The steep mountains rose around him like giant pillars, soaring to ungodly heights. Thick clouds obscured some of the higher reaches, where bare faced white rock and dark jade trees shown with sharp contrast against precipitous angles. Somewhere, far below, more mountain ranges continued to extend away to further valleys and plains, lost to view against the backdrop of jagged rock spines that extended for hundreds of miles.
To Shade, whose hands grasped gingerly against the sheer cliff face by rocky purchases, it was too beautiful to simply conveyance past. He could have done it with ease; a simple thought, tapping into the threads of time and space that rose in higher dimension beyond his natural sight. His inner eye could see them all; could see a shortcut through Higherspace that would have carried him to his destination in less than a heartbeat.
But Shade turned his inner eye away, letting his natural senses permeate his being. He wanted to experience this mountain and its brothers as they rose in nearly vertical columns of granite many miles skyward. He had never seen mountains this tall in all of his travels in the Deep. So he needed to claim them with his natural self.
Grunting with perspiration, he extended his left hand, finding another crevice to pull himself up. He had made the ascent now for the last three days, relying on the mercies of this world to bring him closer to heaven. Truth be told, this climb and all the strain it placed upon him were a form of penitence and meditation. He wanted— needed to feel the tug of gravity. Feel the illusion of mortality, no matter how much it was a deceit; that if he were to fall at this moment, it would avail him nothing. All of it was an illusion, but at least, in this particular instance, as his muscles ached against the bare rock, he let such fantasies fool him into believing his mortality was on the line.
It was a clever illusion.
So much so that for another three days he continued, watching as day turned to night. The thick plumes of clouds obscuring higher elevations of peaks and ridges caught fire, glowing iridescent orange and red, sharp in disparity against the faded blue and indigo sky. In time, bright stars, much brighter than his home world, filled the void, providing him with more than enough illumination to continue the ascent.
His inner eye had some inkling of what awaited him past the final ridge. He had seen it in his conveyance to this realm. It was what attracted him here; the isolation and privacy of the peoples he would soon encounter. But he had allowed himself momentary blindness, so he could savor the climb and experience first view with his natural eyes. Then he would truly feel alone.
The next morning, before the sun had crested the ridge, Shade found himself climbing up through a final layer of cloud and mist. The sheer edge gave way to a slanted edge, upon which he found he could easily walk with his feet. There was thick, green growth here, a few sparse trees jutting up through split rocks. Beyond that, a thick forest lined the ridgeback, where Shade knew his destination awaited.
The hike alone took him less than an hour. When he had summited the ridge, the valley spread out before him like a giant cupped hand. More of the brother mountains stood around, almost like a plaza of manmade towers, so bare and so erect were the rock faces.
In the valley below, Shade spies a peaceful village. There were lots of huts, tiled roofs, and a few temples, pagodas, lined with reds, whites, and even shrines. The village was highly isolated, surrounded by steep mountains on all ends that made it nearly impossible to reach, save a little path on the east side that wound down some of the less treacherous ridges. Even then, no one ever came up, and few ever went down. With water supplied from the high ridges and plenty of farming and animal husbandry, this small community was well independent.
Shade wandered into the village, wearing little more than dark robes and his sword-seed sheathed on his back. He kept his head bowed out of respect, sensing the immediate fear and hostility his presence inspired. What was he doing here? Who was he? Why would anyone brave the west mountains? He must be here by mistake.
It didn't take long for Shade to sense out the village Elder, an old man with long wispy white facial hair and a simple farmer's hat. Shade could sense from the man's emotions that he was not the first Elder, but from a long line who had watched over this village. But apparently, they had never seen an outsider, least of all anyone like Shade. So he had few hostilities; only quiet, watchful curiosity. He would wait to see who Shade was before passing judgment. And that made all the difference.
Beyond conveyance, Shade's inner sight provided understanding of all tongues. A gift that made these jaunts between realms possible. Guessing cultural rights was another matter, unfortunately.
Shade bowed himself low, in what he hoped was a sign of respect. He even reached out for his sheathed sword-seed, though no mortal man had power to take it from him even if he could allow it. So holding it in outstretched hands was more symbolic than anything, and he prayed the Elder wouldn't take it for literal meaning.
"I seek asylum," Shade breathed, the language of the mountain dwellers dancing on his tongue in the form and meaning that the Elder would understand. While Shade could only guess at correct translations, his tone could convey in meaning what his lack of linguistic skills could not perfectly imitate. So to the Elder, it sounded probably more like, "Wise one, guardian of these inhabitants, I seek your consent to dwell here in asylum, with no thought of reward or protection."
Keeping his natural eyes bowed low, Shade watched with his inner sight as the Elder, a man named Xin Shan, folded his arms, a natural sign of his authority. There were many questions on his mind, but one foremost.
"Are you a criminal?"
Shade stifled a laugh, but couldn't help the smile forming on his lips. "A refugee," he replied. "My home is destroyed in the tides of a terrible war. I want no part in it."
"But you are a warrior. What does that make you then? A deserter?"
The word rang painfully in Shade's heart. But it was true, wasn't it? He was running away from a fight his friends were no doubt in the thick of at this very moment in Realtime. When Delford burned, they had parted ways to seek fortunes in other realms; preparing for the eventual conflict. A place of reconvening had been chosen, but Shade had never made any plans to return. As far as they knew, he was still out among the Deep, searching for answers to bring back.
In truth, he had run to wait out the storm. He knew what lie in their paths; for all of them, even his. And like all storms, this one would have an end as well. All things had an eventual end. And as much of a god as he was, there was nothing he could do to change the fates that were coming. He didn't need his inner eyes to seek out threads of time to see this. Not when he had already seen it in another lifetime.
"I have seen the end and the beginning," Shade said aloud. "I did not desert my brethren. Their fates have been written, as has mine. And when my name is called, there will be nowhere to hide. So for now, I seek only peace."
The Elder regarded him quietly. Part of him was highly dubious; no matter how he put it, Shade sounded for the whole world like a deserter, and why shouldn't he? His friends were about to go to war; their darkest hours about to play out in ways Shade had only imagined. His time was coming; of that he was sure. But what his friends were engaged in was an act of futility. Maybe they did have a hand in shaping how it was all to end. Maybe.
Until then, Shade only wanted peace. Because there would be plenty of turmoil in time.
Another part of the Elder believed him. There was sincerity enough in his words, and he knew that Shade did not intend to stay here forever. But he could sense that in the questioning eyes of all those who watched cautiously from the streets. Especially the young women, who concealed blushes. To all of them he was a god, walking among mortals in humility. He could not possibly hope to stay here forever, but who were they to turn him away now? Shade didn't know anything of their local theology, so he couldn't say for sure what equivalent he represented in their religious beliefs. It didn't matter. It was all the same everywhere: Sho'Lou, Mizen, Ghowl the Terrible, Jehovah.
I am not your god, nor do I have any wish to be. But for all intents and purposes, that is exactly what I am.
"You will require no sustenance," said the Elder. It was more of a question, to which Shade nodded in the affirmative. Food and water were luxuries to remind him of his mortal days. Even sleep was more of a deep meditation, connecting with dreams that held some semblance of a past he could not consciously visit.
"The Shrine to the south will serve you as a place to rest. All who live and breathe here must labor here. Do you understand that, young lord?"
Lord was only an approximate translation for Shade's native tongue, but his inner sight understood the heavy weight attached to it. Though the Elder spoke with high authority, he had placed an even greater, more reverent title upon Shade.
"Yes. And I will not shirk in such responsibilities."
And so that was how Shade found himself a resident of the Village of Sho'Lou's Hands. In time, he learned that Sho'Lou's Hands was the name of the valley. In some ways, it looked as though it were two giant, cupped hands holding the fertile green land within. On the southern most edge, up near the ridge edge where a near vertical drop waited on the other side, there was a simple open-walled Shrine that Xin Shan had granted him as a place to rest. A simple statue adorned the small interior, with a large tiled roof provided him shelter from the frequent daily rainfall. After his second night, someone had left a mat and pillow for him to rest on. He never found out who.
Work was of little consequence to Shade. There was watering and careful maintenance of the crops to be had. Animals were fed, watered, and worked, all of which consumed most of the day. These simple things filled Shade's day with purpose. His infinite strength and stamina left with little more than a sweat in the humid heat of the day, when faded sunlight filtered in through the perpetual cloud layer that shielded the valley.
With time, his inner eye soon developed a careful observation of the lifepaths and potentials of all things, from the crops and animals, to the very people who had lived here for eight generations. He saw how the elderly had heard stories of the first settlers, but couldn't see back far enough to what drove them here in the first place. He saw in the young potential lines of love and marriage, as well as one or two who had made plans to one day venture beyond the valley.
He watched as the various crops and animals went through their season and cycles. Where appropriate, he let his powers rejuvenate and prosper the growth. He kept it subtle enough; a water buffalo that had a strong litter, a crop that yielded more than enough for a comfortable winter season for all to be well fed. All these things slowly brought trust among the villagers, who saw him less as a good omen and more of an architect for good.
Towards the end of the first season, Shade had deluded himself enough to believe that he could wait out the dark storm brewing in the Deep, here in this simple realm called Tientsin. His personal arbitration had given him the best nights of sleep he had ever experienced in the months after the fall of Delford. He found a place for himself among the community, learning the names of each of the villagers individually. Soon they were almost a family for him. Something he had long since lost and feared would not be found again.
Then one wintery day, as he sat quietly in the windy opening of the south Shrine, mediating quietly, he felt a stirring in the threads. A white hot whip from the Deep; an extension of the engines of war reaching out towards Tientsin.
No. Impossible. We're too far out; too Deep to be of notice. Why would they come here? This isn't a frontline. This isn't anything!
For the next month, it grew more prominent, to the point where he was relieved to see that it wasn't the war machines coming for Tientsin. Not like the ones that had marched on Delford with relentlessness. No, this was something else. Something more singular; a force or life energy seeking for something. And right now, the threads only Entry Potentials. There was so much unsullied Realtime here that it could enter and leave at whatever convenience it chose.
Chose. It was an individual, much like himself. Shade could sense it now. Someone riding in on conveyance, much the way he had found this realm.
An angel or an agent.
For another week, as he marched quietly in the deep snows of Sho'Lou's Hands, watching the villagers warm themselves within their joyful little huts, he entertained the notion that it was one of the others. That they had come looking for him, not necessarily to recruit him back into the fight, but at least to see him well and alive.
But it wasn't.
As the winter months began dying, the first warmth of a spring season returning, the thread began to take on a new tone. It was seeking him all right, that much he was certain as he watched it probe and prod Tientsin with an inner eye of its own. But this was more mechanical; more manufactured in a way that showed little discipline and respect for the power of conveyance and an inner eye.
There was only one conclusion; it was an agent. And they had somehow tracked him all the way out here, to this remote corner of the ever expanding Deep. Shade could only speculate why.
As spring finally came to fruit, with Shade finding himself out in the small fields and plantations again, laboring under warmer weather alongside the villagers, he watched as the threads soon displayed a half dozen Entry Potentials. The agent had arrived, circling the realm the way water circles a drain. They were seeking Shade's Realtime placement, and it was then that Shade realized that whoever they were, they realized Shade was hiding.
You think I've resorted to casting myself into a dark past to hide from this war? To avoid the present?
It didn't take long. Soon Shade saw a successful Entry Potential achieved, much like his own when he first arrived. It would manifest itself in one week on the front grounds of the Elder's hut in the center of the village. So, they wanted to make a grand entrance. But the threads beyond that were very muddled. Would there be a conflict? Was Shade better off waiting to confront the agent in person, or fleeing now so that their wrath would be directed away from the innocent villagers?
What have I done? In my selfish desire, I have damned every last soul here. A dozen sons and daughters, destined to fall in love and continue the circle of life, now hang in jeopardy because I decided to hide myself away.
It was during this last week that Shade sequestered himself away from the village, hiding in the foothills above to mediate and ponder on his decisions. In hindsight, he saw that he shouldn't have sought company. They were only souls waiting to be punished for his presence. He could have hidden somewhere conspicuous. Somewhere where the enemy could fall upon him and leave no collateral damage. And because he was a god; an angel of realms, they would always come for him eventually, as they had now.
On the appointed day, Shade walked quietly out into the village center, his sword-seed still sheathed. He had retired the dark robes he arrived in; bearing only the simple wear the rest of the villagers wore. He had become one of them in the last year of his seclusion. And he could sense as they all feared for his odd behavior. Why had the lord, their silent warrior and cultivator, hidden himself away, only to stand in the open so challenging at last?
Shade decided there was no point in pretense with these people anymore. They had no doubt of the true powers he had hidden from them. Why waste giving them a proper warning now?
"Friends," he spoke with his inner voice, gently into all of their minds, "a being has come in search of me, perhaps to return me to a war I do not wish to fight in. Guard yourselves well, and I'll do whatever I can to turn their harm away from you."
Shade did not know what to expect. For all intents and purposes, this would be his first encounter with an agent. No hidden wisdom or lost past could offer guidance now.
Now, it was time to make it all up as it happened.
His first surprises of many was that it was a she. She appeared on the stone walkway below the steps into the Elder's hut. It was a fairly showy conveyance, with a sliver in the time threads opening up in a small burst of color and light. She stepped out of it, her skin and clothing dazzling from the effect of conveyance. Quantum irregularities and virtual energy shimmered off her slender body as she passed from the Deep into this realm.
Her clothing was completely alien to the villagers. It was all black, much like the robes Shade had adorned on his arrival, but that was where all similarities ended. Everything was made from advanced synthetic materials, most likely a battle armor of sorts, with plenty of moving parts and creases between micro-components. But there was no functionality of armor in the way she wore it. Her pants and boots were skintight, coming up a little shy of her waist line. All of her midriff was exposed, leaving a skinny porcelain torso open for admiration by those she paraded around as a goddess.
The rest of her armor-top was just as stylish and formfitting, leaving little to the imagination. Her left arm was uncovered up to the shoulder blade; her small, womanly hand resting calmly, even with attitude on her exposed waist. Her right arm, strangely enough, was completely encased in the skintight armor, from her fingertips, up over her neck, to her chin and parts of her cheeks. Connected from her cheek plating was a pair of polarized shades, framed by her dark, wavy hair that flowed no further than her chin.
For Shade, he could tell that it had little practicality as protective armor. It seemed more calculated at its sex appeal, but then again, as an agent, she had no need for armor. The style to it was more than enough for the mortals she made herself manifest to, showing herself off both as a hostile force to be reckoned with, as well as a beauty to be envied and worshipped. In evaluating her clothing alone, Shade understood perfectly well the enemy standing before him.
She raised her armored right arm up to her face, a holographic projection taking life in the air above her wrist. It displayed some sort of analysis on Shade, gathering information from the sensors in her body armor that was currently scanning him. Naturally, the results were inconclusive. He was a Deian; no mortal technology could understand him.
Though it could be immortal tech.
She smiled about something, lowering her arm as the projection winked out in a swirl of dancing lights. She started walking towards him, and Shade couldn't help notice with his inner sight as a few of the young men in the village watched secretly from open windows, gawking at the alien beauty marching on his position.
When she was standing a few feet from him, her shades folded in on themselves, revealing two stunning hazel colored eyes underneath. She smiled all the wider, licking seductively at her pearly whites.
"Hello, Shade. You're one very hard individual to track down." She chuckled to herself— no, it was more of a giggle, swaying slightly from side to side on her armored feet.
Damn it, whatever she was doing was working. Shade could keep his natural eyes focused right on hers, but he let his inner eye wander over her voluptuous body in ways he knew it shouldn't. But she had calculated it this way. No one, mortal or god, could have resisted this tease she put on. He was already hers, and it was by his own consent.
"You know my name. I do not know yours," he finally said, deciding to play her little game.
"It's Kyrie," she replied, brushing a stray strand of hair out of her eyes. And for a moment, she let her guard down, so that Shade's inner sight caught a brief glimpse into her mind (a feat otherwise impossible, since he was doing just fine keeping her out of his head at this moment). Kyrie was a name she had self-chosen as an agent. It was short for Valkyrie.
Talk about a god-complex.
"And I think you know why I'm here," she added, her voice dropping to a seductive whisper.
Shade nodded understandingly. It had just occurred to him, too. When a war is raging, and the soldiers fighting are not mere mortals, who do you recruit? And who do you send to put on a good show as a recruiter?
"You came all this way out here into the Deep to find little ol' me? Why, is your boss having a hard time rounding up call-girls like yourself?"
Her smile faded, her jaw shifting with displeasure at the slur. But it was momentary, replaced by an expression of hurt that was so well played that Shade couldn't help but wonder if he had actually struck a sore spot.
"I came out here because you're something unique. Someone who could do so much more with someone like me at your side." She was definitely peeved. "No one sent me out here. They could've cared less if you sat out the whole war to rot here. I came because I wanted you."
That surprised Shade. He couldn't help suspect it was partly a lie. The enemy would at least want him eliminated. There was no way they were content to let him sit idly by when they knew he posed even a slight threat to destabilizing the war front. That was what brought them to Delford in the first place.
Tying up loose ends.
But Kyrie was letting her guard down again, letting Shade's inner sight see more than any careful agent would dare let a potential rival see within. And what Shade could see was her desire to have him by her side. She wanted a partner. No, she wanted a counterpart. And somehow she had seen in Shade the potential for that.
Suddenly she had drawn herself up close against him, the material of her armor rough and hard against his worn farming drab. Her unarmored hand rested tenderly against his chest, her breath hot on his face.
"I remember when I first saw you. On the vast beaches of Delford, with those Beings you called your friends. Don't you remember? I was that girl in the crowd that you couldn't see into."
Shade suddenly remembered it. That had been nearly a decade ago, long before war ever fell upon Delford. He had been out with his friends, fellow Deians, at one of their favorite places. A beach, with a wide view of the serine oceans that lined the whole coast where their ancient city lay. There were always many from the city there, come to enjoy the beauty of the scene. But only on this one time, as Shade had sensed out with his inner eye, had he laid sight on a girl in a brown-string bikini, with dark hair and porcelain features. Her entire mind and emotion was cut off from him, something impossible for a mortal. And when he had sought to track her down with his natural sight, she was long gone.
Shade drew in a sharp breath. "You were there. You were always there."
She nodded, smiling mischievously. "You have no idea how many times I was there, while you and your friends were vastly unaware. And I knew then that I wanted you to be there with me, as Andalusia goes forth to conquer all the realms."
Creeper alert. Shade knew a crazy chick when he saw one, and she had all of the warning signs. But if there was one thing Shade knew for sure, it was that hell hath no wrath like a crazy woman scorn. If he denied her now, Tientsin would burn for his rejection. These villagers and every last one of their generations would suffer fates that the armies of Andalusia seemed intent to impose upon all those conquered.
What am I doing? I knew I couldn't fight this, but join them?! You would betray them all?!
Shade wouldn't have to betray them. Kyrie came here, thinking she could own him. But no one, not even the gods, owned him. He was his own person, and regardless of the end this war was destined to flow towards, he would be his own person to the bitter end.
"All right," he said simply. "Let's go."
She blinked, almost surprised. "Just like that?"
Shade shrugged. "Why not? Just like that. You clearly came a long way, and I wouldn't want to have to make you waste the journey. Mind if I change first?"
She shook her head, smiling broader. "I'd prefer it, actually."
Shade decided to make the walk up to south Shrine. There would be plenty of conveyance travel in the days ahead, and he enjoyed putting his legs to work, traveling through the small forest and fields around him. Kyrie followed close on his heels, her boots whirling electrically as the armor shifted and adjusted to the rough terrain.
Kyrie was a crazy girl, but Shade expected no less from an agent of the Andalusian Empire, destroyer of worlds. But Shade was his own man. He would do as he pleased, and though he was planning on leaving with a god, she would never hold power over him.
But she didn't have to know that now, did she?
Neither did the rest of the Andalusians. Oh yes, he was certainly going to have some fun before this was over. He couldn't change fate, and he certainly couldn't prevent the doom that was impending on the worlds to come. But he could be along for the ride, muddle things a bit, and see what it's like for the other side. Kyrie wouldn't have taken no for an answer, anyway.
Once at the Shrine, Shade set to disrobing unceremoniously. He pretended not to notice as Kyrie watched him intently, but his inner eye saw a ravenous look in her eyes. He soon retrieved the dark robes he had long since worn for many millennia, waiting patiently as they wrapped and formed to his body by unspoken commands.
Xin Shan was right. He was a warrior in desertion. And because of that, the other side had come to take claim upon him as their own. No matter how much Kyrie claimed that she was his for the taking, he would always belong to Andalusia.
I will always belong to her.
His old robes secure, he fastened his sword-seed to his back. He turned to face Kyrie, feigning unawareness that she had sensuously ogled his nakedness. Even now, as her eyes still glazed over by his physique, he pretended to be bored while awaiting her command to depart.
"Yes," she finally said, her eyes meeting his once more, "I think we're going to have some fun."
"Couldn't agree more."
Her shades once more unfolded over her eyes, and she reached out with her unarmored hand to take his. A pulse of energy raced through Shade's body, one faintly familiar to a hand he had once held not long ago.
The threads of time opened up to both of them, and in burst of light they were gone.