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Chapter Twenty-Seven

“It is time for us to travel to the Eleventh House,” Proteus said, without further elaboration. Neptune stared at him inquisitively and probed for more information. They walked along the grounds outside of the palace that stretched on for many miles, though they didn’t seem to have any destination in mind.

“Where are we going, Proteus?” Neptune said, growing tired of the walk.

“Not where, but when,” Proteus said, smiling. He seemed to be enjoying her impatience. “Everything we know exists through the twelve houses. They are linked to the signs, and they in turn are linked to the gods. The Eleventh House is about the collective and working towards our destiny, by reaching our maximal selves. You must travel to this place before you can become the new keeper of memories.”

Neptune nodded, not fully understanding what she was being told. It was all very confusing to her and there was so much information surrounding the Zodiac – she still felt at conflict with what Venus had said. She feared the responsibility of being the new bearer when she knew so little about the Universe. Proteus, however, didn’t seem too interested in the fact that she had been chosen. In his mind all he really cared about was going through the motions, or at least that was the impression he gave.

“He is ready now,” Proteus said. He looked surprised by his own words. After taking a few more steps he stopped and held Neptune’s hands with his own; his expression hard to read behind his bushy, scrawny beard. “Uranus will see you now. I hope he has enough strength.”

“You are coming, aren’t you?” Neptune said, holding onto him while feeling a sudden defensiveness. It had only just occurred to her that she was frightened.

Proteus shook his head. “You must go alone. He is already here.”

“But I-” she began, but before she could finish her sentence the air thinned and the next moment she was surrounded by trees that towered into the sky. The transition had took her by surprise and at first Neptune didn’t see the ageless, hunched back man who stood next to her, using one of the trees as a support.

She was distracted by the aliveness of her surroundings, the elevation of nature and its rich colours, which gleamed with the rising sun.

Then her eyes found him and grew larger with shock. She hadn’t expected for the man to look so young, so delicate. He seemed no older than a teenager, his skin as white as sheet while his clothes were ragged, as brown and green as his environment. There was a faint smile on his lips that met his eyes, making them appear warm and vibrant. Neptune thought it was the only part of him that emanated strength.

“Welcome,” he said, his voice deep and wiser than its years. Or so it seemed. “So sorry it took so long, I am rather temperamental these days. Sometimes, I cannot see the wood for the trees.” At first he looked sombre and serious, and then his expression became exuberant, removing all of its former heaviness. He had a sense of humour, at least.

“I wasn’t waiting, really,” Neptune said. She studied him with caution, and wasn’t sure if she should move closer. Instead she settled with shuffling her feet awkwardly and wondered what else to say – small talk had never been her strength. “You’re Uranus, right?”

“If you like,” Uranus said, looking distracted. “So, how’s the old rascal? Jupiter, I mean. Not too well, I suppose, if you’re already here. It’s nice to see a woman for a change. Don’t you think it’s a shame most of us are male? Oh, I forget myself. It’s been a while since I last had a conversation, you see.” He smiled and looked almost cute. Neptune had never believed that she would ever call a god as such.

“Well, he seemed well last I saw him, but I don’t know for how long,” Neptune said, keeping her answers to the point. She found his trivial manner a little disconcerting, and totally contrary to the other gods. “Do you know why I’m here?”

“You will be mindful of the weather, won’t you? The Eleventh House is very different to the astral realm, it’s all very sensual. The nights are especially cold,” Uranus said, talking as if she hadn’t spoken. Then his eyes changed and he covered his mouth apologetically. “Oh, again! It will take me a while to get back into the conventions of conversing. Yes, I think I might know. It depends. I lose track. Do you know how long I’ve been in this forest?”

“I do not.” Neptune said.

“I was hoping you would, because I certainly don’t!” Uranus said, shaking his head back and forth and almost toppling over. He regained his composure by resting his back next to the tree. “I’m older than all of the wildlife here, I know that much. Sometimes I wonder why I came here in the first place. It seems like an age when I last saw the man with spectacles – odd fellow he was, but I liked him. Actually, I think it was an age ago…”

Neptune smiled in spite of herself, finding the man all too peculiar and strangely appealing. She wondered if the years had worn away at his sanity. In any event she thought it only fair to humour him and added: “Yes, it must’ve been a long time since you saw Moon. I am told that I will be his replacement.”

“You poor blighter!” Uranus said, surprising her with his colloquial straightforwardness. “Looks like you pulled the short straw, too. I tell you, it’s shameful. But what can you do? Karma does what it wants, and leaves no prisoners.” He stopped, squelching for a moment, and held his temple in concentration. “Must never say that ever again. I sounded like the ugly one, Saturn. Lovely man, mind you. Just needs to lighten up a bit.”

“Quite,” Neptune said, bemused. She darted her eyes around the forest to try and keep a straight face. It very almost worked. Finally she said: “I must admit you aren’t what I expected, Uranus. I have seen the future, or an interpretation of it, and I’ve been told that I am to lead the new realm. But I don’t know what that means…I am afraid.”

“Ah. It’s been a long time coming, if we are to use time as our guide. You aren’t the one who will release me, though,” his eyes suddenly dropped and spoke of a thousand stories that had never been told. Neptune was taken aback by his swift lapse into sadness – gaining a new respect for him in the process. Uranus struck her as a truly selfless and kindly spirit, if a little eccentric, who had given his whole being to serving the realms. “No matter, I will help you, as is custom.”

“What must I do, Uranus?” Neptune asked, trying to look determined. She stared him down but her seriousness didn’t seem to dampen the strange man’s spirits – he was once again wearing a clownish expression, grinning widely like a child.

“Must, must!” Uranus said in a sing-song voice. He rolled one of his hands at Neptune and beckoned for her to come closer, which she did with slight reluctance. “Do you know the greatest joke I was ever told? That we are given free will…” he was still smiling, but Neptune could see a faint madness in his eyes. She held his hand and allowed Uranus to use her as a support while he pushed his body away from the tree. “Did you come here freely, oh lady of the sea?”

“I suppose not,” Neptune said. “There have been many things happen outside of my control.”

“My soul belongs to the Eleventh House. I was born to represent the collective, and now the Age of Aquarius is upon us and I am supposed to be their keeper,” Uranus said, wheezing slightly as they walked. Despite his looks he had all the characteristics of a dying man. “And here I am, and the only company I keep are squirrels and trees…I am not all that part of the collective, am I?”

“Well, it seems that way. But what are you getting at, if you don’t mind me being frank?”

Uranus feigned offence, before quickly breaking into a raucous laugh. “Be as straightforward as you want with me, dear! I never did like airs and graces and all of that bumbling about. Better to speak as you see fit. What am I getting at, indeed?” he began to whistle and didn’t look as if he was going to elaborate on what he had said until he finally added: “There is a point to what I’m saying, somewhere. What I might mean, my lady, is that for all we might say about the collective, it always comes back to only the few having to carry the greatest of burdens…”

For all of his tomfoolery Neptune found that he made shrewd insights at the right moments. She said as such and he simply laughed, as if he found her company amusing.

“What must you do!” Uranus repeated with a joviality that didn’t reflect the question. He laughed so much that the next moment Neptune was pounding him on the back – a little harder than necessary, perhaps – to stop him from choking. Eventually the spluttering stopped, though Uranus was still chuckling as if nothing happened. “What would you like to do?”

“I would like to go home and have my son back. And ideally, I’d like to find some peace.” Neptune said, sighing. She didn’t know why she was answering his question because he was clearly enjoying his mischief.

“Ah, I was like that once. I said all I wanted is a simple life – and here I am! Some evenings I forget who I am, would you believe? That is the price of service, lady. I wouldn’t be so quick to ask for a simple life.”

“My name is Neptune. Tell me, Uranus, what it means to be the keeper of memories?”

“I apologise, madam, but you are still a lady!” Uranus said, grinning. She was tempted to stop abruptly and throw him off his balance but managed to control her temper. He was like an outrageous infant keeping a secret from her, and was determined to milk it for all of its worth. “I am the link to all consciousness, a guardian of all that has come to pass. Do you see? We mustn’t forget the past – if we did, we would forget who we are.”

“That can’t be easy, holding onto all of those memories. Why do you keep them, and no one else?”

“If everyone remembered all of their past actions, the lesson would be forgotten,” Uranus said, frowning at Neptune slightly, before seeming to enjoy her confusion. “Memories are never lost, but they must be stored away while the soul travels into the material, and forgets itself for a time. That has always been the way. You see, I can experience everything that person may live through by accessing their memories. Holding onto the memory isn’t possible until I’ve lived it at least once.”

“But that must be exhausting for you,” Neptune said, eyeing him with sudden sympathy. He nodded, unsmiling, and let out a long sigh.

“It is, but there is no one else trained to take on the role, and I cannot let go of all the knowledge I have. Moon acted as my apprentice, to help me with the strain, and that is the same reason why you have been elected. You see, then? After walking a little longer we will soon reach the end of the path, and then we may begin.”

“I don’t see how I can hold onto all of those memories. Why have I been chosen?”

“That is beyond my own ability to say,” Uranus said. “I do not pick and choose. There is no telling if there is a pattern to it all, a reason for being, or if we are given these responsibilities because of a roll of a dice. Whatever the case, you are the one to lead the council, and will share a closer connection with your subjects because of this empathetic link. There is one other reason, though. Pisces. You will be the one to give him back his memories…”

Soon it became clear that they were heading towards a fork in the road. Neptune saw a small stream of water in the distance that gushed noisily along the left-hand path, while the other road looked barren; old and forgotten. She noticed there were few trees and as they moved closer saw some sprawled lifelessly across the landscape with long vines straggled around their remains. It was a sad sight that made her realise that there was no place free from destruction.

Uranus saw her ashen expression and softened a little. “Wherever I move to, there’s always death following closely at my heels. There is evil in this place, too, you see. They are afraid of what I carry, and will not come too close, but will never give up their pursuit. For as long as I am I can never bring peace,” he sighed, his ageless face emitting a tired look.

After reaching the bottom they turned right and followed the stream – soon after Neptune regretted it, once seeing the dead animals floating on the surface of the water. They came quick and fast, sprayed with blood from head to toe, leaving her raging within. She wanted nothing more than to find their killers and have them pay for their actions. Uranus seemed to grow in discomfort as they walked along, showing none of his previous gaiety and good spirit.

“It’s terrible, what they’re doing,” Neptune said, more calmly than she felt. She stared at Uranus hoping for answers and found nothing but silence. He simply moved along, vacant, his eyes following the trail of corpses and revealing little. “Can’t you stop it?”

“I have no right to give or take life. I must know, and that is all. It is much harder to move backwards here than it is forwards, because to go back means to know there is an end to the story, and not a happy one,” Uranus paused for a moment, scanning for whatever they were moving towards, and seemed to spring back to life. “There we go. Can you sense it? We will be able to channel over there without any interference.”

Upon reaching the mossy ground the path widened and the stream parted more towards the left, looking ready to bend and stretch further in a direction that Neptune couldn’t make out with her eyes. She gently withdrew her arm from around his shoulders and let Uranus rest on the grassy verge while she looked suspiciously for anything in the shadows. Eventually Uranus began to explain the process.

“We won’t be disturbed in this spot. This is what you might call a vital organ in the Eleventh House; it cannot be changed or unwoven from its true source. Here is where our powers are most potent. It is quite simple, really,” Uranus said, smiling again. Neptune didn’t like that the mischief in his eyes had returned. “I will give away a feeling that belonged to someone else, and you will keep it. For the sake of our meeting I will give you a memory that belonged to your son, and then it will be yours to give.”

She opened her mouth to speak but there was no time to reply; the next moment the scene was unravelling and she was sitting next to a campfire. It was almost as if she was merging her own consciousness with another person’s – she was still mindful of herself in the background, but there was a different presence under her control as well, and that was taking precedence over her own awareness.

“You are afraid,” the American Indian sat next to her said, staring into the dying embers of the fire intently. Neptune looked at him and nodded, somehow knowing that she was afraid, and knowing that she couldn’t keep her feelings hidden. How she knew was another story, and it was impossible to escape the feeling that she was being stretched from within and her mind was failing to process the merging between two beings. At times she was aware of herself as a spectator, at other times she was Pisces, or whoever it was sitting next to the old Indian. “But you are stronger than you know, young bull. You have much to give.”

“I don’t know what I can do to stop it. I don’t know how I can protect my family,” She said, though she hadn’t spoken, and her voice was not her own.

“That is right,” he said softly, placing his large hand on her shoulder. He squeezed gently and with his other hand gave the boy the herbs that he had been mixing in a bowl, after cooking them by the fire. “Fear is a part of life. You are afraid of losing what you love – that is why you were chosen for this task. Only those who put their emotions into what they do can have the compassion to guide those that feel they have nothing to lose. Now – rub your chest. You must rest, for tonight.”

“And what happens next? Will you be there to help me?”

“There will always be help for those who dare to live with compassion.”

“Then I will try my best,” Neptune said, feeling the heat from the flames on her face. “I am sorry for your loss.” Suddenly there was a wave of emotion that rushed through her and a powerful abundance of love for this man who she didn’t know.

“Why be sad? I am not sad,” the old Indian said, staring at the cloudless sky with enchanted eyes. “I will join them when I am ready. Until then, we must sleep! Rest easy, young bull. You have much to do. Our evenings together are coming to an end. Soon there will be no more.”

“We might be alright, yet…” Neptune said, trying to keep his spirits up. At that moment she knew that she was part of a tribe and that he was her chief, and that he had sacrificed much for her wellbeing. Then anxiety flooded her brain when she realised that she was a he, and knew no reason why he was thinking such muddled thoughts. “We mustn’t give up hope.”

“Our fathers and their fathers before it have done much to avoid bloodshed, but we cannot always be the peacemakers, my cub. We can only hope our sons of sons will find what we ourselves may never know.”

Neptune nodded before seeing a ripple in her surroundings, like a rock gliding across a pond. Then, without rhyme or reason, she knew that the old Indian was going to be killed by the white men. They were going to betray their promises and kill him with bullets. She didn’t know why she knew this, but it was what would happen next. More thoughts came and she realised that she was also going to die during a raid to take back their land. It was a despairing thought, riddled with regret; because she was certain that wasn’t what her tribal leader had wanted.

These thoughts passed through her until there was nothing else and Uranus was staring back at her with a meditative look. He seemed almost relieved. Finally it dawned on Neptune that she had travelled into her son’s memory; only she wasn’t the Pisces that she knew. Instead she had overseen one of his past lives, or something that had happened to him once in a different time and place.

“That is better,” Uranus said. “Now I know what they meant about the beauty of letting go. If I could, I would give you all I have in a heartbeat, but you wouldn’t be strong enough to carry the weight. Still, you did quite well. You only slithered and writhed along the ground three times, and stopped after I threw water all over you.”

“You did wh-” Neptune said, suddenly realising that she was soaked. Her hands rolled into fists until she composed herself, still dazed from the transition. “What happened out there? I couldn’t remember who I was half the time, and I feel like I’ve just lost something and I don’t know what.”

“It was a difficult memory, especially for Pisces,” Uranus said a little more sympathetically. “You’re just feeling all of his regrets and emotions – they will go away eventually. It’s natural to get confused as well, that should mend itself in time. You are student and I am teacher, no matter how much that might hurt your pride. There is more for you to learn.”

“That might be the case,” Neptune said, holding back the urge to raise her voice. She found he sometimes tested her patience, though couldn’t stay angry for too long. His liveliness was rather infectious, and his smile did beam at her brightly when he was amused.“But right now all I want to do is sleep.”

“Oh!” Uranus said, having no interest in what she was going to say next. Instead, he looked up into the sky and began a long raucous laugh. What came next was a heavy downfall of rain. “No sleep for you, young bull!” he said, lightly mocking the old Indian. “We have much to do, and you’re about to get very wet. Now here’s what you must do! Ha!”

Neptune sighed and wrapped her arms around her body like a blanket. She was beginning to think that she had jumped from out of the frying pan and right into the fire.

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