To fly to time beyond your reach
And stand with stillness upon the beach.
To grasp and receive but never bring to
The place and time you once knew.
Gone in place of loved memory
Is the lock but not the key.
Find again what you have lost
Give your life if that’s the cost.
Give it all, give your best
And pass even if you fail the test.
- Surviving stanzas recovered from an archaeological dig, dated from the 300th century. “And pass even if you fail the test,” is the line rumored to have sparked the Bladehand ideology.
Cohthel slept in. Undergod’s knuckles, he bathed in paragonial glory.
He pulled the blanket over his head when dirt kicked around him as the rest of the caravan woke, ate breakfast, and packed. He’d be longer catching the caravan tonight if he didn’t start walking, which would become catching them later and later, and then late enough he and Atalixsphere would have to camp by themselves along the road. With the uncertainty of the Dark Elves, he needed the caravan’s protection.
He groaned to a sit-up position. Turned onto his knees — hunched over. Leaned back. One foot up, then the next. Rise.
Eighteen more days.
He took two of Atalixsphere’s pain medication but didn’t ask for more. He wouldn’t deplete the supply meant for her real pain. They also didn’t yield the same benefit as last night, only muffling what would soon become knifing.
He vented his aggravation to Atalixsphere. “The medication canceled all my pain yesterday. Gave me an energy boost, too.”
“You said you didn’t remember taking it.”
“I must have. How else did I run the rest of the way without pain?”
“You’re too dumb to notice the pain, maybe? You were also invisible.”
If she didn’t express her equal declarations of gratitude between the times she offended him, he’d consider harder dumping her off the side of the road. “Sure. Because going invisible and not feeling pain are connected.”
“When you went invisible last night, I stopped feeling pain, too. I thought my medication excelled expectations until you came out of invisibility and my pain came back.”
Cohthel contemplated for several moments. “That doesn’t make sense. Why would invisibility also hide pain?”
“I don’t care. It works and I want you to use it.”
Reflecting deeper on why the Goddess of Fate gifted him with the R’th of invisibility, he pulled his invisible veil over him and Atalixsphere and, Undergod’s Knuckles, his aching feet, hips, back, and legs ceased to feel anything.
“I don’t understand.”
“I don’t care. It’s working for me, too.”
Pain-free, he stretched out his stride with more vigor, breathing easier with less strain. Next year, he was going to ask Fate why she gave him invisibility.
He caught the caravan in under an hour. Energetic, pain-free. Atalixsphere too, even if he couldn’t explain how invisibility translated to no pain for him and her.
The caravan reached Fate’s Shrine — a pearly white marble building constructed when Fate first descended to hold the Kingdom together eight hundred sixty-two years ago. Fate elevated into a regard higher than other Aspect Gods because of her importance and yearly contribution to the Kingdom, the Kingdom poured resources to honor her with her own. Gemstones, precious metals, and meticulous architect sang a ballad to the single-room structure.
Cohthel laid Atalixsphere on the bed Markie made up, scared of the pains awaiting him when he removed his invisibility. He saw the warning on Atalixsphere’s face as she settled on the blankets, proven when she swallowed three pain pills.
He supposed he didn’t have to remove his veil.
Cohthel looked for the woman who called his real name — not his nickname — not recognizing her voice as one of the caravan attendants. Cohthel had always envisioned his name as looking like two quick steps followed by an abrupt fall into a black pit: Coh-thel Faunt; step-step fall. The herald to his life.
He removed his veil with a sigh, wincing as leg cramp layered on top of leg cramp piled over broken feet and stone slab of a back. He looked toward the caller. The flashback to Deep Winter — “Why do you call yourself Evermore?” — vivid enough to forget his pains. And yet, though she had first called him Evermore, she called him Cohthel now. Cohthel fell beyond caring how she somehow knew both his names.
Shollomoon walked between the wagons with an air of ownership so palatable Cohthel feared Kitannia would charge out of her tent with sword drawn. The hem of her long white dress hummed a mere inch above the ground. Her iconic long white hair, at odds with her young face, hung down her back.
Her eyes spent no time finding him. “Cohthel Faunt, come with me.” She turned and walked back out of the caravan circle, unaware — uncaring? — that she’d drawn the curious eye of every attendant who stopped mid-conversation, mid-spoon-ladling, and the forest got very very quiet.
They all looked at him.
Cohthel looked at Markie with a mouth full of heartbeats. “What was that?”
Markie watched Shollomoon vanish into the night, shaking his head in defeat. “Does anyone ever know what Fate’s Cleric does?”
“Cohthel Faunt!” His name snapped through the night air like the crack of a whip.
“I’m not going.” Heat sparked across both shoulders. He swallowed but his throat dried up.
Markie sat silent a long moment. Slowly, achingly, he rose to his feet. “I’ll go with you.”
When Cohthel didn’t move, Markie stressed, “She’ll just come back and nag until you give in.”
He looked at Atalixsphere. He’d told her earlier about his face-to-face with Fate’s Cleric back in Deep Winter.
“Don’t pawn your problems off on me,” the pegasi said. “I’m not the one dumb enough to get involved with anyone else who might come back later and bother me.”
“I didn’t get involved. She came to me. There was no way I could have prevented that.”
“You could have not gone to Deep Winter. You can’t now complain because you did.”
“Thanks for your support.”
Scared, confused, and wanting to be left alone — envying Atalixsphere — he vocalized his complaints to his feet and out of the wagon circle next to Markie. Shollomoon had stopped a ways ahead, looking back. Seeing the pair approach, she moved on down the footpath connecting the wagon circle to Fate’s Shrine. Pristine stone shaped the rectangle temple, imprinted with gems dancing with sunset hues.
Shollomoon ascended the long, sloping steps and entered the open double doors.
Apprehension making him sick, Cohthel followed Markie through the doors. The exuberant exterior deceived Cohthel because he descended the steps onto bare earth again inside. Not even tendered earth: patchy dirt, weeds, and leaves blown in from the doors always left open. Double boulders rested side-by-side on the naked earth at the far end of the small chamber. Green moss clung to the rock like sylvan skin. Misshapen and insignificant. Cohthel looked at Markie for an explanation.
“Do you know the origins of the two Paragons?” Markie whispered though the shrine did not command the sort of place obligating one to hush. The grandeur of the inviting exterior did not carry inside.
Lichen from the jungle’s humidity crawled over the white luster of the marble in multicolored patches, and weeds clawed from the loamy earth.
“The Paragons were formed in the explosion between two stars crashing together.” Cohthel eyed Shollomoon who stood beside the two boulders, watching them both with vast impatience.
“There are also theories that the Paragons were the two stars, and that crash broke their spirits out into ethereal form.” He pointed at the boulders. “Diviners claim these boulders are pieces of those two stars. What remains of the physical embodiment of the Paragons. But they weren’t always here. They appeared some years before the Kingdom formed. Diviners say these paragon boulders are a sort of portal connecting Eternal Earth to Mortal Earth and are what allows Fate to come to Mortal Earth every year. They haven’t moved. The Kingdom built this shrine around them.”
“Only Fate, or could other gods come down?”
“You can continue the lessons after we’re done,” Shollomoon said without care to her tone. “Come to the boulders and set your hand upon them.”
Cohthel looked at Markie, who tilted his head forward. Cohthel approached and knelt in the dirt as instructed, placing a palm on each boulder. Though misshapen hunks of broken stone, drab and dense, he would not deny energy emitting from both, enclosing him so he felt in that exact spot transported from the world, that if he walked back out the shrine doors he’d fall into starlight. Like he touched ceaseless eternity. He didn’t know if the pulse throbbed from the stone or his hands.
“Now what?” His answer came when, in front of him, a disembodied ethereal hand appeared touching the boulder across from him.
“Cohthel,” said a small tone in his ear, “this is the Goddess of Fate.”
Cohthel choked and locked up.
Dangerous thought after dangerous thought arrived in concussive blows: why is a goddess speaking to me? Does she often talk to mortals one-on-one like this? This must be about my question of Evermore and Nevercease I asked her in Deep Winter. Can anyone walk up, touch the boulders, and chat with her? It must be, because I am not special enough for divinity’s notice.
But that hopeful explanation tore apart when Fate said, “I am permitted this one time to communicate with you. Please pay attention.” Her disembodied, translucent hand remained on the boulder, in the shape and size of a female human. Fate represented all life but likely chose a human hand for Cohthel.
Thank goodness Cohthel was already kneeling, because his knees would have buckled when she said, “I have something to give you.”
Gold mist — R’th? — gathered above the boulders in a thin, narrow spread, above his knuckles. The mist condensed, taking on form, denser and denser until the mist took on the distinct shape of a sword reflecting Cohthel’s sable, nighttime winter face on the R’th-like sheen forming the blade. And there it hovered.
“You’re giving me a sword?” Cohthel burst out, unable to tie his emotion down into one, understandable expression. Added on top of that, no one ever taught him protocol how to talk to a goddess who randomly decided to speak to him. “Why?”
“Every lifespan I grant invisibility to one of the common-forms. This lifespan I gave invisibility to you.”
“Why invisibility?” Panicked and confused, his sixteen-year-old brain exploded in Thaen-like imaginations and fears to the point he felt disembodied, this conversation with the goddess happening to his body without him being present for it.
“Why, Cohthel, so you can live forever.”
“Live forever? How? It hasn’t stopped me from pain or broken bones. I’m growing older so eventually, I’ll die of old age, won’t I?” He wanted to bang his head on the boulders. Not only does his invisibility take away pain, but it also, apparently, makes him live forever. He’ll experiment with flying next because of course that’s a side effect of invisibility.
“Pick your questions carefully. I can’t answer all of them because I’m nearly out of time.”
“Okay. Fine.” His further confusion morphed into anger and irritation. He craved information on his invisibility, but this sword stressed him out more. “What am I supposed to do with the sword?”
Nothing. Huh. Cohthel nearly stormed out of the shrine. Though he still had no knuckling idea what was happening right now, divinity worsened his confusion by not giving him the reward of doing something cool with the goddess-gifted sword. “Nothing?”
“Only hold onto it, because the kindred whom the sword is for can’t wield it yet. You are a bridge, Cohthel, covering the gap between the event and the kindred who will wield this sword. They will find you when they are ready.”
“Why not give the sword directly to this…kindred when they are ready?”
“The event triggered many things. The opportunity to give you, or the wielder, this sword might close. I need to pass the sword now.”
A bridge. Wait till he told his friends: “Ya, Fate gave me a sword, but I’m just holding onto it. I’m not doing anything heroic with it.”
“The intended wielder will find you when he is ready. When he finds you, he will use the code word, ‘Nevercease,’ and you will know it is for him.”
Cohthel burst with questions, saying them all at once turned them into inaudible garble in his mouth
“Hold onto it. But I don’t fear because when I look into your fate, I am reassured you will. Thank you, Cohthel.” Fate’s disembodied hand withdrew.
Cohthel stared at the sword hovering above his knuckles.
He stood up, stared at it, and walked away.