A man stands staring out at the seemingly unending terrain. Light stretches across the rolling hills that stretch across the unchanging landscape. It passes over the reaching branches of pale barked trees and shines off the golden leaves that break off to float to the loamy soil that rests beneath the trees. Rainbow winged birds fly beneath the pure white clouds drifting in the pale blue sky. Their chirps and whistles compliment the gentle babbling of a stream flowing from a crack in the rocks by the man’s feet. His right thumb rubs a portion of the scarred skin that encircles his left wrist. A reminder as constant as the scenery before him. There is the whisper of scales against the smooth stone of the path the man had left to stare into the distant. The man sighs, a scowl pulling at his features as the sound softens and the grass parts around him. He does not move as the head of a violet hued serpent rises into the periphery of his vision. A black tongue darts out to tease at the man’s cheek and a rumble like that of laughter resonates through the ground causing more leaves to fall.
“What does she want from me now?” the man asks. His mismatched eyes, amber and silver more pure than any color can be found anywhere in the world, slide to regard the serpent’s slit eyes. The serpent does not speak. It twists around to look elsewhere in the realm. The man sighs again, a deeper one than before that pushes all the air from his lungs in a steady rush. He turns on his heel and follows the serpent’s gaze to a massive tree still adorned with gold leaves. Beneath the boughs of the tree the man can see a figure standing there staring back at him. One of the figure’s hands is pressed against the bark of the tree while they raise the other and beckon the man forward. With a roll of his eyes the man steps over the body of violet serpent and begins to make his way across the marble path towards the figure. As he gets closer the man can hear the plucking of strings as an unseen musician plays. The woman at the base of the tree smiles at the man’s approach, flashing pearl white teeth. Her hair of spun gold billows behind her in the windless air. She gestures for the man to take a seat at the marble bench that had been hidden behind her and the curve of the hill. Sharp eyes like cut sapphires alight as the man obeys without hesitation. The woman settles beside the man. She folds her hands in front of her atop her crossed legs. The slide of the pale blue fabric of her dress reveals a hint of golden tan skinned legs.
“You summoned me?” He keeps his eyes locked on hers though they narrow in irritation. The woman laughs politely as if he had told an unfunny joke.
“No pleasantries? I am hurt, truly.” She touches her right hand to her chest, above her heart, in a mocking gesture of pain. The man’s eyes narrow further before he softens them and forces a smile onto his face. He raises his left hand and twists it so his palm is facing upwards. The woman’s smile sharpens and she places her hand in his. He brings her hand towards him and bows his head to brush a feather light kiss over her middle finger.
“My deepest apologies, Great Goddess,” he says as he releases her hand. The woman rests her hand on the man’s knee and shifts forward to lean in the slightest bit.
“Come now, Opharious, it has been long enough that we can dispel with the formalities.” The flicker of a scowl passes over the man’s face before he is able to catch it.
“Of course Kalypsa. I will endeavor to break myself of the habit,” he says behind clenched teeth.
“Very good,” the woman coos. She leans back again and takes her hand from Opharious’s leg, settling them atop her own once more.
“Would you care for some wine?” she asks as Opharious opens his mouth to speak again. He closes it with a click and dips his head in a nod. A single hand is raised and with a flick of her wrist the woman summons another snake into being. It is coiled around the trunk of the tree, deep amethyst scales a sharp contrast to the unblemished white of the bark. The snake flicks its tongue out to dance along the tip of the Goddess’ finger.
“Fetch us a red wine and an assortment of cheeses if you will.” The snake bows its head at the order and just as it appeared it disappears again.
“It is a lovely day, is it not?” Kalypsa asks idly as she looks out over the idyllic scenery.
“As it is every day in your realm,” is the reply she receives. Her eyes snap back to meet the man’s and she raises a single thin eyebrow.
“Of course I would never subject myself to a poor one.”
“Of course not.” The woman frowns as the pair lapse into silence. Not long after a woman glides up the walkway towards them. Her upper half is of a dark skinned woman while her lower half is serpentine with scales the same amethyst color as the Goddess had called upon earlier. Within the snake woman’s arms is a silver tray, a tall bottle and two crystalline glasses balanced beside a covered platter.
“Thank you my dear,” the Goddess says as the tray is placed between the man and woman. The cover is taken off to reveal a platter with a spread of cheese and crackers. After opening the wine and pouring each person a glass the snake woman vanishes once again. Kalypsa brings her glass to her lips. She watches over the edge as Opharious takes a slice of a deep orange cheese and pops it into his mouth. He chews slowly, contrasting eyes fluttering closed for the briefest of moments before they snap open to look back at the woman. She smiles and takes a sip of the red wine, humming in pleasure as it coats her tongue and slides down her throat.
“You should try the wine, I am sure you will find it enjoyable.” Opharious pauses as he reaches for another slice of cheese, his other hand occupied with holding a rounded cracker. Pulling back the man takes the stem of his glass between the forefingers of his free hand. He tips it in a toast to the woman across from him and takes a long sip, downing nearly half the glass at once. Kalypsa’s mouth twitches into a scowl for a second before she schools her features once again into a polite smile.
“Well?” she asks once Opharious lowers his glass. The man takes a moment to ponder, swirling a remainder of the wine in his mouth back and forth before swallowing to answer.
“It is unlike any I have had before,” he replies. The woman scoffs.
“You say that of every wine I give you.”
“And it continues to be true as you have never given me the same wine twice.” Kalypsa narrows her eyes at the grin dancing at the edge of Opharious’s lips. The man places his glass back on the tray and finishes loading his cracker.
“I do not think you summoned me here for a snack and wine tasting,” Opharious says after some time passes. He has eaten the majority of the cheese plate, leaving only a crumbling white cheese closest to the Goddess. Kalypsa tilts her head to the side. She eyes the man in front of her for a moment before she places her empty glass back on the tray. With a wave of her hand the tray disappears.
“Of course not,” she sighs. “I have need of you once again, Opharious Khan.” The man straightens and a genuine smile spreads across his face even as tension fissions down his spine.
“Of course you do. My time in Paradise is always so,” he pauses and glances about before his gaze returns to the Goddess, “fleeting.” The woman forces a smile of her own onto her face, pearl white teeth bare and the hint of fangs peaking out to rest above her bottom lip.
“Yes well depending on your actions this may well be the last time I call upon you.” She looks away and closes her eyes, her face pinched as if in pain. Opharious blinks. He leans forward slightly, curiosity getting the better of him. Something like concern wells within the man and he barely stops himself from reaching out.
“What futures have you seen in your dreams, Great Goddess?” he asks in a voice barely above a whisper.
“Foreigners walk upon my beaches. They bring with them the Gods of another Land.” Her eyes flutter open. When they look back at Opharious they are clouded like a storm at sea.
“I have seen my fall too many times, Opharious. I want these intruders run from my Land, no matter the means.” The man nods, a far away look in his own eyes. The Goddess’s eyes sharpen into clarity. Her hand snaps out and grips the man’s face, forcing him to look at her. Her nails dig into his cheeks and jaw causing blood to well up beneath them.
“Need I remind you that you are bound to me Opharious? If you fail me here this life I am giving you will be last your spirit will ever live,” she hisses.
“Do you understand?” At his nod she relaxes her grip. The pads of her fingers brush across the punctures she had caused.
“Good.” She pats his cheek, a serene smile flowing back over her features as she pulls her hand away. The Goddess stands and brushes the wrinkles from her dress away.
“Enjoy your new life, Opharious,” she says as she turns. She takes a few steps then pauses and looks back over at the man.
“I will be watching.”
Opharious is left sitting on the bench beneath the tree. The music that had been playing has stopped since the Goddess’s departure. Without it the silence is deafening. The stillness that permeates the realm is suffocating in a way. A constant pressure that forces itself onto the lone man. He exhales a shuddering breath and wrenches his gaze away from where the woman had left. When he does so he feels a shift in the air around him. Wind breezes through the area. It rustles the leaves on the tree, causing a few to finally fall. Opharious blinks as a young boy, looking no older than ten, steps out from behind the tree. The pinwheel in the boy’s left hand squeaks as it is moved and the boy beams a smile up at the man when his eyes fall to the toy.
“Hello Coalescer,” the boy greets.
“Our Goddess has asked me to bring you to The Guiding Light and help shape your next life,” the boy holds out his other hand. “Are you ready now?” Opharious nods and takes the offered hand. His own dwarfs the boy’s, Opharious himself is nearly three times the boy’s size, and allows himself to be led across the winding marble pathways between the same pale trees with gold piled at their bases. It is a path Opharious has walked four times before and could probably do so again even without the guidance of the Lifebringer.
Eventually the pair stops at a humble looking hovel. A structure of dark wood stained with ash that looks out of place in the rolling whites and greens and golds of the landscape surrounding it. The Lifebringer releases Opharious’s hand and knows on the door, three soft raps in quick succession. There is a beat of silence then the sound of a lock sliding out of place. The iron door handle slowly lowers before the door swings open. Glowing eyes shine through the darkness of a hooded face and dart between the boy and the man. A raven’s claw wraps around the edge of the doorway, its talons digging into the wood and scraping away a layer of ash.
“Welcome back Lifebringer,” the figure wreathed in shadow rumbles, its voice caught somewhere between a raven’s cry and the billow of a forge. “I see you have brought our long standing guest.”
“Ashenarn,” Opharious greets. The figure shifts backwards, ripping its hand from the doorway and stepping aside.
“Please, come in, I am told we have business to attend to.” Opherious follows after the Lifebringer into the dark interior of the hovel. The door closes behind him with a soft whoosh of air. Without the light of the realm Opherious strains to see even the outline of the other two occupants of the room. There is a snap then the rush of heat and light. Fire flares to life to illuminate the room. Opherious blinks rapidly as his eyes adjust to the sudden change. He looks over at Ashenarn as the fire settles into the shape of a flickering arm. That arm gestures for Opherious to sit in a frayed woven chair in the center of the sparse room. As Opharious takes a seat in the chair the boy conjures a cloud and settles hovering at his eye level. Behind him, Opharious can feel the heat of the Guiding Light moving back and forth across the room. He can hear the clicking of the raven talons as they move around, pick up, and put down various instruments scattered over the desks that are pushed to either side of the room. Finally Ashenarn settles into place behind Opharious. A clawed hand encompasses his head and forces him to stare into the fogged grey eyes of the Lifebringer.
“Let us begin.” With those words there is a rush of energy within the hovel. Opharious’s eyes glaze over as the power presses down upon him. The illusion of time within the realm fades. Opharious seems to slip away from his body. An odd feeling that the man has experienced before but grows no easier to process each time. The Lifebringer speaks and though Opharious can see his mouth move he cannot hear anything. A rumbled response from the Guiding Light shakes Opharious to his core. A talon taps the center of his forehead and Opharious is snapped back into focus. He blinks at the smile the Lifebringer gives him.
“You are done, Coalescer, on the Land’s next day you will be reborn again to carry out our Goddess’s will,” the boy says as he hops off his cloud. Opharious nods and glances back at the other being.
“Do either of you know anything about the circumstances surrounding this rebirth?” he asks. The two beings pause. They glance at each other, faces shuttering into careful neutrality.
“The Great Goddess rarely tells us of these matters,” Ashenarn says curtly.
“The Watcher is the only one of us privy to her dreams,” the Lifebringer adds. Ashenarn barks a croaking laugh.
“You are more likely to get the information you seek from the Goddess herself than from Lady Luck and the Mother of Misfortune.” He brushes past Opharious and the Lifebringer, pausing to reach out to run a finger of flame over the boy’s bald head. The Lifebringer bats the hand away but does not appear affected by the fire.
“If you are going to speak with Tessana I would wish you luck but we all know that means nothing when it comes to that woman,” Ashenarn comments. He opens the door and sweeps his arms to the side gesturing to the doorway. Opharious stands on shaking legs. He allows his eyes to fall shut as he recenters himself. After a moment he opens his eyes again. The Lifebringer is staring at him not having moved from where he had set down from his cloud. As Opharious meets his gaze the man can see concern in the boy’s otherwise smiling face. Without a word the man breaks their gaze and begins to walk out the door. Ashenarn watches him blankly. The fire that was his right is arm now gone leaving only curls of smoke in its wake.
“Have a good life, Opharious Khan,” the Guiding Light says as Opharious passes. The man pauses and glances back at the other being. He narrows his eyes but nods. With one last look at the boy Opharious leaves the two behind. The door closes behind him with a slam. Opharious has little doubt that the two inside are talking about him, as the other denizens of this realm are want to do when his role or the circumstances in which he resides here are brought up.
Opharious wanders aimlessly through the realm. The light has started to fade causing the landscape to change from a golden white to a softer deepening blue. No doubt mirroring the Land the realm is tied to. The man stops at the top of one of the larger hills in the area. He lowers himself to the grass covered ground, crossing his legs and resting his hands on either knee. Taking multiple deep breaths Opharious forces his body to relax. It will not be too long until his spirit is wrest from this realm once again.
“I heard you were leaving us again,” a soft voice says just behind the man. Opherious cranes his neck back to peer at the gently smiling face of the voice’s owner. The woman taps him on the nose with a giggle then shuffles to his left side and settles beside him. Her hunched form is covered in layers of robes and her face is obscured as she stares out into the distance.
“You would not happen to know anything of the Goddess’s dreams, would you Mysha?” Opharious asks. The woman laughs, doubling forward as she does so.
“You are not normally this inquisitive about your duty, young one.” Opharious snorts a laugh.
“No, but since this has the possibility of being my final mission I feel as if pursuing that knowledge is not an oddity.” The woman glances at him out of the corner of her eye. The smile has slipped from her face.
“Really that just depends on your actions,” a new voice pipes in. Opharious tenses. He turns his head to gaze at the new arrival. This woman would stand as tall Opherious if he was standing and holding a basin full of blood red water.
“Mysha, the Great Goddess has asked for your presence.” The woman in question looks between Opharious and the other woman. With a world weary sigh she stands, using Opharious’s shoulder as leverage.
“Well whatever happens I hope you find what you are looking for dear,” Mysha says. She pats Opharious’s head before walking away, gait slow and hobbled. Silence reigns until the woman’s footsteps no longer echo through the darkening sky.
“So, Khan, I heard you were wondering as to the mind of our Goddess.”
“Pure speculation, Tessana, nothing to concern yourself over.” The woman pouts but it melts into wicked grin when Opharious looks over at her.
“That is not exactly what a little bird told me,” she purrs stepping closer. She reaches a hand out to him and Opharious side steps away from her. He knocks her hand away as he does so, eyes narrowing. A moon forms in the sky, round and full and smoother than the purest pearl. There is a pulse of energy that causes the man’s form to shimmer and fade. Tessana sighs pulling her hand back to rest beside its twin. The water in her basin has lightened and changed into the color of the deepest parts of the sea.
“I suppose it does not really matter. Whatever happens will happen.” Opharious feels a tug, familiar and foreign at once.
“Good fortune, Opharious Khan. We will all be watching.” In a flash of light Opharious is pulled from the realm. With his last moments of clarity he forces those words to imprint in his memories. When everything goes dark for him, the spirit of the man is picked up by a raven bearing a torch and flown across the Land. It is then passed onto a boy standing beside a woman asleep in her bed wrapped in the arms of her lover. The boy runs a finger over the shivering soul a faint smile on his lips. Without a word the boy releases the spirit and nudges it towards the woman. The soul pulses, once, twice, then disappears. His job done the boy walks away. He meets up with the torch bearing raven and together they return to Paradise where the Great Goddess is waiting. Watching and waiting.
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