Aurelia huddled her knees to her chest and pressed her shaking fist to her mouth. She stared at him, taking in every movement he made, every twitch of his eyes, every sad, whispered word. I meant those words. I still do. Please, Aullienna was…. Don't, Aurelia said. She stood, her shoulders stooped and her head bowed by the low fabric of the tent. Not tonight, not while my husband lies bleeding and bedridden with fever. She stepped outside, whispered something to the angel guard, and then glanced to Qurrah, who did not look back. Thulos looked upon the city from the castle doors, his skin cold marble in the bright moonlight.
Velixar stood beside him, quiet and attentive. Thulos had summoned him to listen, and so he would.
I cannot hear my brothers, Thulos said, his eyes watching the land beyond the walls where the distant army of Ashhur camped. Either of them. But you say you hear Karak's voice, and so I speak to you, in hopes that through you he may speak to me. I will tell you much, mortal, so that you may understand what it is I came for, and why it is I seek your lord. I need you to understand, to ensure Karak hears the truth. Every one of them holds a single world filled with life.
Celestia was the first to create such a place, and I was among the other gods, jealous of her beautiful creation. So we scattered, with the blessing of He Who Judges. We were all mirrors of his glory, but Celestia seemed special, elevated somehow. We created similar lands, for we only sought Celestia's splendor, not knowing how to create it on our own.
When she created man, we did the same. But hers were the first, ours just shallow, imperfect imitations. Thulos drifted off, his mind in times far beyond their own. Karak had whispered to him of other worlds, but never had he heard of their creation, nor mention of He Who Judges. Did gods themselves also have gods?
I created men, much as Celestia did, Thulos continued several minutes later.
I armed them with weapons, and I opened a door to her world and let them through. My pets killed every shred of life. It was petty jealousy, nothing more, and I have forever carried the shame of that single, human moment.
Though very well done in their own rite, they never quite reached the very high bar that Dalglish set with Betrayal. How to write a great review. You have to understand. Tessanna figured as much, and was furious at my cowardice. This was a story with something to say, and it did so in spades.
As punishment I was banished to my own world. Celestia created elves to heal the destruction, and in turn, the others of my kind copied her creation. You created man, and shaped worlds, yet here you stand before me in flesh and blood? Velixar dared ask. Why did you not wave your hand and dismiss those you fought today, and with a word split their very beings to water and dust? Wave my hand? Thulos said, a hint of anger giving life to his words. What do skill and strength matter, what do I matter, if I render all need of such things pointless?
You are too ignorant to understand. You crave only victory, not the battle itself. Karak has certainly fallen far if you are his wisest pupil.
Velixar accepted the stinging rebuke, knowing he should have stilled his tongue. The minutes crawled as again Thulos seemed to dig deep into a memory spanning thousands of years, searching for words to attach to moments that shaped entire worlds. Besides, Thulos said at last. I can no longer do so.
I am not a proper god, not as I once was. Neither is Karak or Ashhur. I came to Him, Thulos said. Told Him what I would do. The men of my world were ruthless, vile, and ignorant. I hovered outside it, peering in, and I felt that was the flaw. With His blessing, I shattered myself. I left the outside. I left all my power, and to the mortal world I fell. In time, I saw my error. The world was no better. Now my creations were divided, battling over worship of my various incarnations, putting one virtue higher than another, as if Justice were at war with Order, or Life in eternal conflict with Mercy.
As Thulos, I was everywhere, for I was War. As my power grew, I slew my brothers, prism refractions of my own being.
Each time, I felt myself returning to wholeness. But then Karak and Ashhur fled here, to the world they once helped destroy. Tell me, Velixar, what happened here, after my brothers denied me my right to ascend, to look from the outside once more and wield all of my divine power? Karak and Ashhur created man, and then through man, waged war against each other, Velixar said.
Celestia imprisoned both, and so my master has called out to you. He wishes to be freed from his cage, to campaign at your side. I wish to be whole. This conquest across the stars, it is merely preparation. We were told of a time when He Who Judges would view our creations, preserving for eternity those he deemed good, and casting into fire forever those he considered ill-wrought and vile. I seek to gather the power of all the stars, all the worlds, and all the gods, and in a loud voice declare to Him that all is good, and that I accept no judge.
I do not need Karak as an ally. I need him to return to me, so we may be whole once more. You ask his death, Velixar said, his heart surrounded by the creeping feeling of betrayal. Velixar listened for Karak's answer, but none came to his ears. Thulos waited, saw he would be given no answer, and then swore in a language Velixar knew nothing off.
A massive fist slammed into the stone of the castle. Cracks ran in all directions. Celestia must be defeated, Velixar said. She gains her strength from the health of this world. Burn its trees, poison its rivers, and kill off her elves.
We will find a way. Pray to your god you are right, Thulos said, trudging back into the castle. And pray you both understand the inevitable future that awaits you. The army traveled during the day, the angels flying above them, forced to slow to accommodate the collective earthbound troops from Mordan and Neldar. Antonil Copernus, their king, rode among them, but his voice was a hollow lie as he encouraged them on, insisting victory was not yet lost.