A beautiful world, an emerald gem in the cosmic sea when viewed from a distance. Deep, shimmering oceans cover most of the planet with thousands of small islands and two great continents. Despite the potmarking land masses, over ninety percent of Arethusa was dominated by the mighty oceans.
Beneath the green waters, deeper than the light of their sun could reach, the Arethusian people dwelled and prospered. Magnificent cities sprawled across the ocean floor, a fine location for the fish-like people to live. Their technology was unlike anything else in the galaxy, entirely unique to the Arethusians and practically unknown to outsiders. They possessed the ability to leave the oceans, to leave the planet, and travel beyond their star, but they chose not to. This isolationist, in part, furthered their divergence in technology. Free of outside influence, they developed independently from other, equally advanced civilizations in their stellar neighborhood.
A beautiful world, with simple, peaceful people.
And it was going to die.
At least, this was the scene Cerridwen witnessed in the pillar of blue fire before her. With a trembling hand she threw sand into the seeing flame. The great fire dissipated with a whoosh leaving behind curls of smoke and the charred bone of the sacrifice that had fueled it.
The Arethusian Goddess of Dark Prophecy shivered while recalling the images that played out in the fire. Her bulbous, fishy eyes stared off into empty space, lost for what to do next.
The Goddess tore herself away from the sight of sacrifice, fearful of what she had seen. She swam through the endless, impossibly green waters of the Arethusian gods without direction, for there was nothing to do. Nothing could stop what was coming. Glancing around woefully as she went, there was nobody left to even try she realized. The one proud pantheon had fallen so far in the past few centuries, as the Arethusians gained scientific knowledge they began to lose religious faith. Without worshipers the gods became weakened, some became sick. Those that did fall ill eventually succumbed to death, a cruel, cold ending reserved only for immortals.
The Goddess hardly noticed when she passed one of the remaining few Gods of the realm. Iroxx, a squid-like entity recognized as the God of Mischief, was best known for having his tentacles in everybody’s business, God and mortal alike. But these days, since the Great Fall, he was reserved, almost depressing to behold for his fellow gods. He made no effort to get the forlorn Goddess’ attention, slinking back into the infinite darkness.
Through her aimless swim she came to stop before the statue of her long dead father, the mighty God of the Sea. She glanced up at the muscular figure etched in alabaster. Though massive in size it failed to encompass the true scale of the proud God. At least, Cerridwen thought so. Her sigh was punctuated by a rainbow string of bubbles as she turned away from the statue. He was gone now.
“I miss you, father,” she said while turning in the direction of the godly forum.
The short swim brought her through the Hall of Eternals until she was forced to break the surface, stepping into the starlight meeting room of Arethusian gods. Enchanted water dripped like sparkling diamonds with each step she took towards the empty circle of thrones. With a disappointed sigh she eased into her appointed seat. She tapped the table at the center of the room and it thrummed with blue light. Her fishy eyelids slid closed, trying to find some peace while she waited for her call to be answered.
She wouldn't need to wait long.
The surface of the endless waters at the entrance began to boil with activity before erupting into an almighty geyser of water that met the heavenly stars above.
“What is the meaning of this? came a voice laced with crashing waves.
Cerridwen didn't bother turning to face the massive god, rolling her massive fishy eyes at his theatrics that soaked the sacred meeting chambers.
“We must wait for the others to arrive. You know that.”
The larger god grunted his annoyance as he passed her to take his seat. While many of the pantheon suffered, there were a few who yet prospered because of the Great Fall. Though all gods were weakened, and continued to lose power by the century, some used it as an opportunity to expand their own domain. Those that succeeded staved the loss of power as their believers dwindled, increasing their influence over the mortal realm.
Cerridwen’s scaly skin crawled with disgust when she thought on these parasitic deities who defied ancient law and basic moral code by claiming that which was never theirs. What happened to honor? What happened to pride? What happened to tradition? Her mouth drew back in what could be considered a frown as two more gods appeared from the depths of the eternal waters.
The duo of serpents twisted around one another, leathery black bodies glistening, leaving a wet trail behind as they slithered towards their appointed positions. Despite having the appearance of two separate massive moray eels, the pair went by a single name: Nirah.
Another of Arethusia’s dwindling pantheon broke through the waters. And another. And another.
Within a few moments, nine of the fifty-eight chairs were filled. Cerridwen glanced around the empty room, any semblance of hope crumbling away like dried sand. Still, she had to do something. She had to warn them, right? For a moment she considered if there really was any reason to inform the others of what was coming.
If we can’t stop it-- maybe the others would be better off living ignorantly blissful...No, no! We must win this. There is no other option…
“Welllllll, whatt isssss the meanning of thissss~~?”
The disturbingly melodic hiss of the twin eels snapped her attention back to reality. Glancing about the room once more she straightened in her seat and lifted her head high, addressing the others as royalty should.
“Yes, excuse me. Fellow divine, hard times have befallen us and I fear there is no reprieve on the horizon--”
“Is this another one of your ridiculous visions Cerridwen?”
Cerridwen loathed being interrupted and the Goddesses’ shot an irritated glance at the offending voice. The hulking deity of the Greater Seas did not shrink under her damning gaze though as many others would-- another irritant that she would have to ignore. Large gills along her neck fluttered as she made a noise like clearing ones throat and continued.
“As I was saying, a greater threat now lurks in the waters. And like my wonderful uncle here was implying, I have already seen how these events will unfold. I--I fear that even with all of our combined might we may not survive. Even Arethusia’s golden era, I have my doubts.”
Silence, followed by hissing laughter echoed in the mostly empty forum.
It was exactly the response she had anticipated.
“I hear your laughter brethren, but this arrogance is a fatal flaw that guarantees the destruction of our home and Arethusia itself!”
“We are to believe that a mortal being can threaten the mighty Gods of Arethusia? Such legendary foolishness deserves to be met with our mockery. I presumed you would try to spin a magnificent tale to cling to your relevance here, but this---”
“Stay your tongue!” Cerridwen snapped. “Mock me all you like but I will not allow your arrogance to be the downfall of our world! Please, fellow divine, we must band together before this menace arrives. We must make preparations or we will be slaughtered! And what do you think will become of our beloved Arethusia without us to protect her?”
She leaned back in her chair upon realizing how aggressively she had come across. Hushed voices conversed around the table and she let her eyes close. If they didn’t listen to her--hell, even if they did listen to her--- their destruction was assured. Something like a heart fluttered behind her breast plate as silence filled the room. Their response would decided whatever tiny chance they would have for survival. Finally, a large crustacean-esque deity, the God who ruled over the beaches, broke the deafening silence.
“Do you understand our apprehension, young one?”
“Of course I do.”
“Then it should come as no surprise that there are those among us that are not convinced.”
“If I had not witnessed the events within the Everburning Flame, I too would be among the unconvinced-- this wasn’t just a simple vision, Karkinos.”
Another hush befell the forum, followed by indiscernible chatter. Glancing over the seated members she couldn’t help but feel a rush of excitement. The mention of the scrying flame producing the vision seemed to have struck a chord with the others, even her uncle. Karkinos waved a massive claw, silencing the others once more.
“Are you certain you offered a worthy sacrifice to the Flame? It is possible you have seen but shadows of what could be.”
“I am the last surviving deity of fortune and prophecy. I am well aware of the Flame’s function,” she replied flatly, irritation bubbling forth despite her efforts. She only steadied her demeanour by remembering what she had seen. A haunted light crept into the black pools of her eyes. This was too important to let her emotions overcome her now.
“And I am certain the sacrifice was adequate,” she continued, raising her arm to reveal the bloody nub at its end.
“This is madness! Brothers, surely you don’t believe the nonsense this child spews!”
Karkinos seemed to agree, beady eyes inclined towards the still wet stump where Cerridwen’s hand had been.
“Tell us, how could a mortal ever threaten gods?” Karkinos asked softly.
“The instrument and source of his power is unknown to me. All I have seen is what he will do when he arrives.]”
“Arrives? Here? Do you not see? This is just another scheme to get us to do her whims! Perhaps Goddess of Deceit would have been a more apt title, eh?”
Cerridwen sprang to her feet and slammed her fist on the table.
“You would rather risk the destruction of everything than here me out, uncle? You are a bigger fool than my father had pegged you for! Please, do not be swayed by my uncle’s ignorant arrogance! The fate of our people depends on--”
“Indeed. If not for Arethusia’s lack of faith, this table would still be full,” Karkinos said while motioning with a mighty red claw. “You will find support for your cause lacking if saving the non-believers is a primary objective.”
“It should be the only objective! Just like you said we need their faith for survival. Our roles as gods is intricately linked to our worshippers, an unshakeable fact of existence. We yet need them, they are our only source of strength regardless of our opinions,” she countered.
The majestic red crustacean made an agreeable motion as if nodding. This gave Cerridwen some semblance of relief for the first time all day.
“Tell us about this mortal.”
Cerridwen sat back in her chair, inhaled deep, and proceeded.
“A man from across the galaxy. An emperor with a thirst for the destruction of anything divine.”
“But for what purpose? Why Arthesua?”
“His motives escape my understanding as do his methods. He is a brutal mortal, sentient entropy that seeks absolute chaos.”
“And you believe our combined power is the best method of defeating this tyrant?”
“It is the only way,” she corrected. After a brief pause she closed her eye and continued. “But with all of our might, yes, we can vanquish this foe. No mortal could stand against us.”
What other choice do we have? We must fight…
She held her breath. Had they bought her lie? Fishy eyelids slid open and she looked at her fellow gods’ reactions. There was another moment of silent contemplation among the Arethusian gods, broken by Karkinos rising to his full godly height, beady eyes firmly fixed on the smaller goddess.
“This is deeply troubling news, and if the Flame has shown Cerridwen this premonition of doom we must make preparations. We cannot afford any further losses.”
Cerridwen could feel the malicious intent radiating from her uncle, could feel his hot stare boring a hole in her-- and she smiled. Even if they were doomed, she almost felt like she could go peacefully, knowing she had beaten her bastard of an uncle one last time.
“Best stay out of my way.” Though he stare at Cerridwen the warning was clearly meant for the entire room and with a gale’s roar, he was gone.
Karkinos took a breath, so deep it changed the currents of the Eternal Water. “How long do we have, Cerridwen?”
She averted her massive eyes from his beady gaze.
“I--I cannot say for sure. Though I have tried to track his spirit this mortal is exceptionally tricky. Truth be told, he could be knocking on our door in the next second. It is best we assume he will be,” she said with a chill.
The massive crabby god nodded. “This meeting is adjourned. Go, gather your strength, prepare for the coming apocalypse. We will protect our cosmic plane; we will protect our mortals.”
Cerridwen felt a massive weight lifted from her shoulders. Though she had lied about their chances of survival, their combined might truly was the only was for them to have any chance, even if it was less than .00001%. Even that was likely a generous estimate from what she had seen, but they had to try, and without the lie of hope they would never have fought together. She watched as the others filled out, dipping back into the comforting embrace of their aquatic heaven one by one.
Karkinos was the last to leave, standing on the edge of the great pool for a moment, turning to address Cerridwen a final time before seeing to his own preparations.
“I know how much you suffer, young one. I see how you sacrifice for your worshippers--- and your father’s. I hope to see the end of this and call you the Savior of Arethusia. How proud the great Sea King would be that day.”
Cerridwen could only nod in response.
The mighty crustacean paused a moment longer before finally stepping into and vanishing beneath the waters. Alone once again, Cerridwen sunk into her chair. When had that weight returned? She sighed.
If father could see me now, would he be proud? How could he--- I will soon be witness to the death of us all. He could never take pride in such failure. I-- I am sorry, father. Forgive me. Forgive us all.
The forlorn goddess slowly rose from her throne and cast one last longing glance at the empty seats. She peeled her gaze away and came to stare in the perfect blue waters that reflected impossible starlight over her own translation reflection. It was hard to imagine what she had seen in the flame happening here. There was so much destruction coming, no matter what they did. Fighting back tears, she dove in.
From here the star appeared as a marble sized golden ball, the intensity of its light muted by its distance. The Purifier drifted through the black canvas of space towards that marble, millions of stars like blazing white pinpricks shimmered in the void around it. Beneath the intimidating bulk of the warship, over the massive oceans of the planet Arthesua, the sun was rising.
Though lost on most of the sea dwelling natives, it would be the last sun rise the world would ever see.
The Cosmic Emperor stood before a towering view port that offered a brilliant view of the world and her star from low orbit. A thick, dusty book rested in his hands, taking his attention from the breathtaking sight. Thin, brittle pages flipped before his eyes, turned by his psychic power for they were far too worn by time for physical contact.
After hundreds of pages slid past the book abruptly came to a stop on the passage of his interest. Dark red eyes scanned the pages, reading the elaborate Arthesuan symbols and storing the precious information away. Locating and traveling to the realm of Arethsua’s gods required special considerations.
For one, travel to these adjacent realms required a specific conduit or gate, the knowledge of which had been lost to time until he had acquired the dusty tome in his hand.
The other, now more pressing problem he faced was dealing with the pantheon in their environment. He could fight under water, of course, he could even grant himself the ability to survive without air for quite some time. But even his abilities had limits.
Most deities he had encountered seemed to grow stronger while in their realm which only exacerbated the difficulty of exterminating them. The book snapped close and popped into a shower of crimson sparks whisked away to his pocket dimension where time and gravity could do the brittle tome no harm.
While the Purifier slid into position and came to a steady hover, Chaos stepped towards the window and gazed at the small island coming into view. The hydraulic hiss of doors sliding open behind him drew his attention away from the island for a moment.
“Sir, we are approaching the jump point.”
Chaos’ glowing red eyes drifted from the attendant back to the outside. "[font color="990000"Excellent. Is it ready?”
“It is being prepared as we speak, my lord. It was moved into the west wing just a few moments ago. All that is left is you, sir.”
Those red eyes narrowed just a bit and a similarly slight smile came to his lips. “Good work, General. Go and help with preparations. I will be there shortly,” he said with a dismissive wave.
The dark dressed soldier bowed at the waist and hurried out. The Emperor remained transfixed on that quickly approaching island rushing toward them from the distant horizon. Dark green waters blurred past with a few tiny archipelagoes intermixed with the frothing waves, but all of them escaped his focus. A pity, he knew, for after he finished none of it would be left to admire. ‘Oh well,’. The fate of this planet was no different than dozens of others he had visited recently, beautiful and barren alike. In his travels he had learned that getting attached was a bad idea. ‘Nothing lasts,’ he mused bitterly, turning away from the window
Those thick doors slid away with impossibly smooth hydraulics and he never broke his regal stride. His wooden sandals slapped against the cold steel as he made the short trek to the west wing. The rhythmic sound was eerily the only noise in the once bustling ship. Not long ago hundreds of men and women roamed the halls, the soldiers and scientists of the Cosmic Empire. Now, they were generally empty. Though he tried to ignore it a cloud of loneliness pressed on causing his eyes to drop to the floor as he turned a corner.
He stopped outside a set of double doors and took a steadying breath. His head lifted and he looked over the spherical panel that would grant him access. He reached for it, but hesitated to activate the node. His hand merely hover centimeters over it as a familiar internal struggle froze his body. Was it worth it to continue this task? Could anything truly right the wrongs of this universe? His brows furrowed. Who else could seek these answers? Who else in this reality possessed the will necessary to see this journey through? Who but the Cosmic Emperor himself should be responsible for representing all of existence in a war against the divine?
His fingers slowly caressed the perfectly round device. A scan was initiated when his skin grazed its smooth surface, a simple (yet very effective) confirmation of his genome and Ki signature overlaid with other biological data. His sigh was masked by the sound of the gigantic doors retreating into the walls. A good thing too, as every eye on the other side immediately snapped to him.
The room stood at attention until Chaos gave the command to relax. This part of this ship had been left largely unrenovated after Chaos acquired it. It was an aesthetic choice, a little homage to the original owner of the glorious warship. Instead of finely polished black and steel the walls here were stained reddish with rust. Rather than state of the art lighting installed in the ceiling pipes made a dizzying maze overhead some twenty meters high. Everything in this small section of the ship remained dark, dank, and depressing.
There was nothing to see in the way of decoration, save for the centerpiece of the room: a long slab of polished marble, completely out of place with the rest of the decor. Dark stains pooled around the black stone but somehow the marble cube was spotless. To any observer who didn’t know any better it would be a confusing addition to the otherwise empty room. But when viewing what was atop the thing, its purpose would quickly become clear to most sentient beings.
As he approached he got a clear view of the specimen wriggling around atop the dark marble. Its many limbs were long and its skin glistened in the dim light. Try as it might, it just couldn’t free itself from the smooth stone. Glowing symbols dotted the marble, humming with arcane energy.
The trapped creature thrashed with renewed vigor when it met the burning red eyes of the Cosmic Emperor. His pale face hovered inches above the creature. His head tilted side to side as he studied the thing. In earthly terms it resembled something like the bastard child of a squid and a lobster, with dozens of appendages but a slimy, chitinous exoskeleton.
Seven black eyes stare back at Chaos, following his every move. Chaos prodded one of its long limbs with a finger, eliciting a terrified shriek from the thing. The Emperor paused, pressing harder, and harder, and harder, only relenting when he felt the skin would crack. He stood up straight, glaring hatefully at the trapped thing. Then, he laughed.
“I’m guessing you know why you’re here,” he said. Silence hung in the dead room. He frowned. “This isn’t what I want, you know.”
He turned away and motioned to one of the soldiers. The soldier hurried over and placed something in his hand out of sight of the prisoner. Chaos nodded his approval and the soldier retreated to his previous position. The Emperor didn’t turn immediately.
“You’re scared. Hey, I get it. I understand what's it's like to be afraid. I know fear--you couldn’t even begin to fathom. But it is this fear that motivates me. Mortals, like you and me, we could be so much more. But we know there is something, subconsciously we know we are shackled. Just like you are now, trapped to that cold rock. Powerless. What could be more frightening than that?” He rambled without ever looking at his captive.
"Powerless," he spat. That one feeling, more than anything, filled him with such hate and anger. Nobody should have to experience what he did. Unfortunately, many more would. They had too.
"Powerless…" he repeated softly.
Squealing noises were the only response as the creature’s several hearts reached a near lethal pace. Chaos slowly turned to face it, but he didn’t look at it. Instead his eyes were locked on the item in his hand. It was a nine inch long dagger with an obsidian blade. Magical runes glowed along the length of the blade, their hypnotic thrum keeping the Emperor’s attention.
“One day, I will be able to stop this. You should know that because of you, I will be one step closer to ending this unfortunate bloodshed,” he said coolly. The trapped creature cried out. “Shhhhhhh. Your part is almost done but I can’t have you dying too soon.”
His eyes went to the squid thing and he cast a pitiful glance at it. It was clearly hyperventilating or whatever the squid-crustacean equivalent was.
“At least get through this with some dignity, would you?” He wiped the magical blade against his sleeve while he spoke. Satisfied, he leaned in close and spoke in a hushed tone. “Don’t blame me. Blame your stupid gods. These are their rules.”
The ebony blade flashed in the low light.
Slimey exoskeleton splintered beneath the force of the dagger as it penetrated deep. Black fluid sprayed erupted from the wound as he pressed it deeper. He smiled madly as the blood splashed his face encouraging him to press further.
Ear piercing shrieks forced the small troop of soldiers to cover their ears. One man fell to his knees and vomited as the sound destroyed his sense of balance.
Chaos was unaffected by the alien death throes, even as the sound reached an impossible crescendo when he forced the blade to split the things thorax wide open. The contents spilled out of it like a pinata, the hot steaming stink of it quickly filled the room.
Chaos pulled the dagger free and struck again adjacent to the first stab. He yanked cruelly and crested an intersection incision leaving a gaping X shaped wound. A few hearts and lung-like organs hit the deck with a disgusting sloshp.
The squid thing spasmed and foam frothed from some unseen exit below its eyes. 'Ah, that's where the mouth was,' he mused grimly.
It gave a few more feeble bucks and twists of tentacle before, finally--mercifully--, all movement ceased. Chaos stare down at the ruined carcass with a thoughtful expression. He pulled the dagger out and handed it back to the soldier without looking away from the alien.
"And now, " he said. He went over the specifics he had gleaned from ancient Arthusian myth.
He telepathically grabbed ahold of the blood, all of it, and moved it across the room. It moved like greasy ink, collecting into a reflective pool of warm black goo. He manipulated it into a complex, interlacing shapes with impossible geometries.
"Yes. Blame your ridiculous, foolish gods for requiring a blood sacrifice. If it's any consolation to your departing soul--" he muttered back at the corpse, "--they will pay. These oceans will turn black with their blood. Your existence ended with purpose. Theirs will not. Take solace in knowing the role you played. You will be avenged. We will all be avenged."
His attention went back to the intertwining gore. Arthusian gods, like many others, require the blood of a native. Lots of it.
It demanded a specific amount of vital fluid, spread to a four millimeter deep pool with a three and a half foot radius. Once gathered, a simple spell was required. Chaos flew threw the ritual, manipulating the blood into symbols supposedly only known to a few native mystics.
The center of the blood pool began to oscillate, rotating in on itself in a tesseract dance. The fourth dimensional manipulation stopped and there was an audible click in the still air.
A flash of overwhelming blue light filled the room. He took a step back and squinted hard against the harsh light. The perfectly circular blood pool was ablaze with the blue light and the surface of it was vibrating.
The soldiers looked on curiously. They had witnessed similar rituals enough times, but watching a soul become a key to another dimension never lost its thrill. They were only men, after all. That, and witnessing the requirements so often come down to sacrifice only steeled their resolve; their Emperor was right in his holy crusade.
Chaos watched the shifting surface of the blood pool for moment before addressing the soldiers. "This shouldn't take long. You know what to do General-- the instant I return you fill those oceans."
"Yes sir! Return safely, Emperor."
The others followed the General through the traditional salute. Chaos merely nodded in response.
He appreciated the few remaining soldiers he had. They were fiercely loyal. But they lacked personality. Before his death, the crew was alive with unique and lively individuals from across the stars. Now, it was just the dogs that remained.
Even so, they represented what remained and in a way also what he lost. With a forlorn sigh he placed his foot onto and through the glowing puddle.