Getting Both Sides

 

            Taraju walked into the room quietly, Fujo emerging from the rectangle behind him. Both the shetani and the malaiki sat up a little straighter. “Sir,” said the malaiki, “no one is to be allowed in.”

            “He wanted to talk to his grandson,” said Taraju, nodding toward Fujo. He noticed out of the corner of his eye that Fujo was staring at the shetani in obvious fear. The shetani stared back, its face blank, but its pose stating contempt for both of them plainly.

            “Sir, I was told no exceptions,” said the malaiki.

            “Malaiki, these are my orders. You are going to sit there, you are going to watch him, and you will shut him up if he says anything you believe unwise. I won’t speak unless spoken to. Understood?”

            “Sir . . .”

            “Just ask the gods. There has to be a malaiki with them.”

            The malaiki’s vision went slightly out of focus as he stretched out telepathically. After several seconds, he finally said, “Rahimu gives his consent, sir. But it’s unadvisable—”

            “Malaiki, I gave you orders.”

            “Yes, sir.”

            “And I realize I can’t order you,” said Taraju to the shetani, “but I hope you will do the same.” The shetani did nothing. “Come on, Fujo.” He proceeded toward the still form on the floor some distance away, Fujo hurriedly following.

            “That thing gives me the creeps,” said Fujo in a whisper. “What is it?”

            “A shetani. One of Hell’s malaiki.”

            “I’ll take our kind.”

            They could see quite plainly that Nafsi wasn’t moving, save for his body moving up and down slightly as he breathed. He was lying on his stomach, head down, eyes closed. “Fujo, let’s come back later. He’s asleep.”

            “No, I’m not.” Nafsi brought up his head and opened his dark eyes. “What?”

            Taraju was still unnerved by the adult words and intonations coming out of a cub’s body. “Uh . . . well, I brought your grandfather for a visit. This is Fujo.”

            “Hey,” said Fujo, kindness plainly in his voice. He was studying Nafsi intently. It didn’t surprise Taraju; Fujo had never seen Nafsi before. “So, what were you doing, if you weren’t sleeping?”

            “Thinking. I like it.”

            “Oh. About what?”

            “About when I woke up.” Fujo was confused. “I shouldn’t have lost control.”

            “What do you mean?” asked Fujo.

            “I was scared.”

            “There’s nothing wrong with being scared.” Fujo turned to Taraju. “Is there?”

            “He cut off a malaiki’s leg,” said Taraju.

            “You’re joking.”

            “No.”

            Fujo looked back down at the cub. “It’s true,” said Nafsi. “I lost control. And I should have.”

            “Nafsi, you were scared—” began Fujo.

            “I shouldn’t have been. I’d never been scared before. I shouldn’t have been scared now.”

            Fujo looked toward Taraju. “What happened?”

            “He was blind,” said Taraju. “We had to piece him back together. We hadn’t connected his brain to his body fully, and he broke through the restraints. Anyone would have been scared in his position.”

            “What did you do to him?” asked Fujo in a low voice, obviously shocked.

            “It was the only way for him to have an afterlife.”

            Fujo looked back at Nafsi in a new light, with even more respect. “Nafsi, it was okay to be scared.”

            Fujo expected a response like “No, it wasn’t” or “I know,” not “Was it?”

            “Um . . . yeah.”

            “Why?” asked Nafsi simply.

            “You—you were . . . in a . . . uncomfortable situation . . . so . . . so you . . . you should have been scared,” Fujo finished lamely.

            “I’d been uncomfortable before,” said Nafsi. “I wasn’t scared then. It just seems like such a waste.”

            “What?”

            “Fear. I went berserk because of it. If Taraju wasn’t there, I would have killed everyone. It only seems to make you do things you shouldn’t. It’s a useless emotion.”

            “Nafsi, it’s not useless,” said Fujo.

            “Why?”

            Fujo’s mouth opened to answer, then shut. “Good question. Taraju has the answer.”

            “Fujo . . .” said Taraju.

            “Well?”

            “I don’t know. All I know is I’ve been scared more times than I care to count, and it’s saved my life almost every time.”

            “So wouldn’t that mean it has value?”

            “If I hadn’t been afraid, the beatings wouldn’t have been quite so bad.”

            Beatings?

            “Dingane spared no opportunity to teach,” said Taraju simply.

            Fujo paused for a second, taking in another shock about his brother’s past. “So you’d say fear is worthless?”

            “I’d have died a lot sooner if I hadn’t had fear. It’s a warning system.”

            “So fear is good.”

            “At times. It’s irrational.”

            “But it’s not worthless,” said Fujo, turning back to Nafsi. “See?”

            “I acted without thinking,” said Nafsi. “I shouldn’t have. I’ve always been rational.”

            “Irrationality is natural,” said Fujo.

            “I’m not natural.”

            Fujo was quiet. “Is it really true?” he asked Taraju.

            “What?”

            “His emotions.”

            “Yes.”

            “Nafsi . . .” Fujo didn’t know what to say. “It’s not right.”

            “He was constructed for efficiency, Fujo,” said Taraju. “Not for enjoyment, at least in the normal sense.”

            “Made for evil, you mean.”

            “It’s one way of looking at it. But he’s content with that.”

            “Does that mean that’s right?!” yelled Fujo.

            “Sir,” said the malaiki, “don’t discuss that.”

            “Discuss what?” yelled Fujo. “His rights?!”

            “Right now he has none, sir. But I was referring to influencing him. Not allowed, sir.”

            “He has no idea what he’s missing!”

            “It’s not your job, sir. I don’t want to have to remove you.”

            “Damn you, you’re supposed to be perfect! Don’t you see anything wrong with this?”

            “Sir, I can’t answer that—”

            “Oh, go to hell with your ‘I can’t answer that,’ you hear me?”

            “Malaiki,” said Taraju, “remove him.”

            “Yes, sir.” The malaiki moved toward Fujo.

            “Don’t touch me! I’ll leave on my own!”

            “Now, sir.”

            Fujo walked angrily toward the exit that sprang into existence. He didn’t bother to even look at the malaiki or Taraju. He stalked past the shetani to hear a low, guttural growl. Fujo did his best to ignore the chilling thing as he left.

            Taraju sighed and looked back to Nafsi. “I’m sorry about that.”

            “I’m not going to be allowed out of here, am I?” asked Nafsi. It was a simple question, with no hint of sadness or regret. Just a cold, logical question.

            “It’s . . . possible,” said Taraju guiltily. “Your power can destroy all of us in Heaven, if you join Hell.”

            “Sir,” said the malaiki, “do I have to remind you—”

            “Apologies.” Taraju turned back to Nafsi. “I should go now. I’m sorry, but I don’t know what will happen to you.”

            Taraju still thought of Nafsi as a cub. He expected a display of cubbishness, of saying it wasn’t fair, or of asking for more information. “Fine” was all Nafsi said as he laid his head down. Taraju stared for a second, and left. He saw Fujo angrily walking away.

            “Fujo!” he yelled. He ran to catch up to him. “Fujo! Fujo—”

            “What?!” Fujo asked, turning around with a snarl.

            Taraju stopped dead as he saw the uncharacteristically ugly look on his brother’s face. He regained his courage in only a moment. “What was that about?”

            “‘What was that about?’ ‘What was that about?!’ What the hell were you about?”

            “Excuse me?”

            “Didn’t you see him? He’s a prisoner, Taraju, a prisoner! And did you even see yourself, Ilemi?”

            “Fujo, you know I don’t like that name.”

            “Funny, ’cause you sure as hell embraced the concept in there!”

            “What—”

            “‘Remove this unholy scum, lest he bring the wrath of the devil upon our soul!’” said Fujo in a mocking voice.

            “Fujo, you were out of line.”

            “Out of line? It’s a good thing I was, ’cause everyone else in line apparently can’t see what’s going on! They are holding my grandson a prisoner, and it’s for no reason at all!”

            “It’s so Afriti can’t say we swayed Nafsi’s judgment if it comes down to letting Nafsi choose Heaven or Hell.”

            “He doesn’t even get a choice?!”

            “He might.”

            “Might!”

            “Fujo, we don’t know any other option.”

            “Put him through Purgatory like everyone else!”

            “The malaiki can’t control him.”

            “Then how do you actually expect to keep him anywhere?!”

            “We’re working on it.”

            “Work harder!”

            “Fujo, why do you even care this much? This isn’t like you. You just blow up—”

            “This is like me, Taraju! I’m emotional! I get angry, I don’t just sit around on a high-and-mighty shining ass and say, ‘Maybe we should do this, maybe we should do that—’ No! I go out and do something!”

            “There’s nothing I can do, Fujo.” Taraju began to walk away.

            “Use your stupid station for once in your life! You’re an Illuminati!”

            “Aiheu and Afriti will come to an understanding. I’m not part of it. That’s how it should be.”

            “I can’t believe I’m hearing those words coming out of your mouth!”

            Taraju whirled around angrily. “And what do you propose? Huh?”

            “I don’t know, but at least give him a chance! Or give him a second chance. He hasn’t even lived a decent life inside that body.”

            “You think I haven’t suggested things like that?”

            “Do more than suggest, for Aiheu’s sake! Grab the issue by the neck and strangle!

            “He’s just a cub,” said Taraju, walking away again. “He doesn’t matter.”

            Fujo ran at Taraju with a roar and tackled him to the ground. He landed on top of Taraju’s chest, Taraju pinned underneath him, Fujo’s teeth bared. “Don’t you dare say that.”

            “Fujo, you don’t even know him—”

            “He’s my grandson! I am going to lose my son to Hell! I refuse to lose Nafsi, too!”

            “You don’t know that Jadi will—”

            “The Black Line starts in three years! There isn’t enough time to put him inside Heaven! No one is ever broken in under . . . ten years. Oh, gods.” Fujo’s eyes widened in realization. “I can’t believe them!” He got off Taraju angrily and walked a short distance away.

            “Fujo, we have an agreement—”

            “An agreement!” yelled Fujo, turning angrily. “How many other animals have actually come to the conclusion I have?! Every ten years the Black Line starts, and no one is ever released under ten years! How many animals could we have actually saved if we hadn’t made that agreement?  Huh?!”

            “Fujo,” said Taraju, turning over, “we’ve done a lot of things we aren’t proud of.”

            “Well it looks like Afriti gets his way with everything, doesn’t he?”

            “Fujo, Afriti is a lioness.”

            “Ha, ha. Funny.”

            “I didn’t know either.”

            “The animal with the most hatred and rage in the entire world is a female?

            “Hell apparently does have fury like a female scorned.”

            “The gods are letting themselves be pushed around by a lioness?

            “We’re not being pushed around—”

            “Ten years for Purgatory! Purgatory even being there in the first place! This whole issue of my grandson even being brought up!” Fujo was yelling again.

            “Fujo, it’s not like that—”

            “My grandson is being kept prisoner in the freest kingdom anywhere, and he doesn’t even get a choice about where he lives for eternity!”

            “We’ll do everything we can to keep him here.”

            “Like you did with Purgatory?!”

            “You don’t understand.”

            “Then tell me!”

            Taraju stared at the ground as he sat up. “Afriti was Aiheu’s mate. He loved her more than we can understand. He still does. And he gave her two cubs. One was Mano, and the other was Erevu. The two cubs didn’t even get to see each other before their parents separated. Afriti left and created Hell, and took Erevu with her and renamed him Mwovu. She didn’t want any reminders of Heaven.

            “But Afriti’s haunted Aiheu ever since. He loves her dearly, and his son. He let things lean her way, hoping she’d come back if he showed her just how much he loved her. And she exploited that. The gods finally realized that and stopped being so lenient. But she still wants more, and Aiheu still loves her.”

            “Heart-breaking,” said Fujo bitterly. “It only goes to show that he’s a fool. That all the gods—”

            “Is there anything you wouldn’t do for Taabu?” Taraju asked quietly. Fujo was silent. “I know what’s going on isn’t right,” said Taraju. “But I can’t do anything. I must obey the gods.”

            “You nearly beat the crap out of Dad when he was bringing up those memories—”

            “That wasn’t me! I’ve changed, Fujo. I can’t be what I was. When Jadi tore me apart, he took away my roar. I don’t even know if I have a growl left.” Taraju sounded ashamed.

            “Then I’m on my own?” asked Fujo angrily. “That’s it, is it?”

            “Fujo, I’ll try. Really.”

            “No one is going to do anything, are they?” Just give Afriti more and more, is that it?” He turned to walk away.

            “Fujo, please—”

            “No!” Fujo said, turning around so he was nose to nose with Taraju. “I am going to get Nafsi out of there, and there is no one in Heaven or Hell that will stop me!”

            Taraju sighed. “Alright. But let me help. Please.”

            “By doing what? Calling the malaiki to stop me?”

            “Fujo, I won’t stop you.”

            “‘I can’t help it.’”

            “Please, Fujo. Just give me a chance. I’ve been doing all I can to make sure Nafsi is given the right thing. Let me help.”

            “And what exactly is ‘the right thing’ you want to for him?”

            “I want to bring him back to life.”

            Fujo was silent. Finally he said, “And how am I supposed to believe you?”

            “You used to trust me—”

            “I trusted Taraju. He would have already broken in and taken Nafsi, or would be sitting in Purgatory for trying. You’re Ilemi. You can’t talk them into letting him go, your Shininess. You’re going to have to do something.”

            “I’ll try.”

            “That’s it? You’ll try?”

            “It’s all I can do, Fujo. Try.”

            Fujo stared at Taraju in amazement, then shook his head. “What have they done to you, brother?”

 

 

 

            “Pathetic,” growled Afriti, looking around at the plentiful, lush savannah she was standing in. “And this is the most they can offer, is it?” She turned toward the others, seeing them look around with distaste and scorn as well. “Well, Mwovu?”

            “They might as well give us one of those barren rooms you’ve told me about,” said the lion, disgust obvious in his voice.

            “We could arrange it for you if you’d like it, sir,” said Marim, the lion Illuminati who was leading Afriti and her party.

            “Don’t be a fool,” spat Mwovu.

            “The Illuminati can’t help it,” said a sleek-furred cheetah who was looking over a healthy, well-grown acacia.

            “Aiheu instructed me to give you whatever you want,” said Marim, his helpful spirit somewhat dulled.

            “What I want is Nafsi and to be out of this pit,” said Afriti.

            “I’m sorry, ma’am. I’m sure Aiheu is moving as quickly as possible—” Marim fell silent at the piercing looks he received from numerous animals.
            “Leave,” ordered Afriti. “Get out of my sight.”

            “Ma’am,” said Marim reasonably, “if there’s anything I can do—”

            “—it is leaving.”

            “Shall I tell Aiheu you’re pleased with the accommodations?”

            “You may tell him that we find it abhorrent, and insulting that we are expected to stay in such filth,” snarled Afriti. “Now leave!

            Marim hurried left through a portal. Afriti looked around at the lush settings again and scowled. She leapt upon a rock that rose above the grass level and lay down. “Hellhole,” she muttered, hearing her son come up behind her. “Who came up with that term?”

            “We obviously know who they favored,” said Mwovu, looking at the sun slowly setting in the sky.

            “Even the poorest of animals have this,” said Afriti bitterly.

            “It’s only a few days, Mother,” said Mwovu. “At most.”

            “At most,” growled Afriti. “An hour here is too long. Don’t tell me you’re enjoying it here?”

            “Less that you are, I imagine. There isn’t enough darkness in this world. I’d even take a cave.”

            Afriti smiled. “The irony is if you hadn’t trapped away your daughter in that crystal prison of hers, we might not even be in this position.”

            “Mamoja was reckless. That kingdom of hers was attracting far too much attention.”

            “Just a few thousand more souls, though . . .”

            “She wanted to kill you, Mother. She wanted to take your place.”

            “And you took away the fun of letting me have a challenge,” said Afriti. “I was almost bored.”

            “The goddess of chaos, bored? Mother, you only need ask ideas. Wars, disease, famine, drought . . .” Mwovu’s eyes seemed to come to life at the mention of the disasters, almost as if he was watching them take place himself. “Glorious suffering.”

            “I’m afraid I’ll never have quite your lust for widespread suffering. Doing it personally is just more appealing.”

            “But the screaming, and terror, and chaos . . .” Mwovu grinned evilly, then had the grin wiped off his face. “And here I am, unable to use any of these ideas.”

            “Think on it,” advised his mother.

            “But you must know what I’m talking about, Mother,” said Mwovu excitedly.

            “Afriti looked to her son with a smile. “Of course I do. But tell me, have you bothered to go closer to the incident once you are finished? Try it. Watch a mate bring its loved one back onto the shore, or watch a cub find its buried, dying mother.” Afriti laid her head down on her paws, smiling. “That is what chaos is about. Not just the destruction and sorrow, but how it tears apart those foolish mortals so easily. Remember, I’ve been at this much longer than you.”

            “I’ll try it, Mother.”

            Afriti’s eyes moved to her son. They roved over his powerful body, up to his hate-filled, merciless eyes. He seethed with hate; Afriti could practically see it. With hate, with malice, with what so many animals would define as pure evil. A dark aura almost glowed from him at times like this, when he was happiest from delighting in pain and misfortune.

            He would make a wonderful heir, thought Afriti. One I would be proud to have succeed me. It’s a pity he’ll never live to see that day.

            He couldn’t see it, of course. He would have to be destroyed. Not killed, not broken, but obliterated. And Afriti would start again with another animal. She knew the cycle would continue until one of her pupils would betray her. And then she would die, and showing through the hatred and rage of betrayal, and betrayal, there would be a sliver of triumph at creating an even greater evil than herself.

            It would be very difficult to find a replacement for her son, a lion who was a true god, who had the blood of the two most powerful beings in this world running through his veins. He was one who knew what hatred truly was, having lived in nothing else his whole life. A very difficult animal to replace.

            She thought Nafsi would fit the bill perfectly.

            “Tell me, Mwovu,” Afriti said, coming out of her reverie, “do you ever have thoughts of betrayal?”

            “No, Mother.”

            “Honestly.”

            “A few. But I would never do such a thing.”

            “Why?”

            Mwovu smiled. “I still have more to learn from you. I would never get rid of something that was still of use to me, especially not something like yourself.”

            Both knew Mwovu’s next thought, however. And when you are of no use to me, Mother, that is when you shall die.

 

 

 

            Afriti and her group were ushered into the gods’ throne room. The gods had done away with the varying levels of thrones, instead sitting on the ground, their thrones behind them. Afriti and the others sat as well. There were a few moments of silence before Afriti said bluntly, “Give us Nafsi.”

            “I am afraid we cannot do that,” said Aiheu. “Nafsi holds too much power.”

            “He cannot stay here,” said a wild dog on Afriti’s side.

            “And why not?” asked Fela, the tigress.

            “He yearns to come to us,” said Mwovu. “Leave him here, and he will be a danger. You say you are proud of the peace in your kingdom. Nafsi will shatter that peace. He will kill, he will murder, and you will beg for us to take him.”

            “Give him to us now,” said Afriti. “It would be the kindest thing. We will give him what he wants.”

            “Hate? Misery?” said Roh’kash bitterly.

            “Freedom. He is not filled with goodness, he is filled with evil. He draws his strength and power from his lust for evil. It is what he was born from.”

            “Good things may come from bad events,” noted a crocodile god.

            “And we have yet to see something purely good come from any bad event,” said Afriti. It seemed that she was to do the talking. It wasn’t completely surprising, as she was the leader of her group of gods. “Can you deny that?” Three was silence among the gods. “Nafsi was born in darkness, died in darkness, and is meant to flourish forever in darkness.”

            “No one knows why he dies,” said Rahimu, a leopard. “No one knows anything about his body, or him. The malaiki don’t know why he died, and they put him back together. None of us know.”

            Afriti smiled. “Do you really think I don’t know? Do you really think Uchu could have formed him with no help? Of course we know. She was more than connected to me for centuries. She was immersed in that pool of evil, and her consciousness had been linked to it nearly her whole life. I know every facet of her mind.”

            Some of the gods shifted nervously. It could very well be true that Afriti told Uchu everything about how to create Nafsi. Conception and birth had taken only two months; that left ten months of Afriti whispering in Uchu’s ear, telling her how to create what was possibly the greatest danger the world had ever had. She had helped build the world, and she was one of the main constructors of the animals. If she had wanted to create Nafsi, she could have told Uchu exactly how to do it.

            Afriti had told Uchu nothing, of course. Nafsi's appearance was as much of a surprise to Afriti as it had to anyone else. He had been Uchu’s little secret, her “gift” to the world. The gods didn’t know Afriti was lying, however. They would never find out. Lying was something beyond them.

            “Even so,” said Mano, “Nafsi is not what any of us expected. I’m sure that’s obvious. We all expected a ruthless, hungry killer.”

            “He is flawed,” said Afriti, “and through no fault of my own. And even so, he is a formidable weapon of destruction. Even with his flaws, his true nature comes out.”

            “We don’t need to leave him as he is,” said Fela, the tigress. “We might be able to give him his full emotions—”

            “You would ruin him!” said Afriti angrily, slamming a paw on the ground.

            “He is not your toy,” said the leopard Rahimu coldly. “You alone do not say what is best for him.”

            “How do you think he would deal with his new emotions?” asked Afriti. “He is comfortable with what he has. His mind has conformed to what he has. He prides himself on being logical. The irrationality the other emotions bring would eat away at him. You’ve seen his frustration with his loneliness—” She spat out the word—“and how he despised the irrationality it brings. He wants what he has, and for every emotion that does not fit his thinking to be removed.”

            “If he’s so intent on logic, then why did we have to do nothing to confine him?” asked a cheetah goddess. “He went quietly, and he very nearly killed several malaiki only minutes before.”

            “He was scared,” said the sleek-furred cheetah on Afriti’s side, looking at his former mate scornfully. “At least, that’s what we were told our shetani heard him say. That he was scared, and acted irrationally. That one emotion was illogical. You can’t make that the example for all of his other actions. I imagine all of his other actions were perfectly logical. He only wants information before he acts. Give him that information, and he will act.”

            “You’re saying the only reason he went quietly was because he had information?” asked a gazelle god.

            “He went quietly because that was the only option available to him,” said the cheetah. “Give him options, give him information, and he won’t simply lie there as he is now.” He smiled bitterly. “Of course, we know what information you’ll give him.”

            “No one is to go in or out without explicit permission,” said Aiheu.

            “Whose permission?” asked Afriti coldly.

            Aiheu paused, a mix of emotions seeming to flash across his eyes before he said, “Yours and mine.”

            Afriti suppressed an urge to spit on his face. How dare he try to come closer to her? Centuries of lies he had told her, and now he thought that simply apologizing was enough? She and the others had left for a reason: to escape the lying filth that was the gods. Afriti despised these last-ditch attempts to save their kingdom. Once Nafsi was in hell, as he should be, the gods’ destruction was all but complete.

            “That is one of the most foolish things I’ve heard,” she said, anger on the edge of her voice.

            “Why?” asked Aiheu simply.

            “How could you possibly expect us to agree on anything?

            “We used to,” said Aiheu.

            “I didn’t realize that you were lying to me!” yelled Afriti. “How you were doing nothing but using me!”

            “We agreed then, we can agree now. We have to come to an agreement about Nafsi,” said Aiheu. “We might as well start here.”

            “We despise being in this wretched place!” said Afriti, her anger once again on the edge of her voice. “We will not tolerate anything that will make out stay longer!”

            “Aiheu,” said an elephant god quietly, “you never told any of us this.”

            “We could be here for centuries,” said Fela “It would be better to just make permission to see Nafsi either yours or Afriti’s.”

            “No,” said Aiheu,

            “Aiheu—”

            No.”

            “My friend,” said Rahimu, “you are not the only god.”

            “You made me your leader.”

            “We might be regretting that—”

            “I am the most powerful, which is why I lead.”

            “Aiheu—”

            “Both of us,” said Aiheu firmly. “Or Nafsi will never have a visitor.”

            There was silence among the gods. This would be discussed later. It was true Aiheu was the leader, but the gods as a group controlled Heaven, not him. This was almost a misuse of power, and would have been if the gods hadn’t known Aiheu’s motives.

            “Of course,” said Mwovu smoothly, “he won’t need any visitors. All he needs is to come home. With us.”

            “He has no home yet,” said Mano.

            “His home is with us. We would give him whatever he desired. He would be—pleased with what we could give him. There is nothing here among you. You sit on your thrones, doing nothing but listen to the pleas of animals. We offer him the power to do whatever he wished.”

            “How can you expect him to be happy in Hell?” asked an ostrich god. “How would you expect him to be happy anywhere? We don’t know what would please him.”

            “But we’re willing to find out,” said Mwovu. We can give him anything. We can give him whatever he desires. I doubt any of you would be able to give him his parents, for one.”

            There was silence. None of the gods could violate the laws of Purgatory, not without severe consequences, ones that might be the downfall of Heaven. Both Jadi and Uchu would stay in Purgatory, and would most likely escape the torture the way most of the animals in Purgatory did: the Black Line, a direct path to Hell. The line stared in only three years. In three years Jadi and Uchu would most likely be gone.

            “Nafsi has as much strength and power as any of us,” said Fela, seemingly randomly. The others stared at her. “We’ve been beating around that this entire time, “said the tigress. “That’s what this is about, isn’t it? We don’t care where he’s happy; we care whose side he’s on. His strength could change the balance of power. He could either bring forth the war or prolong the wait for countless centuries.”

            “And?” asked Afriti. “He has the powers of a god, yes. Or at least that’s what it seems. What matters is that he belongs with us. He had no place in Heaven.”

            “I believe there is good in him,” said Aiheu.

            ‘There is nothing but evil!” declared Afriti. “He is nothing but power. He has no place in this kingdom of weakness. He must come with us.”

            “You don’t know where he belongs, Afriti,” said Roh’kash. The hyena shook her head. “Nor do I. We don’t know if he would have left with you. We don’t know if he would be with us, either. We have no way of telling.”

            “Then what do you propose?” asked Afriti, “That we lock him away forever?”

            “I think he should be able to choose where he wants to stay. Give him a choice between us and you.”

            “There is nothing for him to decide on but the lies of Hell he’s grown up with,” said Afriti.

            “Then w will give him both sides,” Roh’kash said. “An animal from us, and one from you.”

            “And who is to speak to Nafsi first?” asked a wild dog on Afriti’s side.

            “Whichever time you would like, you may speak,” said Aiheu.

            “We will speak after you, then,” said Afriti.

            And it was over. There was nothing left to be said.

            There was a pause, and Aiheu said, “Very well.” A rectangle opened behind Afriti’s parry. “Your quarters are open to you,” said Aiheu. Afriti and the others left, going back to decide who would speak, as if it was actually necessary to do that. The gods slowly dispersed, knowing there would be matters to take care of, and would choose a representative later

            The entire affair, which should have lasted days by anyone’s guess, had taken less than a half-hour. No one had expected the issue to go anywhere, but suddenly it was up to Nafsi. The entire meeting had been civil the entire way through. No one had expected any of this.

            Of course, no one had expected Nafsi, either.

 

 

 

            It was a daily routine. Fujo walked into the visiting room and saw the malaiki look up. “Yes?” the malaiki asked.

            Fujo wondered why he even bothered. The answer never changed. “I’d like to see Jadi.” The same thing, ever since Jadi had died a few days ago. Fujo went there at least three times every day. And it had been the same answer every single time.

            A rectangular object appeared before the malaiki, one that was bound around hundreds of other white rectangles. The malaiki flipped through the rectangles and finally stopped.

            “I’m sorry,” it said. “Not yet.”

            Fujo sighed. “Thanks anyway.” He turned to go.

            “Sir!” said the malaiki, just before Fujo left. Fujo turned around. “You can see him now. His status just changed.”

            “What?”

            “It changed. His malaiki has cleared him for visitors, just now. Would you like to see him?”

            “Of course I want to see him!” said Fujo. “Bring him in!”

            The malaiki smiled. “Yes, sir.” It disappeared.

            Fujo stood waiting for the portal to Purgatory to open and for Jadi to walk through. He hadn’t talked to his son in five years. All he had done was watch the misery and pain Jadi had inflicted on the entire kingdom. His son had been in Purgatory for days. What would he be like? But most of all, would he love Fujo?

            A blank rectangle appeared on the far side of the dark room. A pleading voice drifted into the room. “Please . . . please, just no more . . . please . . .”

            “Out.” The voice was cold, ruthless.

            A dark form was visible through the portal. It became clearer as it walked toward and finally emerged from the rectangle. It was a lion, a black-maned lion with blood-red eyes. Jadi. Fujo stared at his son, Jadi’s head hung low. Jadi looked up at Fujo miserably. Fujo realized his own breathing had quickened.

            “Jadi . . .” Fujo said softly. There was a silence.

            “Is this real?” Jadi finally asked.

            “Yes,” said Fujo. “Yes, it is.” He walked toward Jadi, almost running. He stopped, just before the halfway point of the room, a thought striking him. No, they couldn’t possibly be that cruel . . .

            Fujo stretched out a paw and found it stopping as it pressed against something solid. The invisible barrier was there, separating Jadi from him.

            “No,” whispered Fujo. “It’s not fair.” He slammed a paw against the barrier as hard as he could. “It’s not fair!” he yelled. To be separated like this, when all he wanted to do was see his son . . . Fujo felt a tear slide down his face. “It’s not fair,” he whispered.

            Fujo looked up at Jadi. “Father,” said Jadi softly.

            “Yes.”

            “Dad . . .” Jadi moved slowly toward Fujo, stopping as he felt his muzzle press against the barrier. “Is it real? Is it really you?”

            “Yes, Jadi. It’s me. It’s Dad.”

            “You’re real?”

            “Yes. It’s me. Dad.”

            “Dad . . .” Tears began to slide down Jadi’s face. “Dad, I’m so sorry . . . I’m so sorry . . .”

            “It’s okay, Jadi,” said Fujo. He pressed a paw against the wall miserably, as if he could just push it down.

            “I’m sorry, Dad. I’m so sorry.” Jadi looked up at Fujo, his blood-red eyes wide and scared. “Do you love me?”

            “Wha—Jadi, of course I love you.”

            “You mean it?” pressed Jadi desperately. “Tell me you mean it.”

            “Of course I mean it,” Fujo said.

            “You’re real?” The desperation and fear in his voice scared Fujo. Jadi had only been in Purgatory a few days. “You’re not one of her tricks? You’re real?”

            “Yes, Jadi. I’m real. I love you.”

            “Dad . . . she—she was lying?”

            “Jadi, I love you. Truly and honestly.”

            “Dad!” cried Jadi. He pressed both forepaws against the barrier, rising up on it. “You have to get me out,” he begged. “I can’t go back in there.”

            “Jadi, I . . .” Fujo looked toward the ground. “You can’t come out. I can’t get you out.”

            “No! Dad, I’m sorry for what I did to you, I’m sorry I was a bad son, I’m sorry for what I did to the kingdom! I mean it! Please, just let me out! I can’t stay in! I can’t . . .”

            “Jadi, I have no control over your stay in there.”

            “Dad, please . . . I can’t take three million years of this.”

            “Jadi, I can’t get you out. I’m sorry. You don’t know how much.”

            “Dad, I have to get out. I have to.” Panic, hysteria.

            “Jadi, you have to stay—”

            “No!” yelled Jadi. He began to hammer one of his paws against the barrier. “No, no, NO! His paws slid off the wall to the floor, Jadi sobbing as he followed his paws.

            “Jadi—Jadi, listen—”

            “Dad, please, just get me—”

            “Jadi, listen! Please, just listen to me. Listen.” Fujo’s voice was soft, reassuring. “Listen.” Jadi quieted down, still lying in a pathetic heap on the floor, crying, but gently. “You’ll be out soon. Trust me. Just—” He couldn’t say it. “It’s just—” He literally couldn’t say it. The words “ten years refused to com out. He couldn't speak those words; not in that context, not here. He gods wouldn’t allow it. “It’ll be over sooner than you think.”

            Jadi finally raised his head miserably to look at his father. He seemed to have calmed down a bit. “That’s it?” he asked. “Soon?” He shook his head. “But what’s soon when you have an eternity to wait?”

            “Jadi, I want to tell you. Really. But I can’t.”

            “Dad, I have to get out.”

            “Jadi, it’s—it’s for your own good.”

            My own good?!” asked Jadi, hysteria entering his voice.

            “Yes,” said Fujo, a slight note of disbelief entering his voice.

            “How is this—any of this—good for me?!”

            It was a very good question. Fujo was silent before he said, tenderness in his voice, “Remember when you were a cub, Jadi? How—how it used to be so much fun? Me and you?” Jadi seemed to relax, remembering when he was little, scampering up to his father whenever he could. “It’d be like that again,” said Fujo with a smile.

            “What?” asked Jadi, his head jerking up as if he was snapping out of a reverie.

            “You’ll be like you were. Happy, and playful. With—”

            Weakness!

            “What?” asked Fujo, stunned by the sudden viciousness and hate that had sprung into Jadi’s voice.

            “I will not be weak,” snarled Jadi, standing up angrily. “I don’t care how long she tortures me. I will not be weak!” His face had formed into an angry scowl.

            “Jadi, that’s not weakness—”

            “It is!” Jadi yelled.  “Look at what it brought you! Death, and at the paws of your son! I loved watching you die, Father, it is one of the sweetest memories I have.”

            It was one of the last things Fujo wanted to hear. “You don’t regret it? None of it?” he asked in disbelief.

            “My only regret is that I had only one father to kill.”

            Fujo bowed his head, closing his eye tightly as he tried to keep tears from coming out. “You don’t want any of that back?” he asked softly. ‘None of those times we had together? When you would come with me around the kingdom, and we’d always find something you’d enjoy? You don’t want that back?”

            “No,” growled Jadi firmly after a slight, nearly unnoticeable moment’s hesitation. He looked away. “If I hadn’t been weak, I never would have wasted a second on that.”

            The words stung, just like so many times Fujo had remembered them stinging; Jadi’s youth was spent detesting his father, despising even the air Fujo breathed. Fujo said, after a lengthy pause, “Well . . . if it means anything, it wasn’t wasted to me.”

            Fujo thought he saw Jadi’s face soften very, very slightly.

            “Jadi, I . . . love you. I really, truly, honestly do. I want to help you. I don’t want to lose you.”

            “Then get me out of here,” said Jadi, his voice halfway between the snarl it had just been and the begging plea it had been before.

            Fujo looked at the ground, at a loss of what to say. Finally, “What do they do to you in there?” Jadi looked away from his father, fear etching into his face. “Do you want to talk about it?”

            Jadi was silent. Fujo was about to speak again when Jadi said, “She . . . she . . .” He took a deep breath and began to spill out to Fujo his torture, about how his malaiki had killed him over and over, making what was only a handful of times seem much more through the excruciating pain, before deciding it was enough. His torture was to be one of solitude, of slow insanity through solitude. Fujo saw this, saw how there was no hope for yet another prisoner as he heard how she filled Jadi with despair, with loneliness, without even the comfort of knowing he was loved. Fujo watched, unable to comfort his son as Jadi wept, shaking uncontrollably.

            Jadi finally fell silent and stared at his father with pleading eyes. Fujo quietly said, “Malaiki.”

            Jadi gasped as the malaiki appeared. “Get away from me!” he screamed. “You won’t do this to me!” He backed away. “I won’t let you do this to me!”

            “Jadi, it’s okay—”

            “Dad, get away—”

            “Jadi, it’s alright. It’s okay.” Jadi watched, horrified as his father stepped closer to the malaiki. “Lower the wall,” said Fujo firmly.

            “Sir,” said the malaiki, “that’s not the wisest thing to—”

            “Dad, get away!” yelled Jadi.

            “Silence, prisoner!” the malaiki ordered.

            “Don’t you dare,” snarled Fujo, sticking his face as far up to the malaiki’s as he could, “call him that again!

            “Sir, my actions are only to speed along—”

            “He’s going to be in here for----whether he likes it or not!” yelled Fujo. “Now lower that barrier!”

            “Very well, sir.”

            Fujo turned to Jadi and walked toward him. Sure enough, the barrier had disappeared. “Jadi,” said Fujo as he wrapped a foreleg around his son, pulling him close.

            “Dad, she’s going to kill us . . . She wants to kill us all . . .” Jadi’s voice was plainly terrified as he wrapped a foreleg of his own around his father.

            “Shh . . . It’s okay . . . It’ll be okay . . .”

            “Dad, I can’t go back. I can’t.”

            Fujo pulled Jadi closer. He had to go back, Fujo knew that. But there was nothing Fujo could do. “Malaiki,” he said quietly.

            “Yes, sir?” he heard.

            “I want to take his place.”

            “You can’t, sir.”

            “Then put me in there with him.”

            “No, sir. You can’t go any further than this room.”

            “Why, dammit?!” Fujo exploded, letting go of Jadi and turning toward the malaiki. “Why?! No one should be in there—”

            “Sir, I didn’t make that rule.”

            “You can bend them!”

            “No break them. There are other animals in your position—”

            “There is no one in my position!” screamed Fujo. “I am about to lost three members of my family to Hell, and I’m going to make sure I’ve done everything I can to stop it!”

            “Sir, you can’t replace him—”

            “Then what good are you?” yelled Fujo. “Leave!”

            “Sir—”

            “Leave! Now!”

            The malaiki vanished. Fujo hung his head and slowly began to weep. Jadi watched him, shocked by the conversation.

            “Gods damn it!!” Fujo screamed, slamming a paw onto the ground.

            “Dad . . .”

            Fujo turned his tear-streaked face to Jadi. “Jadi, I love you.”

            “I know.” Jadi sat down next to his father. “I don’t want to go back.”

            “I don’t want you to, either.”

            “Dad . . . where’s Uchu?” Fujo was blindsided by the question. He looked away, feeling guilty. “She’s . . . she’s not . . .” Fujo nodded slowly. “No . . .” said Jadi, horrified. “And . . . Nafsi? Is he . . .”

            “No,” said Fujo quietly.

            “Could you bring him in the next time you come?”

            Fujo didn’t know how to put it. “He’s . . . being bartered over.”

            “What?”

            “By the gods. Afriti wants to take him to Hell.”

            “Dad, I have to do something—he’s my son!”

            “I’ll do everything I can,” promised Fujo. He rose to leave.

            “Dad, don’t go,” pleaded Jadi.

            Fujo didn’t look at this son. He didn’t want it to be any harder. “Jadi, I’ll visit you every day. I promise.”

            “Dad, don’t leave me alone with her,” begged Jadi. Fujo walked toward the exit. “Dad!” Jadi ran after him. “Dad! The portal closed in front of him. He was trapped in the visiting room, the only place to go being toward her.

            Fujo wept silently as he walked away from the portal. He’d learned yet another harsh truth about Purgatory: it didn’t just punish the ones inside.

 

 

 

            Aiheu stepped into Nafsi’s room quietly. The malaiki and shetani came to rigid attention. As soon as the shetani saw who it was, it relaxed all signs of courtesy. Aiheu walked past them to the still cub on the floor. He stood, staring at Nafsi, thinking of how harmless he seemed.

            “Nafsi?” he asked quietly.

            Nafsi brought his head up to look at Aiheu. “Yes?” he asked, his face blank.

            Aiheu didn’t know quiet what to say. He was supposed to convince someone that he didn’t know, someone nobody knew. “My name is Aiheu,” he finally said.

            “The god?”

            “Yes.”

            Nafsi stared at Aiheu, neither of them saying anything. Nafsi finally said, “What do you want?”

            “I . . . I’m here to convince you to stay in Heaven.”

            “I have a choice?”

            “Yes. You may stay here, or you may go to Hell.”

            “That’s it? My only options?”

            “Yes.”

            “Right now I’m not exactly leaning toward Heaven. It isn’t exactly the paradise it’s said to be.”

            “I’m sorry about your—confinement—”

            “Imprisonment.”

            “I assure you,” said Aiheu hurriedly, “you may have whatever you wish.”

            “Including leaving this place?”

            “I’m afraid we cannot allow you that.”

            “I am your prisoner,” stated Nafsi. “All I did was attempt to protect myself.”

            “Protect?” asked Aiheu, confused. “Oh! No, you are not here for your actions in the restoration room. The malaiki who was injured is whole again.”

            “Then why am I here?” demanded Nafsi.

            “For others’ protection.”

            It took Nafsi only an instant to discover what he meant. “You don’t trust me.”

            “I would like to.”

            “You think I’m a killer who would do whatever he pleased if inside your kingdom, and not pay any attention to what you would say.”

            Aiheu was slightly stunned by the bluntness Nafsi used, unaware that it was one of his nuances he had, one Nafsi didn’t quite have under control, that said he felt the animal he was speaking to was a fool.

            “In a word, yes,” said Aiheu. “You see, we can’t control your actions, so—”

            “You don’t understand me,” said Nafsi coldly. “And that frightens you.”

            “It was unnerving, how Nafsi could seem to read his mind. Aiheu knew that simply came from the hyper-intelligence Nafsi possessed. Knowing where it came from, however, didn’t make it any less unnerving. “Yes,” said Aiheu. “But I really do want to trust you. If you stay in Heaven, you’d have your freedom. You could meet your family again, and stay as long as you like. You’d never want for anything—”

            “I want answers.”

            “Answers?”

            “I want to know things. I want to know everything.”

            “You only need ask.”

            A pained look crossed Nafsi’s face. “But I don’t know what to ask. I don’t understand this place.”

            “It’s very much like your home,” said Aiheu. ‘But there are different—laws that govern why things may move.”

            “It’s too slow.”

            “What?”

            “It’s too slow. Isn’t there some way to learn faster?” 

            “No,” said Aiheu. “Experience is the only teacher. It was the same at your home.”

            “But everything came—naturally. I don’t understand how these things work. I’ve been sitting and thinking and nothing makes sense.”

            Aiheu smiled. This was something he understood. “Most animals don’t have your problem. They just use Heaven’s resources, and don’t wonder. You want to know how it works, though. Completely.”

            “Knowing I’m different doesn’t solve my problem,” said Nafsi irritably. He needed to get out of this place. He felt as if he was going insane. The blank whiteness of the room gave him no way to judge distance, height, rate of movement, anything. For all he knew, he could be falling millions of miles an hour, or rushing up at the same speed. What were malaiki, exactly? And shetani? How were those portals made to and from this room made?

            Nafsi didn’t know the word stir-crazy, though he definitely knew the meaning. He just needed to do something. Anything to break the circles his thoughts kept driving around in.

            “There are others like you,” said Aiheu reassuringly. “I’m sure they’d be more than willing to help.” Nafsi was quiet. “If you’d like to switch the subject—”

            “You want me to stay in Heaven. Why?”

            “I’d . . . I don’t want to see you used to bring the destruction of billions.”

            “Explain?”

            “Afriti wants your power to help her destroy Heaven. With your aid, the Black Line may only need to make one more trip to give her enough strength to overwhelm us.”

            “And you want me to destroy Afriti.”

            “No. The last thing I would want is her . . . gone.”

            “Her?”

            “Yes. Afriti was my mate. She left after we had—misunderstandings.”

            “Just ‘misunderstandings?’”

            I accidentally insulted her. I thought she had forgiven me, but she came to talk to me about it weeks later. And there was a lioness who wanted information I had, and disguised herself as my cub. My illegitimate cub. Afriti wouldn’t stand for my ‘disloyalty.’ She took one of our sons and left forever.”

            Aiheu looked truly miserable to Nafsi. His grandmother had taught him to comfort sad animals. Nafsi didn’t think that rule applied to animals that were holding him against his will. “Did you lock her away, too?” he asked caustically.

            “I wouldn’t expect you to understand love.”

            “It’s an emotion that’s irrational at best. It’s useless for any practical purpose.”

            “There are many things that are comforting, but not needed.” Aiheu paused. “There is only one thing that I can offer you, other than freedom in Heaven. A heart.”

            “Mother didn’t leave that part out,” Nafsi said coldly.

            “A metaphorical heart. Feelings. I will be honest. I am not sure if we are capable of giving them to you. But if you stayed, we would try our hardest.”

            Aiheu looked for something in Nafsi’s features. His face was unreadable. “It’s interesting,” said Nafsi finally.

            “Please,” said Aiheu. “Think about it.” He left through the portal, the rectangle closing behind him.

            Nafsi stared at where Aiheu had left for a few moments before lying down and closing his eyes again. Freedom to move about, friends to be with, and a heart to share with them. It was more than interesting. It was tempting.

 

 

 

            Fela looked up as a malaiki entered her personal jungle. “Ma’am,” it announced, “Ilemi to see you.”

            “Bring him in,” she said, turning over and sitting up. The malaiki disappeared into the foliage and moments later Taraju emerged, looking around him in wonder. Fela smiled. Few animals had actually seen a jungle before. “Yes, Taraju?” she asked.

            Taraju seemed to notice her for the first time. “Oh, ma’am, uh . . . I came to see you about Nafsi.”

            “What, no small talk?” asked Fela with a smile.

            Taraju smiled nervously. “Sorry, ma’am. How are you?”

            The tiger goddess lied down. “Not too bad. Worried, obviously.”

            Taraju remained standing at attention. “About anything in particular, ma’am?”

            “Oh, just generally about which way Nafsi will swing.” She rolled over onto her back, embarrassing Taraju further. He felt as if he was seeing something he shouldn’t.

            “Oh, uh . . . I see.”

            Fela lifted her head to look at him. “You can lie down if you want.” Taraju looked around uncomfortably, then sat, and finally lied down. Fela grinned. “Isn’t that better?”

            “It doesn’t feel right, ma’am.”

            Fela. Not ma’am.” Taraju looked even more uncomfortable. “Or you could choose not to.”

            “Mano would never allow it, ma’am—Fela.”

            “Mano,” dismissed Fela, “has never learned the concept of relaxation. Or humility.”

            “A god doesn’t know humility?”

            “Oh, he can be humble enough. But only when the occasion absolutely warrants it.” She noticed how Taraju was looking around the jungle uncomfortably. “Don’t worry,” she said. “It’s not a real jungle. Nothing’s going to attack you.”

            “It’s not that, ma’am. It’s just . . .”

            “Foreign?”

            “Yes.”

            “Now you know how all of us poor tigers feel about your savannah.” Fela looked back at Taraju. “In fact, this is what you were nursing.”

            “Ma’am?”

            Fela.”

            “Fela.” Taraju still found the name uncomfortable.

            “Remember how you were cultivating the Outlands?”

            Taraju looked away “I’m not proud of what I did, ma’am.”

            Fela didn’t bother to correct him. “I understand. But Taraju, you were making a jungle.”

            “What? But it—it looked like the Pridelands . . .”

            “What were you most proud of? What did you work hardest for?”

            “. . . My trees. But they were acacias—”

            “All of them?”

            “No,” Taraju said quietly. “There were others. I’d never seen them before.”

            “Your grandparents had. They first made love in a jungle.” She looked up at Taraju’s stunned face. “Or was that too much information?”

            “How do you even know that?”

            “I’ve taken a lot of interest in you, Taraju. Ever since that forest, actually. You did a wonderful job, even if I didn’t quite approve of your—methods. You were very efficient.”

            “I don’t know whether to say ‘thank you’ or be ashamed, ma’a—Fela.”

            “You’re not that killer anymore, Taraju. But I’ve been watching you, looking over your family history. You come from a very long line of nobility. You would undoubtedly have been a great king, Taraju.”

            “Thank you, Fela.” Taraju lied fully down on the floor of the jungle, spreading out, the ground somewhat cooler than he was used to and the air more humid.

            “So, what did you come here for again?” asked Fela.

            “Nafsi.”

            Fela chuckled softly as she laid her head back. “Isn’t it amazing how one animal has us all in such a fuss?”

            “Fela, I want to take him back to the land of the living.”

            “Do you, now? You want to send him home? If they feared him before, I wonder what they’d think now.”

            “Fela—”

            “Just thinking out loud. Of course, I understand your logic; he’s hardly lived at all.”

            “Exactly, Fela. He’s only been a cub, and he’s been stuck in that body for his entire life. There are experiences you have when growing up, and having grown up—what?”

            Something he had said had set Fela laughing. “Listen to yourself, Taraju. ‘Experienced things’—you’ve ‘experienced’ just as much as him.” Taraju looked down at the ground, embarrassed. “And there is a perfectly good word for that; you might as well use it. Sex.”

            “Isn’t it a rather crass term, ma’am?”

            “Oh, so I’m ‘ma’am’ again, am I?” asked Fela with a smile. Taraju, I am blunt. I say what I mean. Just because Nafsi hasn’t had sex—”

            “Ma’am, it’s not just sex. It’s life. He’s never loved, never lusted, never wanted, never lost—”

            “He can’t do any of those things, Taraju. He has not heart. We have offered him one if he stays. He can love here, experience here. Wouldn’t that be enough?”

            “Ma’am, there’s something to life that you don’t have here. You can get thrills in life. You know you’ll be fine here. You won’t die; you’ll just go through some pain and a malaiki will heal you. There’s no injury, no death. There’s nothing no lose, nothing to risk.”

            “Loss isn’t happy, Taraju. Why would anyone want to feel that?”

            “Ma’am . . . it’s just a part of life. I don’t know why, but without loss, life would see a bit . . . bland.”

            Fela smiled. “I don’t know, Taraju. I’ve never lived. At least, not that way.” She turned onto her stomach and sat up. “Let me tell you something private. Something you can’t tell anyone.”

            “Ma’am?”

            “Something Mano would never approve of. You can keep a secret, right?”

            “Ma’am—Fela—I’m not sure that’s wise.”

            “Taraju, you need to know. Either that, or leave.”

            “It’s that important?”

            “Yes.”

            “Alright.”

            “Taraju, I have no soul.”

            “I’m sorry?”

            “I have no soul. Rahimu has no soul. Aiheu has no soul. Or Roh’kash, or Mano. Afriti and all of her friends have no soul. But most importantly, Nafsi has no soul.”

            “Fela, I don’t understand.”

            “Of course you don’t. Let me explain. An animal has a soul. It is the source of their courage, their hatred, their love. It’s also something an animal must have. Without it, quite simply, they die.”

            “I—I don’t have a soul?”

            Fela shook her head. “In the immediate sense, no. We have your soul. Both your half, and Akasare’s. It is with the soul of all departed animals living in Heaven. Their power protects Heaven, and that is what Afriti must destroy to assault Heaven.”

            “But if every animal has a soul, why doesn’t Nafsi?”

            “I’m not sure. I don’t know if Uchu stripped it away accidentally when she was working through his creation, or if she actually knew that animals without souls can’t die.”

            “What? But Nafsi—”

            “Died, yes. But do you know what death is, Taraju?”

            “It’s—it’s when your body can’t work anymore—”

            “Exactly. Your mind may retain all the power it wants, but your soul’s residence is in your body. And when your body becomes too weak, it can’t house your soul’s power any longer. Your soul separates violently from your body. That’s death.”

            “Just a violent separation?”

            “Yes. You die. The shock is too much for your mind to bear. Death comes.”

            “What if it wasn’t done quickly? Did you miss that in Nafsi?”

            “No. We watched Nafsi as soon as Uchu died, and Jadi was next. He died far too quickly for his soul to leave slowly. He would still be alive if his soul would have left slowly. When that happens, the result is insanity.”

            “What? Why?”

            “You are a sort of triangle, Taraju. Your body is inhabited by both soul and mind, and your soul needs your mind for guidance, just as your mind needs your soul for strength. When your soul leaves, the mind is driven to insanity. It knows something crucial is missing, because you see, your mind is utterly dependant on the strength your soul provides. It will do anything to avoid insanity. If it can, it will follow your soul. And it did. All the way to Heaven.”

            “But—if Nafsi’s dead, and he doesn’t have a soul, how is that possible?”

            “It doesn’t really matter know. But the reason I’m telling you this is so you realize the gravity of the situation. When Afriti smashes through that barrier of souls, she’s going to destroy them. And how do you think everyone’s going to feel?”

            “Oh . . . Oh, gods . . .”

            “Exactly. Your mind followed your soul to Heaven, the attachment was so great. What do think will happen when all bonds between mind and soul are destroyed?”

            “Mass insanity . . .”

            “We hope not. For the ones who have lost their souls most recently, say, in the last one hundred years, they would be better off being destroyed in the ensuing battle. It would take centuries of treatment to restore their minds. But the longer ago you died, the less of a connection your body has with your soul. You’ve been separated from it longer. Every animal will feel something, we are sure of that. But what do animals without souls have to feel?”

            “So Nafsi would come into Heaven and start slaughtering,” said Taraju grimly.

            “If Afriti had him yes. His power is enormous. I can only imagine what it would have been like if he was a tiger.”

            “What? What does that have to do with anything?”

            “His power is directly proportional to his physical strength, which in turn also feeds off his power. Sort of a vicious cycle. It was why, when he was going to have his sudden growth spurt, there would be so much more power inside of him. They haven’t told you that?”

            “Tigers aren’t any stronger than lions.”

            “Are you sure?” asked Fela with a smile. “If the lions didn’t outnumber us, I would be leader of Heaven, not Aiheu.”

            Taraju shook his head with a smile. “No. Lions are meant to rule. Tigers are just like leopards and cheetahs.”

            Fela smiled evilly. “You sure of that? Alright, here’s something. You came here because of Nafsi, wanting to let him be brought back to life, correct?”

            “I didn’t say that exactly.”

            “Taraju.”

            “Yes, that’s what I wanted.”

            “And I, as you do now, know the stakes if he does live again. It will only prolong this mess, and once he finds out what a cruel place the world is, he will undoubtedly choose Afriti. So here’s the deal,” said Fela, holding out a paw. “If you managed to push my paw to the ground, you’ll have all of my support, I swear. I’ll try to convince the others. But if I push your paw above your head, you’ll drop this idea of him returning to life.”

            “Ma’am?”

            “You said lions were stronger, didn’t you? Here’s your chance to prove it.”

            “But Fela . . . you’re a goddess.”

            “I won’t cheat,” she said with a smile. “Well?”

            Taraju stared at her paw, then placed his on top of it. Her paw didn’t move. He looked up to her face to see her smiled. He looked down at the paws and pressed down. He saw hers give slowly, being pushed toward the ground. Then, abruptly, it stopped moving down. Slowly it began moving up. Taraju pressed down harder, only slowing the movement of the paw. It passed his chest, his neck—it was up to his nose, his eyes—it was over.

            Fela smiled as she let her paw drop. “I don’t want to hear another word about resurrecting Nafsi,” she said firmly, her smile softening the words a bit. “Understood?”

            “Ma’am—”

            “You agreed, Taraju.”

            “Yes, ma’am,” said Taraju reluctantly.

            “You’re dismissed.”

            “Thank you, ma’am.” Taraju bowed and started out, then stopped. “Ma’am, what is a soul like?”

            “It’s very much like its owner. It can share the same feelings, the same passions, the same qualities of its owner. Why?”

            “Does it share—looks?”

            “Why?”

            “Have you thought that maybe . . . Nafsi is a soul, and isn’t missing one?”

            Fela smiled kindly. “You are dismissed, Ilemi.”

            “Yes, ma’am.” Taraju walked out of the jungle, back to the exit.

            “Well, Nafsi?” asked Fela after Taraju had gone out of earshot. “You think he’ll be a problem?”

            A lion walked out of the jungle behind her. One of his forelegs was not a lion’s, but a tiger’s, only a small nub of it being a lion’s leg. His black mane was large and thick, unlike the rest of his body, which seemed to be disfigured slightly in numerous ways.

            “I think he’ll follow your orders, Fela.”

            Fela turned to him with a smile. “You know, no one’s asked your opinion in any of this.”

            “I didn’t live that life,” said the lion.

            “But seeing who you are—”

            “Afriti doesn’t know I exist. I’d like to keep it that way.”

            “But think of what you could do for us—”

            “No,” said the lion firmly.

            “But Nafsi, why?”

            “Because I’m a somebody. Why should I care about a nobody?”

            “That’s awfully harsh,” said Fela. “After all, he’s—”

            “He’s nothing of mine. Please, Fela, I don’t want to talk about this.”

            Fela sighed reluctantly. “Very well. If you insist, Nafsi.”

            Afriti walked through the rectangle and nodded to the shetani. She gave no sign that she even noticed the malaiki. She walked toward Nafsi, seeing a small black creature in front of him. She sat down and watched from a distance.

            Nafsi had been pouring information into the animal for hours. It had no other function other than to sit and listen. Nafsi knew that the reason he got nowhere in his thinking was due to the fact he had no outside influence. He kept on going around and around in the same circle, not discovering anything new.

            Hence the animal. Nafsi was telling it everything he knew about Heaven and the gods, everything he had observed, all in an attempt to see if the creature could come up with a different conclusion than he had. It was a long tedious process. But the creature was inherently logical, and worked on a simple yes-no basis.

            “With that information,” Nafsi finally said, “is there any way for the portals to work?”

            One squawk from the animal. No.

            “Do you understand all of the information given.”

            Two squawks. Yes.

            Nafsi sighed in frustration. “Is there any way for this room to exist?”

            One squawk.

            “Is there any way for any of this to exist?”

            The animal was silent. Nafsi knew that it was unable to answer, and knew exactly why. He had been far too general with his question. The savannah he had been in previously seemed just like the savannah at home and was perfectly plausible. It was as plausible as this room was unreal. The animal was unable to answer honestly either way.

            Nafsi swore and destroyed the animal, black matter enveloping the protesting creature, then disappearing, leaving no trace of anything having existed there. He didn’t jump when Afriti said, “The reason you don’t understand it is because Heaven doesn’t use the same physics as where you come from.”

            Nafsi looked at her. Afriti felt as though she was being appraised. “Physics?” he asked.

            Afriti smiled. “Physics control everything. You just take them for granted.”

            “Explain.”

            Afriti thought. “What happens when you push something? Like a rock?”

            “It moves.”

            “And physics say where it moves, how fast it moves, how long it moves.”

            “It’s . . . a set of laws?”

            “Yes. They control everything. Even glorious chaos.”

            There was a pause in the conversation. Nafsi finally said, “You want to take me to Hell.”

            “Of course. I assure you, you would get much better treatment there than in Heaven.”

            “Why?”

            Afriti smiled. “Because in Hell you can have whatever you desire. If you were here, you’d be nothing better than an Illuminati. You would be a tool. I guarantee it.”

            “And you wouldn’t use me?” asked Nafsi doubtfully.

            “Oh, I would. I’d demand your allegiance. But you would be allowed whatever—and whomever—you wanted,” she said with a smile.

            Nafsi quickly knew what she meant as he glanced over her luscious body. He had no feelings for that yet. She must have known that. The offer was for later. “And you’d leave me just the way I am?” asked Nafsi.

            “There would be some changes made. All for the better. Your power in that cub body is restricted.”

            “I meant my emotions.”

            “Yes, I would help you with those, too. Your mother did an exceptional job with you, save loneliness and fear. Those would be removed.”

            “So you’d tamper with me however you like?”

            “I would repair you, Nafsi. Your mother had a dream for you; she wanted to unleash your maximum potential.”

            “I know. I’ve seen it.”

            “Seen it?” asked Afriti, intrigued.

            “I’ve had visions. Of what she meant for me to be.”

            “Of course. I’d almost forgotten . . . but how—?” She looked at Nafsi curiously. “Foresight occurs when one is constructed with a purpose, as you were. You see what they wanted for you. I’ve had some experience with it. But it’s rare . . . and never with an animal . . .”

            “The visions are wrong,” said Nafsi. “They don’t happen. They didn’t happen.”

            Afriti smiled. “You’re not what your mother intended.”

            “I’d already figured that out.”

            “Of course you had.”

            There was a pause in the conversation. Afriti finally said, “Come with me to Hell, and you could have whatever you want.”

            “So you said.”

            “But you only have to consider the possibilities. Armies at your command, your choice from any animal in Hell for torture or—otherwise. Unlimited power. You could have anything. Whatever you desire.”

            “You’d hand over Hell to me?”

            Afriti smiled. “Very nearly. You would be second only to me.” Nafsi looked down at the ground. “Whatever you desire,” repeated Afriti.

            Nafsi looked up at her. “Have you even stopped to consider what I’d want?” Afriti looked surprised by the question. “Well?”

            “But it doesn’t matter—”

            “That wasn’t the question.”

            Impudence was one thing Afriti wasn’t used to. “No,” she said, keeping her temper in check. “What do you want?”

            “I don’t know.”

            “You—don’t know?”

            “No.”

            “I see.” Afriti paused. “I’m sorry, but I’ve been wondering—do you mind?” Nafsi stared up at her. Afriti reached toward him and tilted up his chin, then turned his head left and right. She lifted up a lip and examined Nafsi’s teeth. She brought him closer and ran her paw over his body, feeling his form and an unnatural amount of muscle for a cub.

            “Very nice,” she said. “Good structure.” Her paws traced over the swath of black fur that arched from Nafsi’s right hind leg over to his left shoulder, then split to end on his left leg and underneath his jaw. Afriti’s eyes opened wide. “My, Uchu certainly has surpassed herself.” She traced the black fur until she tilted up Nafsi’s chin to see annoyance. “Was that too demeaning?”

            Nafsi knocked away her paw with his little cub one. “I’m not something to be examined. I am a prince.”

            Afriti smiled. “Not here you aren’t. Princes are nothing in Heaven, or in Hell for that matter. Of course, you would the quite the exception.” Her smile faded as she still saw Nafsi’s indolent look. “Of course, that was rather rude of me. My apologies, my little prince.” Afriti began to walk toward the exit. “Just remember, whatever you desire.”

            Nafsi watched her leave, then lied down again. Anything at all . . .

 

 

 

            “You told her what?” hissed Fujo.

            “I thought I could win,” said Taraju as way of apology.

            “She’s a goddess!

            “She didn’t cheat. I almost beat her.”

            “You lost! And look where it got you! You promised to help Nafsi—”

            “Heaven would be a good place for him. You know that.”

            “Nowhere is a good place for him! He’s growing up without parents, without friends! He needs a second chance to live!

            “Who knows what Afriti would think of to get him while he lived? There are animals that go from the land of the living to Heaven and back, but they’re exceptions. They aren’t even supposed to do that; we just can’t stop them. It’s the same for Hell. Look, Nafsi’s immortality is one thing we can’t change. If he lives, he lives forever. He might as well do it here.”

            Fujo scowled at him. “I want Akasare back.”

            “I’m sure you think I’m a spineless weakling, but—”

            “That’s exactly what I think! You won’t do anything! Haven’t you had a single bad thought?”

            “Like what?”

            “Like anything! Gods, you don’t curse, you don’t cheat, you don’t lie, and it’s driving me insane!”

            “Fujo, I’m better for this—”

            No you are not!” Taraju stared at his brother’s face. It was an exaggeration of what Taraju had been seeing in his brother’s face too often lately. Despair. Pain. Loss. “You’re not better off this way, Taraju! You’ve turned into something you never were! You weren’t meant to be this way!”

            “Fujo, if there’s anything I don’t do like I did, it’s—sin, if you want to use that word.”

            “Taraju, that’s exactly it,” said Fujo quietly. His voice bordered on the edge of tears. “You’re unnatural. You’re not supposed to be like this.”

            “Fujo—”

            “You’re not even going to try to do anything now, are you?”

            “No. But I—”

            “Oh, shut up!” Fujo turned away from his brother angrily. Taraju stared at his brother, then finally sat down. Minutes passed. Fujo finally said, “You don’t even have a single dirty thought, do you?”

            “What do you mean?”

            Fujo turned around, a grin on his face. “Just an example, have you actually noticed that Grandma is sexy?

            “What? Fujo!”

            “It’s true, and you know it. Grandpa’s a very lucky lion.”

            “That’s disgusting!”

            “Wouldn’t you love to get her alone some night and just—”

            “That’s—that’s just—”

            “What? Wrong? Don’t tell me you don’t think sick, nasty thoughts—”

            “Not like that!”

            Fujo was struck silent. “Not like that?” he finally said quietly.

            “Gods, that’s incest, Fujo.”

            “What do you mean, ‘not like that’?” Taraju was silent. Fujo sat down firmly. “Okay, you’re going to sit there and tell your brother every naughty thing you want.”

            “Fujo!”

            “Come on. Fantasized lately?”

            “I know what you’re doing.”

            “Great. Is it working?”

            “Fujo, Jadi tore my soul apart. I’m good now.”

            “Are you sure there isn’t a little bit of bad left in you? Any lustful tingles? Any urges to have someone you’re mad at whacked?”

            “Fujo—”

            “Well?”

            “Yes,” Taraju admitted quietly.

            “I knew it!” said Fujo. “Okay, what is it? And if it’s Asari or Tumai, it doesn’t count.”

            “Well . . . there are some . . . feelings . . . just toward some of the lionesses.”

            “That’s it? Feelings?”

            “You don’t expect me to have actually tried anything, do you? I have Asari to think of, and Tumai.”

            “But are you sure you should have been thinking those thoughts?” said Fujo with an evil grin.

            “No. And that’s what scares me. I thought Akasare was gone.”

            “But this is wonderful!”

            “And where did you get that from in your little head?”

            “Taraju, if you can think it, you can do it.”

            “No, Fujo, I can’t. There are consequences—”

            “—and you’re going to forget about them. Now repeat after me.” Fujo began to list off a long list of taboo, mostly monosyllabic words.

            “Fujo! Stop that!” Fujo continued. “Fujo, shut up!” said Taraju smacking his brother lightly on the face.

            Fujo stared at his brother in disbelief. “You hit me!”

            “You wouldn’t shut up!”

            “Good job!”

            “What?”

            “Taraju, hit me again!”

            “What? Are you nuts? Why would I—”

            “Because you’re a goddamn, no-good, cowardly piece of shit that can’t—”

            Wham.

            “Ow . . .”        

            “Don’t call me no-good ever again,” said Taraju, dead serious. “I am not worthless.”

            “Taraju, I think you broke something.” Fujo spat out a couple of teeth. “Oh . . . that hurt.”

            Taraju shook his head. “I shouldn’t have done that. Oh, I really shouldn’t have—”

            “Well, now you know you can.” Fujo pushed himself up. “What’s breaking a promise compared to breaking a jaw?”

            “Fujo, I promised. I can’t break it. Fela’s been so good to me.”

            “And I haven’t been?”

            “You asked me to do that.”

            Try. That’s all you have to do. Just try.” Fujo moaned slightly. “Let’s just find a malaiki and patch me up.”

 

 

 

            “I can’t believe it,” said Afriti quietly.

            “Can’t believe what?” asked Mwovu.

            “He’s an Experiment.”

            “What?” asked Mwovu in disbelief.

            “Nafsi is an Experiment.”

            “But that’s not possible. Are you saying that Uchu created something like him intentionally?”

            “I don’t think she knew what she was doing. But Nafsi bears the trace. He is undoubtedly an Experiment.”

            “No Experiment has ever had that much power,” said Mwovu doubtfully.

            “Uchu put her all into giving him power. She thought that darkness was the only kind of strength, so she gave him control of it. And because he controls darkness . . . The power he has! He consumed that entire pool of darkness. The only thing I can assume is that the body couldn’t handle the influx of power. And because of it . . .”

            “The body was destroyed. Congratulations, Mother, you’ve discovered how to kill them. And only a few thousand years too late.

            “The Experiments bother us no longer, do they? They are cowering in fear. They are just as afraid as Elchakra.”

            “Elchakra is still alive,” pointed out Mwovu. “And every one of the Mercenaries you sent after her isn’t.”

            Afriti growled at the mention of her failure. The shadowwalker had slipped through her paws ore times than she could care to count.

            “Of course,” said Mwovu reflectively, “I’m sure Nafsi could get rid of her in a matter of days.”

            “I don’t want to get rid of her. She could be an invaluable Mercenary.”

            “She won’t change.”

            “Maybe she will. All you need is the right leverage.”

            “Nafsi is our problem, not Elchakra.”

            “And we can do nothing but wait now.”

            “You don’t know which way he’ll swing?” asked Mwovu.

            “No. I don’t know what’s going through his head. Speaking of which . . .” Afriti turned to the red-tinged shetani behind her. “Draxis?”

            “Yes, my queen?”

            “How are you? Missing your brother?”

            “Very much, my queen.”

            “He’ll be back soon.”

            “Thank you, my queen. It will be nice having all four of us again.”

            Afriti nodded, dismissing him. “I can’t believe all of the just rests on one soul.”       “Strange things happen.”

            “Mwovu, I’m actually worried.”

            Mwovu smiled. “Don’t worry, Mother. He’ll choose us. He’d be a fool not to.”