Legends of the Way-World
All the lessons of history in four sentences: Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad with power. The mills of time grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly small. The bee fertilizes the flower it robs. When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.
~Charles A. Beard
Come with me, children, as I will lead you through 3,000 years of history. Come as I trace the story of many people, many individuals, their pride and their failings, their love and their sacrifice, as they shaped the world. Remember that I but recount one thread in a tapestry woven of hundreds of such stories. Remember love, and challenges faced, strength and friendships and dreams. Remember that everyone is a hero to someone. This is a story of not of heroes and villains, but of people, true people, who found the strength in their hearts to become heroes. Remember, my children, remember.
That which is broken can't help but be mended And we carry the ghosts of our brethren still Those who defied and those who defended All of one blood and one will. And I'd carry water through deserts for you The bonds held between us were strong and were true And yet when commanded, my cousins I slew And after the battle I think we all knew Kaia had died of a broken heart Her children all broken apart.
In Kaianoth we were skilled and we were ever proud
And the one thought that we never quite spoke aloud
Was that one day we humans could equal the gods
But those dreams all died in Old Ishstanidad.
The seasons keep turning and down pour the sands
We all know the Great Stag will wait for no man.
And though we stood tall with the Fomor and Kin
We can't help but wonder, what the World might have been.
For that which is broken can't help but be mended
And we carry the ghosts of our brethren still
Those who defied and those who defended
All of one blood and one will.
Far to the East, slow burned the lands,
Drenched by our blood that blackened the sands.
Across the whole world, the Covenant strode,
Side by side with the Kin that we rode.
And we conquered the land and we found fellow spirits
And all we saw loved us or feared us.
We shepherded so many into our fold
We were lost into legends of old.
They say that the beasts and the spirits have vanished
And for ourselves we must now fend.
They say that the gods and their servants were banished
And the oldest wounds we must amend.
That which is broken can't help but be mended
And we carry the ghosts of our brethren still
Those who defied and those who defended
All of one blood and one will.
Part I: CREATION
In the Beginning, before the River Kaia, mother of the Oma, even existed, as the All-Mother slept and the Great Serpent waited, time itself did not exist. But then, the Great Stag, the All-Father, came from the Great Beyond, and sought passage through the Serpent's gates, and the Serpent, waiting for something but still not sure what, acquiesced. Thus the All-Father entered the world.
The All-Father was Time and Death, the two missing components needed for life, and so with him, the world did burst forth into life. He and the All-Mother had three different children: the Storm-Bringer, vast, powerful, changeable as the sky, the River Kaia, sweet, beautiful, and flowing through the land, and the Hungry One, the Great Wolf, He Who Devours.
The All-Mother and the All-Father gave but one request to their children: that they, too, should have more children, to fill the world with laughter and beauty. The River Kaia flowed to the sea, and back, and the Great Serpent under the sea saw her and sang to her, for he knew he had been waiting for her. And she left, to flow around the world, and he sang of sorrow and longing, and thus they were brought into the world. Kaia flowed all around the world, until one day, she came back, saying, "I have danced across all the lands of the world, but now I am ready to return to where I started. And I started with you, Serpent. Sing to me." So the Dream-Serpent sang a song of happiness and rejoicing and love, and thus those were brought into the world. Together, the River Kaia and the Great Serpent had one child, the Green Man, god of the Wild Places.
The Storm-Bringer was too tempestuous and easily angered to keep a wife, but he too wished to comply to his parent's wishes, so he plucked out one of his eyes and placed it in the sky, creating the sun, and his daughter Eagle to carry it. So Eagle brought light, strength, and warmth to the world. Then, he plucked out his other eye, and placed that, too, in the sky as the moon, and created his son Crow to carry it. And Crow brought secrets, and guidance in the cloak of darkness to the world.
But the Hungry One created nothing, so the All-Father went to the woods where he dwelled, to ask his son why he did not yet create something. And as the Great Stag walked into the darkness of the woods, the Great Wolf devoured him. For the Hungry One could not create anything, for he was empty, a void. He could only devour, and that which Devours must eat.
And the River Kaia cried to the All-Mother, the Great Bear, and asked why must her brother have eaten their father. But the All-Mother explained that just as it was her job to create, it was the All-Father's job to be eaten, for he was Time and Death and from the Great Beyond. But not all had been lost, for little lights, pieces of the All-Father's soul, remained.
The River Kaia took clay from her banks, and caught some of the lights in the clay. The Storm-Bringer wove a net in the sky, and caught some of the lights in the net. And that which the clay did not catch, the net did, and that which the net did not catch, the clay did. The net in the sky became the stars, and the clay began to move, to speak, to think, and became the Oma, the first people.
But the Great Wolf eyed them hungrily from the darkness.
The River Kaia begged her mother to help protect her children from the Hungry One, but the All-Mother shook her head. "Would you have your brother go hungry? The Great Wolf will devour all, eventually." But she was moved by Kaia's love for her children, so she said, "You may give the Oma gifts, may teach them the ways of the world, as long as you remember that you cannot protect them forever."
So the Oma worship and remember, the Gods walk the earth, and the Hungry One waits in the darkness of the forest for all foolish enough to stray from the path.
Part II: DAYBREAK
It was the Dawn of the World; the world in young, and new, and full of monsters, strange spirits, and Gods who walk the woods. The Oma, the First People, prayed and sacrificed and followed the Old Way to keep the favor of the Gods: Submit to the will of the Gods; Speak only the First Tongue; Eat not the flesh of other humans; Keep a home which stays; Marry not your mother's children; and Claim no weirdings save the practice of the Oldest Game.
Although the Oma were all of the First People, they had gradually split into different tribes: the Ravna, warriors of the far northern tundras, a harsh, fierce people, who strongly believed in justice and truth. Because little food grew in their homeland, they often raided other tribes. Then, the people of the Iron Hills, who had discovered how to create with metal. They kept to themselves, the most clan-like of the tribes, but the other tribes would travel many miles to trade with them for their amazing works of iron. The Arashi tribe lived in the desert, and were a quick, wiry, resourceful people. They knew no fear, for one cannot hide from anything in the desert, beast or otherwise. The Longbranch peoples lived in the deep forest, and were a tricky clan, traders, jokesters, not quite to be trusted. Despite their strange internal politics and struggles, if threatened, they would come together with the loyalty of a true family. There were the Zenai, a strange tribe of the high mountains, sheep-herders. They spoke with a strange accent, for they were the furthest removed, and the other tribes whispered strange things about them. The Stargazers lived near the sea, and were a proud, innovative people. They were the greatest boat-builders of all of the tribes, and were said to know the names of all of the stars in the sky. The Cala tribe were a people of the swamp, strange and mysterious as the mists of their homelands. They knew a great deal about medicines, and worshiped the Dream-Serpent for keen eyes and visions. Finally, there were the people of the Green River, the most proliferous and bountiful tribe. They lived in a fertile land, and knew not of hunger and warfare, but rather friendship and open hearts, for they served as the go-between and meeting grounds for all of the tribes of the River Kaia.
The Green River People were lead by Anun, a great and compassionate king, but although he had lived his life in accordance to the gods, he faced sorrows unknown to lesser men. His marraige was a rarity, for it was one of love, but try as he might, he and his wife could not produce a child. All of their babies were stillborn. Despite how many wise men told him that the gods would not spite him if he took another, younger wife, he refused, because of his love. Finally, though, the gods gifted him with a child, but at the cost of his wife, for she passed away during the birth.
However, his sorrows only continued, for his one child was a daughter, and according to the customs of the Green River people, only a son might lead the tribe. Ruan was beautiful beyond comparison, friendly and charming, loved by all who met her. Strange things too were whispered about her: that when she would sing or dance, it was so beautiful that all the animals would gather and watch, or that men would not fall in battle if they fought in her presence. She was fifteen, the age eligible for marriage, so all of the tribes were gathering with gifts and suitors. Whomever she chose, their tribe would have all of the wealth and bounty of the Green River lands.
There was another girl of similar age traveling to the Gathering, but she could not have been more different. Anuee, Maiden of the Cala tribe, and Chief Warlord of her people, was a fierce fighter and free spirit. When she danced, her feet were so light it was as if she could fly. None of the strapping young lads of the Cala had yet bested her with a spear. She helped lead the Cala, along with her sisters, the Mother and the Crone.
The Cala themselves had not so much brought a suitor, as they were a polyamorous tribe that didn't believe in tying themselves down to one person, but they did bring a few perspective males as well as gifts to show their kinship and support. They walked for a ways with the Longbranch, laughing and joking with the tribe. They mingled with the Stargazers at the gathering, who had discovered something new and amazing, large pieces of thick canvas to propel their boats, the first sails. Anun offered water and food aplenty, including exotic fruits, yellow ones with thick peels that the tribes named "Anunas" in his honor. One of the Green River had a strange instrument of wood and strings which he strummed to make beautiful music.
The clans mingled, and suitors all spoke with the beautiful Ruan, then it was time for all to present their gifts. The Ravna offered deer, and the Arashi water that they had carried across the desert. From the Cala, Anuee preformed the first ritual spear-dance ever shown to any outside the tribe. Ylaar, the Mother, offered to be Ruan's midwife, as no baby she had delivered had ever suffered weakness or sickness. The Crone spoke blessings from the gods and gave Ruan an ever-burning candle to bear her light in the darkness. Leothok, suitor from the Zenai, brought a beautiful cloak of woven wool to offer warmth and protection. The Longbranch gave the gift of a story and a precious feather of the Great Serpent, which according to the story had the power to bring someone back to the world of the living. The Stargazers told of a new star in the sky, which they named after Ruan.
Finally, Danta of the Iron Hills tribe stepped forward. He offered strange new weapons, made from iron, that could cut through any known substance save stone. Even as the other tribes whispered about how unnatural such weapons were, the people of the Iron Hills brought forward a sword for each of Anun's men, and the largest, greatest sword ever forged for Anun himself.
"That is the first gift I offer," Danta said. "The second is far lesser, but far greater. I offer only myself and my love, for I love your daughter, and she in return. I ask your blessing for her hand in marriage." Ruan rushed to his side, and Anun could only smile and agree, for he too knew how love could appear as madness.
Anuee stepped forward. "The Cala tribe supports you, and offers congratulations to your happiness. We swear our loyalty and protection."
The leader of the Longbranch proclaimed how Anun's wife had been of the Longbranch tribe, and they would consider everyone of Green Rivers, or who stood by Green Rivers, their brothers and sisters. One by one, all of the tribes offered their happiness and support, even those who offered suiters of their own.
"You know, it's funny," one of the Longbranch archers commented. "It's been years since all of the tribes have been in agreement like this."
"No, you forget last Gathering," her brother said. "We were all pretty hungry, and we were in agreement that we wanted to eat."
"Where is the Old Man of the Forest?" Anun asked. "He always comes to such weddings."
But there was only silence from the woods, and strange lights began to flash across the sky. The stars quickly began fading behind clouds. Anuee hurried to the Crone. "Grandmother, what omen is this?"
"Bad things," she whispered. "Bad things to come."
Then the Old Man of the Forest stumbled into the circle of clans as the sky flashed and went dark. "I offer my condolences on this unfortunate night."
"Unfortunate?" someone called. "Unfortunate? No. Ruan is getting married. The tribes are working together. It's a happy time, happy!" But the words rang empty, and the Old Man of the Forest merely laughed.
"The Hungry One demands a sacrifice. He sets his eyes on the fair princess here." The Old Man pointed one finger at Ruan, and the Gathering interrupted into chaos, some shouting why, others insisting the Gods' will must be done, but many voicing defiance. Above it all, Anun cried for the Hungry One to take him instead.
"That is not the will of the gods." The Old Man of the Woods gave them all a patronizing glance. "You have one hour. That is all." Then he disappeared back into the shadows from whence he came.
Weapons were nearly drawn as the Ravna considered bodily dragging off Ruan to the Hungry One, and other tribes prepared to defend her. "What peace we had didn't last very long," the Archer commented.
"Wait, my friends. Please do not fight. We still have an hour," Anun pleaded.
"An hour," the chief of the Ravna said. "Then we will drag her before the Hungry One if we must. Who are we to question the will of the Gods?"
"Well, I say we track the Old Man of the Woods. He just disappeared. I still have some questions for him," one of the Longbranch said. Longbranch, Iron Hills, and Stargazers all set out to seek the Old Man of the Woods.
"Grandmother, what do we do?" Anuee asked.
"We must go to the River Kaia," the Crone said. "She will know what to do." So the Cala, the Zenai, and the Ravna journeyed into the darkness, to the base of the River Kaia, to pray. They walked until they found a strange site, lit by holy lights, so they set down their weapons and knelt.
"My children, why do you come before me so?" a melodic voice sounded out.
Everyone else trembled and looked down, and Anuee knew that she must speak. "Mother Kaia," she said, her voice growing stronger. "We remember when you first created us, you pled to the All-Mother, to protect your children from your brother. Please, we beg of you again, do not let the Hungry One devour your children. He seeks a girl, young and innocent, on the eve of her wedding. Please, protect your children, stand for them as you once did."
Kaia smiled sadly. "So you would have my brother go hungry? I am sorry, but I have no power. It is his place to devour, and once he choses a prize, not even a god can stop him. Go now, and do the will of the gods."
"We will," they all echoed, but they hesitated for a moment, to see Kaia scream and convulse. Everyone froze, unsure of what to do.
"They killed him! The Old Man of the Woods, they killed him!" Suddenly, her voice turned harsh and dark, and began to take a second edge. "They have defied the will of the gods, and broken the First Law. The world will be consumed by the fire of our anger, and the river will run with the blood of all men!"
One of the Ravna stepped forward. "Then the river will run red with the blood of the heretics, and we will do the gods' will."
Kaia smiled, but it was not a kind smile this time. "Then you will be my champion, and take my gifts. But you must hurry and find my brethren, for the others grow stronger by the minute." Then, she turned, and singing softly to herself, stepped into the water and vanished.
Anuee set off with the others of the Cala, but inside, she felt all turmoil. Kill her cousins? The gods were asking her to do something that she felt couldn't be right, not deep within her heart, but how could she turn her back on the gods, on her family, on the Old Way?
She followed the rest of the tribes to a fork in the roads, where they decided to split up to cover more ground, find more gods and win their gifts to better hunt down their brothers and sisters with. She, the Cala, and the Zenai journeyed to another shrine when they saw lights down the road, so quickly extinguished their own.
"Is anyone there?" someone called out. "We only wish to talk."
Anuee stepped forward nervously, twigs crunching beneath her feet. "We have nothing to talk about. You killed the Old Man of the Forest."
"Not us. But that is not the point. What the gods are asking is unfair. Why should we kill our own? Why should innocent Ruan have to suffer? It's time for us to stand up, to make our own way in the world."
Anuee thought of the rivers of blood that Kaia demanded, and shivered. A voice from behind her, booming far louder than any human's, commanded, "So you wish to stand for the gods? Then go forth and kill all the heretics!" and the tribes charged forward.
"We only wished to talk!" the other voice shouted, then they disappeared into the woods. Anuee watched the Cala turn, victorious, to follow an unknown god into the dark, then looked back at the path where there others had fled. Biting her lip, she slipped away into the dark after them.
Ruan and Danta had been off having their own adventures. Ruan had killed Danta, then stepped into the Spirit World after her love, and together, they had traveled to the Afterlife. There, in front of the Great Serpent, Ruan had used all her power to resurrect him, and he fought the Great Serpent, and bound him, then together, they walked hand in hand back towards life.
The Zenai and the Cala followed the Green Man, where he posed a challenge to them: anyone who could defeat his monsters could step forward and receive the gift of a monster's strength, and fight as his champion. Leothok, suitor from the Zenai, and watchman of the night, stepped forward. He had fought off many beasts during the lonely hours of the night, and would face the Green Man's beasts too. So he faced them, and bested them, and knelt before the Green Man to receive the strength and the visage of a monster, before being sent off wet the ground with the blood of heretics.
Meanwhile, Anuee caught up with the group of those who would stand up to the Gods. "Wait!" she hissed. "You said you wanted to talk. Please, I wish to talk too."
A woman from the Arashi tribe looked up. "Would you really hurt your brothers and sisters, fighting for the gods? What right do they have to play with us like this? They destroyed our peace with their demands. Why should they ask for innocent lives?"
"I left my family."
"I cannot turn my back on the gods." But the gods have asked you to do things that you do not feel you can do, a voice in the back of her mind reminded her. Kaia was supposed to be our mother, but she spoke of fire and death. We stand for the gods, but do the gods stand for us?
"Fine." The Arashi woman turned her back to go with the rest of the hodge-podge of those brave enough to stand up for themselves: Iron Hills, Stargazers, Green River, all together as one people.
"Wait. I want to join you."
The Longbranch, too, had been busy. They had killed the Old Man of the Forest, but not before they had gotten a riddle from him, of how to defeat the Gods. They sent Garovian of the Iron Hills to build a tomb, and his brother to forge great chains of iron. Then, they strode off into the woods in search of the gods.
They quickly found Eagle, and despite her burning fire and blinding light, they defeated her, and took the fire from her bones and into their arrows. One of the daughters of the Longbranch was blinded in the fight.
Anuee's group caught up with the Longbranch and split up, half of them trekking up the hill to search for the Storm-Bringer. They could feel the Strom-Bringer's wrath, as the sky lit up with his lightening and boomed with his thunder, and rain poured down from the heavens. There was pitch darkness, then the sky lit up with a huge flash, and they could see him standing on top of the hill, his fists clenched, his face twisted in a grimace. Then all was blackness once more.
Anuee stayed with the folk from the Iron Hills, who went in search of Garovian, the man digging the tomb to place the chained gods. They came across Anun, and other confused tribes, and no one could quite figure out what was going on. Anuee stepped forward. "My family and I, along with the Zenai and the Ravna, went the the River Kaia, and she told us to collect gifts from all of the gods in order to kill all of you, so the river runs red with your blood. My cousins in the Longbranch and the Iron Hills seek to chain the gods. Where is Ruan?"
Suddenly, they caught sight of Ruan and Danta returning back towards them from the River, and there was much rejoicing. Anuee turned and hurried to search for those who had gone after the Storm God.
Meanwhile, Garovian the Gravedigger was returning when he ran into a strange man with the face of a monster. They traded great blows, and as their weapons clashed against each other, Garovian grabbed the other thing's shoulders and screamed, "I challenge you to the Oldest Game!"
It was a long and difficult battle of strength and wit, shouting different creatures as they swung their weapons. Garovian shouted, "I am the monster, fierce, strong, on the top of the food chain!"
The creature which had once been Leothok replied, "And I am the human, although not as strong, the whip master who binds the monster in chains!"
Then Garovian roared, "And I am the day the monster breaks free of those chains!" And with one mighty blow, he cleaved the weapon from Leothok's hands.
"That day is today, my friend," Leothok said as he kneeled, and a bit of his humanity returned.
"What are you doing?" hissed the spirit of the Green Man. "You are my monster! Fight!"
"The power of man standing for himself has defeated the strength of monsters. I cannot fight that."
"Then I shall take your strength back!" And the Green Man ripped off Leothok's face, revealing his human face underneath, and left him crouched on the ground.
Garovian walked over to him, and gave him a hand up, for the Green Man had taken all of his strength, and Leothok could barely stand. "Why?" he asked. "I have lost all my strength."
"Then we shall train together, and you may regain your strength in the way of man." They clasped hands and returned up the hill together.
Anuee caught up with the Longbranch as they dragged behind them, in chains, an angry god. "Come, we must go the the tomb." She looked around for friends, and found many less than had left to capture the Storm-Bringer. Many had fallen to his bolts of lightening, or thunderous blows. The Arashi woman who had convinced her to join them had gone, and had used the powers he had granted her, her entire tribe, to knock him down at a crucial moment. She had been incinerated by his lightening, but because of the time she had bought them, they had been able to chain them.
Unfortunately for the God-Binders, only more tragedy awaited them at the bottom of the hill: the body of Danta, slain protecting Ruan from monsters, wept over by his family old and new. But the God-Binders had little time to spare, for the sky boomed and monsters shouted in the distance, and they knew that they must face and defeat the Great Wolf, or face their ends in his jaws. The time for the final battle had arrived.
They trekked down the path, only to meet a group of Arashi, who protested most vehemently to their Binding of the Storm-Bringer. "When the skies are dry and it no longer rains, you will never let him go, for he will take his revenge on you and your children."
"Don't you see?" the leader of the Longbranch argued. "You will never go for want of water again. It can rain whenever you choose."
"We better not tell them we killed the sun," Anuee whispered to the Stargazer next to her.
The argument was long and heated, but finally, the Arashi stood aside. Too outnumbered to fight, they could only watch as the huge host of Iron Hills, Longbranch, Stargazers, and Green River passed. The few others of the Cala who had managed to survive-for a god had murdered the Mother and the Crone in front of them for little reason other than his whims-also joined the group. Soon on the road they met with their brethren, cousins now turned to enemies because of the whispers of the gods, but tension high in the air, they lowered there weapons for the time being. And all journeyed onwards towards the field of the Final Battle.
Only death awaited them all.
Part III: NOON
An Excerpt From "A Recounting of the War of the Oma" by Kaneer of Zenai
And so did the champions of the Gods come to stand against the heretics in the fields of the All-Mother, under the eyes of the All-Father, surrounded by the Hungry One's darkness. And though the heretics had stolen divine fire and lightening, though their twisted iron and their evil curses echoed, the hearts of the champions remained steadfast and true. With the Gods watching proudly, at last the champions defeated the heretics, until at last remained only Ruan of the Green River, whose beauty had birthed such betrayal. As the maiden shrieked and thrashed, the Great Wolf approached, jaws dripping with blood, red eyes piecing her soul, and the world held its breath, then a great SNAP! And the mountains sighed. The All-Mother's heart beat in rhythm, the All-Father's eyes twinkled in the wide sky, and the world was blessed with silence.
"Freedom Rising" Chapter XXIV: "The Fall of Tyrants" by Freed of the Green River
As midnight approached, the skies were lit with lightening and rivers rained down upon our people. The free clans amassed by Garovian's grave, weary yet determined not to face another dawn without breaking their chains of bondage. With weapons forged by skill and won by their wit, the heroes faced the Tyrant Gods, who crouched and hissed behind their mindless servants. Though many lives were lost, at last the servants were defeated, and only the Great Stag, the Great Bear, and the Great Wolf remained. Then did Ruan, most Beloved, Flower-Maiden and Candle-Bearer, stand forth. She beckoned to the Wolf, whose hungry eyes beheld their prize. He leapt forward, tongue lolling, when suddenly, Allez Eagleman of Longbranch ran faster than a dying man's last breath and pushed her aside. The Wolf landed on the Great Bear, and Destruction began to consume creation as the Great Stag galloped over to his son and his wife. Then, swiftly flew the chains forged by the heroes of Iron Hills, around the last of the Tyrants, shaking the world with a mighty sound. And what issued forth from its echo was all to come.
The truth is, some things were lost to history, and no one quite knows what happened that fateful night. The battle was massive, and confusing, and many, many people died. Most of the Gods, save the All-Mother, the All-Father, and the Great Wolf, were lost to history. And those that survived the aftermath went their separate ways to regroup, and have been fighting this war for the centuries since.
The tribes which remained loyal to the Gods, the Ravna, the Zenai, and the Arashi, formed a civilization to the north, and called themselves the Omanah. The prophet Brother Gorrr spoke of knowledge and kinship with the animals, so they worked side by side with the Kin. In their horror stories were legends of the Grave-Digger, or the Soul-Stealer. They remembered the Old Ways and stayed true to their Gods.
To the south, the Longbranch, the Stargazers, the Green River, and the Iron Hills joined to create one massive clan of innovation and progress, humans who dared to stand for themselves. They called themselves the Kaianoth, masters of the Kaia River. The Cala were surrounded on all sides by these heretics, and somewhat lost with most of their leadership dead, and resistance was quickly crushed and they were assimilated. Still, most of the Kaianoth tell ghost stories about the witches who still live in the swamps, the mage-warriors called the Spear Dancers who fight for...well, no one is quite sure. But the Kaianoth went on to create a great culture, huge cities, machines, towers that reached to the skies. They had done great things with magic, created weirdlings, humanoid semblances woven of magic made for a specific task which would last up to fifteen years before fading, or engines powered by fire and water elementals ever chasing each other, creating steam. There was the great floating city of Seaforge, and the Mage Towers, great highways and all sorts of innovation. They were a proud people, but a strong one. They spoke of the Candle-Bearer, and her husband, who waited for her in the Great Beyond, and built a palace for her there. In Kaianoth lived Mages of the Four Towers, the Lightening Thieves, an order of holy healers called the Keepers of the Flame, the Blind Archers, the Iron Legion, all following the footsteps of the heroes of old.
To the West were the jungles and mesas of the Xopichilan empire, once a grand expanse filled with many tribes, but they all forget the Old Ways, save one, the Xopichili, who still offered sacrifices to the gods. As a reward, the Goddess Tobateca taught them to brew the Dream Flower, which gave them flashes of visions from the future, and brought them closer to the Gods to share wisdom and power. They were also tasked with persuading the other tribes to come back to the gods, but try as they might, they could not convince the prideful, scornful others of the need for blood of Ixpiq'uq'an, the Great Golden Jaguar. So the mountains roared with Ixpiq'uq'an's fury, and the land was devoured by fire. The Xopichili, left with the only arable land, easily fought off the survivors of the other tribes, for the were gifted with the powers of the gods. Then, victorious, they were granted stewardship of the entire land, now lush and fertile with volcanic ash. Life has been prosperous ever since, except for one thing-they were running out of war prisoners to use as human sacrifices. They decided to expand to the East.
There they met the Omanah, and found similarities in their ways of living and the Gods they worshiped. Indeed, many called the Great Wolf and the Great Jaguar the Hungry Brothers. With their cultures merged and the Gods behind them, they sent holy armies to conquer the rest of the world.
In the deserts to the West was the Republic of Sematalia. Only a hundred years prior, an evil and powerful caliph had seized power and styled himself as a god, using petty tricks and small magics. The Order of the Saffron Cowl, a secret group of scholar mages, plotted against him, but did little more than talk, until one of their members was captured. The Caliph made the sister kneel before the throne with the rest of his slave-girls, but work flashy magics to keep the people under his thumb, but he underestimated her. She worked a piece of theoretical magic that she had talked about in great detail in meetings, enough so that the rest of the Order recognized her magic, and began planning. At the Great Festival of the Caliph's birthday, she used her magic to suspend him on his own wires and they revealed his tricks one by one, listing all the offenses against the people he had committed. They were perhaps one third of the way through the list when the angry mob below began to bellow all the ways they were wronged, and none of the Order could be heard above the shouts, not even with silencing spells. So the Order did the only thing they could think of: they dropped the Caliph to his subjects, and let him face his justice. Ever since that day, they have lived as a Republic, honored arcane magic, and swore never again to bow before tyrant gods. When the Stargazers of the Kaianoth began trading with them, they quickly became friends and allies.
The said alliance was why Pythalia delArthum had packed all her most vital charms from the Pearl Tower, the Mage Tower of Seaforge, and had joined the elite strike force lead by Cyrus Smith, a powerful force mage and military man. Pythalia wasn't at all a violent spirit; in fact, she had always wanted to be an ambassador like her father, and was good friends with Lord Sameer, magistrate of the Sematalian port city Ishtanidad. She had been researching weirdlings for years with the help of a Sematalian named Til, and to show for it had been able to create the first weirdling with the power to cast two different types of spells: damage bolts and protection spells. She was asked to come along on this mission because of her knowledge of the layout of the city and of its leaders, and she agreed to come along because she cared for Til. She had never known violence of battle, pain or fear, only the quiet love of peaceful cooperation and research, only of friendships untested. So she shivered silently as the general described the danger, and as the others of the strike force clutched their weapons eagerly. She quickly befriended and decided to stick by Cyrus, because he firstly seemed to know what he was doing, and because the aura of calm that he exuded helped sooth her own taunt nerves.
Then the teleport magic grabbed hold of all of them, and transported them to a darkened field.
She looked around, confused, until she saw Cyrus to her left. She stumbled to her feet, still a bit dizzy from the teleport magic. "What?"
"You're the only one who has been here before. Do you have any idea where they might be?"
She glanced around, feeling a lot more unsure of this than she had in the safety of the general's office. "I'm pretty sure the town hall is down that way. Here, follow me."
She led them swiftly down a hill, and sighed in relief at the sight of lights in Lord Sameer's town hall and palace. "Here, inside," she said, leading them all into the middle of a trial.
Neither the Scribe nor the Archmage looked particularly happy about the interruption of justice, but as they learned of the threat-Xopicilian and Omanah warriors and monsters, brought by ships pulled by kraken-they agreed that evacuating the town was slightly more important than finishing this trial, for the time being. Til and the others of the Order of the Saffron Cowl were sent on a mission to the Monastery, while a group of Sematalian rogues who flew on the winds went to investigate the said invasion force. Pythalia hurried with Lord Sameer to try to sound the gong and warn all the townfolk.
"You remember me, right? You were good friends with my father," she explained.
"I've been researching weirdlings for the past-"
Sameer turned to Cyrus. "What are we dealing with here, and how can we defend the town against them?"
"I would need to know more about your military capabilities and the layout of your city to properly answer that question."
"The General will explain, back at my palace. Who will come and sound the alarm with me?" Pythalia and a few others from the Iron Legion decided to accompany him as he made his way across the fields, shouting.
Suddenly, other shouts sounded out in the distance: the low chant of "Xo-pi-chi-li! Xo-pi-chi-li!" and a great horn blast and a blur of color blazed across the sky. It landed in front of the party.
"Lots of jaguar warriors!" the leader, Ginn, explained. "Only thing to do was run."
"We've got to sound the alarm!" Sameer insisted.
A line of Xopichilian warriors appeared at the top of the hill, clad in the skins of animals, waving their spears and chanting.
"Anyone want to volunteer to go up there?" Pythalia asked grimly.
"Well, they would have seen you and known something was wrong," Sameer admitted.
"Good idea, so let's get out of here!" Pythalia said, and they retreated back to the safety of the palace.
Even that wasn't so safe, as a jaguar-man pounded on the windows and the walls, searching for entrance. The strike force quickly subdued him and dragged him off to jail, where Pythalia watched from the walls as they chained him up and discussed his fate.
"Let's knock him out," one said.
"No, let's just kill him."
"This is so stupid!" Pythalia protested. "He can already barely move. Look, what we really need to do is try to talk to him." She took a step forward. "Why are you here? Why are you invading?"
The jaguar-warrior smiled. "Invading? We are here not to invade, but to raise."
There were shouts and screams from outside, calls to battle, and the rest of the strike force rushed to join it. Pythalia took one last look at the jaguar man, then rushed to join them. She quickly caught up with Cyrus.
"What's going on? What's happening?" she asked.
"We're surrounded on both sides, and we are vastly outnumbered. The Xopichili are pouring down the hill, and the Iron Legion can't hold them off." He stalked towards where steel and iron clashed, and she fell in step, trembling.
Only two brave members of the Iron Legion remained, and the mages skidded to a halt behind them. "They retreated. They retreated again," one of them hissed. "Why should we fight to protect them when they won't even protect themselves?"
The Xopicilians leered down at the ragged party, pointing their spears, leaping forward for a few moments before back into the safety of their lines, as the few Kaianoth who remained tried to catch their breaths.
"So what do we do?" Pythalia asked.
Cyrus glanced around, then turned to the Iron Legion soldiers. "You are right. This is not our fight, and we cannot win in. We must regroup, and try to get out of here." They hurried back behind the palace, as the Xopichili watched them go silently.
"Listen, new plan," Cyrus told the few survivors. "We get to their ships, and burn them. They won't make it back alive if they have to fight all the way through Sematalia."
"Why should we fight for them, the cowards?" spat the Iron Legion.
"Listen, this is a civilian outpost. They certainly were not prepared for war. You cannot blame them."
The Iron Legion scoffed and glared. "Well, do we have any way of getting to these ships of theirs?"
Pythalia spoke up. "There's a back passage, and a small bridge that leads behind the field and the hill they've taken. We could try that." The party hurried to the passage, only to see people on the other side.
"Who are you? We only want to talk!" Pythalia shouted.
Cyrus put a hand on her shoulder. "Who's there? Why are you shouting?"
"Come on, they're friends!" Pythalia said.
The party made their way across the bridge to find themselves at the base of the monastery. The field in front of them was deserted.
Cyrus and the others spoke of burning their ships, or finding the librarian, but a wave of weariness washed over Pythalia. However, there was a commotion from one side of the monastery, so she roused herself and walked over.
There was a huge beast, bigger than her with great claws and teeth and thick, curly fur, and it was crouched on the ground, whimpering.
"Okay, everyone stand to the side. Can you speak? Are you injured?"
The creature shook its head.
One of the Sematalians glared at her. "Do you usually try to talk with things with such big claws?"
Pythalia bristled. "I'm a diplomat, or at least I will be one if I get out of this alive. It's my job to talk to everyone. Now, what do you want?"
The beast whimpered, and cocked its head towards the monastery.
"The Sanctuary? You wish to enter it?"
"And you mean no harm to any of its occupants?"
It nodded again.
"Then I see no reason why you shouldn't enter. In fact, I think we could all use some peace and sanctuary." She met eyes with the Scribe within, for one could not enter such a holy and protected sanctuary without permission. "May we enter?" she asked.
"We seek only peace and rest."
"Then come forward."
Pythalia, her weirdling Flicker, and the beast stepped forward, and sat down near the edge of the altar of candles and scrolls. The beast nuzzled its head towards her, and carefully, she ran her hand through its fur.
"So soft!" she exclaimed. "What's your name, buddy?" she asked, but she couldn't understand the beast's grunting reply.
"Can you understand me?"
His soft head nodded up and down.
"But I can't understand you. Oh well." She scratched his belly again. "You're a sweet little thing, aren't you?"
"Do you know any words?" the Scribe asked suddenly.
"What?" Pythalia said.
"Words, any new words that we might not have heard yet here in the desert."
Pythalia thought for a moment. "There is one exotic fruit, a delicacy in my home, that I have never seen here in Sematalia. They care called Anunas. They are yellow, and can grow up to the length of one's forearm, and are very sweet. And we have sayings, too, when someone starts acting insane, we say they are going Anunas."
The Scribe smiled, muttering Anunas under her breath as she dipped her quill in ink and traced the letters onto a scroll. Then, she traced another strange symbol onto a smaller sheet of paper, and stood and handed it to Pythalia. "Keep this on your person, and you may understand all languages."
Pythalia nodded gravely, and placed it in her satchel. She could hardly believe it-one could not offer an ambassador a greater gift. Then, she realized it had an even greater practical use right then and there. She turned to the beast. "What's your name?"
It growled back in return, but this time, she could understand it. Fuzz.
"Hello, Fuzz. I'm Pythalia. It's very nice to meet you."
She and Fuzz sat in the sanctuary as the minutes ticked by slowly. Suddenly, a group burst out of the woods, followed by Xopichilian warriors. Directly in front of the monastery, they battled, spilling blood on its grounds and greatly disturbing the Scribe. "You have desecrated holy ground!" she protested. "It will protect us no more. Get away from this place."
Pythalia scanned the group for anyone she knew and noticed it was a lot smaller than the group they had sent out. She did notice Cyrus, though. "We were vastly outnumbered, and the Sematalians abandoned us in mid-battle again. I'm all out of magic. We've got to regroup in the town hall."
Pythalia nodded and they all hurried across the fields. Unfortunately, they hadn't walked quickly enough, and another group of Xopichilians ambushed them. All was lost in screams darkness as Pythalia was thrust into the very first battle of her life.
She tried to prepare a damage bolt, she really did, but the magic was clumsy in her hands and a Xopichilian warrior saw her as she struggled. He plunged a spear into her shoulder, slicing a thin line across her chest, and she fell to the ground, stunned.
There were gasping breaths, in and out. She could feel warmth pouring out of her chest, her magic bubbling forth, strange and wild, as she bled out on the ground. She tried to cling to life as hard as she could, but it was getting darker and darker-
She had just enough energy to scream a little, to differentiate herself from the rest of the field of dead bodies, and in an instant, Flicker was at her side. "I need a healer!" he shouted, and she blacked out.
She woke up propped up with a bandage across her chest, and Flicker starting to pick her up. Leaning on him, she managed to stand, and hurry down with the others to the town hall. Inside, though, she didn't see a single familiar face.
"Where's Cyrus?" she asked one of the guards, scared.
"Cyrus? Your mage? I think he was just cut down in battle."
So she was alone. The last of the Kaianoth strike force. It was up to her now.
Well, fighting hadn't worked out so well, and she couldn't fight. She was a diplomat, and she could talk. Maybe she could convince them to...she wasn't quite sure, but she would definitely do more good out in the strange dark fields than she would here, a stranger, with these people who would run away and let her kinsmen die.
"And get that thing out of here! I find this highly offensive!" the Scribe said. Pythalia turned to see a guard pointing his spear at Fuzz.
"Stop, stop! He was only trying to rest! He'll move now," she said, pushing the spear aside. "Come on, Fuzz."
"I'm allergic to dog," the Librarian sniffed.
"Fine. We're going," she said. "Fuzz?" And she, Fuzz, and Flicker walked outside.
As they exited the building, a strange sight greeted them. It had the appearance of a weirdling, but faded in and out of shadow, and Pythalia couldn't quite focus on it. She did, however, recognize it as Vector, Cyrus's weirdling.
"Vector?" she asked.
"Guess what? I do have a soul!"
"There's someone behind you, even though you can't see him. He brought me back. He wanted me to protect you. He told me to tell you that he'll always be watching over you," she said.
"Til," Pythalia whispered, but no tears welled up in her eyes. She just felt numb, then she turned and ran.
A few minutes later, she was back at the field where she had fallen the first time, and she saw a group with a lantern, whom she quickly joined. They discussed fetching the Scribe, a noble, and the Archmage, and the man with the lantern kept speaking of the need of blood.
A ritual. He was planning some sort of ritual to his dark gods. She had to get out of here, warn someone-
Then he turned to her, shining the lantern on her. "And who are you, dear?"
She swallowed. "My name is Pythalia. I'm a diplomat. There was fighting and I was hurt and-" She broke down into tears. "I'm just lost, and I saw your light."
"Hm. You may stay with us."
She stayed with this strange man, who seemed to be the hub of the enemy activity. The last Templar of the Fanged Path, a group of holy Omanah warriors, came forward and greeted Fuzz, the last of his brothers to survive. She met eyes with the jaguar-warrior, who had been freed by the rest of his tribe, and she looked down, hoping he would not recognize her and kill her, but he passed without saying anything. The strange man sent the others off on many strange tasks, until it was only them again, standing on the field.
"We must move," he said.
"Move. Certainly. Where do you wish us to go?" Pythalia asked.
"No, no, nowhere too far, just this spot, the flowers do not grow, and I can smell blood. Something bad happens here. Perhaps a week? Yes, a week. We should go over there." They moved fifteen feet to the left.
"Now tell me, child, what do you seek?"
"Yes, yes, I know, to stay alive, but beyond that, what do you seek?"
Pythalia thought of all of her hours of careful research, the groundbreaking discoveries she made, the notes and articles she had published in journals about the creation of super-weirldings, weapons of immense power. What did she seek?
"Knowledge, I suppose. And the power that comes with it. So that I can protect the ones I love." Finally, the tears she had been suppressing all evening poured forth. "Not that...any of them...are...alive."
"Hm. You will learn to love again. But power does not come from knowledge, it comes from action, and-"
Suddenly, a figure burst from the forest and started sprinting across the field. Five warriors chased after it, gained on it, and speared it down right in the spot where they had been standing but five minutes before.
"Hm. A week off. A full week. I'm getting old. But power comes from action, and when the time comes, you must have the courage to act." He stood up to speak to the warriors who had killed the figure, calling out something about being a week off.
Then suddenly, Pythalia knew what she had to do. She was the last of the Kaianoth, the last of the strike force, and if she stayed with this strange man, if she pretended to be on his side, perhaps she could use her magic to mess up his ritual. He was wrong, she would never love again, for she knew without a doubt that she would not make it from the night alive, but she could protect her people, her home, the Pearl Tower with its quiet research and the sound of quills scratching. She could protect her people, her beliefs-humans standing up for themselves, making their own way in the world.
Strange creatures and warriors brought up the Scribe, whose eyes lit up as they saw her. Quickly, Pythalia hurried to her side. "You've got to find the Archmage, and tell her to leave," the Scribe hissed. "Tell her to go to the ships without me." Pythalia nodded, and turned straight into a creature-a god-of fire.
"You," it growled at her. "Do you worship the gods?"
"Well," she said, sidestepping the question, "I believe in a Higher Power that I leave yet undefined-"
"Something bigger and more powerful than you? Like me?"
"You certainly are bigger and more powerful than me," she squealed, hurrying back, only to bump into Fuzz.
"Fuzz, listen, you've got to find the Archmage and get her out of Ishtanidad. Here, take this, and give it to her, so she can understand you." She handed him the small scroll that the Scribe had given her, hours ago in the monastery. "Go, now!"
But it was too late, for the Archmage had already entered the other side of the field. She did not even try to struggle as all of the Xopichili surrounded her.
The strange man knelt by the Scribe. "You make symbols for words?" he asked.
"Could you write four words for me?"
"Her name is Taliph."
"Taliph?" Pythalia asked, curious.
"My apprentice. But she is far greater than me. She raised three genie today. So you write with your right hand? Do you have good memory?"
The Scribe nodded.
They all followed him to a strange, flat outcropping of rock, where he cheerfully sliced the Scribe across her right hand and gathered her blood. "You said you have good memory, so mourn not the loss of your hand. It will heal in time." Then he ordered his guards to lay the Archmage, eagle-spread, on the ground, and took a slip of paper with a strange name written on it in ancient tongue. He clutched his knife then, slowly but surely, began to carve the runes into the Archmage's back.
And Pythalia knew that now was the time for action. She couldn't kill him, because his apprentice could take over.
But she could kill the Archmage, for without her, the ritual would be lost. She stepped forward, put her hand on the woman's shoulder, and screamed the most powerful spell, the darkest spell, that she had ever been unfortunate enough to study.
Then underneath her, the Archmage's body convulsed once and went limp.
Everyone stared at her in shock.
She could still feel the aftermaths of the spell, the cold power, like slimy water doused over her very soul. It paralyzed her, rooted her to the spot as the others sprang into action. She stood there as the spears pieced her, as the world went dark, and her last thought was that she didn't feel like a hero. She felt as if she had done something horribly, horribly wrong.
When had it gone wrong? she wondered. Then there was only blackness.
But poor Pythalia's sacrifice had been in vain, for a cleric of the Omanah martyred himself to return life into the Archmage's body. The strange man finished the ritual, and the Archmage was possessed by the spirit of Ra, ancient goddess of the sands, the desert, the sun. Another Tyrant God had been released, and there was no one left to remember Pythalia, to remember her hopes or her fears or the bravery that she found. She passed, forgotten, into the sands of time, a lost hero of a lost civilization.
Part IV: SUNSET
After the fall of Ishtanidad, the world fell easily before the armies of the Gods. The Kaianoth were reluctant to send their men and women to be slaughtered for the sake of a people who would not even defend their own homes, so the Republic of Sematalia quickly fell and became the Empire of the Black Sands. Surrounded on all sides, the gods stronger than ever from all of the blood spilt in their name, the Kaianoth appeared doomed. All of their mages gathered and threw all of their power, all of their souls, into the creation of one massive weirdling, Magic personified, as powerful as a God, to fight back.
Unfortunately, there were two Gods who were, well, in the habit of eating gods. The Jaguar and the Great Wolf devoured the Weirdling, and with it, any hope of the Kaianoth people for resistance. Then, the armies of the gods spread, conquering more lands, taking more gods into their Pantheon. They conquered the Dustlands, an old colony, and the Grasslands north of that. They conquered Dahlsullr, a former penal colony of theives honest about their natures, who barter and backstab. The Matuqa Merchants states, a tropical paradise of sensory overload and constant warring between merchants, too, fell before the Covenant, as did the Glass City of Nirana, a group of selfless communists. Bonzelleirut, the pirate nation, who would steal slaves and put them in the most fertile land, and come back and give them gold, fine jewels, and silks to wear simply because they loved raiding so much, were quickly conquered once the Covenant landed a force on their home island. The Constitutional Districts of Ungarro took so long creating Committees to authorize defense of their tunnel cities that they were conquered without resistance. The Administrator from the Nunavi Directorate was expecting them, and told the envoys that he and the Nunavi would gladly join the Covenant. Thus the whole world was conquered by the Gods.
Cities, countries, they matter far less than religion, for while there are still nationalities, those with the most power, who actually control the land, are the Council of Twelve, the High Priests and Priestesses who speak for the Gods. There were other orders-the Guild of Illuminators, great runecaster mages, the Templar of the Fanged Path, holy warriors, and the Krakenar, the Covenant's navy. The Covenant would control the world by removing their armies of protection when they declared a war holy. If anyone wanted to do anything significant, they needed the approval of the council.
Xenevith was the High Priestess of Tobateca, Xopichilian Goddess of poison, secrets, dreams, the future, and she knew the politics of the Council well. After all she had done to get onto it, she would cling to it with all of her wit and tenacity, which was quite a lot.
Xenevith was born a slave-child, and a strange girl she was. She spoke not a word, but only stared at people with her intense little gaze. When she was six, she was sold to be a human sacrifice to a temple of Tobateca. As the priestess there drank the draught of the Dream Flower, Xenevith spoke her first word, and with no training at all, cast a powerful hallucination spell. She made the priestess see a vision of herself in the robes of the High Priestess. From there, she swiftly rose through the ranks, building her base of power on lies and clever deception. She had seen a true vision of Tobateca all of once, and the goddess seemed somewhat uninterested, so she rose unopposed to the top. Well, nearly unopposed. To her enemies, whom she quickly crushed, she was known as the Nightmare Witch.
She knew all the policies of the Council; how the Embraced was together with the High Priestess of the All-Mother, and hadn't spoken to his brother, prophet of Gorrr, as his brother had been together with her before. She was advising the Scribe of Ra in her campaign to regain followers and power to Ra over the Betrothed to the Goddess of the Dark Moon. She knew how the High Templar of the Fanged Path was old and weakening. The Prophet of the Grasslands was new and talkative, but even he couldn't undermine her power base. She was quick with her words and smart enough to basically prod the council in any direction she wanted, but still she thirsted for more power. She had learned very on that power was safety, and she enjoyed the privileges that came with it, such as everyone bowing as she walked into a room.
And so she did walk into the room, confident in her power, her robes of woven gold and expensive jewelry, her smile as fake as the words she spoke for her goddess.
The first petitioners the Herald announced were speakers for the Administrator, who had come to request the removal of troops (quickly denied, but the Council did agree to help pay for medicines for frostbite) and the moving of the lay lines one degree to the west. This, too, the Council denied, for they could find no reason for the strange request.
Next came the Brother who traveled the world and spoke for the Kin, but he brought a strange report-the Kin were disappearing. No dragons, no griffons, nothing in any of the lands that he had searched. He even ventured to say that perhaps the Kin were fading because the gods, too, were fading.
The High Priest of the Great Wolf would take none of it, and threw his ax into the Brother's heart. People in the chamber screamed, then fell very silent and very still. None wanted to incur the Council's wrath next.
"Leave us," spoke the High Priestess of the All-Mother. "We would do Council in closed session. Leave us, all of you."
"Well, he obviously speaks lies," Xenevith began. "The gods are as strong as ever. My connection to Tobateca is as strong as ever. Surely none would listen to this heretic."
"Heretic? He has been collecting reports faithfully for years. He's never shown any sign of anything before," the Embraced said, glaring at the Wolf's Priest. "If you had but held your temper, we would not have such a scene on our hands."
"Well, obviously the Kin are disappearing. Something is going on," the High Templar of the Fanged Path said.
"Yes, but that doesn't mean that the gods are fading. That doesn't excuse such heresy!" the Wolf shouted back.
"We could raise him, ask him some questions," Howl, Champion of the All-Father, suggested.
"I really don't see what we would have to ask him," the Embraced said, looking quite disgusted.
"Isn't it obvious? If he had spoken of this to anyone before, or if anyone had spoken to him of it. We need to find who planted the idea in his head, and squelch this before it can spread and threaten the brilliant empire we have built for the Gods," Xenevith said. Everyone caught the implied undertone: if anyone else believed that the gods were weakening, then they would lose all of their power and privilege.
"I really don't...I don't think this is necessary," the Hound of the Grasslands said. "Snatching him back from death? It would anger the gods."
"We need more human sacrifice," the High Priest of Ixpiq'uq'an said, bored. "We obviously don't have enough, so the gods are angry."
"Are we bringing him back to answer questions?" Howl asked.
"Yes," Xenevith said. The Hound of the Grasslands scowled at that, but there was nothing he could say, for he was new on the Council and her arguments had the cool force of logic behind them.
Howl floated forward to the corpse and leaned over it, whispering in an ancient language. "His spirit has returned. What questions would you have me ask him?"
"Had he spoken to anyone? Any mages? Who might have implanted this idea in his head?" Xenevith asked.
"Yes," the Betrothed said. "Ask him if it was scholars, or learned men."
Xenevith glared at him, and shot the Scribe of Ra a glance, but no one else seemed to notice.
"He says the Fomori and the Radakara gave him this idea, but the feeling he had been having for years."
"We are already to see them," the High Priestess of the All-Mother said. "We can address this in our audience. Otherwise, I suggest we address this matter later. The people are becoming...restless. Rumors will be flying around, and the best way to placate them would be to continue this council."
"Agreed," Xenevith said. "And remember, it goes without speaking that the gods are still strong, and with us."
"So we lie to the people?" the Embraced asked.
"We keep order and speak for the gods, as we have always done," Xenevith said. "We cannot appear weak."
"All in favor of recess? Good, then the Council is adjourned. We meet back in ten minutes. Servants!" High Priestess of the All-Mother called towards the door. "You may come clean up this body now."
Xenevith fell in step beside the Scribe of Ra as they walked into the main room. "That was quite uncalled for, that jibe at learned men," she said. "The Betrothed better learn to watch his tongue, or one day it may betray him." The Scribe of Ra nodded silently as they finished their arch around the room, glancing disdainfully at the food offerings before heading back to their seats at the Council Chamber.
Next up was a Nameless Brother, who spoke of his millions of followers, and Gods from Beyond the Great Beyond, the Abyss. He had walked all the way from the heart of Black Sands to deliver his message, and request-a seat on the Council.
The Council laughed.
"We are a Council of Twelve, not thirteen. Let me get this straight-you want us to give you a seat, and recognize your gods, which you say no one else can hear, which you have no proof of?"
The Brother smiled. "My gods are speaking to me right now. When was the last time you heard from your gods?"
"We assure you, our connections with our gods are as strong as ever," Xenevith said.
"Really? So Tobateca has spoken to you?"
"She speaks through dreams and strange visions. The ways of the gods are not easy to understand, but does not mean they are gone."
"Very well, we will consider your proposal and discuss it more in depth later. If that is all, Herald, may we move on to the next order of business?"
The Herald cleared his throat. "May I present Balor of the Hollow Camphor, Last of the Fomori, and Tiel-Ra of of Lost Things, Last of the Radakara."
The Tiel-Ra stepped forward, and began taking strange items from her bag. "A scarf, has anyone lost a scarf? Or this hat?" She dumped a great multitude from her bag, explaining how she went around collecting all that had been lost, including much of her brethren.
"But Hope is not in my bag. Hope is still not yet lost."
Balor stepped forward. "I too bring gifts. I have watched my kin fading and disappearing. The gods are leaving, and humanity must find the strength to stand for itself. I, too, will disappear soon."
"Balor, you are old," the High Priest of the Wolf said. "You may be of the opinion that the gods are fading, but that is just an opinion Speak no more heresy."
"I will go soon, too. Humanity must learn to stand on its own." He smiled, then kneeled over and died. Tiel-Ra smiled sadly, and placed her bag over him, huge huge body disappearing into its much smaller depths.
"Remember, hope is not lost."
"Well, that was interesting," Xenevith said. "The gods are not fading; in fact, we assure you, they are stronger than ever. Now, may we move on to the next order of business?" Her eyes, however, had fastened on a small white flower that had fallen out of the Tiel-Ra's bag.
The Dream-Flower. The power of knowledge and vision, the power that she and her priests were supposed to have, that she had been faking with mass hallucination spells.
With it, she could know her enemy's secrets. She could wield the future as a weapon against them.
Quickly, she motioned a servant over as the Guild of Illuminators spoke of the need of moving some lay line in the north one degree west.
"Fetch me some water," she whispered, "and that flower over there on the ground. It pleases me."
Then she turned her full attention back to the proceedings. One degree to the west to strengthen the lay line? Either the Administrator was demonstrating his uncanny foresight again, or he had bribed the Guild of Illuminators to do as he wished. Both cases had precedent. Either way, she say no reason to refuse.
"Let us call recess for ten minutes," the High Priestess said. "We have much to think about and discuss in private afterwards."
Xenevith turned to exit the chamber, when she saw a party of three sitting down. "Who are you?" she demanded.
"Well, my lady, we are the Ungarran Committee for the Consideration and Contemplation of the Redistribution and Reallocation of Troop Resources in the Fourth Residential District to Better Facilitate the Use of Space in Accordance with Statutory Regulation 368A, called the UCCCRRTR-"
"Yes, yes, very interesting. Well, I look forward to hearing your petition. You amuse me." She strode past them, ignoring their bows and their gratitude.
Outside, she found one of the Administrator's assistants, whom she informed of the movement of the lay line, before she grew tired of all the simpering sycophants and decided to return to the chamber.
The Council decided that the problem was not enough human sacrifice, and that they must declare a Holy War. They decided to consult with the Kakenar, who along with many other costal nations, had been complaining about the Bonzelleirut's pirate activities. It was quickly decided to move troops out, sending some through the deserts of the Black Sand in order to discover more about these strange followers of the dirty Brother.
"We should announce it to the Bonzelleirut," the High Priestess said. Then-"OH!"
"So sorry, so sorry, so sorry. Please don't hurt me, so sorry, so sorry!" A strange hunchbacked servant bowed and backed away, holding an empty glass of water which he had just spilled all over her.
She smiled evenly. "We can announce the war in a few minutes. Right now, I will see if our hostess has more robes to change into."
The servants apologized even more profusely, and came before Howl about a mouse they had caught but which had been stepped on. "We gave it a whole funeral service. Did you get the soul?"
"Yes, yes, it was very good. Thank you," Howl dismissed them.
Other refreshments were brought to the rest of the Council as the waited for the Priestess of the All-Mother.
"Look," said the High Priest of Ixpiq'uq'an. "They brought me a sandwich, and I didn't even ask for it. Well, doesn't matter, I'm hungry."
Xenevith smiled. "You know the old saying-'That which devours must eat.'"
Everyone laughed, and the High Priestess returned, now clad in gold. They called the Council back into session.
First they called the Benzelleirut representatives forward. "We have heard too many complaints of your piracy. You have a three day warning, then we are removing our troops and declaring war on you holy."
"But we haven't-"
"This is not a discussion, it is a warning. Be grateful you have received even that."
"Herald, bring up the next order of business."
The Herald cleared his throat. "I have here the UCCC-they're a committee."
Xenevith smiled. "Ah, these ones. I like them. You'll find them hilarious. Come forward and speak."
"We are the Ungarran Committee for the Consideration and Contemplation of the Redistribution and Reallocation of Troop Resources in the Fourth Residential District to Better Facilitate the Use of Space in Accordance with Statutory Regulation 368A, and we come with two matters of grave importance to the Ungarran people."
"We wish to move troop resources down two blocks, where the troops have been relocated."
"And the troops can't just use these resources?"
"No, they're not authorized."
"So where do they get food or water?"
"They can't, not easily. That's the problem."
"Just wondering," the Hound of the Grasslands asked, "how long ago was it that the troops were moved?"
"Well over a year. It took us this long to get approved to come and see you."
The Council smiled to one another. "Well, you have our permission to move your resources. Well? Your second request?"
"We were wondering if you could approve the creation of a Committee with the power to bypass the red tape from the Committee to Regulate the Committee to Create Committees. We can't create Committees anymore, because they regulate to much."
"Who regulates them?"
"The Committee to Regulate the Committee to Regulate the Committee to Create Committees."
"And who regulates them?"
"There are three such committees, and the first regulates the third, the third the second, and the second the first."
"Wait, wait, wait, let me get this straight," the High Priest of Ixpiq'uq'an said. "So you want to make a committee you so can have less committees?"
"No, no, no! We want to make a committee so we can make more committees!"
Xenevith laughed. "Like I said, they are very amusing. Very well, I approve the creation of this Conciliatory Committee Creation Committee Without Regulation from the Committee to Regulate the Committee to Create Committees, and furthermore, I make you three the head of it."
They bowed even deeper. "Thank you milady. Thank you so much."
(Little did the Council know, or care, really, for they did not take the Ungarrans very seriously, that by giving these three the power to create committees without regulation and cut through all red tape, they had given them enough power to become de facto dictators of Ungarro. Which only goes to show that if your whole existence is basically to be an incompetent scholarly diplomat who is basically comic relief, and you amuse the right person in power, it's a very good day for you.)
There was a silkworm thief, who had really stolen hundreds of dogs and murdered them, selling them as delicacies. He was dragged off for questioning.
A servant was brought before the council who had apparently tried to kill someone. "What is your name?" Howl demanded.
"Do you know what you did, Thistle?"
Xenevith sighed. "He's obviously under some sort of magical influence." She stalked forward, placing her hand on his shoulder, as the room held its breath. "Dispel Magic-Feeblemind," she commanded, then walked back to her seat. "Now what's your name?"
"Do you remember stabbing this man?"
"No, milady. I...I don't remember anything, any my head hurts." He looked around, confused. "Where am I?"
Xenevith sighed. "Take him away and question him. Try to discover the mage who cast the spell on him."
A few more cases stood before the Council, but all were resolved fairly quickly. It was obvious the evening was winding down, as many of the guests began to trickle outside to the museum and other attractions. At last, however, the dirty Brother stepped forward again.
"My friends, I am sorry if I appeared...presumptuous before, but you must understand I am very...passionate about my gods. They speak to me even now, and I will give a demonstration of their power. Look!"
And he waved his hand and where there was once empty air, a man now stood.
Xenevith raised an eyebrow, not particularly impressed. After all, she dealt mainly in hallucination spells. Many of the people, however, and most of the Council gasped in surprise.
"I know not whether this is the same as my brother who fell earlier tonight, if he has the same mind, the same memories, or only the semblance. Still, my gods are strong. They have created life from thin air. Howl, I call you out. You are the oldest, and the wisest. You have been in this world for over 1500 years. Tell the truth now-are the gods fading?"
The entire room went silent, and all eyes turned to Howl. The Brother continued. "Howl, you travel in this world and in the Great Beyond. You see all. Have you seen the Great Stag? I ask you now, and I ask you and you alone: are the gods fading?"
"Yes," he said softly.
The Brother laughed, and turned to face everyone. "Yes. He admits it. It is a pain to be alive, ever moment immeasurable pain. You have stayed alive for fifteen hundred years in service of the All-Father. I ask you, Howl, do you wish to remain in such pain now that he is gone?"
"No," Howl said, then he disappeared.
The Brother's smile widened, and he strode up and took Howl's seat. "Now, move troops away from the land bridge. My people wish to occupy it."
The Wolf Priest stood. "That is neither your seat, nor your right. By my power, DEATH!"
The Brother took a step back, clutching his chest, then regained his balance and stood forward strong again. The audience looked on in awe. The Wolf glanced around, but found no support in the eyes of the Council. He tore off his headdress, and stalked out of the room.
"Good. Now move the troops."
"We are a Council of equals," the Priestess of the All-Mother said. "On such and issue, we generally vote."
"Fine. Move the troops."
And the head of the Guild of Illuminators did just that.
Xenevith looked around at her fellow Council members, all of them shaken and defeated, and hid a grin behind a neutral mask cultivated from years of practice. They might feel lost without the guidance of their gods, but she had built her own power with no help from a god. She had ruled for years without the guidance of a god. She didn't need one now.
With the Dream-Flower, (and she would hoard it, cultivate it for herself, and never reveal its secret), she could gain the insight, the omniscience, that she needed to maintain her own power. She would, of course, throw her full political weight behind this brother, backstabbing the other Council members in the progress. She would make herself so valuable, so vital to his keeping control that he would not be able to dispose of her, that it would be her pulling all the strings.
After all, she decided, much better to be on a ruling council of two, three, even four, than one of twelve.
Things had definitely taken a turn for the interesting. Besides, "Queen" or "Empress of the World" always had a better ring to it than High Priestess of some forgotten god.
Part V: MIDNIGHT
The people of Old Grove have lived in their paradise of a town for as long as they can remember, in the wake of old ruins, on a small forgotten land bridge between the great nations of the Xopichili and the Black Sands. They knew not want or warfare, but rather friendship and laughter. They were comforted in their simple worship of the gods and the strength of the Covenant's protection.
Many fine people lived in this town, but the thread we shall pick up and follow is that of a young almost-Illuminator named Rowan Greenleaf. Rowan was an intelligent young woman, a rising star, the pride of the town; the mothers still gossiped of how she had followed her brother to their little schoolhouse at the age of six, and, within a month, taught herself how to read. Everyone assumed she would go out into the wide world, become someone great, someone they could brag about for generations to come.
She was naturally a touch prideful, so, of course, this all went to her head. She also happened to be a bit of a drama queen. She had dated Vander as he was founding his little gang, the Misfits. After they broke up, she threw herself into work with the Illuminators, learning vast amounts not just of runes, but also runic theory. She ignored everyone else, and found sanctuary in her work. Well, she still had her brother, and Tilden, whom she was dating, but none of them were quite important of the magic of these strange symbols she became obsessed with. Sometimes, she felt as if they were written on her very soul.
She would join the Guild of Illuminators, rise through their ranks, become greater than anyone from Old Grove could even imagine. That was her future.
Or, rather, that was her future until five days ago, when all of the Covenant, all of the Templar, received strange orders, packed up, and left. All except one, Curran, who had grown to love the town and the people, and figured that if the gods were gone he owed his allegiance to those he had sworn to protect. The Guild offered to take Rowan with them, offered her an apprenticeship in the big city, offered her all of her dreams, and she accepted without a second thought of those whom she would leave behind.
But Curran stopped her.
Curran whom she looked up to. Curran who told her stories of the great world beyond. Curran who she thought was her friend.
And so, for the past five days, while strange nameless worshipers from a land to the far east have been building something...strange...in the woods, while people whisper in fear, their homes no longer safe, Rowan has been making trouble with the Misfits, giving them magic symbols for their raids, or sulking in the corner of their lair. Now at the town meeting, she was again sulking in the corner and glaring at everyone. Curran was making some sort of announcement about how they shouldn't venture off into the woods.
That was when five of the Nameless came, explained how their brethren were doing something in the woods, and how it might be dangerous to leave here for a little while.
"Here? As in this pavilion, or this town?" Tilden asked.
Rowan glanced at him nervously and scooted away as one of the Nameless advanced threateningly. "Here as in right where you're sitting."
Pandemonium broke loose as everyone began shouting questions. Some of the Nameless glared, others laughed. Rowan hugged her knees and hissed something to herself about how only idiots would annoy creepers with swords.
"Everyone settle down and be quiet. We were going to be meeting for a few hours anyway, and it doesn't change anything that we have guests in our midst," Curran said. "Everyone scoot in a bit closer, and if you wouldn't mind, may we have some privacy?" The Nameless backed to the edge of the circle.
"Listen," he whispered, "these are dangerous people. Trust me, they know that we have those among us who can wield weapons, or cast magic. They would not have sent only five unless they were absolutely sure that five could subdue the village."
The entire village shivered in unison.
"So what do we do?" someone whispered. "Do we make a run for it?"
"Let's wait and watch. Perhaps they only want to keep us here for the night. If they start doing anything strange, or perhaps leave, then we might have a chance. But we let them make the first move. Now, everyone back up, sit in a circle again, and we can discuss...other matters of concern in the village."
Rowan didn't back up into the circle, though; she and the rest of the Misfits went to the edge of the town hall, to scoff as two tanners began to argue about which one of them ought to have a tanning business. It got steadily more ridiculous, as the first began to describe how the second had stolen all of his girlfriends, had always been better than him, had basically existed to make his life miserable.
Rowan turned to look at Van with clouded eyes for a moment, then leaned forward and wrapped her arms around him. "Three."
It took Vander a second to realize, a second to remember, then he stomped his foot silently and cursed under his breath. She hadn't stolen a hug in their Hug War since before...well, when they were much younger, and now she had three whole hugs on him?
She grinned, feeling slightly better.
There was a strange noise from the woods, and one of the Nameless set off to investigate it. The others stalked around the edges, laughing at the Misfits' questions, even showing one of them how to wield a sword.
"Creepers," Rowan hissed under her breath.
There were more shouts from the woods, and two more went off. The villagers, including the Misfits, all gathered around Curran again.
"What's going on?"
"Wait and see," he assured them.
Then suddenly, one of the Nameless sisters burst out into the pavilion, holding back one of her brethren who was growling and clawing towards the civilians. "What have you done? What have you done?" she screamed.
"We've been here the whole time!" someone shouted back.
"You've been watching us-we haven't been doing anything!"
"Yeah, we've been discussing the tanners!"
"They're all dead! All of my brothers and sisters! Whatever you've done, I know you did it! I know you did it!" she screamed as she fell to the ground, barely able to restrain him.
Then there was a huge boom as walls began to arise from the earth, enclosing the pavilion, and a great...well, it looked like a human, but something more. He-It-stepped forward, and with one swing of his mighty hammer, destroyed the last of the Nameless.
"I am Garovian, Tomb-Builder, Grave-Digger. When you kneel before others, you lose the ability to stand on your own."
Then he stepped forward and swung his monster hammer at the citizens of Old Grove.
Screams and pandemonium filled the space as a few tried to stop him, but many tried to run, only to find his walls preventing him. Dust and the smell of blood filled the air. Rowan found herself grabbed by someone who quickly began ringing a bell, casting a magical haze between her and the rest of the world.
She looked down to see Monkey (as she called the girl), Tilden's little sister, with her eyes buried in her robes, crying for her brother.
Then suddenly, there was silence. One by one, the bells stopped ringing, and as the dust settled, the village surveyed the damage caused.
Many of them had died, that much was obvious. Many were injured, too, and there were calls for healers from every side. Curran lead the small group of still able-bodied villagers, including Rowan, to great doors that had formed at the front of the pavilion. The stepped through, only to find more walls encasing them halfway across the field.
"So we've been entombed," Rowan whispered.
"How long until the air runs out?" someone shouted.
"How long until more of those things come back?"
They all turned around to head back inside the pavilion, but not before Rowan caught sight of what looked like a rune dancing across the stones of the walls.
Rune magic...magical walls...a spark of an idea began to form in the back of her mind.
But runes got her thinking about the little protection that she could offer her friends. The first person she hurried to was Vander, whipping out her special ink-quill. "Give me your hand," she ordered, tracing a rune onto his skin in record time. "There. That will protect you from the next sword blow that befalls you."
"No time." She pushed him away. She had to find Curran. He was their only hope of getting out of here, and besides, perhaps she overreacted a bit over the past few days. She had screamed some...well, she didn't even quite remember what she had said in her anger. Something about her life being over, and there would never be anything for her in this hell-hole. Whatever it was, she wished she could take it back. If something happened...well, she didn't want to be remembered as a brat.
"Rowan, wait!" She turned around to see her brother. "There's...there's something you need to see. A letter. From the army. I got it two days ago, and I haven't been able to open it-"
"Can you think of a better time?" she snapped. "We're about to die here."
"You have to open it now!" he insisted.
"You have to get out of my way," she said, shoving him to the side and storming past towards Curran, who was discussing strategy with all those strong-bodied enough to wield a blade. "Give me your hand," she said, then traced another symbol onto his hand. "There. Protection from magic. Should buy you a little time at least."
She turned to head back to the walls, wanting to get another look at them, but was intercepted by her brother. "Look, I'll read your stupid letter," she said, grabbing it from him and shoving it in her bag.
"They're coming!" someone shouted. All of the unarmed villages gathered on the platform at the back of the pavilion and clung to those with protective magics. This time, besides being assaulted by archers to the front, strange shadows stepped through the walls and shot poison darts at the villagers from behind. Many screams could be heard from townsfolk blinded by the strange magic of the arrows.
Then it was over.
Rowan took out the letter, and ripped it open. Tal and Rowan Greenleaf, We regret to inform you that your parents have been killed in battle.
That's what it was about? That was the important news? They hadn't seen their parents for over a year. "Here's your stupid letter. Not that it matters. We're all going to die anyways."
She hurried towards Curran, ignoring the scream then the sound of heartbroken sobs behind her. Her steps faltered for a moment, then she pushed ahead again. "Curran, the runes on the walls, what do they mean?"
Curran sighed. "I'm not sure. I don't know much of anything about magic. I do know that these things can be dangerous. What are you suggesting?"
"If I can figure out what they're made up-a Truth rune, mixed with a Protection from Spells-we might have a chance of figuring out what this thing is, and taking it down."
"You can do this?"
"I haven't studied with the Guild of Illuminators for years for nothing, you know. I specialized in creation of runes. But I'm going to need some time."
Curran nodded. "We can buy you that."
"Rowan!" one of the villagers shouted. "Rowan, your brother!"
She glared disdainfully to where he lay sobbing on the floor. "What?"
"Don't you-can't you-do something? Comfort him?"
She raised one eyebrow, then hurried off to a table in the corner to consult her notes and begin crafting her rune.
She began with the base of a Truth Rune, and layered Protection from Spells over that. She chose key elements from Comprehend Languages, and a reverse Glamour. Then, using all her ingenuity, she began to weave the different elements together, making one, great, flowing symbol.
More waves of horror came-a strange bard with black wings who sung an ancient song, and silenced their voices. Rowan didn't care, even as everyone gathered around the one artisan whose rune protected him from the silence, all writing things downs on scraps of paper, all with things to say. She just worked on perfecting the rune.
She finally had a copy that she thought might work when another wave of monsters burst through the walls. She stood with Monkey again, but this time, a dark malevolent spirit with murder in its eyes came forward, and with a great blast of darkness, broke the holy sanctuary. She remembered another ghost coming towards her, then only pain.
"Rowan, Rowan, are you okay?"
Rowan groaned. "My head hurts." She glanced around, but the rest of the town was still shouting, dealing with the aftereffects of the attack. She couldn't have been out for longer than a minute. Grimacing, she stood.
She was already at Curran's side. "I've got the rune. It's as ready as ever. I need two more runecasters." Her brother appeared at one side, and the other artisan at the Curran protecting their rear, she led them forward into the center of the field, towards the great looming walls.
"Start carving," she ordered, and flicked her dagger in the first lines of the rune. She knew the others were doing the same to her sides, so she devoted her full attention to the job at hand.
Time lost all meaning-moments could have passed, or hours, but finally, she glanced to her left and right, then with sure, sharp movements of her wrist, finished the last lines of the runes. All three glowed for a moment, brilliant against the darkness, and she felt as if her feet were rooted in the spot. Then, the entire wall seemed to dissolve on top of her in an explosion of thick, smelly gas.
She heard a hoarse whisper in the back of her mind: Poison and death. To defeat it, you must face the darkness within yourself.
Darkness within herself? How ambiguous could one get? And she wasn't dark; she was a perfect law-abiding citizen, the pride of the town-
Then she saw herself, or rather, the woman that she always wanted to be, but something was wrong, something was twisted. The not-her's eyes sparkled with...ferocity...and strange runes of pulsating maroon were tattooed onto the not-her's face. The not-her grinned to show pointed teeth, then jumped on Rowan, tacking her to the ground, and taking the dagger in her hands, pushing it slowly towards her chest.
Rowan struggled. She fought as she had never fought before, but the weight of this dark her was far too much, and she could feel herself weakening by the second. The dark-her, however, seemed to be gaining power with every moment, every gasped breath, every heartbeat of fear and despair.
Rowan started screaming at about the time that the dagger pierced her chest. Screaming for pain, for fear, for help. Screaming alone in the dark, with none to save her from herself.
But someone heard her cries of pain. Someone ran out across the field, despite more monsters pouring through the wall, and threw her an antidote. She gulped it greedily, and collapsed on the ground, shaken and crying.
She barely heard her brother screaming, "Please, take me, but not my sister!" She didn't react at the thud of metal on flesh or bones cracking, or the swish through the air warning that she was next. She didn't react as she was ripped from her body, and aimlessly drifted, hugging herself, sobbing, as her soul was pulled towards something greater. She honestly didn't care. She seen the darkness in herself, and as she had looked into those maddened eyes, her own maddened eyes, she had lost her faith in humanity.
Through the mists, she heard her brother calling for her, but she ignored him. She was lost in this strange dark world, the world of her own despair, pulled forward by something stronger, something she couldn't define.
She came to a strange place, full of strange people and spirits of those she had known and loved once, but she could not bear to face them. Instead, she hid in a corner and buried her head in her hands.
"Why do you cry?" the Archer demanded.
"You have not seen what I have seen," she whispered.
"No, you have not seen what I have seen. You have not been blinded by the gods, or chained them. You know not what it means to stand for humanity. You are weak, and if you are all mankind has to offer, then you are all truly doomed." She stalked off, leaving Rowan to try to pull herself together. To one side she heard strains of music, and a verse of heroes long forgotten, and she started to sing along despite herself. For a moment, it quieted her tears.
Then the Archer returned. "You may enter. Family goes together." She pointed towards another path in the mists.
Shaking, she made her way forward to kneel before a kind-looking man in a crown, with lines of sadness etched into his face.
"Come my children, and tell me of your sorrow," he said.
Rowan could not even bear to look up, but rather shook with unsuppressed sobs. "Why does she cry so?" the sad king asked.
"We just received news today that our parents had-"
"It's not that," she croaked. "I-it was me. I saw me, and I was pushing the dagger towards my chest, but I couldn't stop myself. I couldn't stop myself."
"Give me your grief, children. Humanity faces a time of great trial, but you must be strong. You shall be part of the trials, and you shall help humanity prepare itself for the darkness ahead. But you must be strong."
"I'm not strong enough," Rowan whispered. "I can't face the darkness again."
"Oh, sister," Tal said, "I love you so, so much."
"That is where you are wrong," the sad king said. "You are strong enough."
"I love you so, so much."
"Look at everyone who cares for you, everyone who would help you."
"I am not worthy of their help," Rowan scoffed. "I am not worthy of their care."
"No, you are always worthy. Will you give me your grief?"
Slowly, as if not of her own will, her hand plied themselves from her chest and passed open to him. He smiled. "Thank you, child. Now, pass into the next stage of your journey."
Tal and Rowan stood, and continued through the mists. "Welcome to my forest of secrets. You will tell me a secret of yours, then I one of mine. But you must tell me a secret from a hundred, a thousand years ago."
"How?" Tal asked.
"Search your soul, and you will remember."
Sure enough, Rowan felt her memories stretching back, further and further, until she could see thousands of years of life and death, more than any one mortal mind should be able to hold. "I...I betrayed my family because I was scared. I killed a great woman, and...in vain. I was a complete fraud, a witch, and I-" She broke off and nearly broke down crying again.
"Let me tell you a story. A man and a woman wished to know all of the secrets of medicine, so they asked the great spider of the forest to teach them, and the great spider agreed, in return for a life. Once they knew, the woman tried to kill the great spider to save her love, and the great spider bit her in the hand. With the great spider lying dead on the ground, the man went and searched far and wide for the antidote to the venom in her veins, and gave it to her, and saved her. But their firstborn son-" and he raised up his stump of a right arm "-had no hand. Let me tell you a secret." He leaned forward, lips brushing lightly against her ear. "Sometimes life teaches the harshest lessons of all."
Then she and Tal were sent to the next chamber.
"Humanity faces great trials, and you shall be a part of the flame that forges the sword. Come, touch my sword-" And the spirit held forth a great sword, taller than Rowan, "-and be reborn in flames."
Then she took ashes, and marked their faces. "From clay we came, and to clay we will return." And she sent them on to the last chamber, in which they were pushed forth into the cold air of life again.
"Come now," the woman of fire said. "It is time. We must hurry." And she set off across the path, softly singing:
The River is flowing,
The River is flowing
back to the Sea.
Sweet Kaia carry me,
Your child I will always be.
Sweet Kaia carry me,
back to the Sea.
After a few moments, Rowan and a few of the other spirits began to join in. The spirits walked down a dark path, across the black river, and into the shadowed forest. They could see nothing but the stars high above them, but still they walked.
"It is strange," Rowan said. "I have never been here before, and yet my feet know the path. And I remember...I remember..."
"Yes my child. Strange, is it not?" And the woman of fire began to sing Kaia's lullaby again, and Rowan quickly joined in, for the words and the haunting tune lent her strength. Her hand snaked over and latched onto the fire woman's, and they walked and walked and sang for strength until they saw a light up ahead.
Villagers and spirits alike stood in a circle around fire, and spoke of many things.
"Remember that everyone is a hero to someone."
"Remember that the darkness is so much harder to bear when you try to bear it alone."
Finally, the sad king spoke. "Humanity faces a time of great trial. When you kneel, you forget how to stand for yourself. When you speak for others, you lost the ability to speak for yourselves. The gods are fading, and it is time for humanity to grow up. It is time for humanity to stand on its own two feet. Go out and warn the world of the trials it faces. You will need all of your strength. The future is in your hands now."
Then he smiled. "And for your bravery and the lessons you have learned, I return your fallen to you."
Breath whooshed into Rowan's chest, as she was forced back into the land of the living, whole and warm again. She was alive. They were all alive.
Everyone hugged each other, rejoicing. Her brother, Tal, tried to hold her, and whispered how much he loved her, his dear sweet sister, in her ear, but she just stood unyielding. And as everyone else embraced and cried tears of joy, Rowan just hugged herself, and shook silently.