It was another beautiful morning in Faulen.

Afaya glanced at her day-teller, the small crystalline sculpture casting an orb of light that moved with the rising and setting of the sun. The first rays of light had come over the eastern plains, setting ablaze the crystal buildings and structures of the city. In places it scattered the sun light like prisms, throwing rainbows of color across Afaya's bedroom and morning gown.

Running a hand through her short, faded brown hair, she yawned lazily. Afaya turned back to gaze out her panoramic domicile window over the expansive city. From her lofty floor, she could see the skyways were lined with hustling crowds at this early hour. Their colored garb stood in stark contrast to the shimmering white and crystal of the buildings and pathways. And while it was all fine and beautiful to admire, Afaya was beginning to wonder how much longer she would have to wait.

Finally, the Summoning whisked into her bedroom, spinning around in front of her view at the window. Extending an impatient palm, Afaya watched as lead Councilwomen Zuni's face took form. Even in the diluted light of the Summoning, Zuni looked impossibly young for her position as head of the Council. Despite her youth, she possessed more than enough solemnity needed for her calling.

"Sorry to keep you waiting, Guardian," Zuni replied, bowing her head respectfully. "We finally received the confirming Summonings."

"Do not worry on my account," Afaya said, trying to diffuse Zuni's somberness. "Was it as we expected? Our friends in the east?"

Zuni nodded with a subdued smile, recognizing Afaya's sarcasm. "Matters of the Earth Lords, indeed. And you will not be pleased; Nikola has plied you personally to reconsider his petition."

Afaya exhaled, glancing off to the side. She shouldn't be surprised. After their last few meetings with the Earth Lord, she had tried to courteously dissuade him from his petition. She should have left him with no uncertain terms.

Well, she would grant him the courtesy of listening to his little circle make their requests once more. But her answer would be unchanged.

"I shall meet you in the Council Chamber within the hour," Afaya said at last. "If it is a hearing they request, then they shall receive it. One last time."

Zuni nodded, her Summoning vanishing. Afaya sighed once more, shaking her head. At length, she waved her hand dismissively, and her sleepwear discarded entirely. Another wave, and her Council robes assembled around her in a swirling column, dressing her layer upon layer. When it was finished, she set to preparing a quick breakfast. At least there would be an opportunity after this meeting to share a meal with Feren. That helped mellow her sour mood. If nothing else, the prospect of getting past this meeting with Nikola meant she would have more time with Feren.

The Earth Lords. Such a joke of a title, given to the few in the Origin's European continent that desperately wanted into the power plays of Izik. It never helped Afaya's cases, especially with her studies of the peoples in the west. With so many arguments these days about closing connections with Origin, these weakly minor Lords weren't helping the case. What did their petitions matter when they had no real power? Barbarian empires were continually rising around them, with no knowledge of magic as they worked in the dirt for the gains of their ostensible civilizations.

Finishing her quick meal, Afaya set out from her domicile, making the short journey through her tower to the Council's Chambers in the neighboring tower. She wasn't sure who had long ago leased this residence to the Guardians, but it had passed from one Guardian to the next without fail now for nearly three hundred years. It was likely to follow the same pattern for the next three hundred.

To Afaya, these halls were new and in some regards alien. She had grown up in the quieter outskirts of Faulen with her family, not quite appreciative of the responsibility her Mother bore as she traveled to the inner city. Mother had declined the residency, her and Father preferring the quieter neighborhoods to raise their family. Once Afaya had reached womanhood and received the duty as Guardian, it was only natural to accept the domicile. Perhaps in time, she would follow Mother and Father's footsteps into quieter residences, but for now she walked these halls alone.

Well, not completely alone. There was Feren.

After crossing one skyway bridge to the tower where the Council resided, she ascended several stairs to the highest chambers. A few of the appointed traveling members were waiting in the meeting chamber in their standard white robes, as well as Feren in his deep blue High Councilman garb. He grinned as Afaya walked in, and for a moment she got lost in those dark eyes of his; darker than his short cut hair.

The handsome young High Councilman had recently received appointment specifically for affairs related to Origin, acting more or less as a liaison between the Kingdom and Guardian Council. Afaya had instantly taken a liking to Feren. Unlike previous representatives from the Kingdom, he had a genuine interest in Origin—or Earth, as Feren and most others in the Kingdom called it these days. It helped that he related to Afaya's interest with the peoples of the west, having traveled on occasion to visit during her studies.

He also understood the problems with dealing with the Earth minor Lords of Europe. Something the rest of the traveling Council members overlooked in their enthusiasm for the sake of traveling between worlds. Afaya liked Zuni, despite her youth in such a position. But the rest of the Council needed minor reprioritizing one day, and Feren would be a wise candidate to take over. That was if she could somehow convince him to forgo a lavish career in the upper echelons of the Kingdom. In the meantime, she was enjoying the extra personal time he set aside to spend with her outside of work.

"Well if it isn't the Guardian herself," Feren joked, his thick northern accent making Afaya smile. "I have waited less time on the King."

"Yes, yes," Afaya began, joining his banter. "But the King has only one nation to look after. I have an entirely other world to monitor."

"And who appointed you Queen of the Earth?"

Afaya made a face, more to be silly than anything. She knew Feren made a point to use the name Earth whenever possible to spite her. Few people held to the old tradition anymore that the Earth had once cradled all peoples before they set off through the six Gates between worlds. In ancient lore, it literally was the Origin of all life, be they Izikian, Earthling, or Shadowian.

In truth, Afaya only called it Origin because she liked the tradition. She believed, like Feren, that civilization had probably begun on Izik, spreading from its center outward through the six Gates. But there was a certain charm to the name. And so as far as she was concerned, Earth was also Origin, though nothing originated there.

Feren eyed her expression, eventually pulling a face himself. Then the two laughed, earning a few odd looks from the other traveling members. No doubt they were impatient to get on with their business.

"The ring, Guardian," Councilmember Cahua spoke, trying to sound uncomplaining. He extended the silvery white glass ring in open palm.

Afaya took it, placing it on the forefinger of her right hand. "Right. Well, I suppose the Earthlings are waiting." Afaya cleared her throat. "To the Earth, by best speeds of the Aroginis."

"To the Earth," the others repeated in unison. "By the Aroginis."

The words were not necessary for the enchantment, but had become ritual over the centuries as part of the departure decorum—replacing the name Origin with Earth at some point. Afaya had seen the action repeated too often by her own Mother to simply throw out the old customs despite its irrelevance. If nothing else, Afaya enjoyed traditions.

Simultaneously, they each twisted the ring four times around the circumference of their fingers. Afaya focused in on the powerfully active magic inside her ring, willing the enchantment to take effect. Each of the rings emitted a bright pulse of light that engulfed their bodies.

In an instance, the Council Chamber in the tower gave way to a large room of stone and wood; Nikola's castle fortress on Earth. A host of individuals stood waiting, bowing their heads humbly at their appearance.

"Great Lords of Izik," the lead Earthling, a man named Nikola said, stepping forward. "We are most humbled to once again host you among our numbers. Please enjoy some refreshment."

Afaya watched as Nikola waved his hand, summoning several glasses forward through the air. The act was rather showy, not requiring overtly complicated magic. But that was Nikola as usual, trying to make an appearance of power. Most of the Lords declined, but Afaya had to stop herself from laughing when Feren immediately summoned the rest to himself.

"Must not let these go to waste," he said, immediately tipping back the first glass, relishing in the drink. Afaya hoped it wasn't anything fermented. Or worse, poisoned. She doubted anyone in this circle of Earthlings would try anything so foolish, but they certainly had servants of Darkness on this world that would seek such opportunity.

Nikola continued to smile, but Afaya saw the expression crack around the edges. The Earthlings tried so hard to vaunt their limited magic. It was no wonder then that whenever Afaya showed complete disinterest in his ostentation, Nikola perceived it as a taunt. It partly was. They always would be more powerful than these so-called Lords.

It's your brothers and sisters from the west that I am most interested in. If only we could awaken their dormant magic lost or forgotten to time.

"I am ready to discuss your petition," Afaya spoke, breaking the awkward silence. "But only with your few select, Nikola."

He nodded understandingly. It had been long understood that only Nikola and a few of the highest most authorized in his circle were permitted to engage in such matters. This was nothing new, so he was ready for such a condition. The question was whether or not he would be ready for the rest of Afaya's answers.

In ancient times, more formal organizations had existed across Origin, but that number had diminished exclusively to Nikola's circle. It was a point of pride that he and his most trusted represented any surviving nation or societies of magic on Earth. Afaya knew from old Council texts that these smaller circles were of such diminished importance in the rising barbarian empires that they had no political sway. Nikola was convinced his authority within this particular barbarian nation, as one of its nobles would give him political influence in the coming decade. Afaya wouldn't be surprised if the country to the west calling itself Rome didn't end that ambition quickly. Then Nikola would realize how little political influence he ever held, and why Izik was entirely disinterested in his petitions.

Nikola led them through the castle to a patio of sorts outside on the roof, overlooking the bright sea. An early evening sun hung lower in the sky, casting the first hints of orange glow across the water and countryside. Afaya had long noted the synchronization of hemisphere time between Faulen and the western parts of the Earth where the Gate connected their worlds. Europe was probably closer related to the passages of time in the eastern continents such as Terenful. Thus, these meetings were often conducting in mornings on Izik, so as to better correspond with practical times of day on Earth.

The eight of them gathered around a large, wooden oval table; five from Izik, plus Nikola and his own two most trusted. Afaya was vaguely aware that the woman sitting by his side self-identified as a witch. She wasn't sure where the Earth title had come from specifically, but it had its own meaning and importance. Perhaps someone of unique power.

But not powerful enough.

"So," Nikola began, putting on an ever hopeful smile, "how has our resubmission to join the Council in the west been received?"

Afaya glanced towards Feren, deferring to him to speak. Mostly because they both knew Nikola was more interested in hearing what the Guardian had to say as the mediator between worlds. It was another one of their little games to annoy the poor Earthling.

"Well, to clarify, there is no Council in the west."

Nikola's face dropped, his smile finally falling with it. "Nonsense," he tried to bid, "That is where the portal is established. I know the Guardian treats those lands with highest esteem."

"More as a curiosity," Afaya added in. Nikola didn't need to know how curious she truly was about their magical potential, though.

"Because there is no Council of any sort in the west," Feren continued, "the Guardian attends to all affairs with those indigenous people. Our Council therefore handles matters here in the European continent."

"Naturally," Nikola replied, frustration building in his tone. "Perhaps we may observe such affairs, still?"

Afaya shook her head. "My answer remains the same. No sovereign power is permitted in the western hemisphere of this world. Not while barbarian nations rule on this continent, ready to conquer wherever they see fit."

Nikola pounded his fists on the table. Afaya tried to hide a smirk; perhaps his intent was to show hidden wrath not to be trifled with. But all it showed was a frustrated little man.

"We are not a barbarian nation! We still hold power! My private community represents the most civilized magic your world has left to align with."

"Precisely," said Feren, gathering to stand. "And perhaps when your community is no longer private, but in fair standing power with the other nations of Europe, then we will be open to more discussion."

Afaya watched dismay wash over Nikola's earlier outburst. The terms were not as uncertain as Afaya would have liked to have left them, but she could see in the Earthling's eyes defeat. Perhaps he recognized he was as much a curiosity as the people Afaya studied in the western continents of Origin.

All the poor man really wanted was to feel important. What he didn't understand was that Afaya reveled in no political glory with the peoples of the west. And Nikola had neither the capacity nor the agenda to help her seek the lost magic of this world.

They bid their farewells, Nikola much more composed as they joined the rest of his circle inside the castle. Soon they were back on Izik in the Council Chambers. The other traveling members filed out, on their way to report the latest meeting to the Zuni and the rest of the Council. One thing they were all in agreement was that the minor Lords of Europe were not to be granted any say-so in Earth Gate affairs. Not while they were this weak, Darkness abounding in their outlying numbers.

Afaya would do everything in her power to keep such Darkness away from her peoples in the west. By whatever means necessary.

Alone now, Feren rested casually against the edge of the meeting table, his eyes wandering up to meet Afaya's. "Do you think Nikola knows we fear more than his European empires overrunning the west?"

Afaya shrugged. "It is possible. More than anything, I think he knows their magic is too ineffectual to be of use. I saw it in his eyes; he knows we study them just as much as I study my peoples near the Gate."

Feren laughed loudly. "I pity them. Not because they have brought it upon themselves, though."

That was the saddest part for Afaya. The people of Earth were once a noble and powerful world, much as Izik now existed. But alas, great mysteries abounded as to why the Aroginis no longer shined upon their world in such abundance; why their people had diminished in individual magic. The absence of the two forces appeared mutual, though the Dictum of Noble Governance taught that the two were exclusive. In the end, there had always only been a small band of Lords in the European shores that the Council maintained with contact.

Afaya had spent plenty of time studying the old archives within the Annals. She also studied great memorites and Shrines in the libraries, including the fragmented records of Myr Selmir, first Guardian of Earth's Gate, gathered before her mysterious disappearance. The understanding was the same down through time: Earth was a dimming world. And as far as anyone could determine, it had been so now for nearly two thousand years. Whenever the period had been of Origin's golden era of magic, that time was now long forgotten.

"Sometimes I worry about our games we play with Nikola's circle," Feren remarked as the two of them stepped out of the Council Chamber into the halls. "What if they decide to turn violent? Make demands?"

Afaya shook her head. "They are frustrated, it is true. And we should be more understanding. But Nikola knows that they are but angels compared to gods, to use some of their vernacular."

Feren shook his head, clasping his hands together on the edge of the railing. "I do not like the thought of being worshipped as gods. But I suppose that is what the Earthlings largely think of us."

"It is certainly what they think—Nikola and his circle. Which is precisely why they must never be allowed in the west by virtue of the Gate."

Feren glanced her way. "Do you think they will one day arrive in the west? With their primitive ways?"

Afaya shrugged. "Who knows what fates await their world? But in the meantime, there are things stirring in the west that I must observe. And I do not need Darkness there to muddle around with my plans."

Feren chuckled. "No, especially not when there is plenty of it from Terenful these days. Have you heard what the High Council has been speculating in regards to Shadow?"

Afaya waved it off. "I would not worry too much about it. Shadow is a fallen world. Its Gate is easily maintained."

0.0.0

From her perch atop the small foothill, Afaya watched as the valley below her teemed with life. This was one of the wonderful reasons she enjoyed traveling through the Gate to Origin. There was a seasonal difference between their worlds. As winter gained an icy grasp on her homeland, beautiful summer in all of its glory unfolded upon the Earth.

In particular, she took note of the village to the south, scattered with various individuals going about the day's labor. This was a good time for their people; with a brief respite from the wars they usually seemed engaged in with their neighboring tribes. Especially the tribe settled around the bald rock to the west. Oh my, they certain had their squabbles.

Ancient enemy, she mused at the title they had chosen. She would have to keep track of the language development. Whatever its translation, no doubt it would follow those people for centuries, until they were defined by it entirely.

As the slightly brighter sun of this world shown warmly on her face, Afaya let her mind drift. She felt outwards, much the same way she would on Izik in an attempt to bridge with the Annals in the sacred Aroginis. Of course, the Annals were far beyond her reach on Earth. As far as anyone in the Council could remember from their ancient records, no one had been able to link up with the Annals while on Origin.

Nonetheless, as Afaya let her mind drift, she felt a presence out there. It had a certain familiarity about it. She could never quite reach it, and it never felt interested on reaching across the barrier to her. But it was there all the same.

There must be a connection between the decline of magical use on Earth and her ability to reach the Annals; regardless of what the Dictum of Noble Governance taught. The traditional tenets of Aroism held that the Aroginis touched all life across the seas of stars in the skies. It was an energy that expanded throughout the universe, feeling and touching life as a natural force alongside the governing magic of all inhabitants on each world. It must surely hold power in all of the worlds through the six Gates, though Origin and Shadow remained the only two in remembrance. Even then, Afaya couldn't say for sure what impact the Aroginis had on the fallen world Shadow. She wished the other four Gates hadn't been lost and forgotten in past millennia; there was nothing to contrast her studies on Origin.

Afaya reached out once more, trying to feel some sense of the magic that had once governed this world.

And, quite suddenly, it reached back.

Afaya inhaled sharply, nearly falling backwards from her cross-legged sitting stance. Images filled her mind in quick succession: A being engulfed in dark mist; a village far to the south of here. Then she saw its people in great suffering. Terrible suffering.

Afaya felt two strong hands on her shoulders and she blinked open her eyes. It was one of the local villagers, and he looked terrified to see her. He immediately shrunk, collapsing on his chest and bowing in front of her.

"Forgive me, Goddess!" he exclaimed. "The Elders sent me as a messenger to seek you! You seemed troubled, perhaps overcome. Forgive me!"

Afaya shook off the daze. "It is all right. What do the Elders want?"

He didn't look up from his prostration. "I do not know. Only that they fear greatly. Please hurry!"

Afaya leapt to her feet. She wasn't too thrilled that the Elders turned to her as Deity, but this time it sounded like general disconcert. She grabbed the young villager by the scruff of his buckskin, yanking him to his feet in the process.

"Come with me. I do not have time for you to punish yourself all day in the sun. All is forgiven."

That brightened his spirits immensely. He had no trouble keeping pace with her the way back down from the foothills to his village on the south side of the valley.

Once there, Afaya was ushered into a central hut, where seven men sat around a smoking pit, their faces all grave set. Their Chief sat at the head, adorned by much more colorful animal skins and an elaborate headdress. In one hand he held an ancient staff, perhaps passed on by an ancestor, fixed with several clay rattles. He fixed his eyes on her while the others bowed their heads in reverence.

"Glass Goddess," the Chief spoke. "You honor us with your swift visitation. I see that we have had great blessing in sending our messenger."

Afaya knew that the witless young man that had been sent to fetch her would now no doubt find himself in high revere with the Elders. Perhaps a position in their numbers guaranteed later in life. It paid to be the lucky guy who found Afaya sitting up in the foothills from time to time.

"Chief, I understand you have urgent matters," she pressed. "Please be quick in your delivery."

The Chief nodded, shaking the clay rattles on his staff. The smoke in the air began to dance, making Afaya feel slightly light-headed. She began to see images, much like the ones she had seen so briefly before in the foothills.

"The Sun Spirit has shown us terrible things. An evil spirit from the south strides upon this land, consuming all in its path. Soon its hunger will be upon us, lest you turn its wrath away."

Afaya could see clearly now. The figure enshrouded in dark mist; a Dark Lord. She didn't recognize the person; she couldn't tell if they were man or woman. But whoever they were, they used Dark magic and the superstitions of whatever village they happened upon to frighten and eventually slaughter the people. She watched in horror as the being snatched several of the young men and women, piercing their minds ruthlessly, as if searching.

And it was heading ever further north.

Whoever they are, they must be drawn by the Gate. Or perhaps they have heard of it.

One thing Afaya was certain of, though. Her instincts and suspicions were right; the people of Origin hadn't totally lost touch with the Aroginis. Even now, it was speaking to them, in the form of their Sun Spirit. Perhaps that made her a sort of messenger.

"Do not fear," Afaya said. "I will seek this spirit that marches upon these lands. And then we shall see what sort of force it truly is."

0.0.0

He was waiting for her at the base of a small wash.

Afaya wasn't surprised. Three days past, since she had departed from the village Elders, she had felt his presence. At least she assumed it was a he.

Yes, it was a he; she could sense that now, too. A Dark Lord of ancient power that had lain dormant for quite some time. Perhaps centuries. Afaya felt out with her magic, trying to gain a sense of his power. More than anything, she wanted to make sure this wasn't someone from Europe that Nikola had neglected to mention. If he was, and now somehow here in the west, then there would be a heavy penalty for Nikola and his friends to pay.

However, as she reached out, she felt her magic shunted back, as if pushed sharply. He was repelling her. Well, there was only one thing to do about that.

Hopping down from the crumbly shelf of the wash, she marched across the parched, crackled ground towards him.

"Identify yourself, Dark Lord," she barked in command. "What are you doing in lands under my stewardship?"

"Yours?" the Dark Lord laughed. "This land belongs to no one."

"Wrong," she replied, putting her hands on her hips. "As Guardian of the Earth Gate, I have been given sole authority over magical affairs in these lands. And unless you are in league with those minors in Europe, you have no right to claim any land."

The Dark Lord inhaled long and sharply, almost as if a hiss. He slowly raised one hand, forming a motion that Afaya did not recognize.

"I am not of this world."

He stretched his hand out quite suddenly, violently, sending a strange arc of colored light towards Afaya. She had expected as much and deflected the attack. The light collided with a dry patch of ground, exploding outward in a shower of clay and dirt. A column of dust rose high into the air.

"And soon enough," he continued, "you will no longer be in it."

Afaya swift sped forward, preparing two contact bursts for attack. The Dark Lord was prepared, sidestepping her and delivering his own burst. Afaya had anticipated this move as well, channeling his own connection and feeding her magic through it. She got a nasty burn where he touched her, but the end result knocked him high into the air and then flat on his back.

Grunting in pain, Afaya glanced over her shoulder to see a tear in the back of her robes, her skin slightly bloodied and red with a distinct hand print where he had touched her. She didn't bother wasting any magic on it at the moment. It was only discomforting. She would need to save her strength for the rest of the battle.

The Dark Lord was stumbling to his feet now, his mist having faded. Perhaps it was only for show, because now it seemed to be the least of his focus.

He rushed her this time, but again she was ready. Instead of directly attacking her, he lashed outward with two lancing beams. Afaya launched herself high into the air, somersaulting past his assailment.

She landed behind him, casting a lance of her own. He managed to spin around in time to catch the energy in his palm and direct it back at her. Afaya took it; hard, on her left arm. She managed to contain most of the magic, but it left another nasty burn.

They traded several more blows. Afaya was quickly getting tired of dancing around this vainglorious fool. So after dodging another lance burst, she jumped high into the air, briefly focusing all of her energy on point to point conveyance. It cost her dearly, but the result was landing on his back out of thin air; something he could not prepare for.

Afaya latched on tightly, feeling his robes grow hot with contact magic. It sizzled and cooked at her, but she countered with her own. The two forces pushed fiercely against each other until something finally gave way.

A great shock wave exploded against Afaya, throwing her backwards sharply. The Dark Lord launched forward away from her in the other direction. Afaya hit the ground hard, still moving while digging a crater into the parched Earth.

Then it all went to black.

0.0.0

When Afaya woke, it was dark out. Only Origin's solitary moon provided a minor form of illumination.

Groaning, her throat dry from lack of water, Afaya pulled herself out of the crumbling dirt crater surrounding her body. She was surprised by how far the impact force had carried her, dragging a long trough through the clay soil where she had crashed.

Her first order of business was summoning moisture out of the night air. That took severe work, her strength failing her. But shortly enough she had enough water at her disposal to quench her thirst. In the driest of places on the Earth, there was always an opportunity to summon the rarest moisture. Origin was nearly as water covered as Izik.

Her next task was to assess her opponent. Much like Afaya, he had managed to forge a great crater where he had tumbled from their spar. But he had already awoken and passed on. Either he was completely uninterested in slaying her or had mistakenly assumed that she had perished. Either way, she had a chance to follow him.

All night she made her way north. By morning she was surprised to find that she had covered nearly the entire distance back to the Elder's village situated near the Gate.

And there was her Dark Lord, floating high over the village as if he were a dark spirit these people believed in. Most of the tribesmen were out, crude weapons in hand, making a vain attempt to fight against the new foe.

"Where is the portal?!" the Dark Lord growled loudly. His voice carried across the valley. "Wretched creatures! If you will not serve me, then I will see destruction upon you when Final Convergence is mine!"

Afaya blinked. That…that was an odd threat to make. But he was too consumed in whatever dramatic effect he was trying to make on the villagers to notice her arrival.

Afaya bounded up into the air. By the time the Dark Lord sensed her presence, it was too late. She collided with him roughly, and the two splashed down in the murky green river that wound through the valley. Below the surface he struggled briefly, but Afaya quickly lashed out with two lance beams that lit up the river with bright streaks of orange light.

And then he wasn't fighting her anymore. It surprised Afaya so much that she dragged the body with her out of the river and onto the shore. For a long time she stared at the now unremarkable Lord, two blackened gashes where her lances had finished him. By now most of the villagers had started spilling down from the hillsides, a gathering forming around her to praise and worship. She could have cared less; her focus was too far away to deal with the Deity treatment right now.

Besides, what self-respecting Deity would let her subjects see her drenched in filthy river water?

Afaya probed out, residual strength returning. She tried to search the fallen Lord for any sign of life. There was not a single drop of it left; not a hint of magic. That was startling. Was he weaker than she had ever sensed? Or had she received more powerful magic to aid her from the Gate? Afaya didn't recall feeling the channel of magic pour into her, but it wasn't something she was necessarily conscious of in the heat of the battle.

At any rate, the mysterious Lord, definitely not of Earth, was defeated. And her villagers were now all gathered around her, ecstatic and praising her more than she felt comfortable.

"You have saved us," the Chief said as he strode to the front of the crowd. "The Glass Goddess has saved our people from this terrible Darkness."

0.0.0

"He had to be Izikian," Afaya said at last. "But I cannot fathom how he got to Origin."

Feren leaned back in his seat, lacing his fingers thoughtfully behind his head. In the faded evening light from their eatery terrace, his features looked quite striking. The way the orange sunlight played off his dark eyes almost made Afaya forget about the strange business surrounding the Dark Lord. She wanted to forget the unusual episode and focus on enjoying their time together.

Feren inhaled, shaking his head as he glanced over terrace wall at the city below. "Well, we can check in with the High Council. We know all of the Council's rings are accounted for. The Temple Guard at Earth's Gate would have alerted us to unauthorized access."

Afaya scoffed. "The Temple Guard? I am the Guardian. I could have told you long, long ago that someone was using the Gate illicitly. I keep track."

Feren grinned, shaking his head. "Well if he positively did not use any of the usual routes from Izik, then he must not be from Izik."

Afaya smirked, sensing the beginnings of a long hypothetical debate in the making. Feren always liked to jest about multiple Gates between each of the worlds. And in a sort of way it explained how a mysterious Dark Lord could crop up without Afaya's knowledge. But there was something else that Feren didn't know yet.

"He invoked a threat against the Earthlings," she began, "warning them of Final Convergence."

Feren's eyebrows shot up and he sat up straight in his chair. "Now that is strange." He scratched at his chin thoughtfully, his eyes growing distant in memory. "I have not heard that bedtime story since my study days of youth past. We only touched on it lightly in our history research."

Afaya nodded. "A legend, if nothing else. But I assume this Lord was simply looking for colorful verbiage to scare the villagers. Unless perhaps he was a Shadowian with an interest in pursuing old myths of glorious power."

Mischievousness crept back into Feren's features. "Ah, so perhaps our little Dark Lord has found a secret Gate from Shadow to Earth?"

Afaya smiled, shaking her head. She wasn't in the mood to pursue that particular jest. "I would not know. But it is clear that my studies in the west must continue. There is some dormant magic still alive on Origin. As the Guardian—as all future Guardians—we need to keep a watchful eye."

"In case something slips through from Shadow?" Feren teased.

Afaya hesitated. No, not Shadow. Shadow may one day be a problem for Izik, but Origin had potential for its own great problems.

"In case magic returns in force to Origin. Both Light and Darkness."