My stomach grumbled. I rolled out of bed, scratched my head, and yawned. The moon was still up outside and cast its silvery light through the window. As I stood up, something rustled behind me.
“Don’t wake up,” I said. “I’m going to grab a snack.”
“K,” muttered Lily into her pillow. She sprawled over the bed, having snatched up most of the blanket. It would’ve been impossible to not wake her up, especially because she was an insanely light sleeper.
I tiptoed out of the room, gently closing the door as if it was about to shatter. I went down a few flights of stairs but never encountered anyone. The kitchen was also deserted, the chefs and staff having long since retired. I scrounged up some leftovers; half a loaf of bread, a slice of cheese, and a bowlful of soup, and sat down on the table.
My stomach grumbled again. This was the third night in a row I’d gone out for a midnight snack. I covered the bread in cheese, dipped it into the soup, and ate it. The bread was hard and dry, the cheese chewy, and the soup watery and tasteless. I felt no better after finishing them so I went around looking for something more satisfying.
The last few days had been… strange. I spent most of my time fixing up trade deals and de-escalating the war that had been about to break out. The goddesses pushed their kingdom’s leaders to work with me, smoothing over the worst of the obstacles in our path, but unraveling centuries of antagonism was an odious task. For every trade sanction and tariff I removed, a dozen sprung up from the muddled bureaucratic tapestry.
I found an apple and chomped it up. I threw away the core and continued searching while thinking to myself. The bridge of babel is open and trade’s returning to normal, so why isn’t there anything to eat? I’ll have to get someone to buy more pastries. The Fire kingdom’s supposed to have the best bakeries, we should get some cakes, assuming Origin hasn’t destroyed them all yet.
Unable to find anything else to assuage my hunger, I left the Inn. A couple of guards snored outside the Inn’s entrance, drool on their armor and lances on the ground. I made a mental note to reprimand them in the morning, we needed to maintain military discipline for the liberation campaign. Reinforcements from the Dusk Alliance would be arriving in a month or so, and we needed to be ready to fight soon after.
A headache formed in my forehead as I thought about Origin. The whole ordeal was confusing as hell. Initially I’d assumed he’d disappear once we sealed Fate, but not only was Amy still unable to connect to her temple, all our attempts to probe the Fire kingdom had proven fruitless.
I sighed. The streets were empty, the tents motionless, and the big house at the center of the village had put out its candles. Azoth was probably still inside the Inn, sleeping or planning supply lines. Lunaris and the other goddesses were out scouting the Fire kingdom behind Origin’s wall, and I was hoping for good news in the morning.
Light flickered inside the building next to the well. Since it was my best bet at getting some food, I walked over. I knocked on the door, and heard some rattling from behind. Footsteps, a clink, and the door opened.
“Can I help you?” asked the village elder.
“Sorry to bother you, but do you have anything to eat?” I asked.
“Come in,” she said, curtly, as she gestured for me to follow her. She was an old lady who never smiled. She let us stay in the village for a small fee but hadn’t been enthusiastic about it at all. The presence of the hero hadn’t impressed her, nor had the power of our group.
The old lady’s wobbly walking stick tapped on the floor of her house, sending a clunky sound echoing across the place. Her furniture was dusty except for a small table and chair near the far end of her living room. There was a picture on the table, although it was too far to see. There were a few toys tucked into the corners, as well as a few ribbons that definitely didn’t belong to the old lady. As we walked into her kitchen, she coughed and grumbled under her breath. She rummaged inside her cabinets, pulled out some bread and cheese, and poured me a bowl of soup.
My head drooped.
She put the food on the table and sat down. I sat across the table and accepted the food, eating it the same way as before. It looked just as unappetizing as before but tasted slightly better. The old lady coughed, grumbled, and stood up, leaning on her walking stick for support. I finished my meal and thanked her. She escorted me out, the ever-present of her walking stick the only sound passing between us.
Near the door, I offered her a few gold coins as thanks but she waved them away, saying she didn’t need it. I insisted, asking her to keep it for her kids. I kept walking but something felt off. The sound of the walking stick had disappeared. I turned and saw the old lady leaning against the wall, her face downcast.
“Are you alright?” I asked, moving to assist her.
“…won’t need it.”
“What did you say?”
“I said, she won’t need it.”
“Who? Need what?” I asked, eyebrows bunching together. “The coins? If you don’t have any kids, you can spend it on the village.”
“What’s the point…” she mumbled, her wrinkly face still in the shadows.
“This is one of the poorest villages in the Light kingdom, wouldn’t the money come in handy?” I asked. “You could fix that bridge of yours, it was creaking so much we had to jump across.”
This lady’s gone senile, I thought to myself. “Thank you for your hospitality, I’ll see myself out.”
As I opened the door, she mumbled something I barely managed to hear. I stopped but didn’t turn around. I pushed the door open. I left the house, went back to the Inn and climbed into bed, trying not to wake up Lily. But I couldn’t fall asleep because the old lady’s words kept echoing inside my head.
“That makes no sense.”
“It’s the truth.”
“Holy shit, Lunaris, if you’re pulling my leg, I swear I’ll let Fate out just so he can fuck you up,” I said.
“Why the fuck would I lie about this?” said Lunaris. “Besides, the others saw it too.”
“We did,” added Adriana.
“Not sure I believe it myself,” said Opal.
I cursed. Lily was frowning too. Solaron hadn’t spoken a word since she got back, seemingly lost in thought.
“Well, what do we do now?” I asked. I turned to Amy. “Any ideas? It’s supposed to be your Kingdom.”
I winced as Lily elbowed me and shot me an angry glare.
What? I asked with my eyes. She rolled hers in reply.
“I don’t know,” Amy stated without meeting my gaze.
“Damn it,” I said, massaging my forehead. “You couldn’t find him but you’re sure he’s still there?”
“Yes,” replied Breize. “We can’t influence any of the ordinary people. It’s almost as if Fate still applies to them.”
“Shit.” I paced the room.
“There’s no reason to worry about this for now,” remarked Azoth. “If anything, the fact that the army has been disbanded and the Circle is unpopular with the people should be cause for celebration. We could probably take over the place ourselves if we wanted to.”
“Azoth, stop trying to lift our spirits. If Origin’s powers are like Fate’s, we’re screwed,” I said. I turned to the goddesses again. “He must be hiding somewhere. Any guesses?”
“What if he left.”
We turned to the speaker. Solaron was leaning against a window facing away from the Fire kingdom.
“Why would he leave?” asked Lily.
“Fate never stays in one place,” replied Solaron.
“You’re right,” I said. “If he’s related to Kai, he wouldn’t have stayed in one place for long. But where could he be?”
Silence. No one knew the answer. I sighed. “Fine, let’s talk about this later. Is it time for breakfast yet?”
“The village is holding a grand brunch in front of the elder’s house,” said Azoth.
“Great,” I replied, dryly.
Lily looked at me quizzically but I ignored her. She pouted as we left the Inn. There was a crowd around the well as the villagers helped prepare for the brunch. Mats lined the ground, bursting with food. They’d gone all out, which was appreciable, but…
“Fuck,” I cursed.
… it was all bread, cheese, and soup.
I grumbled as we made our way to the well. The old lady wasn’t around, but the villagers were very kind and treated us well. Lily snuggled into me after we were done eating. She put her head on my shoulder. I tilted my head onto hers.
“You’re thinking,” she said.
“I always do that,” I replied.
“You’re thinking for real.”
I sighed. Having a girlfriend wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be. “What if we were wrong.”
“Yeah, what if locking him up was the wrong thing to do?”
“We wouldn’t be able to do this if we hadn’t,” she said.
“True,” I agreed. “But what if he’s the only one who can fight Origin?”
“We’ll figure it out somehow. If we locked him up, we can probably take care of Origin too. He doesn’t seem as powerful, somehow.”
She moved and looked into my eyes. “There’s something else, something you aren’t telling me. What is it?”
“I can’t keep any secrets anymore?”
I chuckled. “Fine.” I took a breath. “We didn’t have Fate on Earth, right?”
“But we still managed to mess things up. You know what I’m talking about.”
“So what if this world does the same? Humans don’t need Fate to mess shit up. We’re capable of doing that all by ourselves.”
“Yes, but the goddesses will be here to look after things. And…” her voice trailed.
“So will we.”
I nodded slowly. “I thought so. You don’t want to go back, do you?”
“Me neither,” I said.
She hugged me. I was startled, my hands hanging in the air. I brought them down on her back and hugged her back. She broke apart and smiled at me.
I smiled back. “Guess we’ll be taking care of things here then.”
“Can’t say that makes me feel any better, knowing how bad you are at organizing stuff.”
She punched my shoulder playfully.
“Fine,” I said.
“Ugh, you’re going to make me gag.”
I frowned. “Thanks for ruining the moment, Lunaris.”
“My pleasure,” said the Dark goddess. “Now have you thought of any way to deal with that Origin bastard?”
“Not yet,” I said, frowning again. “If we can’t even find him –”
I stopped mid-sentence. Lily and Lunaris exchanged a confused glance.
“What is it?” asked Lily.
I didn’t reply. The old lady stepped out of the house, staring right at me. I thought back to what she’d said last night and my Ability activated.
“Old lady!” I yelled, standing up. “You don’t have any kids.”
The old woman scowled.
“But that’s because you never did,” I said.
“Runir,” hissed Lily. “Quit being a jackass.”
I ignored her. “You never had any kids but you still have toys and ribbons in your house, as well as a family portrait. Did you have siblings?”
Her scowl deepened, then faded as it was replaced by sorrow and guilt. The villagers were looking at me with disapproval, as were the goddesses, but I paid them no heed.
“One,” she said.
“And they had a child?”
“This village is in the Light kingdom, but it’s so close to the Fire kingdom that you observe their customs instead,” I said, mostly to myself. “Which means that you would have cremated the body and the child’s belongings if they had died.”
“Runir, shut up now,” said Lily, as she approached.
I walked resolutely towards the old lady, none of the villagers daring to block my path but still willing to stare daggers at me. “If you still have the toys and the ribbons, the kid’s still alive. Which means…”
The old lady looked away.
“… that she ran away.”
“Runir, come here so I can smack some sense through your thick skull,” threatened Lily.
“I’ve seen her.”
The air stilled. The old lady blinked and her wrinkles loosened, making her seem years younger. “You’ve seen her?”
Even Lily stopped in her tracks. The angry glares piercing into me turned to confused gazes.
“Where?” she asked, her voice cracking up.
“She fell off a cliff.”
The silence was palpable. The color drained out of the old lady’s face.
“She’s fine!” I added quickly. A collective sigh of relief followed. “Amy said she met her in a caravan on the bridge of babel.”
“Her?” asked Amy, perplexed. “The girl stalking Kai all over the world?”
“Yes,” I said. “He called her Clare.”
The name hung in the air. The old lady trembled and her walking stick fell from her hands. A villager rushed forward to help her but she waved him away.
“Where is she,” said May Skye, elder of Reneste village. “Where is Clare?”
“I don’t know,” I replied.
She frowned. “Then why did you bring this all up?”
“You brought it up first,” I said. “Last night.”
Her eyebrows furrowed. “I don’t remember mentioning her.”
“You didn’t, but you gave me the hint I needed to solve this mystery.”
“The greatest mystery in the world,” I said. She wasn’t convinced but I couldn’t tell her any more. “I can help you find her.”
That shook her from her suspicions. “How?”
“I can retrace her footsteps,” I said. “Do you know which way she went?”
“No,” she said. “I didn’t notice her leave and my Ability stopped working on her after that day.”
I cursed. “Do you anything else that could help us, anything at all?”
“You said she was stalking that boy… Kai.”
“Yes!” I exclaimed. “Do you know where he went?”
“Oh.” My smile faded.
“But I heard a scream in the distance, right after he left.”
“I’m not sure,” she said. “It was so long ago…”
I frowned. I was about to say something but got cut off.
“I remember now!” she said, a light in her eyes. She pointed to the South.
I thanked her and ran.
“What the fuck is going on?” asked Lily as she ran after me. Azoth and the goddesses followed, catching up to me easily.
“He knew her long before he knew any of us,” I explained, looking all over the forest for some sign, some clue that could clear up the fog.
“Clare?” asked Amy. “We’re looking for Clare?”
“No,” I said as something caught my eye. My Ability tingled and I knew I’d found it. “We were looking for this!”
I stopped at the foot of a hill. I held my breath. A purple-robed figure sat on top of the hill, facing away from us. The others filed in quietly behind me as I walked up the hill.
“Found you,” I said with a smirk. But this was Origin, he was related to Kai – to Fate. I couldn’t take him lightly. I prepared a void step just in case he lashed out.
“He really is here,” said Amy, her eyes wide.
“How’d you know?” asked Lily, her eyes locked on the figure.
“Last night, the old lady said something strange. She said she’d lost someone named Clare, and she said she’d lost them twice. I was skeptical – it seemed like a leap of logic – but my Ability egged me on. I made it a part of my plan and everything started falling into place. So here’s my hypothesis: after coming to this world, Kai met Clare and either killed her by accident or saw her die.”
“But she was at the shrine,” said Lily.
“Yes,” I said, inching closer to the robed figure. “He revived her.”
“What?” said Amy. “But he…”
“…said he wouldn’t revive anyone. Yes, he said that when we confronted him but back then, when Clare died, he revived her. I assume something happened after that, something that made him avoid Clare and decide to never revive anyone ever again.”
“What was it?” asked Lunaris.
“I don’t know,” I said. “But we can ask him.”
We’d surrounded him around the top of the hill. His face was buried in his robes and he hadn’t moved yet. Sweat dripped down my forehead and I prepared the strongest magic I could muster.
“Origin,” I continued. “Is an extension of Fate. He brushed off Amy, and only Kai could keep him in check. It was almost certainly an act, because nothing could fight Fate so directly. Kai created Origin to put on a show for us, perhaps he wanted to create a common enemy to unite us against? Maybe he did intend to remove our needless antagonism and hatred but only after he had an alternate enemy for us to face. I don’t know. But what I do know is this guy should be able to answer some of our questions.”
“Then let’s get started,” said Lunaris, black smoke curling around her.
“Origin!” I shouted. “Surrender quietly and we’ll lock you up with your greater self. Resist and we’ll lock you up alone.”
The figure’s robes shuffled. We tensed. Bright armors emerged on our figures, Amy’s fire lit up the sky, Lily and I prepared our magic and swords. The goddesses readied their magic; devastating spells that even deities couldn’t shrug off. Lunaris produced a natural anomaly from within her smoke. I primed my void step, aiming to push him towards Lunaris to finish it quickly.
But as the figure turned, my magic dissipated. Cries of confusion rang out as the others saw his face, but I wasn’t listening. Instead, I remembered what old lady Mayer said:
“I’ve lost my Clare twice. Keep your promise. Bring her back to me. Bring her back to me again…”
“You’re here,” said the figure in the purple-robes. “I knew you’d come.”
“You,” said Amy, breathing quickly. “Who are you?”
Pain pierced my head. My Ability was running in overdrive, trying to save the plan I’d constructed. The pieces were falling, they were falling and I couldn’t catch them – not one!
Lily noticed my pain and rushed to my side. “Runir!”
Through the pain and the clouded vision, I saw the boy rise, a crazed smile on his face.
“I knew you’d be here. I never doubted for a second. On the turn of the millennium, you would come to where it all started; to the place our world was born!”
My mind cleared but tears began flowing down my cheeks instead. The pain was gone because my Ability was no longer working. There was no way to save this plan.
“No,” said Lunaris, her face aflush. “That’s bullshit!”
The boy laughed, ignoring us completely. “You are nothing, nothing in front of our Lord! You cannot resist. You lie inside the circle! Into the Circle! Into the Circle!”
I walked up to him and grabbed him by the scruff of his neck. I Inspected the boy.
Name: Joey Baner. Title: Chosen Origin. Ability: Conversationalism. Level: 15.
“Our Lord is All Powerful! He is All Knowing! He is everywhere! He governs this universe and everything in it!” he continued rambling.
“Shut up!” cried Lunaris.
“Our Lord taught us our place in the world! Gave us guidance and purpose! Gave us his blessings!”
I chucked him away in anger. He crashed into the ground but continued rambling:
“For our Lord is the Creator! He made our world! He made the Goddesses and bound us all with Fate! He is where everything starts and everything ends. Our lord is Origin. Our lord is Fate. Our lord is the Circle. Our lord…”
I racked my brains. This didn’t make any sense. What the hell was going on?
“Our lord is… Zero!”