Delegan was summoned to her chambers. At three o’ clock in the morning the Mortar did not even allow him a chance to empty his bladder after waking him rudely. They insisted he come urgently. At seventy years of age, not getting a chance to relieve himself was a real annoyance, but he would go about his business the moment he had attended the problem. With his drowsiness slowly fading from his mind, any discomfiture Delegan had was suddenly overshadowed by the anxiety of meeting the Goddess for the first time. Although the Goddess had been with the Mortar for some time, Delegan had only joined up with the entourage late yesterday. Judging by the Mortar soldier next to him, he guessed that he was not being rushed to the Goddess for any kind of pleasantries.
Delegan was still not sure what he was doing here and why he was a part of this mission:
He had been entrusted by the brothers of Athomos to oversee the journey of the Goddess to Doma Arak. It was deemed necessary that the Highest One had one of the most esteemed librarians as council into the great unknown that was the home of the Imperials.
Why they thought she needed a handler was above him, especially seeing that he could only contribute in an intellectual capacity. Of course he was not the worst diplomat in the world, in fact, if he had to elaborate on that he would raise a few arguments as to why he was a very good one. But at this stage of his life he simply did not have the energy for it anymore and the men who sent him on this expedition knew this about him.
Yesterday they had all rendezvoused at the very opulent Bellatoir Manor of Lord Charlan. His family were the self-proclaimed lords of a very small but very wealthy state wedged between the huge dynasties of Sepulchra and the west border of Tulan, an arid country. Lord Charlan was simply known as a rich upstart by those who cared to take notice of his existence. He was unlikely to offer his house as a checkpoint for just anyone, but there was maybe not a man alive today who could currently afford to turn Axiatés away from his door.
The fool had reportedly tried to seduce the Goddess once she arrived at his gates, an encounter during which he had embarrassed himself greatly if the story Delegan was told was to be believed. That should have been more than enough reason for Axiatés to simply press on past his manor and leave the idiot forever with the reputation of trying to distract the Goddess while she was on a mission of safeguarding the continued existence of mankind. Lord Charlan’s hospitality however would be the last civilized stop for some time, so everyone was happy when Axiatés chose to ignore the slight and happy that they could arrange the Goddess’s stay here. Delegan himself was thankful that they would have some comforts before straying into the more unforgiving territories of Tulan.
The men from Sepulchra who guarded the Goddess were called the Mortars, the elite combat division of the dynasties in the west. The name was derivative from the men who had once steered an artillery division along the waterways, rivers and fjords of the northern border where the Kingdom of Sepulchra and Doman Arak had their most fiercely contested territory.Doma Arak had been winning the war as long as anyone could remember. But the Mortar division in question had wreaked havoc on the Imperial forces to the north. Instead of pulling out, the Imperials pushed fifty thousand men into a part of the world that was a strategic nightmare.
The Sepulchra military struck again in similar fashion and tore the Imperials to shreds and the war was called off given the amount of casualties. Saying that that peace was declared wasn’t an apt description either - it was merely a stalemate that lasted for a 120 years by now. Instead, Sepulchra and Doma Arak turned their attentions to countries and states lying in between the two superpowers, trying to starve each other of influence and resources. With each trying to extend their reach as far they possibly could, it was not strange to see soldiers in the Mortar uniform just about anywhere in the western world: the stark yellow-gold body armour valued its awe more than any kind of stealth. It was even more brazen than the dark and grey colours of the Imperials, who also did not incorporate any camouflage into its design. Both of the unions were too proud to compromise the colours of their proud heritage for the sake of something as trivial as the loss of men’s lives. That little fact of these two superpowers alone was indicative of the underlying reasons for conflict; it was an egotistical pursuit of power, the conquest of things that had it to be measured by any sane man would be deemed vain. At least that is how Delegan saw it.
What Delegan was part of though would be quite unique. The Goddess, if one could be convinced that she possibly belonged to one faction over another, was native to Sepulchra. She had no love for those who ruled Sepulchra, but it was as close to a homeland as she had. Their entourage however was destined to deliver the Goddess to Doma Arak, in a cooperative move between the two nations in a bid to accomplish the most significant feat mankind has ever undertaken. This sudden joint venture did not come from nothing. The brightest scientists of both Sepulchra and Doma Arak had been toting a crucial discovery in front of the noses of rulers who would never see eye to eye: the Sun, the beginning of everything, was coming to an end.
That was certainly enough for unions of endless pride to set aside thoughts of conquest until such a time as they could go to sleep without the fear of the sun not rising. Delegan was well aware that if everyone’s greatest fear did come to pass, it would not even include a scenario where men woke to a cold and dark world, waiting for the sphere of the earth to simply flash freeze. No; the sun would not go quietly and be snuffed like a candle. At its last, it was likely to expand violently, and given its size and energy, it would burst across space in a huge ripple, smashing and obliterating the planets and their moons that stood within its solar system. They would all be here one moment, and in the last great roar of the sun, be gone the next.
So one power could deliver the Goddess, while the other had an answer to her creating or renewing the sun.What the Imperials had to offer, Delegan was not certain, but he had heard reliably from one of his brother librarians that they had technologies to aid the Goddess in her mission.
Walking the corridors along with a Commander of the Mortars, the reason for Lord Charlan’s wealth hung from the very ceilings of the manor. His family had discovered ways to mould singing crystals. They were strange things. The house, however intricate, was built so that a breeze could sweep through most of the building if one set of windows were left open. The crystals, hanging from the ceiling with tiny strings or from the light fittings, bristled in the wind, and for the secret way in which they were crafted, took on the properties of a number of musical instruments.The sounds the crystals made unnerved him, leading him to the antechamber of Bellatoir. Frankly, Delegan did not understand how anyone stayed here for any extended period of time without going crazy.
‘You need to talk some sense into the High One,’ said the Commander.
‘Because you’re not a Mortar. And they said you’ll understand her better than the rest of us. ’
‘What exactly is going on if I might ask?’
The Commander sighed. ‘We have a traitor or two, within our own ranks. They were going to ask the Goddess to hold a court judgement on the souls of recently departed brothers-in-arms, the story being that they were not given proper burial rights and might fail to depart our world without help.’
‘Is the Goddess in charge of our souls now?’ asked Delegan.
‘What she is capable of or not is beside the point. She saw fit to hear the men out in the antechamber as though she had real authority in the matter.When she sat down for them to make their plea, they turned their weapons on her!’
‘That could not have ended well,’ said Delegan.
‘That’s the problem old man, it didn’t end at all. I don’t know if the Goddess would have defended herself, but many of my men rushed in to detain the traitors. A brief exchange of fire ensued. The traitors were mowed down quickly, but there is now some confusion as to who the traitors were to begin with. The Goddess is demanding that the wounded be killed as a safety measure, and as a warning to any traitors who remain. But my second in command is refusing the Goddess’s order.’
Delegan processed the explanation. The Mortars, being uniformly dressed posed a certain problem when it came to identification amongst them. Every inch, including their heads, were covered, their helmets elongated at the jaw to form two pointed ornamental tusks, or mandibles the way Delegan saw it. That together with their eyes sitting behind perfectly round many-facetted glass lenses, made them look like they had drawn inspiration from a family of insects, the layered armour being the carapace if you will.
‘What is your stance on this?’ Delegan asked the Commander.
‘I don’t have a stance against a Goddess, I just want you talk to her before anyone opens fire or before she loses her temper!’
This was not quite how Delegan had imagined his first night would pan out.
‘Approach warily,’ advised the Commander as they grew near.
Delegan felt himself grow pale coming to the room. The antechamber was quite huge, and it was here where the lord of mansion had the most chandeliers of singing crystals. It was apparent then that Delegan had arrived too late to instil some sense into the situation. He was to witness the very last of a stand-off doomed to conflict. From his point of view, he entered the room from what could be considered the back, opposite to where visitors to the lord’s manor might come through the doors at the far end to make a petition to lord Charlan. Where he would sit, in the middle of the chamber, was a gilded chair, the only piece furniture on the large oval shaped marble floor, the room spacious and bare. But at this moment and at this early in the morning it was Axiatés sitting in the chair, Delegan spotting her long raven dark hair flowing over the backrest of the chair. She was sitting perfectly still and she seemed to have an audience of Mortar soldiers in front of her, some pointing weapons at her, some pointing weapons at each other.
‘We will not kill innocent men who might very well have saved your life!’ cried the man Delegan assumed was the Commander’s second in command.
‘Decide now if you want to be known as traitors in my eyes. I will take the life of every man here if you do not obey my command!’ Her voice rang out.
The second in command made a dreadful mistake, turning his weapon on the Goddess right then. His choice was made.
The situation could not be more alarming, and the misunderstanding culminated right then into a massacre. A hum came across the room, and then a rumble. The chandeliers came crashing down, their chains cut by invisible forces. The many crystals suspended from the circular metal frames crashed spectacularly all around the Mortars and the unflinching Goddess. The men were seemingly showered in glass shards. They hunkered down in the turmoil and came out unscathed, except for a solitary man who had taken the brunt of a chandelier’s impact.Just when things had gone quiet, the room was swept up in a stranger chaos still. The thousands upon thousands of crystal shards that had smashed on the floor were pulled toward one corner of the room like a retreating tide - they rose in a heap and then coalesced into the figure of a giant serpent, moving in a convincing imitation of a snake. Everyone knew who the puppet master was here; no one other than the Goddess could invest her power into what was effectively a lifeless substance and gather it into an entity as lifelike as this. The glass serpent, composed of so many particles was mainly featureless, yet there was an aggression to it that was tangible. Delegan had seen three horrible events in his lifetime. This was the fourth.
The serpent of glass lunged with force, the head changing shape as it went, and pierced the Mortar like a needle and thread, the hundred tiny wounds that the glass caused creating an erratic pattern of blood across the floors and walls. The Mortar men opened fire on the glass, the bullets passing through as it did not have any real substance. Where Delegan tried to stay out of sight, the Commander rushed in, shouting wildly to try and diffuse the situation and save his men. The serpent on one of its rounds across the hall seemed very corporal as it rammed the Commander senseless against the chamber wall like a giant fist.
It spared not one of the Mortars, guilty or innocent. Finally it decided to finish the rest of them in one terrifying moment. At the mouth of the snake, it grew red, as though a fire was lit there, rapidly heating the glass participles. The next moment it roared and a spray of superheated glass swept over the last six men, leaving them burned and mutilated. Delegan found himself sitting on the floor, looking aghast at the carnage and the snake slowly slithering around the room and circling the Goddess now that no other threat existed. Delegan himself certainly was not a threat. The Goddess had still not moved except for the most indistinct breeze that passed through her hair.
To the end of his days Delegan could not say why he approached through the carnage - it was not the cancer ravaging his stomach that made him approach so recklessly. No, it was something else. The Goddess had an allure to her. As he trudged through the chaos, the snake watched him, its eyeless head following Delegan’s every movement, guarding the Goddess. Delegan very cautiously circled around the Goddess so that he could approach from the front. She was rigid in the chair, her hands wrapped around the armrests like she was shackled there. She had clearly undergone a great deal of anxiety just now. Maybe that is why he approached her, he had somehow sensed her fear. Her eyes were trained on him, the pupils dilated. She was fair skinned and wore a stunning green dress. She also had several pieces of jewellery; bangles, earrings and rings of elaborate nature. Her servants painted her face, but Delegan could see it was woefully unnecessary. She was a stunning creature.
‘The birds are going to sing soon,’ she said.
Delegan could have guessed it, but the way she said it and then suddenly one chirp ignited the existence of others was eerie. She had been intent on proving to Delegan that she knew things only a Goddess could now.
Delegan wasn’t sure; was she a deity for real? Or was she simply the closest thing to a Goddess seeing that she helped power civilizations with the suns she created?
That was the worst part for Delegan to try and process. For extended periods of time the girl seemed to appear very human, but within her lurked a power too terrible to try and comprehend.
‘They were going to kill me,’ said Axiatés.
Delegan wasn’t going to ask whether she could die right away. There would be many questions like these yet to be answered sooner or later.
Delegan was very aware the Goddess could tear him apart at a whim, discard his being from existence without even a move of the lips, so he was going to talk using utmost discretion.
She was a very strange creature and right then Delegan hoped she could not read minds. Why they had given him this responsibility was anyone’s guess.
‘I like the birds. They sound hopeful, calling out the day, asking the sun to rise. And when it does I imagine them conferring like they are sitting around a great big table, with tea for everyone, and they could talk about good things, not interrupted by anything until the sun has come and gone.’
Delegan had noticed she was shaking slightly and her hands were still trying to dig into the armrests. If it had been any other girl he might’ve tried to take her hands in a calming gesture.
‘Can I bring you a cup of tea Your Excellency?’
‘That would be very nice,’ she said softly. Her voice was haunting.
Walking from the antechamber into the kitchen Delegan felt sick, his head spinning. Behind him he suddenly realized what madness had just transpired, the gravity of the situation starting to sink in. The kitchen was brightly lit, seemingly clinical compared to the chamber Delegan just left. When he stood there, waiting for the kettle to boil, his mind was scrambling on options. I should run, just go back to Athomos. ‘This is the most important period in the history of man,’ they had said to him. They were right of course, and Delegan could not turn his back on that.
When Delegan brought the Goddess her cup and saucer he was shaking badly, managing to hand it to her without spilling tea on her.
She grabbed him by the sleeve and his heart froze. Delegan was already dying, but he still had a great fear of dying by the hands of the Goddess.
‘You have cancer?’ she asked.
‘That is right Your Excellency,’ he stuttered. She did know things.
‘You outlived your wife? Did you love her?’
Delegan was silent, his throat constricted. This night had been much too exciting to bring up conversations about his wife.
‘You did not?’ asked Axiatés.
’I loved her very much, Your Excellency. She was the light of my life and my days left on this earth since her departure are but a shadow of a life already spent and done. I used to bring her tea every night, just like... The pain of losing her returned to him, the kinds of pain revisited on him again of which he thought the worst were already over. He had to reach into his coat to bring a handkerchief to his eyes, wiping tears away like a fool not a foot away from the most powerful being on earth.
‘What did she look like?’ asked Axiatés.
Delegan tentatively removed a folded photograph out of his pocket. He had others, better ones, but this one was the one he carried around with him. It was his favourite. It was a picture of his wife a year before she died, and when he looked at it, the smiling face still transformed the wrinkles and the grey hair into any stage of her life that was most beautiful to him on that day, drawing from a lifetime worth of memories. Sometimes, that mind as big as a vault did nothing but remember her many happy moments, honouring the times that she laughed and smiled.
Wiping the last of his tears away he said, ‘You are almost as beautiful as she was,’ in a voice thick with grief.
Delegan did not know where that came from, and if a Goddess was a vain creature then he might yet be sent to meet his wife in the afterlife right now. He had just implied to this ageless being that she was inferior to another woman. But she looked up at him and the slightest smile touched her lips.
’Your wife was a very fortunate woman, and you are dependable are you not? Can I depend on you Delegan?’ asked Axiatés.
He said nothing.
’Ergeath Mothondo, rido al el lis di duhato,’ she said musically in a language as old as the mountains.
Those were words Delegan had often said to his wife, and no one else than the two of them had understood them. Delegan suddenly realized why he might be of some use. He and the Goddess were probably the only two persons left in the world that could still speak in the Old tongue of Sepulchra; no other scholar had ever bothered to learn the language.
‘Of course you can Your Excellency.’
Her eyes shone bright and suddenly Delegan was put on his back, a pain unimaginable lancing through his stomach. He cried out, writhing up and down seemingly wrestling with himself as something invisible clawed his insides. When it subsided, he waited for it to come back, convinced that the Goddess had decided to take his life. He sat up gingerly and looked at her in confusion, her face now still and unreadable. Strangely, he felt something had changed in him.
‘I have burned the cancer from your body Delegan. You can be my loyal subject for longer now. ’
Delegan felt his stomach, as though he could reasonably confirm what the Goddess was saying with his hands. ‘You are not ready to die yet old man, even though you long to be with your wife.’
‘That is true,’ said Delegan in a weak voice. A moment later Delegan realized the Commander of the Mortar was stirring against the wall. He had taken a very heavy blow, but he alone among the Mortars had been left alive. Him being spared made Delegan question whether there was some sense to the Goddess’s merciless display beyond just the rage of self-preservation. He felt brave enough to ask, ‘Why Your Excellency, did the Mortar men have to die?’
‘They were going to convince me in some elaborate ploy that the men are especially loyal for cornering their own brothers for betrayal. I gave them an option… they could still show a change of allegiance to me at their last… alas, the leader of the traitors panicked given my ultimatum and showed his true colours.’
‘What about him?’ asked Delegan, pointing his hand in the direction of the Commander.
‘He was not part of it,’ said Axiatés simply.
‘What could they have accomplished once they gained your trust?’
Axiatés shrugged, a strange gesture for a being who seemed to know things. ‘Not all within Sepulchra want to hand me over to the Imperials. Maybe the Mortars would have steered me astray? Lead me to a place where they could entrap me in a vault? Whatever the case, they would have tried to prevent me from fulfilling my mission.’
’Will… will we wait for a new escort? A loyal one?’
‘No, we will be a small group going to Doma Arak. It is better that way,’ said Axiatés.
‘It will be very dangerous!’ protested Delegan.
‘Delegan, I need the shadow of your life to be the bravest of your life. There are men who want to kill me. I need your wisdom and protection. I need you to see me through alive.’
Delegan was stunned. What kind chance did he stand against anyone the Goddess couldn’t stop herself? It didn’t make sense to him. But he felt he had little chance of changing her mind, and merely nodded.
Dawn came, the light of day coming through the antechamber very much like the wind was meant to filter through the house, slowly filling the room, the glass snake glistening.
When the sun hit her face, the alien quality was gone, and Delegan swore he saw the beauty of mortality. He called her a beauty because he did not know what to make of a being as celestial as the stars. The cheeks had the slightest hint of colour, the eyes were big and brown, the mouth and nose delicate. There was a thing about her that was not inviting. Some young man would lose his heart on her seeing her like this. And she would forever be more than any man could handle. And still they would fall at her feet, with just the slightest hope of being a suitor to her. He almost understood Lord Charlan’s foolish notion of courting Axiatés. He could not deny he was somewhat entranced himself.
Basking in the sun, Axiatés was in thought. When she looked into Truth of Everything, a special place her mind could wander, she soon discovered that Delegan’s wife had not passed from this world peacefully. By chance, the Sigotor beast called Ultair had caught her soul in his web when she passed away, even though he himself is kept in his tomb. She sympathized with the old man and at the very least she would see if her soul could be freed. She was not about to tell Delegan about all of this.
A thousand miles away there was a man in the Gardens of Scithea that could possibly defeat Ultair, the soul eater. It took more concentration than she cared to admit - maybe the day had taken a toll on her, and this vessel of flesh that she lived in could bleed, fear and grow tired after all. But she accomplished what she set out to do. There was a sealed chamber in the ruined temple, deep in the catacombs, kept in check by many locks. She undid them magically. Ultair would walk free again.