Gaea took a deep breath. Then another.
The Goddess had no need to breathe and there was no atmosphere in that remote realm of the Cosmos, but the action, synonymous with life, helped her relax. She could use that under the circumstances.
Chronos was dangerous, even to a primordial deity such as herself, and every bit of her being was aware of that fact. She felt vulnerable and afraid – two emotions anathema to her nature.
Stop acting like a mortal. You’re the Goddess of Life. He can’t harm you, she assured herself, then took another deep breath of nothingness for good measure.
The vibrant Goddess paced in emptiness while she waited for the God of Time. One would think Chronos, of all creatures, would respect a scheduled appointment. That wasn’t the case, and so she waited. She just couldn’t wait standing still.
“Welcome,” the God of Time said after what felt like an eternity. “To what do I owe the pleasure of a visit from the mighty Mother of all Life?”
Is that sarcasm? she wondered. All gods were stripped down to a mortal’s basic senses in Chronos’ presence, so words were the only indicators she had of his mood and location. “Show yourself. I can’t talk to you like this,” she demanded in a strict voice. It unnerved Gaea that she could not use her Reach to perceive him, and she would tolerate none of Chronos’ usual methods of intimidation. Not this time.
The darkness above her shimmered and formed something that resembled a male Jötunn with features shifting from old to young to old again. Most gods wish to be perceived and admired. Chronos had no such vanity. He just was. He embodied the past, the present, and the future. All at once, always.
“Talk,” he said casually. The word a command nonetheless.
Chronos’ chosen self-image was off-putting, still Gaea held his gaze – such as it was – when she spoke. “It’s time to put an end to your little experiment.” The Goddess cringed. She had crafted every word of this conversation carefully in her mind. How had she screwed up right at the first sentence?
The darkness brightened just enough for her to glimpse the derision on Chronos’ erratic features. “Time, is it?”
Gaea was about to take another fake breath but carried on instead. “Yes, Niflheim is breaking apart.”
“I have it under control,” the ethereal voice said in a tone akin to a shrug.
“It doesn’t seem like it,” Gaea insisted. “The Olympians and the Aesir are at each other’s throats again since the Merge. Each has brought in their own creatures to perpetuate the conflict on the living side, while underneath the ice, the world’s burning. Soon, neither the living nor the dead will have a place to exist. Just because the souls under Hel’s care are no longer bound to you, it doesn’t make them less worthy of respect.”
“Is that why you’re here? Because you, Goddess of Life, respect the dead?”
Gaea cursed silently and put more effort into shielding her thoughts. “I’m here because Hel asked me to reason with you on her behalf.”
“How kind of you. She could have used one of the Chronodéndrons instead.”
Gaea bristled. He was mocking her. “Gods don’t pray, you know that. Especially to Chronodéndrons. Would you have listened to her, if she did?”
“I always listen.”
She calmed herself. “Well… good. Nevertheless, I’m the one here now.” Gaea took one more deep breath and then deliberately smiled. “Chronos dear, will you stop this nonsense and put the Olympians’ Underworld back where it belongs?”
There was a long, nerve-wracking pause.
Gaea’s smile didn't change. “Why not? You proved your point. No god will ever dare to challenge you after this.”
“Aside from you, you mean.”
He knows! The smile vanished. “Chronos, you’re not the one I challenge.” Gaea pursed her lips; that was too close to a lie. She had to come up with a better reason – fast. “Look, I can explain.”
“Don’t waste your breath, dear. I’m not angry; I welcome the challenge. This aeon has been so boring,” he said with the exhaustion of ages.
“Boring…?” Gaea couldn’t believe her senses. “Have you been paying attention to what’s happening in the Universe? The gods are in danger. Now, thanks to you, Eternity itself is in jeopardy. It has to stop.”
“We’ve barely started,” he said.
We? Realisation struck Gaea like one of Thor’s lightning bolts. If the Goddess of Death was working with Chronos against her, Gaea’s creations were more endangered than she’d thought. For if even one of the Three had the power to disturb the balance of the Cosmos, two… she dreaded to even consider the possibilities.
“Now, return to your friends and tell Hel to speak to me directly next time she has something to say.” Chronos flickered and faded: not a good sign.
“Wait, Chronos listen to –”
“Enjoy the rest of your Life.” The God of Time enunciated the last word with loathing. Reality shifted, and Gaea found herself on her knees staring at the roots of the World Tree that held Niflheim together.
Gaea took a deep breath, then another – the cold air felt comforting in her lungs. Ice walls surrounded her. Through her Reach she sensed the weight of the glacier above the large cavern and the heat from the magma chamber deep below. All her powers had been restored, and she took an extra deep breath of relief.
She wasn’t alone. Two grey eyes and one blue watched her with concern.
“How did it go?” Hel asked, then resumed chewing her nail.
“Not well,” Gaea replied in a forlorn tone.
Now that Gaea had her Reach restored, she didn’t need to use words to communicate with the others, and for every sentence uttered there were volumes of information shared telepathically. Still, speaking – much like breathing – felt comforting to most gods.
Odin scratched under his eye patch and grunted with resignation. “I feared as much.”
Gaea understood his frustration well. The downside of being an elder god is that you have to solve your own problems, or worse, compromise.
“I’ll send an emissary to the Olympians explaining the situation before it escalates further. We’ll need their help to deal with this mess.” Odin spoke as if the words were rotten in his mouth.
Hel scowled. “You can’t be serious. We need help but not from them!”
Odin rolled his eye. “It’s their problem too. I can’t solve it. Maybe he can.” The Allfather winced when he mentioned his rival. “That pompous, promiscuous, half-dressed idiot has as much to lose as we do.”
“What about Hades?” Hel asked.
“What about him? He’ll do whatever Zeus tells him to do. Same as you’ll do what I say.”
“Yes, it’s a good idea to seek an alliance with the Olympians, especially since Zeus has more gods under his command than you,” Gaea said sheepishly.
Odin bore his eye into her. “What?! How?”
“With the Ambrosia I gave him; Zeus has gathered quite the army in Olympus.”
“How could you?” Odin’s face flushed with suppressed anger. “I have more human worshippers than he ever did. Good quality humans in Valhalla, brave warriors who don’t fear death.”
“But you don’t breed with them.”
“Of course not, they’re humans!”
Every god had their schemes; Gaea’s involved freeing her creations from death by any means necessary, and Odin, despite all his wisdom, could be very short-sighted sometimes. “Ambrosia works well for enhancing mortals and turning demigods into gods, but pure human subjects have shown either incomplete or adverse reactions to the resin – all except one. Unfortunately, the human in question fled before I had a chance to perform a proper study. I fear Kali got to her first... The point is, Zeus with his ambition to turn all his demigod offspring into gods made a better ally for my purposes.”
“Then you should have planted your precious tree in Olympus, not here!” The ice cracked around Hel as she spoke.
Gaea shrugged. “Niflheim was more discreet." In her eyes, the worlds of the dead were the last places anyone would look for trees of eternal life.
“And now it’s the centre of the flaming Universe! It’s your fault.” Hel pointed at Odin. “First the leftover humans and now this. If Father were here –”
The Aesir King huffed, and Hel went silent.
“Very well.” Odin kept the strain from his voice when he addressed Gaea. “Get me some of that Ambrosia. I’ll give it to the Dharkan.”
Hel gasped. “No, you won't!”
Gaea shook her head. “Unfortunately, the Tree caught the attention of a group of loggers.”
“Then create a new Tree!” Odin’s eye bulged as he spoke.
“I did! It takes Time for it to grow,” Gaea sneered.
“Arrrgh!” Odin said.
“What is that?” A perplexed Hel pointed up, and Gaea extended her senses to Reach the world’s surface. A large crowd of mortals had gathered at the base of the World Tree. They reeked of fear and wonderment. There was something hovering above them. Gaea flinched. She couldn’t be Reaching right, could she?
An unnatural light hit the World Tree; its effects rippled through the mighty roots into the world’s core.
“Do something!” Hel appealed to her elders.
“I can’t translocate,” Odin said, his face the colour of the icy walls. “I can’t even move!”
“Nor I…” Gaea murmured, incredulously.
The mortals’ terror was harrowing even when sensed through the layers of ice. Gaea held her head in her hands to muffle the screams of the dying Tree, herself screaming in anguish. “Chronos!” she cried out to the God of Time, then added through Reach, ‘Don’t do this – please!’
Tears ran down Gaea’s cheeks as she pleaded for the first time in her very long existence. As for so many others before her, it did nothing to change the course of events, and only when the remaining World Trees across the Universe had shed their leaves in mourning was the Goddess of Life allowed to leave the icy cave.
An Alternative to Eternity
Let’s start at the end, it being as good a beginning as any.
It ends with Ileana and her people, the Anann, stranded in a desolate world waiting for their turn to die. Every day, she prayed to the gods for help, and one day I listened. You see, I was mortal once, and maybe because of it, I was never good at being a god.
And so I found myself once again bound in flesh, trapped in a place I didn’t belong, for I failed to realise mortals can use gods as pawns too.
“Breathe,” whispers an ethereal voice.
In the indistinct rustle of leaves blown by the breeze, I hear other whispers as thoughts that are not my own. “Remember…” they say, before fading.
My body is cold. Empty of air, empty of life. I sink into that limbo between worlds, its darkness comforting and familiar to my soul.
“Breathe!” The command shatters the silence like lightning splitting wood. Too loud for my numb senses to process, it hits me like a physical blow and releases my jaw. An abrupt and painful inhalation follows. When the fresh air pierces my lungs, I have to cough it back out, only to go through the whole ordeal again.
A forgotten part of my being is disappointed. I don’t remember breathing to be this hard.
“That’s it, good. You made it. Now rest.”
I will myself to Reach for the speaker. Nothing. My enhanced perception is gone along with the rest of the abilities familiar to a god.
Heart pounding, I command my eyelids to open and they disobey. I try to move, lose balance and topple to the ground like a felled tree. Gravity. Of all the laws that govern the lives of mortals, gravity is the most punishing – a constant reminder of how powerless they are. Or should I say, how powerless I am.
This can’t be happening, I think with every laboured breath. The smell of wet soil invades my nostrils, and cool, rough, leafy strips of vegetation tickle my tongue. I try to spit them out but only manage to suck in more dirt instead.
An explosion of pain replaces my numbness. I writhe as the tingling sensation of pins and needles spreads like wildfire throughout my entire body. Cramps follow. First in my legs, then spreading up through my thighs, to my abdomen and back. In agony, I grip the earth hard enough to pluck handfuls of weeds from their roots. It doesn’t help. Every piece of me aches. I try to scream but no sound comes out, only a gasping hiss.
Something’s wrong, I realise. This isn’t my body. Of course it can’t be, my mortal body perished long ago, but this one feels different, alien somehow.
Specks of light appear in my blurred vision, like darting fireflies reflected on water. As the pain subsides, the dancing lights dissipate and are replaced by more focused ones – stars. Actual stars in the night sky, not some pain-induced hallucination. Relieved, I wonder, which sky though? None of the constellations looks familiar.
It’s strange to see with mortal eyes again. The simplicity of their limited perception always conferred a certain beauty to things – not that there is much to see apart from the stars, mind. I try to speak but fail to articulate words. (Maybe it’s for the best. I can’t think of anything worth saying out loud.)
After what seems like a lifetime, the cramps fade, my breathing steadies and I’m able to organise my scrambled thoughts. My mind is now filled with memories that aren’t mine, accompanied by emotions so acute they make me wish for oblivion again. I relive the events of Ileana’s life as if they had just happened to me. The experience is excruciating, and I press my hands against my head for fear my skull may shatter.
I’ve become a timeless being trapped in a mortal’s body, haunted by memories not my own: A fated god – a Wyrd.
With considerable effort, I put one hand on the ground to steady myself and look up to see a tree. I’m vaguely aware of many more trees looming about, but that particular tree with its swirling black bark and arrow-shaped leaves is unmistakably familiar – a Chronodéndron. Ileana’s old Chronodéndron, Yewlow. Now so young and lush…
Can it be? I ask myself, staring at the answer.
Tears well up in my eyes. Not from despair or anger but from something more than both, and for the first time in an age, I cry. I cry for my soul and for the woman who gave up her life to capture it; I cry because I’ve been punished for a crime I haven’t committed and I don’t understand why or by whom.
I cry because I can.
There are many types of gods, more than there are types of mortals. I’m not just talking about pantheons or the different talents each god possesses. What I mean is there are gods and then there are Gods. Those Gods don’t rule over their own worlds; they are part of the fabric of the Universe where those worlds exist.
Chronos – God of Time – was the first, or so he claims; Kali – Goddess of Death – disagrees, but they both state Gaea – Goddess of Life – manifested last. From where the Three came from, who knows? Perhaps forces more ancient and powerful than the Gods exist out there.
Some things are not worth considering, for sanity’s sake.
The three main deities brought into existence many stars and worlds to orbit around them. Not out of any conscious intent, mind; it just happened whenever they came together.
Along with each world, new gods appeared and with them a myriad of other sentient creatures. These new gods soon learnt to design their own creations, except these were transient. Eventually, even mortals found their own path to timelessness through legend, writing and reproduction and… let’s just say, the Three keep themselves separated these days in order to avoid further turmoil in the Universe.
Why hadn’t they put an end to it? Perhaps they were curious to find out what their creations would do next, or perhaps they were unable to stop them. Personally, I believed they didn’t care one way or the other. Their motivations always seemed so beyond our comprehension.
I was wrong.
But I digress… where was I? Ah, yes. Crying.
I really enjoyed this, but my favorite is the end and the raw emotion she's feeling!
Well written and nicely…
Well written and nicely paced!
Interesting World Building
I enjoyed envisioning the world in which your characters will live and interact.