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Rise of the Phoenix
part 7
by J.(Channing)Wells


* * *

Joss's hut is a large one, as befits a person of his station. The beadwork is spare, yet, suitably intricate. The furnishings are well-made and austere, just as one might expect. And the sizable matrix of ancient hide-scrolls, carefully maintained and placed lovingly in a permanent set of worn wooden niches along the far wall, probably represents the collected knowledge and philosophies of the Kiri-ahn, the writings of their greater prophets and theologists. Somewhere, deep down, way back in the _really_ old scrolls is probably the one official record of the teachings of Ssayre's Mother, back when she founded the Kiri-ahn way of life. I don't feel like breaking _that_ particular take on Kiri-ahn history to Joss right now. He's having a hard enough time with my first request.

"The Ssayre... isn't evil?" Says Joss, frowning at me.

"No." I say.

"But... she is... dangerous." Fumbles Jossu'wa. "The Lore says that she herself has emerged to prey upon our mortal forms..."

Yes, I don't say. That's the point of your entire life, Joss. The point of your entire peoples' lives. I don't say that. I can't.

"This isn't the same Ssayre, Jossu'wa. Weird as that seems, it isn't. How long has it been since one of your people has been killed by the Ssayre?"

"Directly... or indirectly?"

"Directly." I say, knowing the kind of responses that the latter would generate.

"It was before the time of Kawna'wa, my master." Says the clear-eyed armadillo before and below me. "It was his constant prayers that kept us all safe. That is why he was Wisest of All."

"Last... sixty years or so?" I say, as though pulling the figure out of thin air.

"Yes." Says Jossu'wa.

Your master wasn't any wiser than you are, Joss. He just got lucky enough to rise to power during the reign of Mina Goddard, who, because of a simple question of geometry, couldn't hunt the Kiri-ahn if her life depended on it, which I daresay it kind of does, in a way. I don't say this, either. So much to say, so much unsaid.

"It's a different Ssayre, Joss." I say. "One who does not hunt."

"The Earth-her-Mother has but one daughter..." Says Joss, confusedly.

"Okay." I say, desperately. "Scratch that. Same Ssayre. Sixty years ago, she, up on her big Grinchy-mountain heard the devout prayers of your Extremely Wise Master Kawna'wa, and she was moved to pity for all the suffering she had caused your people. Her shriveled old heart grew three sizes that day. All that crap. And she resolved never to eat of the flesh of your people again. Only problem is, now she's _starving_ to death. And she is afraid no one will listen to her if she comes asking politely."

Joss gets a fierce look of concentration on his face. "Is this true, Bennu?"

No. It isn't. It's not. It's all one big lie. I'm dictating your truths for you. I'm telling you only what I think you can understand. I'm being rude and condescending and manipulative as all hell.

"Symbologically." I say.

He nods. "Then, there is a simple solution. The Canon has said that the Ssayre is foreign from the order of things as long as she remains away from the Earth-her-Mother. Convince her to come out of the Spire and stand, joined with her Mother, before the assembly of the Kiri-ahn. Then we will know that she is of good faith and that her words are true. And she will be allowed to have her pick of the herds."

Shit, Joss. Anything but that. "She's... frightened. Look, she could come talk to you herself. You could come to the Earth Temple, she could sit right outside the crack, and you could chat with her until the k'tanik come home. Jesus, Joss, just _talk_ to her. She's really... different, now! She's sweet as all hell."

Jossu'wa looks worried. "Bennu, I know you believe the truth of what you say." He takes a deep breath, and ponders. Then, after a moment, he continues, picking his way carefully through his words. "And, knowing you and having spoken with you, I think that I believe you as well. And that would have been enough, were I as old and respected as Kawna'wa was. But my position of power is still in question, Bennu, despite your best efforts. If I come to the People with such a ludicrous proposition as slaughtering our beasts to feed to our greatest adversary, I will be laughed from the assembly, and Chukku'ni will take the opportunity to promptly appoint a new Kiri-ahn-wa to my post. And, knowing the choices that Chukku'ni would make, you would probably not find him so tractable as I."

"One beast, Joss, then! Just one! You believe me, right? Do you own a k'tanik?"

Joss shakes his head. "I am Kiri-ahn-wa. Mine is not the life of a herdsmen. I am given... a stipend of food from the tribe. A reasonable stipend, for my means, but certainly a pittance to feed a beast of the size you have described to me."

"Fuck." I say. "_No-one_ would be willing to give you one?"

"I may check, Bennu. But I doubt it in the extreme." He sighs. "It is a 'bummer.'" He concludes.

"That it is, Joss."

I blink.

"I suppose that... you know... is out of the question."

"Theft is forbidden by the Catechism." Says Jossu'wa, with cautious sternness, as if probing me for the reasons behind my request. "One cannot do a right by starting out with a wrong."

Yeesh. More philosophy. I want to shake him, and say, "Damnit, Joss, this is my _life_ we're talking about here!" But he wouldn't understand. Mostly because of things that I refuse to tell him. What a fucked-up mess. What a Jesus-fucked-up mess.

"Right. Sorry to bother you, Joss." I say, preparing to depart his tent back into the concealing night; it wouldn't do to have the People see their prophesied warrior skulking around the huts of their community half a day after he was _supposed_ to be off fighting Evil Incarnate.

"I'm... sorry, Bennu..." Says Jossu'wa, sensing the brusqueness of my mood.

I turn at the portal. "It's no one's fault." I say. One last lie.

I depart Jossu'wa's hut to return to the scathing dark.

* * *


I stand on a platform ledge, overlooking the world, beneath the bowl of the sky. It's very high and very cold here, and I can see the tiny specks of fire from the remarkably insignificant-looking Kiri-ahn village below. Behind me is another chamber of the Spire, which I have deemed the "mud room"; it is quite bare of furnishings and opens up on the best crack for exiting the Spire from its upper tier, complete with landing-ledge. In my mind, I have begun to refer to it as a "flight deck." It is from here, I imagine, that Ssayre once contemplated the course of her businesslike hunts, looking down upon the settlement of her hapless and comparatively foul-tasting prey with mild disinterest. Upon leaving my last audience with Jossu'wa, I had retired to the Spire; Mina was glad to have the company, if nothing else, although she jokingly regretted to me that she was quite a poor hostess, for she had nothing in the house to eat save me, a comment at which we both chuckled, more out of nervousness than anything else.

If my last experience with _Pajome_ is any indication, I have a total of one week here, give or take a few days. It has already been several days since my meeting with Joss. Time is rapidly running out. Once it is expired, I vanish. There is no more _Pajome_. I am Mina's last chance, or, put alternately, her last meal.

But then, what? Mina eats me, the only substantial food source available. She does what she has to for the machines, and then, goes into torpor. This keeps her alive, barely, for another twenty years. After that, twenty years down the road, like clockwork, the Kiri-ahn summon another Bennu. Except, _Except_, this whole thing is suspended by a ludicrously fragile chain of events. Hell, frankly, I'm shocked it's happened even as much as it has. I'm three-for-three in a row of luckless saps snared into becoming Bennu-breakfasts for poor, hapless Mina, who has nowhere else to turn. And this isn't just a crap shoot, here. I mean, we're talking _numerous_ people had to find _a_ crystalline artifact, without guidance, out in the middle of nowhere; then, they had to determine that the crystal was, in fact, hollow and filled with fluid, and _then_, despite all logic and good sense to the contrary, they had to _consume_ some of this ancient and dubious liquid. And _THEN_, to top it all off, they had to be in such shit in their own lives, or else be so caught up in the morality of it all, that they would think of sacrificing _everything_ to _return_, for the honor and glory of what very well might have been nothing more than an exotic Acid trip.

What if even one of those links fails?

If this were the old Ssayre, no biggie. She'd just bitch and moan about not getting her regular Bennu-meal and then go off and hunt something else. But for Mina, that chain of events is _critical_ for both her continued life _and_ the relative geologic safety of the western coast of this world's North American Continent. One missed Bennu, and that's it for Mina.

Sacrificing myself here would be noble, surely. But that doesn't mean that it's either right, or intelligent, or practical. The cycle must be broken out of. Great. Sighing, I wrest myself away from the magnificent view and return, past the mud room, to the little chamber that Mina has apportioned for my temporary sleeping-quarters, furnished only by Jossu'wa's tooled dagger-belt tossed hastily into one corner. Muzzily, I bury my beak beneath one iridescent wing, lock a leg into position, and bring the other one up to rest.

Words are whirling around in my head. Scenes. I am desperately trying to make sense of them. To find the one missing piece that I can _feel_ is there but that I'm yet too dreadfully stupid to see.

Mom's letter--the one that starts this whole affair off--recites its way through my mind. I bridge to our phone call. She lost my father's best pen while touring the depths of an old, worn-out silver mine in Calico. Calico bridges to K'aliko, Village of the Spire, and Jossu'wa's maddeningly timid and traditional people. Thence back to _Pajome_. Crystal ampoules. The secret to making which was bestowed upon them long ago by the Wyvere.

There's something right on the edge of clicking.

The Wyvere, specifically, Ssayre's mother. She had a _plan_. She always had a plan. And she had _matchless_ patience in carrying it out; after all, she had not shaped the Kiri-ahn for her own purposes in a matter of weeks alone. It had probably taken months, years. But she always held to the plan. Ssayre was the abnormal one. Never thinking things through properly. Coming up with... odd schemes and executing them before thinking of all the flaws.

Flaws. Like Mina being just exactly too big to fit out the cracks.

Ssayre was a master chemist.

I pause.

Ssayre was a master chemist. She could do whatever the hell she wanted with the potions, presumably. Perhaps she could even control precise physical statistics of Mina's resulting form.

If she could... going on the presumption, in fact, that she could...

Then Mina's just-slightly-impractical size was either a gross, overpoweringly gross oversight...

Or else... it was a calculated ploy to _make absolutely sure_ that Mina stayed right here...

Tending the machines... while Ssayre... killed herself... by throwing herself... into the abyss...

Jossu'wa's voice, regarding: How often do you have to come here, Joss? "Once yearly," he responds, "now that I am Kiri-ahn-wa, to offer formal prayer to the Earth. And once more several weeks ago with the ampoule of _Pajome_ for your initial summoning, Bennu."

Lying there in the dust.

How the hell did it get there?

How did it get from Jossu'wa's hands, here, to the dusty, faded outskirts of Calico, back home?

And why did he need to be in the Earth Temple for it all to work? Why the goddamn Earth Temple? Going by the usual patterns of Kiri-ahn mythology and symbology alone, the Bennu has nothing whatsoever to do with the Earth-her-Mother. So why was the summoning performed... there...

And why...

Suddenly, there is a tense pause, as a tiny, innocent little idea, interjected in just exactly precisely the right place, cracks open my skull and sets the feathers on the back of my neck tingling.

A pause.

Oh shit.

I jerk my beak out from beneath my wing, staring faraway at the wall for a brief moment, making all the switches click in my mind. God be damned. Why the hell didn't I see this sooner. Too blind. Too much thinking within the boxes.

My leg creeps thoughtlessly downwards.

I force it the rest of the way.

And then I am off. Back to the vent. For one more talk with Joss.

* * *

"I tested it!" I say, exuberantly. "The rocks disappear! They don't even fall into the lava."

"Magma." She corrects.

"Whatever the hell." I say. "Point is, a split second before they hit, they vanish."

Mina simply narrows her subtle reptilian eyes at me.

"It's a gateway!" I say. "Back to our homeworld!"

"You've talked with your friend Jossu'wa about this."

"Yes! _That's_ how they get the ampoules from this world to ours. Tossing them into the volcano."

Mina ponders.

"If that's true..."

"You been fucking _lied_ to, girl. This 'disease' that Ssayre had. Any physical symptoms whatsoever?"

"No." Muses Mina. "All she said was that she wanted to die with dignity. To end it before things started to decay."

"_By throwing herself into the pit._" I say.

"Right." Says Mina.

"Ssayre _told_ you what the precise words of her Oath were, Mina. Remember? _Not to leave the tower unattended_. As long as you're stuck here with no possibility of escape, her Oath holds, and she can go off and do whatever the hell she wants. The duplicitous little bitch thought of a loophole! See?"

"You _may_ be right, Justin." She says, nodding faintly to herself. "Let's presume that you are. Where does that leave us? So what if we can use the magma pit as a means of getting back 'home'? Who tends the machines?"

"Well, you can. Or the both of us. Look, I dunno. The important thing is to win the trust of the Kiri-ahn by completing their little prophecy. After that, you'll have all the k'tanik you can eat."

"But... we won't _be_ here, Justin."

"There's at least one more gateway. I know there is. Joss and his people have been collecting little personal items from our world for a long time now. And... _hell_, Mina, look at all these books!" I gesture semi-gleefully around me with one wing. "Ssayre herself must have made _gobs_ of trips back and forth, when she first took up residence here. There's gotta be another, different portal that works from the other side, and I'm pretty sure I know where it is. We just locate it, and boom! We're back!"

"Back into the Spire?" Murmurs Mina, thougtfully.

"Er... no." I muse, noticing a hole in my heretofore seemingly-faultless logic. "Probably not."

"So we can't get back here to the machineries. At least _I_ can't." She says. "And you don't have the skill to operate them. I'm afraid that this plan of yours still leaves the seismic controls unattended, and I will _not_ risk that."

I nod at her, conceding the point. Damn, I should have thought of that. Let's see, here.

"You can't teach me?"

"No." Says Mina, shaking her massive head. "Or rather, I very much doubt it. An instruction manual to cover every specific circumstance or exigency would fill this entire room. One must operate these things by _feel_. And it would take far more time than we have here to give you a proper sense of that."

"You're not making this very easy on me, Mina." I say, with a sour smirk in my voice.

"In my experience, Justin, ease is rarely a given."

"Beginning to see that." I mutter, fretting and pacing a bit.

Mina looks at me, after a moment of this. "Any further brilliance from you?"

"Don't ask me," I grouch. "You're the gifted and talented one. I'm just a business major. We don't _need_ to be smart."

She chuckles at me. I continue to think.

"Okay." I say, after a moment more. "How 'bout this. Once we have the support of the Kiri-ahn, we can get their help to widen the cracks, starting with the one at the base of the Spire."

"And you believe that they have the capability of doing so, whereas I've been unable to?" She asks, in the tone of a process of logical arrival rather than a challenge to me.

"There are a lot of them." I say. "And if they don't have access to the proper tools we can get them. You can direct 'em from the outside once we're there. It'd be a hell of a lot more effective than you working alone."

She ponders, again.

"You may be right."

"_May_ be? C'mon, Mina, throw me a bone here..."

"_May_." Insists Mina, in a rather authoritarian fashion. "_If_ all the assumptions you've made are correct. _If_ your perception of the rocks simply 'vanishing' was due to them actually doing so, rather than a sort of optical illusion caused by ripples in the heated air. _If_ there is indeed a gateway back to this world that works for items significantly larger than books and cameras and pens. And, the most questionable one, in my mind, _If_ the Kiri-ahn would be willing to accept the culmination of their prophecy, even if _their own_ criteria are met."

I blink at her. "Run that last one past me again."

"Tradition is a strong force, Justin." She says, gesturing noncommittally with her claws. "Look at the Jewish in our own world, for an example. A thousand years of holy scriptures and prophecy, and then when the culmination of those same prophecies came, they were too blind to recognize it."

I blink again, narrowing my eyes. "I'm sorry, Mina..." I ask, curiously, "but aren't... you... Jewish?" I beak-frown at her, briefly running through our previous conversations.

"Justin, it was just an example, yes?" Says Mina, sounding strangely flustered, and breaking eye contact. I fix a stare at her. She is _really_ begging a question, here. Check that, she's absolutely _screaming_ for one. And I've got one all ready to go, but at the same time, I know that it, too, will go unasked, another phrase in my mind that desperately tried to get itself said, to no avail.

"That's not really the point, here, Justin," she continues, with the relentless haste of a bulldozer on Sudafed, either ignoring or patently avoiding my unspoken query. "The _point_ is, _If_ all these assumptions you share with me are right and based in truth, then your plan is correct and good. If, however, you are being duplicitous in telling me these things..."

"_Why_ would I be lying to you?"

"To save yourself. To get me to blithely throw myself into the fire, while you come out of here without a scratch, heedless of the inattention it would mean for the machinery, thinking only of your own welf-"

"Mina!" I say, my beak hanging open. "You really think that I would do that to you?"

"I am simply considering all the possibilities, Justin." Says Mina, analytically. "Such as the additional possibility that you are acting in good faith but that your assumptions carry a logical flaw, thus dooming the plan to failure."

"Mina." I say calmly. "You're being kept alive here, only barely, by one Bennu every two decades. The process by which poor bastards like me are summoned for your lunch ain't exactly fraggin' room service. There's a hell of a lot that can go wrong. And if any _one_ little thing does... _anytime_ in the future, you perish. Leaving the godblessed machines _just as unattended._ Take _that_ into consideration."

She muses.

"A permanent solution, Mina." I say, quietly, enticingly. "One that doesn't threaten to break down every twenty years. No more constant hunger. _No more killing of innocent li'l Bennu-birds, Mina._ Nothing."

She flinches, then.

I wait.

"All right." She says, wearily, after a time.

"Great." I say.

"_On One Condition._" She says. "You go with me."

I blink. "Down... into the volcano." I say.

"Nervous?" Says Mina, her soft eyes suddenly prying into me like wedges. "There _should_ be nothing to be afraid of, yes?"

"Well, yes." I say.

I swallow. Might as well be consistent. If I'm willing to sacrifice another for a cause, it damn well better be something I'd be willing to sacrifice myself for in the same situation.

"Sure." I say.

"Okay." Says Mina, with a note of finality. "When?"

"I should talk to Joss one last time. Tell 'im to have his people ready... and waiting."

"And then?" She says.

I shrug. "No time like the present." I say.

* * *

We stand, the two of us, in the deep, echoing rotunda, looking down at the fires far below.

"There's a hell of a set of thermals in here." I say. "I know. I rode 'em up here the first time. I never counted on having to ride 'em _down_, though. They're not too bad up here at the top, but when we get down to the bottom, they'll be screaming like a sonofabitch."

"How close is the gate to the bottom?" Says Mina, peering over the ledge, calculating.

"Pretty close." I say.

"So. A nice gentle drop will not work so well."

"I doubt if we'd make it to the bottom. Both of us are wing-y things, Mina, but if we try and brake even a little, the thermals will catch us, and we'll just flop all over until we kill ourselves smashing into a wall or something."

"The ampoules do it." Says Mina. "Because they just _drop_."

"Mm hm." I say, not liking where this is heading.

"What _are_ we going to hit when we come out of this?" She says. "I hope to God it's not something solid..."

"Even if, Mina, I think that the transference has a braking action to it. I shattered my own ampoule with a good whack on the table, even stuffed as it was in newspaper. I don't think it would have even stayed intact in the initial fall if there was a risk of critical impact force."

"Point ceded, with the caveat that we don't really have a way to safely test it." She says. "It sounds reasonable."

"Okay." I say, stretching my wings up and back. "So we just drop. Fold our wings up and present as little surface area to the thermals as possible. Like two big ol' rocks."

"Like paper darts." Says Mina.

"Bats _into_ Hell." I finish.

"Or something." Says Mina.

We stand on the edge.

"We go together." Says Mina.

"Yeah." I say, idly, mind elsewhere. "We've established that."

"No." Says Mina. "_Together._ Not two rocks. One."

I look up. "Why? Still don't trust me? Think I'll pull up at the last minute? Something about the surface ratios that'll be different? What's the scoop?"

She considers her words, for a moment, then speaks.

"I'm frightened." She says, calmly.

I nod.

Then I walk over to her, and, solemnly, I place my wings around her body. She does the same, subsuming me in their depths.

There are no words, no final preparations, no bucking-up-counts. No words need be shared. There are none.

Silently, Mina perches for a moment on the edge, poised on the rim of balance. And then, with the faintest of grunts, she pushes off.

And we fall.

* * *

There is no adequate verbal representation of our descent. Words leave the brain, whipped away by the blazing winds. Sickening turns, deep in the gut. Instincts and reflexes, battering at our brains, _screaming_ at us to spread our wings and slow our catastrophic fall. It is probably a good thing that we have ourselves locked around each other, else either one of us individually might have lost our nerve and braked long ago. As it is, we do not. We streak downwards, cometlike, the walls of the Spire flashing by in a confusing static of irregular glass and reflected light. A low, croaking scream is drawn from my throat, and I attempt to close my eyes, to ward off the vision of my impending doom below, but the red-hot wind tears open my lids and dries my eyeballs into piles of crackling leaves. High, whistling shrieks fill my ears, but I am unable to place their source; whether they be from the turbulent gases all about or instead, from my close draconic companion. An eternity of Hell, tossed like used matchsticks into the soul-destroying fires below.

And then, peace.

Oh, I'm still falling swiftly towards patent danger. But the endorphins have kicked in, my brain's equivalent of grouchily muttering, well, if you're dead set on killing yourself, I'd best make it as pleasant for ya' as possible. I've heard it described as one's life flashing before one's eyes. But it isn't, really. It's just a moment of extreme peace where you feel _free_ to recollect... if you like. So I do so. Very, very briefly.

Summed up: Shitty beginning. Shitty middle. Very possibly one Helluva finish.

The gases steal the breath from my lungs. I am on fire. From the inside and out. Crazily spinning cinders singe my beautiful feathers. The gaping maw of Gehenna awaiteth.

I finally manage to close my eyes.

And then...



* * *

The first clue that I have that I am still, actually, alive, is my weak, ratcheting wheeze. Wheezing is an action that I am fairly certain that the dead do not engage in.

The noxious fumes clear their way from my lungs. Once, twice.


I open my eyes.

We lie together in our deathlocked embrace, Mina and I, baking slowly in the silver-white sun.

"Mina." I whisper, gazing into her clenched, serpentine face.

She works out the kinks in her facial muscles, and, slowly, like the motion of land masses, her eyelids open.

"It worked." I say.

We work our way out of each others' arms. Er. Wings. What the hell ever. Questions of syntax have become irrelevant. I'm alive.

Mina stumbles to her feet. Er. Hindlimbs. Dipping her head low, she too attempts to clear the gases from her lungs, breathing weakly. Mina was a lot less healthier than I was at the start of our drop, I suddenly realize. I am at her side.


She waves me off. "I am fine." She continues her recovery.

I nod in recognition at her, and take a moment to look around. We are on the outskirts of an old, blasted village, half-buried in the swirling sand, on the lee side of acres and acres of low, rocky hills to the West. No Spire. No gargantuan peaks. An altogether more familiar environment for the world that I know. A lost, broken, burned-out silver-town in the hot, dry climate somewhere near the California-Nevada border. All is dead, and silent. Cue the tumbleweeds.

Lying, quietly, rather nearby in the arid sands, are several small rocks, a beautiful beadwork sash, a bottle of suspicious brown liquid on a thong, and a Polaroid camera.

I smile to myself. Tokens.

My mind sparks, then, and I rummage around in my breast-plumage for a bit and eventually come up having accomplished the removal of the small, only faintly-irritating presence of Dad's pen. I toss it on the pile.

"So. Now what. We are in the United States of America. The year is... in the Nineteen Ninties?"

"Should be." I say.

The "well, duh" portion of my logical brain takes over here and makes the observation that Mina is still Wyvere, and I remain, of course, Bennu. This doesn't surprise me, as such, I guess. Mina's recount of how the portal zones functioned implied that potion transit was necessary to shift forms; otherwise, we get what we do now. Alien creatures. Foreign to our homeland. Mina doubly so; she doesn't even probably _have_ a home anymore.

No tourists around, thankfully. The two of us would've scared the shit out of them.

I pause.


I know, it's kind of an obligatory context for the word. It's not as though the choice of wording itself is notable. But... there are resonances to it that were never there before.

They _are_ 'them' to me, now.

In a way, they always have been.

Jesus. I hadn't really planned too far past this moment. I know the goal. And as soon as Mina looks a little better, we're going for it. But... what about _me_? Mina's Wyvere potion has been going strong for sixty years now and shows no signs of stopping. Ssayre _would_ have made it as strong and long-lasting as possible, and though I do not know much about the specifics of Wyvere chemistry, I have the sneaking suspicion that Mina is gonna be wearing that shape for a long, long time. But what about me? Poor Justin'Bennu of the week-long potion, catapulted back to his dreary, mundane, _alien_ life in a scant matter of days.

Spending every day dreaming, thinking of the only world where he has ever truly felt that he _fit..._

The fate of the Ssayre. A fate that drove her mad. Or at least to desperation. Holed up in her tower, plugging away at her steam-driven calculator, a hand at the lever, pulling, pulling, endlessly...

...a small cubicle with a cheap-looking nameplate in faux-wood, tap, tap, tapping at my computer, preparing budget spreadsheets, presentations, ever-seeking the approval of the Big Boss Man, ever with the eye towards the office with the window...

I don't want to stay here.

Jossu'wa didn't know how long the _second_ dosage lasted. No Bennu in Jossu's memory ever even made it out the week. Maybe the second time through lasts longer. Maybe it lasts forever.

When we get back, I will command the manufacture of more _Pajome_. And I will give specific instructions as to what is to be done with it. If my duration gives out before more is ready, they will know what to do. And I will come back here, to Calico, my only thoughts towards the return.

Maybe I won't have to. Maybe this is it. Maybe this is me.

There is no horror or revulsion in these thoughts. Strangely, I am more at home in this body than I ever was for the twenty-odd years that I inhabited my old one. I am the Bennu. I have cast myself into the fires of the Earth Mother at the base of the Spire and in doing so, I have burned my old self to ashes. And I have risen anew from those selfsame ashes. I am reborn.

With a sober mien, I gather my artifacts, and enlist Mina's help to stash them in one of the old, broken mining-town hovels of Calico. I don't need any more encumbrance than is strictly necessary. I'm _tired_. But it's a good kind of tired.

Then, I take one last look at the wasted, broken, soulless town. In the heat-wavering light, it appears no more solid than a dream. It reminds me a tiny little bit of Milwaukee, except that Calico is about ten times more honest. It, at least, does not hide the fact that, although it might have, once, long ago, possessed some form of life, it is now quite stone-cold dead.

"Justin?" Says Mina from behind me, preparing to set out towards the mouth of the old silver mine which once _was_, long ago, the life of Calico, but which now serves only as a means of my escape from it, and from the world that spawned it, and all cities like it.

Sometimes, the grass _really is_ greener.

"I'm coming." I say.

And I am.

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