OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 35: Taking Shape
Almost all had been set to rights in Malthanon. Save for the ruin where the docks once stood, the city had been perfectly restored to what it was before Adulatio’s betrayal. The people were returning to it in droves, now filled with so much hope that it was palpable anywhere they would congregate. It did not matter if it was a family sitting together in their home or a crowd of strangers in one of the city markets, the smiles and good cheer were boundless and generously offered.
Yet no place in the entire city held so much grace, gratitude and joy as the cathedral that formed the base of the GodKing’s palace. Since the miraculous restorations had begun, this holy site had been filled with people. Residents from all over Malthanon came to praise the name of Malthus who, in His infinite glory, had restored to them their homes.
Lines formed outside the cathedral gates, and people waited their turn, sometimes days, to get in and praise their lord. But even for these people, there was immediate solace: the spire of Malthus. The impossibly high tower rose beyond sight into the clouds, and it stood as a monolithic reminder to all the people of the city that their God had returned, and that he would take care of them.
Inside the spire, at the topmost peak, stood the throne room of Malthus. It too had been restored, yet unlike everything else in the city; which had been reproduced exactly as it was before; the throne room had come back changed. Gone were the riches of old, the enchantments of illumination that once made this room brighter than the sun. Instead, it was left bare, covered from floor to ceiling only in the grey stone that made it up. There were no more large windows looking out onto the world; indeed, there were no windows at all. It had no door that allowed entry or exit, and the bleakness of it resembled more a dungeon cell than a throne room. Yet a throne room it was, for it held the seat of the GodKing: a simple chair made of wood and stone that sat in the very center of the room.
Upon that consecrated seat, the light shone. Shapeless though it was, it bore weight. It did not hover, or float over the seat, but was perched upon it. It did not move, yet it pulsed outward and inward: advancing and receding like the ocean tide. It had no eyes to see; yet it looked through the stone walls surrounding it and perceived the city outside.
Within this holy host, a reflection of the ruined docks appeared. Splinters covered the shore, and half-ships jutted from the shallow waters. A tendril of light extended itself into the reflection. There was a pulse of light, a blinding flash, and then…
The power of God flowed forth. The reflection of the dock suddenly changed. Gone were the splinters along the shoreline, replaced with whole docks and ports back in their original place. Half-ships were wiped away, replaced with their whole and functional counterparts tied off and ready. Like a final patch stitched into a quilt, the city of Malthanon had been sewn back together. It was now whole once again.
“Hail Malthus. GodKing of the realm,” an ethereal female voice proclaimed.
“Hail Malmira, GodQueen of Malmot,” a flat, monotone voice replied from everywhere at once.
“The shape of thee is divine,” Malmira said, offering a slight bow of her head. “Why has thou cast off they human form?”
“There is no need of it any longer,” the light replied from everywhere. “I am Malthus now. Reborn in the light of divinity, and bestowed upon the power of God.”
“As thou hast always been,” Malmira said. “I thought the human guise comforted you.”
“It does not,” the light replied flatly. “I am not the Malthus of thy memory, lady. My human form is not one thou wouldst recognize.”
“I know who you are, Tarsus Cole,” Malmira said disarmingly.
“You knew who I was,” the voice clarified, “but I am not he anymore. I am Malthus, and I must act in that stead.”
“Indeed, you are right,” Malmira confirmed. “I confess I am surprised you learned that lesson so quickly. It is my job to teach all young gods that very thing.”
“We all have a role to play,” the voice said disconnectedly.
“Yes,” Malmira agreed. “But within that role there is room to honor who we once were. To honor those we loved and lost. It is true, you are Malthus now, with all the duties that come with being the GodKing. But that does not mean Tarsus Cole has been wiped away.”
“Of course it does lady,” the light echoed. “I can feel the power steering me toward my role. Already, I have restored this city to what it was. I have renewed the peoples’ faith. I am as a God should be, and that is all that is expected of me. And yet…” the light’s voice, for a moment, rose in its timbre.
“And yet?” Malmira pressed.
“Tis all hollow,” the light went on. “As a man, I wanted this. I wanted greatness. Now I have it. All the power and all the knowledge of a thousand worlds. But I see now that greatness is a mask; meant to hide in whole, or in part, the face of God from man. So why should I resume my human form? Better to stay formless…shapeless…and do what it is I am meant to do.”
“Is that any way to honor the mortals who gave their lives for this quest: for you to be as you are now?” Malmira asked genuinely.
The light did not reply, only dimmed within itself.
“Perhaps the ambitions of man are as you say…hollow masks,” Malmira continued, her ethereal timbre giving way to passion. “But what you felt for her… for your other friend…indefinable as those feelings were, they bore weight. They are bonds…ties that you cannot afford to lose.”
“You forget,” the light corrected, “Those ties have been cut. Cecily is dead. And to Finnian, Tarsus Cole never even lived.”
“I forget nothing, young god,” Malmira informed. “You may know all now, but you do not understand all just yet.”
“What do you mean?” the light asked, hints of hope coming through.
“Life and death belong to all of us,” Malmira said. “Mortals, gods, worlds...yet life and death, like your feelings, are not so easily defined. In your memory, your friends are still alive. You can honor that. You can remember them as they were…as you all were, and as a god, you can see that their legacies on this world are fulfilled.”
“When we last met,” the light began quietly, “you were riding wildly, disguised as a horse untamed. You were carrying away a young woman you said was your friend.”
“Yes,” Malmira recalled heavily.
“I understand now,” the light shared. “She was someone that you knew. Or at least, the descendant of someone that you knew. A face from an old life.”
“Very good, GodKing,” Malmira said. “You see that we are alike. I was not born a goddess.”
“The in-between kind,” the light agreed. “Children of two worlds; not entirely mortal or divine. So tell me, elder goddess, what place have we in either one?”
“We fulfill our roles, as we are meant to,” Malmira said quickly. “Aside from that, answer me this, Tarsus Cole. Tis a question I had to ask myself when I awoke as a goddess. What do you want?”
“I do not know,” the light replied. “Only now, with all the knowledge granted me, do I see how ill prepared I am to answer that question.”
“Let’s think about it another way,” Malmira plowed on, “your mortal desire proved hollow. What did your friends want? Were their desires as hollow as yours?”
The light pulsed again, this time changing its hue from a brilliant white to warm amber. The shapeless illumination began to change, conforming to the angles and contours of a human face. It settled into the familiar shape of a woman warrior; her eyes focused and her mouth pursed, at the ready to speak. Strands of red light fell from the top of the head, completing the divinity’s transformation.
The ghostly glow of Cecily Thorne looked out, once again, onto the throne room of the GodKing she so loyally served. Even as a shade, her grim determination shone through: channeled here from wherever she may have been. “I want to save Malthanon, and give my life to the service of Malthus,” the light said in Cecily’s voice.
“It is done,” Malmira replied formally.
The light shifted, reconfiguring itself into another face. The eyes opened wider than Cecily’s had been, and a smile spread so wide it threatened to split the face in two. What had been a tightly coiled demeanor of determination was replaced with an easy, friendly disposition.
The phantom visage of Finnian Pell beamed before the GodQueen. “I have had enough of adventure. I want to go home to Briarden. I want live out the rest of my days in peace and laughter.”
“It is done,” Malmira said, offering a smile in return.
“It is done,” Malmira said, offering a smile in return.
The light shifted once more. The eyes, the nose, the mouth…they fell into their new places easily. The amber glow grew a shade darker, and the unsure, almond eyes of Tarsus Cole were opened once again onto the world.
“Strange, is it not?” Malmira asked of the new shape. “You all triumphed in the end, gaining what it is you wanted. You only need to choose to see that. You have used your great power and knowledge to rebuild this city, thus glorifying Malthus. And despite Cassius’s curse, or perhaps because of it, Finnian is back where he belongs, living out the rest of his days in laughter. He will never suffer for having lost you. You see? Even in loss, there are gains to be found.”
The illumined face of Tarsus Cole held silent. His eyes, wide with uncertainty, began to grow. Up and out and they went, until they grew so large that they dwarfed everything else on his face. “Your are right. Yet…this is not enough. I want more. I want them back Malmira.” Tarsus said in impassioned tones. “I know I shouldn’t. They are at peace. But there can be no peace for me…not as a god. And I do not want to face this alone.”
“I understand, all too well, your struggle,” Malmira confided, her normally lilting fluidity transformed to halting emphasis. “But the power has its price. A lonely, isolating price.”
“I know,” Tarsus’s downcast eyes replied. “It bends their will to ours. Strips them of everything that makes them who they are…and turns them into whatever it is we wish them to be. That, after all, is what it means to be a god. Power, dominance, control…yet no ties to the people we are meant to rule. No tethers. No bonds.”
Malmira let her eyes fall from the vast, contemplative countenance of the young GodKing. “Tis the sad truth of it all. For the talk of the price of the power, no one can truly understand how costly it is until they wield it for themselves. And by then, it is too late. Ever it has been, and ever it will be.”
It echoed throughout the GodKing’s chamber: the sound of a flame, bursting to life. Malmira looked up.
The pale blue eyes of Tarsus Cole, large as doorways now, were rimmed in red fire. They continued to grow, merging together as one great eye.
Malmira took a step backward. The imposing eye looked upon her in anger. Suddenly, the shadow of a man appeared in its center, and with each moment that passed the shadow grew larger. It was coming towards her.
The GodQueen reached for her power, ready to defend herself. It spread from the pit of her stomach into every limb. Every inch of her body pulsed with it, and in an instant she was capable of unleashing a force deadly enough to sink all of Malthanon into the sea. Yet with that power, came understanding. Whatever this shadow was that was approaching her, Malmira perceived that it was not malevolent…at least, not towards her.
It was upon her now. It stepped out from the red light, the steel of its boot sounding on the bare stone floor. A blinding flash exploded, forcing even the GodQueen of Malmot to shut her eyes.
When she reopened them, she found a young man standing before her. His armor, silver and white, gleamed against his olive complexion. A blue cape extended from his back, falling to just above his heels. He bore no helm and no weapon, the only signifying mark upon him was the sunstroke of Malthus; it sat large and golden in the center the man’s cuirass.
The almond eyes of Tarsus Cole looked intently at Malmira. Yet there was more to him now than there had been before, even as a being of pure light. He looked grim and determined, yet his smile was so wide and borne so easily that it seemed any other expression would have seemed wrong painting his face.
The red fire behind Tarsus Cole, from whence he had come, dissipated into the air. The GodKing had taken shape.
“My lord…” Malmira said, slightly stunned by this speedy transformation.
“My lady,” Tarsus replied, taking her hand and kissing it with a theatrical swagger. “Thank you. You have given me so much to consider. And I know now how best to use my new gifts.”
“I am glad to hear it, GodKing,” Malmira said.
“You may not be, when you hear of it,” Tarsus said, the smile on his face only growing. “But I hope that, in time, what I do will benefit all of us; god and man alike. And in so doing, honor the memory of my friends.”
“And you will share this plan with me?” Malmira asked.
“I must,” Tarsus affirmed. “I need you to tell others. So that it may spread.”
“What are you planning Tarsus Cole?” Malmira pressed.
“The end, my lady,” Tarsus answered with a flourishing bow. “We are slaves to our own power, given the illusion of control because we can enslave others. No more. I am going to find the source of all this. I will make it tell me why we are, and how we came to be.”
“And then I will destroy it,” Tarsus declared with grim purpose behind smiling eyes. “I will set us all free.”
“You are mad,” Malmira said. “This is impossible. Even if you were strong enough to do as you say, none of us knows where the power comes from. Not even the old gods.”
“Perhaps that is true,” Tarsus agreed. “Or perhaps it is not. But I will search. I will go where I must, fight what I must, ask all I can…until I am satisfied. Until I either know the truth…or have been destroyed by it.”