The thousands of Kinqalatlalas in the crystal city before us all stopped and turned to stare at us. “Someone want to tell me what’s going on here?” I asked, stunned.
“I think this is where the black witch explains why everyone in her world looks like her,” White Tara replied.
“To make you comfortable, you see my people in a form that is familiar to you,” Kinqalatlala responded.
“Seeing everyone looking exactly like you makes me distinctly uncomfortable,” I stated. “If your people are shapeshifters, why can’t they take different shapes? Like birds. That was much less unsettling to look at.”
“I am sorry you find me unpleasant to look at.”
“What? No. That is not at all what I mean. You should know that.”
“I only know what you tell me.”
“It’s just that seeing all these people looking exactly like you makes me a bit confused and uncomfortable.”
One of the Kinqalatlalas of the thousands standing before us walked out of the crowd and stopped in front of us. “Welcome to the city of the Dluwulaxa,” she said. “It is a pleasure to see you again, Kinqalatlala,” she added, bowing to the original. “We had feared you were lost to us.”
“I am happy to be home again,” Kinqalatlala replied. “I hope the time comes soon that I can return to my world.”
“Is this the one?” the duplicate asked, looking at me.
“The one what?” I responded.
Kinqalatlala put her hand on my shoulder. “This is the one who is searching for the Tlogwe.”
Michael stepped up to my side. “We have been assured that the Tlogwe is located here in your city. How about you just show us where it is?”
“I have explained to my friends that the Tlogwe is not an artifact that can be displayed to anyone who wishes to see it,” Kinqalatlala replied.
“Then take us to the Tlogwala,” I said. “Please help us. Take us to your leader.”
“Hey,” Michael responded, elbowing me. “How come you get that line?”
“Dluwulaxa have no leader,” the duplicate replied. “We are all equal.”
“That must be why you look all the same,” I commented.
“When the time is right, the Tlogwala will find you,” Kinqalatlala replied. “If you are deemed worthy.”
“Then why are we here?”
“To find the Tlogwe.”
“You’re giving me a headache,” I replied.
“Everything will be explained in due time,” Kinqalatlala retorted. “To find the Tlogwe one must first prove themselves worthy of receiving the gift of the Tlogwe.”
“In the meantime we wish you to enjoy the hospitality of the city,” the duplicate said, sweeping her hand back toward the crystal pavilions. “Please follow me.”
Before I could take a step, Kinqalatlala grabbed my hand and whispered in my ear. “Beware. Not everything is as it appears.” She released my arm and walked away.
I put my arm around Jean’s shoulder. “Be alert. Something is wrong.” She gave me a quizzical look but didn’t respond.
We followed the duplicate Kinqalatlala to the nearest crystal structure. The building towered above us. The duplicate waved her hand and a doorway appeared at the base of the wall. She entered and we followed her inside. Michael and I both halted and whistled.
While the outside of the building appeared to have limits, the inside of the building seemed limitless. Here I saw the wide expanse of sky and clouds that I witnessed on my first trip to this world. And here we were greeted with the chirps, calls, and birdsong from the myriad assortment of birds I previously witnessed. I turned to look back out the doorway, but the doorway had vanished.
“These are Dluwulaxa?” I asked.
“Here you see our people as they really are,” Kinqalatlala replied. “A life of perfect peace and perfect freedom.”
“Yeah, I know. Shangri-La. You can forget the sales pitch. I’m not interested.”
You may not be, but maybe your friends are.”
“We’re here to see the Tlogwala. Nothing else.”
“Please follow me,” Kinqalatlala’s duplicate said. She waved into the void and another crystal structure appeared where previously we saw only clouds and sky. A doorway opened at the base of the wall and we followed the duplicate inside. This crystal pavilion stood completely empty.
“Just one massive empty fishbowl,” I observed.
“You will wait here,” the duplicate said. She stood silent, looking at her feet, then dissolved into a small black bird that flapped its wings and flew away into the ether.
“I need coffee,” Blue Tara blurted out.
“Don’t get me started on how hungry I am,” Michael replied.
“What do your people do for food?” I asked Kinqalatlala.
“The sun is our food,” she replied.
“Of course it is. In the meantime we’re getting hungry.”
“Please be patient. You will be provided with everything that you need.”
“What did you mean when you said everything is not as it appears?”
“This is not the place,” she replied testily. “Do not speak of it again.”
The doorway appeared in the wall behind us and the duplicate Kinqalatlala entered and walked up to us. “Please accept our hospitality,” she said, pointing behind us. We turned to see a table where only void had existed before. The table literally sagged under a cornucopia of breads, fruits, and vegetables.
“Pizza?” Blue Tara asked.
“I’d settle for a cold beer,” I replied.
White Tara darted off Blue Tara’s shoulder and alighted on the table. She took a bite out of one of the fruits and violently shook her head, spitting the fruit out of her beak. “It’s poisonous!” she exclaimed, disappointedly shaking her head.
“What the fuck,” I said, looking at Kinqalatlala. I grabbed her arm and pulled her to me. “This is your idea of hospitality?”
“This is my idea of hospitality,” the duplicate replied. Her voice had changed. We turned to look at her. In the place of Kinqalatlala’s duplicate stood a tall man clad in black leather. His black fedora only partially hid his long stringy black hair and pale scalloped yellow skin. The black fedora highlighted his gleaming sunken red eyes.
“Hamatsa!” I cried out.
Jean swung the shotgun off her shoulder. “I blew your fucking head off!”
Hamatsa pointed a gloved hand at Jean. “By now you should know how useless your weapons are against me.”
Kinqalatlala grabbed Jean’s arm. “If you spill blood you will doom the world of the Dluwulaxa to destruction.”
“What is Hamatsa spills blood?” I replied.
“The destruction of Dluwulaxa is exactly what Hamatsa desires,” Kinqalatlala said. “Just as he desires the destruction of your world. I beg you. Do not give him the opportunity to spill blood.”
“And what? We just let him poison us?”
“Run away while you have the chance,” Kinqalatlala replied, pointing to the doorway behind Hamatsa. “The gagits await. Save yourselves.”
I took a step toward the doorway. Blue Tara stepped in front of me, hand on her battle axe. “We came to find the Tlogwe. If we leave without it we are doomed.”
“Damned if we do. Damned if we don’t.” Michael responded.
White Tara flitted off Blue Tara and onto Hamatsa’s shoulder. She took hold of the brim of Hamatsa’s fedora with her beak and flung it off his head. Hamatsa craned his head to look at the bird and batted at her with his hand. She jumped off but not before taking a bite out of his ear. “You stupid witch!” he exclaimed. “You will pay for your insolence.”
“Oh fuck all,” I said in exasperation. I turned to Jean. “Blow his head off.”
Before Jean could unsling her shotgun, Hamatsa dropped his chin to his chest, looked at his feet, and dissolved into a small black bird which flapped its wings and took flight.
“What in the hell was that?” I blurted out.
“A test of your forbearance,” Kinqalatlala replied.
“A test? You’re testing me? That wasn’t the real Hamatsa?”
“In whatever form Hamatsa appears, he is a very real threat to you and your world, as he is to mine.”
Before I could respond Hamatsa walked through the doorway back into the crystal pavilion and stopped in front of us. Then a second creature looking exactly like Hamatsa walked through the doorway, stopping behind the first Hamatsa. Then a third. And a fourth. A steady stream of duplicate Hamatsas walked into the crystal pavilion, quickly filling the visible space.
“This is getting silly,” I said. “None of them are real.”
“How can you be sure?” Kinqalatlala replied. “You do not understand the extent of my master’s powers.”
“For one thing, there haven’t been any snarky comments from any of these impostors.” I walked up to the first Hamatsa and stared into his gleaming red eyes. “Eyes are the windows into the soul,” I said. “I sense no soul behind these eyes.” I stepped back. Every Hamatsa dropped his chin to his chest, looked at his feet, and dissolved into small black birds. The birds flapped their wings, took flight, and disappeared into the sky.
“Come with me,” Kinqalatlala said, taking my hand in hers. We walked a short distance into the pavilion. I turned to look back at Jean and Michael and the Taras, but a crystal wall materialized between us, blocking any view.
“Hey, wait!” I exclaimed.
“Do not fear. They are safe.”
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I want you,” she replied. She took my hands and placed them on her breasts. She put her arms across my shoulders and pulled me to her. Her tongue licked my lips, and slid between my lips to meet my tongue. She slowly pulled me to the floor and on top of her.
“Wait!” Jean yelled, as a crystal wall materialized in front of her.
“What the hell!” Michael exclaimed. He ran up to the wall and ran his hands over the crystal surface. “There doesn’t seem to be any kind of doorway here,” he observed.
“Oh no!” Jean exclaimed. “The outside doorway is gone too.” Unblemished blank crystal wall obscured the doorway that previously had been there. “We’re trapped.”
“This is getting weirder by the minute,” Michael said.
“Wonder if I could blow a hole through it with the shotgun?”
“I wouldn’t try. You might hit them on the other side. You might bring the whole wall down on us. Or the buckshot might blow back right in our faces. Let’s not try that. Maybe Blue Tara can bend time and space through the wall?”
Blue Tara screeched before Jean and Michael thought to cover their ears. Nothing. The crystal wall still blocked them. They still stood on the wrong side of the wall. “Or not,” Michael said with a sigh. “Or we could just stand here and wait,” he added, as the crystal wall disappeared.
As Kinqalatlala pulled me down on top of her she said, “I want to feel you inside of me.” She kissed me again.
“Enough!” I cried out. I pushed myself up and off of her and struggled to my feet. “What are you trying to do?”
“I want you.”
“I’m already spoken for.”
“What can your friend offer you? I can offer you immortality.”
“A decent cup of coffee.”
Kinqalatlala looked at me in stunned silence. And then waved her hand. The crystal wall disappeared. Jean and Michael and the Taras ran up to us.
“What did she do?” Jean blurted out.
Nothing,” I lied, as I put my arms around Jean and hugged her.
“You’re a piss pour liar,” Jean replied, kissing me. She smacked her lips and pushed me away from her. “Someone else has been kissing you.”
“She tried,” I pleaded. “But I stopped her.”
The doorway reappeared at the base of the crystal wall and Hamatsa walked into the pavilion once again.
“Oh fuck,” I said. I pulled the shotgun off Jean’s shoulder, pumped two rounds into the chambers and pointed the barrels at Hamatsa’s head. I pulled the triggers. Kinqalatlala screamed. I pointed the shotgun at Kinqalatlala’s head and pulled the triggers again. The firing pins clicked harmlessly on empty chambers. “I guess I failed your test.”
Hamatsa’s headless body dissolved into a small black bird which cantered out the doorway in the crystal wall just as another Hamatsa entered. Blue Tara pulled her battle axe off her belt and with a single swing separated his head from his body. The head rolled back out the doorway as the body collapsed on the floor. The body dissolved into another small black bird which spread its wings as it jumped off the floor and flew out the doorway.
“How long is this game going to go on?” I asked Kinqalatlala. “What are you testing us on now?”
Before Kinqalatlala could respond, yet another Hamatsa entered through the doorway. I froze. I sensed a presence I hadn’t sensed before.
“Oh shit,” I said.
“What is it?” Jean asked.
“Hamatsa!” Blue Tara exclaimed. About a dozen lance bearing pale skinned sunken black eyed laxsa followed Hamatsa through the doorway.
“This is the real deal,” I said.
“How foolish of you to fall into my trap,” Hamatsa gloated.
“Yep. Snarky comment and all.”
“This sucks big time,” Michael said, rubbing his hand along the shaft of his magic harpoon. The laxsa surrounded us and stuck the points of their lances in our necks. They seized our weapons.
Kinqalatlala leaned over to me and whispered in my ear, “Remember, not everything is as it appears.”
Hamatsa grabbed Kinqalatlala’s shoulder. “Let us all hear, slave. My slaves do not keep secrets from their master.”
“I warned him that resistance is futile,” Kinqalatlala replied, bowing to Hamatsa.
“And so I intent to prove that this very day.”
Hamatsa leaned over to me so closely his nose almost touched mine. I staggered back from the stench of his putrid breath, breath that smelled of death. “I wish I’d brought some breath mints to share,” I said.
Hamatsa gripped my throat with a gloved hand. “I should break your neck. But if I spill your blood the destruction of Dluxulaxa is assured. And I still have use for this world.” I coughed as I felt his hand squeeze my throat. “I will mount your head on the wall of Control before I’m done with you, “he added. “After I cut your heart out of your chest and eat it.”
“I know where the Tlogwala is,” I stammered. Hamatsa released his grip on my neck. “Kill me and you’ll lose that knowledge.”
“That’s not possible,” he replied.
“Can you afford to take that chance?”
Hamatsa snarled and bared his fangs. He grabbed Kinqalatlala and dragged her out the doorway. “What did you tell him,” I could hear him say as they disappeared from view. The laxsa followed Hamatsa out and the doorway vanished. Jean, Michael, the Taras, and I stood alone and unarmed.
“Something’s weird,” I remarked.
“Kinqalatlala told you who the Tlogwala is?” Michael asked.
“I wish. I lied,” I replied. “Hamatsa’s not very bright. But Kinqalatlala warned me that not everything is as it seems.”
The second crystal wall reappeared inside the pavilion and a doorway opened at the base. Kinqalatlala, or a creature that looked exactly like Kinqalatlala, emerged.
“It is me,” she said.
“Who are you?” I replied.
“I am Kinqalatlala.”
“No you’re not. Hamatsa just dragged Kinqalatlala out of here.”
“That was not me. I am me.”
“What? I’m confused. I. . .” I glanced at Jean. “She. . . kissed me. She proposed to me. I know that was her. The other one. Not you.” Jean gave me a quizzical look.
The other was not me. That was a copy of me. Testing you.”
“Then Hamatsa doesn’t know he dragged a copy of you out of here?”
“Hamatsa is a fool. Just like most men.” White Tara chortled.
“Hamatsa has our weapons.”
Kinqalatlala whistled and the laxsa entered through the doorway in the second wall, carrying our weapons. Blue Tara grabbed her battle axe out of a laxsa’s hand and raised it, preparing to strike. Kinqalatlala raised her hand. “Wait!” she ordered.
We took possession of our weapons. The laxsa stood still, dropped their chins to their chests, looked at their feet and dissolved into big white birds that looked like seagulls. Flapping their wings, they leaped into the air and flew out the doorway they came in. The second crystal wall vanished.
“So explain something to me,” I said.
“Yes. I will try.”
“Hamatsa didn’t harm us because he believes drawing blood will result in the destruction of Dluwulaxa.”
“That is correct.”
“Yet we blew the heads off several fake Hamatsas, and we’re still here.”
“As you say, they were fakes. Apparitions. You wanted to believe they were real, so to you they became real.”
“I don’t know what’s real anymore.”
“I am real. The people around you are real.”
“We need to get out of here,” Michael suggested. “Hamatsa’s going to figure out that’s not the real you with him out there.”
“You are correct,” Kinqalatlala replied. “We can not maintain this deception for long. However, you can not leave.”
“What?” I stammered. “Are we your prisoners?”
“It is not that at all,” she replied. “You need to continue your search for the Tlogwala. You are closer than you realize.”
“God, I’m getting tired of hearing that. Why can’t someone just introduce me to the fucker?”
“The fate of Dluwulaxa rests on your finding the Tlogwala. Hamatsa will soon realize his error and unleash his vengeance on my people. We can fight him with deception only so long. We are powerless against his armies and his magic.”
“If we try to fight Hamatsa something is going to get killed. Blood will be spilled. Won’t that result in the destruction of Dluwulaxa?” I asked.
“Only the magic of the Tlogwe can save Dluwulaxa from Hamatsa and his army of the dead. I fear however, it may be necessary to risk the destruction of Dluwulaxa to impede Hamatsa’s plans by use of your weapons. If Hamatsa seizes this world, all hope is lost. For my people. And for your people.”
“Where is Hamatsa now?” I asked.
“He is on the crystal plain gathering his army. His gagits are ferrying his forces to the city as we speak.”
Blue Tara spoke up. “White Tara will fly out and spy on Hamatsa and his army of the dead and warn us when he is ready to march on the city.”
Kinqalatlala waved her hand and the doorway appeared at the base of the crystal wall. White Tara leaped off Blue Tara’s shoulder and darted out the doorway.
“What kind of defenses do you possess?” Blue Tara asked.
“Only the defense of deception.”
“You have no weapons?” Red Tara asked as she flexed her longbow.
“My world is a world of peace. My people have no need for weapons.”
“Until they do,” Jean smirked, pumping shells into the chambers of her shotgun.
“What can we do against Hamatsa’s army of the dead?” Michael asked. “We’ve got two guns and a magic harpoon, which doesn’t necessarily work against things that are already dead.”
“And a Swiss Army knife,” I added, pulling a red-covered knife out of my pocket.
“Well, that changes everything,” Michael replied sarcastically.
“Don’t forget Blue Tara’s battle axe and Red Tara’s longbow,” Jean added.
“And Black Tara’s claws,” Michael said, as Margarita purred and rubbed her body against his ankles.
“Alrighty then,” I replied. “We’re in business.
“I sure would like pizza and beer right now,” Blue Tara said.
“When I get home I’m going to fill the bathtub with beer and drown myself in it,” I said, wistfully.
“I will join you,” Blue Tara replied, “and help you drown yourself.” We all turned and stared at Blue Tara.
White Tara flew out the doorway, executed an inverted loop, and shot straight up into the sky. From her advantage she could see the gagits resting on the edge of the crystal plain outside the city. Wisps of clouds rolling up from the lenticular clouds below bathed the winged beasts. She banked and glided silently toward one of the unwary creatures. Several towering dzonoqwa stood guard off to the side, leaning on their clubs.
White Tara alighted on a gagit almost hidden by the fog. The gagit rested standing on its feet, eyes closed, beak nestled behind its wing. White Tara scurried up its neck and took a bite out of its ear. The gagit whipped its long neck out and screamed. The beast wheeled around and clamped it huge teeth on the neck of the gagit resting next to it.
White Tara darted onto another nearby gagit and planted her beak into a patch of bare skin on the creature’s shoulder. The creature jumped up with a howl and whipped its tail around, taking out the feet of an adjacent gagit, which tumbled to the surface. Jumping back up with a roar, the creature sunk its teeth into the neck of the offending gagit. Both rolled to the surface. Several other gagits, spooked out of their sleep by the uproar, extended their wings, leaped into the air, and took flight, escaping into the clouds. Awakened out of their slumber, the dzonoqwa rushed about waving their clubs and growling, attempting to corral the escaping pterodactyls. One of the gagits, reeling from a huge gash in its neck, spun around and clamped its jaws on the neck of a dzonoqwa, lifted it up and shook it violently in the air, and flung its lifeless body to the surface. The remaining dzonoqwa charged the pterodactyl and rained blows on its head with their clubs, knocking it senseless off its feet.
White Tara darted onto the shoulder of the leading dzonoqwa and bit its ear. Howling in pain, it spun around and smashed its club into the head of the dzonoqwa behind it, knocking it down. The remaining dzonoqwa attacked the offending giant, knocking it off its feet and smashing its skull with their clubs. White Tara flew into the air, banked into a lazy loop while noting that the gagits disappeared into the clouds, and flew back to the crystal pavilion.
White Tara flew back through the doorway to find everyone else feasting at a table laden with fruits and vegetables of every conceivable kind, along with goblets of wine filled to the brim. Looping around the table she alighted on Blue Tara’s shoulder and screeched. “What are you doing?” she cried out. “It’s poison.”
“It is perfectly safe,” Kinqalatlala replied, standing with a goblet of wine in her hand. “Please join us.” Blue Tara craned her head and nodded in agreement. White Tara ran down Blue Tara’s arm and dived into a platter of fruit.
“What did you discover?” Blue Tara asked. White Tara continued eating in silence. “Whenever you are ready,” Blue Tara added as she drained a goblet of wine.
After several minutes of eating, White Tara stood erect, her white beak dripping red with cherry juice, and stretched both her wings. First her right wing. Then her left wing. Then she commenced to speak. “I scattered the gagits and drove them off the crystal plain. And I seem to have created some confusion with the dzonoqwa. Enough so they were attacking each other. It is a temporary setback for Hamatsa, but far from a fatal one.”
“Good girl,” I said. Everyone turned and looked at me. “Sorry. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to tell a parrot? Positive reinforcement?” Dead silence. “Right. She’s not a parrot. Good work!”
“If nothing else,” Michael noted, “she no doubt made Hamatsa mad. Maybe that will cause Hamatsa to react and do something stupid.”
“Or more stupid than usual,” Red Tara added.
“We should take advantage of this opportunity,” I added, “and strike while they’re confused and disoriented. Take the battle to them instead of sitting here drinking wine and waiting for them to attack us.” I chugged the remaining wine in my goblet.
“A very good plan,” Blue Tara replied. “As soon as we finish this wine.” She chugged the remaining wine in her goblet.
“Is there anything like a bathroom around here?” Jean asked sheepishly, looking around the crystal pavilion. “What do your people do for bathrooms?” she asked Kinqalatlala. We all turned and looked at Jean. Before Kinqalatlala could respond, from outside the pavilion, off in the distance across the crystal plain, we heard a terrible scream.
Hamatsa dragged Kinqalatlala out of the pavilion and across the crystal plain to the edge of the clouds where his gagits landed his minions to prepare for the coming assault on the city of Dluwulaxa. “Tell me what you whispered to your new friend,” he demanded.
“As I told you, my master, I said to him that resistance is futile.”
“Do not lie to me you witch. You are not an accomplished liar. Tell me what you told him.”
“I promise, my master. I told him resistance is futile.”
“If you refuse to tell me what you told him I will cut off your breasts and feed them to my gagits. And then I will rip out your heart with my hands and eat it myself.” Hamatsa seized her throat with his gloved hands and lifted her off her feet.
“I told him resistance is not futile,” she gasped as Hamatsa squeezed her throat. She struggled to break his grip. And then her arms and legs fell limp. Hamatsa released his grip and her body collapsed to the surface. As Hamatsa pulled a dagger out from under his coat the body dissolved into a small black bird which flapped its wings and disappeared into the clouds.
Hamatsa heard his gagits scream and howl, followed by the beating pulse of enormous wings flapping and disappearing into the distance. He ran to where the gagits had been left to rest on the edge of the crystal plain. The gagits were gone, except for a couple of torn and lifeless bodies crumpled on the surface. His dzonoqwa stood stupidly around a dead pterodactyl with a crushed skull and a dead dzonoqwa at its feet. Out of the corner of his sunken red eyes Hamatsa caught the flight of a white parrot back toward the crystal pavilion. He shut his eyes closed to concentrate his anger, extended his arms over his head, took a deep breath, and let out a scream so terrible the dzonoqwa dropped their clubs and fell to their knees, their hands pressed to their ears.
“Get up you fools!” he screamed at the dzonoqwa. Gather the laxsa. Enter the city and bring those witches to me in chains. And bring the heads of Kinqalatlala and her new friend to me on silver platters. Get up. Go!” he yelled, pointing to the city of Dluwulaxa shimmering in the sunlight across the crystal plain.
“That can’t be good,” I said as the scream faded.
“Apparently my efforts to impede his plans do not please Hamatsa,” White Tara smirked.
Blue Tara slammed her wine goblet on the table and stood up, battle axe in her hand. “It is time to act,” she said. “Hamatsa’s feeling of omnipotence has been tarnished. He will be prone to rash judgments and mistakes. Now is the time to strike.”
I looked at Jean. “Any chance we could take a bathroom break first?”
“We need the element of surprise,” Kinqalatlala said, “if our plan to harass Hamatsa’s cohort is to have any chance of success. If we try to walk across the crystal plain we will be discovered long before we reach our objective.”
“The Taras can turn themselves into parrots and fly,” I replied. Margarita growled at me. “Almost all the Taras,” I clarified. “You are a shapeshifter, so you can turn yourself into anything you want. But where does that leave Jean and Michael and me? We’re certainly not going to sit this battle out.”
“There is a way,” Kinqalatlala noted. “Come with me.” A crystal wall appeared inside the pavilion, and a doorway appeared at the base of the wall. We followed Kinqalatlala through the doorway. Inside we found a massive reflecting pool with a fountain shooting a geyser into the heavens, so high we couldn’t see the peak.
“How beautiful!” Jean exclaimed.
The fountain made the reflecting pool bubble and roil with every color of the rainbow reflected from the brilliant sunlight streaming through the walls of the crystal pavilion.
“How is it you have this gigantic pool of water up her?” I asked.
“It is not water,” Kinqalatlala replied. I looked at her quizzically. “It is a pool of liquid quartz crystal.”
“Oh no!” Michael exclaimed. “You’re not thinking what I’m thinking you’re thinking?” he asked Kinqalatlala.
“What are you thinking?” I asked Michael.
“The four furies. She wants us to bath in the crystal and turn us into birds.”
“No way!” Jean cried out.
“It is harmless,” Kinqalatlala insisted.
“If it’s so harmless, why were the four furies never able to turn themselves back into people?” Michael replied.
“The furies did not possess the magic to reverse the effect of the crystal. And once they were enslaved by Hamatsa it was too late.”
“I refuse to become a furie,” Michael replied.
“I wish to assure you,” Kinqalatlala stated, “that I possess the magic to reverse the effect of the crystal on you. It would only be temporary.”
“This is part of her plan to enslave you into her world,” Jean insisted. “That’s what she’s wanted all along. To make you hers.”
“What do we do?” I asked Kinqalatlala.
“No!” Jean yelled out.
I took Jean’s hands in mine. “I take her at her word.”
“You need to step into the pool and submerge yourself. Completely,” Kinqalatlala replied.
“Come with me,” I said to Jean. “Let’s do this. Haven’t you always wanted to fly?”
“Oh what the hell,” Jean responded.
We stepped into the pool and dunked ourselves in the liquid crystal. I wasn’t sure what to expect. But what I didn’t expect was feeling nothing. Unlike water, the crystal offered no resistance to my body. No pressure. No warmth. No coolness. No taste. No smell. The liquid crystal acted like water but didn’t feel like water. I seemed to be bathing in pure color.
“Come out now,” I heard Kinqalatlala say. We stood up and stepped out.
“You completely disappeared in the crystal!” Michael exclaimed. “Are you okay?” He touched my shirt. “You’re not wet, or anything,” he remarked.
“It’s not water,” I replied. “It’s not like anything that I can describe. Are you okay Jean?”
She nodded. “I guess so,” she said as she stood with her arms stretched out, examining herself.
“How about you Mike?” I asked. “Want to try it?”
“Naw. I’ll stay myself and keep Margarita company.” Margarita walked up to Michael and rubbed her head on his ankles, purring. “We’ll guard the rear,” Michael added, bending down to rub the cat’s head, “and keep you from being surprised.”
I turned to Kinqalatlala. “So did anything happen? I don’t feel or look any different.”
“Close your eyes and imagine yourself flying,” Kinqalatlala replied.
I put my arms out and imagined I was a bird. I felt my feet leave the surface of the crystal pavilion and when I opened my eyes I found myself airborne.
“Oh God!” Michael cried out. “You’re a bird!”
“I am?” I looked at myself, circling in the air. “I look like myself. To me.”
“You look like a big black bird,” Michael said. “A raven.”
“And Jean looks like a raven too.”
I looked at Jean, who rose up into the air besides me. “Oh shit! Jean looks like a bird.”
“Keep imagining yourselves to be birds,” Kinqalatlala said as she extended her arms and dissolved into a big black raven as well. “Follow me.” She circled the crystal pavilion, banked, and flew out the doorway.
I realized that Blue Tara and Red Tara had transformed into macaws and took flight after Kinqalatlala, with White Tara trailing the macaws. I looked at the raven that was Jean, circling around me. “Let’s go!” I yelled at her, and we both banked and flew out the doorway.
“Good luck!” I heard Michael yell as we flew out of the city and into the open air.
We followed the black raven that was Kinqalatlala and the brightly colored parrots that were the Taras to the clouds roiling up over the edge of the crystal plain. I seemed to be able to fly as long as I kept my arms extended. Anytime I dropped my arms to my sides I lost altitude. I circled Jean a couple of times as she experimented with a barrel roll and a few lazy loops. We alighted in a fog bank where we saw the others land, where we would be safe from discovery by Hamatsa’s ghouls.
Kinqalatlala, Blue Tara, and Red Tara greeted us in their naked Amazon goddess glory. Only White Tara retained her parrot form, perched on Blue Tara’s shoulder.
“How do you see us?” I asked. “Are Jean and I still birds?”
“What form do you wish?” Kinqalatlala asked.
“To be people again,” I replied.
“Then it is so,” Kinqalatlala said.
“I see you in your people form again,” Blue Tara said. “It is most pleasing to me,” she added as she stepped up to me and kissed me. Then she put her arm over Jean’s shoulder and kissed her as well.
“How strange,” I said. “I didn’t feel any different. But we looked like birds?”
“Yes you did,” Blue Tara replied. “It is not so strange at all.”
“Maybe not to you,” I said. “Because that’s your nature. It’s certainly not my nature to be a bird and fly.”
“Did you not enjoy it?” White Tara asked as she flitted onto my shoulder.
“Certainly,” I replied, as I craned my head to look at her. “Flying has always been a fantasy of mine. Ever since I was a little kid.”
“So enjoy it while you have the ability,” White Tara said, nipping my ear before darting back to Blue Tara.
“Watch it,” I said. “I’ll turn myself into a raptor and take a bite out of you.”
“It is time for us to take a bite out of Hamatsa,” Kinqalatlala said. “I did not see any gagits as we flew here.”
“Nor I,” Blue Tara added.
“For now Hamatsa has no means of escape or means to reinforce his position. We need to drive his ghouls off the crystal plain to their destruction.”
“At the least we need to show Hamatsa we’re not afraid of taking the fight to him,” Blue Tara said as she took hold of her battle axe.
We stepped softly through the fog bank until we came to Hamatsa’s encampment on the edge of the crystal plain. ‘Encampment’ probably is an overly generous word. We encountered a field of gigantic mushrooms that thrived on the edge of the crystal plain, perpetually bathed in cool and moist fog. Hamatsa’s ghouls rested against the mushroom stalks, sheltered by the caps of the gigantic fungi. The geoducks of the fungi world, I smirked to myself.
The laxsa, Hamatsa’s zombie warriors, leaned against the stalks of the giant fungi and polished their lances, or just sat and stared into space. The dzonoqwa stood off to the edge of the fungi forest and lazily leaned on their clubs, drowsy from the brilliant sunlight beating down on their heavy fur. A pack of monstrous dogs wandered among the dzonoqwa, the size of grizzly bears, with long black fur and gleaming ivory teeth and claws as deadly as any grizzly. As they stopped to rest, one or another of the monsters opened their jaws and a tongue of yellow flame shot out of their mouths. Even the dzonoqwa seemed wary of these creatures and kept moving out of their way.
“Beware the fire breathers,” Blue Tara cautioned. “They are the nontsistalal. Their fire consumes anything it touches.”
“I think we used those in Vietnam,” I commented. “So what’s the plan?”
“Simple,” Blue Tara replied. “We will surprise them and sow confusion in their ranks. Try to stampede them off the crystal plain to their destruction."
Red Tara flexed her longbow with two of her hands while pulling several arrows out of her quiver with her two other hands as Blue Tara tossed her battle axe from hand to hand.
“I will launch the first strike,” White Tara said. “My size and color will protect me from detection until it is too late. She leaped off Blue Tara’s shoulder and disappeared into the fog.
The small white parrot flitted through the fog undetected by Hamatsa’s ghouls. White Tara chose the nontsistalal as her target. As she did with the gagits, she alighted on the neck of the leading monster and sunk her beak into its ear.
The creature reared up on its hind legs and roared. A tongue of yellow flame rolled out of its mouth into the sky. As the monster spun around to confront its attacker the flame struck the legs of one of the dzonoqwa. The dzonoqwa tumbled to the surface screaming in pain as its deep fur burned. Several other of the dzonoqwa seized their clubs and smashed the head of the nontsistalal, dropping it dead. Infuriated, the other nontsistalal lunged at the dzonoqwa, turning several of the creatures into screaming fireballs. Consumed with flame, the dzonoqwa stampeded into the dense roiling fog, their screams fading into the distance as they stumbled off the crystal plain and plummeted toward the Earth.
The surviving dzonoqwa panicked and ran for the safety of the fungi forest, clubbing any laxsa that fell into their path. Some of the laxsa rallied and speared the dzonoqwa as the creatures stumbled by, chased by the nontsistalal. The laxsa quickly retreated into the fog bank when the nontsistalal turned a few of them into burning cinders.
Blue Tara and Red Tara struck. Masked by the fog, Blue Tara lopped off the heads of any laxsa she encountered with her battle axe as they stumbled by, seeing her too late to defend themselves with their lances. Red Tara dropped dzonoqwa after dzonoqwa with arrows piercing their skulls. One of the dzonoqwa, an arrow stuck through its head, screamed and charged Red Tara, knocking her off her feet with a blow to her head from its huge club. As the creature lunged at Red Tara, Kinqalatlala leaped in front of it, and she thrust the steel blade that was her hand through the creature’s chest. A nontsistalal jumped out of the fog behind the dzonoqwa and reared up on its hind legs, illuminating the fog with a tongue of flame shooting out of its mouth. The monster turned to fall on Kinqalatlala with her hand embedded in the dzonoqwa’s chest. Jean ran up to Kinqalatlala’s side, pointed her double-barreled shotgun at the nontsistalal’s head and fired both barrels. Headless, the monster’s body tumbled back into the fog.
“Don’t say I never did anything for you,” Jean said.
Dazed and bleeding badly from a gash on the side of her head, Red Tara struggled to regain her feet. White Tara darted onto her shoulder and rubbed her beak across Red Tara’s forehead. The gash and blood disappeared. Blue Tara grabbed two of Red Tara’s hands and pulled her to her feet.
“I thank you for your assistance,” Red Tara said, bowing to White Tara.
Everyone spun around, weapons drawn, at the sound of footsteps coming out of the fog.
“Don’t shoot,” a voice called out from the fog. Michael appeared, the magic harpoon resting across his shoulder. Margarita trotted out of the fog behind him.
“Always late to the party,” I joked, stepping forward to shake his hand.
“We were worried,” Michael said. “I heard a lot of screaming in the fog, but I couldn’t tell who was doing the screaming. I feared the worst.”
“So far so good,” I replied. “We’ve got them on the run. In fact, thanks to White Tara, we ran some of them into the sky to their doom.”
White Tara darted onto my shoulder. “Why, thank you for the compliment. Maybe you are not so unprepossessing as I thought.” She rubbed her beak against my chin.
“These are incredible,” Michael said, poking the giant mushrooms with the magic harpoon. “Think of the feast you could have with just one of these.”
“Careful where you point that stick,” I said. “Did you see anything of Hamatsa when you came up upon us?”
“Not a thing,” Michael replied. “The crystal plain is deserted.”
“That’s good news,” I said. And immediately regretted saying that when a horrendous screech assaulted our eardrums. Michael, Jean, and I fell to our knees with our hands pressed against our ears, trying to stop the pain. I could see that even Blue Tara and Red Tara winced. The screech seemed to have no point of origin, but seemed to fall out of the sky like a summer monsoon, enveloping everything in creation.
Kinqalatlala spoke first as the screech faded away. “We need to fall back to the city of Dluwulaxa as quickly as possible. If we stay exposed on this rim we are certain to meet our destruction.”
“What is it?” I asked, fearing the worst.
“The Yagis,” Kinqalatlala replied, her voice shaking.
“That’s not possible!” Blue Tara exclaimed. “The Yagis is locked in a cage in the sky by Lord Garuda himself.”
“Someone please tell me what in hell is a Yagis?” I pleaded.
“You are correct,” Blue Tara replied. “Yagis is a creature of Hell. A monstrous bird of enormous size and power that devours everything in its path. Of such size and power to even challenge Lord Garuda.”
“How is that possible?” Red Tara asked. “Garuda captured the Yagis and confined the creature to an unbreakable cage in the sky, from which it hurls tornadoes and storms at the Earth in its fury.”
“Somehow Hamatsa has freed the creature,” Kinqalatlala said. “Even the furies fear the Yagis. We must run back to the city with haste before the Yagis finds us.”
“Why don’t we just fly back?” I asked. “Since we’re all birds now. Well, almost all,” I added, glancing at Michael and Margarita.
“We can not risk flight,” Kinqalatlala replied. “If the Yagis spotted us it would strike us down and consume us. Our chances are best if we stay together on the crystal plain and protect each other. But we must run. We can not tarry.”
“Let’s go then,” I said, as we stumbled out of the fog and faced the towering crystal city of Dluwulaxa shimmering across the crystal plain.
“Let us hope Lord Garuda heard the scream of the Yagis,” Blue Tara said.