them all." She gestures sheepishly at the contents of the high stacks around her. "Using these. I've translated them back. Taught myself my own old languages, going page by page through the books that I know by heart. German from my own paperbacks. Spanish from Cervantes. Russian from Tolstoy."

"_Tolstoy_?" I ask, my curiosity growing.

"_War and Peace._" She says.

"_You memorized _War and Peace_?_" I exclaim.

"Parts of it." She says, shyly.

"Jesus, Mina." I remark.

She shrugs, noncommittally, and begins sliding open doors and thumbing through the stacks. "And, of course, last and certainly not least, your English." She retrieves an old, _very_ old folio-collection from one of the shelves, clutching it with the three manipulative grasping-claws on the ends of her winged limbs. The book appears tiny in her hands. "It's Shakespeare." She says, grinning, setting the book down before me. "I am an 'eclectic' reader."

Idly, I start paging through the book. It flops open to a particular page. I look up at her curiously.

"_Lear._" She says. "One of Her favorites, it seems, too."

"These aren't your books?" I ask, still trying patiently to map out the logistics here.

"The novels are mine. A great many of these others, including the Shakespeare, are not. They are, or more properly, were, the personal property of the first and original Ssayre, my precursor."

I nod. "Sorta passed the torch on to you, huh. Where is she hanging out nowadays?"

"She's dead." Remarks Mina, with ancient carelessness. "She passed away shortly after I arrived, threescore years ago."

"So, your predecessor." I mention, my questions rising like corn from a hot-air popper. "She was the original Ssayre? I mean, the one about which the Kiri-ahn are constantly shitting their togas?"

She nods. "The little armadillo-people, yes. There is a lot of well-founded fear in their hearts, I believe. But she is no more, as I noted."

"How did she die?" I ask, concentrating on deciphering the chain of events which once brought a sweet-voiced young-ish woman to this world and placed her in the body of the Greatest of Wyrms, at least by the reckoning of the Kiri-ahn. Oh, that and worrying about my eventual fate as the centerpiece of a one-course din-din at the teeth of that selfsame person, an issue which has not yet been explored to my satisfaction.

"She took her own life." States Mina, plainly. "She cast herself into the fires at the base of the volcano."

"Hey," I say, tactlessly. "Gargantuan, Omnipotent, Bipolar. What more could you ask for in a malevolent deity?"

Mina lets her gaze flutter to a papery, unamused rest upon my person. "She was very, very old, Justin. She had a wasting ailment, the nature of which was inscrutable to me. It would have been a long, slow death, a death that would have robbed her of everything she held dear, including, at the last, her own sense. So she chose me to stay in this place in her passing, taught me its secrets, and then elected to end her life in as quick and merciful a fashion as she could imagine."

"Blaze a'glory." I mutter.

"I like to believe that I would do the same, in her position." Says Mina, her angular, reptilian upper lip quite firm.

Her statement gives me pause. I take a moment to survey her, turning my head from side to side.

"What." She asks, after a moment, growing uneasy under my scrutiny.

"Why?" I ask, at last. "Mina, why are you here?"

Mina breaks eye contact for a moment. "I am not certain what at all the world is like where you come from. But at the time that I lived there, the nation of Germany was not an altogether pleasant place for some... of us."

"World War Two." I say, suddenly connecting with the reference rather late in the game. "Sorry." I add, sympathetically. "It must have been awful for you."

"You have no idea." Murmurs Mina.

There is an embarrassed pause.

"We... er... that is to say, the Allies, we ended up winning," I note. "So it all turned out for the best, in the end."

Mina is as distant as a star.

"I guess that doesn't help you specifically, any," I say, trippingly, desperate to do anything to fill up that horrible silence, "but your people are probably a damn sight better off now than they would've been under the Nazi regime."

She nods, absently.

"Anyway." I say, trying to steer the conversation back into home waters. "That doesn't _completely_ explain things. I mean, I can pretty much guess why you're not back home. But... er... I mean, why are you here? Why, at all," I gesture about me in a circle with one wingtip, "is any of this here? What's the point? I'm way past thinking of this place as a natural mountain with a Ssayre-den on top of it. But what the hell is all of this for? Why go through the trouble?"

Mina spends a moment shaking off the shrouds of memory and presently returns to earth orbit. "You wish to know the purpose of the Spire, yes?"

"Yes." I say. "If for nothing else than to put off your eating me." This last is said in the manner of a joke, but privately, I am assessing her reactions to my statements. Damn it, I need answers here. Unfortunately, Mina is of no immediate help in this regard. Her brief jaunt into memory has left its residue on her face and rendered it quite unreadable.

She glances at me, blandly. "It is a bit of telling to do. You have seen the steam-pipes already, which will speed things a bit. Let me take you to the cracks; I will explain more of them on the way. And I promise to you," says Mina, with a faint twitch at one corner of her maw, "that I will not do any eating until you know the whole story, and even then, not against your free will."

I assent to this with a brief decline of my beak, still mystified but willing to wait for Mina to have her say.

Side-at-side, we turn to leave the vast hall, Mina beginning to yarn as we go.

* * *

"To understand the history of the Spire in any meaningful fashion whatsoever, it is necessary to also discuss the history of Ssayre herself, as the two are intertwined to a degree that to tell the one without the other would leave so many questions unanswered as to be virtually useless. And to discuss the Ssayre, it is also necessary to discuss the culture, or rather, the race, that spawned her.

"From my talks with your own predecessors, I am possessed of a little knowledge on the nature of the Kiri-ahn, as they call themselves, despite never having met one full aface. It is my understanding that the race of persons who distilled the potion which brought you here has its own version of the myth of the Ssayre, and that they have in fact crafted it and cultivated it over many centuries into a genuine religion, complete with great codices of history and law, that has come to define virtually every aspect of their lives.

"Faith, however, is a difficult thing to define with any degree of accuracy or certainty. It must be said at the outset that Ssayre had, as most of her race did, a degree of faith that rivaled even that of the puritanical Kiri-ahn. It was very different faith, of course, not so subsumed in Philistine regulations and scriptures. Immortality, or at least, a life span of so many, many years that it is near enough to immortality so as to make no odds, grants a people a somewhat more liberal attitude towards questions of the spirit world and the hereafter. The Wyvere (for so her race is named) have their own stringencies, or so I learned from Ssayre; they are, in fact, a fanatically lawful race, to whom one's Word and Oath are the highest virtues, and to whom any betrayal of same is anathema to the highest degree. But there is little "community" among them; many, in fact, live their entire lives without seeing another of their race besides the mother that bore them and taught them their Art and Lineage. As a direct result of this, none in Ssayre's knowledge really ever saw the need to go through the trouble of recording musings and philosophies and scriptures for any other Wyvere to read. So I have no journals, no diaries, no personal records to show you. But, as you have doubtless already heard the entire tale from the view of the Kiri-ahn far below, I think it only proper for me to at least attempt to construct for you a sort of Wyvere version of this selfsame story out of what Ssayre told me when first she brought me to this place.

"I believe it would sound something like this:

"Once upon a time, far, far back in the ancient reaches of history as judged by Kiri-ahn standards, for example, there was a girl, named Ssayre. And she was a naughty, naughty, girl. Her mother, who had spawned her, had had high hopes for her upbringing, seeing how well she took to the ancient Wyvere art of using precision chemistry and encyclopaediac knowledge of Junctures to jump back and forth between the two known worlds. However, her dismay grew higher and higher as little Ssayre grew overly fond of visiting the other world for frivolous purposes, occasionally going so far as to actually reveal herself in her true form to the dumbstruck natives of the Other Place. This would not do.

"The trouble only grew as time passed. Little Ssayre neglected her studies in the real world more and more in favor of the Other Place. She did not attend to her lessons of the Genaeology, and despite her constant inability to recite the Lineage even once without errors in placement or in pronunciation, she would constantly be seen tirelessly working late into designated rest-weeks, studying some-or-other bit of Other Place literature, ranging from all manner of melodramatic tragedies to what she called her 'program' for the upcoming 'Bacchanale.' Ssayre's mother noted with guarded pride Ssayre's growing expertise in Other Place culture, but eventually decided that enough was quite enough, and, voice stern, forbade Ssayre to return to the Other Place for what she felt was a pitiful modicum of fourteen years. Ssayre's reaction was, in the eyes of her mother, completely out of all proportion. Ssayre _needed_ to be back... and immediately! There was some dreadfully important thing by the name of 'Antigone' going on, and she _had_, _had_, _HAD_ to be there for it, and couldn't this forbiddance begin later? Ssayre's mother stood firm, stating that Ssayre had been well-warned of this, and yet had not taken appropriate steps to change her behavior, and this would be the price she would pay for her inattention.

"Later that week, Little Ssayre crept into her mother's alchemical workroom while she slept, stole countless ampoules of potions for both worlds, and fled. Ssayre's mother had not made her swear her soul to the punishment. She had thought that asking for the Word and the Oath was too harsh a thing for the relatively minor wrong she had done. But she had never expected that Ssayre would so flagrantly disobey her orders. In anger and panic, Ssayre's mother fled after her, and after a confusing chase between the two worlds, both mother and daughter assuming many, many forms in the process, trying to outwit the other, Ssayre was eventually caught.

"Her mother was furious. Even though Ssayre's actions did not violate the Word and the Oath, such flagrant disrespect was utterly outside of the Wyvere norm, and she thought long and hard of an appropriate punishment that would both rebuke her for her actions and simultaneously steer her daughter back to right paths.

"She decided that Ssayre needed a responsibility. Here. In her native world. To 'keep her feet on the ground,' so to speak, although the term is hardly an appropriate one for the habitually airborne Wyvere. But you understand my meaning.

"Soon, she found such a responsibility.

"Far away to the East, across the Greatest Ocean, there was a land, a beautiful land of verdant forests and burning deserts, upon which dwelt many, many tribes of the People. It was lovely country, and it made logical sense for many of the People to have located there, but the one major problem with it was that this beautiful land rested on a major fault line between two very motile geologic plates. The land was, in short, prone to seismic catastrophe. With knowledge born of many, many years of ancient science, Ssayre's mother, powerful creature that she was, devised a plan by which these seismic catastrophes could be kept to their bare minimum: lubrication of the fault lines. If, at exactly the right times, and in exactly the right places, liquid water were strategically introduced into the fault, the plates would slide across each other with considerably less friction, thus giving the tribes of the People there an easier life. And this plan would require a place, a center, a point of constant monitoring. A site in the mountains where clouds formed from moist air from the Greatest Ocean would shed their water as rain as they climbed ever-so-high, before becoming bone-dry for their subsequent trip across the desert. A high place, so that gravity would aid in its purpose. And, most importantly, a place of tremendous geothermal activity. To allow one, once the liquid water had been collected, to send it plunging down to the incredible heat below, and then to gather the fast-moving steam and pipe it many miles through cleverly-constructed underground conduits to the very spots on the fault that needed consistent, regular lubrication.

"And it needed a monitor.

"And that monitor would be her daughter, Ssayre.

"She did invoke the Word and the Oath, then. Making her daughter swear, her soul as forfeit, that although she might still leave the tower she had wrought for her, to continue her studies of the Other Place, she must never leave the tower unattended for a single day over one standard year. And she implied in the strongest of all possible terms that it would be far, far better if it were monitored continually.

"Ssayre was shocked and dismayed. What will I eat? She asked. If I cannot hunt, and am instead locked here, monitoring these foolish machines, where will I find sustenance? Her mother realized that this was, indeed, a problem, and so, using several trips back-and-forth between the two worlds, she materialized among the ranks of an insignificant nomadic tribe of the People dwelling in the desert to the east, and, claiming to be a prophet, led them to a holy community at the foot of the great mountains. And she showed them so much of good things, like herding, and craftsmanship, that the People were convinced that said prophet must have been inspired by some god.

"Satisfied with her labors, Ssayre's mother returned to her, having created a stable 'herd' of food for her extended stay. Whenever she needed sustenance, she could swoop down and take one as a meal, and hopefully, the foolish, trusting race of odd shell-backed People would breed faster than Ssayre needed to eat them.

"But Ssayre was not satisfied, her mother learned. The shell-backed people were simple enough to catch, when she needed a meal every few years, but they were odious to the taste. Exasperated, Ssayre's mother launched an even more complicated plan, tweaking again the religious notions of the shell-backed People so that they, aided by certain, select, imparted bits of knowledge of Wyvere Chemistry, could occasionally summon to this place a Bennu-bird, a particular delicacy to the Wyvere in the swampy lowlands of their home-country. She continued, then, by convincing the shell-backed People that the rumblings that occurred at a natural cycle of the lubrication process every twenty years or so were the moans of the Earth Deity, and that that should be their signal to summon a Bennu-bird, further fabricating a ludicrous tale of prophetic battles and such to give credence to her claim. She even went so far as to assure that the shell-backed People would have a plentiful supply of the fruits needed in the Chemistry, introducing several hardy, exotic species of plant to a nearby clearwater oasis. She then returned to her daughter and chastised her, saying, to wit, 'Don't tell me I never did anything for you.'

"And so it was, for several millennia. The Ssayre kept dutiful watch over her tower, occasionally managing to peek back in on her beloved Other World, but being kept so busy by her tending-work that such visits grew more and more infrequent with the passing years. And she filled her empty, lonely hours with countless books from the Other World, which she stored high within her accursed tower, dreaming dreams of far-distant places and fantastical worlds.

"And _that_ is the Wyvere version of the Myth of the Ssayre."

* * *

"The cracks." Says Mina, without fanfare. The room which we look upon is dark, lit from far, far below by a net-like array of blood-colored clefts that spread out like vines along the floor. Twisted plexii of black conduit hang uncertainly in the dark airspace above them, knotting and bunching and then, finally, after teetering uneasily on the brink, they plunge headlong into the ruinous depths. The hiss of steam and the cold gurgle of water are well more than a mere rumble. "The literal heart of the Spire. You have seen the brain, the control nexus, already, when first you came. But this, all this," she gestures listlessly, "is the _reason_ Ssayre was here, and why I am here now." Mina sighs, and it is a noise of terrible, terrible weakness.

I shake my head. "So... this whole business with Earth Mothers and cataclysmic battles and stuff... is all a ruse?"

"From what I understand, yes."

"This whole thing. The Myth of the Bennu. All this summoning crap. The _entire religion_ by which the Kiri-ahn live and die and spend their little lives devoting their hearts and souls to, _day in and day out._ It's all just an elaborate feeding scheme."

"Put bluntly, yes." Says Mina.

"Shit." I say, my poetical spirit quite departing me.

"It's not as though it hasn't served a higher purpose, Justin." She adds, noting my discomfiture. "The warding off of catastrophic earthquakes for the entire western seaboard of this world's version of the North American continent is nothing to be scoffed at."

"So that's what convinced you that this was a cause worthy of abandoning your old life for."

She nods. "In Berlin, I was both educated and employed in the science of Geology. I had an excellent career, a career which I had fought hard to attain. I had most everything else that any woman of my age could hope to want. But times were... becoming unstable. That was when She arrived. She appeared to me like a vision, a blindingly blonde American woman with the mien of a Hollywood Star. Saying that she was not who she appeared to be. That she came from another world, and there tended a post of great importance to many people, but had of late become old and sick and weak. She needed someone to carry on after her when she was gone. I needed to get out. It seemed a perfect solution."

"So she brought you here and changed you into one of her people."

"With a tiny drop of elixir that she placed on my tongue."

"And you've been here going on sixty years?" I say. "That must have been one hell of a potion. Mine only seems to last for about a week."

"Yours was made by the Kiri-ahn. I imagine that they have a less-perfect understanding of the potions than the Wyvere do. They are _frighteningly_ skilled chemists. Or so I surmise by the apparatii that I originally discovered here. As you've probably surmised, I do not understand chemicals as well as I understand geology, though."

"So she brought you here." I continue, then. "Showed you around. And then, after giving you the whole rundown, she ended her own life by leaping into the core of the Spire."

"Rather than go gracelessly in the throes of her disease, yes."

"O... kay." I say, at last, finally nearing some measure of understanding here. "One last question."

"Yes?" She says.

I stretch, coming finally to the crux of the problem, the really, really bothersome part.

"Tell me why you have to eat me." I say, at last. "I understand that Ssayre had a thing for the taste of Bennu-birds. I got all that, I mean, I think I've taken in the big picture here." I square my wings before me in a parallel channel. "But Mina, _surely_ these machines aren't going to go kablooie in the couple hours it would take you to swoop out of this place, pick up some hapless and hopefully only semi-sentient critters from the mountains westward, and eat 'em."

I look squarely at her. "Point being, Mina, from what I see before me, you're in the advanced stages of malnutrition. Maybe because you've eaten a total of about two, maybe three Bennu-birds ever since you got here. What I want to know is _why._"

Mina smirks at me mirthlessly. "The answer to that is rather more simple than you might think, Justin."


"Let us return to the Library. We can talk more easily there." Wearily, she touches her forehead with her wing-claws. "All this roaring tends to give me a headache."

"No." I say, darkly. "Out with it, Mina. I've had it with the wandering around. It's been suggested to me that I might very well be in a position to lose my own life here, and I happen to be kind of attached to it. None of this makes any sense without that one thing, Mina, and I'm getting damn sick and tired of things failing to make sense." My voice lowers into a low, crackling gargle. "Let me put it to you this way. I want some answers, I want them now, and I want them phrased in a single sentence of ten words or less. Can you do that for me? Huh?"

Mina fixes a gaze at me, her luminant eyes too exhausted to be cynical and her ghostly poise too spent to be annoyed.

"I can do it in five." She says, her voice twanging like a wire.

"Well?" I say, impatiently.

"I'm just too goddamned big." She says.

* * *

The Library again. Mina reclines Smaug-like amongst the shelves and shelves of her very own hordes. I am strutting around the room angrily. It is all that I can do.

Well, all that I can do besides swear, at least.

"I don't believe it. I _fucking_ don't believe it." I stalk another circuit of the room, waving my wings around tantrum-esque and knocking a number of Mina's tomes out of position in the process. She artfully catches them en route to the floor on the broad surface of her tail without a second thought. "So, on account of a goddamn miscalculation made sixty-odd years ago by a party not even here to receive the blame for it, you, Mina Goddard, are going to have to kill me and eat me."

"No." Says Mina, shyly. "There are other options."

"Like you dying." I say. "Jesus shit-poor planning on a crutch, Mina. The whole thing just pisses me off. You sitting up here starving for sixty years just because _you_ are just a little bit more sizable a Wyvere than She was and can't fit out the cracks to the outside to go hunting."

"That's... about the size of it." Says Mina.

"Not the vent at the top. Not the observation cracks up here."

"And not the one at the bottom, either. I've tried."

"Have you tried _widening_ the damn things?" I say, shaking my voice around like gravel in a tin cup.

"I've raked my claws to the quick, Justin. Not a scrap of progress. I might as well have spent my efforts attempting to learn creative diamond-sculpture. The whole of this Spire is made of nothing I've ever seen in all my years of study. I _suppose_ that you might call it obsidian, after some superficial observation, but the matter of this tower doesn't react in any way that I'd expect any similar quantity of obsidian to. _Perhaps_ with the proper tools, I could improvise a way through. But not as it stands, I'm afraid."

"You could try blasting your way out." I say, grasping at straws, frustrated by a deceptively simple conundrum. "You've got enough explosive compounds in that damn storeroom to at least make it worth your while to try."

"I don't think you understand how delicate the steam conduits actually are, Justin. Even as they now stand, they totter constantly on the edge of collapse. If I were to start blasting up here, the damage would be, I fear, irrevocable."

"Even down at the bottom cleft? The one leading back to the Kiri-ahn temple?"

"The pipes don't lead into the central core of the volcano, Justin, but they do span all the way down to the base. There's no telling what I would destroy in the conflagration." She smirks, again. "Furthermore, carrying a vast quantity of explosive chemicals directly above the mouth of an active volcano doesn't strike me as being an overly clever act."

I grudgingly cede the point and gesture at my own breast. "So what happens if this little piggy just gets the hell out of here and makes tracks for Pasadena, huh? What happens to you?"

"It doesn't take _much_ to feed me, Justin, but it does take _some._ And twenty years from now I'll be dead."

"Leaving no one to tend the machines."

"Widespread earthquakes result."

"Hundreds die."

"Yes." Says Mina.

"Christ." I mutter. "This isn't really the kind of prophetic hero I had intended to be."

"It has to be your choice, Justin. I cannot in good faith demand that you sacrifice yourself. It is up to you. Believe me, if I thought there was an easier route, I would take it. I hate what I have become, Justin." She sighs, slightly. "I suppose it's somehow appropriate, though. It's only a more honest version of what I was before."

I shake my head. "I don't understand."

She waves a foreclaw. "It ceased to be important a long time ago, Justin. Right now, it's the least of our worries."

"I could... hunt for you."

"How long does your potion last, Justin?"

"Last time it was a week..." I say.

"And you feel you could catch your own mass in food with one week of effort." She says.

I recall frogs. "No." I say.

"_Even If_, you could somehow gain more of the _Pajome_, which requires _months_ of disillation, and thereby gain many, _many_ weeks of time here as a result, you think you could _ever_ provide me with enough food to sustain me for a period of twenty years?"

"No." I say, ducking my head lower.

"Making trips back and forth through the sand-wastes in between hunts? You think that-"

"I said No, already!" I croak.

She sighs. "I'm sorry, Justin. This is all a bit stressful for me because, frankly, we've tried all this the last two times."

"_You_ think it's stressful." I mutter. "You're not the one who's gonna get eaten if he can't think of something better."

"And you _Really_ think that that's worse, Justin?" She says, looking at me in as arch a fashion as her fragile form can muster. "You _Really_ believe that it is a worse thing to be mercifully killed in one, quiet, painless swoop than to be the one that has to do the killing, knowing each time that you were snuffing out the life of a living, breathing-"

"Okay. I get the point. You can skip the melodrama."

She looks ashamed. "Sorry." Her forthright, total abashedness only makes me feel foolish for having reacted so harshly. I seem to get off on making nice people feel lousy, lately.

We sit for a time in the magnificent library, lost in thought.

"Hell." I say, suddenly. "What have I been thinking of? We can get food _from_ the Kiri-ahn. Can you eat k'tanik?"

"Those big beetle-like things."


"I suppose..." Says Mina.

"That's it! I'll just zip out the upper vent, go back to K'aliko, and explain the situation. We'll just kill one of them, and I'll bring it up here in bits, in parts."

"We tried that already, once, some time ago." Sighs Mina. "Couldn't get the cooperation of the Kiri-ahn. They 'didn't understand' that particular Bennu's statements and assigned them all sorts of symbolic meaning. Never got around to actually doing what he specifically asked them to. And I daresay you probably couldn't slaughter one of their beasts by yourself without them noticing."

"Well." I say. "They've got a new medicine man down there now. This is his first time around, so I'm not _sure_ how he's gonna react, but I _think_ I can convince him to help."

She smiles, and sighs, wanly, touching me on my feathered shoulder with one foreclaw.

"I'm sure you can." She says, not meaning a word.

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