Greg Stafford

Part 1 Issue 5, Aug. 2010
Part 2 Issue 10, Autumn 2011
Part 3 Issue 11, Winter 2012
Part 4 Issue 12, Spring 2012

The Other Side

Teelo Estara first entered the Otherworld at the Falling Place.

She did not know the method to become an independent deity. Others had become heroes, but no one had attempted to resurrect their entire body of past lives. She didn’t know what to do, and She knew that She had tried before and failed. But She tried, once again.

Her Mothers gathered with Her other followers at the sacred place, and they erected a large tent to protect everyone from the elements. Inside that tent they erected a sanctuary, and inside that sanctuary they conducted the rites to open a gateway to the Other Side. They used prayers and sacrifice, spells and veneration, spirits and visions, as Teelo Estara had instructed them. In the center of their circle, the gateway appeared, and in the gateway a strange being whom only Jakaleel knew, and Teelo Estara walked towards it and then into it.

The creature before Her was nothing She had seen, yet it was oddly familiar. It was something that had been rescued from oblivion by Jakaleel, the old crone who had been Her precious and protective godmother. It was a Lune, a creature unknown to the world. It was the first time that Teelo Estara saw one. She had, by that time, developed Her sorb well enough to discern what type of supernatural creature was before Her. She had been assaulted enough to know how to do this quickly. And with her sorb She peered closely at this thing, and it was clear that it was neither god, nor spirit, nor essence.

“I am Your future,” it said, upon inquiry. “In the end I shall either devour You and suck Your bones dry of marrow and grind the rest to a powder, or else I will be three shadows for You, each from a separate source of light. But for now, You must either follow me, or stay here, or go off on Your own.”

And She followed it. Since that first time, others have tried the alternatives. Some stayed, and their bones are a powder now that certain magicians use. Others have gone off on their own, and most have never been heard from again, though a few are known to exist in insufferable states of being.

“Have You ever fallen?” asked the unknown being, and of course Teelo Estara knew the answer was yes, and said so. “And have you wished for a chance to change that?” it asked, and again, Teelo Estara answered “Yes, but…” and before She was finished the ground from beneath Her disappeared, and She plummeted through open space, with the wind from Her fall whistling in Her ears like a gale.

Though She had grown strong and bold, She went white from fright at first. Yet She regained Her composure and had enough time to look around Her. She realized She was amidst other creatures, like and unlike Herself, as if there were a rain of people falling into the void below to water it with their frightened remains.

“I am not helpless,” She thought, and then She shouted, “You are not helpless!” to the others about Her. Most seemed to ignore Her cry, or found it to be just another frightening thing. She did not wait to see the result, but spread her arms like wings and swooped towards the nearest falling being. It was a small girl, much like the girl She had once been, and She scooped it into Her arms and zoomed away towards the distance, dodging the plummeting beings as She had dodged the rocks that were rained upon Her army by the birdmen of Danadix.

A mountain hove into view, and She descended upon it, to find She was again alone. Or it is possible that it was that little girl who landed, who upon being set upon the mountain found herself alone, much to her surprise.

She set off with diligence, having neither water nor food nor clothes, nor even an idea of where to go. Yet to go was better than to stay, and She went. Amidst rocks which watched Her, through grass and weeds which parted to let Her through, and under a burning brightness which had neither source nor mercy, She went on. She crossed a vast jagged plain of black obsidian that roiled in frozen waves and whose surface cut Her feet to ribbons, so that She left a trail of red footprints behind Her, wet and glistening and filling the tiny pockets in the stone.

The Big Man was visible first as a hill which offered shade. She, now burnt from head to toe by the sun upon Her naked skin, sought its shade and shelter. She was nearly upon it when it moved and turned to face Her. A head like a hillock tilted to peer down; blue eyes looked at Her, and a low rumble tumbled from its throat in a wordless sound of curiosity.

She remembered this. It was as though She had practiced it before, memorizing lines in a play whose climax and aftermath She knew. This meeting would be friendly at first, then curious, and climax at last in a fierce coupling which She remembered had been a terrifying and embarrassing spectacle.

Then She heard a bird cry, a small red thing with a pointed cap and wise black eyes. It was off to the side, and She knew that this was a sign of escape. This was the Safety Bird, and if She chose to follow it, She could escape, and attempt to make an entirely new start to Her life and Her lives. She could avoid this spectacle of inept behavior, this embarrassment of unknown experiences. And for a moment, She considered just that.

But instead, She stepped forward then into an old story, into a picture whose lines and creases and colors She already knew. It was, despite Her knowledge, a child’s drawing with scrawls instead of fine lines, of the wrong colors scribbled outside the lines of perfection. But because She knew it, and was willing to try, it was different. This time the meeting was joyful, comforting, and pleasant.

So it was that She went first to the oldest realm, in the era of the early Golden Age when She was but a child, and changed Her world. She stayed with the entity known as the Big Guy, and She lived with him in a cave. She had lived there before, eons earlier, and in Her original life and this one both She gave birth to Homura, Her sweet gem. In Her first life, She had eventually fled from this place, but this time, She cast out the Big Guy for his infidelities. This time, when he put a curse upon her, She ignored it. She thought that his curse was finished along with their love, but She did not understand its nature until it revisited Her later.

She remained there even after Homura, Her sweet gem, departed. Some of Her other children and their relatives built a small village. She taught them to make an altar, too, and upon it, they sacrificed red cocks and black pigs, and offered the placentas of their births.

Teelo Estara, who was called Teelo Verithurusa here, then arranged a great ceremony wherein She would be able to enter into the Otherworld. She had calculated that She needed to connect to another world of immortality at that very place. It was difficult, for She did not know all the prayers and gestures, nor the proper state of mind for assured success. She did get into the otherworld, but then the nature of Big Guy’s curse became apparent. Instead of establishing a connection, She was cast out again, not as Herself but as a newborn. She was her own descendant. When She was born, She did not cry, but opened her eyes and spoke to Her mother and Her grandmother.

They named Her Lesilla, or this time, Teelo Lesilla. She grew up, and She was mighty among them. Overhead sat Her former self, her Other Self; a divine body like a planet, which had turned blue when she was thrust into mortal form. She eventually learned to travel to it again, and to claim it as Her own self. She and her people went back and forth from that idyllic world. But She needed more.

Her tribe departed from that cave, as had many before them. They traveled about far and wide, noting the wonders of the world and learning what they could from it. They met, after some time, the Sons of Thunder, another tribe. At first there was conflict, but after a while they remained together and formed a new people. They built a town which became a city, and they were called the Mernitans.

Teelo Lesilla did all that She could to prepare for Her Otherworld journey. She set up schools and instructed wise and powerful people. She made an alliance with the Emperor, to obtain his help as well. Alas, that was Her downfall. When She undertook her great rite of transformation in the Otherworld, She was betrayed by the emperor, and when She found her way to the Otherworld, they did not seek to help Her return. She struggled, and She did return, but She also lost a great part of Herself. Instead of establishing a living connection with the Otherworld, She left a part of Herself there, dead. The planet overhead crashed to the ground.

Lesilla had been powerful. Her husband was an emperor, and so was Her son. But they did not love Her, being jealous in a world that was becoming overrun by such petty emotions. She was cast out among the ordinary people, and She despaired of ever finding Her way back to divinity.

For a while, She rebelled. She worked with the people of Hagu and taught them how to cast out their own failed gods. They did, but it did not help Her.

She tried surrendering. She went to the Emperor in the hill, called the Vast Dome, and She surrendered to him. She was put to work in the most demeaning and terrible ways, and She worked without complaint. Yet that gained Her nothing as well. When it came time to blame, She was cast as scapegoat and offered to the demons of evil. They impaled her upon a great pointed stake and the demons came and devoured her slowly.

She was devoured, but regenerated. She was suffering, but untouched. She was the cause of trouble, and its victim. She was all things and nothing. She realized that her souls had been peeled from Her and tossed away into the winds of change and time. She was down to her last scrap of dignity and self. She remembered the past, Her pasts, Her experiences and knowledge and everything which had ever been. It was all inadequate for this.

That was when She realized her plight, and She stopped. She sat still, did nothing, save for being where and what She was. That was when the greatest monster of all came to Her and threatened Her. It is called Blaskarth by the Empire now, and others called it Wakboth, Kajabor, Invendith, Sekeveragata, or simply just Cosmic Death. Utter annihilation. Loss of self. It stalked Her, slowly, to drag out Her agony and fear. She was afraid, and then so afraid that the fear could not exist within Her and burned itself out. So She was brave, but so brave that the courage too burned itself out. And so She cried until She could cry no more, and then She laughed in its face. She laughed until She could laugh no more, and so on through every possible feeling and thought until She was at last devoid of thought and emotion, entirely calm. Blaskarth hovered over her, the shadow of nonexistence, and neither with nor without knowledge She offered Her throat and womb to it. It struck, sinking hollow iron fangs deep within Her soul.

She died. All died. Everything. She failed to exist.

She was not Her. She was. Not Her. Not. Her.

Blaskarth hovered over her, and She offered Her throat and womb to it. It struck, sinking hollow iron fangs deep within Her soul.

She then saw what She had not. An empty cave. A ruined city. A desolate landscape. A meaningless life. These, and others, were the places she had tried to enter the Otherworld and establish Her presence. She then contemplated, without emotion, how She might return.

That was when Yanafal Tarnils found Her, a hollow husk, an empty shell, a meaningless being.

Now, we need to tell briefly of this brave fellow, the boldest in the land.

Yanafal Tarnils had been born well, with strength and intelligence. He was not afraid to kill, nor to offer himself to death for a good cause; nor was he afraid of life. He had also learned courage and, perhaps more importantly, discretion and the critical application of caution.

This great man of war never wavered in his loyalty to the goddess that he had helped to awaken. He was never disobedient, even when he was sent away from battle at Memkorth. But like all those Saints of Her Life he was subject to doubt, for that was always a part of Her teaching. So when She went upon her great Godquest and left him in charge of the army, he was at the front or the rear of the fight, as required, to defend the sanctuary.

He would never have left his post, except that the call of doubt nagged at him from across worlds. She had been gone for years, whereas everyone had expected it to be weeks at the most. Her followers in the Tent of Life had become discouraged; many had lost heart and abandoned the ceremony. Enemies had grown stronger and bolder, and they had begun to assemble and move upon the followers of She-who-would-be-goddess.

So he then left the command to Paktalus, and he entered into the quest across other worlds to follow that call. Disobedient to Her word, he was nonetheless loyal to his obligations. He wandered through known and unknown events of the Gods War, and everything which dared to oppose him was slain or imprisoned. He was finally confronted by the ghost of Death, an empty Death that could devour his soul as a bat eats a fly. It was the dead Death, which to him appeared as a gigantic wasp, the Carmanian incarnation of whatever lay beyond Death. It was the goddess Ak, which had birthed the first Sword, the first wielder of that Sword, and the first Death. Tarnils fought it, first without success. But he stopped fighting for just one moment, and that foul creature sank its fangs into his hip. Then, with cool detachment borne from limitless practice and experience, he lopped the head from it. Yanafal Tarnils continued to struggle forward with that head attached to him, dipping burning ichor as he walked. The Trail of Death is thus well marked and well known now, and it leads now to the place he found: the Fields of Waste, where he came upon Her ragged corpse, devoured by wasps and maggots and the empty ghosts of the bondage eagles which he had once, long ago, slain. She was staked upon a post, impaled like a puppet, and to his eyes She seemed to be suffering beyond all understanding.

“It is your fault,” said a voice, and when the fear of that truth entered his heart, that was the moment of his greatest doubt, yet of his greatest trust in himself as well. And so, caught in that dichotomy of assurance and fear, he saw Taraltara, the impossible being who could not be seen.

“You are the cause, Taraltara,” Yanafal Tarnils said to the Great One. He began to calculate how he might fight it. He felt the head of Ak gnawing at his hip.

“Not I, but She,” replied Taraltara. And that was when Teelo Estara saw that Her tormenter was not Blaskarth, but Taraltara, the Great Mystery which underlay the whole of both cosmos and Chaos.

And from the grisly post where She was impaled, Teelo Estara, or the ghost of Her spirit, spoke.

“Good fellow, loyal man,” said Teelo Estara, “I am glad to see you.” And those words encouraged him to ignore the Greatest One, the Impossible One, and instead to focus again upon his job at hand.

“Good man, I need your decision,” said Teelo Estara. “The world needs you and your skills. You have been gone from the world for months now. Back there, I see our people being slain, being captured, and their souls and spirits taken into cages like birds. You can go back. They need you.” Before he had set off to find Teelo Estara Yanafal Tarnils had heard Her one plaintive call for help from afar. Now he heard without doubt the innumerable moans of the wounded, the shrieks of the dead, and the cries of those in the sanctuary who were facing imminent demolition at the hands of their foes.

Teelo Estara then gave him a choice. She reminded him of the countless loyal followers on the other side who were awaiting his return. “Your men and women,” said the goddess, “you can save them!”

“Those are Your followers, as well,” he said. “They wait for You. And do I need to remind You that You have told me that the greatest sacrifice is of the Self?” he asked Her. And he stood. “My decision is made,” he said. And he took the sword from his scabbard and looked at Her. “You, I love,” he said, and with a quick move, he turned the blade upon himself and thrust it through his heart. He fell to the ground. It was only then that the grisly head of the wasp dropped from his hip, and it chuckled as it did.

“A life given for yours,” said the Great One. “You live.” And Teelo Estara fell from the stake, a small ember of life now independent of agony. Taraltara then gave the goddess a choice.

“You live. You are not alone. You are alive, and You can return to Your life with one other.” And She was given a choice of others to take back to life with Her. “See, here are two beings who have given their lives for Yours. They are the most deserving, who gave without knowing.” And before Her were two, Teelo Norri the young girl, and Danfive Xaron, the criminal.

“They have forfeited their lives for You, and as a reward for Your effort, You may bring one of them back.” When She looked upon them, She saw that Danfive Xaron, the arch-criminal, was full of fear, while Teelo Norri, the innocent girl, was full of acceptance.

"Well, certainly these are equal, for though one in life was horrible and a terror, while the other was innocent and kind, they are both living beings of equal value. In the world of men they differ, but across the many lives they have lived, are they so different? Here in the empty plains of nothingness, I see they are equal.” Then Teelo Estara pointed to the bloody corpse of Yanafal Tarnils,

“And him, too?” asked Teelo Estara. “May I go back with him?”

“Oh, yes, of course. He took his own life, but it was for You,” said Taraltara. “So, should You wish, it may be him as well. Yet, would You prefer him, the death-giver, to her, Your gem?” Here Taraltara indicated Homura, the first child of Teelo Estara, who had brought Her from selfishness to an awareness of the world. It had been Homura who had akindled the Goddess, and made Her the Mother of Kindness as well.

“Then I see I have many more choices,” said Teelo Estara. “I see that I may return with any being who has given his life for Me, or part of Myself which has given itself that I may be here now. Is that correct? I may take them instead?” asked Estara. She saw the faces of her lovers who had died, and even of those souls who were fighting desperately in the Tent of Life, leaderless without Yanafal Tarnils, who had been dead in the world for only an instant and were now joining the crowd.

At that moment, Danfive Xaron became uncomfortable, for he sensed that there were perhaps hundreds of thousands who might qualify for this honor. And Danfive Xaron, of course, wished first for his own life to be returned. He had not relished his time in a suffering Hell.

“Yes,” said the Great Goddess. “Choose any.”

“Then,” said Teelo Estara, “I choose You.” No further dialogue was necessary. The truth of that statement was evident. In that place, no more trickery or choice or option was possible.

Taraltara smiled then, and Her smile was that of Teelo Estara. Each looked upon Herself. Two were not there, nor was One. It was not Zero, either, but something else.

And there, around Teelo Estara, rose a tent of wondrous beauty. Its fabric was of celestial silk, which Homura had first woven.

“I live,” said six beings at once, in that moment. Three stood beside Teelo Estara, on the plains which were no longer those of nothingness. Teelo Norri, Danfive Xaron, and Yanafal Tarnils were with her. And in another world, where life and death were separate, the words were spoken by Deezola, a queen who had a moment before been pierced by a sword and two spears; and by a badly wounded scholar, armed with just a dagger and a shield; and by a great and powerful shaman who had been stripped of all her defenses by sorcery that ate spirits.

“We are all Us,” they said, all six and another one, who for that second knew they were a part of the Great Sedenya.

“Hell and damnation,” swore a great wizard at that same moment, though he was far across the field of battle, and then he faltered and fell, unconscious with blood running from his mouth, nose, ears and eyes. His lord, the son of a Shah, saw it and paled.

“Take him up,” commanded the shah’s son, “And follow me. Page, get our horses.” And around that commander, his lieutenants and messengers and staff were all suddenly afraid too, and they all dashed for their own horses.

Now, when the Goddess had departed she left a body of worshippers behind, all of them dedicated and loyal and sworn to pray, even in the midst of fear and terror. They had worked and prayed for two years, relentlessly continuing a task that they had thought would take two weeks. They had stayed there, sometimes taking time to sleep or stepping out to bathe, but generally sleeping and eating there. Winter had not deterred them, though the fires inside that tent were never warm enough. Nevertheless, they persevered, for they thought at first that a few more weeks would be the worst they would have to endure. Then they thought that the first winter cold would be the worst thing they’d have to bear. Then the endless days wore on, and the second winter seemed like the worst. But they discovered that truly the worst thing was the Carmanian army which came upon them, slicing great rents in the cloth and charging in to kill.

At the “We are all Us” moment, the Lions of Carmania were among them, hewing and slashing in that sacred tent where the devout prayed for the return of their goddess. Oh, always remember those poor gentle folk who were being slaughtered at that very moment, praying and undistracted even though they were beyond hope. They were kneeling, or lying dead and bleeding, around the central Holy Tent, from which they hoped to see the emergence of their Goddess. Instead, from it leapt a man, armed and armored, who was their commander. His sword flashed, and with each blow, a foe fell dead or wounded. Of course, that was Yanafal Tarnils.

Another emerged, naked and scowling and desperate, yet more fierce for those conditions. He fell with bare hands upon the wounded who would have risen despite their wounds, and of course that was Danfive Xaron, who strangled them, and snapped their necks, and gouged out eyes, and bit the throat of one who dared to rise from the dead to fight again.

A third came, who did not fight, who did not struggle, but who instead raised her own voice in a prayer of supplication and mercy to help her beloved fellows and helpmates who were watching. That was Teelo Norri.

That assault drove the Lion Guard from the sacred tent. But never doubt the courage and training of those enemy soldiers, for they rallied to the barked commands of their remaining leader, and would all have fallen upon Yanafal Tarnils and reversed their defeat.

It was the howling moan from above that distracted them. That howl caused everyone to look upward, from the lowliest shovel man who had been impressed into the army to the son of the shah, who was even then seated upon his great stallion and spurring it away from battle. Even Mahedres Redbeard, the sorcerer, unconscious and draped upon another steed, looked skyward with bleeding eyes.

There She was. The Goddess, Teelo Imara as She would thereafter be known, radiant and the size of a mountain, standing upon the back of a screeching crimson bat. That bat was death and more than death, the Death of Gods. It was the color of fresh blood, sticky and wet, and the blood dripped from it in living tendrils. Its thousand eyes looked everywhere, and those eyes each saw what they sought, and they sought to look into the eyes of whomever wished harm to its rider. The eyes of the shah’s son looked there, and the eyes of Mahedres Redbeard opened and stared, and the gaze of the Lion guards as well looked upward into a vision that was impossible for them to behold. And each of them—a thousand foes!—felt their sanity drain out their own eyes, sucked into the impossible vision, and half of them fell dead upon the spot. The rest howled as they eyes burst, and they ran, panicked and mad, unable to see where they were going. Minds were just husks, unknowing of themselves or of others, all of them empty of purpose. The bat’s eyes which had fed upon the souls of those now dead then turned and looked upon other foes, who in turn were driven mad or died. Every foe of the Goddess tried not to look, but they were compelled to see what they did not wish to see, and the madness and death entered them as well.

And what of those who loved Her? They had looked too, yet they saw only their radiant goddess, hovering there upon the back of a hummingbird, with Her extended hand bestowing blessing and healing. Those dead worshippers in the tent saw Her with their dead eyes, and they sat up, healed, and they joined in the song of praise and love that Teelo Norri was singing. Out of that canopy, beautiful music swelled, and men and women who had been struggling a moment before were filled with joy. They raised their weapons and sang as well, and watched as an army which had been trampling upon them a moment before all dropped their weapons and ran, if they did not fall dead.

So She returned. The Bat continued, screeching and howling and driving the foes deeper into madness. She stepped gracefully from its back and descended, floating, down among Her followers and alighted where the Sacred Tent stood. Under the radiance of Her presence, the wounds of the dead and hurt were healed. From the pockets of Mahedres and the cages of his minions, the hummingbird souls and the butterfly spirits were freed, and they alighted on corpses as if they were feeding on flowers. The nectar of life flowed, and the dead rose alive.

Sedenya looked upon the field, and all saw Her. Then Teelo Estara stood there for a moment, and everyone recognized Her. Then she was more, and so afterwards everyone called Her Teelo Imara.