Childhood Memories: Fragments of another time

Childhood memories: fragments of another time

Chapter 1: Aboard the Quadrail

When technology advances, unexpected discoveries are made. Thus when Quadrails became commonplace and their tracks reached ever farther, people discovered that the constant, skirling shoop-shoop noises its motive limbs made interfered with sleeping. Hence, they had made soundproof cabins, which could be interspersed at a ratio of one to four. Perhaps in a few more years, even some decades from this moment they would solve the issues that prevented every cabin from being quiet and stable enough to sleep in. Currently the problem was being handled by letting passengers sleep in shifts. Not exactly an optimal way to travel long distances, especially if you were still recovering from injuries. Aosagi Mi-fi tried to stay awake, her left leg giving a slight throb at every jostle and her ears drooping with the effort of not giving in. Natty needed to sleep too, Mi-fi wasn’t willing to let her Cabbit sister go crazy through lack of sleep, not even if she had to fight her own body to keep awake. The news on the flickering screen at the front of the cabin was… worrying, if not exactly useful in staving off slumber. The Darklands had, by mouth of ambassador, declared their intent to take measures against Zipangu following events Mi-fi knew all too well.

The sub-orbital flight mission she had been the pilot for had drawn expertise, resources and interest from around the world. The lone scientist from the Darklands assigned to the project had rather clumsily tried to steal the closely guarded secrets involved and, to put it mildly, had been sent packing. That fact was now used to justify increased hostilities between the nations and war loomed. Even muddled as her thoughts were, Mi-fi hoped it would pass quietly. Then a voice intruded. “Miss? Are you all right?” A sleepy set of eyes hoisted their view upwards to fix onto a concerned attendant’s beautiful face. Mi-Fi shrugged. “…’m just tired.” An exasperated sigh followed that statement as the attendant looked her over. “Miss, you’re bleeding and you look to fit to faint. Why aren’t you in the sleeping cabin?” Mi-Fi peered at her leg and saw that indeed a few watery trickles of mixed blood and wound fluid were running down her leg again. “My sister needs her sleep too, we can’t afford a private bunk. Damned leg just complicates things.” The attendant scowled, then picked Mi-Fi up gently and carried her to the adjacent sleeping cabin. Mi-Fi wriggled uselessly; even if she weren’t feeling exhausted and had both legs fully functional she could not have escaped the determined Ushi-Oni’s embrace. 

Though by nature drawn to survivalism in the wilds, the spider-limbed mamonme species had discovered a talent for working in moving vehicles. Since then, the Quadrails exclusively employed them as mechanics and attendants, the latter both as ones best suited to helping passengers and detaining criminals. “Your sister is in which bunk?” Mi-Fi shrugged. “On the left somewhere. Cabbit with cornsilk fur.” She missed the raised eyebrow this garnered her and barely registered as a human was evicted from his bunk before she was gently laid to rest in his place. Sleep claimed her and she did sleep deeply that night. It was many hours later that she awoke to find Natty and the attendant conversing in hushed tones. “…She’s always like that, it sometimes makes me want to strangle her.” Natty seemed unamused. “Its common enough with Usako. I’ve been in this line of work long enough now to know the symptoms, so I deal with it as I told you. Getting angry, arguing with them, appealing to common sense, none of those work on a sacrificially minded Usako. It just gives you wrinkles, so the only thing to do is handle their situation as best you can.” Natty blew out a long sigh. “I know, but it is still frustrating me to no end that I could have prevented her from going on that limb again by setting an alarm, or-” A quick stream of words was interjected.

 “Or just asking for help. Sheesh, we’re not just on board to unload the unruly and things. In case of injured people we attendants are there to see to it that they heal, not get themselves wounded more. Going on that limb yourself isn’t going to help her either.” A massive claw gently parted the bunk’s privacy curtain. “Ah, you’re awake? Sorry, but your stop is coming up in a quarter hour. I’ve bandaged your leg after bringing you here over seven hours ago. My name’s Iris by the way.” A gentle smile spread on a lovely face framed by lustrous black hair. One huge clawed hand quite gently held Natty back from jumping in. For the next twelve minutes Mi-Fi was gently scolded by Natty and Iris in turns while she got dressed and pulled a baggy hat over the mess her hair had become. Feng-Dao’s station was pulled into view as the Quadrail slowed to a gradual stop and Mi-Fi disembarked with a little help. Iris knew she would have to start the sweep of the cabins soon, but instead she reached into her uniform’s pockets and extracted a MARE fit for larger-than-average hands and pressed a button. “Hi moms. Just calling to let you know I’m in the area… Yes, I just need to remain onboard till the next stop, I’ll catch the opposite train and meet you there before nightfall. Uhm, you keep an eye or two out for a Cabbit and a wounded Usako in the area. They are nice folks, but I’m a bit worried…. Yes, yes… Love you too mom.” Iris’ smile barely needed the MARE to be conveyed. That done, she returned to her duties.

Meanwhile Natty led the way through the noonday crowd. Feng-Dao might be a small town by modern standards, the presence of the Quadrail station did ensure that it drew more than a few people looking to buy and rest in between trips. The shops were arrayed in a wide circle around the tracks, the plaza that made up its centre was dotted with stalls, stages and small fields of grass. In larger cities such daymarkets might be said to have stock and performances from around the world, but here it was mostly farmers from villages in the immediate area, a few Kaaiman and Erumo working their trades and glory be, one small troupe of young Celestial Chanters raising their voices in song. These included a trio of Celebrants, Celestial idols. Mi-Fi wanted to watch their performance, but Natty dragged her to a traveling doctor’s stall while muttering grumpily. The Unicorn physician concluded that Iris’ medical attention had been more than sufficient, but prescribed calming herbs to Natty after catching her glower. 

Mi-Fi rolled her eyes at that. “Let it go Natty. I swear, you’ll pop your brains if you keep this up. Shall we get some snacks before leaving?” Mi-Fi tried to put as much persuasion in her voice as she dared. Natty’s protective side had a temper that didn’t get better if she tried to steer it. “Okay Mif, but keep an eye out for any carts going to Yumedai.” Mi-Fi sighed inwardly. Really, walking would hurt less than another ride, especially in a bumpy cart and she reminded Natty of this patiently. Thankfully, watching the troupe and nibbling on fresh fruit let her feel a bit more refreshed. “So Mif, I…” Mi-Fi hugged Natty with her free arm. “Don’t be. I’m glad you’re looking after me. But please, I’m not made of glass.” Natty shrugged, returning the hug and suggesting that they avail themselves of the hairdresser’s stall. An hour later they set off on the road to a home that was theirs in heart.

Chapter 2. Sleepy village

Feng-Dao might be considered a hotspot for tourists with its main attractions being the variety of amenities and goods gathered from surrounding settlements. Some tourists would yearn for a quieter environment and go to a smaller town, or village where the amenities were still sufficient to provide some comfort. A rare few might visit Yumedai, looking for the remnants of a time not yet completely past, tempo doeloe. The surrounding fields are tilled for a variety of crops, though traditional rice terrasses climb along the rises in the land. Small woods and streams, sometimes blessed with a small shrine in case of the former and a bridge of the latter, fill in the vacant spaces. At their centre lie the road and the village proper where most day to day interactions take place. A small, but serviceable inn awaits visitors while the two local stores occasionally held items for tourists, but mostly for the local populace. Such matters as were required by the empire’s governing body were handled by the village council, consisting of the two current elders and the three villagers who’d been chosen for a period of three years to sit on the council. Normally, their lives were peaceful, allowing due consideration of weighty matters such as the planting of the coming season’s crops or the passing of property between a deceased person and their chosen heirs. It left enough time for them all to experience marital joy. When something upset that peace though, such as the matter at hand, they needed some time to come to grips with the situation.

Fan Wi and his wife Uzumii quietly conversed while the other council members raged, sometimes egged on by their wives sitting in. “Husband, what do you make of it?” Uzumii rested her chin on one hand, using her fingers to screen the movement of her lips. Wi replied with slow deliberation. ”Had I not seen Kung Uo walking by myself, I would have dismissed it as a drunkard’s tale Uzu. I can’t recall anything like this ever happening. Or ever learning of such from the village records.” His eyes, still a light brown after all these years glanced longingly at her cleavage before traveling upwards to her eyes and giving a reassuring wink. Uzumii smiled mysteriously as she reached over and put her hand down on his as a promise. Then her ears perked up and she removed her hand, turning with some speed to face the doors. Wi slapped the lapdesk on the table, getting a hollow boom that silenced the council. Three polite knocks followed, the accepted means of gaining entry while the council was in session for the villagers. Yet when Wi called for the knocker to enter, he did not immediately recognize the women who stepped in. A Tsuki no Usako with a bandage on her leg and a Cabbit, yet Uzumii moved to them like lightning and wrapped them in a hug. It was then that Fan Wi recognized them as Aosagi Hisana’s grandchildren and moved to greet them as well. Uzumii’s tails curved and wove in elegant movements, a sign of great joy. “Mi-Fi and Natty, welcome back to Yumedai.” He encompassed them and his wife with strong arms and then led them towards two spacious seats normally reserved for imperial envoys.

“Fan-san, it is good to see you again.” Natty’s smile was as warm as ever. Mi-Fi’s was genuine, but tinged with some pain. “I’m sorry it’s been a while Fan-san, Uzu-nee san.” Uzumii grinned as she replied. “It has been too long girls. So did they finally let you two take some time off from that secret project you wrote about?” Wi noted the cloud that passed over Mi-Fi’s face as she spoke. “In a sense Uzu-nee. The flight of the Tsubasa no Hikari had unexpected consequences.” The Fan couple gasped, as did the others present. “As it stands, I could not resume my duties as a test pilot… They told me it is a miracle I’m still a biped given what the examinations showed of the fractures in my leg.” Natty nodded, then her ears drooped. “And, erhhh…. Well, I didn’t want to stick around the Suszaku array after I caught that idiot badmouthing Mi-Fi.” The claws flexing out of her rabbit-like feet attested to that. He nodded and spoke: “We heard the news about that flying contraption, but they did not mention whom the pilot was. But you two are always welcome in Yumedai. I take it that you might want to wash the dust of the road away? We’ll put you up of course.” Uzumii smiled her special smile at him then, fangs flashing in appreciation. “I insist of course.” Mi-Fi and Natty smiled happily. “We’d be honoured, Fan-san, Uzu-nee.” Mi-Fi sighed. 

“But we hope to gain permission to settle in Yumedai. With our savings combined we hope to purchase grandma’s house from Kung-san.” Mi-Fi’s speech petered out as she noticed the troubled expression creeping over their faces and asked: “I-is something wrong?” Uzumii placed her hand on Wi’s arm and glanced at the other councilmembers before she spoke. “I shall tell them, everyone. Meanwhile, I ask that you go home. With a little luck we’ll have the issue settled before the next meeting.” She pulled on one of her fox-like ears, a sign of her thoughts running to areas she did not like. “Girls, we would love to have you live here in Yumedai. But there’s a situation that we need to talk about. After you two have washed and had a bite to eat.” Within a few hours she had them clean and presentable enough for her standards, though both verily vibrated with tension. Uzumii had to suppress a smile, though they were now grown up in full, it was so easy to see them as the sweetly mischievous children they had been. Age might creep up slowly to a Zenko, but a part of her dearly wanted for them to still be children and herself thus younger. “I’m glad that you two showed up when you did, for we have a situation that would be easier to resolve with your help.” She took a sip from her tea and sighed. “This morning, Kung Uo left Yumedai. The manner in which he left was in and of itself shocking, as he walked out of town on two legs.”

Natty and Mi-Fi blinked together. “But he lost his right leg ages ago.” Natty pulled on her ears as she spoke. “He used to go about in his wheelchair when I last saw him.” Uzumii nodded, wishing Wi hadn’t been called away just before, to resolve a dispute. He had a way with words that eluded her at times. “Yes. You can imagine the stir this caused. An hour or two after, some of the farmers ran in and told us that the house was being besieged by several Ureonggaksi and their families.” She sniffed. “Wi sent a messenger and from the reply we garnered that the house was sold by Kung Uo to the Ureonggaksi. Since Hisana’s will had stipulated that you two would get first refusal on the house should he pass away or move out, we had been discussing the situation before you arrived.” Both Natty and Mi-Fi took this news rather badly, as expected and only Uzumii’s quick reaction prevented two mamonme-shaped holes from being formed in the walls. “Easy you two. Rushing off like a hare won’t change things in your favor. Let us go there, calmly and together.” They eventually calmed down, or at least reached a plateau of nervousness that sufficed. As she led them through Yumedai’s paths, anxiety was pushed away from their faces whenever a familiar sight or old friend greeted them. So much the better, stress was bad for the heart and might induce a genuine stampede. The old house had been maintained somewhat. Kung Uo had asked farmhands each year to make repairs, but only for a given amount of money. It had looked a little run down lately in fact. 

Then they came around the stand of trees and saw the house. Built on a small rise, it had always looked as if  its eaves trailed along the sky as fingers might trail along the edge of the water. Yet at the moment it was not alone. Three family-sized shells stood around it and the rise was veritably slathered in slime from the crisscrossing Ureonggaksi trails. Three very young ones slid down one side of the rise, giggling as they then clambered back up the slope. A different Ureonggaksi, possibly their mother called them, waving a large wooden spoon that had some grains of rice clinging to it. On top of the house a man called out to her, asking to save him a portion. She giggled in reply and told him to finish his work first. Uzumii loved to see such things, as a Zenko she naturally felt drawn to those with kind hearts and a sense of community. She checked her magical reserves, with a little luck she’d not need them, but a prepared Zenko kept her tails. “Hallo~oh! Ho the shells~!” The greeting was a bit archaic, as others considered it, but to Ureonggaksi it was a sign that the caller was at least somewhat willing to behave. The erstwhile cook speedily shuffled closer, followed timidly by the three little girls. A burly man stepped out of one of the shells, put down the box in his hands and sauntered over. “Hello there folks.” The Ureonggaksi gave a respectful bow.

“I’m Penny, my daughters Minmi, Kiery and Loselise are behind me, my hubby Theo is on the roof and my sister’s hubby Petrovich is…” She noticed the tall man’s approach. “Ah, hi Petrovich. We’ve got company.” Turning back to Uzumii, she smiled shyly. “Might I ask your names?” Uzumii returned the bow, then smiled in return. “Of course, I am Fan Uzumii. As one of the… ahem, ‘elders’ of Yumedai it is my duty to welcome prospective settlers. And to address any issues that may arise because of them. The two with me are Aosagi Mi-Fi and Natty. Are you the new owner of this house?” Penny giggled and shook her head. “No, or not as such. It was obtained by my cousin, who asked us to help clean and repair the place. She’s inside and a bit less mobile than normal. Petrovich, can you go tell her we’ve got guests?” The burly man nodded and spoke a few words in Tethyan dialect. Penny scowled. “No need you big galoot, they don’t mean harm I think. Its impolite too to say such things.” As he moved off Penny shrugged off her irritation. “He’s a good man, just… wary of strangers. But my sister loves him, take that as proof of his good nature.” She glanced behind after some prodding and saw a small hand point out two more approaching people. “Ah, there you are Abbyl and… Gosh~! Little Iris?” 

“Ay-yup aunt Penny.” Out of uniform, wearing a harness for dragging tree trunks on her spiked abdomen and slightly sweaty, Iris was still recognisable to Mi-Fi and Natty and they goggled. Then Iris spotted them and, trundling over, wrapped them in a hug that bugged their eyes out further. “Hey you two, what brings you to this neck o’ the woods? And hello to you miss…?” At that moment the front door opened and all eyes turned that way.

Chapter 3. Best intentions

Mi-Fi extracted herself from Iris’ hug gently, smiling to show she meant no unfriendliness. As her ears caught the familiar creak of the door opening she turned towards it, leaning a hand on one of Iris’ knees. Natty rolled her eyes as she was now being held like a teddybear, since Iris too was looking at the door and not paying attention to her. Petrovich exited the house and all but ran over to Iris and Abbyl, the former finally dropping Natty to join in the hug that followed. “Oof! All that muscle and I still can’t free myself.” Natty clambered to her feet and joined Mi-Fi. Uzu-nee tried to hide a small smile it seemed, thankfully Natty hadn’t spotted it, caught up as she was in rubbing her hip. Mi-Fi touched her lightly on the arm in unspoken support then turned her attention back to the muscular man who was barely able to ruffle Iris’ hair without having her bend down. All three glowed with happiness, but soon enough Petrovich, Abbyl held close, turned towards them and inclined his head in apology before speaking. “Eg er hryggur, my apologies you three. I get scolded by wife-systir and cousin of wife for thinking you might be bröttsling out to harm my family. You have met my saetta dottirin and wife?” Mi-Fi smiled, glanced back at Uzu-nee and arched an eyebrow before replying. “Hello Petrovich, no apologies needed. Miss Iris’ helped us back on the Quadrail, but we were a bit surprised to see her here.”

Iris grinned as she glanced at them. “Likewise, sheesh! If I had known you two were heading here I might have given you a ride. I’m just visiting my family though, moms said she’d be in the area. But what brings you here?” Natty grumbled, caught between wanting to greet Iris as a potential friend and addressing the situation. “Well, we wanted to move into Yumedai. But then we heard that something strange had happened and that our grandmother’s house had been bought by Ureonggaksi.” She blew out a sharp breath and looked somewhat deflated. Mi-Fi sighed, then nodded. “We’d hoped to convince the new owner that the sale may have been in error as mr. Kung had to abide by the stipulations of grandmother’s will that said we could have first refusal.” Both Abbyl and Penny went cross-eyed as only Ureonggaksi could achieve it, then made a few attempts at speech until Abbyl nodded at Penny. She spoke then: “I don’t know anything about that, I’m afraid.” Six smaller eyestalks peered around her dress. “Still, I think our cousin can explain it better. Petrovich, what’s the plan?” 

He scratched his beard, which on closer inspection had a shell-like pattern shaved in. “She said that we need to bring them í húsinu, in house. She’s tired from instructing Pottir, Miccha and Svatti, but she is waiting in hearth-room.” Gesturing, he led all of them towards the house, though Penny and Abbyl veered off to a small stream of smoke coming from Penny’s shell. Minmy, Loselise and Kiery had clambered onto Iris’ abdomen and were happily chatting to their big cousin. Despite there being new paint on the door, new planks on the veranda and new beams on the roof of the same, Mi-Fi, Natty and Uzumii all felt immediately thrust back into time. Home to the two rabbit-like mamonme and home of a friend to the Zenko. The hall was still hung with drawings Natty and Mi-Fi had made as children, some the worse for wear but most intact. Another Ureonggaksi, presumably Svatti, was busy chasing spiders in the kitchen while a young man peered critically at the stairs leading up. Creaks from upstairs must have been from the others while a gentle snore came from the room with the hearth. Petrovich caught the sound speedily for a human and motioned for them to wait a moment. He tip-toed inside and gently shook the sleeper. “Cousin, they are here.” A second later a snort sounded that most women would never admit to making.

A gentle voice spoke then. “Ooooh, I must have dozed off. I just sat down for a moment to rest my feet.” A self-deprecating chuckle followed. “Well, bring them in please. It ought to be a bit of a surprise if they are whom I think they are.” They took that as their cue and entered. Petrovich’s form blocked their initial view, as only a pair of slippered feet resting on a footstool protruded beyond his legs and the swivel-chair had an encompassing shape. Natty and Uzumii got a first glance and looked surprised, but mainly curious, glancing back at Mi-Fi as if not sure what to make of the woman in the chair, so she stepped forward and very nearly swallowed her tongue in shock. “Heehee, surprise~!”

A soft grey dress speckled with purple designs fell in loose folds across a belly that was far larger than the last time Mi-Fi had beheld it, and its owner whose grey eyes looked a little tired, but friendly. Natty glanced at Mi-Fi, a question not just showing in her eyes, but practically stamped across her face. “Who is this Mi-Fi?” She tried, pointed at the occupant of the chair and made little sounds of amazement. “Phooeey, Cabbit got your tongue Mi-Fi?” Mi-Fi finally found her words. “Goddess Rukia?!?” Uzumii and Natty spun around as if someone had grabbed them by the head and turned them. “Heehee, present and still pregnant. I didn’t expect you two to arrive this soon.” Rukia grinned mischievously. “Truth is, I’d hoped to have the house done before you got here and then watch you goggle over seeing it restored.” She rubbed her belly with a slight frown as the baby kicked. “Oof! She’s getting antsy to be born it seems.” Mi-Fi blinked, then turned to grab Natty before she did something drastic. Her ears had picked up the tell-tale tap-sh-tap of Natty’s claws reacting to her attempts to control her anger. Uzumii also put her hands on Natty, who seemed ready to explode, it didn’t stop her mouth though. “How could you! Its gramma’s house! And you-” Natty found it impossible to continue her tirade as a large purple bandage suddenly covered her mouth and two human seeming arms held her with the strength of their true form. “I’d rather you did not attack my sweet aunt, Natty.” Iris’ voice and face were still the same, but otherwise she appeared human.

Rukia’s face was slightly sad as she spoke. “Its a bit of a shock to her Iris, especially since she’s been fretting over Mi-Fi. I don’t think she’d act this way normally. Now, Natty if you behave I’ll explain a bit.” She sighed with a sorrowful look on her face. “Looks like I’m still poorly at planning surprises.” Mi-Fi felt sorry for her and apologized for Natty’s behavior. This brought a small smile to Rukia’s face, Natty made an effort to calm herself, finding that the bandage faded magically. “Sorry. I need some answers though and I need them now!” Rukia nodded sagely and made a sign for patience. “Petrov, can you pour us all some applewater?” She sighed happily as a large mug was handed to her, slightly smaller ones were passed around and seats were found as well. “Well, where to begin?” Rukia bit her nail, her raccoon-like ears and tail spinning slow circles. “Its a bit hard to put it in a perspective that’s not too overwhelming, but let me try like so.” She cleared her throat. “I am Rukia of Ishfell-Wayfarer-Saerti and these fine folks here are part of my family. As Mi-Fi noted, I am a Goddess, though as is plain I’m also a Mamonme. An Azeban Danuki to be precise.” She hiccupped. “In other words, someone who ascended. On merits I might add, much like many others before and after. My sisters and I share our husband Aerdayasêr and to some degree our divine domains. We’ve also become mothers recently as we consider our children to have three moms.” She grinned. “Much like mom and aunt Miho really.”

“Little Mihoni came out of her egg shortly after Emmy gave birth to Sêrune and Solsêr. Such cute babies, though… the twins take after Emmy.” She wrinkled her nose ruefully. “Thankfully we have a well ventilated baby chamber.” Iris nodded then, smiling beautifully. “They’re so cute though.” Rukia smiled as well. “True, as was another little baby I seem to recall, who now works on that quadra-contraption. Still, I’m due in a bit too.” She sighed. “Anyway, though I am also the sole Goddess of nappies, my sisters and I share the domain of education. In other words, we’re teacher Goddesses.” She laughed then. “Aered’s in on that gig too, truth be told. But for him, it is still just a means to pass the time until his domain becomes relevant.” A slightly pained look came to her then. “Our husband is the God of Stellar Exploration… It might take another millennium before folks on Praxis can make spacecraft and do just that. In the meantime we’ve a pretty busy task keeping Aered occupied, though finally having babies helps.” She grinned so meaningfully that nobody missed just how they usually occupied him. “Several months ago, when Emmy got pregnant and Metala gravid, well… we had a go at exploring and preserving the orbital ruins. Not an easy task, especially as I too finally conceived and pregnancy complicates things.” She burped loudly. “Whoops, sorry. Imagine our surprise though when all of a sudden Aered brings in a wounded Tsuki no Usako.”

Mi-Fi nodded, wincing a little as she spoke. “An unintentional arrival, as I explained back then.” Rukia shrugged. “A fortuitous one though. You were in critical condition rightly as your left leg had been… pulverized. Had Emmy not been too pregnant to do a better job of it… Oh well, I didn’t do too badly, considering. How’s the leg, on aside?” Rukia glanced at Mi-Fi’s leg and she answered. “Honestly, it still bleeds and hurts if I use it too much, but I can walk and  even run if needed.” Rukia sighed. “Do not run. Not for a long while yet” Her tone brooked no buts. “I’ll take a look at it in a bit, though it looks like Iris bandaged you ably.” She reached over and squeezed Iris’ hand tenderly. “She’s great with medicine and healing, though my niece has some skill at magic as well. Uhm… How much longer by the way?” Iris shrugged. “A few more minutes, sorry aunt Rukia. Shape-changing isn’t that easy.” Rukia nodded knowingly. “Finish your drink then, and go play with your tiny cousins, I’ll pop over before I have to go.” Iris did just that, after hugging those staying behind, Petrovich left along with her. “I just adore them you know… Well, you do know, mrs. Fan, right?” Rukia queried. Uzumii nodded. “Long lives can be a burden Rukia, please call me Uzumii, or Uzu if you will. I prefer first-names” Rukia nodded. “Back to the matter at hand, The big surprise was the book we found in the aircraft. We’d been resigned to the fact that most people would not know of our early adventures… Though they have been of influence on Praxis’ history. Hehehe, they and everything else we’ve done since was pretty fun. But since they were… suppressed, lost to time… and so on, it was amazing to see that some had been gathered by your grandmother.”

Rukia winked. “She got a few things wrong, but the core is right. And since a little bird told us about your plans to go to Yumedai and get the stories published I figured it wouldn’t hurt to help you settle in a little more easily.” Natty blinked as she tried to digest it all. “Uhm… But why didn’t you give Mi-Fi a new leg like you did for Kung-san? And why are these Ureonggaksi and their family repairing the house? If I may ask without getting gagged again?” Rukia nodded, clearly expecting the questions. “Honestly?” She tooted expressively. “That’s just about what I can manage at the moment, sorry. Thus I asked my cousins and their families to help out refurbishing the house. As for Kung Uo’s leg, I hate to break it to you, but it’s a prosthetic. A magical one that works as well as a real leg, but can’t feel worth a damn or heal itself.” She reached into one pocket and drew forth a scale model, flexing it between her fingers. “I’m proud of the spellcraft in these. If you attach it, it won’t pop off without a command word, it’ll react to input from your brain. But it can’t feel anything as I said. And its… not really all that durable. Not the way I hope it’ll be one day. If I’d put one on Mi-Fi, she’d never run, jump or swim again for fear of breaking it.” She replaced the tiny limb and used her slipper to point at Mi-Fi’s leg. “Her leg, though damaged, is far better. I had to pull some strings with the Twin Worlds Foundation to get a maintenance card for that Kung fellow. Funny really, but I didn’t think mom or dad expected the company they founded to become… This gentle behemoth spanning two worlds.” Mi-Fi blinked, the foundation had been one of the key contributors to the Tsubasa no Hikari.

“Your… parents founded that foundation??” She could not keep the sheer perplexity out of her voice. “Yes, it started as a merger of their peddling businesses. Trading Tales, the international company.” Rukia beamed with pride. “During and after the nameless war they, and the rest what would become our family, worked to raise money to end the war. They invested in farms and businesses to feed, clothe and otherwise supply Praxis and it just grew from there. Every Saerti-clan member is given shares at birth, though… Really when they are old enough to use them is when they are handed over. And then there’s the New Heaven Foundation, basically the same thing, but the stockholders are those who have crossed over.” Uzimii realized she was gaping and shut her mouth with an audible clack that Natty and Mi-Fi caught. “But, but… Those stories took place over a thousand years ago. Hisana told me! How could any company last that long?” Rukia held up a finger. “By three means. Staying in the family. Said family following the ways of Saerti, Miho and other heroes. And by adapting to the times.” Rukia yawned. “I’m getting a little tired again, so I’m going to go… I need to keep some energy for the triplets and Iris before Aered’ll pick me up.” Mi-Fi stood up and clasped hands, followed by Natty. “Thank you lady Rukia, for everything. I.. I’m still a bit flabberghasted, but-” Rukia shook her head. “Think nothing of it. I might visit again later… Or send someone who knows the stories first-hand as well. First though, I need to get my bun out of the oven.”

She was assisted to her feet by Natty and Mi-Fi, checked the latter’s leg then shook hands with them and Uzumii once more. Then she finally waddled out of the house. “Is she really a Goddess, you think?” Natty’s right ear drooped quizzically. Uzumii and Mi-Fi nodded in unintentional unison, but the former spoke first. “She is. I can sense not just her magical reserves, which are gargantuan, but also her divine nature.” She shivered. “I’ve never been comfy around the idea of meeting one of the Gods, but she was genuinely kind. And powerful, dear Matrika, she’s stronger in magic than a Zenko with nine tails.” She covered her face with a hand. “I’ll  go back and inform Wi and the others… I would suggest you two stay a little longer and thank the… Saerti’s. But if you want to, I’ve got beds for you two. Wi and I would love to spend more time with you.” Her tails wove an intricate pattern. “But you know that.” They did and they wore their hearts on their sleeves when they promised to visit soon. Left alone, bar the creaking from upstairs and the rattling in the kitchen, Mi-Fi and Natty sat down on the rug in front of the hearth, feeling cast back in time and fighting a teasing feeling that they’d wake up from this dream, sleeping on said rug. “So… now what?” Natty looked small as she sat there. “I’d figured I’d have… days of work ahead fixing the place up alone.” Mi-Fi sighed inwardly. “Well, we might have a roof over our heads tonight. But Uzu-nee is right, we should thank the Ureonggaksi and their families before we do much else.” She sniffed. “It smells like grandma’s house again, don’t you think?” Natty sniffed, slightly more loudly. “Yeah, though gramma’s not here. Her scent is the only thing missing.”

They nodded in unison, then spent a few moments making themselves presentable again. Dusk was creeping over Yumedai as they ventured outside to witness the erstwhile Saerti-clan members setting down to dinner on the lawn. It was a bit unnerving to hear ginormous stomach-growls coming from their feet, but people spending any amount of time around an Ureonggaksi soon stopped being intimidated. Mi-Fi held fast to Natty’s hand as they slip-slided their way past the slimy trails and came to the slime-proof blanket surrounding a large cauldron of rice. Mi-Fi waited politely until the Ureonggaksi who must be Svatti spotted them and prodded Penny and Abbyl. Natty wriggled nervously with her tail, desperately wishing for Mi-Fi to start the talking. Mi-Fi smiled and gave a formal, if friendly bow that Natty followed a fraction of a moment later, then spoke. “Hello, we’re sorry to interrupt your dinner, but we wanted to thank you… all of you… for all that you have done. And apologize for being a bit rude earlier. Such was not our intention, but the unexpected events of today surrounding our grandmother’s house were a little shocking.” Natty nodded and added: “It isn’t an excuse, but it has been a trying time. Uhm… I’m a little grouchy when stressed, sorry.” She scratched the back of her head, her ears flopping forward. Penny smiled at them, as did Abbyl and Svatti, the latter actually grinned as she shuffled closer.

“Don’t sweat it. I’m Svatti, Pottir over there’s my darling husband and that strapping young man is our son Miccha. You know my cousins, and their husbands and kids.” She pulled on one corner of her mouth with a pinky, her eyestalks looking to her cousins, whom nodded. “Now, I’ve got the kitchen in there… somewhat less filthy, but I’d still not eat anything cooked there at this moment. So, would you two like to join us for dinner? Its mostly simple rice and chopped veggies, but I’ll stake my shell on it tasting delicious.” Penny nodded as well then. “I’m afraid the broiled mozur side-dish is a little… well done, but the rice is as soft as butterstem on your tongue. You don’t have any allergies for it I hope?”

Mi-Fi shook her head, Natty just chuckled. “We’d love to accept the invitation, right Mif?” Mi-Fi raised an eyebrow. “You need to ask, Nat?” They shared a laugh that soon spread to the gathered family. Mi-Fi had thought that the cauldron’s worth of rice might also be intended for breakfast on the next morrow. But though the four humans present ate moderately and neither she nor Natty, nor Iris for that matter ate too much of the rice, the Ureonggaksi emptied it in one hour and even then were debating whether or not to make more. “I dunno Penny, maybe we just went through a lot of calories today, but…” Abbyl sighed. “I could do with another bowl. Two actually. Maybe I’ve even got room for three.” Penny shrugged, looking slightly worried. “You don’t think we’re expecting? Or did cousin Rukia play a prank, again?” Presently little Loselise pulled on her dress  and grinned mischievously. “Mama, look at th’caul-de-ron.” Kiery and Minmi were giggling and Penny turned to see a note stuck to the rim. It read: Couldn’t resist, if you ate the filler, here’s the rest of the real rice. ~Rukia. “OooooohH! She’s a mischievous one, our Rukia.” Abbyl and Svatti affirmed this, wondering aloud how Rukia had done this. Over near Mi-Fi, Iris grinned and spoke to the guests. “Aunt Rukia’s really sweet, but she’s mischievous when bored. And being unable to cast as much magic as she normally can, or wants, while near the end of her term?” Iris laughed aloud. “I’m just glad she kept it simple this time.”

Mi-Fi had to ask. “She does that a lot?” Iris nodded, looking like a veteran soldier at that moment. “Yoo~ou bet’cha. Its always as much fun to be pranked as it is for her to prank you though. She taught me quite a bit really.” Iris’ eyes twinkled. “Not to brag, but I’ve a bit of talent for magic and she spotted it first.” One massive hand trailed through the air, etching a figure in light. “Its useful for my job, but I’m happier when I can just use it for something nicer, like entertaining my little cousins.” She looked a little sheepish as she added: “I guess I’m still a bit childish, but its so endearing to see three gap-tooth smiles break on their faces.” Mi-Fi chuckled at that and Natty smiled before replying. “We’re not the best folks to comment on that objectively. Heck, we grew up here and just like before we let Uzu-nee take the lead. I might as well order a pair of carrot-shaped pacifiers.” Iris roared with laughter, when she calmed somewhat she waggled a finger dismissively. “I’ll see your offer and raise mine by admitting that my cousins like to have me play the part of their pie-rate landship.” Mi-Fi and Natty giggled with their counter. “Uzu-nee still locks the upper cupboards when we visit, afraid we might eat something toxic.” Iris snorted with mirth as Mi-Fi relayed that bit of info, then spoke in a hush. “I still let mom tuck me in and kiss me goodnight whenever I stay over in her shell.” She winked, blushing slightly. The pinkish tinge her gray cheeks took on had a very cute appeal. “Uhm, don’t mention that to others though.” She smiled. “I think we’ll be good friends, if… if you two aren’t worried about having me in your contacts list.”

Natty snorted then. “Don’t be silly. Here, have a looksie.” She retrieved her MARE from its clip on her belt and after some searching pressed a small button next to a crystal set into the device. It lit up and projected a sphere of orange light with a tumbling carrot that disappeared as a fierce woman appeared in its stead. “Estr’lla is a very sweet girl, but some people judge her for being born to Taintpledged. And yeah, she’s not someone they care for.” Natty used a small cogwheel in the side of the MARE to scroll through several other contacts, whose pictures briefly appeared in the light. “I’d love to add you to my contacts, Mif does as well.” Mi-Fi nodded, showcasing her new MARE, the old one lost with the Tsubasa no Hikari. It was slightly larger and featured three crystals instead of the one, she beeped up her contacts list and asked the question on her tongue. “So, what’s your node-code?” Iris fished the largest MARE they had ever seen out of the jacket she had worn to dinner and sheepishly booted it up. “Erhm, mine’s a bit tricky, but 879-IR-011-IS-452. And yours?” Mi-Fi replied with genuine excitement: “Cool, you have your name in it? Mine’s 767-FI-777-LL-133” Natty also gave her node-code and all three let the crystals take their pictures. Iris’ eyes peeked with interest at Mi-Fi’s  device though. “Can I have a look at that?” Mi-Fi nodded and handed over the device. Iris let out a low whistle. “This is a top-end new model, it even has-” She pressed a button carefully and a segment slid out that started buzzing. 

“Ahh, a single gal’s helper.” Chuckling, she made the device retract its rather lewd component. Mi-Fi blushed. “Its never been used Iris.” Natty nodded as well, intrigued by the girl’s handling of technology. “You’re into tech stuff then, Iris?” She nodded shyly. For the remainder of the evening they chatted, finding that they shared more than a few fields of interest.

Chapter 4. Reflection and premonition

Uzumii took great care not to show the two girls just how shaken she had been by the encounter. It was one of the reasons that she had not taken them back home immediately as she hated seeming less than composed in front of those whom she’d helped to raise. She bade the Ureonggaksi outside a pleasant goodbye and asked that they visit the town hall in the morning for a bit of hospitality. She’d omitted mentioning that she’d serve mochi with the tea though, or she’d have them swarming all over the place long before night proper had spread its blanket over the world. She took a roundabout route through the woods, noting where spidery and snaily tracks intersected missing trees. Small saplings basted with good mulch stood in their place, something she was grateful for. A clearing nearby was where she headed next. An old log preserved by her magic served as a seat while she sorted her thoughts. Zenko were not opposed to the Gods on average, but like anyone with half a brain they were leery of Celestial tantrums. Given that Lady Eiraiha had long since laid down and thoroughly enforced strict yet fair rules for Gods on Praxis, these could not be as devastating as would otherwise be the case… Think localized lightning strikes and the like for mortals that had dared to cheat, or scorn a Celestial lover. Yet nothing alike the destruction of an entire city or a maelstrom that would swallow a fleet such as old texts suggested had happened ages ago. But smaller scale catastrophes still were catastrophes.

Mi-Fi had nearly lost a leg, had lost several millions’ worth of equipment and the job she had chased so passionately. All because of one minor Goddess who had gotten embarrassed about her tryst amid the clouds being observed apparently. Uzumii cursed the blasted woman silently and resolved to keep the girls from further Celestial harm. Rukia had made a good first impression, but given a choice Uzumii would rather not see her again. A gentle sigh escaped her lips. Those Ureonggaksi though, sweet people, they and their families. Were it not for the Celestial relatives, she’d have suggested immediately to consider settling. That line of thinking was… problematic though. Yumedai had been founded by her ancestors as a safe haven for those who did not thrive in the ever more alien environments of the big cities. Hospitality towards prospective settlers was a key hallmark expected of the town’s elders. Something that Uzumii did not excel at if she were honest with herself. She chewed on a sprig of wild clover as she mulled this over. Her issue stemmed from bitter experience two and a half centuries earlier when a terminally ill Al Miraj had stumbled into town, bearing the wonderful gift known as the rizine plague. Uzumii had lost her first husband then and half the populace of Yumedai as the disease ran its course.

Healers had not been able to do anything for the small village then as other parts of Zipangu suffered the same fate. She still had nightmares at times, seeing the pale yellow splotches appear on the faces of those she loved that would then dissolve the flesh underneath. Thankfully not as often since she had married Wi. Thinking of him brought a broad smile to her face and warm desire to the rest of her body. He’d been a child when they first met, a little boy who had declared his love for her in the first week of meeting her. She’d resisted temptation for more than a decade before caving in and finding marital bliss on a level she’d not expected to ever experience again. She returned from her recollections to find a wild fox sniffing at her legs and flushed with embarrassment. Though a mamonme, her unconscious release of pheromones when in the mood occasionally attracted unwanted attention from the animals that Zenko shared a bond with, ancestrally. She gently dissuaded the young male and began the run back home, thinking to refrain mentioning this to Wi in favor of sating their mutual desire. He’d borne up well to the longevity their marriage had bestowed upon him, though they both mourned the lack of children in their life together. Perhaps that was why she seemed more like a Lamia around such children as came to Yumedai, acting like their big sister more than anything else. Branches whipped overhead as she left the forest in a mighty leap, landing perfectly on the stone in their garden’s pond.

The gentle croaking of amphibious life continued unabated as she lightly sprang clear of the water, her friends in the pond were used to her habits after generations of experience and probably considered her a kind of rock. As she made to unlock the door, Wi pulled it open and grinned at seeing her looking slightly surprised. Had he waited behind the door all this time? “Welcome home Uzu, I’ve got dinner ready, and a story to share.” Wi gently, yet firmly led her inside where her curiosity bloomed into full fledged wonder as the smell of honey-roasted Gatush greeted her. It had been a favourite dish of her youth, but the species of bird had sadly enough gone extinct… hadn’t it? Wi laughed his rolling laugh as she dabbed at a bit of drool marring her lips. “I see my source was well-informed Uzu. Does it smell good? I’m not sure if I got the seasonings right.” She was feeling off-balance, and sought to check herself for concussion. “Shrinebearer of my heart, am I dreaming? That’s Gatush I smell, a species of bird that has gone extinct ages ago.” Wi shrugged. “In Zipangu maybe, but this one comes from NeverNeverLand. Apparently they thrive there.” They finally reached the table and Wi tenderly pressed her into her usual chair. Moving with a grace that belied his age, he strode into the kitchen and barely a minute later emerged bearing a tray dominated by the roast bird and served them both a goodly portion, slightly more meat for her.

As they ate, Wi started talking. “Shrinemaiden ever beloved, I am very curious to know what happened at Hisana’s house, but perhaps I should speak first of what happened after you were gone with the girls.” He deliberated for a moment, considering what he wanted to say. “I’d just returned from that bickering pair who spent the last five years trying to claim a bit of land less than three hands wide and… Well, I found a young man asleep in the waiting area. A foreigner, so I thought, with red hair and the signs of exhaustion common to young parents.” Wi laughed again, though there might have been a tinge of regret to it. “So I prepared some tea while he napped. Then I awakened him. It was a bit of a shock, by the look on his face.” Wi paused to savor the tender meat on the bird’s leg and sighed contentedly. “Marvelous, I might be a simple cook, but this turned out excellently.” Uzumii concurred, licking the bone clean before snapping it in twain to get at the marrow. “Back to the tale, he shocked me a bit with his eyes. All the colours of the rainbow served as his irises… Apparently fortunes were with us as the God Aerdayasêr decided to grace the village, though not in official capacity.” Uzumii yipped in alarm. “Easy Uzu. He just dropped off some paperwork for the Ureonggaksi and their families who want to settle here. Some… relations of his if I understand correctly. And he deposited the papers to Hisana’s house in the name of the girls.”

Wi tapped the remnants of the bird. “And then he got a call on his MARE from one of his wives to remind him to give this to us. Not as a bribe or something trite mind, but as a favour to a mutual friend.” Without another word he handed her a small card written in a familiar hand. It read:”Uzumii and Wi, I hope this reaches you safely. Please welcome my granddaughters back into Yumedai and give them the love they will need. Some new settlers will also apply, I hope that you’ll consider them as they are kind at heart. When your time comes, we’ll meet again. ~Aosagi Hisana”. Uzumii coughed up a flake of marrow that stuck to Wi’s forehead. “How!?!?” She howled the word. Wi smiled and patted her between the ears. “Hisana was welcomed into Nu-oh Tenshi apparently.” He leaned back, removing the flake absently and taking a root from his bowl that he chewed slowly. “So were most others we knew.” Uzumii nodded, thinking back to the remark made by Rukia, and her own response. Wi might have been fortified to live longer, but that did not lessen the hurt of losing friends. Not for him, or for her. But rather than let him dwell too long on it, she told her own tale. The moons shone high overhead by the time they left for their futons, though sleep was still a long time away as Uzumii needed a release. As she finally drifted off to sleep her mind reflected that she’d need every second of it if small bunny girls would come knocking in the morning.

Perhaps it was a result of eating Gatush, but she dreamt of her early youth, a happy little Zenko skipping through the woodlands in search of adventure. Her parents lived in a small house next to a shrine dedicated to peaceful living and had allowed her free reins as long as she kept her MARE close, one much clunkier than today’s models. It had bounced around, smacking her tush every other bounce, even with the padded beltcase. Yet it now seemed to weigh heavier than ever before and within a few moments twilight fell over the forest. Something moved within the suddenly hostile environment. Flaming green eyes narrowed at her, then moved away with malevolent intent. She ran back home, only now Yumedai stood there, its buildings sagging and the fields laying fallow. A fear-inducing shape loomed over the town, indistinct yet terrifyingly huge. She readied her magic, yet it failed. She glanced at her arm and saw bare bone fading on the wind. It gathered near her home, coalescing into a tombstone. She shot awake with a howl of horror and a look of terror that Wi tried his best to ease from her face and mind. A premonition of great danger?

Chapter 5. Touch the shell

Mi-Fi rose from the futon well rested if not yet awake fully. Lightly stepping over Natty, who habitually wrestled her pillow while asleep, she made her way to the bathroom and flicked the on button of the rabbit-shaped receiver. Slight static followed as the device tuned in to the broadcast nexus. “News please.” Mi-Fi yawned as her hands sought and found the toothbrush. “…Good morning listeners~! The waves are green, the gulls are nowhere in sight and my captain’s toooo cute. Grace of Wings comin’ at you live with the latest news.” Mi-Fi frowned, idly wondering why each Phantom Ship radio station wasted so much time on trivial things. “There was a major collision between the Rockport Candy and the caravel Saint Gohn, the former had to tow the stricken ship to port, then pay for damages by taking on the passengers and cargo bound for other destinations. It goes to show you shouldn’t play with your captain in the midst of a shipping lane.” Mi-Fi nodded absently, using fibrous wire to clean in between her teeth. “Just in, thank you my captain, tensions continue to mount between the Darklands and Zipangu. The empress, may she live forever, has ordered the fleet on standby. The army too, but they do that at the drop of an anchor anyway.” Natty entered the bathroom, grumbling. “Moving on, have I got something nice for you folks in Zipangu today~! We had the famous seer Onn’dra aboard yesterday, when she disembarked this morning I spotted the first lilliyu building a nest. Summer’s officially here and the weather looks to be good for the next few days.” There was a pause while someone indistinctly spoke in the background.

“Oooh, right, almost forgot it. My darling captain just reminded me that we’re having a contest for our faithful listeners. Just beep up your MARE or ARE to-” “Must they always prattle so much in the morning Mif?” Natty hated the morning broadcasts as they dispelled her pleasant dreams. Mi-Fi smiled, her mouth full of rinsing liquid, as Grace of Wings continued to broadcast. “Hummm, now for these predictions by our prior guest. If you’re even part rabbit then you’ll be lucky if you touch an Ureonggaksi shell today.” Natty’s bad mood broke at that with a peal of laughter that ejected her toothbrush. Mi-Fi snorted out the mouthwash, partially through her nose. “Looks like we’ll be triply lucky today then, eh Nat?” | “Yup Mif. Now where did that blasted toothbrush go?” Mi-Fi wiped her face before helping Natty find it. They tuned out a little as the broadcast shifted to another station when Grace of Wings bade them farewell, promising an exposé on how to optimally use the crow’s nest when in company of a dashing man. The audible groan in the background suggested that the methods would be tested before then. Natty sighed, picking fluff from the folds in her ears before washing them. Mi-Fi suspected that her sister would run a risk of being late for the interview if she kept fussing and said so. Natty responded rather cattily: “They won’t hire me if I look like a bum, Mif!”

Mi-Fi shrugged, making a perfunctory grooming of her own, more floppy ears and reflecting that life in Yumedai had turned out nicely so far. The Saerti’s had finished with the house, then moved their shells to a more optimal space just below the rise on which grandma’s… their house stood. Today Mi-Fi would babysit the three little girls while their mom and aunts went out to buy ‘a decent supply of rice’. In more common terms, rice enough that they’d need another shell to serve as a storage silo to hold it probably. Mi-Fi liked rice well enough, but nowhere near as much as any Ureonggaksi seemed to. She was a bit more worried about Uzu-nee though. The Zenko had experienced a nightmare that she deemed prophetic but which all but a few dismissed as just a nightmare. The alternative was… not nice to ponder truthfully. “So Natty, you’ll be gone till the evening, right? Should I save you a portion or will you try the eateries in Feng-Dao?” Natty sighed, licking her thumb lightly before replying. “Well, Iris offered to show me this nifty bar-grill. Who knows? There may even be a cute guy around.” Natty tilted her head and peered critically at her reflection. “Looking good, right?” Mi-Fi grinned teasingly. “But Natty, how would I know? I’ve only known you for sixteen years and still habitually think you should wear a ribbon and bell ensemble everywhere.”

Natty stuck out her tongue. “Sixteen years of enduring that joke’s gotta count for something. Now, do I look good enough to leave the house? Or should I borrow a shellpack to wear over my head?” Mi-Fi nodded sagely before speaking: “I don’t see how a shellpack would improve matters, but bring it along anyway. You’ll need something to catch their drool with, looking so good. Go on, if you fuss anymore you’ll be as white-haired as me before you get out of the house.” Natty grinned ruefully, then hugged her before dashing off. Mi-Fi allowed herself a smile as she caught the distant thumps when Natty ‘touched’ the Shells of their new neighbours. “I ought to get going too.” So thinking, she gathered her book, notes and writing materials in a shoulder bag before leaving the house. The trip down to the shell homes went a lot more smoothly now that her leg was feeling a bit better. It was healing well enough she supposed. Her training as a pilot had included first aid, but this was something only a trained physician could judge properly. Unconsciously, she touched a shell, Svatti’s by chance, and went to Penny’s door. “Good morning~! Penny, I’m here to take care of the girls.” The door cracked open and Penny’s pale face peered out. “Ohh, its you Mi-Fi. Thank goodness, a few minutes ago something hit the shell… It was scary.” Mi-Fi blushed, embarrassed for the unintended effects Natty’s enthusiasm had garnered. 

“Sorry Penny, Natty heard on the radio that it’d be good luck to touch an Ureonggaksi shell today. Since she was running late I guess she didn’t slow down.” Mi-Fi giggled, shrugging slightly. “You don’t need to be afraid, in these parts a loud thump is most likely caused by a familiar Cabbit.” Penny blew out a long breath, shaking her head and looking dejected. “You’d think we’d be less easily spooked, given just how many different folks are part of the Saerti-clan. But we’re still just little Ureonggaksi.” Mi-Fi felt moved to put a comforting hand on Penny’s arm. “I think anyone would be scared if Natty thumped their house. Cabbits are so energetic and enthusiastic that you need an… well… an extra pair of eyes to spot them when running.” Penny laughed so much in response she slimed herself accidentally. 

Meanwhile Natty was racing along the road. She did not dislike a slow walk, but going all out while running just felt so magnificent, as if the horizon was rushing towards her. Mi-Fi could run well before, for an Usako, but she missed the hair-trigger ability to spot obstacles and the reflexes to dodge them at the speed Natty now maintained. Not her absolute top speed of course, but one that still made her feel active while not tiring her out. Or make her terribly sweaty. She’d packed her clothes for the interview in a neat little bag that hung down her back while keeping a sportswear bikini on for the trip. It left her legs on display of course, one of the reasons she’d picked this one instead of the ever popular ‘school shorts’. While running and dodging by instinct she let her mind wander for a moment. The whole surprise of having the house restored almost before they got there had thrown her personal plans into a bit of  a tangle. Natty, being honest with herself, found that she missed working at the Suszaku Array where her natural talent for spotting and tracking fit like a glove with her job as counter-interference expert. A fancy title for looking at several screens receiving camera and scrying-orb feeds from around Zipangu and beyond. If something dangerous flew through the air and threatened to hit an aircraft she’d know which was in danger and take steps to solve the problem. Be that alerting the aircraft to fly lower or higher, or calling on a Sorceress to deal with the issue by blasting it out of the sky.

Not always though, some issues required a more delicate approach. She’d saved an experimental springloaded vehicle and its pilot once by having a flock of Harpy-kin  intercept it. Durned fool had forgotten a means to stop bouncing about in his attempt to go to the moon. But Suszaku was a closed chapter to her now, when a co-worker had publicly vented his spleen about it being Mi-Fi’s fault for losing the experimental aircraft they had all been involved in. A red mist had descended on Natty’s mind and she’d kicked the seat of his pants hard enough to send him through the wall. Nevermind that it was a thin wall or that he’d been swearing up a storm right after, the management held her responsible. The moment they wanted to fire her was when she’d just finished her resignation and stuffed it into the approaching secretary’s mouth for good measure. Hopefully this new gig, one that Iris had alerted her to via the MARE messenger system, would be fun. Natty thought to check on how long she had to go when she spotted a sign that made her stop and curse vehemently. It read: Now leaving Feng-Dao. She also noticed her sweaty odour and made a bee-line back to the town and its station. Fortunately she still had nearly half an hour, so she scooted into a public bathhouse and bought a small bottle of scented soap that foamed nicely during her shower.

From the next stall over some muffled sounds, which indicated that a couple shared it if Natty was any judge. She grinned and peeked through a convenient knothole in the wall. She was rewarded with a peculiar sight. The couple inside were both human, but the girl was dressed up with a fake bunny tail and ears of the same make. Mamonme-fetishists, a somewhat rare sight these days. Some human women wanted to be mamonme-like without actually changing species and some human men thought this was ’hot’. Natty grinned, wishing she’d invested in a recording device so she could preserve this for later. Then again, if either was a God… The ticking of the clock intruded on her musings though, so she replaced the knothole plug and toweled off, finding it hard to resist going for a private climax after the steamy show. Her dress-clothes felt good on her body though and she skipped through the street towards the offices associated with the Quadrail company. As she approached the door, a familiar large hand tapped her on the shoulder and Iris grinned at Natty. “So, ready Natty? You look neat enough… But aren’t you nervous at all?” Iris winked. “You’re about to step into the Ushi-Oni’s den after all.” Natty snorted as she tried to keep her laughter inside. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world Iris.” She related the uneventful trip and the unexpected sight at the bathhouse as they went inside. The building was surprisingly neat, if a bit wide in the corridors and doors to accommodate the large frames of Ushi-Oni.

“I’m glad they built this with us in mind.” Iris absentmindedly spoke as she paused to straighten a picture that had been hanging slightly crooked. “I happen to be good at taking on a human form and I’ve tried to teach a few of the others, but they’ve gone through a few buildings before the management understood the need for a bit more space. Speaking of which, you’ll need to go down that hallway and up the stairs.” She looked thoughtful. “Unless you want to take a climb with me?” Natty agreed and Iris led her to what at first glance appeared to be a wide elevator shaft with walls made of beams with plenty of space in-between. Two Ushi-Oni could climb up or down side-by-side easily and still have enough room to haul something along. It gave Natty an idea, but then… “Snail-face! This ain’t the lah-di-dah stairs, tell your little fluffball where to go.” The rough voice dropped closer along with its owner, a scarred Ushi-Oni with one eye and bent spikes on her abdomen. Iris put her arms to her sides in a way that Natty had indeed seen many Ureonggaksi do and replied tersely. “Mind your own business Aggridth and don’t call someone you’ve never met a fluffball.” Aggridth spat. “I’ll call anyone what I damn well call them. And this isn’t a climb for any little fragile fluffballs, one fall and she’ll be broken.” Natty sighed, feeling her temper stir after the initial fright. “I do not know you, but I’d suggest that you get a monocle. I’m a Cabbit, not a fluffball. And calling Iris names isn’t smart, since you’d be a shoe-in for cart-butt over there.”

Aggridth looked furious for a moment, then broke out in laughter. “Not easily intimidated, eh? And a good mouth on you too.” She extended a massive hand. “Aggridth Swarnath, the senior engineer hereabouts, nice to meet you.” Natty felt a little non-plussed but accepted the handshake and introduced herself. The climb after was surprisingly easy, anyone with strong legs could manage it really, though none like she did, bouncing from wall to wall while Iris and Aggridth goggled, the former having one hand on a beam. “Ohh-kay, she’s a bouncing ball, not a fluffball.” Aggridth looked impressed, Iris merely grinned in reply as she climbed swiftly after. This was already shaping up to be an interesting day.

Chapter 6. Dancing Spider

At the top of the shaft used by the Ushi-Oni of the Quadrail company Natty caught her breath. Using wall jumps to ascend had been fun, but it wouldn’t do to be breathing hard during the interview. Besides, Iris was still climbing upwards and Natty wanted to make sure she looked her best. Taking a compact from her belt pocket, she surveyed the damage done by her bouncing, then used the built-in comb to tease her hair back into its short but sweet model. “Come on Natty, you’re here for a job-interview, not the miss Praxis election.” Iris rose into view, a scrabbling sound indicating that one of her eight legs had misstepped, but to no harm. “Soooo… Here we are, the personnel office is just down this corridor.” Iris trundled past Natty, humming to herself. “That was quite a sight by the by. I didn’t think you could bounce all the way up here.” Natty grinned. “Well, that was nothing really. Cabbits have extremely strong legs, and good reflexes. You can’t do it without both, or you’ll drop down. Hard.” She gazed speculatively at Iris’ legs. “I’m guessing your legs are strong enough though?” Iris nodded before replying. “Ay-yup, though I can’t kick off like you do, from one leg to another. But Aggridth can jump more than halfway up the building, I’ve not tried it myself yet though.” She shyly shrugged. “I’m worried one of my spikes will get stuck in the wall, or worse, that I’ll go through the wall entirely.” She stopped outside of a sliding door and knocked. 

“Miss Harou, its Iris. I’ve brought the applicant along.” Natty rolled her eyes at this very formal way of announcing them, then stepped inside as permission was given. The office had plenty of floor space and a few mattresses in case one of the Ushi-Oni wanted to sit down, but the desk was sized for a human and the woman seated there was indeed human in appearance. “Hello Iris, and welcome Natty.” Miss Harou gestured to the mattresses from force of habit before pointing out a hard-backed chair in front of the desk. “Can I offer the two of you a refreshment? Water? Affeine? Maybe lemonade?” Iris blushed at the obviously familiar barb and nodded. Natty raised an eyebrow. “I’d like lemonade as well, please.” A few moments later they held their glasses and were engaged in small talk. “The company had a rough start to be sure, not everyone was keen on having such… ‘infernal contraptions’ transporting people. Some claimed it would put the Bovitaurides off their milk, cause a heart-attack with every Ureonggaksi and Shongororo, and ad addenda.” Miss Harou, first name Suyie, was a buff on the company’s history and Quadrail development. “As you may have noticed, some of our senior employees have a collection of scars.” Natty nodded. “Well, let me be honest with you, there have been more than a few accidents. Even though we’ve managed to improve the safety ratings of the cars, engines and so on. If you wish to work for us, then you need to impress these facts into your mind.”

Miss Harou pulled a folder out of the desk and handed it to Natty. Inside were reports and photographs that showed in grotesque detail the damages a derailed early model Quadrail had done. She shivered as her mind reflected that had these pictures been in colour, she would have noticed a lot more blood. “Yeah…” She swallowed for a moment. “Kind of like an aeroplane crashing into the barracks… But worse, since these ride through the cities and are way larger.” She returned the folder across the desk. “Iris mentioned that you have implemented several countermeasures though, to minimize the damage.” Natty thought for a moment, carefully phrasing her next question. “In my previous job, everyone involved was encouraged to  think along…” 

Her left ear drooped while the right one raised. “Does the Quadrail company allow those not directly involved in building or maintaining the trains to get involved with improving safety?” Miss Harou nodded. “Up to a point at least. We do expect some consideration for budgets and require some proof that your idea might be feasible.” She sipped from her own glass before continuing. “Now I’ve reviewed your written application and honestly, you do make a good first impression.” She sighed. “But I’m not convinced just yet. Can you work with a crew of rowdy Ushi-Oni? Iris is not a good example of her species in that regard, most others would have demanded an ale for starters.” She smiled at Iris. “Still, she’s good at what she does and less destructive than others.”

Iris grinned. “I still break things now and again, sorry.” Miss Harou waved that away and grilled Natty for a good twenty minutes before concluding the interview. “Well, I think you’ll do fine. Welcome to the Quadrail miss Aosagi. Now, I believe Iris has asked the afternoon off to show you around town, but I expect you in the central control office early tomorrow morning. Gandou shall be present to get you accustomed to this particular line of work. Hands off though, he’s spoken for even if I can’t put pheromones on him.” After saying goodbye, Natty and Iris left the building and high-fived. “Wahoo~! I’ve got a new job.” Iris nodded. “Ay-yup, but lets go get some grub now. I’m starving.” Not waiting for a reply, she picked up Natty with a huge hand and set the Cabbit comfortably on her abdomen. Some mamonme are built for pure speed, with lithe bodies and muscles that project the image of a good runner. Ushi-Oni though relied on their innate power and legendary endurance to get up to speed. They needed to learn, safely of course, when to put on the brakes so their trundling would not carry them through a house. Riding on Iris’ abdomen was reminiscent of flying with Mi-Fi in that every movement was carefully planned and weighed against instinctual calculations. Natty might have run faster still, honestly, but this was still damn fast. The shops raced past as people cleared the centre of the street for Iris’ approach.

“Watch it, you, you!” A Lamia glared as her tail was stepped on accidentally. “Da~arliing~! I need you to heal my tail.” the man next to her smiled at her and she stopped glaring in order to pout prettily in his embrace. Meanwhile Iris slowed gradually, using a few turns to lose excess speed before finally coming to a stop in front of a grill and bar. The size of the double doors indicated that it catered to large crowds, conceivably a small Phantom Ship could have sailed in. If she had a collapsible mast. Natty clambered off of Iris’ abdomen and prodded one of her legs. “Wow, not bad. You would actually make a fun racing rival if you feel up for it.” Iris grinned at the compliment, then led the way inside. “Hey~! Its Iris~! Hello~oh! Ho the cocoon.” A cheerful voice drifted down along with a diminutive mamonme who promptly glomped Iris’ head. “Finally. I’ve missed you.” Iris returned the hug gently before cradling the tiny form and turning back to Natty. “Hey Ithyali, how are you? I’d like you to meet a new friend of mine, Aosagi Natty. Natty, this is Shikku Ithyali.” A small hand with a covering of dusky blue chitin in spots extended tentatively and Natty gently grasped it. “Hello Ithyali, nice to meet you.” She looked the child over. “You’re a Polimana, right? And cute as can be.” Ithyali giggled, then reached up and touched Natty’s ears. “And you’re… Oh, I don’t know, but your ears are soft.” Natty chuckled. “I’m a Cabbit, see?” Ithyali was amazed, her dark green eyes shimmering in their inhuman splendor. Finally, she returned her attention to Iris and insisted cutely that Iris had better tell what she’d been up to.

The small restaurant was run by Ithyali’s parents and a couple of Cukaliki, whom obviously knew Iris as the three were shown to a table built for Ushi-Oni with a practiced ease. Looking over the menu, Natty was surprised at the variety of dishes: various meats, vegetables and fish. “Iris, will you tell me now?” Iris nodded at Ithyali. “Well, I had been visiting moms, she’d been helping out aunt Rukia with…” After getting the story, Ithyali was grinning. “So miss Natty, you’ve got a flying bunny sister?” Natty laughed aloud, as did Iris. “Mi-Fi doesn’t have wings, but she can pilot flying machines Ithyali. Or…” Natty sighed. “Before the big crash, she hasn’t flown since.” Ithyali looked sad, but quickly cheered up as Iris suggested that they dance together while waiting for their food. Natty was amazed as the Ushi-Oni gently requested the use of the dancefloor, it was big enough for her and maybe three smaller people. Natty saw one of the men married to a Cukaliki move to a control panel and flipping switches. A mechanical arm with a needle moved downward to a hole that had opened in the connected counter. From it rose a spinner with an enchanted crystal disc laying on top. The music that started playing as the lights dimmed and a spotlight flared on was instantly recognized by all who heard it. “Wow, My Heart is Waiting For Your Love…” An honest to goodness love-song perhaps, but sung by Thundersnail and the Shellshockers.

Thundersnail had been one of the most talented singers and spark-guitar players known to Praxis, but she’d gone missing following her last concert. One where she’d shown up in tears, barely able to speak for some reason and then fleeing. Even nearly two decades later the band’s songs had not lost even a fraction of their raw, emotional power. Natty wanted to dance along, but settled for singing along as Iris danced. Her eight legs rose and fell one by one while her arms ponderously, yet gracefully arced through the air, sometimes grasping the floor. When she did this, Iris used her prodigious strength to swing her abdomen off the ground and turn a full circle. She did this so skillfully that little Ithyali, who used Iris’ abdomen as a mini-stage, did not falter in her dance. “They love dancing together.” Natty turned to see a man in a rather enticing apron smile at the girls on the dancefloor. His green eyes marked him as a relative of Ithyali’s, but Natty was surprised that he’d wear any garment depicting a bent-over Cukaliki enjoying some attention. Humans usually were a bit too prudish for that in her experience. “I can see that, they must dance here often to work together so well.” She got a grin in reply. “Definitely, miss. The name’s Naet, chef cook here. May I know your name?” Natty introduced herself, though she was a bit disappointed to learn later that Naet actually wore his wife’s likeness on his apron.

As the song ended, Iris and Ithyali returned to the table, ready for the delicious food Naet had brought to bear. Back in Yumedai Mi-Fi was unaware that she was being observed. She’d made the mistake of playing love darts with the three little Ureonggaksi, not knowing that they would shoot the darts at one another with blowpipes. For an Ureonggaksi this was a fun way to pass the time, sniping each other in the foot. Mi-Fi however would not be sitting down without a pillow for a while, even if she had tried not to show it to the girls.

Chapter 7. Fox and Crane

In the trees nearby the three shells Uzumii tried to stifle her laughter, had anyone been close enough to listen, they might have caught a few muffled giggles. The slight breeze obscured most of the sound though as the leaves of the tree rustled. Mi-Fi was pretty brave to try playing along and Uzumii knew from experience what she was going through… Well, aside from the fact that she’d got stuck in the tails rather than in the rear. She used the victory cheers from Kiery, Minmi and Loselise as a cover to exit the tree. Though it was mostly Zenko-woodcraft, Uzumii still felt a thrill, as if the woods responded to her passage by moving branches and such out of her path. Knowing the tricks didn’t lessen the magic in this case. She alighted on a familiar path and followed it to where farmer Shyuin tended his dessa, as he had for the last two decades. Today though he was arguing with Abbyl, Penny and Svatti who requested bulk-rates for the rice they wanted to buy. Shyuin hedged, as was his habit when faced with an unfamiliar situation. “‘S not right, m’m. The village might need the rice. ‘Nd them regular buyers might complain if’n I deliver less.” Abbyl sighed and waved a finger under his nose. “Mr. Shyuin, that’s just silly. We offer a fair price for your rice, a little more than you’d get from your usual buyers in fact. Mrs. Fan told us the village has a surplus of rice.” She swung her eyestalks  in a sweeping arc. “What more could you want?”

Shyuin shrugged, hunching his shoulders and looking miserable. Uzumii decided to intervene. “Good afternoon Setsuo, to you as well Penny, Abbyl and Svatti.” She stepped forward and placed a calming hand on Shyuin Setsuo’s shoulder, eliciting a pleading look from the farmer. “Sorry, he’s a bit… shy-ish around people he doesn’t know. Setsuo, these three ladies are part of the new families in town. Wi told you, right?” Shyuin shrugged listlessly. “Mhhhhm… Didn’ mention snail-kin.” Uzumii sighed. “They are alright Setsuo. They’re friends of little Mi-Fi and Natty. And of Wi and I.” It took a little more coaxing, but eventually the farmer agreed to sell his rice, he offered them all a pannikin of weak tea to seal the deal. Penny and Svatti shuffled ahead, bearing heavy bushels of rice. Abbyl kept pace with Uzumii, who had decided to buy a large sack for herself and Wi. “So, Abbyl, how is Yumedai’s life treating you?” Abbyl smiled, shuffling around a large stone. “Its a nice village, though… I have to ask: why was mr. Shyuin so reluctant to share.. Ehhh, sell his rice?” Uzumii shifted the sack to her other shoulder before replying. “He was in the army. Lets just say he came back traumatized… That Taintpledged invasion a little over two decades ago hurt people.” She sighed, at this pace she’d need to use magic to ease her burden. “Nasty business that. I remember the warning posters…” Abbyl paused a moment in her reply. “But that’s in the past, nothing to be done about it.”

She shook her head, dismissing the topic. “But mrs. Fan?” Uzumii shook her head. “Uzumii, please.” Abbyl nodded. “Uzumii, right. Uhm, how can I put this? You’re tiring yourself out if you carry it like that. Give it to me for a second.” She easily hefted the sack out of Uzumii’s grasp. “If you carry it like that, its weight is not aligned with your centre of balance, if you carry it like this though…” She lifted it in both arms, distributing the weight evenly. “It’ll be far easier to carry if you hold it like so. Don’t lift with your spine, use your foot. Oops, feet of course.” Uzumii was a little sceptic, she’d carried rice like that for centuries, but gave the suggestion a try. Two miles down the road she resolved to gift one of her handmade shawls to Abbyl as proper thanks. And it stoked her curiosity further about the Ureonggaksi’s relatives. “Abbyl, do you mind if I ask you something?” The Ureonggaksi smiled encouragingly. “You don’t strike me as a millenial, so how did you end up being the cousin of… well, you know who.” Abbyl blinked all four of her eyes and chuckled as she replied. “Well, technically I’m the great to the umpteenth granddaughter of one of their original cousins…” She ran a hand through her blue and yellow hair. “Who still lives somewhere in New Heaven I might add. But every few generations or so our cousins visit Praxis and renew the ties with the… erh… still mortal relatives. Basically, if they and you like each other enough you get asked if you’d mind being cousins.” She grinned. “By clanmother Miho, not all of my relatives can handle such a wild ride though. But I am very grateful to them. Rukia’s the one who discovered my Iris’ talents for magic.” They parted near the village proper shortly after with Uzumii promising not to share that information bar with her husband.

Uzumii brought the sack home, grabbed the paperwork she and Wi had been pouring over last night and headed to the council hall. The sight of a crane perched amid the eaves caused her to groan inwardly, mistress Azusi was visiting it seemed. Sure enough, as soon as Uzumii stepped into the waiting hall, she heard the snap of a book being closed and a deep sigh tinged with annoyance, as if one visitor had been waiting too long. “Fan, what is the meaning of these snails and rabbits in Yumedai?” Azusi Lael had never been one for politeness. Given that she was a hermit by profession one might excuse it to a degree, but Uzumii felt that she had put up with enough over the years that she could express distaste. “Manners, Lael, manners. And for crying out loud, its either Fan-san or Uzumii.” This elicited a grumble from the woman known throughout the region as the crane hermit. Though seemingly human, she’d been bothering Uzumii for several centuries, accepting no company bar that of her cranes. “Very well, Uzumii. Now pray inform me. I intend to know if I need to put down salt and snares to avoid being bothered for potions of youth or such nonsense.” Uzumii shook her head. “Mi-Fi and Natty know enough of you, and you should of them… unless memory has waned? The three Ureonggaksi families belong to the Saerti clan and have no use for such potions.” Lael  scratched her head audibly in response.

“Saerti’s, eh? Annoyingly cheerful snails, bah. But the Aosagi girls are back? Hahumm… So the portents make sense.” Azusi rose from the chair. “Change is likely to come to the land. What path it takes though?” Muttering, she left, her crane companion flitted down from the eaves and walked behind her. Before she reached the end of the garden though, Azusi raised a hand and beckoned impatiently. “Come along.” Uzumii sighed, closed the door and privately determined that she’d bite the hermit if this was a waste of time. Muttered musings drifted over the path as the hermit led the way to the shallow fountain at the centre of the village. She cast a swift spell there that expelled a Kaaiman resting in the water, then cast another that turned the water opaque. “I gave up meddling ages back. Shouldn’t, mhmh, no,no… But finding another place to live is bothersome.” She raised her gnarled walking staff and sharply brought it down, head first. The opaque water shimmered, showing a birds-eye view of Zipangu and the Darklands. The latter sported large swathes of forest, though what could be seen of the actual soil was blackish rock and ash-filled loam. “This is the reason I think. Take note. Also, keep your boy away from the trees.” A wave of the staff later and the fountain was again filled with normal water. A sharp magical command later and it splashed high as the poor Kaaiman was deposited in again. Uzumii growled softly as she helped the sputtering, crying girl, the crazy hermit waited but a moment before stalking off through the village towards the Aosagi house.

She stood before the rise, glancing over towards the three shells and shaking her head when Uzumii caught up. “You can practically smell the damn divine protection on those shells. Will it matter though? Even those three are bound by her rules.”  Lael shivered visibly. “Not that they won’t break the rules if provoked enough. Stay? Go? Avoid notice is best. Uzumii, tell them lamps are dangerous. Get that strokn’an book published, it may as well determine the fate of this nation.” Without another word, she kissed her staff and vanished, the crane heaving a sigh before it set off after her, evidently knowing where to go. “Erh… Who was that mrs. Fan?” Uzumii blinked before turning to the speaker. A slight young man approached with bright eyes looking out from under an unruly hairdo. “Hello Miccha. That was the unbelievable headache inducing Azusi Lael. A local hermit who has been a bother for centuries.” Her tails bristled in annoyance, some of which showed on her face as Miccha gulped. “Pray forgive me, but that one tends to get on my nerves. How are you settling in by the way?” This elicited a slight grunt and a shrug. “Its a nice town I guess. Just wish there was more tech here to fiddle with. And getting to college is a bit of a drag, but when isn’t that the case?” Miccha chuckled nervously. “I guess its because mom and dad raised me in the city mostly, but I get why they wanted to get away. There are too many loud people there.” Uzumii inquired which city this had been, gaining another shrug. “They’ve blended a bit in the IMG-city, but I was born in Mistburg.”

Uzumii’s ears perked up. “Isn’t that the place where-” This got her a sharp nod and a hurried farewell. A touchy subject, but why? Mistburg was one of the historically most important cities in Praxis, a major haven for the Saerti-clan as well if she’d understood it correctly. The expected merger with Gravelhold and Ittan was hotly debated, given the latter’s old history, but it would allow quite a bit of the old streamlands to be restored as a natural park. And give some governmental benefits as well. As she stood musing, a small hand grabbed her lowest tail and gently tugged to get her attention. “Hey missus Fan, mom asks if you want to join us for dinner and aunt says sorry for cousin Miccha being a grump.” Smiling, Uzumii accepted, taking little Kiery back to the shells.

Chapter 8. Memento’s and wishes

“And that’s why my broadcasts have been a little short lately. My captain and I had to detour five times this week in order to avoid triggerhappy warships. Honestly my dear listeners, it doesn’t matter that no Phantom Ship worth her timbers would work for… urgh.. The Darklands. Even if you have all the papers, you still have to dodge idiots who want to sink you just so they can practice hitting ships.” Grace of Wings griped on the radio about the less than courteous attitude of the Zipangan navy towards friendly ships that had been haunting the shipping lanes and airwaves for decades. “I mean, do they even care how much it hurts when one of their shells tears through my hull or my sails? I’m sorry dear listeners, but as things stand we’ll dock in Hanabi one last time and then set sail for friendlier climes. If you keep an ear to your receivers, I’ll beep you the frequencies so you can follow us.” Natty and Mi-Fi barely heard her, but dutifully jotted down the frequencies. They’d come to think of Grace as a trustworthy reporter of news, even if she insisted on preening over her captain every few minutes. Mr. perfect with a mop, who had a long handle and even better reach.

It was kind of amusing to note how such a different kind of mamonme would still find many, many things to adore about her husband, thought Natty. She’d settled in well enough with the company, it helped a lot that Iris had a guest bed in her small apartment. Well, small by Ushi-Oni standards. It was a converted garage with a few workrooms in the back that she had gotten a hold of by unusual means. Apparently an early model car had exploded inside the building and embedded its magical crystals in the walls The net result of which was that any vehicle parked there since mysteriously collapsed in on itself. Iris had heard the story and upon investigation solved the mystery: the embedded crystals had been trying to main the field of support integrity. Only they themselves sat skewed in the walls, so any car entering there would align with them and fall to pieces. The owners felt so grateful that they signed the garage over to her, though their lack of funds after building a new garage away from the ‘haunted’ one might have played a role. Seeing Iris snooze was something else though, Ushi-Oni needed way more space than you’d think. Having gone on a tour of Abbyl’s shell, she had been wondering why the second floor was basically one bedroom before seeing Iris asleep.

Mi-Fi thought about other things. The book she was still compiling was prominent in her thoughts, but so were the reports of the army drawing ever closer to Yumedai. It hadn’t come to blows yet, but Grace and others had noted that a fleet was being prepared in the Darklands. An invasion like the one a few decades ago seemed imminent. And she wondered if she should write about it, if it came to pass. She’d promised to finish grandma’s book and publish it, but a part of her didn’t know what would be more important: a history of conflict with probably countless lives lost. Or the wandering adventures of children living in the distant past. Nevermind that said children had ascended and were still alive as relatively young mothers. A knock sounded at the door below, Natty had sprinted there before Mi-Fi reached the stairs and as she descended it became clear that Iris had come knocking. With some bad news, judging by Natty’s response. “MIIIIIFFFF!! You have to hear this!” Mi-Fi slid down the railing on her good hip. Thankfully the landing didn’t hurt. “What is it Natty? Hi Iris, I guess the news is bad?” Iris nodded, her usually cheerful countenance locked in a depressed frown.

“Hi Mif, I wish I had better news, but yeah… Nat and I both are on unpaid leave. Though miss Harou did see to Natty getting her first paycheck. And mine.” she shrugged. “At least that means I might be able to help uncle Aered with his…” She faltered, shook her head and continued. “His project. Which is researching an ancient starship on the moon.” Seeing their stunned looks, she giggled. “Its a long story, but I trust you two enough to tell you about it.” Mi-Fi blinked several times before replying. “A starship? As in what your uncle thought the Tsubasa no Hikari was?” Iris rocked softly on her many legs. “Nooooootttt exactly. I’ve been there once and it was more like a city with all sorts of machines. Mostly broken. But uncle Aered and great-uncle Antimony swear that it could fly between planets before it got damaged.” She twiddled her oversized thumbs then. “Personally I can’t imagine something THAT big flying. But given how much work there is to do, I actually want to invite you both along. Not just for practical help and fun, but y’know?” She spread her arms wide. “This is not the place to be if the army decides to appropriate the town for its headquarters.” Natty smiled. “I’d love to come with you. And I’m sure Mif does as well.” She slumped slightly. “But what about our home? And your parents?”

Iris smiled even as Mi-Fi nodded. “Well, moms and my aunts will hitch a lift to Karpathia. A mini-gathering of the Humblestone-branch of the Saerti clan. In other words, you can’t take one step without bumping into a cousin. I’ll go there with uncle and my aunts.” She smiled. “Of course it’d be fun to introduce you two as well.” Mi-Fi and Natty smiled, giving Iris a double-high-five. “Seems like we have a vacation then.” As they left for a brunch with the Saerti’s  though, they noted that a new shell was parked nearby. More worrying was an armored vehicle with some soldiers standing near. “Ma’m, I understand your objections, but we have our orders. It won’t take long, but we do have to monitor foreign travellers for magical goods and if we find any we need to check with the people they’re visiting too. Jade ranks are concerned about Darklands spies and they make the orders, not me.” Abbyl glared at the unlucky corporal until a soldier dragging a sniffer along came to report. “Well sir, we found plenty of magic, but they do check out with the list of known goods in possession and the foundation’s standard equipment.” He turned to Abbyl. “Nice party pad on the second floor by the way.” He turned back to his nco. “We did find this thing and I dunno what it is.” He held up a small oil lamp that appeared to have seen better days.

“That’s my memento of my trip to Ithus’ Silver Sands region. An old memorial lamp that supposedly held a Djinni once.” Abbyl shrugged, then politely tried to retrieve the memento. The soldier evidently wasn’t convinced as he tried to keep it out of her reach while his sniffer issued a wheezy laugh. His play ended though when a shadow fell over the four of them and a massive hand grabbed the soldier’s arm. “Will you stop being a bother and give that back to my mom?” Iris’ tone was stern, with an obvious undertone of building anger. This caused the sniffer to try and bite her legs, if in a futile fashion. “Miss, we’re just doing our job. Unhand private Lin-po and Algir, or I will have to bring you in under charges.” Iris sniffed in disapproval, grabbed the lamp and dropped the soldier before shoo-ing the sniffer. “Orders don’t excuse you from being charged with burglary, disturbing domestic peace and attempted theft. I also object to you going into my room uninvited and harassing my family.” A sergeant and a couple of other soldiers exited the other shells, one being chased by a Ruanggaksi wielding a broom. “Git! I can’t believe your nerve, using my battery to charge your infernal devices!” She spotted Iris and Abbyl. “Hey gang, can you believe these buttmunches?”

“Corporal Meke, we didn’t find anything, did you?” The sergeant inquired, and got a reply as follows: “Sergeant Ling, private Lin-Po found an unlisted item of a magical nature that we haven’t verified as a harmless memento because this siege-weapon of a woman took it from him.” Abbyl turned a furious purple while Iris paled. Natty and Mi-Fi patted her back reassuringly. “The nerve! How dare you insult my daughter so!!” For a harmless Ureonggaksi, Abbyl could shout like a sergeant-major. “Yeah! My niece won’t harm a fly, unlike you moochers.” Natty looked surprised at the Ruanggaksi’s words, but nodded, voicing her own thoughts along with Mi-Fi. As more of the Saerti’s came out of the shells, including a very threatening looking Petrovich, the soldiers started looking nervous and unholstered their weapons. “Easy! We’ve enough troubles with the locals as it is. Damn lickle-headed sheep don’t want to see soldiers in their itty bitty town. Command doesn’t want any more hassles.” The sergeant’s words calmed his soldiers, but did nothing to appease the rest. “You folks ain’t new here, so watch it. I don’t care for starting trouble, but we are here to protect you, not be molested. Do you think the Darklands army will simply stroll over for a cup of affeïne or susu?”

“No, gróft skríða, but we expect better from Empress’ armies. Your baunamatur insult my dottir, you make trouble for wife and wife-systirs and scare the little ones. You not make good im-pe-ression.” Petrovich clapped his knuckles together for emphasis. “I suggest, you leave now. I write complaint to Magistrate if not.” The commander looked at him in disgust. “Filthy foreigner… If you have to live here, why do you have to bother me? I swear, Zipangu would be better off if we closed the borders again.” He shook his head. “Troop, move out, we’re going to the camp.” It took ten minutes for the troops to depart, leaving a shaken group behind. Petrovich lifted Abbyl in his arms and kissed her, before freeing one arm and drawing Iris down for a fatherly kiss. “Is done. Now we make merry and welcome cousin Lyze, properly!” So said, so done. Lyze was part of the Ruanggaksi branch of the Saerti-clan, so Mi-Fi and Natty learned, part of the family since a distant ancestor named Lysl had accidentally brought their species to Praxis and had a hand in turning them into mamonme.

“Yeah, the first new species of mamonme since the overthrow of Seretique vi Alloriel. Who’d have thought it, eh? Thing is, we weren’t exactly immediately appreciated.” Lyze’s facial tentacles had retracted enough that they didn’t distract. “Some of Lysl’s daughters stayed with the Saerti’s, but some… chose to leave. Personally, I’ve grown fond of my silly hide-somewhere-on-fright cousins.” She winked at Abbyl, Penny and Svatti. “Good mums the lot of them, with cute kids. I just wish we’d spent more time together in the last few years, but… Had a job that meant I had to park my shell for a while.” Penny giggled, curling her eyestalks mischievously. “There’s moss on the back still, cousin. But it is very nice to have you back with us.” Iris nodded. “Ay-yup, aunt Lyze is awesome. No better ‘lectrogeek in the family. And that’s saying something.” Lyze scoffed affably. “Squirt, you know I’m good. But I ain’t no geek. I don’t fetishize over gizmo’s like you and your uncle redhair.” She thrust her tentacles forward and let arcs play across them. “Got plenty of juice and I do know how to use it. Maybe a little electro-massage can help your leg, Miffy? Free trial.” Mi-Fi thought it a fine idea, though she asked Lyze not to call her Miffy, a name for a popular character in baby books.

“What I don’t get…” Natty reached over the table and lifted the small oil-lamp memento. “Is why this gives so much fuss with those ninnynixers. I mean, its not as if its a massive weapon or something, right?” Abbyl nodded. “It held a Djinni once, according to the man who gave it to me.” Her sigh spoke of fond memories. “Can’t believe its been well over twenty years, but that region on Ithus was so beautiful. If very hot.” Lyze snorted then, as did Svatti. “Hot is an understatement. I mean we basically drank the town fountain dry just to get to it from our hotel and back. And then we had to bathe just to get the slimed sand off. The view though? Totally worth it once we got a flying carpet. Seeing those sand ships was inspiring.” Iris’ eyes shone with wonder. “I want to go see those too, someday. Though I’ll probably need boots again then.” Her expression was the complete opposite of a footwear lover. She put a clawed finger on the spout. “Would be nice to pick up a memento like this one for my own shack.” Mi-Fi laughed, running a finger along the elegantly curved handle. “Definitely, though it would be better if we could see a Djinni come out of the lamp. Don’t they grant wishes?”

Svatti winced then. “Sorta. Some of them do, but a lot of them hate being imprisoned in a lamp. I actually had a quite long talk with a few of them when I asked them to show me how they went in and out of a lamp.” She rubbed her foot. “Lets just say that having experienced that myself, I can say its saltedly uncomfortable. Your body may stretch and twist with magic, but its no fun at all.” They were kind of quiet then for a moment. “Ehhh… I dunno, it would be nice though if we just made a wish and then tried to make it come true?” Natty grinned ferociously and Mi-Fi matched it. Iris’ growing grin was slightly more mischievous as she made her wish. “I’d wish that I had the wisdom of clanmother Miho, so I could stop the war.” Mi-Fi chuckled. “I wish I could have seen your aunts on their munchkin adventures, it would help a lot with the book.” Natty laughed. “And I wish I could get a perfect artist to draw illustrations for it. I’m all thumbs when it comes to cute drawings.” Natty noticed something then. Mi-Fi and Iris were plucking at their own hands as if they were stuck to the lamp. “Greedy, greedy, greedy! I only have one wish left to grant!” Sand-coloured smoke streamed from the lamp’s spout, enveloping them. “This’ll see to your wishing, maybe.” With a flash of magic the smoke disappeared and a tall woman in a turban stood on the table, gazing hatefully at the lamp.

Of Iris, Natty and Mi-Fi there was no trace.

Interlude. Disbelief

“Finally!  I’m out of the damn contract and I’ll never sign one again.” The woman standing on a table shouted exultantly, then crushed the lamp she’d been holding. “No more curvy prison, no more inane wishes!” A shadow appeared over her shoulder, turned her around and growled into her face: “Hvað gerðir þú við dóttur mína?!” She’d never seen a Tethyrian before and screamed in fright. Petrovich shook her, his eyes wild with anguish. “WHERE SHE!? WHERE MY DOTTIR!?!??” The Djinni fainted and Petrovich found a familiar hand on his calf. “Easy min hetjan. We’ll… We’ll call cousin Rukia, she can find them, I’m sure.” Abbyl’s voice wavered between hope and fury. ”I..I’m sure Iris.. will….” Sobs racked her frame and Petrovich dropped the unconscious Djinni to the table in order to scoop Abbyl up. Svatti and Penny had torn away towards the shrines inside their shells and enacted emergency communications. However, when they returned… “Cousin Rukia has gone into labor. We spoke to Metala, she said there are… complications.” Penny looked troubled, wiping her hands on her apron in agitation. “But she’s sending someone over. And they’ll come themselves as soon as possible.”

It wasn’t long after that a gate opened and a pair of teenage girls stepped out. “Heyyup everyone, big brother called and said there’s a sitch with our nieces? Have no fear, the pros are here.” The speaker had strawberry blonde hair in a braided ponytail that reached nearly to her bottom, matching well with her peach-coloured wings. Her outfit wouldn’t look amiss on members of currently popular bands, or professional dancers. “Urgh, its too much to hope that Minmi, Kiery and Loselise are just stuck in a tree again?” This speaker had slate-red hair that covered most of her face before cascading just below her breasts. Her grey wings had a more austere beauty and her outfit complimented it perfectly. Her hooves and horns had wine-red lustre. The three little Ureonggaksi cheered and waved at them. “Cousins Demara Alyssum and Mysteryse, am I glad to see you.” Svatti hugged them both. “I wish it were that easy, but it’s Iris and our new friends who’ve gone missing.” After she released them, they smiled with a slightly reproving look in their eyes. “Really? Colour me surprised. Also, call me Demyss will ya? ‘Kay, ‘kay?” Demyss grinned. “Can’t have people think I’ll force-mother them simply ‘cause gran and I share a name.”

Mysteryse sniffed, idly scratching along the base of a horn. “You don’t mother people then? You were fussing an awful lot over my outfit before we got here.” Demyss riposted with a rude gesture. “If I didn’t, you’d look like a coroner dressed you. But let’s see if we can’t fix things, and maybe bust a moby after? Iris has good taste in music.” She cast a concerned glance at Abbyl that only a few in the family knew had an undertone. “Abb’s, lets get your oversized little girl back, ey?” It took some time to fill the junior Goddesses in on the situation and more so to rouse the Djinni. 

Chapter 9. Fallen down

Mi-Fi groaned as she came to. She was in a bed and on her side with something soft propping her up. She groaned again as a dull pain in her belly throbbed. Memory sidled into her waking mind, informing her as to what was the likely cause of her pain. She recalled the smoke and then falling. The tree had likely saved her life, but she’d hit that branch belly-first and… “Ooooooowww!” Instinctively, she tried to curl into a ball, but this was denied by some sort of restraints. Gentle hands grasped her and a soft voice spoke. “Easy, don’t try to move. You took quite a fall there, but you’re safe now. Here, let me help you with the pain a little more.” The voice sounded like it belonged to a young woman and she spoke a word of magic whilst touching Mi-Fi’s belly. Instead of crushing pain, an uncomfortable numbness now spanned her belly. “Ohhhhoohhhohhh…” She tried to open her eyes, but she felt so tired. “I know. Just rest for now, okay? Sleep is what you need.” Her mind drifted in and out of sleep several times before she could finally open her eyes fully. What greeted her was not a hospital. It was a tent, or kinda like one. She’d also been turned over during her sleep and her belly felt somewhat better. Casting around, she saw that her limbs were held by magical tubes. “H-hey? Anyone there?” She felt parched.

Quick footsteps approached and a girl in a clean, but peculiar doctor’s dress squatted down to look her in the eyes. Her black hair complimented her youthful face and highlighted the pointed ears sticking out of her head. “Ah, good. You’re awake. I’m sure you have questions and I know I do, but first lets check you.” She gently ran a hand across Mi-Fi’s belly, probing softly at certain areas. “Any pains?” Mi-Fi shook her head. “Okay, then I think we can undo the binds. Hold still for a moment.” Mi-Fi sighed as her arms and legs regained their freedom. She gratefully accepted a sip of water from a gourd and cautiously examined the girl. Obviously a Magical Girl, if not in one of their outlandish outfits. A large timepiece covered one forearm and a worn pair of glasses nestled next to a couple of pens in her coat-pocket. “Whew. I needed that. Thank you miss?” A grin spread on the girl’s innocent face. “Call me Kaylee. And you are?” Mi-Fi’s ears swiveled as she replied: “Aosagi Mi-Fi. I have you to thank for getting me out of…” Her eyes widened. “Where is Natty? And Iris? Where are we? I’m guessing not in Yumedai?” Kaylee shook her head. “Nope and I’m afraid only you turned up. Had some of my Harpy-kin friends not seen you smack into that tree, I wouldn’t have had this chance to brush up on my Zipangese. Or save your life.”

She suddenly handed Mi-Fi a bowl of apparently rather bland soup, Mi-Fi noticed as well that her hair was now thrown over the other shoulder. “How did you?” Kaylee grinned. “Doctor’s secret. You just eat this and I’ll try to get you a ride back to Zipangu or something. The Laramies aren’t friendly to mamonme exactly, even those belonging to the Court of the Moons. And we’ll talk about how you got up in the air like that.” Mi-Fi shook her head in amazement. “The Laramies? Wow, that’s a way aways. But I’m not a member of the Court. The Empress, may she live forever, is as distant a relative to me as… maybe Lady Eiraiha to Lady Maraina?” Kaylee chuckled, the sound building into a rich laugh. “Quite far then. But please, don’t call my littlest sister a lady. She might get airs then.” Presently a gong sounded outside and Kaylee moved beyond the cloth-walled room. “Sir Althons? Back for some intestinal medication?” A male voice, obviously feeling put-upon, answered hurriedly. “Still got plenty. But no, I got other issues. Women issues. You, get down from the cart! This one dropped outta thin air two days back. We heard you were takin’ care of another bunny an’ she figgered it might be her friend. Narmisa also set her arm, but that ain’t my issue.”

“No kidding! Thank you for the lift, and the care. But for the love of fish do something about that smell, please!” Mi-Fi nearly jumped out of her bed. That was Natty’s voice, and Mi-Fi called out: “NATTTYYYYY~!!” A slight commotion followed and Natty walked into the room followed by Kaylee. She looked tired, in pain and her arm was in a sling of sorts. “Oh Natty, did you fall from the sky too?” Mi-Fi tried to rise, but Kaylee stopped her with a gentle, yet unmovable hand. She turned to Natty and started to fuss over her. “Well, it looks like you got bumped during the ride, I’ll have to re-set it with a proper treatment or your arm will be useless.” Natty grimaced, thanked Kaylee and turned to Mi-Fi. “Hoi Mif, sz-s-s-sup? Damned magic smoke put me right in a rural Luminaire village, would’ve been killed if that Althons character hadn’t stepped in.” Natty squealed in pain as Kaylee handled her arm and pushed fragmented bones into their proper position. Then she cast a spell of healing and wrapped the limb with stiff linen wraps. “So, that should do it. Just don’t use that arm yet. Now I’ll need to ask Althons a thing or two, if I can still catch him.” Natty thanked her, but Kaylee had departed almost magically. Mi-Fi extended her hand and touched Natty on the knee.

“I’m glad to see you Nat. I kinda smacked into a tree with my belly. I’m lucky some friends of the doctor here found me, or I wouldn’t get down in time to get medical help. What a strange place though, we’re in the Laramies? And Kaylee mentioned she’s a sister of the Matrika.” Natty used her good arm to grab Mi-Fi’s hand. “Strange place indeed Mif, I mean, I got this broken arm from some dolt using a war-hammer on me. You’d think they would have better equipment, even if they don’t bother much with the outside world.” Natty snorted. “Gods, I don’t think I’ll ever forget that smell though. They were fixing his manor or something and I’m thinking there’s no plumbing available. Because we had to share an outhouse.” The greenish tinge on her face spoke volumes. “Quaint village though, it might be some sort of olden times park? Or a neo-traditional one? Not that I could see much of it. I’m thinking too that I was the first Cabbit they’d ever seen.” Suddenly Kaylee stood in the room again and smiled at them. “Okay, that’s taken care of. I asked Al to put the word out on your friend Iris, she’s a Usako or Cabbit too, right?” Mi-Fi and Natty laughed, the former answering. “No, she’s actually an Ushi-Oni. We were at a dinner with her family, Ureonggaksi on the female side, when we each made a wish on  some memento oil-lamp of her mom’s. I think… there may have been some real magic in it though.”

Kaylee nodded thoughtfully. “A friend of mine mentioned that they have such things on Ithus. And that there may be complications if it was a geneel-lamp… or whatever its called again. I’ll ring her on the ARE and see if she can’t get you home.” Natty grinned and pulled out her MARE. “Use mine, its a bit faster if you have coverage here? I couldn’t get a signal in the village.” Kaylee stared at it, shook her head and left the room. “I’d rather use my own.” Her voice drifted through the cloth walls. “I’ve never seen something like that metallic cake thing, so I’m not willing to risk breaking it. Nice legs by the way, you work out a lot?” Natty grinned. “Nah, I mostly just have early morning runs and so. We live a ways away from my work.” Kaylee hm’d and moved further away. Natty and Mi-Fi quietly talked while a far-off conversation took place. Then she came back, smiling. “Well, I have some good news. You’ll be picked up within an hour by someone who’s been instrumental in teaching me about medicine.” She uncovered a pot and drew three thin mugs and a misting bottle out. “I think she may also have found your friend. Might, note. Now how about we spend that time talking about things?” So they did and Natty enjoyed showing Kaylee how her MARE worked. Mi-Fi suppressed a laugh at Kaylee’s rapturous expression of wonder at technology so very common back home, but then a question came to mind that had been bothering her.

“Kaylee, didn’t you say you were a sister of Lady Maraina? Forgive me for being rude, but can I ask you what you are doing in the Laramies then? And why are you a Magical Girl?” Kaylee gave a somewhat hard look then, as if gauging Mi-Fi for hidden meanings behind her words. It was different enough from her kindly looks before to give her and Natty pause. “You know, that is a bit of a personal question.” She sighed, downing her drink in a single gulp. “Ahhh… Well, it doesn’t bear repeating outside my yurt, get it?” They nodded. “My true name is Lokaeli vi Alloriel, formerly a Serebim and creator of both the Magical Girl and Sorceress mamonme. They say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions and… My good intentions nearly landed me there. Lets just say that while I tried to help a lot of young women become Magical Girls to solve their problems I also prodded them into doing things not so nice. Or caused unintentional mischief otherwise.” She looked dejected. “All in the name of making a better world, but I had no real idea of just how horrible things turned out for them until a crowd of Magical Girls and Sorceresses tried to lynch me. Had Liccitia and Alyssum not stepped in and told them of my desire to atone, I would have died that day.” She set the bottle to her lips and drank deeply. “Eiraiha gave me this new form and deposited me here with instructions to atone by helping the local mamonme. I’ve also been getting books and notes on how to treat sick and injured folks.”

She finished the bottle. “It’s been a trying time though, with these clueless Luminaire infighting. But at least I’m getting better at medicine and earning that atonement. It does help that my family can visit and that I’ve made several friends who can visit as well.” She looked at the barely touched drinks in their hands. “The death threats though… Licci does my gig now, as a proper Goddess. But I can tell that she’s had to deal with more than one Sorceress or Magical Girl that’s still screaming for my head on a platter. Can we stop talking about that now? Or I’ll need a lot more to drink.” Mi-Fi and Natty nodded, each extending a hand in silent support. Natty gave a friendly smile then. “Thanks for sharing, it must’ve been tough. We’ve had a few adventures ourself and… Well, I think my ex-coworker might want to lynch me as well.” Kaylee raised an eyebrow. “Really? What sin did you do to earn that?” Natty grinned nastily. “Booting him through a wall after he badmouthed Mi-Fi. I do miss the Suszaku Relay, but working on the Quadrail is fun too.” At that moment a loud knocking on a wooden door sounded. “Kaylee, I’m here to pick up those two unexpected guests.” Without further preamble, a small girlish person entered the yurt and clomped right into the room. “Hello Balase~! A bit early, but I know you have a tight schedule.” 

She waved a hand in the sisters’ direction. “Balase, these are Mi-Fi and Natty. Mi-Fi had a rather painful encounter with a tree, I think she’s mending well but her belly needs careful monitoring for a while yet. Natty had her arm broken by one of those tinfoil dolts. They set it badly and she then got jostled in a cart, so I re-set it and healed it. Any thoughts on that?” Balase gave her an indulgent look that didn’t belong on such a young face. “Good, but what of the stool samples? Did Mi-Fi have issues on the chamberpot? And did you check for additional fractures in Natty’s shoulder and back?” Kaylee sighed. “No, Mi-Fi has only just woken up, she hasn’t expressed a need in that sense. And Natty had a few stress marks on her shoulder, but the healing spell should have fixed those as well.” Balase nodded, then gave a somewhat more strict look. “You should always trace the path the magic takes, see that it goes where it’s needed, or she might get a bit of excess bone where its not. And if you can’t take a stool sample, thoroughly check the belly for blockages. Injuries there impact many major organs. Not bad though, we’ll make a proper doctor out of you yet.” She turned her attention to Natty and Mi-Fi. “Hello you two, I’m Balase Stock-LaMont-Saerti. But call me Granny, most folks do.” She extended two tri-digit paws and shook their hands, Natty noted that it felt like being grabbed by thumbs somewhat. “Hello mrs. Granny. We’re Aosagi Natty and Aosagi Mi-Fi in full, just call us Mi-Fi and Natty please.” Mi-Fi smiled. “You look very youthful for a grandmother though, what’s the secret?” Balase’s laughter was pleasant. “I’m a Baphomet, Mi-Fi. Plus, with my relatives I’m literally swimming in skincare gel. Now then, I’m hoping that you two aren’t averse to magical travel, because we need to go right after I check both of you over a bit. Lokaeli might have a scrap of talent, but she’s not finished her schooling just yet.” 

Kaylee blew a raspberry then. “Puh-leaze Balase. Courses maybe, but not schooling. That’d require a teacher being present, cute classmates to date, and a classroom as well. And that reminds me. Those dolts still don’t have good doctors… I’m not sure what to do, but maybe we should send over some basic materials? I suspect Althons hasn’t touched his medication.” The friendly banter and examinations took less than an hour, after which Mi-Fi and Natty were hustled through a gate and got their first glimpse of Mistburg. In the Laramies, one lonely soul wondered about the technological wonders of Zipangu.

Interlude. Goddess’ lament

“Abb’s, I’m sorry, there’s nothing we can do about this.” Demyss had a tiny shimmering violin over her head, a manifestation of her sadness and worry. “I mean, I’m still a junior Goddess, certainly not the most powerful. But Djinni magic is something else and I’m not sure aunt Licci, big sis Rukia and moms put together could undo. It has to do with those rules that Aj-iskandra mentioned.” She was glad to have gotten that from the Djinni without heavy handed tactics. “Moms did think she remembered something she didn’t before, so… they’re probably safe in the past. When they fulfill their wishes, they will return.” Her cousin Mysteryse tried to appear calm and collected, but the saxophone over her head was deeply into blues territory. She spoke up softly: “It doesn’t mean that we’re in the clear though. I’m not sure how this will affect us if they do something to change the past. Mom and dad say not to worry, but frankly its a major one for me. Especially considering how… precarious things were back then between them…” Demyss chuckled. “You don’t appear to be fading from sight Mystease, nor better dressed. So…”

Abbyl interjected. “I want my baby back!” Her body was exhibiting signs of stress-overload, only her steel will preventing her from going berserk on the frightened Djinni resting in Svatti’s shell now. “Why can’t that turbaned sandtrap undo her magic? Or let me wish them back?!?” Demyss desperately waved her hands around while Mysteryse worked calming blessings on Abbyl. “She can’t. They only have so much ‘juice’ before they need to recharge. And no, tying her to Lyze’s lightning catcher doesn’t work, different juices, ay? Hep cat’s been totally rubies about it, big brother’s been going over the files like a fancier and they check out.” Demyss sighed. “Honestly Abb’s, we have to chill until they get off the rolling coaster.” The Goddesses touched their Ureonggaksi cousin and took her to a place of healing. The moon shone on a lonely lake on which a floating temple resided. “Remember this place Abbyl?” She nodded wordlessly in response. “Good, because we’re going to have a little heart-to-heart… About you and some things to do with you.” It had been this place where, nearly twenty years ago, they’d healed Abbyl’s body and pieced back together her mind.

“I’m amazed at just how little changes here.” Mysteryse’s smile was wistful. “I can still see the stone I used to bang my hooves against. Dad really did good when he found this sanctuary of the Gods of yore. Its the perfect place to have a loooonnngg overdue chat as well.” Abbyl knew that it had been coming, but she felt numb. Her only baby was gone and she would never have another. 

Chapter 10. Home still is where the Shell is

Mistburg was a growing city, and it would grow exponentially in the future with features to wow crowds of tourists. Today though it unintentionally caused two young women to gawk in confusion. “Is this Mistburg? It seems… small, definitely when you think about what Miccha told me. He must really hate the city life to call this town a city.” Natty did like the look of the place, privately, but the differences between the city described and the actual quaint little place she now was were staggering. “Its small, but I think it looks nice. Look, they even have a swimming pool and three good smelling eateries on this lane.” Mi-Fi reflected that if her home and heart weren’t in Yumedai, this might be a good place to live. Balase nodded then. “There’s decent grub to be had yeah, though its not quite Skitterlegs in Crystal Plinth. My friend Alyssum is practically addicted to their food.” She laughed. “Sorry for the long walk, but the council has recently gotten insistent on people not gating or teleporting in all over. Between you and me, their chosen magical defenses against unwanted intrusions from elsewhere? I’d not even call that childsplay to overcome. How’s the arm, belly and that leg you two?” Natty muttered that she was doing okay.

“But how-?” Mi-Fi caught herself. “Right, you’re a senior doctor who spots things. My leg is okay, just don’t expect me to run. My belly though still feels a little off.” She blushed as she broke wind involuntary. “My bad, sorry. I’m just glad my leg didn’t get hurt again…” Balase nodded non-committedly. “Expect a few more toots like that in the next few weeks. It’ll pass though, literally. But I’m amazed at your leg. I frankly didn’t really notice until we started this walk through the town, but I’m guessing it was broken badly and then set really well.” Mi-Fi sighed, running a hand along her shapely behind. “It was pulverized in the crash of the Tsubasa no Hikari, but I was fortunate that a capable healer, Iris’ aunt, repaired it. The doctors back at base were astounded that I was still bipedal, given what they could discern of the breakings.” Balase raised her eyebrows. “I’d like to meet her I think. Anyway, we need to watch out a bit more, we’re nearly at the shells and hopefully your friend as well. Expect some snailtrails not on the side-roads. Damnedly slipped last time I didn’t keep my mind on my footing. And doing the splits that way isn’t fun.” Mi-Fi wondered, wasn’t Balase a Saerti? And didn’t they, by Iris’ and the others’ admission obsessively know who was part of their family. A slight sense of dread  wormed its way into her mind. Maybe she was… Mi-Fi wondered if Balase might be overworked or something.

Balase, unaware of such musings, clopped towards a cluster of shell homes in a quiet corner next to a stream. One had a minaret and the others had similarly unusual architectural additions. The largest on the lot was perhaps also the most unusual in that it had outbuildings. One of which was a large tent, decked out in Ureonggaksi-whorl cloth and it was there that Balase steered them. “Oy, Kaori, Miho! Damast, Henry! Kiddo’s! Granny’s back, with visitors in tow.” At her hollering, doors opened in the shell and what might be called a shack and a veritable crowd streamed out. “Hoi Balase, I’m glad you’re here.” A youngish man with the gait of a long-distance-walker and intelligent grey eyes dashed over. “Hello miss and miss by the way, I’m Damast Wayfarer-Saerti, nice to meet you. Granny, I’m afraid she didn’t quite awake yet, but… what happened has the girls in a right miff.” Balase raised an eyebrow. “Really Damast? They wanted to put a nappy on her then? Or is it something different? No nappy allowed, at least for now. That’s what I told them.” Damast blew out a breath, scratching his head. “If only. No, Eihy asked them to watch after mr. spoopypants-” He rolled his eyes at this latest nickname. “He went to see our guest, who was crying in her sleep, but she must have been seeking a teddybear because she grabbed him and put his thumb in her mouth.”

Balase gawked and Damast chuckled. “He’s fine, he came out to use the potty, but they think he’s cheating on them because he went back and put his thumb back in her mouth.” A more quiet man, apparently an incubus, nodded as he spoke. “After the whole abduction thing, I’m surprised he’s so trusting of this unfamiliar girl.” Natty couldn’t contain herself then. “Unfamiliar? You are Saerti’s right? Then why don’t you know Iris? She’s a part of your family, and a regular at the yearly meetings.” Mi-Fi noted the slightly shocked glances both men gave her. Then she felt a touch on her shoulder and looked into a face quite a lot like Abbyl’s gave a tentative smile at her. “I’m sorry, but maybe you’re thinking of a different family? I’m sure there’s at least one Sneríty clan? I’m Miho Humblestone-Saerti and as a clan organiser for those meetings, I’m pretty sure I’d know if we had some Ushi-Oni relatives attending.” Mi-Fi blinked, the dread returning twofold. “But… But, you even look like her mother, Abbyl. You even share last names. If your hair weren’t green instead of blue-yellow…” Miho shook her head. Balase sighed and called out: “Munchkins! Front and centre!” Three little girls exited the tent, looking as if they had been crying. “You haven’t harmed the girl?” Small but familiar faces caused Mi-Fi to blanch. “No Granny, but Aered’s being a bad boy!”

“Oh my Goddesses!” Mi-Fi grabbed at Miho as she fell down in a faint. When she came to, it was inside the tent with Balase peering down critically at her face. “Okay, you seem to be awake. Here, have a sip of water.” Mi-Fi gladly did so, sitting up and looking pleadingly at Balase. “Granny, I think we’re in deep pellets.” Balase tilted her head sideways. “I’ve got a big shovel, so tell me what you think.” Mi-Fi smiled despite herself. ”I think we are… well, from your perspective, we’re from the future. If I’m correct and those children are Ladies Rukia, Emmy and Metala? I’m… I’m worried what damage us being here might do.” Balase’s pat on her arm was reassuring. “Nothing to worry about, we’ve had some experience with that before. And part of that is that we’ve learned that time is… kinda flexible. Unless you do something to majorly affect your future it’ll be okay.” Her expression was a little more worried then. “The trouble is, I can’t get you back. Natty’s been kind enough to tell us precisely how you three got here and… welp, that’s the way the Coppelia tripped, you got here by making three wishes. On a Genie’s lamp. I don’t know which Genie subspecies, but I do know that their magics are very powerful. In general, once you make a wish, its like getting on one of those rolling coasters. Sort of.” The embarrassed and angry look flashing through her eyes made Mi-Fi guess Balase was just under the minimum height limit.

“You’re stuck here until those wishes have come true. Or if we can nudge someone dangerous into interfering. Don’t count on it though.” A small set of feet approached and a slightly lispy voice spoke. “He’s not dangerous Granny. Mr. Telili’s Grandpa just’s a big job to do.” Rukia’s small face entered Mi-Fi’s field of vision and grinned at her. “Is the first time we get to meet people from the future. And the first Bunnies we meet.” Balase patted her on the head. “Yeah sweetsie, but Granny has to ask a few more things from this girl of the future. Why don’t you see if Aered’s done donating his thumb, hmm? Granny will call you after.” Rukia huffed and left them. Balase enacted a spell that encapsulated them right after. “Sorry, she’s got enough curiosity to kill a legion of cats. Anyhoofs, Here’s a few thumb-rules you need to follow: 1-Don’t blab about the future to people living today. Especially to the munchkins, we have some trouble keeping them from going where- and whenever. 2-Learn to blend in. If you gawk at everything people will notice. 3-Don’t try to ‘improve things’ by changing events you know about. 4-Don’t fret. Things will work out, I’m sure.” Balase dispelled the barrier. “Now, your friend Iris, Natty confirmed her by the bye, she’s gonna be okay. But she has a concussion and is… kind of confused about her age. You’ll see what I mean when we go outside.” Balase grimaced. “She’s smitten with my great-grandson Aered, thinking he’s her uncle.”

“Uhm, Granny…” Mi-Fi fidgeted. “It might go against rule 1, but… Just so you know, he is. Or will be.” Balase’s neck creaked audibly as she turned her head back to Mi-Fi. “What?!” She regained her composure. “Urgh, fleas and dandruff. I know he’ll grow up some day, but that’s kind of weird to know.” She blinked, leading Mi-Fi from the tent and bringing her to where Iris, Natty and the children were sitting in a circle with an Ureonggaksi girl. “Oh, there’s your other friend, Iris.” Four brown eyes gazed at Mi-Fi in a friendly fashion while a rich blue hairdo shone in the sunlight. “Hello, I’m Lena, big sis to Metala, and Rukia and Emmy of course. Mom had a bit of a fright when you fainted on her, but she said you three are welcome to stay until you can get home.” Lena smiled at Balase. “Granny’s working on it, right Granny?” Balase nodded. “Yes, but I need you to look after our guests Lena. At least till I get back from the Shellmounds. You all stay out of trouble, ‘kay?” Balase said goodbye and Mi-Fi sat down with the group. Iris slowly looked at her. “Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii~! Miffff.” Her pupils were noticeably of different sizes. “Look, I got uncle’s meeeneee-meee… He’s niiice.” A small red-haired boy sat next to her and the girls. To Mi-Fi, he was recognisable immediately. “Hello Iris, hello everyone. I’m glad you’re okay Iris, did you fall from the sky too?” Iris nodded, slowly and deliberately. “Yeahèhèhhh. Cracked the roo-oof of aunt’s shell. Would’ve re-pair-ud it, but… Auntsy said no. An’ did herself.” Natty fanned herself with her fish-shaped fan as Iris spoke.

“Thing is, we’re kind of stuck here, eh Mif? But we’ll need to take care of Iris until she recovers. Granny Balase probably told you too, but… we can’t talk about our time too much. Neither should Iris.” Lena chimed in. “Luckily we’re here to help you. I’m stoked though, there are Saerti’s whenever you came from too. Natty said that you wished to go on an adventure with us, soooooo…” Lena pulled out her dearly loved Pie-rate hat and donned it. “Captain Lena says we should go look for buried treasure~!” Rukia and Emmy shook their heads though and Metala looked a little torn. “Big sis, I like going on Pie-rate adventures. But we went looking for treasure four times this week already.” Lena conceded this point and asked what they should do then. “How ‘bout we read from our book?” Rukia smiled and pulled a large book from her bag of holding. It too was obviously loved as its cover shone with the care lavished on the leather. It also showed several small chewmarks though. “Aunt Eihy made this book an’ gave it to mama an’ papa for their wedding.” She placed it on the ground and leafed through it, getting the attention of Aered in particular. “SsSt-o-reee.” It was incredibly cute and got a laugh from everyone. But then Rukia found the pages she was looking for.

“Lookit, the pictures move and so.” She pointed at a drawing of a waterfall, water cascading into the partial pool below while a small bird preened itself on an outcropping. “Is the story of the old lady and the water’s mirror.” It was an old, old fairytale that Mi-Fi had only heard rumours about, something on the to-do-list her grandmother had mentioned now and again. It, and several other tales forgotten in their age made their way into Mi-Fi and Natty’s memories. They stayed the night, and that was where the trouble really began. “Why Aered?” Emmy’s question was uttered in hurt tones. Aered’s reply was: “Owwwww! Nissssssss-uhh. Erd nneed’d.” Insofar as Aered thought about these things, his girls could miss him for a night, right? After he and Iris had fallen asleep, Mi-Fi and Natty stayed up, talking to Miho, Kaori and their husbands for a bit longer. Three very upset little girls though had something other than sleeping in mind. “Its not fair! Aered’s cheating cause that girl has a big butt.” Metala’s grimace spoke volumes. Emmy nodded agreement, tears streaming without end. Rukia on the other hand had been quietly thinking things over. In the future the workings of her mind might be represented by massive engines running full-tilt, but in this era people made do with ancient dragons wrestling. It was when she was quietly thinking without a smile on her face that her parents really got worried.

“We gotta do something. Can’t ask the moon bunny lady from the future, ‘cause that’d upset time… maybe.” Rukia pulled out the book again and turned it to a page that had been subject to a lot of interest. “The bunny moon dance. We gotta learn it, stat.” She tapped the illustrations of a bunny-girl bouncing her rear up and down in front of an armored man with hearts instead of eyes. “My-fy and Nattley said its not like that…” They had in fact tried this a week before when Aered had been more interested in a block box, but aside from him laughing and calling them ‘Illy wiffies’ it hadn’t worked. “We gotta learn it right. No half-baked things.” The next morning would find them missing from their room.

Interlude. Temple meal

“Okay, who has the mochi? As if I can’t guess.” The Sorceress server meant to put the plate in front of Abbyl, but Mysteryse snorted and summoned it to herself. “Guess again Iminxani. Abbyl has the rice pilaf dessert and Lil’ Dem has the candied apple.” She gave the woman a hard look. “I know about your issues with me, but for the love of Praxis please stop acting like such an ass. I can’t deal with that right now, okay?” A disapproving sniff was the only reply she got as the woman left. “All the hoofzits in the world would be better than that. I mean, carrying such a grudge for something I accidentally did as a kid?” Demyss grinned, nudging Abbyl. “It’s quite the story though, right?” Mysteryse laughed. “Well, I definitely think its overblown. But it was funny. Imagine eating something a little off and then basically becoming a vomit volcano. And by sheer happenstance hitting her dress all too often. Its why she now wore those painter’s clothes. No matter that I profusely apologised. Ten times over. Urgh, whatever. Its less amusing than the whole Lil’ Dem episode, rigggght~?” Demyss glowered in response. “Sometimes, you’re a queen dork, cousin. Yeah, I’m lucky that my domain is not still benched like big bro’s. But back then I had no idea what to do and that rap movement seemed close enough. I’m not wearing too wide pants and that hat again though.” Mysteryse laughed, smiling disarmingly after.

“And yet, you now are finally getting the figure for that outfit. I think you tried your best, but maybe a little too hard. No?” Abbyl had been munching on her pilaf, but nodded. Her Celestial cousins took this as a good sign, even more so as she finally spoke: “Really? I’ve known you two most of my life, but rap?” Four eyes cast an incredulous glance at Demyss. “That’s not music, its at best a summation of… nonsense. Set to looping mechanical bowel noises.” She shook her head. “I can’t imagine anyone with any taste in music liking that. Especially not Demara Alyssum, Goddess of Epic music.” Mysteryse snorted out some of her mochi as she tried not to laugh aloud. Demyss sighed, she would have to suffer through this. ”Its… complicated. Rap seemed to be heading in the right direction, we had a few dozen folks slinging it straight, a proper lament in chanted verse.” She sighed. “Of course some… charlatans wanted to make a quick buck and then we got what you laid the smackdown on. I tried to get things back on course, but as a trainee junior Goddess. I didn’t ring any shills with that crowd.” Mysteryse grinned, patting her cousin on the wing. “Not for lack of trying. I mean, you dressed the part and sang with your heart on your tongue. But even those good rappers thought you were a mini-Wendy in clownpants rather than their intended saviour.” She winked goodnaturedly. “Maybe next millennium, eh?” Demyss pouted.

“Anyway Abbyl, I don’t touch heartrock, normally…” Mysteryse was the Goddess of Club music. Much like Demyss this was just a way to stand out in the crowd of musically-inclined Gods. “But you know about the one exception. And-” She glanced at Demyss, who nodded almost imperceptibly. “Well, we caught wind of some gulongskite trying to steal your groove.” She pulled a rolled-up poster from thin air and unrolled it in front of Abbyl. “I know you still haven’t spoken to Iris about your… career. But this is bad news however you look at it.” Abbyl’s eyes turned red as she beheld the poster and a growl she let out built into a roar: “Jerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrryyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!” Both her cousins had to pay for damages to the temple soon after.

Chapter 11. Meeting of the past and the future

“Honestly Eiraiha, I’m worried.” Antimony pointed with his fingers and abilities to different lines on different pieces of parchment. “There’s not enough to raise suspicion perse on each shipment, but put together that’s a lot of explosive materials going to the Darklands.” His wife nodded, levitating a facsimile of the data to their guest in the office, elder Jorgmundt, God of Rocks and the closest thing besides Wieland they had to a top level geological expert. He frowned like a man treading water just beyond his depth. “Seems like it. Plenty o’ stuff to break rocks with…” His broad finger traced several words. “But some to strengthen ‘m, too. Dunno what that tomfool o’ a corpse is thinking, but ole Wieland and that Boots boy did say there’s too much acid in those waters. Not good for a continent as new as that one.” Rubbing one stone-studded brow with knuckles akin to flint, he champed his mouth a little before continuing. “Never seen it m’self, but grand’s books tole of how it can destroy islands in a jiff. Gotta give ‘m credit for spotting it and tryin’ to fix it. But tryin’ ain’t doing, right? This’ll  be bad f’r the seas.” He listed all the chemical compounds now in the water and those he expected to be released into it if they guessed right at Renburn Fennich’s plans.

“And that’s barely a mote of the heap of troubles we can expect if’n we guess wrong and he tries to trigger another big eruption. I’ll speke right, it’d destroy the world then.” Eiraiha acknowledged this, a supervolcano could blot out the sunlight and turn Praxis very cold indeed. ”Thank you for helping us honored Jorgmundt. I wish I could help you as well with that matter…” It was a headache task passed on by several prior Principal Gods, namely to find a Godling interested in becoming the new God of Rocks. Jorgmundt’s grand-parent had been the first of that dominion and hadn’t taken a gender, Jorgmundt’s father had though. But Jorgmundt’s children had rejected the role because rocks weren’t to their liking. Their rock-hard chiseled bodies were though, but they preferred other dominions. Some had even rejected divinity rather than take over. Privately, Eiraiha thought this an awful state of affairs, though in all honesty she didn’t want that domain either. “I… have an inkling of an idea though, but lets discuss that next time, when Teacher starts classes again.” That too was a situation she wanted to remedy. All fine and dandy that each could choose freely, but they couldn’t ignore that some dominions needed new blood…. Jorgmundt was an elder, but even he hadn’t known Teacher as anything but an Elder either. The capital letter was justified. Jorgmundt nodded, exiting the room with but a slight rumble to his step.

Then a lesser Angel rushed into the office, panting heavily. “Lady… Your cousin Miho,  emer..gency… on ARE.” He pointed at the smaller apparatus on the other wall, which began emitting a green light. Eiraiha went to it as Antimony tried to stop the boy from falling over. “Hey Miho, what’s the emergency?” Antimony trusted Eihy to handle things, but a series of increasingly louder iterations of WHAT?! drew his attention.

A little earlier

Mi-Fi had slept well. If anything, the fantastic hospitality they’d received more than made up for the shocks and injuries prior. Even if things here were a bit more primitive, no radio and oldfashioned furnishings to name some, this shell was near perfect. She wandered the hallways and admired the art on display there. “They’re great, eh? Well Mif, I found an artist for the book.” Natty grinned. “That Henry, Metala and Lena’s dad, he promised to do a slew.” She opened a paper folder and drew out a drawing of little Lena carrying a parrot-doll. “He made these right after getting up this morning. Well, some at least. Others are just things he made a few of before.” One of those showed a Wendy trying to extract her tail from a thorny bush. They shared a laugh at the sight. “Oh, hi you two.” Kaori Wayfarer stepped out of a smaller room with a worried look on her face. “I’m sorry, but have you seen the girls today?” They hadn’t, so she said goodbye and ran on towards another room. Mi-Fi and Natty left the large shell to check on Iris. “Hey you two.” Iris’ eyes were almost back to normal, though she still appeared woozy. “Sooo… In the past.” She shook her head. “I’m feeling a bit better, thanks to this little guy.” She patted Aered on the head, getting an indignant reply:  “Erd no lil! Erd nuncle.” He did smile at them after, but soon a frown creased his little brow. “Wiffies? Erd wan’ wiffies..” A picture of the girls appeared over his head.

Aered sent his senses out, but didn’t find them. He started crying and ran towards the shell. A minute after Miho came out, with her son-in-law-to-be on her arm. “Hey, have you three caught anything about where our little girls may have gone? They’re usually back about now if they go on an early adventure.” Iris ambled forward, a smile on her face. “Nope, but did they leave a note or something? If my brain isn’t that scrambled anymore, they do usually do that, right?” Miho nodded, pulling a scrawled note from her apron. “They said..” She sighed. “That they’ve gone to learn the bunny moon dance. But nothing else.” Iris rubbed her head with a frown that turned to palefaced shock. “Zipangu. Oh good grief, clanmother Miho, they’ve gone to Zipangu.” | “How do you know?” Natty couldn’t help but blurt at the certainty in her friend’s voice. | “She heard about their stories Nat, probably at the same age we did.” Mi-Fi swallowed nervously. Miho looked from young woman to young woman, utterly nonplussed. Iris gnawed her claws, shaking her head. “It’ll be okay.” Miho seemed relieved. “If they’re in Zipangu, it won’t be bad. We were worried they might try to go to the Darklands, or Nerana, or somewhere worse.” Iris looked sad. “I wish I could share that confidence. Them going to Zipangu…” She rubbed her forehead with the palms of her hands. “Especially to learn that dance… I can’t be sure, but…”

She grabbed Aered and the Aosagi’s, putting them on her abdomen. “I don’t have your wisdom, clanmother Miho, just my memories. Uncle has to go there too, I’ll take us there.” Miho looked amazed. “But I’m not the clanmother, Saerti is ours, remember? And I’m just a little Ureonggaksi, not some wise sage.” Iris grinned, poking Miho with a knuckle. “Wanna bet? Our family has two, your teachings kept the clan together for over twelve hundred years…” A single tear fell then. “You shouldn’t have wandered off- mfmfmfmoph!” Mi-Fi and Natty had clamped their hands over Iris’ mouth. “Iris!” Natty shook her head. “Dinnsay on Tomorrowday! You don’t want to stop existing!” Iris nodded, a sigh escaping her mouth and their fingers. “Sorry. Miho, thanks, but I should to keep my mouth shut…” Iris gave her a hug. “But I do need your wisdom… Any idea on how to stop a brewing conflict?” Miho thought a moment, warmly returning the hug. “I don’t know… But maybe getting everyone together and stuffed with rice ought to make them unable to fight?” Iris thanked her, then used a gate spell to whisk them away. Miho thought about going inside to inform Eiraiha when she noticed Balase stumble into the yard. “Oh my! Balase, what happened to you?!” The Baphomet was covered in grey goo and looked afraid. “I’m never going there again. Miho, call Eihy, please! I’m feeling something weird on my back.” She fell down, revealing a purple tentacle stuck to her back. It sprouted two arms and then spoke: “Time to take over this world!” Its evil laugh had Miho jettison to the ARE, screeching in fright.

Meanwhile, Mi-Fi, Natty and Iris saw Zipangu as they had never seen it before. Aered took it in stride, a worried picture of his girls overhead. It was beautiful, but so small. The Court of the Moons and the capitol outside of it had been massive structures in their time and minds. But in this age? “Mif, how are we going to find them? Do you have an idea Iris?” Their Ushi-Oni friend nodded, then covered her uncle’s little ears. “Ay-yup! Aunt Rukia told me, they basically walked in, but got into trouble for mispronouncing Tsuki no Usako. It… kinda got worse till uncle appeared and calmed them down.” She frowned. “I can’t recall how he got there though.” Seemingly in response, Aered made a small magical gesture and pulled a toy out of thin air. “Erd magg-ick. Nissss-s play?” Mi-Fi and Natty stifled a laugh. “Figures, with his wife Rukia, eh?” Iris nodded to them and suggested that they enter the court. It was a slaughterhouse, in a sense. Two trails of Ureonggaksi slime led past sleeping guards, both human and mamonme. They had nappies on for the most part, having been cured of grumpiness evidently. Natty blinked at the sight. “Iris, how in blazes did they do this? I mean, they’re not average kids, but…” Mi-Fi nodded, her attention drawn to ancient murals that were less faded in this age.

“Look,” Iris waggled a finger and was mimicked by Aered. “Rukia is the most powerful mage in our time. Even if she weren’t also a you know what…” A clawed finger pointed at Aered. “She would still be able to compete directly with them. Even when she was a kid, she had savant-level intuitiveness with magic. And a reservoir of power usually reserved for… I dunno, a legion of magi? Aunt Eiraiha had it investigated, several times. But even the Shoggo and Melissae together couldn’t figure it out. And no, the Ancestor had nothing to do with it either.” Iris swallowed. “I went with my aunt to the Outer Plane once. I dare say her magic has nothing to do with that place and that it is definitely not normally a nice place to visit unless you’re slime-based.” Her eyes shone with memory. “Well, the flora is spectacular, from a distance. The fauna though is deadly.” Mi-Fi nodded, then asked a question that was becoming more pertinent in her mind. “So did Lena and… Chichi go with them? We’ve been following this trail of slime and sleepers, but…” Natty pouted for a moment, she hadn’t thought to spot that, seeing as how used she’d become to seeing trails like these practically anywhere. “For all I know, we’ll find a pair of snoring Ureonggaksi sooner or later. Can Ureonggaksi wear nappies?” Iris laughed, joined by Aered who just rolled with her mirth. “Don’t be silly, regular nappies slide right off. She did eventually invent something similar for them, but my aunt didn’t have that in this age…” Her eyes unfocussed slightly. “Damned concussion still makes me woozy.” A small thumb was supplied and accepted. “Le’s go.”

As they drew nearer to the throneroom, an argument pierced the air. Beyond the doors, which had been surgically cut open to admit small children, the Empress of this day an age stood bowed with backache.

Opposing her, an elder Ureonggaksi gesticulated while three dejected little girls sat besides a somewhat younger, scarred Ureonggaksi. “And I’m telling you, Sukina, I won’t stand for it!” The Empress cut the air with a hand. “They have to be punished. My entire Imperial Guard, cabinet and circle of advisors are sleeping on the job and I can’t wake them. I can overlook their destruction of that awful torture device that was my throne, but-” Kusuhimi interjected: “But nothing. They didn’t harm those people, and you know it. Don’t bother with the dignity schtick either, you egocentric moonbutt!” Their argument devolved into a full brawl that would have added to the destruction had not two massive, clawed hands grabbed them by the scruff of their necks and separated them. “STOP IT! NOW!!!” Iris’ roar could quell even the fiercest of quadrail miscreants, it was something beyond the experience of the Empress and the Ureonggaksi elder and they fainted. “Uhm, Iris, could you let them go? Gently? We’ll need to check them for a heart-attack I think?” Mi-Fi managed to kneel besides the empress while Natty kneeled besides the older Ureonggaksi. Iris wobbled on her legs though and decided to sit down. She wanted to nap, but she probably shouldn’t. 

Treating a concussion was something that she’d confidently do, and had done often enough, with anyone else. But as she was the one suffering it, that made it hard to recall the details. Yelling had been a bad idea, probably. “Phew, she’s okay. Just fainted.” Mi-Fi ran a hand through her hair, unconsciously touching her ears. Natty reported similarly good news, but when they turned to Iris, they saw that she had been relieved of Aered by the three girls while the other Ureonggaksi was studying Iris’ face intently. “Are you feeling okay? I’m guessing you had a concussion…” She gently held Iris’ face and turned her head this way and that. “Don’t fall asleep. Try to focus on my voice.” Two eyestalks zoomed in. “You look like…” Soft tears pooled in four eyes. “You look like my old friend Seselie… Different eye and hair colour, but that jaw, those cheeks… Are you maybe a granddaughter of her?” Iris blinked slowly, fighting to not fall asleep. She tried to answer though: “Seselie? Demon Braves Seselie? More like one of the countless descendants, maybe? My aunt told me I probably am.” She gestured vaguely at Rukia, who was too busy to notice. “After so many centuries, probably every Ushi-Oni is a great-to-the-umpteenth descendant though.” She grinned. “I played the lead in a school play about em though. Those Demon Braves. You knew em?” The scarfaced young woman opposite her nodded. “I am Ulrika, one of the few Demon Braves still alive.” Iris’ eyes shot wide open.

Interlude. Righteous wrath

Muilin Jin-Ri smiled as he uncorked a delicate bottle of liquor. Showbusiness was booming, and his business was all about showbusiness. Mien Huan wasn’t as cosmopolitan as Crystal Plinth or Karpathia, definitely out of Tsuki Mizeru’s league as well, but it was a hub to which many roads led. And one where offices were affordable, if not as high into the sky as he hoped to be one day. His clients usually called him Jerry though, the foreign name had stuck after a translation error and had proven a golden money shot. Even thirty years since his first big contract, people still told new talent to hook up with Jerry. He was fair, taking at most half the profits on a gamble’s rookie, or twenty percent on top-talent. He did dip a bit deeper into the merchandising. Talent got a say in what they wanted and didn’t want to be put on collectables, but bottom line was that seventy percent of the profit there was his. And that was a lot more money than even the Empress saw per month. Of course, he did donate a fair share, but his dreams were in his reach. Only… he’d be a lot richer if not for the unfortunate events nearly twenty years past. People still bought the merchandise, but without new albums… Well, her unexpected daughter would ring the register anew, even on the old merchandise. 

“Sir! I’m calling the peacekeepers, but your appointment is here and she’s furious. She put Magnalia through the door.” The integrated Internal Communicator for Offices relayed the worried voice of his receptionist/profiler Ting Jia-Tiesn. Touching the ICO’s reply button he spoke: “Jia, what appointment? Who is coming up and why did he or she evict Magnalia?” Jia-Tiesn giggled hysterically as she replied: “You kept a spot on the permanent calendar for her. She is so enraged that I have soiled myself.” He heard her tears hit the ICO. “Magnalia needs an ambulance, please barricade yourself sir.” Jin-Ri ran a hand over his balding pate, dislodging the artistic hairpiece (which was referred to as a ger-bear rug by others) he favored. Who could it be? He had dozens of people on the permanent calender, most of them female. Maybe it was Ankura? The Mios guitarist had rejected his offer and sworn vengeance. Then he was pulled from his reverie as his door was torn free and crushed between two shapely hands. “JERRRRYYYY! YOU RAT-BAITING BASTARD!!! HOW DARE YOU!!!!!” Suddenly Jin-Ri realised that seventy percent was the same as zero percent profit if you were too dead to spend the money.

Twenty minutes later

Petrovich knew what he had gotten himself into when he married Abbyl. She was a sweet woman, usually gentle and timid, but when her ire was stoked she was a berserker. And not just any berserker. His birth family traditionally favored mates noted for their fierceness and had initially scoffed at Abbyl for being too timid. All that aggravation built up though, and she’d snapped at his boorish third cousin Spetnar. Specifically, she’d snapped an ancient axe from the lodge’s wall, chased Spetnar across the moors and cut down the tree he’d sought refuge in with one stroke. After that, his relatives had been eating humble pie for quite a bit. It had been the second time he’d seen her lose it. And to that side of his personality, it was undeniably sexy like nothing else. On the other hand, he knew how dangerous such fury could be, how ashamed Abbyl felt when she returned to normal. And especially how hard it could be to calm her down for anyone but him. So when Mysteryse had explained their goof and just what had come of it, he went with her to downtown Mien Huan. After this, and getting Iris and their new friends home, he would take both cousins and apply the blunt end of his spear to their backsides.

“She’s in the top office, its been warded though, so I can’t gate us in.” Mysteryse led the way past a cordon of civilian peacekeepers, men and women of varying species in brown uniforms edged with black bands. They had to step over and around quite a large amount of shattered glass. Three floors up, they came to a large triangular office filled with trophies. Recording discs in silver, gold, platinum and even Eiraihum varieties hung (previously neatly) in metal and glass casings with a plain stainless placard underneath them stating the band, album name and date of the awards. It was a sanctum such as many music lovers could only dream of and as a broken device attested, one that usually had a record playing music. Not good music though, Petrovich noted, spotting the umpteenth Häsn album. “Halló Jerry, still hræðilegt taste in music?” Petrovich had never liked Jerry and technically wouldn’t mind dropping him hard to the pavement. But that would mean jailtime for Abbyl or himself and a lot of explaining to Iris. “Ah Petrovich, still dressed like a native Tethyrian from a thousand-some years ago? I’ve been trying to explain things to your wife, you filthy talent snatcher, that I have nothing to do with your daughter’s disappearance. Only that I’ve acted in good faith on a newcomer’s claims.”

Chapter 12. The Secret of the Moons

“But… The Demon Braves lived… Thirteen hundred years ago?” Iris felt as if she’d been doused with water. “Oh wait… I’m inna past, with Mif and Nat.” Gentle hands massaged her temples, drawing her gaze upwards to the eyes of Ulrika. “You’re from the future? Must have something to do with our little miracle workers messing with time.” Ulrika grinned, but there was a brittle edge to it. “They managed to find me after all. You’re a niece of theirs?” Iris nodded, oblivious to the fact that her erstwhile uncle was belaboring his future wives about loving them despite being absolutely silly sometimes. “Yeah, lil Iris. Big surprise when I hatched, but… Got a phenomenal mom. And equally good aunts. And amazing uncles and dad.” Ulrika laughed. “Sounds like our family. They wasted no time in making me welcome, either. Though I wasn’t born into it, of course.” She glanced at Kusuhime, who was now snoring softly. “Kusu saved my behind first. Metaphorically, since when I became an Ureonggaksi, I kind of lost mine.” Iris stifled a laugh. “I can’t imagine what that felt like. I mean, I can imagine somewhat what being human is like. I’m good at magic and a spell of human form? Doable. But it doesn’t feel any different from… normal when I have to use the toilet.”

They tittered a laugh together. “So… people really still know about us in your time? Do they know the real us? Or just a story?” Iris thought it over and nodded at Rukia, Emmy and Metala, who now were curing the unconscious Empress of grumpiness and her backache. “Every one they taught knows the truth… well, as much as they know it. Back when I was a kid though, it was a bit more of a story without the gruesome details. That Sefrana character seemed too villainous. I can’t fathom why she’d do that. But then there’s Elsaya’s history.” Ulrika nodded. “I never saw her myself, though she tried to make her son kill me… But I doubt not her evil.” Four eyes shone with conviction. Then she sighed, deflating slightly as she slumped. “Can I ask your advice? I’m… not sure how to live in this time. Things have changed so much since then. Kusu helps, but she too is much older than I remember and she’s so…what’s the word? She decides on something and come high water or quakes, she sticks with it and doesn’t brook any buts.” Iris put one massive hand on Ulrika’s shoulder. “Welp, bear with me here. When I started on my job, I got into trouble for being too timid. I got slapped with the nickname snail-face and it stuck.” Her grimace spoke volumes. “I’m not an Ureonggaksi, but I tried to be. You were human, so being an Ureonggaksi doesn’t come naturally and you too are overcompensating.”

Iris made a face and shouted boo at Ulrika, who merely raised an eyebrow. “See? You’re not phased by that. A born Ureonggaksi would at the least be startled enough to close their eyes and shiver. Just try to be yourself, okay? Even if that means being an Ureonguman. Take things one day at a time and don’t be afraid to correct great to the umpteenth aunt Kusuhimi if she goes out of line.” Iris shook her head. “I mean, even papa might pick a bone with the Empress if its a matter of honor, but that argument of theirs became silly, fast.” She gave a kindly grin. “And you have others in the family who care about you. If you spend time with them, who knows what friends you may make? You do have one from the future, now.” As the words left her lips, Iris felt a tugging of magic and Ulrika faded from view, along with the court of the Moons. Natty meanwhile had made Kusuhimi as comfortable as she could make the older Ureonggaksi. Mi-Fi scooted over, as the Empress was now in the hands of the three girls. “I think… She received a hale-and-pride blessing? Remember the history books we read in school?” Natty nodded, grinning at Mi-Fi. “Haletide, Mif. I guess that she may be the first one to receive it too. We didn’t have photos of her, because she left for New Heaven before they figured how to make them printable. But the name there was Satoshi-Saerti Kusuhimi.” The snores coming from her now indicated a calm sleep. They studied the fine lines and wrinkles around her eyes for a while. “Golly.” That single word aptly summarized their feelings on the matter. Then they heard Ulrika’s exclamation. “Huh? Where did Iris go?” Natty glanced at Mi-Fi when she didn’t answer, but instead saw everything fade into the distance.

“Natty?!? Iris?” Mi-Fi experienced acute panic, had they somehow prevented being born? Or merely gone back? Why was she still here then? “Humm, I think they went home. No worries.” A small hand patted her back. Rukia’s sincere smile beamed at her. “We need t’ cure great-great-great-grand-aunty Kusuhisuhimi, but maybe curing you is quicker?” Mi-Fi chuckled. “Thanks, but no thanks, I’m not grumpy. Just worried about my sister and our friend. And about our time… Time travel is scary.” Rukia patted her again. “Humm-hm! Rukia knows. We did some too you know?” She left Mi-Fi and instead brought Ulrika to Kusuhime. Three little heads huddled and soon Kusuhimi was fitted with a nappy-based construct looping over her shoulders for fastening. Meanwhile, a little boy was exploring, specifically his nostril with the use of one finger. When his belly started to rumble though, he looked a little troubled. Normally, the girls or his parents would have a potty present. Big boys might get a nappy for the night, but he should use a potty when awake. Since they were busy, he had a look and found one. It was kind of big though. Mi-Fi tried to calm herself when a soft light filled the throne room and Eiraiha stepped out of it. “Girls, you have a lot of explaining to do!” She spotted the Empress and Kusuhimi now snoozing side-by-side and slapped the palm of her hand against her forehead. “Please, no… Not this too!” Three very sweet little girls knew they might be in trouble.

“Why did you put a nappy on all the people here, including the Empress of Zipangu?” Rukia swallowed, catching the strained patience of her Celestial aunt and godmother. “Well aunt Eihy, we just wanted to ask someone to teach us the bunny’s moondance, but people got grumpy for some reason. Then we found über-grandaunty Kusuhisuhimi fighting with the bunny ’mpress, an’ the spidergirl scared em to sleep,  we thought our cure would help stop ‘m from making a war over nothing.” Mi-Fi coughed then. “Erh, calling Tsuki no Maware the bunny moon dance is rude. Really rude. The bunny’s moon is a… foul way to refer to a Tsuki no Usako’s rear end.” Mi-Fi clambered to her feet, left leg dragging slightly. “Since it is not just the part of our body we are proud of but the part that most resembles our ancestors’ form, that is a very bad slur.” She waggled a finger at the girls. “Even in my time, that can make an Usako angry enough to want to punish you, thoroughly. If I didn’t know you well enough to know there was no malice intended, hurt leg or not I would have punished you myself.” They apologised after that. “Don’t fret, please. But you should make amends with the Empress of this time.” Two particularly loud snores drew their attention to the sleeping figures on the ground. Rukia scratched her head, Emmy shook hers and Metala nibbled on her thumb in thought. “They snore a lot. Aunt Eihy, can you wake them up? We’d do it, but pokin’ em with a stick isn’t the best.” Emmy looked so sincere that Mi-Fi had to suppress a grin and spotted the Principal Goddess doing the same. “Okay girls, stand back… Oh for Piet’s sake…” Metala had put their thumbs in each other’s mouths, to general mirth.

It was done quickly, had Mi-Fi not kept her attention on Eiraiha, she might have missed the slight flash of light coming from her eyes, might have mistaken the distant ring of a bell for one in Zipangu and she just might not have seen the little rainbows hiding behind Eiraiha’s head. Even so, Mi-Fi nearly gasped when Empress Sukina and Kusuhimi awoke and asked why the other one had their thumb in her mouth. Shortly afterwards, the doors slammed open and a squad of elite soldiers ran in. At their front a wild Usako stomped the floor. “The Empress has fallen! Soldiers, follow me!” She swung a massive kine-mallet at Ulrika, but found it stopped by an avalanche of rice that appeared out of thin air. “Sorry, but I don’t have time to deal with overly eager people. Your Empress-” A clipped voice interjected. “Is just fine! Soldiers, stand down. See if you can’t get Mikasasa out of that pile.” Empress Sukina stood unbowed and though slightly perturbed inside, showed not a whit of anxiety. “Summon Ammeirolil, there is a diplomatic situation that needs resolving.” As the soldiers hastened to comply, Mi-Fi watched as Eiraiha and Sukina faced each other. “I had heard rumours that the Principal God had acquired a mortal family. But I suggest that we wait until my advisor is here before we.. speak.” A rice covered Mikasasa took up position besides her mother. Mi-Fi knew her history well, a cautionary tale indeed. “Mother, stand well back, I don’t trust them.”

“I know that, daughter. But getting buried in rice again won’t help you. They managed to make my back stop aching and they haven’t harmed anyone. They stopped me from declaring war. For now.” Sukina’s voice was soothing, but Mikasasa shook her head. “You’re wearing a diaper, mother. Ammeirolil needs to check you for bedevilments. Until she and the others get here I will protect you.” Sukina nodded, but put a hand on the kine. “Calmly though. Your weapon is a toy to them, at best.” Eiraiha meanwhile quietly conversed with Kusuhimi. Mi-Fi’s ears caught part of their conversation, including Kusuhimi’s apology. She was saying that since the blessing her emotions had been running a little wilder, on top of the longstanding feud, but that it shouldn’t be an excuse. Ulrika squeezed Kusuhimi’s hand while the three girls resumed their earlier glum sitting down. Ammeirolil entered, a fan of tails nearly hiding the other six Zenko as they entered the room, each evidently strong in her own right with three to five tails. “My Empress, you called?” Sukina nodded curtly. “We have a situation here. These two came into the palace on appointment.” She indicated Ulrika and Kusuhimi. “These three followed, using magic to put guards and myself to sleep… and fit me with this.” She slapped her rump. “Then I awake to find the Principal God burying my only daughter in rice to keep her from killing someone. Diplomatic advice is needed, urgently.” She used sign language to indicate other concerns.

“I see.” Ammeirolil sighed, pushing up her headdress and scratching at her hair underneath. What followed was a most delicate bit of diplomatic maneuvering. Essentially, the Goddess and the Empress agreed to an impromptu informal meeting to begin settling matters. Everything would have been fine, except… “Eihee-muhmuh, pot-tee dun.” A slightly smelly boy clutched her dress and pointed to the ruined throne upon which perched a small, but odorous pile. “HE CRAPPED ON OUR ANCESTRAL SEAT!” Mikasasa glared at Aerdayasêr, who wisely retreated behind his mother’s dress. “It is a crime most heinous… If it were done with malice aforethought. Lady Mikasasa, its a child, a small child.” Mikasasa stomped the floor. “Then we’ll punish his mother! Ammeirolil, do something useful for once!” The Zenko’s eyes narrowed and power surrounded her tails. “Be more mindful of your words, princess. Perhaps I should remind you of your own… accidents as a child? Say the Mehingu armor being covered in carrot meringue cake?” Eiraiha hurriedly interjected then: “I’m sorry, that contraption looks like one of the decorated potties the girls made for my son. I will restore it clean as can be.” A miniature sending was even now attempting to clean Aered while Mi-Fi felt more than a little privileged to see all of this. “Sorry, our hubby didn’t really like potties at first, we had t’convince him.” Emmy, Metala and Rukia tried to hide him behind themselves. “But what was that then?” Rukia asked Sukina. “An exercise machine?” Sukina’s laugh rolled throughout the halls. 

Eventually Zipangu would normalize relationships with Crystal Plinth, but now that the ice had been broken, the reasons  behind the long diplomatic silence became apparent as well. The Tsuki no Usako had tried to bury the anger they felt at the event known as The Piercing of Heaven’s Pearl, the massive energy backlash that destroyed their ancestral home on the moon. Add to that the strained relations with prior Principal Gods and the effects of the Great Changing upon their previously courteous human allies and one might understand just why they’d been sceptical of Eiraiha’s extended  branch of the rainbow birch. “And I will admit I… really didn’t want to meet with any Saerti after Kusuhimi and I had been feuding for decades.” Sukina sighed, then was surprised by Ulrika’s gentle voice. “Kusu thought that she had lost me. When I was found and restored, I asked her to come with me here. You know, its so strange… The last time I saw you, at Hoofleaf’s dairy… It was just a few months back as far as I knew. I’m so saddened though, having learned about the feud.” The expression on both Sukina and Ammeirolil’s faces was one that Mi-Fi would not be able to forget. “Bu-bu-but how?!” Ulrika explained, aided by the girls and Eiraiha. Ammeirolil fanned herself reflectively afterwards, an obvious ploy to gain a little time to think.

“That is why we were invited to attend that Demon Braves ceremony… Sukina, we should have attended that personally.” The Empress pouted. “Don’t I know that now? Back then though, my back was killing me and there were other concerns. But Ulrika, I apologize to you in particular… And you as well Kusuhimi.” She exchanged a laden look with the older Ureonggaksi that clearly meant they would bury the hatchet if the other did so. “Is there anything I might gift you beyond my friendship?” Ulrika smiled, shaking her head. “I just wanted to see you Sukina, Ammeirolil. Meeting your daughter was nice too. In a way..” Then she got a thought, eyestalks rising. “However, could you please teach that Tsuki no Maware to the girls? I can’t ever repay them, but they did come all this way just for that, originally.” Sukina shook her head, unaware that Mikasasa had withdrawn.”I would, but… they are too young and lack enough… gravitas… To learn the moves.” Then she noticed Eiraiha’s shapely rear. Oddly enough, not everyone noticed this immediately when they met the Principal Goddess, since their eyes were kept respectfully away from such places. “Aha, I see… Would it be acceptable if Lady Eiraiha learns the dance? The girls can watch and try the basic steps, and she can teach them if and when they have enough… stature to master it.” Eiraiha agreed and Mi-Fi watched in utter amazement.

As an adolescent Usako, she herself had learned the dance bit by bit, one of the things that she and her mother had enjoyed doing together. Almost unbeknownst to her, she joined in as Eiraiha tried to dance the opening movements. For a short while Mi-Fi forgot her fears about her time, her worrisome left leg and the sheer impossibility of what had happened. Three smaller figures danced as well, though they frequently stumbled and couldn’t (yet) make their rear move the way she and the Empress did. A little boy sat between his Ureonggaksi relatives, surrounded by Zenko and soldiers, all watching raptly. Perhaps that is why Mi-Fi spotted it first. Mikasasa had returned, dragging the huge ceremonial sledgehammer that had hung in the entry hall of the palace, an ornament that was literally a ton of stone banded in metal. Something inside raged at this happy moment being interrupted by a murderous intent. But raising a hand against the crown princess? It would mean her death. Things went click after that and Aerdayasêr’s jaw dropped as the pretty bunny lady leapt clear over him, delivering a powerful kick to the bunny lady with the big hammer behind him. The crunch of bone nearly went unnoticed when the crunch of marble rang through the hall. “Bunbun fight?”

Mi-Fi didn’t hear him, she was out of her mind with pain as the bones in her leg had shattered again. She could only scream in agony until a gentle pair of hands touched her and the pain was gone. “Don’t worry, there… the pain should be gone.” A plateau of shimmering glass surrounded by mists was where Mi-Fi found herself. Eiraiha sat beside her, but was indistinct, as if not really there, until she faded in completely. “How in the world did you even walk? Your leg seems to have been shattered completely and then healed in the last.. Year or so.” Mi-Fi sighed. She could sense the pain in her body, though she couldn’t feel any of it. “Lady Eiraiha, I’m… not of this time… But since I’ve probably destroyed my timeline… I was a pilot of a suborbital craft in my time, about twelve centuries from now. The mission was derailed and the resulting crash against the orbital ruins turned my leg to paste. Your son saved my life and one of his wives managed to repair my leg… to a degree. My friends and I accidentally got here, but while they have gone…” Panic flashed across her face. “I’m still stuck here. And now I’ve really done it. Mikasasa was supposed to try a rebellion sometime this year, but… I couldn’t let her harm him.” Her ears drooped in shame. “And I can’t stop myself here either. Mikasasa was diagnosed posthumously with a parasitic infection in her brain. But if you don’t give the Empress a Haletide Blessing, my ancestors won’t be born.”

Eiraiha’s laugh was very kind. “Don’t fret. Timelines are far more ‘flexible’ than you think. I’ve been tutored on this after I… had questions about the girls travelling through time as well as myself and my husband. But this sharing may have a few consequences around the edges. You want me to heal her too?” Mi-Fi nodded and was rewarded with a radiant smile. “I knew it. Let me handle things then.” Brilliant light enfolded Mi-Fi and she slept. Back inside the throne-hall Eiraiha grimaced as she reviewed the power reserves she allowed herself to use for personal use. She’d needed to use her allotment for miracles, but it was justified to go beyond. As far as needed. This girl would get a working leg and hopefully a way back home. Still, she was impressed, even Granny hadn’t really seen just what one of the girls had managed to do. “Lady Eiraiha, I’m so sorry. I don’t know why my daughter-” Eiraiha silenced Sukina by starting the Haletide Blessing on her. A much younger Usako gasped in amazement thereafter, even as Eiraiha set the fractured jaw of Mikasasa and found that she indeed suffered from a cranial invader that had chewed into her logical and emotional centres. She extracted it and set about healing what she could. Brains were notoriously tricky to heal, even magically, but she could do it.

“There.” Eiraiha turned to Sukina. “My apologies for not warning you, but when I tap that deeply into my Divine reserves I need to concentrate. I’ve given you the Haletide Blessing, which will keep you revitalized as long as you do a short ritual each week. Your descendant told me about Mikasasa’s medical condition. She’ll live, but she can never be the next Empress, understand? This parasite has damaged her brain and even with my skills as a healer, that will leave an impact.” Ammeirolil stepped forward and examined the squirming thing. “These… usually they can be found in mad horses. I didn’t know they could infect Usako. But the Empress needs to produce a new heir?” Eiraiha nodded, turning to the girls and her son. “Sweeties, this adventure is just about over. Can you take Aered home? I’ll see you there.” As she turned back to check on Mi-Fi, she only saw an empty floor.

Interlude. Injuries and appearances

Jerry thought his office quite spacious. With the destruction of quite a bit of one wall and some of the furniture, it definitely was more roomy than normal. “So, it is good to see you all again. I won’t press charges of course, provided you two could fix the damages, ladies.” Demyss and Mysteryse nodded glumly before the latter spoke: “Naturally. It goes without saying. Just as that you’ll drop this usurper?” Jerry shook his head. “No way. Look you two, I may not have your powers, but I know talent. And even after all this time, I’d know Abbyl’s songs and how they should sound. This girl has talent and if she hasn’t nailed the songs then I should be sent to pasture. What really clenches it is that she looks damn near the exact same, just has red hair for some reason. Are you sure you don’t have a-” Abbyl slapped the table hard enough to crack the marble. “NO! I only have one baby. My baby. Due to complications at the laying of her egg…” Petrovich gently held his wife as her body shook. “I cannot have children anymore. And my Iris has black hair.” She sobbed. “Where can she be?” Jerry tapped his office toy, a steel ball that once set in motion would spiral down and back up along a rail. “I wish I could pluck her out of thin air for you. But I will do what I can… if you agree to meet the girl and her… coach.” He strode to an ARE exclusively for confidential conversations with talent and made a call.

Several minutes later, he walked back. “I’ve set up a meeting in three days time. Hopefully your daughter will be back by then, or else Demyss can handle it. But I do insist the meeting takes place, there’s a lot riding on this, as you should know.” He wrung his hands nervously. “If this blows up and Abbyl won’t return to the stage, I might as well get run over by an Ushi-Oni.” As the universe does enjoy a joke now and again, there was a flash of light and Iris dropped onto Jerry, followed shortly after by Natty dropping into Demyss’ arms. “IRIS!!” Ureonggaksi can be incredibly fast in certain situations and Petrovich got the distinct impression his wife had practically teleported them both to their daughter’s side. Their little girl looked like she had had it rough. Lifting her torso while Abbyl gently lifted her abdomen allowed Mysteryse to scoot under and extract a slightly flattened Jerry. While Iris’ parents tried to make her unconscious form comfy, Natty got free from Demyss’ grasp. “Thanks for the catch, miss? Huh? Abbyl and Petrovich? What are you doing here? Wherever here is.” Natty glanced around and her jaw dropped. “Is this Dai Ensui Kiroku? I… I’ve only seen it in magazines.” She promptly sat down, a look of feline confusion evident on her face. “I hope we haven’t messed up the past?”

“Whoah there bunnyclaws, calm down.” Mysteryse had left Jerry in the care of a miniature sending while Demyss was checking Iris over. “You must be Natty? Nice to meet you, I’m Mysteryse. Don’t fret, I need to check you over for damages.” Mysteryse scanned Natty with beams from her eyes. “Hnnnnmmmm! Okay, apart from mental shock. Demara, how’s Iris?” Her cousin replied: “Concussed, but otherwise okay, can you keep your senses out for their friend Mi-Fi?” Mysteryse did and nearly soiled herself as she detected a falling Usako high in the sky. Before she could react though, her senses detected the presence of another God. Ten seconds later her cousin Aerdayasêr stepped through the broken window, a sleeping, glowing Mi-Fi in his arms. “Caught her on time Myste, Demmy.” He glanced at Iris and Natty, sighed as if he had been holding his breath in worry, and laid down Mi-Fi on a soft patch of carpet. “I’m just glad everyone’s back safe. How long did our little niece and Natty glow?” While they discussed this, Aered had to explain just how he knew where to catch Mi-Fi. “Simple, Iris’ auto-tracker blessing. You know how wide my senses can go, so when I felt Iris return, I gated to the sky above and there I caught her.” He rubbed red-rimmed eyes. “Good thing mom had Great-Granny record what she’d learned from the visitors to our… younger years. I don’t know why, but she fell from the sky then too apparently.”

Demyss and Mysteryse nodded, accepting this fact instantly. “We do need to have a word with Abbyl while they sleep.” Natty dozed involuntarily. Abbyl though sat next to Iris, deeply inhaling over her sleeping head. She looked up at the Celestial trio and smiled. “My baby’s back. Cousins, I’m so happy… But could you please bring us home before they wake?” Aerdayasêr kneeled next to her and Iris, the fact that his niece again claimed his thumb while asleep barely registered. “No Abbyl. We still need to repair things here for Jin-Ri and… Don’t you think you should tell her? I know you’ve been reluctant, but look at what you did today.” He indicated the destroyed office. “I think you did this not because of some pretender trying to cash in on your successes with our other cousins. I think you did it because you were afraid Iris had been lost and you hadn’t told her yet.” Abbyl gave him a bleak look, then looked to her husband for support before turning back to Aered. “A’sêr… I… I do want to tell her, but…” Tears flooded from four eyes. “I don’t want my baby to hate me for… for what happened to her… other mom.” Aered and Petrovich placed their hands on her shoulders. “Saetta Abbyl, our dottir wouldn’t hate you. She is blessun okkar, our bond is strong. I leave to you, but fraendi Aerdayasêr is right.” He spat in disgust at the sight of Jerry. “Even that óhreinn skrýtingur deserve to know. Else, how we answer dottir’s questions when we face svikari?” Aered nodded to that.

“Everyone who knows hasn’t abandoned you either, right? Now, my Rukia and our children, they are all sleeping, but you know how she, Emmy and Metala love you. As does my little sister-” He pulled Demyss close. “Who has been very patient with her chosen one on this matter, eh Li’l Dem?” Demyss coloured red, but nodded. “After though, there’s someone you should meet. I’m insisting on bringing everyone along.” His grin was as glorious and wide as seeing the sun rise over Praxis from mount Sedealil’s surface. “She’s got red hair… and is cute.”

Chapter 13. A distant storm

Iris woke slowly to some familiar sensations. She smelled her parents nearby, and her uncle’s thumb was in her mouth again, but… She felt along it with her tongue. It wasn’t her tiny uncle’s thumb, but the big one she knew well, marked by small scars and calluses. As long as she could recall, she’d gone for his thumb whenever she got hurt or just sick. Maybe it was because her own were just so damn large? There were other smells present that she knew, and a few that she didn’t. At least her head felt clearer and she was kind of certain that she was back in her own time. The carpet didn’t match though. Where in the world had it come from? She opened her eyes and saw the familiar, faintly amused look in those rainbow banded eyes of her uncle Aered. “Hey geekette… welcome back.” His other hand ruffled her hair. “Feeling up to sitting up? If not I’ll need to switch thumbs for a bit.” Iris smiled, releasing his thumb. “Thanks uncle. Umph…” She used her muscular arms to raise herself into a sitting position, drawing her spiderlegs close to her body. “So, where are we? It doesn’t look like moms’ shell.” Aered grinned in response and he shook his head. “Nope, though your mom and aunts Demmy and Mysty know this place well. Natty and Mi-Fi got back as well, though… Mi-Fi is glowing for some reason.”

Iris raised an eyebrow, then was glomped by her mother and father. “My baby!” Iris returned the hug, feeling happily warmed. “Hey moms, dad, have I got a trip-story to tell you.” Then her eyes noted the records on the walls. “Huh?!” carrying her parents subconsciously, she rose and turned a full circle. “How in blazes did we end up in Dai Ensui Kiroku??? I mean, I’ve always wanted to see the inside after that magazine…” She spotted Jin-Ri and gasped in amazement. “That’s Jerry the Bandman! I gotta get his-” Abbyl gently placed a hand over Iris’ mouth. “Iris… Can I have your attention? Pllleeeaaasse?” Seeing Iris’ eyes focus on her, Abbyl removed her hand and sighed. “Look my heart and soul baby… I wish I had told you a bit sooner… But there’s something I need to tell you. Something I spent… nineteen years trying to…” Abbyl faltered until Petrovich squeezed her shoulder. “Sheesh, I once fought with a Dragoness, why is it so hard to just say this?” She twiddled her thumbs, then nodded with determination. “You are my daughter. I told you that I got your egg in a hurricane, right? But that’s not exactly what happened. Nor did I tell you of my life before.. Or why I stopped as lead singer of a… particular band.” Abbyl drew in a huge breath and blew it out. “I hadn’t even told Jerry, though I once counted him as one of my best friends, simply because that part of my life did not end on a happy note. I need to tell you though, since… well, something came up while you were away that… I wouldn’t have gone berserk over it maybe, if I hadn’t lost my baby without telling her the whole story.” 

Tears shone in her eyes. “Twenty-three years ago, your aunts Penny, Svatti, Lyze and I plucked up our courage and formed a little band that we named The Shellshockers. Aunt Demyss and aunt Mysteryse thought we could do well, so they introduced us to Jerry. He suggested changing the name to Thundersnail and the Shellshockers, and… well, we kind of rocked the world.” Iris’ eyes went wide. “WHAT?!?” Abbyl shrugged, Petrovich nodded and grinned. “Ay-yup dottir. Is how I met your mom.” Abbyl poked him in the side. “Please let me tell it, hetjan.” She turned back to Iris, not even noticing the shocked expressions on Natty and Mi-Fi’s faces or the grimace on Jerry’s. “Yes. I am Thundersnail. Or rather I was. Back then I was a right hellion, partying and brawling often enough. Ahahah, I got us into so much trouble… You know I’m a berserker… Kinda goes with the blue hair, I guess. But back then I didn’t really care what happened as long as I had a good time.  Petrovich I met about twenty-one years ago, when he came to work for Jerry and us as security.” She blushed. “Actually, maybe just as my minder too, given how often he picked me and Lyze up from the guard stations.” Petrovich nodded, grinning slyly.

“Aside from performing though, we also took a bit of time to hang with our fans. That’s…” She gulped. “That is how I met… your other mother. And why I stopped being Thundersnail.” Four eyes shone with stubborn, desperate determination. “My idiocy got her killed, and random chance destroyed my ability to have more children.”

Nearly twenty years ago

“C’mon Lyze, you really want to take a break from the good life?” Abbyl kept her main eyes on her cousin, her eyestalks occasionally glancing away to look at the jewelry and hair-ornaments she had to pick from before the gig started. “Yes Abbs, and I’m not the only one. I mean… I love this line of work, we all do. But we’ve been on the road for ages.” Four facial tentacles rubbed smooth cheeks. “I want to have a go at finding mr. right, cool down a little and maybe tinker a bit with the setup of our gear so we can do something new. And no, banging a groupie isn’t the same, they don’t work for a permanent arrangement.” Abbyl snorted, conceding the point with a smile. “Yeah, I get that. Buuutttt… Petrov is a very nice guy… I would like a little more time with him. Though, maybe you want in on that?” Lyze laughed, shaking her head. “Nope. I mean, yeah, he’s a good match for you. But I want a boy a bit younger than me, who doesn’t look like he was carved from a bear.” Abbyl glared then. “He’s barely older than I am. Cripes cousin, he’s relatively younger than us both. Remember? Humans age differently than mamonme. Or Celestials, given that Demyss barely looks any different than when we were babies.” She started fussing with her hair, Lyze sighed and scooted closer, zapping the ‘do with a few arcs of electrical current to make it stand out better.

“Maybe, but he’s still not my type. Between you and me though, Penny really digs that Theo, you know? The fan with the glasses on his shirt, hat and face?” They giggled together. “And Svatti then? Pottir only barely left her room this morning in time to miss Jerry.” Abbyl grinned. “Shame about him being so…” She shook her head. “I guess Ureonggaksi or Ruanggaksi aren’t his type as such. But a sprig can’t help but wonder what mamonme or Celestial’d tickle his fancy, eyyy?” Lyze nodded, then pressed her suit. “So, a break?” Abbyl nodded. “Sure, I’ll talk to Jerry. But lets take it after the big concert in Ebron, okay? I don’t want to miss out on that, or the fine drinks they had last time…” Six eyes misted over in memory. Half an hour later, Abbyl felt ready to face the crowd, but she detoured to Jerry’s rented room. “Yo, Jerry~! Got a spin?” He glanced up from his paperwork, smiling. “Always Abbs. You have a spot on my calendar anytime you want it. But you’re due in ten, so lets skip the foreplay and get to what you want to discuss, neh?” It was a pretty smooth talk, Jerry agreed to the ‘vacation’ instantly, but insisted on one thing before the concert. “Look Abbs, you know about the fanclub, right? And the raffle? They picked a winner and she gets to meet the band.” He scratched at his hair. “The thing is though, she lives… kinda in a remote area. Not a place where you could park your shell, not even the speedy one. I can’t send everyone there, so I’m thinking of sending you over to pick her up in person, so she can attend the concert too.” His face was slightly drawn as he considered another bit of information.

 “Apparently her husband died and she’s in a bit of a bind… Its why she can’t afford the ticket right now. But would you be willing?” Abbyl nodded. “Sure, sure. Just get me a map or something, can’t afford to get lost, eh? And maybe I’ll take-” Jerry huffed. “No! Please don’t take Petrovich along. I’ve got enough trouble without you getting pregnant as well.” | “WHAT!?” Abbyl was shocked. “Who got pregnant?” | “Svatti. I guess she hasn’t had a chance to tell you? I wanted a word with her about… well, her relationship with Pottir, only she started puking. I called in a doctor and he just left, after having told me.” Abbyl laughed. “Figures. They’ve been at it almost nonstop. I’ll just have to give Pottir the family talk though. Make sure he gets to the altar.” She winked at Jerry and went on to perform. Singing gave such a thrill, especially when she used her trick to really roll the boom out. Talking to Svatti and Pottir after though was a bit of a chore. “I’m happy for you two, but Schattie-Svatti… We do need you on stage for the concert. Think you can hold the egg in till its over?” Svatti had a hand on her belly as she replied. “Dunno Abbyl, I’m kinda overwhelmed. The doctor said to take it easy though, stress is bad for me.” Pottir held her shoulders in support. “We’ll have the ceremony tonight. But damn it Pottir, your spiritus is too good.” She grinned. “Definitely for you cousin.” A still slightly gawky girl, appearing to be a teen, stepped out of thin air.

“You’ve been chugging it like a fish in a winebarrel. I got you covered though.” She gave a radiant smile and shook Pottir’s hand. “Welcome aboard Pottir. Officially, I’m Demara Alyssum of Ishfell-Saerti and your bride’s cousin. Unofficially, I’m Demyss. Trainee Goddess of Epic Music and cousin to the whole band. Normally this is the point where I’d tell you there’s still an escape… But with your righteous baking? Nope~!” Abbyl smiled and she did enjoy the ceremony. Unfortunately without Petrovich, but her family filled the gap. A few days later she felt angry with herself. She was lost in the Brudlen range, which might have a lot of mamonme living there, but which had no real roads, no transports and apparently not anyone who could give a lick of directions. Add to that her stomach, which felt queasy and rebellious after the roll down a slope she’d not spotted due to the glaring sun. “Hm. That looks like a duck… Strange rocks.” | “Really? I thought it looks like a pot and kettle.” The chirpy voice spooked Abbyl until a Harpy dropped to the ground gracefully. “Then again, cranky old Gumlidden calls it a bunch of senseless stones not fit fer namin. Howdee~! I’m Veer, I’m guessing you are lost? You do have a name, I think?” Abbyl tittered, shaking her head. “I’m Abbyl, and yes… Really lost. I’m supposed to visit someone in this range, but… the directions are useless.” She held up the stencil Jerry had provided.

Veer fluffed her feathers. “I can’t read that. What’s it written in? Zipangese or sumthin’?” She looked surprised when Abbyl nodded. “Basically, I’m trying to find someone named….” Abbyl squinted at the paper. “Cassandra? Chestalla? Dang it Jerry, you need some calligraphy lessons.” Veer laughed, scratching one leg with the talons of the other. “Sayyyy… you don’t mean Chassendra? Girl, you’ve been circling then, her kip is just up a bit.” Veer eyed the backpack Abbyl toted. “That pack’s not too heavy?” At Abbyl’s shake, Veer took off, looped and picked Abbyl up. “Hang tight. I’m guessing you’re the nobgoblin of the sociable insecurities or something?” Abbyl blinked. “What?! No, I’m here because she won a raffle. I’m delivering an invite among things.” Veer warbled slightly, a note of disappointment evident. “Bummer, I’ve never seen a nobgoblin and the way she kept going on about them being slimy buggers, I wanted to ask, see? No harm or fowl?” Abbyl chuckled. “No offense taken. Just don’t drop me, it’s chilly.” Eventually, they rose to a small ledge of stone connecting to a path by means of an earthen mound. Veer deposited Abbyl and flew off, not waiting on the hurried offer of thanks and food. “Harpies… Such strange mamonme… But nice~!” She turned around and made for the cave with a sliding door. Funny, but so many mamonme liked a cave-dwelling for a home.

After checking herself in the compact and fixing both her hair and dress, she knocked politely. “Hello~oh? Ho the sh.. Erh.. cave?” Ten seconds later the door slid open a crack and two lilac eyes rimmed in red peered at her. “What is it? I ain’t got the money for gel, an’ I’m in mourning, so if that’s it then please bugger off.” Abbyl smiled politely. “Nope. I’m here for something completely different. Assuming you’re mrs. Chassendra?” The door opened slightly more, though what came out first was a loud yawn. “Yeah, but if you’re one of those damn nobgoblins you’re taking a quick trip down the mountain.” Abbyl sighed. “Look, I’m not a nobgoblin, whatever that is. I am looking for Chassendra, who won a raffle. If you’re not her, just say so and I’ll look further. If you want to fight, bring it. I could use the exercise to warm up. And a drink.” She got a laugh in response. “I am Chassendra, but what’s this about a raffle? I don’t remember buying any tickets or nothing. But come in, its warm at least.”

Abbyl heard a rythmic clicking sound, as if many spoons were tapped against a stone slab. Shrugging, she went inside and closed the door. As she made for a soft light further down the hall, she heard a clatter of a teakettle falling. “Dammit!” Then she got a good look at Chassendra, who turned out to be an Ushi-Oni. “Sorry, I dropped the kettle. Damn thing is too tiny for my hands, but my husband insisted it is a family heirloom.” Chassendra looked at Abbyl as she picked up the kettle and promptly dropped it again. “I’m tripping! You can’t be?” Abbyl grinned roguishly. “Damn right, I’m Thundersnail. Though friends and family call me Abbyl as well. Now let me deal with that kettle and we’ll have a talk after, okay?” So said, so done. She didn’t really like tea, but the twenty herb blend that Chassendra had stocked was nice enough. They drank in companionable comfort, but Abbyl wanted to move things along as she needed to get them to the concert in time. ”Well, I won’t keep you in the dark too much longer. You’re a member of the Shellshockers fanclub, right? The raffle they held has netted you a meet & greet with all of us. But there’s a teenie, tiny snag. I have to ask you to keep it under wraps, but we’re taking a break after the upcoming concert. In part due to Svatti, aka Chaser, going on a honeymoon… Since she’s expecting, we might have another bandmember by the next one.”

“We don’t want you to miss out on the concert, or the meet & greet with the others, so… I’ve basically come to invite you to an onstage concert experience with all access backstage. ”Chassendra took a big gulp of her tea. “Really? I mean, wow. I… I can’t believe it…” Tears trickled down her face and Abbyl gently touched her on the arm, noting the corded muscles there. “It’s true though. Mr. Muilin mentioned that you’ve suffered a loss recently… I can’t imagine what that is like.. But if you are okay with it, I’d like for you to hang with me a bit longer.” Abbyl blinked. “Dunno, but I’m getting good vibes from you. And I think going clubbing is more interesting with a fighting buddy.” Chassendra let out a choking laugh, grasping her head with one massive hand. “I… Its so unreal…” She pinched herself hard with her other hand, drawing blood. “Not dreaming…” She unveiled her face then and smiled through her tears. “I’d love to, though… I can’t fight right now.” One hand tapped her abdomen gingerly. “Morio left me a little present… I’m expecting too.” Abbyl crowed joyously. “Oh my gosh~! I’m so happy for you.” They talked through the evening and left early next morning. Chassendra lugged a boulder in front of her door, aided by Abbyl. “There we go. Damn nobgoblins haven’t been able to pick this lock yet.” Abbyl giggled, then mixed some of her slime with loose soil and shaped it into a root for the boulder. “And a little extra insurance.” She drew the stylized symbol for the band into it. “Just pour a bit of water on it when you want to move this thing.”

She burped, then had to rush for the edge of the ledge. Three minutes later, Chassendra gave her a worried look. “You sure its Chaser who’s expecting? Dang, I think you hit someone. Oh wait, its Geenard, he needs a bath anyway.” Abbyl wiped her mouth, shrugged and took a pull from her travel canister of water. “Nnhhh… I kinda rolled down a slope and my stomach’s been a bit funny after. If I were expecting like Svatti, I’d probably have to wash the mountain. Sorry about the mess.” She sighed, feeling along her belly. “I would like kids some day, but the guy I’m seeing? We haven’t been together much yet. He is pretty spiffy though.” Chassendra scratched her horns. “Okay, so… that Muilin fellow?” Abbyl shook her head and the two set off, discussing Petrovich (who shivered mysteriously some thirty miles away) and men in general. Despite the enduring reputation of Ushi-Oni as fierce hotheads, Abbyl confirmed anew that Chassendra seemed to be a slow cooker instead. This was gonna be fun. Mamonme did strike up friendships a bit faster than humans, or Celestials. She could swear that cousin Mysteryse still hadn’t decided if she liked Jerry, or if great-aunt Eihy really liked the music she and the girls made. Eventually, Chassendra led the way to what was a vertical wall. “My my my… I’m kinda forgetful, sorry. I’m so used to just going up here that I didn’t think about how you’re going to climb.” Her sheepish look was tinged with worry. “Think you can make it?”

Abbyl had a look at the wall of stone. Probably she could climb it, if she had rope, a grappling hook and enough food to make her slime sticky enough. And nigh infinite time. “Sorry, we’d be here all day even if I hadn’t barfed and the concert is just a day or two away.” Chassendra nodded, then grabbed Abbyl and told her to hang onto her shoulders. Abbyl would never forget the climb after. Chassendra stormed up as if she were racing across flat land, the Ureonggaksi spark-guitarist hollering in joy at this thrilling ride. They stopped on a ledge that rested halfway up the mountain and ate a light meal. “Sooo… I’m thinking you really liked the ride so far? I know Ureonggaksi seem to like visiting anywhere… Maybe I should set up a vista visiting service to put my kid through school?” Abbyl was a little hoarse, but waved a hand. “Maybe, but don’t worry about it. Frankly though, I’m not sure how some of my non-berserker relatives might like it. If at all. Things I enjoy they sometimes suffer through with closed eyes and… inside a box. Cousin Abbyl’s recommendations are notorious…” She chuckled at that, grinning widely. “Ozone huffer!” | “Fartnado queen!” From the air above came a furious argument between what appeared to be an Impundulu and a Maraiah slinging insults at each other. Soon, dustdevils and bolts were slung with even more venomous words. “OI! You two, can you please stop?” Abbyl’s voice didn’t reach them, not even when she used the trick that had lent power to her voice.

It seemed that from all over the range, mamonme started pouring in. In the present, Abbyl sighed. “It must have been a feud brewing for decades.” She shuddered with the memory.

Chapter 14. Storm of the Century

The Brudlen Catastrophe had in the years since been examined with a very fine comb indeed. But it still took years to determine the cause… Even a decade later they still found bodies, or battered survivors who’d ended up very badly hurt. The maimed were cared for, the brokenminded tended to and a monument to the dead was erected at the approximate site of where it had taken place. All spearheaded by the Twin Worlds foundation. Mi-Fi and Natty recalled how their grandmother and Uzumii had told them of it. Hearing Abbyl speak of it though, her eyes appearing to gaze across the years while Iris and Petrovich gently held her hands. “I tried again to defuse the situation, but…”

In the past

“HEYYY!!!!! STOP!!!!!” Abbyl bellowed as loudly as she could, using her stomach as a third lung, but to no effect. Chassendra had nearly freed the opening to a small cave, barely deeper than an overhang, but she saw Abbyl’s foot swell and then deflate with the shout. Seeing how it didn’t have any effect on the brawling mamonme, she grabbed Abbyl and scooted inside. After dragging as much of a stone as she could reach across the opening again, she sat down heavily, groaning as her abdomen touched the floor. “Dagnabbit! I’m more winded than I should be. And this is getting pretty sore too.” Abbyl gave her a worried look, putting a hand to Chassendra’s forehead. “You’re pretty warm, might just be the hauling you’ve done, but…” She pulled a tiny purse out of a pocket  and promptly shoved an arm in it. On the way out, she held a small bottle with an opaque fluid in it. “Here, drink this.” Uncorking it, she put it in front of Chassendra’s mouth, the latter taking a cautious sniff at it. “What in blazes is that? It smells like rice gone bad.” Abbyl shrugged, smiling. “It does. But this is medicine that can tamp down on fevers, it tastes better than it smells. And its safe for gravid Ureonggaksi, so….” Chassendra drank it down, though she scraped her tongue after with one claw. “Blech! That tasted like old rubber.” Abbyl chuckled, stoppered it and put it back in the tiny purse. “It’ll help you feel better though. Guaranteed. I would give you a bit of candy, but I’m all out.”

“Nice bag though…” Chassendra rubbed her chin with one knuckle. “Must have cost a fortune to get a bag of holding.” Abbyl shook her head. “Nah, these mostly cost a rear glory. Its a medicine bag of holding.” A rear glory was a bill of money common on Palachia’s mainland, comprising a value of twenty hythes. The artist who designed the artwork on them had been inspired by a speech Lady Eiraiha had given. Since you needed one quarter of a hythe for bread these days, that was a steal. “Frankly though, I got mine a tiny little bit cheaper, not by much, but being part of my family…” She grimaced slightly. “Means that I got a non-negotiable discount. Half a hythe.” Chassendra prodded the purse. “Neat. But still a bit pricey. I mean… I mostly earn my keep by hunting a bit… Morio would prospect a little and sculpt some. But twenty whole hythes? I could buy a new wardrobe for that.” Lightning struck harshly just outside the cave while the whining of the wind turned sharper. “Damn em! You know something? Those idiots probably got Morio killed. An accident my fat arse.” Abbyl winced, then asked a question that had been on her mind. “I’m sorry. But why are they fighting like this though? I like a good fight, but this is beyond anything I’ve seen.” Chassendra grunted. “Old sores. Started with an Impundulu being blown into a rock… Or a Maraiah being burnt by lightning. They tried to settle things by mapping where and when either group would practice their skills. Morio thought there might be something, or someone else involved though, egging em on. That’s moot now though, I dunno.”

“Maybe a Sorceress? I mean… An aunt of mine does know a thing or two about them…” Abbyl wanted to say it outright, but cautionary tales of her childhood kept her from spilling the beans. “Even in this day and age some do go crazy.” Chassendra shrugged. “I dunno. I’m a bit scared of that idea. But we’ll need to wait out this brawl…” She poked the purse again. “Got some medicinal playing cards in there?” Abbyl laughed aloud, retrieving a pack from a different bag of holding. Despite the frequent and distressing noises from outside they passed the time happily enough and something inside Abbyl just went click around the same time as the fighting died down. Outside, they saw plenty of spilled blood and a storm-tossed environment. No dead bodies though, thankfully. “I think we’d best hurry on Chass, I don’t know if they settled things, but I’m not sticking around to find out.” They made good headway, speaking mostly of good memories they’d made. Chassendra though asked something Abbyl hadn’t expected. “I’ve had it on my mind since I pulled you inside the cave, but… You use your stomach for singing too, right?” Abbyl was stunned for a moment, then caught up and nodded. “Yep, but don’t tell anyone. It’s a trick I developed, but its not safe for everyone to use. One of my little cousins tried and she ended up in the hospital so to speak. Chass… I’m a bit… hesitant to speak of my family as you may have noticed?” Chassendra nodded. “Yeah. No biggie though.”

“Well, its mainly because of two things. Me and the girls work our eyestalks off. Our success is as much our own work as anything can be. But people, especially numbnuts in the Darklands, would gladly claim we got there by our family’s connections. Which isn’t true, but people like stories better than the truth. I can’t deny that a cousin of mine did recommend Muilin Jin-Ri to us and vice-versa, but five minutes of an appointment is just that, no more.” Chassendra nodded, motioning for her to continue. With those hands it looked like she was scooping up a ton of rocks, making Abbyl grin. “People just tend to get the wrong idea, so… We’re told to wait a bit. But I feel I can trust you. My full name is Abbyl Humblestone-Saerti, of the Saerti clan.” Chassendra thought for a moment, then shook her head. “Sorry Abby, that doesn’t ring a bell for me.” Abbyl shrugged, then dove in the deep end. “You do know the Twin Worlds Foundation?” Chassendra’s light went on. “Actually, yeah. A little sister of mine dropped a letter on how they do a lot of good things… She’s working on this thing called a Quat-tail or something… Been bugging me to work on it too, but I don’t want to move to Zipangu. Your family works with em?” Abbyl chuckled. “More like founded the Foundation. Its why we have a few looooonggg-lived relatives. Like my cousin, she’s technically a little cousin/sister of my early Renaissance ancestor Lena, but she calls me cousin. Her parents and Lena’s started it as a way to rebuild Praxis after some ancient war.”

Chassendra blew out a stream of breath. “Wow! She must be a Demon or something then?” Abbyl cringed slightly. “Lets save that for later, okay? There are a handful of demon-kin in the family, but not cousin Rukia. She and aunt Licci are kind of deep-end magical experts. But she’s awesome… Its just that in our family you have to deal with relative ages rather than absolute ones. My cousin Dem, she did the introduction I mentioned, I’ve known her practically all my life since gramma was her niece.” She waved a hand dismissively as it wasn’t  a pertinent point. “But she’s still a teen, relatively, for someone of her species. She and cousin Mysty do have great taste in music.” She lightly punched Chassendra on the arm. “I reckon you’d like them.” Chassendra grinned, lightly returning the punch. After Abbyl picked herself up, they continued. As twilight fell though, they came to a plateau with a range of natural arches. “Ah, nearly there. There’s a road not too far from here that leads to Ebron, but you’ll need to hang onto me again for a bit.” Chassendra winced. “Damn, feels like I might need to lay my egg soon, she’s moving a bit much.” Lightning crackled in the distance and the wind began to sigh. “Dammit! Those idiots going at it again?” She looked worriedly at Abbyl. “Maybe, or maybe its just a natural storm? Lets just hurry onwards.” Abbyl and Chassendra practically ran for the promised road, but halfway across the plateau ghostly fire raced between the arches and a transparent figure appeared between them. 

Ygyn? N’ah! N’AH!” Ignoring the startled mamonme next to her, the spectral form raised her arms skyward and for a moment things seemed to be going well. The wind died down and surprised squawks indicated that lightning couldn’t be called either. But then green light shot skyward from the centre of the range and all hell broke loose. The apparition shrieked and burst apart in a shower of sparks while the flames died down. But the sky looked wrong even when the light faded and smoke poured from the mountain. Abbyl and Chassendra cried out as airpressure fluctuated wildly, popping their ears. The smoke sharply rose upwards even as a tail of clouds descended to meet it. Lightning began to ravage the edges of the sky while the vaporous column began to twist. “Chass! RUN!!!” They barely reached a small stack of rocks next to a partial arch before the twister’s pull became too great to risk going further. “Chass, I… I’m gonna try to call in help, but I need you to help with the cover a bit.” Abbyl’s arms were frantically searching her regular bag of holding. She finally found what she was looking for and pulled it out with a sigh. “Standard family equipment, an emergency shrine kit. Thank Lady Eihy for this small mercy.” They actually managed to set it up and light one of the candles before a sound tore at their attention. Stone was oft used in construction, being naturally resistant to many forms of damage. It shouldn’t be tearing apart with a sound like old bread though, the thought flashed through Abbyl’s mind.

Before either could do anything else, the shrine kit lifted off, the little idol of Lady Eiraiha tumbling head over heels. They themselves were next.

Present

“It was a nightmare.” Abbyl’s voice was monotone, so awfully devoid of life that Iris smashed one of her legs through the floor. “I have flown a few times, thanks to magic… But that was nothing alike flying.” Raising an arm she continued. “If someone pulls on your arm, you can do something about it. This was like being pulled on every part of your body in all directions at once while you’re being flung around and around…” With a grim sigh, she dredged up her memories.

Heart of the storm

Abbyl wanted to scream, but she could barely draw any air into her lungs or make any movements. Her eyestalks had thankfully retreated before the storm took her, but those eyes still hurt. She had no idea where Chassendra was, other than that she might be flung around as well. What puzzled the small part of Abbyl’s mind not focussed on her situation though was a weird pain in her belly. “MYYYYYYYYYYY EGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Chassendra’s shriek was barely audible, but Abbyl saw her desperately grab for a small shape. The pain in her own belly flared anew and to her shock she saw that her underwear was torn and a smaller translucent egg had just flown out of her and into the storm. Abject terror lent strength to her lungs and she matched Chassendra’s shriek. Chassendra turned tear-filled eyes to her, saw the inbound egg and stretched an arm to try and save it. Abbyl watched in numb horror as their orbit went nearer the ground and encountered the most intact arch still standing. That arch stood still in the raging tempest, a testament to endurance. It took Chessandra’s arm clear off and sent her body careening off into the night. “NONONONNONONO!!!!!!!!!!” Abbyl’s raging denial was cut short as something hit her still opened womanhood and forced itself inside. Abbyl thought it was a loaf or something, by the size. Then she lost consciousness. The next day, she awoke in a tree, hurting all over. The tree looked battered, but in the distance Ebron’s glittering tower shone. 

Present, anew

“I don’t remember how I got to the city… Or on stage. But once there, I… I couldn’t stop crying and I fled.” Abbyl deflated. “The rest… Only bits and pieces for a long while after.” Demyss rubbed Abbyl’s back then and took over. “What I can tell is that she didn’t make it very far.” The young Goddess ground her teeth audibly. “Penny, Svatti and Lyze had gone ballistic and used their shrine kits all at once. I’d been a bit late for the concert when their call hit me, mom, bro… cray calling just about everyone since Abbs was dying. She’d curled up, clutching her belly and leaking blood all over. Fixing her body was one thing… Mainly just taking Iris’ egg out. But the finesse was getting Abbs back mentally.” She angrily swatted at the tiny violin over her head, which took that as a cue to exit stage left. “She kept insisting that it was her egg in the few lucid moments. So moms and Emmy went into her memory… Discovered what would be called the Brudlen Catastrophe and shored her mind up from within. We then went there all together, but…” Abbyl interrupted: “We only found the arm and… and… the remains of my egg. Petrovich found a couple of her legs too, but not her main body. I buried her remains with my own hands.” Abbyl raised her hands like desperate claws. “But then I lapsed into… catatonia.”

Mysteryse nodded, scooting close. “Yeah. We spent the better part of a year healing her in the temple on the hidden lake.” She affably pulled Petrovich in for a hug. “This guy here too, he could’ve quit, but… he didn’t. Things really went more smoothly when you hatched, niece. Abbyl and Petrovich instantly fell in love with you and had the wedding with a very cutesy baby in a sling on the front row.” She gave Demyss a pointed look. “Remember how we had to pry cousins off of her after?” She yelped when Jerry sat down next to her. “But why did you not return Abbyl? Or just talk with me? I mean, trauma is bad of course, but I got the cold shoulder when trying to talk about you.” He pointedly looked at the Goddesses. Mysteryse groaned, but explained. “Scars Jerry. Abbyl-” Abbyl interjected: “I couldn’t even stand to listen to my music. Part of me did want to return, but the longer I waited, the harder it became. And then there was my little baby.” She blushed. “Being a mom felt so nice. Though I do regret not contacting you for so long, but…” Demyss nodded. “Sorry Jerry. I asked you to focus on other talent without really telling you everything. But Abbyl couldn’t… or wouldn’t sing again since then. She made me promise not to tell anyone, but I never really stopped trying to convince her otherwise.” She wiped her eyes. “But now that this is out…”

Abbyl sighed. “I don’t know. I want to do that again… somehow. But… I’m scared too. Iris… can you forgive me for not telling?” Iris leaned close and then knuckled her mother with her large knuckles. “Duh! You’re my mom. Sure… hearing about Chassendra is sad. I’d like to know more about her… later. I don’t know how to feel about this yet, but my mom has four eyes. But that still doesn’t explain why you’re all here instead of at your shell?” Abbyl hugged her wordlessly, but Demyss answered. “Well, we caught wind of an impostor claiming to be Thundersnail’s daughter. She’d approached Jerry, so….” Mi-Fi and Natty listened in amazement, unaware that Aered was watching Mi-Fi intently. His look was one of worry as the Usako still had shining fur.

Chapter 15. The journey

“And that’s all I remember before dropping in on you. Meeting Ulrika was great, and I’ll definitely try to find her in New Heaven. But…” Iris glanced at Mi-Fi, who was being fussed over by the Celestial trio. “Dunno why Mi-Fi is glowing like that.” Abbyl and Petrovich shrugged, having no answer. Natty though worried at the carpet a bit with her retractable claws. “Me either.” She looked from Iris to Mi-Fi and furrowed her brow. “But she’s our Mif, I’ll stake my tail on it.” The tail in question sported a fluffed pompom and subtly vibrated with tension. Aered shook his head eventually, a movement mirrored by his sister and cousin. “She’s somehow saturated with divine healing magic, but the excess isn’t flowing back. I can’t get it out either.” Mi-Fi sighed. “Sorry Lord Spoopyp-” She clapped her hands in front of her mouth as Demyss and Mysteryse laughed heartily. Aered harrumphed, shaking his head. “Just call me Aered. Spoopypants is something my wives still sometimes call me, but not in public. Its not something a girl my niece’s age should say.” Mi-Fi waved her hands so fast they blurred. “Sorry Lo-” She corrected herself. “Sorry Aered. But during our trip to the past, you were called that to my face by… your father in law? That kind of stuck.” She sighed, bowing in apology. “Its pure conjecture, but I guess this shininess has to do with what happened after.”

“You don’t remember though?” Aered shook his head, then shrugged. “I was really young back then. Mostly I remember bits of mom dancing with two Usako when one leapt over me to fight with another.” Mi-Fi scratched her head and looked miserable. “The longer version is that after Iris and Natty vanished, Lady Eiraiha arrived and dealt with the situation. Ulrika asked the Empress Sukina to teach Tsuki no Maware to your wives, but… She couldn’t due to their stature, so Lady Eiraiha was substituting. But lady Mikasasa tried to kill you. That’s why I kicked her hard and shattered my leg again.” The memory of the pain brought a grimace to Mi-Fi’s face. “Lady Eiraiha healed me, but I’m guessing I returned to this time immediately after. And I changed history…” She had unconsciously adopted a wide-eyed look of fear that the other occupants in the room thought quite akin to that of a scared Ureonggaksi. “Lady Eiraiha said she’d heal her too, of that parasite. But Mikasasa was supposed-” Aered silenced her with a finger to the lips. “She led a rebellion and was posthumously diagnosed with a horsechewer parasite.” He sighed. “Mom told me later that the rebellion and death were just an official explanation for a purge of really rebellious nobles. Mikasasa pretended to be outraged at being passed over as the heir apparent and thereby managed to corral several exemplars of seditious nature.” His frown brought a miniature asteroid crashing into his hair.

“I do understand why they did it and yes, it ensured a more peaceable Zipangu, but putting them all to the sword? I don’t like that sort of thing.” He dusted the fragments off of his head. “Not at all. Yes, some of those people were evil, but would all of them have rebelled without that lure of a legitimate heir to reward them after?” Mi-Fi spread her arms imploringly as she tried to answer. “I do not know. What I do know is that doing nothing would probably have been worse. What I know of our, the Usako’s, history suggests that indecision has been detrimental all around.” To her surprise, Aered grinned. Bar that his face was larger and that stubble again left a red shadow on his jaw, it was the same grin they’d seen on his babyface. “Good answer. I’ll have to go, but I’m looking forward to our next meeting. Iris asked you?” At her nod he made his goodbyes and dove into the ceiling without leaving a mark. Not long after, they left the offices, though Muilin Jin-Ri insisted on having a meeting with Abbyl and the rest of the band after they’d met with the girl claiming to be her daughter. Mi-Fi and Natty were glad when they finally got home, though they smiled at the light and silhouettes coming from Iris’ room in her mom’s shell. “One adventure over… Mif, you can’t turn the glow off?” Natty yawned sleepily. Her sister grumbled, shaking her head. They solved the issue by slipping on eyemasks with humorous prints on the outside. The next morning Uzumii came by, worry evident in the sharp turns her tails were making.

“WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAATTT!?!?!?!?!?” Her incredulous exclamation at seeing Mi-Fi with her fur still aglow rang off the shelltops down the hill. Once told of all that had transpired, the Zenko woman had to sit down for a few minutes, practically inhaling the glasses of water the sisters brought her. “I.. I have trouble grasping all of this. Girls…” She looked at them imploringly. “Can you two please try to stay out of trouble? I’m just a Zenko with five tails, I don’t have the power to rescue you if you go to another time… Or get turned into a fifty ri Kaijiu.” Mi-Fi and Natty hugged her, but… “Uzu-nee, we don’t want to worry you so much.” Natty’s look of sadness was as sincere as that on Mi-Fi’s face. “But you might say this adventure found us, rather than the other way around. And its not entirely over yet.” Mi-Fi had a contemplative glint in her eyes as she nodded. “Definitely Nat, Uzu-nee. But its given me more to chew on for the book than I’d thought possible. I’d like to stay indoors and mull things over, maybe with Wi-san’s help. But then I’d not know how Abbyl’s meeting with that girl will go. With a little luck we can go see Thundersnail back on stage, maybe?” Uzumii sighed, venting a lot of her worry with a steam-like exhalation before speaking again. “Maybe. But I’m… Foxfire and snares, I’m too old for this.” She glared at her hands. “I don’t want to see you two get hurt again. And you want to go to Tomba dir Deidre with Iris afterwards?!?” Sensing how much this weighed on her, the Cabbit and Usako drooped their ears.

“Yes Uzu-nee. Its safe though. Especially compared to a trip back in time.” Mi-Fi’s powder-puff tail wriggled slightly. “We like Iris and it is a chance to work on an actual spaceship full of artefacts.” Natty nodded, chiming in. “Don’t worry, we are kinda done with adventures for now. Besides, the moment you’re too old for anything is the moment the sun goes out, Uzumii~nee. Its just a bit much all at once, maybe?” Natty tugged on one ear. “That Lael scared us worse when we went round to ask her… what was it again? If she could make beets taste more like clovers or something?” Eventually they would calm her down, but it was obvious to the sisters that Fan Uzumii was still unhappy. They took her to the shells where an unusual sight greeted them. Abbyl, Penny and Svatti were wearing leather aprons and covered in mud. Penny’s children watched attentively as their mother and aunts spoke of shell construction, shaping components for one from the mixture of soil and slime in the pit they’d made for that purpose. Lyze lounged nearby, leisurely sorting wires of both metal and crystal makes. “Company, everyone~!” Abbyl was the first to shuffle over, a tired smile forming. “Hey Uzumii, hey girls. We’re a little busy, but then again we’ve always got time for friends.” She used the inside of her elbow to move a lock of hair from her ear. “Iris is doing well, just… well, she’s got a Melissae in her bonnet about something and she’s been on the ARE for hours.” Uzumii practically gawked at her before shaking her head. “I’m having trouble believing what the girls told me about you Abbyl, and your cousins. You really are?” Abbyl laughed. “Yes, yes, yes. We’re The Shellshockers. Including one Thundersnail, one Chaser, one Striker and the ever popular Sparker.” She grimaced as the lock shifted back, a muddy patch at the end responsible for its swinging.

“We’re going to have to deal with this Thundersnail Neo tomorrow, so we’re building a new version of our tour-shell. It’ll have enough room for what we need to bring and then some.” Stubborn determination shone in her eyes. “I could forgive a lot of things, but I’m not having some slug claim to be my daughter and try to coattail on our old success. But we can’t just show up as we are here, the truth matters little to the public if we can’t impress upon them who we are.” Penny shuffled up, wiping her forehead. She grinned at them and flashed them a look. “We’re stoked for it. I mean, I love my little girls, but my calling has always been my music. Before moving here with my cousins and sister, I kind of did do a few solo gigs on trips here and there over the years. It wasn’t as much fun as we had together mind.” Svatti came over as well, smiling gleefully. “Definitely. But if we want to be ready, we’ll need to finish the shell today. Sorry Fan-chan, Aosagi’s, but timing is crucial. Lyze! Got those wires sorted yet?” Lyze snorted. “Practically done. Just a bit more tweaking on this one, its offkey enough to give a wail on stage otherwise.” Natty grinned and said: “I thought that was the idea?” The cheerful mood evoked a smile from all present. Mi-Fi spotted the door to Abbyl’s shell opening and cheerfully greeted Iris. The Saerti’s returned to their work.

“Hey gang. Hello mrs. Fan. Its a bit busy, but I’m glad you’re here. Moms, my aunts and my cousins are busy on their little project, pops and my uncles on theirs and I’ve been stuck inside working the ARE and my MARE to bits.” She held up her MARE, which had the flashing signal of low energy reserves. “Wanna go eat something?” Together they left for Yumedai’s most popular, and only, eatery with outdoor seating where they would eat well. The next day might have been entered into the annals of chaos theory, had a mathematician been present. The newly made shell needed both Abbyl and Lyze to pull it while Penny and Svatti shuffled along with short trip shells. Iris carried a shellpack while the Aosagi’s had opted for a backpack each, like the husbands walking along. Uzumii and Wi watched them go. “You are certain you don’t wish to go? We can play touch fluffy tails a bit during the trip, I think.” Fan Wi’s voice held a hint of longing. Uzumii tilted her head, thinking it over. “I do want to… But we have no-” Wi’s finger silenced her. “I have two packed. Lets go.” For the first time in living memory, the town of Yumedai had to make due without its elders. The trip to Shimirizu was actually not as long as it should have been. Iris had studied spells to ease travelling a little and they made good time. Before noon, the urbane environment of the fourth city under Zenko rulership enveloped them.

“Look at that restaurant Mif~! They even have an on-site aquarium~!” Mi-Fi nodded, suppressing a chuckle at Natty’s hungry look. Uzumii had drifted off to an emporium specializing in tail care and accessories, yet they caught her glances now and then. Abbyl and Petrovich were poring over a tourist map, happily bickering over which way the hotel was where they were supposed to meet the claimant. Natty wanted to get there before the sun set, so she asked a local where Satishi’s Hospice was. To her surprise, it seemed to be right next to a hospital. Getting everyone to go there with so many sights to see was harder than mere words could ever convey. Especially with Penny’s triplets discovering a candy store. Eventually they arrived, the tour-shell parked on a scrap of lawn. “Odd place for a singer to stay, don’t you think?” Theo quietly whispered to Penny while his eyes took a critical glance at the building. “Its a bit rundown, maybe I’ll have a word with their manager about fixing it up.” Penny merely rolled her eyes, suspecting that her husband had found another hobby project. It was one failing of his she’d learned to live with.

Inside, the receptionist was a somewhat chubby human woman, who informed them that they had vacancies only for visiting relatives of those in the hospital. It took only a little convincing though for her to refer them to a room where evidently an Ureonggaksi had been in and out of recently. Abbyl squared her shoulders and resolutely declared she would go in alone. It was a simple fact though that the room was too small otherwise, though Iris insisted on casting a shielding spell. However… The door slammed open and a ragged voice gasped that she was on her way. Abbyl thanked the stars for her quick reflexes, then hurried after the trail of slime as it crossed an interconnecting bridge to the hospital. The others followed, though Uzumii couldn’t resist peeking into the room. The only indication it was inhabited at all was the used bed with a rubber jersey, and some clothes stuffed underneath. And a guitar behind the door. Iris meanwhile had opted to use her spellcraft to assume human form and ran after her mother, closely matched by Natty and Mi-Fi. “Sheeesh, Svatti, I know I like being an Ureonggaksi, but look at them go… Makes me want to run like that too.” Penny shook her head, caught Svatti and Lyze’s shrug and then led the remaining troupe onward at a slightly less frantic pace. While Zipangu did have a fair share of modern hospitals, quite a few preferred to rely on herbcraft and offerings to spirits still. This hospital appeared to edge more towards the latter.

Abbyl was the first to the ward’s double doors, what she saw within evidently shocked her as she uttered a cry and grabbed at the door frame for support. Iris caught her, peering past her mother’s pointy ear to see what had shocked her so. Inside the ward was what might charitably be called a nest-bed. On it lay an Ushi-Oni who had evidently seen better days. Clutching one massive hand was a rail-thin Ureonggaksi. An elder pair of ‘doctors’ stood waiting, busily scratching a bill on a clipboard while going over a list of expenses. “Mom,  are you okay?” Abbyl gulped, nodded and went into the room with Iris, for whom training kicked in. “Mom, can you take that girl aside? Natty, get those vultures out, now! Mi-Fi, get aunt Penny to call aunt Emmy. And come back in.” Iris didn’t like boasting, but she was confident that she could count on her medical expertise to do better than the two being escorted outside, even in her human form. It became apparent that whatever was wrong with the woman, her lifeforce was draining fast. A metaphorical plug stabilized it while Iris hunted down the cause. She gulped as it was something of a miracle that this body still drew breath. Scar tissue made one lung all but useless, arteries dead-ended while smaller veins tried to transport a much heavier burden. And the one thought Iris’ scan caught was of the girl gently held by her mother.

Eventually, she reached the end of what she could do, praying that her aunt would be there in time. To keep from fretting, she turned to the girl and then all thoughts fled for a moment. The same expression was evident on the thin face underneath a mussed hairdo. Two voices spoke as one: “Your face… you look like my mom!” Iris felt an emotional chaos in the pit of her abdomen, so she pushed it down and resumed her examination. “We’ll talk, later.” She glanced at her own mother, nodded and quickly did an examination. This Ureonggaksi was emaciated, something she could remedy. What was worrying though were the scars on her arms. By the time Emmy arrived, Iris was confident at least one of her patients could be saved. Emmy suggested that everyone vacate the room. Penny called them to a large mess hall, though she was not alone in her surprised gaze at the Ureonggaksi Abbyl helped along. Inside, Iris grunted, exploding outward in spiderlegs as her spell of human form terminated. “Salt on a stick! Sorry everyone.” She rose to her full height, banging her horns on the ceiling, then sat down properly. “Aunts, can you whip up a meal? Mom, dad and I need to have a word with this girl.” Taking the hint, the others busied themselves on the far end. Abbyl and Petrovich looked as jumbled as Iris felt, while the girl had the thousand yard stare of one for whom the world was too… intensely painful.

Chapter 16. Mothers and daughters

“Hey…” Abbyl’s tone of voice was gentle. “You look like you can use a good meal. Don’t worry, she’s in the hands of the best healer we know.” No response. Iris waved a single clawed digit in front of the stilled face, looking increasingly worried until her finger was grabbed. “Yowch! You’re pretty strong.” This got her a slightly focussed look, and a reply. “Yup. Not strong enough though. I can’t save my momma.” Iris gently extricated her finger, trading that for holding the hand that had gripped her. “Well… We will have to see about that. I kept her alive till aunt Emmy arrived. She’s the best healer I know… Kinda dogged when she’s trying to save a life, too. But we’d get in her way, that’s why its a good idea to rest a little… and get some food in you.” A shrug followed. “C’mon, you haven’t tasted rice like aunt Penny makes it. I haven’t met an Ureonggaksi who could resist it. Nor anyone else.” She gave a smile, it elicited a flood of tears. “Can’t afford it.” This elicited a harrumph from Abbyl. “Where did you pick up that notion? We’d wander into hell before even thinking of asking anyone to pay for sharing a meal.” Calming herself, she gently rubbed the younger woman’s shoulders. “No strings attached, except that no isn’t on the menu.” Petrovich gently intruded on the conversation. “My saetta dottir and wife, they are stubborn. I hope hear story of yours. Only fúslega.” When he placed his hand on her arm though, the girl shrank away with a shriek.

“D-d-don’t touch me!” Abbyl and Iris exchanged a look, then nodded at Petrovich, who simply shrugged stoically and backed off a bit. “Sorry, papa means well. He only looks and smells like a manbear. But we did come here to speak with you. Seeing you and… well, your mom. That raises many more questions. For all of us.” Iris gestured invitingly to the table. “Lets eat a bit first though, after that? We’ll see.” Then she facepalmed herself. “D’oh! I am Iris, what’s your name?” This got a soft laugh out of the girl. “Leyna Lynette. Sorry… can’t… really…” Abbyl patted her shoulders. “I’m Abbyl. Don’t fret. Focus on eating something now, okay?” Iris could tell her mother was fighting to contain her curiosity by the frantic swerving of her eyestalks. Penny delivered a good meal, though conversation was softspoken and haltingly held during the eating. It died down when the doors opened and a winged dachshund entered. Spotting Iris, she sprinted up her abdomen and clung to one grey-skinned shoulder. “Abbyl, Iris, bring the girl and yourselves to the ward-room please. Petrovich, Pottir, Theo. You three secure the girl’s room.” Having delivered her message, the sending poofed into luminescent cookies that faded away. “What was that?” Leyna’s face showed both fear and wonder. Abbyl smiled and promised to explain later.

Emmy stood waiting outside of the room, crunching down a cookie. Iris knew that her aunt only did that if she had bad news to deliver. “Hi aunt Emmy… So, what’s the verdict?” Emmy sighed, shaking her head. “I’m sorry, but her body is too far gone. She has so much scar tissue inside that only pure grit has kept her alive this long. And not enough life energy to do anything else.” Gently grasping Leyna’s hands, she bowed her head in apology. “I cannot save her life through conventional means, but I have managed to prop her up enough that you can say goodbye… and maybe swap stories.” She turned to Abbyl. “From what I can tell, she’s definitely Chassendra, but… it looks like she has had amnesia and has only in part recovered.” Turning back to Iris, gentle rainbow-banded eyes looking grim, she spoke softly: “Keep an eye on both of them. I can’t promise anything, but maybe aunt Eihy can… I don’t know, I’m all out of miracle reserves.” Iris nodded, hugging her aunt with all the warmth and gratitude she held. Drawing on her own arcane reserves, she again changed her form, choosing to shrink herself slightly as it was less draining than assuming human form. This did feel less comfortable though and Leyna’s look of wonder made her more than a little self-conscious. “Okay, lets go in. Ureonggaksi first.” Abbyl suppressed a smile and led the way.

“Here we are…” Her soft voice elicited a grunt from the room’s occupant. Leyna immediately went for the large hand vaguely grasping at the air. “Momma, I’m here.” This got a tired smile. “Good. Good girl. Leyna.” Two lilac eyes roamed the room, spotted Abbyl and looked quizzically. “A-Abby? Where’d you go?” Abbyl scooted closer, patting the upper arm of the woman she’d thought lost before. “Round and round in that awful catastrophic tornado. I thought I’d lost you then, along with my egg.” Chassendra coughed. “Caught one.” She squeezed Leyna’s hand. “Or she caught me. Was hurtin’ over my egg when she hit my vag. Not the other… damn lost my arm. But kept one baby safe.” Abbyl choked back a sob. “I caught your egg too. I guess we’re both mothers of each others’ daughters.” Chassendra croaked a laugh. “Lost memory. They found me in’eh remains of a cow. Called me Cassie. Then lil’ Leyna Lynette popped out.” She coughed. “Sweetest kid. Ain’t got long, you look after her?” Abbyl nodded. Iris did as well and spoke up: “Don’t worry, we will.” Chassendra blinked, looking at her. “You.. my egg? Small girl. All small girls. Your name?” Iris leaned in close. “Iris. I’m actually a lot bigger than I look. I used a shrink spell to fit inside the room.” Leyna smiled. “She’s a mage, like in the storybooks, momma.” Chassendra smiled at her daughters by egg and by heart. It was the last thing she did on Praxis.

The next few days passed in a blurr as the Saerti family organised the funeral. The hospital mysteriously passed into new ownership when a grieving Abbyl was mistaken for Leyna and presented with a bill out of a nightmare. A costly mistake, though it has to be said that the staff who presented it had never encountered a berserker Ureonggaksi in full fury. Eventually though, things settled down and Iris found herself visiting the Aosagi’s. “I’m definitely going to bring mom to the next company party, if this doesn’t spill over into war. Lets see them ague about timid snails then, eh?” Iris grinned. Mi-Fi and Natty enjoyed the companionship, but the writer in Mi-Fi wondered about some things. “So Iris, how’s Leyna holding up? Not to pry…” A twitchy tail belied that. “But she seems… I don’t know. I feel there’s more to her story than we heard before. And I’m a bit worried, I mean… we’re not scary, but she seems afraid of just about anyone.” Natty pulled on her ear then. “Mif!” Iris chuckled, then all humor left her face. “Lets just say her life has been hard. The island town she grew up in hadn’t seen mamonme before and didn’t know what to make of them. She first met Ureonggaksi when she was thirteen. They called her a slug, prissy bunch of snotshells, because she doesn’t know how to make a shell. Not yet anyway.” She drank a sip of her lemonade.

“Worse, she got raped and nearly killed by some spume shithead. That’s why she has those scars. Chassendra did her best, but… Leyna’s scars are mental mostly. She did try to recover, got a guitar and performed for food and lodgings after they left. That triggered Chassendra’s memories somewhat.” Iris sobbed, crying as emotion overwhelmed her. Mi-Fi and Natty hugged her until she felt better. “Best I can say is that she’s with us now. She’s terrified of men, but papa’s breaking through that, kinda. As is Miccha…” Her look was incredulous. “I’ve never seen him that involved in ‘snaily shenanigans’ as he usually calls it.” Then a smile’s ghost returned. “I like her. I’ve had friends and cousins… But a sister? And one who is a damn fine singer even if she isn’t a berserker.” Natty and Mi-Fi nodded, their expressions intrigued. “We heard them singing together.” Iris reached around and pulled two cardboard packages from the backpack she had left on the floor. “The family meeting is gonna be here in Zipangu, next week instead of a few months from now, with a free for all concert by Thundersnail, the Shellshockers and the next generation. I’m going to ask Ithyali to dance on stage with me. You two have VIP passes.” She eyed them with an epically serious look. “Be there.” They laughed and promised to do just that.

After Iris left, Mi-Fi got a glare from Natty. “Why did you ask that, Mif? That was plain rude.” Mi-Fi returned the glare with a cool look and then gave a reply that surprised Natty. “I could see it weighing on her mind, Nat. Yes, its something normally not shared outside of the family, maybe. But face it Natty, we’re not exactly strangers.” Natty gave it a thought and nodded. “Yeah… No escaping that, not after everything.” She shrugged. “Its been a wild ride, eh? Remember when it was just you and me going on the Quadrail?” Mi-Fi nodded, a happy smile on her face. “Now we’re back in Yumedai, surrounded by those that care about us. Not exactly the same as before, but…” She spread her hands in an encompassing gesture. “We couldn’t ask for anything more. Well, maybe the small mercy of not dropping out of the sky ever again.” During the next week, life in Yumedai returned to normal, mostly. A few of the farmers could be heard complaining about ‘that racket they call music’ and rumors floated around about the sudden reclusiveness of the Aosagi Usako girl. Odd news rolled in, such as the return of Thundersnail and the Shellshockers, the sudden and confusing proclamation of a peace conference between Zipangu and the Darklands spearheaded by none other than Lady Eiraiha herself as the mediator and talks of historical figures such as Gastropodus touring Zipangu.

Mi-Fi knew that people would all to often say Usako went at sex like little bunnies, a slur in her opinion, but she had been going at writing the book like nothing else mattered. Natty at times demanding she stop now and then for sleep, food and other such things. “Phew-eeeeehh!” Mi-Fi stretched her still glowing legs. “Nearly there.” Contrary to Natty’s opinion, she had of course been thinking about a lot of other things beyond the book, including what she would do after it was truly finished. These tales only delved into the earliest years of one set of munchkins, but what of the stories that both her grandmother and later Lady Rukia had dismissed as not being a part of those? She hefted that pile, thumbing the part that contained stories of one particular munchkin she’d need to talk to Rukia and the others about. Plenty of material for another book and who knows? She could delve into the subject more fully, uncovering the truth behind old stories. Her hand rubbed the inside of her thighs, relieving the cramp from sitting so long, occasionally straying a little closer. It would be nice to go clubbing with Natty and Iris later… Maybe finally get a guy to play hide the carrot with. Noting what she was doing, she sighed and wiped her hand on a bit of cloth. Plenty of time for that later, though she admitted to herself that she would need to relieve that bit of stress before long.

Her MARE rang, the unusual composition of music it played caused her to raise an ear in surprise. “Hello bunny burrow~! Mi-Fi here.” This got her an indulgent laugh. “Hello hill-house. Dad here. How are my two big girls?” Mi-Fi grinned, joy flooding the receptors on the device. “Doing okay dad. I’ve just about finished the book and… well, lets just say we’ve had a few adventures again… Natty’s gone over to our neighbours, the Saerti’s, remember? They needed her help with a finicky bit of wiring.” Her father hm’d, so she asked him about their baby sisters and his reply was as warm as always: “They’re doing great. Soki is definitely the naughtiest Usako I’ve ever known, but they all do well in school. Your mom’s gone ballistic though.. Now puffcake, you might not know this, but back in the day your mom and I were fans of a particular band. Natty’s mom wasn’t a fan as such… but we heard that they’re holding a reunion concert and she’s trying to get tickets if there are any left… I don’t know if she can, but if we get them, would you mind babysitting our terrible three?” Mi-Fi laughed then. “Are you saying you’re a fan of Thundersnail and the Shellshockers?” Her father’s stunned silence had Mi-Fi giggling. “Sorry dad, but that’s just a funny coincidence. One moment…” 

She put the call on hold and used the text messaging system to tell her mother to return home. “There we go. Okay dad, listen. There are no tickets. Its a free for all concert during a Saerti-family meeting. Natty and I have been given VIP passes though. If you bring them along I’ll try to introduce you to the band.” Her father was momentarily speechless before going whut, loudly. “I know, it sounds strange. But I’ve got a lot to tell you and how I met Thundersnail is but a small part of it. Just… Come as you are, okay? And bring a few spare clothes.” Mi-Fi barely finished the conversation before she roared with laughter. After, she wandered down the hill towards the shells where Natty and Lyze were busily wiring an amplifier. Its frame was oldfashioned, maybe. But the insides were new. Natty took the news gladly, their shared father being her longtime favorite human. When they spoke to Abbyl, she expressed joy at being able to meet their dad and the others. If with the caveat that it would probably be a very busy day, so they’d have to keep it short during the concert.

Interlude. Fixing the Darklands
In the Renaissance

“Fennich, I’ll confess that honestly I think you are making this harder than it needs to be.” Antimony stood at one of the apertures in the throneroom of Renburn Fennich’s castle in the Darklands. It pained him that most residents still were more afraid of him than of their nominal ruler. “This continent is unstable, in danger of dissolving in the briny acid in the waters surrounding it. We’ve noticed the imports of chemical concoctions, explosives and what not… I’m guessing you’re trying to resolve the issue yourself?” Fennich’s armor shrugged audibly. “Yes. My capable minions suggest that chemicals may work. Or triggering another eruption, or even detonating a bomb in the ocean. We can handle these things without your interference.” Antimony turned, looking squarely at the hellish green eyes of flame. “No, you can’t. We’ve run these things, which seemed most likely based on the imports, past experts on science, geology and magic. Mortals and others alike. All agree that your plans might work… But the chance of catastrophic failure is far more likely.” He held his hand up with all fingers extended and counted off his list. “Oceanic pollution, continental collapse, a supervolcanic eruption blanketing most of the world in ash, mutational effects on lifeforms, mega-tsunami, climate changes…”

Fennich merely would have rolled his eyes, especially as Antimony kept counting, adding more fingers to the hand until it resembled an algamation of coral and anemones. “ENOUGH! Doing nothing would be worse. Even I can tell that if my Darklands dissolve, my minions will die. And a lot of fish too since they can breathe volcanic mud even less than acid. I must solve this issue!” Antimony dismissed the extra fingers and nodded. “But it must be solved in the right way. And asking for help on that front doesn’t diminish your standing. Fennich, Renburn… You need to understand that while I am not your friend, I am trying to help you atone. You can trust in me since I do not have a stake in seeing you fail. I do have a stake in stopping you from making mistakes.” Fennich snorted, dark smoke seeping from his helmet. “What I understand is that you wish to bind my hands. If I do not appear strong and in control, they will oust me and begin a new war. My minions are not weak. I can’t be weak therefore.” Antimony sighed, a dark cloud forming over his head. “Then don’t be weak! Choose the more difficult path for once and show that you have a backbone! Metaphorically. Learn from your mistakes, Fennich.” Antimony waved away the cloud. “Dang it, you wouldn’t believe how obnoxious these can be.” The cloud had other ideas and simply took to dodging his hand.

Then the doors to the throneroom slammed open and Fennich’s peg-legged Minotauride attendant scuttled in on all fours. “LORD! We.. we’re under assault! They’ve taken down the guards and-!” Her speech turned to a shriek as three costumed forms dove onto her and forced a change of clothing in record time. “Huh-hah!” | “Hoo-ha-hoo” | “Hee-yaaaah! We’re the Magical Three~! Here to end all grumpiness!” Three hours later, Fennich proudly declared that the invaders hadn’t defeated him. And that he had wrangled an accord out of the pesky people not living in the Darklands that they would help preserve the continent. What he didn’t share was that the nappy applied to his armour had burnt off before anyone could have seen him so. Back in Luminance, Antimony told the story in full glory. “What I don’t get is why they showed up dressed like Magical Girls.” Balase and Eiraiha laughed, the former spreading her paw-like hands in a gesture of acceptance. “Because they promised that they themselves wouldn’t hare off to give people in other countries their cure. Not without Eihy’s approval. So…when they thought you were in trouble…” Eiraiha giggled. “They put on these costumes Miho sewed for them and let the Magical Three ‘end grumpiness’ in the Darklands. I could punish them, they are registered little Celestials under my stewardship…” She fluffed her wings, mirth evident on her radiant countenance. “But I’m hard pressed to do that, given the outcome and their intentions.”

Balase nodded, then stood up. “Muuuunch-kinnns! Front and centre!” When the girls and Aered stood in front of her, she scowled comically. “You three have been naughty. Since you aren’t satisfied anymore until you’ve put nappies on everyone in a continent, I’m gonna put your energy to better use.” She grinned then. “Aered and I are going shopping, you three will earn a merit star by helping people in need.” Turning to Eiraiha and Antimony she spoke softly: “You two have an evening to yourselves. Why not try your new moves?” Eiraiha grinned, and when her grandmother had departed with the children, she stood up and made Antimony take centre seat. “You know, those girls from the future gave me hope, in the same way our munchkins do now… I won’t try to picture Aered as an uncle…” A cluster of clouds formed over her head and departed. “But I do want to show you this dance I’ve learned.” It would be a night to remember.

 

Chapter 17. Tsuki no Maware

Mi-Fi and Natty had opted to meet their family in Feng-Dao as Yumedai would not get a Quadrail station anytime soon. Nor did a direct road lead to the Fields of Gold where Saerti-Con would be held from there. The town still looked pretty much the same as it had those months ago, bar a military encampment slightly outside of the town limits. They found their father and Mi-Fi’s mother trying in vain to extract three rambunctious little girls from an arcade. “I’ve got fresh lettuce candies~!” The hopeless offer was still delivered with the same cheerful tone as it had been when they were little. “Mom~! Dad!” Mi-Fi plowed into them while Natty cheerfully sauntered into the arcade and collected their little sisters by pulling the cord out of the whack-a-miwn game they were playing. “C’mon fuzzles, you can always play a game later. Hey pops, hoi auntie mumnest.” | “Heyo springtail and puffcake… Thanks for corralling them Natty.” Their father smiled, in that genteel way that said everything would be peachy. Once aboard the Quadrail in a slightly pricey private cabin, the two Aosagi girls kept things simple and asked their little sisters how they had been, slipping each a tiny toy to play with before taking things to their parents. “Its good to be with you all again, especially after all the adventures we’ve had.” Mi-Fi sniped the question her parents had all but beaming into her eyes. “The glowing fur is a part of it, as is my healed left leg.” Together they told them most of what had happened.

“I’ll bet my usu and kine that you’re not telling us everything though… Or my name isn’t Chiabou.” Mi-Fi’s mother was evidently wearing a slightly too tight t-shirt under her blouse. “Like how in stinkweed’s name you met Thundersnail and the Shellshockers.” Natty grinned, enjoying the teasing. “Well, we could tell you. But that’d ruin the surprise. I’m shocked you didn’t tell us you liked their music though.” Chiabou nudged her husband. “Hear that Tei? I mean, our family home has only been painted to the palette of the most famous Shellshockers album art.” Tei laughed, shaking his head. “I still can’t believe you talked me into that. Mother had a fit when she saw it. And when we took her to the fanclub. Still my big daughters, you two look good. Even with these… adventures you’ve been subjected to.” He mopped his forehead with his sleeve. “Since your leg is good again Mi-Fi, I’m a bit worried you might try piloting again.” Mi-Fi shrugged and replied: “I have considered it. But even if my leg is good, my reputation remains shot. I’m thinking of doing more books though, grandma’s notes and some findings of my own have convinced me that there are many more tales almost lost to time, just waiting to be uncovered.” Soki, Ni-Kina and Thosyl-an stopped bouncing and looked at her with curiosity. “Really?” Thosyl-an scratched her skinny behind. “Just how many stories are there?”

Mi-Fi laughed. “More than we can imagine. And they are important. Grandma explained it to us once: stories give hope, keep memories alive across time and can inspire people to do great things.” She reached across and ruffled her little sister’s hair. “A big lesson I’ve learned though is that behind the story there always are people.” Natty nodded, turning her eyes on Soki. “A story is just a fragment of the entire history. A story about a bunny driving her teacher wild by hopping around the class…” Soki blushed. “Would miss out why the bunny girl was hopping, maybe? Or that the teacher had ants in her panties.” They shared a laugh and passed the time together happily. Though… “TICKETS! PLEASE!” The door slammed open so hard it must have cracked the frame. Contrary to the others, Natty merely laughed. “Aggridth? They have you working as an attendant?” Her technician co-worker looked in surprise, gulped in some air and nodded. “Yeah, not my cup of tea, but damn near everyone’s going to the concert. You and Snailface are going too?!” She smiled in a tired way at the frightened little girls. “Iris will be there, but seriously, you will want to drop the snailface nickname.” Natty shook her head, with Mi-Fi nodding in emphasis. Aggridth snorted. “Screw it then, I’m going too.” She bopped a crystalline communicator on her arm. “Yukoto, we’re stopping at Fields of Gold. I can’t keep the feeder stoked and run attendant, beep the notice on the PA and call Harou.” At the muffled reply, she bopped the communicator again. “Natty, help a girl out, maybe? Just need to check the tickets and punch em with this.” 

Natty took the ticket-puncher, it was about the size of a crowbar. “Okay, but I’m getting off there too. Everyone, wait for me before disembarking.” Eventually the Quadrail train came to a stop at a station normally in the middle of nowhere that had sprouted what appeared to be a city overnight. The Fields of Gold were the largest stretch of farmland in Zipangu where each year two harvests were claimed that fed the continent. In between came flooding and in the remaining time there was ample space for large events. The locals saw it as a given that any strangers wandering in did so under the laws of the empire as it was an area literally in the middle of it all. They had never seen so many Ureonggaksi though. “There you are~! Natty~! Mi-Fi~!” Two large arms lifted them in a hug and Iris smiled winningly at them. “And you must be their parents and little sisters?” Gingerly shaking hands, they took note of the wooden… construct on her abdomen. “I’m Iris Humblestone-Saerti and these terrible pie-rates are my cousins and my friend Ithyali.” Minmi, Kiery and Loselise waved their swords and Ithyali a parrot doll in greeting. “Hey! Argh! You three swabbies wanna see our L.S. Iris ship?” Iris chuckled as she gained three more passengers. “Well, moms is busy, so I’m snaily-sitting… butterfly- and bunny-sitting while we’re at it, too. But you gotta come with me. You won’t believe who showed up today!”

She led them to a somewhat secluded spot, ringed by old shells where a mountainous one occupied a stretch of mossy ground edged by a large pond filled with a ship. Presently, a heart-shaped blaze shot into the air and cries of joy echoed around. “Let’s… wait here a moment.” Iris’ eyes shed tears. “Our trip back in time did change something, I think. Great-grandaunt Miho came back, along with the rest. I’ve never seen my aunts as happy.” | “Which is why you of all people shouldn’t wait, Iris.” Aerdayesêr patted her on the shoulder. “Hello folks, nice to meet you. Just call me Aered, no formalities. You’ll be lodging with us for a bit.” He led them down to the shell, a place out of a fairytale almost, where almost everyone looked young, if having been so for a long, long time. A somewhat tired looking Rukia sat next to her mother Kaori, cradling a little bundle to her breast. “Hey Iris, Aosagi’s… You met mom before-” Kaori nodded, smiling widely. “But I’d like you to meet someone new.” Uncovering the bundle, a tiny little girl emerged with fuzzy ears, a tail and a sprig of red hair. Sleepy grey eyes with amber markings looked at them intently. “Sêrvæsi is the name we chose for her. Giving birth was a bigger adventure than I’d imagined.” Damast appeared at her other side, gently squeezing her shoulder. “Definitely, my sweet daughter. But I’m glad to see our little grandchildren. And to see everybody else again, including you three. You wouldn’t believe how lost we were in the far reaches of New Heaven this last century and a half.” They spent a lot of time catching up, adding to the stories Mi-Fi would later write down.

When evening fell, they were taken to a large stage with tiered rows of seats in front. Other parts of the fields held seats too, which faced gigantic floating screens operated by Sorceresses. Melissae buzzed at each other over instruments while thousands upon thousands, many Ureonggaksi, took to their seats. Mi-Fi, Iris and Natty were told to take to the stage. A small area behind one of the curtains held the band, or rather three quarters of it. “Hey girls, sorry to call you back here..” Lyze grinned under her classic Sparker hairdo. “But Abbyl wants to say a few things to the folks outside first and… she needs you three on hand.” Penny nodded, fingering two sturdy drumsticks with a critical eye. “I’m a little nervous. I mean, we’ve been practicing a ton, but it has been a long time since we were on stage together.” A slender hand touched her arm as Svatti spoke. “It will be fine, cous. Natty, thanks again for helping Lyze sort my teraphone, I know you’ll love the results.” Then Abbyl and Leyna Lynette shuffled out of the dressing room. Leyna looked slim still, but on the mend. Abbyl though wore a wide dress  and looked to be her normal self. “Lyze, can you keep a little juice in reserve for my hair? Gosh, what a crowd. I mean, we have a few thousand relatives here too, but… I’m getting kind of nervous.” Iris kissed her on the cheek. “You’ll do great mom. Just do your thing. And then sing! I’ve never been to a live Thundersnail concert before, nor Leyna, nor Nat and Mif and that is a dream come true.”

“Its been a long time for us too, niece.” Mysteryse and Demyss appeared, grinning. Behind them loomed two unexpected guests. “Hello everyone. Sorry to drop in unannounced-” Antimony carried himself with quiet dignity and self-assuredness. “But we wouldn’t miss this for the world.” Eiraiha looked as radiant as ever. Mi-Fi had a hard time spotting any major differences bar the greater wisdom in those rainbowbanded eyes and the new dress. As Abbyl started towards the stage, she sidled over to Eiraiha with definite intent. “Lady Eiraiha?” A smile met her. “Yes, Mi-Fi? I’ll try to help you with the glow afterwards, it can wait though, right?” Mi-Fi huffed. “Its not about that. We started started a dance together. It would mean tremendous bad luck if we didn’t finish the dance, together.” She bowed in apology, to Eiraiha’s laughter. “Very well. Though… twelve centuries to finish?” Mi-Fi bowed again. “Regardless. I know you have… less pleasant tasks ahead, best to ensure they don’t get jinxed, right?” They fell silent as Abbyl reached the microphone, licked a finger and flicked it across the crystalline membrane. “Hello, everyone. Welcome to a special edition of Saerti-con. Normally, these are just a little get-together for family and friends…” Raucous laughter resounded for a moment. “But this year, we’re pulling out all the stops with special guests.”

“Give a round of applause for Clanmother Miho.” Miho’s slightly spooked face appeared on all screens. “It isn’t for nothing that we Saerti’s have two clanmothers and having her visit from New Heaven along with her sister Kaori is an incredible honor.” Abbyl bowed deeply as thousands upon thousands clapped their hands. “However, many of you came for the Shellshockers-” Thunderous acclamations were shouted. “Yes, yes. Now quiet! To those of you here, and those listening in from across the twin worlds, New Heaven and beyond… I first owe you an apology. And an explanation. Nearly twenty years to the day, I was supposed to bring a lucky fan to our concert in Ebron…” She told the whole story, holding nothing back, calling Iris and Leyna over half-way and stamping into the minds of all those who heard her words that these were her daughters, her reason to go on living despite what had happened. “I cannot change the past, but the future is a book to be written. Now, there’s these two other girls I’d like to mention. Mi-Fi and Natty, both Aosagi’s…” Iris and Leyna leaned close. “Both now our cousins. Anybody object?” A roaring NO! was vocalized by the crowds. Abbyl grinned. “These two have been instrumental in making this all possible. Now then! Enough talk, I suggest you lot check your bladders and nab a drink. In five minutes-” She tore off the wide dress, revealing her most iconic outfit as Thundersnail. “YOU WILL BE ROCKED!!!” The bellow was unmistakably familiar to the fans. Indeed, five minutes later, any roof present would have been lifted off into space.

The Shellshockers rocked the classic songs and wowed with the new ones. But then Leyna and Iris took over, little Ithyali flying along and landing on Iris’ abdomen as Leyna’s accoustic guitar launched into a song she’d written herself. Iris couldn’t sing well enough to join in, but she and the tiny Polimana danced so skillfully the crowd was left in awe. Near the end of the evening though, as Deidre and Aillaeah lit up the sky amid a sea of stars, Abbyl and Lena both took more traditional Zipangese lutes while Penny, Svatti and Lyze held wooden instruments ready. Natty strode forward and spoke softly into the microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen, Thundersnail mentioned it before, but we have some special guests here at Saerti-con. As both moons that have been watching over Praxis for ages are now looking upon us, we have a very special final performance for the evening.” Loud calls for an encore grew though, but silenced as Natty cut the air with a hand. “Be grateful. Tonight you will see Tsuki no Maware. Accompanied by your favourite band.” As she returned to the coulisses, Natty wished that she too had the… build needed for that dance, but her toned rear had little gravitas. Mi-Fi and Eiraiha clapped her shoulders in encouragement and took to the stage. 

Thanks to the Principal Goddess, Mi-Fi and she wore matching dresses. Some would argue that Tsuki no Maware was a private dance, done only by one lover for another. This was not true, as each Usako knew. The original, sacred purpose was to celebrate many things. If danced privately, it was a declaration of love and devotion. If danced publically, it was a declaration of peace, courage and dedication to the common good. It took a lot of concentration, especially with the mirrored paces symbolizing the waxing and waning of the moons. Mi-Fi became aware though that others joined in: Rukia, Emmy, Metala, Demyss and Mysteryse held the shining pose as they took up station around Mi-Fi and Eiraiha. Nodding to each other, they widened the dance to the form only danced when beseeching warring factions to seek peace. Mi-Fi was ecstatic as it went perfectly. When they finished, the crowd was silent for all of five moments. Then an applause broke loose that rocked the world.

Epilogue. Tomba di Deidre

“I love you mom, please be careful out there. Yes, yes… We’ll be there before the next concert.” Iris grinned, tilting her head back to look at her Uncle and the Aosagi’s. “Just keep Leyna safe. I know she doesn’t like the geek stuff much, but I just couldn’t miss out on this. Watch pops too, okay? I miss you all.” Iris sighed as the connection broke up. Then she jumped off of her footing and somersaulted. She fell down to the actual floor with but a soft click of her claws. “Uncle, the couplings are holding. Just go slow with the juice, ‘kay?” Aered nodded, gently turning a dial while little Mihoni watched his doings with interest. His draconic daughter was already trying to speak sometimes and was doted on by her grandmothers whenever they got the chance (as were her siblings). “Roger that. Mi-Fi, how’s the gauge reading? Natty, the generator?” A few moments of silence followed. “Stable. But keep it slow.” Natty’s face showed some strain as she peered at the reaction chamber. “Gauge is climbing steadily. I think its working.” A minute later, a small burp of surprise took the eyebrows off of Aered when Mihoni saw the panels light up spectacularly. Tiny pictures formed over her head and her long tail twirled as she laughed.

“Yes! YES!! It works! It works!!” Ignoring the smoke wreathing his forehead, Aerdayesêr stood up and danced with Mihoni in his arms. “I’ve been waiting so long for this… Now lets see what we have.” The display showed a mostly bright teal screen with icons on it that changed shape as the operating system checked and preloaded their destinations. “Looks like an archive?” Aered was so focussed on the whole that he didn’t notice Mihoni spotting something and smacking her little hand across the icon. Instantly, a program began to run and a movie played. Paralysed at first with wonder, Aered’s face fell when he realised this was a cartoon aimed at babies. Mihoni spluttered with laughter as one puppet bonked another on the head with a foam club. “Haha, just my luck… First audio-visual files we get to and it turns out we’ve recovered cartoons.” Just then, Rukia popped her head into the room and giggled. “Well, it was a colony ship, right? It makes sense to have something for the little ones on board. But enough geekage you five, we’ve nearly got dinner ready and you need a bath.” She took the baby and passed her to Iris. “Iris, please bring Mihoni ahead to the baby room, okay? I need a word with Mi-Fi.” As the others filtered out, Mi-Fi quickly checked things over one more time before approaching Rukia. “So, I’m guessing I’m still in trouble?”

Rukia’s gaze was mischievous. “No. And yes. You could make a mint as a dancer, even if aunt Eihy and the rest of us can’t dance with you all the time. And the book is doing well enough that Fennich has banned it, as usual with anything that even hints vaguely at his failings. That is one thing he never grasped. But your mailbox is still overflowing with letters from admirers. For once, I’m glad that Jerry can find skilled help for just about anything.” She patted Mi-Fi on the shoulder. “Fear not, Mif. But you did get an Imperial summons by Empress Shai-Hanako, to visit the Court of the Moons. I don’t think it will be a bad thing, but we’re keeping an eye on you there. If you decide to go. The shining moon rabbit isn’t some toy to be had.” She looked discomfortable for a moment. “Though… I am surprised by the innumerable requests for a ‘prosthetic’ version of your rear end. Frankly, I may support those things for species without a natural second option in lovemaking… Kind of hard not to as I created the original ones for Ureonggaksi. But your rear is in higher demand than any other suggestion. I’m not entirely comfy with that idea. Not with just how much trouble there was with the first run of person-themed versions.” Mi-Fi felt flabbergasted. “But-but-but, why? I’m just a Tsuki no Usako, there are millions of my species, many with more lovely rears than mine.” Rukia shook her head. “They didn’t dance with the Goddesses.”

“Chin up niece.” Rukia smiled warmly. “All of it is up to you. If you want to retire to New Heaven instead, just say the word. You’ll get a silly hat though.” Then all mirth left her face and tiny ghost-like figures roamed her hair bearing purple flames. “Personally… And don’t tell anyone… I would understand. Nearly twelve centuries of life have taught me more about life in the public eye than I ever wanted to know. And I can’t easily forget things.” Tears glimmered, though but one fell. “Remind me to tell you of Muppi, later. You met her after the concert, remember?” She wiped her eyes as Mi-Fi affirmed this. “Good. Now let us get you cleaned up and fit for dinner.” As they left, the awakened console hummed softly. Other icons finished loading, giving glimpses of another world. Perhaps it would one day be visited, maybe even by this ship. For now though it could wait as Praxis rose over Deidre and bathed the moon in the lights of countless lives.

THE END, for now

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