All characters in this story are mine and are not to be used without my permission, with the exception of Aiheu and Roh’kash, who belong to John Burkitt and David Morris, and Scar, Zira, Sarabi, Mufasa, Sarafina, Simba, Nala, Kovu, and Kiara, who are copyrighted to Disney. The Heaven/Hell/Purgatory system is mine, too.

Dead!

 

Arrival of the Delegates

 

            “How’s time?” The words were hazy, distorted. But he knew those were the words.

            “It’s stopped.”

 

            “You’re sure we have all of it? It would be a mess if we were to end up with a bit missing. Like the pound of flesh closest to his heart.”

            “We think it’s all there.” A third voice. And darkness. He could feel nothing.

            “Alright then.” First voice. “Let’s get started.”

 

            “Sir.”

            “What?”

            “Thought you might find this amusing.”

            “Is—is that the heart?”

            “Yes, sir.”

            Chuckling. “I’ll be. A black heart. So much for imagery.”

            “Yes, sir. I’m going to put it in now.”

 

            “How’s the mind?” More voices.

            “We’re working. It’s . . . complex.” More voices.

 

            “They manage to put the whole world together, but they can’t piece together this. I can’t believe this.” So difficult to make out.

            “It’s detail work. They can’t just snap him back together. Look at the mess of how we collected him.” Voices, voices. So hazy. And such long pauses between the little conversations.

 

            “That should just about do it for the body. Muscle tissues there. Skeletal framework’s there. Mixing . . .”

            “Stop.” The first voice. Authoritative, commanding.

            “Sir?”

            “Fur. The pelt.”

            “Here, sir. It’s a bit of a rush-job. Might be a few hairs out of place.”

            “It’s . . . wrong.”

            “How, sir.”

            “I’m not sure . . . Maybe the arch. I wish we had an omniscio.”

            “Can’t risk it, sir.”

            “I know.”

 

            “How’s time?”

            “Still stopped.”

            “Completely stopped. It’s a first.”

            “This is a first. Hey, how’s the mind?” No longer the first voice. Less distorted than it, but still hazy.

            “It’s coming. Nearly there. It’s so complex. It was bad enough putting together that brain, but this . . . I’d almost swear he was conscious.”

 

            “It’s flipped.”

            “Sir?”

            “It’s flipped. It’s all flipped. The body is the mirror opposite of what it should be.”

            “Well, I’ll be . . . I think . . . Yes, this is there, and that’s here. Thank you, sir.”

 

            “I’m mixing organs and bones. . . . Adding muscle. . . . And now the pelt. . . .”

            A sigh of relief came from multiple voices.

            “The bonds,” snapped the first voice. “Now.”

            “Yessir. It’s done.”

 

            “How’s time?”

            “Still stopped.”

 

            “How’s the mind?”

            “We’re sifting through now. Trying to get a set timeframe. It’s rearranging itself. But it’s . . . illogical.”

            “The mind is doing that?”

            “Yessir.”

            “Is that—normal?”

            “Sir, we’re just as much of an idiot as you when it comes to this. No offense, sir.”

            “None taken.”

 

            “What if we put in the brain?”

            “Put it in?”

            “Yes. You could still work on the mind, right?”

            “I’m . . . not sure. Most likely. It might even help. Give the mind a comfortable place, you know.”

            “Alright. Putting it in . . .”

            “Careful.” Less distorted.

            “Easy.” Still less.

            Breathing. Heavy breathing. Stress-filled breathing.

            And feeling.

            Feeling. The feeling in his body. His body. His. His. His.

            He?

            I.

            Me.

            My mind.

            My self.

            My consciousness.

            Name. Nafsi. Nafsi. Me.

            “It’s in. Connecting nerves.” Barely hazy.

            Pain!

            “What was that?”

            “He’s moving.”

            “Time?” Panicked.

            “Still stopped.” Alarmed.

            “It isn’t right!”

            Pain!!

            “He’s unconscious!”

            “It’s coming together! The mind is completely rearranging itself! No logical pattern! Oh, gods, what did we do?

            Straining to move. Pinned. Pinned by something. My legs will not move. And so much pain! If only I was free . . .

            “I can’t stop it! The mind is completely out of control! No logic at all!’

            “It’s logical to him.” A faint whisper from the first voice.

            “Is he . . . are the bonds straining?

            Pain!!!

            Nafsi yelled as he gave a massive heave. His legs snapped free. He turned onto his stomach, standing up.

            “He’s loose!”

            “Those bonds were triple-sealed!”

            Nafsi took steps backward from the voices. He couldn’t see their owners. He suddenly fell, falling only a few feet. “What—what are you doing? What’s happening?” He walked into a leg.

            “Sir, calm down.”

            “What’s going on?!”

            “Sir—” The leg tried to wrap around him, grabbing him. Nafsi lashed out at it with his claws, not seeing the claws extended by black matter, slicing through the leg around him. He didn’t see the leg’s owner recoil in pain, screaming.

            “My leg! Oh, gods my leg! Aiheu! Aiheu! AHHH! Oh, my leg! Oh, Aiheu!”

            “Nafsi!” It was the first voice. “Nafsi, listen to me.”

            “What’s happening?” Nafsi said. “Where are you?” An endless black abyss.

            “Nafsi, listen to my voice. Listen. Who am I?”

            “A—Aka? Akasare?”

            “You’re dead, Nafsi. Dead.”

            “I—I’m dead?”

            “Yes. You’ve died. We’re saving you.”

            “I can’t see. I can’t see anything.”

            “They haven’t attached your brain to your eyes yet.”

            “They what?”

            “Nafsi, listen to me. Trust me. We need to finish this operation. We need to finish the rebuilding.”

            “The what?”

            “Just let me pick you up and put you back on the table. We need to reapply the bonds. They’re for your own good.”

            “I don’t understand.”

            “I’ll explain. But we need to finish this first.”

            “Aka—Aka, I think I’m scared.”

            “It wouldn’t surprise me. Please, Nafsi. We want to finish. It will be better. Just let me pick you up.”

            “Okay.” He felt himself being lifted by the scruff of the neck, then set down on his back. His legs were pushed above his head and below his posterior. He couldn’t move them again.

            “Don’t struggle.” A pause. “Close your eyes, too.”

            “How’s time?” asked a voice.

            “Mercifully stopped.”

            “Aka—”

            “Quiet, Nafsi. Patience. Proceed.”

            “Yessir.”

            “The mind?”

            “It’s done. Must have been completed some time when we weren’t looking. It’s all inside.”

            “Connecting the last of his nerves.”

            “The killswitch,” said Aka.

            “Sir, I really think we shouldn’t—”

            “No. We shouldn’t. But I guarantee that we’ll want it later. That he’ll want it.”

            “Sir, I’m going to have to respectfully disobey—”

            “Don’t give me that.”

            “Sir, it’s a killswitch. If anyone found out—”

            “Then we won’t tell anyone.”

            “Sir, I’m with her. We were told explicitly to put him back together exactly the way he was. The orders came from the gods them—”

            “I know the orders; I was the one who brought up the issue. Now put in that killswitch.”

            “Sir, they’re right. And a killswitch . . . that’s utterly tyrannical. A killswitch is completely distrustful, and it violates every ethical standard I know of—”

            “Yes. Preach ethics to him.”

            “Sir, we refuse to put in the killswitch. He’d never need one.”

            “And if he lives?”

            “Sir, that never happens. Not to anyone.”

            “A lot of things are happening now that never happened.”

            “Sir, we refuse. We’re decided.”

            “It would be merciful.”

            “It would be leverage we shouldn’t have. No, sir.”

            “Fine.” Bitter, angry. “Fine! Leave! Get out! The job is finished!”

            “Yessir. . . . Sir, we’ll have to report this behavior to the gods.”

            “Go ahead.” A pause. “Azl, stay.”

            “Yessir.”

            A long pause. “Nafsi,” said Aka gently, “you can open your eyes.”

            Nafsi did so. He thought they still didn’t work. He saw complete white. He turned onto his stomach, his legs free. “Aka?”

            “Over here.”

            Nafsi turned to see Akasare sitting, a golden aura around him. And at his side was a—thing. A mishmash of animals. The creature had the head of a leopard, then the mane and forelegs of a lion, the forelegs connected to a cheetah’s body, with the hind legs of some striped animal, the stripes continuing down the tail. The creature stared at Nafsi, not knowing what to make of him.

            “Aka,” asked Nafsi, “what’s that?”

            “That’s Azl. A malaiki. One of several that were in here.” Akasare shot Azl a look. Azl just cocked his head to the side slightly, as if to say, What was I supposed to do? “And they’re very, very stubborn.”

            Azl smiled.

            “Aka—”

            “Nafsi, I’m not Akasare. I’m Taraju. Or did he ever tell you about me?”

            “But he said you were trapped. For good.”

            “And I nearly was.” He stared at Nafsi uncertainly. “Nafsi, I may not be Akasare, but I still want you to trust me.”

            “Why did you say you were Aka?”

            “Would you have gotten back on that table any other way?”

            Nafsi looked down at what he was standing on. It was a large pedestal, a white pedestal, barely distinguishable from the absolute white of the place he was in. He continued to look around.

            “I just want to help you, Nafsi.” There was a large pool of blood on the floor, a leg in the center of it. “I want to be your friend, Nafsi. I already asked you once. About a year and a half ago. I don’t know if you remember—”

            “I remember everything. Everything.” He turned around to look at Taraju and Azl.

            “Everything?” asked Taraju, a slight note of skepticism in his voice.

            “Everything. Since the day I was born.” He cast a quick glance around the place again. “Where am I?”

            “Just a room, sir,” said Azl. “They put your pieces in here. It was a mess putting you back together.”

            “My—pieces?”

            “You—well . . .” Taraju looked at Azl for an explanation.

            “You died differently, sir,” said Azl. “Most animals just come, all as one. You came to us in a million little pieces. We had to stop time to get all of them before they were gone forever. We had to keep it stopped while we put you together. I assume you wouldn’t like to be torn apart, sir?” asked Azl, grinning. “Again?”

            “Time stopped?” asked Nafsi.

            “Yes,” said Taraju.

            “Then how can we be talking?”

            “Living time, Nafsi. You’re dead now. Time never slows down here. Just for those who’re alive.”

            “Dead,” said Nafsi quietly. Completely dead. He remembered destroying the pool, or rather, the pool flowing into him. Was that how it would have ended anyway? Maybe he couldn’t control all of that evil, and it had killed him. Or maybe he couldn’t have all of that power in that little body. He felt stronger than he ever had before; the pain that the pool had flooded him with now coursed through him, pain no longer, but vast, untapped power. It felt wonderful.

            He decided that must have been it, that his body had shattered due to the sudden influx of power; you could only stuff so much into a container before it broke. But they had put him back now, and had unknowingly given him the capacity to hold it.

            His mind flicked through the line of reasoning, his intelligence having not suffered at all from death. Dead. Everything would be different now. Would he even grow up? Or was he stuck in his body, complete with intelligence and power that far outstripped it?

            “How long have I been dead?”

            “About—what, three, four days, Azl?”

            “Yes, sir. On our time. An hour in the land of the living.”

            Nafsi stared at the ground. “I didn’t mean to die . . .” It had been so painful. His body falling apart into little pieces, the churning of his insides as the pool tried to house itself . . .

            “Not too many animals do, sir,” said Azl with a smile.

            “Nafsi—” began Taraju.

            “Will I grow up now?”

            “Well, I suppose you could if you wanted. It’s what most cubs do after they die.”

            Nafsi blinked. Was he a cub anymore? Nearly four years had gone by. Was he judged by his body or his mind? Even his mind had never been a cub’s. He had never been considered a normal cub by any stretch of the imagination.

            He looked up at Taraju and Azl, finally tearing his gaze from the surface of the pedestal. “Will it—hurt?”

            “Sir?”

            “Growing up. I’ve always been told how painful it would be.”

            “Nafsi, I . . . I really don’t know if you’ll grow up like you were—built to,” said Taraju. “We don’t know that much about you.”

            “Then what are you going to do to me?” A thought struck him. “Will I go to Hell?”

            “I hope not, Nafsi. I really hope not.”

            “What do you mean?”

            Taraju paused before answering. “I can tell you later. But I need to take you to your family now.”

            Nafsi was confused. There were so many things that he didn’t understand here. Questions didn’t seem to get him any further. This Taraju seemed to know so little. If he wanted to help, he could give me information. And he had lied to Nafsi. He had said he was someone he wasn’t. And he seemed to expect Nafsi to give him and these creatures—these malaiki—his total trust.

            “My family?”

            “Yes. They’re all waiting to see you?” A rectangle suddenly appeared, golden savannah seen inside it. “Just walk through there.”

            “If I don’t?” Nafsi asked compulsively.

            “Then you can stay here, I suppose.”

            “No, sir,” said Azl. “Not here. He’d have to be moved from this room. We’ve got a room waiting for him. But we want to get rid of this one.” He turned to Nafsi. “We can send you to the other room now, sir. But I would advise seeing your family first.”

            “Why?” asked Nafsi.

            “Well, they’ve never seen you before, sir.”

            Nafsi paused, thinking. He didn’t seem to detect any ill will in the malaiki, or in Taraju. Maybe hey did want to help him. He jumped off the table without a word and walked through the rectangle. He found himself in a savannah, a wonderful savannah. It was even more beautiful than home had been. Taraju and Azl followed him, the rectangle disappearing behind them. He heard murmuring behind him and turned around to look between Azl and Taraju.

            There were several lions behind him, some standing, some sitting. He recognized one of them. His great-grandmother, Kiara. Next to her stood a muscular lion with a black mane and a scar across his left eye. There was another lion that looked like a weaker, thinner version of the first lion, almost as if it was the same lion, but hadn’t bothered with muscle. There were two more lions, both with red manes, a lioness at each of their sides both lionesses with blue eyes. Nafsi knew no one but Kiara.

            The group stared at him, slight surprise on their faces. The surprise faded into smiled. “Hello, Nafsi,” a lioness said. Nafsi said nothing, simply looking at them. He could tell they were related, at least from the looks. But he was a stranger. He looked like none of them, knew none of them. “We—uh, we’re happy to see you,” the lioness said.

            “Who are you?” asked Nafsi quietly, asking for much more than they could be expected to give.

            Smiles that had been slipping lighted across faces again. “Of course,” said Taraju, stepping next to Nafsi. “We all know you, but you don’t know us. Well, that’s Kiara—you know her—and the lion next to her is Kovu, and that’s Scar—” the weaker black-maned lion nodded—“and there’s Mufasa and his mate Sarabi—” a red-maned lion, his jaw large and his stature impressive, and his mate, her pelt tinged with gray, nodded—“and the last two are their son Simba and his mate Nala.” The last red lion and the blue-eyed lioness next to him nodded. “And I’m Taraju, and . . . well, there’s Fujo, but he’s not here right now.” There was a pause, Nafsi still staring. “So, we’re your family.”

            “I don’t know you,” said Nafsi quietly.

            Well, that’s to be expected. You’ll get to know us better later—”

            “You’re not my family.”

            There was a stunned silence. “Nafsi,” said Sarabi quietly, “you may not know us, but I guarantee we are your family.”

            “No. I don’t know you. You’re not my family.”

            After a moment, what Nafsi was saying finally rolled over them. “I’m sure that we can get to know each other—” began Nala.

            “She hated me,” said Nafsi, pointing at Kiara with a little paw.

            “Nafsi, I didn’t—” started Kiara.

            “You hated me. You despised me. I saw the way you looked at me. You never liked me, not from the start. You stared at me and thought ‘Oh gods what is that thing.’ You never felt any compassion for me. Never.”

            “Nafsi, I made a mistake,” said Kiara. “I shouldn’t have treated like I did. I’m sorry. Really.”

            Nafsi simply stared back. He had dealt with others like her before she died, and had to deal with them after she was gone, too. They had never changed. And them, the others—she called them family. Why should they be any different?

            Nafsi knew he was making broad generalizations, one thing he prided himself on avoiding. But maybe dying had stressed him out, just a little bit. Maybe they had put him back together wrong. Maybe, maybe, maybe. He needed to think, think someplace quiet.

            “Where’s Mom and Dad?”

            A still silence descended on the group for a moment. Azl finally broke it by saying, “They’re in Purgatory, sir.”

            “Purgatory?”

            “Yes, sir. For being punished.”

            “For what?”

            “For what they did in life.”

            Nafsi didn’t understand. “By whose standard?”

            “I’m sorry, sir?”

            “Who said they should be punished?”

            “I—I’m not sure, sir. They did awful things. Anyone could see that.”

            More thinking was needed. “Can I see them?”

            “I’m not sure, sir. I think you could.”

            “Nafsi,” said Taraju gently, “are you sure you want to see them?”

            Nafsi looked up at him. “They’re my parents. Shouldn’t I want to?”

            “After all they did to you, you still feel—”

            “You know nothing about what I feel!” said Nafsi with sudden anger.

            Taraju swallowed nervously. He didn’t know how Nafsi would react. “I didn’t mean it that way. It’s just . . . it’s not quite normal to—”

            “I’m not normal.”

            “There was silence again. “Sir,” said Azl, “I can try to take you to your parents. Whenever you want to go.”

            “Fine,” said Nafsi. “Let’s go.” A rectangle opened that Azl started toward. Nafsi followed him, then stopped when he heard a quiet voice.

            “Maybe . . . when you get back we could go somewhere . . . and get to know each other.”

            Nafsi looked at the speaker. It had been Nala. The lioness seemed so nice, so worried about his response. She felt something for him. Nafsi wondered if it was that emotion. Love.

            He didn’t know. He did know, however, that his grandmother had taught him manners to be used with others that were, at least, decent to him. “I think I could do that, ma’am,” he said. He turned and walked through the rectangle.

            “Don’t forget, sir,” reminded Azl, “you need to—”

            “—to report to the gods. I know,” said Taraju. He watched Azl follow Nafsi through the rectangle before turning back to Nala. “He’s not coming back, Grandma.”

            “Not coming back? What do you mean?” asked Kovu.

            “He’s to be placed under quarantine. No one in, no one out.”

            “But—why?” asked Sarabi

            “I can’t say,” said Taraju. He opened up a white rectangle. A malaiki was seen through the portal.

            “You can’t say?” asked Kiara, her voice hurt.

            “No.”

            “Why not?” asked Simba.

            Taraju sighed. “Look, how many times have I, or even the gods, withheld something from you? From anyone? Please, just let this drop. Don’t make this harder for me than it is. I have enough worries on my back as it is without having your disappointment added.”

            “Taraju—”

            “Don’t ask me again. Or I’ll go to the gods and ask them for an order of silence.”

            There was uneasy shifting. An order of silence was given to those who possessed information they shouldn’t. If the animal breached the topic, they were immediately sent into unconsciousness. Taraju didn’t need one; they all knew that. But if he was that unwilling to let something slip . . .

            “Taraju, he’s our family,” said Mufasa. “We can’t just pretend like he’s not there.”

            “You did for the past four years.”

            “We didn’t know,” protested Mufasa.

            “Even I can visit Zira,” pointed out Scar.

            “I know,” said Taraju sadly. He walked to the rectangle, stopping before he went through. “If it’s any consolation, you’ll know when the surprise comes.” He walked through, trying to shake the conversation from his mind. There were several malaiki on the other side of the rectangle, all of them having been in the room where they had pieced together Nafsi. The gods sat at the far end of the room, waiting for his explanation of his behavior.

            Fela would be amused, he reflected idly.

            Mano would be furious.

 

 

 

            The room was dark, Nafsi reflected. Almost like a cave. The walks of the place seemed to ooze despair. A malaiki sat up from his prone position with a yawn. “Sorry about that, sir.”

            “About what?”

            “Laziness on duty. Negligent of me, sir.” An object opened, hundreds of flat, white rectangles bound together by a clear, thicker rectangle that enveloped three sides of the stack of thin, white rectangles. “So, who’re you visiting?”

            Nafsi hesitated a moment before saying, “My parents.”

            The malaiki gave Nafsi a warm, consoling smile. “I’m sorry to hear that, sir. But I need their names.”

            “Jadi and Uchu.” Nafsi turned to see the speaker. Azl had come into the room, the rectangle vanishing behind him.

            The malaiki looked down at Nafsi in surprise and alarm, swallowing. “Azl sir, is this—”

            “Yes. And he wants to see his parents.”

            “Azl sir . . .”

            “His parents.”

            “Azl sir, only one may be allowed in at a time.”

            “Very well. Nafsi, which one?”

            “Azl sir,” interrupted the malaiki, “only Uchu is ready.”

            “Nafsi, which one?” repeated Azl.

            “But Azl sir—”

            Azl turned to fix the malaiki with a cold glare. “Malaiki, you are disobeying. Is there a reason why?”

            “Azl sir, he’s—”

            “A good reason.”

            “No, Azl sir.” The embarrassment was plainly in the malaiki’s voice.

            “You are to report to your superiors immediately after you are done with him.”

            “Yes, Azl sir.”

            “Now Nafsi, which one?”

            Nafsi had been thinking. “I—I guess Mom first,” he said.

            “Nafsi, I’m sorry,” said Azl gently, but we only have time for one. We can try the other later. But only one now.”

            “Well, Mom’s ready now, right?”

            “Ye-es. I suppose so.”

            “Mom.”

            “Very well.” Azl turned to the malaiki. A portal opened to a place even darker than the room Nafsi was in. The malaiki and his rectangular object simply vanished. Azl said to Nafsi quietly, “Just ask for me when you’re done.” He, too, vanished.

            Nafsi’s gaze shifted back to the rectangle. After a few seconds, a lioness Nafsi didn’t recognize at all slipped through uncertainly. Her eyes swept across the room, landing quickly on Nafsi. She stared at him for a moment in disbelief. “Nafsi?” she asked quietly.

            “Who are you?” he asked, his head tilted to the side.

            “Nafsi—Nafsi, it’s me. Your mother. Uchu.”

            “You don’t look anything like her.”

            “Nafsi, it’s me. It really is.” He stared at her, trying to find some kind of similarity. She walked toward him, stopping when she got to the half-way point of the room as her nose ran into an invisible barrier. She stepped back, looking for what had stopped her. She held out a paw, having it press against the barrier. She stared at her paw forlornly. “No . . .”

            “My mother is black,” said Nafsi. “Not tan. Not green-eyed.”

            “Nafsi, it’s me. This is my body. Mine, not the pool’s.” She stared at him, swallowing. “You don’t believe me, do you?” Nafsi hesitated. “Please, believe me, Nafsi. I know I’m me. I know it.”

            “Tell me something,” said Nafsi. “Something only Uchu would know.”

            She stared in his direction, trying to remember. “You . . . you’re my son.”

            “If you’re Uchu.”

            “Yes,” she said quietly. “I’m me. Those are my memories. Memories . . . you made things.”

            “The entire kingdom knew that.”

            She closed her eyes and brought her paw down from the barrier as she hung her head. “I don’t know. Nafsi, I don’t know. I don’t remember.” Tears began to escape her eyes. “I don’t remember. You’re my son, Nafsi. My son. I know you’re my son.”

            “I don’t.” He didn’t mean to be cruel. But he refused to be tricked. She looked nothing like Uchu. She most definitely didn’t talk like Uchu.

            “Please,” she begged. “You have to believe me.”

            “Try names,” he suggested.

            “Names,” she whispered. “Names.” She stared at the ground for quite some time. “I don’t remember!” she cried. “I don’t remember. Nothing. Three’s nothing. There’s—there’s Jadi. That’s a name.” She looked back up at Nafsi. “That’s a name.”

            “He was my father.”

            “Yes,” she said, staring at the ground again. “Yes, he was king.” She looked up at Nafsi. “And I was a loyal member of his pride, wasn’t I?”

            Nafsi stared at her. “You were queen.”

            “Queen?” she repeated. He face contorted as a fresh set of ears came about. “It’s not there!” She pounded a paw on the ground angrily, tears falling. “It’s not there. None of it’s there.” She slumped to the ground, weeping.

            Nafsi stared at her. Pity was an emotion beyond him, something that he could not feel, due to the lioness in front of him. Who the lioness in front of him claimed to be. She looked nothing like the Uchu he remembered, nor acted like her. Uchu was dignified; she would never allow herself to sink to this.

            But Nafsi felt curiosity. He went to the lioness, next to her, and did something he remembered his grandmother doing as he wept to her. He went to the lioness and ran the backside of his paw under her eye, wiping away a tear, whispering to her, “Shh.”

            The lioness grabbed Nafsi, alarming him. He calmed down as he realized it was a hug. He could feel her tears wetting his body. He remembered something his mother had been able to do to animals, something that was cause enough for any animal to be scared. She could look into their heads and shift their emotions to absolute, unwavering loyalty to her. He had never tried it. He tried to look in, reaching for her mind—

            —and found it was blocked.

            Not blocked from him, but blocked from her. Barriers had been set in place, locking away memories, only giving just enough room to retain identity, along with tantalizing clues on paths that could no longer lead anywhere. Nafsi was surprised at the cruelty. The lioness didn’t know—wouldn’t know—who she was, and was left to wonder even about her sanity, driving her insane in the process.

            Nafsi didn’t understand. They were punishing Uchu—he knew now it was Uchu—for the things she had done. What had she done? Killed? Made one animal realized where his loyalty should have lied? She had acted on impulse, doing as she wished.

            Is that reason enough to punish someone? Not like this at least. Surely not like this.

            Without hesitation, Nafsi snapped the barriers in his mother’s mind.

            Immediately the hug was changed to a hold, simply a grip on him, lacking any warmth. The breathing became controlled, though it changed slower than the grip had changed. Uchu sat up, her mouth open slightly in shock. “I can’t believe I was actually doing that,” she said, revulsion in her voice. She hurriedly wiped away tears from her face, disgusted. “To make a fool of myself like that—”

            “It was only you and me, Mother,” said Nafsi quietly.

            “And a fine example to be setting for you,” she said. “Why did you even come to me? Out of pity?” She spat the last word.

            “I wanted to talk to you. So I fixed you.”

            “How nice. And nice isn’t something I taught you.”

            “You weren’t my mother,” said Nafsi coldly. “I wanted to talk to you.”

            Uchu smiled. “Now greed is better. I thought I would never be whole again,” she said bitterly.

            “I think the punishment is unjust.”

            “Damn right it is. Oh, Nafsi, you wouldn’t believe the atrocities they’ve done to me. It tried killing me once. My—thing. Whatever that goddamned hybrid is.”

            “I think it’s a malaiki.”

            “It killed me, just once. And then it began to take away my mind. My memories. Just sitting there, like stone, staring at me, watching my try to figure out who I was, watching me try to find something definite. Uchu, mother of Nafsi. All I knew. And to believe I begged that scum to help me. I will never get that taste out of my mouth.”

            “You begged?” asked Nafsi.

            She begged. I was never there. Until now. And I never plan to go back. Escape is right here.” Uchu looked around the dark room with hope, then down at Nafsi. “Free me, my son. I’m not ashamed to beg from you, if that’s what you wish. But free me.”

            “I don’t know how, Mother. I’ve only been awake maybe an hour.”

            Uchu’s eyes widened. “I—I’ve only been in there for any hour?”

            “I hadn’t been awake for three or four days, they tell me. And time in the living world has stopped.”

            “Three or four days?” whispered Uchu. “And no time had passed? At all? Nafsi—Nafsi, you have to get me out of here. I have a sentence, Nafsi. One million years. I won’t last, Nafsi. Not if this was just a few days.”

            “I can’t help you, Mother.”

            “Nafsi, please. I can’t go back in there. They’ll start all over again.”

            Nafsi stared at her thoughtfully. “I think this is called irony.”

            “What?”

            “You never wanted me to show compassion, but now . . .”

            “Nafsi, this is different. Please, just get me out of here.”

            “And you said there were no exceptions to be made, either.”

            “Don’t you want to help me? I’m your mother, Nafsi.”

            “You stripped away any pity I had. The least you could have done was to take the loneliness away, too.”

            “You—you feel loneliness?”

            “Yes,” said Nafsi bitterly. “And here, in this Heaven, it eats away at me worse than it ever has. You have no idea how alone I am now.”

            “It’s not possible.”

            “I do. And I wanted to talk to you about it.”

            “You hate me for it. And you want me in there. Is that it?”

            “The punishment is unjust. I’ve told you I can’t get you out of there.”

            Uchu walked a distance away impatiently. “And you make no denial that you hate me.”

            “Not you. I don’t hate you.”

            “Oh, so you love me then? Like any good little cub should love his mother?” asked Uchu sarcastically.

            “You hollowed that emotion out perfectly well. I have the coldest heart you can imagine. So I hope you’re happy. Whatever happy is.”

            “You have pleasure.”

            “I have pleasure. I have pleased. I have amused. I do not have happy.”

            “And what do you need it for? To spend your life in pursuit of happiness? There is no such thing as ‘true happiness.’ Happiness has no place in a word where you are king, other than where it is happiness of pleasing you.”

            “King? What, do you expect me to overthrow the gods and make a kingdom of Heaven? I’m sure Afriti would appreciate that.”

            “If he exists.” She sat down again, next to Nafsi. “So why are you dead? Did I mess up your immortality as well? Along with mine?”

            “I killed you.”

            “You what?!” she hissed, livid.

            “I wanted to help my friends. You showed no indication of being one.”

            “You didn’t need friends! You don’t need friends! You have no equal, you can—”

            “Then why did the loneliness go away with grandma? Why, at the very end of my life, did I die with—relief?”

            “Your grandmother was—and, thanks to your efforts, still is—a stupid, ignorant fool.”

            Uchu gasped as she was suddenly wrestled to the ground by black matter that sprang from the ground to enclose her. Nafsi walked to her head and tilted her chin up with his little paw so she looked him in the eye.

            “You will not insult Grandma in that way. You may have punished her, but you will not insult her. Not when I was alive, and certainly not now that I’m dead.” He studied her eyes. “You’re afraid of me.” He turned away, releasing her.

            “Yes” she said defiantly. “With every reason to be. No one knows more about you than me.”

            “No one knows more about what I should be than you. You don’t know me at all.”

            “You are a cold, heartless animal, concerned only with yourself.”

            “I won’t deny it. I killed you because I wanted to reward Grandma’s loyalty. I did it because I wanted it, not because she wanted it. I wanted my friends to be rewarded. It would please me. You would have been dead long ago if I killed you just because she wanted it. You ceased to be of any use to me so long ago.”

            “Then why didn’t you kill me? Or is this more disobedience?”

            “Like you wanted me to obey.”

            “I wanted you to be great! I wanted to make you the greatest ruler the world had ever seen!”

            “I could have been. I know that.”

            “So you threw it all away. All because you were lonely. What’s next? Fear?”

            “I can feel that, too. And I’ve only felt it once.”

            “Encouraging. Although I can’t see what use it is, as you won’t free me.”

            “I can’t free you. I would. The punishment is unjust.”

            “So what do you want now, O Great Nafsi?”

            “I wanted to see you. And let you know how you failed. And I want you to fix me.”

            “Fix you?” Uchu asked bitingly.

            “Fix me. Make me how you wanted me to be. Take away the loneliness. I’m tired of feeling the pain. I thought you would listen to me now.”

            “I have no power anymore,” said Uchu bitterly.

            Nafsi blinked as he stared at the ground in thought. “I took it.”

            “Then that explains plenty. Fix yourself.” She looked at him curiously. “You can’t, can you?”

            “No.”

            “You’re afraid you’ll change, that you’ll forget your friends, that you won’t want them anymore.”

            Nafsi looked away from her. “Yes. And no. I want to make them happy, but . . .”

            “And you are stuck in deadlock. Didn’t you enjoy that crater you made? Slaughtering all of those animals?”

            “More than you can imagine.”

            “You could feel that whenever you wished. Kill whenever you pleased. If only you had no loneliness. You wouldn’t want friends. You wouldn’t have to worry about pleasing them to make new friends.”

            “I don’t know how to alter myself anyway. Besides, I doubt the gods would let me kill as I wished.”

            “And what if they couldn’t stop you? What if you were stronger?”

            “I doubt it. They’re gods.” He spoke into the air. “Azl.”

            Azl appeared next to him. “Yes, sir?” he asked.

            “I want to go back. To Nala.”

            “Yes, sir.” A rectangle appeared behind Uchu, the same black rectangle that had disappeared earlier. “Through there, ma’am.”

            Uchu glared up at Azl. She spat at him, hitting Azl just below the eye, before sulkily going back to her prison. Nafsi looked up at Azl. After Uchu had left and the rectangle had disappeared, he wiped the spit away with a paw. “Sir, through there.” He gestured at a white rectangle, one that Nafsi had seen before. Where he first had been.

            “This isn’t back,” he said coldly.

            “Sir, I’m sorry. I can’t send you back.”

            “You’re scared of me.”

            “Of what you might do to me for this, yes. Sir, please, I’m just following orders. We have to—station you for an uncertain period of time. I’ll say it now: you might as well be imprisoned. No visitors, no one but a malaiki guard.”

            “Why?” asked Nafsi coldly.

            “Because Afriti’s coming. And we don’t want any sign of—ill will.”

            “Why would he come? This is Heaven.”

            “Afriti wants you. Your power. We didn’t know if you would keep it or not. But you did. And Afriti was ready to come as soon as it was known you were dead. Afriti’s coming now that you’re—together again.”

            “Who is Afriti? Aiheu’s enemy?”

            “Um . . . yes that’s as god a way to put it without going into detail.”

            “And you want to put me in here for safekeeping.”

            Azl thought it over. “Pretty much, sir.”

            “And if I say no?”

            “I try to persuade you. Nicely.”

            “And if I resist?”

            “Then I become very, very scared, sir. I don’t know how many it would take to put you in there. Please, sir, don’t let it come to that. I personally guarantee no harm will come to you in there.”

            “Nafsi stared at him. “Fine.” He walked into the white room, Azl staying on the other side.

            “If you want anything, sir, just ask the guard. It’ll be there shortly.” The rectangle winked out of existence. Azl sighed with relief. He was afraid Nafsi would turn on him. He liked his limbs right where they were, unlike that poor malaiki in the operating room. Who knew how long it’d take to re-grow half a leg?

            Azl pushed the thoughts out of his mind, chiding himself for losing focus. He needed to see the gods immediately. He opened a rectangle, hoping the recent changes to everything didn’t affect the gods’ “don’t maim the messenger” policy.

            Rahimu would be amused, he reflected idly.

            Mano would be pulling out his mane.

 

 

 

            The looks the malaiki gave Taraju weren’t “Oh, are you in for it” looks. Although he most certainly was. As soon as he stepped through he heard, “Ilemi, come here.” He unconsciously swallowed as he walked toward the semicircle where the gods sat, all of them. It was a rather large semicircle.

            His pawsteps made barely any sound as he walked into the semicircle. There was no doubt that his intentions had been—and still were—good. But good intentions weren’t what was needed right now, especially not intentions like that. They needed good actions. Taraju sat down in the semicircle, giving a respectful “Here, sir,” to the lion that called him.

            “I suppose you know why you are here,” said the lion, Aiheu, coldly.

            “I think so, sir. But perhaps you could clarify it for me.”

            Mutters went through the assemblage, Taraju hearing variations of the word “insubordination.” “The reason we are here,” said Mano, his voice rising above the murmur, “is to address your behavior during Nafsi’s—restoration.”

            “I did my job well, sir,” said Taraju proudly. “I even managed to assist the malaiki on several—”

            “You overstepped your bounds!” thundered Mano. “A killswitch?!”

            “Sir, would you permit me to explain myself?” asked Taraju politely.

            Before Mano could answer, a female hyena, Roh’kash, cut him off. “Please do,” she said, her harsh voice even more so than usual.

            “Thank you, ma’am. Sirs, I believe Nafsi should be returned to the land of the living.” Angry voices broke out, shouting things such as “Never!” “This has never been done!” “Against everything—” Taraju waited for the silence to return. “He has died far ahead of his time. And you know how he is literally an emotional cripple.” There was more muttering, cut off abruptly by a roar from Aiheu. “Shouldn’t he be allowed to live a full life?” asked Taraju.

            “Plenty of animals have had less life than they should have,” said a gazelle angrily. “And they stay here. He is no different.”

            “They have a family, or at least someone close. Who does he have?”

            “He has family,” spoke up a wild dog. “You’re his great-uncle, of all things. And you say he has no family?”

            “He doesn’t have anyone he feels he can turn to. Do you know what that’s like? To be alone? Utterly alone? I was manipulated my entire life. I went through things I would wish on no one, and yet I was never alone. And then I was tossed in Purgatory. And do you know what hurt most? The hopelessness. The knowledge that I was alone, and no one would be coming to save me. If you believe—”

            “We didn’t come here to listen to speeches,” said an elephant testily. “We came here to deal with his disobedience and be done with it.”

            “We are giving him the opportunity to speak,” said a tigress, Fela, calmly. “And I really would like to hear him out. Wouldn’t you?”

            “Thank you ma’am. Sirs, what I’m trying to say is—is that I believe Nafsi deserves a second chance at living. But living immortally would be a terrible thing. Watching your friends die, your mate die. A killswitch would be the kindest thing.”

            “What would he care about mates?” asked a cheetah angrily. “You saw what happened in the Pridelands. He massacred countless animals because he was angry! Angry!”

            “The point is not whether or not Nafsi will get a second chance,” yelled Mano over the cheetah. “The point is that Ilemi disobeyed explicit orders! Do you have any idea what Afriti would think if it was known we put a killswitch in Nafsi?”

            “No, sir,” said Taraju respectfully.

            “Can you imagine what would happen if Nafsi was here in Heaven and we decided to use that killswitch?”

            “I . . . I’m guessing he would—”

            “Shatter! Completely! And we wouldn’t be putting the pieces back together again!”

            “With all due respect, sir, this has come and gone. We can’t put one in now. Shouldn’t we drop the matter?”

            Mano opened his mouth to retort angrily, but Aiheu waved him quiet. He said coldly, “The issue is that you disobeyed us. And on this matter, of all things.”

            “Sir, with all due respect, I’m a lion. Not a malaiki.”

            Angry mutters sounded through the gods. “You are not a god, either,” said Aiheu. “You are not given the privileges a god has. You were expected to obey us expressly on this. You are, after all, an Illuminati. You are to be an example.”

            “Sir, as an Illuminati, I cannot do other than I think is right.”

            “What is right in our eyes is not right in Afriti’s,” said Fela.

            Taraju was struck by the statement, partly because it came from Fela, who was generally one of his protectors, someone who stood by him. But he knew she was simply stating the obvious that had been skirted around the entire conversation. What struck him was what was implied.

            “Afriti’s coming here,” he said, his voice unconsciously going to a whisper.

            “Yes,” said Aiheu. “Here.”

            “But sir,” said Taraju in a normal voice, “I thought—a neutral territory, or—or something—”

            “Afriti is coming home,” said Aiheu firmly.

            “Sir, are you sure that’s the best idea?”

            “Nafsi is here, under our control. Afriti will be coming here as well. We welcome any chance to have our brethren here.”

            “Sir—”

            “Sir!” Taraju and the gods turned to see Azl behind Taraju.

            “I assume you have a reason for bursting in like this,” said Mano sternly.

            “Sir,” said Azl, taking a place next to Taraju, “the rules don’t apply for him.”

            “Who?”

            “Nafsi. The rules. They don’t apply to him.”

            “What are you talking about, Azl?” Rahimu asked.

            “In the visiting room, with his mother—he walked right through the barrier.”

            “I beg your pardon?” asked Aiheu over more muttering.

            “Right through it, sir. Like it wasn’t even there. And threw his mother to the ground. He has all his powers, sir.”

            “How is that possible?” asked a hippopotamus.

            “I don’t know, sir,” said Azl. “It may have happened when we restored him. It was—difficult. But we don’t know how difficult it is normally. He’s the only one we’ve had.”

            “This will only make it worse,” muttered Roh’kash. “Afriti will only want him more.”

            “We knew this could happen,” said Aiheu. “It was the only reason Afriti decided to come. Afriti wanted Nafsi to have his powers.”

            “Where is he?” asked Mano to Azl.

            “He’s in his waiting room, sir. With a guard.”

            “How did you manage to get him in there?” asked a cheetah, dreading the answer.

            “He just went, ma’am.”

            “He went?” asked an antelope. “Quietly?”

            “Yes, sir. I just explained it, and he went. Without a fuss. He seems to want to be told what’s going on, but that’s it. He just wants to know.”

            “You understand how difficult this is to believe,” said Aiheu.

            “I can’t lie, sir,” said Azl unhappily.

            “We know that. But still, it’s quite a bit to swallow.”

            “Aiheu,” said Rahimu, “if Nafsi still has all of his power—”

            “—then the war may be closer than we thought.”

 

 

 

            Taraju walked toward his brother sadly. Afriti was coming to Heaven to get the one animal that most likely would give Hell enough strength to destroy all the gods. And Taraju was required to carry that load on his back and not tell anyone of what was happening. He needed a laugh. But his brother wouldn’t give him that, he knew. Fujo was throwing a hissy fit.

            Taraju saw his brother lying on the grass, absentmindedly twirling a digit on a forepaw in an omniscio. An animal could see any part in the entire world through that water. Fujo’s swirling had the pictures in the water constantly changing. It finally stopped as Fujo took his paw out of the water and stared into it intently. He looked up as his brother approached. A wide, insincere grin spread across his face.

            “Well, look who it is. His majesty has decided to grace us with his presence.”

            “Fujo—” began Taraju with a voice of long suffering.

            “Shall I bow to his great Ileminess?”

            “Fujo—”

            “What may I do for you? Kiss your paws, get your food? I don’t know what to do; I’m so unworthy to be in the presence of the great Illuminati Ilemi—”

            “You didn’t go to see Nafsi.”

            “Who’s Nafsi? Oh, yes, that animal you claim to be my grandson, but I’ve never even seen!

            “Fujo, I had no control over that,” said Taraju patiently.

            “Oh, but couldn’t you have tried to use your goddamn status for once?”

            “Fujo, I tried. Really, I did. The gods barely ever decide not to tell the animals things—”

            “And it just had to be my son, didn’t it?” Fujo said angrily.

            “It was Nafsi they were worried about.”

            “They had no reason to hide him from me!” Fujo yelled. “He couldn’t do anything to us!”

            “We didn’t know how much Uchu knew. She could have had Afriti whispering in her ear the entire time.”

            “Oh, bullshit! There was no way he could be—”

            “Who knew what Uchu was told when she was in that pool?” Taraju yelled.

            “Who gives a damn?! She couldn’t have come here! They’ve been holding out on all of us, and for no reason! And you won’t tell me anything! This is my family, Ilemi!”

            “You think I don’t have problems of my own?!”

            “Like hell you have problems, Mr. Illuminated!”

            “Afriti is coming!” screamed Taraju. “Afriti is coming, the war is coming, the end of the whole world is coming, and I have to keep that away from my family! Do you think that’s easy?!” He stopped, breathing heavily, and suddenly realized what he has said. “Shit,” he said quietly. He made a half-hearted attempt at a smile. “And no you have me cursing, too.”

            “The war is coming?” Fujo said quietly, stunned. “Now?”

            “Shut up, Fujo. You shouldn’t have even heard that.”

            “Taraju—”

            “Oh, I’m not ‘Ilemi’ anymore?”

            Fujo stared at the ground guiltily. “I just—”

            “You just wanted to know,” said Taraju bitterly. He sat down. “I can’t tell you anything they don’t want me to, you know that.”

            “You just did,” said Fujo.

            “And I’m getting an order of silence. That’ll be the first thing they do. And they’re right.”

            Fujo sat down next to his brother. “You know I’m not mad at you, right?”

            “Now that’s a lie.”

            “Okay, maybe a little. But you won’t even tell me anything. I have the right to know—”

            “No, Fujo, you don’t.”

            “This is my son’s affairs we’re talking about. And my grandson.”

            “Fujo, the gods said you shouldn’t see Nafsi. They said no one—”

            “They’re wrong. You know something? The last time I saw my son was two days before he died. I wasn’t even there when he went. And I haven’t been allowed to see him since. I love Jadi, Taraju. I want to see him. Now.”

            “Fujo—”

            This isn’t fair.”

            Fujo, I’m under a huge strain. I have secrets I can’t even tell my own mother. I need to tell someone, anyone, but there isn’t a single animal, save one of those malaiki and the other Illuminati. They know, so I can’t tell them. I have to just go through this, all by myself. You call that fair?”

            “You could tell me.”

            “No, I can’t.”

            “I wouldn’t tell anyone,” promised Fujo.

            “You would. You’d slip.”

            “Now that’s trusting.”

            “Fujo, please. I just wanted to talk. Laugh. Forget.”

            “I’m not happy right now, either. Wrong place.”

            Taraju sighed and stared down at the omniscio Fujo had been using. It showed a group of cubs playing somewhere in the world. It could be anywhere. Omniscios showed anything. An omniscio could even show the past, if it wanted. Unless, of course, the gods decided a place or an animal was wrong to see, such as Nafsi. Nafsi could have been right where Fujo was looking and Fujo would have never seen Nafsi, only the disturbances that Nafsi made.

            The omniscio currently stared at a group of cubs playing in a savannah. Another cub sat off the side, her paws and the tip of her tail black, the color change flowing smoothly between her black and her light pelt. She watched the cubs playing.

            For some reason known only to her, she decided to try to ask the others if she cold play as well. Taraju could guess the response before it happened: the laughter, vicious, mocking laughter; the taunting; the pushing around, and finally the running away, leaving the cub to cry. Fujo waved a paw over the omniscio before the torment got too far, changing the scene to a huge den Taraju remembered fondly.

            “Esi again?” Taraju asked.

            “Esi,” said Fujo.

            “Why do you keep looking at her?”

            “It’s just a nice reminder of all the things that we could to, but never will,” said Fujo bitterly.

            Taraju didn’t argue. He’d gone over this topic with Fujo too many times. Taraju realized the logic of the gods; if they intervened, Afriti would more than do the same. The ever-looming war would happen even sooner. But he couldn’t help but agree with Fujo anyway. They did have the power, they should help. Taraju’s splitting of his soul hadn’t done anything to stop his feelings. It was unthinkable for him to be a god. He was simply too eager to use power that the gods had learned long ago should be used carefully.

            “Do you want to see Nafsi now?” Taraju asked as way of apology.

            “Is that all you came to ask?”

            “No one’s supposed to be allowed in,” said Taraju slyly.

            “You expect me to believe that you, Mr. Perfect Illuminati Who Is Absolutely Unwilling to Do Anything Wrong wants to sneak me into an un-allowed room?”

            “Alright, if you don’t want to, I’ll just leave,” said Taraju, standing up, feeling the bitter truth of Fujo’s words. There was a time when he could have—would have—done this without a second thought. He’d wished more than once for these pure restraints that held him back to be gone, to have even just a touch of immorality to let him act freer. It wasn’t normal to want that, he knew it. None of the other Illuminati felt that.

            “Taraju,” said Fujo.

            “Yes?”

            “Uh . . .”

            “Come on now, I’m an Illuminati; my time is important.”

            Fujo laughed. “Alright, let’s—”

            Fujo was cut off by the sudden appearance of a malaiki. “Sir!” it called, flying toward Taraju.

            “Oh, great,” muttered Taraju.

            “Sir!” The malaiki landed gracefully. “Sir, we’ve been looking all over for you. The gods want to see you right away. It’s time.”

            “Already?”

            “Yessir. With respect, you were supposed to be easily available.”

            “I know,” said Taraju, annoyed. He couldn’t even see his brother anymore without causing trouble. “Fujo, look, I didn’t know—”

            “Yeah, yeah, duty calls and al that.” Fujo turned moodily back to the omniscio and lied down, continually changing the image.

            Taraju stared at him sadly. There really was no reason for him to be excluded from his family like this. “Sir—”

            “Patience, malaiki.”

            “Yes, sir.”

            Taraju went to Fujo and placed a paw on the back of his neck. “Fujo, I’ll be back to take you. I promise.”

            “Yeah, uh-huh.” Fujo continued to stare at the looking-pool.

            Taraju sighed and made for the rectangle the malaiki opened. “Let’s go,” he said.

            Taraju stopped as he heard, “Make it fast. He turned around. Fujo hadn’t moved, but the pictures in the omniscio had stopped changing places.

            Taraju smiled. “Deal.” He turned and walked through the rectangle.

 

 

 

            Malaiki were lined up in two rows, making a path and sitting perfectly still. It was an impressive sight. The lines went for quite a while. It was obvious that every malaiki had been turned out for the event. It looked as if even Purgatory had been emptied of them.

            The gods stood at one end of the line, waiting with the Illuminati. There were only twenty-six Illuminati, twenty-six pure souls after centuries of life. But the twenty-seventh was missing. The twenty-six knew it.

            “He should have been here,” muttered Raylo. The hyena shook his head.

            “Mano’s going to throw a fit,” the leopard Fayzana observed.

            “Have any of you actually seen Mano here?” asked Shani, a wildebeest.

            They turned to look over the gods. No, Mano wasn’t there, or, oddly enough, Aiheu. Oh, wait, there they were, just now arriving.

            Mano looked toward Aiheu. “Father—”

            “Not another word,” said Aiheu sternly. “They are family.”

            Taraju emerged behind the group. “Sorry,” he apologized, the Illuminati turning to see him.

            “We were worried you wouldn’t show,” said the margay Ilet.

            “Or worse, you’d pop up in the middle,” said Fayzana.

            “Yes, that would be embarrassing,” admitted Taraju.

            “Ilemi.”

            Taraju stiffened. He knew that voice. He also knew the owner of the voice never called him that unless it was something important. He turned around to see Fela’s face. The tigress’s face was unreadable. “Ma’am?”

            “You were late.”

            “Ma’am, I can explain. I was visiting—”

            “I could care less what kept you,” she said with a smile. “But you’re supposed to be greeting Afriti.”

            “Greeting?”

            “It’s very simple. Just say something like ‘Welcome to Heaven.’ In more words, obviously.”

            “I didn’t hear—”

            “Because I’m telling you now. Now get out front, and don’t screw up. Act.”

            Taraju jumped at the command that had been drilled into him as a cub. He began to walk out in front of the gods before his brain actually told his legs to consciously. He ended up in front of the gods, almost perfectly centered.

            “Uh, did anyone tell him about Afriti?” whispered Raylo.

            “What, you mean he doesn’t know—” hissed Fela. She was cut off by a stern look from Aiheu. He wasn’t in a good mood. Fela shook her head as she walked back to her spot. This would be a disaster. And in front of everyone, too.

            Poor Taraju.

            The procession was finally visible in the distance, a speck coming closer through the two lines of malaiki. Taraju stiffened, wishing he could be as utterly still as a malaiki. He knew how Afriti was coming here; by the stretch f land connecting Heaven and Hell, one of only two existing. It stretched from the savannah of heaven to a barren wasteland, and into a savannah even richer than Heaven’s. Afriti spared nothing when it came to proving Hell was superior.

            The procession came close enough to make out. In the front, with a lioness by his side, was a large, muscular lion. He might have been smaller than the malaiki, nearly every creature was, but the strength he seemed to exude was obvious. If he were to challenge any malaiki, it was more than obvious who would triumph. His pitch-black mane was large, proudly flowing across his neck. His muscular body effortlessly left deep paw-prints in the ground as he came closer to the gods, his eyes clearly blazing with hatred.

            Taraju swallowed nervously. It seemed that the war came closer with each step the lion took, as if he was bringing it with him. Despair seemed to fill Taraju; how could anyone stand up to this monster?
            The procession stopped roughly two feet away from Taraju. Taraju bowed his head to the lion and said, with all the respect he could muster, “Afriti, we welcome you to Heaven. We hope that you will be pleased with our services.”

            He brought his eyes up to look at Afriti. The lion’s face was filled with obvious disgust for Taraju. Taraju’s attention was suddenly turned to the lioness beside the lion.

            She said coldly, “I am Afriti.”

            Taraju looked at her in surprise. “I beg your pardon, ma’am. My humblest apologies. I had no idea—”

            “I wouldn’t expect an Illuminati to know how to walk and talk at the same time.” Her icy tones chilled Taraju’s heart.  Her hatred was outright and obvious. Her dark eyes didn’t possess the same anger as the lion next to her; it was well-hidden. She was a liar, a deceiver, a manipulator. But she could convey more than enough contempt for her victim when ever she pleased, as she did now.

            Taraju bowed his head to her. “I’m sorry, ma’am. Forgive me.”

            Aiheu appeared by Taraju’s side. “Welcome home, Afriti.”

            There may have been worse things to say, but Taraju thought that might have been pretty high on the list. Afriti said with barely suppressed rage, “This was never my home.”

            There was silence. Aiheu said, “Not all of you have returned.”

            “I vowed never to set paw in this land until it was mine,” said Afriti, her tone all ice again. “Do you think I, or any of the others, wanted to return to you?” Aiheu’s pain didn’t show. “Now, where is Nafsi?”

            “We . . . have him in a room by himself, under a malaiki guard.”

            “I demand an equal number of my guard in there.”

            “Ma’am,” said Taraju, “the malaiki are quite capa—”

            “Quiet, Taraju,” commanded Aiheu. He turned back to Afriti. “Of course.”

            “I want to see him,” insisted Afriti.

            “In good time.”

            Now.”

            “Your guard shall be posted immediately. That will have to do.”

            “How am I supposed to know what you are doing to him in there?”

            “I assume your guard can communicate mentally like the malaiki. As for what we are doing to him, he is simply being confined for safety.”

            “Whose?” asked Afriti bitingly.

            “Ours.”

            Afriti’s surprise showed only for a moment before she said, “Very well. I want my guard posted now.”

            “Taraju,” said Aiheu.

            “Yes, sir.”

            “Take a guard to Nafsi.”

            “Yes, sir.” Taraju watched as Afriti turned to her party and nodded to one of the animals behind her. There were several in the party, and Taraju had never seen one before. They somewhat resembled malaiki, but they didn’t have mixed body parts as the malaiki did. They were all smooth black fur, four of them being slightly tinted with red. Their bodies shared the same muscular form as the malaiki, and if anything they were more built. Their faces were very much like a lion’s or a tigers in the fact that they had a large jaw, but they had no lion’s mane. Their claws were extended, but Taraju suspected they might not be extended at all; that might be their actual length. Who knew what would be revealed when they were truly angry? They seemed to be meant only for one thing: to kill, to cause pain, grief, and misery.

            The shetani that Afriti nodded to, a red-tinged one, said in a voice that frightened Taraju with its low, guttural viciousness, “Yes, my queen.” Taraju opened up a rectangle to Nafsi’s room and led the guard through it.

            Aiheu said after Taraju had disappeared, “You must be tired from the journey. We can offer you a place to stay if you wish.”

            “Your delays are only prolonging the inevitable,” said Afriti.

            Aiheu said, slight effort being noted in his voice, “Will you accept the offer?”

            Afriti turned to the animals behind her, who gave general assent. She turned back to Aiheu. “Very well. But we do not expect to stay here any longer than necessary.”

            Aiheu looked away before he said, “Of course.” He turned his back to Afriti as he turned toward the Illuminati. “Marim?”

            “Yes, sir,” a red-maned lion responded.

            “Show Afriti to a place you believe suitable.”

            “Yes, sir. Ma’am, if you and the others would kindly follow me.” Marim turned, Afriti and her group following him. They all proceeded through a rectangle to another part of Heaven.

            When the rectangle closed, Aiheu said softly, “You are dismissed.” Malaiki vanished through rectangles, going back to their duties. The gods began to file through rectangles, going back to their meeting place. Aiheu continued to stare at the savannah, even after all the animals in his vision had gone.

            Roh’kash went to his side. “Aiheu?” the hyena asked softly in her gravelly voice.

            “She hates me, doesn’t she?” He looked down at Roh’kash. “She really does hate me, doesn’t she?”

            “You knew that.”

            “I didn’t want to believe it.”

            “None of us did.”

            “I love her, Roh’kash. And she’ll never love me. She’ll never love anyone but herself. I just wanted to believe that she was pretending, but after centuries . . . It hurts, Roh’kash.”

            “I can’t know what you’re going though. My mate stayed.”

            “And you were one of the luckiest of us. I lost her, I lost Mwovu . . . I only have Mano.”

            “Aiheu . . .” Roh’kash paused, picking her words carefully. “It may hurt. But we can’t have you thinking about her. There’s nothing you can do to get her back, or Mwovu. We all want them back; Heaven was a much happier place with them. But you can’t keep hoping to get her back. That’s a very mortal flaw you have, your wish to please her, and she knows it’s there. Please, just thing before you do anything. You’re affecting all of us.”

            Aiheu stared blankly out into the savannah. Roh’kash turned to follow after the other gods, then stopped to see if Aiheu was following. “Aren’t you coming?”

            “I want to take a walk,” he said. “I won’t be gone long.”

            Roh’kash watched as the lion walked into the savannah. He didn’t return until night.