The scenery as I awoke looked nothing like the Dorian bedroom that I fell asleep in. Oddly, the futon and cover were present though, and the same buckwheat pillow supported my head. But the ceiling had somehow become the stars of a gentle spring night sky. Looking to the side, a well-kept lawn within an ancient brick wall spread beyond the bedding, rather than tatami mats and ornate walls.
As in previous visits, my mind possessed a degree of clarity at which I could no longer properly call myself Tiana, thanks to the weight of far older memories. But I wondered why the reflection was not of the place where I fell asleep as per usual.
With the exception of the bedding.
“It would be rather rude to have you wake on bare grass, after all,” explained a voice I had not heard in a while.
I pushed aside the futon cover and sat up, then turned to face the HR Manager in seiza. She sat at a stone table in her business attire, with the book she had been reading while waiting for me to wake up in her hand. For a change, it was an English-market romance publication, complete with traditional bodice-ripping cover art.
“Why the outdoor setting?” I wondered.
“That would be my doing, Little Sen,” a different voice announced.
I turned to see, seated on a blanket, wearing an ancient Dorian outfit remiscent of aristocratic court costume from Ancient China, my maternal great-grandmother, the Goddess Eurybia.
She was ‘my maternal great-grandmother’ because my family attachments currently aligned with Tiana’s, even when my mind did not. Rather than my current family ties fading, my other family ties simply grew brighter, just not enough to outshine the present.
She smiled and explained, “I found that nearly empty bedroom dreadfully boring.”
Seated next to her, wearing her customary long-sleeved kimono and holding a teapot, the IT Lady asked, “Would you like some more, Senior?”
“Certainly, child,” Eurybia smiled with her reply. As the IT Lady poured, the goddess added, “And a cup for my darling junior wife, if she joins us.”
She probably had just been reading my mind, and decided to stress the relation from ten thousand years ago over the current one.
I wore only a backless chemise, so I was considerably underdressed for a tea party, but it was just us girls. A being senior enough to rank as a god in my current world had made the invitation, so I stood and went over, reflecting on my way how easily I showed skin in comparison to Tiana. My maids in the Fairy King’s Castle had provided this chemise, so the fabric was quite translucent. The light only four days after the Full Moon shone strong enough to reveal most of what was underneath.
Giving her a Dorian bow, I made a Dorian request. “While hoping to be excused for such arrogance in asking so, may I sit with you?”
“You need not be formal,” Eurybia purred the standardized reply. “Relax and take your seat, Little Sen.”
As I sat, I noted, “I really cannot claim the ‘junior wife’ title, Great-Grandmother. It feels incestuous, given this body’s descent from the husband in question.”
She waved a dismissive hand. “A minor technicality that you should ignore, Little Sen. The fairies through which your current body descends don’t mind it after that many generations.”
As the IT Lady handed me a saucer and cup, I muttered, “I mind it, though.”
The current me perceived morality through Elder eyes, not fairy.
Eurybia responded with a bright laugh.
While she poured tea into my cup, the IT Lady asked the goddess, “Senior, would it not be best to move on to our reasons for this meeting as soon as possible? Too much extraneous information could increase the entropic backlash unnecessarily.”
Eurybia tipped her head magnanimously. “Of course, dear. Why don’t you start?”
The IT Lady carefully set the teapot down on the tray sitting beside her and picked up her own saucer and cup. After taking a sip, she gave me a brief bow of the head, then stated, “Senior is correct. My matter is the more straightforward, and therefore the quicker to resolve. The managers have handed down their decision with respect to your case. Although you remain a case number under the auspices of the HR department, the Afterlife must humbly bow out of the competition for your future employment.”
“They’ve entirely given up on it?” I wondered, seeking to draw more details.
“The tutelary pantheon governing the stellar system of Huade have informed us that they remain in guardianship of your stored immortal body, and thus you remain their associate and employee until you return to the Immortal Realms.”
I smiled at the polite way she expressed it. What she really said was, ‘We don’t have anything to offer you, because you already have a body to return to.’
Newcomers to the Immortal Realm need bodies, first and foremost. Those who rise as Ascendants and condense their own immortal bodies have no issues in this regard. However, those who escape reincarnation by passing through Samsara into the Immortal Realm as Entrants are different.
Entrants must either wander the Spirit Realm or the Fundamental Realm as incorporeal spirits, waiting to stumble across a fortuitous opportunity, or enter service and earn bodies in return for their labor. The Afterlife personnel I had met so far had likely once been newcomers themselves, earning their bodies from the Afterlife organization by working entry-level jobs. Higher-ranked women like these had chosen to stay and rise in rank within the organization rather than proceeding onward into other Fundamental Realm matters.
The HR Manager spoke at this point. “You remember enough to understand, it seems.”
I looked over to her. She had an ironic curl of the lips as she took her own sip of tea.
Pressing her glasses into place, she confirmed, “You have a body in storage, and therefore no need for our help. But the door to joining us isn’t closed if you should ever tire of tutelary work and wish to work with new immortals instead. Your perspective would likely be useful, especially if you worked with my colleague, coaching prospective immortals while you’re still in the Mortal Realm.”
I glanced at the IT lady– I was now pretty sure that in the logic of this Earth-based model they were using to portray themselves, ‘IT’ stood for ‘Immortal Training’– and she nodded agreement.
“Thank you,” I told both of them. “Right now I don’t think I have recovered enough of my former mental strength to say what I will prefer when that time comes.”
The HR Manager nodded. “You are probably correct.”
I had grown a strong sense of unease as she spoke. I understood everything she said, but…
They might be mind-readers, but I put it in words anyhow. “But I refuse to believe that you bothered putting this Illusory Space together to tell me any of this. It isn’t something I urgently needed to know, by any means.”
Eurybia laughed again. “It certainly isn’t. My dear junior was simply here to satisfy her curiosity about your growing core. Her ‘topic’ was at best an excuse in order to make the readings she took while you were still asleep.”
“Senior…” the IT Lady reproved the goddess softly.
“Do you have your data?” my great-grandmother asked her.
Looking aside and looking perturbed, the IT Lady admitted, “I do, but please forgive me, as I must correct your statement, Senior. You have misunderstood our aim.”
“Alright,” Eurybia nodded, and took another sip of tea.
“We came primarily to clarify her relationship with us and you. My colleague and I have presented ourselves previously as holding a degree of authority over her. She is still very much involved in an important case, and the karmic backlash caused by a misunderstanding could become destructive.”
“After all,” the HR Manager added, “The pathway which your senior hijacked in order to ferry your junior’s soul into this world involves an existing Heroic Destiny which is very much still under contract in my department. And as she has suddenly wandered into the vicinity of a primary target location with such ill timing, we have to either cut karmic ties with her or take steps to ensure her survival.”
“Hence our emergency contact with you, Senior,” the IT Lady concluded.
Eurybia pursed her lips, growing a slight wrinkle to her brow.
Was it possible there wasn’t as much difference in realm between these people as I thought? Everything the Afterlife thought wasn’t completely transparent to the goddess?
Probably so, I realized. Tutelary associations like Oranos’s group were more or less peers to the Afterlife, neither superior nor inferior. Just because they were calling her ‘senior’ didn’t mean she was a higher realm than them.
Eurybia smiled at me. “The one you call ‘HR Manager’ is of the Second Harmonic Realm, the same as myself, but of slightly lower cultivation. The ‘IT Lady’ is of the First Harmonic, but of very advanced cultivation, so that her mind is not open to either of us.”
But all three were far above tiny little Senhion of the Fundamental Realm, as I had suspected.
“Dare I ask what makes Oseri a ‘primary target location’ that I might not survive?” I asked.
Pressing her glasses into place, the HR Manager declared, “This is difficult to explain, under our regulations.”
“Mhm,” Eurybia nodded, “And although I am not governed by those regulations, I must be mindful of the entropic backlash you may suffer upon waking. So I am going to tell you three things you must absolutely strive to remember upon waking, even if you forget all the rest.”
Hearing that, I asked, “Please wait for a moment, Great-Grandmother.”
“That’s ‘Senior Wife’, Little Sen,” she answered with a pout.
I ignored it and searched my memories for a means to overcome the Spiritual Realm, the barrier that my mind would pass through on its journey back to my current body in the Mortal Realm.
The term ‘Spiritual Realm’ put me in mind of the master of all things Spiritual in the Mortal Realm, the woman I had been for a significant fraction of my time after Senhion’s death. Summoning my personality as Fan Li, I settled my mind into a meditative state, found the right technique, then opened my eyes and nodded.
The goddess’s lips curled in delight. “You seem to have learned something new, Little Sen. There’s a mortal world that has such advanced techniques?”
“Huajie is one of the highest worlds on the path of reincarnation,” the IT Lady noted. “We often send trainees through there for their last cycle. Had someone not forcibly sent this child’s mind down to the bottom of the ladder after her life there, she would have become an Entrant.”
“Forgive this small one’s impatience,” I humbly reminded them, “this small one is awaiting your instructions.”
“Of course, dear,” Eurybia smiled at me. “Then carve the following into your mind. First, your culprit is not the fairy you met, but her father, who would be an Ascendant if he were not forcibly clinging to his life here.”
I felt a chill which probably came from the subconscious of the young Elder child that I was when awake. Tiana understood that a fairy on the verge of Ascending into the Immortal Realm was an opponent far beyond what she could face on her own.
While the curl to her lip reflected that she had read my thoughts, the goddess explained, “He reduced the matter of their bodies to mana, releasing them into Samsara. In doing so, he saved the inhabitants of this land from a far worse fate, using the only method left to him. As the fairy tried to tell you, he is not an evil being, but rather a tragic one, forced to choose the lesser of evils in an emergency.”
That chill became stronger, as I pictured the event. Every person of this town had suddenly evaporated where they stood, by a means I couldn’t comprehend. I only barely understood even the theory behind what he had done.
“Second,” she stated, “his opponent, with whom he has remained locked in combat for millennia, is the remnant of a primordial god, and the core of the power you call the ‘Demon King’.”
I almost lost my grip on the technique. I resolutely willed it to hold.
The Demon King was the remnant of one of the gods pushed out of Huade when Oranos and company took over? Even as a remnant, fallen into the Mortal Realm, he would have to be far more powerful than we had realized.
“Should the formation below this town contain four thousand four hundred forty four souls, it will activate, draining their blood and souls, compressing them into a fearsome power source for the primordial god. The Ascendant was forced into his desperate move when a large caravan of refugees arrived from the farmlands, causing the population to reach the required number to activate the formation.”
“Finally, third, the Demon King will soon realize that your blood core plus the arriving soldiers will equal blood and spirit sufficient to fill the formation, once enough soldiers arrive. He can manually trigger it then.”
She set her tea down and looked me in the eye. “If you had slept the night prior to arriving here, I would have warned you not to come in the first place. We’ve been waiting for you to fall asleep, so that we could tell you to leave town as soon as you awaken.”