How do you turn a man into a monster? You put him in a cage.
— ANCIENT PROVERB
The air shimmered like the haze in front of a lit forge and then coalesced. Ebbi stood shrouded in flickering light and crawling shadows. Hesitating but a second, he lowered his weapon to his side, staring at Erik with eyes filled with cold malice.
“Ebbi,” Erik greeted the Lightbender, somehow unsurprised by the man’s attempted assassination. Unlike the lamp lighting itself, this at least made sense. He tried his best not to think about what that meant.
The Lightbender scowled. “I’ve never put much faith in luck, but it seems you have it in spades.” He turned to face the Eternal Father; the flames devouring the painting reflected in his eyes. “Have I not bleed enough? Have I not suffered? Yet to him you respond? How many nights have begged for your guidance? How many! But that I could stomach. . . b-but you gave him her, the woman I love. He doesn’t deserve your recognition, and he certainly doesn’t deserve her. He doesn’t!”
The fire crackled menacingly in response.
“I see,” Ebbi laughed. It was a sharp sound filled with torment and self-loathing.
Erik slowly climbed to his feet, unwilling to disturb Ebbi’s conversation with the divine. For some reason, it seemed sacrilegious, and at that moment he was reluctant to commit blasphemy. The Lightbender turned back towards him with moisture in his eyes. They gazed at one another until Erik could feel the heat from the fire through the toes in his boots. Finally, Ebbi gave a toss of his head and wiped away his tears.
“He has chosen you above all others,” Ebbi whispered. His sword trembled in his hand, but his gaze never wavered even for a moment. He held Erik motionless with the anguish shining in his eyes.
Erik cleared his throat and asked, “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know, but one day you’ll understand,” replied the Lightbender. “Now go and leave me to my misery.”
A part of the wall collapsed, and Erik rose a hand to protect his eyes from the sparks of glowing embers, which whirled around him in an imitation of dancing fireflies. “Are you not coming?” he asked after the points of light died.
“What’s the point? There’s nothing out there for me.” Ebbi’s scarred face drove the hopeless words home, making Erik shudder. “Wait, take this; I no longer have need of it.” He threw his sword at Erik’s feet.
Reluctantly, Erik picked up the Lightbender’s weapon and moved away from the man with slow, unsure steps. He did not know how he should feel about this situation. So much had already happened that he felt numb to it all. When he glanced back with his hand on the door, he saw Ebbi kneeling where he had once knelt.
“Goodbye.” Erik’s footsteps faltered, but he steadied himself and walked out the door with his head held high.
Outside, voices began to ring out with cries of fire. Ignoring them, Erik hurried away before a crowd could gather. Behind him, the chapel burst into flames like a lantern thrown into a hay barn. He did not turn back to look. Instead, he chose to keep his eyes locked on the Lightebender’s weapon he clutched in his hand. The sword was sheathed in a wooden scabbard.
Nature is the Dark One’s church.
It was not Erik’s own thought, but a sexless disembodied voice that appeared in his mind. Somehow he knew the source of the words came from above and the knowledge made his skin crawl with the strangeness of it all.
He jerked his head up. A big black crow circled overhead. The bird tickled the back of his mind and flew away. Giving no thought to whether it was a smart idea or not, he chased after it, navigating his way through Wolfville’s winding streets until he found himself at the front gate.
Like the rest of the stockade, the gate was made out of wooden logs, which stood open at that moment to allow the flow of traffic in and out of the village. Four guards kept a watchful eye on the passersby. They glanced at Erik’s weapon, but otherwise they did not bother him as he rushed outside the wall.
The tickle at the back of Erik’s mind grew and by the time he had run past the farms and hedge-bordered fields that stood outside the village his body ached in expectation. Finally, he came to a stop at the edge of the ancient forest of redwoods. Breaths coming in short bursts, he tried to push this sense of unease aside, but it would not leave. Briefly, he wondered whether he was making the right decision. His instincts were screaming for him to run in the opposite direction. Something dangerous lay ahead, but the crow circling above enticed him with the promise of answers.
Taking a calming breath, Erik stepped into the dark forest interior and everything around him seemed to shift in subtle ways, that he would have missed if he were not paying such close attention. At first, the variations were only noticeable from the corner of his eyes, but the deeper he went, the more prominent they became. Temperatures cooled until his hot breath became visible, trees grew sinister, and green leaves changed hues until he was surround by an ocean of fluttering brown and orange. The land seemed to be awaking. Awaking from some deep slumber.
Erik could feel his palms dampen with nervousness. There was no sound but the wind that wiped past his ears as if he were transversing a great distance at speeds multitudes quicker than his current pace. Each intake of air brought with it the scents of autumn and the hint of a mountainside quilted in snow.
For an instant falling leaves danced around him, and then the path ahead opened up into a clearing. Something drew his eyes skyward, and he gasped. Where he had expected to see clouds and the sun, he saw a blue ball surrounded by the darkness of outer space. That’s. . . that’s. . . how?
“Beautiful, is it not?” came a woman’s voice, melodious despite hints of melancholy. “Even now the sight of it still moves me.”
With a start, Erik’s eyes fell to meet the woman who had spoken. She, too, had been gazing up at the distant planet, but now her three large, dark eyes held his own. He could only gape. She was like no one he had ever seen before.
Blue skinned and half the size of an ancient redwood, she sat at the center of the clearing; each one of her four arms adorned with massive chains that disappeared into the earth. She wore nothing, her only ornamentation besides her shackles was a crescent moon fastened in her hair, hanging across her forehead just above her third eye. Twigs and leaves decorated her dark hair as if she had used the forest floor as a place to rest her head.
Erik forced himself to close his mouth. Her waist was slim and her breasts well-developed, but he found his eyes drawn to her face. He had never seen a woman who looked this youthful and stern. It was her eyes he decided, they were like relics from an Age long turned to dust, filled with too much knowledge for one who looked so young.
“W-who are you?” Erik stuttered, gripping the sword tighter to stop his hands from trembling. He had no idea how he had not noticed her before she spoke.
She peered down at him. “I have had many names.” Her eyes were pools of darkness that swallowed the light. “My favorite was given to me when the world was still young. I would write poetry by starlight so they named me Poet. Not clever I know, but it was a simpler time. I have held others in Ages past in languages remembered by none but I. Once they called me Matangi and Earth Mother. Now they brand me the Destroyer, the Betrayer. . . the Dark One,” she said.
Erik stumbled back. “That’s impossible. The Dark One is imprisoned within the Abyss.” He could feel his pulse quicken in panic. This must be a joke. . . some kind of sick joke.
Matangi threw her head back and laughed. Her amusement sounded like musical notes wed with the innocence of youth. “Come closer and allow me to unspool the truth from both myth and legend. After all is that not why you have come?” Even when filled with mirth, as she was now, she held herself with a regal grace that made Erik want to bend a knee to her glory.
Despite himself, Erik approached her until he had to crane his neck to see her face. She sat cross-legged, and he barely came up to her knees. Her tallness made him feel awkward. Suddenly he found his eyes drawn to the dark crevice in between her thighs. It was not what he saw, but what he imagined he could see. His blood burned with arousal and his face pinked. What are you doing? She can crush you with a hand! He forced himself to look away.
“Good,” Matangi said, eyes sparkling as if she could read his thoughts. “Good. Now I will tell you of things no man has heard since the Second Breaking of the World. Once I begin, you must permit me to go on to the end.” She sounded as if she had recited these words for many years, but this was her first time saying them to another living being. There was an element of savagery in her dark eyes, but her teasing smile almost masked it completely. The savagery frightened and excited Erik.
“Are you the reason why I can’t remember?”
The smile slipped from Matangi’s face. “I was old when your ancestors still swung from trees, speak to me not of lost memories. What I have forgotten could fill your oceans and seas!”
Erik took a step back while contemplating drawing his sword. In the end, he decided not to, thinking it unwise.
The Dark One paused, calming herself. “Forgive me, my isolation has made me brittle and now and again my rage grows exponentially into a boiling cloud of incandescence. It was not always this way. In the beginning, I thought he loved me as I loved myself. That lie is the reason why I now lay garlanded in perpetual darkness.”
“Who,” Erik could not help but ask.
“My beloved, the one you call the Eternal Father. Once we were lovers. Once he freed me from these very chains that I now wear. In the time before your First Age, I stole an object of power from Vaikuntha and used it in secret to change your ancestors, to make them more like us. And it worked, your kind left their trees and together we built glories cities where they wrote poetry and sang songs to my beauty. Earth Mother is what they called me then.
Vaikuntha? Erik repeated the strange word in his head. It almost sounded familiar. It itched a dark part of his brain, and for a moment he saw sprawling marble palaces bedecked with golden borders. Then the image was gone.
“Long ago when the moon was whole we called it Vaikuntha,” Matangi told Erik. “Before it was destroyed it was our home.”
Can she read my mind? Erik felt violated. His legs shook as if he teetered on the edge of a chasm. As if all of existence teetered around him. He dropped to his knees and gazed up at his homeworld. He wondered whether or not he had traveled back in time and was this truly Vaikuntha. There was a way to know, perhaps. He could ask—
“No, Vaikuntha is gone forever,” she answered his unspoken question. “This is but a memory, a shadow of something that now only exist in my mind. Your soul fell through a hole in my prison. If your body dies before you return to it, you will remain here, trapped with me forever.”
Erik’s knuckles whitened on the hilt of the sword. He believed her. Somehow he just knew she spoke the truth. “How do I escape,” he asked.
“I will tell you how after I am finished my tale. Yet I warn you now you will not like the how of it. It will wound you deeply. To love is to bleed.”
“I. . . I understand.”
Matangi gave Erik a sad smile. “No, you do not, but you will. If you live long enough, you will see friends turn into enemies, love change into hatred, and all light consumed by the darkness.” She shook her head slightly. “My time on earth came to an end after my crime was discovered. They chained me to Vaikuntha to reflect on what I had done.”
Getting comfortable, Erik crossed his legs and laid his weapon down. He felt like a pupil being bestowed knowledge by his master. It was a comforting sensation.
“During my first imprisonment, the Eternal Father would visit me and sing me songs to dry my eyes.” Matangi looked away from Erik. “Every ending has its roots in a beginning. Looking back I see ours. He was logic distilled, and I was nature herself. Opposites we were. I felt too much, and he felt too little.” A single tear leaked from her eye and tracked its way down her cheek. “As the eons past our brothers and sisters turned their attention to mankind. I watched in horror as they perverted them with violence and war, all for their own amusement. Then. . . then they learned that there was power in their deaths.”
The Dark One’s words cut through Erik. He could feel her sadness and resentment as if they were his own. It was not hard for him to picture the atrocities committed by the Death Gods. Millions must have perished for the sake of their games.
“You must understand, I thought of mankind as my children,” she continued. “I gave them life. What mother can listen to her child cry out for help and do nothing? At my pleading, the Eternal Father stole the key to my chains. Then together we made war on our siblings. Vaikuntha broke apart in the ensuing battle, but in the end, we were able to lock them away within the Abyss.”
“Why didn’t you kill them?” Erik asked.
Matangi sighed. “One can not kill a god, not truly.”
“I see, that’s how the First Age ended?”
“Yes,” Matangi nodded. “The period that followed the war was some of the happiest times of my life. Then one day. . . .”
Matangi’s lips trembled. “Then one day my beloved told me he was leaving. He said he had moved beyond the dualities, whatever that meant. He broke my heart so I took his eyes. I am not proud of what I did, but he hurt me.” Her voice quavered at the end.
Erik swallowed the lump in his throat and asked, “What happened then?”
“We fought, and I lost,” she replied, wiping away her tears. “He imprisoned me here in this mirror world and told me I could free myself at any time. All I had to do was destroy the thing I loved the most.”
Shocked, Erik stood, eyes widening in panic. “To free yourself you have to destroy mankind?” he asked in a whisper, too fearful to raise the level of his voice.
“Yes, is it not cruel? No one can hurt you like those you love. All I have now are my memories. And my dreams because there is beauty in them, too.”
“You told me you would tell me how I can leave this place.”
“The greater the intellect,” the Dark One whispered, half to herself and with a distant look in her eyes, “the more one is alone.”
“Answer me!” Erik shouted, then stopped, surprised by his own outburst.
Matangi blinked. “You will only have one more opportunity to escape. Kill the one you love the most and free yourself. Refuse, and you will remain here for all eternity, repeating the—”
Suddenly the chains on Matangi wrists snapped taut, slamming her onto her back. The ground quaked beneath Erik’s boots, and he stumbled backward until he could find his balance.
“Quickly GO!” she yelled. “My daily torments begins anew.”
A metallic buzzing sound drifted across the clearing, and when Erik glanced up to see what was causing it, his heart almost stopped. Three humanoid creatures half the size of Matangi circled in the sky. Dressed in seamless white armor and helmets shaped like an eagle’s face, the golden wings on their backs fluttered so quickly that it was impossible to see anything but a blur. They pulled back hands that gripped long spears made of pure light. Though glimpsed for only an instant, the weapons of light nearly blinded Erik.
Eyes shut in searing pain, Erik spun around and ran. His nostrils filled with the smell of ozone as the sky hissed. The spears of liquefied light ripped air molecules apart on their way towards the earth.
“It is only for the love of my children that I weather these daily torments,” the Dark One yelled, then laughed. It was a dark and demonic sound. “How much longer will I last I wonder?”
The forest floor heaved and rents in the earth appeared. Erik staggered to his knees, and Matangi’s shrieks of pain rang out behind him. Molten rock spewed into the air through the cracks. The groaning ground which Erik knelt upon rose, thrust upward like a launched stone. From every direction the wind howled, uprooting trees, shrieking and blowing as it was sucked out into outer space along with Erik’s plot of earth.
Ears ringing with deafening bangs, Erik’s lungs turned into fire. There was no longer any air to breathe in. Still surrounded by pieces of the fragmented moon, he drifted in the silence of the starry void. His body thrashed and quivered, and then his eyeballs exploded. The sun was trying to fry his blood while the darkness did its best to freeze his soul. Every heartbeat was like living a lifetime in agony. Then it ended.