This piece is long, so I'm putting it under a page break
The Pyrad is not a living desert. Spanning most of the Vulpran continent’s southwest quarter, it is an arid land of shifting sand dunes and little else. Nomadic tribes have tried to make the Pyrad their home, but even their trade routes merely skirt the edges where the water to support wells and oases can actually be reached without digging for half a week or more. It is said only ghosts and monsters of the Dark can dwell in the desert’s heart. Those stories are only half right: ghosts have no interest in hanging about where nobody lives.
Yet, there is something unusual in the very center of the Pyrad, something spoken of only in whispers by hooded figures during dark rituals in secret rooms: the Valley of Myasmou, entryway to the Dark Empire of Vanastos. The valley is said to be filled with the toxic fumes that leak through the seal that keeps Vanastos and his armies from marching forth to conquer Vulpran and topple the celestial mountain home of the Eternal Ones, and no man can breathe in the Valley unless prepared by a servant of the Dark. Many have tried, for one purpose or another. Those who returned to tell the tale can be counted on one hand.
Georgan intended to be numbered among the survivors. After years of climbing the ranks of the Forbidden Church in Burik, Georgan felt the call to travel to the Pyrad and seek out the Valley of Myasmou. He spent weeks in preparation, making sacrifice and supplication to Vanastos for favor, protection, and power. Another week was spent infiltrating the Pyrad, dodging around the nomads who guard the desert’s heart against fools and men like Georgan. At last, he stood on the precipice of the Valley. The noxious miasmic fumes spewed from rocks stained purple over the centuries; the gas curled and roiled but never rose above the lip of the Valley.
The sun, which had already been merciless to Georgan on his journey through the shade-lacking desert, seemed to grow hotter as he hesitated from taking the first step into the purple mist. Perhaps this was foolish, he thought, and I am not as worthy as I assumed. He shook his head to drive the intrusive doubt away. “No, I have come this far. To turn back now would only prove me a coward, and Lord Vanastos deals not with cowards.”
Unwrapping the cloth that shielded his head from the sun, Georgan folded it over his mouth, tied it tight, and plunged into the Valley of Myasmou.
Luke du Burik, crown prince of Burik hauled himself on top of yet another almost too-tall ledge on the face of Mount Ethury, and then sat down on the edge and stared out at the eastern horizon, which glowed with the red and orange light of a sun that only now was starting to rise into view. What am I doing out here? he wondered for the third time that day. The Crown Prince of Burik has no business being out of bed at this hour.
“Hurry up, son!” King Lucio II called to his son from farther up the mountain.
Luke cast an unbelieving look up at the King. “Perhaps you should slow down a little,” he said. “You’re not a young man anymore.” King Lucio just smiled enigmatically and continued climbing. Luke sighed and got back to his feet. It wasn’t like he had much of a choice; abandoning his father would not shine favorable on the future, even if the man was possibly going senile.
As Crown Prince of Burik, the holiest kingdom of Vulpran, Luke du Burik stood to inherit not just the crown but the far more important job of Avatar of Luminox. The eldest of the Eternal Ones had chosen the scions of Burik’s royal family as His Avatar since the dawn of recorded history, and since his twentieth birthday Luke had suspected the time when the mantle would pass to him was fast approaching. His father had been close-lipped about the actual process, but as Luke climbed to the next ledge, he started to form a guess. Few mortals dared climb the sacred Mount Ethury beyond the upper foothills, and none would have started the climb at the unholy hours between midnight and predawn so they could try and get to the peak by full sunrise. Well, Luke thought, at least it’s not a boring ceremony in the Temple like I feared. If you’re going to make a man into the herald and mouthpiece of a god, it had better be a memorable experience. He pulled himself up onto one last ledge, and breathed a sigh of relief when he saw a narrow but clear footpath ahead of him. It was long past time his legs shared in the fire that burned in his arms and fingers. He saw his father disappear around a large rock and ran to catch up.
When Luke rounded the rock, however, King Lucio was nowhere to be seen. “Father?” Luke called out. He continued to run until a cloud formed around him out of nowhere. Luke came to a sudden stop, unable to see the trail, and called out or his Father again.
A voice answered, “Fear not, and keep walking forward, my child.” The voice was unfamiliar to the prince, and yet he felt his heart swell with feelings of kinship and trust as it repeated its instruction. Cautiously, for he still could not see the path, Luke put one foot in front of the other once. Twice. His third step came down on a patch of soft, impossibly green grass and the cloud vanished as suddenly as it appeared. Instead of the rocky face of Mount Ethury, Luke now stood upon a lawn in the courtyard of a grand golden palace with four towers that rose to heights beyond mortal sight. Luke stood in awe until a figure appeared at the top of the three steps leading to palace’s door.
“Father!” Luke cried, running to the figure, only to stop short of the steps when the figure changed from the image of his father to that of a tall, glowing man whose features were obscured by his luminance and yet was obviously smiling down at the Crown Prince. Luke dropped to his knees and averted his eyes to the ground, for this could only be one being: “Luminox, my god and master!” Luke stammered.
“Stand up, my child,” Luminox said, his voice commanding yet gentle and amused, “and let this be the last time you ever take a knee before me or any other Eternal One while we are in this space. The role of Avatar often demands discarding formalities for the sake of expediency. And look me in the face, Luke,” he added as the Prince scrambled to his feet but kept his eyes down, “my brightness will not blind you.”
“Yes, Master,” Luke said, although years of religious conditioning made bringing his eyes up to meet the theoretical location of Luminox’s eyes a heavy burden. “May I… My father, does he wait for us inside for the ceremony?”
The sense of Luminox’s amused smile grew stronger. “Your father still sleeps down in Burik, Luke,” he said. “I am the one who awakened you and led you up here. Worry not; I did the same to your father when it was his time to take up the mantle of Avatar, and I forewarned him of the date I’d come for you. There will be no panic when you return home. Now come,” he gestured for Luke to approach and enter the palace. “My fellow Eternal Ones await inside to greet you. Gaimadre has prepared a worthy breakfast, and afterward, we will discuss your place in the universe and duties as my Avatar.”
Gerogan thought “Dark Empire of Vanastos” was an ambitious name for the dark, cramped caverns he had discovered at the bottom of the Valley of Myasmou. While the impish guards he had kicked around just inside the entrance could scurry away easily, Georgan had bumped his head on no less than four low openings in one short hour. Twice, a demon had emerged from a shadowed alcove to challenge Georgan’s presence in the caverns. The first stood down when Gerogan showed the secret sign of Vanastos carved into his shoulder, but the second had required Gerogan to assert his dominance through dark magics. The denizens of the dark left him alone after that, although none would point the way to Vanastos’ throne.
The caverns were labyrinthine, but ultimately not impossible to navigate through nor all that expansive. Gerogan knew he had found the throne room when he came upon the only actual door he’d seen yet, guarded a by large demon with three eyes set into a vaguely goat-like skull, muscles thicker than Georgan’s chest, and holding a sickle in each hand. Georgan faltered for a step when the demon came into view, but he quickly schooled his features into an air of confidence, for demons were quick to prey on weakness and fear.
“I see now why Vanastos needs mortal servants,” Georgan said as he approached the door. “The ‘army’ being kept in these caves couldn’t conquer a trading post, let alone storm Mount Ethury.” He stopped as the demon raised one sickle in a warning gesture. “Move aside,” Gerogan commanded. “I am Georgan, master of the Dark Arts. I have come for an audience with Vanastos himself.”
The demon’s third eye - the only one with a proper iris and pupil - blinked, but it didn’t stand down. “Mortal,” it said, “I cannot let you pass.”
Georgan’s brows knit together, and he summoned clouds of shadows to gather in his hands. “Did you not hear me? I have mastered the Dark Arts; I have the power to command you. Step aside so I may speak with your master.”
The demon lowered its sickle, but did not move. “I have my command already, mortal: None may enter Vanastos’ chamber.”
Georgan’s anger flared to full rage. “I did not come this far, through desert and poison and blood, just to be turned away! I will see Vanastos, now!” He brought his hands together, and the shadows shot forward to punch the three-eyed demon in the chest. The creature fell back against the door, but then straightened up and brandished its weapons.
“You have chosen death,” the demon said before leaping at Georgan, sickles raised to cut him down.
One cannot rise to the top of the dark cults of Vanastos without learning to fight, and fight dirty. Georgan ducked and rolled under the pouncing demon, coming to feet in front of the door. He reached for the handle, but a snort from behind warned him that the demon was already back on balance, and he dodged to the left just in time to avoid losing an arm to the sickles. Georgan whirled and kicked the demon in the side, staggering it, and then followed up with a hasty blast of dark magic that drove the creature into the far wall. The demon grunted in pain, but got up and faced Georgan faster than a hulking thing like it should be capable of. It threw one of its sickles in a whirling manner, aiming for Georgan’s neck, but another hasty spell from Georgan sent the weapon back on a new trajectory that removed the demon’s head from its shoulders.
“A fair price for defying the new Chosen of Vanastos,” Georgan spat at the corpse before turning his attention to the door. It was made of a dark substance that looked like wood but proved to be as hard and heavy as stone. After tugging uselessly at the handle for several minutes, Georgan stood back and blasted the door with his shadowy magic. The door withstood the assault at first, but after a second blast something gave and the door swung open. “One last test, then,” Georgan said, smiling. He strode into the room, head held high and shoulders square, all doubts of facing his master cast aside. When his eyes adjusted to the darkness of the throne room, however, Georgan’s shoulders sank and his jaw threatened to come loose. The great throne of Vanastos… was vacant. “Where…” he gasped.
Georgan heard a sigh behind him and spun around to see the three-eyed, goat-headed demon enter the throne room, rejoining its amputated head to its neck as it walked. “I’ve lost fights to a few supplicants like yourself over the centuries, mortal,” it said, “but you’re the first to try decapitating me. It’s an... interesting sensation.”
“W-where is Vanastos?” Georgan asked, arms and knees beginning to quiver.
“Lord Vanastos has a… prior engagement,” the demon said.
“Where?!” Georgan demanded. “I’ve searched this entire cavern and not seen any sign of him!”
The three-eyed demon just shook its head. “I was not supposed to let you in this room,” it said, “nor tell anyone Vanastos’ business.” It smiled at Georgan, sending a chill down the man’s spine. “And no matter how many times you take off my head, I won’t disobey orders.”
Luke du Burik’s mind finally stopped spinning near the end of the first course, and he was able to take proper stock of his surroundings. He was seated at a long table along with all six of the Eternal Ones. Luminox sat at the table’s head, as was his right as chief of the gods, and Luke was in the place of honor on Luminox’s left. The seat across from Luke was vacant, without even a place setting. Next to Luke sat Fuegalio, the Eternal One of Fire. He was considered the patron god of war, passion, and martial prowess, but here at the breakfast table he was dressed in a comfortable-looking robe the color of charcoal.
Fuegalio had been the one of first Eternal Ones Luke encountered after entering the palace. When Luke managed to refrain from bowing to him, as Luminox had commanded, Fuegalio had given him an approving look. “Oh, he learns fast,” Fuegalio had said to Luminox as he fell into step with the glowing figure. “It took his father, what? Two weeks to remember not to kowtow in our casual company?” Luminox just nodded. Fuegalio laughed and looked back at Luke. “Not that my opinion actually matters,” he said, “but I think you’ll do well, kid.”
Across from Fuegalio was Myuzephyr, Eternal One of Winds, guardian of the woods and mistress of the Muses. The stories painted her as being as light-hearted and congenial as she was beautiful, yet she had hardly spoken a word since Luke met her, other than to snap at Fuegalio’s attempt at teasing a smile out of her. “What’s got your feathers in a twist, beautiful?” Fuegalio had said while they walked, reaching a hand to stroke one of Myuzephyr’s ephemeral wings, only for Myuzephyr to swat the hand aside.
“I am in a foul mood, fireman,” Myuzephyr said, “but it is not aimed at you. Yet.” Fuegalio had thrown his hands up in surrender at that, although throughout the meal he hadn’t taken his eyes off Myuzephyr, as if trying to stare her secret into the open.
Next to the tense gods of Fire and Air sat Gaimadre and Sage Mortave, the Eternal Ones of, respectively, Earth and Spirits, and they were determined to counter Myuzephyr’s dour atmosphere with witty conversation. Gaimadre and Sage Mortave were different in almost every appreciable way: Gaimadre’s element meant she had command over living things, especially plants, and her skin, hair, and homespun robes reflected the dark colors of rich, healthy soil, while Sage Mortave ruled the realm of the dead and was almost pure white under his pitch black clothes and the metal helmet with a vulpine visor he always wore down. Despite their opposing natures, or perhaps because of them, the pair were said to have the closest relationship of the Eternal Ones. Whether that relationship was of siblings or lovers was a source of much argument among priests and philosophers across Vulpran. Luke listened to them banter for a while as he lingered over a sweet pudding, but their words to each other gave him no clues to the mystery.
Sitting on the far end of the table was the Eternal One of Water, Aquaros. Like the ever-glowing Luminox, Aquaros’s form was difficult to describe adequately, although in the latter case it was due to constantly shifting in shape like a turbulent pond. All that Luke could say for certain was that Aquaros, undisputed lord of the seas and bringer of storms, was hardly bigger than one of the companion dogs favored by the ladies of Burik’s court, and usually shaped similarly to a dog or cat as well. He was also evidently quite taciturn, having spared only a brief greeting to Luke before focusing his attention entirely on a fish dish of some sort.
“How do you fare, young Luke?” Luminox asked suddenly. “Beginning to feel at ease?”
Luke looked around the table one more time, seeing each of the Eternal Ones put down their utensils and look at him. Luke swallowed. “Yes, my master, Luminox,” he said.
Luminox nodded and was about to speak again when a loud crash echoed through the dining hall. All eyes went to the doors as they were flung open with a second crash and a billow of purple miasma. Out of the cloud strode a tall, horned figure with scaled skin so dark it threatened to swallow the all light in the room, eyes that glowed like burning brimstone, and dressed in pitch-black, full plate armor bearing spikes on almost every joint. The brimstone eyes swept the room, and as they passed over Luke the prince ducked reflexively. There was no mistaking the intruder’s identity: it could only be Vanastos, the Dark Emperor of all demons, master of black magics, and sworn foe of the Eternal Ones. He should have been sealed beneath the Pyrad Desert along with his host, forced to rely on mortal lackeys and catspaws to further his plans, and yet here he was in the very heart of the Eternal Ones’ abode!
When Vanastos’s gaze moved from Luke to fixate on Luminox, the prince forced himself to stand. His hand went to the spot where he usually wore his sword, but then remembered that Luminox, in the guise of King Lucio, had told him not to bring anything but a waterskin to the mountain. Instead, he snatched a knife from the table and held it out toward Vanastos, quaking mightily but determined to make some noble attempt.
Vanastos cast one quick glimpse back at Luke, smirked, and clapped twice lightly as he addressed Luminox. “I see Burik’s kings still breed brave and true, Luminox.”
“You know I wouldn’t have it otherwise, Vanastos,” Luminox said congenially. He stood up and gestured, summoning sylvan servants to set a place at the table across from Luke’s seat. “Be welcome at our table,” Luminox said.
“Buh…” Luke’s face was so contorted with shock and confusion that he could not make his mouth form words, and he stayed standing, staring as Vanastos calmly sat down at the table, until Fuegalio gently took the knife from Luke’s hand and guided him back down onto his chair.
“There is fruit, I assume?” Vanastos asked, looking to Gaimadre.
“Of course,” Gaimadre replied, passing a bowl of mixed fruits down. She held back a single fig, however, which she promptly threw at Luminox with an annoyed snort. “And you!” she snapped. “You’ve sent your poor Avatar into shock once more. I hope you’re proud of yourself!”
“Now, now,” Sage Mortave said, “you know how the light-man has a love of the dramatics. Although,” he added in a graver tone, “the big reveal would play off better if there was more time spent on build-up and discovery beforehand.”
Luminox fixed the Sage with a look that radiated irritation. “I do not criticize your method of selecting and teaching your Avatars, Mortave, so-”
“That’s because I work with a rotating cast of reincarnated spirits, thoroughly trained and vetted by their peers before returning to mortality,” Sage Mortave interrupted. “No time is wasted on existential crises.”
Luminox’s irritation increased, and Fuegalio and Myuzephyr both looked ready to throw in their lots, but a sharp “Hey!” from Aquaros nipped the argument in the bud. “The kid’s head looks about ready to pop, there,” Aquaros continued, pointing a fork at Luke, “so could we put the entertainment on hold and give him an explanation?” The Eternal Ones cast glances at one another and sat back in the seats.
Vanastos sighed and speared a grape on his fork. “Overgrown children, the lot of you,” he said, “Aquaros excepted.” Aquaros nodded in thanks. Vanastos ate the grape and looked at Luke. “Here’s the truth of the world, kid: I do represent the element of Darkness, and that does directly oppose Luminox’s Light, but I’m not a bad guy, and I’m not actually at war with this lot. However, it is in the nature of Darkness to corrupt the minds of mortals and awaken a hunger for power.”
“But, you encourage it,” Luke said. “The stories say-”
“The stories say things that entice evil men to seek me out and ask for power,” Vanastos said grumpily, “and I’m obliged to answer those requests. That’s why my realm is buried under the Pyrad, guarded by noxious fumes, and full of demons: that weeds out the majority of the morons and keeps Vulpran from being overrun with Dark-empowered warlords and necromancers. Believe it or not, I’d prefer not to let anyone reach me; war is hellish and messy and it only incites more chaos. I have to let some Darkness out to blight Vulpran now and then, though. It’s like lancing a blister: messy and painful but necessary to prevent a worse infection.”
“You’re usually more expedient with the timing, though,” Myuzephyr muttered.
“Come again, Miyu?” Vanastos asked.
Myuzephyr leaned forward in her chair. “We keep you apprised of when we’re changing our Avatars, and you have the courtesy not to unleash one of your living disaster areas while new Avatars are still finding their balance. Yet,” he pointed at Vanastos, “last night the Desert Winds spoke to me of a man nearing the Valley of Myasmou.”
“I have no knowledge of that,” Vanastos insisted. “It’s probably just a particularly lucky sap. The Valley’s stink should drive him off.”
“This was no common man, Vanastos,” Myuzephyr said. “The Winds reported that he was a man of the Burik region, yet traveled like an experienced Pyrad nomad: always at night and weighed down with twice his weight in water. What’s more, he has dark magic already, enough to craft shelters from the sun out of the smallest shadows. I doubt some putrid miasma will slow this one down, Van.”
Vanastos frowned. “That’s troubling,” he said. “I should go, then, and handle this personally.” He stood up and started to walk away. After a few steps however, he had a second thought and came back to grab the entire fruit basket. “I’m taking this,” he declared. “I don’t get enough fruit down in those caverns. And you,” he pointed at Luke, “I hope you’re a fast learner, because you might be seeing trouble from my quarter sooner than you’d like. My apologies and best wishes for that.” He whirled around and jogged out of the dining hall.
“Well, Luke,” Luminox said, “you’ve met the real Vanastos now. What do you think?”
Luke stared silently at the door Vanastos had exited through for a long time, his mind spinning with conflicted thoughts. At length, a coherent answer form on his lips. “This is all madness,” he said.
Sage Mortave grinned and raised a glass to the prince. “Welcome to life among the immortals, princeling,” he said. “Be glad you’ll be dealing mostly with ordinary mortals and your fellow Avatars after today.”