Sol rose, lighting the eastern horizon a dark red. The sky lightened, shifting from crimsons to oranges, pinks then settling into a clear shade of blue. The morning sunlight shone down on the Plains of the Fallen through cloudless skies, giving birth to a gentle breeze that slowly picked up, winding through the scarred lands towards the bustling provincial capital.
On the terrace of our apartment, I sat cross-legged in meditation, letting the sunlight warm my body.
The morning breeze caressed my face, blowing my sleep-tousled locks out of my face, bringing the echoes of battle-cries and dying screams across the moat of Time.
A rare seasonal event known as the Ghost Wind. The natural shifts in mana concentration caused the anomalous concentrations in the battlefield to even out, producing extreme activeness in the area giving rise to various phenomenon and rendering it impassable.
Ignoring the efforts of the resentment from the past to harass my mind, I sank into the depths of my mindscape. There, shadows reigned. It was as if the sun had driven the night away from the world and it had chosen my mind to take refuge.
Varying shades of darkness painted a dreary picture in my mental world and at the very core of the shadows was a dark sun. An abyssal ball of nothingness that radiated darkness instead of light. Letting my mind touch its core, I could faintly feel the connection I shared with Phobos.
The darkness overspread one-sixth of my mental world, the Tier 2 density mana produced within it spreading out across the rest of my mindscape, getting rarefied and dropping to Tier 1 density.
Similar regions of wind and smoke covered another third of my mind, corresponding to Deimos and Ceres’ bonds.
Now that I was bonded to three Tier 2 mages, I had mana density equivalent to a Tier 1 peak mage. Unlike other mages who would at this point use their mind to depute their naturally formed mana into a denser state and use that to strengthen their mindscape walls, I just had to bond with my partners and consolidate our connection.
As a Hominum, I fundamentally lacked a mindscape and as such the mental world I was currently in was actually a reflection of my partners’ mindscapes on my own. I was but a still pond. As long as one stood facing me, I could reflect their visage. Our mutual lack of understanding was like a breeze that blew upon the surface creating ripples that distorted the image. The more we understood the other, the gentler the breeze, the clearer the image, the stronger the bond and the more mana I could use.
To demonstrate this, the other half of my mental world was in an illusory state; a mirror waiting for something to reflect. I needed to meet three more women and win their hearts for my mind to reach completion.
Such was the fate of a Hominum. Such was mine.
Exhaling, I opened my eyes. The purpose of my foray into my mindscape: familiarizing myself with my mana, having been accomplished, I concluded my meditation session for the day.
Turning my back on the warmth of the rising sun, I went back downstairs into our apartment. It was nearing the end of our month long stay at the Capital. It would soon be time to make the journey back home to sort out the business in the clan before I had to attend my first Trial of the Swayamvar.
At the foot of the stairs, I found a towel moistened with warm water hung on the banister. Smiling, I wiped my face with it, feeling refreshed and much more awake. It was Deimos’ handiwork; the creased cloth having dripped the water all over the polished wood of the banisters. I crouched and wiped the water off to prevent stains. Just because the house had been given to us didn’t mean it was ours. I didn’t want to leave a poor impression on the following boarders.
Deimos was flighty in this way. Considerate enough to remember to put the towel there, unmindful of the small details. If it had been Phobos, she would have neatly folded it and kept it on a tray or something. As for Ceres, she was too new to our household to pick up such minute stuff.
Finishing, I slung the towel over my shoulder and moved towards the living room, a smile on my lips. It was these small gestures that made my day. Others might chase the throne, wealth and power, I only wanted the halcyon days to continue.
Master looked up from his book when I entered the living room. My smile widened. It was rare that he came to visit after I had presided over my first marriage successfully. He claimed that he had taught me all he had to offer. Nonsense. He was a sea of knowledge and I had but imbibed a lagoon’s worth.
He was a tall man, lanky with messy hair that hung over his forehead, nearly obscuring one eye. Metallic studs glinted on his eyebrows and lips while a simple circular silver earring adorned his right earlobe.
Some tattoos peeked out from under his loose lime green shirt: he always did gravitate towards weird colours. If one were to see underneath his clothing, they would find every inch of his skin inked, some tattoos originated from his own hand, some from fellow artists he had met on his journeys.
It was his way of making friends, swapping inks. He had even allowed me to ink a tiny star on his wrist as a test of whether I was worth teaching. In my nervousness, I’d gotten it crooked.
Grinning widely at the memory, I greeted him. “Master, what brings you here? Didn’t you say you would be out mixing with the artists gathered here for the tournament. I was just thinking of trying to find you. We are leaving for home in a few days.”
He set his book aside and ran a hand through his messy hair, making it even more disorderly, something I hadn’t thought possible. “Ah well, I was just collaborating on a project with some people I met… just got done with it yesterday so I came over to see how you were doing.”
He waved his hand in the general direction of the guest room. “Didn’t expect you to have expanded the family in the time I was gone. Congratulations.”
I sat down on the couch opposite him and set the moist towel on the table. “Did you meet her yet?” I asked.
“Yes. Nice girl. Well read too.” He picked up the book he had been reading, smacking the spine lightly on his palm. “Didn’t bring a gift so I was trying to finish reading this so I could give it to her.”
Curious, I tried to make out the title, only to find the brown leather cover devoid of identifying marks. Master smiled, and handed the book to me. Opening it to the first page, the words ‘The Gods among us’ peered out at me. Thumbing to the table of contents told me that it was a book about the various religions in the world. More of a collection of origin stories that had spread among the populace in various countries.
Master spoke, “A really interesting work, that one. You know how scarce information on the age before the apocalypse is. Excavations of the ruins only tell us so much and most of the really important centres are at the heart of the Forbidden Zones. This book turns to another source of information. It is an attempt to depute some truth out of the fables that have spread among the people.”
At this moment, Phobos came out of the kitchen with a tray with three steaming cups of tea. Setting it down on the table, she served us both before taking a seat by my side, gently blowing into her cup to cool the tea.
Master nodded at her in thanks before taking a sip and continuing. “You know how Regiis folklore speaks of Gods for every little thing. There used to be one God of Agriculture but somewhere down the line several more sprang up in charge of individual crops, for prevention of droughts, for better harvests, the list goes on. It is the same for every aspect of life. I wouldn’t be surprised if a cult worshipping the God of spoons sprang up.
“Polytheism has a lot of takers in this part of the continent. Take the Romans and the Egyptians for example. Their Pantheons are almost as vast as our own. Seeing that Rome was founded by one of the First Emperor’s disciples, it isn’t really that surprising but Egyptian mythology as one of the most ancient religions has a glorious past.
“But for all that, if the number of Deities is what you are interested in, nothing comes even close to the mythos of the Indus Valley on the other side of the Hindu Kush mountain range. They have a holy mountain that is named after the number of temples dedicated to the various Gods in their religion. They call it Unakoti; literally one less than a koti, ten million in their language. That is the number of Gods they have cooked up since the Apocalypse.”
He paused, taking another sip of his tea. I could feel his enthusiasm on the subject. He had always suffered from wanderlust and if not for his responsibility as my teacher tying him down to our clan, he would not have stuck around in the same place for the four years he had.
I knew very little of my teacher except that he was extremely talented and loved travel and books. The reclusive man hadn’t spoken of his past to me, yet I believed it was surely a tragic tale. He was a Hominum and a Tamer, yet his Harem wasn’t by his side.
He had wandered the Empire, selling his art for food, walking the length and breadth of the land on his own two feet, taking in the sights and sounds of the land that had birthed him until he had turned up near the Felidae Estates one day.
Dishevelled and in clothes that had faded with one too many wash, his eyes were bright as he sold his artwork on a sidewalk. After one of his works had made it to Father’s desk, he had been invited into our home as a teacher for me.
I don’t know why he had accepted me as his disciple but he had settled down in our clan, his only request, unrestricted access to the clan library. Most of his wages went to the purchase of books too. When he wasn’t exploring the world on his feet he was doing it through the words of others.
From his words and actions after I had successfully performed my first nuptial contract, I could feel that he was getting ready to hit the road again soon. I felt sad for our parting but the moment I had chosen to participate in the Swayamvar, I knew this day would come. The Swayamvar only allowed three followers of comparable realm or lower in its initial phases and with my three wives, my slots were full.
The sound of his voice brought my mind back to his words alongside Phobos who was listening with great interest. “But, if you get right down to the core of the matter, there is only one God we truly have evidence of. The people of Indus call her Kali, the Romans refer to her as Juno, we know her as Vita. The Goddess of Life. No one truly knows what caused the apocalypse. We know the Beasts existed from the murals and the records that have escaped the ravages of time. Yet, the true details of the events that led up to disappearance of the Beasts and the appearance of Bestia elude us.
“Was there truly a Daemon King? Did the Heroes truly exist? Is a spell capable of altering the very fabric of the world? Or are the people of Indus correct in assuming that Shiva, the God of Destruction, wiped out the Beasts and merged his wife Kali into the women of the world to preserve her life after she suffered grievous injury at the hand of their over ambitious King?
“There are as many tales as there are people. Go to the Deus Theocracy and the Holy Mother will tell you that there is only one true God and that women are her manifestations on this mortal world, able to tap into part of her Divine power.
“Go to the Caliphate and any Sultan will scoff at her views, maintaining that being born a woman is a pardoned crime and that their transformation into Feral forms is a sign of their curse. That is why they have women cover their faces and bodies with burqas and hijabs there to prevent the spread of the so called ‘taint’.”
He leaned back into his seat, downing the remaining lukewarm tea in one gulp. “The world is a splendid place. The clash of opinions, the interpretation of fact in myriad ways is what makes it worth exploring. Every corner is hiding another story to add to the pages of the book of your life.”
He locked eyes with me. “Now that you are going off to explore it on your own I think the time has come for us to close this chapter of our lives. The roads call to me.”
“But…” he interrupted me as soon as I started to protest. “I’m not leaving right now. I need to prepare too.” He set his empty cup down and stood up. Pulling out a tightly furled scroll, he waved it at me. “Right now, I have the Duchess’ library to explore. Thank your wife for me, tell her I like her gift very much. Call me when you are ready to depart. I’ll stay at the Estates until you set out for the Swayamvar.”
He turned around and walked towards the exit. His voice coming from down the hall as he paused with his hand on the doorknob. “I’ll leave when you set out for your first Trial.”
The sound of the door opening. The sound of it closing.
I looked down at the leather-bound book in my hands.
Phobos squeezed my shoulder comfortingly. I sighed. It seemed that it was a season for goodbyes.