I made to open my eyes, but, somehow, I didn’t have any. I made to breathe, but somehow – no lungs, no throat, no mouth, no tongue, only my thoughts and my awareness. Is this what death is like? I thought. Is this the end? I can still think – I must still exist, I’m sure of that. Hell if I know anything else.
I fell, faster. The raging aether tore at me, thought from thought.
The Law, I thought, had flashed me a message in the stars: that I was safe, that I would be safe in its protection. And now, I was sure, I was dead. Fury overwhelmed me, and for a moment my life flashed before my eyes (my awareness), all of my failures, all my half-complete successes, everything I hadn’t done yet. The Law, I thought, had sucked me in and then cut me short. White fury overwhelmed everything.
I fell. A white wind drew me down, towards a raging white fissure – a vortex – the end of existence, or the path towards the next… and it reached out to consume me.
A web of – something – ropes, almost, threaded through my mind, or my spirit, which were certainly not natural, although I had never felt them invade – strained suddenly against my descent, pulling at me, holding me back from oblivion. I slowed, and then I bounced back, away from life’s end. Then I landed – eyeless and tongueless – in the arms of a women. The cords which had been slowing my descent loosened.
I looked up (with my awareness) and my terror abated into wonder. The woman glowed brightly, the power and beauty of her presence in my mind – there was no light, no color. Cloth, or something like cloth, fell from her delicate shoulders and down, billowing in the aether storm, and a pair of white wings arched high behind her. She beat them, and we swept gracefully up, away from the whirling vortex of white light.
“Am I dead?” I said.
“Yes,” she said, her lips motionless, her thoughts falling gently into my awareness, “and no. Your body has ceased to function, but you are not yet permitted to leave your universe. In a few moments, at the proper time, I will return you to it.”
I made to close my eyes and inhale, but again – no equipment.
“The Law,” I said. “Sarvavidh. Is that why there was a fishing-line net holding me back?”
The woman nodded.
“So this isn’t it, after all,” I said, “not the end of my story.”
“No, Tashunke,” she said – she hadn’t used the word, though, just the thought – “your labors are far from over, your story has just begun.”
“My labors,” I replied, and then I thought of them. “I failed at my labors.” I let him into my head, he found out – he found out everything!
The edge of her lips curved into a small, warm smile. “Everything happens for a reason,” she said.
All of the suffering I had seen, and all I had helped cause, flooded through my thoughts. “I don’t believe that,” I said. “I can’t believe that.”
“Irrelevant,” she replied simply. “You will see it, eventually.”
I stared, my awareness locked on the unbearably gentle beauty of her face, her form, her wings.
“Who are you?” I asked dully.
She smiled again, and then, for the first time since she had caught me, she parted her lips. A sound emerged, a genuine sound scorching across my awareness, and it was unlike anything I had ever heard: it was music, tuneless but unbearably beautiful, with pure, clear notes falling over notes sounding up, pure, out of her and filling my whole being with peace.
She stopped. Tears flowed in my thoughts, and my awareness was filled with wonder.
“If you can’t pronounce that,” she said delicately, “you can call me Feathers.”
“Feathers,” I said. “Thank you.”
“Unnecessary,” she smiled. “What I do, I don’t do for you.”
And she flicked her wings, and let me go. “I’ll see you again,” echoed her voice faintly in my thoughts, and I fell, and then, with a jolt, I landed.
For a moment, there was only the startling sensation of existence. Ugh, I thought. Ugh. Bleh. Then: breathing.
Wet. Pain. Cold.
Then, a sudden but dull rushing sound. A biting pain. Another, lower… Breathing. Hooves.
Each idea, each shard of awareness, flitted across my consciousness for a moment – as long as it could hold my will-less, elemental concentration – and then it was gone, replaced with the next, a procession of impressions, each leaving no trace in its wake.
Wet—and, cold—and, salty—and the simplest, purest idea of water came to mind, but the word… the word was far too complex.
Then came two ideas at once: Pain, and, Nose. Pain and hoof. Salty lips, cracked lips, pain and lips. Silence, punctuated by noise – wind. Bobbing up, down, water lapping. Light, dim, brighter, eyelids closed and crusted over – lips, salty, water.
The ocean. I was in the ocean.
I breathed in. My lungs hurt.
Then, words, the first that I had thought since I reawakened: I’m Alive. Powerful joy coursed through me, joy unalloyed by impurities of thought or emotion – nothing but the single, pure joy.
My head lolled to the side and I smiled broadly, an idiot’s grin, pure. I made a happy noise, unconcerned with its intelligibility. The joy subsided as I realized, with dim puzzlement, that I’d forgotten what I’d been happy about.
Cracked lips, tasting salty. My tongue – felt odd. I moved it around in my mouth, hesitantly. It felt numb – numb, but painful, too. The pain was strange, alien, powerfully unpleasant. I stopped moving my tongue.
I opened my eyes. It was painful, and the world was very bright. I shut them.
I felt water lapping over my body, wet fabric clinging to my raw skin – my hooves dangled down into the water, my body floated. I was face up. Ha-ha!, I thought, good thing I’m face up, or I’d die! I laughed out loud, and then, forgetting what had been funny, I stopped. My tongue hurt again.
I opened my eyes again, and this time I held them open – curiosity took root, for a moment, to see where I was. Without thinking, I sat up. My torso plunged into the water, and I cried out at the shock – cold water on my sun-baked skin – and then I felt silly.
The sky was a hazy brown, but the sun shone brightly through it. The horizon was bare – I kicked my legs, awkwardly and painfully at first, but knowledge of their movements slowly returned to me. Away to the south, there was a smudge against the sky. Land! Land, water, food rest, all good things lay there. But the focus required to kick and to think those thoughts was overwhelming, and I stopped, exhausted, mind empty again.
And then, as though at that moment I was focused at just the right level, just the right scale to understand it, I felt and understood a distinct and powerful sensation: my mind, having been torn apart by death, was stitching itself back together again, thought by thought, idea by idea, connection by connection.
Memories reformed, from the earliest onward, overlaying themselves – as a child, running across the plains, eating my mother’s waffles – as an adolescent, angry at the world and not sure why – as a vagrant, doleful at the days and terrified of the nights – as a gang-member, struggling to fit in amongst orcs… refusing to finish my initiation rites, refusing to kill the old woman we’d found huddled in the streets – meeting Tidus – the airship – meeting Rhy, meeting Jonathan Trent, meeting Penelope – meeting Fang the Tooth – leaving Storm City to burn. Losing M, M returning, the black book – Hannathras – Varimathras – Sarvavidh –
Pride overwhelmed me. It took over, as had the elemental joy before: I’m in it now, I thought. I died, and now I’m alive. I feel like hammered hell, worse than I’ve ever felt in my life, but this is awesome..
Welcome back, said a shape in the clouds, said the Law. I grinned irrepressibly, so widely that my cheeks and cracked lips hurt.
The clouds shifted in the wind. Now focus, they read.
I breathed. Okay, I thought. I need to survive. I need to get to land. I need to focus.
The smudge of land was far distant, and I inhaled with all my might. I moved one stiff arm forward, then another, kicking, fumbling at first and then more gracefully – as gracefully as a cow can swim, at least! The thought hit me with its hilarity, and the resulting bubbling peals of laughter nearly doubled me over in the water.
My tongue hurt. I stopped. Focus, I thought.
But the land was too far away, and my limbs – they felt like hurt, they felt like unhappy and awful. I shook the imprecise concepts out of my head. They felt like someone just got through beating them with a meat tenderizer, I thought. The complexity of the thought, impossible to comprehend a few minutes ago, was now merely exhausting. I bobbed for a moment.
I’m screwed, I thought. Totally. The Law screwed me again, leaving me stranded how far from land? With nothing in my toolbox to get me home. Nothing at all. If only I were an excellent swimmer.
The thought overlaid itself with a memory, words from a book I’d read somewhere (the exact time and location remained too complex a concept to grasp at the same time) – “Sea lions are built to be excellent swimmers.” The beginning of the anatomy chapter. My hand drifted absent-mindedly down to my neck. Whatever had happened to my body in my absence, I had not lost the silver pendant – the pendant, which looked nothing like a sea lion!, I thought with some pique. I clutched it, willing whatever magic it was supposed to contain to help me now.
Sea lions. (Once started, the thought had continued on its own.) A sea lion’s place in the world is to swim, of course – with its specialized physique and underlying musculature, and its massive lungs, the sea lion is an excellent swimmer. It has a layer of blubber under the skin to provide insulation and buoyancy, which is good, because the ocean water in which it lives varies between… between… between cold and very cold, I decided. It’s also a good thing because the tastiest things in the world to a sea lion are all found under water: fish, shellfish, and squid. Squid are delicious.
A familiar mind-set – familiar from where? – began to come over me. Squid are the best food in the world. My place in the world is to swim about, and be warm in cold places, and make baby sea lions, and dive really deep, and hang out in the sun with a million other sea lions for no reason. And, on top of it all, I really, really, really hate horns! Giant teeth sticking out of the sides of my mouth are okay, though. Tusks are cool.
My mind hadn’t entirely put itself back together yet, and my whole body still hurt, but all of a sudden the water made sense to me. I took a deep breath – deeper than I’d ever taken – and plunged my head beneath its surface, then reached out with my slippery, leathery flippers and (painfully) kicked my broad tail behind me. I lanced through the water like I’d been born in it.
I’d done it – with the help of this little magic necklace, I thought, I’d done it. As a sea lion, it was the most natural thing in the world, but as I thought about it as myself for a moment, the sensation of having my two distinct legs fused, and my hooves stretched out into powerful feet-flippers, was utterly strange, something I couldn’t have forced my body to do before my long night training with the golden-feathered elf.
Tyrande, I thought. You must learn command and mastery of the water, she’d said, and I had. I kicked out and did a barrel roll to prove it.
I paused and rested periodically, but my mind and body were feeling better by the second. The land, previously a smudge on the horizon, grew closer every time I surfaced for air.
It was a cliff, and before long I could make out the spiked, black tower atop it, silhouetted starkly against the sky. Death’s Doorstep, I thought. I’d crossed that doorstep – crossed it and come back. Whatever terror it held for the rest of the living world, it held no dominion over me.
I glanced off to the left, to the east, and, even in the misty distance, I could see a great figure etched into the cliff’s face: Warmer, it said, and I kicked towards it.
I neared the shore, and surfaced for a breath. Below the cliff, on the pebbly beach, stood a short, bedraggled, blue figure – it was Fang. I cried a sea-lion cry and swam towards him, returning my body to the shape of a bull when my belly scraped pebbles. Everything – my mission, my successes, my failures – came back to me as I hauled myself dripping up out of the surf.
“Fang!” I cried, and splashed inland. “You’re alive!”
“Hush,” he hissed urgently at me, waving my voice down with a fin. He waved me towards the cliff, towards a narrow overhang. He pulled me in.
“Congratulations on getting your sea lion finally,” he hissed, slumping heavily against the rock, “although you need to practice it a bit more – your version was ugly as sin.”
“Thanks,” I hissed back. “Why are we whispering?”
“Seriously?” he replied sotto voce. “We’re less than a mile from Varimathras’ tower, and he has flying bone dragons and magical whatever and you want to know why we’re being sneaky?”
“Good point,” I whispered, and I felt foolish.
Fang smiled toothily. “Not quite recovered yet?”
I shook the haze out of my mind. “Have you been through that before?”
Fang nodded. “It’s better than dying, I think. What’d you find out?” he continued, waving away further discussion. “Talk to me, Goose.”
“It’s a book they’re waiting for,” I said, “a red book with a golden tree on it. It’s at the Scarlet Monastery – the old Monastery of the Light, over by where they killed Rayn, where the Scarlet Crusade took over centuries ago? The Scarlet Resurrection’s there, Hannathras told me – Hannathras is alive!” Now free to think, revelations poured through my mind.
“Of course he is,” smiled Fang. “The Scarlet Monastery, huh? That’s interesting.”
He looked expectantly at me.
He sighed. “Yup,” he replied. “Think about it.” He began ticking points off on his fins. “You know that a cave below the Scarlet Monastery was the staging location for the attack on Under City that netted Hannathras the Book of Arthas. You now know that the Monastery is occupied by the Resurrection, so it should be a fairly reliable guess that your old friends the Scarlets were helping Hannathras – especially in light of the fact that Hannathras now knows things about mysterious books lurking inside the Monastery. So what’s interesting is, why on Az do they need to send a traitorous agent who just showed up on their doorstep in to retrieve something that they know about from an organization which has been helpful before? Why would the Scarlet Resurrection help Hannathras free his father, and then refuse to help once he’s free?”
I nodded. “Not to mention the question of why they need a book, and why them not having it is keeping them from invading the East. And Varimathras said something…” I paused. “I said that I wanted to be on his side when they invaded, and he said something like, who said anything about invading?”
Fang flared his slit nostrils and nodded. “Also interesting,” he said.
I nodded back, then glanced nervously up at the sky outside our tight alcove. My senses were returning, and menace hung heavily over us. “Now what?” I whispered.
“The Scarlet Monastery!” he hissed, “to go work some diplomacy and find out what it all means – and maybe even get a look at that book. I wouldn’t normally walk into that place with fewer than five good fighters, but between your status as initiate and my connections from my Storm City days, I don’t think we’ll run into any unsolvable problems. If they taught you any secret handshakes, I’d try to remember them.” He winked.
Then he stood, and, “Onward!” he cried. “Into the maw of a different and much less scary beast!”