Book of Xyl
As I worked on the crystal plinth that was erected on the peak of Mount Dynara, I paused to listen to the lone yelps and distant whines that came up from the basin below. The sound had been building for some time, but now it erupted into the full-throated howling of wolves.
I'm not sure how long I stood there, listening to the howling, but a soft hand gently touched my shoulder. Turning, it was my mate, Trillillial, who had come up behind me unaware, her brown wings flecked with gold. Her palm felt warm against my crystalline skin.
Standing next to her was Mugowumpois, who moved up to study the crystal plinth I was working on. It was meant to erect a shield over Mount Dynara. The soft green fingers of Mugowumpois drifted over the crystal components, panels, lights, but she touched nothing. She glanced up at me and smiled, politely not voicing the obvious futility of such a device, a weak response to the Soulless.
"Loboshi splintered?" I asked, perhaps superfluously.
"Yes," Trillillial said softly.
"Her shards took a lupine form," said Mugowumpois brusquely. "I assumed she might, given her relationship with the wolves since Volkh died."
"It is a testament to her love of Volkh," said Trillillial.
"You are always the romantic," I said and reached up to squeeze her hand.
"There are now only five of us left," said Trillillial. "When will we splinter, Xyl? When will we join the rest?"
"I need to finish my work," I said, pulling away from her and avoiding her mournful blue eyes. Mugowumpois arched an eyebrow.
I knew Trillillial wanted to splinter. She had for the past two thousand years, to join the rest of the Elders who were now spread across the world as the mortal races.
"Did you want more recording crystals?" I asked Mugowumpois.
"Yes," she said. "I need to interview the first generation of Loboshi's splinters. You know they completely forget who they were by the third iteration."
I didn't answer, but just handed her the crystals and turned back to my work, adjusting some dials. I felt Mugowumpois shrug and leave.
I paused again when Trillillial sighed deeply. She laid her hand again on my shoulder. She knew my emotions, which ran deeply below the surface, and how I hated it when one of us splintered.
Bollikin was the first, of course, and the memory of that event still sent quakes through my crystalline structure. When Bollikin splintered, the scream of Tae shook the entire First World, even driving the Soulless away as they thought we had unleashed some new weapon.
We all came running to Tae and found him surrounded by thousands of tiny beings, each one responding to the name of Bollikin. Tae was trying to gather them all to himself.
"What have you done, little friend?" Tae kept crying.
"I'm sorry, dear Tae," they kept answering in chorus.
It took some time before we worked out what happened. Bollikin had apparently splintered his own essence, creating a race of small mortals, each taking on a characteristic of one of his creations, such as fox or squirrel or rabbit or other small creature of Bollikin's. The race was star-shaped, i.e., a head, two arms and legs, bipedal and split into two sexes, which were able to procreate. We had called them the furrikin.
Tae kept guard over this new, weak race of furrikin. But they aged and died, which we could do nothing to stop. On the other hand, they also procreated, and grew in greater and greater numbers. With each generation, they forgot more and more who they were, and Tae's despair grew proportionally.
Elfenehoala was the second to splinter, having studied the shards of Bollikin. She worked out how he fragmented his own spirit, dividing one into many. But while Bollikin's splintering took on a myriad different forms and shapes, the shards of Elfenhoala looked much more homogenous, graceful green skinned beings who were drawn to the forests.
Since then, others followed, mostly out of despair. Tae was the third, his race taking the form of his beloved bears, which were known as the tae'dae. Even after several generations and the tae'dae and furrikin had forgotten who they once were, the races remained close, the tae'dae forever being the protectors of the small furrikin.
The irony wasn't lost on us. For aeons we had searched for the secret of our own procreation and, once found, learned that the cost was our own dissimilation. As more Elders splintered, the dozens and dozens of races began to spread throughout the First World. As expected, they were hunted by the Soulless Ones, and so the races were scattered even more.
And, thus, now there was only five of us left: Meridian, Dracnoris, Trillillial, Mugowumpois and myself. Meridian remained, taking responsibility for overseeing the new races, though as they were spread more and more, it became clear it was an impossible task. Dracnoris remained, though I am not sure why. He made flights over the First World, battling the Soulless, then retreating, often brooding.
The desire to splinter becomes stronger, the smaller our numbers become. Trillillial speaks of it often, but I resist and she will not splinter without me. It was tempting, allowing oneself to disperse into a new race, with new experiences, unaware of the knowledge of impending doom, for though the races stubbornly survived, it was only a matter of time before the Soulless Ones would overwhelm them. And so I continue my projects, hoping I could do enough to protect the new races.
Of all of us, Mugowumpois was most intrigued by the splintered races. As her focus of study in the Fifth Circle was organic, she has become obsessed with the mortal races. She tracked them, analysed their customs, interviewed them and often came to the conclusion that each individual shard had the potential to evolve back into an Elder. While it was nice to imagine several hundred million Elders rising up to challenge the Soulless Gods, the reality was much harsher. The mortal races were hunted and consumed relentlessly by the Soulless.
Not long after Loboshi splintered, Mugowumpois called Trillillial, Meridian and myself to join her. I am not sure whether or not she asked Dracnoris, but he was more and more isolating himself from the rest of us. We gathered within the swamps of Balacharia. Mugowumpois greeted us, holding the hand of a small female furrikin. The furrikin had probably just entered adulthood. She had ginger fur and long ears like a rabbit. Her dark eyes looked trustingly up at us through thick lashes. Such was how the mortal races looked upon us.
"You aren't afraid, are you, dear?" Mugowumpois asked her in the furrikin's own language. It was odd that the mortal races could never master our tongue, each developing their own language.
"No, Great Mugowumpois," she answered, though she clearly was terrified.
"This is Ayalala of the Sweetberry tribe," said Mugowumpois, stroking the furrikin's arm. Then she switched to the Elder tongue. "I know I've shown you this before, the soul that inhabits each shard, but indulge me a moment."
Mugowumpois smiled gently at Ayalala and turned her around. Placing a hand over the furrikin's head, Mugowumpois increased the vibration around her aura until the shard of the soul became visible.
"This is a technique you shall appreciate, Xyl," Mugowumpois said. "I'm going to use a small amount of immanidivinus energy to mark the substance of the soul."
As the aura of the furrikin stabilised, Mugowumpois inserted a finger gently into the shimmering aura and trickled a very tiny stream of immanidivinus into the aura, slowly tracing an intricate spiderlike glyph which quickly bonded to the furrikin's soul. "There. Her soul is now marked forevermore. We can find her anywhere in the known world."
"Yes," I said. "If we wanted to track individual mortals, that is quite useful."
"Wait, that's not what I meant to demonstrate. Watch."
With a sudden jerk, Mugowumpois snapped Ayalala's neck. It was done so swiftly that Ayalala never even had a chance to cry out or express surprise. Trillillial gasped in shock and stood up.
"Why did you do that!" Trillillial exclaimed. Her lips thinned and she looked at me. I motioned her to sit down.
"Really, was that necessary?" asked Meridian.
"Yes, it is part of the demonstration," Mugowumpois said, though she looked slightly abashed. "Now look. There! The soul is separating from the corpse!"
And so it was, taking on the shadowy form of Ayalala, even while it was slowly losing shape. Ayalala seemed to try to speak to Mugowumpois, looking reproachful and utterly sad. Mugowumpois was quick to point to the glyph that still shimmered on the soul's substance.
"There," Mugowumpois said excitedly. "See? Track it!"
We each tried to track the soul as it slowly faded away. Mugowumpois brightly asked if we could find it but none of us could.
"This is only the first part of the experiment," she told us. "I'll call us back together for the next stage."
It was several months before Mugowumpois once again gathered us together. This time she brought us to the outskirts of the Gaaglinaaro Forest, where a small furrikin had just given birth in a crudely thatched hut. The furrikin mother held the infant to her breast. The offspring looked like the mother, brown furred, with the vague characteristics of a squirrel. The baby's eyes weren't open but it began to cry when Mugowumpois came near, though she was oblivious to the child's distress.
"This is Pollipolli of the Green Mud tribe," Mugowumpois introduced the mother to us. "She has just given birth to her young son, Rolloriki. May I hold your child, Polli?"
"Of course, Great Mugowumpois," said Pollipolli, though she hesitated slightly before handing over the babe.
"I hope you have no plans to kill that child," said Trillillial icily in the Elder tongue.
"No, no," said Mugowumpois. "But watch."
Mugowumpois held a hand over the crying child. The aura glowed and expanded, revealing the soul. Within the soul was a glyph like that in Ayalala.
"You've marked another?" asked Meridian.
"No," said Mugowumpois triumphantly, "Look closely. It is the same soul!"
We looked and it was true. It was exactly the same glyph as had marked poor Ayalala. Even Trillillial was astonished.
"Fascinating," I said in admiration.
"How is this possible?" asked Meridian.
"I do not know how but it is," Mugowumpois said, handing the child back to the relieved mother. "When a new baby is formed - in utero as it were - a soul shard slowly forms and incarnates within the physical body. Body and soul finally merge when the child is born and takes its first breath. I wondered where these new shards come from. At first, I thought the parents' souls somehow propagated more shards. Or perhaps that the bodies themselves spontaneously generated a new soul. But no. When a mortal dies, the soul does not dissipate, even though that's what appeared to happen with Ayalala. Rather, the soul reincarnates! The souls are never lost!"
"Reincarnation," whispered Meridian.
"That isn't all," continued Mugowumpois. "I've run hundreds of these experiments. Sometimes the soul will split in two and be reborn in two places. Thus, there will never be a limit to a race's population as the shards continue to splinter."
We silently wondered what that would mean. Trillillial hummed a lullaby to Pollipolli's child. I sensed she did not want to know how Mugowumpois continued these experiments.
"Of course," I said, "with a limitless population and the rate at which the mortals breed, the Soulless Ones will become greater than ever before as they consume the races."
"But that's the most fantastic discovery of all, " Mugowumpois said. "I've marked some of the souls consumed by the Soulless Ones. And they are still reborn! Do you see what that means? The Soulless cannot absorb the souls of shards!"
"Remarkable," I said, "that follows the patterns we've seen, as well. The Soulless gorge on mortal flesh, then become lethargic before returning active with an even greater hunger."
"But they are never stronger than they were before," said Meridian, his eyes alight with understanding. "If a Soulless consumes an Elder, the essence will be absorbed into theirs. When they consume a mortal, the essence eventually is reincarnated. This is a momentous discovery!"
"What if they consume an entire race?" I asked.
"I assume it would then be impossible to reincarnate," said Mugowumpois. "In that case, the Soulless would probably truly absorb that race as though consuming an Elder."
"So long as a pocket of the race exists, they will have a chance," said Meridian. "We just need to each race alive. We should make sure each is spread out."
"Even so, it is only a matter of time before the Soulless will overcome them," I said. "Ultimately, these mortals are weak creatures. Every simulation I have run shows that in time the Soulless Ones will consume the world. It is inevitable."
"It does buy us time, though," said Meridian. "The longer we keep the Soulless here, the longer Roark and the others have."
So we had a new purpose, preserving the mortal races. But there were only five of us left, against the might of the Soulless Ones. We couldn't do much more than make sure the races were spread throughout the First World.
Several years passed, when I was again tinkering with the plinth on top of Mount Dynara., a cold wind rose up around me. Fearing it was Zenos, I hastily wrapped myself in a shield. But, no, it was the beings known as the Fates. I was more than a little surprised, being that it was so rare that these enigmatic beings would appear before us. Indeed, I had forgotten they even existed. The three beings stood together in the form of mortals, one young, one mature and one an ancient hag.
"You do not often visit," I said guardedly, but they did not answer. "Why are you here?"
"We observe and record," said the mature one known as Lachesis. "We exist in every reality, in some form."
"Indeed," I said noncommittally.
"When these mortal races appeared, that was when our duty truly began," explained the young one known as Clotho.
"Recording gods is no challenge," croaked the ancient one known as Atropos. "Your destinies may as well be straight lines, so predictable. Mortals, however, they can surprise us, how often do we have to reweave the tapestry patterns."
"Your job of recording will not last long, I fear," I said. "The rate the Soulless Ones consume the mortals, they will eventually be overwhelmed."
"True," said Atropos with a toothless grin. "It is inevitable that the Soulless will triumph. For mortals, as you call them, are weak, not strong enough to survive."
"Yes, you are correct about us," said Lachesis. "Our duty in this reality would then soon end. It is a shame, for the interesting parts have just begun."
"And we do not interfere," said Clotho, then she hesitated and glanced at the others. "We do not interfere often."
"Often?" I asked. "So sometimes you do interfere?"
Clotho and Lachesis smiled while Atropos grimaced. Clotho hesitantly stepped towards me, and then dropped a roll of parchment at my feet, quickly backing away. The Fates waited expectantly. Curious, I picked up the parchment and unfurled it. It was a set of blueprints, schematics of great complexity. I felt my crystalline body pulsate quickly as I studied the blueprints and enlightenment dawned on me.
"This is a portal!" I said. "A gateway that pierces reality. Will this take us to Dynara and Magnora?"
"No, you Elders could not step through," said Lachesis.
"Only the mortals could enter this portal," said Clotho.
"Why is that?" I asked. "If you have this knowledge, then do you not have the knowledge to pierce other realities? Roark needn't have gone looking in the Void! You could help us."
"No, it is not possible to follow your progenitors," said Lachesis. "At least not for several aeons. Your Roark's device is useless now, but in time perhaps it would work."
"Why several aeons?" I asked. They remained silent, so I said again, "What happens in several aeons that cannot happen now?"
"You suspect already!" cackled Atropos.
"You mean," my mind was whirling. "Of course, the laws of physics evolve, along with everything else. If realities are forever in flux, then Roark would have to wait until evolution takes its course and the quantum states are in alignment. I wish there was a way we could tell him."
"It would hardly matter," said Lachesis. "Once the Soulless finish with the First World, they will move out and consume this entire multiverse, even the other planes would not be safe."
"Including you," I pointed out.
"We will be the last to go," shrugged Atropos. "We always are."
"So why give me this?" I said, waving the parchment. "What is its purpose? If Elders cannot enter, you say that mortals can. Will they go someplace safe?"
"They will go through," said Lachesis, "be transformed and then return. It will give mortals a chance, no more, a small testing and strengthening of their character, some may not survive portal, but those that do will shape the destiny of the world."
"It is only a small chance," said Clotho.
I went back to studying the blueprints laid out before me. The Portal would need to tap into the very heart of the First World just to power it. It would take all my skill and all my knowledge to construct it. I'm not sure how long I studied it, but when I looked up, the Fates were gone.
Over the next year, I labored on what would be called the Portal of Fate. I constructed it within Mount Dynara, for this mountain was the fulcrux of all of the essence of the First World itself. I took down the plinths and protections around the top of Mount Dynara, for this great peak must become unobtrusive and hidden from the Soulless. I would create a resonating vibration within the mountain to repel the Soulless.
Meridian was greatly intrigued by the Portal of Fate. He had gathered a group of mortal heroes who would be the first step through. Dracnoris showed interest, often visiting me to watch its construction.
When finally it was complete, the Portal of Fate stood within a cave about midway up the mountain peak. All the Elders had gathered, plus the heroes selected by Meridian. I triggered the final glyph and crackling arcane energies erupted within the portal. We could not see through the coruscating field, yet the air warped around us, and we could see reality shifting within the very cave itself. I tried to place a hand through the Portal but was repelled. So it was true that Elders could not enter.
Meridian urged the first of the heroes through. She was an orclach warrior, who strode through without hesitation. Next was a furrikin mystic with a tae'dae protector. Three elfen went through, as well as a taurian, loboshigaru, krokani and aslaran. Ten entered the Portal of Fate, and only eight returned. We had lost an elfen and the taurian.
The rest of the heroes returned but with little memory of their past. Mugowumpois gave a thorough examination of each but could not tell how they were changed. They seemed unremarkable except for the loss of memory.
But we saw in time that everything the Fates said was true. The mortals who survived the Portal of Fate were somehow transformed. Almost without exception, they ended up doing great deeds, becoming the leaders and champions and heroes of Lusternia, sometimes even the villains.
Mortals would make pilgrimages from all over to enter the Portal of Fate. To help, Trillillial wrote songs and stories, encouraging mortals to do the same, to spread word of the Portal of Fate, so that all who had heart enough would come and strive to make their mark.
Gradually, mortals began to withstand the Soulless, though their resistance was subtle and painfully incremental. Would it be enough? We could only hope and believe.
Discovering the secret of how the Portal of Fate changed mortals became the great obsession of Mugowumpois. She studied each mortal who passed through, marking their souls, following them through their incarnations. But the answer always eluded her.
"I will crack this code if it is the last thing I do," she would often say to me.
Trillillial wanted to splinter more than ever now. She wanted to join the others, to be part of this mortal endeavor. Of course, she still waited for me. I kept putting off the inevitable.
When Trillillial came to me one day while I was working on tuning some crystalline vortexes that would hopefully help repel the Soulless from Mount Dynara, she had a hesitant look in her eyes. I thought she was again going to ask me to splinter with her. But instead she took my hand and pulled me away from my work. I did not protest, for something in her eyes told me to keep silent and follow.
Spreading her wings, Trillillial flew off the side of the mountain. I floated up after her, and she led me to the Balacharia Swamp. There in the swamps, I noticed a group of mortals had settled there. They were building structures of surprising complexity. The race had dark green mottled skin but I couldn't quite place who they were.
It took me some time to figure it out, but when I did, I stared at Trillillial. She nodded. Mugowumpois had splintered.
As this was the first generation, they retained some memory of Mugowumpois. One tall member of this new race walked towards me, hesitant and unsure.
"I have a message from her," the newly formed shard said softly. "From me. Who I was."
The shard of Mugowumpois whispered the message in my ear. Then, she stepped back and nodded. I took her to the Portal of Fate, wherein she stepped through. Sometime later, she emerged from the portal, looking serene though confused as mortals often did when first returning.
"Do as she asked," said Trillillial softly to me.
* * *
Afterwards, we travelled to a range of high mountain peaks to the south. The sky was blue, streaked with wisps of white cloud. The Soulless Ones were on the other side of the world and for this moment at least, it was serene.
"Are you ready, beloved?" Trillillial asked, holding my hand.
She kissed me, pressing her warm lips against my cool lips, her wings wrapped around us, her feathers brushing against me. My body pulsated, suffusing us with a scintillating light.
It was time.