AMCW storylines A visit to Susan's gardens and the Cryophoenix

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This is Atlantis.

In the skies above the ocean it hovers, grey and old, defying gravity and time. Massive and impressive, the ancient city of the sages of old stretches its streets and houses like tentacles draped over a bed of rock. Aged by the years and the gnawing tooth of the ocean floor, the elegant and majestic buildings so artfully crafted by hands long surrendered to the Wheel of Fate, rise shrouded in the grey and brown of aging stone covered in lichen. Here and there, a recently broken pillar reveals the glittering white of the marble still hiding at the heart of each wall, the snowy bones of a city built to steal the breath of all who gaze upon it. Theaters, libraries, museums, schools, shops of many crafts and temples of healing, building upon building decorated with statues of ancient gods that, in all their power, have come to fail the Atlantians, refusing to answer the prayers of the corrupted hearts of their beloved people.

The ocean has washed the past away…

And now it rises again, magnificent still in its greying shroud. Street to plaza to fountain to wall, the ancient city slowly rises from the dead as feet scurry on the ancient stone-paved streets. People move quickly, purposefully, seeking to rebuild what has recently been destroyed.

Here, there be pirates now…

Come now. Let us ride the wind to the beating heart of the city. No, not that way, dear reader. Follow the streets to where all streets lead: the center of Atlantis, the great Palace. Look there, at the east wing. See the ledge? Look how staircases are laid down, stones smooth from the steps of millions, lining the shallow, narrow canal where the purest water rushes, gurgling and falling, gathering in a wide pool of the freshest, purest remedy for many an ailment.

See her now…

Walking down the stairs, tanned skin glittering its golden-brown highlights against the afternoon sun, she walks slowly, looking up. Above her, a pair of hawks hover against the golden disc, casting shadows around her, watching as her long dark-brown hair glitters with reddish hints. Yes, that is us. That is I. The smile on her lush lips matches the light of her brown eyes. Her ears adorned in jade, a third earring decorating her left ear further, dip elegantly into the column of her neck, the dark skin of her collarbone, of her shoulders, of her chest barely covered by the pure white of her piratical top. Strapped across her back, a wooden crossbow rests, looking like the most common of weapons but humming with a life of its own. Just below it, barely covered by her long hair, scars and tattoos of ancient runes riddle her olive skin, marks of battles past, of ancient wounds that even Time struggles to heal. On the curve of her left hip, cradled on its hilt, a sword lingers. It is not the famous rapier expected of pirates but an old, simple shortsword, hilt wrapped in leather. No gold or jewels, no silver or enchantment. The cold blade of steal of this plain warrior’s tool holds dents, not spells. On its polished surface, barely visible from the wear and years, a quiet promise in words engraved.

My path and destination, I am with you.

She whistles and points at the ship awaiting just before her, hovering in the peaceful breeze. In a moment she is beneath us, in the next, she is before us.

The Caravel…

The Stormrider Caravel. Smaller and sleeker than the greater ships of the fleet, unique with its triangular sails, it is built for speed and maneuverability. Built to require no more than its captain, it can sail the winds and the waves lightly and swiftly. Armed with cannons and shields, it can bring down any foolish enough to underestimate this wasp ready to sting the backs of elephants.

She calls to us…

Come now. Let us perch by the helms-wheel, where she stands tapping her leather-booted foot on the wooden deck and whistling a joyful tune.

“Come on, love,” she says. “I’m taking you to see the most beautiful gardens in all of Godville.”

With a playful laugh, she pushes a button, turns the wheel. The sails rise and catch the wind.

And off we go…

Aboard the Caravel, Nyrini and Anjanoth reach the periphery of the territory in which Susan’s temple was built. Below them, a massive maze of bushes and trees stretches to surround the elegant obsidian-black temple decorated with white trims of pure white marble. At the back of the temple, an immense structure of steel and glass gives off hints of a rich plant life inside.

“It’s a good thing you came with me,” Nyrini notes. “See the maze? It’s inhabited by all sorts of guardians. They make sure no one who’s unworthy can pass into the temple. It was used to test the AMCW rookies some time ago. More than half of them never made it through the first guardians. The whole thing is just a huge trap and so is the temple. Well, I mean, the temple’s a lot better now.” She suddenly brightens up. “Oh! There’s our landing spot!”

With a dexterity that would have people thinking of a psychic link between goddess and ship, Nyrini parks the Caravel in an open spot just in front of the temple. Jumping nimbly out onto the ground, she urges Anjanoth to follow.

“Come on, now! It’s real safe in here. Well… for the most part.”

She guides him through the palace, seemingly looking for someone, asking worshippers where to find the owner of the temple. Nyrini finds her outside, holding the reigns of a white stallion, bigger than most horses and with a look in his eyes that indicates this horse is much more intelligent than any horse should be. It also very clearly states that this is a deeply annoyed horse just waiting for the opportunity to get the rid of the two children riding him. The children, a boy and a girl, look no older than five or six years old, small for humans. The bunny ears and tail on each of them is a giveaway that human is all but accurate to describe these two.

Nyrini chuckles at the sight. “Well, whaddya know? Binky, the Grim Reaper’s horse is giving joy rides to little kids now. This, I never thought I’d see!”

At the sight of her, the bunny girl immediately jumps off the horse and runs to embrace Nyrini with a squeal of “MOOOOOOMMMYYYYYYY!!!”

The goddess holding the reigns let’s the horse go after retrieving the bunny-boy and approaches Nyrini and Anjanoth. Dressed in pale green robes, her long snowy-white hair adorned with a single black lock framing her pale, beautifully graceful face, she glances at the two hawks that currently make forAnjanoth’s body, and which perch on Nyrini’s shoulders, before resting the gaze of her deeply blue eyes on Nyrini.

“Hey, Sue! " Nyri greets her. “I brought a friend to check out your gardens, if you don’t mind. His name’s Anjanoth. He’s a Curator, whatever that is. Anj, this is Susan Sto Helit, my big sister.”

Susan’s expression darkens for an instant at the mention of the word ‘Curator’ but still she smiles pleasantly at both Anjanoths. She nods slowly, in subtle curtsy. “I see. Hello, little soul. I will gladly show you the gardens, provided you don’t mind I bring the children along. I seem to have gotten caught in an impromptu slumber party.” She gestures at the boy-bunny. “This is my child, Ambar, by the way. And that is Twilight, Nyrini’schild.”

Looking at Anjanoth in fascination, both children stand before him wide-eyed and say “Hi…”

Ohhhhh, look at this building. Someone really knows how to work with obsidian. That guy in Architecture Section back home, what’s his name…Lubern! He’d love this…

And that maze…I wonder what kind of plants those are? Some kind of highly-branched —

Hey, check out that horse! Beautiful…though I can’t seem to place the species. Too large for any of the normal equine groups, but not quite —

ADORABLE KIDS! Ohhh, and…hold on, are those rabbit ears? The transition is seamless. Next time I make it back home I’ll need to find a Curator from—

Run.

…what was that? Eh. Um…right, find a Curator from DevBio, maybe they can have a look at this world’s hybrids. Oh. “Mommy?” How does that…I guess I’ll ask later. And who—

RUN.

…that’s weird. Must still be tired from the raid. Anyways, who is this? She’s as pretty as Nyrini…oh, her sister, that makes—

RUN AWAY.

…what is going on?? What is this weird pressing feeling…oh! Is Susan talking to me? Yes, she is. “Little soul”? That’s a new one. But, I never could say no to a gard—

RUN AWAY!

…Okay, something is wrong here. Sheesh, it feels like I’m fighting Necroma again, but worse…I have no idea what’s going on! And…she’s still talking to me. What was that name she just said? Tie-Dye? Twin…no, Twilight. Okay. Wait. The kids are talking to me. I should say…something…

“Ah…um…hi. I’m An—”

RUNAWAYRUNAWAYRUNAWAYRUNAWAYSHESGOINGTOKILLYOU

Anjanoth’s two hawk bodies explode in a shower of feathers, every single cell screaming to get as far as possible from Susanand the aura of death that she radiates. A swarm of fruit flies emerges from within the cloud of feathers, attempting to fly away, but the feeling of inevitable death is so powerful that they can’t even hold their shape. Over the next few seconds, the swarm writhes in midair, occasionally forming the vague outlines of other living things: a panda, then a fern, then a giant flatworm. Eventually, the entire swarm comes to rest in a corner of the plaza, slowly merging back together into Anjanoth’snormal humanoid form, though in this case only two feet tall. He lies there on his back with his eyes shut tightly, trembling and gasping for breath.

“What the heck happened to him?!” Nyrini exclaims.

“Whoa, those are awesome!!” Ambar cries. “Do you think he can change into any animal alive?”

“Maybe he can turn into stuff we’ve never seen!” Twilight suggests.

Susan smiles at the whole scene. Walking calmly to where Anjanoth lies shaking, she tones down her aura until it is little more than a soft hum. Reaching for Anjanoth, she holds him gently, her body radiating a peaceful warmth reminiscent of rainy winter nights spent with a good book by the fireplace.

“I know of your kind and your fear of death,” she whispers to him. “My task is not to kill but to guide souls into their desired or feared afterlife. I assure you that you are safe here and with me, Anjanoth.”

Putting him down gently, she rises and turns to walk away. “Come. You have a lot to see if you are to do a good job here, Curator.”

RUNAWAYRUN…away? Run…no…don’t run. Stay right here…listen to the nice lady…the nice lady reminds you of your moth—

Wait a minute, I don’t have a mother!

Anjanoth’s consciousness reasserts itself as his survival instinct fades. As usual, his first sensation is curiosity. Now how did she manage something like that? A clever manipulation of this Realm’s “godpower”? When Susan mentions souls and the afterlife, he files her words away in his mind for consideration later.

As Susan sets Anjanoth down, he transforms into a form more suitable for his current mass: a pair of relatively large red squirrels. One of them scurries up to rest on Susan’s shoulder, while the other one runs over towards Ambar and Twilight, chittering loudly.

The squirrel on Susan’s shoulder looks her in the eyes, and despite her vastly reduced aura, flinches for a moment before squeaking, “So…what exactly is it that I should see?”

“Oh, you’re really up for a treat, Anj!” Nyrini says to the squirrel being (lightly) squeezed in Twilight’s slender arms. “Sue’s gardens are one of the great Wonders of the Disc!”

“Oh, he’s so cute and cuddly!” Twilight squeals. “Can I keep him, mommy? I promise I’ll take good care of him! I’ll hug him and groom him and feed him yummy stuff!”

Nyrini chuckles at the sight of the helpless squirrel being held hostage in the bunny’s embrace. “I don’t think he’d like that life very much, baby girl. Besides, you already have a pet baby dragon.”

“Maybe I could keep him! There’s lots of places for him in Mommy’s gardens!” Ambar offers.

“Oh, yeah? And what about Arnold and Silvershade?” Nyrinicounters. “They’re your pets too.”

Ambar’s ears droop. “But… but… but… Silvershade is Mommy’s pet. And Arnold is… he’s not a baby anymore.”

“What is wrong, Ambar?” Susan asks, walking up to Nyrini and the children, one of the Anjanoth squirrels still perched on her shoulder.

“The kids wanna keep the squirrels,” Nyrini explains. “I don’t think they get the furry critters are just one god.”

“Novelty is fascinating, no?” Susan comments. “How about a compromise, children? You may each carry a squirrel while we visit the garden. Would you mind riding on Ambar’s shoulder instead, little soul?” she asks of Anjanoth.

After Anjanoth complies, the goddess guides the party to the entrance of the massive greenhouse and opens the door for them. Before gods and bunnies, a vast greenhouse stretches, seemingly endlessly so expertly crafted are the strong metallic frames of the glass panes that limit it. Here and there, stained glass filters light to sooth the demanding needs of exotic and magical plants. Through this entrance, they reach a cool, flowery haven, where creeks join and cascade into small ponds where water lilies, lotus flowers and other aquatic plants are in bloom. Butterflies and hummingbirds of all shapes and colors fill the air. Humming the tune of ever-rushing water, the main pond flickers red and white as white, orange and black fish bob above and below the surface. Carried by a soft breeze, words come whispered in song, from tall trees heavy with dark fruits.


Welcome, welcome, friends who come

To gardens soaked in evening sun.

Forget your woes among the breeze,

In whispered songs of singing trees.


At a signal from Susan, they stop and stand silent, to hear the song of the trees.


Lady bright of souls who sleep,

Bodies laid in beds dug deep.

Bring your light in shadows dressed.

Death recline where Life is blessed.


Lady knight rest now from thrill

Your wandering heart in time stood still.

Pathways kept in childish hands,

Feet that walked through far-off lands.


Scholar mind that hunger haunts,

Craving thirst that drives and taunts,

For all that lives and lures your sight

Visit now in awed delight.


Children come and children play.

Guide our guests and run all day.

Bunny hops and giggles fair

Fill with joy and life the air.


Come, oh come, guests and friends

Where time is slow and peace attends.

Bathe your steps in grass-green seas,

In whispered songs of singing trees.


In time, the songs of the trees fade into background noise, leaving only a pleasant sensation of air filled with friendly voices.

“Can we feed the squirrels some grapes from the Singing Grape Trees?” Twilight suddenly asks.

“Uuhh… Sure, Twi. If he… they… whatever want to,” Nyrinireplies.

“Hurray!” Twilight squeals, hopping away to show Anjanoth the fruits. “They’re really yummy, you’ll see! But you can’t eat too many or you’ll come down with Melodies!”

“Yeah! And after that, we’ll show you the fishies in the pond!”Ambar states. “They turn into tiny dragons if you scare them!”

“I think those trees of yours are a bit too witty for my taste,” Nyrini says in slight annoyance at being called childish by a bunch of loose-tongue trees. “Where did you get those, anyway?”

Susan laughs lightly before replying. “They are a gift from a worshipper of mine. A lovely lady who has been serving here for a number of months.”

Not far away, the bunnies are joyfully entertained with Anjanoth, offering the god-turned-squirrels exotic berries and tickling the fish in the pond so that they jump out of the water and transform into koi-sized dragons that shoot small bursts of flame into the air.

“Ah…” Nyrini murmurs, tapping the side of her nose with a finger. “Someone’s working on getting a quick and easy death.”

“And soon, as well,” Susan confirms, nodding. “She is coming to the end of her long years. Her time runs short even as we speak, I’m afraid.”

Nyrini’s expression darkens, her eyes glancing down. “Oh… Must be tough to let go of someone you like and see every day,” she says, her voice low. “I’m glad you’re the last person she gets to see at the end, though.”

“Frightening as it may seem, Nyrini, death is mostly a kind affair,” Susan states, her voice serene, a soft smile on her lips at the scene before her.

Nyrini shakes her head in frustration. “I never understood, you know? Old ladies and kids…. How do you get used to taking people’s lives away?”

Susan looks at her younger sister, her expression now somber. “I don’t. I don’t take people’s lives away,” she scolds her lightly. “I merely sever the bond between what can go on living and what can no longer be.” She tilts her head questioningly. “Why all these questions, all of a sudden?”

One look at Nyri’s expression, at how her eyes flee from Susan’s gaze for a moment, tells the goddess all she needs to know. Never More…

“I see,” she says. “We all struggle in the beginning, mortals even more so. And if I remember correctly, your boyfriend never quite took to the task. These are the perils of bringing a mortal into the service of something as transcendental as Death.” She looks back to where the bunnies are busy showing Anjanoth the marvels of the garden. “Father himself had a hard time accepting such tasks…”

“I forgot your dad used to be mortal,” Nyrini concedes, following Susan’s gaze with her own.

Susan sighs. “He was young and it all came to be a long time ago. Mortals prize their lives and they fear their ending, Nyrini. If you think like a mortal, the whole business of death will seem rather dirty and unfair. To one who is both blessed and cursed to stay behind and see others pass away, death becomes the grief of the living, not so much the misfortune of the demised.”

“I… guess you’re right,” Nyrini accedes as memories of her own death seep into her mind. “I remember when I… Everything was confusing, warped around me. But I don’t remember being scared. It was painful while I could feel my body, my throat burned from being slit. But after that there wasn’t any pain. It was like, for once, I could just… stop running… let go.”

Susan nods absentmindedly before looking at the younger goddess. “The Wheel turns, little one. But if you become fixated on a single one of its spokes, you will lose sight of its path.” She gestures at the distance, where puffs of smoke rise from the Phoenix plants as their dry and brown leaves erupt in flames to be replaced with lush green bushes. “New life sprouts where old life fades. The darkness of night loses its dread once one realizes that dawn will soon follow.”

They start walking to where the bunnies are playing and Nyrini manages to squeeze in one last question before they reach them.

“Do you regret it? Taking the calling?”

Susan stops and seems to consider this for a moment before replying. “No. I will not lie and say it was pleasant or that it was always easy. But it is as much a part of who I am as your teleporting is to you, a part I had been keeping from myself for a long time.” She smiles and strokes Nyrini’s cheek with a gentle finger. “And besides, it has brought you into my life. And that is the most wonderful reward I could ever have asked for.”

As Anjanoth enters the garden perched on the shoulders of the two young rabbits, he is overwhelmed by the rush of new sensations: the sight of the majestic trees that dominate part of the landscape, the smell of unfamiliar flowers and fruits, the sound of myriad species that he has never encountered. He stands entranced, drinking in every detail as fast as his subconscious can process it. There’s so much to take in that even the singing trees seem normal — at least until they begin to sing a verse that is recognizably about him.

Scholar mind that hunger haunts… Craving thirst that drives and taunts…

For a moment the words echo in Anjanoth’s mind, and he feels a wave of melancholy that briefly turns the fur of both squirrels black. There is definite truth to the words, but how could a bunch of trees know that, when even Curators rarely talked to each other about the downsides of their eternal curiosity?

But a moment later the trees have moved on to another verse, the feeling is gone, and Anjanoth is once again contentedly enjoying the diversity of the garden.

As the music fades, Anjanoth’s attention turns to the eager young rabbits who are carrying his squirrel bodies into a grove of slender trees. As they arrive, Twilight and Ambar each pick off a few grapes and feed them to the squirrels, who bite down on them excitedly. His cells sense a burst of new chemicals, and without a moment’s hesitation his squirrels leap up onto the trees to sample more of the fruits.

“How did they even get these trees to grow here…the nutrient requirements must be incredible – not to mention the~ fungal~ symbiotes!~” Anjanoth begins to feel a strong urge to burst into song, but he keep eating the fruit anyways – he’s had an idea. Once each squirrel has consumed a more than a dozen grapes each, they simulataneously dissolve into a few hummingbirds each, which collectively sing, “Hey kids! Look at this, here’s something cool~”

Each hummingbird inserts its beak into a flower of a different tree, but instead of extracting nectar, they begin to inject a modified version of the chemicals naturally found inside the trees’ fruits. The trees’ melody begins to change, becoming slower and deeper. After a few seconds, some of the trees begin to sing, in a low primal voice.


The once-blue sky, now fades to gray

The sun is hidden on this shortest day

The green of summer, covered in snow

Where grain and fruit no longer grow...

Yet in a field, of purest white

The winter rose erupts in fullest bloom

Declares that winter cannot last

And spring is coming soon...


As the chorus fades, Anjanoth returns his hummingbirds toTwilight and Ambar’s shoulders, where they combine once more into squirrels. “Well~ That was a tiny bit odd~ Not the song I intended, but still sounded good!”

By this point Susan and Nyrini have reached the grove. The squirrel on Ambar’s shoulder leaps off and climbs Susan’s dress to sit next to her ear. With the effects of the Singing Grape Tree fruit wearing off, the squirrel whispers, “I do apologize for the scene earlier~ It’s clear that you are not what my instincts told me you were. But I find I must ask…you clearly know about the Curators, more than anyone could even from having met one in passing. How?”

Susan gently taps Anjanoth’s paws with her fingers until he climbs onto the palm of her hand. Holding him at eye level, she replies to his apology.

“I assure you I take no offense in your reaction,” she says. “I am as I am, death incarnate. The fear of their own demise has most running around in a panic when confronted with such possibility.”

She twirls her fingers, smiling at the nimble movements of the squirrel climbing and dangling from her palm. Guiding him and the others further into the garden, she carries him to what looks like a sandy beach, the edge of which is bathed and slowly kissed by the calm waters of a wide lake. She lowers him to a beach chair just above the waterline and sits by him.

“I assure you, little soul, that I am as much a guardian of the living as I am of the dead, even if through some rather… unconventional and indirect methods,” she adds.

To their left, small white birds speckled in brown scurry along the shore looking for sandmites. To their left, Nyrini keeps the children entertained a little further away, humming tunes that make a line of Dancing Coconut Trees sway happily to the rhythm, sending coconuts flying all around.

Susan opens her hand to catch a coconut bound for where Anjanoth is sitting.

“As for the question you asked…” the goddess says.“…it is a Death god’s good policy to know about the people whose fate sooner or later brings them into his or her care. I have also had the pleasure of meeting one of your… colleagues before, when a war broke in a small country known for not having even the smallest of skirmishes for over 300 years. It lasted for 5 generations and over half of the population perished.” She glances sideways at Anjanoth. “Strangest of things, really…”

Anjanoth avoids Susan’s gaze and instead looks up toward the ceiling. A 300-year war…in an otherwise peaceful place…oh! His eyes light up and he gives a small laugh, speaking half to himself and half to Susan. “Yeah! I’ve heard of that study…went to a talk Kagene gave on it. Man, she really raised some eyebrows with her work!”

Meanwhile, Twilight and Ambar, having become a bit bored of the dancing trees, wander over in the direction of Susan,Twilight carrying one of Anjanoth’s squirrel bodies. Ambarreaches his hand out towards the other one, which clambers up onto her shoulder. Enjoying the laughter and attention of the young bunnies, both squirrels run around a bit on their arms. At some point, they both climb up onto Ambar’s head and transform slightly into flying squirrels, then leap off, aiming to land on Twilight’s shoulders. Just at that moment, though,Twilight notices a shiny object in the sand and bends down. “Hey hey, mommy, look at this!”

Anjanoth’s squirrels sail right over her head and fall into the lake. They hit the water before he has time to turn them into something more suitable, throwing up two large splashes. Responding to the shock of being thrown into a lake, the squirrels instinctive inhale and end up with water-filled lungs. They flail around helplessly at the surface of the water for a few seconds before Anjanoth is able to gain enough control to begin transforming the squirrels into fish.

By that point, though, the ripples from the splashes and the distinct chemical taste of squirrel have already reached the bottom of the lake, where they startle a large and ancient creature.

Drawn to the unfamiliar taste, it unfolds its fins, rises to the surface, and promptly swallows both squirrel-fish whole. For the next few seconds, bumps of various shape appear and disappear on the creature’s body as Anjanoth tries to kick his way out. The struggling ceases after a few seconds, replaced by a muffled call of “Someone get me out of hereeee!”

At the sight of the monsters, Susan rises from her chair and stomps her way to the waterline. Crossing her arms over her chest, her foot tapping the sand lightly, she says, barely above a whisper.

“Shelly…”

The monster looks at Susan for a moment but then starts flailing madly again. Glancing sideways at Nyrini, who is keeping the bunnies away from the water, Susan raises her voice to a growl.

“Let him go, Shelly.”

Completely bewildered by Anjanoth’s continuous kicks to its gut, the monster ignores Susan and splashes around, hitting water and land with its tentacles, creating mad ripples and waves in the water.

“SHELLY!” Susan shouts.

The monster freezes in terror. Its big, shiny eyes turn to Susan, pleading like a puppy with a tummy ache. If it could whimper, whimper it would.

“Spit.him.out.” Susan orders.

With huge, labored movements, the monster contracts its body and opens its massive, disc-shaped mouth. Like a cat hacking up a hair ball, Shelly regurgitates Anjanoth onto the sandy floor of the artificial beach. Susan then walks up to the monster and reaches a hand to its carapace, stroking it lightly behind the tentacles.

“There, there, little one. Lunch did not agree with you, did it?”

The creature leans closer to Susan and tilts its massive head, clearly enjoying the attention. Stroking Susan back gently with a tentacle, Shelly leaves the goddess’ cheek slightly covered in slobber. Then, the critter of the deep turns and swims away, sinking deep into the water. Susan leans over Anjanoth.

“You know, dear, for one so interested in studying animals, you seem to have the worst of times interacting with them.”

A shadow appears in the air, a small speck on the horizon. As it nears, it becomes clear that it is a large phoenix with azure feathers carrying a hapless Somn on its back, accompanied by a small, multicoloured floating fish.

“AAAHHH NOOO DON’T CRASH DON’TCRASHDON’TCRAA—”

The phoenix dives into the pond, instantly turning waves and droplets of water from the splash into solid, beautiful ice. Both the phoenix and the goddess lie there, exhausted, while Buu looks as anxious as a fish can be, trying to nudge its mistress awake.

“What the hay??” Nyri cries.

She grabs the kids, as well as Anjanoth, and teleports them a safe distance away. As soon as she has Twilight and Ambar promise they will keep their distance, she pops back for a closer look. Susan is looking into the lake.

“That giant phoenix just crashed through the ceiling panes,” she says. “Most birds cannot see the glass. And it just froze the whole surface of the lake with a single touch. Amazing creature…” She turns to face Nyrini. “Are the children safe?”

But Nyrini is already standing on the icy cover of the lake. She kneels above the shadowy, still form of the bird trapped beneath, and places a hand flat on the surface. A push of her will and she phases through the ice and into the ice-cold water below. Holding her breath with painful effort, she swims down and sees the phoenix. Not very far away, she sees Somn, apparently unconscious from the fall. She swims close to the goddess and touches her shoulder.

A moment later, Somn is coughing up water onto the pearly-white sand of the lakeshore.

“There you are, love!” Nyrini greets brightly. “Last I saw, you were being carted away like a baby under a stork… There, there… Cough it all up!”

The goddess helps Susan take care of Somn for a moment but soon her eyes are drawn again to the lake. Teleporting, she once again swims to meet the submerged, unmoving beast.

Whoa this is cold! she thinks, swimming closer. Is it safe to get close? What is it, birdie? Why aren’t you moving?

The phoenix glances sideways at Nyrini but remains still. Its belly slowly expands and contracts, spreading soft ripples of deep currents around it as the avian heart pumps lifeblood through the bird’s body, the massive keel stopping its chest from moving. Wings folded closely against its body, feathers raised to for an insulating air blanket around a body that would otherwise freeze to death, the bird blinks slowly before diverting its eyes from the goddess.

Aw heck, this isn’t good.

Steeling herself for even colder water, Nyrini reaches out to grab the bird, intending to take them both to dry land. But as her fingers touch the feathers, the phoenix moves away, threatening to peck Nyrini’s hands off. The bird turns away from her again, laying almost flat against the lakebed, seemingly intent on staying where it is forever.

Stupid birdbrain! You’re gonna drown! Unless you can breathe in icy water…actually, maybe you can but…you don’t look like you’re breathing. Crap crap crap… Nyrini swims closer. This is waaaaay too cold. I can’t feel my limbs anymore. That’s not good, is it?

The phoenix closes its eyes and exhales deeply, sending air bubbles floating all the way up to the icy carapace sealing the lake. Not a long way away, Shelly lays on the sandy lakebed, her liveliness and metabolism lowered by the near-freezing temperatures.

I am gonna be soooo pissed if this turns out to be normal cryophoenix behavior… Nyrini tries once again to grab the phoenix.

This time, she manages to throw her hands into the feather-blanket of the bird’s outer coating and touch its skin. Whether from the sudden warmth against her hands or some other magic the bird possesses, or even from her own body rapidly sinking into hypothermia, Nyrini feels a strange shift, as if she were being taken elsewhere.

The world goes dark. Nyrini opens her eyes to a world of blizzards and snowy peaks. She feels a strange urge to feel cold but, strangely enough, for all the snow, this landscape feels like a lukewarm spring. Before her, not very far away, the phoenix perches on a stony outcrop, looking down, into a valley.

“Ummm, hello? Am I hallucinating this while I drown? I don’t want to drown. That would be really annoying.”

The bird turns its head to look back at Nyrini, then goes back to watching the landscape below intently.

Nyrini sighs and approaches the phoenix. “Seriously? Fine. So what should I do while you’re being all enigmatic?”

As the bird refuses to acknowledge her for now, Nyrini looks down, following its gaze. Below them lies a valley surrounded by mountains, covered in the white of snow and ice. Down there, blurs and spots of blue move in the great wind tunnels that blow through the valley. A more attentive look turns the blurs into other phoenixes, the spots into what look like cute hatchlings. By Nyrini’s left, the great bird inhales deeply and releases a long, sharp cry of loss and anguish.

Nyrini puts her hands to her ears, the cry piercing to her heart. She studies the scene, thinking the landscape looks familiar. Then she realizes why: the same valley where Susan’s temple resides. Surely changed by time here and there. One of the peaks is now gone and the wind has never blown as sharply through the valley as it seems to be blowing but it is still the same place. Just… a long time ago.

“Is that…that place where your nest is, where your babies are…were—is that where… Oh no…” Nyrini realizes with horror that Susan’s temple is built right over the phoenix’s nesting ground. And she remembers that phoenixes, at least the usual fiery kind, only lay eggs once in a very very great while, centuries, perhaps even millenia. Surely the frozen variety is the same.

With another piercing cry, the phoenix takes flight. It plunges into the bowels of the valley, flying low, the great, beautiful feathers of its tail nearly touching the ground as tilts, like a rudder, to keep the phoenix flying straight. It flies swiftly, carried by the wind, in urgency and in desperation.

The other phoenixes ignore it. For all its trying, the other birds pay it no heed. And when it tries to tackle a great, majestic male, the bird finds itself merely moving through, like a ghost phasing through walls. It rises and dives, over and over again, until exhaustion, grief and desperation finally ground it. It crashes, low in the valley, its huge form grazing the ground and then brushing the ground and then dragging against the ground until it stops and lays, unmoving, beak digging into the snow.

Nyrini teleports down next to it, glad to see that her powers still work in this…vision? Dream? “Yo, birdie! We can’t stay here! You’re obviously not really here anyway. Let’s get back to reality before we die. Or at least before I die. If you die you’ll just…waitasec, what do cryophoenixes do anyway? Make a nest out of ice cubes and freeze themselves into ashes? That doesn’t make any sense.” She shakes her head angrily. “I’ll read a book when we get out of here! But for now, we gotta go!”

Covered in snow, the phoenix looks at Nyrini and, for a flash, the goddess has a vision of the bird still lying underwater, its bright eyes growing duller with each heartbeat. The vision fades immediately. The great bird moves slowly, raising its wing slightly and hiding its head under the wing as if in a final acceptance of defeat, in a final attempt to just… die.

“No no no no no! Come on! Let’s go!” Nyrini thinks desperately. If she can get back to reality, and get them out of the water, she can tell Sue what she saw and…well, Susan will think of something. The important thing now is not dying. But how to leave this vision? As the Goddess of Thresholds and Passages she can go anywhere…but where is she? In the bird’s mind? Are these thoughts? Memories? And how can she take the bird out?

“Listen, birdbrain. If we get out of here, I can tell Susan, and we can get this fixed! But you have to pull it together!” She sees the bird is still despondent. “Look…I know you feel like you’re all alone in the world and you don’t wanna be here anymore without them. I know what it’s like! I…I’ve lost all my family too. It’s not easy, but…”

Nyrini gently raises the bird’s wing and sneaks under it, crouching against the bird’s ear-canal. She suddenly feels very cold and tired.

“I’ll stay with you, if you want. I’ll see you through the pain until it goes away.”

Her eyelids begin to feel heavy, her breath rises in bubbles as it exits her mouth. She snuggles against the phoenix’s feathery body.

“You’re not alone, waterdrop. Not if you don’t wanna be.”

Just as hypothermia threatens to cradle Nyri into a freezing slumber, the phoenix moves. With a jerk that has Nyrini falling to the floor, the phoenix rises again. Grabbing the goddess with a huge talon, the bird touches her feathers to the wind and takes to the air, rising ever so high and out of the valley…

…Nyrini wakes up to a warm afternoon sun kissing her skin. She struggles to sit up and finds Susan sitting by her side. Perched on Nyrini’s leg, the phoenix, now a mere 30 cm in size, idly grooms its feathers. A mere glance at the goddess is the only proof that it wasn’t all just a dream.

“For a moment there, I thought you would not have made it out of the lake,” Susan comments.

Nyri breathes deeply. “For a moment there, neither did I.”