Arilin had just hurled the rusted remains of an old twin-propeller plane—heavy enough to be trouble for even her to lift—through an old hangar when she sensed eyes on her.
She paused, acutely aware of the scene she made: an eighty foot high feline woman in jeans and dusty tee-shirt, chest heaving from the exertion of grinding part of an abandoned airbase to rubble. But she might as well pose for the audience, so she turned around, looking down with a consciously feral grin. This was far from where she lived, far from the Giants’ Club, but she’d still be more likely to find a little staring up in fearful lust than an outraged police force.
Instead, she found herself looking down at two taloned, bone-white rabbit paws. She jerked her gaze up hurriedly. Another giant—likely one hoping to “play” alongside her—wasn’t so surprising, but this giant was. Inanael stood half again as high as the Rha, thin and strong and elegant. She could be considered beautiful, but she had claws and teeth that befit a dragon, not a rabbit. Enormous black wings called to mind both bat and raven; long horns curling behind her ears resembled a ram. Her eyes had no pupils, only the uniform pale shine of moonlight. “Good evening, Arilin.”
The Rha’s tail lashed twice. Since founding the Club she’d met so many people more powerful than she that she’d become mostly inured, and she’d never seen the winged rabbit be anything but polite and reserved. Yet she wasn’t sure she could recall anyone else who made the fur on the back of her neck prickle in quite the same way. “Hello. I didn’t expect anyone to… I mean, I was just in the middle of… exercising.”
Inanael nodded, stepping forward in what, given her size, passed for near silence. “There is a magical simulacra of a whole city to destroy just north of your club, yet you choose to come here.”
Arilin laughed uneasily. “It’s a change of scenery.” The rabbit simply regarded her without replying, and Arilin’s tail lashed again. “So did you just happen to be out this way?”
“No. I came to speak with you.” The rabbit smiled slightly, the tips of wolflike fangs showing. “May I ask what it is you’ve heard of me?”
“Well.” She cleared her throat. “I’ve heard you’re some kind of goddess of death, and you’re here to learn about all the people who refuse to stay dead when they get killed.”
“The last part is correct.” Inanael turned away, looking toward the west, out over dark waters tinged orange by the sunset. The airfield lay on the edge of a wide bay; as far as Arilin knew, no one lived in a dozen miles in any direction. The base had once quartered thousands, but it had become a desolate plain of grey and brown, dense with abandoned warehouses and buildings, crisscrossed by crumbling roads. “As for the first, you do not believe in gods.” She said this as a statement, not a question.
After a moment, Arilin laughed, kicking at a partially-intact block house. “How can I not believe in them? They’re all over the place here. It’s a wonder anything that requires a god’s attention ever gets done in the universe, since they’re all sitting around the Giants’ Club drinking beer and eating the same people over and over like popcorn.”
Inanael turned to face Arilin without replying, just tilting her head fractionally.
“All right,” Arilin said, crossing her arms and flashing a lopsided smile. “I’ve always heard the saying ‘with great power comes great responsibility,’ and if that applies to gods, I don’t think I’ve met a single one yet. You’re at least said to be a goddess of something. But I’ve met people who can get large enough to eat planets whole and magicians who can level cities with a single spell, and that isn’t even counting the handful of little super-predators capable of eating a planet person by person rather than in one big gulp. I’m not sure I can say what the difference between any one of them and a ‘god’ is.”
“But you have just said exactly what it is, Arilin.” Inanael spread her hands. “A god is his role. Love. War. Music. Spring. Death. He may be omnipotent in his sphere, but he is also constrained by it. Only mortals have the power to reject the responsibility that comes with their power.”
The Rha snorted. “You’d think eventually that would be something gods would take a dim view of, were they around.”
“You would indeed,” Inanael said with a faint smile. “But perhaps the planet-eaters and the super-predators are the universe’s response to those who cheat death, a way of correcting the imbalance.”
“It’d be an awfully harsh universe that says, ‘Well, that planet over there has a bunch of people who refuse to die, so your entire civilization ends its ten thousand years as a meal for an unstoppable wolf girl,’ wouldn’t it?”
“No more harsh than that civilization ending its ten thousand years due to plague, or war, or any other cataclysm. Entropy is the natural cycle.” She smiled again. “Even if it comes in the guise of an unstoppable wolf girl.”
Arilin shook her head, chuckling, then trailed off. “But entropy requires the people who refuse to die to go ahead and die, eventually, doesn’t it?”
Inanael crouched over a nearby Quonset hut, reaching out to set a hand on it. “I believe I know why you come here, instead of to your magical city, Arilin.”
The Rha lifted her brows. “Why?”
“These buildings have been condemned for years, so the damage is ‘safe’ in that nothing others care about is harmed.” She closed her hand slowly, clawed fingers ripping into the metal, shredding it like foil. “But if you return here tomorrow, or next month, or next year, the damage will remain. It has permanence. It is real.”
“I suppose so.” Arilin ran a hand through her hair. “I don’t think I’d looked at it that way.”
The rabbit rose back to her full height. “You are right; everything must die, given enough time. There are cycles to the universe, death and rebirth. They change over time as worlds mature, as creation winds down to its end and the Grand Cycle begins anew. But some changes unbalance the cycle, and they must be corrected.”
Arilin remained silent for several seconds. “‘Corrected’ how?”
“In the manner I see fit.” Inanael held out her hand. “Walk with me, Arilin.”
The cat looked at the rabbit with nervous doubt. She really was claiming to be the goddess of death, wasn’t she? After another moment’s hesitation, she stepped forward and put her hand in the rabbit’s. The taloned hand closed, and they began to walk across the airfield’s tarmac.
The mist billowed around them, suddenly so thick Arilin couldn’t be sure where she was stepping. They should have been walking into the water by now. “I don’t want to end up going for a swim.”
Abruptly the mist cleared, and they stood on the edge of a cliff. Arilin gasped, coming to a quick stop.
A thousand feet below lay a dark plain, and a vast city stretched across it, reaching the horizon in all directions. It seemed as monochromatic as the old airbase, and little more alive, its colors drawn from dust and old parchment. The air was dry and warm, and while the sky had the dim light of dusk, there was no hint of sun or shadow.
“Where the hell are we?” Arilin whispered.
“It is neither heaven nor hell,” Inanael said, looking down at the cat. “Simply call it the land of the dead. My land.”
Arilin felt her legs give way, and she collapsed to her knees. She swallowed, mouth as dry as the air. “Should I—”
“You should not.” Inanael placed her other hand on Arilin’s shoulder, smiling fractionally. “Those who worship death are often thought mad, or homicidal.”
“I’ve been thought both.” She laughed nervously.
Inanael lifted the Rha back up to her feet. “I know. What have you lost from that time?”
“What?” Arilin said, taken aback. “I’ve gained everything I have since then. Friends, respect, love—”
“That is not what I asked.”
“But…” Arilin trailed off, brow furrowing. After a long silence, she said softly, “Control.”
“As awful as I was back in Stravell, as much as I treated life and death like a game, the Liliren and I both knew that if I caught them, I could do anything I wanted with them. The stakes were real. Now it’s a game for everyone, not just me. And I guess in a way that’s good, but in a way… in a way it reduces giants to fetish equipment.” She sighed, waving a hand. “I see people come in and they won’t even talk to people who don’t press their buttons. They’re not there to be social, and they’re not even interested in being surprised, in serendipity, in discovering anything new. As much as I think the Club’s been a good thing, there are times it depresses me, ma’am.” She paused. “What am I supposed to call you? Ma’am? Your Highness? Mistress? Lady?”
“I am neither your ruler nor owner, so let us choose ‘Lady.’”
“Very well. Lady.” She sighed. “And I’m sorry. I’m just sharing sour grapes.”
“Do not apologize.” Inanael tilted her head slightly and smiled, showing more of her fangs than usual. “I have come to an understanding.”
Arilin stepped back unconsciously, tail lashing. “An understanding of what?”
“The necessary correction.” Inanael moved forward, pulling Arilin against her and lifting the smaller giantess effortlessly off her feet.
The Rha yelped, and as Inanael walked purposefully toward the cliff’s edge, she squirmed, eyes widening. “What—put me down!—”
Inanael leapt off the edge, arcing down into a swan dive, Arilin clasped to her. The cat’s yelp became a yowling wail. After long seconds of free fall, the goddess’s huge wings snapped open, and the dive quickly leveled into soaring flight, several hundred feet over the parched, dark plain.
“I am going to drop you.” Inanael’s voice carried clearly over the wind. “You will see my palace in the distance. Meet me there.”
“Don’t you dare!” Arilin shrieked.
The winged rabbit swept down low to the ground, then let go. Arilin shrieked again, but reflexively pulled into a tumble; the fall wasn’t even her full height, but she had the breath knocked out of her. By the time she got to her feet the goddess was far away, climbing rapidly.
“Holy fuck,” Arilin muttered, warily looking around.
Tall, wiry trees—nearly shoulder-height to the Rha—dotted the landscape in all directions. The trees looked sharp, branches like spikes, dark leaves reminiscent of thorns. In the distance, lay a low, wide townscape, as deserted and decaying as the airfield. It looked like a singularly unappealing land to live in—although perhaps that was the point. The haze limited her sight distance, but far off on the horizon she could make out what looked like a huge building, far bigger than the hangar she lived in; she could only presume it to be Inanael’s palace.
Arilin started walking.
The town’s edge was a ten-minute walk for her, perhaps seven miles. Up close it looked eerier than the airbase: the ramshackle, forlorn buildings might be abandoned, but very recently. As she walked down the wide main street, looking down on tin roofs and dust-stained walls, barred windows and cracked sidewalks, she saw no movement—but she heard it: the faint sound of doors and windows shutting, footsteps.
She’d have figured anyone living here would have seen things a damn sight scarier than a white-furred giantess, but what did she know about—whatever this place was? Hades? Gehenna? Maybe there were no devils here any more than there were angels. Perhaps there was a separate Paradise, and a separate Hell. And would these places be just for the land of the Giants’ Club, or for all lands? Did they appear differently if you had different religions or no religion? Of course, she considered herself an agnostic bordering on atheist, and a fat lot of difference it seemed to be making.
Suddenly she stopped in mid-stride. Was that a whisper? She looked around. Nothing. After a moment she resumed walking, more slowly, treading as quietly as possible.
Another tiny voice, and another. More clearly: “—not here—”
Arilin’s tail lashed. “Who’s speaking?”
Nothing responded but the faint sound of wind whistling through the streets.
“Dammit,” she muttered, trying not to look frightened. She resumed walking, faster than she had been to start with.
Another whisper: “It’s her!”
She whirled around.
“Arilin!” an unseen voice came, sounding excited. “Arilin,” another one echoed; the second sounded sad. The third sounded angry.
“Who are you, dammit?” she snarled.
“You know. You know!”
The voice came from low down, to her left. She jerked her head to look at a rooftop—and at the figure there. A mouse. No, a Liliren, a Liliren with hollow eyes, an expression like none she’d seen before: fear and doubt and lust and self-loathing all as clear as scars. And she realized she did know. “Rusty,” she breathed.
“I loved you,” he said, stepping closer. His voice became accusatory. “I loved you—and you killed me. You killed me.”
“I’m…” She trailed off. Sorry? A simple apology might be worse than nothing—but with a twinge of self-loathing herself, she realized she’d be lying. She wasn’t sorry at all. And besides, what right did Rusty, of all her victims, have to get moralistic with her? “You didn’t love me, Rusty, you loved getting off to watching me kill other Liliren. You’re as sick as I was.”
“You wanted to treat us like toys and food and I gave you what you wanted!”
“And I gave you what you wanted.”
“What I wanted was—was—I wanted to watch you, to see you work, to see you play.” He sounded anguished. “We had a beautiful thing and you ruined it!”
“For fuck’s sake, Rusty.” She stomped a foot, and his gaze immediately fell to it, almost lustfully. She snorted. “You wanted death porn with no consequences for you. If that biker had returned with a few other armed Liliren they could have probably killed me, and if they did it with enough style you’d have loved that just as much, wouldn’t you? Don’t get high and mighty with me.” She ran a hand through her hair. “I have somewhere to be and I got sick of playing your games long ago.”
She stepped back and turned around as Rusty started to sob—and nearly stepped on another Liliren, a black-furred woman, staring up at her accusingly. “You killed me, too.”
Arilin set her foot down by the woman.
“Do you even remember?” the mouse challenged her.
“Did you eat me, or step on me, or—”
“I ate you,” Arilin burst out. “I bit you in half. Right?”
“I’m flattered.” She crossed her arms. “What do we do about it?”
“What—what do you expect I can do? You’re already dead. It’s over. You want an apology?”
The mouse woman stared, eyes narrowing.
“Because all of you knew what you were getting into, didn’t you? Breaking into a psychotic Rha’s apartment, trying to steal—”
“No, we didn’t,” the Liliren snapped. “We knew being there wasn’t safe, we were told you were mean, but most of us didn’t realize ‘mean’ meant that if you caught us we’d be lucky if we were bitten in half. Do you know what being stepped on slowly feels like?” She motioned at another mouse walking up. “He does. Do you know what being swallowed whole and digested alive feels like?” Another mouse behind the second. “She does.”
“Look, I’m sorry,” Arilin said. “You know I’ve changed—”
“We don’t care if you change,” the woman said. “We want you to know.”
“I felt my rib cage shatter first,” the second mouse said. “Do you know what that’s like, having bones break, be pushed into your organs, through your skin? I could never have imagined anything that painful. And then it got worse. I just wanted it to end, but you took your time. You were laughing at my screams.”
“It’s not a pool of liquid acid or anything,” the third one said. “It’s thick and sticky goo, and it coats you. You don’t just dissolve. You soften. You can feel it happening. It took—it took—a long time…” She shuddered.
“All right,” Arilin said, voice rising shakily. “I got it.” She took a step forward. Her little accusers didn’t draw back. She stepped again, her foot coming down within a foot of the closest one.
“We want you to know,” the woman said again.
Arilin stared down at her, at all of them. They stared back unblinkingly.
The Rha snarled, and broke into a run, thundering past them.
All the Liliren—even Rusty—started to laugh, but she left the sound behind quickly. Her feet occasionally smashed into buildings as she ran, but she didn’t care now. After about twenty seconds of sprinting, she looked back.
The Liliren followed her. And despite her speed—she’d guess well over a hundred miles an hour—they kept up easily. Maybe they were gaining. She ran faster, but now she could hear the laughter again, behind her. Then beside her. Then above her.
She looked up, startled, but saw nothing. Then it felt like she’d just smacked into a padded wall. Squealing, she staggered back, vision black.
When her sight cleared a moment later, she was staring at a hand. She looked up, up the length of an arm far taller than she was, up at the chest of the black-furred mouse-woman far above, up at the unfriendly eyes. At the teeth. “I’m going to bite you in half,” the giantess said to the small cat.
A huge foot slammed down next to her, and she stumbled back. “I’m going to step on you,” its owner announced.
She backed up hurriedly, and hit something soft. She whirled around to see—lips. And teeth. “I’m going to swallow you whole,” they said softly.
“I think you’ll make a wonderful sex toy,” Rusty’s voice came from high above. “Of course, I can’t put you where you put me, but…”
“If you’re a lot bigger, you can slip her right inside your shaft,” the woman who wanted to swallow her said, voice sounding disturbingly like a purr. “Then I’ll lick you, and wait for her to just be blasted down my throat!”
“That sounds wonderful,” Rusty murmured. “I never got to see you do that with someone, Arilin, but I always wanted to. Didn’t you?”
“Yes,” she answered, then nearly clapped a hand over her mouth. It was, she realized with horror, the truth, but she didn’t want to be engaging these terrible giants in conversation. She wanted to be running.
“I think using you will be even better.” He reached down for her, and she simply watched, paralyzed, screaming at herself to run while remaining motionless.
The black-furred woman leaned over and smiled. Arilin dimly realized, for the first time, the mouse was very pretty. They were all pretty. “You’re not running because you want this,” she whispered. “Predator or prey, it doesn’t matter, does it?”
Arilin tried to force out a no! but it came out as a squeak.
“And you’ve had dreams of it ending this way for you, haven’t you? At the hands of mice. Maybe even our hands.” Rusty’s fingers closed around Arilin as the woman kept speaking. “Maybe even going down my throat.”
The Rha squirmed as she was lifted off her feet, but kept staring, breathing faster. As horrible as the taunting was, she could feel her arousal growing, and when she tried to protest again it sounded more like a moan of longing. The giantess just smiled, widely—a smile of a predator looking forward to toying with her prey until the prey wanted it.
A smile a lot like Arilin’s must have been when she’d killed all of her current tormentors.
Abruptly the stomping giant grabbed Rusty’s hand, and Arilin’s movement jerked to a stop. “I want to step on her!”
“And when do I get to swallow her?”
“We can’t all do that,” the dark woman said. “There’s only one of her, after all, and we only get to use her once.”
“Rusty’s just as much to blame as the little cat is,” the other man snarled. “Why does he get any say in this at all?”
All of them started yelling at one another, then shoving. Arilin squealed, trying to cover her head, feeling less like prey now than a very fragile toy being fought over. Rusty’s grip loosened, and she tumbled against his leg, then landed by his foot. She had just enough presence of mind to see the black woman’s paw coming down right toward her, and rolled fast enough to avoid being flattened by mere inches.
Nobody reached down for her. They were all facing one another, shouting, grappling. But it would likely be a matter of seconds before one of them carelessly stepped on their toy cat—or simply remembered her. She froze another moment, staring up at the dark-furred Liliren in particular. Being hers completely, finally, would be right. Having Rusty please himself with her would be—
Scrambling to her feet, Arilin started to run, faster than she’d ever moved before. This was a myth, she thought furiously. A parable, something. A test. The monsters would just keep fighting amongst themselves and she could outsmart them, or just get away.
She made it about ten yards before the dark-furred woman snatched her up again with a snarl. The mega-giantess hadn’t even had to take a single step herself; she’d just leaned over. “If there’s anything you should know, it’s that the giant always wins,” she spat, and dangled Arilin above her.
Arilin kicked frantically. Stop struggling, she told herself. She’s right. It’s not going to work. But what…
Taking a deep breath, Arilin stopped, looking her huge captor straight in the eye. “You’re right. Eat me.”
The woman blinked, and narrowed her eyes again.
“Eat me,” the Rha repeated. “You’re right. You can do what you want with me.”
“You don’t get to give us permission,” Rusty said accusingly, thrusting his face toward her.
“It’s not permission,” she said softly. “It’s submission. I’m less capable of fighting all of you than you were fighting me. Do you want me to admit it turns me on?”
The dark woman looked nonplussed now.
“C’mon, you said it yourself,” Arilin said, looking at her challengingly. “I always knew some of my prey was turned on by it. And you’re awfully hot.” She looked between the woman and Rusty. “After you do me, you should take over the club I run. Half the patrons would volunteer to have to you torture them to death.”
“Volunteer?” the other woman said incredulously.
“Sure, they come back. It’s just a game.”
“It’s not a game,” the dark woman snarled, shaking the little cat like a feather. “I should just crush—”
“And then what? Would I appear here, in the land of the dead? Would we just take turns killing each other for all eternity? Sounds like a lot of fun, doesn’t it?” Arilin’s voice was rising with temper, and she knew the mouse could crush her like an eggshell, but it didn’t matter now. “Why are you all even here? Isn’t there a heaven or a hell for you to go to?”
After a few moments of silence, the dark woman said, softly, “We’ve been waiting for you.”
“So you could go back to my game? To make it yours? You’re all willing to screw up your own afterlives for the chance to screw up mine?”
“That’s not it!” Rusty said, loudly.
The woman started to squeeze, and Arilin bit back a scream. “Maybe I’ll be big next time,” the Rha wheezed. “You can be a thousand feet high and I can be twenty thousand feet high. Soon we’ll be taking out cities with our feet.”
“Shut up!” the dark woman screamed, and squeezed hard. Arilin shut her eyes, willing herself not to scream.
Then the pressure shifted to Arilin’s leg, not her body. Then that, too, let go.
Arilin opened her eyes, breathing unevenly. The Liliren were all at their normal size, back around her feet, screaming angrily. Then, slowly, they all looked up at her, and started to back away.
The Rha leaned over, still breathing hard. Her ribs hurt. “There’s only one way this ends,” she said hoarsely. “You know how? I walk away, and you walk away.”
“That’s not fair,” Rusty breathed, sounding fearful.
“No,” Arilin said, straightening up and taking a deep, ragged breath. “No, it isn’t.”
She turned around and started walking toward the palace, then risked looking back over her shoulder. The Liliren were gone. Biting her lip once, she picked up her speed.
The palace looked to be another twenty, perhaps twenty-five miles in the distance to her, maybe a half-hour of walking. She took care not to walk through other towns, though, instead simply hurrying past them. Each town looked dramatically different: one modern, very similar to cities in her home country of Stravell or the buildings around the Giants’ Club; one comprised of buildings that would have towered over her, gilded in neon yet somehow looking forlorn more than futuristic; one of curved, crystalline purple and blue structures with mysterious glows and shadows flitting across them.
Finally she came to the shore of a wide river—wide even for her. Across the river lay what she could only presume to be the royal city. Broad black stones paved the roads, coming right up to the water’s edge; the buildings looked immaculate, orange and white marble, large and solid enough that she suspected she’d do more damage to her foot than the structures if she tried to kick at them.
She sighed, sitting down in the sand. While she could swim, she didn’t like to, and she looked bedraggled enough as it was without being dripping wet to boot. And the water looked forbidding, swift, dark and opaque.
“You don’t want to swim it,” a voice said behind her.
She turned, and for a moment she felt like she was looking into an odd mirror: another feline woman, with black fur and red eyes rather than white and blue. Then the differences became clear. The black-furred woman stood more than a head taller, yet she looked like she might be barely seventeen. Stubby horns matched her eye color, and huge black raven wings lay folded behind her. Her face looked subtly birdlike, too, in a way Arilin couldn’t quite define, and the woman’s fingernails looked more like talons than claws. She was unclothed, and strikingly attractive despite the strange combination of features.
“Because you’re a mortal. By the time you get to the other side, you’ll forget why you were here in the first place.”
Arilin nodded slowly. “You’re a demon, aren’t you?”
The woman smiled and ruffled her wings. “That depends on your mythology. But it’s as good a name as any other. I’m called Shyirae.”
“Hello, Arilin.” The demoness sat down beside her. “Mortals aren’t very common here, you know. Everyone’s supposed to be dead already.”
She sighed. “Well, Inanael hangs out at my Club, so I guess it makes sense I’m hanging out at her place. Although I wish I knew what the hell I was supposed to do. No pun intended.”
The demoness tilted her head. “The Lady brought you here? Why?”
“She dropped me off—literally—and told me to meet me at her palace. She didn’t bother to tell me I’d have to talk my way out of being stomped, eaten or used as a sex toy.” She grunted. “Excuse me, they were planning to combine those last two.”
“That would be a stupendously interesting way to die,” Shyirae said with a bright laugh. “But you mean Queen Inanael dropped you off on this side of the river?”
“Yes. I suppose it’s another damn test.” The Rha sighed, resting her head on her knees.
“Or maybe it’s a hint.” The demoness looked thoughtful. “Is there something you’re trying to forget?”
Arilin shook her head. “No. I have a wonderful mate, two good jobs, friends and admirers.”
Shyirae took the Rha’s hand, and the touch prickled, a sharp tingling, like an electric jolt. The Rha tried to pull her hand away, but the demoness held on, closing her eyes.
“What are you doing?” Arilin said sharply.
“Looking into your mind,” Shyirae replied, opening her red eyes again and releasing the cat.
“What—” Arilin stared. “You don’t have any right to just—”
Shyirae lifted her eyebrows, and spoke almost affectionately, as if she were explaining the obvious to a stubborn child. “I’m a demon, and you’re a mortal in my land, Arilin. I can take any liberties I want with you.”
Arilin crossed her arms, drawing away and glowering.
“Although I see I’ve touched a nerve. You have to deal with many people who can take any liberties they want with you, don’t you?”
Arilin’s ears folded back. “That’s part of my job,” she muttered. “It’s not exactly news.”
“But it’s quite a shift. The mice you met on the way here wanted to turn the tables on you now because in their mortal lives, they couldn’t. Where you grew up, you had all the power.”
“Like I said, that isn’t exactly news,” Arilin said, sighing softly.
“I can’t imagine you enjoy being average at best.” Shyirae raised a hand at Arilin’s look, heading off the retort. “Don’t misunderstand; you’re an attractive woman. But I mean… you told Queen Inanael yourself that what you lack now is control, yes? There are so many other giants more powerful than you, even many people smaller than you who are, and many of the small ones who don’t have overt power still cheat death, denying you even that amount of control.” The demoness sighed sadly. “I can’t imagine what that must be like for you.”
“You get used to it.” Arilin looked away, staring at the river.
“You don’t have to go back to that, you know. To being overpowered by some and fetishized by others.”
“I want to—”
“To what?” Shyirae said, more sharply. “Have people throw themselves at your feet hoping you step on them so they can bounce back like rubber balls? Hoping that those who can prey on you find you amusing enough that they won’t kill you, or that they’ll at least bring you back to life if they do so you can go through another round? How many times has that already happened to you?”
“None,” Arilin snapped. Then she rested her head on her knees again, adding more softly, “That I know of.”
Shyirae shook her head again. “If you want, you can go anywhere else. There are countless other places you could set yourself up as a goddess.”
“Because I wouldn’t have people with your kind of power sitting next to me.”
“Exactly,” the demoness said, not sounding at all offended. “I know of some wonderful medieval towns—I bet you could have your own castle built, with hundreds of little servants attending to your every whim. All the food you want, including prisoners. Who you could use for… other purposes.” Shyirae licked her lips thoughtfully. “I have to admit you’ve had some marvelously wicked ideas, haven’t you?”
The Rha laughed, ears coloring. “I won’t say it’s not appealing imagery, in a perverse way. But I wouldn’t be happy that way. There’s far too much I’d miss.”
Rising to her feet, Shyirae stepped to the river, knelt, then dipped her cupped hands in the water. Despite the river’s blackness, the water itself looked clear and pure.
“You don’t miss what you don’t remember,” she whispered, holding the water out to Arilin.
A thirst beyond the physical grew rapidly in Arilin, and she closed her eyes, breathing deeply a few moments. “I’m not going to drink that and forget… everything.”
“You’ll remember some things. You just won’t remember anything that’s painful.”
Opening her eyes, she met Shyirae’s. “Thank you. But no.”
They continued to look at one another for long seconds, the demoness’ smile slowly fading. “You may never get this opportunity again.”
“What you’re offering would take away memories I need to be whole.”
Shyirae’s expression became a decided frown, almost a snarl. Then she let the water trickle slowly out of her hands, soaking back into the soil between them. “I’m not often rejected.”
“You’re a beautiful woman,” Arilin said with a nervous laugh. “And nobody wants to make someone who can turn them into a pile of ash really angry.”
“No,” the demoness agreed, leaning forward. Arilin leaned back reflexively. “That would just send someone’s soul here.” She leaned forward even farther, until Arilin couldn’t lean back without toppling over. “Unless I ate their soul. Then they’d be gone forever.”
“I hope you only do that to people who really deserve it,” the Rha said, voice squeaking.
Shyirae kept her eyes fixed on Arilin’s for another few long seconds, then abruptly rose to her feet, laughing. “There’s only one thing to do now.” She leaned over and picked the Rha up effortlessly. “Carry you across the river.”
“Don’t argue with me, Arilin,” the demoness said, crouching on the bank and spreading her wings. “We’ve already been over the part about you not being able to stop me from doing what I want.” She leapt powerfully up into the air, then drifted down in a glide to the other bank.
“Right,” Arilin said, hanging on until she was set back down on her feet.
“Come on,” Shyirae said, taking the cat’s hand and heading down the avenue toward the palace. They dwarfed the buildings, but no one seemed panicked by their presence—although they kept a respectful distance. “I don’t have time to take any other liberties with you today, I’m afraid.”
“Are you being as suggestive as I think you are?”
Another little electric jolt went through Arilin, and the demoness laughed. “Oh, I’m sure we could do a lot more than that. You have some really fascinating fantasies.” They’d reached a high iron fence, nearly as tall as they were; the road continued past it, through a curious courtyard devoid of trees and life, the lawn only multi-colored stones. Shyirae hurried along, all but dragging Arilin behind her.
“Are you sure you’re not a succubus?”
“That depends on your mythology,” Shyirae said over her shoulder, flashing a smoldering smile that could make monks who’d taken vows of celibacy hurl themselves off cliffs.
They reached the palace’s entrance. A huge bronze door lay before her, two rabbit guards—not giant to her, but over her knee height—standing to either side. They looked up at Arilin, nodded to one another, and the door began to slowly swing open of its own accord.
“Good luck,” Shyirae said, releasing Arilin’s hand.
“Thank you.” Arilin gestured back toward the river. “And… thank you, Shyirae.”
The demoness beamed. “I’ll see you again sometime, I know.”
“Maybe so, but if we meet in my land, you don’t get to just automatically take liberties with me,” Arilin said with a grin.
Shyirae clasped her hands together and giggled. “It’s so cute you think that!” She blew Arilin a kiss, and headed down the steps.
“Oh boy,” Arilin muttered under her breath, smiling in spite of herself. Then she walked through the doorway.
A long, grand hall lay in front of her. Chandeliers hung from a ceiling that seemed high even to her, and gas lamps along the walls provided further illumination, but the air was nonetheless dim. The walls were orange marble streaked with white; the floor, basalt rock, with elaborate patterns inlaid in ivory. People hurried up and down its length, none of them shorter than Arilin’s knee, some taller than Shyirae had been. As she walked toward a second set of great doors at its end, each paw-step echoed dully.
Without prompting, the guards at the inner doors stepped aside, and those doors swung open as well. As soon as she stepped past them, they closed behind her.
The room beyond had the same formal austerity as the entrance hall, and the same orange marble walls; the floor had become black marble veined with orange, matching vast black columns stretching to the ceiling. Tapestries hung along the side walls, and Arilin glanced at them as she walked in slowly. One depicted a barren wintry forest, another the ruins of a temple, a third an expansive cemetery. Directly in front of Arilin lay a long, low stone slab; beyond that, an ivory throne, elegant but with no hint of unnecessary opulence. On the throne sat Inanael.
“Sit in front of me,” the rabbit said without preamble. “I shall tell you what must be done to correct imbalance in the cycles of life and death in your world.”
After a moment, Arilin nodded, kneeling at the throne’s feet and looking up.
“Someone must have the power to force those she chooses back into the cycle.” The rabbit leaned forward. “If she kills someone who would return through their own device, she can prevent that. She can return them to me.” She lifted Arilin’s chin up with a claw, and drew the claw of another hand across the Rha’s cheek. “That someone is you.”
“You’re… giving me power over life and death?” she said blankly.
“I am merely restoring the power you once had over it.”
“Merely,” Arilin echoed, incredulous. “I can’t take this. I mean—I can’t do it. I can’t kill someone who expects to come back and prevent them from doing so.”
“You can,” Inanael said simply. “Whether you do is not important. The potential alone is enough.” She rose. “But now it is time for you to return home.”
Arilin remained at the rabbit’s feet, looking up. “What happens when I die, then? Are the mice still waiting for me?”
“Their task here was to let go of you. It remains to be seen what your task shall be.” Inanael began to walk away, motioning for the Rha to follow.
Arilin stood, and cleared her throat as she hurried after. “I’m still not sure I understand. But thank you. Not for the power as much as… for the trust.”
Inanael smiled slightly, and opened the throne room door. Outside Arilin saw not the rest of the palace, but the road to Lazy Creek, to the Giants’ Club in the distance.
On the threshold, the Rha paused again, and looked back at the goddess. “Do you know how everyone dies? I mean, being… what you are.”
“The future is not preordained. But you may say that I know probabilities for all beings.”
“So if I asked you what the most probable way I’ll die is, you would say…” the Rha prompted as she stepped through the doorway.
“Interestingly,” Inanael replied, closing the door behind the cat. The palace faded away, leaving Arilin alone on the dirt road, only a faint smell of brimstone out of place.
After another few moments, Arilin laughed, straightening her clothes and heading toward the club.