Wednesday, May 30, 2018

A Tale of the Navel: Meeting Juno

On May 9, 2018, P.T. Wyant posted at a prompt involving a chicken, a fever, and a cold night.

Gabrielle was delighted. She does her best to show off obscure fowl deities in the Navel whenever she gets a chance, much to Damian's chagrin.

Damian was really hoping to be elsewhere for this prompt. Being a sadistic, ahem, challenging author whom likes to explore the plot possibilities of my characters's dislikes, this ended up being a story about him when he first came to Omphalos and the Navel. The tale swelled to an enormous size, which is why I'm dividing it into two.

This is the first part...

The chill of the darkness wrapped itself around Damian, stinging his cheeks. He exulted in wandering outside the bounds of Omphalos by himself. 

He was free. Free to go wherever he willed without an escort. Free from the looming shadows of his Aunt Duessa, Una, Van, and all the others watching him. 

No longer was Damian confined to his aunt’s estate, forced to seek out the silent whenever he could to snatch a moment to himself. 

A pity Omphalos was so small, yet the garden at its border was satisfying extensive and leafy. Vast enough to hide beneath the clusters of flowers and fruit ripening on the vines. 

The darkness in Omphalos’s garden didn’t owe its allegiance to his aunt. Its shadows might respond to him rather than someone else. There wasn’t a statue in sight, no imprisoned bridegrooms or unlucky maidens unfortunate enough to catch a lady’s eye, gracing the grounds, and subtly influencing the areas around them. 

A large gazebo crouched at the heart of the roses, buds and bloods crawling up its sides. Open, yet filled with shadowy crevices in which a boy might hide things. 

“Good evening.” Damian made the gazebo a little bow, acknowledging its wary welcome. 

Perhaps the petals on the roses creeping up a delicate pillar trembled, ever so slightly in response. 

“I hope we can come to an arrangement which will be mutually beneficial.” Damian kept his voice pleasant, amiable, doing his best not to distress any spirits which might animate this lonely structure. 

He backed away, head lowered, keeping an eye on the gazebo. Heat crept up his neck and face, in spite of the cold. 

Perhaps it was time to return to the Navel, disappointing a haven as it was. 

Gabrielle’s Place of Power was hardly the temple of breezes and song Damian had imagined she’d create. Once he’d dreamed of his master blazing her presence to the world in overwhelming light, a strong glow which invited smaller lights to join with hers. Together they’d created a magical sun which would eclipse everything. 

No, ‘Brie had chosen to invest herself in a small shop with little space, crammed bookshelves with a jumble of crystals, boxes, dolls, waterpipes, boxes, statuettes, panpipes, wooden ducks, and dozen other items with no practical use. The Navel’s wares crowed the store, leaving little room for anything else. 

This wasn’t what Damian had hoped for when he left Duessa’s estate with Gabrielle. 

He took a deep breath of chilled night air. The air kissed his cheeks, cooling them in turn.

After which, he reached for the fence. He undid the latch on the only barrier between the silence of the garden and the noise of the cobblestone road with its cottages, taverns, shops, and all the people going to them. 

One of them was the Navel. His new home. 

Damian exited the gate and stepped onto the road with a sigh, acutely aware of all the villagers stopping to gawk at him. 

Let them stare. Damian was an arachnocrat. He was an Ashelocke. The opinions of these villagers meant nothing. 

No. A soft voice whispered in his inside of his head murmured, a voice he couldn’t ignore. It was too much like Christopher’s, the friend Duessa had claimed as a marriage feast. You’re trying to be more than an arachnocrats and an Ashelocke. Aren’t you? This is your home. These people live in your home. They matter. 

Damian bit his lower lips. For a moment, his vision of the street and everything on it swayed. 

“Oh, what a pretty boy!” A high pitched coo cut through his dizziness. 

Damian started, alarmed at the sight of a woman’s stout figure, waving her additional arms at him. 

A second glance revealed that the stranger only had two arms. They were attached to chubby hands, which clasped each other with glee. 

“Oh, you poor thing!” The stranger raised her interlocked fingers to her lips. “Are you lost? Do you need to find your way home?”

“No, ah, my lady.” Damian fumbled for the right address. Maybe he’d just imaged the arms. 

If he hadn’t, it didn’t hurt to be respectful. 

“I’m Gabrielle’s protege.” He kept his eyes lowered, not daring to raise them to the level of a lady’s chest, let alone her face. “Gabrielle of the Navel? She gave me permission to go for a walk, so I was exploring the garden.”

“Were you, dear? What can be ‘Brie be thinking, to let a delicate creature like you wander about in the cold?” The strange lady clapped a hand to Damian’s forehead. “Why, you have a fever! Tut, tut, I must return you to the Navel at once!”

“Thank you, my lady.” Her hand felt like a scalding brand on his forehead. “There’s no need for concern, though. Arachnocrats don’t get sick.”

“Oh, you musn’t call me my lady!” The stranger drew him into the musky heat within her cape with a strong grip. 

For a moment, Damian felt the touch of an extra arm. 

“Nor am I a mistress, well, not any longer.” The stranger heaved a sigh which made her ample bosom quiver. “I’m simply Juno these days, a regular customer of the Navel’s and Gabrielle’s, the poor lost lamb.” 

“Poor lost lamb?” Damian echoed, drawn into Juno’s slow, shuffling step down the street. Light blazed in a lamp overhead, a feeble flicker compared what Gabrielle carried within her, concealed from the world. 

“Why, bless you, dearie me, yes! Why else would she surround herself with trinkets meant for other people?” Juno clucked her tongue in disapproval. “She should think of herself more often, she’d be ever so much happier! Still musn’t complain, after all, ‘Brie is the only one who sells that special tea, oh, what is it called? Calming Breath? It should be Husband’s Compliance!” Juno tittered at her own joke. “It’s the only thing which keeps mine sweet and docile, tee hee!” She giggled again. 

Damian was having a hard time following the conversation. Attending a lady’s gossip, examining it for any careless word which might reveal an advantage was a skill Duessa had insisted he cultivate, for all it was a lady’s weapon. Half of Juno’s confidences floated through his mind, refusing to settle down with any weight. The street, the glow of the lamps, swimming with the coming of night wobbled around him. 

“All ‘Brie ever does is think of herself.” Careless words, ungrateful, which might betray his master. They slipped off his tongue of their accord. “This shop is her dream, all she’s ever wanted.”

“Oh ho, is it now?” Juno let out another shrill titter, which rang in Damian’s ears, leaving him quivering in its wake. “Just because the Navel isn’t your dream doesn’t mean it’s hers, sweetmeat. Just because she’s not living for you doesn’t mean she’s not living for other people.”

The heat in Damian’s face and neck grew scalding. “I never said she was. I wouldn’t never presume to expect her to.”

Damian Ashelocke was only too aware that he was a boy and an arachnocrat. He couldn’t expect his dreams to come true, not his visions of light and power, shapeless images he couldn’t always articulate.

He’d have to open a Door to the legendary Shadow Forest to truly comprehend them. He’d have to go somewhere beyond his Aunt Duessa’s grasp. 

None of that was possible. Only if half of the tales about the Shadow Forest were true, it was a place where the impossible became possible. 

Damian swayed on his feet, only to be steadied by Juno. 

“Oh, you poor, fragile creature!” Juno cooed. “You should be in a place filled with warmth and flowers, not out in a cold night. ‘Brie ought to be ashamed of herself.” She guided Damian to a green door with a gryphon knocker. “Here we are, back at your master’s place.”

Here indeed. Damian tilted his head up to see the familar sign swinging in the wind of a woman’s rounded stomach, centered upon her belly button. 

“Oh, my!” Juno paused before the door, distracted by something in the shop window. 

Damian moved his head, staggered away from her rescuer to said window. He pressed his forehead against the gritty glass, savoring its chill. 

Only to find himself nose to nose with an aggressive beak, half open in mid cackle. 

He let out a little cry, stumbling back into Juno’s arms. Yes, a chicken stood in the window, frozen in the middle of stretching her wings out in a sinister fashion. She appeared to be on verge of pecking his eyes out. 

“Now, my little love, I’ll admit that bird is in decidedly bad taste, but it’s nothing be frightened of.” Juno wrapped him in her thick, smothering embrace. “It’s just a hen. Not even a real hen. This is a simply a tacky simulacram made of feather and painted wood.”

“What’s it doing here?” Damian asked through chattering teeth. 

“Well, ‘Brie prides herself on her Navel being the center of all things bizarre.” Juno loosened her grip, allowing Damian to breath. “It appears she’s finally outdone herself, if such a thing is possible.”

“I wish she wouldn’t.” The chicken swayed, moving from claw to claw in angry dance which felt like it was just for Damian. It demanded a sacrifice. If he didn’t bring it a worm or some seed, it would peck him to death. 

“Thank you for walking me home, Juno.” Damian did his best to extricate himself from Juno and avoid looking in the direction of the window. “I can let myself in.”

In truth, he didn’t want to be alone with that thing in the shop. Not that he would be. Gabrielle should be home.

“Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly leave you here in such a state, sweetmeat, truly I couldn’t!” Juno grabbed him in her arms, smothering him with another embrace. “I’ll see you inside, safe and sound, before todding off home. There’s something I need to scold ‘Brie about, yes, there is.” 

Juno released Damian from the full force of her thick arms, while keeping a firm grip on him. Trapped beneath the folds of her cloak, he found himself steered toward the door. 

His captor rapped on the wooden’s barrier in a sharp knock before opening it, giving Damian a gentle push through. 

The familar door chimes jingled, announcing their entrance to ‘Brie. 

To be continued next Wednesday; June 6, 2018...

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Paula's Prompt: Jingle Shark

And now for something completely silly. :)

On April 25, 2018, P.T. Wyant posted at  a Wednesday Words prompt involving a shark, jingle bells, and rain.

This brought out the ridiculous, ahem, whimsical side of me. This poem was the result...

Rain doesn’t bother the shark
Shapeshifting into her aquatic form
Bringing terror to the fishes
Leaving bloody trails in her wake
If only humans would stop singing, “Jingle Bells”!
Bad enough that they squat on her ocean
In their ridiculous human constructs called ‘boats’
Pathetic attempts to float
Casting their nets into her ocean
Skimming off her supply of fish
Still they insist on singing, “Jingle Bells!”
In their flat, off key voices
There are no bells out here
They’re far away from their farting foghorns
What are they singing about?
No one horse open sleigh will save the humans
Not from her angry bite
It doesn’t stop them from bellowing, “Jingle Bells!”
Now the song is stuck in her head
Even if she’s a shark in the middle of the ocean

And it’s mid spring. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Paula's Prompt: The Vexations of Cinnamon

On April 18, 2018, P.T. Wyant posted at a prompt involving catnip, a pie, and a thorn.

The mention of catnip got Cinnamon, my four footed daughter interested. She tried her paw once at writing a short story (well, if Mom does it, it can't be too hard, can it?), but she had to rely on her human mom with her human hands to do the typing. She ended up losing interest. :)

The mention of catnip caught her attention. Cinnamon has decided to tell a story of her own using this prompt, using me to do the typing, creating, and generally thinking. :)

Yes, this story is fiction, but it involves real people, including myself. It's the sort of thing I could see happening in our house...:)

There was a tiny thorn hidden within the catnip. Not that it could hide from my fastidious paws. I batted it out of the gray, flaked leaves and swatted my stupid brother aside. Sage was about to stick his nose into it, possibly stabbing his muzzle. 

Not that he appreciated my rescue, the idiot. He leaned over and bit my neck. 

I growled in response. Sage needed to learn who’s queen in this townhouse. 

“What now?” Mom asked with her mouth full of pie. She put down her plate. 

I let out a vexed little mew. Such boring fare my two-legged mother eats. No dead bird, no dead fish, nothing remotely interesting. 

“Sage, are you picking on your sister again?” My mother eyed my stupid brother, who moved away from me. 

Sage may be an idiot, but he’s a natural at looking innocent when he’s up too no good. He turned his green eyes on our mother, the very picture of pitiful martyrdom. 

I mewed at Mom, doing my best to distract her from Brother by rubbing myself against her legs. It was, after all, her responsibility to handle things. 

“Why are you pushing your brother away from the catnip?” Mom turned away from her pie to examine the pile of dried herbs. “Don, there’s a thorn in here!”

She picked up the offending object, brushing the catnip off the carpet for good measure. Really, she needn’t have bothered. 

“How did this get here?” Mom demanded, making certain she cleaned every speak off the floor. 

“Maybe one of us tracked it in, after it got stuck to the soles of our shoes,” Dad suggested. He kept a firm grip on his plate of pie. “Hon, Sage is after your dinner.” 

Sure enough, my stupid brother was sniffing at Mom’s pie.

“Sage!” Mom rose to her feet, stratling Sage. 

He bounded away from the plate, up the stairs. 

Mom chased after him, still scolding him. 

Curious, I stuck my nose in the pie, wondering what about it got my brother so excited. 
“Don’t even think about it, Cinnamon.” Dad leaned forward from his chair to glare at me. “I’m watching you.”

I never get to have any fun. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

A Tale of the Navel/The Shadow Forest: Stupid Customs

On March 28, 2018, P.T. Wyant posted for her Wednesday Words prompt a brightly colored egg, a new hat, and a parade.

This Tale of the Navel/The Shadow Forest happened, or rather a Tale of Omphalos. It's another story that could easily have happened during my third novel (currently under revision) in the series, A Godling for Your Thoughts?

“Ooo, look at that feather!” Danyel stood on his tip toes, straining to see the cap with the feather, jauntily making its way through the crowds of villagers. 
Tayel blinked at the sight of its wearer. 

“Meggie,” he mumured, staring in shock at the familar, round flushed face, surrounded by russet curls. Nothing else was recognizable about her. 

Gone was her dumpy awkwardness, hidden behind skirts and heavy tunics. She’d traded them in for a brown trousers and a bright blue vest, a striking contrast to Maggie’s brown and green. 

 The sisters balled their hands on their lips, grinning with roguish confidence at everyone in sight. Arm and arm, they danced their way through the parade, sometimes stopping to circle each other in an impromptu dance. 

Everyone made way, whistling, clapping and cheering for Maggie and Meggie, who’d take off their cap and wave them, only to collect a coin or two from passers by. 

Ashleigh, the twins’s mother, followed them behind, whooping. Gone was her own cap sporting a feather. Instead, she wore a broad brimmed hat covered with feather and beads which appeared to be new. 

“Ridiculous.” The scornful word sliced through the cheerful, festive mood of the crowd, reducing everything to absurdity. 

Danyel flinched before he could stop himself. 

Tayel glowered out of the corner of his eye at Thomas, not bothering to waste a direct glance upon him. “No one asked you.”

Thomas fidged with a brightly painted egg he carried in his hand. “This whole festival is stupid. Why are we bothering carrying on the traditions of the outside world? We’re no longer part of it.”

“What’s that?” Danyel’s curiousity got the better of his desire to ignore Thomas. The egg had varying shades of pink ringed around it. Tiny silver and golden sequins were attached to its shell. 

“Another ridiculous custom associated with this ridiculous holiday.” Thomas scowled at the object he carried. “Decorating eggs, hiding them, and having other people try to find them.” 

Without warning, he hurled the egg at Danyel’s face. 

Danyel tried to catch it, but the speed and violence of Thomas’s throw did its damage. The egg hit Danyel’s hand, its shell cracking. It bounced off Danyel’s palm like a rubbery ball to fall to his feet. 

Thomas let out a snort of laughter. “I suppose that was a little bit fun.”

Danyel stared at the egg, which lay in yellow chunks amidst bits of silver and golden. He was grabbed by an unsuspecting merrymaker, whom whirled him around, crushing the egg under his booted feet. 

Danyel was dropped and abandoned in the middle of the crowd. He stared at his twin with wide, glistening eyes, glancing at the yellow mush left in the wake of the stomper. His lower lip trembled.

“How exactly was that fun?” He whirled to confront Thomas, hands balled into fists. “Don’t you enjoy anything other than hurting or destorying things?”

“Aww, are you feeling sorry for a hardboiled egg, Danyel?” Thomas sneered. “You’re such a girl!”

“And you’re a brute and a fool,” Tayel put as much measured venom as he could in his words, drawing Thomas’s attention away from his twin. “Throw as many rocks or eggs as you like. It won’t make you anything more than that.” 

Thomas’s lower lip trembled. He raised a meaty fist, pulled it back. 

Tayel willed the unearthy light, coursing within him, to stare through his eyes at this pitiful creature. Go ahead and hit me. Anything you hurl at me will strike you back, leaving me unharmed. 

“Come on, Tayel.” His twin took his arm, leading Tayel away into the crowd, leaving Thomas to his temper and smashed egg. 

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Whose Life Is It?: A Tale of the Navel/The Shadow Forest

On March 14, 2018, P.T. Wyant posted as her Wednesday Words prompt a knife, a marketplace, and a friend's betrayal.

This always makes me think of Julius Caesar. The denizens of Omphalos had other ideas of what to do with it. This story came into my imagination as a result.

Such an event might very well have happened in A Godling for Your Thoughts?, the third book of my Tales of the Navel/The Shadow Forest series.

Perhaps I'll rewrite this later and insert it may recognize some of the characters in this, if you stopped by for my Blogging From AZ April Project: Character Goals. Yes, they're the same ones that appeared here and at

“You betrayed me.” ‘Lyssa pressed her knife against Map’s throat. “Did you think I’d ever forget?”

Leiwell swallowed his fear, willing a blade manifest in the air. Not an easy task, ripping through the reality of this marketplace, but he’d give up a little more of his life energy to make the impossible possible. 

“Don’t, Leiwell.” His mother’s command stopped him in his tracks. “She doesn’t know what she’s doing, but Mel has cause.” She rolled a dark eye toward the blade at her neck. “Dyvian and I did kill a part of her, long ago.” She moved her gaze from the blade to the slender girl with pointed ears holding it. “Assuming there’s any of the Mel I knew left in you.”

The crowd parted around the two women, allowed them plenty of space. Everyone stared at them. 

Melyssa ignored the mutters, the transfixed gazes, and pointing. 

“Mel…Melyssa?” Leiwell stared in shock at the slender, almost serpentine maiden holding the knife. Gone were the full cheeks and rounded arms which Juno’s daughter possessed. 

Her angry, rose purple eyes were exactly the same, reddening as if blood itself was rising into her head and coloring her irises. The small, pouting mouth, trying to scrunch into something less sweet and more sinster was definitely Melyssa’s. 

Melyssa ignored Leiwell, although she trembled, making the knife in her hand shake, nicking at Map’s neck. A trickle of blood ran down her bare skin in her tunic. 

“Are you going to taunt me for discarding my former self?” Melyssa lowered the blade, moving her face closer to Map’s. Her cheek almost lay against the older woman’s wrinkled face. “You, a shapechanger, whose human form is a lie?”

“Am I lying?” Map kept her voice calm, reasonable. “Have you seen me change at all while in Omphalos?”

“No.” Melyssa raised the blade. “You’re much too clever for that. I know how good you at tricking people into thinking you’re human.”

“I’m not tricking people into thinking I’m human, Mel.” Map heaved a huge sigh. “I’m trying to be human.”

“Trying to be human, that’s a good one.” Melyssa tightened her other hand on Map’s neck. “I can see you’re still the same master I remember from the Temple of Seraphix. Always with a plausuble excuse ready for anything deceitful you were up to.”

“No, my dear.” Map shook her head slightly, brushing her own weathered cheek against Meyssa’s. “I’m no longer master of anything.” 

“You say that, but I don’t believe you.” Melyssa shuddered, but she didn’t move away. “You haven’t changed. Not your way of speaking, or your manner. You’re still the master who betrayed me.”

“Are you sure of that?” Leiwell released his question, not sure if Melyssa would pay any attention to him. He had to try to distract her from Map if he could. “Just how well did you know your former master? How much of what you believed in was real?”

The question came out with a vehemence that startled him. 

“What are you talking about?” For the first time, Melyssa glanced at Leiwell. 

“Only that I know what it’s like to have your master betray your expectations.” Leiwell locked his own gaze with her started ruddy eyes. So like and unlike Damian’s. “How much of what you saw in Map was only in your own mind, Melyssa?”

Melyssa bit her lower lip. She released Map. 

Leiwell had guessed rightly. She couldn’t have called Map master with a voice choked up with unshed tears that made her tremble, unless Map had dashed all of Melyssa’s expectations of her. 

Melyssa dropped the knife. It fell, blade pointed downward to stab the earth of their feet. 

“My name is ‘Lyssa.” ‘Lyssa’s gaze flickered back to Map. “I won’t let you hurt Melyssa or Mel any longer, shapechanger.”

“Dropping the knife means you’ve guessed you no longer need it to prove that.” Map glanced at the hit, jutting upward from the ground. “You never did.” 

“I suppose Mel betrayed you first.” Melyssa, no, ‘Lyssa took a step back. “She thought you were human. You were the first human we ever loved, a connection to the human world, or so we thought.”

“Instead, I turned out to be no more human than you.” Map squared her shoulders, a tremour running through them. “Did you despise your own kind that much?”

“I…yes.” ‘Lyssa dropped her head. “Not that I have a kind or anyone that’s on my side. I thought you were until you changed.” She lifted her chin to fix blood rose eyes upon the older woman. “I thought you were a spy for my mother.”

“I wasn’t.” Map reached out to take ‘Lyssa’s hand. “I was there to hide, to find companionship among the Sisters, same as you.”

“Only Map didn’t find with those weak-willed girls.” 

Map and ‘Lyssa froze where they stood, still holding hands. 

“Mother,” Leiwell stammered, turning to face Ashleigh, his other mother. 

Silver blazed in her eyes, filling her eyesockets with furious light. She stood, hands on her hips and bared her white teeth at ‘Lyssa.

The crowd moved back, intimidated by her shimmering rage. 

Leiwell didn’t blame them. Tayel sometimes got the same unearthly light in his eyes. It was frightening, even if a slight boy half your size. It was even more terrifying in a grown woman. 

“Mother, it’s not what it looks like.” Actually Leiwell had no idea what it was, but he had to calm her down. “This appears to be someone Map knew.”

“Oh, it definitely someone she knew. Someone who attacked her once.” Ashleigh pointed a finger at ‘Lyssa’s face. “Someone who was about to attack her again.”

“Ashleigh, it’s all right.” Map released ‘Lyssa’s hand and took a step in front of the younger woman. 

“It is not.” Ashleigh lowered her finger in the direction of the knife. “A Follower of Seraphix disturbed the peace of our very first Omphalos market, disturbing our fragile community.”

“Please let it go, Mother.” Leiwell wasn’t sure why he was defending ‘Lyssa. She was an outsider, not even a member of his family. “As you said, it’s our very first market. We’re still only learning how to behave.”

Murmurs ran through the crowd. People glanced at each other, at Leiwell, Map, and at ‘Lyssa. 

The mutters grew a little louder as more people stared at ‘Lyssa. 

‘Lyssa didn’t even bother to reassure anyone. She threw her shoulders back and looked down her nose with unconcealed disdain at the crowd. 
Making friends didn’t appear to be one of ‘Lyssa’s talents. 

Time to try and use his own magic. 

Leiwell lowered his eyelashes, while keeping his gaze fixed on the crowd. He lifted a hand to play with the coin hidden beneath his green scarf and smiled. 

More than one person blushed. A few people looked away, clapping their hands to their cheeks. 

“We apologize for disturbing the peace of the market, Mother.” Leiwell made his best courtly half bow. “None of us are used to having so many people around, including ‘Lyssa.” He lowered his head to study the grass at Ashleigh’s booted feet. “Please forgive her.”

“You’re not the one who should be apologizing, my son.” Ashleigh lowered her finger. “We’re only just starting to become a part of the world here in Omphalos. The last thing we want to do is convince that world we’re a threat to it.”

“Why not?” 

‘Lyssa’s challenge didn’t have a hint of remorse in it. 

Leiwell swallowed a groan. No, making friends was definitely not one of ‘Lyssa’s talents. 

“We are the Followers of Seraphix, protected by God of Balance Herself.” ‘Lyssa strode forward to confront Ashleigh. “This makes us powerful. Powerful people can be dangerous, yes, but why should we hide it?”

Leiwell stood up, lifting his head to see Ashleigh move closer to ‘Lyssa, too close. Their faces were inches apart. The two of them could have kissed. 

“There’s a time and a place to reveal your strength, little girl.” Ashleigh’s pupils returned, darkened with purple, although they still shimmered with silver. “You need to learn as a Follower and a woman to learn better timing.”

For a moment, Ashleigh and ‘Lyssa just stared at each other. 

“Stop this.”

Map’s rough voice cut through the tension like a knife. 

The two women started and backed away from each other a little. 

‘Lyssa turned her head to look back over her shoulder. 

Ashleigh gazed as Map, the silver in her eyes dying into something soft and muted. 

“This conflict concerned me. I am not a Follower of Seraphix, nor do I intend to become one again.” Map flickered her olive black gaze from Ashleigh to ‘Lyssa. “Don’t make a personal quarrel about the Followers.” 

“How can you say that?” ‘Lyssa opened her mouth and shut it again. “You were my master at the Temple of Seraphix!”

“That was a different life. I was a different person.” Map knotted her hairy eyebrows together. “Omphalos is supposed to be about second chances, isn’t it? Being able to live a new life without being haunted by the mistakes of the old.”

“Map, you and I cannot outrun our mistakes of old.” Ashleigh crossed her arms. “We’ve both learned this again and again.” She gave ‘Lyssa a meaningful look. 

‘Lyssa flushed in response. 

“All the more reason not to make any more.” Map folded her own arms over her ample chest. “No matter what creature born of my pain chooses to do, I plan to live my own life.”

“It’s not yours to live.”

The words escaped from Leiwell before he could recall them. 

Ashleigh and ‘Lyssa’s jaws both dropped. They stared at him as if he’d sprouted a second head. 

“Everyone who’s a part of your life shares in it.” Memories of Danyel and Tayel’s hurt expressions came back to haunt him. “You cannot cut them out or deny their share, even if you hope to spare them by doing so.” He lowered his voice, tried to soften the harshness of his words. “Haven’t we found this out the hard way?”

Map’s brow smoothed. She unknitted her eyebrows and allowed a tiny smile to play at the corner of her mouth. 

“It’s impossible to live like that.” ‘Lyssa closed her mouth and shut her eyes. “Everyone else will swallow you if you do.”

“Perhaps, but you become a part of them if they do.” Leiwell glanced over at Ashleigh. “They have to share their life with you as much as you do with them.” 

This made ‘Lyssa blink. 

“You’re quite the speaker, Leiwell.” Map didn’t even try to hide the pride in her voice. “You’re quite right.” She raised her chin. “This doesn’t mean you can share everything, nor should you.” 

Ashleigh flinched. Leiwell felt her shudder, almost as if it ran through his body as well.

“Is this why you won’t join the Followers of Seraphix?” The question came out hushed and low. “Unlike everyone else, you haven’t accepted a talisman.”

“No, and I don’t intend to.” Map planted her feet in the ground and gazed at Ashleigh.

It was the First Position of the Dance. Map half expected Ashleigh to attack her over this. 

Leiwell tensed, unsure what Ashleigh would do. 

His mother didn’t attack. 

“Why, Map?” She dropped her arms, allowing them to dangle at her sides. “This is our home, the home you and I always dreamed of returning to. Seraphix is the key to creating that home.”

“No, It’s not.” Map relaxed her stance slightly, yet remained poised, ready to move. “Don’t assume our ideals of home are the same, Ashleigh.” 

“Yet you’re the one who started this.” It was ‘Lyssa’s turn to raise her finger, only she didn’t point it at Ashleigh. She aimed it at Map. “I was there, remember? I died at the moment you found the Voice of Seraphix.”

A vision filled Leiwell’s mind, overlaying the market like a blood stained ghost. A vision of a dark sky with a full moon, the air filled with the savage screams of enraged women. 

“Halfling! Freak! Monster!” 

They hunted through the Shadow Forest, torches in hand, pursuing their prey. Until the moment that prey turned, releasing a red rage which melted and dissolved the pursuers. The rage laughed with a seductive male voice. 

Leiwell shuddered, recognizing the laugh. It was Dyvian’s, devoid of any mercy, mingling with Map’s, their two voices becoming one. 

Did anyone else hear it? 

“Only those who’ve accepted Seraphix’s token can hear his Voice.” The murmur caressed his ears, whispering only to him. “Not every Follower has an ear to listen.”

“The Followers wouldn’t exist if not for you.” ‘Lyssa pressed a hand to her breast, eyes swimming with unshed tears.

“Map, don’t you see?” Ashleigh took a step toward Map. “Things have changed because of you. Yes, I mistrusted the way the Voice established himself as a lord in this world, but by doing so, he created a haven for all of our kind.”

Dyvian. They were speaking of Dyvian. 

Map had created him? The way Dyvian had created Leiwell himself? From whatever remained of the Sisters of Seraphix?

Did that mean they were a part of him the way Damian was of him? 

Did that mean he was a part of Map?

The thought made his head hurt. The idea that his mother, the woman that raised him might have created his master, his lover. 

Human notions, these ideas of guilt attached to such things. Halflings and shadows were supposed to be better than that. 

Many things were supposed to be, but defied reality in being so. Leiwell would think he’d learn that by now. 

“Don’t judge us or yourself by some ridiculous human standard.” Ashleigh’s eyes flashed once more. “We are halfings. We are Followers of Seraphix.”

“We rise from the ashes of what we were and recreate ourselves.” ‘Lyssa’s voice had a fanatic’s zeal. 

“We create our own bonds, familal or otherwise.” Ashleigh waved a finger at Map. “Don’t judge us by the past or what we once were. Be part of the future.”

“That’s right.” Swift as an adder, ‘Lyssa stooped to claim to knife stabbing the ground. She pulled it out, dirty and dull. “Why should we cling to past roles, past notions?” She shot a scornful glance at Map before darting it toward Ashleigh. “Who put you in charge? Why is Map yours and yours alone?”

“Now see here!” Map bristled at the younger woman’s words. “What gives that idea? Haven’t you been listening?” 

“Yes, Map belongs to Ashleigh, but she also belongs to you and me.” Leiwell made his own voice as soothing as possible. “She belongs to every person she shares her life with.”

Map smiled a bit at this, but it was a sad smile. She fixed her gaze upon his chest, almost seeming to see the talisman beneath. 

“I suppose you’ll be a very devout Follower.” It was unclear whom she was speaking to. “I was never very good at following.”

“Is it so very hard?” A pleading note entered Ashleigh’s voice. “Must you always be the master?”

Map flinched at this. “You know that’s not true.”

Leiwell looked down, anywhere than at the women present. He could feel their anger, loyalty sizzling through the air, sending a charge through the coin around his neck. 

We’re connected; Ashleigh, ‘Lyssa, and I. Connected through our talismans in a way Map never will be. 

She won’t join us. She’ll close her mind and ears, pick up her knitting, stir her cauldron, or dig in the garden. Again. 

Sorrow made his throat and temples throb. Unlike Ashleigh and ‘Lyssa, he wasn’t sure if Map was wrong, to disassociate herself from the Followers.

It was too late to regret his choice, their choice. He was on the path to change. 

There was no turning back now.