Six: Prophecy of Winter
Kyse shivered and inched closer to the campfire. He pulled his heavy cloak tighter around himself and whispered a prayer to Kina, that she find it in her heart to keep him from freezing to death. The cold was all around, like a pack of ravenous wolves in the night, kept at bay only by the meager light of the fire. It had a weight to it, oppressive and bitter. This unnatural cold seemed to him like a living thing, a malevolent force that sought only destruction. Opposite him the Master, E’eldr, was huddled in his own cloak and staring into the dancing tongues of fire. The lich didn’t seem particularly bothered by the cold, but Kyse figured immortality made things like frostbite seem paltry. He flexed his hands, larger than most men by half, and tried to keep the blood flowing in them.
“Kyse,” E’eldr said, the first he’d spoken since they made camp for the night. “What do you think of the Twilight Prophecy?” During the long weeks of their journey, the lich hadn’t mentioned this, ostensibly the reason he’d brought Kyse along.
“I have always liked it for its story,” Kyse said. “Most prophecies are very vague, they require a lot of guessing and reading from other sources. The Twilight Prophecy is very detailed, at least about what they imagine will happen.”
“Which is what?”
“It starts with the winter, lasting for three whole seasons without summer,” Kyse said. “I suppose, if the winter started early enough it wouldn’t need a summer. It could just be winter from the beginning of autumn until the end of spring, couldn’t it?”
“Indeed it could,” E’eldr said, looking thoughtful. The wisdom on his boyish features created a bizarre contradiction that Kyse found difficult to look at, so he kept watching the fire. “Tell me, what is the purpose of the winter?”
“A trickster god uses it to foment wars among the mortals,” Kyse said. “Resources run out, brothers kill brothers.”
“So the winter descends and then wars break out all over the world,” E’eldr said. “Do you see the issue with that?” Kyse shook his head. It seemed like sound logic. “The problem,” the Master continued, “is that it wouldn’t work. Three seasons of winter is a long time in the cold, but this prophecy would need to assume there was already a scarcity. Consider the Three Kingdoms. So much of our land is set aside for farming. Modern techniques mean we can store most food for long periods of time. There are plentiful forests and plains to hunt wild game. Six extra months of winter will be hard, but not enough for you and I to start butchering each other over food.”
“Perhaps we aren’t the ones the prophecy refers to?”
E’eldr shook his head. “Mankind built civilization, Kyse. I was there, remember. This prophecy assumes that, at the first sign of hardship, we’ll abandon it for lawlessness and wanton warfare. But wars are expensive, they require vastly more resources than simply feeding and clothing the people. Pooling resources and building things is what we do, as a society.”
Kyse looked up and locked eyes with the lich. Bright blue, pensive, those eyes had seen centuries of humanity. His youthful features were still unnerving. The fair skin, not unlike the Shandaran complexion, was just foreign enough to make E’eldr seem alien. The lich wasn’t large or imposing, Kyse stood head and shoulders over him, perhaps more, and was half-again as broad. Yet there was a sense of authority, of power, in E’eldr that no other matched. Even the monarchs of the Three Kingdoms were respectful. The man was a mystery.
“So, if the wars will not break out on their own,” Kyse said, “then the prophecy is wrong. It claims that the evil god will use this discord to destroy the world, fighting his own war with monsters and revenants to defeat the other gods and bring about the death of all.”
“Maybe,” E’eldr replied. “Or maybe Shandar is going to start the war themselves. Remember, the prophecy we’re dealing with is being used by an outside force. With that assumption, it’s already wrong. Truthfully, I’m not even sure what purpose it serves to use the prophecy at all.”
“So that we have a way to win,” Kyse said. “If we know what’s coming, evil gods and monsters, we can prepare for it. We can beat it.”
“Interesting train of thought,” E’eldr said. “Then our path is clear. We gather what evidence we can in Shandar, and then race back to tell the world about it.”
“How close are we?”
“We’ll cross the border tomorrow,” E’eldr said. “It’s hard to tell with all the snow, but we should be in the marches now, beyond what is officially the Three Kingdoms but not quite into Shandar itself. We’ll want to take a roundabout route to reach Shanath-Kanar, as I doubt they’ll take kindly to foreigners wandering the roads.”
“So we won’t be staying indoors anytime soon?”
The lich shook his head. “Not likely. Not unless we’re captured. And they may just execute us on the spot and spare themselves the trouble.”
“You mean execute me,” Kyse said. “I heard you were immortal.”
“In this situation, Kyse, I’d be very surprised to find there’s no way to kill me. Surely someone has worked it out.” E’eldr smiled at that, as if the looming spectre of death wasn’t something to fear at all, but something to be embraced.
Dawn came to Shanath-Kanar. A hollow victory over night, as the sun did nothing to warm the world. It merely hid behind a gray veil as it had for months, abandoning mankind to the merciless cold. Derith Gelinark stood beside the emperor, overlooking the construction of their salvation. The emperor was pleased, at the cost and gaudiness of the construction if not its purpose. Derith himself didn’t think he fully understood it, not yet. The voice of his new master had taught him much, but without context it all seemed like useless information. Information is never trivial, he remined himself. One of his first lessons.
“How much longer, steward?” The Emperor demanded. “I am weary of standing in the cold. I have other business to be about.”
“Of course, my lord,” Derith said. He prostrated himself on the cold ground. “The construction will be finished in another week, my lord. Our benefactor claims that it will only be a matter of days before he can show us proof that our faith is not misplaced, and once the gateway is complete, we will be able to cast off this winter.”
“See to it that the construction remains on schedule,” the Emperor said. Then he turned back toward the city. A gaggle of sycophants followed in his wake, but Derith remained on the ground until they’d covered most of the distance back. Then he stood and surveyed his project. It was, he realized, his project. Convincing the Emperor that his usually level-headed, straightforward steward was hearing a disembodied voice directing them to build this structure had been surprisingly easy. Shandarans were often superstitious and prone to belief in the supernatural. It was a cultural aspect Derith liked to ignore, but one he now eagerly embraced.
Another of their qualities, that infamous frivolity, had been a boon as well. The sheer amount of materials required for this project was staggering to Derith, even now. Their construction required a massive ziggurat of marble and granite in precise arrangement. It was dozens of feet wide at the top, perfectly flat and polished. Upon it they’d erected two towering spires plated with hammered silver. Their tops were shaped like the settings in a ring, though on a colossal scale. Set into them were two enormous rubies. Derith could only imagine where the Emperor had found such things. He’d claimed most of this material was in storage, put aside for a handful of other building projects he had in mind for the summer months.
“It’s such a waste,” Derith muttered. The worst part, in his estimation, was the center. Between the soaring spires of silver was an enormous circle of solid gold. It was held in place by massive support arms from the spires on either side, and anchors at the bottom. That part of the construction was still unfinished, requiring tremendous manpower and precision. The gold had been brought from the Emperor’s own vast fortune, melted down and poured into a colossal mold that was still buried in the ground near the construction. Laborers and engineers were still working out the best way to hoist it into place and secure it.
It is only wasteful if it is not used.
Derith froze, swallowing a sudden lump of anxiety in his throat. It had been a few days since last he’d heard the voice. If he was being honest, he’d almost been able to believe he’d made the whole thing up. Nights of feverish dreams, mornings where he woke surrounded by frantically drawn diagrams and notes scratched in a hand that was not his own. One night he’d actually woken up out in the cold, in his nightclothes, mumbling to himself in the snow.
“So, you’ve returned,” he said. He didn’t need to speak aloud for the voice to hear him, but it made him feel more in control in a way. He was alone, on a hilltop that overlooked the gateway. Talking aloud to the air wouldn’t seem all that strange if no one else heard him.
I never left you, the voice replied. I have simply observed. You have done well. The gateway is coming together even more quickly than I imagined.
“Our men know how to build lavish constructions,” Derith said. “For that, you’ve chosen the best nation in all the world.”
I am aware. I chose your people for this reason.
“And of all those people you chose me,” Derith said. “I must wonder at why.”
Is being chosen to save the world not enough?
“Not for a Shandaran,” he replied.
He heard a distinct chuckle in his head. Like a mirthful earthquake or the rumble of distant, jovial thunder. Very well. I chose you for your closeness to the throne, and for that which your heart covets.
“A quiet retirement?” Derith asked. “That seems like a silly reason to choose me to save the world.”
Is that what you’ve told yourself you desire? To leave this center of power and influence behind and retire?
“It is what I’ve wanted for a long time,” Derith said. He was, perhaps, too young to be so tired of his position but he couldn’t help it. The complete lack of frugality, the wasteful way that the imperial court threw away people and resources, used their vast wealth to accomplish nothing, and frittered away their days on pointless fashions and contemptible feats of extravagant construction were all such a source of frustration. What he wouldn’t give to move away from it, to build a modest home in the country with only his handful of aides and lead a quiet life. Maybe I’ll start a farm, he thought. Maybe found a town of my own.
Why found a town when you could have an empire?
Derith sputtered, nearly falling over in his shock. “What? That’s treason!”
Look at your Empire, the voice said, snorting at the idea of a disembodied entity committing treason. On the surface, it appears prosperous beyond measure. Yet, you know this endless spending and lack of progress cannot last forever. The people cater to the Emperor, they bow and scrape. His sycophants control the wealth, they control the power. But their power is more fragile than they see.
“Which is why it would be best to leave it behind,” Derith said. “When their wealth and power fail, in whatever lifetime that happens, being here will be dangerous. People will rise up. We’ll have war and ruin. A quiet life in the country would spare me all of that.”
Of course it would. But what if you could stop all of that from happening? Save the world, take the throne and rule Shandar like you know it should be ruled. Would that not be better?
“I’m not even in line for the throne,” Derith said. He hesitated. That wasn’t completely true. His blood relation to the Emperor meant he did have some claim to the throne by heredity, however small. That line of thought made him queasy. Many would need to die before he’d have a right of succession. And claiming it by force would only provoke the civil war he was trying to flee the city to avoid. No, he thought, somewhat relieved. No there’s no feasible way that I could be Emperor.
Leave that to me, the voice said. You worry about saving your world.
Derith shuddered. The confidence in his mysterious benefactor was unnerving. What was more unsettling, at least in his estimation, was that the voice’s argument made sense. More than reading his thoughts, it knew his heart.
Do not be troubled, the voice said. I know the hearts of all men, in one form or another. There is always a yearning for more. To acquire more wealth, to shed more blood, to do more good in the world. Avarice is not subject only to material gain. Most often, people want more for ultimately selfless reasons. Having more to help more. It is the reason you create civilizations, build cities and constantly seek knowledge. I am simply giving you that which men have always craved.
“I trust you,” Derith said. “Isn’t that odd? I have never met you, never seen your face. I do not even know your name, but I have placed my trust in you.”
Is it odd? I find it odd that you would need such things to trust me. Names can be fabricated, faces can be changed. Even meeting a man, looking in his eyes, can give you but a small glimpse at the person behind them. You all wear masks at different times. Only a man’s actions can show his true self. Unless you can see into his heart directly.
“You said ‘you all wear masks’. Does that mean you aren’t human?”
Derith heard that chuckling again. I wasn’t sure you’d notice. No, in fact, I am not human. I have been known by many names, in many places and times. Long ago, your ancestors called me Aviaris. My kind mostly call me Greed.
“Aviaris,” Derith said, tasting the word on his tongue. “It sounds like ‘Avarice’ being mispronounced. Is that intentional?”
Perhaps. Or a change in your language over many hundreds of years.
“I see,” Derith said. Then he realized what he was actually speaking with. “You’re a god! That’s why you can see my thoughts, know so much about me. It must be!”
Correct. Does that change your trust in me?
“Perhaps,” Derith said, cautious of offending Aviaris. “I admit it does make me feel like I have less say in the matter. Like I have no choice but to follow your command.”
I have never commanded you, Aviaris replied. And you have never had cause to doubt before. You’ve always followed what I said. Why does knowing who I am change that?
“It isn’t who you are,” Derith said. “Rather, its what you are that changes things.”
And what did you think I was before? A delusion of some sort? The ravings of your unconscious mind? You would follow those willingly, b...