Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
My mind floated through a vast expanse. Thick as stew, the space around me glittered with uncountable stars. It reminded me of the astral plane, but it wasn’t. Not because Tamiyat’s toxic influence was absent, but because the fabric was a warm velvet, whereas the astral plane was a black satin. Ghostly comets traced their journeys across the region, their milky tails smearing the cosmos. Galaxies whorled, though a few were cerulean halos with flashing golden centers.
Centerpiece of this vastness was a small girl sitting in a depression of darkness, singing a hushed song. Her hair, sparkling tails like the arms of a galaxy, spread behind her, the tips blurring in a way that made it hard to tell where her hair ended and the ether began. Despite her size, her presence filled the celestial realm. But it wasn’t just her aura. The girl herself seemed to dwarf all around her. It was a strange feeling to reconcile with what my eyes told me.
Her fingers trailed through a universe at her feet. Dust scattered from its limbs, stars bouncing off her nails and each other. Her small smile, soft on her young face, was the twin of the Spinster’s, and the girl herself could have been the Prime in her youth for how striking the resemblance was. But if this girl was her sister, she seemed the nicest of the bunch.
I waded through the thickness around me. Flashes of light in my peripherals told me I must have stumbled through a cluster of stars, but I didn’t dare take my eyes off the girl. The Spinster had said she was looking for one of her sisters, and considering how alien this space felt, this very well could be the absent one. The Spinster had spoken of her missing sister with a hint of fear that made me wary.
The girl’s voice rose with her song. As the notes danced up and down, the stars at her feet pulsed in time. Her hands, gentle but sure, sculpted the galaxy into a spiral. Twirling it, she spun it like a top onto the velvet. Pleased, she hummed a different tune and scooped up another handful of stars.
It was like watching a child play on the beach. Her movements, her song, her carefree innocence. And yet her presence conveyed a weight far exceeding her short stature, but with none of the malice that had tinted the other Primes.
“Who wanders in my garden?” she asked the universe in her hand.
I stopped, letting myself hang in space.
She glanced back, her hair scattering stardust as it slid across her neck. “And legless, yet he wanders. How?”
“Dreams do tend to behave in strange ways.”
She tilted her head back, letting her hair cascade behind her. “My garden is dreamy?”
“That’s not exactly what I meant.”
“Oh.” She spun, kicking up stars from the depression like underwater sand. “You meant, are you really here? What a strange question to ask.”
I frowned. “It’s not so strange when almost every visit I’ve had by one of your kind has been within one.”
“Visit? My kind?” Her brows scrunched together. “You’ve come to me, and not I to you. But others have.” She tilted her head. “You’ve met my sisters?”
“Two of the four.” I shrugged at her confused look. “They never gave their names. But one mentioned an absent sister, and I’m wondering if she meant you.”
“If you don’t know their names, how did you invite them?”
I coughed a laugh. “It wasn’t my idea. They came of their own volition.”
“Hmm.” Pushing herself out of the divot, she swam over to another cluster of stars and started absently shaping a new galaxy. As she twisted a band around her fingers, she stared under me. “Your legs are gone. I can grow you new ones.”
“Perhaps another time,” I said, shifting uncomfortably.
Her brow arched in confusion. “Whatever for? I haven’t been gone so long that you actually like losing limbs, have I?”
I shook my head. “No, but I’ve had enough dealings with higher beings, and I don’t need to be indebted to any, any more than I might already be.”
Her laugh was like wind chimes, gently disturbed in the wind. “Owe me? You?” Another tinkling laugh. “When a flower blooms, does it thank the gardener that grew it? Does it owe them its life?” Smiling, she rolled onto her stomach. Her eyes sparkled in the starlight. “What a strange thought for a plant. The gardener tended it for their own happiness. Its beautiful blossom is payment enough.”
“Are you saying I’m a flower?” I found it hard to believe that she would lend her aid without cost. Whatever she claimed her reason was–aloofness, transcendence, charity, self-indulgence–these creatures almost never gave selflessly. There was always a reason, and I didn’t need myself bound by what was perhaps the most dangerous of the Primes.
“I mean that my gift is free.” Her eyes drifted back to the galaxy her fingers absently toyed with. “And, like a flower, it shouldn’t even cross your mind to pay me back.”
“And why is that?” I couldn’t keep the skepticism from my voice.
She scowled. “I do it for my own enjoyment. Seeing you flourish from my grafts is all I need.”
I sighed. “You’ll forgive me if I find that hard to believe. Especially given how your sisters seem intent on using me and those around me for their own devices.”
Her eyes glinted with a mischievous light that immediately reminded me of Malia, but in a…plainer way? Pure, innocent troublemaking, untainted by craftiness or a web of manipulations. But I still had a feeling I wasn’t going to like whatever she had planned.
Rolling the galaxy with both hands, she set it adrift in the void. “Does a seed resist the rain? Can it hold its roots within its shell, refusing to sprout?” Her eyes snapped up to mine, her smile widening. “Can you?”
I opened my mouth, but found my words stifled by unease. Or, rather, the sudden tingling in my hips. Like a disturbed nest of ants, a skittering sensation filled the hollow rings where the tops of my legs had been. I glanced down, but no miraculous growth dangled beneath me.
“The seeds are already in the pot.” The girl chuckled. “They will flower as they will.”
Well, that was just great. Not that I thought a faster recovery was bad, but I hadn’t even seen her move in my direction, and yet she’d been able to affect the very substance of my being. And what this whole interaction hinged on was the massive “if” of whether she really expected no return on the investment. But then, if she’d done something to me without even appearing to, was it really that much of an effort on her part? Her childlike persona was impenetrable, assuming it even was an act.
My head hurt trying to work through all the possibilities. I just didn’t know enough about these Primes. But I could see if I could get an answer to the question she’d ignored before.
She tilted her head again. “What’s that look for? Is the pain too great?”
“No.” I shook my head. “I was just wondering. Are you the missing sister?”
“It can’t be me. I’ve never left my garden.” She looked confused. “Unless you mean my oldest sister? But she’s not missing, either.”
I rubbed my forehead and sighed. “The second Prime I met said she couldn’t find and hadn’t heard from one of her sisters in a long time. Considering the first one only spoke in prophecies and riddles, I only have her word to go on.”
The girl nodded. “She keeps to herself. But she’s not missing, she’s just afraid.”
“Afraid of what?”
“Do you know what they used to call us?” She grabbed another tuft of stars and smushed it into a lumpy clump. “The Ends of the Earth. Because of what we saw, where we stood, what we were. But it isn’t just the earth that will see its end.” Her face twisted in anger as she pinched off chunks from the cluster. “All of the realms, those under and above, will cease when the oldest sings. So every year she hides and cuts out her tongue, and every year it grows back. And still she stays away, and keeps herself from singing, so that life and my garden may continue.”
“I…” What could I say to that? That was a horrible way to live. “Can we help her?”
“She doesn’t need your pity. It’s her burden to bear.” The words sounded rote, as if she’d repeated them often. Which was strange, considering she’d been here alone for who knew how many centuries. “And–”
She froze, staring at something over my shoulder. When I turned, I didn’t see anything unusual, just countless stars spread across the vastness. But she swam over me, her face riddled with confusion.
“A black star?” Head bent at an odd angle, she cupped empty space and stared at it as she circled the point. “Someone poisoned my garden?” Breaking her stare with nothing, she locked her eyes on me.
I shuddered. Now there was the predatory power I’d come to expect from Primes. I raised my hands. “It wasn’t me.”
“You will sleep, and never come back here.” Sneering, she flicked her hand.
I didn’t feel any impact, nothing painful or even a touch, but my eyes collapsed against my will. Just before sleep claimed me, I cemented the memory in my mind. The last thing I needed was her doing something to make me forget our meeting. The existence of that black star felt important. When I woke up, I would figure out what.