Since her return from Half-Valley, life has been returned to normal for Anisa and her family. The restaurant has prospered and was left relatively untouched by the war. Thesize of the immediate family shrunk to slightly more comfortable levels as more members of it went on to various careers around Rephidim and Sinai, and there's always been plenty of work around the bar.
The only thing out of the ordinary happened a few weeks back, when a young Khatta lady with white fur came in, and after her meal presented Anisa with a pretty necklace with a crystal set into its pendant as a little extra tip. The Lapi's father insisted that she wear it to work every day after that, which was a bit of an annoyance, but it also seemed to bring in a certain measure of luck as well.
After a particularly hard evening, (another Rhian bachelor party) Anisa limped back to her room and collapsed into bed, still in her scullery clothing. Sleep came amazingly easy, and dreams soon followed.
The bunny vaguely remembers something about a sharp sensation of falling, seeing a range of seven mountains, and shrill cackling in her ears. There was a crossroad dividing seven ways, and then something seemed to grab Anisa and yank her down one of the roads. Things seemed to go hazy for a time after that, and now the Lapi girl finds herself at the foot of yet another mountain.
Like a spire of alabaster, this mountain stabs towards the sky like a great ivory thorn. A muddy village sits at the foot of it, but up towards the height of the peak is a city so beautiful it defies description. A tinny song from an out of tune instrument wafts through the air, and the stench of the smaller village makes the nose itch. One could imagine that the village at the foot of the great city grew from the garbage of the majestic place, or perhaps is simply some cast off skin of a metamorphosis.
Anisa finds herself standing on a path that looks to be made of some crimson red stone crushed into gravel. The path appears to twist through the village and then up the mountain, marking the path like a red carpet … or perhaps a vein of blood.
The braying of livestock and cackling of children can be heard from the village, and a lone beggar sits at the entrance archway with an empty bowl resting at his feet. He's an Eeee, although his wings are ragged and torn. It's doubtful that he can fly at all. There are other flashes of movement further in, as more winged figures also Eeee by the looks of it go about their daily chores and business.
Anisa clutches her head as she approaches the village, giving confused glances at her surroundings and the strange mountain. Not knowing exactly where she is or what is going on, she takes a few cautious steps towards the beggar Eeee. "Um, excuse me sir," she asks a bit uncertainly, "but… where in the name of the First Ones am I?"
The bat's head rises up to look at Anisa. His face his horrible, his mouth is toothless, and he's missing an ear and an eye. Where his nose would be, there is only an empty socket like one sees on the face of a skull. He reaches for his empty bowl protectively and appraises the Lapi with his remaining eye.
"You are at the feet of Barada," the bat finally murmurs. His voice is hoarse and yellow spittle oozes from his lips as he speaks.
The Lapi fights back a look of repulsion, and fishes in her apron pocket for any loose change she might have. "Umm, all right… and where might that be, exactly?" She gives another look around. "Is this Babel?"
Unfortunately, the Lapi has no money on her. Even the necklace she was wearing in her sleep is gone.
Anisa feels around her neck, her brow furrowing in concern. She looks to the old bat hoping for an answer, then looks through the arch into the town.
The Eeee glares at Anisa, and her face reflects in his eye like an empty mirror. "You are in the realm of the goddesses, who are held under no single land," he squeaks. "This is the mountain range of the Seven Sisters, and this is the land of Barada." He holds up a crooked hand to gesture at the upper mountain and the city it holds. "There is her city. The realm of secrets."
Two Eeee children roll in the mud with a creature that looks like a Bromthen hog. One of them doesn't seem to have any wings, while the second is missing an arm. Both of them are wearing only shreds of clothing and are covered in filth.
"Barada?" The white furred rabbit takes a step back at the bat's sudden show of anger, and blinks in confusion at the children. "Th-thanks … I guess she won't mind if I take a look in town?" She starts to make her way towards the arch, giving the ragged Eeee a wide berth.
"You have very pretty teeth," the beggar calls after Anisa. He breaks into a hoarse laugh and then falls into coughing spasms.
The village would put any ghetto to shame. The buildings are in shambles and the denizens are all horribly maimed. Perhaps this is a village of lepers? Wild chibix perch on the building tops and peer down at Anisa as she wanders though, while the villagers ignore her and go about their business. They all look blank and empty, even without their wounds.
"Uh, thanks!" the Lapi calls back, making sure to keep her large incisors hidden under her lips. Slowly she walks down the main path of the village, crossing her arms nervously as the town's mood and decor gives her spine the shivers. She looks about for any sort of tavern or inn, hoping to get some information there.
There is nothing but what might charitably be called homes. Buildings made from driftwood, putrid hay, and mud line the crimson path. The animals aren't even properly corralled, instead wandering the streets or wallowing in the filth that accumulates against the buildings. There are no signs of gardens, or smokestacks, or anything other than boxy buildings that look as though they might tumble over if an Eeee perched on one.
The two children stop in their play and eye the rabbit, whispering to one another while they size her up.
Anisa pinches her nose shut, wincing at the smells that arise from the general surroundings. She notices the whispering thanks to her huge ears, although she can't make it out, and gives a sideways glance to the children. Swiveling her large ears towards the duo, she tries to listen in.
"She doesn't have any wings… I don't want anything from her, but she does have arms," one of the bats whispers. "Yeah… girl arms," the second squeaks back with a shiver.
"Besides," he continues. "We're not allowed."
The Lapi's walk slows a bit as she hears this … interesting exchange, then she quickens her pace. She doesn't know where she is, but she knows she doesn't want to be here anymore. The rabbit decides to keep following the path, hoping that it eventually leads somewhere.
It appears to continue out the village and up the mountain. Thankfully the path will make it a hike instead of a sheer climb. Behind her, Anisa can hear the children giggling again as they splash in the mud.
An older Eeee woman smoking a pipe sits on a makeshift porch, and chuckles softly as the Lapi passes by.
Hearing the chuckle, Anisa decides to stop, making sure to keep her arms close, as well as other body parts. "Hello there, ma'am," she says to the pipe smoker, "you wouldn't happen to know who's in charge here, would you?"
The haggard woman is also missing all her teeth as well as the fingers on one hand. Her other hand holds the stump of her pipe. "In the village of outcasts? Our failure is in charge." She points to the city at the top of the mountain. "Although one could say that Barada herself is our mistress, even if she has no further use of us."
"Village of outcasts?" Anisa flops an ear forward in confusion. "If you don't mind my asking, why are you all… er, outcasts? And who, or what, is Barada?"
The bat raises an eyebrow. "You did not come here in the manner that we did, then? You did not smoke the blessed herbs?" She chuckles and shakes her head. "I should have known, you are not Eeee." She folds her stump of a hand under her shawl. "We are outcasts because we could not offer up fitting secrets to Barada … for Barada is the goddess of secrets."
The Lapi girl blinks, "A goddess? Like in the all powerful deity type sense?" She smirks, "Come on, there aren't any gods or goddesses living on Sinai. They live on other worlds, or so I've been told."
The old bat takes another slow drag from her pipe. "You are in the realm of dreams, my sweet little one. The Princess of Babel has resurrected the goddesses and their worlds and soon she shall wield their power on Sinai." Smoke curls from her toothless lips. "We came here in hope of joining the ranks of Barada, but we failed her. She still shares her secrets with us from time to time."
Anisa hugs her arms around herself even tighter, her fur standing on end at the bat's talk. "Dream … realm? So I'm dreaming?" She looks up the path again, then back to the Eeee.
"Correct. As we all are dreaming." The old woman looks back towards the village and the villagers shuffling around with their blank stares. "I wonder if my body back in Babel has fared better than my body here. It seems as though I have been here for months."
"Is that because of that … herb stuff?" The Lapi twirls one of her ears tips around her finger nervously. "I don't wish to stay here for months if I don't have to… "
"Something like that." The Eeee grins toothlessly. "I've never met anyone who has not come here willingly, so I do not know how your situation will fare. Surely if you've never heard of Barada you could not have come here to see her."
Anisa shakes her head. "No, I haven't heard of her that I know of, and I have no idea how I got here." The Lapine feels at her neck again, wondering where that necklace got to. "Is there any way to get out of here?"
The old bat chuckles. "Perhaps you should try asking Barada herself? I'm sure that the goddess of secrets would have an answer or two you might find useful."
"Does she usually take visitors?" The rabbit looks back up the path towards the mountain. "I mean, if she did this to you… "
The bat cackles. "She loves visitors, my dear." Her smile fades a bit as she rasps her tongue over her toothless lips. "I paid willingly, as we all did."
Anisa swallows a bit in nervousness, and nods to the bat. "I see … I think. Well, I suppose that's what I have to do then. Thank you ma'am, and I hope things … work out for you." With a forced smile of courtesy, the bunny swivels on her heel to once again face the path. Slicking her ears back with a sigh, she begins her trek down the road, making sure to keep a wary eye on the village's inhabitants.
The bat stands up a bit creakily. "Madame, if you are going to climb the mountain, you'll need a guide. There is a flock of chibix just up the path, pick anyone you desire."
The Lapi stops, and looks questioningly at the woman. "A chibix? I've heard of those, but how could one be my guide?"
"Hah! How can there be a Barada? How can you stroll about here in a dream?" The haggard woman eases herself back down and hugs her shawl about her shoulders for warmth. "If I were Barada herself, I would have had half of your teeth from all of these questions. Just go and find out. If Barada favors you, she will share her secrets with you."
"Have my … teeth?" Anisa covers her mouth with a paw. "I … I see … thanks." She starts quickly down the path again, her stomach sick with the desire to get the Dagh out of here.
The village isn't very big and the Lapi's swift feet soon have her on the outskirts of it and heading upwards towards the shining city at the peak of the mountain. There is a fence built alongside the path, although why an Eeee would need a barrier to keep from falling off of it would be anyone's guess. Upon it sit about a dozen chibix in varying sizes. Some look fat, some are mangy, some look old and gnarled while others look fresh and new. The rays from the sun gleam off their carapaces as their bat-like wings soak up the light and warm their bodies.
Anisa slows her walk as she nears the Chibix, and looks them over. How in the world could an animal be her guide? Then again, this is a dream. She approaches the flock, her paws behind her back so as not to seem threatening. "Um, hi there. I was told one of you could guide me to the goddess?"
"Barada!" "Barada!" "Barada." "BARADA!" the chibix all squeak. Some of the older ones sound reserved and tired, while the young ones sound eager and excited. A fat one sounds lazy, while a more skinny sounds almost like it's pleading for something. They don't seem too dangerous at least, and their mouths don't seem to have any sharp teeth inside always a pleasant sight for a herbivore.
The white furred girl winces at the loud, high-pitched squeaks, and she covers her sensitive ears with her paws. "Well, I see you all know her name. Now which one wants to help me?" She looks them over, looking for the healthiest of the bunch.
None of the beasts look intelligent, although there seems to be something odd and purposeful about them. They don't seem all that different in terms of health so much as attitude the older ones have a look of tempered experience in their eyes, while the younger ones have bright eagerness. The fat ones look rather placid … and the skinny ones look fanatical and hungry. A scarred one holds itself with the air of a grizzled veteran, and beside it a bright young chibix with a polished carapace appears to be aloof and snobbish.
Anisa hmms to herself, looking the animals over once more. Finally, she decides that it'd be best to have a guide that knows what it's doing, and she approaches the veteran. "Would you take me to the top?"
The grizzled chibix looks blankly at Anisa and then spreads its wings. It flutters into the air and lands neatly on Anisa's shoulder.
The white Lapi can't help but give a small smile as the little creature lands on her shoulder, regardless of how gruff it seems. She turns to the others on the fence, and shrugs. "Sorry guys, maybe next time." Turning back to the path, she starts off up it. "I hope you know your way."
"Barada is the youngest goddess of the Seven Sisters and is regarded as being the most mischievous. She is the patron of spies and secrets and is something of a trickster," the chibix drones in a voice that sounds a bit like a Creen repeating a practiced phrase without truly understanding what it means. "But quite often her tricks end in the death of the victim, so they are not to be taken lightly."
Anisa jumps with a start, turning her head to look at the small chibix in disbelief. She stands still for a few seconds, then starts back up the path. "I didn't think you could talk. What else do you know?"
The fence along the edge of the path follows up the mountain alongside the blood-red path. A few scrubby plants grow along its edge, but even those die out as the trail slowly winds upwards.
"I know lore of Barada, I know the history of this place, and I hold answers to some of your questions within me." The chibix pauses to preen a wing idly. "I am a construct that contains specific knowledge, although I am not a sentient myself. I am a guide and will respond to certain words or phrases if spoken to correctly."
"So, you're like one of those automaton things I've read about in my books?" Anisa asks. "Weird. Well then, how long of a journey is it to Barada's palace, and what can I expect along the way, or when I get there for that matter?"
The chibix yawns. "The walk will take approximately an hour or so by foot unless you are exceptionally fast, and as you rise higher, the mountain will grow more white and structured until you reach the City of Barada. When you reach the gate, you will be made known of the laws of the city and then allowed to wander within its walls until you find the secrets that you seek or until you leave." It speaks the final three words with a somewhat discomforting and ominous tone.
The Lapi grimaces, still uncertain if she really wants to do this. "Well, I'm pretty fast, and I love a good walk." This is easily shown by the rabbit's fast pace. "But what's the big deal with secrets? The only thing I want to know is how to get home."
"Secrets are important. Armies fall when a secret slips through a soldier's lips. Empires rise from secrets collected with care. Perhaps Rephidim will fall next, or Babel, or some other land when the Princess gains her secret." The winged creature adjusts its perch on Anisa's shoulder. "Or perhaps the Princess will fall because she did not gather enough."
"What Princess are you speaking of?" Anisa looks puzzled, "I'm afraid I haven't kept up with current events. I thought Babel had already fallen?"
"The Princess of Babel, of course," the chibix squeaks. "She murdered her husband and then took his throne, then took control of the entity known as Morpheus, and intends to use the powers of dreams to become a goddess herself. It is difficult to topple a dream. Babel may have weakened their assault in the war, but the war is far from over."
The Lapi shakes her head. "Morpheus … I thought he was just a legend too." She sighs. "Then again, I guess I shouldn't be surprised with the things I've seen." She walks on for a bit further in silence, then a grin comes to her face. "Okay smart guy, here's one for you: why am I here? I'm not one of Barada's followers, or one of the Princess's."
The chibix stares blankly at Anisa. Then … oddly … its color shifts to something darker, and hazy. Its eyes glow softly, like the necklace that the Khatta gave her so many weeks ago. Its beak parts open again to speak, but this time its voice sounds much different. "You are here … because … t-t-too weak. I need … help… " The chibix shivers. "She is growing in power, and I call those to help who have the dreaming within them. Help me … please."
Anisa halts dead in her tracks, and turns wide-eyed at the chibix, "What?" She puts the small animal in her hand, and looks it in the eye. "Wh-who are you? What do you mean?"
"I am Morpheus," the chibix says, a hint of a Khatta sounding purr in its voice. "I have been abducted and my powers are being used and twisted by the ruler of Babel and her mages." The black colors across the shell of the chibix swirl and pulsate for a moment and the glow of its eyes fades slightly. "I am a prisoner and I am being made to do things I have never desired to. I sent out my call and none have been able to weaken her … it is growing harder, and I am slowly being torn apart."
"Where are you being held?" The Lapi's long ears stand up straight in alarm now. "Are you at Barada's Palace?"
The chibix convulses and its normal color starts to fade back in again. "N-no. The Seven Sisters must be brought down … weaken them and you weaken her. The center … the tower … nnngh!" It shudders again, squirming in Anisa's hands as though an electric current were being run through its body.
"But how do I weaken her?" Anisa yells in desperation as she senses Morpheus slipping away. "I have no idea what to do!"
"Sac… ri… fice… " Morpheus wheezes and then the black color fades entirely from the chibix's shell. It lifts his head and blinks at the Lapi with its black button eyes as it squirms to roll itself upright once again.
Anisa frowns at the last bit of information she gets, just staring at the chibix as she realizes it's back to normal. "Lovely … just lovely." She sighs, and places the small animal back on her shoulder before setting off back up the mountain. Her steps are much more careful now, and her general attitude more wary. "I don't suppose you know how much further it is now."
"You are halfway there," the chibix squeaks. "Gravel paths like this are often found on sacred trails where pilgrims are not allowed to fly. It is said that on the mountain of Blakat, a sister of Barada, every pebble represents a drop of blood shed in her name."
"Lovely," repeats the rabbit with a frown, "this just keeps on getting better."