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Silence in Heaven

By Adam Wasserman



Once upon a time there was a great and prosperous people who lived in the forests of Miridia. They lived detached from the rest of the world, on platforms built high among the upper branches of the oak trees, or else in their broad, spacious city of brick in the heart of their country, where the rivers Maramor and Isthmar embrace. Their lore told them that other people existed in the world, beyond the mountains that cradled their forest land, but they knew little for certain about them, except that they were driven by greed. The other peoples, too, might have been reminded that one of the ancient tribes still survived on earth, but they had grown estranged from the beliefs of their shadowy birth. The rituals and poems of their heritage had come to appear awkward and pedant in their eyes, and were not understood for what they had been intended. Not so the Miridians. They lived in harmony with both each other and the earth, and were not troubled by much want for many long centuries.

Now the Miridians did not always dwell apart from the rest of humankind. The priestesses of the goddess Fortune told a tale of a time when they lived in the open land, roaming the earth with the other young tribes. In those days all the peoples of the earth lived with few wants. There was plenty of wild grain and berries for food, as well as animals for skins and bones, also magical herbs for any number of important spells and incantations. The gods looked kindly upon the various peoples of the earth, and gave them power over the wild animals. The people grew more numerous.

Now the gods were young in those days, too, and so they were apt to behave rashly. Their petty jealousies often collided with each other. It was not uncommon for some impetuous deity, roaring drunk, to cast an earthquake or a flood upon a rival's favorite tribe, and all because of some off-hand remark at one of their long banquets the night before, or because of whom he or she might have been sleeping with. You see the tribes of the earth were like trophies to the gods, symbols of great stature and respect, or of wretchedness as the case may be, and so their welfare was a constant matter of concern to the proud patrons of the men of Atrios, or of Mathin, or of the swamps in the far corners of Tiricon, beyond which lay ogre land.

As humankind grew older and more numerous, so too did the gods. They came busily tumbling from one another's mouths during dinner, or erupting from great pillars of stone in the mountainside, or else washing serenely ashore from the Sea that separates them from men. And as they grew in number they vied with each other for the precious affection of the people below on the earth, from whom they drew strength. For there were some who sought to set themselves above even other gods, and forge the world and the events of humankind according to his will. Such a god would need the devotion of many people, and so he began to require of them sacrifices and complex rituals as inexorable expressions of their loyalties, and directed them to go to war against his enemies.

It was said in Miridia that the great god Crea cut off the god Jericon's testicles and planted them in an apple garden, where they were watered with warmed lamb's milk and fertilized with crushed granite by his sons and daughters for eight years. Consumed with violent rage Jericon had eaten his wife, the goddess Anathea, when he discovered her infedilty with Crea. Crea was young then even for a god, and so endeavored to capture Jericon one night outside the Pantheon and slit him open, but his beloved could not be found within. Enraged, he returned with his crude trophies and planted them in the apple garden. For eight long years Crea sang to Jericon's seed, and wept each morning when no sprout had broken ground. Then one day while he was tending to her Anathea sprang from the earth in the form of a great oak tree. Crea was overjoyed at her sudden return, and spent many of his days under her bows, where he sang her lovely songs.

Now the people who would one day sojourn in Miridia were the favorites of Crea. When word came down from the realm of the gods that the people of the earth were to build cities for themselves, Crea directed his people to the coastal plains of a large desert, where a thin swath of fertile land could be found. There they built a great city of stone, carved from the very cliffs that overhang the ocean. Crea told his people that at the other end of this ocean was the land of the gods, and sternly forbade any man or woman to cross it. So it was that for many years the children of Crea were the gatekeepers of the gods, they and their impenetrable stone city, surrounded on three sides by water and on the other by a sheer cliff.

There were other great cities in the world, too. And as the years went on the cities grew more numerous and the wars among men, incited by the gods, more frequent. In order to aid their children the gods were known to visit the beds of the fairest maidens of their tribe. Others accosted strong, virile men working alone in the fields and cast a spell on those who tried to resist. The result was that the kingdoms were often guided by men and women of enormous resources and talents. Many of them were able to lead armies to impossible victories, and perform other, arduous tasks for which they became renowned. This was also the age of the greatest sorceresses, who had the power to lay curses and consult the dead, to move through the air stones the size of palaces and to pronounce prophesy, to control the weather.

As the wars of humankind became more savage and more desperate the task of the children of Crea became brutal and fierce. In time they grew disgusted with their lot, for they were not by nature a violent nor especially bloodthirsty people. After a time the priests of Crea beseached their god for a reprieve, but whenever the cries became too loud he sent a great storm with wind and waves that crashed into the cliffs below the city, or knocked over a proud monument. You see, Crea was very powerful in the realm of the gods because of the persistent fear that men might try and seek them out. Crea enjoyed elaborating about what might happen if this came to pass, and reminded the other gods that his people alone protected them all from irrevokable disaster.

Now Anathea heard about what was happening in the world below even though Crea sought to hide his plots from her, and grew distraught over his cruelty. The tree goddess attempted to seduce Crea one afternoon, but he skillfully mastered her inquiries. So, after a time Anathea fell silent, and would not speak to him at all. Crea remembered the songs that had coaxed her from the ground, but even the sweet measures of his best verses could not avail him. Crea became desperate for her attention and grew quite mad with desire. He was so obsessed that he refused to leave her, at times howling the most abrasive and offensive insults he could muster and at others kneeling before her clasping her trunk, weeping ceaselessly for days and nights, denying himself all food and drink and pleasure whatsoever.

So it was that the oracles in the great stone city fell dreadfully silent. The afflicted people implored their god to not forsake them, but Crea would not hear. The other gods availed themselves of Crea's distraction by causing an eclipse of the sun and drove their various peoples to simultaneously beseige the city. So it was that one night during Crea's stormy absence the people of his great stone city packed all their valuables and crept in utter silence one by one down a secret path in the cliffside toward the ocean, where they boarded great wooden boats and sailed off to the south, leaving behind their enemies to fight over the prize.

The gods turned their attention to the battlefields below the city, hovering like vultures with claws extended over the center of their great amphitheater, shouting madly at the scene at the bottom and at times to each other. The pandemonium was great, and in their greed for control of the great city of stone they drove their warriors to excessive acts of cruelty. At the behest of their gods the men had come from hundreds of leagues to fight. But the battle could not be decided, and as the carnage amassed the gods in their amphitheater of war gradually fell silent. They watched with eyes amazed at the acts they saw commited on the fields below. Eventually, they called for the battle to cease, but they had infected the men with a madness they had not the power to quench.

The men of the earth fought each other to the death in the desert over three long, choking days. By the last of it not a single one remained standing. For an instant there was a crystaline silence that had not been heard since the first ape looked up at the sky with vague curiosity, and all the wild beasts stopped what they were doing to listen. The gods stood like depraved sorcerers, stunned, and did not speak or move, nor turn their eye from the floor.

The women wandered away in loose bands with their children. Silently, stricken, they dispersed into the wilderness. They scattered like leaves, abandoning all resistance to Fortune. The gods saw the looks upon their faces, and they were greatly troubled. For there was a terrible bend to the dark curves of their foreheads, and a dreadfully quiescent anger brewing behind their eyes, babies pressed tightly to their chests and marching on into the night, stern and silent and settling into the habit of their misfortune. The gods recalled the grave warnings of Crea, who had told them that if it ever came to pass that humans should arrive in their realm the world would end suddenly and with great commotion.

A disorganized crowd of alarmed dieties headed for Crea's apple garden where they rushed in upon him, preceded by a rough tumble of exigent speech. The great god had been standing under Anathea, naked, baring his breasts and bellowing terribly at his silent beloved and turned, utterly amazed, to stare at these rash intruders. When Crea came to understand a few of the most repeated phrases he ran to the amphitheater and focused his imperial gaze within. The other gods remained huddled in the foyer, watching in the shadows between pillars as Crea carefully scoured the earth below.

When he realized the ruse that Anathea had played on him he grew so enraged that he turned, shooting lightning from the tips of his fingers, shattering the stands of the amphitheater and sending chunks of them tumbling onto the floor below. The devastation on earth was complete. There were terrible earthquakes that swallowed entire cities, and eruptions of volcanoes. Hurricanes swept in from the sea and remained moored to land for days at a time. The climate changed and once fertile land withered and grew arid. What people that remained fled to the south into hitherto unknown lands. The wild animals reclaimed their crude and deserted cities, and helped erode them into the earth until they were no more. All but the great city of stone, which neither sea nor air could erase, nor later the gods with their mighty storms and earthquakes.

Crea, then, after carrying on for quite some time, turned and lurched for the apple garden, his eyes set and his pace intent. No one dared say a word to him, but all crept silently in his wake. On his way through the apple garden Crea pulled a tree from the soil and a boulder from a nearby river and fashioned a great axe the size of an ox. With it he approached Anathea, who coldly and silently watched him advance, and braced for the blow. Crea screamed at the last moment, but the blade struck home and cleaved cleanly through Anathea's trunk. The great oak fell, and was no more.

Instantly, Crea realized what he had done. Dropping the axe, he collapsed over the bleeding stump and wailed with such horrible intensity that the remaining gods were driven away and left entirely to themselves.

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The godless people travelled in stealth for many days and nights, blanketed in an unnatural silence for fear of alarming Crea's ear. The cliffs by the ocean extended farther south than they had ever imagined, and some came to believe that Crea had not yet found them because they were no longer on earth, that they had escaped into an unyielding wilderness in which they would starve to death slowly one by one. Eventually, of course, they found a beach, and fertile land that had never before heard the speech of that curious ape. Thin and gaunt and overjoyed at the sight of dry land, the refugees leaped from their tired ships and swam to shore, leaving all their worthless items behind.

The godless people stood on the beach, dripping, gazing in calm amazement at the thick bows of the trees that encircled them, and the high cliffs to either side. It was a beautiful sight, but the newcomers sensed also that the trees were mourning, and that perhaps their presence was not welcome. So they stood for quite some time, alone, trepid, uncomfortably used to silence and uncertainty and willing to wait. The former priests of Crea offered prayers and incense to a variety of the gods, careful to bestow upon each the grace and intensity of prayer and the value of the sacrifice as befitted his stature. Their voices were hushed and their rituals muted, but they did not err nor did they cease.

Now the gods above heard the commotion that the people were making on the shores of Miridia, and set to confer urgently amongst themselves. A great number of them looked with sympathy upon the godless people. For of all the people of the earth they alone seemed to have remained untouched by the imploring madness of the mind that would compel the other humans to slay each other in great numbers, and hack away at the precious life of the earth. It was quickly decided that Crea should not know that his people had fled to Miridia, and that the gods should care for them like tender parents. The gods agreed to not quarrel over them and prudently decided that they were to be guided by certain gifted men and women, especially designated by the gods and marked by the colour of their eyes. The people of Miridia came to call them Elders, and were governed justly by them for all the peaceful years of their lives in the forest, which was quite a long time indeed.

So it was that the people of the great city of stone finally settled in the forest, where they befriended the great oaks and forgot about their terrible past in far away lands among other humans. They never went back to their ships, but abandoned them and all their former possessions to Terens, god of the oceans, and slipped silently between the trees of the forest, escaping hand-in-hand into the darkness. With the aid of the gods they created for themselves an entirely new culture, one of wise lore and nurturing and peaceful coexistence with the earth. Unlike the other peoples in the world, the Miridians had no desire to form empires, nor other cities beyond the capital where the Elders lived. They did not interfere in each other's private lives, nor judge each other for harmless or victimless practices. They brought what disputes they could not settle among themselves to the Elders, and accepted what decision that was handed down without question.

There were plenty of fruits and nuts in the forest, and wide, sprawling fields of date and fig trees, and wheat, so there was never a need to raise cattle merely for the purpose of slaughtering them. The people lived in scattered settlements in the bows of the trees, upon great, wooden platforms that supported their tents and their taverns, where they drank wine made from a variety of fruits, including grapes and olives. They had only a single city, where the Elders lived and debated openly among themselves, in a great open square at the center where any who liked could watch, and even offer an opinion. The priests of the gods quartered there, too, but they were often away making pilgrimages to holy places in the forest, where many of the people gathered on sacred occasions to honor all the deities in the sky, both good and evil alike.

But in the world outside humankind had reclaimed the land and had begun to establish truly great civilizations, of great marble buildings and marvelous statues of the gods, created in the image of their own, beautiful bodies. They built monuments to themselves, remarkable monuments such as tombs, and collosal statues, and great amphitheaters in which were performed captivating acts of drama, and magnificent temples in the caves of the cliffsides, decorated with veins of quartz glowing from conducted sunlight. The art of writing was discovered and proliferated among the priesthood. At first it was merely used to keep crude records, but as the written vocabularies increased the few who possessed the power wrote down the tales of war and adventure that they had first heard around the campfire as youths and knew by heart. The people opened universities for themselves, where they began to question the morality of war, and sought after the substance of the soul. Some even dared postulate that the human mind was capable of understanding all that there is, that no understanding could escape it, not even the nature of its own existence.

Now the bright, early morning of humankind did not reflect well upon the lives of the gods. For as humankind realized the extent of its passion and its reason, it came to rely less and less upon the steady but erratic guidance of the invisible patriarchs in the sky. For a brief time across all the earth the people lived enlightened of their animal past, and practiced the arts of diplomacy and oratory, but always and ever more fiecely those of torture and war. The slighted gods stood sulking in the corridors of the Pantheon, in whose dark secluded corners some underwent horrific mutations. They healthier among them looked down upon the earth and fought each other jealously for what little devotion there was to be had among the unfortunates of society, the awkward and the unwanted, and the too poor to be noticed.

Which is why the gods looked so kindly upon the Miridians, who worshipped them all without prejudice and without hidden intent, with love and gratitude for the simple pleasures of their lives. In turn they were loved without restraint, and a god who might be heavy of heart was often to be found sitting in their crumbled amphitheater of war, gazing thoughtfully down at the earth into the region of Miridia.

But in the world of other men the time of enlightenment came to an end. Wild, unkempt, and unwashed barbarians who rode on horses and dressed themselves in loose furs, who did not bring a razor to the hair on their heads or their faces, whose rough language was completely unknown, were pressing against the borders of the nations of the earth, making frequent and costly incursions into their territory where they slaughtered the inhabitants of the cities and stole away from the countryside their most beautiful men and women and all their precious jewels. For too long now the men of the earth had enjoyed the fruits of their well ordered civilizations, had grown fat and lazy and used to writing poetry and philosophy in the comfort of the shade beneathe marble columns, meticulously waited upon by obsequious slaves oftentimes more educated than they themselves.

And despite the grandeur and the strength of their armies, the barbarians could not be pushed back. Now they were at the gate. Some of the people turned their eyes toward the sky, but it had been too long since they had sought after the gods who had once protected them in times such as these. The crusty oracles were not silent, but the messages that emerged were the kind that only clarified with hindsight.

Now the Miridians had no contact with the other men of the world, and knew nothing of their affairs. And the only earthly path to their land was well concealed and difficult to approach, so the barbarians didn't find themselves there. So it was that the Miridians were not aware of the calamity in heaven until such time as the gods stopped appointing them Elders. It was not a perfectly definable event, nor something that was painfully obvious and would incite immediate action, until most of the Elders were old and feeble and looking about themselves one day they arrived at the sudden realization that there were no young men or women with the telltale blue eyes ready to take their place when they died, which no doubt would be soon.

From all across Miridia the people converged upon the capital city of the dying Elders, cradled on an island where the rivers Maramor and Isthmar embrace. They came on old, rickedy carts pulled by donkeys, clogged all the roads and trails, whispering worriedly and with chilling glances to each other. In the capital city, the priests had taken to consulting their texts. Once again they were reminded that they were the godless people. Last time they had been made to flee their homes, and perhaps it had been for the better. But this time they loved their country, the great trees of the forest and all its animals, some dangerous, others quite friendly, even the warm climate that made clothing hardly necessary, and were loathe to leave it.

In the end it was decided that emessaries from the community must venture forth in the world to discover if the gods were accessible elsewhere, and politely remind them of their obligations in Miridia if they were. The task was a bleak and arduous one, for there was no certain destination, nor even a path to follow. The Elders did not feel that they had the right to appoint anyone, nor go themselves because of their advanced age. But despite these discouragements there was no shortage of volunteers to choose from.

In the end, two young Miridians were chosen, two quiet, passionate people, a girl and a boy. They were so alike in character as to appear each a shadow of the other. Since they were children they were not known to have been apart much, except as the rigors of their daily life demanded. They were lovers, had been since their bodies first awakened in that wonderful and particular way. The first time they made love had been at her father's tent, at his behest after the prolonged celebrations of the festival of Saturnalia on the winter equinox, when trifling gifts were exchanged with intimate companions. Her father's to them had been some careful advice and a bed to share in a corner of his tent. They were not an incredibly good looking pair, but rather plain, he more so than she. But what appeal they lacked in physical beauty was made up in stature, from the perfect knowledge that no one else in the world knew them as well as each other, nor could hope to satisfy them nearly as completely. He was called Jamanda and she Loraea, and they had two boys whom they left behind with an aunt when they departed.

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The adventures they had in the world beyond Miridia, and how they got there, are stories among themselves that could fill volumes. They cannot be told here. But rest assured that their difficulties were unforseen and thousands of times more trying than the Elders had suggested. For they were ignorant not only of the languages of these strange and eccentric peoples, but also their customs and their prophesies. They did not know how to navigate their lands, either. They often stumbled into local disputes, both large and small alike, with which they had nothing to do, and had not the proper recourse to escape in a timely fashion.

The first thing that struck the pair about the world of other men is that the peoples that dwelled there were odd, and confused about some of their most fundamental emotions. Jamanda and Loraea did not know how to behave around them, and oftentimes their friendly overtures and gentle gestures were met with blunt rudeness and sometimes violence, which was largely sexual in nature. So after a time they stopped trying, and travelled like thieves at night. They interacted with the populace only to obtain information, sustenance, or simply to observe.

Over time they learned that the largest nation in this part of the earth was called Atrios, after the ancient city in the northeastern portion of their Empire, by the ocean. Jamanda and Loraea thought they recognized the name from their theological lessons, and deduced that it must have been a very ancient city indeed. The people of Atrios had since conquered the surrounding lands and even the sea, assimilating all the peoples who dwelled in their domains. Jamanda and Loraea could see evidence of their greatness in the dusty monuments, and the public works that littered the cities and countryside. But they could also see that such times had past, and new ones come around altogether.

Now Loraea saw the clean roads paved flat with stones, and the public baths, and the ridged columns that adorned some of the most opulent buildings, and who the people were who entered them, and she saw also the slaves working in the fields and hauling huge sacks of grain, and even stones, both night and day, and it distressed her. She could see in the faces of the many a deep and charring unhappiness and dissastifaction, so that a few might enjoy a fruitful life of their own choosing, as all of her people did back in the forests of Miridia. For, she thought to herself with indignation, who would not be so incredibly unhappy were he forced to abandon the pursuits of his heart for a stranger's profit? She explained this to Jamanda one night. "This can only be a terrible thing," she concluded.

Jamanda saw the despondency in the faces of the people around him, but he saw, too, the arches over the gateways to their cities, and the aqueducts that brought them fresh water from great distances, and also some of the many clever inventions that the few were able to enjoy, such as the sundial for telling time, and a calendar by which to judge the years, and said to his wife after a brief pause, "Not necessarily." For he understood that his people back in the forests of Miridia had none of these things, and thought how much more splendidly they could live if they had.

Loraea saw, too, that the numbers of magical beasts had dwindled significantly in the land. In all their travels they only caught sight of two centaurs, who had galloped frightfully away, and one hydra. She pointed this out to her husband as well, and they were both distressed. For clearly, all signs of the handiwork of the gods were either ancient or not to be found at all.

They saw also the rough men on horseback who came suddenly in droves over the hills, and the severe discipline of the armies that were raised to combat them, and the brutality of the battles in which they were periodically engaged, but these things neither surprised nor upset them, for they had been told since small children of the spark of madness that possessed the men who lived there.

It was one of these bands of rough men that came upon them one night while the couple was preparing camp. Jamanda was away seeking wood for the fire, and when he returned he discovered that his wife had been carried away. Stricken by her loss and so far away from his own people he thought of throwing himself from a cliff, but after the initial rage had dimmed to a simmer he thought of finding out first whether or not she were alive.

Of course, Jamanda was eventually able to rescue his wife after many great deeds worthy of song and legend, deeds that far surpass those of the heroes of the epic poems and holy texts that are famous today. And as Fortune would have it, the two were united in the cold and withered stones of the great city of stone by the sea which their ancestors had fled centuries before, when the world was fresher and younger, and the general misery of humankind had yet to master the populace. They discovered, too, that not far from the abandoned city there was a great mountain, perpetually crowned in the thickest of clouds, which their lore had apparently forgotten.

Now, their presence in the land of other men excited the prophesies of the native peoples, with which they were entirely unfamiliar, and caused several sickly looking individuals to seek them out. They would approach bashfully and stare and point and speak strange but urgent words in foreign tongues which were not understood. Jamanda and Loraea were not sure how to react to these pilgrims, for they had no way of knowing whether or not the gods had sent them as a sign. Eventually, they decided that it was not so, that whatever prophesies brought these eerie pilgrims with their incense and their alters on which to sacrifice wild animals were as cruel as the people themselves. But it is also true that one of these pilgrims indicated through gestures and drawings in the dirt that the great mountain near the city of stone was a desolate but holy place, and that it was forbidden for anyone to approach. Jamanda and Loraea decided that if a way to the realm of the gods existed, it might be in such a place, high above the earth over the clouds where the gods were known to feel the most comfortable.

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The journey to the top of the holy mountain was long and arduous, and had they not taken care to steal furs from a passing trader they would easily have frozen to death. It was an uncanny place once they passed the foothills, steeped in an utter silence beyond the mournful wails of the wind that cut against the exposed rock. There were no birds, nor squirrels, nor any earthly animal in fact, just the cold, hard stone and the occasional stream to mark the landscape. It snowed often, hindering their progress and blinding their sight, until they had passed through the crown of seething, grey clouds that had hung suspended above them to emerge into a far stranger place than they had ever imagined.

The winds ceased to rack them here, for nothing moved at all, not water nor air nor stone, and even the smallest noise that they made seemed to echo around them like thunder. They tried to creep along as quietly as possible, but no matter how great a care they took they could not quell the abysmal echoes of the stones, perturbing the steep sides of the mountain. Always when they looked off into the distance from their vantage point high above the earth they could see only the top of a thick sheet of clouds extending as far as the eye could see. And no matter how far they climbed, the clouds seemed only to be a few feet below them. The sun, too, was much larger up here, and the stars a little brighter and closer together. At times they came across huge footsteps engraved in the stone of the mountain, as if once it had been a great pile of mud, footsteps which the two could easily have climbed into and used for shelter. But there were no signs of their creators, only an undaunting stillness, as if the mountain were holding its breath. Jamanda and Loraea spoke to each as little as possible, but oftentimes curious sighs would escape their lips, and they would look at each other for long moments without saying a word.

They did not reach the top of the mountain. For at one point they arrived upon a smooth plateau, rectangular and long like a highway, that ended where the sheet of clouds began. Wisps of moisture swirled at its lip, and beyond was a white wonderland, strangely enticing, beautiful even. Carefully, the two approached the end of the earth, and looked out into heaven. Judging from the sun they guessed that below these clouds spread the great swells of the ocean, but they could neither see nor hear it. It was only a guess.

Possessed by instinct, perhaps, or inspired by the echoes of divinity which were ubiquitous, Jamanda leaped suddenly from the edge of the mountain onto the clouds, and fell a few feet into the mists before his feet came firmly down upon solid ground. Smiling victoriously, he gestured for his wife to follow. Hand in hand they walked away from the mountain, sunk to their waists in a thick veil of moisture that neither sight nor sound could penetrate, like two distilled angels finding their way home.

The sun grew larger as they traveled and the air warmer. They would have abandoned their furs on the tops of the clouds except that they felt it improper. So they carried them over their shoulders, and used them to sleep on whenever they felt the need. Waking up in such thick fog was an uncomfortable, isolated experience, for even if they pressed up against each other they could not see the other's face. Their uneasiness when lying down prevented them from exchanging the broad gestures of love to which they were accustomed. They felt calm and at ease though when they were standing, which they tried to be as often as possible.

At night, too, and sometimes during the day the cloud giants would come. Huge, muscular beasts made entirely of stone, they were normally only fleeting shapes that darted across the landscape, calling happily to each other and tossing huge pieces of the mountain about like toys. When the stones fell to the ground the noise was tremendous, and the impact so great that there were usually sparks. Oftentimes clumps of moisture from the cloud floor would break off and fall tumbling to the earth. Jamanda was curious, and wanted to draw their attention, but Loraea thought that if there were guardians of this strange road and wherever it led to (and she suspected there were) these giants might be they. So the pair took to sneaking about like thieves, ducking beneathe the cover of the mists whenever the giants came too close and praying that they were not squashed flat like flies.

They traveled like this for three days and three nights, until finally one afternoon they caught sight of the top of another mountain rising out of the mists ahead of them. Carefully, Jamanda and Loraea approached, keeping as much inside the cover of the clouds as possible without being blinded altogether, and as they did the excitement grew in their hearts. For they could see now that the mountain was adorned by a series of great, white marble buildings of grandiose proportions, with sheer sides that shone brilliantly in the clear sun. The buildings were immense, and extended across the entire face of mountain, as far as the eye could see. As they drew even closer they realized that the buildings were, in fact, a single, open air structure with wide, solemn arches and columns very similar to the ones they had seen on earth, but far more simple and beautiful. There was a balcony ahead, a huge, roofless extension of marble with perfect corners, and a railing. And as they found their way towards land they could see that the balcony had been contructed for beings much larger than they, for the railing towered high over their heads like a comet's tail.

Quietly, trembling with excitement, Jamanda and Loraea climbed onto the balcony from the road in the clouds and stepped where no human had set foot in all the ages of his existence. For there was no doubt that they had come at long last to the land of the gods, where they were known to come together to judge humankind and determine its destiny. There were no furnishings here except a huge, round table whose legs rose high into the air with the thickness of the length of their bodies. They could easily picture a beautiful goddess in convalescent white cloth lounging by the railing, having a conversation with the face of the moon, laughing sweetly at his gentle quips. At the other end of the balcony there was an open space that led to a wide hall, and beyond that through the open arches they could see more halls, and vast meeting rooms, and galleries, and hallways that extended beyond the scope of their vision. There was no apparent means of dispersing light, and yet there was plenty to see by, nor very many shadows to hide in.

Jamanda and Loraea stood in awe for some time, still, not exactly sure what to expect. They felt like intruders, and dared not enter the house of the gods until such time as they had been invited. But there was silence here like everywhere else since they had left the lands of the earth far below, and after a while they realized that no one was coming to meet them. So, without so much as a word to each other they shed the remainder of their clothing, for the air was pleasantly warm here and the marble comfortable to the touch, and folded it into a neat pile which they left in a corner. For the first time they stepped into the Pantheon of the gods.

There are not words for most of the wonderous things that they saw there. Great, winged birds of gilded gold suspended in mid flight, and mirrors whose surfaces rippled and did not reflect the face of the onlooker, and vivid sculptures and works of art that appeared to shift with perspective, and crystal balls flickering with colours and images on the verge of distinction, and vast lakes with trees that grew from the bottom, despite the lack of sunlight, and tiny statuettes of people, captured in perfect detail, engaged in various activities such as mothering, and fighting, and eating, and most of all lovemaking.

Eventually, Jamanda and Loraea found themselves in the great amphitheater of the gods, with its panoramic view of the land and all of its peoples at the bottom, and as they gazed downward the two could see all of the events on earth at once, and also with them a sense of why they were happening. Standing there, naked and enthralled, their bodies suddenly awakened to each other with such an intensity that they could think of nothing else. Passing into the foyer beyond, they discovered a pool in the floor of the marble. Together they leaped into the water, laughing, splashing water on each other's bodies like small children. Their energy quickly turned to other pursuits, and soon they were making strong, passionate love, wild love like beasts, savoring each other's smells, their bodies ringing cleanly with the friction caused by the other. They were careless with their noises, and the great, airy halls of the Pantheon echoed freely with the cries of their delight, cavorting as they were, and frolicking. After they were done and had relaxed a bit they made love again, and then dozed comfortably in each other's arms, before they remembered the purpose of their coming and finally emerged from the pool. Not a drop of water remained on their bodies. Nudging each other gently, contented for the moment, they entered another corridor of the palace, and continued on their way.

The hallway was long and extended as far as they could see. On either side there were a variety of different chambers, but they decided not to deter from their present course until they had found at least a single deity to consult. They had not walked for long before they caught sight of a group of beings in the distance, clad in thin cloth and huddled closely together. They appeared to have huge hundles with them that they carried over their shoulders or on their heads. Their backs were facing the pair, whose presence remained undetected. Surely, these were gods, for their tremendous presence could be felt even so far away. Jamanda and Loraea cried out to them excitedly. But the distance was great, and their voices were swallowed by the space of the Pantheon. So they started to run, as fast as Jamanda could (for Loraea was yet faster) and still they never seemed to close the gap between them. Eventually they stopped and looked after them in gentle despair, for they could not help but think that the gods were going away somewhere.

But there was noise. Far off into the distance they heard it. Wailing. A decrepit sound, soft and pulsating and lingering and ripped apart, as if it had come across many obstructions. It was the first significant noise they had heard since the thunder of the cloud giants. Turning to look, they saw that off to the right there was a spectacular apple orchard, resplendid with gargantuan trees and their delicious fruit. It was most certainly a magical orchard, for the trees were larger than the tallest oak on earth, and thrived in the halls of the Pantheon away from the sun, somehow finding nourishment in the marble floors into which they had anchored their roots. They looked at each other, then back up the corridor, and saw that the gods ahead had disappeared, leaving them all alone with this terrible sadness raping the air. So Loraea took Jamanda's hand and pulled him toward the apple orchard, underneathe a wide arch and now under the bows of the trees themselves, carefully lined in perfect rows.

Once during their wandering the two came across a magnificant apple which had fallen across the path, sitting in a low crater in the marble floor. It was half as tall as Jamanda at least, but otherwise it looked quite normal and altogether delicious. Jamanda stopped Loraea to examine it, and after fighting the temptation for a moment he leaned closer in order to taste it, but Loraea pulled him away. "That is the food of the gods," she told him patiently, and shook her head.

They came eventually into a large open space, where the sounds of weeping grew suddenly thunderous and overbearing. They had emerged from the trees to find themselves standing on the edge of a large, red lake, filled with what looked to be blood. They almost stumbed into it, but catching sight of the colour of the water and its consistency they both gasped in terror and drew back. Not far into the lake there was a small island with an incredibly wide, stubby tree trunk at its crown. They perceived then the sound of water trickling, saw at the same time that blood was welling up from the interior of the stump, spilling over the top, and running in a smooth stream down one side of the island into the lake. Crouched on the island, facing away from the intruders, there was what looked to be a god, clutching the sides of the stump and weeping wildly into his forearms.

Loraea and Jamanda probably would have stood there for some time, unblinking, holding each other sternly and gazing across the lake of blood at the weeping god, had he not sensed their presence and quit his torment. For the blood that had been bubbling from the neck of the decapitated tree started to ebb as soon as the visitors had arrived by the lakeside. Then the flow gasped, and died altogether. The god Crea lifted his head in amazement, and stared at the stump in front of him. He remained kneeling for a majestic moment, before he turned his head and laid his awful gaze upon the woman and the man who had disturbed him.

It cannot be described, the overwhelming compulsion to tell Crea immediately of why they had come, and excuse themselves for doing so uninvited, and apologize for disturbing the pool in his antechamber, as soon as they found themselves the objects of his glowing eyes. They shouted over one another, the words tumbling like water from their lips. Neither had any idea it was the first time Crea had acknowledged anyone, not even a god, since the day he lost both his people and his lover. They did not recognize Crea for who he was, simply that he was a god, and an angry one at that.

Eventually, though, Crea's eyes softened as only a god's can, and he held up a hand. "That is enough," he said sadly. The resignation in his voice was plain. Jamanda and Loraea immediately fell silent, intrigued by the fact that this god already seemed defeated. Crea took a moment to take one last look at the stump of his beloved Anathea, who, like all the other gods, had finally withered away. When he turned around again he considered the two humans gravely. "It's time to go," he told them.

Loraea, though, stepped bravely forward. The god Crea's eye studied her curiously, but always sadly. "But we've just arrived."

A flash of anger convulsed Crea's face. Cringing, Jamanda and Loraea took a step backwards, falling instinctively into one another's arms. "There is no one left to help you!"

Jamanda and Loraea were struck with an awful terror, somewhere up the intestines, through the stomach, and on into the esophagus. They were consumed by the impulsive desire to flee, and yet even through the haze of fear they still had so many questions, and so they did not obey.

Seeing them standing like that, mouths opening and closing stupidly like drowning fish, Crea felt pity, and tried to smile for them. "Come," he said quietly, "it's time to go." And with that he stepped into the lake and strode toward them.

The blood came to his knees, but as he approached they realized that the lake must have been very deep indeed. And that island must have been much farther away than they had first imagined, because they could see now that Crea was in fact not as average-sized as they had been led to believe. He was massive, actually, and tall, and began to tower over them as he neared the edge of the lake. Or, judging by what Loraea saw, his body started to expand as he walked, rising up into the air and thickening like a mountain, slick, and as if merely from the will in his head.

He stood over them for a moment, looking down at them intently, and yet also curiously. The light in his eyes was bright, but Jamanda and Loraea could not look there long. For the yawning power that lived behind them was so awesome and intricate that they felt they could get lost, and never find their way back into their own heads again. And then he continued on.

He walked slowly so they could keep up with him. The two stood halfway up his calves and pranced like small children around and between his legs. They looked longingly up at him, talking over each other, vying for his precious attention. They followed through the apple orchard and back into the hallway.

Loraea told him about her people in Miridia. She talked about living in the tents in the trees and what the first morning of spring feels like. She told him about her friends and the sports they would play, about raising grapes and oranges and carrots and potatoes. She spoke of the Elders, too, about how wonderfully wise they were. They were getting old, she said. She told him about the world outside Miridia, about the swords that the people who lived there carried and the cities that they built, and who built them. She described violent masses of agitated people slaughtering each other in the streets sometimes, and the awful things that entertained them at their public spectacles.

Jamanda told him about some of the amazing devices he had seen in the world below, about libraries and meditation and the knowledge that governed the use of herbs for medicine. He told him about roads, and surgery, and human anatomy.

Jamanda had not been speaking for long, though, before Crea began to cry. And it sounded much more terrible and painful than from a distance. His whole body convulsed, and he brought his hands to his face, but he could not quench the sobs. Tears splashed everywhere about them. Jamanda and Loraea ceased their speaking and their prancing and looked at each other. "This can only be a terrible thing," Loraea mouthed to him over the thunderous wretching.

But Jamanda answered, "Not neccessarily," and as if provoked by his response the god Crea wept even louder and more terribly.

Jamanda pursed his lips and looked at the marble floor as it slid by, for he had understood in a sudden instant that the people of the earth did not necessarily require gods to tell them how to behave, nor even other men, but could each all by himself behave in a way that was most inclined to the progress of his species, until such time as his destiny had come to an end.

After a time they returned to the lonely amphitheater of the gods. Crea remained in the shadows of the archways, pressing his hands longingly against the sides, but Jamanda and Loraea rushed inward and took a thirsty look down upon the earth.

They could see now that many days had passed. The barbarians had come, had taken everything. Wild bands of them were freely wandering the landscape, raping and looting, while their leaders fought each other for tenuous control of the countryside. The ancient city of Atrios had fallen.

Jamanda stood transfixed, but Loraea turned suddenly upon the god in the cloister, her arms splayed defiantly, and dared even curl her lip at him. "Will you not do something?"

Crea shook his head sadly. "They don't believe in us anymore."

"But I believe in you!"

Crea stepped forward, and was now standing at the brink beside them. He pointed towards the earth. "Look," he said, and she followed his finger. And she saw that barbarians had entered the forests of Miridia, incited by rumours of their passing, burning, pressing always inward, as hunters of easy prey will often do. And her people, unaware, tending to the sicknesses of what Elders remained.

"Loraea -"

"We must get back!" Loraea shouted at the god above her.

He looked down at her once again. Those bright blue eyes were so soft, almost pulsating.

And he pushed them in. They started to fall. Jamanda screamed, terrified, but Loraea just looked up into the rapidly diminishing eyes of the god above her. The look on his face struck her silent, and she was still seeing it when death consumed her. It was a simple look, one that she understood instantly. The god was trying to smile, but failing miserably, and all she wanted to do was tell him that it would be alright.

*

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*

*

*

They fell longer than Jamanda thought they should have, and much slower. The floor of the amphitheater dropped away from them as they fell, and now they realized that they were passing through the open sky, and now above the great forests of their land, spread out like the ocean, rushing up to meet them. And now they could make out the rivers Maramor and Isthmar, like shiny spikes in the sun. They gently touched earth just outside the city of the Elders, where they were greeted by a great deal of people excited to see them, some of whom brought clothing.

Jamanda began crying as soon as he looked one in the face, and Loraea dodged the inevitable questions. She asked that her children be brought to her, and that a clear way to the hospital of the Elders be made.

The Elders wept when they heard what Loraea had to tell them. They all wept, first for what had happened and then for the tremendous task at hand. For how could they tell all these people, people whom they loved dearly, that they were all doomed to a terrible death and their line inexorably erased?

They stood gathered in the city, all of the people in the land, as their doom was described to them. The voices of the Elders were amplified by the last remaining bit of magic that prevailed, and as the speech got on their words gradually became dimmer, and dimmer, until it had been extinguished altogether, and the people left drenched in the early evening and the newly arrived stars. They could still remember the sun.

The people of Miridia returned to their homes, turned on their lights, and waited boldly in their living rooms. They wanted their children to come with them, but many of the older ones opted instead to take their chances in the forest, which they imagined they knew better than any feverish barbarian. And it is said that some of those children escaped to the outside world, where they were assimilated by the inhabitants. The sons of Jamanda and Loraea were two of them. They kissed their parents fondly and ran off. The tears were still streaming down their faces because they had not the time to tell them how much they would miss them.

Crea in heaven stood alone watching as the barbarians came reveling upon the city. Not a single Miridian resisted, and once the barbarians realized what docile prey they had chanced upon they devised a game to make the looting more interesting. The Miridians did not resist, it is true, but they also would not speak to the invaders, nor otherwise acknowledge their presence. So the barbarians endeavored to make them scream, and despite their most creative efforts they were not always successful. They were a long time at it.

When the last had fallen the road of mist that led to the Pantheon collapsed. The cloud giants tumbled from their homes into the ocean where they perished. The holy mountain steeped in silence roared and blew its top, spewing torrents of lava upon the villages below and laying a veil of fine ash for miles in all directions. Crea standing in the amphitheater, weeping, suddenly and with great commotion blew into a billion tiny bits of nothing, and was no more. The Pantheon was still. For the first time since humankind awoke on this earth there was silence in heaven.

Now, not all was lost for humankind, who was sunk into a terrible age of darkness and cruelty from which it was long in the emerging. Because for newness to come into the world there must often first be destruction. Eventually, a little older, a little wiser, a little less beautiful and a little stronger, he and his wife and their best friends reclaimed the land. They found that the earth, which had once seemed to convulse with noise, was now strangely quiescent. It took a long time to get used to the utter silence of the sky, and what contained it, and what might be floating about in it. One day they even discovered that the gods were actually planets and our sun a star, and that those other points of light were suns, too, all part of the same beautifully simple equasion. But what they discovered when they went to those places, and the wonderful adventures that they had there, is another story altogether, and cannot be told here.



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