"Call of the Dragon, Part I"
"Call of the Dragon, Part II"
"Ruins and Hopes"
"Shield Maiden" Cornell #3
"Warrior Eternal" Cornell #4
"Childhood of a Fighter"
"The Pledge" Cornell #5
"The Rock of Discontent"
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"A Tale of the Gods"
"The Miracle of Solstice Day" Cornell #6
"The Pilgrims' Trial and Faith"
XXX. Passage Opened
The villager Voldert grumbled, “Finally you’re healed up, new man. You took your time.”
Darawk gave a start. He had intended to walk past the villager when Voldert had cast him a vile glance – one that speared deep into the god’s heart. “What do –“ he began, then remembered that he had been hurt by the dragon god Lógrims’ fire when he came to the village to recuperate in Caltraya’s house. Seven darktimes ago, not even a twelve-day had passed. Such a brief time, yet so much had changed for him. Decirius. The image of the chief god grown to fill his tower flashed into his mind, along with memories of the torrents of pain that had near torn him apart.
“Time is plenty for those who know to use it,” Alyssa interjected and held out her hand to Voldert. “I am Lyassa.”
“So?” the villager replied, staring at the hand uncertainly. The goddess’ smile rested on him, and he found it difficult to maintain his anger.
Alyssa sighed, reached out her hand further and grasped Voldert’s. “There. A means of greeting new people.”
“Ah,” the villager muttered, returned the pressure. He slowly withdrew his hand then, a frown settling on his face. “Why would you care for this habit? Aside from you, there have not been new people for many a twelve-day. More hands than there are in the village has the blue flame brightened to the white blind at the end of the twelve-day, so why –“ Now it was his turn to pause. “Are there more new people coming?” he asked quickly, his voice grating harshly.
“If it should so please the gods,” Alyssa smiled, slightly inclined her head. “Or do you not like the thought?”
Voldert lowered his head. He shuffled his feet. “If it pleases the gods, I am but their creature.” His voice was cool, like a recitation.
“What?” Darawk said kindly, despite the sharpness of his words. “Has the teaching of the God of Knowledge fallen in misuse here, my friend? He teaches us to embrace the new, the unknown; to love it as a source of new-found thought. Is that not so?”
“It is,” Voldert mumbled. Slowly he raised his eyes, a dim fire burning in them. “Yet always has the village been as I know it. What new I have found and embraced was outside. I have followed the instructions of the God of Knowledge.” The fire burst forth, and Voldert took a sudden step towards the god. “How dare you accuse me of mis-following His lead! New man! What god made you? Was it Darawk? Or was it the trickster Shenaumac? Tell me now!”
“Shenaumac!” Darawk laughed. Voldert was but a foot away from him, the muscles of his arm bunched to strike – and his face starting to change as he realized that the god was not at all intimidated. Unseen by both Alyssa allowed herself a bright smile at the ridiculous sight.
“Tell me!” Voldert insisted, trying to maintain his anger.
Darawk shook his head. “No, my friend, I shan’t. It is not a question of who the creator is, His being a deity is enough. What matters,” he reached out his hand to touch the villager’s shoulder, “is that we follow the teachings in all our days. What matters is that we follow them in every way that our minds can conceive. That is what the God of Knowledge teaches. I said no more than that.”
“You said that –“
“He did not, Voldert,” Caltraya’s voice sounded coldly. She had come from her house, accompanied by Olmawi in his new guise. Once she had noticed the discussion, she had strode forward quickly and now stuck her hand on Voldert’s chest. “But you are proving what you accuse the new man of! You do not listen. Still you do not listen!” She pushed the villager back, moved inbetween him and Darawk. “Did I not tell you to pray to the God of Knowledge for forgiveness earlier? Did you not promise to do so, and to seek his counsel?”
Her words were full of honest anger – yet they did not have the desired effect. The gods were first to understand, their faces freezing into masks for moments. Then Voldert reacted. His hands shot up, clenched Caltraya’s and squeezed. “Yes, I did,” he grunted. “But He did not answer! There was no counsel for me to take! Why should I then pursue his teachings when He does not even deign to speak to me? Tell me that, Caltraya!”
Voldert dropped her hand with a jerk. “Of course you can’t. There is no answer!”
He turned around, to stalk away – but found himself faced with the bright smile of Alyssa. “Do you now purpose to leave the gods?”
“Leave the gods?!” Voldert shouted, his anger meshed with fear. “Why would I –“
“Why would you not?” Alyssa fired back. “You’re presuming they’ve left you alone simply because they do not speak to you. Why do you think so?” Voldert started to answer, but Alyssa raised herself on the balls of her feet – and perhaps her legs grew as well, so her eyes reached nearly the level of the villagers’. “Because you do not comprehend what the God of Knowledge has taught you, that’s the answer. He teaches you to use your own mind, not listen always to counsel from the Eternal City. Think for yourself. See for yourself.”
“That’s no answer!” Voldert managed to shriek, strangely touched by the look in Alyssa’s eyes. His face shivered, confronted by a woman more irate than he had met before. Not to mention concepts that he hadn’t thought about before.
Alyssa shrank down to her previous height. None of the villagers – several of which had by now gathered – noticed anything unusual. “No,” she conceded in a low voice, “it is no answer. Not if you are looking for something definite. All it is, it’s a path towards an answer. Is that not right, brother of mine?”
An eyebrow raised, Darawk tentatively shrugged. “Eloquently argued, Lyassa, sister of mine. The God of Knowledge would bless you for your words.”
“He would, wouldn’t he?” She smirked at him, then turned her glance to the villagers, Voldert and those gathered around them. “Embrace what has happened, my friends. Strive to find a meaning in it, and strive to find new knowledge in the new situation.” She nodded to herself, held out her hand and hooked it under Darawk’s right arm. “Now I’d like to go to the well and have a drink, brother of mine.”
“Of course,” he nodded, and they walked off. The villagers pealed aside before them, formed a corridor of mystified faces.
“Why did you not show them?” Caltraya whispered hurriedly, once she’d caught up with the deities at the well. Alyssa was bent over the bucket, drinking pointedly the cold water from the dipper. Darawk was rolling his eyes, stretching out his waiting hand for the dipper at least as pointedly as Alyssa drank. “And why the false names?” the villager woman continued. “You’re not Lyassa, you’re –“
She stopped when the goddess shot her a quick, angry glance – over so fast that the woman wondered if Alyssa had ever raised her head from the dipper.
“Are you quite sated, sister of mine?” Darawk grumbled. “I know how unaccustomed your mouth is to speaking, yet I assure you that half a bucket is enough to moisten your throat again.”
The goddess growled deep in her throat, raised the dipper above her head, tipped it forward and let the water run over her chin into the bucket. As expected, Darawk rolled his eyes again. “Quite enough,” she smiled, then handed both bucket and dipper over to her brother.
“Lady…” Caltraya said in a strained voice.
“Oh, Callie,” the goddess turned towards her. “Don’t worry. It’s all necessary.”
“Necessary?” Olmawi interjected. The old god was walking sedately over to them, keeping an eye at the villagers following him at a greater distance. “They cannot hear us, Lyassa. And I am also curious what your plan is. I assume that Dar- your brother is informed?”
Alyssa smiled at Darawk. The god was calmly drinking, a grin wrinkling the edges of his lips. “He’d better. It was his idea.” She sobered up momentarily, checked the villagers’ distance herself then leaned forward and whispered, “We don’t intend to remain outcasts, Olmawi. Decirius and his buddies of malignance are about to unleash a whirlwind of troubles among the gods. Somebody has to put an end to their plans. Somebody stronger than we are now.” She raised her eyebrows, then stressedly repeated, “Than we are now.”
“I… see,” Olmawi answered, his brow furrowed in deep thought.
“I don’t,” Caltraya pouted. “Please, Lady, I wish to help! How can I –“
“Be quiet,” Alyssa hissed. A look of pain flashed over the villager woman’s face – and melted into an expectant mien when she saw Voldert stride towards them, well ahead of the other villagers.
The man’s steps were uncertain, not quite faltering. “I…” he started, stopped, looked back, looked at Caltraya and was confused by her eagerness. “Er, I wanted to –“
“Yes?” Alyssa and Darawk said in unison.
A shiver ran through the villager. With more resolve he said, “I want to learn for myself. As you said, it’s… It’s what the gods want. They gave us minds to think, right?”
“I think so,” Alyssa smiled broadly.
Voldert did his best to match the smile, failing at the sheer brightness of the goddess. “Is there something else for me to see? Something aside from… home?”
Caltraya gasped. The eagerness flushed from her face, and she stared at the deities around her. “Leaving the village? But –“ She frowned at herself. Of course it had been Callie herself who had often left the village. She had tried to coax others into doing the same thing, occasionally succeeding with Voldert. And yet there was something in his stance, in the way he asked his question that sounded final to her. As if he wanted to leave for more than a few days. Maybe even for good.
Or would that be leaving for bad?
“Is there?” Voldert said forcefully. “I do not mean the other abodes of people. Something… something new. Something where none of us have ever been.”
“Perhaps,” Darawk shrugged and peered into the well. It was built of stone, simple bricks whose corners were smoothed by wear and tear of many a twelve-day. “Perhaps,” he said again and stepped aside, his hand resting on the rim of the well. Alyssa took a step aside as well, as did Olmawi, leaving Voldert and Caltraya in a funnel pointing at the well.
The villagers looked at each other. “I don’t –“ Caltraya caught herself, whirled about and hurried to the well. Voldert followed quickly. Together they peered over the rim, fully expecting to see the distant shimmer of water as always. But they also expected to see something else.
Although that something else surely was not a rolling meadow, flowers blossoming on a small hillock barely in sight, as was the edge of a river, where the bucket of wellwater was swimming. The surface was no further than twenty feet away, almost enough that one could leap down to it. “This… this is amazing,” Caltraya whispered, thunderstruck by the sight through the well.
“It’s a sign of the gods,” Voldert answered, at first in a low voice, as stunned as she was. Then he raised himself up, leaned panting against the bricks of the well. Loudly he shouted, “The gods have given us a sign! There is something new to discover! A new world! A new life for us!”
None of the villagers reacted, and Voldert waved urgently. “Come, see for yourselves! See what the gods are showing us!” He kept waving until the first of the villagers stepped closer, to cast their own glances into the suddenly mysterious well.
“They aren’t going yet,” Caltraya said cautiously. They were standing in an alley well off from the well and the throng of villagers gathered around it. “You – you want them… us to go through the well, don’t you?”
Alyssa nodded. “Yes, Callie, we do. Voldert isn’t wrong, you know. It is a sign of the gods. That is the mortal world, and there you can find a new life.”
“But,” Caltraya wiped her eyes, tears starting to form there, “I don’t want to leave my home. I’ve always been here, and it’s… My life’s been good here.”
“Of course,” Alyssa gently leaned forward and embraced the villager woman. “Callie,” she whispered into her ear, “adventure awaits you. As well as new experiences, and new pleasures.”
The villager woman wept for a little while before disentangling herself, with a question in her face.
“Yes,” Alyssa said, “there are joys awaiting you that you cannot dream of yet. We will be there to guide you toward them. Please, have faith in us.”
“How –“ Caltraya sobbed, firmed her shoulders and said, “How could I do anything else? I’ll… I’ll go to the others now, and I’ll convince them to leave… home.” With that she whirled about and hastened to join her fellow villagers. Her face was still caught in the throes of crying, yet there was a distant tinge of the promised joys.
“Joys to come?” Darawk asked soberly. “Might those include Voldert?”
Alyssa nonchalantly brushed her hands over her hair. “Well, I am who I am,” the Goddess of Love smiled.
“I do not wish to spoil this moment,” Olmawi said and raised his hand, “but you are playing a dangerous game. Decirius may note the villagers’ absence at any moment, well before you have any chance to gather enough of them to raise your own strength. So might any of the other abodes.”
Darawk nodded. “Yes, we are aware of that. It’s a risk we are willing to take, for the sake of the entire world.” He held out his hand, which Alyssa immediately grasped. “We would gladly be undergods of an abode, in a happy world. Yet our world isn’t happy, so we have to choose another lot. Olmawi, will you join our course or not? There is still time for you. And should we win, do not worry: we will always know a place in our abode for you. No matter if we should be undergods again.”
“A risky game you are playing, my young friends,” the older god said wistfully. “I haven’t played any games in a very long time. As I indicated some days ago, your youthful exuberance is infectious, and I very much like it. The past millenia were so boring and alone, I think that annihilation is not a terrible fate if I can enjoy a few more moments like these. Yes,” he straightened his back, and for a moment his eyes glowed with an icy blue and enormous strength, “I will walk by your side, and I will fight for your cause.”
“Then we’re three now,” Alyssa smiled and reached out with her free hand. After a moment, Darawk did the same. Olmawi stepped forward, took the hands, completing the circle. “I wonder,” the goddess said, “which way we are headed. Darawk’s happy world, or Olmawi’s oblivion?”
“Whichever,” Olmawi said, “our path will be quite interesting.”
In the Eternal City.
In the highest tower, filled with murky darkness.
A man-like figure, garbed in a black robe and hood.
Its pasty-white face is turned up.
Its dark eyes are closed.
Its bloodless lips are smiling.
T H E B E G I N N I N G