Light, dark, and love.
Azrim smiled, causing his light to beam ever brighter. His glow reached across the void and fell upon a pale, cherubic face touched with hints of spring-like green. “He has your grace,” Azrim said in a voice that was deep and warm.
From her ivory skin to the snow-like whisper of her reply, Zetres was Azrim’s opposite. “And your strength.” The layers of shadow that shrouded her form twisted outward and wrapped the baby in gentle folds. As he was lifted, the child stirred and gazed out into the void. His eyes were so wide they seemed ready to swallow up all that emptiness. Then he saw the faces of his mother and father, and his mouth curved in a satisfied smile.
“We must create a paradise for him,” Azrim said.
“Yes,” cooed Zetres, touching her nose to the baby’s and earning a delighted laugh. “A playground for our little one, and when he’s older, a kingdom.”
“So he will know how loved he is.”
His First Sin
“Make a new creature for me, Father?”
Azrim beamed at Nezachim. “And what kind of creature shall it be?”
“I don’t care. I just want to watch.”
“How can I say no to that? Very well, Let me see…” Azrim raised his hand and plucked a block of matter from the void. With a flick of his wrist, he shook it out into a sinewy, serpentine shape. He pondered the form for a moment before the spark of inspiration lit his eye. With a single stroke of his fingers, he drew out a coat of rippling white fur. With a grin he presented the model to his son, but then he frowned. “No…it still lacks something. What do you think?”
Nezachim studied it for a while. “I think…wings.”
“That is exactly right!” With a pinch, Azrim spread a pair of feathered pinions from the creature’s back. “There! However…no, it’s still not good enough for my prince. Maybe this calls for your mother’s touch.”
He handed the model to Zetres. She turned it over in her slender hands, then held it close to her lips, causing the fur and feathers to dance under her cool breath.
“Beautiful,” muttered Azrim as he watched the once-colorless creature turn white. A sparkling mist lingered around its nose and mouth. “How’s that, Nezachim?”
The child nodded vigorously. “Bring it to life!”
“As you command,” said Azrim. He stretched out his arm toward the creature.
Nezachim leaned forward, his eyes wide and hungry.
A spear of light shot from Azrim’s palm and pierced the creature’s chest. Immediately, its eyes opened, its muscles strained, and its wings fluttered. Azrim released the newborn creation, letting it glide into the world beneath his feet. “Will you give it a name?”
Nezachim watched the creature go, his excitement visibly abated. “Hm. What about…civu…no. Cizu…ra. Yes. Cizura.”
“Cizura it is,” said Azrim. “A worthy addition to your realm.”
Azrim returned to his work, leaving Nezachim to lord over his kingdom, but the young god simply hovered there, watching the cizura flap through the air beneath him.
“What’s wrong, son?” asked Zetres, placing a cool hand on his shoulder.
“I don’t understand.”
“How Father gives them life. I understand how he fashions their bodies—even I can do that.” To prove it, he pulled a chunk of formless matter from the void, then tossed it over his shoulder where it dissolved away to nothing. “But I can’t bring my creations to life.”
“Ah,” sighed Zetres. “Azrim is the god of life. Anything he pierces with his spear becomes alive.”
“Then,” said Nezachim, “if I had Father’s spear—”
“I’m afraid not. The spear is a part of him, just like your arm is a part of you. But do not be discouraged. Azrim may be the god of life, but you art the lord of all he creates. Everything he makes is for you; every living thing is yours to command.”
Nezachim continued to stare down at the world beneath him, then he said, “Thank you, Mother.”
Zetres smiled and left to join her husband.
Mine to command, Nezachim thought. Mine to do with as I will.
Nezachim darted ahead of his parents. “Hurry,” he called. “I must show you!” He flew over fields, hills, rivers, and forests, leading Azrim and Zetres on a breathless chase until they at last arrived at a cave in a mountainside.
“What is it?” asked Azrim, pausing at the cave entrance. “Please, the suspense is unbearable!”
“Alright,” said Nezachim. “Mother, remember when I asked how Father brought things to life?”
“Yes,” answered Zetres.
“Well, I really only wanted to know because I wanted to make my own beings, just like you, Father.”
Azrim beamed at this.
“I did much thinking,” the boy went on, “and realized that I didn’t need to create my own life. I could just use the life that you already created.”
Azrim frowned. “What do you mean?”
“See for yourself.” Nezachim stepped aside, beckoning his parents to enter the cave.
It is impossible to describe a feeling so foreign, so alien, that there is nothing to which it can be compared. In that time when the world was so young, full of nothing except life and love, concepts such as fear and revulsion were anathema. The creature that appeared before the Azrim and Zetres was twisted, bent, mangled; a heap of pulsing meat covered here and there with a patch of matted white fur or a bloodstained feather. But this horrific form, as sickening as it was, was not what elicited the heartbroken scream from Zetres’ lips, or what caused Azrim’s noble face to lose all color. No, the most wrenching detail was its expression. The eyes, stuck haphazardly in places that eyes had no business being, betrayed pain, confusion, sadness. No longer possessing a proper throat, the thing could not speak, but words poured out of those mournful eyes: Why? What has happened to me? Help me!
“It’s not very pretty,” admitted Nezachim, “but I’m improving.”
“Improving?” said Azrim.
“Yes. This was my first successful conversion—that’s what I call the process—but I have several more in progress. I hope soon to make one that can actually speak—”
It was then that Nezachim first noticed his parents’ expressions of horror.
“What?” he asked, looking back and forth between them. “What is it? Are…aren’t you impressed?”
Azrim tried to compose himself, but found he could not, not while those tortured eyes were looking to him for an explanation. “Come with me, Nezachim.”
As Azrim and Nezachim left the cave, Zetres took a few hesitant steps toward the animated remnant of the cizura. The only features Nezachim had left untouched were the wings, which stuck into the air at painful angles, quivering. The goddess knelt in front of the creature, stroking what she could only assume was supposed to be its cheek. “I’m sorry for what he did to you,” she whispered.
A gurgling whimper worked its way out from somewhere amidst the bloody folds of skin and fur, and in its eyes Zetres read the poor thing’s desperate request.
“As you wish.”
Azrim paced through the void before his son, who trembled with confusion. Nezachim had never suspected that his work would be met with…what was it, exactly? He had no word to describe the feelings he felt from his father’s glare.
“Why, Nezachim?” Azrim finally asked. “Why?”
“I…” stammered the boy, “I just wanted to make things like you.”
“You can’t, Nezachim,” said Azrim. “Life is my domain. You can manipulate matter, but life is mine alone!” He fumed for a moment, then asked, “Did you consider, even for a moment, the pain you caused that poor creature?”
“Of course not,” answered Nezachim. “It’s mine, just like everything else you created for me. Didn’t you say they were mine to—”
“To rule, yes, but not…not…”
A deep hush suddenly fell over the void. Zetres appeared in the distance, gliding slowly, cradling something in her arms.
“What is that?” asked Nezachim.
“The consequence of your actions,” said Azrim.
Understanding passed over Nezachim’s face, and his expression turned sour.
“Oh, Nezachim,” sighed Azrim, his voice softer as he knelt before his son. “We love you, but promise me—promise—that you will never do such a thing again.”
Nezachim watched as his mother disappeared into the darkness of the void, and responded quietly, “I promise.”
Ages passed unmeasured, for time was meaningless in the void. Worlds hung motionless. Days and nights were unknown. In Paradise below, the creations of Azrim and Zetres multiplied and flourished for the enjoyment of Nezachim, who in their eyes seemed true to his word. He contented himself with organizing the kingdom his parents created for him, arranging its customs and entertaining himself with the antics of the “foolish beings” that inhabited it.
“Nezachim,” whispered Zetres one morning.
The Nezachim turned to find his mother crouched beside him, a look of quiet excitement in her eyes. Azrim stood behind her, beaming brighter than usual.
“Your father and I have someone to show you.” Zetres held forth a tiny, shadow-wrapped figure, and carefully she pulled back the blankets of darkness to reveal an angelic face. It was much like Nezachim’s, only younger, and the light of its skin radiated heat and danced in strange patterns. “Your brother, Verushim.”
Nezachim stared into his brother’s eyes as long as he could; they burned with a searing light, and Nezachim was forced to look away.
“You can play together when he’s older,” said Azrim, “and you can enjoy the wonders of Paradise together.”
Nezachim smiled at first, then a troubling thought struck him. “Must I share the throne of Paradise with him?”
Zetres chuckled. “Of course, my dear. He is our son, same as you. Paradise was made for you first, but also for all our children.”
“There will be more?”
“We’ll see.” Zetres smiled. “Oh, fret not, my son. You will love your brother. You have so much to show and teach him! He will rely on you. You’ll have so much fun together!”
The young child with the flaming hair came to an abrupt halt at the precipice of a deep gorge. Overhanging rocks obscured the bottom. “Why?” he asked, turning to face his older brother.
“That is my sacred domain,” said Nezachim. “You are forbidden from entering.”
“But Mother said you had to share all of Paradise with me.”
“Have I not? I have allowed you to run free and unhindered through my realm; I have withheld nothing save this one small stretch of land.”
“But it is this small stretch of land that I wish to explore now,” said Verushim, turning back to dive into the hidden depths of the gorge.
Nezachim grasped his brother’s shoulder. “Wait. How about a bargain?”
“I’ll let you select any place in all of Paradise—any at all!—and it will be your own sacred domain. Thou can rule over, and if it pleases you, I shall be forbidden from entering it. In return, you must honor the borders of my own secret place.”
Verushim’s fiery eyes flickered as he considered Nezachim’s offer. “Very well,” he decided at last. “And I know just where to establish my throne.” In a flash he was gone, streaking through the air until he hovered over the highest peak in Paradise. “This,” he announced as he lit up the jagged summit with his radiance, “shall henceforth be called Mount Verushim, and I will not suffer Nezachim’s presence here!”
Nezachim eyed his brother from the foot of the mountain, silently cursing the foul outcome of what he had believed to be a brilliant idea. He had greatly loved to rest atop that peak and survey the vastness of Paradise splayed beneath him, but he forced his bitterness aside. Better to allow him this than to risk the sanctity of my forge.
The Creation of the Suns
Nezachim became aware of a blinding light.
He often spent long, lonely hours in the coolness of his underground hideaway, relishing in its solitude and quiet. Ever since Verushim had been old enough to speak, he had worn on Nezachim’s nerves. That fiery child was far too energetic, far too excitable, and sometimes Nezachim found he could stand it no longer, hence his long stays in Paradise even when Verushim returned to the void.
“What nonsense are you accomplishing now?” Nezachim asked as he roused himself from the gorge. It only got brighter when he emerged, and he had to shield his eyes.
“Is it not glorious?” said Verushim, hovering dangerously close to the border of Nezachim’s forbidden realm.
“What is it?” came the irritated response.
“I made it as a welcome gift for Luviel. Father helped, of course.”
“Of course he did,” snarled Nezachim, recognizing Azrim’s touch in the blinding incandescence. “But why?”
“Did you forget?” asked Verushim. “She is finally old enough! Mother and Father are letting her come down here for the first time.”
“Indeed.” He didn’t show it, but Nezachim was surprised. Had it not been only yesterday that Zetres had presented their baby sister, Luviel? “So, what do thou call this garish thing?”
“Sun. I actually made multitudes of them, but the others are too far away.”
“I dislike it.”
“Well, I didn’t make it for you, did I? I think Luviel will love it.”
“Provided it does not strike her blind.”
A babbling voice interrupted the discussion—“Nezachim! Verushim!”—and out of the void descended a small girl with rippling indigo locks. “How beautiful,” she gasped, her eyes dancing with the reflected light of the Sun. “Did you make it?” she asked Nezachim.
Nezachim smirked. “I refuse to take the blame. Verushim is the culprit.”
“And Father,” added Verushim.
“And Father,” mocked Nezachim.
“Your handiwork assaulted me,” Nezachim said as he drifted by Azrim, masterfully allowing just the right amount of derision to creep into his voice.
“What do you mean?” sighed Azrim.
“You know full well what I mean!”
“Yes,” said Azrim, “you are less than elated by what I helped your brother create, but that is not what weighs on your heart. Out with it: what’s really the problem?”
Nezachim growled. “I don’t understand why…why you allow him—help him, even—to invent his own creations. You never suffered me to embark on such experiments.”
“Do not lie to yourself, Nezachim,” said Azrim. “When have I ever denied you? Everything you asked of me, I created. Every being you desired, I imbued with life. Are you jealous that I should show the same favor to my other children?”
“False panaceas! That is all you ever gave me. You know what I desire, and on that one point you stick!”
“I only ever wanted to be like you, Father. From the moment I first saw you bestow life, I have thought, that is what I want; to emulate my Father, in all his glory and power; to show him creatures of my own invention, animated by my own abilities. How I dreamed, how I yearned to see the pride in your face—but you have foiled me!”
Azrim appeared hurt by his son’s words. “Nezachim…I thought you understood. What you ask of me…it cannot be. I am life. There is no life that does not have its source in me—”
“Only because you deny the power to anyone else!”
“No.” Azrim shook his head sadly. “Because that is simply how it is.”
The First Night
From a distance, Nezachim watched his four younger siblings laugh. They danced in a playful ring around their mother. The two youngest, Raicalim and Zvhiriel, laughed loudest, still exuberant in their youth. Raicalim was the older of the pair, and he had been born large and healthy. His voice boomed across Paradise, and his footsteps shook the ground. When he chose, however, he could be as quiet as his little sister.
Zvhiriel, the faint thing that wafted in lazy circles around Zetres, was quite the opposite. Tiny even for a child, she could rarely manage more than a whisper. Where Raicalim was strong but slow, Zvhiriel was quick, darting from one point to another in the blink of an eye. What she gained in speed over her older brother she lacked in hardiness. This was little hindrance to her, though, for when she grew tired Raicalim would lift her above his broad and sturdy shoulders, tossing her lightly through the air like a feather.
Zetres, at the center of the frolicking circle, sang until she noticed her firstborn standing apart. Nezachim turned away, making a quiet exit, but Zetres excused herself from the mirthful circle of younger children and went after her him.
“There is nothing you can say,” replied Nezachim. “Nothing you can do. I only wish to be alone right now.”
“That was not the longing gaze of one who wishes for loneliness,” said Zetres. “As your mother, I know you better than you know yourself. You have felt alone ever since Verushim was born. No, don’t deny it; I’ve seen the look on your face. You’ve worn that sad expression for so long; the last thing you want is to be alone.”
Nezachim remained speechless as his mother came closer, resting a gentle hand on his cheek. “I know why, Nezachim. You want to be appreciated. You see the creations of your siblings and wonder how they earn such praise for their work. But tell me this: when did you last create something of your own?”
Nezachim opened his mouth to respond, but Zetres held up her hand to quiet him. “I know. Look at the others’ handiwork—Verushim’s sun, the waves and whirlpools of Luviel, Raicalim’s sculptures, the fragrances of Zvhiriel—don’t you see what they have in common?”
Nezachim shook his head.
“All of them were made without your father’s power of life. That power is his alone, but that did not stop your siblings from creating beautiful things, things which only they could have created. Tell me, Nezachim: what is something only you could accomplish?”
“I…I do not know.”
“Because you have never tried. Always you’ve been obsessed with copying Azrim, but never have you drawn from within yoruself. That is why your brothers and sisters are so happy. They accept what they can and cannot do, they use their limits as strengths instead of weaknesses. As a result, their works are beautiful on their own, and when brought together, they create something even greater. Take for instance the way Verushim’s sun sparkles off the currents of Luviel. They understand that they are a family, that to achieve their greatest potential does not mean becoming complete in themselves, but by completing each other.”
Nezachim pondered this for a while, then asked, “What about you? What do you create?”
“Oh,” laughed Zetres. “I have not made anything since…not since Zvhiriel was born, but…the darkness, the cold; I am your father’s foil.”
This made Nezachim smile just a little. “Mother,” he began haltingly, “would…would you help me make something?”
The look in his eyes was one to make Zetres’ heart melt, for in his expression she saw sadness, desperation, and a childish hope. “Of course, my dear,” she said, folding her child in her arms. “What shall we make?”
“What is it?” asked Raicalim in a mixture of awe and uncertainty.
“Night,” answered Nezachim, his voice trembling with pride. He watched his siblings’ faces with satisfaction as a dark veil settled over the sky, obscuring the sun and casting a deep, impenetrable shadow over the land. “But wait,” he added. “The crowning jewel has yet to appear.”
Zvhiriel let out a surprised gasp as the first tiny light winked into view. Another…then another. It was like the veil overhead was rippling, and with each subtle wave more and more lights appeared until the sky was alive with the dim sparkle of a thousand perfect diamonds.
“And last of all…”
At Nezachim’s cue, a soft glow appeared on the horizon, and, slowly, a pale orb of luminous white climbed majestically into the sky. Paradise, which had been utterly dark since the shroud of night fell, was suddenly awash in ethereal silver, casting everything in an alien—but breathtakingly beautiful—light.
“Is that it, then?” grunted Verushim, looking thoroughly unimpressed. “It’s awfully…dim.”
Nezachim shot his brother a hateful look, but before he could speak, Luviel uttered a sigh of admiration:
The girl’s eyes were locked on the glowing orb, their pupil’s wide and shimmering. As her brothers and sister watched, she began to float upward, her hand reaching out as if trying to grasp the rays of pale luminance.
Verushim observed the spectacle with confusion. “I don’t get it. Is it not just a weaker imitation of my sun? In fact, all those smaller lights, aren’t those just my other suns?”
Nezachim, encouraged by his sister’s reaction, smiled. “Weaker? Did your suns ever elicit such joy?”
“What do you call it?” whispered Luviel.
Nezachim went to his sister and gently pulled her back to the ground. “Moon.”
Verushim stormed through the void, his eyes blazing and his hair thrashing behind him. “Do something, Father!”.
“I am never idle, my son,” replied Azrim. “You’ll have to be more specific.”
“Have you not seen what Nezachim has done?”
“I have,” answered Azrim, “and I think it’s a beautiful creation.”
“But it has completely eclipsed my own! That was his intent; he was always jealous of our sun. He created this night only to blot it out.”
“Do not say such hateful things, Verushim. How could you know your brother’s motives?”
“You should have seen the expression on his face. He never made a secret of his dislike for our work; never have I seen him look so pleased as when the sunlight was darkened.”
Azrim sighed. “Regardless, what do you expect me to do about it?”
“Peel back the night!” said Verushim. “Make him destroy it.”
“You would have me crush your brother’s soul?” Azrim fixed his son with a stern glare. “You are hasty in anger. No. The night is a beautiful thing, and I will not have it destroyed. However, I do think it unfair that Nezachim should so utterly banish your own creation from Paradise, therefore I will order a compromise. Bring your brother here, and we can discuss the matter further.”
So Verushim obeyed, and brought Nezachim to stand before their father.
“Verushim has brought a complaint before me,” explained Azrim, “and I find it a valid one.”
“You can’t possibly give credence to the whining of this baby?” said Nezachim. “Everyone else seems perfectly happy—”
“Hold your tongue, Nezachim,” said Azrim. “It is unfair that I should allow your night to replace his sun, therefore I shall set limits. Your night may reign for a time, but then it must give way to the sun. After the sun has had its day, then thy night may return, and this cycle shall repeat for all eternity. Is this agreeable?”
Verushim nodded, but Nezachim looked aghast. “Why should the greater yield to the lesser?”
“Do not be so prideful, my son,” cautioned Azrim. “Your creation is great, yes, but to say it is superior to all others—”
“Is nothing more than the truth!”
Azrim was silent for a moment, then, “That is your only objection?”
“Need I a greater one?”
“In that case, my decision stands. Verushim, you are excused.”
Verushim bowed before leaving, but Nezachim remained, fuming. “How long do you think I will stand for this ridiculousness? How long will you deal so unfairly with me, your firstborn?”
“Nezachim,” muttered Azrim, failing to completely mask the frustration he felt. “How are you so blind? Can you truly not see that it is you who are demanding unfair treatment? Do you not understand?”
“I understand perfectly. You ordained me as sovereign over Paradise, and yet you refuse me the power that should therefore be my right. What is more, you are dividing my rule amongst these lesser—”
“I hope you are not speaking of your brothers and sisters!” growled Azrim, for the first time in Nezachim’s memory betraying true anger. “Verushim, Luviel, Raicalim, Zvhiriel—they are all my children, the children of Zetres, our heirs. You are our firstborn, but do not make the mistake of believing that we love them less.”
Nezachim brooded in his ravine—the one place in Paradise that he still ruled absolutely, the one place where he could escape the glare of the sun. He had filled the canyon with darkness so thick that only he could make out the writhing, pulsing shapes that lined its deepest crevices. He often came down here after arguing with his father, pausing on his way to snatch one of the many beings that inhabited Paradise.
“Cease your crying,” he would spit as he clawed his way into the poor creature’s throat, mangling whatever device it used for speech. “You have only Azrim to blame for your pain. If he would but give me his power, I would not have to torment you so. But worry not; when I am finished with you, you will be stronger, more beautiful. When your form is perfected, remember: it was Azrim who caused your pain, not me.”
Nezachim stripped his victims of their skin, rent their limbs, rearranged their internal workings. Only once he had distorted them beyond recognition did he reassemble them, creating abominations that could do no more than groan and squirm in agony. But although he spoke sympathetically at times, Nezachim truly relished the sound of their screams. Indeed, there were few things he found more delightful. In their cries he heard the echo of his own torment.
He jumped when he heard the voice. His heart pounded for fear of discovery, and in a panic he launched himself out of the gorge to meet his Zetres before she could stumble upon his secret. “Mother,” he greeted, blinking in the sunlight.
Zetres approached him with a kind smile. “Your father told me of the compromise you reached with Verushim. I am proud of you for accepting it with such grace.”
“What?” Nezachim said. She must have been scolding him, using sarcasm to sharpen her rebuke, but then he realized that there was no trace of sarcasm in her divine face. In confusion he asked, “What did Father tell you?”
“Only that you were unhappy with the decision, but that you acquiesced in the end. I admit I feared, when I heard of the conflict, that you would not handle it so well.”
Nezachim smirked. “It warms me to know you think so highly of me.”
Zetres’ voice grew stern. “Why do you speak so venomously to me, my son?”
Nezachim sighed, “What do you think? Is Father’s compromise fair?”
“But how can you believe that? Didn’t you say, upon the completion of our work, that the night was superior? Would you not say that it is unfair for the greater to yield to the lesser?”
“You twist my words,” answered Zetres. “Yes, I prefer the beauty of the night to that of the sun, but I do not think the sun is unworthy. Rather, I think Verushim’s work perfectly complements your own. That, I think, is the true beauty. Light and Dark. When I see how they interact, one yielding to the other in turn, framing each other by their contrast, it reminds me of the love between Azrim and me.”
Nezachim snarled and turned away, staring down into the darkness of his ravine.
“I can’t tell you how much it grieves me to see you like this,” said Zetres. “Do you remember how things used to be? Remember when you were happy?”
When Nezachim did not answer, Zetres began to leave, but then he stopped her. “There is something I have wondered for a long time,” he said. “You don’t have the same power that Father has. You can manipulate matter, like the rest of us, but beyond that I do not fully understand your abilities. I…I also remember a time when I…when I toyed with life.”
“Yes,” said Zetres, her brow creasing with worry at the mention of the unpleasant memory, “I remember it.”
“I saw something,” Nezachim continued. “While Father was scolding me, you passed in the distance, carrying something. Father would only tell me that it was the consequence of my actions. But what was it really?”
Zetres hesitated. “Thy father, Azrim, is the god of life. As his wife, I am his complement in every way.”
“And the thing you carried?”
“A soul. When your father plunges his spear into matter, he injects it with a soul.” With a sudden flourish of her pale hand, a long, elegantly curved scythe appeared in Zetres’ grip. “With this, I can extract the soul. It is not a task to be carried out lightly. I have only used this power once, and then only because life for that poor creature had been made into a hell.”
Nezachim nodded in understanding.
“May I ask you something, now?” asked Zetres. “What is down there?” She gestured toward the darkness of Nezachim’s gorge.
“It is my sacred realm. Down there is where I find peace, the one place where I am allowed to exist happily.” Turning back to face his mother, Nezachim saw a look in her eyes that he did not like. Before she could speak, he added, “I will say no more, nor will I grant you access to my domain.”
“I only wished to know where my firstborn spends so much of his time.”
“I have been denied much, Mother. Please, do not deny me this as well. Let me keep this one secret. It is all I have.”
Zetres studied her son for a moment, then relented. “Very well. I trust you, Nezachim. But before I go, let me say this: if there is something—anything—that you feel you shouldst tell me, please do not hesitate. Your secret, whatever it may be, is not your only possession; you have my love, and the love of your father as well. Never forget that.”
The Great Betrayal
Verushim approached Nezachim with his face bowed. “I would speak with you, brother.”
“You would?” snapped Nezachim with a mirthless smile.
“Please,” said Verushim, “walk with me.”
Nezachim followed his brother through Paradise. Night overtook them, its ebony shroud unrolling across the sky and its cold lights gleaming. When they had gone some distance, Verushim stopped. “I owe you an apology. You are my elder and the appointed master of Paradise. Of late I have not shown you the proper respect. Above all, however, you are my brother, and I fear that I have not dealt with you in love as I should have.”
“Did Mother put you up to this?” asked Nezachim.
“No,” came the earnest reply. “Only my own remorse. I also wished to tell you that, now that I have had greater opportunity to admire it, the night is truly beautiful in its way, and it makes my heart glad to see Luviel’s joy at the moon’s rising.”
“Beautiful in its way,” muttered Nezachim.
Nezachim turned on his brother, clarifying his thoughts, “You do not, then, wish to overturn our father’s foolish compromise?”
“What? No! But please, Nezachim, will you not forgive me of the ill I spoke toward you? There has been enmity between us, but can this compromise represent the end of all that? Night and day, working together for the bettering of our Paradise? Can we not go back to the way things were when we were younger, when we laughed and played together as friends, not rivals?”
Nezachim glared at his brother, then softened his expression and answered, “Very well. I admit that of late I, too, have been thinking on those younger days. In fact, what say you to revisiting one of those childhood memories? It can serve as a sign of our renewed amity.”
A relieved grin spread across Verushim’s face. “That sounds wonderful.”
“Do you recall the ravine which I forbade you to enter? I’d like to extend an invitation.”
Verushim seemed delighted by the offer, and eagerly followed Nezachim to the precipice of the gorge. “It’s so dark,” he said, staring down into the inky depths. “Like an eternal night.”
“Follow closely,” said Nezachim.
Together, the brothers descended, sinking slowly into the shrouded abyss. Verushim was quickly blinded, but as the gloomy blanket closed over him, he heard strange sounds drifting up to meet him.
“Almost there,” whispered Nezachim. “When I give the order, conjure a tiny flame, just barely enough to see by, no more.”
After several minutes, they reached solid ground. Nezachim’s voice hissed in Verushim’s ear: “Now.”
There was a snap, a soft fwoosh, and a miniscule point of orange light danced atop Verushim’s fingertips. The feeble illumination struggled its way through the darkness, lit upon black walls of jagged stone, glistened off pools of liquid, and revealed—
Verushim screamed, and in that moment, Nezachim’s hand closed over the flame, snuffing it out. His other hand clamped over Verushim’s mouth.
“Now you have seen. You know my secret passion. Tell me, Brother, is our bond deeper for it?” He hurled Verushim against the wall. “I wonder what the inner workings of a god are like,” said Nezachim. “It’s something I never considered until now. Perhaps I can find the key to Father’s power; perhaps, if I turn you inside out, I can learn his secret.”
“What is this madness?” asked Verushim, struggling blindly to regain his feet, encountering quivering, oozing forms wherever he tread.
“Nothing less than my life’s work!” replied Nezachim, laughing as he, accustomed to the darkness, watched his brother scramble futilely along the canyon floor. “In your brief glimpse, did you recognize my base materials? Imagine how you will look when I’m finished: a face in your belly, an arm where your head once sat.”
Nezachim sprang forward and seized Verushim by the ankle. He dragged him into a bowl-shaped depression in the earth. “I should warn you,” Nezachim growled, his voice sizzling, “struggling will only make it hurt worse.”
But Verushim, his terror overcome by anger, burst out suddenly in flames, scorching Nezachim’s hands and throwing back the shadows of the gorge. Thousands of eyes, glistening with blood, blinked in the unexpected brightness. Verushim threw his brother off and looked around in horror.
“How could you do such a…such a monstrous thing? These creatures trusted you as their lord—I trusted you as my brother!”
“I only seek to improve upon my father’s designs,” answered Nezachim. “But in your case, it is for punishment.” He leapt forward again, but Verushim darted out of the way and began the flight upward, out of the hellish gorge.
“Punishment? I know we’ve not always been on friendly terms, but we are brothers; I thought there existed at least a measure of love befitting the relation.”
“If there is not,” returned Nezachim, “it is your own fault.”
“Nezachim, I beg you, do not do this! You are angry, and perhaps rightfully so. I confess I’ve not always been kind to you, but I don’t think I’ve ever done anything beyond your forgiveness—”
With a cry of rage, Nezachim launched himself after his brother. Verushim dodged the assault, shooting upward and escaping the chasm. On and on he flew, abandoning Paradise to collapse breathless at the feet of his parents.
“What is it?” asked Zetres, observing with alarm her child’s frightened state.
“Speak, Son,” encouraged Azrim. “What has happened?”
And Verushim told them everything.
“What is this place, my love?”
Zetres stood at the center of a circular courtyard, surrounded by walls of dark, cascading water that shimmered with subdued light. The glowing liquid flowed quietly across the smooth floor, pooling around the goddess’ feet. Beyond the glistening veils, Azrim could see more halls and chambers, all illuminated by an unseen source. The effect was breathtaking, but sad.
In her arms, Zetres held what appeared to be a ball of cold energy. The thing pulsed feebly, now and then releasing a faint, melodic sigh. Without turning, Zetres answered her husband, “It was the least I could do for it, after it had suffered so much. Here its soul can rest, free from pain.” She laid her burden in the shallow water.
“All of them are here?” asked Azrim.
“Yes.” Zetres’ exquisite shoulders drooped, and she turned to face husband. “What shall we do? He has broken his promise to us. I fear for our other children.”
Azrim pondered for a moment. He too had found himself wondering how Nezachim and his younger siblings occupied themselves in the Paradise below, and more and more his thoughts had taken morbid turns. “Drastic measures must be taken,” he decided. “He may hate us for it, but—”
“It must be done,” agreed Zetres. “Will you tell him? I cannot bear it.”
Nezachim nearly matched his father’s height, but he seemed smaller as he shrank away in disbelief at Azrim’s words. “You can’t do this!” he said. “It is mine. You created it for me, made me its master; you can’t take it from me!”
Azrim struggled to maintain his composure as his son’s wrath washed over him. “Do you think we take pleasure in this? You lied to us, Nezachim. You disobeyed.”
“Can I not do what I desire with my own possessions? Don’t you want me to follow in your footsteps?”
Azrim released a frustrated sigh. “My son, how little you understand. We love you, and we gave you Paradise so you could have your own realm to rule and love. Your subjects are living beings, just like us. They feel, they pursue their own dreams and desires—that is part of the beauty of Paradise. You must learn to empathize with your subjects, to love them as we love you. That is how we wish you to follow in our footsteps.”
“Until you learn this lesson,” continued Azrim, “Paradise is no longer yours, and you are forbidden from entering it.”
“NO!” screeched Nezachim, and his voice, which had always been full of divine grace and softness, echoed with tones that were foreign to Azrim’s ears. The god’s eyes quivered with fear at the sound emanating from his son, but he remained in command of himself.
“Take this time to observe your brothers and sisters. They shall rule Paradise in your absence. Watch how they care for the creatures that inhabit its surface. When you have learned to rule in love and kindness, only then shall you be allowed to reclaim your throne.”
“Tyrants!” growled Nezachim as he stormed through the void. He hurled himself across its eternal vastness, darting from one empty point to another. “How dare they rob me of my birthright!” His rage reached a peak, and stretching out his arms he willed into existence a dripping heap of colorless, formless matter. He tore it to pieces and flung them this way and taht, grinding and rending until he was surrounded by glittering dust. With each destructive swing of his mighty arm, Nezachim let loose a furious bellow that made the debris of his rampage tremble. “They cannot keep me from my inheritance; I will show them. I will show them the kingdom I would rule, a Paradise of my own creation. They cannot stop me!”
With a final flexing of his burning limbs, Nezachim launched a burst of raw, annihilating energy, and the remains of his tantrum ceased to exist, utterly destroyed.
“Are you hurt?” asked Zetres, running her cold fingers through Verushim’s hair. Luviel, Raicalim, and Zvhiriel sat a short distance away.
Verushim shook his head wordlessly. He stared out into the void, eyes filled with horror.
“I can’t believe he would do such a thing,” said Luviel. Beside her, Zvhiriel trembled with fright.
Seeing their distress, Zetres said, “You need not fear. Nezachim has been banished from Paradise until he repents. He will not trouble you.”
Azrim wandered the ethereal labyrinth of his wife’s creation, awestruck by its melancholy beauty. Zetres rarely made anything, and Azrim relished this opportunity to admire his beloved’s handiwork. He only wished that this funerary palace had not been required in the first place.
The god came to a slow halt at a grand intersection of corridors. Beneath the steady murmur of the dark water, he could hear the pitiful lamentations of dead souls. Azrim longed to comfort them, but he knew their torment was still too near, and no words of his could heal them. They now resided in the domain of the dead, where Zetres reigned supreme.
The quiet wails at times took on a melodic tone, and every now and then Azrim thought he could make out words. They were disjointed at first, impossible to understand, but then one of the voices sang, “Azrim…” One by one, more voices joined, slowly coming together until as one they chanted, Azrim…Azrim…Azrim…”
A subtle motion caught the god’s eye, and, curious, he followed a meandering hallway into one of the many healing chambers. A lonely soul rested in the shallow pool at the room’s center, just a ball of cold, sighing light. But as Azrim watched, the light flickered.
The cold brightness dimmed, distorting and reaching out of the water, and then its voice changed. The gentle melody gave way to a savage hissing, and the light, which was now black as night, began to take shape.
All around the palace, the chanting had turned dark. Glancing about, peering through the translucent walls, Azrim saw other shadowy forms rising from the healing pools. Each one was grotesque, reminiscent of…
“No,” muttered Azrim as the things closed in around him. “This cannot be!”
A shout alerted Zetres to the arrival of her husband, who appeared a moment later in a flash of golden light. “What’s wrong?” asked the goddess, instantly reading the alarm on Azrim’s face.
“I don’t know,” he said, “but they are coming.”
The gods turned to find Nezachim standing there, a wild grin plastered across his face.
“Y-your…” stammered Azrim. “How?”
“It was simple. In life I taught them who was truly responsible for their suffering. Now, in death, they seek revenge.”
“You knew?” demanded Zetres in shock. “You knew the pain you caused them, and yet you persisted?”
“Of course I knew! How couldn’t I, listening to their pleas for mercy? As I worked, I filled them with my hatred—yes, I admit it, Father: I hate you! I fostered in my experiments that same hatred, although to what end I did not yet know. I did not expect to be discovered; indeed, it was my greatest fear, but look now! It has proven to be a blessing!”
A vile sound filled the Void, and a host of mangled shadows appeared.
Nezachim fell before Zetres and peered up into her crestfallen visage. “Mother, you have always been kindest to me, and your latest kindness has been your greatest, for in bringing death to my experiments, you have turned them into something greater; you have revealed the secret that long eluded me. Look at them: my children, perfected!”
“My son,” breathed Zetres, her eyes as wide and frightened as a lost child’s, “I hardly know you.”
Nezachim’s triumphant expression collapsed as he beheld his mother’s abhorrence, and he staggered back. “I…I thought you would be proud. Are you not pleased? I have finally begun to discover my potential, my true power. Is that not what you always wanted for me? Mother?”
But Zetres would not—could not—answer him. Nezachim turned from her incriminating grimace with a cry. “You told me I always had your love! Yet what am I met with at every turn? Disapproval and shame! Well, no more! I quit you, disown you! You are my enemies, and I shall not suffer my enemies to dwell in my Paradise. Verushim’s sun shall perish, Luviel’s waters dry up. The invisible currents of Zvhiriel shall be stilled and the stones of Raicalim shall be cracked and ground to dust! You shall know the pain I have endured these past ages! As you robbed me of your love, so shall I rob you of your children!”
At this there rose a sinister laughter, and Azrim stared around him at the encroaching, darkened souls. The demented forms writhed with cruel mirth as Nezachim spoke to them.
“My children, behold Azrim, the cause of your suffering. Turn back upon him the torment he dealt you. Bring his sons and daughters to destruction before his eyes!” With a sweep of his arm, he commanded his embittered minions, who instantly leapt upon the younger gods.
“Nezachim,” wailed Zetres, “stop this!”
“You brought this upon yourself,” growled Nezachim. “I shall torture them until they beg for your scythe.”
The dark spirits swarmed around Nezachim’s siblings, lashing out with talons of black smoke. But young though they were, the gods were not helpless. Verushim led the defense, projecting a wall of flame to hold back the hissing entities. The vengeful souls screamed as the divine fire burned them, banishing their shadowy forms in bursts of blazing darkness. The other three gods followed Verushim’s example, each one driving back the wicked host with their combined powers. Luviel pulled a deluge from the Void, and with her breath Zvhiriel froze her sister’s flood, encasing the spirits in tombs of ice. All the while Raicalim romped about defending the others, for no matter how they tried, Nezachim’s spawn could not scratch his stony flesh.
Seeing how his minions were crushed at the hands of his siblings, Nezachim snarled. Reaching into the Void, he curled his fingers and summoned a long sliver of matter. As the object solidified, he let his hatred flow into it, shaping it and coloring it into a twisted, black blade. So powerful was the rage with which Nezachim filled his sword that it could hardly be contained. The weapon’s outlines shivered, blurring until it was no more substantial than the dark spirits under Nezachim’s command.
Sweeping through the ranks of dreadful souls, Nezachim first engaged his youngest brother, Raicalim. The massive god easily deflected the first several blows with his muscular arms, but the hatred in Nezahim’s eyes poured out like a flood, rattling the younger god to the core of his being, and Raicalim faltered.
Before Nezachim could land a decisive blow, a whirlwind swept between him and Raicalim, and there was Zvhiriel, catching the Nezachim’s arms and saving her brother. But Zvhiriel was small and frail, and with a meager flexing of his limbs Nezachim threw her aside. By this time, however, the others had converged on him, and for a moment he was driven back, hounded by scorching flames and drowning waves.
“Curse you!” screamed Nezachim, focusing his wrath and projecting it out like a venomous cloud. “I am your elder, the true king of Paradise; you shall cower and beg for mercy before I am through with you!”
His anger reached a boiling point, and suddenly from every pore of his divine flesh there leapt—whining, sizzling, crackling—jagged talons of ebony lightning. At once the joint assault of Verushim and Luviel was halted as Nezachim pressed forward, roaring a triumphant bellow as his sword lanced out.
At the last moment, a silver flash cut between the combatants, and Nezachim found his blade checked by a pale crescent.
Zetres’ eyes were downcast, refusing to connect with Nezachim’s burning gaze as she addressed her other children. “Retreat for now. Go to your father.”
As they obeyed, Nezachim growled, “Stand aside, Mother. My quarrel was never with you.”
“I do not want this,” whispered the goddess, “but you leave me no other choice. Please…please…’” She finally looked her son in the eye, bringing to bear the full force of her desperate petition. Reflected in the moist windows to her soul she tried to show him everything—images from the past, from his childhood, pictures of happier times. She willed him to see, in every moment, the love that she and Azrim had for their firstborn, love so great they could not contain it, nor ever hope to adequately express it. She offered him the hope of a brighter future, the promise of absolute forgiveness—
Nezachim pushed away from his mother’s blade with an angry, bestial snort. “How could you do this to me?” he hissed. “What mother would treat her child so?”
“Nezachim,” sobbed Zetres, “stop!”
But Nezachim did not stop. He came on in force, shouting, “The zenith of treachery! I shall have my inheritance, void and Paradise melted into one sovereign realm, where the screams of those who betrayed me shall echo forevermore.”
Zetres bowed her head in grief, and with a deft arc of her slender arm she redirected her son’s attack, sliding the wicked sword effortlessly off the blade of her scythe. With a graceful pirouette, she brought her weapon around, transcribing elliptical patterns of silver through the emptiness, and with a cry to rend a mother’s soul, Nezachim was cut.
His shock rendered him speechless. For a second he teetered in the void, his wide eyes unable to focus, and then with a pained gasp he fell—fell and fell, utterly defeated, to the distant surface of Paradise.
Zetres tried to smother it at first. It was too much. A choked whimper served as prelude, and then it burst forth, beating its way out of her in a relentless salvo of sobs and screams. Each one shook her until she could no longer stand, and at last, casting off her scythe, the goddess collapsed, cradling her head in her hands and bathing them with a flood of divine tears.
The ground of Paradise rushed up with impossible speed, threatening to crush Nezachim’s bones—if the wound that sliced through his center did not finish him off first. The gash bled a shimmering mixture of light and dark, smoke and fluid. The edges of Nezachim’s ravaged flesh seemed to dissolve, whisked away into the rain-filled sky as he plummeted. A peculiar sensation, a buzzing numbness, spread out from the wound, and Nezachim began to panic.
No, he thought frantically, I will not let this be the end! Taking a moment to clear his mind, he thought back to his experiments on the denizens of Paradise. He had acquired a deep understanding of how bodies of all kinds worked. True, they were made of fundamentally different materials than his own, but it was all Nezachim had to go on.
Gritting his teeth, he plunged his clawed hands into his flesh, shifting, twisting, tying, fusing—he bellowed in agony as he distorted his own form. A foaming geyser of that shimmering blood erupted from his unhinged mouth, his vision faded in and out, but nothing seemed to work. The injury continued to grow.
No, no, no!
Just before the god hit the earth, the last of his frame was consumed. Nezachim, firstborn of Azrim and Zetres, vanished like a black mist.