On a humble street in the less interesting regions of Ans, Herbert Uen looked cautiously over the counter of his shop to observe a most curious clientele. They had congregated near the far wall, where the only decor of interest was a mural of a goldfish, and there were enough of them now massed that Herbert was beginning to suspect trouble. As the owner of a rescue center for the neighborhood strays, he wasn't the most accustomed to this sort of thing, but he'd read a few stories in the newspaper, so slid out from behind the counter with a pudgy, determined expression.
He'd made his way past the cat kennels when someone said, "Comp'ny, Tal." Murmurs surrounded the rest of the sentence, and suddenly Herbert felt upon him the weight of far too many eyes. Which was odd, since he could see only four figures present. He swallowed hard.
"I don't want any trouble," he managed.
"A coincidence, to be sure," one of the men replied, and Herbert noticed that he wore a necklace of shining gold. "Since neither, in fact, are we."
"We're closing soon. . . ."
". . . And soon, we will be gone. But why wait?" The man waved a casual arm, and suddenly Herbert felt the tension of the moment seep from his bones. Though the light was weak, the necklace burned like lightning against the eyes. "Go on to your home, my friend. Your wife awaits you."
"I couldn't," he murmured, but his heart wasn't in it. "Who's to lock up the shop? And someone's to feed Yvelna, she don't quiet if I'm not around . . ."
The voice remained gentle, understanding. "You'll take the cat with you, yes? There you go . . . I'll just fetch your coat, shall I?"
And soon, Herbert stepped out into the brisk spring wind, Yvelna mewing in one of his arms and his keys locking the door with the other. He felt a slight puzzlement at nothing in particular, and walked away with the expression of a man who has forgotten something not at all important.
They watched him go. Do not ask who, in fact, they are: be sure that you already know. Everyone knows. It is a common misconception that Man makes his own Gods, but this has never been true.
The gods make the gods, and Men must learn to live with them, like a recurring rash.
The bearer of the necklace risked a smile. "I think that went rather well," he said. Beside him, a figure whose heavy cloak did not quite hide the outrageous curves of her frame threw back her hood in a movement that rattled the psychic meditations of particularly attuned monks up to a hundred miles away.
"Enough of your games," she snapped. "I do not understand."
"But, my dear, I'm sure I don't catch your meaning?"
And now came a deep grunt of annoyance, from a giant whose frame scraped the ceiling of the room in a way that suggested the very opposite of a desire to impress. One received the impression of a man under the great duress of raw power stacked from inch to burly inch of his ten foot height. So much as pinch him, and you feared he'd collapse into a neutron star. "WE AWAIT HIM," it boomed, and the bearer of the necklace nodded vaguely.
"You could've just said," he said to the goddess, who did not glare. Instead, she fluttered her eyelids very coquettishly in his direction, and he felt a glaze come over his senses. He looked away with a scowl.
"You all miss the point," said the fourth voice. It belonged to a god whose name and temples were now but sand in the desert winds of Prythenia, whose existence plagued the dreams of philosophers and burned the half-finished work of egotistical theologians. He was paradox, but did not mean to be. To Herbert, he had appeared to be a smiling man with wire-rimmed glasses and nervous hands. To the gods, he was an amorphous mass of shimmering dust, with bands of ancient stars glowing across his frame.
No -- not stars. Eyes. Eyes that did not see the world around them, but instead went beyond the limitations of life, both mortal and immortal, into the eternal meadows which lie behind them both. "There is a purpose to we four, which the Knowledge cannot grasp. It goes even beyond Almoriax, for We know what he is to say, though he has not yet even begun to arrive."
The bearer of the necklace watched the cloud with a critical eye. "It means Itself, Tal. Or is it Themselves?" He tried to stare at the thing, but gave up. There were infinities in there that were trying to look back. "Whichever you prefer," he said, and it came out as more of a mutter.
Tal, Breaker of Nations, stroked the pommel of the massive sword on his belt, and frowned. "I SEE." He'd missed a battle on the Aphrean Fields for this meeting, and wasn't very happy about it.
"Beyond the last of the seas is a memory which many of our kind have chosen not to remember. It is a truth like unto Our truth, which is the the ultimate Subjective, and the denial of Man only strengthens the force of its claim to life."
Tal blinked. He felt like he'd been run over by a train made of air.
"How dreary are the games of gods!" said the woman with a harsh burst of laughter. "Riddles make the unbeliever, you know. Here's what I think," she said, taking a seat on a handy corner stool. "There were times when things used to happen, do you remember that? People get bored without their gods . . . fire and sacrifice and floods that flowed like the tears of the bereaved, who were many." A dangerous light was there and gone in her eyes, and the man with the necklace looked disparagingly at her.
"I was with you," he said, "when you were going on about how there ought to be a point. But I'm afraid we're parting again."
She raised a perfectly arched eyebrow. "Oh, but Aermun, who better than you to know? Surely, you remember what even the mortal historians have written and archived in their dusty vaults."
"For the Truth shall come on unfamiliar wings," said something from within the clouds. It did not look at Aermun in particular, anymore than it truly looked at anything in all the void of reality, but there seemed to be a more noticeable cluster of vision near the extremities. "The reality of our situation is dire, little god. For we have been summoned to Ride."
Aermun blinked. Then he cleared his throat with a hesitant noise.
"What? That is to say, ride, or . . ."
"I was afraid of that." he scowled, and noticed to his surprise that it was now Tal that seemed most up to date with the atmosphere of the room, which was, on average, something of an extended nervous thrill.
"AT LAST!" he thundered, then, as an afterthought: "WHY BE WAR, MY FRIENDS, WHEN ONE CAN SCOURGE THE PLAINS AS ITS MASTER?"
"Now, hold on"--
"And I suppose that makes me . . . Famine," said the woman, taking a measured look around the room, and bared her teeth into the approximation of a smile.
"You make a meager Pestilence, Aermun, but all told I suppose it must do? Death is, after all, the only true Reality, and we have that"-- she pointed over to the cloud of eyes -- "over there."
"Just listen," said Aermun pleadingly. "For one second, just list"--
"Appellations are arbitrary," mused a shining voice from the cloud. "We are only what we are. As Tal was War in the old days, he shall be War again. Yet Y'kthormath, the Pestilence, is long dead, and Byernmuth rots with Carcemos in the Dread Pits of Nimfahrnoth. We are not Death, for Death was Carcemos. We are All, for no being can believe in the All. Sashkeri is Lust, for she has always been Lust. And Aermun"--
"All I'm saying"--
"Hold on. Here, just"-- with the floor to himself, still he hesitated. Somewhat lamely, he said, "no one can decide such a thing, except He who is the rightful ruler of the gods."
"Al-Rashi'im is long forgotten, his memory is older than the youngest stars."
"Serves the old fool right," said the black voice of Sashkeri, who twirled one ebony lock of hair through her fingers. "Arrogant loaf that he was." She shot a look at Aermun, making him grimace. "We are the ultimate deciders of all things, wizard. Including our king. Rightful ruler," she sneered. "And whose decree was that, I wonder? Men believe that we choose their kings. Yet the Anselaer never chose Rashi'im for anything, save the doom of all tyrants."
"Al-Rashi'im was far greater at being a king, than you have ever managed at being a goddess," said Aermun harshly. "Even in the moment of the Ride, I'd no sooner breathe than consign you to a brothel."
"Then you shall find yourself doing neither."
"TAL BORES OF TALK! THE MOUNTS SHALL COME AT MY BEHEST." The giant wrestled with a massive horn which lay strapped across his back. There were runes in it which even Aermun had never learned, for they outdated the world of gods.
"We mustn't hurry into these things," he said quickly, loudly, and slammed the horn downwards with enough magical force to shatter a mountain's spine. It but shuddered, drinking up the expended energy like a fine wine. Still, it did make Tal pause, and Aermun grasped for words.
"You all know the way these things work," he said. "Once we Ride, that's that. It's over. We may follow Prophecy, but in the end we make it, right? It's too soon."
"The Veils consume the dying south. It spreads now. It will continue to spread." The cloud observed Aermun with contempt.
"Do you imagine that you are to destroy reality? That the universe will even pause to contemplate your existence? I tell you with absolute certainty, it shall not. It will know what We know, for We are a sliver of the great Reality. It shall know that without the death of your world, the Veil will spread, and soon there shall be nothing of anything save the shimmering silver of its teeth. Do not mistake yourself with petty illusions, for Death does not limit itself to your plane. What kills one planet will kill another, and then it will leech the very stars."
"All well and good, but have you considered that we actually live on this particular rock?" said Aermun, but only to the other two. The cloud would not care. The cloud was the Varmathun of the Eastern Shadows, and was exactly what he called himself. Reality compromises, but not often and not by much. Currently, it seemed to be laughing at his expense.
"WAR IS WAR," said the intonation of Tal. "LIFE ENDS. WAR? NEVER." Purposely, the giant strode behind the flickering figure of Varmathun, and drove his sword into the ground. He still kept a hand on the horn. "DECIDE, WIZARD. DECIDE SO THAT THE END MAY BEGIN."
"Except it won't," said Sashkeri. "It won't, because that's not how these things work." She stood from her stool, and began to walk, swaying, to a kennel full with pups that began to wag their tails with happiness as she approached. "The old world fell to death, for they feared death. Pestilence, for their cities were rife with filth and their cities were all there were. Famine, for the farms held all the bread of the world, and with a stroke the harvests failed. War, for it is," she said, with a nod towards the giant, "the judge of all mankind. Things are different now. Higher stakes, you might say."
"Instead of Death, we have the Universe," muttered Aermun. "In the end, there won't be any sort of New Order; just corpses of men and gods."
"As all things end, so must the things we hold dear," said Varmathun.
"See, but they won't," said the Goddess of Lust. "Because you need us. You have the crushing weight of reality and the Arbiter that is War, but you don't have Truth. You don't have the lust that launches ships for the honor of a woman, and stirs men to deaths they don't comprehend."
"Irony we may lack," mused the cloud, "but we maintain the tools of purpose." As an afterthought, it added, "I take it you have decided with the Wizard, then?"
Sashkeri nodded slowly. "The likes of you don't depend on our world. You get along just fine without it. But the stars cannot be moved by my magic. They don't understand it. With this world dies the last essence of Lust. I can't allow that." She seemed to think about something. "But in fact, I don't stand with him." And, so saying, she took a step away from Aermun, towards the dogs, who she was feeding with bits of meat. "Truth has no affair in my pursuits. Besides, he's a rancid example of a god. The maggots can have his soul."
"Others will be found."
"Then find them," said Aermun. "I have things to do."
And the future played across the eyes of Varmathun, who saw, if not all, then a good portion of all that was to occur. "You cannot fight it," he laughed. "For it is not of men nor gods. It is your own doing, Aermun, and now there is nothing more to be done."
"Truth. Its search enlightens, until it does not. You may very well reach the ends of the map, but they have a tendency to push back. It will devour you."
"And yet," said Aermun, with a rueful smile. "It seems I'm not long for the world either way."
"Truth lingers in the absence of men, child. It is a constant of the universe."
A look crossed the face of the First Wizard. It was agony, diluted by a glimmer of clever realization. "I am but Man's truth," he said.
"Men do not make the gods."
"No, but they do define us." He moved past the cloud, barely feeling the twinging fire of the anger of the living void. Tal allowed him to pass, and looked thoughtfully after him as he disappeared into the sleeping streets of Ans.
"I HAVE KNOWN HIM SINCE THE BIRTH OF THE SUN," he began, and Sashkeri nodded.
"Perhaps it is sad," she said, scratching the ears of a smiling border collie. "Once, he was the herald of Kings and the master of kings. I have seen his hand crush seas in rebellion of she who rules them, and charm the moons which spelled our death in the stars."
Sighing, she, too, rose to go. "If it's any solace, I believe what you are doing is right," she muttered. "Any other consequence, and I think I would have joined you."
"No. For to linger on such things, is already to abandon their justice." Now it was Varmathan that moved, taking the appearance of a slim man in a black Astrakhan coat, his slender hand catching the moon which just now had begun to shine. It beckoned to Tal, and the voice of the void said, "Come, our War. Work is before us, which shall tire even the hardiest of our wills." He disappeared in a column of purple smoke, and the giant followed him in.
And now she was alone.
Sashkeri stood straight, and her fingers traced the pattern of all the Fate that trailed behind her in a storm. Such rich history to this world, for its people and its gods and even the winds which obeyed no one at all . . . surely, it would never end? Not like this? It was the mundane nature of the demise that really frightened her. That this -- the air of the night before her and the cries of the hawking merchants who lived each night as if the next would be no different, the smell of bad meat and shiny knives in back alleys -- that all of it would suddenly . . . cease. There was a reason she avoided all mention of the Veils, and that was because she could not fathom what they could possibly leave behind them. She could see it if she wished to, but she knew with certainty that that day would never come.
With a sigh and a step that led her to the mountains of the impossibly winding East, she mused at the depths of Time as it danced before her.
Faintly, there came a laugh far older than Light, falling from the edges of the stars.