To Know You
In the end, neither of them was willing to tell Brine about what had caused them to spiral into such a terrible mood. He seemed confused and maybe a little irritated by their silence, but eventually he just shrugged and said, “Suit yourself. If you can’t sort yourselves out by the time the goddess gets here though, I’m sure she’ll do it for you.” Brine began to clean the fish in the kitchen while Shane picked at his nails, fighting the urge to nibble on them like he often did in the military.
Maya stood and bumped Brine gently in the side as she began to help him prepare the food. “I can handle this myself. I don’t need the help of a goddess,” she said stubbornly.
“It can’t be helped,” Brine said. “Gariel is a busybody. She likes to make sure everyone within the forest is taken care of, and that includes you.”
This was a situation Shane wondered how Maya would handle. She wanted to slay the gods, but how many? Which ones? Would she slay all of them indiscriminately? Faced with a god that embodied admirable qualities, what would she do? Maya said she wouldn’t attack the goddess, but Shane didn’t know if she planned to wind back here later after fighting Sasha to defeat her or not.
Shane also found himself curious about the goddess. He had never met a god before despite how much they could influence mortal lives if they wanted to. The war he fought in was undoubtedly the work of a god, he imagined. He had met the king of the kingdom he was fighting for, and his reasoning for the war was vague at best, and the sheer success of his maneuvers couldn’t be by his hand alone.
Whoever that god was, they were the reason Shane had to fight, and to kill. They were a god that even he could admit rightfully deserved to be slain. In this case, however, he wondered if he would feel the same way.
Shane looked up curiously. It sounded like it had come from the door. Neither Maya nor Brine had noticed, too busy with the cooking, so Shane got up and carefully tip toed around the pool to open the door.
He was met with a torso covered in clay and moss, unable to see a head if there was one from his place at the door. “Can I help you?” he asked politely, as if this was his own home.
“You don’t sound like Brine. Are you a guest?” a surprisingly soft voice said. It had the chill of a fall breeze yet the sweetness of a bubbling stream.
“Yes. We just arrived here today. You’re Gariel?”
“That’s right. I’m here to have dinner with Brine. May I come in?”
Shane looked at her massive form. “Will you be able to fit?”
She chuckled, and Shane saw flower petals drift to the ground from her lips as she knelt down on one knee and peeked in through the door, one big green eye staring at him.
“Not to worry. I can change form as needed. It seems like you will struggle more than me. You’re quite big for a human.”
Shane watched in fascination as vines began to wrap around the feet of the goddess, encompassing her whole body and then revealing her in a new smaller form. While she was still quite tall, at the very least she could now fit through the door, even if she had to bend down a little.
Now that he was able to look at her, he found her to be quite fascinating. Her hair was made of Banyan roots, frail looking and brown as they fell to her ankles. Her eyes were sharp like a snake, and they were a bright spring green. Her armor of clay had shrunk with her, and there was moss sticking out of parts of her body, as if they were growing from inside her.
So, this was a goddess.
She took a deep inhale and walked in. “Mmm, smells like fish. My favorite. Brine, are you here?”
Brine poked his head out from the kitchen. “Gariel! Glad you could make it. I’d like to introduce you to these two.”
She sat down at the table and stretched out her back. “Let’s do that over food, shall we? I haven’t eaten anything but the morning dew today.”
“I keep telling you to let the bees make some honey for you to snack on too…. I’m sure they’d be happy to do it for you.”
“I treat the bees like their own little nation; their own queen comes first. I can’t just impose on them as I please.”
“That’s quite accommodating of you,” Maya said, placing the food on the table and giving the goddess a meaningful stare.
Gariel paused. “Somehow, that doesn’t sound like a compliment.”
“I don’t tend to compliment gods for doing the bare minimum, no.”
Shane put his hands to his face and sighed. “Maya, please…she hasn’t done anything to warrant this.”
“You stay out of this!” Maya said, glaring at him in warning. “I get to be the judge of that, not you.”
“Maya? I see, so that’s you…I thought I’d heard that name before.”
Seeming rather unbothered by Maya’s mounting anger and the terse conversation, Gariel pulled the plate of fish toward her and put the roots of her hair in the fish. They quickly took root and covered the fish. A green glow came from the tips, and in a matter of moments, the fish was gone. “G’Ahh, that really hit the spot!” Gariel said, a contented smile on her face. “I apologize for my rudeness, I was positively famished. Would you care to introduce yourselves properly?”
“I’ll go first,” Shane said, trying to avoid Maya getting into a fight with her. “I’m Shane Inoue. Maya’s second-in-command, and her…” Shane faltered.
“Fiancé,” Maya finished for him. “He’s my fiancé.”
“Right,” Shane said weakly, not expecting her to actually accept that he was her fiancé. Did she really see him that way? He could hardly believe it.
“Shane…you have a curious energy.” Gariel put a hand on his face, the texture of it like soft moss. “You poor thing,” she whispered, “your heart tells me of your suffering in detail.” She pulled away and looked at Maya, an eerie glow in her eyes. “Have you come here to kill me, like you will the rest?”
“Did you just read his mind?” Maya asked, shocked.
“I have the ability to communicate with the hearts of all living creatures. Your Shane here is one of them. Now, answer my question.”
Maya put a hand over her heart. “I’m not here to kill you, no. We’re just passing through here on our way to Lumiere.”
“To kill Sasha?”
“…to slay him, by whatever means necessary.”
“For what purpose?”
“To free the people under his oppressive rule and become a goddess in his place. I am the leader of Bai Hu, the cult that will fulfill the prophecy by overthrowing the gods and ushering in a new world of peace. To do that, I need to defeat evils like Sasha.”
Gariel pushed herself up from the table. “Regardless of who they are as people? Will you kill indiscriminately, just on the basis of godhood?”
Maya didn’t answer her right away. “I will take away their godhood, but that does not mean taking their lives. At worst, I would kill them, and at best, I would take their divinity and force them to become mortals.”
Gariel didn’t seem to have any more questions as she put her hand on Shane’s arm and pulled him to his feet. “Sorry, Lady Maya. Please let me borrow him for a while. After that, there is something important I’d like to discuss with the both of you. A favor if you will.”
Maya folded her arms and titled her head, letting the tension of the interrogation pass over her like the kites the kids flew in the village. “That’s fine with me.”
Gariel offered her a smile. “Now come,” she said quietly to him, gently nudging him to the door as she did so.
The evening sunset warmed his cheeks and bathed the forest in a golden glow as she unhurriedly pulled him along. Shane tried not to tense up as they finally stepped into an alcove of trees, a particularly old and regal one twisted in knots in the middle of the thicket.
Gariel finally let him go and turned around to face him, almost like they were about to have a showdown. Shane didn’t know what she wanted or expected from him, but he imagined that whatever she had seen in his heart was something she wanted to discuss. At least, he hoped this wasn’t just an excuse to isolate him and kill him.
Though Shane also wasn’t personally thrilled by the idea of talking about his heart either. He was tired of talking, tired of agonizing about the path he was following and how his relationship with Maya fit into all of that. He had already talked to Master Terra and found few answers for himself except that he wanted to try for Maya’s sake to stay by her side and love her.
“Why did you bring me here?” Shane asked, shifting uncomfortably.
“I’m worried for you. The path Maya is walking doesn’t seem like what you want. If you fear for your life, you can always stay here. I will do my best to protect you. You have a tender heart, despite the harshness of your life. If you stay here and live in this place, I can preserve it, and I promise you won’t ever have to fight again.”
“Why not? Because she was your fiancé?”
“Because…she needs me. Her memories are scattered, and so is the person she was. Her only connection to the past is me. “
“I understand,” Gariel said, giving up much more easily than Shane expected.
“Thank you,” Shane said, feeling relieved and pleasantly surprised at the lack of forcefulness.
“Still, the path you have chosen will be difficult,” she said, raising her hands high. A glow came from her fingertips, and the fall leaves of the giant tree that were blowing back and forth in the wind transformed into birds. They continued to sway with the wind as they perched on the tree. Their feathers were a mixture of yellows, browns, and reds, creating a visage of fall leaves as they took their new forms.
Gariel whispered something underneath her breath and the birds took flight, circling the evening sky with freedom and effortlessness. The cold nipped at Shane’s nose as he looked up at them, in awe of the way they passed from breeze to breeze with only a slight shift of their bodies.
“Even if your relationship seems like it’s on the verge of dying, it can still take on a new form, and a new life.” Gariel smiled at him. “As someone who has gone through a similar experience myself, I want you to know that.”
Shane felt tears fill his eyes. “Are you saying I have to let go of what we had?”
“I’m saying that even if you let go, things will be okay. Don’t be afraid. The advantage of letting go of an old form is finding a better, more beautiful one. So, look forward, and create something even better than what you had before.”
She rested a hand on his shoulder. “If you can’t fight with your fists, at least fight with your heart, Shane.”
Fighting with his heart for the future. Shane hadn’t thought about it quite like that. He had been thinking about Maya’s grand plan, and her future, but not what their relationship would look like in that future. Shane had one thing piling on the next, all his problems related to navigating their relationship in the present in light of what happened in the past.
Gariel was right. He couldn’t just be staring down at his own feet taking their relationship step by step when he couldn’t even see the path he was walking on. Shane closed his eyes and tried to imagine what future he wanted with Maya, their current circumstances notwithstanding.
It wasn’t clear at all in his mind. All he saw in his future was the Cavity Combs, the cult members, and at the end of it all, Maya, with a wedding ring on her finger.
It really wasn’t much of a future, the hows and whys not clear to him, but it was something. “I want…to marry her,” Shane answered slowly. “I want—I want to marry her. I don’t know about the rest, but with Maya…I know what kind of relationship I want.”
“I think for now that is more than enough,” she said kindly, “and I will help you achieve that future, in whatever way I can.”
“Why would you help me?” Shane asked.
“That war you fought in…the one that Maya rescued you from…many were using wicker bears as weapons, or cavalry at the time. I tried to fight the gods involved but wasn’t able to prevent it from happening. You protected them, taking them to whatever forests you could find and releasing them. They eventually found their way back here.”
Suddenly, several wicker bears entered the thicket, their eyes glowing as they sat down in a circle surrounding him. They roared, the sound making his armor shake.
“We have wanted to thank you for a very long time for what you did. We planned on rescuing you from that place, but Maya arrived there and did that for us. If we opportunity to help you now, then we will. Even if that means fighting the gods for your future.”
Shane had totally forgotten about the wicker bears in the war. He really hadn’t thought about their connection with Gariel when he had done it, and that was probably for the best. He wasn’t in a place where he was exactly fond of the gods at the time.
“Thank you,” Shane said, turning to address all the bears, whose jaws crackled like sticks underneath his feet as they opened their mouths wide to roar.
She walked up to the tree and sat down underneath it, the birds that were flying in the air once again settling on the tree and swinging in the breeze. “Go rest. I will talk to you both in the morning about the favor I had in mind. Hopefully it will benefit us both.”
“Shane!” Maya cried as he shut the creaking door of the cabin behind him. “Are you okay?” she asked fussing over him and looking for signs of injury.
Shane smiled. “I’m fine. Better than fine, actually. Where’s Brine?”
“Sleeping in the lake,” she said as they moved into the living room. It was quite large, and they sat on the couch made out of luxurious pelts and enjoyed the softness against their skin.
“He’s interesting. I like him,” Shane said.
“Well, you have always been good at dealing with all kinds of people. At least, from the little I seem to remember,” she said, suddenly becoming sad. Just before he could say anything she quickly pulled herself out of it, looking back up at him and smiling. “So? Something good happened, right?”
Shane laughed. “You could say she gave me a pep talk.”
She raised a brow at him. “Really? A pep talk about what?”
Shane leaned down and bumped their foreheads together. “About our relationship.”
She didn’t move for a long moment, as if her movements had been slowed by magic. Eventually, she seemed to regain her faculties and stroked the back of his head while making a noncommittal hum.
“I know the past may not come back to you, but whether it does or doesn’t…I still proposed to you.”
“I’m sorry I don’t remember,” she whispered.
“You don’t need to,” Shane said, pulling away so that he could look her in the eye. “I’ll ask as many times as it takes.” He leaned down and kissed her on the forehead. “Marry me, Maya.”
“Are you sure?” she asked shakily. “I’m not forcing you to say this, am I?”
“No, you’re not. This is something I want for my future. Will you grant me that, goddess?”
Maya leaned up and kissed him on the mouth, their lips lingering for a along time. Shane had missed kissing her, the feel of her soft lips against his something he had been yearning for desperately for so long. Eventually they pulled away, both of their eyelashes fluttering. “Yes,” she said, still staring up at his lips. “I always grant the wishes of my faithful followers, you know.”
Shane gathered her in his arms. “Then kiss me again.”
And she did.
Gariel came the next morning and seemed pleased when she saw Shane and Maya holding hands as they sipped tea at the kitchen table. “I’m glad our talk helped. You two look adorable together.”
Shane tried to slip his hand out from under Maya’s, feeling embarrassed, but she refused to let go of his hand. “I don’t know what you said to him, but thank you,” Maya said. “Also, I’m sorry if you felt threatened by me yesterday. I’m really only after the worst gods right now. While being the god of everything is the ideal, I don’t mind having lesser gods underneath me to carry out my will, as long as I deem them trustworthy.”
Gariel chuckled. “You’re extremely confident. While that can be a good thing, I’d like to see back up your words with some action.”
“What did you have in mind?”
“Did Brine happen to mention the Longest Conversation in the World to you?”
“Yeah, he did. He didn’t really explain anything, but he did say he was going to show it to us.”
“The Longest Conversation has been going on for centuries between the god of Stubbornness and the goddess of Determination. They got in a conflict long ago to protect their peoples and they haven’t stopped to this day. I’ve tried to interfere before, but I don’t want to put the children of the forest in danger, and I don’t typically specialize in offensive magic.”
“So, you want us to break up their fight, basically.”
“Yes,” she nodded. “Both of them are friends of mine, and a lot has changed over the years. If you stop them from fighting, I would be very grateful.”
Maya turned to Shane. “I don’t have a problem with that. Shane?”
Shane stroked her hand thoughtfully. “It will prevent us from getting to Lumiere sooner, but it will be a good opportunity for you to test yourself. Besides, Gariel wants to help me thanks to something in the past, and I’d like to help her again if I can.”
Maya smiled. “That settles it, then! When should we leave?”
“Right now, if possible. While Brine would normally take you, he tends to sleep in 24-hour periods so I will guide you there.”
Shane stood. “Alright, then let’s go.”
The place Gariel was taking them to actually wasn’t in the forest, as she told them while directing them down a path that led out of the forest. Once they exit the path, the area expands into an open clearing with a giant depression in the middle of it. The area was riddled with plateaus that looked like they had been part of mountainsides in the past and were now a mild earthquake away from crumbling part.
The entire area was completely desolate, a striking contrast from the lush forest and fields Shane had been traversing recently. Suddenly, two figures zoomed out from the hole in the ground, weapons clashing against each other as they to their fight into the air, looping and zooming around while paying frighteningly little attention to their presence.
Gariel pointed up at them. “That’s them. The goddess of determination is Riolet, and the god of stubbornness is Stendle. Both of them primarily use magical weapons but as you can see, they also know how to fly and other magical skills.”
“I don’t even think blasting my fire at them right now would get their attention,” Shane mumbled, impressed and also a little disturbed by their intense focus.
“They’ve gotten used to my presence and attempts at interference, so they can readily ignore that. I don’t think you and Maya are quite so easily ignored, though.”
Shane was going to have to fight again. It wasn’t something he wanted, but for the sake of his future, he would do it.
It seemed that Gariel knew exactly what he was thinking, because she gave him a soft whack on the back of the head. “This isn’t a fight, Shane. Don’t think of it that way.”
“Then what should I think of it as?” Shane asked, feeling confused.
“It’s called the Longest Conversation in the World for a reason. Instead of talking, they use their weapons to communicate with each other. So, don’t fight. Go have a conversation.”
Maya and Shane looked at each other nodded. “Let’s do this!” she yelled.