The streets of Hollywood were wholly unlike the roads of packed dirt and cobbled stones of his homeland. Here, paved trails wound up into little suburban alcoves lined with houses akin to small mansions. Three or four families could comfortably live in any one of them; yet most were owned by single persons.
Patrick looked up to the hazy and dim moon. It would have been a beautiful night, if not for the smoggy air which blew in rough bursts through his dark, shortly cropped hair. It was cold in the land of
Hollywood but this was more than a nighttime chill, uncharacteristically cold. What a time to have cut off his hair—his usual mane would never have permitted the darkly tanned goose bumps now rising on his neck. He adjusted the high collar of his deep brown duster, determined not to let the wind get the better of him.
Though this realm was strange to him, there were elements that resembled his own. This land—this Vacant Realm—was a shrunken, mashed version of his homelands—like a theme park exhibit of a world wonder. It had only seven small continents, yet the intricacies of its continent Europe bore similarities to the Highlands, Industrial Domain, and even his homeland of Old World.
Patrick marveled. How could a land so removed from the rest of the realms mimic so accurately? Every region was separated by vast oceans and great walls of magic. Yet each realm was acutely aware of one another. So unlike this land, floating in its own smoggy haze of delusion.
Passing through pools of light cast from street lamps above, he was somewhat startled when a motorized carriage with bright lanterns roared up the road. The carriage resembled a squat, oversized, monster—the road was hardly wide enough to accommodate its rumbling, bulky frame. The driver, who had written his name garishly across the front, had little care for sharing the street. Whoever this Hummer person was, Patrick did not care to become acquainted. He already missed the Homelands.
Rounding the corner onto the dead-end street that was Mt. Olympus Drive, Patrick gazed up at its gaudy homes. He had met their owners and could only shake his head at the excessive waste. Scores of people went homeless in this realm, as well as in his own, yet these were homes built for owners who lived here for only a few weeks every decade. Like them, Patrick came for the Social Ball.
For hundreds of years the Vacant Realm had been almost stagnant in progress, but now it seemed newer and stranger each time he crossed its gateway. Even the Industrial Domain, known for its vast machines and T-Coil Technology, had nothing on this land. Here one could effortlessly access a massive information source or contact a person a thousand miles away— without the use of magic—with the slightest touch to a small device.
Coming to the end of the street, he gazed up at the most extravagant estate done out in gold and littered with intricately carved statues—a home fit for the king of Mount Olympus Drive. But this was not his destination.
Out of the corner of his eye, Patrick caught sight of the weed-infested yard set back a hundred yards from the main road. It was easy enough to ignore if you weren’t looking for it. In fact, a curse placed on the yard made it difficult for most people to even enter. However, Patrick knew its tricks.
As he passed through the rickety wooden gate surrounding the shack set into the hill, he heard them—the weeds. Not just there to deter passersby, they were a defense mechanism which sprang up to snag his feet.
Quickly, Patrick chanted a counter spell to hinder their progress. They were halfway up his leg when he heard the rusty hinges of the front door squeal.
“Need assistance?” came a deeply accented voice.
The Celt standing in the shack’s doorway shared Patrick’s height and coloring, but wore his hair in ropy dreadlocks that hung nearly to his elbows. Wrapped in faded layers, he looked as unkempt and foreboding as the home itself.
With a wave of his hand, the man dismissed the snaring weeds, sending them back to their various corners of the yard.
Shaking the soil from his boots, Patrick made his way to the door.
“It’s about time you showed.”
“Good to see you too, Angus,ʺ Patrick replied. Angus had never been good with—well, anything resembling manners. “What’s it been? A hundred years?” Angus smirked.
“No, no. I saw you a few leap years back, at the Ball.”
“Ahhh, yes. How could I forget?”
“Meg,” they said simultaneously. The hostess of the Ball was a legendary beauty and a favorite of the two brothers.
“I look forward to coercing a dance out of her at the ball tomorrow,” Angus mused.
“She is all yours this time. My eye is with the living.”
“You’re missing out. The undead can be quite beguiling. Well, come in, Brother. Let us get started.”
“Always one to get right to it,” Patrick said with a smirk, and headed inside.
Angus’s home always reminded Patrick of his homeland. It was a home made from the earth itself, a stark contrast to the modern Vacant Realm of motorized carriages and electricity. Despite living in the epicenter of one of the most technologically advanced societies in the world, he lived as he had since the formation of the realms themselves: as a hermit trader. At least Patrick traveled. His brother loved nothing more than to stay in his hovel. He never understood Angus, and after a millennium, he was positive he never would.
They left the crudely constructed entry, making their way to the back of the shed. There the decrepit wooden boards turned to root and dirt tunneling down into the earth.
“Are you sure we shouldn’t wait for the others?” Patrick asked as they made their way down into the hidden structure beneath the hill.
“There will only be a couple of us this time. Our absent brothers will be of best service where they are. We must keep the balance. That is why I asked you to bring more than the usual offering. There is no need to wait.”
Angus paused then and began fussing with a large fuse box sunk into the wall. Patrick thought on the changes to their ceremony. For hundreds of years they had been conducting the Centennial. They always met in the Vacant realm, every brother, late though they may be. Starting without them seemed—wrong.
ʺCome now. I'ʹm sure we can hold off just little longer. Our brothers have never been timely."
ʺThis is different," Angus replied solemnly.
ʺDifferent? We have been conducting this ceremony for millennia. What could possibly be different now?"
ʺThe Fates?" Patrick asked in shock. ʺWhat do they want?"
ʺI don'ʹt know but it has something to do with the disturbances."
Patrick stood stunned. He had heard about the trouble with magical alloys in other realms, even his own had been affected, but he never imagined it would involve the Fates. The last time they received interference the Great Depression happened, and it was far more depressing for the lands outside the Vacant Realm. When the Fates intervened, it was never a good sign.
ʺWe cannot risk a mistake because of our brothers’ tardiness,ʺ Angus continued. ʺYou remember what happened the last time we failed to complete the Centennial.”
“Yes, but we survived the Dark Ages and all was righted—for the most part.”
Angus gave his brother a skeptical glare. “Banon will see that our absent brothers receive their gifts. I trust him to do that much. As for the ceremony, our attending brothers assured me that we will have the thirteen offerings needed. I have a very old offering from before the land break, an ancient elemental."
Patrick nodded. ʺThat is a rare gem."
The older the offering, the more power it summoned from the ceremony. From what Angus was saying, it seemed like they could use all the strength they could get.
ʺHow fares things in Old World?"
“The magical alloys are noticeably weakening,” Patrick told him dismally. “There have been a few mining catastrophes as a result. Uncovered some dangerous magic in the dwarven mines. What of this land?”
“The discord is not yet prevalent in the Vacant Realm. I doubt anyone aside from myself and a few of the stronger entities have even picked up on it. You noticed the strong winds on the way here?”
“That was peculiar for this area,” Patrick replied.
“The elemental magic here is not strong enough to cause destruction, but something is stirring. I have taken time away from the affairs of the Vacant Realm to conduct this meeting. I need the strength.”
“Are you sure it’s safe here?” Patrick asked with a wary eye.
“If something is happening to the magical compounds, we’ll be the last afflicted,” Angus assured him.
Patrick shook his head. “My sight is not as far reaching as your own. I have to ask—do you think they are waking?”
Angus sighed heavily. “It has been a millennia. I don’t see why now, but it’s hard to tell. If they do, not even this land will be safe.”
It was grave news, confirming Patrick’s worst fears.
There were ancient creatures that slept in the world, deep within its very core, forgotten by most. Even Zeus himself had never seen these creatures. While they sleep, Ithiria drives on, thriving, growing. But if they were disturbed, the world as they know it could cease to exist. This was their purpose, this was the brothers’ task in the Centennial, to provide the ancients with an offering to keep them appeased. In return, the brothers received the power to keep and watch over the lands. To protect the balance.
"How fares the Vacant Realm?ʺ Patrick asked, hoping for a less worrisome conversation, but no such luck.
ʺNot peaceful. We have had an uprising in the supernatural community."
ʺA civil war?"
ʺOf sorts. Some of the creatures here wish to stay hidden from the non-magic population while others want to drop the veil completely—which would be chaos if not handled tactfully.” Angus’s voice was surly. ʺI’ve had to take a more prominent role in their dealings here."
ʺI thought it was uncharacteristically quiet when I arrived. What happened?"
ʺFor now the veil has been kept, but we stand in an uneasy limbo."
“Let us speak of merrier things,” Patrick suggested as he followed his brother down the winding dirt tunnels.
They passed walls lined with weaponry, barrels of ingredients, and ominously hissing baskets. Angus’s housekeeping was lackluster at best. Even with infinite space, there always seemed to be a clutter.
Winding down the twisting hallways of the anthill Angus called home, they descended deep into the base of the Hollywood hills.
Finally, they came to an ornately carved wooden door covered in figures and ancient depictions. A musty draft of air rushed from the great room within as Angus pulled open the door.
This room was not cluttered like the others—it was a place of offering and seeing. There, as always, sat the massive round wooden table surrounded by high-backed chairs formed from twisting roots running deep into the earth below. The table was fashioned from the stump of one of the oldest trees in the land which, like the chairs, had roots running into the earth—to its very core.
This stump was the base of his brother’s connection with the Vacant Realm.
In the center of the table an enormous crystalline ball sat cradled in intricately twisting roots. The sphere’s smoky black surface beckoned the viewer to see through its mystic eye. Straight into the soul of Ithiria.
This place was vast, and felt empty. In fact the whole hovel his brother lived in felt empty. Angus was always a home body but he couldn't help feeling that he hadn't had friendly company in some time.
“I hate to see you alone like this,” said Patrick, breaking the silence of the still room.
“After my last wife, I suppose I’ve needed some time to myself.”
“That was over a hundred years ago.”
“It was a very taxing relationship.” Angus’s chuckle was dark. “How are you and Beaux?”
Patrick should have known his brother would turn the personal spotlight back on him. “Well, I haven’t seen her in a couple years, but we are nearing our triennial fair. A reuniting could be in our future.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Angus said and smiled. “Well, now that we’re settled, we should get to it.”
“I don’t see why not. The others will show up when they’re good and ready, as they always do.”
“You first, Brother. Mine is—on the darker side.”
“No wonder, with the company you keep.” Angus snorted.
“You keep the same sort of friends. Are you not acquainted with a werefeline and several witches?”
“Yes, but our community is different. Here, the supernaturals are repressed and hidden. They are more dangerous.”
Angus huffed in disagreement. “Let us continue. The night wears on.”
“I will begin then,” Patrick replied.
Angus nodded and then both brothers bowed their heads.
Lifting his head a moment later, Patrick stared into the black eye of the ancient table, his own eyes growing opaque as they misted over. “We Watchers of this land bring offerings for you, great Life Giver, tales from our wanderings and impartial dealings in this world. We who derive tales from all we see and touch, ask your favor. To keep the Eternal Father sleeping, and to help us keep balance in this immortal existence. We beseech you to take hold of these objects and know that which only such an object could know, their boundless travels, the marvels they’ve witnessed, the feel of the countless hands through which they’ve passed. In thanks and everlasting gratitude, we begin.”
From his coat pocket, Patrick pulled a hefty, foot- long rod made of candy cane.
“I offer the strife of a great witch of Old World. A powerful being attempting to keep balance in her life’s dealings and withstand the falsehoods inflicted by neighbors. I bring this cane of sugar, made by her own hand, in the wake of her dismay.”
With that, Patrick placed the great candied cane on the table before the crystal ball which glowed ominously. The cane began to spark and boil, losing form and liquefying, as it was slowly absorbed by the great table—becoming one with the waiting roots below.