I dreamed I was a bird, a white songbird just like Pak Pak. Or perhaps I was Pak Pak in the dream. Or perhaps Pak Pak and I had always been one and the same.
I flew over great forest canopies and across untamed savannas. All the lands glowed with hues of red and purple, but whether it was dusk or dawn in this wild land, I could not tell, for two suns of equal size hovered at the edge of opposite horizons. I alighted upon the boughs of a great cedar to catch my bearings, for I recognized nothing of this place. As I sat and contemplated my strange circumstances, purple clouds above me began to roil as if disturbed by some great wind, though the boughs of the tree upon which I perched remained undisturbed. I gazed as the roiling clouds began to form, to my astonishment, the likeness of a human face.
Like thunder, the face boomed, “Petitioner, what merit do you claim that you presume to come to the Beastlands?”
I opened my mouth, or beak rather, startling myself with the piping tones that warbled from my throat, “Brother Cloud, I do not know where I am, nor how I came to be here.”
At this, I heard nearby a hooting laughter, as of a mad man, but it was no man: An orange-furred ape swung into view from a nearby tree. “Ho, ho, ho, the child does not know! Does not know!”
“Forebear from your mockery, ape,” growled a third voice, that of a great-maned lion who entered the clearing before me. He stretched and yawned in the dusky sun, before continuing, “You too were quite confused when first you arrived. Let the child make his case.”
“I do not understand what case I am to make.”
The orangutan howled with laughter, but the face in the cloud spoke again like thunder, and the ape fell silent. “The Lord of the Dead has judged you fit to pass from his City to this realm, and yet I cannot divine which god you serve that you should be granted admittance here.”
“Perhapsss it wasss a missstake,” hissed a great python that unwove its enormous length through the branches above me. She eyed me like prey, and I recoiled in instinctive dread.
“I serve them all,” I warbled, shrinking away from the great python’s predatory gaze.
“Hey, hey, hey!” laughed the orangutan. “It doesn’t work that way! He cannot stay! Cannot stay!”
“I have prayed to She Who Guides to safeguard us in our journeys,” I replied. “To The One Who Endures to help us relieve the suffering of the innocent. To the Goddess of Wisdom that I might use my abilities to their greatest potential. I have prayed to all the gods I know, in such circumstances as their aid was proper and fitting.”
“Faithlesss he isss,” spat the python as she inched slightly closer, flicking the air with her tongue.
“Perhaps,” opined the lion, “But it may also be that his worship, though ignorant, was genuine in its intent, and the Judge of the Damned was merciful in light of his sincerity. Certainly, if the Judge required of petitioners a complete understanding of the afterlife, then none would find their way here. Did we not all arrive here with a degree of ignorance?”
“Well said,” replied the face in the clouds. “But we still know nothing about how this child conducted himself in his first existence. Speak child. Make your case.”
It was then I understood. I did not remember having passed from the prime material, but I knew then that I was dead.
“I kept my hands clean of bloodshed. I caused no violence to any sentient being.”
“Death isss not bad. It isss the way of all thingsss,” hissed the python, creeping still closer.
“That is true, my sister,” replied the lion. “But the child’s intent is nonetheless a noble one for those who are able to live by such tenets. Certainly the antelope would be quite happy if I were to dabble in pacifism.” With the semblance of a wry smile, he laid his head upon his great paws.
“Hoo, hoo, too true, too true!” howled the orangutan.
The face in the cloud gazed upon me intently and I felt at once as if he was seeing that which had passed before. “But you helped take many lives, did you not?”
“None by my hands. True, I manipulated the strands of fate that I might aid my companions. I summoned creatures to do my bidding. But I myself slew no one.”
The lion frowned. “So you establish your case upon a technicality. I care not whether you killed, for indeed, much suffering could be avoided if evildoers were given a quick death. But regardless, you should at least be faithful to yourself, not attempt to assuage your conscience with such pedantry.”
“You have told us what you have not done,” thundered the cloud. “But inanimate matter, sticks and stones, these things also do nothing, and they do not rise again as petitioners. What have you actually done, child?”
At this, I thought of the siblings, Setibyr and Enalda, who had begged to return from the wilderness. I had argued that we should proceed, that the gods would safeguard our steps. I remembered the sounds as they were torn asunder in the forest.
I thought of Malakai, brained by a stone in a senseless explosion. I thought of the suffering of my other companions whom the gods chose to make whole again but who had suffered horribly before they were restored to life. I thought of the visions in the temple, the bodies tortured and violated, sacrificed for some diabolical end.
And lastly, I thought of the vile pact we had entered into in order to spare our own lives. I convinced myself that the pact would be forgiven if my intent was pure, if we could yet come to the aid of the suffering. But now, I questioned whether this was just more technicalities and self-deception.
I had sought to combat the great suffering that had fallen upon my homeland, but in the end, I could not point to anything my actions had actually accomplished.
“My heart was pure,” I said. “But I cannot say exactly what I have done.”
With this, the snake flicked the air again with her tongue, catching my scent. “Hisss sssoul, it doesss not sssmell ready.”
“Ho, ho, ho,” laughed the orangutan, “Away then he should go!”
“I concur,” yawned the lion. “But the child does show potential.”
“Indeed. This, then, is my judgment,” thundered the face in the cloud. “You shall leave this place and return to the life you knew, but know this: Make your preparations. All things must come to an end, and indeed, your end approaches quickly. Make sure, ere you next come to this place, that you have made yourself worthy.”
And with that I awoke. No harm had come to me. The dream, alas, was merely a dream. But I knew that in dreams the gods may reveal portents of future events. Regardless, this much was certain: Whether it was soon or many days from now, death would come for me, and I would need to answer for what I had done with my years upon this sphere. A judgment was coming, and I would need to prepare my soul.