All six gods once again stand in the Grand Arena, a gleaming edifice that exists in both the mortal world and the divine realm of the gods. Six champions stand before them, their trials complete, ready for whatever awaits.
There stands Thaeriel, God of Light, crowned with golden sun. Before him is his champion Lysander, whose body is run through with veins of pure gold that shine in the Light. He clutches a golden pear, his expression unreadable.
Beside Thaeriel is Elyrian, God of Magic, robed in stars, and before him his champion Pallas. Pallas stands at ease, and a rat sits on the shoulder of their flowing robes.
On Thaeriel’s other side is Ludia, Goddess of Deception, the Lady of Lies, a discordant pairing none can reconcile. Her champion Orfeo is tied to her by a long silver chain wrapped around his wrist. If he has brought any prize from his trial, it is not evident.
Across the Arena, arrayed like a thunderhead, stand the other three gods. Malissus, Goddess of Death, all ash and bone, stands in the center in smirking challenge to Thaeriel. Their loathing for one another is palpable, made all the sharper—or so the scribes say—for the fact that it once was love. Malissus’ Champion, Neferu, stands before her but apart, as though insensitive to her god’s presence. She arrived in the Arena astride an undead dragon, a creature once blessed by Thaeriel and now debased beyond redemption. It sits beside her, motionless, unbreathing, thick black blood still oozing from the gaping wound in its forehead.
Next to Malissus is Aeona, Goddess of Nature, ferocious in aspect. Sometimes Aeona brings life and laughter, aligned closely with Thaeriel and with Elyrian. But today she stares at Elyrian with a fury that is met only by cool indifference. Her champion Selena stands before her, her bow stowed away. Where Aeona’s mood is vicious, Selena’s is only wary—ready for a fight, but not seeking one.
On Malissus’ other side is Auros, the massive, mercurial God of War. Clutched in his fist is his chain of crowns, a reminder to Thaeriel and everyone else of the kings and queens who have fallen to war and bloodshed. (Ludia has toppled far more monarchs than Auros, but she seldom sees fit to bring this to either Auros’ or Thaeriel’s attention.) Auros’ champion is Valka, whose bold swagger and easy smile are at odds with the uneasy mood in the Arena. Tucked in her belt is a cloak of shadows, visible only in its bizarre, eye-watering absence.
“Welcome back, champions of the gods,” says Elyrian, in a quiet voice that nonetheless carries to every ear in the Arena.
“Six champions,” intones Thaeriel. Malissus rolls her eyes. “Six trials. Six triumphs. All of you have proven yourselves worthy.”
“Yes,” says Malissus. “All of them. So what’s the point? Doesn’t that put us back where we started?”
“Not at all,” Elyrian replies. “Before these trials, we had no champions. Now we have six mortals to represent us in the world, each of whom has proven their worth in a contest of antagonistic purpose.”
“Fah,” scoffs Auros. “Not nearly antagonistic enough. If we truly want to know whose champion is strongest, let them fight. The Arena is already prepared.”
Pallas shifts uneasily as most of the other champions seem to size up the competition. Only Valka is unchanged, still posing, still smiling.
“That will not be necessary,” says Thaeriel.
“Nor wise,” adds Elyrian. “We have… an alternative proposal. Not to decide a winner, but to prevent a calamity.”
“Not this again,” growls Aeona.
“I propose,” says Thaeriel, “that we lay our divine power upon these worthy mortals. Let demigods once again walk the face of Eucos.”
Thunder crackles and clouds churn as the gods consider this proposal. The champions’ reactions are more muted. Lysander frowns. Pallas’s brow furrows, their face frozen in the faraway look they get when recalling information from old scrolls. Neferu’s expression is calculating, like a javelineer lining up her shot. Valka still just smiles.
“No,” whispers Selena. She shakes her head. “No more demigods. No more wars.” But Aeona is impassive behind her.
The champions look to the trio of angry gods across the Arena from Thaeriel—so obviously arrayed against the Lord of Light, so clearly ready to oppose him. But each, for their own reasons, remains silent.
“To what end?” asks Ludia, fluttering her fan. She says the words like a challenge, but she does not seem surprised by Thaeriel’s proposal.
All eyes turn to Thaeriel, but it is Elyrian who answers.
“I have seen signs in the heavens,” he says quietly. “I tried to tell you, but you would not listen. These signs speak of an apocalypse. Two, in fact. One in the distant past… and another yet to come, a conflict that will make the Demigods’ War seem like a skirmish and shake the very foundations of Eucos.”
“Surely this conflagration can be prevented,” says Ludia.
“It can,” says Elyrian. “But if I am right about its nature, then we cannot prevent it. On the contrary—we will cause it, unless we act now to constrain ourselves. Hold a portion of our power within these mortal vessels, lest we wield that power in violence.”
“Then it is to be another Demigods’ War,” says Auros, his voice hungry with bloodlust. “Our battle would break the world, but theirs could reforge it in fire and blood.”
The would-be demigods stand in silence. Pallas glances at Neferu, but she remains impassive. Lysander is as still as a statue. All of them know that mortal fates bow to divine whim, but to hear the gods discuss one’s own fate, personally, is something very different.
“No,” says Thaeriel. “There is yet no cause for war. These demigods will oversee our domains while we convene a council to determine our next course.”
“Absurd,” says Aeona. “Demigods and divine councils? To prevent a calamity spoken in the stars?” She turns to Elyrian. “Your wanderings have driven you mad, brother.”
“All the more reason, then,” Elyrian replies. “Pallas is eccentric, but they are sane. If I am mad, Pallas will wield my power far more responsibly than I.”
Pallas lifts an eyebrow at that line of argument, but says nothing.
Aeona stares at Elyrian for a long moment, eyes narrowed.
“Enough,” says Thaeriel. “The proposal stands. Choose.”
“Agreed,” says Elyrian.
“Agreed,” says Auros, his chain of crowns rattling eagerly. Valka smiles.
Malissus looks around at the other gods, then down at Neferu.
“You have already broken my rules Neferu of the Red Sands,” says Malissus. “Know this: If you abuse my power as a demigod, an eternity of torment awaits, far worse than anything dreamt of in your little myths. Do you understand?”
Neferu nods, seemingly unimpressed by the promise of eternal suffering.
“I agree,” said Malissus. “Your move, Thaeriel.”
“I’m in,” says Ludia. “Why not?”
Orfeo does not react—but then, he wouldn’t, would he?
The gods all turn to Aeona, who does not speak.
“Please,” says Selena, looking up at her goddess. “This is a mistake. I know what happened the last time. I don’t want to be a demigod. I just want to do the right thing.”
“That Elyrian supports it is cause enough for distrust,” hisses Aeona. “That much is true.”
She leans down to Selena.
Whatever course Elyrian is set on, I must stand against him, she says in Selena’s mind. And with the other gods in agreement, I must do so on the ground he dictates. As I oppose him, you must oppose his champion.
Selena purses her lips, opens her mouth, closes it again, and nods wordlessly. Aeona straightens, her face grim.
“Agreed,” says Aeona.
“Then it is so,” says Thaeriel. The words resonate through the Arena.
Globes of light appear before the gods, each one glowing a different color. The globes float down to the champions and crown them with glory and power.
The pale green of Death surrounds Neferu, the ruined face of the mummified pharaoh Takhat flickering beneath her skin. The bright green of Nature bathes Selena, and she seems even more attuned, more rooted, more present. The royal blue of Magic suffuses Pallas, who seems to pulse with unseen power. The golden-white of Light illuminates Lysander, his veins of gold shining from within. The purple of Deception limns Orfeo, whose features grow more indistinct, his outline blurred. The red of War envelops Valka, her axe and her tattoos burning with one fire.
The six demigods stand transfixed, their bodies frozen as their mortal minds attempt to comprehend even this small sliver of the power of the gods.
Neferu is Death, not only the embalmed dead of the Anubians but the funerary rites of every culture on Eucos, the sand in the hourglass of every mortal span, the constant hum of lives too many to name and too small even to see passing beyond the veil and entering Malissus’ realm to join the endless procession of every thing that ever died. They are all hers, in the end.
Pallas is Magic, present in everything from the smallest particle to the largest star, indivisible by the small taxonomies of mortals who grasp at the truth like children trying to catch a waterfall. They are everywhere at once, particle and wave, ephemeral and eternal, acting and acted upon in an endless cycle that will ripple through the universe until the end of time and beyond it.
Selena is Nature, the subtle and confounding realm of beings who are surrounded and constrained by every other divine domain—dependent on the sun, bounded by mortality, buffeted by unnatural forces, reliant on strife and trickery to survive—yet who constantly defy the gods themselves by being messy, mortal, and alive. The other gods do not understand their interdependence, cannot comprehend that any other god forsaking their domain would extinguish this one forever.
Orfeo is Deception, and finally he understands it—not the clumsy artifice of mortals but the fundamental unknowability of truth, the inescapable treachery of language, the tenuous shadow cast by reality upon the senses, even those of the gods. Mortals lie and think they know the truth, but all knowledge is fiction in the hidden gardens of the cosmos.
Valka is War, not only the march of armies and the push of oars, but every struggle for survival, every contest that one must win and another must lose, from the squabbling of birds over the choicest branch to the brutal strife of nations fighting for their way of life. To exist is to struggle, to struggle is to strive, and where people band together in common purpose, it is inevitably so they can combat something even greater than themselves. It is constant combat, a war without end.
Lysander is Light, the warmth and order that flows throughout the cosmos, the unshakeable laws that govern the movement of the planets and the tangled rules of mortal societies in their vain but noble attempts to emulate that greater order. It is Light that inspires mortals to acts of sacrifice, of compassion, of industry, that neither the cold, heartless cosmos nor the savagery of nature would abide.
“It’s done,” says Malissus. “Now what?”
Thaeriel laughs, loudly and discordantly, and spreads his arms wide.
“Now,” he says, smiling, “it begins.”
A massive golden anvil rises up in front of him, and a huge hammer appears in his hand. Massive golden chains erupt from the ground at the feet of the gods. The chains wrap around the gods and bind all six of them, even Thaeriel himself.
The Arena erupts into chaos.
Aeona struggles at her chains, hissing like a wild beast.
“WHAT IS THIS?” bellows Auros.
“Betrayal,” spits Malissus, staring coldly at Thaeriel.
“An adjustment,” says Thaeriel.
“A necessary one,” says Elyrian.
“WHY CAN’T I BREAK THESE?” demands Auros, pushing against the chains.
“Because you just gave up a portion of your power, remember?” Ludia responds, smiling at him.
Thaeriel hammers at the chains, forging them anew. With each strike, the chains become more solid, more present in the world. With each strike, the gods diminish.
The demigods begin to return to their senses, but their bodies are still sluggish, their thoughts unwieldy. Godhood, even in miniature, sits uneasily on them.
Thaeriel’s hammer pounds on the chains again and again, tightening them around the gods. When he can scarcely lift his arm, he drops the hammer, picks up the last chain, and throws it to Lysander.
Lysander catches the enormous chain. His wits return to him, and he looks down at the glowing chain.
“Lord Thaeriel?” he says. “What do I do?”
“Pull,” says Thaeriel. “Free me.”
“Brother, no!” cries Elyrian. “If even one of us remains free, then it was all for nothing.”
Lysander looks between the two gods. He glances at Ludia, awaiting a barb, but the Goddess of Deception is looking at something else.
“You’re wrong, brother,” says Thaeriel. He turns back to his champion. “Think of it, Lysander. One god. One purpose. One Light, shining throughout the Cosmos. No more War. No more Deception. No more Death.”
“No more Nature!” cries Aeona.
“No more Magic?” asks Elyrian.
“Nature is squalor,” sneers Thaeriel. “Magic is chaos. Life must be ordered by the Light, or it has no purpose.” Thaeriel’s shining eyes lock onto his champion. “Lysander! Now!”
Lysander looks down at the golden chains in his hand. He can feel them, in a way he could not have before. They pulse with cosmic power, fashioned of the raw stuff of creation itself. He is a demigod. The Light shines through him.
Lysander pulls. Thaeriel’s chains begin to fall away.
“Stop him!” says Ludia—not to her own champion, whose chain is tangled with her own, but to Valka, whose red-glowing axe rests in her hand radiating malice and power. “You know what you can do!”
Valka blinks, trying to return to herself.
Thaeriel fixes Ludia with a piercing stare.
“You swore,” he says. “Not even you can break an oath made to me.”
“I swore,” says Ludia, “not to divulge nor hinder your plans as revealed to me. You didn’t reveal this part. Betrayal for betrayal, my brother. Valka! Thaeriel’s chain! Now!”
Finally Valka’s eyes clear, and she lifts her axe.
“No!” bellows Auros to his champion. “Free me! I will deal with him!”
For an instant more Valka stands frozen, torn between the command of her god and her own burning desire to punish Thaeriel—Thaeriel, the god of truth and honesty!—for his deceit.
Lysander pulls, and Thaeriel rises further from his chains.
Valka makes her choice and throws. Her axe tumbles end over end, then cuts cleanly through the chain between Lysander and Thaeriel. Lysander stumbles backward.
With an inarticulate cry of anger, Thaeriel is pulled back into the web of chains. One by one, the gods freeze into golden statues, their power bound by divine chains. The sun goes dark, a sudden eclipse that did not appear on any calendar. A chill wind blows.
Six shocked demigods, alone and unchained, regard each other beneath a broken sky.