Exiting the next portal, Mayumi stumbles, her senses confused by what she sees. Ahead of them the grey-and-red bricks of the path curves up...and up and up until it loops above them... And she holds Sky’s hand almost painfully hard as she sees people walking on the path directly over them, meters away, chatting and gesturing animatedly, blithely upside down.
She looks around further, crouching slightly, trying to get her body to realize what her mind is beginning to grasp: that she's not going to fall off the path, and that the fettucini-like loops of the brick paths she sees all around them are not going to collapse. People, carts, animals travel the paths, and swooping among the curls are winged people. She focuses on them and sees some are flapping artificial wings, while others appear to be sporting real ones that grow out of their shoulders. Some of these look like angels, while others have the heads of hawks, and clawed feet as well – Garuda! There were paintings of them in the local temple in her old neighborhood.
“It takes some getting used to, I know,” says Sky as they begin to walk. “But it’s a very safe place. How do you feel?”
She forces herself to stop crouching and her ears to stop pressing flat down the back of her head. The Garuda flying overhead – and underneath as well, she now sees – don’t help. Something about their raptor-like nature makes her think of rabbits being seized by merciless talons and carried away.
But she says, “Fine. A bit disoriented, but not sick if that’s what you mean.”
“Good. Let’s just walk a little while. If you start to feel strange, tell me instantly, all right?”
As they walk, she nods, brow furrowed. Why does he keep asking her how she feels? She looks around at the scenery, the ground far below their feet...and sometimes above, as a large island of rock and soil floats slowly overhead. There are houses on it. How do the non-flying people get to it? she thinks.
Then another thought strikes her. She pulls her hand free of his and steps in front of him, blocking his path.
“Why are we visiting places that are more magical each time? Is this some kind of experiment?” she demands. “Did you cook this up with Syron? Are you testing my tolerance for magic?”
Hoping for an immediate denial and some sort of reasonable explanation, she feels her heart plummet when he looks guilty and pauses before answering.
“Demons!” she curses. “Is that what I am to you? A lab rabbit? I thought...I thought we were–” She can’t finish.
“Save it!” she shouts at the top of her lungs, blinking back tears. “You don’t owe a mere mortal any explanation, right? We’re just toys to you anyway, here today, dead tomorrow! Why should a god like you care what we think?!” She shoves past him and strides back toward the portal, forcing herself not to run.
He catches up to her as she stands before the portal – this one decorated with bas-reliefs of flying beings – her head bowed, ears laid back, trembling with fury. She can sense Sky standing behind her. Finally she growls out, “I can’t remember how to operate it.”
“You need a ticket,” he says gingerly, as if hoping not to trigger an explosion.
She just stands silently for awhile, letting the moment drag out. Finally he says, “It’s not the way you think.” When she doesn’t reply, he continues. “Syro doesn’t know about this. Nobody does but Alma. It’s not...an experiment, exactly.”
Still not looking at him, she enunciates each word. “Then. What. Is. It?”
He hesitates. “I’ll tell you...soon. You need to trust me.”
She twists to look back at him, her face furious, eyes red-rimmed. “You want me to trust you?”
He takes a deep breath, looking very tired. “Yes. Please. Just...we have to go somewhere else, and I’ll explain. I was going to, but...I can’t, here.”
She glares at him. Finally he says, “Mayumi…”
She turns her face away from him, to the portal. “Let’s go.”
“We have to be touching as we go through,” he says.
“Fine.” She holds out her hand. He takes it. They step through.
They appear in a large station with a bank of portals to either side. Dozens of people are queueing up, passing through, coming in and going out. She ignores the surprised looks that her ears draw from a few passersby.
She is about to demand an explanation when Sky tightens his grip on her hand and pulls her along. “Quickly! We have little time!” His urgent tone prompts her not to drag her feet despite her anger at him, and he pulls her to a door that reads “Station Personnel Only.” Pushing right through it as if he has every right, they enter a corridor and he shuts the door behind them.
In the dim light he says, “Hold still, please.” Then he murmurs something in a language she doesn’t recognize, something creaky and ancient-sounding, and she feels his finger trace something on her forehead. She feels a wetness left behind, and then sees him do the same to his own forehead. Her eyes are sharp even in the dim light, and her keen nose catches a whiff of the dark liquid. Blood. He put blood on me! Raised to think of blood as something unclean, she shudders in revulsion. Being a herbivore just makes it worse. But then the spell he is casting is finished.
He looks tired, even more than before. “This is a low-magic ward,” he says. “It takes a lot more mana to fuel a spell.”
“Then why does it have a major portal station?” she asks.
“Strategic convergence of dragon lines… Anyway, not important right now. How do you feel? Sorry...I need to know!”
“I...I feel fine, physically.” Except the smell of blood makes me want to gag.
“Are you sure?” he insists. “Not lightheaded? Nauseous? Suddenly tired?”
“No...well, I do feel a little sick, but it’s the blood...I don’t like blood. Anyway, did you cut yourself or something?” She doesn’t like how exhausted he looks.
“Let’s go,” he says. “We have to hurry. Walk swiftly, but don’t run. I will explain everything in a few minutes.”
They leave the corridor and walk purposefully to the portals. He picks one without a queue and heads straight for it, looking neither left nor right. He reaches out his hand; she takes it. They step through.