This cover was illustrated by the author.
A city of white and gold floats amongst the clouds. Titanic mountain peaks stream light-lifts from kilometers below. Devoid of any sense of atmospheric pressure or lack of breathable air, a radius around the sky city seems to keep a palatable sense of mortality to the otherwise divine metropolis.
“It is beautiful,” I said from the cockpit of an arrow-shaped star-fighter-like contraption. The aeroplane lacked any discernible engine and made no noise whatsoever besides the whooshing of air past us.
The pilot wore no headgear. His bright green braids ruffled as he nodded. “Beautiful indeed,” his lips just barely parted. His three eyes blinked gold upon a pinkish-purple skin. His long appendages poked buttons and prodded levers. We flew nearer, though on the periphery, of the city.
“For a thousand years this would be a good home,” I said, recalling our conversation the past week.
Haddabi said, “Good does it no justice. A thousand more? And a thousand after that? That is all I wish for. My home again. But alas, I have no right to my desires in this world. Not anymore.”
We soared around the edges of the radius for a time, before zooming below the clouds towards the crevices in the mountains. Haddabi maneuvered the vehicle with expert grace, diving between mountainous peaks and slices in the alpine faces.
Forests hid many secrets beneath the leaf litter and under rotting logs. One could be lost so quickly in the depths of a wild wood. Oceans all the same. The monotonous surface of the sea and its illimitable horizon were nearly sardonic in nature, teasing of an end never to come besides the wailing waters of an incoming hurricane.
But mountains remained the cross between the two.
In the forest there lie endless nooks and crannies. Places tucked away where no one could stumble on the hidden. Secrets would be reclaimed by roots, and maggots, and moss, and recycled into part of the natural world. Iron to rust to dust. Stone to sediment.
In the ocean the waves endured. Constant flowing of water so mighty and true that one misstep on a sailor’s part and they’d be reclaimed forever, devoured by whatever beast may be lurking in the dark or by the minuscule, microscopic jaws of shrimp so small the eyes cannot even see them.
But the mountains were as twisted and unmapped as the forests, and yet as constant and unchanged as the sea. Snow devoured any who take the wrong handhold. Ice engulfs the body and slows the cells to a grinding final breath. Or beasts lurk in the heights unknown to those below.
Even in a world as civilized at this, the mountains represented the pure, unrestrained vastness of Loche’s Creation. It was in moments like that—soaring above the city with Haddabi—that I could look upon all the folds and layers of our Existence and think, “How could this place be possible?” Only to realize millions of mountain ranges had grown throughout the Garden, and think of all the stories claimed by those depths.
An ocean’s homogeneity made it almost adverse to history, and prone to mythology.
A forest’s heterogeneity gave it history in every glance, and legends which popped from its secrets.
The mountains claimed power over both. One could appreciate the vast immortality of the world while also diving into the creases of that same eternal place. Mountains force us to face our insignificance while also lending a hand in forging our minute mythology.
My mind wandered on these things not by some trance of introspection, but by the subliminal notes to the symphony of Haddabi’s dialogue. As he’d come to me, after all, and found me and my circumstance fascinating. Our conversation hadn’t ended in the days since my arriving at his villa.
A villa carved into the peak of a mountain.
He left the “tip,” as an obelisk, and the rest of the mountain peak was shorn around it, leaving a radial of twenty meters or so on each side for him to build his palace upon. Haddabi did not require tools for such an endeavor. Nor hands to wield those tools.
“It is difficult being a long despised god,” Haddabi said after we’d landed and settled in. In this mortal form, he took a large vase filled with what I assumed to be alcohol and took a drink fit for a glutten.
“I’m sure,” I said, nestled into a whicker chair cast in bronze. I expected the hard surface to be uncomfortable. I was quite wrong, and nestled up comfortably. Haddabi lit a golden fire upon his outdoor hearth between the shrubbery and the golden statues.
The air welcomed us like an autumn’s day, even this high into the atmosphere. But I suppose that is the perk of being in the company of a god.
“Will you call upon your goddess? I feel that divinity upon your soul. You do travel with one of us?” His three eyes flickered as golden flames. The ripples on his tall, elegant frame spoke of a body of hard labor carved by divine hands. “I’d love to speak with another of my kind, from perhaps a different place—different time.” He stared into the flames, which churned like dragons and danced in shapes no fire should be able to take.
“She will not show herself. Even if I asked. Which I will not.”
“You do not trust me.”
I nodded, “I do not know you. And I have lived long enough to know that trust should not be given, but earned.”
“Clever.” His eyes squinted, “Strange you do not trust me, yet here you remain, upon my heights. Mortals do make the most odd choices.”
“You claim to be a child of Loche and not some half-god. Then you hear the song which beats beneath my breath. You feel the power imparted to me. You are not so foolish as to try and swipe it.”
I was suspicious of his claiming to be a true Dragon. I met very, very few of them in my travels. Many of the true gods were truly reclusive. And his name—Haddabi—did not ring with melody.
If he was a Dragon, Haddabi was not his true name. One lie often hides others.
Haddabi finished his drink and smashed the vase on the ground. The shattered pieces turned into hummingbirds. The birds buzzed around Haddabi’s fingers as he motioned with a mocking mysticism, “Syndel, Syndel, Syndel.”
He sat across from me, in another the brass-whicker chairs, and said—mostly with his hands, “Do you know what its like to stand upon the heights, and be felled to the depths?” Habbadi chewed his thoughts. “A great hunger swept across the worlds of my kin. A ferocious, pugnacious, feral dark. And without warning nor care it came as a force and devoured the worlds of my kin. All they built. All they desired. All they gifted to their peoples. . . destroyed. Eaten. Digested into nothingness.”
“I’ve heard of other worlds destined to such fates.” My own, no less.
“I welcomed my family here, to my home. One by one as their universes died I mourned with them, and opened the doors to my own Creation. We built our city in the sky upon which to rule together.” His eyes flickered with the memories of the creation of his world. In them I saw the endless light. In them I saw his true form of a Divine Dragon. “It was beautiful.”
“How did it change?”
“The tasteful deceit of revolution.” Habbadi stood and the his three eyes pulsated. He loomed above me, clouds turning dark and world collapsing into vision, “Let me show you, WorldWalker, the price of an open hand.”
A vision began, and Habbadi narrated the story as my mind floated through his godly memories.
Ilokesh, Cadran, Silist, Ehnovox. My siblings born of They Who Till the Garden—Loche. Five Dragons born to the cottage in the mystic wood, raised between humility and hubris, and taught of all living things. Our spines were soldered to Existence with the might of Creation itself.
And so we became world builders.
Centuries of elementary life and then, in time without time, we were born anew in the vastness. Alone, without contact, without any knowledge or understanding of where we were or how we’d gotten there.
But purpose filled us.
The drive to Create.
I forged this world a thousand times in a thousand centuries. None were enough. Until I settled on a design—a model—and seeded life in a way I thought righteous and good and beautiful. And my work thrived. Evolved. Changed itself just as I sculpted it out. From those early eras came such beauty and chaos that I never thought possible.
My siblings and I slowly found one another. Silist, dearest sister, found Ilokesh first. She’d slid between realities and ended up in his Sphere. Their dialogue revealed all I said to you just now. And then they found myself, and Cadran, and we shared our knowledge openly.
The Syndels birthed Divinity to our souls, yet when together, our mortality took hold, and we reverted to our birthed forms. We laughed and loved as people. Perhaps a part of Their design. Perhaps not. I lean towards the not.
You see we grew close once again. We wished to open the borders between our universes, and allow our people to see the wider Garden. Show them the power of Creation. Of our Divinity. Show them the heart of the Garden and the seeds upon which all Existence was laid.
But Silist’s world fell. In days, Annihilation swept over all she’d birthed and devoured her Creation with voracious vengeance. Perhaps we were never meant to meet again after our birth. Perhaps Annihilation was merely inevitable. Who is to say?
Then Cadran, and Ilokesh, and Ehnovox. And Ehnovox we never saw again. Silist believes she survived, perhaps, and fled to a far off part of the Garden. Her soul though. . . I cannot find it. Her song is long gone.
She had been destroyed. Consumed.
They came to my world. And we made ourselves a home, here, even bringing Ilokesh’s mortals to a newly formed moon. We forged bridges to connect our peoples. We fostered care and empathy between our peoples, allowing scholars and theologists to witness all four surviving siblings as equal Dragons. Equal gods.
The vision ended. Haddabi staggered back, his mortal-like form quite exhausted from remembrance. He collapsed into his chair and set his hands on his face. Only his middle eye placed on his forehead remained. It stared to my soul.
“The others believed my world would fall, soon,” Haddabi whispered, “and so they believed that mortality should be given their chance. An opportunity at true Creation. Freedom from the confinement of their status and possible annihilation.”
“What do you mean?”
“I convinced them otherwise. That it would be a terrible idea. But Silist insisted. She, in secret, imparted three Syndels to the highest priests in the golden city. She gave them the freedom to rule the world and alter all. She did not believe anything matters, given the inevitable end.” Haddabi stared off to the city, whose far and away lights echoed in the mist of the mountains. “The very people which I gave life to—which I gave the world to—wielded those Syndels against me. They rule, now. And they will rule until the Annihilation they so naively believe they can stop.”
I took a long breath and allowed his words to sink in. I’d never had such a conversation with a deity before. I’d always heard of Dragons talking in mortal tongues in order to relate. Peridot was accustomed to it. The Genesar had their Godspeakers. Even Myth spoke like a person and not in song.
But to hear the plights of a god from the lips of a living, breathing body?
His turmoil sounded like the stories of kings driven from their kingdom, natives from their homeland, conquerors from their empires. He sounded real.
“I’m so sorry.” I said.
“There is nothing to be sorry for.” He smiled lightly. “When I felt you come to this world—it was because my heart seeks those siblings I’ve now lost. I desire my brothers and sisters again. Their songs—Syndels—echo into the dark by the hands of their own Creation, now. I thought perhaps you were one of them come to return.”
“Yes,” Haddabi said. “Long gone, now. I opened my world to them. And when my world was no longer welcome, they abandoned me. Left to find some other place to rule. Silist remains somewhere, in hiding, soul so quiet not even Existence itself can hear her heart. . . but the others embraced exile.”
“Why don’t you face the mortals?” I said. “Syndels are mighty, but Divine Spires are still nothing against your pure power, I’m sure.”
“Those mortals? Their souls have bonded to the songs. They are dragons, now. Perhaps different—weaker, even—than my siblings and myself. But they are gods in a different sort of way. Three dragons, not Dragons,” the words sounded different—accented differently, toned differently, “now rule this place and will pilot it to its doom. Why would I wish to stand for my world when my world struck me down in the first place?”
“I wish I had an easy answer.”
“As do I.” He shrugged, “the radius of one’s power is only so mighty. The higher one goes, the farther it reaches. But eventually nothing shall matter. Even to those of us who birth worlds.” He leaned back. A drink appeared in his hand. Several more appeared on the table between us, and they shined in the firelight. “Stay awhile, drink a lot, and tell me tales a many.”
“Tales a many,” I laughed.
“I know many things, Opaline!” He roared in excitement, “But I imagine you have seen stranger things than I. Tell me of your travels through the eyes of a mortal. Tell me of the place between places, and the endless between you so inhabit.”
“It feels odd to do that,” I said, “like sharing secrets I should never have known.”
“They are only secrets when one doesn’t know them. And you do. In the end, this place will be dead, and I’ll need to slither my way into a new part of the Garden. I’d like to know a friend, or two, if possible. And I would take it you’ve made quite the impression on many.”
“Depends on the impression you’re looking for.”
We talked for many days of my many travels, and of Haddabi’s many exploits. And in the end, before we blipped, Peridot came to my shoulder. And they spoke of fallen worlds, and fallen peoples, and fallen friends.
When we blipped away, I asked Peridot, “Why did he lie of his name? Haddabi is not Draconic.”
“He’s abandoned his life,” Peridot said, “forsaken his song.”
Something in that brought on a great sorrow in me. A sorrow I’ll never quite be rid of. For every time I see another Dragon—or god of any kind of status—I will remember Haddabi, the singer without his song.