Two boys stood on the palace balcony, though they were not yet two souls. They stared at the eastern horizon with identical eyes, holding identical hands.
“Look!” one beamed, pointing at the red halo blooming over the mountains.
The other frowned.
“I don't feel like I'm doing anything,” he said.
“Then I must be Luca,” his brother told him, “Making the sun rise. And you will be Durma, seeing it set.”
The boy's frown only deepened, the rising sun casting his face in dark shadow.
“You can really feel it?” he asked doubtfully.
The divine twins stood in silence then, two halves of the same whole, their individual fates as yet undecided. The passing years would separate them.
Hidden high amongst the Wandering Peaks and nestled in a narrow vale there was a small, sleepy village. In many ways it was an unremarkable place, just a huddle of wooden dwellings gathered around a central square, and yet the rambling stone path- it could hardly be called a road- that led there was often thronged with pilgrims. They would travel from across the empire to see the structure that the village bowed before and to kiss the feet of the girl who lived within. Surrounded by lush gardens and intricate iron-wrought gates rose the whitewashed buildings of the monastery, the greatest among them the temple itself.
The Goddess sprang forth from the shrine, a flock of panicked monks in white habits chasing behind. Her red robes swirled around her as she fled, half running, half stumbling, her bare feet kicking up cascades of muddy water as she crashed through puddles. There were shouts of confusion and anger, and yet the crowd opened up before her so that she could pass. The people who saw her leapt out of her way, and those who did not were pushed aside and into the path of her protectors turned pursuers.
A man watched with disinterest from the edges of the crowd, face shrouded and dry deep within the hood of his cloak. He noticed a few people in the square raise their hands in the sign of blessing, whilst others- those quicker of thought- presented overlapping palms and looked away. The sign of banishment. It made a pleasant change to see it directed at someone else.
The hooded figure glanced into the grounds of the temple and sighed. The unexpected chaos had destroyed his plans for a quiet visit to the fabled archive within. The monks would no doubt be on high alert and would not take kindly to him if they caught him dropping in unofficially, as it were. He could wait until the whole thing had blown over, but he feared that that would not be for some time. A new Goddess would need to be found and the feasts and rituals that would follow could last for weeks. The town- however tranquil it may be- was a write off in his mind. It didn't even have a public house in which to while away the time.
No, he thought as he watched the Goddess slip away through the rain, he would have to find his answers another way.
The moon was full that night. It hung high in the jet black sky, gilding the mountain ridges with silver and dancing across the surface of the river Caldur. The man left the village, following the path north along the river bank. Behind him, the path dropped away, heading back down the mountain where it would eventually join the south trade road and make its way towards the sea. Ahead, it thinned and was swallowed by woodlands, becoming nothing more than a vague animal track. As he walked, the whispering of the water grew louder, echoing the distant hiss of the waterfall at the valley's end.
He saw her, radiant in the moonlight. She knelt on the river bank, the shallow water lapping at the hem of her torn dress. She washed the ceremonial makeup from her face, revealing skin far darker and lips thinner and paler than the thick painted layers of ceramic white and blood red. Her eyes were still dark beneath perfectly shaped brows.
He approached, clearing his throat impatiently. The sound sent her scrambling to her feet in shock. Catching herself, she clenched her fists and set her shoulders back. She turned to look at him with an expression of dignified rage, which quickly turned to shock as she recognised his features.
“You know who I am,” he said. It wasn't a question.
The girl gathered herself once more.
“Of course,” she said, teeth glinting in the darkness as she grinned without joy, “Though for a moment, I thought you might be your brother. How fitting that it is instead the God of Death who comes to me now.”
“Bold of you,” he said, aware of her stare consuming every detail of him, “Not to kneel.”
“I could say the same,” she crossed her arms, “I may not be a Prince, Lord Durma, but I am still a Goddess. Let this be a meeting of equals.”
“You are no longer Maya,” Durma told her, “Your feet have touched unholy ground. Her soul cannot be bound by impure flesh.”
“You are mistaken,” she replied, drawing herself upwards, “I am Maya, innocence incarnate, Goddess of purity, youth and beauty, and my feet have not yet touched the ground for I walk on air.”
“The mud on your dress says otherwise,” he snorted, “The monks are already searching for Maya’s reincarnation, you know?”
“And what do they say of me?”
There was a hint of sheepishness in her voice, as though she were embarrassed at having to ask. This was a girl who had fled for her life, only to find that no one was making much effort to follow. After the initial panic, the monks had realised that chasing girls into the forest did not present the correct image. The prince was tempted to tell her that they had already forgotten her, but he thought that would be cruel, even by his standards. Anyway, he needed something from her.
“They say the Goddess Maya's spirit was cast out from her avatars flesh with its first bloodshed and that, at that moment, the body was possessed by the fearsome sorceress Zadia, great deceiver and weaver of lies.”
The girl laughed sharply.
“I have bled before. The monks failed to notice any difference. Their prayers continued.”
“Then you admit that you are no Goddess?”
“I am as much a God as you.”
“That is treasonous talk,” he sneered.
“Weaver of lies, remember?” she grinned.
“Then you are Zadia.”
She tilted her head.
“Do you know what happened to my predecessors?”
“I don't,” he admitted.
“Neither do I,” she said, “No one hears from them afterwards. Well... they will not cast me aside so easily. Yesterday I was a Goddess and I am a Goddess still. I will be whoever I need to be to keep that power. Better to live in infamy than be cast out into obscurity.”
“You may,” said the man who had lived in infamy ever since the day he was named and had the scars to show for it, “Come to regret that sentiment.”
She looked him in the eye with a gaze like sharpened flint. She was younger than she acted, he realised, and she was alone in this world without family or a life of her own to fall back on. If she was just a girl she would spend the rest of her days begging for scraps, but if she were Zadia? Fear was a powerful thing. You could make a living on it. He of all people knew that. He was not a man inclined to empathy, but he felt something for her then.
“What did you want?” she said dismissively, “Can’t you see that I’m busy?”
He looked around at the lack of activity.
“I came to see the library,” he said.
“It's still there,” she waved her hand in the direction of the village.
“I was hoping for a more... Private tour.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“You mean you came to break in and steal my books?”
She was quick, far cleverer than most people he crossed paths with these days.
“Borrow them,” he corrected her, not that he had had any intention of bringing the books back, “Though the chaos you caused has made that difficult. I doubt the monks will give me what I want knowingly.”
“I fail to see how this is my problem. What would you want with my books, anyway? I'm sure you have plenty in that palace of yours.”
The palace of the sky God Sol, father to the divine twins, did, of course, have a library. It was a magnificent place, the architecture itself almost as astonishing as the exquisite tomes that filled the shelves from floor to ceiling. Durma could still picture it clearly in his mind’s eye. There must have been a thousand books there, and yet he knew that place held nothing for him now.
“Oh, how silly of me to forget,” the girl said, rubbing salt into the wound, “Your brother banished you, did he not?”
“I left of my own free will.”
“That's not what I heard.”
“Then you heard wrong.”
She regarded him carefully.
“Why would anyone leave a place like that?” she asked.
Yes, why would they? His brother had asked the same, being the idiot that he was. Why would anyone not want to bask in his glory, to live in the shadow of Luca, Prince of Creation, God of Enlightenment and of Life itself? Luca had begged him to stay, had thrown an almighty tantrum when- for once- he did not get his way. Luca had always been blind to the stares his brother attracted, deaf to the whispers that happened behind his back. Durma was only too painfully aware of these and of his own ignorance.
“I needed answers,” he said, “There were things that were kept hidden from me.”
“My history. My destiny.”
They were much the same thing. The Gods walked the Earth, treading the same paths in each age, reborn but much the same. To know his past would be to know his future. For some reason, people had always been reluctant to tell him stories of his past selves.
“Why would they keep that from you?”
“Because,” he said, steeling himself to say those thoughts that lived in the darkest corners of his mind, the ones that he had never admitted to anyone else, “If I had known how hated Durma was, I would have tried harder to be Luca.”
“You speak as though you had a choice in the matter.”
“I was not named Durma until my seventh birthday. It's as though they waited until they knew which of us would be the troublemaker before announcing our names.”
“And why would they do that?”
“Because it suits them to have an amiable Luca, one they could steer to rule as they saw fit, one who would accept their ideas as his own and believe as he was told. No one would want to live under Durma’s rule, after all.”
“Treasonous talk,” she echoed his earlier words, though she no longer appeared to be looking down on him, “You speak as though you doubt your own divinity.”
“The sun sets whether I watch it or not,” he shrugged, “It set before I was born and I suspect it will continue to do so long after I die. I am merely a tool for them to use. That is why I left.”
“Ah,” she nodded sagely, “Then it must be that you are Durma, for are not doubt and rebellion aspects of his, just as faith and obedience belong to Luca?”
He was about to argue with her, but noticed the mischief in her eyes. She was teasing him again.
“So it’s stories that you want?” she shook her head, “I’m afraid that only the monks were permitted to enter the library.”
“Then you are wasting my time,” he said.
“Luckily,” she said, slithering closer to him, “As an omniscient Goddess, I can answer any question you may ask.”
“You mean you snuck the books out and read them anyway?”
She slapped her hand into his chest, as though to push him away, but held it there. She looked up into his eyes, her body almost close enough to his for him to feel her warmth.
“Perhaps,” she said, “The days were long and even Goddesses grow bored. Bored enough to read books on things they already know.”
“Then what is my fate? What does the scripture say?”
“You are Durma son of Sol, Prince of Destruction, He Who Extinguishes the Sun, God of Darkness and Harbinger of Death,” she said, tilting he lips towards his ear, “And you are destined to end this world.”
He recoiled from her, his face turning pale. She cackled, slapping her thigh.
“You really didn't know, did you? You know you kill your brother, right?”
He blinked. He had often wanted to kill his brother. Now that he knew that it was expected of him, he felt somewhat more conflicted about it.
“Well, usually,” she continued chattily, “Sometimes he kills you first, though that's rarer. Self-defence, of course. Once you killed each other at the exact same time and the sky wept for seven years. Occasionally someone else kills Luca and you go on a rampage of vengeance. Not that it matters. You’re two halves of the same whole. Neither of you ever lasts long once the other has gone.”
“How does the world end?”
“Silly,” she patted him on the chest again, “How should I know? You haven't done it yet. At least... Not for us. You're very good at triggering the end of the world for our enemies. Maybe you’ll just destroy a little bit of the world again, or you'll just do something lame and symbolic. That's quite common. The end times aren’t always a bad thing, as such.”
“They want me to start a war?”
“These are auspicious times,” she said, “For the twin Gods to appear in an age of peace and prosperity... It would certainly seem that change is on its way. I hear our enemies to the North grow stronger. It is Luca who creates the Empire, but first, you must destroy.”
“But I don't want a war. I don't want to kill my brother. The empire can go to hell.”
“You cannot escape your fate,” she told him, “It may not be by your own hands, but your brother will die and you will be blamed. Once he’s dead, war is sure to follow.”
“I won't be their pawn any longer. I control my own destiny.”
She laughed again. He scowled, rage returning the colour to his cheeks.
“What?” he demanded, “I’m here by choice, aren't I? I'm here because I wanted to be. Was this written in your scrolls?”
She looked at him with pity. She reached up and cupped his chin in her hands.
“You’re right,” she said, “The scriptures describe no meetings between you and Maya, but...”
She hesitated, knowing that if she told him the truth, he would leave her to spite the world and she would be alone again. He would find out eventually. It was harder to lie to a fellow God, especially one who fully understood their position as they both did.
“But I could tell you a hundred tales of Durma and Zadia.”
She thought he would pull away from her, but he was motionless.
“You mean... We...?”
“Yes,” she admitted.
After a long moment, he lifted her hands from him, though not unkindly.
“I have to go,” he said.
He took a step back. She nodded, brushed a hair from her face.
“What will you do?” she asked.
“I don't know.”
He thought for a moment, then looked up at the sky and spoke.
“Maybe it's time the people knew the truth about what we are. Maybe it's time we burnt the scripture.”
He turned from her, saying nothing at all as he began to walk away. The God of Destruction does not goodbye any more than he says thank you.
She watched him go, thoughtfully. Heading south, she noted. Away from his brother. Away from the lands the empire hoped to use their Gods to conquer next. He did not walk like an agent of chaos or a destroyer of worlds, but he certainly spoke like one.
“One way or another,” she said to herself knowingly, “This world shall end.”