The new play, "Scoundrel's God," proved to be even more popular than its predecessor. Naima as the All-Goddess was the embodiment of power and mystery. She didn't seem to understand the script, but she clearly understood her role.
Naima's All-Goddess inspired many citizens. People lined up to meet her after the show, and she became a celebrity throughout Delphinad. No one seemed to care how little she could discuss the play in her own tongue; they didn't love Naima, but rather what she represented onstage.
The play was especially popular among those who had little love for authority. However, it made aristocrats, officials, and priests uncomfortable. Petitions to stop the performances circulated widely. Protesters threw garbage at the actors onstage and disrupted the performance.
Satire wasn't rare in Delphinad, but slander was illegal. Many felt that play went beyond the bounds of satire and fully into the realm of the prohibited.
Delphinad's temples had less political power than the temples of other cities. Because so many different peoples intermingled in the capital, it had come to be seen as a place where even free thinkers were respected.
The Astra priests typically mediated between all these competing religions, keeping any one from getting too powerful and starting a crusade.
The Astra priests were almost immediately aware of the controversy surrounding "Scoundrel's God" and went to see the play for themselves. They found it to be deeply blasphemous, and alerted Neolle, the High Priest.
When Neolle came to see the play, Inoch spotted him in the audience immediately. But stopping the play might cause a riot among the paying patrons, so all he could do was allow Neolle to see what he and Lucius had created.
As the night went on, and Neolle saw more of Naima as the All-Mother, he realized the play could not have been created by a mere playwright. Someone with insider religious expertise had to be involved. And the sentiments the play expressed had to be quashed.
Outside the theater, the play's protesters worked themselves into a riot. Neolle ordered them to be arrested, as well as the play's producers. Lucius and Naima were apprehended immediately, but no one wanted to arrest an Astra priest, so Inoch was ignored.
Neolle summoned all his priests to a meeting at the high temple in the dead of night. Inoch was the only one who knew why. He finally realized just how careless he'd been.
Inoch snuck out of the high temple and fled to the Shadowhawk House. Unfortunately, the cloistered life of a priest hadn't made him very familiar with the city's back alleys, and he soon became lost. Luckily, he ran into Gene on the way.
Gene led Inoch to the Shadowhawk House, where the Astra quickly explained that Lucius and Naima had been arrested. Since it was unprecedented for the priests to meet at night, he expected they would likely call on the city's government to arrange a deportation, permanent imprisonment, or even execution.
Lucius's trial had already been scheduled for the following morning. Things were moving quickly. The only person who could help them was Eanna, but the governor's mansion was heavily guarded at night. They'd never be able to get close.
The friends decided to save Lucius and Naima with public opinion. Gene and Tahyang woke their patrolmen and sent them out to start gathering a mob to meet up at the trial. Lucius and Naima would likely be tried for slander; the mob would demand their innocence.
At dawn, Kyprosa hurried to Eanna's house, while Melisara fetched Aranzeb. Inoch went to ask the Misak tribe for help.
Ultimately, a mob of thousands gathered for the trial. When Lucius was called to the stand, Eanna nearly fainted. Her father was out of town and couldn't help them.
Lucius and Naima had each been charged with two offenses. The first was inciting a riot, because of the violence the night before. The second was from Neolle himself. The high priest accused Lucius and Naima of high slander against the gods.
Neolle said the play crossed the line of satire to something much darker. It had lied to the faithful. It had created a new god and portrayed this god as more powerful than all other gods, making every religion out to be a farce. It had given the role of its new god to a lowly dancer, further disparaging gods and religion.
The mob Lucius's friends had gathered were almost swayed. It was hard to disagree with an Astra, who they'd been raised to respect. People shouted conflicting opinions, and the court grew increasingly disorderly. No one could hear Lucius when he tried to defend himself.
Inoch saw little chance of the court freeing Lucius based on public uproar. The longer the trial went on, the more hopeless he became. The scathing words of a high priest were not easily overlooked. If only Lucius hadn't listened to his suggestions for the play.../td>
The situation was even worse for Naima. The Misak tribe technically weren't citizens of Delphinad; as such, she didn't have the right to a trial and was currently locked in an underground jail. Depending on Lucius's verdict, she would either be beaten or hanged.
As the crowd attending the trial continued to shout and argue, the judges worked to reach a verdict quickly. They were still worried about the previous night's riot. However, before they could announce it, Inoch took to the podium. He said that it was he, not Lucius, who'd written the script. He also said that he was the one who'd brought in Naima.
Inoch claimed Lucius had just been his puppet, because he'd needed someone who wasn't an Astra. Taking off his cloak and revealing his wings, Inoch insisted that Lucius was innocent.
Chaos erupted. The court officials were speechless. Neolle was the most outraged of them all. He couldn't imagine an Astra participating in such blasphemy. Inoch's actions could jeopardize the positions of all Astra in the city.
Neolle immediately called for Inoch's arrest. The trial ended, and the crowd raged on. Gene and Tahyang managed to grab Lucius and hide him in the mass of bodies, but could do nothing for Inoch. He stood out too much, and the city guards took him easily.
By the time another battalion of guards arrived to disperse the crowd, Lucius had been successfully ferreted away. However, the court had decided to let the Astras determine Inoch's punishment. The guards surrendered him to the priests, who immediately sentenced him to death.
The friends met up again later, at a secret location. Even the Shadowhawk House was no longer safe. Everyone was serious, even Lucius, who was usually quick with a joke or pun.
They all knew no one could save Inoch now. Even Eanna's father, the governor, had no power: Inoch was being held by the priests, not the government.
It was true that Inoch had helped change the script, and had even suggested bringing in Naima. It made sense he'd felt guilty and had tried to save Lucius. But the Astra priests could not afford to lose face; there was no chance Inoch would be pardoned.
Lucius, however, would now likely be safe. There had been no word of guards pursuing him. The city would have a hard time explaining how they intended to convict Lucius when someone else had already confessed.
Though they hadn't known Inoch very long, he had risked his life to save Lucius. No one was comfortable turning their back on him. Eanna was especially passionate about saving him, grateful as she was for his saving Lucius.
Finally, Lucius stood. His voice was firm. "I can't forgive him," he stated. Everyone stared, puzzled. "In fact, someday, I'm going to punch him in the face."
"Don't you see?" Lucius demanded. "He stole my script! He claimed he wrote it! Is he out of his mind? Daring to steal the work of Lucuis Quinto? Calling Lucius Quinto a puppet? I'll never forgive him!"
Everyone gaped, shocked. Gradually, however, Lucius's true intentions dawned on them. Lucius was too proud to admit how grateful he was for Inoch having saved him. He couldn't admit how badly he now wanted to rescue Inoch, so he just said he wanted to punch him.
"Prison is a terrible place. I know. I spent a night there. Does anyone ever clean it?" Lucius continued. "I don't care if you help me or not. If I can't punch Inoch for calling me a fake, I'll never write again. I'd rather break my fist than my pen!"
Gene chuckled, then laughed heartily. Standing, he declared that he wanted to punch that noble Astra in the face, too. Confused, Melisara asked why.
"Tahyang and I worked our tails off this morning to get a good mob going, screaming for Lucius's release," Gene answered. "But Inoch didn't give us a chance! He just took over and ended the trial!"
"Inoch thinks he's so noble, but what about the rest of us? Are we just a bunch of cowards? Does he think he's the only one who can be a hero? Well, I won't let him treat me like a coward!"
Gradually, everyone began in agreement. Ollo spoke last. If they broke into prison to free Inoch and Naima, they would become criminals themselves. Once that happened, they could no longer live in Delphinad. They would have to flee to another place, at least temporarily.
Ollo suggested they visit Hiram, where Inoch was from. He had already begun preparing for such a journey himself, hoping he'd be able to find the birthplace of the world. However, he didn't admit this to his friends.
Eanna eagerly agreed to the plan. She felt that by the time they returned from the journey, her father would have been able to set things right with the city. Plus, Inoch could never return to being a Delphinad priest, so why not help him return to his birthplace?
The friends began constructing a plan. Eanna and Ollo would take Orchidna and the group's supplies and wait at the city's front gates. Everyone else would break into the underground prison to rescue Inoch and Naima. Then, they would all flee the city together.
Aranzeb forbade Aranzebia from joining either group. As her godfather, he felt he had a duty to protect her, and these were dangerous matters. Though she was technically an adult, he would always see her as a child.
Aranzeb retrieved a map of the prison from the Ayanad Library, while Eanna asked around and made certain Inoch hadn't been killed yet. The team infiltrated the prison and knocked the guards unconscious. They found Inoch and Naima so weak, they could barely walk.
The group had to move much slower on the way out, giving the priests and their guards plenty of time to surround the prison. Aranzeb opened a portal to Ayanad and the group fled inside.
Once inside the magic city, they rushed straight to the main exit. Leaving Ayanad at that spot put them right beside the Delphinad city gates, where Eanna and Ollo were waiting.
Aranzebia was waiting with them. Aranzeb scolded her, but she only smiled and said she didn't think he'd be able to handle such a long journey without her. In truth, Ollo had brought her. The group would need as much help as it could get, and he was determined to see the journey through.
The group fled to a nearby city to finish preparing for their expedition. Each wrote a letter to any family or friends they had back in Delphinad, explaining why they were leaving, but not where they were going. They mailed the letters on the way out of the city.
The expedition to Hiram was underway. Later, people would call their group the Library Expedition. Many would believe they'd left only out of passion for finding the All-Mother and the birthplace of the world. In reality, they were fleeing.
Within days, Inoch and Naima were strong again. He group got to know Naima better, and soon discovered that part of being a Misak priestess meant being unable to refuse any request. This realization brought a certain tension to the group of men and women.
The Misak also had their own language, and Naima couldn't communicate very well in the common tongue. Soon, only Tahyang and Gene spoke to her with any regularity. It often resulted in arguments between Gene and Kyprosa, but they always reconciled.
The expedition eventually reached the Amaitan Highlands. Kyprosa wanted to look for traces of her father, the "Wizard of Amaitan," before continuing on to Hiram. Her friends complied. They found a cave that looked unnatural--almost as if it had been carved by magic--and ventured inside.
They hiked through the cave for an entire day, eventually reaching a manmade hall. Mutant species worked like slaves to expand the place. Their appearance was reptilian, but otherwise difficult to classify.
Heading deeper, they found an extravagant chamber. A beautiful couple welcomed them, then explained they were servants of the Great Wizard. They claimed he was eager to meet the expedition.
The couple led them to the Great Wizard, and Kyprosa recognized him immediately: her father, Raeven. He hadn't changed since she was a child.
Raeven welcomed the expedition with a rich feast. Dozens of servants waited on them hand and foot, even giving them grand new clothes. Raeven called for Kyprosa and Orchidna.
Kyprosa was reluctant to talk to their father, but Orchidna warmed to him immediately. All traces of her usual shyness evaporated, and she seemed downright at home in the cave. Had she been born here? Even if she was, how could she remember the place?
Kyprosa couldn't stop herself from asking her father about it. She demanded to know who Orchidna's mother had been. Raeven promised to tell her everything the next day, but suggested she just relax and enjoy the banquet for now. Throughout the night, she saw him and Orchidna whispering together and laughing.
The rest of the expedition was amazed by the cave palace Raeven had built. It was larger than any had initially realized: at the end of the banquet, servants led them to lavish rooms to spend the night.
The next morning, they awoke on the ground in a grassy field, stones digging into their backs. Their grand clothes had vanished, and the cave palace--and its residents--were nowhere to be seen.
It wasn't hard to find the cliff on which they'd originally found the cave. But the rocky wall was smooth and unblemished; there was no cave in sight. It was as if everyone had had the same dream. Only Orchidna seemed unconcerned.
Kyprosa was deeply suspicioius about Raeven, but felt reluctant to share her worries with the group. However, she wasn't the only one who was suspicious.
Aranzeb shared Kyprosa's concerns, and had refused to eat at the feast. By the time the expedition was guided to its rooms, he was the only one who could sense something strange. The cave palace was beautiful, but he could tell its reality was not what it seemed.
He meditated and used magic to scan his surroundings all night long. But by morning, he still couldn't explain exactly what was going on. All he knew was that a mighty power resided in that cave, a power that humans, Elves, and Dwarves could never comprehend, let alone fight. It was a power from another world.
Aranzeb had never felt such a sensation before. He remembered how an image of the ancient terrors, the Akasch, had flashed in Alexander's mind the first time he saw Orchidna. Could it be true? Could Raeven's and Orchidna's powers truly be related to the Akasch? A raw fear gnawed at Aranzeb's heart.
At the time, Aranzeb had hated how his respected teacher had banished Kyprosa from the Ayanad school. However, after meeting her father, he realized that Alexander had been correct in his assessment of the sisters and their parentage. Kyprosa certainly wasn't evil, but the power that resided somewhere in her family certainly was.
The weight of this realization weighed heavily on Aranzeb. He hadn't believed it when Alexander had told him; how could he convince the others? And Kyprosa herself? It was information they deserved, but would never believe.
The expedition hiked toward the Hiram Mountains. The journey was a long and difficult one. Eventually, they reached the Hiram Tribe--Inoch's people. Their isolation had made the tribe's culture extremely different from that of the rest of the continent.
However, it wasn't just their culture. Members of the tribe were taller than average, as well as stronger and more agile. They didn't study magic, but could all perform rudimentary spells; even children. They were definitely human, but they had never known disease. Their lifespans averaged around 200 years.
Inoch had forgotten much about his home tribe, and it soon became clear why. Inoch had left the tribe when he was ten, but he was now close to 100. Though he still looked young, he'd been gone for 90 years.
Though Inoch's parents and siblings were still alive, he hid is identity. He even hid the fact that he was an Astra. He had no wish to see any of them again; when his wings had first sprouted from his back, his confused parents had tried to kill him.
However, his parents weren't bad people. A prophecy had been passed down through the Hiram Tribe for generations. It said that when a winged being came to Hiram, it would be the beginning of the end of the world. Inoch's father was a priest and knew the prophecy well. When he saw his son's wings, he'd wanted to kill him not out of malice, but to stop the omen and save the world.
The tribe worshipped a deity they called the Mother Goddess, or simply Mother. Inoch's father was still one of her priests. Inoch went to see his father to ask him about the goddess, but still hid his identity.
Inoch's father shared part of an ancient Hiram myth: "Of this world, there was only void. But in the void stood a door. Beyond the door, the Mother dwelled in a vast Garden. Reaching out, she created Erenor... But it was dead and dormant. The Goddess fed the world with magic, and it flourished, full of life."
However, Inoch's father explained, after that, the Mother Goddess seemed to withdraw from the world. No one knew if she was nurturing a new world in another plane, or if creating Erenor had drained too much of her power and she'd faded away. The tribe now considered her a "hidden god," a god who no longer gave any sign of their presence.
Much of the tribe believed that the Mother Goddess had died and joined her essence with the mythical Garden itself. When the world ended, the Garden would give birth to the next world in the Mother's place.
The rest of the tribe believed that the Mother couldn't be dead. They believed she was simply waiting--waiting to give birth to the next world. According to their theory, the Mother Goddess was like a garderer tending a bed of flowers. She sowed a seed. She waited for the flower to grow, blossom, and wither. Then she sowed another seed.
In either case, the Hiram Tribe believed themselves to be a sacred people who protected the birthplace of the world: the door to the Garden where the Mother Goddess had dwelled. Long ago, a different sacred race had held this role, the carvings on the gate all they'd left behind.
Because the Hiram tribe lived so close to the birthplace of the world, the source of magic, their bodies had been changed. They were physically stronger than other humans, with longer lifespans and innate abilities with magic.
Aranzeb wanted to tell Kyprosa what he'd come to realize about her father, but could never find the right way to bring it up. She'd been wounded and furious when she was kicked out of Alexander's school, as well as fiercely defensive about her sister. He couldn't bring himself to upset her so much again.
However, it was clear to everyone that Aranzeb was holding something back. Gene was furious that the Elf seemed to think there was information the rest of them couldn't handle. Kyprosa grew angry at Gene for treating her mentor so roughly.
The journey had been difficult, and the adventurers were weary. The argument between Gene and Kyprosa about Aranzeb's aloofness brewed into a fight, and the two stopped speaking. Eanna and Tahyang tried to help them reconcile, but it was no use. Kyprosa secluded herself, and Gene raged. He couldn't even drink away his feelings; the Hiram tribe only used alcohol for religious rituals.
During their travels, Naima had come to know the other adventurers intimately. She gave them what they wanted before they could even ask for it. It was the way she'd served her tribe as priestess for years.
Naima stole some of the Hiram Tribe's ritual alcohol and mixed in some of the Misak Tribe's ritual herbs. She shared the drink with Gene, and both were soon drunk. She could tell that deep down, Gene wanted something more. Raised to be unable to decline any request, Naima slept with him.
When morning dawned, Gene realized immediately what a big mistake he'd made. He fled Naima's tent, but couldn't muster the courage to confess the deed to Kyprosa.
Gene's night with Naima weighed on him heavily, but he decided he wouldn't tell Kyprosa during their fight; he'd wait until they reconciled. He felt so guilty, he soon forgot he'd ever been angry at her. However, Kyprosa hadn't forgotten and remained cold and distant.
Soon, the time came for the expedition to leave Hiram. Inoch's father warned them that he'd seen other adventurers go search for the birthplace of the world, but had never seen any of them return.
The Hiram Tribe never stopped anyone from searching for the birthplace of the world. They felt they could no sooner do this, than try to stop a child from trying to find his mother.
Inoch decided that he would continue the journey with his friends rather than remain in the village of his birth. They set off together, aiming for a mysterious land past the Hiram Mountains.
The journey over the mountains was frigid and fraught with struggle. Though Gene and Tahyang were fairly hardy, some of their friends nearly died. Finally, the group reached a wide, foggy basin. As they started across, they noticed they were hiking down a gradual slope. The farther they went, the more barren the environment became, until they were on a rocky, sandy plain. Heat scorched them from above.
When they'd walked for 10 days, they began to find strange plants growing around them. They were colossal, and some even seemed to move. The plants twisted on their stems as if tracking the adventurers' passage, as if watching. Then, one day, the expedition reached the center of the basin. They found a vast pit.
Fog hid the other side of the pit, and darkness hid the bottom. The adventurers hurled rocks into the maw, but could never hear them hit the base. They soon noticed strange, floating boulders just beneath the lip of the pit.
Upon closer inspection, the boulders seemed to be pieces from a rock staircase. However, many of the pieces were missing. If the adventurers were going to descend, they'd have to be prepared to jump as well as climb. All sensed the pit contained the secrets of their destination. They started down.
After a full day of descent, the expedition still couldn't see the bottom of the pit. By the end of the third day, the entire group was exhausted and edgy. Every so often, they'd find a boulder large enough to stop on and rest, but such respites weren't nearly frequent enough. They began to notice tangled tree roots emerging from the walls around them. Bright pinpoints of light sparkled around them like stars, somehow both distant and within arm's reach.
Finally, the expedition stepped off the last boulder and onto the floor of the pit. It was pitch black until Aranzeb summoned a light. The adventurers found themselves standing on a sea of human bones that seemed to have accumulated for centuries. Before they could react, a wild roar vibrated the air around them.
Two rare creatures emerged from the darkness: dragons. The beasts were so huge, the rear halves of their bodies were shrouded in darkness past the reach of Aranzeb's light. Their skin seemed to be made of rocks. They attacked immediately.
It was a difficult battle, fought to the teeth. Gene and Tahyang were the group's primary fighters, and were nearly overcome on numerous occasions.
Gene finally saw an opportunity to slay one of the beasts, and leapt to take it. However, doing so allowed the second dragon to dive toward him, jaws wide. It would have killed him immediately... if Naima hadn't shoved him aside at the last moment to take the hit in his place.
The beast's teeth all but rent her in two. There was no hope. Once the second dragon was felled, grief overcame the friends. No one could understand why a dancer would suddenly throw herself into the heat of battle.
Other members of the expedition had been in danger dozens of times, but Naima had never offered assistance. She'd understood her limitations and let the stronger party members act as heroes. Why had she jumped in this time?
Inoch knew the most about the Misak Tribe. He said the dancing priestesses thought of their tribe members as their own children. They worked to feed them and would even sacrifice their lives to save them. However, no one else in the expedition was from the Misak Tribe, and Naima had never seemed to consider any of them fellow tribesmen.
To the Misak, fellow tribesmen were related by either blood or marriage. None of the adventurers seemed to meet these requirements.
When Inoch explained this, Gene realized what had happened. When he slept with Naima, she must've begun to think of him as her husband. A member of the tribe. Someone she had to give her life to protect.
If Naima had believed they were married, it was easy to see why she would have suddenly jumped into the fight. Gene blanched, looks of horror, guilt, and anger washing over his face. Naima had saved him, but he had never shared her feelings. He had jeopardized his relationship with Kyprosa by sleeping with her, and now, she had jeopardized his relationship with Kyprosa by dying for him.
Inoch's words and Gene's face gave everything away. Nothing more needed to be said, but everyone understood. The group found a cavern away from the dragons and rested there for a day. The sudden inaction left Kyprosa with nothing but her thoughts.
Had Gene told her what had happened with Naima, she could have decided to either forgive him or not. He would have been either definitively with her, or with Naima. But he'd chosen to leave both relationships in an awkward limbo of unspoken feeling. She began to feel like Gene had used Naima and let her die.
Gene was consumed with regret. Unable to sleep, he lied awake and stewed over what he'd done and not done. He felt guilty for not telling Kyprosa, guilty for Naima's death, guilty for how it would effect the rest of the expedition. He worried Kyprosa would never forgive him, and he began to want to die.
When the next morning dawned, the expedition continued to explore the bottom of the pit. It was much larger than any had realized. In one grand hall, they found a mountain rising up from the floor. A strange sphere glowed on top like the moon.
At the mountain's base stood a stone gate. Vines tangled its surface. A poem was engraved on the lintel in an ancient tongue: "Woe to those who seal the door, and stop the magic's flow, lest ancient serpents, caged no more, drag this world below." The carvings didn't appear nearly as old as the rest of the gate.
The gate's door was closed, but glimmering light leaked out around its edges. The adventurers hesitated. The group's mages all agreed that powerful magic was emanating from the gate. In all likelihood, this gate was exactly what they'd come here to find: the birthplace of the world.
It was an overwhelming moment, and suddenly everyone was unsure if they wanted to open the gate or not. As they hesitated, Orchidna wandered around the stone edifice, examining it.
The strange girl grew thoughtful. Staring at the gate, she imagined she could almost see the vines twisted and growing on its surface. Suddenly, she heard a soft voice. "Please, help me... Come here..." Without thinking, she touched the gate. It swung open, with a roar of creaking stone.
The rest of the expedition gasped. Kyprosa darted forward and threw herself between Orchidna and the open door, as if it might suck the girl inside. However, nothing else happened. The door simply stood open, revealing a breathtaking garden.
A strange power surged out; even the non-mages could feel it penetrating their bodies and minds. It felt as if all their weariness was washed away, all their sins were forgiven, and all the chaos of their lives and loves slipped into perfect order.
The longer they stared through the gate and into the garden, the more ecstasy filled their minds. There were no more doubts: this was the birthplace of the world, the source of all magic. Not a garden, but the Garden. Incredibly, their journey was a success.
As they stared into the garden, they noticed that it was constantly changing. Day whirled into night, then morning; spring whirled into summer, then fall. Plants sprouted and flowers blossomed, then withered. Trees bore fruit, which then browned and dropped from their branches.
While her friends were mesmerized, Orchidna noticed an antique chair in the corner. A tiny woman was sitting in it. She was strikingly beautiful, with skin that seemed to glow. Iridescent insect wings twitched on her back.
The woman flew closer and perched on Orchidna's shoulder. Orchidna took a staggering step backward. She cried out and clawed at the air, but her feet contined to pull her back, toward the chair. It was as if an outside force was puppeting her body.
The winged woman on her shoulder spoke with a musical voice. "Finally, someone has lifted this burden from my shoulders. You have become the sacred Gatekeeper of the Garden. It will be your duty from now on."
As Orchidna's body crumpled into the chair, the rest of the expedition began to demand answers from the winged woman. She called herself the Fairy Queen and said she'd been the Gatekeeper for millenia. The next person to touch the gate would take her place. It had been Orchidna. Orchidna would now have eternal life, but could never leave this chamber.
Now that the gate was open, the power of the Garden was surging out into the world. Its magic would change things, but suddenly cutting it off again by closing the door could wreak even greater havoc. The only option was to let this new power run its course, for better or worse.
The Gatekeeper was supposed to guard the gate and protect it from destruction. She would fulfill this role for eternity, or until another Gatekeeper took her place.
The Queen explained that due to the way the Garden was constantly changing, it was easy to become lost. Two people who entered the Garden seconds apart could end up in very different spaces and times. If they intended to enter the place and stick together, they should never let go of each other's hands.
Finally, the Fairy Queen said that since the Gatekeeper's duties had already passed to Orchidna, it was time for her to leave. Other fairies flew out from the garden, and their queen led them out of the chamber.
Lucius shouted after the Fairy Queen, asking if she'd seen the Mother. The fairy answered that the Mother had left the Garden a long time ago, and no one knew where she'd went. Seconds later, she and her subjects had vanished.
Orchidna realized she could stand up and walk around, but couldn't leave the hall. Panicking, she began asking if anyone else could take this duty from her. Tears streamed down her face, and she threw herself at Kyprosa's feet, begging.
Kyprosa wanted nothing more than to save her sister, but felt there was still so much she had to take care of. Despite her anger at Gene, she couldn't just leave him like this. Forever. In spite of everything, she still loved him. Besides that, she was afraid. The thought of willingly throwing her life away for eternity was overwhelming. She avoided her sister's gaze.
It wounded Aranzeb to see Kyprosa in such torment. He pointed out that if the Garden truly was the source of all magic, perhaps it contained some power that could release Orchidna. Perhaps they could find some magic or some relic that could remove this burden from her. It was their only hope.
Kyprosa thought about it, then nodded and set her jaw. Lifting Orchidna's face, she locked eyes with the girl and vowed to find a way to save her. If she searched the Garden and found nothing, she promised to take Orchidna's place.
Orchidna nodded eagerly; not a fraction of doubt entered her mind. Smiling, her cheeks still wet with tears, she begged Kyprosa to hurry. She wasn't sure how long she could stand being locking up in a single room. The panic flickering in her eyes was already verging on panic.
Kyprosa faced the gate and told her friends she didn't expect them to come with her. This was her challenge. Aranzeb took her hand and stated he would help. Gene's face crumpled. He wanted to aid her as well, but wasn't sure if she'd welcome it.
Tahyang squeezed Gene's shoulder, then took Kyprosa's other hand. Glancing back, he offered Gene a reassuring nod. The Firran would help Gene's beloved in Gene's place.
The human, the Elf, and the Firran stepped into the Garden during a crisp autumn night. By the time night flashed to day, they'd vanished.
Ollo soon followed, determined to find the secrets of time. Ultimately, all the rest of the expedition entered the Garden, each member choosing a different season and time of day.
Orchidna found herself alone in the empty hall. Time passed. She didn't feel hungry, and she never got too cold or too hot. She never felt tired, and she never felt physical pain. She stopped aging. Her thoughts, usually wild, focused on her sister. Kyprosa had never broken a promise to her before. She'd said she would return, and Orchidna was sure she would. She just had to wait.
It wasn't easy. The silence was overwhelming. Maddening. Orchidna scratched at her arm to make sure she was still alive, then watched as her skin healed. Whatever happened, she was truly trapped: she couldn't even be injured.
Sometimes, Orchidna talked aloud, but no one ever answered. Her voice didn't even echo, but was swallowed in the vastness. The boredom was absolute. She'd never learned to meditate, so she couldn't even pass the time in that state. While the Garden flicked rapidly from day to night and season to season, the hall was timeless. There was no sunrise or sunset. Orchidna soon had no idea if she'd last seen her friends days ago or years ago.
The Fairy Queen hadn't had time to explain that in that hall, Orchidna would hold unimaginable power. She could kill with a thought, or bring the dead back to life. She could hear faraway sounds, or watch scenes from the rest of the world as if through a crystal ball. She could create anything she wished. She could see into alternate dimensions, or into the hearts and minds of anyone on Erenor.
However, Orchidna didn't know any of this.
The only thing Orchidna realized was that she could change the appearance of the hall--her prison--with a thought. She carved the walls, then papered them, then painted fantastic murals. She changed the shape of the ceiling, pillars, and floors. She added vaults, naves, and recesses, filled them with statues, then made every wall smooth and featureless. However, eventually even this grew boring.
If she'd set her mind to it, she could have made the hall itself disappear. But for her, even that wouldn't have been enough. It wasn't an escape, but an illusion. Her reality was this hall. For eternity.
Time crawled at a slug's pace. Orchidna had no way to mark its passage, but felt as if she hadn't seen her sister or her friends in hundreds of years. Her hope hardened into resentment, then rage, then hatred.
Orchidna couldn't tell if they were dreams or reality, but she did see her sister again. Every so often, Kyprosa would appear, and Orchidna would dissolve into joyous laughter or angry tears. Her sister would tell her she still hadn't found a way to free her, then hurry back into the Garden. Orchidna clung to her and begged her not to go, but just as suddenly as she'd arrived, Kyprosa would vanish once again.
Orchidna felt no physical weariness, but mentally, she was exhausted. She had never cared for most people, but now she missed their inane chatter desperately. Her personality began to slip away, and her mind grew as silent as her surroundings. Sometimes she'd find herself engrossed in a daydream, then fly into a rage because it wasn't real. She'd mentally destroy the hall, then rebuild it piece by piece. Sometimes she hung swords on the walls, then used them to try and run herself through. The wounds would heal before they even started to bleed.
She began to hear an incessant whisper.
At first, it sounded like an insect buzzing in the corner. But soon she began to pick out words, and even heard it calling her name. She tried to dismiss it as an illusion, a creation of her own damaged mind, but she couldn't help but enjoy its presence anyway. Now, when she spoke aloud, something answered.
The voice was an immeasurable comfort. It criticized those who'd abandoned Orchidna here and it sympathized with her struggles. One day, the voice offered to tell Orchidna a story. Orchidna realized she would like nothing better.
The voice told Orchidna hundreds of stories. Many were historical, while others seemed too fantastic to be true. At the end of each, the voice would offer an opinion on the story, and Orchidna found that she always agreed with it.
The voice became Orchidna's favorite and only friend. She couldn't help but become curious about its identity. When Orchidna asked about it, the voice began to tell a new story: its own story.
"Long ago," the voice whispered, "a great being created a wonderful garden. She filled it with trees and flowers. It was so beautiful, that some shadow children became obsessed with it. But she didn't want the trees to break or the flowers to be picked, so she refused to allow the shadow children to enter."
"Long ago," the voice whispered, "a great being created a wonderful garden. She filled it with trees and flowers. It was so beautiful, that some shadow children became obsessed with it. I was one of them. But she didn't want the trees to break or the flowers to be picked, so she refused to allow the shadow children to enter."
"But the shadow children couldn't help their curiosity. The garden was just too beautiful. In the middle of the night, they'd sneak in and play. However, the garden's creator could see them even in the darkness. She had a light that never went out."
"When the creator discovered the shadow children, she was furious. She dug a pit and buried all of the shadow children inside. They pleaded for their lives, but she had no mercy. She left them in the pit for days, years, centuries, millenia. They continued to beg: save us. Set us free."
"However, no one heard their cries anymore. The creator had died."
Orchidna was shocked. It sounded so cruel. The voice said the shadow children were trapped for eternity, just like Orchidna was, and just like it was. It explained that the story was true, and that the great being who had trapped the shadow children was the same one whose power now imprisoned Orchidna.
Angrily, the voice hissed that they'd all gotten a raw deal. The shadow children had only wanted to see the beautiful garden. They wouldn't have destroyed it. And Orchidna had only touched the gate by accident. She'd had no malice. They had all committed only innocent sins. Yet their punishment was long, terrible, and far too much.
Orchidna agreed. The punishment was unjust. They shouldn't have been forced to accept such unjust punishment. Even if the great being had intended to come back and release them, they had been trapped for far too long. It was time to try to escape. To try to set things right.
The voice asked if she would help. Orchidna answered earnestly. She wanted nothing more than to have the power to set them all free. As soon as she uttered those words, the voice revealed itself. It was a shadow, blacker than the void, in the shape of a person.
Meanwhile, the adventurers in the Garden also had no idea how much time had passed. Gene estimated that somewhere between three months and one year had passed, but he couldn't be certain.
Day and night occurred inside the Garden, but their lengths varied. Even the landscape was slightly off--though it looked natural at a glance, if you watched closely, you could see it flashing to unknown seasons as the sky swirled to unnatural colors. The changes were especially pronounced when you were deep in thought, as if seasons wandered the landscape like thoughts wandered your mind.
Sometimes, a plant would suddenly sprout, bloom, bear fruit, and wither in the blink of an eye. Look again, and another tree would already be growing in its place. If you'd been walking a path, it could become overgrown in seconds, and you'd have to find a new one.
But still, despite its strangeness, Gene found a certain peace in the Garden. Endless energy filled his body. The confusion of the outside world seemed like a distant memory.
Of course, the Garden looked more like a forest, but Gene liked to think of it as a Garden. He'd never known such beautiful plants to grow wild, without being pruned and cared for. He was convinced that the Garden's creator--perhaps the All-Mother herself--was still here, tending it. He was convinced he could feel a powerful presence.
But there was no way to know for sure, and Gene had lost interest in finding out. There was so much more to see and experience here...
For awhile, he tried to find Kyprosa. Once, in a brief winter, he thought he found her footprints in the snow, but he blinked, and it was spring, and any trace of her melted into the loamy earth. Finally, he realized it was impossible: he would never find her here. He surrendered his search.
One day, Gene discovered that if he concentrated, and focused all his determination on walking in a certain direction, the Garden would yield. It would open a path for him. He could go anywhere he wanted.
He found a round clearing while walking purposefully through the forest. Golden sunlight filled the air, and a great pillar stood in the center. Slowly, Gene realized it was a tree. It towered so high above his head that he couldn't see the top, and was so large around that 10 people would barely encircle it with their arms.
The tree's roots stretched in every direction, burrowing into the ground like fingers. The canopy of its vines and branches seemed to hold up the sky. Other plants grew from every crevice in its bark. Instead of leaves, it bore fruit and flowers.
A ring of wooden chairs circled the tree, rising out of the ground like part of its roots. Some were old and splintered, but others were blackened and completely destroyed, as if struck by lightning.
Carved, wooden statues stood behind the seats. Some looked similar to the gods of the Delphinad pantheon, but each seemed to incorporate characteristics from numerous gods. All were badly weathered, but some, like the chairs, were completely destroyed.
Gene examined each idol closely, then paused in front of one particular statue. He studied it for a long time. Its wooden face seemed to change, to smile, to grimace, and even call out to him. He even thought he could hear the wooden figure's voice in his head.
It eventually occurred to Gene that the statue's face resembled his. That was why he'd been so drawn to it: it was familiar. He sat in the seat to get a better look at the idol. Immediately, a strange power filled his body. When he stood back up, he couldn't help but feel like something inside him had changed.
Gene felt disoriented. Suddenly, he wanted out of this place. He focused on finding the gate again, and the Garden opened a path for him. He soon found himself staring out through the open door, into the hall that had become Orchidna's prison. The place looked different than he remembered.
At the center of the hall, Orchidna slouched in the chair, asleep. She looked more tired than Gene had ever remembered seeing her. Tentatively, he crept closer and put a hand on her shoulder. Her eyes snapped open, and her body tensed like a cat about to pounce. Gene remembered that she'd always hated him; Tahyang had been the one she'd liked best. He pulled his hand back.
Orchidna continued to glare up at him viciously. Easing a little further away from her, he asked if she'd seen Kyprosa leave the Garden yet.
The strange child barely seemed to understand, then hissed a stream of garbled words at him. It was completely incomprehensible; all that Gene understood was her rage and spite. He knelt and continued trying to talk to her, but she continued to make little sense. He hated for Kyprosa to find her sister in such a state, and was shocked that the girl had changed so much in such a relatively short time.
Gene didn't want to wait for Kyprosa and the others anywhere near Orchidna, who continued to spew crazed, hostile sounds at him. He left the hall, intending to wait nearby. However, he had the feeling that the walls of the cave around him seemed much older than the last time he'd seen them. Perhaps he'd just never looked at them very closely.
In the darkness ahead, his eyes picked out an enormous shadow.
He wished he could see better, and suddenly, he could. His eyes began to pierce the darkness more effectively. Now, he could see the shadow clearly: it was a dragon. The memory of Naima's death came crashing back, and he staggered.
He remembered all the regret, the anguish, and the sorrow he'd felt last time he stood in this chamber and faced a dragon. Struggling to regain of his emotions, Gene took a fighting stance. He wondered if he had any chance of besting a dragon on his own, or if he should flee to the Garden.
However, the reptile before him hadn't made a move to attack. Gene studied it more closely, and realized it looked quite different from the dragons who'd attacked the expedition and killed Naima. Its body was serpentine, and reedy whiskers hung from it cheeks. Gene realized it wasn't a dragon, but a naga. Suddenly, the creature's mind spoke within his own.
"Oh War and Misery," the naga spoke. "For eons you have slept, forgotten in this world by all but me. For I am tied to your fate. Upon my back, you can travel as far and wide as you wish in order to uncover your true name."
"I am here to see you on your first day back in the world, and I will be there to see you on your last. However, I beseech you. Return to the Garden. You have not yet learned all it can teach you."
Gene frowned. How could the Garden have anything left to teach him? He'd wandered there for days, if not months. It had its chance. What, specifically, did he have left to learn? The naga shook its head; it could not explain.
The Garden no longer felt appealing. The more Gene considered it, the more he realized he'd missed the real world. He didn't want to to be lost again in a place he didn't quite understand. What if he couldn't find his way out again? What if Kyprosa left the Garden while he was still inside? He knew in his heart these were risks he would not take.
Gene locked eyes with the naga and said that he was sorry, but he would not go back. The naga nodded and lowered its neck. Gene took a seat atop its back as if it were nothing more than a horse.
The naga soared up through the pit, then erupted into the sky. Gene watched the pit and the world growing smaller beneath them, landscapes unfolding and slipping away in sequence. He asked the naga where they were going, and it told him wherever he desired. Gene thought of Delphinad, and decided that if Kyprosa had left the Garden, she might have returned there.
Gene desperately wished to see Kyprosa again. He wanted to apologize, to beg for forgiveness, to see if they could reconcile. All he wanted was one last chance at happiness with her.
The naga landed in an abandoned Delphinad plaza, and Gene dismounted. It said it would reappear whenever he desired it and flew away. Gene idly wondered if that were true, if he ever would see the creature again, but had more important things to worry about.
He strode into the crowded Delphinad streets. They seemed somehow different. He couldn't find any familiar shops, merchants, buildings, or even trees. Things looked similar... but not the same. The same held for the people--it was a large city, but he couldn't find a single familar face. He headed to the library.
Things seemed even stranger inside the library. He asked when Alexander's next class was, and was told Alexander hadn't taught a class in a long time. No one seemed to know the names Kyprosa, Eanna, or Melisara. Reluctantly, Gene asked a library mage if he'd heard of Aranzeb.
The mage frowned, then began to babble about his history class and events two hundred years ago. Gene thanked him and hurried away before he was finished; the man must've confused Gene's Aranzeb with someone named Aranzeb two hundred years ago.
Gene shuffled through the city, wondering if all this just meant that Kyprosa and the others hadn't left the Garden yet. However, Kyprosa had been expelled from the library; it wasn't improbable that she wouldn't have gone back there. Clinging to hope, Gene made his way to the Shadowhawk House.
The house was gone. It had been razed to the ground, and the land turned into a plaza. The buildings around it, once slums, now looked quite respectable. Gene circled several times to be sure he had the right place, but there was no doubt. The Shadowhawk House was gone, and the neighborhood completely changed.
Gene asked children playing nearby when the plaza had been built, but none knew the answer. An old man sunning on his stoop called out to Gene and said the plaza had been built 30 years ago.
Gene found a bar, bought a drink, and sat to think. There was no way he'd spent 30 years in the Garden. Even more ridiculous was the library mage's sputtering about an Aranzeb who'd lived 200 years ago. Absurd. But still, the words chilled Gene's heart.
Gene finally mustered the courage to ask what year it was, then offered the name of the last year he remembered. Another bar patron did the calculation. The day the expedition had entered the Garden truly was 200 years ago!
For the first time in his life, Gene was overcome by fear. He couldn't look anyone in the eye, and his hands shook uncontrollably. Could his 200-year-old body crumble to dust at any moment? He drank himself to sleep in an alley, but his sense of loss and fear only increased as he paced through Delphinad the next day.
He asked around about other people he remembered, but generations had passed, and no one knew their names.
Where was Kyprosa? And Tahyang? Had they left the Garden early and died a hundred years ago? Was he alone in this strange world? How was he even still alive to be alone? Was he really the only one left? He knew time flowed differently in the Garden, but still--200 years?
He couldn't help but wonder if his friends had met the same fate. Or if they would meet the same fate, a hundred years from now, long after he was dead. Perhaps, for now, they were safe in the Garden. If so, Gene prayed they never came out.
But that meant he would never see them again. Gene was overwhelmed by sorrow and loneliness. He remembered his lonely years in the court at Epherium, living under the rule of his scheming mother. His mother. She'd likely been dead a hundred years or more.
On the outskirts of Delphinad, Gene wished for the naga to reappear. Within seconds, it swooped down from the sky. Gene asked it to take him to Epherium. A chill slithered up Gene's spine the closer they got. He dismounted in the wilderness just beyond the city gates.
As the naga left and Gene strode toward the gates, he noticed several recently executed bodies mounted on pikes along the road. However, the city gates looked just as majestic as ever, and the beautiful streets radiated wealth and splendor.
Gene couldn't bring himself to enter the palace, so he wandered the streets as he had in Delphinad, gathering information. Predictably, he discovered that few people knew anything about the happenings of the court 200 years ago. When he finally tried to enter the palace to visit his mother's grave, the guards turned him away. None had any idea who he was. Night fell, and Gene wandered back out of the city and into the surrounding wilderness.
He could see clearly in the darkness here, just as he'd been able to do in the pit. He examined the bodies on the pikes; their lifeless faces had more of a connection to the gleaming city beyond the trees than he did. He wandered all night, then came upon an odd figure.
At first, it looked like all the other bodies dangling from the poles. Except that this one was completely desiccated, as if it had been there for decades. More a mummy than a fresh corpse. Gene couldn't imagine how the body had remained intact. He turned to leave, but hesitated. Somehow, he sensed an inexplicable flicker of life within the shrunken mass.
Gene stared at the corpse. Without thinking, he laid a hand on the corpse's head and willed it to give him some answers.
The parched, blackened skin of its head began to regenerate, growing pale and fleshy. Within minutes, a normal head was perched atop a petrified body. It opened its eyes and looked at Gene. Its lips moved, but its tongue remained shriveled and papery. It rasped uselessly until its mouth and throat moistened. Its voice returned.
Gene already recognized the familiar visage: Anthalon. The advisor who had first introduced Gene's mother, Tinari, to Gene's father, the king. The advisor who had eventually become Tinari's lover and part of the reason Gene had fled Epherium.
Gene yanked his hand back. He hated Anthalon. He'd always wondered, if not for Anthalon's influence, would Tinari have grown so twisted and power-hungry? Gene doubted it. He was convinced the monster his mother had become was entirely to blame on Anthalon. Anthalon spoke: "Finally, the prophecy has come true."
Horrified, Gene turned to leave, then froze. Anthalon was the one person who could tell him what had been happening for the last 200 years. As much as Gene hated him, there was no one else on Erenor who could answer Gene's questions.
Gene's first question was to demand how Anthalon was still alive. The man's half-dead face contorted into a laugh.
"It seems my fate was to await your return, my prince," Anthalon answered. "My immortality is finally worth it. I would have given my soul to anyone who could have ended my suffering, but now, to look upon your face again, it's all worthwhile."
Anthalon said he'd been dealt a "fantastic curse." It prevented him from dying, regardless of the condition of his body. He could see without pupils and hear without ears. He could think, even if his brain was mummified.
He had watched his organs be pulled from his body and felt every searing pain as his body was preserved. His remains had been left on a spike for eagles to feed on, roasting in the sun and drying in the wind. For two hundred years, he'd remained conscious, and felt it all.
Years passed, and people forgot that Anthalon's consciousness lived on inside his weathered body. Other criminals were spiked around him, and he watched each one suffer and eventually die. He said he could write a thousand books about all those who'd died around him.
Gene couldn't help but feel a twinge of sympathy for Anthalon's suffering. He asked what crime Anthalon had committed to be sentenced to gruesomely. A monstrous cackle erupted from Anthalon's throat; his blackened neck was thinner than a wrist.
"Have you forgotten already, my prince?" Anthalon sneered. "After you vanished and the king died, who do you think became king? What do you think happened to the queen? The king died without an heir. His greatest fear come true."
"The people of Epherium are fools. A prince doesn't necessarily have to take after the king. Just look at you, my prince. Neither your looks nor your talent came from your idiot father."
Gene didn't know what Anthalon was talking about, but was growing increasingly concerned about his mother's fate. Anthalon said that after the king died, Queen Sabina adopted a distant relative. The boy was crowned king, and Sabina named his regent. The first thing she did after reclaiming her power was have Tinari torn to shreds.
She'd died over a hundred years ago, but to Gene, it was a fresh wound. He crumpled to his knees. Eying him closely, Anthalon described Tinari's death in gruesome detail. Gene's face was awash with tears and pain by the end. He felt dizzy from fury and hungry for revenge.
Tinari had searched for Gene for the rest of her life; the more time passed since his disappearance, the greater her despair. Her child with Anthalon had died as an infant. She didn't try to have another, or even adopt; she focused only on hope for Gene's return.
Had Gene come back to Epherium, his mother would have done anything for him, even ending her affair with Anthalon. All he would have had to do was ask. Her last words were to beg Anthalon to survive and help Gene if he ever returned. Anthalon swore that he would, although he could never have imagined being forced to keep the promise in such a twisted way.
Anthalon wondered aloud if it was Tinari's final wish that had somehow led Gene back to Epherium.
Epherium's current rulers were both related to Sabina's family. Though the queen was long dead, her family's power had grown alongside the country's prosperity. Now, they were thoroughly entrenched. No one even remembered the dead of a lowborn like Tinari.
As he spoke, Anthalon could sense incredible magic power seething within Gene. He didn't know where it had come from, but he was sure that Gene could restore him.
Tinari had insisted that Anthalon visit a prophet to try to ascertain if Gene was still alive. The prophet only repeated the omen Anthalon had received long ago: "An heir shall arise and make his mark where the king had taken leave."
The heir in the prophecy was clearly Gene; "where the king had taken leave" now obviously referred to Gene's return to Epherium decades after the death of the rightful king. Anthalon implored Gene to reclaim his rightful place in the palace, and promiced to do everything in his power to help. His withered eyes gleamed with hope.
Gene was skeptical; he couldn't help but doubt that the shriveled Anthalon had any useful power to offer him. Anthalon said he was immortal, knowledgable about Epherium's history, and adept in the arts of spells and curses.
Gene hesitantly laid his hand on Anthalon's head. He wasn't sure what he was doing, but focused on pouring life back into the withered flesh. The effort left him breathless. The creature before him still looked corpselike, but would pass for a living human with some robes and a hood. Since Anthalon's organs had been removed, his life wasn't sustained by his physical body; he couldn't be killed with weapons or poisons. He chose not to reveal to Gene what really could end his life.
Anthalon also made a point of hiding what had become his true nature. Despite his calm demeanor, he was effectively a maniac. Twisted by suffering, he had been consumed by pain and vengeance for a century. It had left him cunning and wicked.
Once resurrected, Anthalon assumed the role of Gene's godfather and advisor. Gene couldn't bear to resist the man's attentions after the shock and rage of his mother's death. He had no idea that Anthalon thirsted not just to destroy his enemies, but also the entire world.
Meanwhile, Kyprosa and Aranzeb continued to wander the Garden together.
The experiences they shared brought them closer than ever, with a deep understanding of each other's thoughts. Finally, Aranzeb was able to confess his suspicions about Orchidna, Raeven, and the Akasch. Kyprosa listened carefully. He also admitted that he'd loved her since the first time they'd met. Abandoning his Elven reserve, he let his true feelings for her pour out, enveloping them both.
Kyprosa gazed back at him with the faintest of smiles. He could sense that she understood everything, and even if they couldn't be together, for now, her understanding was enough.
The two had long ago been separated from Tahyang. Together, they'd fallen in love with the noble purity of the Garden, and had begun to share an abstract, undefined love for each other. It was less a romantic feeling, and more like the feelings one had for wisdom and beauty. Kyprosa's heart still belonged to Gene first and foremost.
Eventually, however, even Kyprosa and Aranzeb lost track of each other. Curiosity led them down different paths. However, a desire to return to the real world eventually awakened in them both.
Before he knew it, Aranzeb found himself facing the gate. He strode through, his thoughts wandering to Kyprosa. The Garden seemed to have imbued him with strange, new powers; he didn't doubt it had done the same for her. He wondered if she'd already left, or if she was right behind him.
He found Orchidna in the hall, but it was impossible to talk to her. Kyprosa was nowhere to be seen. For the first time in his life, he felt oddly alone in the world. He wondered what changes awaited him outside the birthplace.
Aranzeb traveled at a steady pace, sustaining himself with magic. He climbed out of the pit, crossed the barrens, and passed back over the mountains. Along the way, he noticed a few waterfalls he didn't remember from before. They would have taken years to form.
When the mage reached civilization, he found all the same villages, cities, and kingdoms--but they were filled with entirely different people than the ones he remembered. The world looked largely identical to the one he'd left, but was filled with a completely different history.
Aranzeb continued south, toward Delphinad. If Kyprosa had been unable to find a way to save her sister in the Garden, perhaps she'd head to the Ayanad Library for further research. The farther he traveled, the more the world began to look like a war zone: burnt fortresses, scorched fields, ravaged villages, smoking battlefields.
And everywhere, the stench of death. Aranzeb began to avoid the main roads. Even still, he couldn't help but see forces marching through the land, destroying, burning, and murdering as they went. However, their flags were unfamiliar to him.
Aranzeb couldn't help but wonder if he'd somehow been sent to the past, when great wars regularly ravaged the continent. Or had he entered a different dimension altogether? Had his friends entered this same world? Had they already disappeared into history, or would they not appear until the distant future?
Burdened with questions, Aranzeb continued toward Delphinad. Other travelers advised him to avoid the capital, but the mage was determined. If any of his friends were in this world, or had been in this world, he was sure they would have left word in Delphinad.
Besides that, Delphinad was Aranzeb's second home, filled with his teachers and peers. Elves lived a long time; much longer than humans. Surely he would find a familiar face there.
The closer he got, the more war-torn the landscape became. Aranzeb grew increasingly anxious. Finally, he saw the Delphinad gates standing strong and intact. However, the city had clearly mobilized for war. He had to pass through magic shields to enter, then found the roads barren. Barricades stood everywhere. Some buildings had already been damaged.
Seeing the Delphinad Library was like receiving a blow to the head. For a moment, Aranzeb lost all senses. The great Delphinad Library was gone. All that remained were piles of ashes.
Citizens said it had burned down years before, but no one wanted to rebuild it with the war still raging. No one had even begun planning its reconstruction. Anything salvageable had been stolen long before. Scraps of charred paper from books and scolls blew through the streets like trash, then ended up as kindling for the cookfires in people's homes. That was their highest value.
There was no way of knowing what had happened to the library's school, teachers, and students. Aranzeb tried to enter Ayanad, but found himself blocked by a strange force.
Aranzeb stumbled through the streets like a madman, muttering to himself and gathering the scraps of paper that had once comprised the world's greatest repository of knowledge. People began to avoid the wild-eyed man covered in ashes from the ruins.
Finally, night fell. Aranzeb staggered into a shabby inn near the library ruins, completely exhausted. He noticed another tattered soul hunched by the fireplace, clutching a mug and gazing into the flames. Aranzeb, seized with recognition, grabbed the man's shoulder and spun him around. It was Tahyang. The Firran leapt to his feet, gaping, then grabbed Aranzeb's arms as if to assure himself the Elf was real. Wordlessly, they embraced.
Tahyang had arrived in Delphinad not too long before. However, the war sweeping the once-peaceful land shocked and upset him more than the destruction of the library. He was sad to see it gone, but it had never been a central pillar of his life.
Tahyang explained that two rival groups were after Delphinad. They had seized it simultaneously, then were pushed out. The city had managed to expel the invaders a few more times after that, but wouldn't be able to hold out much longer. Drawing a breath, Tahyang shifted his gaze and told Aranzeb that 400 years had passed since they'd entered the Garden together. Aranzeb felt like he couldn't breathe.
The burning of the Delphinad Library had become a symbol for the era: an era of destruction. The world Aranzeb and Tahyang had known 400 years ago had truly been a golden age. Now, the world was only golden because of the color of its flames.
Civilization as a whole was deteriorating. No one was studying, learning, researching; everyone was too busy fighting and surviving. The value of knowledge had crumbled to dust and ashes, just the like the library that had once symbolized it.
Aranzeb and Tahyang scoured the rest of Delphinad together, but couldn't find anyone else they knew. However, they held on to the hope that since they had left the Garden around the same time, perhaps other members of the expedition had, as well. And it made sense that eventually, they'd make their way back to Delphinad.
The Elf and the Firran decided the best thing to do was wait. If they went wandering around Auroria, they may never find their friends. Instead, they would stay in Delphinad, help defend it to the best of their abilities, and wait. Luckily, they both possessed incredibly powerful abilities to aid in the city's defense.
The more involved in the war efforts the two became, the better they understood the situation. The armies attacking Delphinad followed two gods: Shatigon and Haje. Each army sought to claim the city as its own.
Both gods had been worshipped 400 years ago, but didn't have nearly as many followers as they seemd to now. Shatigon's army seemed to be made up of citizens from several nearby cities and a Dwarf kingdom; Haje's army was mostly fugitives from Delphinad and soldiers from other local provinces.
However, what surprised Tahyang and Aranzeb most was their skill in combat. Their strengths and abilities far exceeded what they'd been capable of 400 years before. Their power was obvious to everyone around them; they were far more gifted than ordinary mortals.
Their new strengths were quite different, however. Tahyang's powers seemed to focus around his previous skill with archery, while Aranzeb's new powers further increased his skill with magic. Their talents had grown so much, it was clear that by themselves, they could alter the course of the war.
When they were in the Garden, Aranzeb and Tahyang had both felt the power of the Mother Goddess--the being that Lucius had named the All-Goddess, and that the Hiram tribe spoke of as the hidden god or the dead god. Whatever of her power they'd touched had apparently changed them, not just spiritually, but also physically and mentally.
In the Garden, Aranzeb had seen the same clearing that Gene had found: a vast, pillar-like tree at the center, circled by seats formed from its roots. The Elf had studied the statues behind each seat, but didn't sit in any seat. He had come to the conclusion that the seats belonged to the different aspects of the Mother Goddess. Roots of the same tree. Each separate, but connected. One goddess, with many faces.
All the statues could be connected to at least one god still worshipped on Auroria. However, it seemed mortals had combined gods, duplicated gods, and added their own. But over time, they had forgotten the original god: the supreme creator, the Mother Goddess. They forgot her face for her many masks.
Now, two men claiming to be literal gods were leading the armies against Delphinad. They said they were the gods Shatigon and Haje, given physical form. They had each garnered thousands of followers, aided by the miracles each performed to prove their power. Their rabid worshippers were easily transformed into legions of loyal soldiers.
Aranzeb and Tahyang wished they could convince people that these were fake gods, that the Mother Goddess was the real, original god, that all the other gods were simply different aspects of her, but they didn't know how. They had no way of sharing their experiences in the Garden. The best they could do was fight off the imposters' armies.
Seeing their power, people asked Aranzeb and Tahyang if they, too, were gods. Both denied it vehemently. Tahyang said they were not sacred, and power without the sacred was nothing more than an ordinary mortal. Aranzeb said they were simply creations of something greater, like everyone else.
Aranzeb and Tahyang decided that the best way to dispute the godhood of the men calling themselves "Shatigon" and "Haje" was to show people just how powerful a mere mortal could be. Aranzeb displayed his control of magic both on and off the battlefield, and taught minor spells to anyone with an inkling of talent who was willing to learn.
When the two "gods" displayed a new miracle, Aranzeb and Tahyang tried to replicate it, to show people such things were possible even without so-called divine power. They didn't mind people worshipping lesser gods, but if that worship led to war, something was wrong. That worship also shouldn't come at the expense of reverence for the Mother Goddess, the true creator.
Aranzeb and Tahyang vowed to wait for their friends at Delphinad, and meanwhile, do whatever they could to save the world from the war of the lesser gods. The war of the forgotten Mother.
The Elf and Firran did begin to turn the tide of the war. Since they refused to call themselves gods, people began to call them heroes. Delphinad regained some of its former strength, and the war became a three-way struggle instead of a one-sided siege.
One night, Aranzeb had a surprise visitor: a student from Alexander's school that he'd known 400 years ago. The young man told Aranzeb there was something he needed to know, and pulled him outside.
Gene, meanwhile, had a visitor of his own, but it wasn't a surprise. Kyprosa. Unfortunately, it was only a dream. It had been over a hundred years since he'd seen her in life, but he still saw her in his dreams every night.
She was standing in front of the door to the Garden, just as he'd last seen her. He reached for her as she moved to step inside. He wanted to ask her when he'd see her again.
She answered before the words escaped his lips: "You'll never be able to find me. But I will find you. I'll rescue you."
She vanished into the Garden, and Gene woke up.
In the beginning, filled with vengeance for his mother's murder, Gene had ravaged Epherium. He had intended to hurt only his enemies, but 200 years had passed. His enemies had married, had children, and died. To hurt them meant hurting anyone connected to them. But their connections stretched far and wide. Reluctantly, he killed people he had no grudge against, simply for the sins of their ancestors.
Soon, Gene had seized possession of Epherium. He refused to call himself king, however. The word reminded him of Tinari's desperate attempts to win him the crown, which sickened him. The people gave him their own title, because of the blood he'd shed: they dubbed him Kyrios, after the ancient God of Destruction.
News of the upheaval in Epherium spread rapidly, and other kingdoms took the opportunity to try and conquer the nation. As if to compensate for killing so many of his innocent countrymen, Gene fought on the front lines and decimated the intruders mercilessly. Finally, he began to realize the incredible strength and power the Garden had given him.
Anthalon helped Gene explore and identify his new powers, rarely leaving his side. Whenever a pang of guilt threatened Gene's conscience, Anthalon was quick to avert all true blame to the dead. The advisor encouraged Gene to meditate more and more; Gene became increasingly mysterious to his people, who took it as a new sign of his divinity.
The more he turned inward, and the less time he spent with other people, the more Gene's guilt faded away. Under pretense of making his people happy, he invaded other countries that Epherium had ancient rivalries with. In truth, he'd come to enjoy the bloodshed. War came easily to him, and his people continued to worship him as Kyrios, their master and their god.
In private, Gene confided in Anthalon about the day Naima had saved his life. Soon enough, Naima had also become a god in the Kyrios mythos, cultivated in stories Anthalon secretly spread. She became known as the lover of Kyrios.
What no one knew, even Gene himself, was that his true gift was not destruction, or even combat. It was victory. He had the ability to win every battle he fought; he simply used this power in the most destructive ways possible.
Many worshippers wanted to know more about their god, Kyrios. They discovered ancient records of a god with similar attributes. However, his worshippers had eventually tired of that god's incessant destruction, and he'd faded from history. Worried about Gene's future, the researchers slipped him the documents as a warning.
Gene read them carefully. He wondered if he could be the present incarnation of that ancient god? He remembered the empty chair he'd sat in while in the Garden. Could that chair have belonged to this long-dead god? The god's appearance as described in these records did remarkably recall the statue behind the chair. Gene glimpsed himself in the reflection in his wineglass. Not only did that old god resemble the statue, Gene bore striking resemblances to both.
Gene tried to hide the documents from Anthalon, but his crafty advisor found them anyway. They worried him. This god from the past had been just as strong as Gene... but had still vanished into time. How could a god incapable of losing a war disappear? Anthalon decided the only explanation was that people had stopped worshipping him.
Anthalon reasoned that if a god as powerful as that ancient one could fade away so completely when he stopped being worshipped, the opposite was also true. If a god received absolute, universal worship, he must become even more powerful.
Anthalon encouraged Gene to return to the business of conquering. If he didn't want to end up like that other god--forgotten--he needed to gather more followers. He needed to convert the whole continent to prevent being lost amid dusty old pages.
Anthalon encouraged Gene to return to the business of conquering. If he didn't want to end up like that other god--forgotten--he needed to gather more followers. He needed to convert the whole continent to prevent being lost amid dusty old pages.
Gene, however, was confused about his identity. Though he agreed with his advisor on most things, Anthalon had not yet been able to convince him he was truly a god. He'd gone on an incredible journey, visited an incredible place, and acquired some incredible skills. People mistook him for a god, but had he truly become a god? And if he had, what had happened to his previous identity?
Even more disturbing, if having a lack of followers caused gods to disappear, if people stopped following Gene, would he simply lose his new powers, or his entire being? What was the core of his identity now--the powers he held, or his personality and memories?
Anthalon had no answers. All Gene knew was that he didn't want to be lost. His friends had already seemed to forget him, and the pain raked at his being every day. He declared dozens of wars, fought brutally, and converted more and more worshippers. Maybe, if he could survive long enough, he'd find a way to see Kyprosa again.
After all, if he became the continent's one and only god, wouldn't that put him on the level of the Mother Goddess? If he became that powerful, perhaps he could summon his friends back to him... or even resurrect them if they'd died.
He remembered his dreams of Kyprosa, when she told him that she'd rescue him. Was it just a dream, or a prophecy? There was so much blood on his hands; would she save him from the consequences of his sins? Or would she save him by separating the old Gene, the real Gene, from the divine powers that engulfed him? The next time he saw her in his dreams, he asked if they would ever meet again. The dream-Kyprosa answered: "We will be together again for a very long time.
Meanwhile, an Elven student escorted Aranzeb back into Ayanad. He'd worried when he hadn't been able to enter it before that it had been destroyed along with so much of Delphinad. But here it was, whole and untouched, the Ayanad Library standing tall at its center. Aranzeb's eyes welled with tears as the student brought him inside the library.
The lecture halls, offices, and archives looked exactly the same as before. The only difference was the lack of people. Aranzeb couldn't see a single other student, teacher, or researcher. His guide escorted him to the garden where he'd first met Kyprosa. Alexander stood waiting.
Seeing Alexander brought Aranzeb to tears. The teacher's age had been advanced when Aranzeb had known him; now, 400 years had passed. Of all the friendly faces to find, this was incredible. Alexander had lived through almost a thousand years.
Though feeble and frail, Alexander was eager to talk to the student who'd disappeared so suddenly so long ago. Each Elf shared stories from the last 400 years of their lives. Finally, Aranzeb asked why the door to Ayanad had been sealed. Alexander spoke a single word: "Shatigon."
Shatigon was the god of prosperity and fortune. Though widely worshipped by dwarves, he had become increasingly well-known among humans--especially since his most recent incarnation, which performed miracles as proof of divinity. Shatigon sent an emissary to request unrestricted access to all documents in the Delphinad Library. Such permission was unheard of, and the request was immediately denied. This happened repeatedly. Eventually, Shatigon sent armed forces to circle the city.
However, Delphinad was filled with wizards, soldiers, guards and mercenaries, and easily repelled the initial offensive. Then, Shatigon's Temple Army attacked. The Temple Army had seemingly unlimited resources. They hired the continent's most powerful mercenaries, sowed traitors with seeds of gold, and maintained an unimaginably vast army. Slowly, Delphinad crumbled under the ongoing assault.
The Delphinad priests who worshipped the god Haje mobilized and fought back. Haje, too, seemed to have been reincarnated recently, and now also performed miracles as proof of divinity. With the priests' help, the god rallied an army of his own, and the war worked itself to a stalemate. The two forces were evenly matched. Though Haje's forces won most of the battles, Shatigon's numbers never seemed to decrease.
Over time, Haje's army took more and more control over Delphinad itself. Haje tried to spread his army's influence to Ayanad, claiming he wanted to protect it, but the mages rose up in protest. Undaunted, the army entered the magic city by force.
Haje continued to crack down on Delphinad as a whole. His army made excessive demands in the name of the war and suppressed the free spiritedness that had always characterized the city. Miracles or no miracles, discontent and resentment grew among the citizens. They began to see their defenders as their occupiers. Finally, they rebelled against Haje's army.
Civil war erupted violently and suddenly. It was the perfect opportunity for Shatigon to launch an invasion. Haje's army was left struggling to fight two fronts: the city's rebels and the rival god's soldiers. During one early night of particular confusion, an unknown hand set the Delphinad Library ablaze.
The loss of the library galvanized the citizens, who finally managed to chase Haje's army out of the remains of their city. Ayanad sealed itself off to prevent further invasions, and Delphinad braced itself as two besieging armies threw themselves at its walls.
Aranzeb didn't understand how two Temple Armies could rival the power of the mages in Ayanad. Alexander answered that the armies were being led by what for all intents and purposes truly did appear to be actual, literal gods.
The elderly mage said he'd seen the gods Shatigon and Haje for himself. Hundreds had seen them. They were always on the battlefield, leading their armies from the front lines and using their vast powers to turn the tides of these battles. Traditionally, gods never participated in human affairs so directly, but now, Shatigon and Haje did it regularly.
Shatigon and Haje had been worshipped for centuries, but no one had ever seen the living gods exhibit their powers, or even simply seen the living gods themselves. If anyone had, the rest of the pantheon would have quickly fallen out of favor.
By now, the influence of these two gods had grown to incredible magnitude. They had started wars all across the continent. Worse, Shatigon and Haje were not the only living gods who had revealed themselves.
Cautiously, as if frightened of the mere name, Alexander decribed a god named Kyrios. He'd taken complete possession of the Ephea Peninsula and was advancing north. Shatigon and Haje were powerful, but the Delphinad citizens had managed to fend them off thus far. No city had been able to withstand an attack by Kyrios.
Aranzeb sat stunned. Alexander said there was one last thing he should know. Alexander had entered the Delphinad Library as it was burning, hoping to save what he could. He'd found the place packed with Shatigon's followers, gathering books and records related to the manipulation of time. The materials had reminded Alexander of his only Dwarf student, who'd been so interested in such things: Ollo.
Alexander had returned to Ayanad and met with its high council. They still kept records of everyone who entered the magic realm, and had even managed to keep track of the invaders during the battle. Among their records, Alexander found a small man greatly resembling Ollo.
Alexander also found records of Haje's invasion of Ayanad, which included a depiction of a winged figured who looked exactly like the Astra who'd claimed authorship of Lucius's play. Alexander wondered aloud if perhaps Ollo and Inoch had left the Garden with powers even more incredible that Aranzeb's--powers that had essentially made them gods.
Aranzeb was incredulous. But if Ollo and Inoch truly had left the Garden and returned to the world, as gods or not, he had to meet them. And if it turned out that they really were Shatigon and Haje, perhaps enough of their old friendship remained that he could persuade them to stop their warring.
Alexander warned Aranzeb to tread carefully, especially in his use of magic. Magic, he explained, was a finite resource. Kyrios, Shatigon, and Haje were consuming vast amounts of it to power their wars, and ordinary people had figured out how to extract it from the earth to power new machines, inventions, and research. But magic was the world's lifeforce. The world was being drained of its vitality, and the consequences would be dire.
Already, some ripples could be seen. There were reports of rivers flowing backwards, seasons occuring out of order, packs of animals killing themselves, and the birth of strange, mutated creatures.
Aranzeb shared what he'd learned with Tahyang, and the two set out immediately in search of Shatigon and Haje. They snuck into Shatigon's camp, but could find no sign of Ollo.
Ollo spent very little time in his army's camp. He spent the majority of his time in a secret office in his Dwarven homeland. He studied one subject and one subject only: time travel. He was still totally consumed by the same subject that had interested him in the past. However, the reasons for this obsession had changed.
Two hundred years ago, Ollo had left the Garden. He'd been shocked when he realized how much time had passed. Just as Gene had done, he'd visited the Delphinad Library, found no trace of his friends, and left. Ollo set out for his homeland, only to find it had been almost completely conquered by its neighbor, Hadiza.
Ollo was desperate to find traces of Gollog and Lisella. But no one had ever heard of the recluse Gollog. When Ollo climbed the mountain his mentor had once lived on, he discovered it had been almost completely overtaken by nature. No one had lived there for decades.
Ollo remembered that Lisella had been pregnant. By the time he'd entered the Garden, the child would have been born. But he had no idea what its name was, what it looked like, or even its gender. He didn't even know if Lisella had survived the birth, or how she'd supported herself afterward.
Guilt overtook him. How many years must Lisella have anxiously awaited his return, raising their child alone, and in shame? They'd never even gotten to have a proper wedding. It broke his heart to think she'd died alone and lonely. At least a hundred years had likely passed since her last breath; all traces of her existence would be long gone, save perhaps for an overgrown grave no one would remember.
Half-mad, Ollo wandered between Dwarven kingdoms, obsessively searching for any trace of Lisella. He investigated every lead, even names only vaguely similar to hers, but it was all in vain. The Garden had given him great powers, but he considered them useless. They could not bring Lisella back.
Two hundred years ago, Ollo had been consumed with his desire for revenge against his uncle. But the possibility of revenge had passed away with the years. His uncle, and most anyone who remembered him, was long dead.
Ollo's thirst for revenge had blinded him to the real bliss right before his eyes. If he hadn't stubbornly set out for the Garden, but instead had kept his promise to return to Lisella and Gollog, he would have lived and died happily. They would have all returned to the dirt together, perhaps even becoming the metal that fueled the Dwarven kingdom. Instead, he'd cursed himself to live without them.
After roaming for many years, Ollo found himself in Mailgrove. The city had grown up around a monastery devoted to the delivery of news and letters. Their sacred vow was to deliver any mail left with them, no matter what. When Ollo and his friends fled Delphinad 200 years ago, they'd left messages for their families with the Mailgrove monks.
Scouring the monks' records, Ollo found that his letter for Lisella had indeed been delivered. He tore through the following pages at super-human speed, then found an entry that said Lisella had written him back.
Undelivered letters were stored in the city until they could be delivered. Though dusty, the warehouse was well-organized, and Ollo found his letter easily. However, because he couldn't prove he was the same Ollo as it was addressed to, he had to steal it.
The ancient paper looked like it would crumble to dust at any moment. Parts were no longer legible. However, the handwriting was clearly Lisella's. She wrote that she was worried about Ollo undertaking such a dangerous expedition, but that she hoped he found what he was looking for. She said she was counting on him to return soon, and asked what he wanted to name their child. Ollo began to sob.
She'd enclosed a slip of paper with the baby's handprint. Ollo sat frozen, staring at it.
Eventually, a new goal began to crystallize in Ollo's heart. He'd always wanted to go back in time and change the current reality. However, Aranzeb had said that there was no way to change the past and create a new future. But the mage had also said that there was once a scholar who, unable to change the course of history, had gone back to the past and simply lived out the rest of his life there.
Ollo no longer had any desire to change the present time. But returning to a point in his past, setting aside his thoughts of revenge, and and devoting himself to making his wife and child happy? That was a worthy goal to pursue. All he needed was a one-way ticket back in time.
Endless regrets whirled through Ollo's mind, and he struggled to focus on his studies. His homeland was filled with memories, so he retreated to the small Dwarven kingdom of Gonn to continue his research.
Ollo used his new powers to bring overwhelming abundance to the kingdom. However, other countries began to covet the kingdom's wealth and tried to invade. Ollo helped his new home defend itself.
His power of endless abundance was immeasurably helpful for conducting effective wars. Additionally, the respect he earned made people eager to help with his research in any way they could. The Dwarves began to call Ollo "Shatigon" after the kingdom's patron god, the god of prosperity.
The more Ollo studied, the more desperate he became for the materials in the Delphinad Library. Students, and even most teachers, had never been allowed to access the most important, rare, or dangerous documents. Now that he was not even a student of the library, he had no hope of seeing them. Nevertheless, Ollo sent an emissary to the library to request access to its more sensitive materials. The arrogant librarians refused. As Gonn grew stronger, Ollo wondered if he could use its army to force the library to give him access.
Before he resorted to such measures, Ollo sent presents, offered bribes, and tried to coax the librarians into giving him what he wanted. Nothing worked.
The Delphinad librarians were stubborn, but not as stubborn as a Dwarven god. Ollo sent an army to lay siege to the city. He hoped that the mere threat of violence would convince the wizards and elderly rulers to acquiesce. Sadly, this theory didn't take the wizards' pride into consideration.
Ollo had only wanted a siege, but the situation quickly escalated into a war. Haje's army joined the fight, and the wearisome confrontations continued. Ollo's frustration boiled over; all he wanted was to read some books in the library! When Delphinad rebelled against Haje, Ollo used the distraction to break into the library.
Just before his forces entered, the library began to burn.
Most of the library's precious, priceless records could not be saved. Ollo's only hope was lost forever. Words could not describe his anger at the scholars and mages of Delphinad and Ayanad. They could have avoided this so easily. But he was even more furious at Haje. He vowed to wipe Haje's army off the face of the earth.
However, Ollo was also angry at himself. The Delphinad Library was the whole world's legacy. And he had helped completely destroy it. He had loved studying and researching there, had cherished each and every book he'd touched. And he was partially to blame for their total destruction.
Several years passed. Ollo began his research again, but without the greatest library on Erenor, was force to rely on scattered superstitions and spells. Ollo didn't expect much to come from his efforts, but had to keep trying. He sent emmissaries to distant shamans and shrines all over the continent, collecting whatever knowledge of time travel they could offer.
He was aware that he'd turned into little more than a lunatic. The war at Delphinad dragged on and reached a stalemate. Then, Ollo received a letter from a wandering bard. It began, "My old friend, Ollo."
The letter was half poetry and half nonsense, but did mention events that Ollo remembered from his life before the Garden. Assuming the letter wasn't just a cruel joke, Ollo knew only one man who called himself a bard and wrote in such a flamboyant style: Lucius Quinto.
Lucius didn't reveal his identity in the letter, but specified a place and time he'd like to meet Ollo. It was the next day.
Since leaving the Garden, Ollo hadn't met anyone from his former life. But the letter rekindled his hope of seeing his old friends again. In fact, he was overcome with joy at the mere thought. He had no idea that some of them were also living their lives as gods.
Ollo read the letter over and over again, excited as a child. Only one of his old friends could understand what his life had been like since leaving the Garden, the things he'd never been able to confess or talk about. No one but his old friends would ever believe him.
Suddenly, unbidden, an image of the burning library filled Ollo's mind. How could his friends forgive him for that? He was foolish, rash, and stubborn. Who could forgive him but a fellow Dwarf, like Gollog or Lisella? ...Lisella. How he missed her bearded face. He had helped destroy any chance of returning to her in the past, but couldn't seem to destroy the desire to see her again in his heart.
Ollo tore up the letter and threw it away. However, the next night, a hooded figure appeared in front of him. "You should be more punctual," the figure said flatly. "I spent more than 10 minutes waiting at the meeting place." Ollo gaped, speechless. The hooded man stamped his foot.
"Did you think I'd wait forever? I don't wait for anyone for more than 10 minutes, save for pretty, young ladies! I certainly wouldn't waste time waiting for a 400 year old Dwarf!"
The men stepped closer and held out his hand. A simple, familiar ring circled his finger: the ring Eanna had given Lucius. Overcome at seeing his old friend again, Ollo took the bard's hand. Light shot out from it, and Ollo yelped and leapt away. Lucius finally lowered his hood and revealed his face. He hadn't changed at all.
As Ollo spluttered, Lucius continued sadly. "So you don't know either," he said. "Know what?" Ollo frowned.
"What these powers are. And how to get rid of them. How to take off the mantle of a god and return to being a man of the earth. You were born a Dwarf, but you will die a god. None of us will die was we were born. We have been changed."
Lucius had left the Garden after Ollo, Inoch, and Gene, but before Aranzeb and Tahyang. Like the Elf and the Firran, he had not sat in any of the mysterious seats in the clearing, and found himself with heroic powers, not godlike ones. He had returned to Delphinad before the library fell with a singular thought in his mind: finding Eanna.
The Nimush family was still successful and well-known in the city, but Eanna hadn't visited them. What Lucius didn't realize was that Eanna had been there--but she'd returned from the Garden 200 years ago. Any of the family members she'd met were long dead.
Lucius discovered that the Garden had given him the power to shapeshift. Transforming into various birds, he flew all over the world, searching for Eanna. He eventually uncovered evidence that she'd left the Garden decades ago. Lucius realized that she was likely long dead. Overwhelmed with grief, utterly lost, and completely alone, he attempted to take his own life. He awoke, healthy and intact, the next day.
After several other attempts, Lucius realized that he couldn't die. He didn't immeditely suspect he was immortal, but assumed that he'd gained superhuman resilience. It made sense, considering he now had other incredible powers.
Then, one day, a goddess appeared before him. She looked oddly familiar, but her face was swollen with tears. Incredulously, she reached out and touched Lucius's cheek. He slowly realized that the goddess truly was Eanna. She'd waited over 200 years for him to return. He seized her in a tight embrace.
Eanna had sat in one of the chairs in the Garden's mysterious clearing. She'd been given the powers of the goddess Nui, the goddes of death. She was why Lucius had never been able to take his own life. Whenever she saw him on the threshold of death, she guided him back to the world of the living.
The goddess opened a portal to the Hereafter, the afterlife, and she and Lucius walked inside. She opened another portal that led to the country of Nuimari, and they stepped out onto another land, across the continent from where they'd just been. Since the Hereafter was an entirely different plane, it could be entered from anywhere. The reverse was also true: you could leave the Hereafter to go anywhere.
In ancient times, the coast of Nuimari was called "The World's Edge." People believed it was where souls went to depart the world and enter the Hereafter. They had erected a monument to the ancient goddess Nui there, because they felt one day she would bless the place with her physical presence. It was a sparsely populated highland, green and peaceful. Eanna and Lucius talked for hours while wandering the windy, cliffside meadows.
In ancient times, the Nuimari coast was called "The World's Edge." People believed it was where souls went to depart the world and enter the Hereafter. They'd erected a monument to the ancient goddess Nui there, hoping the place would receive her blessing. It was a sparsely populated highland, green and peaceful. Eanna and Lucius talked for hours while wandering the windy, cliffside meadows.
When Eanna left the Garden, she found she'd been given new powers... as well as new responsibilities. She was confused, but tried her best to fulfill her duties. Her powers reminded her of the Goddess Nui. Nui had always been considered a merciful guide, protecting the dead on their journey to the Hereafter.
Souls who died in peace were easy to guide, but souls who died in torment rent Eanna's tender heart. She sometimes had to drag a soul away from its broken body as its family wailed over the corpse. Such scenes haunted her, increasing her compassion.
Lately, as various wars spread across the continent, Eanna had been overcome with pleading, screaming, wailing souls. The process of comforting the dead and guiding them from the blood-soaked battlefields was exhausting.
To Lucius, this was proof that the woman at his side was truly Eanna. The gods had been taking care of the world for thousands of years. If Nui had absorbed Eanna, she wouldn't be suffering so badly; she'd be used to it. It was as if Nui were a cloak that Eanna had put on. Outwardly, she was a goddess, but inside, she was still Eanna.
For her part, Eanna didn't know if she was more human or more god. All she knew was that she was different.
It hadn't been easy to accept her divine duties at first. She knew she needed to perform certain tasks for the good of the world, but she also sensed very ungodlike traits within herself: loneliness, weariness, confusion. In time, she'd grown more accustomed to her duties, more godlike. She could only imagine the trend would continue.
After 200 years, it had already become much easier to cope with her responsibilities. Eanna felt less like the Garden had made her a god, and more like it had given her powers that had put her on a path to becoming one. She was now waiting for the day when she would possess not just the power, but the essence of a god. It seemed the only conclusion to what had become of her life.
The more time they spent together, the more Lucius saw how much she'd already changed. She was still the Eanna he remembered. She was still human. She still loved him. But her old character had faded somehow, like an image seen through warm breath on a mirror.
Eanna couldn't see the changes yet; they'd been too gradual. She had no idea what parts of herself she'd already lost, but more importantly, she didn't seem to care if they were gone. She considered her responsibilities as a goddess to be sacred and felt that she must accept this new fate. Rejecting it would be cosmically wrong.
Every so often, Eanna and Lucius argued about her status. Lucius worried that becoming a god meant Eanna would one day disappear completely, lost to a new identity. He refused to accept such an outcome. He loved her too much.
According to his understanding, the Mother Goddess hadn't intended the lower gods to significantly interfere in human life. If she had, wouldn't she have stuck around to rule humans herself? Eanna was taking her powers more seriously than the Mother had intended.
Although Eanna's efforts to care for the dead were honorable, scores of people had gathered in Nuimari waiting for her guidance and hoping to witness her grace. They had abandoned their normal lives to seek her. Was that really in their best interest?
Eventually, Eanna admitted that she didn't think she was the only godlike human in the world. She'd heard rumors that the reason war had become so rampant was that reincarnated gods were using their powers to turn the tides of history. Indeed, there had been a sudden resurgence of worship for Shatigon, Haje, Kyrios, and Dahuta.
Lucius asked if she thought those gods might be their friends from the Garden. Eanna nodded.
Lucius decided to seek them out. It was the only way to be sure, to fully understand what was happening in the world. Perhaps he could even save some lives in the process.
The bard didn't admit his other goal. What he truly wanted to learn was whether or not there was a way to surrender the powers and duties of godhood. What he truly wanted was to run through the Delphinad marketplace, burdened with armloads of carrots and fish, the red and yellow awnings flapping in the breeze, joking like a child as Eanna Nimush laughed innocently.
Lucius left his beloved to search for the other human-gods. His shapeshifting abilities let him travel easily, as well as sneak into any castle, battlefield, or secret encampment. Rumor said the god Kyrios resided into Epherium and was busily annexing the surrounding territories, so Lucius headed there first.
At the Epherium palace, Lucius penetrated the inner chambers that servants said belonged to Kyrios. However, it wasn't Kyrios, but Anthalon he saw first. Evil seemed to ripple off the man in foul waves. Warily, Lucius transformed into a bird and perched on a windowsill to observe.
Anthalon had apparently come to meet with Kyrios, who remained behind a curtain during their conversation. What Lucius only gradually realized was that Kyrios was really his old friend, Gene.
Anthalon was worried that Kyrios had seemed distracted lately. Gene knew it was true; ever since his last dream about Kyprosa, he had been distracted. He missed his friends desperately, and longed to return to the simple life in the Shadowhawk House. The men in his army followed him out of fear, not respect or devotion. They regarded him as a god, not a brother. Not a Hawk Brother.
Anthalon had sensed that this was the source of Gene's distraction, and had already set a plan in motion. He said that he knew many of Gene's Hawk Brother friends had died, but that didn't mean they were lost forever. Lucius tensed.
Gene clearly didn't take Anthalon's words seriously, but laughingly gave him permission to do whatever he could to ease Gene's anguish. Anthalon retreated, and Gene fell silent.
Lucius could hear the human turmoil in Gene's voice. Morphing into a cat, he crept behind the curtain.
Just before he could glimpse Gene's face, a hiss sounded from the window. A serpent-like dragon was hovering just outside. Gene vaulted out the window and onto the dragon's back, then soared away. Lucius had only seen him from behind, but had become even more convinced that the man--Kyrios--was truly his friend Gene.
Lucius hung around the palace for the next few days, hoping to meet Gene again, but there was no indication when he would return. The bard finally left to seek out the other human-gods.
Lucius flew to the Elven kingdom in the north, which sprawled from Enoa to Mortsand. Here, it was the Goddess Dahuta who was said to have risen again. Lucius had travelled here before, as a playwright. Enoa--homeland of Aranzeb and Aranzebia--was filled with deep groves of trees, dark as midnight inside, and Mortsand was an arcane coastline, peaceful, but barren.
However, Enoa was nothing like Lucius remembered: each village he passed through was completely empty.
The Elven villages looked like they'd stood abandoned for dozens of years. There were no signs of disaster or war; the houses were intact and unlooted. It was simply that all the Elves had disappeared. Even the capital city was no different. Lucius searched every building, and finally found a group of Elves living in a remote corner of the city.
The Elves told Lucius that Enoa had been abandoned 100 years ago. When Lucius asked where everyone had gone, the Elves shook their heads. They couldn't say. Drawing a breath, Lucius asked if they knew where the Goddess Dahuta was. The Elves nervously directed him to Mortsand.
Mortsand, though not a lush land, had always been populated by the minority of Elves whose hearts belonged to the ocean: sailors, fishermen, and the like. On a coastal cliff, Lucius found a castle. He had no idea if it was old or new, but it did look recently inhabited.
The castle was beautifully made, and almost looked like part of the cliff itself. It towered over the crashing waves and was connected by a bridge to a smaller castle on a stack of rock rising from the waters.
Lucius tried to fly inside, but the castle was guarded by some kind of magic shield. He was forced to enter as himself, through the main gates. Elven warriors stood guard outside. Lucius loudly insisted he was a bard who knew the most beautiful poetry on Auroria, and if they didn't tell the lady of the castle about his arrival, she would surely reprimand them later when she found out.
The message was delivered, and moments later, Lucius was ushered inside. The castle was decorated beautifully. Lucius had seen plenty of opulent homes and palaces in his travels as a bard, but this place left even him agape. Every corner was packed with fine art, tapestries, sculptures, and luxurious furniture.
The bard was well aware that Elves were attractive by nature. But here, even the servants were the most breathtaking, graceful creatures he'd ever laid eyes on. All were clothed in fine fabrics and silks suitable for a king. As Lucius was brought upstairs, his head started to spin. He blamed the incense burning in every corner. His senses dulled, and he found himself struggling to remain conscious.
Lucius's escorts led him to a hall in the castle's upper stories. It was empty, save for a bed sheathed in translucent curtains at the opposite end. It was large enough to accommodate a dozen people. Lucius could pick out a few silhouettes lounging behind the curtains; the central one looked to be female.
The woman lifted herself and spoke to her attendants in the Elven language. Her voice was enchanting, as if laced with magic. Lucius recognized it immediately. It was Aranzebia. The bard stepped toward the curtains and spoke.
"Oh, supreme goddess, I know how to speak your honorable language. I will obey any of your wishes with great happiness, whatever they may be. I know many forgotten songs and poems. As you have lived many lifetimes, you will surely know them as well. Let me honor you by singing a lost song of your choosing."
Whenever Aranzebia spoke, the magic in her voice nearly caused Lucius to collapse. However, he was determined to see what she knew about her powers, and if she knew anything that could help release Eanna from hers. The "goddess" requested a song from the time of the expedition, hundreds of years ago. It was lengthy, but Lucius remembered it perfectly.
As the song went on, the other figures on the bed shifted, bored. But Aranzebia was enrapt. In all likelihood, no one on Erenor had sung the song for centuries. Lucius began to subtly change the words.
The bard mixed stories from the expedition into the song, even tales about his friends from before the expedition, when they were all students at the library. Aranzebia would have had to recognize them, but remained silent, listening.
Lucius began to sing about the days leading up to the expedition fleeing Delphinad. Aranzebia flung the curtains open. Lucius had disguised himself, and she didn't recognize him immediately. "Who are you? What do you know?" she demanded.
However, Lucius found himself suddenly speechless. All the men lying on the bed looked exactly like Aranzeb.
However, Lucius found himself suddenly speechless. All the men lying on the bed looked exactly like Aranzeb.
Aranzebia noticed his distraction and quickly dismissed the men with a wave of her hand. Only she and Lucius remained. When she spoke again, her voice cracked with emotion. "You know Aranzeb, don't you?" she asked. Lucius dropped his disguise, and she gasped.
Aranzebia collapsed, sobbing. Lucius stood awkwardly. This woman had played the role of a goddess and built an entire castle, but acted like a child and transformed her servants into Aranzeb lookalikes. He wondered if she'd been so lonely over the last several centuries that she'd gone partially mad.
As a goddess, she must've had duties. Had she been fulfilling any of them? Or did she only spend her time building castles and enchanting the faces of servants? Lucius forced himself to try and soothe her, but she was only able to regain her composure when he began to sing.
Eventually, Aranzebia began to speak once again. She told Lucius everything she'd done over the last 200 years--like a child admitting wrongdoings to an adult. The acts were beyond his imagination. Aside from transforming Enoa from a thriving city to a ghost town, she'd killed, imprisoned, and tortured thousands.
She'd realized quickly that hew new powers mimicked those of the Goddess Dahuta. When she initially returned to Enoa, it was only to fulfill her duties as a goddess. However, because Elves lived so long, many remembered her. They didn't believe she'd become a goddess, and some even tried to drive her out. Even her powers didn't convince them; most Elves could perform magic.
She'd been willing to try her best to be a goddess, but everyone else was trying to ruin it. Aranzebia not only resented them, but began to hate them. How dare they treat a goddess so poorly?
She summoned the Elven leaders and wizards to her new castle for a council, then threw them into the dungeons. She extracted the mana from their bodies and used it operate various magic machines. However, Elves are resilient, and most survived the process. She continued to use them as mana producers, slowly siphoning their lifeforces and forcing them to live in anguish.
She'd been willing to try her best to be a goddess, but everyone else was trying to ruin it. Aranzebia not only resented them, but began to hate them. How dare they treat a goddess so poorly?
She summoned the Elven leaders and wizards to her new castle for a council, then threw them into the dungeons. She extracted the mana from their bodies and used it operate various magic machines. However, Elves are resilient, and most survived the process. She continued to use them as mana producers, slowly siphoning their lifeforces and forcing them to live in anguish.
After that, other Elves began to respect and fear her. Enoa's remaining wizards joined forces and launched a rebellion. Aranzebia killed them easily. The citizens of Enoa either fled the city or began to worship her. They became her willing attendants.
Aranzebia graciously allowed any remaining non-believers to leave, filled the castle with splendor, and allowed her followers to live comfortably with the magic extracted from her prisoners.
This went on for a hundred years. Aranzebia grew bored. She was surrounded by worshippers, but none were actually friends. She found herself longing for her friends from the expedition, especially Aranzeb. She frequently used magic to scour different corners of the world, searching for him.
Eventually, she gave up and began collecting Elves who resembled Aranzeb. But of course, the resemblence was never perfect, and she grew tired of them quickly. Even altering their features with magic only worked so much. She eagerly asked Lucius if he knew where the real Aranzeb was.
Lucius remembered that centuries ago, Aranzeb had regarded Aranzebia as a child. They had all thought he was treating her cruelly; she was over one hundred and clearly an adult.
Now, Lucius could see how childlike Aranzebia really was. She seemed to divide the world into three parts: things that amused her, things that annoyed her, and things she desired. She sought happiness with a vengeance, destroyed anything she disliked, and pursued her desires with a disturbing single-mindedness.
The bard realized that Aranzebia could offer him nothing that could potentially help Eanna. She hadn't given any thought to removing her divine powers, because she was never burdened with divine duty. She was entirely consumed by loneliness, boredom, and a dangerous longing for her godfather.
Lucius was reluctant to tell the temperamental Aranzebia about Eanna, but felt she should know what had become of at least one other of their friends.
He finally asked Aranzebia how long she expected to remain a goddess--another 200 years? A thousand? Eternally? The Elven girl had never seemed to consider the question before. "Eternity?" she asked finally. "Here? Alone? That's... frightening."
"I'm sure the thought would be frightening for your subjects, as well," Lucius responded tartly. Aranzebia frowned in confusion.
"You were my friend once," he continued. "I never thought badly of you, of your innocence. When Aranzeb called you a child, I thought he was being unfair. But now I know what the old saying means: 'Only an Elf knows an Elf's business.' Your godfather was right about you."
"You've changed. A great deal," the bard went on. "I left the Garden much more recently than you, so I can still remember the old you all too well. You had a child-like innocence back then, but it's become twisted. You're a stubbon, selfish child now, downright devious, with too much power and no one to guide you. If we meet again 200 years from now, I won't even be able to recognize you."
Aranzebia's stunned expression curled slowly into an angry sneer. "I am a goddess, and I don't care if we were friends in the past. You will give me the respect I deserve." Lucius laughed, "You're nothing but a careless girl who found a goddess's gown and decided to play dress-up."
"You're a fool!" Aranzebia screamed. "I am Dahuta! I have all of her powers! The ancient goddess died or disappeared, and the Garden chose me to take her place! I'm no thief, and I'm no charlatan! I am the goddess herself!" Lucius picked up a vase full of flowers and shook his head.
"What you don't understand," he said softly, "is that these powers you so love will consume you. You are slowly losing yourself to them, and you're too foolish to see it. The gods are eternal, but you were born mortal. The mortal mind can't comprehend eternity, let alone survive it. You're already half-mad."
"You are the flowers in a divine vase. In a hundred years, you will wither and fade, and only the divine will remain." Lucius summoned a thin strand of lightning. It charred the flowers to smoky flakes, but left the vase intact. "Your mortal mind, your mortal personality, will rot into nothingness inside an eternal shell. The power of the eternal Dahuta will make a feast of your soul."
He set down the vase and leapt out the window. Aranzebia ran to grab him, but saw only a bird, soaring away.