Part #3 – Acceptance
Wenkarra had needed to leave to deal with an issue that had arisen at one of her temples, which she had delayed going to until after Hanithon woke. The goddess sometimes still handled such things personally – but only if she truly felt they needed it. Hanithon knew the goddess had slowly reduced the amount of time she spent in the mortal world because she had started to be as hounded as Besvayu once was during the Great Goddess's trips to the mortal world. Wenkarra, though, had promised to always stay more connected to the mortal world than the other gods were.
After the goddess had left, Hanithon had remained on the rocky shore and looked out to that goddess's shrine that stood on the island at the center of the lake. Other than the Blessed Gateway in the Great Hall of Therande, which was basically a holy place for Besvayu, the shrine on Astrer Lake was the only other place in Fesralde that belonged to a god other than Yuchanit.
The island the shrine was on had not been there when she had truly been Hanithon. Its appearance had been caused by the upheaval her soul twin had caused. Lots had changed because of Erathore. Mountains had crumbled and fissures had opened up. Cities had fallen in earthquakes in places earthquakes had never happened before. Weather patterns had changed, too. There had been too many other things to deal with around the world for Besvayu to concern herself too much with correcting everything so many things remained as they had become.
"All that because of me and Erathore…" She sobbed but refused to let any tears come out now. But it hurt to know what she had helped do to the worlds.
But…she had been given a second chance by the Essence itself. She was not sure if she was grateful for it or not.
Sure, she had enjoyed living another set of lives but she did not know what to do now. She had expected to go back to the mortal world after five years, not suddenly be at the end of her cycle. Despite the fact she had lived hundreds of lives, it did not feel like it was enough. She had always felt like she had more to learn; maybe her mistakes in her previous existence were the reason.
"I don't want to cease to exist," she said to a stone she picked up off the shore.
So that only left her with one option, right? She had to accept Yuchanit's offer to be a Custodian. She did not like that at all. She did not want to be connected to him again. It was not so much she was scared she would suddenly try to take him from Wenkarra; it was that she was worried she might use that connection to do things like she had done before. Even if she had not been his Emissary in this lifetime, she remembered how to access that power.
With a heavy sigh, she took the sort of flat stone she had picked up and threw it out onto the lake where it skipped eight times before sinking into the water. She smiled slightly. It was one of her best throws.
Then she frowned again.
She had to go see Yuchanit, to tell him she would be a Custodian.
Hanithon sighed heavily at that thought. She liked Fesralde but staying here forever was not something she really wanted. She had always wanted to stay longer than the five years she did between lives but she had still looked forward to returning to her lives.
But she had no other choice, did she?
She made a frustrated noise and rubbed her face then stood. She took a deep breath and thought of Yuchanit's home. A moment later she was standing in the great rotunda at the center of the structure. The floor was as it had always been – symmetrical, geometric designs. And above… She looked up at the dome high above her to the purple flower made of stained glass.
"It's so beautiful, no matter how many times I see it." And she had seen it many, many times in her previous lifetime, especially when she had become his Emissary.
Then her eyes turned to a set of doors on the ground floor and she shuddered. Beyond there was the Hall, the place that the summoning bowls were, the place that she was not sure if it still looked like the old temples or not. While she wanted to go see it, she resolutely turned toward the stairs instead and headed up to the floor Yuchanit's room was on.
Slowly, she made her way up the stairs and then down the balcony to his room. She stopped in front of the door and swallowed hard. But before she could even fully lift her hand to knock, the door opened a crack.
Slowly, she lowered her hand to the knob and pushed the door open. The room was still very similar to how it had been after Wenkarra had started staying with him so very long ago. He was sitting at his desk writing out destinies, the Quill of his Power moving even as he was turned to look at her. She ducked her head and swallowed hard.
"It is disconcerting to sense your fear, Hanithon," he said quietly.
She balled her hands into the skirt of her dress. "I cannot help it."
"I know, but it is still disconcerting to me." He blinked slowly as he turned back to the destiny he had been working on. "Give me a few moments."
"Of course, my lord."
She stepped fully inside and quietly closed the door behind her…then she clasped her hands in front of her and patiently waited for him to finish what he was doing. She felt herself shaking slightly and tried to will herself to stop it but it was no use. Tears were starting to well up in her eyes from her effort and…
Yuchanit's hand suddenly touched her cheek and she froze yet again. "It will not go away instantly, Hanithon, so don't try to force yourself; it will only cause you more harm."
"I'm sorry," she whispered.
"Don't be. To you it is like your confession was only hours ago. All of us have had a full cycle of mortal lives to come to terms with it." He removed his hand from her cheek as he drew back from her. "Why have you come to see me?"
"I want to be a Custodian again."
The god just looked at her for a long, long while. "You're absolutely certain?"
"Yes," she said, making sure to not hesitate and make him think she might still be deciding.
"I am grateful, Hanithon, but why have you suddenly accepted? Are you sure this is what you want to do?"
She had not expected him to want to know why. "I…I want…" She shook her head. "It is not my ideal choice but I know I only have two options open to me at this point. I can either return to the Essence or I can become a Custodian of Souls. I would truly prefer to return to mortal lives but…I don't think such a thing has ever been granted."
"It is not so much that it's never been granted, it's that no one has ever asked. Even you and Erathore asking permission for a single extra life was unheard of, but a single life was easy."
For just a moment she had hope… "Could I live another cycle of lives?" …but she was almost certain he would not say yes.
"You still have four years in Fesralde, even if I were to grant you more lives. Take that time to reflect on both of the sets of lives you've already had. Take that time to come to terms with the memories you only regained hours ago. If, a half a year before the end of that time, you still wish to go into more mortal lives, I will discuss this with my sister. If you decide you wish to return to the Essence, you are free to return at any time. If you decide you wish to be a Custodian again, I will make you one, but not today…not the day you learned of your other lives. You need time first." He frowned deeper than he had been. "I don't want to try to make you a Custodian while you still fear me so greatly. I don't know if you'd be able to undergo the Making without bolting."
She was utterly stunned by all this. He still cared so much for her regardless of what she had done. Tears started to well up in her eyes. "As you wish, my lord."
Yuchanit pressed a kiss to her forehead. "Go, rest. Your soul still feels unsettled. You may still need more sleep to help you process all you have remembered."
"Yes, my lord."
She drew back from him, bowed deeply, then left his room.
She did not, however, return to the city. It was too crowded, too noisy. She also did not feel like she needed sleep. She felt antsy and, as Yuchanit had worded it, unsettled. She needed quiet and clarity.
As she walked slowly down the stairs to the ground floor, she thought about Fesralde and all the places that existed in its remote corners. She had been to many with Wenkarra and, with her other memories back now, she knew of a few more as well. She wanted to go somewhere that was away from everyone – somewhere that she did not think any of the adventurous souls knew. Most of the most popular ones were those she had already been to with Wenkarra – but there was one that she had never gotten the chance to take the goddess to all those eons ago when she had still been just an Emissary. She did not think other souls knew of it.
It took her a while to dig up the memory of how to get there, but she did finally find it. She was hoping it was the same as she remembered or, even if it was not, that her memory of it would be good enough to get her there all the same. So, taking a deep breath to steady herself, she willed herself to the waterfall she wanted to go to…and about fell over in shock at the sight that greeted her.
The Sipavmes Falls – she knew the name because Yuchanit had told it to her long, long ago – were no longer really there. It was clear to her that the War of the Heavens had altered them like it had so many other things. The luminous waterfall had been replaced with stark white travertines that all had an ethereal glow to them, beautifully descending down the red-orange zemamin cliffs from where the waterfall had been.
Hanithon was not sure how long she stood there staring at the sight, but she finally shook herself out of the trance she had been in and walked to the base of the terraced pools. The water inside the lowest pools twinkled like it had fireflies within it. She put her hands in and drew up some of the water. It even shimmered in her hands, but it faded after a moment.
Fesralde was always full of wonders. She swore she had always seemed to find more and more scattered across the realm when she was really Hanithon – in between her duties as Emissary and then, after she became a Custodian, in those rare times when she had had time away from all the newly-deceased souls to actually go wandering. She wanted to do that again now. She actually had the time in which she could do it.
And so, that was just what she did.
Most of Fesralde was nothing but expansive plains, dotted with skeletal trees. It was likely what deterred most souls from exploring more. When you looked out from the great city, there was nothing. Even Yuchanit's home was just out of sight from the nearest edge of the city. Those who had built the city had apparently done that consciously.
But there were still wonders like the new travertine pools. She had already been to several since her last life was done – like the caves of crystals and the forest of giant mushrooms. She also rediscovered many of the ones she remembered from her previous existence but a vast majority of them had been altered. But there was one thing that was different now that had not been caused by the chaos Erathore had created – the array of mythical creatures that she found at nearly each place she ended up visiting on this new journey.
At more than one underground lake that she discovered, there were groups of sibrols – tiny creatures that reminded one of sea dragons that were as at home swimming through the water as floating through the air without need of wings. They were not afraid of her and were very playful.
Then, among a field of carved monoliths that she had never seen the likes of before, she found holros. They were long-eared and long-tailed and amazingly fluffy. They looked like a mix between a rat and a rabbit. They were absolutely adorable – if you overlooked the fact they made a hissing-growl sound if she got too close and showed their snake-like fangs.
And of course, there were the slives she found among a landscape filled with buttes and strange round stones. Slives were huge lizards made of stone that, long ago, had been the mythical source of earthquakes and landslides. The ones she saw here, though, apparently wanted nothing more than to sleep, so she only admired them from afar.
Periodically, Wenkarra would appear and sit and talk with her. The goddess loved hearing about the places she had been and the creatures she had seen. She was even so intrigued by some of the locations that she asked to be shown them – so Hanithon had taken her to them. And, of course, if there were any creatures there, they always happily came to the goddess – even the holros.
The two of them never talked about the past, though – well, not the past when she had done all those horrible things. The goddess also never asked her if she had decided what she wanted to do. That did not mean that Hanithon did not still sometimes ponder those things.
Sometimes she felt like she had come to grips with her past actions, only to break down crying hours or days later because of her heartache over them. Sometimes she thought that she would stay to be a Custodian, then changed her mind. A few times she even considered returning to the Essence. It always seemed that when she did think of that, that was when Wenkarra would come see her.
"The Essence is sentient and omnipotent," she said aloud after the most recent visit from the goddess.
They had met that that day under a dolmen that Hanithon had stopped at. Wenkarra's arrival had attracted a sunear – a creature that had a fox's body and tail but four iridescent wings and the head of a bird. The goddess had conjured some fruit that she gave to Hanithon, which drew the creature to her. After it had filled its belly, it had curled up to sleep in her lap, much to her delight.
She had been wondering since the goddess left how she always seemed to know Hanithon was thinking of leaving permanently…and then thought of the Essence. "You keep telling her to come see me, don't you?"
A feeling of amusement rose around her.
Surprised, she sat up a little straighter, making the sunear in her lap stir in its sleep.
Even if she was unsure if this actually was the Essence responding to her, she spoke to it again. "I still don't see why you gave me a second chance. What purpose was there to it?"
Though she did not hear a voice, per se, an answer sprang up into her mind all the same. Because Yuchanit and Wenkarra were sad…and because it was a learning experience.
A learning experience? For whom? Her? The Essence? What could it possibly need to learn?
How can there be an end to learning? You lived a full set of lives again, yet you learned different things, didn't you? Even with the same lessons to learn…you still learned different things…
She had learned different things, even though the life lessons were the same. The world was different now than it was before…
"…and so am I," she said aloud.
After the sunear finally woke and left – carefully nuzzling her before flying away – Hanithon continued on her wanderings. Her conversation with the Essence, whether it had been real or imagined, had made her realize she wanted to continue learning new things, too. The only question was, did she do that as a Custodian or in a new set of lives?
She sort of wanted to do another set of lives, with the request that she got to serve in the temples of Yuchanit and Besvayu and Wenkarra. But the cycle of lives was so very long… And would she have remembrance dreams for all her lives from both of her previous cycles? That would take up most of her between-time…
She continued to wander and think. She was not sure how much time had passed but she thought perhaps it had been a year – it did not seem like it had been longer than that, at least. But as she approached a forest of the skeleton trees that grew throughout Fesralde, she felt Yuchanit's presence.
Stopping the moment she sensed it, she looked around herself but he was not there. Then her eyes turned back to the naked trees ahead. Was he somewhere within the forest? She had to assume so, unless he was just watching her for some reason. So she trudged ahead, slowly feeling his presence growing stronger. She followed it…finding him sitting in a small clearing in a meditative pose. She stopped at the edge of the trees and watched him, wondering why he had come to see her.
Maybe…maybe it was already time for her to decide what to do? Could it have already been two and a half years since she started her wandering?
He turned toward her. "It isn't quite six months until the end of your period of rest, but you have not returned and I was growing concerned, despite Wenkarra's assurances you were fine."
Hanithon blushed just a bit in embarrassment that she had made him worry at all. "Your concern is understandable, my lord, but I have simply been wandering your realm. It's such a beautiful place. I wish more people would venture out into it to see its wonders."
The god frowned slightly. "Not as much beauty as the mortal world."
"It is more sparse, yes, but that makes the wonders all that more…wondrous when you see them."
His frown deepened, but his expression was contemplative. "Have you made a choice yet?"
She frowned now, too. "No, I haven't, and I hate that I have had all this time to consider it and not made up my mind."
"It has been presented to me that, if you had not yet decided, perhaps you should simply have a few more extra lives before committing to a full cycle, to give you further time to contemplate your choices."
Knowing who had likely presented the idea to him, she sighed heavily but then, a moment later, burst out laughing. "Truly, Essence, you just don't give up, do you?" Then she laughed some more.
Yuchanit was clearly startled at her statement – then froze when very obvious laughter echoed through the forest, joining hers.
She had stopped laughing, listening to the sound, before looking at the god still sitting in the center of the clearing. "It wants me to be a Custodian, doesn't it?"
It took the god a moment to respond. "It wants you to be happy, Hanithon, as I want you to be happy." She bowed her head as he stood and walked toward her. "What will make you happiest right now?"
"I don't know…" And she did not. She had no clearer idea now than when she had left his home years ago. She still could not believe so much time had passed with her doing nothing but walking Fesralde…
"Then perhaps the best option is to have you live an extra life or two."
"Three," she said.
The god raised an eyebrow at her in a silent question.
"One each to serve you and Besvayu and Wenkarra."
"You have already served me twice before."
"But not in your rebuilt temples, not among your reformed clergy."
He gave a single nod. "Very well."
And so, the next year, she returned to the mortal world for the first of those three lives. She served Besvayu in the first, Wenkarra in the second, and Yuchanit in the third. After each life, she still had the same heartache every time she remembered what she had done to Yuchanit so very long ago…but that remembrance also always came with the memory of how he had already forgiven her and how she had begun to forgive herself.
The moment she was done with remembering all of her myriad mortal lives after that third extra life, she went to Yuchanit and told him she did wish to be a Custodian.
After the length of an average mortal lifetime, Hanithon realized she had fallen into the same comfortable routine she had the last time she had been a Custodian – though there were some differences. Most notably was that she encouraged souls to go on the tours of Fesralde and led tours herself to places other guides had not known about. She also helped Wenkarra gardening around her home, making suggestions for new elements she could add.
It had been, at first, very difficult to feel Yuchanit's power deep within her where her soul touched his power but she successfully ignored it most of the time. They had even attempted to have her pull on abilities she should not have been able to use after she stopped being his Emissary, but those pathways had fully closed now. She was glad of it.
It was on her eightieth "decision day" when she was going over plans she and Wenkarra had made to expand the garden even more that Yuchanit came up to them. Assuming he was there for his wife, she bowed and prepared to head back to her duties, but then she froze at the god's words…
She looked at him and tilted her head slightly but nodded, assuming he was just there for a quick kiss from Wenkarra like he sometimes did when she was busy in the garden. But, no, his eyes stayed on her.
"I have been considering something – for a very, very long time. I have decided that I wish to give you something I've never given another soul."
She had no idea what he could possibly mean. "What, my lord?"
"I wish to make you a goddess –"
"What? You can't –"
"– and you will oversee the Custodian."
She just stared at him for a while, stunned by this. "I don't deserve such a boon, my lord."
"I wanted, many times the last time you served me thusly, to give you the position. The only reason I did not was because Besvayu and I weren't sure how that would affect the balance of the twin bond between you and Erathore, so I could not. Now I can, though. We have no need to worry about it."
Tears were starting to fill her eyes. "I don't deserve it."
The god walked up to her and cupped her cheeks with his hands. "Yes, you do. You served me well, despite the sorrow you caused me. You serve me well now. I would not offer this to you if I held any anger at you for it. I want you to accept this."
A tear leaked from her eye as she remembered the conversations she had had with Yuchanit and with other Custodians in her previous existence and more recently. She knew there were not enough Custodians partly for one reason – souls were too scared of Yuchanit to serve him. Many pondered a way to make it less troubling for those interested to make that commitment. No one had thought that Yuchanit could make gods since there were none to help him as there were for Besvayu…
"I would be able to make other Custodians?"
"Yes, which will hopefully lessen the burden each of them has to bear."
Hanithon closed her eyes. She did not think she was cut out to be a goddess, but, then again, neither did Wenkarra and look at what she had accomplished? So…she would do this, because she knew it was needed.
With a nod, she opened her eyes again. "I accept your offer, my lord, with much humility."