It was strange.
Surreal, she realized, as she turned the repetitive thoughts of earlier over again in her mind.
How normal everything seemed in light of what was about to come.
Her candle was burning low. Even the longer one she'd requested of the bar maid and paid the excess coin for didn't seem long enough.
But then, she told herself ruefully, the candlemaker couldn't have likely made one long enough to be suitable, even if he labored a century's worth of days and nights over it. She watched beads of wax slide down the sides to pool in the middle of the wooden tabletop, the smell of charring wick ripe in her nose.
If, she then reminded herself as she leaned her chin in her hand, he was still able to make them at all.
He'd been found dead in the gutter three days prior, blood dried across his nose and mouth, flies buzzing about his bloated corpse. Robbery, the constable had said, although she knew he'd pocketed the coin for himself.
The candle guttered to spill soft light across her white hands, catching her ring and making it glimmer.
Usually, such things helped her arrange her thoughts when they became a muddle.
But not this night, not when troubles laid so heavily within her heart.
The taper, she noticed, smelled of foreign spices; likely an import the city had obtained before taking over the lands that laid across the sea and leading those to the same ruin they had everything else. No wonder the extra cost for everything now. Not that coin proved a concern to her; she could create all she wanted and then some. Yet, it was another sign she couldn't ignore. The city, her city, was failing.
Had been failing for some time.
I wonder what I could have done differently. It was the same question, touching the edges of her meditations like poison.
For it, there was no answer.
It was already too late.
Sighing, she passed an idle finger through the flame, watching as it twisted and bent away at unnatural angles to avoid singeing her flesh. They would be disappointed in her once more, scolding her when she came back.
But then again, maybe the next time I should---
"Raise up another toast lads, we have the whole night and a whole keg!"
She had almost been able to forget she wasn't alone, but only for an instant--they were becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Furtively, her stare slid from the confines of her cowl across the tavern.
This was the trio's fourth--or was it fifth now--self-congratulatory drink. More and more ale sloshed down the tankard sides with each passing hour and she found it amazing they got any past their lips at all.
No need to conceal the truth of my presence from them.
The soldiers seated at the bar were far too drunk to so much as glance at the robed waif in the tavern's shadowed corner. She doubted even if she allowed the extent of her true power to radiate outward, they would give her more than a passing thought. She could easily have been to them another sorcerer or necromancer passing through, looking for a secluded place to plot another swindling venture or money-making scheme.
Just as well.
As she watched the play of light and shadow across their weathered features, memories of them were slowly resurfacing. Their eyes shone gold in the poor light, reminding her of demons she'd once seen. Such murder-lust she found in those gazes. She remembered those faces younger, those eyes hopeful.
Once so innocent...
And now so polluted, she saw. Their black deeds reflected muddy on their souls, putting her in mind of sullied ponds that had once been pure. Names drifted to the surface of her recollections like leaves.
Simon. The one sitting on the uneven stool, grinning to reveal a missing front tooth he'd lost in a fight defending his late wife's honor. Father to a dead son, had dreams of owning acres of farm land that had gone up in foreigners' flames years ago.
Now he passed his time crushing the enemy's infant sons under his boots before they could grow into men and oppose him.
Gregory. Sandwiched in the middle, offspring to a pair of farmers. He'd once wanted to wed the mayor's daughter until that day last year in the fields. An arrow, blood, so much blood, her eyes open to reflect the sunny sky. A last shuddering breath in his arms.
He violated any woman belonging to his adversaries before he murdered them.
Harold. Last but not least, he'd owned a flower shop in this very city and sold to wedding ceremonies and christenings. He'd taken great pride in growing those flowers himself, his violets and roses.
Just before it had been taken over by the emperor's soldiers looking for a garrison, he'd sold more for funerals than anything else. Then he was recruited, and forgot about flowers altogether.
Instead, he set fire to his opponent's crops, taking sadistic glee in watching as it spread to their homes as well. Any flowers he saw would be picked, saved to toss across the earth's ashen remains before they moved on.
Interesting indeed, the concept of war. Where was that fatal flaw, that dark mark, that allowed beings to do such things to one another? She hadn't yet been able to put a finger on it.
Maybe next time I can...
The three mens' childhoods slipped murky past the backs of her eyes, as well as those of their fathers and grandfathers before them. It all seemed like yesterday to her. Elder gods, had it really been three hundred years by their reckoning since she'd last been here?
What once was...
She shook her head to rid herself of the visions. If she allowed herself to recall them as they had been, she would feel guilt, sorrow, when it was time.
...Cannot be again, not here like this.
There was no room for that.
She hardened herself against the impossibility of it.
The three continued to speak low among themselves, but she caught their every word even above the screech of the storm raging outside, the creak of timbers struggling to stay erect. She pretended to toy with her own tankard, venturing at last a tentative sip from it. What greeted her lips was a far cry from the ambrosia she was accustomed to. It had been a mistake to order ale for herself.
She pulled a face and resisted the urge to spit it back out.
Had she known they were using grain for making such swill, she would have soured it in its barrels before the taverns could serve it. Such a simple concoction, but she had seen it lead to its own brand of destruction more than once, the same as back home.
She abandoned the alcohol and listened, screwing up her focus.
The soldiers went on, oblivious to her couched just yards away.
Their sins continued to unravel, each separate act they bragged about another fiber in a long rope of misdeed. These things she hadn't known about, the fresh string of crime upon crime, bloodletting after bloodletting. Children, women, those that the army didn't even permit to serve in their ranks.
She felt her stomach twist.
They continued to converse.
And in spite of herself, she became well-versed in all of their atrocities.
Revenge. She soon came to learn more about the detailed fabric of its sordid making than she'd known before as she continued to eavesdrop--what was done to one side of a conflict was exacted upon the other with malice tenfold. More mindless destruction.
She bit back the urge to be ill.
Softly, the grandfather clock tucked away in the corner chimed the hour.
She had been sitting and fretting for four hours.
Enough of this.
She'd tried to hold out one last hope for them all, some minute shred of doubt that down to the last they could be this corrupt, this imperfect.
All in vain.
Drawing in a breath, she scraped back her chair and stood, smoothing the folds of her cloak with shaking fingers. They were declaring another toast, swaying unsteady on their stools. They had grown careless in inebriation, their tones growing loud and slurred, their laughter waxing raucous in the hour she'd been listening to them.
They were discussing the finer points of rape when she killed them.
A motion with her smallest finger and the act was done. Tankards rang crashing as they fell from nerveless hands. Open eyes quickly lost life's luster.
Ale slid like discolored blood between the floorboards.
No one would be descending from the second story to see what the matter was despite the racket--she'd made sure to finish them all in one motion.
She'd heard of deafening silences before--read of them in the library novels back home, heard people speak of it as a turn of phrase. She'd once wondered how such a paradox could logically exist. Now as she stood surrounded by the dead with her heart tapping in her ears, she understood.
She let out a slow breath.
It was done.
With a flick of her hand, she snuffed the burning candles and walked out into the punishing rain.
As each drop slashed like the penance of a cold whip across her body, she bit her lip against the tide of sadness that threatened to undo her.
Following orders, that was all this had been. Her legs threatened to buckle under her and she stumbled from the tavern's front steps, eyes running with hot grief.
Then, she was attacked.
Drawn to her, the departing souls of all contained within the world battered her as surely as the screaming wind. She raised her arms to send them up into the cloud-blanketed sky, sensing that some were cleaner than others as they churned away from her outstretched palms. Good; purifying a single tainted spirit, let alone so many, was an arduous project.
As their myriad energies faded and scattered, lightning illuminated the remains of a toppled statue lying broken among the main road's cobblestones. Seeing an echo of her own visage in the marred marble, she recalled her first visit here as a holy woman, preaching the truth of this world.
In the beginning she had enjoyed coming here, using different disguises so none would see her the same way twice unless she willed it so. How fertile the ground had been, how clear the sky. How high their hopes were in those early days, and how often they had praised her name.
She stood among the ruin, wiping her face and holding her breath against the stench, the smoke. Corpses lay sprawled around her. Some had bloody stumps where she'd crafted hands and feet. Others had one eye where she'd been sure to give them two.
She wasn't sure when their jubilance had become sadness, when she'd started to become overwhelmed by it all. She was reminded painfully that she hadn't the power yet to keep up with so much at once, that the miracles she could work were limited. She had power, but not answers to their questions.
"Sleeper, please, what is my purpose in this life? Tell me why I had to lose my home."
"Sleeper, why did my daughter have to die? She was but four years old."
Sleeper. That was what they'd named her after they had learned how the world was created. Fondness tempered with sorrow saturated her heart to bursting.
Gathering her cloak around her, she staggered over uneven cobblestones stained rusty with old life. Bending, she touched the statue's chipped eye, its face halved where a mace had destroyed most of it.
They'd begun the war that had ruined everything in her name.
The ones she had chosen to appear and preach to had tried spreading her divine word to those that didn't believe in her, to those that worshiped the rocks and trees in her place. To her, it had never mattered; all paths led to her in the end. But to her people, such was sinful. They seemed to enjoy inventing their own ideas on the matter to exclude others when it suited them. What was worse was when they'd begun attributing such hate to her. No matter what incarnation she'd used, she'd never said such things.
The slaughter had been the worst of it. The first time she'd seen a death she hadn't willed, she'd tried in form after form to condemn the bloodshed for many years.
Several times, it had gotten that earthly body killed. Finally, in disgust, she withdrew to distance herself, watching from afar in snatches, trying to let them sort things out for themselves. Attempting not to interfere no matter how much it hurt. That was when they had started to think she had abandoned them.
Perhaps, she admitted to herself, it was the truth. She had been away too long from actively incarnating, hoping it would all correct itself.
A gentle rattle drew her attention away from the crushed effigy.
Had someone been left alive?
As the wooden toy fetched to pause against her boot, she saw them, lying together unmoving in their eternal sleep. Beads of rainwater dewed the ends of eyelashes lying like dark fans against pale cheekbones, coming to rest like colorless pearls crowning their drooping heads.
She recalled them too, not unleashed upon this bleak world but five years before.
She had been far off in the span of their small lifetimes, but sometimes in the twilight between slumber and waking she saw them, little dream-figures that linked their hands together and chanted a tune whose words she couldn't quite discern. She saw in the dim that their fingers were still touching, still trying to reach for one another.
She made herself turn away.
Regrets were for weaker ones than she.
Her sigh was a puff of steam snatched away by the frigid breeze. With a word she could make the rain cease if she wished, but it fit her mood well.
Rivulets slicked down her tunic sleeves and dripped between her fingers, her cloak becoming heavy and sodden with moisture. Her hood slipped back as she peered up into the heavens.
One thing left to do.
She closed her eyes.
Everything around her wavered, starting to melt about its edges.
As the earth crumbled beneath her feet and the sky shattered to disappear into darkness, her eyelids flickered.
When they opened the world was no more.
The lack of sound roused her and she stretched her blood-deprived limbs, wincing as they tingled with fresh life. Each drowsy blink brought her surroundings more into focus. The sharp tang of sea salt, the sweet scent of evening air, the glitter of moonlight from crystalline walls.
She sat up to push dark curls out of her eyes. For the first time in years she was not in a place between sleep and waking, but truly conscious. The sensation of everything, the scrape of rock under her body, the warm weight of the shroud across her legs, so much clearer and sharper than what she was used to. Licking her lips, she swore she could taste the ghost of that loathsome ale yet upon them.
Such was the problem with vivid dreams. After they ended, they had a tendency to haunt her mind for hours after.
She pushed aside the covers and made herself stand. Her skull sang with hot blood and her vision spotted, blurring, making her lean into the neighboring wall for support. Putting one foot in front of the other, she pushed herself forward. As her fingers brushed the rock, the souls she had sent ahead of her, trapped within, flared to life. Her palms and fingertips prickled with their tiny pinpricks of warmth as their glow threw her features into sharp relief.
They were waiting, as she knew they would be.
She could feel the pall of their disapproval growing stronger with each step and it hit her like a smouldering brand as she stumbled to the cave's mouth, swearing as she stubbed a bare toe. Her cloak flushed blue in the crimson of the moon's light; stars sparked and shone in their banks of thick cloud.
She waited for their verdict. It came rumbling from the heavens, more sonorous than any thunder.
You'll be a demi-goddess for eternity at the pace you're going.
The admonishment reverberated though her skull and rattled her teeth. She tightened her jaw against the supposition and reined in her growing temper. All of this had been her effort, not theirs, but they were superior.
Do you understand why we ordered you to end that world you created then, child?
She bowed her head even as resentment boiled. "Yes, Elder gods. It wasn't the Eden you wish to create. You would have been sullied to descend and rule there. Everything must be close to perfect so that you can finishing perfecting it with your wisdom."
She'd memorized her groveling speech well, at least.
Correct. We alloted you three generations of human creation to see how your ideas on how humanity should be, fared. And do you know how far along your sister is in her world, Aurelia?
"No, Elders." And she had no desire to know, either.
If things keep progressing for her as they have been, we shall be ready within another two millennia or so. Perhaps she'll invite you to assist her in ruling Eden with us?
"Perhaps." No chance of that. Eris was nothing if not selfish and always had been from the time they'd been small children together in the Abode that now rested worlds away from where she stood.
Despite this failure, we still have high hopes for you, child. You're nevertheless one of Dios University's most gifted. You realize we only give you another chance out of kindness.
It sounded to her like a backhanded compliment, but even if they'd not withdrawn to leave her alone after that, she wouldn't have dared to complain. The Elder gods, rulers of the gods' Abode and the collective authority over all lesser gods' educations, did as they pleased and that was that. Only their top pupils got the chance to come here, to the Place Between, and dream of a world that might one day become the perfect paradise.
One day she aspired to have such power, but that day wasn't today. Soon she would need to return to sleep, to dream of another world. At least they'd given her another chance, she reflected dryly. In the past some students had been simply expelled, sealed into their dying worlds to rule over inane things like volcanoes.
Such a pain, I need to remake the sky, the earth, and all of those people all over again. From bloody scratch. Then preach to them the truth of how they were created, just like the last time and hope they don't do as they did before. It'll take centuries to build everything up again. Damn!
She inhaled and relaxed her hands from the fists they'd clenched into, willing herself to calm. A walk was in order first, time to enjoy a period of rest between slumber and creation. With care, she picked her way past the sharp crags to where the stone was worn smooth with the ocean's lapping. Sand, white and fine-grained like sugar, stuck to the soles of her naked feet and the constellations above her head twinkled.
She stood at the edge of the water and allowed the surf to suck at her toes.
Eris was succeeding only because, as she'd said in a Dream Sending the month before, she was creating her humans to behave like mindless slaves.
"But what good will that do? Don't you want them to love you as their choice, do what you say because they wish to? We have free will, why not allow them to have it too? Should they not be allowed to make mistakes as we sometimes do?" She remembered her own argument.
"Oh, how naive you are, little sister. No wonder Mother and Father said they'll never speak to you again if you get expelled. Who needs love if you have power?" She could see the patronizing fashion in which Eris had smiled despite how murky and faint the Sending was. "We may not be perfect, but at least we're not as foolish as humans are. If you give them the chance to, they'll---."
She tried to cut the memory away before it could complete itself, but as she arched her toes down to burrow into the sand, it drifted back to finish and mock her.
"---only destroy themselves."
"Watch, Eris, things will work out!" She'd snapped back, her temper fraying. "Just because humanity has free will doesn't mean my world can't achieve Eden! We should be working with our creations, not just ruling over them!" She'd always believed that, so strongly. In spite of everything, a part of her still did.
A flash caught her eye. She glanced up in time to see a shooting star, its tail a bright arc against an ebony backdrop. The Elders were still watching her and she resisted the childish urge to stick out her tongue where they could see. Wouldn't it be rich, she told herself, if even they had some authority to answer to! It would serve them right after treating everyone else like playthings. So obsessed with making perfection. She sometimes wondered privately if they were as flawless as they claimed. Back home she had been considered too lowly a goddess to ever sit in the presence of an Elder, and so she had never known.
The minutes passed.
In time, the water grew cold and the moon lifted higher to touch the sea with jewels of red. The familiar weariness pulled at her again and her awareness drifted.
There had been good too, when she'd allowed her humans to do as they'd pleased. Laughing children, farmers helping one another to preservere through the flood rains she'd tested them with. Love. Friendship. Caring.
But then there had been hate, lies, avarice. Killing.
Had she been naive as her sister suggested? Was she still being so? If she failed and was expelled, she would lose everything, everyone. Her home and family, lacking as they sometimes could be, were the sole world she'd ever known until recently. She battled a fresh surge of homesickness remembering a warm quilted bed with many pillows and exhaled.
Maybe I should take it from them.
She swallowed and turned away to start out of the water, lifting the hem of her saturated cloak to shake the clinging drops from her feet. Stopping still between the shoreline and her bower, she weighed the choice that laid ahead.
The moon grinned at her knowingly and she began to move again with a shudder.
She walked back, forcing herself over the worn rocks, past the dangerous ones, back to the mouth of her cave. A soft breeze blew to ruffle her disheveled ringlets and all fell quiet again.
But if I really do take it from them, I'll...
Lose everyone, that is, but her self.
She hesitated again, a lone figure etched black against the grey of stone.
Inside, sensing her arrival, the souls' myriad lights shone and quivered. The wind hissed again between them.
And for the first time, she heard the childrens' quiet song, clear above the whisper of waves at her back. It echoed faint in her ears before fading into the endless night around her.
"Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream."
She had never felt so alone.