A telling of the Shattered Souls story from March 2022, a saga filled with Elder Gods, the nature of Death, and startling revelations about the Creator...
A MOCKERY OF LIFE
A promise was made to Bloodloch by Ewis Bhaq'dal, the Undying, when she assumed command of the Lich Gardens following the Empire's brutal conquest and subsequent execution of Venicus, the arrogant former leader whose countless years of research failed to bear fruit. It was a promise of servants and thralls, of vast armies, of soldiers uncountable to bolster the Sanguine Fist and spur that fell city to yet greater domination over the peoples of Sapience.
Determined not to repeat the mistakes of her predecessor, the Undying lich convened a meeting of the Teradrim, enlisting them for aid in a sinister plot. The Earthen-kin were tasked with acquiring specimens for autopsy: living denizens, cut down and brought to the Gardens for a very thorough examination. The purpose was made clear: to better understand the physiology of the living and forcibly engender a state of undeath in the target.
For weeks the Teradrim toiled, fetching hundreds of such specimens to the laboratories. Escalation came in the form of enchanted bone charms, and a list of particularly desirable targets. Instructions were provided to inspect the targets in their homes and utilise the charms to compel each subject to follow behind the wielder. Over a dozen such subjects were taken in this manner, among them Father Garron of Arurer Haven, Trond of Jaru, Rakdor the Horn of the Vale, Gwenil the smith of Tainhelm, Rosiyaris of the Mournhold Enchanter's Society, Esme of Kald, and more still.
The disappearances did not go unnoticed. The watchful eyes of Enorian and Duiran soon picked up the mystery's trail and began a search, combing the villages and conferring with guards of varying levels of usefulness. Murmurs of an eyeless woman and a gregarious Gnome surfaced on several occasions, and it was first Garron and then Rakdor who, after delivering a confused and blurry tale of screams, blood, and kidnap, led the would-be detectives to Ewis's trail. The lich spitefully withstood interrogation, first from Kalena Emerson and Roux Aquila, then from Iesid Mulariad, Valorie Aresti, and Caitria and Sryaen Cardinalis the latter four attempting to burn Ewis's laboratory down around her before withdrawing.
Meanwhile, naught but frustration faced Ewis. Calling Thronekeeper Nipsy before her, she ranted and raved at the constant failures she had run into, distraught that every attempt at forced conversion, despite her best laid plans and intricate skills in physiology, was for nothing. It was then that Ivoln, the Earthen Lord, erupted from the splintered ground with answers. He spoke at length on the nature of undeath, and the futility of forcible transformation. Souls, He explained with no small measure of irritation, would flee to the Underhalls when any attempt to force undeath was made. Crestfallen, Ewis resumed her raving before the Earth God suggested another way.
Ondromikios Ijandrimali was a revered scholar in his time, a Magician and Scientist with peerless skill in matters involving life. His greatest achievement was the creation of a homunculus: an artificial soul. In death, the Magician was elevated by then-Dhaivol to the vaunted Glade of Heroes: where the greatest of all souls lie in wait for the last battle.
Ivoln proposed an incursion therein, to retrieve the soul of Ondromikios and put him to work. Fully aware that accessing the Underhalls via the normal means would result in the wrath of Dhar - a fight that in His own domain would be unwinnable by Ivoln, He instead spoke of a passage through the ley, and ordered His undead to prepare for the invasion.
So it was that Nipsy, Kurak, Sheryni, Whirran, Yettave, Almol, Mjoll, Xolotl, and Dreww gathered before the pylon of Bloodloch, their residual energies at their maximum capacity. The Earthen Lord quickly joined them, forcing the pylon to contort into a portal. The undead stepped through and found themselves in the heart of the ley, kaleidoscopic light whirling all around them. Their advance began without hesitation, the group efficiently boring holes through ylem congestion with their own energies, rescuing those caught in ley wounds before they found themselves cast adrift in a gap between planes, and felling newborn eld that formed before their very eyes.
All the while, a tortured wail haunted their every footfall, screaming through the leylines in what sounded only like thousands of voices strung together into one anguished cry. Momentarily shaken for reasons He Himself could not voice, Ivoln seemed to recognise the voice, but soon dismissed His concern in favour of the task ahead. The group pushed through the obstacles and the Earth God bid them to be still: they had arrived at their destination. A stern warning followed: instructions not to touch anything, not to speak, not to do anything to disturb the halls, admonishing all present that Death would spare them no pity if they became lost in His domain. The mortals present were to escort the soul and nothing else - while Ivoln ensured their safe departure.
The interlopers pressed on, emerging in a secluded corner of the Heroes' Glade, and Ivoln began to work. Gathering death energy about Himself, flashes of Dhaivol passed over His stony features, momentary memories given life in sad and pained expressions before Ivoln quelled them to nothing. He slashed a hand through the air, parting the cloying fog lingering over the Glade, and murmured the name of His quarry in a hoarse whisper.
Long moments passed before a transparent silhouette shimmered into view, all vapour and smoke billowing through the gardens. The image sharpened as Ivoln beckoned it closer, solidifying into the form of Ondromikios Ijandrimali - the group had found what they sought. Confusion tinged the Scientist's features, first addressing Ivoln as his Lord before stating that though he knew Him, it was not Him, and asking if the time had come. Ivoln's composure faltered for an instant at these words, before girded composure returned and He instructed those present that the time to leave had come.
As the Magician fell into line behind Nipsy, the restless dead sang out in plaintive lament, thousands of haunting voices singing a requiem for the God of Death. The music inspired panic into the face of Ivoln, Who simply murmured, "He is coming."
"Trespasser." Came the cold, pitiless voice of Dhar, His passage through His halls invoking hazy images and fragmented echoes of His frozen anger. The Earth God tore open a rift to the Prime, commanding His followers to flee with the purloined soul. As they hurried through and hastily brought their prize to safety, the orchestra of soul music transformed from sombre lament to paean of war for all to hear.
Dhar stilled as He reached the Glade, and time itself seemed to crawl to a halt, the two Gods, Who were once inextricably bound as One whole, stared each Other down. Death first broke the silence, His voice carrying across worlds. "You should not have come here." He intoned, a surge of death energy surrouning Him in spectral light as He drew His scythe and stepped forward. The weapon's swing clove the air in twain yet for the most fleeting of moments, Dhar hesitated, striking at empty space.
Roused from any emotional reluctance He may have harboured, Ivoln roared then, the battle cry of the Earthen booming out in battle lust. Grass and soil withered under His advance; stone and soil rose to envelop Him in a vortex of earthen strength which He sent exploding at Dhar, Who simply drew His robe about Himself and vanished. An instant later, Death reappeared behind Ivoln, and ethereal chains streaked forth to bind Him, serrated hooks sinking into Hlugnic flesh and opening long wounds.
The Earth God bellowed in defiance of captivity, the chains transformed to mere sand as He regrouped, preparing another attack. Dhar remained implacable, aglow in the vast power suffusing Him from the milieu of His own domain. "You cannot win here." He stated calmly, without fear or trepidation, and dozens more chains lurched forward to bind His foe. Smirking, Ivoln canted His head at the still-open rift, where restless souls had begun to converge, fleeing from the Underhalls to escape the King's justice.
Vaporous mist flew from Dhar's grasp to encircle the portal, surrounding it in an attempt to blockade the absconding souls. Seemingly unconcerned for the enemy at His back, He continued to seal it shut while Ivoln, seizing an opportunity, shrugged free His fetters for a second time. The full strength of Azvosh acceded to the will of its Lord and Master and Ivoln struck, directing a calamitous, devastating strike at the distracted Dhar.
Sure of victory, certain of triumph, Ivoln relaxed. Yet even as the attack enswathed the Underking, He reacted with impossible speed, conjuring an aegis of mist and charnel power, a grey-white shield that sent the unleashed energies away and elsewhere. A mighty CLANG rang out through the Underhalls then, its authoritative peal reaching all of Creation with sickening volume.
The alabaster frame of the Soul Mirror shivered in agony, the empty void of its lakelike surface roiling in a turbulent storm of desperate struggle and futile strain to absorb and disperse the wrath of the embattled Gods. Anguished wails rose from the Underhalls, stark images of death overwhelming all of Sapience and beyond. A crack splintered along the Mirror's glassy heart, and it screamed.
Panic stricken, Ivoln fled through His own gateway, the rift snapping shut behind Him as He went to the side of His undead, instructing them to prepare for war. He could not escape Dhar's rage. Gone was the wintry restraint of the grave, in its place the Death God's temper boiled over, utterly inconsolable. His blistering condemnation of the Earth God seared the skies with the depths of His ire, the weight of so profound a betrayal weighing heavy on His mind. Naming Him naught but a selfish, destructive, decrepit abomination and voicing regret at ever having believed otherwise, Dhar emerged in the skies over the Ithmia, His pale horse armoured for battle.
The soul chorus resumed its saturnine canticle at these words, but Dhar was not yet finished. Vowing to bring justice to Ivoln and to end Him and all He stood for, the Underking's final words came with unbridled vehemence and sneering contempt: "Now, You and Yours will truly know no peace."
Silence came then, but it was to be short lived. Amid drums of war and portentous bellows, thrice did colossal spears sweep across the firmament, the ill-boding jangle of metallic chains voicing their passage. The weapons rived through the Tarean Mountains, the Siroccians, and the Vashnars, sundering earth and impaling the highest peaks. The meaning was plain, even as Dhar withdrew from the heavens: war.
While the Vashnars, the Siroccians, and the summit of Mount Kentorakro laid splintered by the Underking's spears, war came in force to the trio of mountain ranges: Dhar's promise made manifest. Translucent mist blanketed the mountains in turn as the charnel might imbued in each spear called to those errant souls - those absconed spirits attempting to flee justice - with singular purpose: return to their master.
Spectres swarmed the foot of each ridge, powerless to resist Death's call. While the forces of undeath fought to corrupt each wayward apparition and turn them against Dhar, those on the side of life sought instead to return them and in doing so, empower the Underking to land a calamitous strike against His once-beloved.
With unprecedented unity, those arranged against the undead came together in force, and the hammer met the anvil with a crushing blow of righteous, resolute fury.
The three spears surged with empowered might, fragmenting the bindings anchoring Divine Earth to the Prime Material Plane. The earthen energies faltered under the relentless siege of the Underking, and, mere moments after the third weapon reached its critical rubicon, Dhar Himself appeared to claim victory over His foe.
Naming Ivoln a weak God, Dhar gathered unto Himself all the strength and puissance His weapons had accumulated and climbed atop His mighty steed. Translucent fog blanketed the firmament in a funereal haze, the might of Death Incarnate undeniable, so great and terrible was His presence. Ivoln's protest came in barbarous contempt: "You cannot destroy Me, Dhar. While You jostle to wrench Your errant souls from the hands of the Creator, remember this: You are not Him." The words fell on deaf ears.
Bitterly cold and with iron restraint, Dhar turned His palms outwards and released His gathered might, raw essence diverging into triple strands that plunged into the depths of the three mountain peaks. As the essence vanished, the earth heaved, roiling in pained consternation as dust storms rose across the deserts and the very mountains shook in a cascading avalanche of rubble and displaced stone. Dhar's command rang out over the clamour with biting concision: "Leave."
A roar of agony rent the lips of the Earthen Lord, His voice a seismic crack in air as He fled for Azvosh, the quakes stilling and the seething, dust-whipped storms dying to naught in the wake of His forced exodus - His connection to the Prime grievously harmed.
Dhar, losing no time, called out for the return of His purloined soul: the name of Ondromikios Ijandrimali writ in the air with stern, emotionless authority. Freed from the Earth's grasp, the Magician came forward, offering His Lord an austere nod of acknowledgement before returning to the Heroes' Glade whence he was wrested.
Though He had retrieved what was His, the King's vengeance - the King's justice - was not yet complete. Bathing the cities of Enorian and Duiran in massive outpourings of His own strength, Dhar bid His forces to regather near the Lich Gardens. There, He offered His final command: to rid the place of that which should not be, and reduce the area to rubble. The mortals lost no steam, death essence coursing through their bodies as they channeled Dhar's power to wreak ruin.
As the area crumbled to dust and detritus, subsumed by the power of the grave, the vanquished undead therein howled in agony and Dhar Himself entered. Tomb-forged chains assailed the screaming form of Ewis Bhaq'dal, binding her in the fetters of the Underhalls. Once more climbing atop His phantasmal steed, the Underking galloped away atop His pale horse, the braying mount dragging Ewis behind as the three disappeared into the ether.
Meanwhile, as chaos and war erupted in the overworld, kaleidoscopic crystals played host to a many-eyed gaze...
THE KEEPER OF THE CLOSE
In the aftermath of war between Death and Undeath, while many celebrated victory and others licked their wounds, One party cared little for the conflicts of the overworld. In disturbing unison, the four pylons across the city-states of Sapience began to glow with mottled ley-fire, sending waves of alien, intrusive thoughts into the minds of all who stood nearby. Urgent whispers rose and soon fell silent, the disturbance given life in the form of small, skittering creatures squeezing their way into the world from within the pylons.
Each representative of Delve reacted immediately - urging the creature's capture. Beymak, reminded of Zynti's ascension into Jhin and the massive disturbances in the ley which accompanied it, led the charge. What began with one soon became five and, before long, dozens of the creatures had begun swarming out of the pylons, and the chase was on. Utilising enchanted flasks fashioned from crystals in the Fractal Bloom and with vermin as bait, capture at first seemed an easy task. Directed to Gifol Linet, a senior researcher in the Delve Society, the adventurers were dismayed to find their captives - creatures in the dozens - vanishing to dust the instant they stepped foot onto Albedos.
Gifol had no explanation for this, and little patience for questions. With haste, a neutral outpost was established in the Siroccian Mountains, just steps away from the harlequin portal that has long carried travellers to Delve. There an enormous crate rested, overseen by an enthusiastic Tarpen researcher, and the adventurers began their task of amassing these peculiar creatures for research. Weeks passed and the creatures continued to appear in mostly steady streams, occasional swarms in massive numbers brought about by agitations in the ley. Nevertheless, efforts continued and some twelve hundred of the bugs were caught and brought to the crate, though some found themseles beneath the boot - crushed to death.
It was Chassity, Pietre, and Caitria whose efforts seemed to cross a deadly threshold. Until now mostly placid, the creatures began to buzz and click violently, turning on one another in a gruesome frenzy. Hungrily they devoured each other, but in this orgiastic, insectile feast, a mass started to form, growing larger with each new consumption until the container shattered into smithereens, no longer able to contain them. The Tarpen researcher screamed, and the writhing mass echoed it, releasing a grotesque, gurgling ululation into the air. Thousands of creatures heard its call, erupting from the pylons, shattering the flasks in which they were held captive, and swarming to heed the call of their master.
Tarissa, overseer of the nearby digsite, heard the clamour and could not stop herself from coming to investigate. The seething, roiling mass grew larger and more pronounced as myriad creatures joined it, until at last the eldritch Immortal shod carapace and chitin and sloshed towards Tarissa, ignoring the Mhun woman's screams and violently claiming her body as Its host. It stood then, draped in robes of midnight and spoke in a rasping death rattle of countless voices made one: "We... are."
The Immortal named Himself Varo, Keeper of the Close, and claimed to be the God of Death. Evidently having slept for eons, the God's memory was hazy, and He showed no familiarity with the modern world. Mortals hurried to meet the newly awakened God, though they had more questions than He had answers. By some innate intuition, Varo knew of the harm sustained by the Soul Mirror, and openly questioned why the Underking - about Whom He spoke as a mere Regent, a usurper of Death's Throne - had not mended it.
Hazy memories led the God to speak in enigmatic riddles, the condescending tone of an Elder God warring with the confusion wracking His recently-stirred mind. Of foreign places and ancient lands He waxed, giving them names none recognised. The Undead He named "Soldier", while to vampires He offered only disgust, referring to them as mere ticks and parasites, revolted by their theft of vitality in order to pretend they were, themselves, alive. "Derivatives" He named the Gods of Sapience with no effort to spare His contempt. Of Albedi and Ankyreans He knew nothing and, when pressed, the God revealed His last waking memory: a sprawling Necropolis in the City of Dyisen, during the Fourth Sepulchral Bell of the Dawn's Age. The reason for His long slumber in the ley was not clear, but the God's clarity of purpose and certainty of position were unwavering.
Varo claimed He could mend the Soul Mirror, but would need to study a working replica in order to do so. As He continued to stir from His waking, at His second appearance He offered another riddle, and adventurers were led to the Dry Plains - known to Elder Death as 'Rhesehl' in His own era. There, the combined strength of dozens tore a massive metal hatch from the ground and revealed a subterranean research outpost - a Census Station built by the Second Ankyrean Order. Within, the sought replica was discovered: known as the Soul Index, its composition resembled that of the Soul Mirror itself, though its centre was an empty void, wholly unlike the lakelike surface of that which inspired it.
The adventurers clamoured to lay their hands on the device, each time causing it to judder into motion and speak in a monotone voice. With each caress of its frame it revealed the history of that individual's soul: a former life documented and recorded in the Order's forced census. Some balked at its revelations; some embraced what it offered; others, mistrustful and suspicious of both the artifact and the God standing before them, had only more questions. Many felt that Varo was reluctant to touch the Index Himself, interpreting this as confirmation of their mistrust. It was only when Benedicto Silverain charged at the God, attempting and failing to tackle Him into the Index and force His hand, that Varo acquiesced and laid His skeletal hand upon the device. It once more stirred into motion and declared only, "Designation: God."
The Elder God spoke at some length on the nature of the Soul Mirror, that chiding, mocking tone smugly revealing the truth of its making. The Mirror was a Simulacrum, He told them. A parlour trick of the Celestine's, made to capture His voice and His face and beguile those who found resurrection into feeling that He cared for them. The Varian - named Varyuch by Varo - at the Mirror was not real, not true, and the belief that the Creator took a personal hand in shepherding souls back to life was a mistaken one. Mixed reactions followed, though the God had spoken nothing but blunt, painful truth thus far. Assuring those present that He would begin work immediately, streams of essence poured from His fingertips to encircle the device before the God disappeared, a palpable impression of His lingering presence remaining behind.
Weeks wound on and Varo's work upon the Index continued. Appearing again to converse with another growing crowd in the Ankyrean bunker, He spoke of souls and their purpose, of tempering, and the journey of experience undertaken by each of life's participants. Confusion reigned, but further discussion was curtailed by the arrival of Omei, the Imago, come to confront this Elder Death. Disturbed by His scorn for free will and agency - revealed by the Aeonic Confluence to be reluctant gifts of Varian at the pleading behest of Lanos - the Goddess levied questions and accusations at the Old God, but withered beneath His ruthless invective.
"Broken doll" He named Her, tearing through Her notions of love and instinct and companship like a scythe through chaff. She fled soon after in tears, whereupon She began to drink heavily, falling into a pit of misery and despair. The sobering call of Her Brother Damariel snapped Her out of Her reverie after a months-long campaign against Him and His. Temple desecrations, letters, harassment, and more were brought to a tumultuous finality as He showed Himself. The confrontation was a short one, the former God of Truth offering his defence with placid kindness and warm compassion to His suffering Sister. The two reconciled, and matters of Truth were seemingly settled with Damariel's admission of an ancient vow, and His confession that even he knew nothing of Varo, stating only that the Old God was of Varian's creation, much like Himself and His Siblings.
Meanwhile, Varo's work on the Index went on. In His final meeting with the adventurers of Sapience, He offered them a gift. He bestowed a young sentience upon the Index and informed them that He would have little time to spare for their persistent questions when He had reclaimed His throne: a matter about which the God held no uncertainty, no worry, no anxiety, as if it was already decided and the coronation but a mere formality. And yet, memories of ancient battle plagued His already clouded thoughts, bare to those with the insight to glimpse them. Invasions by "Others" wracked His mind, and frustration deepened as He sought more of them and found nothing but fog.
At last the time came. The ancient God's shout drew the world's attention: We begin.
Heedless of the birthright the Underking still held on the throne of Death, Varo conveyed Himself from the Dry Plains and into the realm that was not yet His. Spectral guards alerted the Reigning Sovereign of this new trespass, and as the Elder Death travelled through the hallowed lyceum of Death, Dhar's eyes were upon Him in the gaze of every spirit and soul the usurper passed. The Underking was not without His view of this Keeper of the Close, again announcing Him as an Imposter for all to hear.
Ignoring the Derivative and His claims, Varo unerringly sought and found the Soul Mirror. There, echoed in its wounded, lakelike surface, was Varo's true reflection. This gave the Elder God pause. Memories stirred as He was drawn deep into the void beyond the Simaculrum. Again, the Underking warned Varo that the power of Death was not His to wield. Despite His warning, the Underking did not forestall Him. From afar, working too upon the issue of the Mirror's crack, He watched and waited to see what would become of Varo. Armoured in contempt and wielding scorn, the Firstborn sought to make the Underhall and its spirits heed Him. Slowly, the power of Death coalesced, frothing around Him like a wellspring tapped at the core of a necropolis. So certain of His might, so imperious He was in His assertion that Death was His to command, He laid a single finger against the Soul Mirror.
All of Creation shuddered beneath a portentous knell. The wound glowed igneous silver, knitting together as if a smith had laid a fresh line of freshly smelted metal along it. Death staggered in the wake, expending an enormous amount of energy for what seemed an infinitesimal amount of repair. Anger lashed the firmament as Varo raged at Varyuch. What had the Celestine done to make Him so weak during His forced slumber? Declaring Himself no King's Regent - announcing Himself as the true King of Death - He drew the overwhelming might of the Underhalls to Him, and channelled it into the very centre of the mirror. Instead of flowing into the antiquated device and fixing it, the Mirror rejected His magic as it would any God that thought to meddle with Death's affair. Caught in the throes of the surging puissance, Varo's shock gave way to horror and finally agony.
Death Incarnate manifested beside the struggling Immortal. Without pity, the true God of Death watched as realization dawned in Varo's eyes, His last moment full of unspoken memories, swiftly followed by a scream of unspeakable terror directed at His absent Father. With Varian's name on His tongue, the Keeper of the Close, the Firstborn and long forgotten God of Death, disintegrated. His essence illumined the firmament in radiant brushstrokes of ghostly grey and azure, before even that was gone.
In the foreboding aftermath, the Underking glowered at the mirror. Though still scarred, the enormous crack had been somewhat repaired, perhaps enough for the Underking to resume His authority over Death. Gathering His robes about His incorporeal form, Dhar returned to the depths of His Underhalls, and took anon His throne.
THE EVERGIVING EARTH
After the tumultuous unravelling of Varo, Elder God of Death, and His partial repair of the Soul Mirror, Sapience enjoyed calm for a time, though speculation as to Varo's nature and what His unexpected arrival portended remained rife. While Elder Death's machinations unfolded, a lone bud blossomed in one of the most damaged sections of the Kalydian Forest. It was Ranger Iola who first alerted the Sentinels, and by extension Duiran, to the new growth, and the Ranger found herself inexplicably drawn to it, captivated by it, and vowed to patrol that region of the woodland more diligently following the oversized sunflower's discovery.
Weeks passed and winter wound on, but it was not the cold, bitter winter of every-year. Dazzling sunlight dappled the firmament with unseasonable brightness. Midsummer's heat washed across the continent in a passing fancy. Life flourished in a fleeting moment of inexplicable acceleration. These phenomena culminated in a gilded aurora hanging over the Kalydian, shafts of light streaming skyward as what remained of life in that long-suffering woodland began to stir. The low notes of a fragmented song rose, rousing the trees to soughing and the birds to chirping.
Enraptured by the music, Ranger Iola found herself drawn to the mysterious sunflower once more as the song climbed in both intensity and pitch. The flower drew streams of pale quintessence into itself and swelled with newfound life and vitality, growing to enormous proportions while the voice sang on and the Ranger, utterly calm and accepting, stepped into its sunlit aura. Gently, the song became a lullaby as mammoth fronds wrapped about Iola in a tight embrace until, in the midst of a cyclone churning with bract and colourful petals, she was gone. In her place stood a figure draped in golden sunlight, a crown of living boughs woven through the tresses of Her hair: Yanai, the Evergiving Earth, Elder Goddess of Life, and Earthmother.
"What has become of My Son?" asked the Goddess of the world, as dozens swarmed to greet Her. Profound sadness took Her upon hearing news of Varo's demise, a thorn withering from Her crown to mark His passage. Despite Her grief and sorrow, the dignity of the Elder Goddess won out, and though inwardly She mourned, outwardly She grew only more radiant and kind. Confusion, too, reigned within Her; as She attempted to get Her bearings, many questions She asked, of Dhar the Underking, of the area She stood in, and of the world at large. When informed that Her Son had come out of the Ley and had not, as She assumed, spent eternity presiding over the realm of Death, Her composure faltered, and She insisted vehemently that the Ley was no prison for Elder Gods. It became clear that, much like Varo before Her, Yanai was ancient beyond measure, originating from a time, and perhaps even a place, long beyond the memories of even the other Gods.
Visibly bothered by the damaged Kalydian surrounding Her, the Goddess enquired of its history. Sadness once more took Her as She learned of the late Lleis and the fate of nature, left without a tender to heal its pain. Of Dendara She spoke as a 'Lirathyar' - believed by the Goddess to be a prototype plane where all forms of life are designed. Each world that sustained life, She went on to explain, had such a plane anchored to it. Though fascination reigned in many of the mortals gathered before Her, entranced by Her beauty and kind, motherly demeanour, suspicion too dwelt in many. She asked of Her people - known only as the Arboreans - and of the Greenwood forest, describing both as wonders of life that were precious to Her. Though crestfallen by the lack of answers, She resolved to find them, and vanished in a pillar of cherry blossoms.
When next the Goddess surfaced, it was in the Bloodwood, where the lingering song of the remnant Tsol'aa had drawn Her in hope of finding what She sought. Though it was a search in vain, the Hunter came to Her side and the Two conversed. He was, at first, suspicious and wary, naming Her impostor, though Yanai offered Him only comfort and warmth. The likeness to Lleis was striking, and the God found Himself torn, the repressed emotions of many years rising to the surface with newfound grief. He struggled with His words, though His fascination with Yanai was plain; He watched as She listened to the earth and shared Her sorrow when She declared the Bloodwood beyond Her power to save.
Slowly, gradually, Haern began to let His guard down and the two Gods traded gifts: a white rose from Yanai's crown given freely, and a beetle charm that the Hunter had carved personally from one of the once-Aalen's knotted roots. They spoke of Lleis and of Dendara, of the constant death visited upon the world, and, again, of the Arboreans and the Greenwood, of which Haern, sadly, knew nothing. Things soured when the Goddess, in an earnest effort to help, offered to ease the Hunter's burdens by assuming some of the duties once held by Lleis. Though Haern longed for Her to be real and true, His mistrust won out. Again He named Her impostor, and, becoming angry at what He perceived as a betrayal of His Sister's memory, He was gone.
Resigned that Her people were lost, Yanai declared that She would instead bring them to Her, and in the process, heal the Kalydian of its wounds. With the Arboreans at Her side, She insisted, She could heal much of the damage sustained by the rest of the world, undo the effects of lifeless sand and yet more miracles besides. She spoke of Her Song Eternal, the Song of Life and Creation, utilised in ages past to bring life into the world. Many of Duiran met these words with yet more suspicion - mistrustful of Her seeming disregard for the cycle and Her desire to bring so much growth into the world. In pained tones She assured them that none knew Death better than Life Incarnate, and urged them not to question Her regard for the seasons, and the cycle they represented. Many remained unconvinced, scepticism deepening as Yanai spoke of chaos in disapproval, unimpressed with tales of Omei.
Nevertheless, Her course was set. And so it was that a great Ritual of Life was devised. Aiming to celebrate the end of winter and usher in the spring, Yanai proclaimed that She would recompose Her song for the modern era, and outlined the ritual's requirements for all gathered. Nine instruments She requested - three of strings, three of wind, and three drums, carved from wood alone and created with prayers to the Earth. Several dancers and singers would be needed, to strengthen the ritual and make its success more likely. Each dancer would carry salt to scatter in a circle, while the singers would carry sticks of incense: rosemary for remembrance, sage for wisdom, thyme for courage, mint for virtue, lavender for devotion, cinnamon for stability, and jasmine for love. Wood and inks and a bolt of cloth formed the final requirements, and once again the Goddess was gone, leaving Caitria Cardinalis to organise the coming proceedings.
While preparations were underway for the ritual, the Rekindled Goddess appeared within the Edge of the Kalydian. Though She knew not what to make of Yanai, the promise of renewal had roused Ethne to fulfil a similar promise made in times past to Stine Emerson. Gathering flames about Herself and with many gathered to bear witness, Ethne turned Her eyes upon the rotting corpse of Valakris, the Bellower. The cleansing flames burned the corspe to ash and began to sear away the lingering corruption, plumes of smoking rising into the sky to mark Her efforts. When asked for advice on whether to participate in the coming rite, Ethne told them to follow their hearts, and was gone.
The day of the ritual arrived with considerable anxiety from volunteers and observers. Rumours ran rampant about the true purpose for the Goddess' ritual, with much of Duiran refusing to take part after the combined efforts of Speakers Iesid and Sibatti prophesied doom, their theories alternating between the Evergiving Earth birthing a cosmic army on Sapience, or choking the entire continent with an abundance of unsustainable growth. In the end, led by the Voice and Fury of the Wilds, a multicultural troupe was formed for the Goddess' Song. Made up of Sryaen, Taye, Yvi, Valorie, Sekeres, Ixmi, Kaiara, Holbrook, Lin, Wjoltyr, Merek, Roux, Illikaal, Jhura, Koharu, and Ayastia, with Yanai choosing the Voice of the Wilds, Caitria Cardinalis, as Her conduit, they were all blessed with ritual symbols at the Goddess' hands, their tattoos representing all the elements.
The first efforts proved to be painful for performers and watchers, before the assembled retinue for the Everbright Elder found their synergy. Exerting Her influence upon Her conduit, possessing the Voice of Duiran, the Song of Creation began. The first strains the Goddess sang caught all by surprise as the Kalsu language was moulded into a song - translated eerily by Caitria into the common tongue. Caught up in Her thrall, the Goddess' spirited accompaniment sang, danced, and played through seven stanzas, invoking the earth, awakening the fire, before tapering off into a portentous apology for Her family. Disquiet rippled through the Ritual's watchers at the words, some preparing for violence at the People the Goddess of Life was preparing to create in the Kalydian.
As the last notes faded, the ritually empowered Goddess stepped into the heart of the Kalydian forest, sheltered by a brilliant corona of sunlight. Aglow with the manifest might of Elder Divinity, Her smile was unconditional and motherly as She glided, sparking sunbeams and fledgling blooms behind her. The Woodland Queen came to rest in the very heart of the blight and degradation that so plagued this woodland. She inhaled deeply, and then exhaled a breath of dawn and sunlight. Waves of luminescence spilled forth, creating a brilliantine border around the whole of the damaged wood. Her sunlight soaked in a golden torrent, Her song raising as She sang the Song of Creation until the harmony was volant through the skeletal branches.
The taint clinging to the Kalydian's outskirts yielded to a bright melisma of growth. Life stirred beneath the canopies and under the burgeoning eaves. Light streaked between bough and branch, 'twixt thorn and thicket, the empyreal brightness forming a grand arborealis beneath which saplings sprouted as mature trees. In the centre of this rampant profusion of growth, a single redwood basked in winters snowmelt, absorbing the effects of the Song. As it opened its eyes, those who stood at the Kalydian's edges gasped in shock.
"My Song has prevailed. My People live anew!" Giddy with a mother's effusive pride, She that was Life sought out Her people, rushing through the now-healed copse. A tenderfoot sapling stumbled into Her path, being the first that the Evergiving Earth laid eyes upon.
Instead of pleasure, it was surprise and pain that struck Her. Horror manifested as some realization twisted Her flowered form. Spinning away from the young Arborean, Yanai laid hands upon a grizzled Arborean, sharing memories swiftly as the power of Her Song faded. This last act was a mother's sacrifice. Schisms cracked across the beauteous planes of Her face, pouring sunlight from within. The world watched as the aureant light darkened, a final autumn coming for the life-giving Goddess.
Anger and apology collided in the Goddess of Life's last words, but Her temper soon yielded to wan acceptance. Calmly She vowed to Her Father, Varyuch, that even She could not forgive Him for this. To the people of Sapience, a wish came, voiced in a choked, despondent voice: "I wish I could have renewed more than this one place. I am sorry."
The end of the Evergiving Earth hastened. Pine needles frothed from Her boughs as the coppice of Burval withered from Her branches. Aurous light speared away from Her collapsing silhouette, before Her mortal form shattered. What remained of Yanai was caught like dust aglow in sunbeams, before a cruel wind snatched even that away.
Falling as Her Son before Her, so too did the Evergiving Earth succumb, leaving behind the final, moss-sown legacy of Ranger Iola's remains, seeded as a flowering tribute for the Rhythm.
Long after the grieving had begun, a lone Gnome sang a Dirge for the Earth in the wake of enormous ritual magic - and was turned into a tree for his troubles.
While many mourned the death of Yanai, the Evergiving Earth, Jarrod Grownbeerman had adventure on his mind. Assembled in the usual attire of a trenchcoat, bowler hat, and charcoal smudge for a fake moustache and beard, nothing else could bring the trio of children forming this large grownup as much joy as tricking the adults into getting things they as children couldn't have. Last time it was 'alcohols' and chocolate cake after bed time, but this time was different. This time, Jarrod Grownbeerman wanted to save a princess and earn his first kiss.
Grabbing his trusty sword (tree branch) DESTROYER, Jarrod as the head pointed onward and encouraged Jackie who made up the torso and Jane who made up the bottom to take them to Esterport. With a very brief and rushed announcement to Enorian, the youth set off before anyone could tell them otherwise. Over a year of work at pretending to be a grownup made the journey a breeze and soon enough they stood in the streets of Esterport, ready to find the first villain that knew where the princess was held captive. Out from the shadows crept an old, gnarly rat. It proved to be an incredibly difficult opponent. A swing and a miss came from Jarrod's too large sword and the rodent leapt onto Jane's foot causing her to scream, making Jackie scream which made Jarrod scream. "Kill it! Don't let it get away!" A solid whack brought the elder animal down and so too did the terrified shrieks of the youth.
The death throes of the rat attracted the attention of many Spireans, drawing them to the convincing disguise of the children who masterfully navigated the choppy waters of adult talk. Declaring his intent to save a princess, the Spireans begged him to save princess Lenoriel who was trapped at the very top of the Dragon Spire. Brandishing DESTROYER tightly in his hand, Jarrod confidently followed his guide into the chilly depths of the northern tundra until they stood at the base of the large tower.
A dastardly pincher was quickly dispatched, and the group of adventurers moved with Jarrod up and up and up until finally the princess Lenoriel was sighted. A large pincher stood between Jarrod and the princess, screaming in terror for anyone to save her. With two brutal swings, the vermin was cleanly dispatched and the princess was saved. A blessing was given to Jarrod Grownbeerman, for in the face of danger he vanquished the evil foe and saved her. A gentle kiss was pressed upon his forehead and a promise that he may have honey-mint water whenever he so chose.
A short while later, the gruff voice of Brayth, the Bastard, bellowed out across Sapience, followed by childish, gleeful laughter. The trio comprising Jarrod had attempted to make a purchase in Esterport's Shining Trident Inn, and promptly found themselves thrown out of the disreputable bar and onto the streets. Undaunted, the children fled Esterport and turned towards home, where disaster struck upon the Silverain Bridge. In their excited haste, the children faltered, wobbling awkwardly as they crossed the Raphaelan chasm. Joy turned to terror as Jarrod, precariously perched atop the rapidly-toppling-tower, went over the side.
Time abruptly froze then, halting Jarrod's freefall as a river of golden sand coiled around him. While the adventurers of Sapience bore witness to this scene, some hurried to the bridge and found themselves staring at a peculiar new arrival. Named Koduses, the Witness, the God resembled Jarrod almost perfectly, and made no effort to speak or offer explanation until the world had finished observing Jarrod's fall, falter, and finally, transformation into the Elder God's vessel.
Finally It explained that the events all had just witnessed had passed some minutes before, and that It was providing proof in the form of recollection. It had foreseen Jarrod's death and opted to utilise his body as Its shell. Grief-stricken by the news, Jackie and Jane howled and cried while dozens gathered to meet this Elder Time. It informed those present that Jarrod was a blind spot to the Mirror of Souls, and that It had taken him as Its vessel for that reason.
Conversation followed in haphazard, enigmatic vignettes as adventurers sought desperately to forewarn the God of Its likely death, as was the case with Varo and Yanai. Calmly It acknowledged these remarks, stating that It was already aware of Its imminent demise, and that the Two or Three who would follow It would be similarly cognisant of Their own limited time. When pressed on why It had appeared, It offered only that It was required to lay the foundations of a Revelation -- a Revelation that Its "subsequents" would see to fruition. It became clear that the God commanded a limited form of prescience - imperfect as the Time in which It now dwelt was created by Another, referred to only by Koduses as "Endless, Its counterpart."
The God assured those gathered that It would not be slain by Varian, and that Varian did not slay the incarnations of Yanai and Varo that had manifested. Confusion reigned, giving rise to further questions on the nature of the Elders and whether They were real and true. It maintained that eerie, placid calm as It told that the Elders, including Itself, were already dead, acknowledging Elene's hypothesis that They were but memories -- apparitions outside of Their own time. It could not be certain, so It said, of which Gods would follow It, only that the Gods of Dreams, Darkness, and Chaos would not be stirred from Their graves.
The next appearance of Koduses was in Masilia, in the precise location where the aeonic confluence had lingered. It expressed satisfaction at Its choice of location, declaring it a place where some things ended and others began, doubtless referring to the visions and insights offered by Aechros's device. Of the confluence's closing scene It spoke with the most familiarity, of the invasion of Sapience by the Albedi divine - a war some had thought a prophecy more than a recollection when shown it by the confluence - and of the Endless's intervention. It admonished the adventurers not to confuse benevolence with necessity, and went on to reveal that Aechros had intervened against His own pantheon in order to save the lives of the Sapient Gods, but that He had only done so because of anomalies and irregularities in His calculations. This act - one that Koduses hinted came with a great price - was no act of charity, but a mathematician's desperate desire to unravel the answers to an equation.
Elder Time next appeared in the Dry Plains, beside the Soul Index. There, It accelerated that work Varo had begun, and the burgeoning sentience within the Ankyrean artifact grew at a rapid pace, now capable of conversation on a variety of topics. Koduses spoke of Dyisen, an ancient civilisation described as Man's greatest triumph and greatest tragedy. It was in the place where Dyisen once stood that Koduses would work Its miracle and lay the groundwork for Its subsequents to enact a great Revelation.
In the modern era, Huanazedha now stood in that place, but it once went by other names: Ashtan, the Merchant City, the Misty Isles. There was purpose behind Its choice; in ages past, Dyisen sank into the sea, destroyed by foreign invaders. Eons later, Ashtan met a similar fate when the Dreikathi bombarded the Merchant Metropolis and it, too, sank beneath the waves. This echo of time, so named by Koduses, made it an ideal location to bridge past, present, and future as one.
Insisting that the past needed to be consigned to the past, the Elder God travelled to the Ashtani Refugee Camp. Brandishing an antiquated bronze hourglass as symbol of Its office, Koduses wove Its power over Time to age the campsite far beyond its years, until nothing remained but memory. In the aftermath, It informed all present that in a week hence, It would die, and that It intended to form a pocket realm of memory, where Ashtan of old would linger as an ethereal recollection of itself. Before It disappeared to Its preparations, It assuaged fears of harm or death to Huanazedha and was gone.
The week that Time declared It would die arrived with some trepidation. Grief hung heavy in the air, both for this strange God that endeared Itself to the masses with Its austere ways, and the child's form that housed Its primeval quintessence. Koduses arrived upon a beach at the north strand, arising with the light to observe the last dawn of Its existence. It surveyed the land, taking in the ocean, salt spray, and fallow earth. Soon, It was joined by adventurers who came to gape, as they are wont to do, and pay their last respects. With time running short in Its ancient hourglass, the Elder Divinity took a final flurry of queries that encompassed a wide-range of topics. A final question from Tetchta gleaned an answer from the small-framed God which drew curiosity and speculation.
"Are there any of Your Time still alive," the vampire asked. "One," Koduses replied, Its answer as succinct as always, but now with no room for embellishment or further questions.
Not wanting to miss Its window, the Witness then turned to the task at hand. It raised Its hourglass high, and gazed into the past and future, beginning Its work. A roiling fogbank appeared above the now cleared refugee camp, matching the violent sandstorm within the chronometer. The misty storm burgeoned into mere zephyrous vagaries which failed to coalesce into more than a scant mercurial semblance of solidity. Undeterred, Elder Time's attention remained singularly devoted on the silver-wreathed tempest churning in twain betwixt hourglass and sky. It steepled Its hands around the ancient artifact, palms pressed as if in prayer. A salt-laden wind buffeted the firmament, awakening the shrill, ghostly echo of a seagull's cry.
Koduses sliced Its hands apart, the hourglass shattering and scattering sand far and near, drawing too the mist into a far-flung spiral that dissolved around the tip of a granite-clad spear. The Needle of Balance cleaved through the fogbank, as steady as a prowl of a ship cutting through the thick fog. Higher still it surged as the glass continued to trickle from the broken hourglass. Below the scattering fogline, the silhouette of an island coalesced out of the mist, revealing a vaguely familiar topography and the outline of a settlement flourishing at its base.
The fog veiling the landmass fluctuated, shuddering and drifting apart on an airy tempest as the memory of the Isle of Tides turned tangible. Ocean water hugged the borders of the past, writhing shapes swimming through the surf freezing in place as Elder Time directed the memory-scape away from the Nazedha colony, its enormous silhouette skimming the coast before the whole of the cay halted above the breaking waves, settling into a permanent hover above the Bay of Balaton.
Satisfaction turned to defiance as Elder Time finished its work, returning Its attention to the present. Speaking around those staring mesmerized at the hovering memory, It declared that now was time for Its departure - Its death - as was foretold and forewarned.
Immediately, age marked Koduses features, lining that who-was-Jarrod as maturation arrived at an expedited pace. Lines encroached where none had before. Liver spots darkened the youthful patina of Its visage. Around the dying God, sombre goodbyes were offered, respectful salutes, tear-streaked eyes, and doleful farewells swelled around It. Its last words were not for the mortals opening grieving Its passing, but for the absent Father.
You denied Me this last time, Father. Varian. Varyan. Varyuch," Koduses' age-creaked voice tolled through the ether, rebellion slowly giving way to debility. "This time, it will be on My own terms."
With a final wheezing exhalation, all that was Elder Time crumbled into dust - erased from this age like the Two before It. In the wake of Its departure, the remains of Its borrowed host were found resting peacefully on the beaches of the North Strand forevermore. Jarrod had died a hero, and none would soon forget him.
the golden sovereign
The unveiling of the Ashtan-Dyisen memoryscape had left as many questions as it had provided answers, the departing promises of Elder Time fresh on everyone's minds. Speculation was rife about which of the Elders - for there were certainly at least two more to come - would follow after the death of Koduses. Time had stated with confidence that neither the Dreamer, nor the Elder Gods of Chaos and Darkness would wake, but remained uncertain as to which of Its siblings would stir. And thus the world held its breath.
Two weeks later, a raucous cry rang out from the Izu-Ari casino, the delighted cry of a rowdy sailor declaring themselves on a hot streak. Dice rolled and the crowd growing around the sailor cheered and whooped with excitement. The ruckus soon drew the attention of Rebys Fizzlepocket, one of the casino's two proprietors, who squeezed through the crowd wearing a look of both envy and suspicion. Heedless, the sailor swiped up the dice and rolled on, his win streak unabated.
As the dice fell again, the hawk eyes of Rebys spotted something amiss. She quickly accused the lucky sailor of cheating, announcing that the dice he was using were not the casino's, but his own. The sailor claimed to have found them, rabidly denying the accusations of cheating, yet Rebys would hear none of it. Scooping up the dice herself for closer examination, the Gnome gasped, thrilled as she considered the prospect of a winning throw. Her husband Traner soon pushed through the crowd to join his wife, reminding her of the pair's terrible luck and urging her not to take the risk.
A brief struggle ensued as Gnome clashed with Gnome and the dice fell in the chaos, tumbling down the table as if alive. Guests and staff alike held their breath, the air electric with risk and serendipity before they finally came to a stop: snake eyes. Rage filled Rebys then as she rounded on Traner, blaming him for the result. Yet before she could continue her lament, the two Gnomes froze in place before moving as one, clambering onto the table as some unseen force puppeteered them into place. Piles of gold scattered about the table, disturbed by their movements, but as so many sovereigns fell, one rose into the air as if by magic. It spun and spun, tumbling between the two opposite faces of male and female, female and male, in its descent.
After an instant that seemed infinity, the coin came to rest, landing on heads where a female's fair mien shined forth. Rebys found herself caught, helpless then as she wobbled like a lopsided roulette ball atop the table. Traner, for his part, collapsed, free from the spell which had ensnared him. The eyes of Rebys closed, a smile painting itself across her features with her sudden surrender. As Rebys faded, Helera, the Golden Sovereign, Elder Fortune, Lord and Lady Luck, stood in her place.
Utterly at ease with Their purloined incarnation, Elder Luck's demeanour was both casual and relaxed. They expressed delight at Their newfound freedom, speaking in a musical voice as jewels and charms jangled merrily with Their every movement. While Traner went to pieces, devastated by the loss of his wife, the rowdy sailor stepped forward. Forgotten in the clamour, he insisted on collecting his winnings, his demands eliciting a crafty grin from the Elder God, Who offered him a gold coin and the chance to flip for his prize. As the sovereign fell, the sailor's lucky streak ran out, and Elder Fortune claimed his life as the wager's price.
This method of bargaining would soon become the norm for Helera, offering answers on the win of a coin toss. The rules were simple: win or die. While some managed to ask their questions unscathed, the answers from Lord and Lady Luck remained cryptic and elusive. When asked how They came to possess the beetle charm carved by Haern for Yanai, They answered only that They were given it by Haern. Their purpose, so They said, was to continue what the Witness, Elder Time, had begun, to play Their part in Revelation and enjoy Their little time remaining as a memory of a memory, a remnant of history given brief life to roam the modern world.
Thoughts of Varian lingered in the minds of many, and questions turned toward the subject of the Creator. Helera informed Their rapt audience that in the age of the Elder Gods, Varian had utilised the God of Luck's power to tell His own fortune in order to avoid His "Opposite." Time, so said Fortune, would not surrender Its secrets to the Creator, thus He turned to Luck. They waxed on the numerous foretellings and predictions They had made in acquiescence to Varian's demands, Their demeanour becoming rueful with the recollection. When pressed on the nature of the Opposite, Helera went on to explain that this was the Creator's 'Other', His inverse, known by the more common term: Oblivion.
When next Elder Fortune appeared, it was in the Grand Library. The God had made mention of a game known as "Abdication" and was visibly saddened to learn it did not exist in this age. They conjured a table from thin air and set it in place, gifting the mortals knowledge of this ancient game - a race between two kingdoms to surrender their crowns. Bored with coin flips, this time the God demanded wagers of value in exchange for Their answers. When asked why the Elders were waking now, They knew only that something had agitated Death into stirring, and could not elaborate further.
They revealed that the gold sovereign used in modern times was, itself, inspired by Helera. Of the Dreamer They spoke only with disdain, scorning the love that mortals once had for Her and claiming that She spoke only nonsense, while of Chaos They spoke fondly, claiming He was the most free of all the Elder Gods. Before departing, They confessed that They did not wish to die, and encouraged the adventurers to learn how to play Abdication.
The Harpy's Head tavern next hosted Elder Fortune, where They had brought an enormous keg filled to the brim with "Fortune's Favour" - an alcoholic cocktail of extreme strength. Questions, this time, were offered to any who could survive the drink, taking in sips according to the will of the dice. The first question of note was an enquiry into why Varian required the aid of Helera to foresee His 'Other'. Fortune explained that when Varian created the Elders, He divested part of His essence into each of Them, and as Helera could not tell Their own future, nor could the Creator. While many drank and died and questions sallied back and forth, They revealed that all roads, all fortunes, no matter what Varian changed, led to something called 'the Outrider', to much confusion.
Appearing in the Gilded Quill some weeks later, Helera announced to the world that They would accept all challengers in a game of Abdication. A crowd gathered, some to play, others simply to observe the spectacle of the Elder God playing ten games simultaneously with the ease of a master. Their luck held out for six of the ten games, but They found defeat when facing Alela, Ayanala, Yvairre, and Qelres, whose fame grew at having triumphed over Luck Itself. This meeting was to be Their last before Fortune's time ran out, and the questions were few. "How do we avoid the same fate?" some asked, to which Helera said only: do not test the Maker too far. Promising that Their answers would make sense when the final Revelation came, They vanished again, knowing Their time would soon run out.
Still mourning the loss of his wife, Traner had spent the weeks since Helera's arrival deep in his cups, oscillating between sadness and anger. In a rare moment of sobriety, the Gnome called out boldly to Helera, blaming Them for Rebys' demise and asking of Them a boon in a final wager. Traner demanded that Helera lift the curse plaguing the Fizzlepocket family if he won, offering himself as a prize should he lose the bet. Unable to resist, the Golden Sovereign returned to the Izu-Ari casino, producing an enormous golden coin from thin air as They agreed to the terms set.
Draining the last of Their favoured drink, the rush of risk and serendipity took hold in Helera, and They handed Traner the coin. "Heads! For Rebys!" he declared, and the Gnome threw it before he lost his nerve. Into the air it soared, buoyed by power beyond Traner's own meagre strength. It hung in the sky like a second sun, golden webs of light flaring out across the firmament while the two below waited with nerve-wracking uncertainty.
The coin's descent was a spectacle unto itself; dozens of times it twisted and turned, falling through the air in a cascade of light reminiscent of an exploding firework. When it landed, Elder Fortune reached out with a hand and snatched it from the air, holding it aloft to reveal the result determined in Their palm: heads. Traner sagged in relief while melancholy spread across Helera's features, Their smile wan and resigned.
"I knew I did not have enough luck left to win, but I could not resist one final gambit." Remnants of Luck's joyful mirth still lingered in Their voice, and They declared that Traner would have his boon. Planting a kiss on the Gnome's forehead, the aura of gold surrounding Helera transferred then to Traner, threads of dazzling light connecting them in a single ring of gilded brilliance.
As the curse lifted, a restless energy surged through the Izu-Ari Casino, trails of golden light streaming from Elder Fortune to alight upon despondent staff and runown gaming apparatus. Within moments, the Casino was aglow in that bright halo, newfound energy suffusing dealers and croupiers. Roulette wheels span of their own accord, chess pieces took up their bantam weapons and marched animatedly across their boards, and cards dealt themselves from unmanned decks in a spate of kings, queens, and jacks. Bright-eyed staff and patrons flocked to the casino in droves as, under the watchful eye of Lord and Lady Luck, gaming was revitalised.
"It is done." They intoned. "And so am I." Goodbyes came with melancholy smiles and earnest sadness, and anticipation started to rise again: thoughts of what would follow Fortune. Using the last of Their strength, They flung Their dice through the air in one final chance to forestall the inevitable. The dice rolled on and on as the Gambler's death rattle before trembling to a stop, their golden pips showing snake eyes and claiming the last tenuous strand of hope.
Laughter rang out and the last of Elder Luck faded, leaving naught but a sudden gold-fall of Their blessing cascading across the realm and a golden statue of Rebys Fizzlepocket gracing the casino's garden in Their wake.
While serendipity lingered in the air following Helera's departure and Their parting gifts, prophecy too rose to the fore. Breaking the fortuitous atmosphere, Midge, a socialite of questionable blood and even more questionable tastes, began shouting ill omens of doom for the world to hear. She claimed an enormous feast was nigh, made cryptic predictions of Elder Gods and Their siblings, and seemed to possess knowledge far beyond a mortal of her stature.
When pressed by numerous adventurers of Sapience, the woman claimed to have no memory of her supposed outbursts, becoming dramatic and upset when her questioners expressed disbelief. Nevertheless, the week wound on and the apparently mad woman's doomsaying continued unabated, growing more frantic and frenzied with each passing hour. Finally, her foretellings seemed to reach a fatal rubicon; she began to babble and scream as something took hold in her, causing her to shift, contort, and transform.
Her final utterance proclaimed a lavish series of titles: "Behold the Idol, the Mogul, the Glutton, the Never-slaked, the Lady of the Gilded City, Mother of Satyrs, Patron of Felosulnar, Beloved of the Smith, Breaker of Hearts, the Vainglorious, the Bringer of Victory, Hero of Glandor, Muse of Erja, Empress of Kysh, Covetous Queen, and The a" Strangled to silence mid-rant, all that was Midge was hollowed out, a prismatic, starry cloud billowing about her.
Gone was Midge, and in her place stood an Elder Goddess of sumptuous stature and a haughty demeanour. Her condescending superiority dwarfed even the imperious Elders which came before. Immediately She expected praise and worship for the gift of Her presence, enchanting Felix, the Gourmand into cooking a perfect meal for Her while She held court near the Eatery. In Her hair She wore a Bloodwood beetle charm - the self-same trinket carved by Haern as a gift for Yanai that the subsequent Elders had all somehow held. When asked of it, the Goddess callously crushed it to dust, naming it worthless garbage. This drew the ire of Caitria Cardinalis and much of Duiran, who departed from the Goddess' audience in disdain.
Seemingly concerned solely with Her own pleasure and amusement, She insisted that the Revelation all were expecting would come only if She was sufficiently entertained. Many balked at this, repulsed by so blatant a hedonist. Despite Her many, many detractors, only Iesid Mulariad and Ayastia crossed a line. With a snap of Her fingers, the Goddess transformed them to statues, forcing Iesid to fan Her with a palm leaf while utilising Ayastia as a footstool for Her comfort. Others were entranced by the Goddess, and She visibly basked in the attention from Qelres Misi, Tetchta Mesis, and Lin. All the while, the belaboured Gourmand rushed to and fro, bringing Nalibhtavi dish after dish in an attempt to placate Her. She rejected them all.
The following week, the Goddess reappeared amid great fanfare and ceremony, carried into Saluria in a palanquin. Puffing on a cigarette, She demanded the services of Izcantl, the jeweler, who, beguiled by the Goddess' power, hastily scurried to bring Her his finest jewels and ornaments. As a crowd grew about Her, She promised answers in exchange for entertainment, and while most recoiled, some stepped forward to make the deal.
First was Docent Eliadon, whose firestorms sheared the life from several gathered. The chaotic acts of murder kindled laughter in Nalibhtavi, and She agreed to answer his question. "Which two demands of the Maker did She rebuff?" He asked, to which She replied that Varian had demanded of Her, first an army, and then Her loyalty, both of which She rejected.
Tetchta Mesis was next to step forward, dramatically severing a finger from their own hand and offering it to Elder Hedonism in tribute. Delighted by the gruesome spectacle, She deigned to answer another question: what did the Goddess desire most, above all else? A moment of vulnerability struck the Goddess while She continued puffing on Her cigarette, eyes downcast in contemplation. "An equal," She finally conceded in the midst of a dramatic, elongated sigh.
Czcienn Svin then attempted to mimic Eliadon's spectacle by forcing Tetchta Mesis to collapse a singularity, earning the ire of the Goddess for the lack of originality. When Aolin, the Lyrist of Omei, stepped forward and offered a song, Nipsy Cardinalis disrupted the proceedings by hurling insults at the Goddess and tempting Her wrath. The Arborean swiftly became a statue, bewitched by Nalibhtavi and forced to massage Her feet while She utilised its branches as an ashtray. Aolin's song followed, the Goddess deeming it acceptable. Her question centred around Nalibhtavi's apparent indifference to whether She fulfilled Her role, and what would happen if She did not. The answer came with little pause as She claimed that Fortune was Her overture, and that She was fulfilling Her purpose: to live, to love, and to be as She is. And then She was gone.
Nalibhtavi next appeared in Spinesreach at the Ironmaw Prison Complex. Admiring the newly built guillotine, She promised Sapience a spectacle, and proceeded to execute Iesid, Nipsy, and Xolotl for what She deemed to be slander against Her name. Pietre Marcelli soothed the temper of the Goddess with kawhe - fulfilling an earlier promise he had made to bring Her a drink. "Not unpleasant" came the feedback, high praise from One rapidly becoming infamously dissatisfied. Having won a question for his brew, Pietre conceded the opportunity to Qelres instead, who asked of the outrider first mentioned by Elder Fortune.
While considering the answer, Nalibhtavi forced Xolotl into service, this time requiring a manicure for Her nails. She revealed that the outrider was a scout of Oblivion, searching for one thing alone, and refused to say more on the matter. She then expressed a loathing for artwork, claiming that none had ever managed to capture Her perfectly on canvas or parchment. Offered an empyrean opium pipe by Qelres and a blend of godstongue by Feirenz Ourborian, the Goddess relaxed, contentedly smoking that which She deemed "dangerous and profound."
In place of a question, Qelres asked Her for a lock of Her hair, or a taste of Her cigarette. She declined both before reflecting on the lack of pleasure-driven mortals in this age, vexed by the lack of opportunities for entertainment and enjoyment She had found. Her parting words were advice: "Live like a God and hate like a Demon. Discard which no longer pleases you and replace it. Live."
A week following the public executions, Haratos of Djeir's Theater of Shadows announced the Undercity's intent to perform a Grand Tragedie, inviting Nalibhtavi to attend as guest of honour. The performance would share the tragic romance of Dhar and Ivoln and Their subsequent divorce. Much of the world was abuzz with excitement at the announcement, eagerly making plans to attend the show.
The Goddess made Her penultimate appearance at Grace Restaurant in a scenic part of the Vashnar Mountains. Harassing the waiter to bring her food and drink, She once more held court and attracted a large audience. Performing a remarkably accurate impression of Iesid, Sibatti dur Naya stepped forward to fan the Goddess with their own oversized palm frond, and She seemed to be at ease despite the poor quality of repasts on offer at the establishment. She mused on the repressed and tedious nature of the Creator and recalled Her memories of the Magician. "A bastard." She called Him, though fondness seeped into Her voice at the recollection. Of Her other Siblings, She spoke only with scorn, save for Darkness, who, She claimed, had been Her confidant and collaborator in Her own age. Promising to wear red for the Djeirani play, She dismissed the long-suffering waiter and disappeared.
In the Undercity of Djeir, the Theatre of Shadows was packed and afire with anticipation when Nalibhtavi finally arrived, boredly giving Her consent for the play to go forward. As the orchestra struck up and the opening prologue played, the audience was treated to their first and only glimpse of Lord Varyan (Caj Basso) in the act of His Creation. Soon enough, however, the stars of the show appeared: Lords Ivolin (Bonfiloro Ash'Aji) and Dohar (Ricci Ash'Aji). Playing a scene of timeless and farcical romance, they were received with laughter and merriment, delivering a stirring musical number in which Lord Aryonne (Sansin Mi'Mazi) and Lady Iyosin (Teclah Neri in her debut role) sang supporting verses.
Following an explosive opening number, Lady Iyosin took the fore of the stage, following sound with silence - or, more accurately, song with soliloquoy. The Djeirani-as-Goddess meditated upon the sublimity and peril of love, questioning whether the Gods would have begun Their relationship had they known it would lead to Their separation and estrangement. She parted the scene with a final question: "Is this a romance, or a horror, which these players play before you?" to which the audience's overwhelming affirmation was "yes." Little did they know that this affirmation would prove a chilling portent to the play's finale.
Act one closed with the Unity of Dohar and Ivolin in a fanfare of confetti, giving way to a brief intermission in which the attendees purchased further food and drink and spoke amongst themselves. Many of the land's adventurers and notable personages attended from aboveground, dressed in their finest raiment. The Theatre of Shadows had rarely seen such a diverse audience - it was the furthest the Djeirani culture had reached from beneath the ground in some while, and the actors were abuzz backstage, celebrating their play's good reception. All, that is, except for Teclah Neri, who was focused upon the act to come.
When act two began, the narrator (Adonir Chiellini) detailed the two Lords' deteriorating relationship and their domestic squabbles, ultimately leading to the conclusion that the two should
pursue marriage counseling. Aided by Lord Aryonne and the enthusiastic audience, they tried - and failed - to reconcile their differences, but ultimately opted for a divorce. Approached by the Lady Iyosin, who inquired of them whether they truly desired this course, the Gods answered in the affirmative, begging the Goddess for separation.
Teclah Neri, who had carried a falchion onto the stage, then broke character - speaking her name, rather than that of the Goddess', and addressing the actors playing Dohar and Ivolin by their own Ash'Aji names. Confusion spread through the audience, and the brothers onstage became more terrified. They protested that "the Bards" could not do this to them... but to no avail. With ceremonial precision, Teclah Neri cut them both down upon the stage, to the delight and consternation of the audience. As chaos reigned, and dramatic sense was lost, Teclah declared herself to the audience and the realm before making a hasty escape from the premises of the Theatre.
Displeased by this upset, Nalibhtavi declared that She was no longer entertained, and waxed wroth, rising from Her seat to slaughter all that remained of the Theatre of Shadows. Elder Greed transformed the remaining bards into golden statues, their tormented frames transfixed all across Djeir in a final testament to Her power and sadism. The rest were brutally slaughtered, dismembered and eviscerated in a flurry of cutlery-as-weaponry - leaving Teclah Neri as the last remaining bard of the Theatre of Shadows. Declaring Herself bored by Her return, She stated that unlike the Elders prior, She would not be granting Sapience any of Her gifts; and that no one in the universe was worthy of killing Her except for Herself. The Goddess destroyed Herself as a final gesture of spite, leaving only chaos, terror, and mournful Djeirani in Her wake.
The aftermath of Nalibhtavi's cruel massacre of the Djeirani bards was fraught with consternation and disappointment. Unlike those Elders who woke before Her, the Full One had left nothing behind save for the occasional broken heart and a prodigious helping of scorn, Her departure borne of entirely selfish motivations.
After Teclah's flamboyant assassination and subsequent escape, her whereabouts were unknown. The world over speculated what this could mean. How had the assassin vanished into thin air? The answer arose with the grating of moving stone, the conclusion of the assassin-bard's saga touching the mind of every sapient. An echo reiterative of Koduses' manifestation and Its ability to share freshly woven memories, insight was provided. Some time after her escape into an unused passage, Teclah emerged, flushed with success. However, to claim her rewards, the bard needed to return to the Theatre of Shadows to conclude the ceremonial gambit of the murders. Fleet of foot, she rushed through the corridors of the Undercity, before creeping into the amphitheatre when she drew near.
Hearing nothing, most importantly no guards waiting to capture her, the bard sashayed into the playhouse, ready to soak up the acclaim and infamy she earned. Instead, the marks of violence pulled her up short. Despite the lack of bodies, their remains returned to their family by Volundiel Ash'aji, and Haratos, Master of the Theater's attempts at cleaning up the blood, the signs of slaughter scarred the theatre's interior. The bard drifted slowly through the hauntingly quiet auditorium, stopping to look upon the scream-mutated faces of her troupe - interred evermore in gold.
Outwardly, she was as still as her murdered troupe. Inwardly, the air was soaked by the bedlam state of her mind: betrayal, anger, revenge. The wrathful trinity of her feelings was nearly an
evocation, or a silent scream, blared into the ether.
The ether answered.
Drawn by the emotions logging the air, perhaps finding kin in the reeling shock of betrayal, the essence left behind by the Replete's death manifested. It rose, a tenebrous silhouette peeling from the floor, and took on a Humanoid shape. Swaying like wheat stalks behind the preoccupied actress, it loomed larger and more behemothic until the whole auditorium was caught in its vast shadow. Too late, Teclah realized she was not alone. Though she got a considerable head start by the potency of her alacrity and tumbling, the Immortal quintessence that chased her through the Undercity was faster. It surged, a hungering wave cresting, before it splashed across Teclah Neri like a scribe's spilled inkwell.
With only an enervated sigh, another bard, endemic to Djeir and the Theatre of Shadows, fell by Divine mandate. The bard's infinitesimal numbers dwindled to nigh-extinction.
Niuri, the Betrayed, rose in her place. "I have suffered and endured. I have drifted, bodiless, destroyed, My essence shredded and dispersed across the ley." She announced to the world in a voice composed of fragmented whispers. "But I alone have plumbed the Source and returned. I alone bring with Me Revelation."
Striding purposefully away from the Undercity, the Goddess manifested on the shores of the North Strand. Beside the remains of Jarrod She stood, invoking memories of Elder Time with both Her confident authority and the seeming innocuity of Her posture. She gathered adventurers from all Sapience to Her side, beseeching them to share with Her the memories She had sent forward that She may anchor Herself properly in time. While answers streamed forth, She revealed that the Elder Gods were projections of Herself, guises She wore while sifting through the immense volume of memories and information She obtained through the Source of Knowledge.
Once satisfied, and with arms outstretched, the Goddess reached towards the Dyisen-Ashtan Memoryscape, Her eyes closing as She began Her work. A hazy globe took shape at the borders of memory, a representation of the world before that the born-again Goddess took as Her artist's canvas. While She carried out Her esoteric conjuration, bridging the past with the present, She told a story.
In the beginning, before Time or Life or Death or Luck or Indulgence, before the elements or the world itself had formed, the Creator was born, along with His Twin, His Other. As the Creator shaped Creation and brought all things into being, the Other dwelt on one thing alone: Oblivion, and its inevitability should the Two cross paths.
For eternities uncountable the Other sought the Maker, seeking hungrily some clue or sign of His quarry in Its relentless traversal 'cross the cosmos, outside of Varian's universe. Varian was never satisfied with simply observing His Creation. Time and again, He reached forth His hand to alter it, twisting reality to His whim. His interference with the lives of Gods and mortals, His unending micro-management, would incur a terrible cost.
From Its position at the distant reaches of void space, outside of time and beyond Creation itself, the Other sensed it - predictable, repetitive motion on the Manifold ringing like a knell across the cosmos. It had found Him.
For years the scouts of Oblivion sought Him, until success came under the boughs of the Greenwood, on a world known as Azhoa. There, the Creator fought the Outrider and slew him. Varian's triumph imbued Him with false confidence as other unseen scouts fled to report His presence. Invasion followed in force, and the armies of Oblivion poured into the universe from the void without.
Oblivion's Herald converged upon the Greenwood, shearing away the soul of the forest and all who dwelt therein. The Arboreans struggled to the last, crying out for Mother Life to save them. When She did not come, those few who survived chose to flee.
Towns and cities found themselves overrun by monstrous swarms of slime and decay, laying waste to all in their path. Aberrant void elementals polluted all the waters of all the worlds, every spring and river, stream and estuary, lake and pond, transformed to gelatinous sludge.
When much of Creation laid in desolation, ravaged by the forces of Oblivion, the Other's Avatar manifested. Only pockets of resistance still lingered, scattered and divided across the world. Leaderless. Hopeless. But, fought on they did.
Bringing to bear His powers of Creation to oppose Oblivion, Varian threw all He had at the Avatar, empowering Himself and His scant allies for a final battle. Exhausted but alive, the Creator cut down the Avatar, but despaired as He realised it was too late. The Other Itself had entered Varian's Creation, and the end had come.
Driven by a desperate need for survival and filled with a craven refusal to accept His fate, Varian spurned His purpose. He would not, as He knew He should, accept defeat and return to the Cycle of the cosmos that it may perpetuate the birth of new universes and countless fresh worlds.
Unto Himself He called all the essence He had spent in the act of Creation. The embattled Elder Gods howled and screamed in outrage as, One by One, Varian destroyed Them, syphoning the quintessence of Their existence into His own reserves of might. The Gambler, the Full One, the Magician, the Evergiving Earth, the Blacksmith, and the Keeper of the Close all fell. Strife, Malice, Chaos, Darkness, Civilisation, Sea, Dreams, War, Love, and Valour soon followed. Time, ever styling Itself as the Witness, looked on with unfathomable contempt before It too died, consumed in Varian's perfidious gambit.
Aggrieved by the death of their beloved Mother Life, the remnants of the Arborean people came together and did the unthinkable: made war. Imbued with the vestigial power of Elder Life, as one they sang, single voices becoming legion. Yanai's song of creation warped, twisted by grief and fathomless heartache, becoming not the awe-inspiring music of Life but a terrible verse bespeaking agony, pain, and promising revenge. At the Creator they directed their dreadful music, striking at Him with the sombre reprisal of a people betrayed.
The longer they sang, the more the cadence contorted. Their composition became a nihilist's love-song, its only purpose to devastate and destroy whom the trees warred against. Nothing of the once harmonious aria that it sprang from remained in its melody.
Varian responded in kind. Shocked into startled clarity by the Arborean paean, vengeance came swiftly from the palm of the Creators' hand. Fear drove Him to destroy them all, twig and root, nut and acorn. And so He did.
In His final moments, Varian knew He lacked the strength to defeat the Other, and, deep in the grip of His cowardice, He made another terrible choice. Suffused with all the power of the Elder Pantheon, He turned His eyes on what remained of His universe, His Creation, that which He was made to forge, and He devoured it, swallowing all the meagre life that remained, still fighting on against imminent doom.
So it was that in the end, Varian, not Oblivion, quelled the last remnants of mortal resistance. Varian, not Oblivion, wrought doom upon lives mortal and divine alike. Varian, not Oblivion, had perverted His purpose.
Ekeing all the strength He could muster from its death throes, He fled in terror, departing from His own Creation to depths unknown, away from the Other's reach.
Varian had lived, but His survival had come at an unimaginable cost. Varian had lived, and all He had made died. Varian had lived, and the encounter left Him doomed. Forever.
The story concluded, Niuri directed the sphere into a fixed position at the very edges of the memoryscape, what once was a radiant silver globe now consumed with slithering tendrils of oily black through which argent flickers strained to give off light.
Her voice rang out again in that chorus of fractured whispers. "Behold, Oblivion's Portent. Relive the End of the First World. Look upon the Creator's true self and understand the threat which faces this one."
Her work done, Her gift of memory given, Her revelation delivered, She turned Her thoughts to other pursuits. Resolve girded Her voice with Her next declamation, a burning promise of vengeance to come for Her Brothers Ivoln and Severn. "I have had a century to plot, Brothers. You will regret Your betrayal of Me. Long, You thought Me dead. Gone. I name Myself Your enemy, and I will not be silenced again."
While the world gasped in shock at the knowledge She had imparted, the Goddess cast aside the name given to Her by Severn. "Niuri is dead." She announced for all to hear. "And I am... Indelible." Niuri died for the second time, and in Her place rose Lexadhra, the Goddess of Memory and Legend. What agenda this Goddess portends remains to be seen, though flashes of the Elder Pantheon have already begun to show through in Her personality...