He is collected at his residence and the driver drives for a few hours until George posits, "Hey, you passed the airport a few dozen exits ago."

The man is a nondescript suit with sunglasses, and upon hearing George's concern he adjusts his shades and replies with, "Sir, these were my orders. Were you supposed to catch a flight?"

"Not exactly," George contemplates, "but I was given an operation that supposedly was assigned to another country?"

"Uh," the man shrugs, "they may have just given you the wrong intel to throw off enemy spies."

"True," George muses, "though, the NSA has never really been a concern of theirs before."

"I don't know, man."

George then thinks that the trail of crumbs to the crimes committed at his house might have elicited a change in protocol. He drearily looks out the window, as the car winds up a spiral road, and enters into an unspecified mountain range. George thinks, Perhaps, they are finally going to do away with me. Maybe they just wanted to use me as entertainment first.

The fifty-year-old man couldn't care less if they disposed of him. It is an inevitable risk—in his profession. If you don't get killed on the job, it's more than likely that the organization will kill you or use you as sacrificial pawn. He makes himself comfortable in the backseat, and stretches out with his long legs resting against the passenger's seat, while cracking open a canned coffee.

He takes an interval of sips between thoughts of internally mapping out the location and pondering about the little he knew about this supposed "sting operation" in another "nation"—but, after having known these people for his entire life, he knew that for every one question they answered, there still several unanswered––that never would be.

The driver finally parks on a desolate dirt road, cranking the stick shift before the engine completely stops shuddering. George, for a moment, thinks his theory is correct. The man in the front slowly starts to scroll through a mass of text on his phone screen.

"You okay back there?"

"Yeah." George reciprocates solemnly.

"Okay," the suit affirms informatively, "so, it says here that you are to climb to the top of this peak—when you reach an underpass, there will be two SWAT officers guarding an entrance. Your orders are to kill them and when you go inside the area––you are then supposed to eliminate any other enemy inside."

"Enemy?" George questions, completely baffled, "From the sounds of it, those officers are US military-based? My orders are to... commit treason?"

"Look—I don't make the rules around here, but I know that these are directly from our syndicate. I'm sorry, I really am. I know how distressing this must be for you. I really don't know if they're meant to eradicate the environmental protection branch or what? You know these people are as crooked as they come."

George sits in sullen silence.

"I really shouldn't have said that," the suit groans, "I know they're listening to everything we talk about. Our directives are to just to give instructions to people like you."

"Don't worry about it." George remarks, swiftly shutting the door behind him. He wishes the man in the BMW well, but he had lived within their hierarchy long enough to know that that friendly young man would have his life cut short for being so kind. He had seen it too many times.

His joints ache as he treks up the hillside, a frigid breeze is blowing down on him. He wraps his blazer protectively around himself and when he reaches the underpass, he scouts it out. It is just as the young man said: two SWAT officers with automatic rifles.

George sneaks up behind one of them and stealthily slashes his throat open. His silver eyes are slitted again, when the other officer opens fire on him; the bullets fall in midair and clink on the cement. George is practically invincible to aerial attacks because of his special ability. He hushes the other man with a knife and then begins walking through the mysterious tunnel.

When he takes a few steps inside, the passage seals itself behind him. George finds it peculiar but guesses that this area had probably been the subject of experimentation, like he had. He walks in total darkness for awhile, before he reaches an illuminated area. A towering tree, next to a quaint villa. The two key sights rest atop a precipice with veiny roots running through the center. Suddenly, déjà vu hits George like a two-ton truck.

I know I've never had an assignment here before, he thinks to himself, but it seems so familiar.

His suede shoes squeak, as he walks up to the entrance of the villa. Unable to hear much through the crashing waterfall, he is more than a little bit apprehensive. He tries to soundlessly open the old door, inevitably a quiet groan or two escapes from the hinges. Inside, the place seems completely desolate. Devoid of any living being.

Everything he scans over seems to be from another place or time. A couch in the style of a seventeenth century sofa, chest of drawers from eighteenth century France, Meiji-era embroidered silk. He treads carefully, and with each step, the feeling of familiarity becoming stronger. George is now certain that he had visited this villa before!

He finds himself drawn to a collection of photographs, resting on an armoire, and picks them up. They are covered in dust but with each picture exfoliated—his heart grows heavier. Particularly, when he sees pictures of a rabbit-eared Japanese girl and a small, scaly dragon girl together.

I see, George enters into an internal monologue, the government has been hiding mutants in the mountainside. That's what these things must be: human experiments. Why is my heart moved by it? Am I a mutant? Was I not actually born a human being? Was it as that wicked man said? Are they our true creators?

For a split second, the scaly child appears in his head head, mouthing first an "n" and then an "o"—before being eaten up by the black oblivion of lost memory. A couple of tears leak from George's eyes. He was unaware that he could shed tears again after what had happened to Alise.

He continues to travail the empty hallways, but there isn't another human in sight. There is one room left—one that waits, like an unpicked pimple, at the end of the hallway. George braces himself as he walked towards it. Upon opening the door, the first thing he sees is a giant mirror. George immediately averts his eyes from it, similar to how a vampire would avert its sight from a cross. How he detests looking at himself!

In a matter of seconds, the room begins to rotate and he feels his body shrink. The next thing he knows, he hears footsteps and birds chirping outside. His eyesight is exceedingly better than it was and, for the first time in a decades, he sees his face in the mirror.

She is young again. Long, brunette hair with symmetrical braids—feminine, soft features. The emotions surfacing from seeing her reflection causes emotions to surface that had been submerged inside of a deep well for most of her life. Tiamat touches the mirror and there again, sees the girlish child, instead of a man. She touches the cool glass with her small, rounded fingertips.

Tiamat sees the person that had been innocent before they got sucked into the underworld and assaulted by strange men. The person in the mirror had been the person who had always been hiding away, deep inside. Her eyes are naturally slitted, she normally does have scaly patches on her skin, a long reptilian tail, and she always has been a woman.

Tiamat wipes the wetness in her eyes away with resolve and assures herself of her assigned mission. She tells herself that all of this must be an illusion, planted here by the enemy. Some sort of magical craft. She is sure that if she could erect such an impenetrable barrier than other abilities must exist. The mirror is preying on her inner weaknesses!

She punches it once but despite having her youthful limbs restored, the glass will not break. In stunned silence, Tiamat stands up and starts to search for whichever creature she can eradicate first. The dining area is filled with a warm ebullience, opposite to the way it had been moments earlier.

The photographs are still there but are fresh and unblemished. Every antiquated item is brand new. Tiamat feels contempt—but the silent brooding doesn't escalate to anger. She slithers out of the door, wearily, and a voice calls out to her, "Amphitrite?"

The name sounds familiar to her. From behind her back—she glances sidelong to see a small Asian woman with rabbit ears walking closer, asking, "Is that really you––Amphitrite?"

Her small violet eyes are widening, despite their almond shape, and her tiny hands are covering her mouth. Śakra's eyes are glazed over in disbelief, like she is staring at a ghost, rather than someone among the living, and the leaves falling from nearby trees spin around her soundlessly.

"I have never heard of a person with that name," Tiamat growls, "my name is Tiamat."

"No!" Śakra cries, "You are Amphitrite, my lost child!"

"I don't know you!" Tiamat grumbles, "I've never even been to the place before!"

"You have!" Śakra replies while raising her voice, lips shuddering, "Don't you remember, sweetheart—you went on a mission that evening, so many years ago, and you never returned! You ascended to this place when you were a small child. You were orphaned and I raised you as my own!"

Detached memories begin to empty into Tiamat's skull, she groans and grips the side of her head. Howling from the aching confusion, Tiamat's eyes become slitted and her arm juts out to grab the bunny girl by the throat. Śakra's small body is swung up like a rag doll. Despite the age reduction, and an inevitable descent from "George" to Tiamat, she still had much more physical strength than the bird-boned elder.

From the side, there is the sound of running in the foreground and a strong kick knocks Śakra out of Tiamat's grasp. Tiamat turns around to see Juniper standing above her with arms crossed and her legs positioned like an upside-down V—an emotional swell of horrified grief swallows her and she cries, "Doctor, did you just call yourself Tiamat?"

"What of it?"

"Doctor…" Juniper contemplates while huffing in a breath of air; putting everything together at once, "Doctor, did you kill Liz's uncle?"

"I have killed so many that I couldn't possibly know the person that you're referring to." Tiamat admits cruelly.

Tears well in Juniper's eyes, "A political activist in town, died of a supposed suicide. It was a decade ago."

"Ah, that one." Tiamat responds, with staid calculability, "That was me. Y'see, Juniper, I've been working for some very wealthy clients, as a hitman, for a very long time. The position I took as a counselor was only to create a balance of benevolence in my life."

"What about Alise?" Juniper asks furiously, "What about your wife?"

"They never knew," Tiamat divulges while grimacing, "my daughter Alise learned and her life ended because of it—her mother was killed before her because she one day found it odd that she had no memories of pregnancy or childbirth."

"They're dead?!"

"Yes."

"MURDERER!" Juniper screams and roundhouse kicks Tiamat's head. The dragon-human hybrid falls back, towards a thick log that connects the precipice to the side of the waterfall, an area leading to Nephthys' garden, "You will pay for what you did to them and many others!"

Tiamat backs onto a log, attempting to find other deities and kill them, but is stopped by another one of Juniper's ear-splitting kicks. Tiamat braces herself incredibly well and grabs Juniper's shoe and tosses her aside. Juniper catches onto the bottom of the timber and flings herself back up and is attacking her again.

"JUNIPER!" Śakra yells through the crashing water, "He has a special ability, be sure to hit him as closely as you can because…"

Her voice is muted by the sounds of Juniper defending herself against Tiamat's punches and gasping. Juniper has taken a beating, from the fleeting hits in their one-on-one match. She tries another aerial attack—but since she is worn down, the barrier flings her away, and she screams as she jumps to her feet, "You can use mana! That means, that means... are you a deity, too?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Tiamat discloses calmly, "but, yes, I can use magic. Are you surprised?"

Juniper can't comprehend Tiamat's existence but then it hits her. She remembers being told that some deities wander away, or are kidnapped! She clenches her teeth. Nephthys sprints up to the battle from a distance and forms a circular shape with her hands. Water from the peak bursts out and hits Tiamat directly, her barrier deflects the hit but the water makes the log slick and she slips a little, in the fray.

Śakra waves around her mana-infused tessan—launching the deadly fan towards Tiamat, but the attack is reflected off of the barrier and Śakra catches the swirling fan midair. Juniper is confused for a minute but then realizes that Śakra's attack must have been a diversionary tactic. Juniper thinks, That fan did seem to bounce though. An optical illusion?

"TIAMAT!" Juniper screams with an impassioned blow, "Y'know, even though you look young, it was easy to know that it was you by the way you talk and your eyes! Your eyes are one of a kind! Jesus... Doc, I thought of you as a FATHER! You were like the father I never had. You were so kind and wise, paternal in the way that paternity is meant to be! You, You… how could you? You, of all people!"

Juniper is now weeping ugly tears and this causes Tiamat to cry, too. Tiamat's chest heaves and she sinks down to the ground, with her arms hugging herself, saying, "Juniper, do you know what the legend of Tiamat means? The verse in the Bible? Don't you get it yet?"

"No? No, I don't!"

"Tiamat is the face of water because she's always weeping," Tiamat sobs, "God has destined her to eternally weep. To be lost and broken!"

Juniper's heart throbs painfully. Tiamat continues, "I never wanted to kill—but I had to! Alise was the only reason that I held on to, the only reason I faced the unbearable: the pinnacle of human suffering! And, now, she's gone… and I'm having to kill the last person who ever meant anything to me!"

"Tiamat." Juniper formed the name on her mouth, but is at a loss for words.

Tiamat then looks up at Yggdrasil's towering branches and screams into the sky, "I don't want to do it––I'm done! I'm FINISHED! I don't want to kill anymore!"

And, as if Yggdrasil decides to answer the psychologist's plea, the chip in his head suddenly forms a large bubble in his head, and it explodes, and blood seeps down into his eyes and from his nose. His entire left eye is no longer silver-gray, but completely blood-red.

"TIAMAT!" Juniper cries and steadies Tiamat in her arms before she can fall, "Hang in there! TIAMAT!"

Tiamat regains consciousness and sees that Juniper is carrying her on her back. Her limbs are so weak that they wobble, like the appendages of a ball-jointed doll. Juniper has just passed through the mirror and Tiamat is George again. He is old, maimed, and his body is in indescribable pain, due to his ruptured skull.

George smiles kindly and mentions mawkishly, "Thank you, Juniper. I-I have been lost for so long. Fulfilling the corrupt wishes of my superiors, in order to create an equilibrium—to be able to sustain a family life. After Alise's murder, I began to see things a bit differently. I realized that the family man, George was always just an illusion."

"You didn't kill her, did you?"

"No," George murmurs incandescently, "but if I had been more courageous from the beginning. She would have never had to suffer. A long time ago, if I had known of this place, I could have run away with Helena and Alise and we could have asked the deities if we could take refuge here."

"I'm sure they would have let you at least stay in the outer limits. Of the Adam realm, I mean."

"The Adam realm, ey?" George repeats, "So, you and I live in the realm of deception?"

"Basically."

"Stop here."

"Why?"

"I want to lay down," George mutters with an almost incomprehensible annunciation, "let me lay under that tree."

He points to the Eve realm variation of the towering tree and waterfall, right next to the abandoned villa. Juniper can not feel any warmth left in his skin, she is well aware that he doesn't have much time left. His body is too light—his voice is drifting off with every syllable. She places him on the ground and he closes his eyes.

"A spot right under the sun." George speaks resiliently. His gray hair glows in the warmth of the solar rays. He opens his eyes one more time, saying, "Juniper, the sun. Someone… is… there..."

Juniper looks up and beholden to the sun's circular shape is the shadow of a pink-haired woman. Her arms are out-stretched and she flies with a divine fluorescence: miraculous and ornate. As if that moment in time has created a schism in the current reality, when the figure has finally completed their fusion with the orangish-yellow light, Juniper glances back at George, and he has already passed.

George Ellington is gone.

Juniper sinks to her knees and sobs, unable to hold back the tears. She unzips her sport's jacket and weeps quietly into her T-shirt. After an hour, an elderly woman walks up to the tree. Juniper doesn't recognize her at first but then realizes that it is Śakra! Śakra as a mortal.

Since she has left the Adam realm, she is very old. So old—that it looks like she can barely walk. She no longer has her rabbit ears and is merely an elderly Japanese woman with blankets of wrinkles covering her face. Her almond eyes still look so kind, even though she is practically immobile. Śakra gingerly lays a bouquet of yūgao flowers by George's withering body, and within seconds, what is left of George has faded to dust.

"What happened to him?!" Juniper cries.

"Do not worry," the elderly Śakra maintains, speaking slower than usual, "it's natural for us deities to fade to dust."

"So, it wasn't the flowers?"

Śakra chuckles softly and answers, "No, those flowers… yūgao flowers, were her favorite kind. After she disappeared, I had them planted all around so that—if she ever returned, she would be welcomed by her favorite flower."

"Earlier… you said her real name was Amphitrite?"

"Correct," Śakra affirms with an eloquent nod, "that was her original name. She is a dragon entity, or rather, she inherited the spirit of one. When she was abducted, the wicked people in that hemisphere put her under trauma-based mind control and convinced her that she was the incarnation of Tiamat, mother of Babylon. They defiled her and amputated her breasts, to take away her divinity as a deity. Those people hate Yggdrasil so much."

"But why!"

"Because of jealousy," Śakra conveys through soft syllables, "they want Yggdrasil to choose them. Yggdrasil doesn't because they have given themselves over to their desires and have henceforth become evil. Through their hedonism and self-imposed power, they have convinced themselves that they are gods."

"We had better get back, Śakra," Juniper interjects, "you look like you're about to collapse. Do you want me to carry you?"

"No," Śakra responds gently, "I'm not so weak that I can't make it inside of the villa!"

"One more thing."

"Oh?" Śakra replies coyly, "I'm all ears."

Śakra points to invisible rabbit ears that have ceased to exist without Yggdrasil.

"All of this has made me realize something. Śakra. I have fallen in love with Nephthys!"

Śakra turns around and her whitened hair is tussled by the wind. Her eyes appear to be deeply gladdened and she smiles politely at the young guardian, saying, "I'm sure she would love to hear you say that."

Juniper blushes, but before she can inquire any further, a blue bird perches onto a branch of the tree that George had died under. It mimics George's voice and sings:

They brought me, they bought me

A daughter and a wife

They fooled me, they fueled me

For a knife

If one could not suffer the harm

That I have

I hadn't a child, I hadn't a chance

Freedom is an illusion

You can buy it for a dime

So live more courageously

Or live for more time

If I could have any say

In what I could be

I wouldn't have been a mother

I would have wanted to be me

TO BE CONTINUED


Author's Note: 真柏Project has been a passion project that I've been working on for a little over a decade. My ultimate goal is to transform the series into a visual novel, so if you like the installments I've published, please leave a review (on GoodReads or Amazon) and share the story.