The heat was unbearable, searing and constant, burning his skin until it crisped. He could smell the aroma of cooking flesh and knew it was himself that he smelled. It was all too familiar, singeing and sinking into his nostrils, a vile stench he would never forget. Would never be allowed to forget. As usual, the metal around his wrists burned first, glowing a hot red … as though it could melt away or be smelted along with his flesh. But it never melted away; it held true time and time again. He had torn at his manacles, strained against them. Every time the fire came, he prayed it would melt his hands away first, allowing him to slip free.
But that was not how things worked here. There was never going to be freedom for him. His was an eternal damnation. He had sinned against all the gods and they, who usually warred amongst themselves, had come together to see him punished. That was how deeply he had sinned.
Dethan and his brothers had been chained, entombed in these forsaken caverns, and their immortal lives, the ones they had dared to wrest from the secrets of the gods, were now their curse as they died again and again. Death by fire. Or rather, as near to death as was possible for an immortal. Dethan suffered and singed and crackled to a crisp until his lungs could no longer breathe in the flames, until his marrow boiled within his bones and until his chains held only a desiccated corpse turned mostly to ash.
And then the flames would subside, and slowly, ever so excruciatingly slowly, his body would heal. Flesh would rebuild itself along the lines of his bones, cell by cell, one healing piece of sinew after another. Immortality repairing itself, birthing him new again, making his skin supple and whole, and preparing him to be fresh and healthy, and ready to be burned all over again.
The chains he wore went around his forearms in gauntlets from wrist to elbow, and for good measure a bolt had been shot through them, spearing through the flesh and bone of each forearm from one side to the next, making certain there was no way he could slide free. Not that it was necessary. These were chains forged by gods. If you were dressed in the chains of the gods, there would be no freedom from them until the gods decided to set you free.
He laughed, the sound hollow in the echo of the abated flames. But the flames were growing again; he could hear them with his newly healed eardrums. He had long ago ceased begging the gods for mercy. They had not heard him, although he had screamed it for hours. For days. For turnings. For ages. He no longer knew how much time had passed, and it had ceased being important to him. Nothing was important to him. His lot in this existence was merely to burn and to suffer. Again and again, over and over.
You thought you deserved eternal life. Now see what your ambition has won you. See it. Feel it. Deserve it.
No. No one deserved this. True, his crimes had been brash and arrogant, but they had been crimes of hubris, not unabashed wickedness. He had never been evil incarnate.
But he dared not think that he was blameless for his lot. No. Nor did he dare blame the gods. Oh, he had cursed them. Screamed their names and damned them. Renouncing them one moment and yet pleading to them with utter devotion mere hours later. Such was the nature of torment like this.
But he had not tried to bargain for his release or promised to be the most devout of men should they set him free. No. He knew that freedom would now be wasted on him. His mind was so scorched, so torn, it was nothing but a wasteland.
No. He would simply sit here and burn. He did not even think of his brothers any longer. How often he had wished he could turn back time, wished that he had heeded Garreth, who had tried one last time to recall them from the task they had set for themselves. But by then they had almost reached the mountain’s pinnacle. By then they had already fought and killed two manticores, vile powerful creatures with the head of a Sholet lion, the torso of a man, and a powerful cat below the waist. Its tail was that of a Bytwyte scorpion. Its massive arms were capable of great strength, and each of its wings was tipped with savage talons meant to rip the flesh from a man.
But more alarming than the frightful creatures Dethan and his brothers had faced was that they had almost frozen to death, exposed on the face of Mount Airidare. Garreth had been dying at their feet from the crippling cold, and the only way to save him had been to continue onward in hopes of finding their prize.
At the heart of it all had been nothing but selfish desire for the power of immortality. As warriors, they had faced death every day and without fear, but what they had wanted was the glory of being invincible. Like the demigods, the gods’ own children, or the special heroes that had been awarded immortality as a prized gift for their service to the gods.
They had first tried to obtain the gift through their deeds—winning battles and waging war, overtaking heathen lands and building monuments to the gods, teaching their ways to the untaught. They had converted land after land into the lands of the shield goddess or the god of peace and tranquillity. But the gods had been unimpressed and had offered no reward for their service.
And now he knew why. He knew it was because they had never really done any of it in the name of the gods. They had done it for their own ends and no other reason, and the gods had seen through them.
The four brothers had grown tired of waiting for the gods to get around to rewarding their so-called faithful servants and instead had researched a tale, told to them all through their lives growing up, about the hero Gynnis, who had climbed a great mountain and had found atop it a fountain of gold and gems, and within that fountain had been the waters of immortality. One sip of these waters and they would be gifted with youth, health, and life everlasting. The waters would heal all wounds, new and old, they would erase the hardest years from face and form, and again … bestow life everlasting.
And through much work, much research, much capturing of holy scrolls from holy cities, Jaykun had finally concluded that the fountain was on Mount Airidare. It could not be anywhere else, for all other mountains had reportedly been conquered by other men and there had never been tales of success of finding the fountain. No mortal other than Gynnis had ever gained immortality by drinking its waters. So by process of elimination and by the use of many signs and landmarks in those holy scrolls, they had known it would be there.
After days of deadly progress, days when they could have and should have failed dozens of times, they had seen the pinnacle and there, running free and gleaming of gold and gemstones, had sat a fountain where water should’ve been frozen solid, but was not. They had been in the thinnest air the world had to offer—that was how far up near the field of heaven they had climbed. They could barely breathe, it was so thin.
But laying eyes on that fountain had been like a bolt of pure oxygen and exhilarating, revitalizing energy. Just from the sight of it.
And still Garreth had tried to stay them. Upon seeing it, he had hesitated and asked them to rethink this, had claimed a sense of foreboding. But they had ignored him and had pressed on, and in the end all four of them, even Garreth, had drunk deeply of the fountain’s waters.
It had truly been the most miraculous thing Dethan had ever known. His battle-scarred and weather-frozen body had healed before his very eyes. Frostbite that had claimed at least three of his fingers had reversed itself, revealing warm, pink flesh once more. Old battle wounds, like the one that had nearly dismembered his left leg from the rest of his body, had healed, the tightness and pain he had dealt with every day since evaporating with alacrity. The scar had disappeared from beneath his many layers of clothing. He had not needed to see it because he had felt it. And in the reflective surface of the fountain’s waters he had seen the years melt away from his face, until he looked as he had looked fifteen summers past, a younger man in the prime of his life, no more than thirty, no less than twenty-five, from what he could see. Garreth, previously near death, had sprung to his feet, laughing and full of life once more.
And then … then the gods had come. With a mighty storm of fury, clouds full of lightning and thunder, snow driving them down to the ground, the ground itself hauling and shuddering with rage. Oh yes, they had come.
You dare steal this reward when you have not deserved it in our eyes? You dare to do so without permission, without honor? You will pay for your folly, foolish, arrogant worms. You will pay for your immortality with blood and bone and flesh. We cannot take this gift back, but we can see to it you wish you had never dared to think you could push the hands of the gods to your will and your liking.
Then Dethan had been thrown down from that mountain and into the deepest chamber in the eight hells and had been left there to burn. He did not know what had become of his brothers, Garreth, Jaykun, and Maxum. He could only assume they had been thrown into similar caverns and were suffering similar fates. He had been alone ever since, day after day, with nothing to keep his interest and nothing but the fire for company.
So Dethan was not prepared when, just as the fires were about to roar to life once more, the softest waterfall of sparkling light appeared before his eyes. It started small, with just a falling dot of light, then two, then twenty, then hundreds. The sparkling bits of light began to form into the shape of a woman. Then, in a flash, a woman of dark hair and blinding beauty was standing before him.
He blinked hard several times, trying to rid himself of the vision. It would not be the first time he had hallucinated under the stress of his torment. But there she stayed and there she stood, wearing a dress so glittering and beautiful it refracted the firelight like diamonds might do. Or perhaps kitomite, which was harder and more brilliant than diamonds. Yes, that was it. The dress, he realized, was a suit of chain-mail armor, fitting her form with perfection and looking as stunning and impervious as it must be if made from kitomite.
That was when he knew it was Weysa, the goddess of conflict. The shield goddess. He had erected statues of her above her altars, where spoils of war were frequently laid in homage to her when an army or fighter was victorious. He had prayed to her before every battle and he had seen her fury when he had drunk from the forbidden waters and subsequently banished him to this place in the eight hells, so it was no wonder that he recognized her once he had seen past the blinding brilliance of that armor. He shuffled about on his hands and knees, rolling himself into obeisance, his forehead touching the scalding hot rock, his palms doing the same, his flesh searing against the stone like a cut of fresh junjun beast being seared in a pan.
She regarded him in silence, and as she did so, the fires remained completely abated for the first time since he had come there. He was grateful for the reprieve, no matter what the reason, no matter what further curses she might rain down upon his head.
“Low beast,” she said after long moments.
“The lowest,” he agreed with her, fearful that she might grow angry with him for speaking aloud to her.
“What have you learned here, in your time spent?”
He did not know how to answer her. He did not know what she wanted to hear. So he fumbled for the most honest of answers he could come to. “Never to cross the mighty gods, for their will is the only will.”
“Do you beg for mercy?”
“No, mistress,” he said, “For your will shall be done, and there is nothing I can do to change it.”
“Good, because we have been merciful thus far. Your fate could have been much worse, but we took into account all that you have done in our name.”
Merciful? This torment had been the gods’ idea of mercy? Dethan felt a wash of rage overcoming him, and he struggled to fight it back. What if she could divine his thoughts? He would anger her and then she would show him what it meant for a god to be unmerciful.
“So,” Weysa said, “your time here has not cowed you completely.”
Dread filled him. Surely she would become angry with him now. What would she do with him?
“Good,” she said then, surprising him. “I need a true warrior. A man loyal to me who will fight in my name.”
She wanted him to fight for her? Yes. He would fight for her. Anything. Anything to be free of this hell.
“Fortune has told me that you are my one true hope in this matter. And so you will be. Rise.”
He did so, leaving strips of his flesh behind, burned to the floor, all the while keeping his eyes cast downward. Partly to honor her, partly because her armor was too brilliant for his eyes to bear.
“I have grown weak,” she said, again surprising him. “Things have changed greatly since the times when you fought for me. My strength lies in those who worship me, and so many have fallen by the wayside, worshipping false gods instead or … following my enemies and giving them the strength I need. You see, the gods have split into two factions, low beast. We war. We war violently. But we cannot win or find advantage unless we have devotion to us. I need you to find me that devotion, to win over those who do not believe and those who would choose my enemies over me.”
Dethan remained silent as she relayed this, but all the while his mind was racing. A war between the gods? This did not surprise him. They had always been a contentious lot. But things must have grown desperate if she was coming to him for help.
“I will give you these gifts and you will not squander them or you will pay dearly for it,” she said. And suddenly a suit of plated armor appeared at his feet. It seemed to be made of hedonite, a black, shining stone known for its lightness of weight. It was far too fragile to be of use in armor.
“Do not let the look of it deceive you, for this is god-made armor, forged by my own hands and imbued with my strength. It will protect you against any weapon. It will make you invulnerable. Invulnerability coupled with immortality will make you nigh invincible. But be warned: You can die if your head leaves your shoulders by way of a god-made weapon, and my enemies will make gifts of such weapons to stop your progress. Do you understand?”
“Yes, mistress,” he said.
“Good. Then there is this.” A sword also appeared at his feet. It too seemed to be made of the black hedonite. “This is a mighty weapon. In your hands, be your intentions true and just, it will cut down your foes, of which there will be many. It can pierce god-made armor, no matter how strongly imbued. This was forged with the strength of six gods. All of our faction together.”
“Mistress, may I ask which six gods?” he asked, knowing there were twelve gods in all and this meant they were split exactly down the middle.
“Our faction consists of Hella, the goddess of fate and fortune; Meru, the goddess of hearth, home, and harvest; her brother Mordu, the god of hope, love, and dreams; Lothas, the god of day and night; and last is Framun, the god of peace and tranquillity.”
“So you war with Xaxis, the god of the eight hells; Grimu, the god of the eight heavens; Diathus, the goddess of the lands and oceans; Kitari, the goddess of life and death; Jikaro, the god of anger, deception, and storms; and Sabo, the god of pain and suffering.” He swallowed. That Kitari had sided with five of the darkest gods did not ring true to him; she was the queen of all the gods and demanded much respect.
“Your thoughts do you justice, low beast. Kitari has been swayed by these other gods. I believe she is held hostage more than she has sided with them. They together have the power to subdue her in spite of her great powers. And that is part of your goal. You will be gaining worshippers for me and the other gods who side with me. By doing this I believe I will be able to rescue Kitari from their influence. Such a coup would no doubt turn the tide of this war. And there is something else …”
“Yes, my mistress,” he encouraged her. His mind was racing. If she was rescuing him from this fate worse than death, then things were as dire as they appeared. He would fight for her, as he had done in the past. This in spite of the rage he felt toward all the gods for the suffering they had subjected him to. Especially if it meant freedom from this torment. It was the only choice, really, because there was nothing he could do in the face of their power. But perhaps … perhaps he could convince her …
No. He would not try to manipulate his goddess. That was a slippery slope and he would not risk angering her. But he would ask … he would beg …
“There is a great weapon that can be used against Xaxis’s faction.”
So it was Xaxis leading the faction, Dethan thought. That figured. Xaxis had been trying to wrest power from the other gods for time immemorial.
“This weapon is surrounded by a great city, a city that guards the mouth of the eight hells.”
“Olan?” he asked.
“Olan,” she agreed. “I need you to conquer this city and to wrest control of this weapon.”
Suddenly she looked over her shoulder, as if she heard someone coming. She turned to him quickly. “This is Xaxis’s territory and he is beginning to sense that I am here. I must leave before I am captured by him. But you are freed. I will take you above the hells and you must begin your work. But be warned: You do not go freely. You are cursed ever after, to make you remember where you have come from and where you will return should you fail me. Every night, at dusk, you will conflagrate and burn until the juquil’s hour. If you perform well for me, I will consider lifting the curse. Do you understand?”
Dethan’s fists clenched in anger, but he controlled the emotion with an iron will. So he would be made to suffer this same hell again and again, even while he worked for her honor and ends. But the rest of the time … the rest of the time he would live in reprieve, and that was far better than what he suffered now.
“Yes, mistress, I understand. But … if your humble servant might ask … my brothers are great warriors. If you were to rescue them from this torment as well, they too could fight for your faction.”
“Your brothers, unlike you, are not here in the hells. However, like you, they are made to suffer in the territories ruled by the other faction. I have risked all coming here and cannot do so again. The only reason I was able to come at all is because the others have distracted Xaxis in order to free me to do this. Your brother Garreth is chained to the very mountain where you found the fountain, freezing solid again and again. The territory is controlled by Diathus. Jaykun is chained to a star and, like you, burns again and again. This is Grimu’s territory and I have no access to the heavens. Maxum … I do not know where Maxum is. He was given to Sabo to be dealt with and Sabo never shared with us the punishment he meted out.” She looked over her shoulder again and this time Dethan saw true anxiety on her features. “I must go now. Fight, warrior, as you have never fought before. Find an army. Fight to take my name to the people. Fight until the day I deem your worth restored. And never forget who has set you free and who can set you down again.”
“No, mistress. Never.”
“The fires will see to that. Remember, dusk every day. It will do you well to make sure no others are nearby when this happens or they will be consumed by the flames as well. Now, we are off.”