The gods were fallen. It took many generations for humankind to learn of this. Many prophecies and visions. Many failed quests by heroes and explorers who sought to find the truth of those prophecies and visions. It was not known how or when it had happened, and perhaps a few gods still lived, but it was well-known by Damario’s time that the gods had fallen.
And they left chaos in their wake, a chaos that followed from the unraveling of everything that the gods—for all their faults—had held together.
The mortals of all lands were taught to entreat their gods, for help, for mercy, for boons and rewards. But even before they were fallen, the gods did not always answer. And even before the gods were fallen, mortals did not always ask. For in all mortals there lived a longing. A striving. A calling that many silenced, many never heard at all. A calling that some followed to bitter ends and that others followed to triumph. This was the longing to be more than mortal. More than a being who was born, who ate, slept, multiplied, worked some, laughed some, wept some, and then died…at best. This was the longing not to be saved but to do the saving.
Prophecy foresaw the time of godlessness, and the rise of a hero who would travel through the immortal realm and retrieve the crown of the sky god, the sovereign of all gods. This hero would place the crown upon the head of a mortal babe. And that babe would use the crown’s power to stave off chaos and restore order to all realms.
That hero was Damario. There was the blood of a god in his lineage. So he was chosen.
When Damario was brought before his empress to accept a quest that was requested of him (in truth, demanded of him), he knew nothing of the prophecies concerning the gods and their greatest crown and himself. He knew only that he had been named by the soothsayer. And that there was no refusing the call of prophecy.
He was the son of a merchant, not renowned or wealthy, but comfortable in his trade. Still, he was unprepared for the scrubbing, grooming, perfuming, and adorning he would be subjected to in preparation for appearing before the empress. He had never felt so uncomfortable, so awestruck, and so proud at once.
The empress greeted him with grace and cordiality, but stayed only briefly, long enough to present the great soothsayer, Calchas, who was the namesake of the greatest soothsayer of all time. To Damario’s great relief, Calchas led him to a private kitchen, where he insisted the young man throw off his ornate and much bejeweled cloak, and join the soothsayer for a hearty meal.
The soothsayer was older than Damario but not by much than a decade, and that was a surprise, for one so young to have the honor of being the seer for the empire. Damario began by telling the soothsayer all that he knew. He had heard rumors and they came close to the truth. The gods were fallen and their absence was pitching the world into ruin somehow.
“Whatever folly or failure they committed, it is spilling out into our world.”
The soothsayer shook his head. “Some of the horrors that plague us are coming from the immortal realm, but many were already here. Brought here long ago to trouble us should we ever disobey or anger or irritate our gods.”
“What are we to do?”
“Only a powerful being can contain the chaos, a being like a god. Much of the gods’ powers lay in the possessions they most cherished. We know of those objects from stories passed down to us from our ancestors. The favorite sword of the war-god. The bright cloak of the moon-god. The special lyre of the song-god. If someone were to travel to the immortal realms, find those things, and bring them back, then perhaps the power of the objects could be used to set right the chaos.”
Damario sat back in his chair. “Then, those who wielded that power would become as new gods.”
“No, it would be different, I daresay. They would be bound by mortal rules. For they would still be mortal.”
“So were the gods, it would seem. Perhaps they would never have succumbed to old age as we do. But they succumbed to something or other, some celestial illness, or perhaps to each other’s blades and arrows.”
Calchas sat forward and leaned over the table. “The prophecies are hazy when it comes to the other objects and to any other heroes who might be tasked with retrieving them. But they are clear when it comes to one object and one hero. You are the hero.”
“And the object?”
“The supreme among them all. The crown that once sat upon the head of the sky-god, the sovereign of all the gods.”
The crown granted great wisdom, perhaps all wisdom to the wearer. That was the reason for its power and for the sky-god’s sovereignty. The soothsayer told Damario the whole prophecy.
He told Damario how he might retrieve the crown. It was not kept in the heavens where most of the gods had lived. It only appeared there when the sky-god called all the gods together to speak of governing the mortal world. The crown would sit atop the sky-god’s head and flow with the light of sovereignty. When it was not worn, the crown was sent someplace it could be watched over and protected, where its powers could not be used haphazardly.
According to the visions of countless soothsayers, the crown was where it was when the gods fell. It was in the kingdom of the death-god.
For many moons to follow, Calchas told Damario of the dangers he would face and trained him and the small band of heroes who would accompany him in the ways to face and overcome those dangers.
The first challenge the heroes faced was the River of All Poisons, which could not harm the dead, but would kill the living. Great sorcery as used to shield the heroes as they rode down the river, yet two of the band of seven were lost before they reached the river’s end. There Damario and his band faced an indefatigable warrior and a chimera, a creature made from the parts of many animals and bearing all the animals’ gifts, from the strength of a lion to the keen eyes of an eagle. While the other heroes fought the warrior, Damario faced the chimera. The creature was twice as tall as he was and as wide as three great bulls.
The heroes did not seek to overcome these mighty enemies, only to trick their way past, snatch the crown, and escape. The other heroes were given potions of vigor so they could keep the untiring warrior occupied. Damario was given a sleeping potion for the chimera. When it opened its jaws to breathe fire upon him, Damario threw the vial of potion into the creature’s mouth. The vial cracked in the heat of the fire and the potion was released, but it had no effect on the creature. The chimera’s tail ended in the head of a venomous serpent and it struck at Damario again and again. He could not avoid it for long. Nor could his companions keep up their battle with the warrior.
Damario climbed atop the chimera’s back, where the beast bore a second head, that of a ferocious and hungry goat. He struck at the goat and blinded it. Then the tail rose and he taunted the serpent until it struck. Damario leapt away and the serpent’s fangs sank into the blinded head of the goat. The chimera roared and bleated and hissed in pain and fury, until finally, having poisoned itself, it fell.
When the creature fell, the prize they sought revealed itself. The silvery-blue crown of the sky-god had been set upon the creature’s lion head and hidden from mortal eyes by immortal magic. With its guardian dead, the crown could been seen by all.
Damario swept the crown up in the enchanted cloak he was given. He did not see that in his haste, his bare arm brushed against the sneering fangs of the serpent tail. He hurried back to his companions, only to find that all were fallen save one. That one called out to Damario to fly, but Damario could not leave his companion behind. He fought beside the man, but was knocked down. And his companion was disarmed. The indefatigable warrior raised his sword to strike Damario down, but the companion intervened and took the blow. He perished, leaving only Damario, who had no time for grief as he fled from the warrior’s blows.
Damario could not take the River of All Poisons back to the mortal realm. He had to go a different path, less dangerous, but longer. As he traveled it, he fell ill from the serpent’s poison.
By the time he emerged from the immortal realm, Damario was half-dead. The empress had given him her sigil, to aid his travels in the mortal realm, but he lost it. He came to lay on the road in a fever. And it was only the enchantment on his cloak that kept thieves from stealing the crown that lay within.
When Damario woke next, he was lying on a firm but soft bed around which a great many candles burned against the darkness of a cloudy eve. Though he felt as if all the vigor was gone from his muscles, he found he could breathe easily, that his fever was broken, and that he was quite hungry, for he smelled the smells of hearty broth and yeasty bread.
His rescuer and caretaker was a woman named Halia. Her husband had been killed by a beast that ran rampant in the godless times. He had never seen the face of his only daughter, Nova, a baby who sat in the corner and sometimes glanced curiously at Damario, while her mother fed him.
“What is your quest?” Halia asked.
Damario smiled at the little baby girl. “To place a crown on the head of a babe,” he said.
Damario was to return to the imperial palace and place the crown of the sky-god on the head of the empress’s youngest child, who was not yet a year old.
He stayed long enough with Halia to regain his strength. He goaded her often to come with him to the imperial palace, so that she might be rewarded for saving the hero and the empire’s chance—all humankind’s chance—to put an end to the chaos and madness that the gods had left behind.
Though she had shown him much kindness and charity, Halia could not manage the work of her farm and the care of her child without her husband. Even a small reward from the empress might change her fortunes. So she agreed at last, and they set forth for the palace.
Damario was troubled by bad dreams on his way to the palace. He dreamt of the chimera, following him out of death and into life. Long was the journey, but quick. Halia was strong and kept up with Damario even while carrying her baby. The baby Nova cheered him with her antics and odd expressions, her wide wondering gaze, and even her odd tantrums. For an innocent, there was mischief in her smile at times, and that smile above all others made Damario laugh with delight and lifted the shadow from his weary heart.
Soon they reached the imperial city. Damario sent word ahead, for in the city he was recognized without the sigil. There was great celebration in the city streets. But when he reached the palace, he was received first with sober thanks. His fallen companions were remembered. Then he presented Halia and Nova to the empress. He clasped hands with his teacher, the soothsayer Calchas, who had feared for a while, for his visions had grown dim until Damario was healed. In the evening, there was to be feasting, a feast for Damario’s victorious return, and a feast for the prince upon whose head would lay the burden and the glory of the sky-god’s crown.
Without further ceremony, the empress motioned to her servants and they brought forth the baby prince. The empress then asked Damario to bring forth the crown and so he pulled it from the enchanted cloak.
Then there came resounding through the hall of the palace, a furious and otherworldly roar. A great shadow bounded toward the throne. There were cries of alarm. The imperial guard rushed toward the figure of what seemed to be a great shadowy beast.
“What is that?” someone cried.
Damario knew. He had sensed something following him as he made his way to the palace. He had searched in the middle of the night while Halia and Nova slept, but he had found nothing. It had been following all the time, yet it had not attacked while he was vulnerable on the road. Damario realized that the creature was hunting the crown, but could not see it through the enchanted cloak. So it followed. Only followed. Until Damario brought the crown out to present to the empress.
He folded the crown back into the enchanted cloak. People were fleeing the palace now. The brave guards tried to attack, but they were flung aside. As it drew closer, Damario saw what it was, or what it must have been. It was indeed a shadow, a familiar shadow. A creature of strength with the head of a lion, the tail of a serpent, a second head growing from its back. The chimera. The creature was dead, but its shadow was not. It must have been given life when the creature fell. The shadow must have been one final protection for the crown.
When he hid the crown, the shadow stopped, but only for a moment. The shadow-chimera raised its head as if sniffing the air. It turned to Damario’s right, where he glanced, and saw that Halia cowered behind a pillar, clutching her baby daughter in her arms.
The shadow stalked toward the pillar. Damario cried out. He pulled the crown out again, to distract the beast, but it did not stop. Damario rushed forth and placed himself between the beast and the pillar. The imperial guards, those who still stood, rushed forth still. The beast swiped at once and its shadowy claws tore through a guard’s armor and deep into his chest. The guard fell and did not rise again. Another attacked, and he too met the same fate.
There was nothing Damario could do, no skill he possessed, no magic, that could stand against the shadow-chimera any better than the guards could stand against it. He stood his ground, but it was futile. The shadow would tear him apart, and when it was done, it would reach Halia…and her little babe.
Damario could think of only one thing to do. He turned to Halia. Her eyes were wide with terror. Still she comforted her crying daughter. Damario raised the crown of the sky-god and placed it atop little Nova’s head.
The baby stopped crying at once. She began to squirm. Damario glanced behind himself and saw the shadow coming closer. Halia could not hold onto the baby, so she set her on the ground and knelt beside her. Nova began to grow. As a child would grow in years, she grew in moments, before Damario’s eyes. The wispy cap of hair on her head grew into long strands of red-and-brown locks. Her limbs grew longer. Her body grew taller. Her mother wrapped her with the enchanted cloak.
The girl said nothing. She looked past Damario to the creature that came toward them. The crown sat comfortably atop tousled waves of hair and it began to glow a silvery-blue glow. Nova’s expression was one of taut attention. She breathed steadily. She did not break her gaze away from the creature. She stepped forward, and her mother cried out and tried to reach out to her. But Damario wrapped an arm around Halia’s shoulders, for she was looking at her daughter, but he was looking at the beast.
And the beast had stopped moving.
Nova stepped toward it, closer and closer. The beast did not breath, did not twitch. Nova slowly raised her right hand. She grasped a torch that burned on a low hold that she could reach. She held the torch out to the beast. Its light made flickering shadows on the floor. With her left hand, Nova pointed to the shadows.
Suddenly, the shadow-chimera leapt up and before Damario’s heart could finish a beat, the creature dove into the shadows on the ground and vanished.
There were no cheers, for all those who still remained in the chamber were shocked. Many feared the beast would reemerge from the shadows. But Damario believed it would not. He sensed that it was gone.
At last, all looked upon the girl. Her head was bowed. She bore no expression, but the droop of her shoulders spoke of weariness. Damario knew that weariness well, for he too had battled monsters and triumphed.
At the sound of her mother’s voice calling her name, the girl raised her head. Her eyes grew wide and bright with joy and surprise. She beamed at her mother. And so too did the crown upon her head beam.
As more torches were lit, the horrors of the chamber could be seen. The beast had killed many before Nova vanquished it or at least banished it. The empress, who had been whisked away, returned to the chamber and declared Nova victorious. She had been told what had happened and rather than being angry that the little girl had stolen her son’s crown, the empress seemed relieved. She was an empress, but so too was she a mother.
“The crown works,” the empress said. She turned to those in the chamber, fallen and living alike. “Take heart, for such slaughter is at an end. We are victorious. We have found our new sky-god.” She took Nova’s hand and raised it into the air. And despite the presence of the newly dead, despite the fear that still lingered and clung to the chamber, the empress inspired a sober but hearty cheer from those gathered.
“No,” Nova said, startling all by speaking. “I can wear this crown no longer. It is too heavy a burden to bear…even for the sky-god it was too heavy.” The girl’s eyes grew wide with the wonder of the realization.
“It’s no wonder a child can’t bear it,” spoke one of the empire’s advisors. “Here, give it to a grown man who has already gained some wisdom in his years.” He stepped toward Nova, but was blocked by her mother.
There were always those who doubted the prophecies. Many particularly scoffed at the notion that a child would wield the power of the most powerful object known in any realm.
“You do not understand,” Nova said. “This is not the wisdom of a mortal life. This is immortal wisdom. We are not meant to have this wisdom, not as we are. Perhaps after death, if there is anything after death. But this cannot be borne.” She removed the crown from her head and tucked it away in a pocket of the enchanted cloak she wore.
Calchas came forth. He looked first to Halia and bowed his head. Halia stepped back and behind her daughter, resting her hands on Nova’s shoulders.
“The prophecy, young one,” he said. “You have fulfilled it. And it continues that the crown shall save us from the folly of the gods.”
Nova tipped her head to the left. “Wisdom is a puzzle and prophecies are but pieces of that puzzle. With respect, soothsayer, you do not see the whole.”
“Then how are we to stop the chaos that creeps into our world from theirs?” the empress asked. “How are we to fight the legacy of horror they have left for us in our very own world?”
Nova smiled gently. “As mortals would. Not one alone, with power so great it bends the will. But many, together, with power that comes from our wills. When we share the burden, we also share the triumph.”
Damario now stepped forth and he noted the sparkle in the girl’s eyes when she saw him and recognized him. “I agree that the powers of the gods are too great for one alone to wield. For that one would likely grow corrupt, or cease to care for the middling lives of mortals, when he could see into the heart of creation itself. And I do not fancy the task of making more gods when the last lot did us no good but instead died and left behind nothing but terror. But isn’t it folly for us not to try and use at least some of their power?” He looked about the room. “Is that not also their legacy to us? Their powers? As well as their horrors? Why not pit them against each other? Perhaps both the powers and horrors will abolish each other and we mortals will be free to live in peace at last.”
“He’s right,” Calchas said, though he addressed only Nova. “We have no way to fight the things that emerge through the immortal realms, creatures of the sea that can sink our ships, no longer controlled by the will of a sea-god. Plagues that slither into our bodies as we walk by day. Monsters that stalk our dreams as we sleep by night. Soon there will be no rest. It is good and well to speak nobly of all humankind clasping sword and axe and hammer and spoon to do battle against monsters both seen and unseen. But how many will suffer and die in such battles? And how many of those can be spared if there were but one being powerful enough to shield them?”
For a moment, all were silent. Then Damario looked at Nova. Their thoughtful gazes locked. He thought of what she said and she of what he said. And it seemed that both relaxed their brows and grinned at once.
“Perhaps there is a way we can wield the power of the gods,” Nova said, smiling at Damario. And she spoke the very thoughts he had been thinking. “One crown for one mortal is too much to bear. But if, as I said, we can share the burden of that crown, then perhaps we can bear the burden and not be overcome or destroyed by it.”
“How?” the empress asked.
“By breaking it into many pieces and forging those pieces into smaller crowns.”
“But if you break the crown, will it not lose its power?” the empress asked.
“No, no, each piece would retain some measure of the whole’s power,” the soothsayer said. “There is no fear in breaking the crown. But it is a celestial crown. What could be mighty enough to break it?”
Nova glanced at Damario, who said, “A celestial forge.”
“Then we will have to return to the immortal realm, for only there can we find such a forge.”
“I will go,” Nova said. She reached into her cloak for the crown, but Damario grasped her hand.
“You cannot go alone,” he said. “I will come with you. And we must bring a blacksmith.”
“And a soothsayer,” Calchas said. “I will not be left out of this adventure as I was left out of the last one.”
“Are you certain of that, seer?” Damario asked. “Only I survived the last one.”
Halia said nothing, but Damario knew and Nova knew that the mother would not be separated from her child.
“I will see to the preparations,” the empress said.
“We will not need much, great empress,” Nova said. “The immortal realm will not trouble us so long as I bear the crown.”
“Where is you pack, godling?” Damario asked, earning a frown from Nova.
He and the others were equipped with weapons and provisions for a long journey. Nova and Halia had but light provisions for a day’s journey. He was to see why when Nova set the crown upon her head. Nothing happened at first. Then she turned to Damario and handed him the crown. Prophecy did not often reveal such particulars. But it seemed Damario had to place the crown on her head for it to work. For as soon as he did, Nova cried out as if in irritation. She wrapped her arms around herself and bent over. Her mother tried to comfort her, but after a few moments, Nova calmed.
And when she straightened, she was two heads taller, and older. She was in truth but a year and some moons old. But she appeared to be a girl who had seen at least sixteen years. The new band of heroes looked at each other. Halia did well to appear calm, but Damario saw the pain in her eyes, for they all now knew what the price was for a mortal to wield the sky-god’s crown.
Nova led the party. She led them into the forest behind the imperial palace, which ended with a drop into a treacherous ravine. They never reached the drop, for as they walked and walked, the trees began to change, to brighten and twist. She was leading them into the immortal realm. Damario saw shadows flicking behind the trees. He heard the calls and cries—some lovely, some terrible—of strange beasts.
In the midst of the forest, they came to a clearing, and in the clearing was a cottage, and beside the cottage, was a still-burning forge.
It was the celestial forge of the blacksmith-god, and the blacksmith, after making the signs of reverence, proceeded to work. He received the crown from Nova. As it was a celestial crown, he did not know where to strike to break it. Nova studied the crown and showed him.
For many days and nights they stayed in the cottage. Damario and Halia were strong enough to help the blacksmith in his forging. In that time, the soothsayer could see no visions and had no prophecies. His powers seemed not to work in the immortal realm. With no prophecies to record, he took to recording all else that happened, the forging of the many crowns from the one, the wisdom that Nova shared. Calchas and Nova explored the forest, but not too far out, for immortal beasts still lurked.
Nova said that the home of the blacksmith-god would not protect them for long. They were only protected now because many of the creatures in the immortal realm did not know the gods were gone. Nova had to use the first of the crowns to be forged to stave off some creatures who attacked. Their faces were like the faces of maidens, but their hair was made of trapping vines, and in place of arms, they had the great wings of vultures. They screamed and descended on the cottage until Damario placed the first-forged crown on Nova’s head and she commanded them back to their awful perches on the side of a faraway cliff. The effort aged her and Nova became a young woman of Damario’s age. And she looked upon him differently. But he still thought of her as a little babe and kept his distance until work of the forging was done.
When the forging was done, there were thirteen crowns in all. Nova claimed the first one, as she had already used it. Though he was reluctant, Damario placed it on her head. She would need to wear it and use it to guide them safely back into the mortal realm.
And so she did. They were troubled by many more beasts and beings on their way back. Perhaps they sensed the change in the crown, the breaking and re-forging. Nova’s crown did not hold the full power of the sky-god’s crown. So she had to focus and strain to wield the thirteenth portion. Yet the crown gave her no mercy. She still aged each time she used its powers. Before the cottage was out of their sight, she had aged beyond her mother’s age. As they walked through the forest, Nova fended off a swarm of creatures that looked like winged thorns as long as Damario’s forefinger. The first gray began to show in her hair.
After fending off a pack of mad dog-like creatures with spots that laughed as they came nearer with their red glowing eyes, Nova dropped to her knees. Damario tried to give her some bread. She felt frail. Her hair was all gray now, course and dull where it had once been soft and bright. The flesh below her eyes sunk into dark pits.
They rested for a bit. Damario and the blacksmith kept watch, while Calchas and Halia offered water and food to Nova. She ate and drank and then rose in only a few moments.
“We must not rest yet,” she said. “We are close.”
“We will find no protection in the mortal realm,” the blacksmith whispered to Damario, “the creatures that hunt us will follow us out. Why does she not rest? We will need her.”
Damario silenced the blacksmith. But he too shared the man’s confusion. Nova seemed to be rushing them out of the immortal realm and wearing herself out. But they would not be protected until all thirteen crowns were placed on the heads of those who could wield them, who could soothe and banish the creatures and ills wrought by the gods.
They walked along for a few hours until Damario sensed that something was following them again. Nova seemed already to know and before another hour passed, all knew. They rushed ahead, for whatever followed made no noise, made no calls, as the other beasts and creatures had.
Suddenly, Nova stopped walking.
“There is no time,” she said. And she raised her right hand. The air before her hand flickered and clear waves, like the waves of heat off hot stone, appeared.
Nova stooped, bent not with age but with effort beyond that any mortal had ever exerted before. She breathed as if out of breath. She frowned as if in pain.
“Pass through it,” she said, “and you will be in the mortal realm. I will come last and I will seal it.”
“How?” Calchas asked. “Doors can only be locked from the inside. The doors between realms are no different.”
“And which side is the inside of a door between realms, soothsayer?”
“The most precious side, I would say,” the soothsayer said, answering her gentle taunt seriously.
Nova smiled, glancing at Damario, and there was mischief in her smile. “That would be our side.”
The blacksmith, bearing the bundle of crowns, passed through first. As he entered the flickering air, he seemed to vanish. Then the air and the sky darkened.
“Hurry, it’s almost here,” Nova said.
Damario drew his sword. He turned and saw what hunted them.
It was the shadow of the chimera.
He saw the shadow’s head move and knew what it was doing. It was opening its mouth. Damario shoved Nova out of the way just as a burst of shadow-black flame struck where she had stood. It engulfed his left arm to the elbow. Damario fell to the ground. He watched unable to move or speak as the black flame burned his flesh and his bone and left a bloodless stump in its wake. Nova crawled toward him. She had the crown in her hand. It must have fallen off. She offered it to him.
Her dear face was wrinkled now. Her hair was no longer gray but white, stark white against the shadow. If he placed the crown upon her head once more, she would not survive. In the distance, he heard screaming and recognized the voice as Halia’s. She was screaming her daughter’s name.
“Crown me and go. Get my mother to safety. I will hold this one off.”
Damario shook his head.
“You must let me seal the door. There are greater horrors here than we could know. Death will release me from knowing them. But if I do not seal that door, you and my mother and all the poor people of the mortal realm will know them.” Her gaze locked on his. She was certain. “Trust me, Damario.” She smiled, and there was mischief in that smile. “You’ve had your share of glory. Let me have it this time.”
The shadow-chimera drew closer. It opened its mouth. Damario took the crown in his right hand, hoping he wouldn’t need two hands to crown his little godling, and he placed the crown upon her head as another burst of flame engulfed them…
…but did not touch them.
His gaze was still locked with hers. But her gaze, though it fell upon him, was focused elsewhere. The crown gave her strength, even as it drained her essence. She helped Damario up and when she touched his wounded arm, he felt no pain. He glanced at the door that Nova had made. The door between realms. She had not told them her intention. She had always intended to seal the door. And she had always known she could only do so from the immortal side.
Damario would not let her sacrifice be in vain. He rushed toward the door, where the soothsayer was trying but failing to pull Halia through. Damario grasped her by the waist and the three went through the door together. He did not have time to look back, but it was fitting that Halia’s eyes were the last eyes upon her daughter.
On the other side of the door, there was no beast, no Nova. There was no shadow. It was a bright day in a quiet imperial forest. The soothsayer had his hand clutched to his heart. The blacksmith had been waiting for them and did not know that Nova would not be coming through. He tried—and Damario would always remember this—the blacksmith tried to pass through the door again, to fetch back Nova.
But the door was sealed.
The pain in Damario’s arm returned suddenly, shocking him. But he took a few breaths and knelt beside Halia. She had seen him place the crown back on Nova’s head. He could not make amends with Nova, but he might with Halia. “I know I will bear your hatred for the rest of my life, but—”
“You?” She wrapped a firm hand around his wrist. “You were my daughter’s first and only friend. For you I will bear only love and gratitude. If I bear hatred, then it is not for you, dear one. Not for you. Not for any mortal.”
It was the gods she hated. But her enemies were long dead. She could exact no vengeance upon them. But when Damario said this, Halia shook her head. It was not vengeance or hatred that filled her heart, she told him, but despair and a great sadness, that her daughter would never know a human life. She knew a mortal life. She had been born. She had eaten and slept, played some, worked much, laugh some, wept, loved. She would die if she was not already dead.
Damario felt as if his hand and arm—the hand and arm he no longer had—was burning, but he was prepared to comfort Halia if she wept for her daughter. She did not weep. Perhaps the pain was too deep. She looked instead at the stump of Damario’s left arm.
“Come,” she said. “Let me heal you.”
“And then…will you let me heal you?”
Halia smiled, and there was mischief in that smile. “I will let you try.”
That night in the imperial palace, there was a measured celebration, of a great victory, but only the first battle in a terrible war to come. Many who would be acknowledged were not present. The blacksmith and the soothsayer spoke for them. Halia and Damario were given rest in a quiet part of the palace, where they kept each other company in grief and triumph. They hailed Nova and all the other heroes who had fallen in the quest. And they hailed those poor and brave souls who would bear the burden of the twelve remaining crowns.
As they watched the sky, a deep blue night sky swirled with dark purple, a new star rose high above them, bright and strong. Halia said it was steady, but when Damario looked at it, it sparkled. And there was mischief in that sparkle.
Copyright © 2015 Nila L. Patel