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Nessa-Cthoney’s long golden-green hair went flying back in the storm winds, as flames that had nothing to do with the torches flickering nearby glowed in her eyes like burning embers.
Lightning flashed and glinted over the Death’s Head pin in the witch doctress’s hand as it hovered over the ragged-trousered voodoo doll of the man known as Nemo.
Nessa’s hands twitched like a gunslinger’s, even though she had no guns at her belt, a suggestion of flame and blue lightning flickering at her fingertips.
She stepped forward.
* * *
Vexila, the witch doctress, took a step back. Even in the flaming torchlight, a few cracks seemed to be showing through her mask-like beauty. Even so, her face spread into a slow smile. ‘Not another step …’
‘Let the boy go,’ said Cthoney’s smoky-lava-and-thunderstorm voice, bubbling up past Nessa’s lips. ‘Or I will destroy you.’
‘That’s what you think,’ said Vexila, stepping slowly backwards all the while. She let a trickle of magic lace her voice as it drifted towards Nessa’s ears. (She remembered pulling the same trick, oh these centuries before now – as a girl slid to the floor, a poison apple rolling away from her hand).
‘But how willing,’ she went on, ‘is the girl whose eyes you hide behind to watch him die? Does she know what will happen when this particular pin goes through his heart?’
Vexila’s smile deepened as she saw the fear flicker among the flames in those still all-too-mortal eyes. ‘They won’t even find enough to bury him. So, I’m warning you – not another step …’
* * *
Nessa-Cthoney glanced down at her hands, wreathed in flame and lightning. She found her head rising of its own accord, the fire inside her boiling into an inferno, all the while the part of her that was still Nessa screamed inside in protest: What was happening? Stop! She’ll kill him!
The Cthoney side shook her head. Why was everything so confusing? Why couldn’t she think straight— She took another step forward, slowly and deliberately.
—Overhead, the Death’s Head cloud that had been making its way across the sky all evening thundered, its eye sockets illuminated by lightning altogether colder than the surrounding storm—
The needle twitched, plunging into the voodoo doll’s shoulder. The real Nemo, hanging unconscious from the stake, jerked suddenly, his shirt blossoming a bright liquid red.
* * *
Nessa looked round in panic, the certainty draining right out of her along with the flame and lightning at her fingertips. She’d seen the look that passed across the unconscious Nemo’s face. She could see the blood seeping through his shirt from his shoulder.
Part of her – the part that had suddenly found itself the avatar of a recently reawakened volcano goddess – wanted to hurl a fireball at that witch that would leave her a greasy patch of smoke on the ground, or a lightning bolt as would blast her all the way into the volcano— But now she was back in control of her own head, she—
She realised she’d taken another step forward.
The needle flickered in the witch doctress’s hand again.
Nemo’s unconscious body jerked forward on the stake with a muffled scream, as blood showed through by his other shoulder.
—Up overhead, only partly visible through a large hole in the pavilion roof, the Death’s Head cloud seemed to be grinning. Was that lightning in its eyes tinged with red of a sudden?—
The pin’s sharp, glinting point hovered once again over the Nemo-doll’s chest, just over his heart.
She stopped. The part of her that was still Nessa taking over again. If the Cthoney part of her sent a fireball at the witch doctress while she was holding a voodoo doll of Nemo, it could kill him too. (Never mind that there was also a voodoo doll of Nessa still somewhere about the witch doctress’s person. Would it still work now that she and Cthoney seemed to be walking about in the same body? Maybe it would just kill the Nessa part of her … And after that, what was left?)
Through it all, though, through the noise of the storm, her supernaturally enhanced senses kept trying to tell her she could hear something. Like a kind of … nibbling?
* * *
What looked like a charred bundle of feathers (which wasn’t far off) bit into the tough vine-like rope round Nemo’s feet again, sawing at them with its beak.
Tell ya what (thought Feathers, talking parrot extraordinaire), storming in on a bolt of lightning as a volcano goddess’s bird avatar’s carry-on luggage was no fun at all …
He looked down at his handiwork. Frayed and just about holding, but the kid could kick through that when he woke up. Better get to work on the ropes around his hands, while there was still time. Those voodoo curses could be nasty …
He fluttered up as stealthily as he could manage and grabbed on to what would turn out to be Nemo’s wrist. A little scrabbling around to get a firm hold (that shirt needed mending anyway – and those sooty claw marks? Those’ll brush right out …) and set his aching beak to work again.
C’mon … just a little more time …
* * *
‘Wait,’ said Nessa, speaking in a far more ordinary voice than Cthoney’s smoky-lava and rolling-thunder tones. In fact, in her own voice. ‘I’ll do what you want’ – she forced her hands down to her sides and willed the fire to go out – ‘please, don’t hurt him anymore.’
Vexila’s eyes gleamed. ‘So glad you’ve decided to listen to reason,’ she said. ‘Now, you see that path?’ She pointed to a steep rocky path that wound up towards a platform hanging over the edge of the volcano. ‘Start walking.’
Inside her head, the Cthoney part of her, confused and oddly tearful, raged at her to turn around and take her chances.
Quiet, she sent back, tears rolling down her cheeks. I can’t let her hurt him.
She silenced the response that came back before it could reach her mental ears, blocking it out.
She probably wasn’t thinking straight, but she couldn’t see another way out. The witch doctress could put a needle through that doll’s heart – and Nemo’s – before she could even get close.
Nemo had been willing to fight for her when she was caught helpless – well, so could she.
‘Oh, dearie,’ called the witch doctress as Nessa started to turn. ‘I almost forgot. Catch!’
Nessa only just caught what proved to be an apple. It was red, but with an eerie pink glow surrounding it. Somewhere inside, something went numb as it touched her hand. Like a memory from another lifetime.
‘When you get to the edge of the platform over the lava,’ said the witch doctress, ‘take a bite – and get ready to go swimming.’
Nessa kept a tight hold of the poison apple and forced herself to turn towards the path leading up the slope. Rain lashed down over her, the wind blew at her hair, and she was half soaked before she’d gone half a dozen paces.
She paused a moment and whispered something that was caught only by the wind and lost amid the sounds of the storm and the rumblings of the volcano.
Head held high, Nessa walked towards the fire …
* * *
That’d have to do, thought Feathers, scrabbling up Nemo’s back. No time for anything else. Almost didn’t matter if anyone saw him now
A sooty parrot’s-head shape appeared over Nemo’s shoulder and started murmuring close to his ear.
Thank goodness the witch doctress was too busy staring gloating after toots to think any other pieces on the board might still be in play.
* * *
The path wound its twisting way up the mountainside towards the lake of glowing lava.
She could still feel the fire in her veins, still feel the lingering presence of Cthoney, still feel the fire in her mind, overruling her judgement and her ability to think much about anything or even feel what was going on.
Was this it? One last long hot bath and then goodnight? There had to be a way – had to be …
She numbly forced her uncooperative legs to take a step further along the winding path.
‘Good,’ said the witch doctress. ‘Now when you reach the platform, do you know what I want you to do? Raise your arms above your head, crouch back, and get ready to do a graceful swan dive. Who knows, you might not even feel a thing …’
‘Nessa!’ shouted a voice over the storm, ‘don’t—’
A man screamed.
Nessa looked back. Nemo was awake – and he was loose (and her heart soared). He had both hands gripping the witch doctress’s wrists, keeping that demon pin away from the voodoo doll – but there was blood showing through his right sleeve – and his arm was shaking.
She started back down the path, but she was having trouble maintaining control. Her hair was crackling out behind her as if lightning was running through it and her eyes were developing a deep smouldery glow. Her body seemed to be taking orders from someone not quite her—
‘I will rend you to pieces,’ came the lava-and-lightning voice of Cthoney once again.
Nessa, her thoughts suddenly speeding up even as time slowed down, thoroughly approved of this sentiment.
The bit of her that was still Nessa, however, seeing the witch doctress’s momentary distraction, added a twist of her own: She drew back in a pitcher’s crouch and let fly with the poison apple—
—she cheered inside as it hit the back of the witch doctress’s head with a satisfyingly distracting smack!—
—even as she started running with all her might back down the slope.
She’d seen how much blood was pouring down Nemo’s shirt.
* * *
By the time she got there, Nemo was on his knees, trying to keep the witch doctress from bringing the pin back to the voodoo doll. There was blood pouring down his arms. Guess the witch doctress must have managed to get a couple more jabs in.
Almost there …—
—Vexila sent Nemo falling back with a twisting kick to his wounded chest, bringing the hand with the pin round in one hideously graceful motion.
From out of Nessa’s mouth, both she and Cthoney screamed – as the Death’s Head pin went straight through the Nemo-doll’s chest …
… Time slowed almost to a stop …
—She couldn’t look. She couldn’t watch—
Nessa felt the Cthoney side taking over with a vengeance, burning fury running through her. She found herself smoking, as flames licked around her hands. And …—
—Should that voodoo doll be glowing like that … ?—
A soft golden glow had wrapped itself around the Nemo-doll. The witch doctress just stared at it for a moment, even as she drew out the little voodoo doll of Nessa from earlier, fumbling for another pin. It too was glowing, except mixed among the gold was a flaming fiery red and a crackle of blue lightning.
It was kind of hard to make out what happened next, as fire spread across her vision, but she thought she caught a glimpse of golden flames wrapping their way around the Death’s Head pin through the Nemo-doll’s heart and—
—The explosion sent her sprawling—
* * *
… Drifting through the dark, floating, whirling. Landing heavily. Then the blackness seemed to fade into light – soft, dim pinkish light. Thump-thump.
Nessa blinked. The fingers of one hand glistened translucent and silvery for a moment. She blinked again and her hand was back to normal. Thump-thump.
What was going on?
She was on a sort of balcony at the top of a swirling double staircase, looking out over the most magnificent hall. It was like a ballroom out of a fairy tale. For a moment she just looked around, open-mouthed.
Then she noticed the dress.
It was beautiful … It was about the most beautiful dress she’d ever seen. And she was wearing it. She ought to be able to find words to describe it – the colours, the way it flowed, the way it fitted like a glove … anything. She couldn’t, though. To try to describe it would be … Thump-thump.
And now she thought about it what was that noise? Thump-thump.
Her eyes went back to the dress again as she caught a glimpse of herself in a mirror.
Apparently, she was wearing makeup. A lot of makeup – in a way, it was ridiculous. She’d never really thought about it before, how silly – how odd – a lot of makeup really was. She looked like Nessa the Clown, practically. But this was … she looked so glamorous, and …
… Wait a minute, though, she thought – this wasn’t real, was it? A sick feeling rose up in her stomach. This isn’t who I am. This isn’t who Nemo thought I was. He cared when I was wearing sea boots and baggy clothes, and when the nearest thing I’d had to a bath, let alone makeup, was managing to make bath bombs explode. (Which wasn’t as silly as it sounded, all right?) Looking like this, he probably wouldn’t even know it was me …
… A sentimental smile drifted across her face: Nemo was a nice kid. She didn’t know anyone she’d ever met who … And then it hit her, like ice running down the back of this stupid dress: Was …
The ballroom seemed to fade away, till she was standing in blackness again. Even the silence seemed to grow quieter … thump-thump, the beat came as if from a long, long way away … thump-thu— …
She was alone, in the darkness. The beautiful dress was gone, and she was back in just her ordinary shirt and breeches and sea boots. She was willing to bet that all that makeup was gone too. Somehow, she felt happier knowing that.
It was odd, alone in the blackness, with just light enough to see in front of her face, but nothing all around her. Footsteps sounded in the darkness – she tensed, ready for anything …
… Except that: Nemo stepped out of the darkness.
Thump-thump went her heart. Thump-thump.
Nemo was dressed … a little differently.
As he got nearer, he looked at her, wide-eyed, as if stunned to find her there. ‘Nessa?‘
‘Nemo? Look, I’m sorry, I’m sure this was going to be a nice dream and all but, I’ve got to—’
Before she knew what was happening, Nemo had pulled her into a hug. (What had gotten into him?) But somehow, it felt strangely comforting in the circumstances. In fact, it felt … real?
‘Wait – Nemo? Is this … Is that really you?’ She looked at him as if not daring to believe her eyes. ‘But there was an explosion, and …’
Nemo stood back again. He put his hands on her shoulders, and looked her straight in the eye. Then, apparently, he realised what he was doing and drew back, blushing absolutely crimson.
It was Nemo, all right … (Thump-thump.)
‘Did you … did you come to say goodbye … ?’ Why wouldn’t he hold still? He kept going all wet and blurry.
‘Nessa,’ said Nemo, urgently. ‘There’s something’ – his voice seemed to vanish into strange wobbling echoes – ‘… got to tell you—‘
There was sort of long echoing tinging sound, and a whooshing sound like of something going by, and … wheels? And then Nemo was fading, being drawn back into the blackness.
‘Please, don’t go – not yet …’ She reached out a hand towards him and … Blackness … Endless blackness … Thu- … -mp- … -thu—
* * *
Her head was spinning and she felt sick.
When she was able to look up again, Nessa felt as if someone had stabbed her through the heart: She saw smoke still not quite clearing, and dust in great clouds, mixing with the pouring rain and wind of the storm. The explosion had brought down most of the great stone pavilion. Golden dust spilled down from amid the smoke and sparkled quite prettily over the rubble for a moment as it settled. Even the rain seemed to be having trouble washing it away.
Felt numb. Everything felt numb …
It’s hard being a girl split, so to speak, into two halves. Two different sides warring for control. Being in two minds is one thing, being two minds (and probably more) in one being just now was more than anyone might bargain for.
The Nessa side blinked through a blurring haze. The remaining torches under the surviving edges and corners of the pavilion seemed like a smudged glow amid the smoking ruins.
Along with the numbness, there was a great wrenching pain somewhere around gut level, running through to her heart and sending all her senses into a comatose sleep.
An echo of the Cthoney side, though, was linking up with the Nessa side in a great fiery burst of supernatural strength that tied in nicely with Nessa’s own self. She pushed forward and started pulling at the rubble, frantically trying to remember where Nemo had been standing in relation to the confused mounds of stone and wood – all the while trying to work out what just happened.
Was he— No, don’t even think that. But, could he … still be alive? What happens when a voodoo doll explodes? Does it kill the person it was made as an image of? She appeared to still be here, but then she had a volcano goddess inhabiting her head, along with everything that came with that.
Was there even anything left of Nemo? Was he just a pile of golden dust mixed with a thousand tons of rubble?
And another thought, inappropriately nagging at her: Don’t get her wrong, the supernatural strength was coming in handy just now, but she couldn’t help but notice that she felt – fire and flame running through her veins and mind aside – rather more like her old self, and as if Cthoney wasn’t much to be seen, even if still vividly felt as a presence.
Had the exploding voodoo doll done something there, too? Half killed her, almost? Was she going to be stuck with a little fragment of Cthoney’s spirit (along with whoever else had come along for the ride) forever?
And why was she even worrying about this right now?
Probably to stop from thinking about what you’re going to find under there, said a little voice in a distant, dark, and echoey corner of her mind. Or not find under there, as the case may be.
It’s not as if you’ve known him very long, or all that well, said a different voice – one that Nessa would cheerfully strangle if she could get her hands on it.
I do, too, she sent back. Don’t try and tell me my own mind. Not in my own damn head, too. I know who I am, and I know who he is. And then she wondered where that thought had come from.
A wave of lava spilled over the side of the volcano in the background, glowing red and gold and hissing with steam in the storm. Nessa didn’t care. This was more important right now …
* * *
Death hovered close at hand, amid the rolling white mists. Contrary to custom, she drew back the hood on her midnight cloak, her long red hair spilling out carelessly on the wind that wasn’t there. Except, spilling out not in the happy carefree way of before but in the way of one who, despite her profession, is having to bite down on her lip and blink really, really hard to stop the sparkle in her eyes spilling down over her cheeks.
Hovering over the eternal mists, just lying there floating, was someone — well, she knew she was going — that is to say, she’d suspected she was going to be seeing him again, only she’d thought it would be more regularly, given the kind of adventures he looked set to be having — and not for the last time for quite some time.
She sighed and knelt down beside the floating ghost-body, its eyes staring up into the ether. Here in the mists — well, just where the Mists were at any particular time was complicated. Occasionally a bit to the side or above would clear and you could be looking out just about anywhere. Right now, there were stars swirling by silently as they moved through space.
Death raised her scythe — drew back her hand — and opened it. The scythe faded back like smoke. She reached down and straightened the spirit-Nemo’s shirt on him and patted his shoulder a little. Most people don’t see Death enough to get to know her, let alone to be something like a friend …
She glanced up again. She should be doing her job, but she had time. Sometimes she had nothing else. Just worlds and worlds of time. Time enough, anyway.
‘You might like this,’ she said, smiling, reaching down and brushing a stray hair out of the way of his eye, before pointing to a tartan patch of stars through the mists. ‘That’s the Och Aye Nebula. It’s someplace far away from here. I like the way you get those bands of different-coloured light running through each other. See the red, and yellow, and white, and little bits of green and blue and …’ She felt the coloured lights blurring in front of her eyes. ‘Oh … why couldn’t you have been more careful,’ said Death, bringing a clutch of midnight fabric up over her eyes.
The ghost Nemo floated, almost oblivious, watching the tartan stars go by …
He felt like someone was calling him.
Nemo! … Nemo! … Where are you …
But still other voices, nearer to, reached out to him:
Nemo … Ne-mo …
Around him, something crackled gold as he faded from view.
* * *
The sea fog rose over the shore. The waves lapped against the sand. There was a girl standing a little way away. He could just make her out through the mists, her hair tied back. There was a circlet resting in it. Like a plain band of silver.
He got up off the wet sand and tried to get his balance. He felt a bit woozy for some reason. All this shifting about.
The girl turned at the sound, her cloak swirling behind her. She smiled when she saw him. ‘I’ve been waiting for you,’ she said, moving towards him. Nemo wondered if the ground was uneven as she—
A little way off the ground, the Amazon’s ghost ended in ragged trail of spectral absence.
The Amazon paused, looked down, and blushed. She closed her eyes and focused for a moment and her legs faded back out of the trail along with the rest of her. ‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I’ve been out here so long and … you know, sometimes you find yourself sort of drifting.’ She concentrated some more and appeared to come back into focus.
As she did so, Nemo found himself light-headedly noticing things. Like the way that even in death, life seemed to shine out of the spirit in front of him.
Then she strode purposefully towards him and pulled him into a hug.
Nemo felt a kiss on his cheek that was somehow simultaneously both cold and filled with warmth. He also felt … tears?
When the Amazon stepped back, her eyes were indeed sparkling with teardrops. ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ she said self-consciously, ‘where are my manners … I’m Cora … You don’t know me, probably, but … I feel like I know you …’ A spectral hand reached out and touched his face—
—A flash of golden fire. Nessa, clawing through rubble, then … a memory … Not his, but … A girl, sleeping by a fireside. Other Amazons around her, in deep hooded cloaks. The girl asleep by the fire looked sort of like Cthoney … except different and … sort of familiar?—
‘Her name was Anaya,’ Cora explained. ‘Is Anaya. She wasn’t with us for long but—‘
There was a soft metallic sound in the mists. Nemo turned to find a sword point hovering at his throat, eerily still and steady.
Another figure peered out from under a hood.
‘Kyra, stop that. He … he helped Anaya.’
The sword-point slowly withdrew. There was another soft metally sound as it was sheathed. The newcomer drew back her hood, to reveal long flowing black hair, and eyes like burning obsidian, glaring at him. ‘Why should I trust you?’ she said, voice cold and withdrawn.
‘Kyra,’ said Cora, softly, laying a reassuring hand on her shoulder, ‘he fought the witch doctress. He fought Vexila.’
‘Oh.’ Kyra twirled a finger awkwardly through a stray tress of her striking black hair. ‘I guess he got it like you did, then …’ She turned quickly and stalked back off into the mists.
Cora smiled sadly. ‘I took Anaya’s loss kind of hard. Those were dark times and … Anaya was like a ray of sunshine into our world. She was my friend,’ she added simply.
Nemo saw that even Cora’s face hardened as she continued.
‘I declared all-out war on Vexila after that. We’d been fighting hard anyway, doing what we could to stop her … but we’d been losing … losing friends …’ Teardrops flowed unashamedly down Cora’s face. ‘I got reckless. I went in on my own, tried to put an arrow through her. They caught me … We vow never to let ourselves be taken alive, but I wasn’t watching carefully enough, wasn’t thinking and …’
Nemo felt a tear starting down his cheek.
‘They tried to rescue me, the others, but Vexila seized her chance. By the time they got there, it was just about too late. I don’t think Kyra ever forgave me for that … You can’t do what we do and not care about your friends. I guess I let it get the better of me. I promised I’d look after her, you see … I promised …’
Nemo looked at her – and felt an overwhelming sense of anger. He could feel what had happened to the girl in front of him like it had happened to him. Vexila had thrown her to the lava after—
‘It’s so hard to remember sometimes …’ said Cora, as if looking deep within. She seemed to drift out of focus for a moment, and then she was back. ‘I’ve been … waiting here … so long … ‘May I … call you Nemo? I’m sorry,’ she said — Nemo saw her eyes filling with tears — ‘Please, can you — can you …’
Nemo found himself instinctively stepping forward and drawing her into a hug. Cora rested her head against shoulder gratefully as her own shoulders shook. ‘I waited so long … I promised I’d look after her – I promised …’
Some things don’t need saying, don’t need analysing. They just are.
‘It’s all right. It’s all right … got all the time in the world …’ It seemed funny to him as he said it, but it also seemed oddly true. Maybe he did have all the time in the world …
He found a tear-streaked face looking up at him. Some things don’t need saying.
He also realised, he was blushing – and he wasn’t the only one who was blushing. Nemo found himself saying, ‘Is there … is there anything I can do?’
‘Besides this?’ said Cora’s voice. ‘Yes … there is something. But for now you’re—’ She looked around. Nemo was gone. Like he’d just faded into the mist. ‘—doing it …’ she said. She looked around, sniffling as she brought her hand up to wipe her eyes. ‘Thank you,’ she said to the air. ‘Whoever you are …’
* * *
Nemo faded back into view among the mists. His eyes widened.
‘Now, wait a minute, buster—‘ said Death, her hand reaching out to him – and passing through empty air. She snapped her fingers and sighed. ‘You’re not making this easy, you know …’
She snapped her fingers again and faded from view herself.
Up above, the stars of the Och Aye Nebula twinkled in a tartan glow, flowing into the constellations shining around it. There were quite a lot of them visible at the moment. Except they didn’t quite look like the constellations back in the “real” world, where you had to join the dots yourself.
These stars moved, refracted beams of light shining off them in curious ways so that you could see the figures they described. In such a way as would have any poor astrologer shaking his head — and handing Nemo his horoscope with a sad sigh and a wince …
* * *
As Nemo came back into focus, he found himself back in the garden from before.
Cthoney was still there, but he was having trouble focusing on her as she stepped towards him. From somewhere she’d got a vast feathered costume more like the one she’d been wearing when she’d emerged from the tunnels, and she seemed taller. Fiery outlines moved like trails of light behind her, describing shapes like wings, or someone reaching out from within.
Then her chest started glowing. A large glowing shape about where her heart would be, flowing outwards.
There was a whoosh and then a thump as Cthoney flew backwards and landed on the ground.
Fluttering in front of him was a bird, fluttering and floating lightly on the air, its feathers a coruscating glow of red and golden and yellow and white. Though it seemed to Nemo there also crackled in among there a little bit of lightning and storm blue.
Cthoney got up again, only this time the outline of a person, slightly smaller than her shone through. ‘Oh, not again …‘
She went rocketing back and landed heavily against the tree with the different-coloured blossoms. A bunch of them floated down on top of her as she looked up with a rueful smile – and a wince.
As Cthoney got up, stretching her back, a girl stood where she’d been standing, a little way behind the phoenix.
‘Finally,’ she said, as she stepped back towards Nemo.
The phoenix stretched its wings and did a little loop the loop on the spot. ‘It does feel good to be able to move about again,’ it said.
‘Where — where am I?’ said the girl. Then she spotted Nemo. ‘You!’
‘Ah, there you are …’
‘Why’s he backing away like that?’ said the phoenix. ‘What’s the matter, boy. Haven’t you ever heard a bird talk before?’
Nemo faded from view.
‘I don’t know,’ said the phoenix. ‘Here today, gone tomorrow. These young people just don’t stand still anymore.’
Cthoney, now that she was separate from Anaya again looked rather different. Like the appearance of the two had been combined when they shared a form, both having also something less of the phoenix.
The volcano goddess smiled ruefully at Nemo’s fading form for a moment. ‘I guess we’ll see you when you fade back round again,’ she said.
She turned towards Anaya, who seemed to be having trouble. ‘It’s all right, my dear. It’ll take some getting used to. Why not have a walk among the flowers there. I’m sure our friend will be back in a moment …‘
* * *
‘There you are!’ said Cora, smiling and stepping towards him. ‘I wondered where you’d gone. Are you all right?’ she added. ‘You look quite blurry.’
‘… be all right …’ he said. ‘Just need to … catch my … breath …’
Nemo looked around. The sea fog had cleared quite a bit, and he could now see a lot more of the beach as well as the water. He could hear rowing in the distance, as a long war canoe that seemed to have something of a longship about it sailed through the mists.
* * *
Getting your head straight can be difficult at the best of times, let alone under rather trying circumstances – and not to mention when you happen to have been sharing headspace between three people. Well, one human, a goddess, and a magical phoenix. But that was three enough for anybody. Or any head – sort of.
Cthoney, being the goddess end of the equation, had found it particularly trying. Feeling neither one thing nor the other, particularly with how phoenix and goddess and then goddess and human mixed. Or, if not quite mixed, then sort of … it was mind-numbing even thinking about it.
Things had certainly gotten very confused for a while there.
And when you added in the influence of that witch doctress’s spells – Cthoney shuddered, as if reliving things she’d rather not remember – it had been a long time since she had been properly awake. Since she’d actually felt alive.
She wasn’t there yet, but the difference alone made her feel like a new woman – albeit a semi-divine one.
Trouble was, like a lot of people who found themselves in these crazy islands, she almost wasn’t sure who she was anymore.
Taken together, all these things combined had probably made her … well, admittedly somewhat erratic, lately.
She picked up a fallen rainbow-coloured blossom off the ground and twirled it in her fingers. At least she was no longer incinerating everything she touched, though this … between-world, so to speak, was a little different than the other end. She sniffed at the flower and then smiled, threading it in among her hair. There were more fallen blossoms. So she enjoyed picking each one up, drinking in the scent, and plaiting it in among the others.
Being a goddess sometimes isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Sometimes it’s nice just to get to be human, so to speak, to let your hair down and, if the fancy strikes you, wear flowers in it.
Cthoney had a pretty good sense of what was going on, time-streams-wise, and besides, she had kind of a feel for things like this. She was content to just take a moment while she may, while time was running slower than a tortoise through treacle and— She noticed the phoenix flutter up alongside her.
‘My Lady,’ said the phoenix, formally, ‘would you mind awfully if I joined you?’
Cthoney smiled softly. ‘Not at all, my old friend. And there’s no need for the “My Lady” business. I think the two of us can dispense with all that …’
The phoenix smiled and landed next to her with a swish of tail feathers. ‘Nice place, this. Where is it, exactly, do you know?’
Cthoney just smiled and looked up at the stars. She raised the blossom in her hand, holding it up into the wind, then released it from her fingertips, where it was caught on the wind. The wind wafted it up high towards the stars, as the phoenix’s eyes followed it. Past the great twisting tree, where birds with many-coloured feathers and long curving beaks laughed among changing coloured blossoms and fruits. ‘Consider the stars, now,’ she said, and smiled. ‘I’m not sure exactly where we are … but the stars – the stars here are … interesting …’
The phoenix looked up. The sky was odd here. You could almost feel like the sun was shining, and yet it merged into curious sort of half twilight. The different constellations drifting in out of view depending on how you squinted.
* * *
Beneath stranger stars than those, Nemo watched the longship-canoe drift in towards the beach. Cora stood next to him. ‘I guess I’ve always wondered,’ she said, ‘what comes next … I guess it’s almost time I find out …’ She looked up at him. ‘Tell you the truth, I’m a little nervous. I … I haven’t always – I always tried, you know. But I’ve done things … things I’m not proud of. Things I’m ashamed of. I’ve messed up, fouled up, any way you care to mention. I always tried … But now … I don’t know, I—’ She looked at him. ‘I’m afraid … I’ve never been afraid in my life … and I’m afraid now … I don’t want to go …’
Cora had just kind of drifted back into a hug, and Nemo held her close. ‘Shh. It’s all right. It’s all right …’
‘Please don’t tell anyone. I’d die if anyone saw me like … But I’m … I’m already— I didn’t want to die, Nemo … I didn’t want to die … I wanted to get married … I wanted to be a mother … And now … I’ll never get to be …’ She looked at him, almost as if she wasn’t able to believe what she was telling him, but as if she needed to say it. ‘Please … you won’t tell anyone I—’
‘Not a soul,’ he said, looking her right in the eyes.
She looked back into his, her eyes going wide. As if for a moment she was lost staring into his. After a few moments, Cora seemed to come to. ‘…’ she said.
‘Are you all right?’ said Nemo.
‘I …’ She shook her head. ‘I didn’t realise … I mean, I had some idea, but I … You have a nice soul,’ she said, simply.
‘Sorry … It’s just … I had to know … And, well, you know how they say the eyes are the windows of the soul … I couldn’t help it …’ She looked at him. ‘How do people not notice … ?’
She shook her head again. ‘You really don’t see it, do you …’
She just grinned and walked back into the mists a way. ‘I’ll be back,’ she called over her shoulder. ‘Don’t go anywhere.’
Nemo looked after her into the mists. He was overwhelmed, and mystified, and for some reason he was blushing so deeply the boat must be using him as a lighthouse.
* * *
Nessa heaved at the rubble. The winds had been dying back down, but it was still pouring with rain, still thundering, with lightning bolts striking the side of the mountain. With the supernatural strength of a volcano goddess flowing through her she was able to lift rocks that must have been heavier than her, some of them. Well, move rocks, anyway.
As she heaved a carved corner piece away, she heard coughing from beneath. A sooty, charred, dust-covered be-beaked head peered out from underneath. ‘Thin’ … Thin’ a buildin’ fell on me,’ said Feathers, blearily. ‘Rawk?!’
A semi-goddess Nessa hugged Feathers close, tears overflowing from her eyes. ‘Birdbrain … you’re … you’re all right …’
‘Toots …’ said Feathers … ‘Good ol’ toots … Where’s’a kid? Where’s … what’s-his-face. With the torn trousers … and the … you know …’
Nessa’s face sprouted a haunted look. ‘He must be still under there. The building collapsed, there was an explosion and … gold … and … He’s got to still be under there …’ She looked at him such that Feathers shook his head back into focus a little. ‘Are you all right in this wind?’
‘This stuff? ’S nothin’. The way up, though,’ Feathers shook his head. ‘Just nestle me down back in there and I’ll try and help.’ Feathers noticed the heavy rock corner-piece lying nearby. ‘Say … how did you …’
A flash of fire and lightning ran through Nessa’s eyes for a moment.
‘Tell ya what, let’s keep looking …’
* * *
‘Ah, there you are again …’ said Cthoney, as Nemo faded back into the garden. ‘Excuse me, please, dear phoenix. Nemo? Walk with me, please …’
* * *
Nemo was feeling a bit blurry again. Cthoney regarded him as they walked together under the trees. ‘I wanted a word with you in private,’ she said. ‘Things have been very … confused, lately. These last few centuries have been … difficult … But I just wanted to say thank you.’
Nemo gawped open-mouthed.
Cthoney saw that and smiled. ‘Who was who and what was what may be hard to straighten out, but at least part of it was me. I have a memory of reaching out in darkness, and a soul, through his own temporary indisposition, was in a position to answer me – and for the first time, did. What passed between us – kindness, caring without strings attached, a reaching out between souls – my words I find hard to handle right now, I am long unaccustomed to being able to see and speak clearly. But I do thank you.’
Nemo’s mouth moved up and down in a way reminiscent of a guppy fish blowing bubbles.
Cthoney’s mouth quirked upwards at the corners. ‘You are perhaps worrying about what had been your impending nuptials. You need not. A marriage takes two. Still, if you’re ever in the area, you might visit me as you pass through. I do like you, as a friend if nothing else. And I shall treasure your kindness in my hour of need. Besides … I am a little older than you, and such matches need careful thought …’
Nemo looked at her. He had a feeling she was laughing slightly behind her smile. Not in a malicious way, just seeing the humour in the situation. And then, before he could do anything, Cthoney swooped down and planted a kiss on his cheek. It burned with a volcanic fire – and a flash of red light that almost eclipsed a fizzle of green. ‘One good turn deserves another, after all. Go with my blessing. But as I say, stop in a while when you’re passing through. And now, I think there’s a young lady who’d also like to talk to you …’
‘By the way,’ she said as he turned to go, ‘did you ever notice the stars here …’
* * *
Anaya was waiting for Nemo at the end of the trail. Wordlessly, she just strode towards him. He felt a hug fit to push the breath out of him wrap around him. She tried to speak but couldn’t. She mouthed the words ‘Thank you’, and then turned and ran back up the trail.
Guess it was all a little much for her …
* * *
When he got back to the garden, Anaya and Cthoney and the Phoenix were waiting. So was Death, tapping her foot against the ground furiously. ‘You idiot! I’ve been looking everywhere for you. We’ve got to get you back there!’
* * *
‘Get me back there? But I’m—’
‘Still alive, you idiot! Time may be moving very, very slowly back there, but you’re still out of your body with— Well, I’m not even supposed to say even that. Come on, and don’t you fade on me again!’
‘Nessa!’ He looked at Death. ‘But how do we get back?’
‘Well, how on earth did you get here?’
‘Exploding voodoo dolls, I rather think,’ said Cthoney. ‘Quite spectacular.’ She peered at him as if wondering if he had hidden depths.
* * *
‘Hey, uh, should that rubble be glowing like that and shaking and looking like it’s about to — er, toots, you might want to take cover …’
Nessa ducked down behind a pile of already cleared rubble, grabbing Feathers as she went.
Just as one of the big central piles blew apart in a shower of trailing sparks of fiery and golden light. When some of the dust cleared, Nemo was standing in the middle of a ring of golden fire, next to a re-incarnated Cthoney, a large fluttering bird with great swooshy tail feathers and fiery wings, and a very beautiful girl — or, she blinked, the silvery outline of one.
The blast had dislodged a lot of the other rubble though, as well as bringing down some of the remaining sections of the stone pavilion. And it was still raining in sheets, thunder and lightning still blasting across the sky. And the volcano, in the background, still looking like it was about to have an inferno of an upset stomach, lava bubbling up over the sides.
Seeing them there, she realised the supernatural strength she’d been enjoying had steadily faded and was now disappearing altogether. She also realised that Cthoney looked different than before. A little like the girl, Anaya, the one she’d seen in her dream, and Cthoney herself had been combined, and now she was seeing the real old fire goddess. Except … she thought, with a frown, she looked rather young to be hundreds of years old. Let alone over a thousand. Keeping hold of Feathers, she started scrabbling over the rubble.
‘Where have you been! I’ve been worried si—‘
She didn’t see Vexila among the rubble, as an arm clamped around her throat, horribly strong, and a wavy bladed dagger appeared in Vexila’s other hand held in front of her.
‘Let … her … go …’ said a young woman’s voice. Nessa’s eyes went to the newly arrived party and was surprised to realise it’d come out of Nemo’s mouth.
Cthoney quirked an eyebrow at him.
The spirit of Anaya was gazing at him in something like shock.
And then Nemo fell backwards, caught by a not altogether surprised volcano goddess, who lowered him to the ground.
A spot on his chest somewhere around his heart glowed white a moment rising in a burst of light – and Cora of the Amazons stepped forward, silvery white, drawing her sword as she solidified again on the mortal plain. Not quite dead, not quite alive, but real enough.
‘Sorry, Ani, I can’t stop. This is costing him weeks to the minute.’
Behind her the phoenix was somehow still floating while resting its head between the tips of its wing feathers like fingers. Though there was also the shadow of a smile about its beak. Nessa thought she caught the whisper of something on the wind, as it spoke but she couldn’t hear what it said.
Cora strode out of the fiery circle and stood silvery-white, her hood thrown back, cloak floating in the wind, unhindered by the rain, sword held in front of her. She turned to Vexila the witch doctress. ‘Let the girl go. You will sacrifice no one else.’
Nessa felt the grip on her neck tighten.
‘You’re forgetting something little Amazon, the dead cannot interfere with the living. You are outside whatever power you have left here.’ Nessa felt herself being drawn roughly to the side. She wanted to fight back but … she guessed she was paying for expending all that super-strength when … when she’d … It was like she was completely drained …
And now the ghost was talking to herself. Not the pretty one next to the phoenix, the Amazon. Hadn’t she seen her too before … somewhere before …
‘I can’t,’ said the Amazon talking to someone inside. ‘I can’t ask that of you. You know that it will burn through your life by years—‘
She appeared to listen to a response. Her eyes widened. Then she nodded sadly, smiling ruefully. ‘As you wish.’
The spirit of Cora raised her sword as the other cloud, the one from before, seemed to push the Death’s Head cloud out of the way, nudging it aside with the air between them. It sort of looked like … Nessa glanced back at the phoenix who was looking on with an odd sort of smile, watching …
Golden lightning spiralled down out of the Phoenix cloud, wrapping itself around Cora’s upraised sword.
Mist seemed to envelop her for a moment.
She noticed Cthoney frowning and kneeling down, feeling Nemo’s neck. Get away from him, she thought, without knowing quite why.
As she was still being dragged back towards the volcano, the mists cleared …
* * *
Cora drew in a breath and almost couldn’t believe it, stretching out her hand, examining her fingers. This wasn’t her old body – that had … she felt the volcano’s heat behind her … — but … she was alive … for a while. Living on Nemo’s borrowed time.
‘Look at it this way,’ she found herself saying, ‘if you get me now, you get everything. You won’t get her to the volcano through me.’
‘But you, my dear, are not truly alive. You are a parasite being, living for a time on someone else’s life force. You are useless to a spell, because you have no life and no heart of your own left.’
‘Is that what you call it? Is that what you think? Well, even by your logic, you still win. I am tied to his life force. You take me down and into the volcano, you get him – you send the spirits of the volcano back to sleep and your power is renewed – maybe not as long as you’d like, but long enough. It’s really a win–win for you. So … what’s it going to be? You know what I think? I think you’re running out of time … I think you’ve left it too long. What’s it feel like to be growing old, Vexila?’
‘Insolent wretch!’ The witch doctress let the half-conscious Nessa fall roughly to the ground, and strode forward over the rubble, that vicious wavy black obsidian blade glinting in the storm-light. ‘It’s going to be a pleasure taking your heart away all over again …’
* * *
Anaya’s spirit watched with a swirl of emotions. Cora was alive again for a time … Cora … Her friend. She’d felt it when she’d … when … and now there she was, fighting again. And in spite of it all, she could see her smiling to be in battle again, to be alive … To have a chance, however slim …
She remembered the witch doctress … she remembered biting into an apple …
* * *
Cora watched in dismay as her sword went spiralling away, landing with a clatter yards away behind the witch doctress.
Vexila had lost her mask somewhere, but her eyes gleamed in triumph.
As Cora was reaching for her hold-out long fighting-dagger the dark obsidian blade slashed across her shoulder. Vicious cold bit into her, dark light flashing across her eyes – and she remembered—
—She was bound to the altar. The masked figure standing over her. She could feel her smiling behind that mask. ‘And so it ends, little Amazon …’—
—she brought her long-dagger up clumsily in time to intercept another strike. The vicious cold from her shoulder was distracting her. It felt like … before …
She stepped stumbling backwards up the winding path behind her, the volcano’s heat at her back growing ever hotter … Not again …
* * *
In the mists between the worlds, Death tore another strip off her shirt and tightened it around the spiritual reflection of the wound on the unconscious spirit of Nemo’s shoulder. Really she wasn’t supposed to be doing this, but – well, if anyone asked, she was off duty …
Still, she could get in a lot of trouble for this …
* * *
The wavy obsidian dagger lashed down towards her again. Cora just got her dagger up in time to block it. The sucking cold on the wound on her shoulder was getting too distracting, though. With each heartbeat she could feel days of Nemo’s life passing by, bleeding out, even. She brought the knife up again, but—
‘Too slow … much too slow … Where’s that old Amazon fighting spirit of yore …’
So cold … A warm trickle from a cold cut in her other shoulder. Staggering backwards … the flames behind her getting hotter. How much farther was the edge? She felt the tears start down her cheeks. Not again …
Vexila’s eyes gleamed. So did her dagger – rivulets of red sizzled blue-white on it.
Cora felt herself drifting out of focus as Vexila pressed her backwards, that damned dark dagger swishing to and fro in front of her. Weaving … teasing … tormenting her … rubbing it in that she was going to die – all over again.
* * *
Cthoney frowned as she rested her fingers on Nemo’s neck.
Just as there was a poof! next to her. Anaya had disappeared.
* * *
Death gave a vicious rip and the other sleeve of her shirt came away. She started tearing it into strips. ‘Of all the stupid, idiotic, brain-dead, moronic, suicidally noble hare-brained schemes this is the dumbest …’
There was a girl standing over them. She looked at Nemo’s spirit lying unconscious floating above the mists. ‘Tell me how I help them!’ the girl demanded. Then, noting the scythe floating nearby and the midnight cloak – ‘Please?’
* * *
Cora felt the hot breath of the volcano on the back of her neck. Felt the ground starting to give way. Stumbled for her balance as her heel started to touch over empty air …
Vexila smiled a long slow smile under her mask-like “beauty”. ‘Haven’t we been here sometime before?’ She drew the obsidian dagger back in a reverse grip. ‘Cor ex corpore – vene, vulcanis …’
Cora, swaying in place, borrowed life force draining away by inches, focused blearily on her. ‘You took my friends away … They weren’t anyone to you – but they were friends to me. Do you know what it is to have a friend? A true friend. Honest, brave, and true. Do you know what it is to care?’
‘Oh, I am so sorry … Where are my manners? Any last words, or were those it?’
Cora blinked. Whispered words floated through her head. For what was given, for friendship true – a debt I can never repay, I give all I have and am … ‘Ani, no!’ she said.
Vexila blinked. Then she smiled again. ‘Still troubled by old regrets?’ She exhaled smugly. ‘Ah, little Anaya. Pretty as a picture – the Fairest One of All, in fact. Did you know it’s seven years’ bad luck to break a mirror? I broke the one that told me that? But I don’t seem to have been especially unlucky …’ She glanced at the glowing beads of life force on the obsidian dagger, the hungry edge radiating cold. ‘You on the other hand, my dear … well, it just hasn’t been yours for about … what is it now? Seven centuries, even? One for each of your little friends … Those I caught died hard … Those I missed? Well, I made up for lost time with t hose that followed … You Amazons – I couldn’t have done it without you, you know? I mean, where’s a girl to get a steady supply of young maidens – how they begged for mercy—’
‘Now, now – no personalities, my dear. Let’s try to die with dignity, shall we?’ She brought the sacrificial knife into position. ‘Now – I’m afraid I really must insist on those last words …’
Cora looked at her, looked her straight in the eye, keeping a little bit of attention on the poised black blade. ‘You want last words? I’ll give you last words: You killed my friends …’ She took a deep, laboured breath. Had to … had to hurry …—More words, whispering through her head. A man’s voice, echoing as if being thought: ‘This I willingly give. This I knowingly sacrifice. New friend or old, take it with a friend’s love …’—Cora felt the tears running thick and fast … Did he not understand what he was doing by redoubling it? But something in her grabbed on to the thread of life force flowing through to her out of the ether. It was done. Nothing she could do now but press on. Please don’t let me kill him … she murmured to herself, her lips even moving slightly. ‘I … Please no …’ She felt everything drift back into clear sharp focus. She stepped forward, bringing her dagger up so fast, she could have almost sworn it glowed—
—Vexila stepped back, shock blossoming across her mask-like beauty. A fine cut, the mirror of the ones on Cora’s shoulders, blossomed red …
—Cora spoke fast and low: ‘I had my whole life ahead of me … And you took it all away … For what? … For that!?’ She struck again—
—a second cut, sister of the first. Vexila’s dagger hand started to shake. The cuts were bleeding more than blood … She stepped shakily backwards as a glowing light emerged from one. And then another … and another … Figures, pale outlines of life lined themselves up behind Cora. Some wore long cloaks, such as Amazons would. Some had their hoods up, others down. Others, wide-eyed … not knowing where on earth they were as the knife fell …
Cora could see the panic in Vexila’s eyes.
Was that a wrinkle appearing in that unreal mask of makeup made flesh?
* * *
Vexila felt it as the glowing ghosts flew out from where the Amazon’s dagger had struck. Saw them advancing on her with the her.
‘Please … no! Why are you looking at me like that? …What do you want!’
* * *
You don’t get straight-lines like that every day in seven centuries …
… as the witch doctress sprang forward grabbing Cora by the neck and pushing forward—
Only to feel too late, the dagger point, glowing silver and gold, as it ran her straight through the heart …
The phoenix cloud centred itself right overhead, glowing red and gold, as back down the sloping path, the ring of fire stopping the others from quite entering the mortal plane flickered out.
Cora looked Vexila straight in the eye as they were both about to topple back into the volcano – ‘I want my life back, you evil witch …’
She saw a flight of golden wings heading towards her. Guess this was it … She fell back, even as Vexila grew a century older with every heartbeat before her eyes … She felt the flames rising … Thank you … Ani … Thank you, Nemo … I’m sorry … but I got her …
Cora closed her eyes as the light faded.
* * *
Up in the sky, the Death’s Head cloud exploded into a billion tiny pieces, in a shower of golden sparks that lit up the sky.
And up in the stars, something glittered into being that had not been seen in far too long … But that—
* * *
The storm began to dissipate. The rain slowed softly into a drizzle, the winds to a light breeze, the thunder and lightning, well satisfied with their night’s work, abated.
The twilight gloaming settled on the mountainside. Rubble and ashes.
Nessa blinked open her eyes.
There are many kinds of beauty (and some things that go by the name of beauty but are really something else), but each is highly – and surprisingly – specific to the individual person, whose myriad tiny imperfections come together to make something more magnificent than you could possibly make up. In the gleaming, half-dusky morning twilight, as the sun was too nervous to peek over the horizon, or, possibly, the volcano, Nessa saw one from an interesting perspective.
Cthoney stood over her. She looked … like an ordinary human being. She looked, well, not that much older than Nessa. The feathers in her mantle and headdress, and elsewhere about her person, were a little ruffled and rain-soaked, her dress was a little smudged but … she looked human. Cthoney reached down towards her.
Nessa flinched back.
‘I feel I should correct a misapprehension. I am in control of my fire now that I am free and in my own head again. I wish you no ill. Quite the opposite. Please, allow me to help you up.’
Nessa watched dazedly as the volcano goddess Cthoney knelt down and got an arm under shoulder and helped her to her feet.
Which was when she noticed Nemo, still lying there on the ground, breathing shallowly. His shirtfront was still soaked with blood from the battle with the witch doctress. Nessa found herself freeze up inside. She shifted out of the supportive lift Cthoney was holding her up in and flopped down beside him. Sure, he was breathing, just about … but if he was alive, it looked like it was because Death hadn’t got around to collecting him. But he was alive.
She was still here and … he was hanging in the balance. And she was struggling to keep her eyes open after all the strength she expended when … ‘Oh … why does everything with you have to be such a drama …’
She heard a sooty cough from nearby. From under a hollow in the rubble, Feathers emerged, with some difficulty. He hopped up closer, saw Nemo, saw her. ‘ ‘S okay, toots, I’ll take it from here, you look like you’re ready to pass out— …’
* * *
Nemo’s spirit felt a leaf-edged blade at his throat, and a presence behind him.
‘A word in your ear,’ said Kyra the Amazon. The blade was withdrawn.
He turned round to find the dark-haired Amazon facing him, her hood down.
‘That was an incredibly stupid thing you did,’ she said, simply.
‘Heroic,’ she said, grudgingly, ‘but incredibly stupid. You have no idea what you were risking when you did that.’
‘Are you always this articulate?’ asked the Amazon. She ran a hand through her long black hair. It occurred to Nemo that he hadn’t seen her wear it down before. It looked nice. Then, she smiled at him, turning away, He thought he caught a mutter of something on the breeze, but he wasn’t sure. It sounded like, ‘Maybe there’s hope for men yet …’
Kyra turned back to face him, having composed herself. ‘I … have a favour to ask of you.’
‘With a knife at my neck?’ he said glancing at the sheathe at her belt.
Kyra frowned. ‘It is not a knife. It is an Amazon leaf dagger,’ she held it up to him. She drew an ordinary knife from some holdout position in her cloak. ‘See, this is a knife. Completely different.’
Nemo nodded weakly, swaying in the breeze. He seemed to have lost a lot of spiritual blood or something …
Kyra sheathed both knife and dagger in quick practiced motions and reached forward to steady him — not altogether unkindly. ‘You are a puzzle, a clueless wanderer meddling with things he cannot possibly understand, someone who goes to insane lengths to do the right thing regardless …’ Her mouth twitched. ‘I think I like you …’ Then she looked at him again. ‘Thank you, for what you did.’ She nodded at him formally. It was probably some kind of Amazon salute.
Nemo tried to keep up. ‘You … wanted to ask a favour?’
‘Yes.’ She stepped aside. Anaya was floating in mid-air a little way away. ‘Whatever you did for Ani was enough to wake her when she was sharing a head with a phoenix and a volcano goddess, but something of the … the witch’s magic still lingers.’ She shuffled her feet awkwardly, as if struggling to get round to the point. ‘Traditionally, only true love’s first kiss may wake a sleeping princess — but, one, I’ve always found that to be a little too cute, and two, if Ani’s a princess, I’ll eat my boots. I think the chaste kiss of a true hero should be sufficient.’
She glared and nodded at him meaningfully in a “don’t make me say it” look.
‘Oh.’ Nemo felt himself turning red.
‘You can’t be that dense,’ she said, still glaring at him. Then frowning in puzzlement. ‘Can you?’ She stepped towards him, hand on the hilt of her Amazonian leaf-shaped dagger. ‘I’m not in the habit of saying please. But … please, will you help Ani this one last time? …’ Kyra was apparently struggling with something. ‘For me?’
Nemo blinked. ‘Of course I will.’
Kyra’s face split into a warm and genuine smile.
‘You should smile more often,’ he said before he could stop himself (one of these days his mouth and he were really going to have to have a little chat), ‘you look very pretty when you smile.’
She scowled at him.
‘Right, right, I … Er. Anaya, right …’
Nemo knelt down, bashfully, hesitantly, and placed his lips against Anaya’s cheek. As he straightened up, wincing again, he whispered, so low that he couldn’t believe anyone could hear him, ‘Sweet dreams, and may they all come true when you wake.’
He got up, painfully — he found an arm gripping him under his shoulder and helping him up, and turned to find Kyra looking at him strangely. She squeezed his arm as he shambled off embarrassedly, and said to him, ‘I’ll take it from here … By the way, I think Cora was looking for you …’
As he faded away into the fog, though, she watched him go for a moment. It was hard to tell in the sea mists, but you might almost think there was a tinge of pink in her cheeks. ‘ “Look really pretty when you smile”,’ she muttered.
In the mists, Kyra beamed.
And she did.
It was nice to be noticed.
* * *
After he’d gone, Kyra drew her leaf-shaped dagger, and raised it up in front of her in something like a swordmaster’s salute, and muttered something to herself. Then she sniffed to herself and knelt down and lifted Anaya without much apparent trouble. ‘Let’s get you back to that statue the phoenix turned your body into. You’re probably going to be sleeping a while, but I expect you could do with some real rest,’ she murmured as she carried the girl into the mists and down towards earth.
She shouldn’t have been able to, but she’d had a conversation with a redheaded girl with no shirtsleeves and a long midnight-coloured cloak and a scythe and arranged a special dispensation. Kyra liked her. People who knew that one of the most important thing about rules was to know when to bend them (or smash them to flinders, as the case may be) were all right in her book.
‘Come on, Ani,’ let’s get you settled … And … I’m sorry if I was a bit gruff with you when you were alive. You wouldn’t believe how I cried when you went …’
The mists faded over a private moment. Somewhere within them, a redhead with sparkly eyes and a scythe smiled, and then stepped back into the mist again.
* * *
Nemo’s spirit limped through the mists, wincing as he went. He wasn’t quite sure how he’d gotten back here, or even how he was still standing, even in spirit form (which probably didn’t bode well). His shoulders ached, and there was something funny with his chest. Probably one of the supernatural types could have explained it to him, but they all seemed to have gone mysteriously missing.
He found himself on the beach again. The sound of waves lapping against the shore.
Cora was there, waiting for him.
Behind her, he saw what looked like one end of a boat, floating right at the edge of the beach, grounded on the sand.
She had fresh bandages visible near here neck that probably ran down to her shoulders too, under her other clothes.
‘Guess we’ve been in the wars,’ he said lamely.
She stepped towards him, slightly stiffly but determinedly.
With some difficulty, she stood up on the tips of her feet and kissed his cheek. It seemed to glow white and warm where she had for a moment. ‘The last time was for Ani,’ she said, looking at him, then glancing down, blushing. ‘That was for me,’ she explained. ‘I …’ she glanced back at the boat. ‘My boat’s waiting … to … what comes next,’ she finished as lamely as he had, ‘I just wanted to make sure to see you.’
Nemo found himself blinking. This sea mist really got into your eyes … ‘You’re ready?’
‘As ready as.’ She looked him over. ‘Are you up to hugs?’
‘Always for a friend,’ he found himself saying.
Amazons were strong. But oddly, it didn’t hurt as much as he thought it was going to. He thought he heard a muffled whisper near his chest. Cora looked up at him. She placed a hand on her heart. ‘Thank you, Nemo,’ she said. ‘For always. I … You know what I mean don’t you?’
Now the sea mist was getting at his throat too. ‘I think I know,’ he said froggily.
Something that sounded like an old war horn sounded through the fog.
‘That’s my call,’ said Cora, as the sea breeze wafted at her cloak, a stray lock of hair that had come loose from her circlet rustling in the wind. She turned to go.
As she was almost at the boat, she turned back a moment, both hands clasped to her heart. ‘Wherever you go, take me with you. With a friend’s love. Always …‘ The mist must have been getting at her eyes too. Cora turned, half running for the boat, splashing her boots through the waves, and climbed aboard.
The horn sounded once again, and the boat cast off.
Nemo stood there a moment on the sands — probably of time — amidst the mists of eternity. He heard the boat fading into the distance, and as he did so he was aware of fading back himself till he almost seemed somewhere else. Before he’d quite gone, however, he heard voices echoing over the waves. And was that … a glow of light …
‘Rest easy, Cora, knight of the Amazons,’ said a voice that flowed like harp strings, ‘your heart is pure and you have served true — and then some …’ it added with a golden strain of emphasis.
He thought he heard a muffled sob of what … sounded like relief. And the flood of tears as the pent-up worry of seven centuries was released all at once …
‘Godspeed, Cora,’ he murmured, blurrily. ‘My friend …’
* * *
Aboard the boat from the Shores Between, Cora glanced back at the mists.
‘So I can go anywhere I want, right?’
A response glowed through the mists.
‘I get to choose?’
Another glowing answer.
‘Then I’d like to go back. For a while. You’ll be back round again, won’t you?’
* * *
Nemo’s spirit blinked. Someone was gripping his hand. But there was no one there.
‘Please wake up … Please …’
His face felt wet, like little drops of water were trickling down it.
He felt himself fading backwards …
To Be Continued …
[Previous –> Part 9: The Phoenix and the Flame.] [Next –> … ?]
 Although others may occasionally dance with her or even go to the movies and dinner afterwards, or even just for a pleasant walk in the moonlight. Even those who tread the light fantastic like to get out now and then.
 The Och Aye Nebula, flowing like a silent bagpipe melody through space. Discovered by the famous* and unpronounceable explorer Angus Grishe. (Apparently, the discovery went something like this: ‘Hey, wouldja look at tha’! Looks just like a giant kilt! Now, wha’s that word for when the stars and flaming gases and things do all that swirly stuff … ? Och, aye – nebula! That’s it!”**)
*: Or infamous, depending on your point of view.
**: This story is so apocryphal, it’s probably even true.
 And if you think it’s difficult to pronounce a row of dots, you’d be surprised. Sometimes it’s the only thing you can say.