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Phoenix Ashes

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Trust in the Keeper - Editor

Phoenix Ashes

by Nadja Baer

The chains clinked against the stones overhead as Arinna stirred. Howls of agony reverberated through the cavernous hallways outside her cell. Thankfully, the pain was not the voice of one of the elementals, though Corin had proved adept at bringing the gods to breaking. At first the sounds had sent chills straight through her heart, and when they were her own, she had longed to die. Now she found them a strange comfort--proof that she was still alive.

The Earth Goddess was alive, and not alone.

A chill ran through the dark cell. Sediments of rock and dirt clung to her cheek as she pushed herself to a sitting position from the damp stone floor. She brushed them away with the back of her cold, metallic hand. Now that the pain in her forearm had gone away, she could barely tell the difference between her flesh-and-blood right hand and the robotic left unless she looked right at it. No physical sensation traveled from the steely fingers to her brain, but any attempt to break the appendage sent fiery bolts of pain shooting through her head.

The dungeon wall scratched her skin through the protective layer of soft green moss. Her head ached. Every day the rich dirt beneath her fingernails was less. The thin vines on her head bore shriveling brown leaves and no longer held her coiled hair in place. Without the power of her left hand she couldn't bring the vines back to life. Soon the rest of her would wither away as well. She tried to reach out to the power of the earth, but the magic lay beyond her reach, as severed from her as her missing arm. Corin made sure she stayed alive, but only just.

Time passed with little meaning in the dungeon. Arinna pulled her knees in to her chest. Her ankles ached. She couldn't see the raw skin under the thick, iron shackles, but the constant burning sensation gave her a clue as to what they might look like. The rusted chains that trailed her every step jingled a taunting melody. They dangled from gigantic hooks bored into the wall high overhead. She'd tried to climb them, to free herself, but the metal hand would not grip her bonds without causing her pain.

A slight breeze pulled through the cells. The Lady of the Winds blew messages of defiance. Of strength.

Hope.

So long as Corin kept them chained there was hope. So long as the breeze blew and the Lady of the Winds was free.

Silence.

Another voice snuffed out in Corin's quest for power. Arinna wondered how long it would be before he let the other elementals die.

Horrible screeches signaled the opening of the prison door. The faint thump of the guard's limp sounded loud in the stillness.

One, two, three.

Arinna counted his strides, listening to the steady rhythm of his thumping foot. If she knew how far he walked, she would know which prisoner would be next.

Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen.

She hated the game, but she could not tune out the sound of the lumbering giant.

Twenty.

The footsteps halted. Twenty of the guard's long steps--too far to be Selacia's cell. The last time Arinna had seen the Sea Goddess, Selacia had been a rumpled mess on the floor, her pale blue tresses splayed in a mess on the ground like whitecap waves in a tempest. Her right leg looked like Arinna's left arm—-cold, metallic, and dead. It was little comfort that Corin left Selacia alone. If not the Sea Goddess, then another of the elemental gods would face his fury.

The knuckle joints of Arinna’s metal hand clicked and creaked as she balled her hands into fists. She moved with care, careful not to strike the wall or the floor with the hand.

The dragging limp resumed, moving away this time. No other sound accompanied the unhurried shuffle, but she knew the giant did not walk alone. Perhaps it was Yun. Bands of steel tighter than the shackles on her legs gripped her heart. Could the Rain God stand against Corin's hot fury? Could any of them?

The Lady of the Winds whispered.

Hope.

How could we all be so stupid? Arinna pressed her good hand against the damp stones underfoot, trying to will the question into the minds of the other gods. The question haunted her as much as the prayers. Thirteen weeks now she'd been chained in this cell, with no company but the thousands of voices in her head.

Please, they whispered. Why have you deserted us, My Lady? The crops are dying, the woods going brown, our children starving. What have we done to anger you?

Day after day the same petitions for aid. Day after day her frustration grew, building into despair. Without her hand, without the powers bestowed on her by the Keeper, she could do nothing. The pain she could bear, the howls she could withstand, but this feeling of impotence as her fields and forests died--that would destroy her.

Patience, the word lingered in the fading breeze.

"Patience," Arinna said to herself. So long as Leiana's voice floated in the wind, there was hope. Fatigue overpowered her senses. The Earth Goddess lay down on the stone floor and wept.

Please, My Lady. Help us. Please.

#

How long she slept she didn't know. The guard's strong hands shook her awake. He held the ends of her chains in his palm. One globular eye sat high on his forehead, the other nearly sunk beneath a cheekbone. His bulbous nose looked as though it had been broken on several occasions, and his large gash of a mouth nearly split his face in half. He grunted, tugging her chains.

Arinna pushed herself to her feet. The dank, musty smell of the dungeons mingled with the foul stench of the giant's breath in her nostrils, turning her stomach. Her heart ached for the rich scent of the forests after a rain, a field of wildflowers in the heart of the mountains, or even the rotting bark of a dead tree turning to mulch and nourishing the new life waiting to spring from the earth. The earth always found a way to close the circle.

Without a word the guard tugged her chains. Circlets of fire enveloped her ankles as the iron chaffed her skin. The monster's shriveled right leg was twisted at an odd angle, making his massive left look even more ungainly.

"Why do you help him?" the Earth Goddess asked the giant. "He has no qualms destroying his brethren, what makes you think he will spare you, when you cease to be useful?" She stumbled every few steps as his arms swung, tripping her with the chains. The vines in her hair hung in bedraggled strands down her back. Their dull rustle cast a pall of gloom into her heart.

The guard said nothing. He turned, bent so that his large head came within inches of hers, and opened his mouth. A few rotting teeth clung to the blackened gums, but otherwise the gaping hole was empty. A mournful gargle was his only answer. He had no tongue. The monster resumed his lumbering gait.

Arinna shuffled along as slowly as she could. The last time Corin called for her, he’d taken her left arm from the elbow down. She balled her metal hand into a fist at her side, the fingers tangling in and ripping away the remnants of the moss that clung to her skin. Without her powers, the moss would not grow back. She wouldn't mind postponing the next encounter with the Fire God.

Questions spun through her head like dry leaves caught in a whirlwind, mixing with the pounding of the constant prayers. She pushed them all aside. She would need all of her wits.

The uneven flagstones beneath her bare feet scraped at her soles. Guttering torches threw scant light on her surroundings, which looked just as dismal as her cell. Hewn, unfinished walls carved directly into the rock of the earth created a narrow passageway with high ceilings. The giant stooped and twisted to make his way through the confining space. Heat rolled off the walls in humid waves. She wondered just how far beneath the surface they were. Molten earth fire was Imara's domain. Had Corin captured her as well? Arinna had yet to see the Fire Goddess in the dungeons. Perhaps the fire elementals worked together in this hell.

As they passed Restan's cell, she could see the Earth God leaned against the wall, his arms shackled above his head. Her heart quickened at the sight of her other half. The paleness of his normally sun-browned face scared her. His great stone shoulders slumped, his long beard of oak leaves hanging in limp straggles over his chest. A crude, rusted limb of twisted metal extended from his body where his massive right leg had once been. Her heart ached. Off and on she could hear the prayers directed to both of them, and she knew he felt as powerless as she.

What does he stand to gain by this? She poured out all her energy to will the question into Restan’s head.

Restan lifted his head for just a moment as she passed. Their eyes locked. The world will come full circle. Trust in the Keeper. His rumbling voice echoed in her mind. Before when he spoke to her, the sound thundered like the rumbling of a rock slide in the mountains. Now it felt like pebbles skittering at the feet of a dancing horse. Her left hand bounced off an out-cropping in the wall. White-hot pain surged up her entire arm. She would have to be more careful.

The next cell lay in shadow. Edora's golden hair no longer lit the room like the sun in the sky. Something was dreadfully wrong. Arinna glanced into Yun's cell as the guard yanked her down the hall. Empty.

Her legs wobbled as they neared Selacia's cell. A deep sense of foreboding stole through her blood. She almost didn't look. The water elemental sat chained to the wall, the twisted metal leg jittering against the ground as she trembled. Her clear blue eyes swirled with the black water of the depths, her hair wild and untamed as the sea itself. She caught sight of Arinna and cackled.

"The Keeper has forgotten us," she shrieked. Mottled brown seaweed clung to her body in tattered strips. Long strands of seashells chimed against each other as she shook her head. "He will not spare you! The Keeper has forgotten!"

The lesser gods are still alive. Patience. Arinna tried to will the soothing words into Selacia's mind, but couldn’t.

"We have failed Him. The Keeper has forgotten!" The Sea Goddess screeched into the dark, laughing her harpy's laugh. She banged her metal leg against the floor, adding to the racket.

The guard walked on, unperturbed. He led Arinna through the thick iron door and dragged her up a spiraling staircase cut directly in the rock. She curled around her metal arm and let him haul her upward. What could Corin want with her now? Her body felt weak, her powers ebbing. Selacia's words weighed heavy on her soul.

The Keeper of Souls has chosen you to be born, Earth Mother. Go forth, tend to the green and growing things of the world. You have the power to give new life to the dying, but use it wisely. The Keeper calls all things back. All things must meet their end in time. The words of the Creator echoed in her memory. Perhaps the elementals had failed Him, as Selacia said.

The giant led her to a large, open room with plastered walls and a smooth, cobbled floor. Candles and lamps burned on every flat surface. Acrid smoke rose to the ceiling from the oiled wicks. With a none-too-gentle shove between her shoulder blades, the guard sent her stumbling into the room and tossed the loose ends of her chains in after her. He grunted and closed the door. His stumping footsteps moved down the hallway.

Arinna's feet tangled in her bonds. She fell hard on her hands and knees. The scratching of her metal fingers against the stone floor sent shivers down her spine, along with thin tendrils of pain that pulsed with her heartbeat.

"The proudest of us have the farthest to fall." Corin's smooth voice dripped with satisfaction.

"And yet the rainfall calls the sea wet," she retorted, clamoring to her feet. She did not see the Fire God in the room.

"Such defiance, oh Goddess of the Earth," he mocked. His voice came from over her left shoulder.

"What do you want with me, Corin?" The coward could show his face if he wanted. She would not give him the satisfaction of looking for him. “You have my arm, I have nothing for you.”

"Such hostility. I'm surprised at you, Earth Queen. You are usually so responsive to those in need." He laughed and mocked the tone of a little girl. "Please, my Lady, please help."

Arinna bit her tongue.

"Yours will be quite the fall," Corin hissed. Black smoke curling from a glass lamp nebulized in front of her, taking on the shape of a man.

Leiana's whispers gave her strength. Defiance, she told herself. Trust in the Keeper. Despite her best efforts, her eyes grew wide as Corin's wavering form solidified.

The formerly handsome elemental now looked like a puzzle doll sewn together by a mad puppeteer. She stared at her left hand attached below his elbow. A festering wound encircled the forearm. A thin green snake wound itself around the hand and through the fingers. Arinna felt the pang of absence as she flexed the fingers of her metal replacement. She longed to feel the life of the serpent coiling through her palm. Corin's legs were as mismatched as the guard’s. One was thick as a tree trunk and covered in creeper vines, the other feminine and slender with sea stars clinging to the glistening skin. Edora's thick, golden tresses cascaded to his shoulders, and Yun's right arm, twinkling with a crust of ice, sat in a sling bound to his chest. Corin’s left eye shone with madness, his right as dead and black as spent coals.

For the first time in her long life, Arinna knew the bitter taste of true fear. She understood the desperation that fueled the prayers imploring her for help. "What have you done to yourself, Corin?”

His lips curled in a demonic smile, though it might have been a grimace. The face, except for the dead eye, seemed to still be his own, but she couldn't be sure. "I have remade myself in the image of no one before me. Soon all the powers of the elements will combine in one, the way it was meant to be."

Arinna felt her knees start to buckle. She let herself drop to the ground. Selacia was right. They had failed the Keeper.

"You know I'm a reasonable man," Corin said, kneeling beside her, touching her cheek with her own arm. She felt the power of the earth crackle through the skin. Her scalp tingled at the touch of the warm fingers. "Your life could be much easier. No chains, a soft bed to sleep on, personal servants." He taunted her, running the palm of the earth hand through her hair. The dying vines sprouted purple flowers and snaked through her braids, holding them against her head in orderly coils once more. He touched her shoulders and the thinning moss grew lush under his delicate fingers. Her fingers.

"What can you possibly want from me?" She hated the weakness in her voice. Oh Keeper, why have you forsaken us?

"Tell me where Staban hides."

Arinna studied the mismatched pieces of Corin's new body. She saw no evidence of the Sky God's being, or of the Fire Goddess, Imara.

Hope, the Lady’s voice had urged. Perhaps it was not too late.

"Tell me where he hides," Corin repeated. His face took on a hard edge. With careful movements, he removed the sling from Yun's arm. He touched her face with the Rain King's hand. The cold seared her skin.

"I don't know," Arinna whispered.

"You wouldn't lie to an old friend, now, hmm?"

Arinna curled her metal fingers into a ball. Trust in the Keeper. She didn’t answer.

"Where does Father Moon hide from me?"

"I don't know," she said, this time with more strength. "Nor do I know where Imara is, so you can save yourself that question."

Corin chuckled. "But I know where that she-demon is. He winked with the dead-coal eye. “She is everywhere, and nowhere, returned to the Keeper's great pattern. Her circle has come to a close." His own red-rimmed eye squinted hard in a frown. "She taught me a great many things before she died."

Arinna's heart sank to her stomach. She tried to will herself to stand, to face the abomination in front of her like a queen, but she couldn't.

"Not even your magic touch could bring an elemental back from the dead. One of you will tell me where the Sky King is." The matter-of-fact tone belied the agitation she saw glimmering in his eye. "Rest assured, Earth Goddess. One of you will tell me. Not even the Keeper can stop me."

Several long seconds of silence passed between them. She could not hold the unwavering gaze of his fiery eye.

"So be it," Corin said. He seemed about to say more, but the Sea Goddess’s leg buckled beneath him. Quick as the lightning bolts he hurled as weapons, he disappeared from sight in a puff of smoke. The flames of the candles and lamps flickered. "Rysan," his voice bellowed from everywhere and nowhere all at once. "Stop her!"

The door to Corin's chamber flew open and the giant limped in with surprising haste. Arinna hadn't heard his steps approaching. Without a word Rysan grabbed her chains and hauled her up over his shoulder.

She didn't try to resist. Corin's voice remained a shrill rant, repeating "Stop her, Rysan, stop her," that continued until they crossed the thick, iron door of the dungeon. As the giant carried her past Selacia's cell, she saw the Sea Goddess's metal leg wrapped around the elemental's neck. The goddess’s blue skin had turned an angry purple as she asphyxiated.

Rysan dumped Arinna on the ground of her own cell and fixed the chains high on the wall before thumping back down the hallway.

A few moments later Selacia's piercing wails of pain and despair shattered the stillness of the dungeon. "The Destroyer will have you," she cackled. "All things must meet their end! The Destroyer will have you!" Her shrieks came to an abrupt stop. Rattling chains sounded from her end of the hallway, followed by the dragging thump of Rysan's gait exiting the dungeon.

Once again left in silence, Arinna listened to the prayers of the people she could do nothing for. Who would care for them when she was gone? She curled up against the stone wall and tried to pray herself. Surely the Keeper wouldn't stand by and let Corin destroy them all.

"Restan," she called out, her voice raspy and low. She couldn't waste what strength she had left in speaking into his mind.

"My Lady."

Arinna couldn't say the dismal thoughts she was having. Somewhere outside, Staban hid in the shadows. She clung to the hope that the lone god could band together the lesser pantheon and overcome the Fire God. "What can we do?"

Labored breathing preceded his words. "Trust in the Keeper, my Lady. Look to the closing of the circle."

She had no reply. Straining with the effort, she tried to reach out to Selacia's mind, but she could not find her presence. The Sea Goddess either slept or lay unconscious in her cell.

"Look to the closing of the circle." Restan's rumbling voice repeated. His words were the last she heard before she fell into darkness.

#

Arinna, the Lady of the Winds’ lilting call wormed its way through the darkness in her head. Earth Mother, Goddess of the Land.

She stood on trembling legs, grasping the wall with her good right hand. "Leiana, I hear you."

Lady, the breeze whispered. My Lord Staban has rejoined the Keeper.

"No!" Arinna cried out. Bile rose in her throat. "He was our only hope."

Hope. The air of Leiana's voice caressed Arinna's cheek. Hope lies always with the Keeper. We have no means to fight the Fire. Trust in the Keeper.

The voice faded with a whoosh, leaving the air in the dungeon hot and oppressive.

"Restan? Selacia?” Arinna screamed into the darkness. No one answered. Even the prayers had stopped. The world had fallen into despair. Tears streamed down her face.

The Earth Goddess was alive, but alone. The presence of the other imprisoned gods was little more than a tingle in the back of her mind. She had no companions but her memories. The memory of Edora's warm sun on her skin, coursing in the lifeblood of all things green and growing. The memory of Yun's gentle spring rains and raging summer torrents that brought color to the valleys. Restan's valleys. How would the world survive without the elementals?

She remembered that day. That awful day. The little girl and the dying old man. Please, my Lady, the image of the child pleaded. He's all I have in this world. Please help. As her hand touched the old man's arm and the green serpent coiled around him, a blinding flash tore through her head, severing her hold on the magic. The little girl smiled a devilish smile, one that could have been a grimace.

The little girl in her memory became Corin's mutilated body, the leg of the Sea Goddess buckling beneath him. "Stop her," he cried out. "Rysan, stop her!"

In her mind's eye she saw Selacia's pretty face turning purple, the twisted metal leg wrapped around her throat. "The Destroyer will have you!" the Sea Goddess shrieked.

Realization hit her with the force of one of Selacia's tempests. "We must close the circle," she murmured in the silence. "The Keeper calls all things back. All things must meet their end in time." She prayed to the Keeper for strength.

One last time she tried to speak to the other elementals, but no willing minds opened to her words. Grasping hold of the first finger of the metal hand, she pulled as hard as she could, trying to rip a piece of it free. The effort sapped her strength, and the pain that ensued engulfed her body like a raging ball of fire.

Arinna screamed and smashed the limb against the wall with as much force as she could muster. The inhabitants of the other cells stirred, their slumbering minds waking. The guard’s lumbering limp sounded faint, still outside the prison door.

"The Keeper calls all things back. All things must meet their end in time!" Arinna shouted as she hammered the metal fist against the wall. Her mind boiled in a fever. Every strike of her hand against the wall felt like stones pummeling her skull, but she didn't stop. Still the hand showed no damage. Arinna grabbed hold of the chains that attached her to the wall. She started to haul herself up, hand over hand.

"The Destroyer will have you!" Selacia's shrieks joined in, the chains rattling against the wall in her cell.

Corin's howls echoed through the dungeons, evident in the guttering torches of the hallway.

"Complete the circle," Edora's soft voice broke through the noise for a moment, and then the presence of her life and Selacia's both winked out.

Corin's cries weakened. Rysan pushed open the iron door of the dungeon, slamming it against the wall. The earthen walls shook.

I will meet you with the Keeper, Restan's gruff whisper touched her mind for the last time. Both he and Yun winked out.

Arinna's arms shook with the effort it took to pull her body along the chains. Rysan's strides drew near. But not near enough. She wound the slack of one chain around her neck and looped it over the massive hooks.

She let go.

#

It was a day of fire and flood on which the gods remade the world. Mountains heaved and crumbled, spewing molten fire into the lush, green valleys. The sea rose up and swallowed entire continents. Even the heavenly bodies of the sky would not show their faces as the forces of nature battled. The few people that survived said the earth shook with a fury unknown in ancient times. They built their legends around that fateful day, the day they say the gods tried to unmake the world. But the Keeper triumphs over all things, and he saved the world from the fury of the gods. Trust in the Keeper, and look to the closing of the circle.

©2010

 

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