And then our God was gone, leaving us to ponder our own existence and what that now meant. After several seconds, it seemed all eyes turned to me with hope and fear naked in their expressions.
Feeling their gazes on me even through the mental fog I seemed to have wandered into since the magic and my own grief combined into something terrifying, I blinked through the fog as I realized every eye was on me. Me, a simple monk just barely out of my acolyte training, and they being some of the wisest and most powerful people in the Human race. "What?" I remember snapping defensively.
A black haired young man with a thin mustache and pointed beard stepped forward. "The God called you 'son.'"
I gazed back among the others and saw two other young men who looked as if they could be the dark featured one's brothers. As I gazed around, I saw a few more who looked as if they had come here with siblings, but not many. Many looked as if they had scrounged what they could carry and simply walked away from their towns and villages, friends and kin.
"We are all the sons and daughters of the Lord," I replied, almost automatically as my training had taught me, after taking a long look at them all.
One of the dark man's brothers pushed forward as well. I remember thinking he was the father at first, but the vigor in his movements and the spark in his eyes belied the white hair. "Each of us was called by the God. Told to leave the destruction and await Him here. But none of us was called 'son' by the God. Who are you to be so named?"
I was about to tell them my name but hesitated, letting the breath I had taken slowly leave my body. Mine was an old name, one passed down through my mother's clan for generations beyond reckoning. But it was also a long and horrible name, one which I always had loathed due to the teasing it brought my way. In the old tongues it had meant "wandering one," though why my mother had chosen that as my name had always escaped me. Now they were all gone, or soon would be, and I was left to wander the world forever ... alone. Perhaps my mother, blessedly dead before the last of her clan's wars, had belonged here with this company, instead of me. Perhaps she knew what fate her son would be cursed/blessed with. Perhaps she possessed more wisdom than I remember my grandparents telling me she showed.
"You may call me the Wandering One," I told the rapt audience, gazing over their heads at the mountains without really seeing them. "As for why the Flame Lord called me son, I know not. I only know what He told me on my journey here."
They waited for a long minute, hanging on every word, hoping for further enlightenment. I did not feel wise enough to grant them enlightenment. When it was apparent I would not, a young woman prompted me with, "What did the God say?"
I recall smiling sadly and shaking my head, seeing my now white beard waving in the rising wind. "Only that we were brought here because we were blessed with the intelligence, wisdom, foresight, or intuition to see where our race was going and to absent ourselves from them," I replied, my tone plainly bitter, fighting off the feeling that we were but ghosts of a race too stupid and brutal to know not to fight to the point of extinction. I tried to make my eyes focus on the young woman. She was beautiful in a commonplace sort of way. Long brown hair, brown eyes, tan skin, and the scent of animals came to me from her. Even as I looked at her, a wolf cub trotted up behind her and rubbed his side against her woolen leggings before sitting obediently beside her. The smile I gave her was a sad smile, thinking that she was the type of girl I had hoped to wed, before I heard the calling of the Flame Lord. "As I see the doom laid upon those of us who were 'blessed' enough to see the future so plainly, I begin to wonder if my mother and her clan were not the ones to be blessed."
"What do you mean?" demanded a slightly older woman who came to stand beside the tan girl, hugging her shoulders as the younger woman shrank from me with fear. Obviously a sister, the older woman was stunning, where her sister was simply pretty. "What are you talking about?"
I shook my head wearily and sighed. "My mother died not longer after I was born and her clan was destroyed in its last war with our neighbors shortly after I was sent to the monastery. I merely wonder whether she was the one blessed, not to have to see what we have become and then to live beyond that," was my sorrowful reply. I was beginning to feel sorry for myself and that would not do. I had to get away from these people and find solitude. A quiet place to meditate upon what my Lord placed upon us as the last of his spoiled children. Those good enough to be granted a reprieve from the doom the Gods decreed to Humans. I remember sighing again, a sigh not unlike the God had given, and hitched my pack more comfortably onto my shoulder and nodded to them. "May you all have enlightening journeys and may we not be burdened with meeting like this again anytime soon."
"Wait, what are we to do?" the beautiful young woman asked, holding tighter to her younger sister.
I paused, almost irritated at her need for my instruction. The God was quite plain in his words. "Whatever you will," I replied curtly over my shoulder without looking back, "so long as it be done with regards to the God's proscriptions. Perhaps if you wander long enough, you shall find your answers."
I could feel my fellow Immortals standing there watching my back as I climbed out of the dell, leaving them in even more shock and dismay than when I so suddenly arrived. As soon as I crested the dell I felt a powerful compulsion rip through me and I felt the gathered Immortals at my back be hit with the same compulsion. The desire to leave this quiet, God-touched place and go out into the world. Each gathered up their belongings and began walking away from the others. Only the few siblings stuck together as they all left the place of their fate's falling. We none of us truly knew how much time passed between that first Holy Gathering and when we would all find ourselves compelled to seek each other out at the death of the first of them. But each remembered the last words of the Wanderer as if I had inscribed them upon their skulls. Many would decry my unfeeling abandonment of them at our beginning. Our first coming together after that was an emotional one and I had much to do to repair my relationship with them. They saw me as the Elder, the leader of the Immortals, despite my being among the youngest of them. I merely saw myself as a tired, angry, confused, grief-stricken child cast adrift by my only parent in the world and cursed with a punishment I did not feel was deserved.
I walked away from that dell and kept walking for nearly a week before I realized I was not really tired, I had neither hungered nor thirsted, I had no urgent need to relieve myself, and I was neither cold nor hot, despite the warm days and the cool nights. I simply walked without stopping for a week, my mind drifting in a fog of anesthetic daze. When these things began registering, I emerged from my thoughts of "Why me?" and saw I had walked deeper into the mountains. My body following the least resistant path, I found myself in a deep valley, the roaring sound of a river echoing off of the walls formed of towering mountains whose caps of snow were much further down than I remember them being as I saw them on my approach ... days before, when the world I knew fell apart and my God set me adrift.
Even as that thought occurred to me, I could not really summon any anger toward either my God or my now extinct people. I felt cast upon a vast empty ocean, alone, as one curst by the Sea Lords themselves; bound to roam alone for eternity for some unimaginable crime against the Lord of Fire.
Gazing around at the gorge, I saw a sun-bleached log not far from the rushing rapids frothing over the rocks hidden beneath the surface of the river. Not really weary, I nonetheless sat down and pulled my pack off my shoulder. I knew I had some meager rations within, stale bread, smoked rabbit from my journey to the dell, and a few winter apples scavenged before I left Humanity behind. I felt the need to eat something to reaffirm my Humanity, to deny the logic of the last week's flight from my fellow Immortals made without rations or rest. And while the provisions were stuffs I would have turned my nose up at when at the monastery, I wolfed them down as if I had not eaten in a week. The taste was magnified, not by hunger but by time and the chasm between me and my Humanity. It was a meal I would remember for a long while as the best I had eaten. It would not be until civilization arose again that I would eat so scrumptiously.
When the last bite of tart apple was gone, I crawled over to the edge of the river and washed my face before drinking deeply. Sniffing, I was surprised at the lack of rankness wafting from my body but nonetheless felt the need to bathe, if only to purify myself and fortify my spirit for the journey ahead. Reclaiming my pack, I shouldered my burden and followed the river, looking for a pool shallow enough and calm enough for my purposes.
I walked many miles downstream before I found what I sought, nearly two days of walking beside the roaring river. The river fell down several step falls until it roared into a broad bend that lazily brought the deepened river through the rest of the forested mountains and down to the coastal plain. By that point I would have been shocked to hear myself think, never mind another living creature. It was as I was disrobing to bathe that I heard ... something. Even afterwards, I am still not sure I actually heard something. Perhaps it was not my ears but my mind that made me aware of the presence of some ... one?
Either way, I was not about to strip down to greet whatever was out there. Calling up my power, I muttered a protection and pulled my clothes back on. My eyes quartered the broad river valley, searching, searching, for what I had no idea. My brain merely told me I was not the only living thing here and that it was no mere mountain creature come to gawp at the silly ... not-Human.
"Ease yourself, Wanderer. I mean you no harm if you mean my People no harm," a very feminine, very soothing voice said calmly, her voice whispering through the trees. My eyes tried to find what my ears now said was there but I saw nothing. But now my mind was agreeing with my ears because the presence of this feminine voice began weighing on me. The sheer power I began feeling was astonishing and I began thinking that perhaps the Flame Lord's mate, Daona Danainn, was paying me a visit. She was the only other god besides the Sea Lords and Viniterus I knew of and the female Sea Lords would not be present in these mountains. A silvery bell rang through the forest and it was several bemused moments before I realized She was laughing at me. "I mean no discourtesy by my hilarity; I have just never been mistaken for my Mother."
The woman who emerged from the trees further up the mountain than I was looking was tall, slender, and beautiful in a way I would never have believed myself capable of appreciating before seeing this vision. Her skin was a creamy dark copper. I hesitate to say brown because the word brown just does not do justice to Her. She had black hair that glowed in the sun and cascaded around her stunning face in frothy waves flashing deep blue highlights. The sky blue eyes that pinned me in place were dazzling, keeping me enthralled even as She got closer. Her nose was straight and proud, her chin also proud but nicely rounded, and her cheeks high, giving her face an exquisite heart shape. Covering her arms, torso, pelvic girdle, and legs were what looked like pieces of lacquered armor and a helm was cradled under her left arm. Strapped to her waist was a slim longsword with a cunningly sculpted hilt and crosspiece. Even given her appearance, I still had no idea who She was, nor did I care. If She wanted to call herself the Goddess of the Universe, I would simply nod and genuflect to her radiance.
She was laughing her heart-rending silvery laugh as She drew closer and I realized She had antennae rising out of her frothing raven locks. "I can see why my Father loved you Humans so much as to doom his remain few faithful to eternity of knowing they are a reminder of his failure. You are amusing and delightful and exasperating even while you are adoring. I cannot say I have ever gotten such a response from my People as you have given Me. It is a heady thing for a Goddess. Something I could come to like, my sorrowful friend," the Goddess said, her stunning eyes roving over my body before returning to my own eyes. "And as much as you could easily make Me forget Myself, I need to know why you find yourself here before I allow you to go further."
Inhaling sharply at her compliment to my worship of her lovely form and releasing my breath in yet another sigh, this one less sorrowful and more hope in my adoration of her perfection, I replied in a husky voice gone dry with nervousness, "I was simply walking Goddess. I needed to find solitude, away from my fellows, in which to meditate upon the doom my Lord set upon those of us who remain. I had no plans or destination in mind other than that."
A graceful hand tipped with black claws rose and caressed my face, her visage drawn with despondent understanding. The stroke of her hand over my bearded cheek was pleasurable beyond my comprehension, bringing me to the brink of falling to my knees in worship. Her hand withdrew and She shivered with a joyous smile that lifted my spirits. How could I be sad at having lived to view this lovely being and hear her delighted laughter? Who was this Goddess and who were these people She was protecting? Apparently the Universe had already moved on from the passing of Humans, if other People were already inhabiting lands really not very far from the domain of the Human clans.
Her saddened eyes looked into mine and then She grinned at me. "Perhaps I should keep you. It would really be a shame if you were to succumb to the despair in your heart and follow the rest of your race. Father was wise, if selfish, to keep some few Humans around," she said, musing to herself really. "Though, you are not truly Humans anymore, are you? You are the first to discover your new condition, but the others won't be far behind. They eat and sleep out of habit and they have not yet noticed that they neither urinate nor defecate. You left them all in something of a daze. They felt the compulsion Father put on you all to separate and that has them in shock. You were no different but you really should have guided them a little more gently into their new existence."
Despite his enthrallment to her beauty, that brought him back to his anger. "And how was I to do that, Goddess? My Lord didn't tell me or any of us anything beyond we are the last few Humans and that we were to live forever as a reminder of his Failure. He gave no guidance beyond his proscriptions and no warnings as to what he had changed about our bodies. How was I to take what little he said and guide them when I too needed guidance?"
The Goddess' hand rose again as if to caress my cheek but stopped and fell once more to her side. "I am sorry, my poor Wanderer, I was unduly harsh in my criticism. And I apologize, not so much because you are right than as I am once more forgetting that you have found yourself a babe anew in the same body in which you have already matured. You will be many months, if not years, in discovering this new form you have been granted, despite its old familiarity to you. Even were I to show you yourself, you would look the same to your Human eyes. But to Me, you look unlike any being I have ever seen. Father wrought a wonder in a mere breath and your fellows and yourself felt nothing beyond the need to scatter. And as much as He would wish my siblings and I to leave you be, I cannot help but be taken with your heady adoration and handsome virility, not to mention the power with which you hum in my senses. My People are newly borne from the ashes of your kith and kin, still able to be molded and formed into what they will become. But what they are now is the limit of my ingenuity and creativity. Adding Nature's influence to the mix seems to Me not only wise, but providential given your appearance here and now," She said cryptically, her eyes beginning to glow not only with her rising fervor but with a light of their own. Once more her hand rose and caressed my cheek. As her other hand rose, she smiled a sad smile and shook her beautiful head with regret plain on her divine features. Had I but known what made her so sorrowful, I would have tried to rectify it. But as it was, her hand on my face had scattered my thoughts and her other hand had but compounded the effect her radiance had upon me. My mind was quickly numbing and I stood there stupidly as She came closer, saying, "I would apologize for this if I thought you would care or want to stop Me, my Wanderer, but you would neither care nor would you struggle against my ends. I suppose I should be contrite at taking advantage of your receptive and adoring reaction to Me, but Father and Mother made sure We felt no such thing in the face of duty. That both you and I will enjoy this makes it all the more enticing and I must say that you have relieved Me of much of the tension duty has placed upon Me since Father informed Me of my task." With that She kissed me on the forehead, eyelids, and then softly, gently on the lips.
When next I regained my senses, I found myself in a cave echoing with the drip-drip-drip of the dank air condensing on rock. From the refreshingly clean smell, there was a large body of mineral rich water. Under the dripping sound and the flapping of the occasional bat I could hear a murmuring chitter sound, almost as if a colony of insects had learned to speak and were practicing somewhere nearby. Looking around would have been pointless as there was no light coming from anywhere. For all I knew, I could have been in some forgotten antechamber of Viniterus' Realm of the Soulless. I tried to remember how I got there but nothing was coming to mind as I tried to think past the pain.
"I am sorry about the headache and fuzziness, my Wanderer," a glorious voice I should know murmured softly in my ear. "I forgot how such strenuous activity would affect mortals. If you were still as Father had originally created you, you would not have survived that. And that would truly be a shame, for then you would not be able to witness your progeny's evolution into sentience. Come, We must hurry if We are to see them emerge."
A soft hand slid into mine just as my mind recalled the Goddess I met near the river. "Goddess!"
A silvery laugh echoed through the cave. "Of course. Come, my love, and see the marvel you helped bring into being," She murmured in my ear.
We must have walked through at least a mile of caverns and tunnels and caves to finally reach a small opening high up on the eastern slope of the mountain overlooking the same river I intended to bath in when the Goddess confronted me. The wooded slopes of the mountains were suddenly teeming with fleeing animals of all sizes. Deer and bears, rabbits and foxes, bats and owls all fled in tandem with their natural enemies. In ever widening ripples, the wildlife of the river valley was in full flight from some cataclysm. I saw no fire, heard no storm, felt no groundshake. I looked over at the Goddess and saw fervor and great happiness in her eyes. She had a look of gleeful anticipation about Her.
"I am known to My People as the Queen Goddess, but you may call me Apocrita. And as for what is about to happen," She told me with a triumphant tone, pointing downslope, "look there. They should be emerging any second now."
I suddenly began hearing a chittering stridulation. Where Apocrita had pointed exploded in a cloud of pulverized rock and dust and out of the hole in the side of the mountain streamed hundreds and thousands of ... creatures. They were taller than I stand by a couple of feet and had six limbs. Most were black, covered with a shiny exoskeleton and their large compound eyes seemed to miss nothing as they emerged into the light of the rising sun, including Apocrita and I standing above them. As they skittered out from the mountain, they turned and looked up at their Goddess with her arm twined through mine and apparently came to the wrong conclusion because they were all suddenly genuflecting and chittering excitedly.
The Goddess laughed her silvery laugh and kissed me on the cheek, making my senses swim. "I think they think you are a God as well. I better straighten them out before Father gets upset with you," She whispered to me before kissing my cheek again and making her way down the mountain. "And this is so you can understand what you devotees are saying, my dear."
My ears rang and my head felt fuzzy and then I was suddenly hearing thousands of voices shouting praise to me and the Queen Goddess. "Thank you for your blessings, Divine Ones! Show us mercy and forgiveness! Show us the Path so that we might do your works!"
Apocrita stopped on a small outcropping of rock that overlooked her People and raised her hands. "Hear me, My People! Harken unto my wisdom and go forth to your Destiny! My Consort has shared his power with Me and allowed Me to bring you to this existence. Through much study and contemplation and prayer has this man transcended his being to gain the higher plane. With his enlightenment he has been able to share the power gained with Me to nurture you, My Faithful, into your full potential granted to you by the Flame Lord and Daona Danainn. Know that you are but one of the children the Father of the Universe has allowed to be born. Go unto this world and prosper and know that I watch over you!"
The Goddess motioned to me and I came to stand next to her. She clasped my hand and suddenly We were no longer staring out at her People but were back in the cave standing next to the palate on which I woke, a ball of white energy flared above us. She helped me gather my belongings and once more clasped my hand, wishing Us to wherever it was We appeared.
"I am sorry to whisk you about like that, but I wanted them to have the idea that you are more than mortal while still not naming you a God," She explained as I looked around the vast grassy plain we were now staring at. There were a few gently rolling hills, a few solitary trees spaced widely apart, and what looked like a broad, slow river wending its way across the plain to the south, from west to east, in what looked like the same rising sun in which I watched the insectoid people emerge from their caves. Far to the west, only a dark smudge on the horizon, was what looked like the beginnings of a mountain range. The temperature was warm and the air dry with a slight breeze coming from the west. Wherever we were, it was beautiful country.
"We are far from any of the other Peoples now being born unto this world and far from any lands your people ever saw," Apocrita informed me sadly. "You have also lost half a day, as I played with time a little to get you here at the same time of day as we left in my People's land. If you wish solitude, this land will give it to you for at least another thousand years. The only People living on this continent are far to the south and west in the forests covering the hills and mountains there. They are my Brother Viniterus' People and they will have a slight head start on developing a society you would recognize than my own. Viniterus was always good with living beings and so He knew something of your people before He was told to create his own People. The Viniterians look not too dissimilar from Humans, so they will recognize you as an intelligent being. Some of the other Peoples may not, however. Be wary, my Wanderer, as you travel this world. I would mourn the loss of you perhaps more than any other I have known. We will meet again, I am sure." With that said, Apocrita, the Queen Goddess, kissed me once more on the lips with restraint and was gone from my life just as suddenly as She entered it.