“You were spying on us?” Baymore shouted in disbelief.
“Yes and we’re sorry. I know that doesn’t cut it and you can set us on fire later, but listen to me.” Alex reasoned with the angry fire god. Baymore was smoldering, literally, flames dancing across his fingers as he advanced on Alex and Nadia. The pair backed away slowly, knowing they had overstepped their boundaries.
“Would it help if I said I had a premonition about what we saw?” Nadia asked holding her hands up in front of her looking over Baymore’s shoulder at Ramora, who had been standing in calm silence behind them. She was looking at something in the open mortal realm portal. “Ramora?”
“Don’t try to cover this up with-” Baymore began.
“When?” Ramora asked cooly, cutting his words short.
“What?” He stopped his advance on the snooping gods to stare at her. She hadn’t moved her eyes away from the glass.
“When did you have the premonition?” She clarified.
“A…about a week after you were married.” Nadia replied caught off guard by the level tone. She wasn’t sure which was scarier; an angry Ramora, or a calm one.
“You don’t actually believe this do you?” Baymore was switching his gaze from one goddess to another. He was still angry as his skin was still smoldering like hot coals, but the fire had died away from his hands. The rain goddess pulled her gaze from her sudden fixation to address him.
“I do, actually.” Her tone had become very serious, with an undertone that dared him to test her patience. “Before you try to argue with me, let me remind you my intuition has always been better than yours.”
“I know, but come-” He started to protest stopping short as he saw lightning flash behind her stormy eyes. He grumbled reluctantly, snapping back angrily to Alex and Nadia. “That still doesn’t excuse the spying.”
“We know.” Alex hung his head with remorse, hoping he could get out of taking the brunt of the wrath that would fall upon them later.
“Ramora, what are you looking at?” Nadia asked suddenly noticing that she had turned back to the looking glass.
“Claudia.” Was Ramora’s response.
“Claudia?” They echoed the strange response in unison. They exchanged glances with one another wondering if they had heard her correctly or not.
“Who is Claudia?” Alex asked as confusion creeped across his features.
“The cow.” she replied clearly distracted.
Nadia let out a drawn out “oh.” of understanding causing Baymore and Alex to look at her, eyebrows raised silently asking what she was talking about.
“One of the mortals brought her a cow as an offering. Hands down the biggest offering brought, but not the strangest by a long shot.” She explained. Her brow furrowed in thought as she tried to make sense of something else. “Why Claudia?”
Ramora glanced back at her friend, mimicking her thoughtful expression. That had been the question she was trying to answer herself. After Baymore had blown up at Alex and Nadia after they had announced that they had been spying, Ramora had turned her attention to the cow suddenly curious why she had settled so adamantly on that name. It was not to say that she wasn’t angry with them as well, but she found this far more perplexing, and something was telling her that it was far more important as well.
“I’m not sure.” She said finally, piecing together her current thoughts on the matter. “I thought it was awfully random myself, however the more I think about it I’ve heard that name before. A lot actually.”
She waved her hand over the glass, the image of the grove faded, returning the table to its normal state. Absentmindedly she brushed hair behind her ear.
“I can’t get that name out of my head.” She continued. “Every memory I have of that name is just a voice saying ‘Claudia’ over and over. It kind of sounds like Nadia, but that’s not possible…isn’t it?”
“I’ve never said that to you,” Nadia began carefully mulling something over, “but it’s not impossible.”
“Alright, now you both sound crazy.” Alex snorted sarcastically.
“Now hold on a second.” Nadia said flicking her wrist. Alex was sent stumbling backwards over the arm of a chair as punishment for his comment. “Remember before you threatened to burn us alive, when we said we might know how to help you?”
“Yes…” Baymore replied skeptically.
“Wait, you don’t think.” Alex sat up righting himself in the chair.
“I mean it could be.” She replied vaguely.
“Would it be that easy?”
“There’s a chance. You know I don’t even understand how my ability works fully. Besides, we don’t know how many there are, so…”
“Oh, I didn’t think about that, but still.”
“Would you two stop speaking in code and fill us in?” Baymore snapped.
“Right, sorry.” Alex waved his hand in a regal-like gesture giving the floor to Nadia.
“So we think, at least it’s worth a shot, that the mortals might have a way for you to break the bond.” The words tumbled out of her mouth in a rushed explanation. Baymore groaned and Ramora mirrored his disappointment as she opened her mouth to protest. “Wait! Before you shoot it down, just think about it.”
“It makes sense.” Alex added jumping to her aid. “I mean, mortals take the same vows and they break that bond all the time.”
“So we were thinking probably the same thing you are right now; it doesn’t work the same for mortals, but…”
“What if it does?” Alex finished for her.
“What if the bond is just as strong,”
“And there is a soul exchange,”
“But the mortals know something we don’t know?”
The back and forth of the two of them finishing one another’s statements had left Baymore and Ramora reeling. However as they processed what was said, they had to admit that maybe they were onto something. One thing still wasn’t adding up to either of them though.
“What does Claudia have to do with it?”
“You see, I think Claudia might have your answers.”
“The cow?” The couple asked together.
Nadia instinctively slapped her hand to her forehead pinching it between her thumb and middle finger. The two of them giggled as she contemplated throwing them out of her house via the balcony. Even though they would’ve landed without harm into the clouds below, she just sighed and took on a stern, motherly tone with them. “Will you be serious?”
“We know, we know.” Baymore laughed.
“So the mortal I should talk to is called Claudia.” Ramora mused, stifling laughter as she thought about asking her cow for advice.
“Yes, I think so.” Nadia answered, explaining her reasoning. “I believe that I may have projected the name to you as sort of a premonition. I’m not sure how that would work exactly, but it happens for the mortals sometimes, so I don’t see why gods would be exempt from it.”
“So where do I find this woman?”
“I have no idea.” Nadia shrugged. Baymore shot her a look that said he was about ready to kill her and she rolled her eyes. “I’m all powerful, not omniscient.”
“What about the grove? Maybe if I sit down there she will come to me.”
“It’s worth a shot. It’s not like we have a better option.” Baymore sighed defeated. “Now the bigger question, what do we do about the cow?”
Ramora sat in the grove, feet dangling in the stream. It had been ages since they had talked about Claudia and the possibility of her being the mortal to help her and Baymore break their bond. She had lost track of the days and for all she knew it could have been years at this point. She couldn’t even tell by the seasons changing, as the grove existed in a perpetual summer.
Mortals would come and go as they pleased, never paying any mind to the out of place woman with her feet in sacred water. Alex came to sit with her when he could, but it was rare. Ultimately she had started holding conversations with the only other inhabitant of the grove: the cow.
“I know out physical appearance typically cloaks us from the sight of mortals, or deters them from entering the area altogether, but even you have to admit this is a little ridiculous.” She ranted to her cow, who mooed in response. “Of course I tried to counteract it. There is only so much magic at my disposal and I must admit, I’m winging it at this point. I don’t really know how to do that in the first place.”
The cow stood chewing lazily on the cud in her mouth. Her brown lashed eyes blinked at Ramora knowingly as if acknowledging what she had said. She grunted with what Ramora took as attitude, shaking her head from side to side.
“Oh don’t give me that.” Ramora replied sharply. “It’s not like any of us have had to do this before.”
Claudia snorted stamping her hoof into the ground clearly displeased.
“I have had about enough of your attitude, missy.” Ramora grumbled grumpily. “I wish Alex hadn’t pulled those strings to let me actually understand you. You are one sassy cow, Claudia.”
Ramora jumped looking at the cow next to her, wondering if Alex was playing some elaborate joke on her by letting her pet verbally communicate with her.
“Claudia, did you just?” she asked. Claudia cocked her head to the side looking just as confused as Ramora telling her it wasn’t her. “If it wasn’t you, then where…”
The reply was a little ways off behind them. Ramora snapped her head around confronted by a tiny young woman standing at the altar, hands poised mid air in prayer. She had turned her head over her shoulder to better see the goddess sitting next to the stream. Claudia wandered over to Ramora turning her attention to where the goddess was looking.
The young woman couldn’t help laughing at the silly picture in front of her. This strange woman and her cow sat staring at her with identical expressions of surprise and perplexity. The similarity was so apparent she couldn’t help but think that they were the reason her people thought humans looked like their pets.
“Can she see us?” Ramora asked leaning into Claudia, not once removing her eyes from the young woman at the altar. “Er, rather can she see me? Obviously she can see you. I may have let you live forever, but that doesn’t make you invisible.”
“Yes, I can see you.” The woman replied even though she was sure the question had been posed to the lady’s bovine companion. “Did you call that animal, Claudia?”
“I know you’re not just some animal, but she doesn’t know that.” Ramora soothed Claudia as she mooed angrily at the young woman. Ramora pet the cow’s head as she spoke this time addressing the woman’s question. “Yes, I did call her that. Though you may want to watch what you say to her. She’s rather sensitive.”
“You can understand it?”
“Yes I can understand her.”
“Uh…alright.” She replied carefully, wondering if her conversational partner was a little off her rocker or not. “Why did you call her my name then?”
“Your name? Your name is Claudia?” Ramora asked a little too excitedly. She jumped up onto the grass, water dripping down her legs making the cloudy blue silk of her dress stick to them.
“Yes, but who-” The human Claudia responded cutting her words short as she finally got a good look at Ramora. “You look so familiar. How do I know you?”
The sudden change in Claudia’s tone caught Ramora off guard. She had never met a mortal before, so she knew they hadn’t actually met before. She looked the woman up and down noticing that her clothing was odd in comparison to the other mortals that had come to the grove during her time there. The attire Claudia wore was more regal. She wore a crisp white gown with flowing bell sleeves which, along with the hem, had been dipped into a gray-blue dye and embroidered with silver droplets. Around her neck she wore a long silver chain with a filigreed medallion roughly the size of Ramora’s palm that held a black teardrop shaped pearl hanging from the center.
“You work in the temple.” Ramora said articulating her thoughts into one cohesive answer.
“Yes, have you been?” Claudia’s features were scrunched up in thought as she tried to place the stranger.
“Well…no actually. I recognized your robe.” Ramora chose her words carefully not wanting to startle the girl with her identity. “You’re from the Rain Goddess’s temple. A priestess if I’m not mistaken, right?”
“Wait a minute…” Claudia trailed off. Her eyes widened in awe at a sudden silent revelation. “You’re her.”
“Ramora…” Claudia muttered lost in awestricken thought. She looked the goddess suddenly. “You’re Ramora. You look like your statues, it’s incredible.”
“I…thank you?” She replied uncertainly. She didn’t frequent the mortal realm like Alex and Nadia did. She didn’t know that she had statues of her, let alone that they looked like her. Alex and Nadia on the other hand were always disappointed in their depictions. One argument from Nadia once was that they had made the petite goddess too tall.
“It’s strange.” Claudia continued, pulling Ramora back from her thoughts. “I typically stay at the temple and come here on special occasions, but last night I had a dream I was here. I kept hearing your name, and…”
“And?” Ramora asked when she didn’t finish her thought. She gently urged her on. “And what, Claudia?”
“It’s nothing.” She replied unconvincingly. “What I don’t understand is what I’m doing here talking to you. Not that I’m not flattered, but…”
“Well,” Ramora began. She was starting to realize something and she wasn’t sure how exactly to tell her what she suspected was happening. “I’ve been hearing your name for as long as I can remember. We believe that Nadia, yes that Nadia stop looking at me like that, may have been projecting it into my mind. I thought it was just because you would be able to help me with something, but now I believe there is something bigger.”
“How could I possibly help you? You’re a goddess for crying out loud.”
“You can start by telling me what else you saw in your dream.”
“It was nothing.”
She must have used her full, godly voice because Claudia jumped about a foot back from her. She looked scared and while Ramora softened a bit, dreams were not something that her or any of the other gods took lightly. I was hard not to with someone like Nadia around. Claudia fiddled with her fingers nervously, carefully trying to choose her explanation hoping it wasn’t as bad as she was thinking it was.
“Well,” She paused briefly before continuing. Her words slow and calculated, “The holly was dead…”
“What else, Claudia.” Ramora pushed hanging on the priestess’s words.
“The holly was dead, but the whole grove seemed to be dying.” She finished, trying to make sense of what she had seen and felt. “It was as if the life, the magic that keeps it alive had just vanished. That’s ridiculous though…right?”
“It sounds like a ridiculous notion, but it’s not. I also think I may know what might cause this.”
“You mean this is going to happen? How can that? But that’s not possible.” The panic was bubbling up in her throat as her questions flowed one after another from her lips.
“I don’t know that it’s guaranteed, but you know how you asked how you could possibly help me?”
“Yes, but what does-”
Ramora held up a hand silencing her. Slowly she removed the leather cuff from her wrist exposing the mark beneath. The phoenix burst from the flames screeching as it circled her wrist. Claudia’s mouth dropped open quivering like she wanted to say something, but couldn’t find the words. “What do you know about soul marks, or better yet, what do you know about breaking a soul bond?”