Luz was torn.
She had tentacled hard for many days to get to the Shrine of the Two Divines. It had been an adruous and dangerous journey. Twice she had to hide to avoid roaming gangs of Frek out on the prowl and looking for a mate to eat. She had almost shoved a poisonous Guki plant into her eating mouth, thinking it was a harmless and delicious YoYoi vine. If she had not spotted the tell tale reddening of the skin and violently disgorged it from her feeding pappilae, she should be one very dead Axon right now.
And worse than that, it would have meant that her egg-mother had been RIGHT when she said Luz was far too young for her Pilgramage.
Luz shuddered at the thought.
That was why, when she finally arrived at the Temple, the first thing she had done was to tie one tentacle around another and shake it in the direction of her home shell.
It was the most obscene gesture she knew, and it felt good to do.
She had then proceeded up the Stairway to Peace with its alternating orange and blue stairs to the Altar of the Divine Divide, and had to make her holy First Choice of which path to take : the orange path to the all-loving nurturing tentacles of the Holy Mother of All, Magdasara, or the blue path to the writhe under the chilling stare of the Divine Father of All, Odtunta.
She’d sneered at the very question. Who in their right mind would choose to subject themselves to Odtunta’s icy glare when they they could receive the infinite compassion and sympathy of Magdasara? It was like asking someone which they enjoy more, a jagged coral spike up their vent or a soothing massage.
She also sneered at all the tales she had heard of Axons and Ebbebbies agonizing over their Choice for days or weeks or even months. She had even heard the old water chestnut about the Axon – it had to be an Axon, Ebbebbies were too pragmatic – who had starved to death with his body half on the Odtunta side of the Divide, and the other half on the Magdasara side.
It was called “the Annal of Grukl the Divided” and Luz had thought it was completely absurd and an obvious fabrification.
How hard could it be to choose between pain and love?
One hundred percent confident about her choice, Luz turned resolutely towards the Magdasara stairway, with its soft stairs and gentle slope, and tentacled up those orange stairs without looking over at those harsh blue stairs at all.
After all, she was no fool!
She arrived at the top of the stairs feeling wonderful.
All the way up. she had been encouraged to keep climbing. Every other step seemed to have a Talking Mouth of the Goddess on it telling her she was doing great and how special she was and how wonderful it was to have her on this side and how absolutely delighted the Great Mother would be to see her.
And if they weren’t saying nice things to her, they were doing nice things to her. One energetic haba-male had given her a flawless tentacle cleaning and stretching without slowing her upward journey one twitch.
He had even entertained her with funny stories she was probably a little too young for, but she was finally being treated like an adult and loving every minute of it.
The last thing she wanted to do was jeopardize everything by getting prudish.
She was sure adults talked about knotting and ties all the time. They weren’t afraid of the subject. So she wouldn’t fear it either!
The squirmy bubbles in her foregut told a different story, however.
And it had been so funny seeing this silly haba-male tentacled up the stairs backwards while talking a fathom a minute and grooming her so well.
She missed that silly haba-male already. She wondered what his haba-mate looked like. Probably just as handsome and charming, she decided.
When she finally made it to the top of the stairs, she saw Magdasara Herself standing there with her back to the stairwell. And her figurines did not do her justice – not even the almost life sized one in her sector’s Hub.
From the supple thickness of her tentacles to the gentle ripples in her oral papillae to the way she swayed a little in the current like she was too too gentle to hurt the waves by fighting them, everything about her was bountiful and beautiful and welcoming and wondful and magical and motherly and just, well…. perfect!
At the sound of Luz’s bubbling, she turned to Luz and said “Luz! It’s you! I am so happy to finally meet you! I have been watching you since you were born, and I must say that not a day went by when you did not amaze me with your intelligence and resourcefulness. On half of me and all my tentacle-maidens, I welcome you to my realm of Ut, and bid you to join our happy family as one of its most cherished members.
If Luz did not answer right away, it was not due to indecision but to simple awe. Seeing her from behinjd had been astonishing. But having her turn her all-loving gaze upon Luz and to feel her warm and gentle currents wash over you left Luz agog and completely unable to make her talking mouth move.
Magdasara waited patiently and without judgment, of course, and when Luz finaklly managed to make her vibrissae move again, she said yes over and over again at least a thousand times, and when she was done, she touched her tentacle-tips to the Great Mother’s – which felt like a years woth of love all at once to Luz – and was whisked away by affectionate attendants to her cozy little shell. where, she was sure, she would be spending her entire Pilgramage week.
After all, what could possibly be better than THIS?
It took her a long time to realize she was sick of it.
All the niceness, and gentleness, and sweetness really made her sick to her foregut now. She longed for something – anything – that had some edge to it. Something real. Something hard. Something harsh.
When the discontent began, she had ignored it, figuring it was some remnant of social progamming from her school days (which had ended three weeks ago). Some of that stupid “be productive, stay busy” milt.
Well she knew just what to do with that kind of outmoded thinking : ignore it till it withered up and died. That was the plan, and that is what she was going to do.
But it didn’t shrivel and it didn’t die. It just got worse and worse.
Then she decided that the problem must be her. She was doing something wrong. There was a way to keep all the gentle pleasure and soothing talk fresh and fun and vital and she just didn’t know it. Surely that was the only possible solution.
So she asked around. But that went nowhere. The attendants and enunciators and such tried their hardest because they wanted her to be happy, but they didn’t seem to be capableof understanding the question.
For them it was simple : what they did was happiness. Ergo happiness was the things they did. So to them, what Luz was asking “what do you do when being happy isn’t making you happy any more”.
It was then that she began to realize that they were all fairly stupid. Sweet… but stupid.
So she decided to study the problem on her own. She had always excelled at the Knowings and the Learnings, and Regular Investigation was her very best subject. So she was confident that she could deduce the error in the pattern and fix it, and then everyone would say how smart she was for making things better for everyone forever.
She could see the painted tentacles squirming already.
And that had kept her busy for a few days. The attendants didn’t know quite what to make of their bright young inquisitor, but they cheerfully cooperated and answered her questions and let her perform her experiments.
Still, the more investigating she did, the more frustrated she got. She knew their had to be some way to get back to happiness but she just couldn’t FIND it.
She was on her second-last day of Pilgrimage when the frustration andanxiety got so bad that she had to stop before she tied herself into a knot.
And now she sat at the Divide, torn by her last Choice, not sure which side to choose.
When she had left the Great Mother’s side, she had not had such doubts. By that point, she had fully decided that she was going to go over to the Odtunta side at least once to see what it was like.
After all, she said to herself, it couldn’t be worse than this.
It was a decision she regretted almost immediately.The moment she left Magdara’s realm she was gripped by a clinging panic as all that warmth and love and simple pleasure started to ebb away until she was left, feeling wretched. in the exact same state she was in when she arrived.
She really, really wanted to go back. But her pride wouldn’t let her. If she went back now, she would be admitting defeat, and that went against every flap of tissue she had.
She had to try the other side at least once, or she would lose all respect for herself.
And that had helped her get to the Great Divide. But now she was torn. She couldn’t climb the Orange Stairs again – they sickened her now. But the blue stairs up to Odtunta’s realm still scared her. Everything she had heard about that journey made it sound like a nightmare. So she couldn’t choose the blue route either.
Now she believed that story about the Axon starving here. It made sense to her now.
But Luz was not the sort of Axon who can tolerate indecision for long. So eventually, she found herself unconsciously drifting towards the Blue side, and she got her first taste of Odtunta’s cold realm.
And she recoiled from the shock. It was awful, simply awful. She had been insane to even think about doing this. She retreated back to the Divide and cowered there for a while, staring into the Blue, and fearing it.
The panic subsided over time, and as it did, Luz came to a startling revelation :
That cold water had actually felt… good.
But in a way that she had never encountered before. The cold water had woken her up and made her feel more alive. It had made her feel more real, somehow, and cleaner. Like she’d been a sleepy child wallowing in its own silt before, and now she was awake, grown up, and clean.
It made her feel strong. It made her feel alive. It made her feel POWERFUL.
And she wanted MORE.
And it was in that sprit that she began her journey up the blue stairs. And it was hard and it was merciless and it was challenging. And in the beginning, she had done a lot of crying at how cruel and unfair it all ways and wondered why the Father of All hated her and wanted her to suffer.
But gradually, that attitude faded away. And as it did, she discovered she was glad to see it go. She despised that whimpering little egg-clutcher now, and so she ignored it till it withered up and died.
And this time, it worked.
After that, she was a changed person. Instead of bemoaning the cold, she welcomed it. Thrilled in it, even. And the difficulties that had seemed overwhelming to her at first were now what she lived for. She tackled them with pleasure, pushing against them till they fell and using their corpses as fuel for the next fight.
And throughout it all, that feeling of power and strength grew, and turned into a feeling of confidence, certainty, and above all, focus. Her previous life now seemed like a dull blur to her. This new life was sharply defined and richly detailed. It was far harder than her old life, but that’s what gave it meaning.
Every stair was a victory. Ever seemingly impossible obstacle she overcame gave her an exultant pride that was beyond measuerment. Every time she swallowed all the harsh truths the attendants screamed at her and came back for more, she felt herself growing stronger and leaner.
It was in that frame of mind that she stepped, without hesitation, under the harsh blue light of Odtunta’s dreaded Eye, which would judge whether she was worthy to enter into his presence, or just another broken drek unsable to face life.
And it hurt. It really hurt. Being under the Eye felt like she was being burned and frozen at the same time. It felt like she was dying. It felt like there was a malevolent force with evil intent pursuing her with unspeakable intentions. It touched and poked and prodded every tender spot, every protective scab, and every chunk of fossilized scar tissue in her mind and then flayed it away with ruthless efficiency. It felt like the ultimate prosecution of her life, and the prosecutor knew all her weaknesses and shames, and was prepared to use every single one of them to maximum effect.
It was, in short, the worst thing she had ever felt, far worse than she could have ever conceived of feeling.
She loved every minute of it.
Finally, the crisp and precise voice of the Eye said “You are ready. “, and the beam turned off. A door opened behind it, and Luz walked in with total confidence – real confidence. not the ignorant kids she had indulged in before.
And there stood Odtunta in all his spare and brutal glory. He was staring right at her when she came into his realm, appraising her, judging her, determining her worth.
“You need to understand something. ” he eventually said. “You are not special. You are not unique. You are not better than others. Nor are you worse. You will find no comfort and understanding here. There will be no excuses, no exemptions, no special considerations, no cheating, no begging, no pleading, no special dispensations, no extentuating surfaces, and absolutely no wiggle room. In my realm, you strive or you die. There are no other options. Undertood? ”
“Yes. ” said a grinning Luz.
“Good. ” snapped Odtunta. “Then your first lesson can begin. ”
And that’s when Luz’s education truly began.