"Tell me," said Eliada. She was a ghoul, the oldest of the ghouls in the warren, and speaking honestly she was hideous. She was an old woman before her transformation, and ghoulhood further twisted her gnarled body into a vermiform shape. Her neck seemed too long and thin to support her head; her fingers (wrapped, trembling, around a teacup) were likewise too long and ended in sharp, yellowed nails. She had a painful-looking hunch back, a long thin tail the color of her wrinkled skin, and legs bent like a dog's, walking on taloned toes. Now she lapped at her tea, and here was ghoulhood's most terrible change: her nose, her mouth and jaw had pinched out into a rat-muzzle, the skin of which had long ago rotted away, leaving bare bone and strings of muscle. She was hideous, and a most novel kind of hideous, and the girls loved her for it.
"What, m'am?" said Kore.
"The Dreamlands are infinitely vast, and infinitely beautiful." Eliada set her cup on the little table. "But in the centuries I've known you, I've never seen you even try to reach the surface."
"Well... it's safe down here," Cupray said. "We've never been aboveground in the Waking World, either."
"Why so?" said Eliada. "Are you kept there? Forced there, perhaps?"
"No, m'am," said Kore. "If we go aboveground, the other gods will notice us and take us away. Kamui Fuchi said it's only safe below."
"And there's a fire burning in the earth above us anyway," added Cupray. "Only Kamui Fuchi and her demigods can travel through it. We would die if we tried."
Eliada hummed. "Is that so?"
"Yes, m'am," Kore said.
"It's not bad where we live," Cupray said. "We're safe and we have food and we're always with our aca and hapo and huci and all our friends."
Eliada fiddled with her teacup. "It is good to be safe in the Waking World," she said. "I understand it's been quite dangerous there as of late."
"Oh, very," Cupray said, her eyes lighting up. They truly did, like the fires in the hearth. "There are all sorts of rival gods out there and they're out hunting for worshipers. They have magic that lets them bind worshipers to their will and force them to pray in the god's name. That takes your soul away, you know, if you betray your god. It's the worst. That's why we stay underground."
"...That's how we've been taught, m'am," said Kore.
Eliada chuckled. "Well, you don't have to be afraid in the Dreamlands. Should you die here, you return to the Waking World, a poor night's sleep behind you but no worse for the wear. Tell you what..." She hobbled from her chair. "Here's a challenge for you. In the nest, there's a little token I'd like you to have. But you have to find it first. It's easy to find. It looks like a cat's skull on a bracelet."
"What's a cat?" asked Cupray.
"...A little skull." Eliada showed them how little. "Little sharp teeth. Ear-holes on the top of the head, about here... and the bracelet is made of blue beads strung on silk thread."
The twins nodded. "I'm sure we can find it, m'am," said Kore.
"Not a problem at all," said Cupray.
"I'll see you near the plain end," said Eliada, and she hobbled into the warren. The twins waited until she ambled out of sight, then darted into the warren, giggling.
* * *
It took them the better part of an hour to find the necklace. It was in a shaman's room, hanging from a nail driven into the meaty bulk of a mound of glowlichen. It was high on the wall; it took Kore standing tip-toe on a tip-toe Cupray to reach it, and it took a near-fall to pull the token from where it dangled on the end of the long, slender nail. They sneaked out of the sleeping shaman's room and crawled through the tunnels up to the plain end; which is to say the simplest exit to a ghoul warren, leading straight to the surface.
The light coming from the exit was strange. It was bright, even brighter than Kamui Fuchi, and in the light everything seemed brighter. Not brighter as in better-lit, but as if it were increased somehow, like the light made an object more Itself. Purer. Here the twins saw their robes and hair in full ruby splendor, untinted by the greenish light of the glowlichen.
The way out was a series of wide steps separated by stony heights too smooth for a human to climb. Eliada was waiting for them. "Come now, girls. One of you try on the charm."
Kore had the charm in her hand. Cupray nodded. Kore slid the charm onto her wrist, where it tightened as though holding on. "What now, m'am?" she asked.
"Simple enough. You jump. And then you jump again."
"You don't know jumping?"
"Watch." Eliada demonstrated, leaping halfway up the next step and swiftly scaling the rest of the way. "Try it a few times. You'll get the hang of it."
Cupray gave Kore a wide berth. Kore stretched her legs, which were still sore from pushing through the tight tunnels of the warren. She hopped a few times, then jumped properly. It was a novel sensation. Her jumps grew higher and higher until they reached a nadir--an impossible nadir for the Waking World.
"There, you've got the hang of it," Eliada said, clicking her tongue in a ghoul-smile. "Now jump again when you've jumped as high as you can!"
That took a few tries. On the fifth, Kore did not kick against empty air, but against something unseen and elastic. She leaped again in midair and caught the edge of the step just below her ribs, squeezing the wind out of her. She crawled onto the step, whimpering in pain. "Owwww," she said.
Cupray giggled. So did Eliada.
"Lemmie try!" Cupray said. Kore tossed the amulet at her sister, who strapped it onto her wrist and, on the first try, landed on the first step feet-first, and without hesitation bounded to the next, stopping beside Eliada. "You make it look so very, very hard," Cupray said. "Go ahead, tell me how bad you are at dreaming."
"No way!" Kore said, trying not to laugh.
"Oh, but you are! 'Oh, woe is me. I am Kore, I can't dream, I just plain can't. It's not in me! Never was! If dreams were fire I'd be a wet wall!'" She underhand-threw the amulet at Kore, who barely caught it. She double-jumped past her sister, up the next three steps, and saw.
Some minutes later Cupray pestered her for the amulet. She didn't hear. A few dozen heartbeats later Eliada crawled up the last step, Cupray clinging tight, and she saw too. Eliada set Cupray next to her sister and gave them room to admire the world.
From birth they had lived in a cave lit only by a hearth and the presence of Kamui Fuchi and her demigods. From age eight they had spent all their dream-life in the ghoul warrens, living happily with the undead in tunnels lit by glowlichen. Now, after fourteen years, they felt the sun on their skin. And they saw.
They stood in the middle of infinity. Miles and miles and miles away great mountains faded away into mist. Closer was a great city of gleaming silver set on a shimmering river; boats, from one-man canoes to a gold-sailed freighter staffed by enormous, jewel-shelled spiders, drifted to and from the city in lazy traffic. Closer yet, and what they stood in now, was a field of emerald grass growing to their waists, through which prowled enormous four-legged creatures with tall horns growing from their heads. Overhead was the sky.
The sky! A sapphire sheet or shell towering above them. Clouds, soft and white and unfurling in delicate patterns, drifted through the sky like the boats on the river. The sun, a fire too great for any hearth to contain, was too bright to even glance at. Trailing their gaze across the sky led to more just behind them--more plains, more mountains, a road peering through the grass, gray creatures too big to fit in any tunnel pulling the branches from trees.
Cupray and Kore had heard stories of the sun, of the sky, of rivers and grass and mountains and animals of all kinds, but they had never seen them, could never really imagine what they were like. They barely understood the words. Now, after fourteen years of dimly-lit caverns...
...they felt a sudden and irrevocable tug, the sign of a dream about to end.
"Wait..." Kore whispered. "It's not time. I've only been here a--"
* * *
She opened her eyes to absolute blackness. She screamed, and she heard Cupray wake as well... near the hearth.
The hearth had gone out.
Aca and hapo woke at the scream from their beds across the room. "Oh..." hapo said, her voice trembling.
"Who's tending the fire? Who tended the fire?!" aca said, his voice more afraid than angry.
"I was," said Cupray. "I... fell asleep. I didn't... I mean, I just came back from... no, that's no... oh, please, please, I tried to stay awake, I really..."
Light. Distant. Leaking from just above the threshold.
The only sounds were ragged breath and hapo lapsing into tears.
Light returned at last. Two demigods crawled through the doorway. They had the appearance of tall, muscular men with divine fire burning through their eyes, mouth, and the cracks in their mortal skin. Silent, they seized Cupray by the shoulder and dragged her away. Aca was the first to act, rushing for his daughter at a speed Kore had never seen in the Waking World. Hapo was just behind, and Kore fell in line behind her mother, heart pounding, sweat soaking her attus.
The demigods brought Cupray to the atrium, holding her at the center beneath the shrine to Kamui Fuchi. Aca threw himself at the demigod holding Cupray's right arm, and it cast him aside with a dismissive smack. He cried out in agony when he landed; his bones were weak (but whose weren't? suckle-moss and dew were a poor diet), and his right hip and elbow shattered against the cold stone. Hopo sped to her husband's side. Kore, terrified and weeping, crawled to her parents, her eyes never leaving her poor sister.
The demigods intoned a call to prayer; slowly, the Ainu people roused from their sleep or made sure the hearthfire would not go out before crawling from their homes and into the heart of the caverns. Murmurs ran through the burgeoning crowd. The thirty-four people in attendance were all that remained of the Ainu, the Utari. The rest of their people had died years before in the Holy War.
Everyone was here; everyone knew. There could be no other reason.
Apemerukoyan-mat, known in short as Kamui Fuchi, descended from the ceiling, passing through the rough stone as though it were water. Dew clinging to the wall evaporated from the heat radiating from her blessed form. Alone in all the room, she was vibrant and healthy, fed by the eternal coal-fire above. Her body had curves starvation stole from her subjects, her hair grew long and straight and shone in her light. Her attus was unstained by sweat or soot or excrement, as though it had just been sewn. Her hair and attire were a rich, fiery crimson.
She cast a disapproving eye on Cupray.
She landed before Kore's sister. "You have let your hearth burn out," she said.
"I'm..." Cupray's next word was lost in a choking sob. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I fell asleep, I didn't mean to, there's no excuse, I've shamed myself and my family and I'm so so sorry and I'm sorry that's the only word I can use, I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm..."
Fuchi said, "The hearth-fire is a gate to the realm of spirit. It is the home of our ancestors, our far-too-many-lost brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers, may their glory shine for all time. To let your hearth-fire die is to fail your ancestors. Can you not feel their weight, know their multitudes, in every sputter and cough of the fire? Were you blind to their need? Were you deaf to the hiss and crackle of their desire? What has compelled you to fail in your duty as an Ainu, and as a human being?"
"I am merciful." Kamui Fuchi raised her hand, and with the other she lifted Cupray's face by the chin. "Open your eyes." Cupray obeyed. Before the god and beside her servants, Cupray was even smaller. Her stringy black hair, her too-big attus, her hollow cheeks stood in sharp contrast to the vigor and health of Kamui Fuchi.
The god continued. "I shall punish you, and your family, but you shall live. I cannot, in my wisdom, condemn more of our kind to death. You shall learn your lesson. You shall go a week without hearth-fire. You shall have only water for two days, and only one meal for two days hense. And as for you, Cupray..."
Her raised palm glowed.
"This punishment is a mercy."
Kamui Fuchi stroked Cupray's face. Steam rose at her touch. A strong, rich smell, cooking meat, filled the atrium. The goddess stepped way, and the demigods let Cupray go. She fell to her knees.
When no one steppe forward, Kore slid away from her parents and to her sister. In the glow of Kamui Fuchi, she saw Cupray's face.
"Cupray?" She knelt by her sister, shaking her.
She was still warm. Her blinded eyes twitched. Her mouth opened and no sound came out.
"Please... say something. Cupray, it's me. I'm here. You're not alone. I'm here. Please, Cupray..." Cupray felt for her sister, ran her hand up Kore's arm. Kore embraced her. Tears soaked into her sister's hair.
The demigods intoned, and the Ainu sang a hymn to Kamui Fuchi.