Ayen led Leon, Bassi, Joan, Jitters, and I through the Wind City, not even delaying when we stopped to gawk. They had a destination in mind and a mission to complete, and it was all we could do to keep up.
“This audience is of vital import,” they told us as we neared one of the peaks. “I cannot understate how much so, to the point that the Monarch saw fit to warn me of your arrival ahead of time.”
The mountain peak we were climbing towards had been sheared off at the top, leaving a flat plateau that was definitely not natural in origin. Neither was the verdant plant life that grew there. It was a jungle where there should have been snow and pine, and it was breathtaking in its beauty.
The path up to the peak was long and spiralled up the peak at a leisurely pace. Ayen was silent as we climbed, so we were too.
When we arrived at the top, we found a bountiful and only slightly tamed garden full of birds, gently bioluminescent flowers, and burbling streams. On the opposite side of the tiny plateau, a gnarled old tree rose almost forty meters into the air. Every branch was different, some were ethereal and shimmering, others were burning with fire, or frozen solid. One was even made entirely of shadows identical to those I controlled.
A dirt path meandered through the clearing, and after removing our shoes and placing them inside a hollow tree, we followed it. The soil beneath my feet was so soft, almost like we were walking on raw wool, rather than dirt.
Crossing the plateau took almost three minutes, and when we arrived near the massive tree, Ayen gestured for us to continue alone. “The audience is for you, not me,” they explained softly.
“Okay,” I said, speaking for my friends and me.
It was another fifty meters or so to the base of the tree, and suddenly I found Bassi’s hand in mine. “I was never allowed to come up here. Shit, I only ever heard of this Monarch person once or twice, from overheard conversations. I have no idea what’s happening, but it’s clear this was kept from me because of my half-breed heritage.”
“Well, the Monarch wants to talk to you now, too,” I told her quietly, leaning over to place a kiss on her cheek. “You’re so much more important than anyone in this city, now. You’re our leader.”
“Maybe,” she replied, clearly not convinced.
The base of the tree was surprisingly orderly, considering the near-wild of the garden behind us. Roots grew out in a radial and methodical pattern that defied simple nature. Just another way that the tree wasn’t normal.
Even stranger, there was nobody around. No crazy godlike fae, no little pixie person, not even a face on the tree itself. All was silent, and we stood there waiting, glancing around and at each other with growing restlessness.
Finally, Bassi murmured, “Hello?”
Her voice echoed like we were inside a massive cavern, but nothing moved, nothing happened. Was the Monarch unwilling to speak to us after all?
That fear was proved to be unfounded when the entire tree began to shudder. It twisted and writhed for several seconds, and then it began to shrink. Like a video of a tree growing in reverse, it pulled itself in over a minute, twisting and wrapping in on itself as it went.
When that minute ended, the entire tree had disappeared, replaced by a collection of roots, vines, branches, and moss that had been packed tightly together into the form of a nude woman. She stepped forward, daintily picking her way across the leaf-strewn ground that her feet had so recently been nestled within.
“Hello,” she smiled, her voice both impossibly loud and almost too quiet to hear. “Thank you for coming to see me. I am the Monarch of the Inbetween, the veil, the lost, and the old. I am everything that they could not take into themselves. I am the deity who watches over the wild and the fae. It is a pleasure to finally meet you all.”
“This is getting out of hand,” I muttered. “Now there are four of them.”
Instantly, I winced. Oh dear. Mist, can you not say stupid shit for like, three seconds?
“Actually,” she laughed, and oh fuck was her voice achingly beautiful. “There are currently at least eight deities roaming the world.”
“Oh,” I mumbled, eyes widening at the news. That was definitely not in the temple scriptures back at Anamoor.
“I am afraid I do not have a lot of time,” the goddess continued, giving us an apologetic look. “Before I begin to explain what my sister did not, I want to thank you all for what you are doing. Truly. Being abducted from your own plane of existence to help ours is undoubtedly a harrowing experience for you all.”
“For some of us, but for others it’s been pretty great,” Leon said, glancing at me with a grin.
“That is good to hear,” she said, inclining her head, foliage swaying with the motion. “Now, I must begin my tale some thousands of years ago. Creation and Destruction have not always existed as they are now. Once, they were brother and sister, twins split along the divide between the higher concepts that they now embody.”
“In those times, the world was in a constant state of war and chaos. Gods large and small roamed the world, vying for dominance and using whatever means necessary to acquire the power they needed. Mortals, spirits, and fae alike were caught in this crossfire, or worse, subjugated and used as pawns within the game of the gods.”
“In an effort to end those dark times, the spirits banded together and hatched a plan. The spirit that became Creation would begin to defeat and consume the gods and goddesses who fell within her concept, and her brother, Destruction, would do the same. They were chosen because of their strong love for one another, which the spirits hoped would contain the natural tendency of the two concepts to war with each other.”
“Over a long and brutal campaign, the spirits carried out their plan. Some gods went willingly, while others were consumed at the point of a blade. It was a horrific time to be alive, but eventually the war was one. Except, that is, for one small problem,” she said, trailing off with a wry smile.
“You…” Joan blurted, understanding widening her eyes. “Not everything falls within the neat little boxes of Creation and Destruction. You called yourself the Monarch of the Inbetween.”
“Exactly,” the goddess agreed beatifically. “The spirits did not see the problem. Thinking within the grey is not their strong suit, by their very nature. The fae, on the other hand, live entirely within the space between good and evil, right and wrong, creation and destruction. The fae stepped in and began their own campaign, warring against those deities that fell between the cracks. I was fae, once, but we used our magic to turn me into something more, and thus, the balance that the mortal races wished for was achieved, despite the shortsightedness of the spirits.”
“Okay, so there’s three of you?” I asked, tapping my chin in thought. “You called Creation your sister, too?”
“Not by blood,” the Monarch explained. “But the three of us were the only three beings comparable to gods and goddesses for a very long time. Until, that is, humanity heard a rumour.”
“Why is it always us?” Joan groaned, pinching the bridge of her nose. “It’s always like that. ‘The world had a real good thing going, until the humans came along and fucked it all up.’”
“Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened,” she said apologetically. Why she was apologising, I don’t know. “You see, a small group of powerful humans heard a rumour of my existence, and with that, they learned of a possibility. They realised they could create their own god, one that they foolishly assumed would serve them.”
“They went about their plan in secret, and they used the energies of Creation to do it,” the ancient dryad sighed. “They found objects of the concept of Creation and they began to siphon her power into their own god, without any understanding of the hell they would be unleashing on the world.”
“By the time any of us realised what was happening, it was too late. The Wind Court were the closest, and they attempted to intervene, to save the balance. They were not in time, for as Creation’s power waned, Destruction could no longer contain and control his power. Without his sister to steady him, the carefully tended balance began to unravel.”
“First to be severed from Destruction was Utyx, the god of rot. In the past, he had been subjugated at the point of a blade, and he immediately set out for revenge. He twisted any life he could get his diseased hands on, turning them into monsters. Human became Gurg. Fae became Alabaster. The list goes on, and he used his new armies to smash the mortal races and convert them to his army.”
“Mankind fled under the onslaught, seeking refuge within Creation’s holy city, Anamoor. Creation could not stand the sight of so many falling to the wave of rot, so she raised the walls that now shelter the city. The corrupt leaders of humanity asserted themselves within these walls and began to purge all memory of their folly from the history books.”
“That explains why we didn’t know any of this,” I grumbled, wanting to go back and start killing rich merchant assholes.
“Indeed,” the Monarch nodded. “This is, unfortunately, as far as my knowledge of the situation goes. Creation is too weak to convey any messages to me through our usual means, and Destruction… he is stretched to his limit. The massive devastation of the world that you have seen is a particularly catastrophic symptom of his loss of control.”
“So… you’re saying that the whole world being ripped to pieces is an accident?” Jitters asked, her face white with awe and fear. “It’s… it’s the godly equivalent of, what, something like my shakes?”
“Vaguely, yes,” the dryad replied, smiling at the small human woman.
Bassi looked thoughtful beside me, so I nudged her with our clasped hands and gave her a questioning look.
She blinked and glanced at me, then turned to the Monarch. “I think we saw why Creation and Destruction have been so preoccupied. Rather than just letting the world get torn apart like an exploding apple, they are carefully easing every chunk of rock and dirt out into the void. It’s like they’re… uh…”
“Damage control,” I gasped in understanding. “They’re making sure we have something left to live on once this has all played out. Destruction is like, all orange and black in colour right?” I asked that last of the deity before us, and she nodded. “Right, then he practically shoved us in the direction of that airship. What if we’re meant to reverse engineer it? Give the mortal races of the world a way to traverse this new reality we live in?”
“I suspect you are right, on all accounts,” the Monarch agreed. “I witnessed my sibling’s cooperation firsthand when the various courts of the fae were caught up in the cataclysm. I was unaware of this airship, however. It is good you have the vessel, too, because while I can explain much of the past, I cannot give you a plan for the future.”
“Then… what do we do now?” Bassi asked, holding tightly to my hand.
The Inbetween God gave us all an uneasy, apologetic look. “You must journey to the city of Destruction and speak to him. Ask him directly what needs to be done to halt the apocalypse that we now face.”