Before our time and before our grandfathers’ time, when the mountains were young and the seas more wild and blue, the gods walked in the world more often than they do now. It is said our land was their favorite land, with higher trees and deeper valleys than any other, and that is still true. And our land, among all the others in the world, has more varied races—like the gods themselves.
You know of Zanu, of course, the god of the sun. Even in those days Zanu rarely left Asharia, the divine plains; like the sun itself, he preferred to gaze on mortal lands from afar, and as the ruler of the gods he was very, very busy. His son Malgin, though, the god of music and dance, visited the world whenever he could. On one such visit to our land, he walked along the banks of the very river that flows through our city—although in those days the city was just a village—and he came upon a vixen washing her clothes in the water. A simple, undivine thing, but Periana was the most beautiful mortal he had ever seen—as beautiful, he thought, as Maraiya, the goddess of love.
Malgin watched Periana, enchanted, and at length she looked up and was frightened. The gods are, after all, gods: larger, stronger, and more radiant than we. Malgin was smaller than his father but still twice the size of a mortal wolf, and great hawk wings spread behind him. He begged her to talk with him, but she fled.
Every week, though, when she did her wash, Malgin would find an excuse to walk past and watch and beseech her to talk with him. He was persistent, he was charming, and he was beautiful, and when he sang for her and her alone she could hardly refuse his company.
Wise men say mortals should not fall in love with gods, and Periana and Malgin both knew this—but love is a very strong tide. Soon they were to be married, a rare mix of mortal and divine blood.
But a week before the wedding tragedy struck. Periana took ill, and despite the best efforts of her physicians she grew steadily weaker. Some whispered that Maraiya herself had become jealous of Periana’s beauty—something the goddess indignantly denied. Malgin doubted any god caused her illness—but no god would intervene to cure her, either, and he could not himself. On the eve before their wedding night, Periana died in Malgin’s arms.
Malgin fell into deep despair. Music lost its interest for him. You must understand how significant this is: he was music, and without his attention, all songs started to pass from our world. Singers could no longer sing, birds lost their melodies, even the wind through reeds became mere hissing. His father beseeched him to move on, to live again, but he could not. Instead, Malgin became convinced that Periana had died before her time—that the goddess of death had taken her by mistake.
It is not in the nature of a god to fret at rash talk, but they do not take the name of Queen Inanael any more lightly than we do. She not only lived apart from them, but her domain, her function, stood apart from theirs as well. Yet Malgin would accept no advice, would listen to no counsel about Inanael. He resolved he would go to Tharigoth, to the land of the dead, and stand before the throne of the goddess to demand his loved one be returned to life.
While the living are not meant to visit Tharigoth, an entrance they may pass through—if only they can reach it—is said to lie deep in a cave on the moon, that they may pass through. Perhaps no mortal could ever reach that cave, but Malgin was a god, and he was determined. On the night of the next full moon, Malgin went to the highest mountain in all the world and flew as high as he could, until the air became so cold and thin his wings refused to beat. Then he began to climb, until he reached the mountain’s peak, a thin, jagged spire higher than everything but the moon itself. And from there, he leapt to the moon.
When the moon lies low and large on the horizon, when you can best see Inanael’s mark, you can see the darkest point on its surface. It is to there that Malgin traveled, running and flying for hours over plains as white as bone, then descending into a cave blacker than a starless night. He could not fly in such a tight space, and so he walked down steadily, down for a day, for two, for three, until the cave opened up and he stood before the great forged gates of Tharigoth.
The land of the dead is a place of neither darkness nor light—it lies in eternal dusk. A great stone road began behind the gates, across a long field stretching toward distant, dark mountains. It looked much like the mortal lands Malgin loved, but the air was hot and dry, the grass sharp, the trees menacing. He called three times for the gates to be opened, then leapt over them, flying over the road, speeding toward the mountains.
As you know, after death, most of us spend time in the land of the dead—weeks, or years, or lifetimes—until it is judged that we may start another cycle of life, as new creatures. Some, through their own virtue or valor in life, break the cycle and pass on to paradise. And some are never allowed to leave, doomed to stay and serve Inanael until the universe itself dies and they, too, are finally freed before its next cycle begins. The land Malgin flew over had houses and towns and even vast cities. Some of the cities were starkly beautiful, some of them were horrifyingly alien; he knew millions of millions of beings lived in them, the souls of the dead who have not moved on, and the demons who watch over them.
Finally the wolf-god reached the base of the mountains, and the royal city of the dead. He walked down its wide, main avenue, and the crowd parted curiously around him. They knew he did not belong in their land. He approached the great high, marble palace, ascending the steps outside, demanding the guards take him to see their queen.
The guards were rabbits, but as big as he was; while they were not gods, neither were they mortal. They silently refused him. After three demands and three refusals, he drew his sword. All six of the guards drew theirs as well. Before they began to fight, though, the doors of the palace swung open of their own accord. Instantly the guards lowered their swords, as if responding to a command only they heard.
Warily, Malgin stepped past them and into a great hallway. At the end of the hall lay another pair of huge doors, and they swung open as he approached them.
Beyond lay the throne room.
The room was huge and beautiful and frightening, orange marble columns and stark black stone, a huge altar whose purpose he could only guess at, a white polished throne that looked as if it had been made of bones. Upon the throne sat Inanael, and she was also huge and beautiful and frightening: a rabbit woman with fur as white as the throne, great black wings like a bat, and curling goat-like horns as long as her swept-back ears. If she stood, she would be even taller than his father.
“Why are you here, Malgin?” she asked softly. Her eyes had no pupils, and they shone of moonlight.
“I am here for my love,” he said. “She was taken before her time, I know she was. I…” He paused. He had planned to demand her compliance, but now, standing before her, he could not. “I implore you—release her back to her life.”
The rabbit remained silent but the room filled with a soft chorus of mocking laughter from demons and trapped souls. He looked around, ears folding back. She lifted her hand and the laughter ceased. “It is not for you to judge the time of mortals, god of song,” Inanael replied. “I keep the cycles of life and death, and I do not break them.”
“But you must. You know I am right!”
Her eyes flashed, but she said nothing.
Malgin grew desperate, and made a desperate offer. “Then will you accept a life for a life? Take my first-born child.”
“You have no children.”
“If I get back Periana, I shall. A child taken before its time in the place of a mother taken before hers.”
“Be sure,” she said softly, fixing him with her gaze, “this is a deal you are willing to keep.”
“I am,” he said, his voice shaking.
The rabbit rose to her feet and held out her hands, and the vixen appeared held between them. Leaning over to set the woman down, Inanael said, “Leave now, and do not look back.” And they did.
Despite his word, Malgin intended to trick the goddess of death—he had no plans to father a child with the vixen, and he told Periana this, but without telling her of the deal he had made with Inanael. She was sorrowful, but her joy at being reunited with him was greater. They were married soon after his return, and he dwelt with her in the mortal lands for a season.
As much strength and willpower as a god may have, though, the wolf was married to a beautiful woman and could not help but lie with her. The next spring, it became clear she was with child.
“We must not stay in mortal lands,” he said to her upon learning this. “The child must not be born here.” He took her and fled to Asharia, to his father’s palace.
Presently, the vixen gave birth to her child, a boy. Weeks passed after the birth, until the next night of the full moon, and Inanael appeared at the palace gates, asking for entrance.
“Why are you here?” Zanu’s guards asked her.
“Malgin knows,” she said.
Malgin, though, insisted to his father that Inanael was there to renege on her deal, and that she should not be let in. Reluctantly, Zanu ordered the palace to be sealed.
“Let me in,” Inanael said. “I will not ask again.”
“You cannot challenge me here, Lady Inanael,” Zanu called.
Inanael glowered, and walked away from the palace.
Malgin was relieved, for a few moments. Then from outside the palace walls, there came a sound like all the souls of the dead screaming in fury, and the palace shook. The gods looked out and saw only the rabbit’s claws digging into the sacred ground around the building, her single hand large enough to crush the palace itself. “When this universe dies the gods die with it,” Inanael thundered. “But when the cycle turns and the next universe takes its place, I will be the midwife at its birth—as I was at this one. You have made a promise to me, Malgin, and you will honor it.”
“What did you promise her, son?” Zanu asked, voice stern.
Shaking, Malgin finally revealed the truth. Periana shrieked, beating at him, falling to her knees.
“Father—” Malgin started to say, but Zanu cut him off.
“You must keep your promise.”
“You can stand against her! You are the ruler of the gods!”
“I am the sun. You are music. Maraiya is love.” He grabbed his son and faced him toward a window, toward a huge, ebony talon. “And the sun and music and love can all die, and I do not intend to see that happen because you regret making a deal with death herself.”
With that, he commanded the gates to be opened, and he led both his son and his wife outside.
Inanael stood waiting, again no taller than the sun god, but her silver eyes burned with anger—and the holes around the palace where her once-huge claws had sunk deep into the earth billowed smoke.
As Malgin lifted his child up in trembling arms, Periana threw herself at the rabbit goddess’s feet. “No!” she cried. “You cannot hold him to this bargain!”
Inanael lifted the girl to her feet and looked down at her impassively, but Periana held her ground, even though her voice grew hoarse and shuddered with fear. “The life of our child was not his to promise! You cannot promise what is not yours to give!”
“The child is half his,” the goddess replied. “I cannot take half a life in exchange for your full one.”
“Then keep my full one.”
“Periana—” Malgin began, anguished, but his wife shook her head, addressing her husband directly. “I have had more time than I was meant to, my love. I came back from the dead, I married you, I gave you a child—none of this was meant to happen. You know that is so.”
“If that is true, little vixen,” Inanael said, “I am bound to take both you and your child. That is the only course that restores the cycle.”
Malgin’s ears folded back. “That was not—”
“Not the deal that you went into fully intending to break?” Inanael snapped. “Do not test my goodwill any further.”
Periana drew a long, deep breath, and stood upright. When she spoke, she spoke slowly and carefully. “But you broke the cycle, goddess Inanael. When you accepted my husband’s bargain, you knew it could only be fulfilled by the new soul of my son. So you broke your cycle expressly to bring him into this world. For that to have meaning… he must live. And so you must accept my offer, not my husband’s.”
Inanael remained silent for long seconds, then something very rare happened: the goddess of the dead smiled.
As Periana trembled, the rabbit knelt down, still towering over the vixen in doing so. “So be it,” she said softly. “Know that your child shall grow up with the wisdom and courage of his mother.”
Periana nodded once, smiling bravely. Inanael tilted Periana’s head up and touched her lips to hers, breathing in deeply. The vixen’s body fell to the ground, lifeless, and Malgin gathered her into his arms and wept.
“Lift your eyes,” Inanael said, and she stepped back—and then, for a moment, she was as tall as the mountain the god had climbed to reach the moon. She pursed her lips and blew, and the stars under the moon on the horizon were blown into the shape of the constellation we call “The Vixen” today.
Then the goddess returned to her realm. It is said Periana’s soul went straight on to paradise that day, to dwell until this universe comes to an end. And her son, the half-god whose father was Malgin, grew up to be a legendary hero in his own right—but those are tales for other times.