We returned to the Underworld after my memories were restored and stayed close to the Fold. It called us to stay near, as if it wanted company with the ever encroaching end bearing down on it. Everyday we knelt beside it with our children and waited for our world to crumble apart. We waited for a sign that there might be something we could do to stop the darkness from consuming the Overworld and tearing through the Fold to the Other Worlds that didn’t deserve the destruction. Atlas and I knew we weren’t enough. Our children were feeble and gentle creatures. We would need an army strapped to the bone with rage to walk into the Overworld and overthrow the high-lords and defeat the Darkness growing there. Without one we were no match against it's might. So, we waited.
The grove was blissful, only void of human voices. It was in the sound of croaking toads, chirping crickets, and buzzing locusts that I felt at home. The memories we shared, only with each other for company in these places, an unlocked vault of happiness. I was filled with such rage and anger, disappointed at the fall from a make-believe eternal glory when I first arrived. Did the high-lords hope that I would destroy Atlas on our encounter? They had to have known my power over him. I wished I could have seen the look of sheer anger on their faces the moment I was dumb enough to jump into the Mortal World. The Fold could have taken our wings, our Celestis nature from us, we could have been denied all entry back to our home. Yet, the Fold favored us and gifted us with my memories and with the ability to voluntarily return home.
My head rested in Atlas’s lap as he stroked my hair. His head tilted back against the old dead tree and a lantern set in the leaves beside us, glowing to illuminate the inbound night. Atlas sat there, still, his features relaxed and calm with his eyes closed. “What’s on your mind?” He said then. Could he sense my growing restlessness around him?
“Do you ever think about returning to the Mortal World?” I asked, sitting up and bracing myself on my arms, watching him as he rolled his head forward with a sigh of contemplation.
He shook his head lightly. “It’s never crossed my mind before.”
“What if we went back and lived out our days there? The Mortal World moves much slower than the others.” I rolled forward onto my knees and pierced him with my gaze. “We would be nothing special, but sitting here day in and day out isn’t going to save them either. If we’re going to give in, couldn’t we die there? At least we would be happy and satisfied after a long life.”
He chuckled then. “I’m happy and satisfied here.” He sat up a little and looked me over with his eyes. “I believe the Fold won’t let itself die without a fight. It will send help. It will call to others to cross the eternal barrier.”
“If it does call out to them and they’re sucked into the Overworld without a choice. What then?” I said snidely, knowing that the Overworld would do all that it could to beat down it’s opponent.
Atlas sighed and leaned forward, taking my hand. “Do you not have faith?”
I shook my head. It was honest. I had no faith it would try to protect itself from the encroaching darkness that was sucking at the Overworld. What was the Fold that it called out to anyone in the first place? It was just a tear in the universe, wasn’t it? I let my wings stretch out and beg the Fold to open by scratching at the wound in the tree. I’d done it so often the skin around my talon was starting to bleed, my blood clinging to the wound in the tree. I wanted to see them, those poor creatures stuck to live out their days straining against the gates of the Overworld.
The Fold opened, letting me see all the Other Worlds. The three of them tried to draw each other near while one only kept distancing itself more and more. I could see them now, the gate and the mangled animals growling and reaching out to me greedily. Beyond their pale begging hands I saw someone with long bright golden hair pacing in the hall. The white pillars filled with spidery thin veins of black as the darkness kept swallowing them.
The golden haired man stopped and looked over the gate, meeting my eyes. I saw the look of panic on his face and he rushed to get to the gate, a full sprint. I could see the hope and fear on his face. He leaped into the air and his glorious bird-like white wings expanded, catching the wind. He flew towards me, closer and closer. My heart jumped into my throat. I inched backwards until my back was pressed against Atlas’s chest. He wrapped an arm around me securely, ensuring I’d be safe without words.
Atlas was watching the Fold as it vibrated and nearly disappeared, both of us shocked to see the high-lord throwing himself into the vastness between the Worlds as it tried to close. A long thick black tar reached out and tried to grab the high-lord to pluck him from the sky and pull him back to the world it was claiming, but he dodged it’s first finger of death and his hand protruded from the Fold, reaching for us.
I grabbed onto the man’s desperate reaching arm and dug my heels into the ground on our side. Atlas kept a strong arm around my waist holding me down so I couldn’t be wretched back across the Fold into their world.
“Help me! Please!” The high-lord screamed, digging his nails into my forearms as I pulled.
“I’m trying!” I said back, desperate as I was losing a grip on him. Was this the feeling Atlas had when I was pulled from him? Was the web of darkness stronger than us combined?
Atlas groaned and flapped his wings aggressively, trying to pull the man through the Fold with me attached to him, but the tar didn’t budge it’s grip that it had on the man. Atlas dug his talons into the ground, anchoring us further. “Pull him in, Celeste!” He demanded.
“I’m trying!” I repeated back in anger. The anger and rage rose in me as I about lost the man’s hands from my own. I was going to fail him.
The rage made my body pulse, flames rippling around me. My fangs ripped through my gums and my eyes turned red as I fumed. “He’s mine!” I shouted into the tar and suddenly it’s tar like grip released.
I had almost pulled the high-lord entirely through the Fold when the tar gripped his wings. “No, no, no, no, NO…” He yelled as it’s grip tightened on him. “Not my wings...” He said entirely breathless, his sweaty scent and breath moving over me as we got closer. The high-lord tried to let me go, to let the tar take him back. “Don’t let it take my wings!” He said, trying to pry my nails from his arm.
“I won’t let it take you." I said, begging him not to let me go. "Damn your wings!” I said in a huff of anger and gave him one last strong tug.
I heard the sound of tearing flesh, his screams in my ear as his body fell onto my own. The Fold closed behind him. He pushed himself away from us and crawled to were the opening to the Fold had been. He reached up, beckoning for it, pleading. “Give them back to me… I need them.” He said, his head falling on his arms as he laid in the leaves in front of the dimly lit lantern.
“They’ll return.” Atlas said as he pulled the man into a sitting position. “You’ll get new ones.”
“They’ll be hideous!” The high-lord spat at the ground, not making eye contact with Atlas or myself.
If I could control Atlas I could control this stubborn man. I stood in front of him and grabbed him by the hair, jerking his head back and getting a grimace from him. His eyes were a sharp pale blue like the sky or a crystal clear ocean. A chill swept through me as he stared at me. I could feel the ice in his veins.
“Submit to me.” I demanded as I stared him in the eyes. He lifted his hand, it was coated in crystals of ice as his pupils pulsed. “Submit.” I demanded in a hushed tone in his ear.
“No.” He groaned and punched me in the gut with the solid weight of the ice, the air escaping my lungs and making my chest sear in pain as I gasped.
Atlas moved forward and drew his wings as if to challenge him, but I held up my hand, stopping him. “This is my fight.” I said, letting wisps of flames float around me, carried by the dark mist that whisked in circles around me.
With a single snap of my fingers the high-lord was wrapped in spirals of flames and mist, holding him like unbreakable chains. He struggled against them, whipping his body to and fro until he knew there was no way to escape them, and without the use of his hands there was no way for him to summon the magic of ice or water.
“Submit.” I repeated. I walked in circles around him as his body hovered in it’s chains in front of me. I drank him in. He was tall, pale, opposite of Atlas in almost every way except for the fine chiseled cut of his body. A grin took my face as my eyes finally met him after taking in his sharp features.
“Submit?” I asked nicely this time, smiling wickedly.
He nodded. The chains broke and he fell to his knees in front of me. “I submit.” He answered. With his submission a pair of velvet white and blue wings sprawled from the holes in his back where the old ones had been.
“The Fold has blessed you.” I said as I stood in front of Atlas, his hand on my shoulder, a comfortable reminder of the power I had here. “Why would a high-lord attempt to free himself of his precious Overworld?”
The man looked up, his pale blue eyes in extraordinary pain. “The darkness is consuming everyone, turning them into those… things.” He said disgustedly. “We all wanted out, but you refused us when we brought you home. You refused to save us.”
“You were picking and choosing Mortals to play god with. The lords are not gods!” I shouted into his face, making him cringe away and flicking my hand in dismissal of him. “The lords were created by the Fold to ensure Mortals would be protected. You were supposed to protect them all along.”
Atlas squared his shoulders and pinned the high-lord with his eyes. “You forced the Fold to take Mortals against their own will. You soured it’s purity. You wanted control, and when you soured it the Darkness came. Now, look at you.” Atlas looked the man up and down. “You’re fleeing the end. It will get you there, and it most certainly will get you here.”
The man’s head bent in shame, his shoulders and wings slumping all the same. “I tried to fix it from within, but I couldn’t.” He sniffled, but he didn’t look up, ashamed to show a woman his mighty tears. “I started throwing the high-lord chosen Mortals out, one by one. After Atlas left it’s all I could do. The Fold didn’t call forth anyone new, even as the Darkness started swallowing it’s people.” He look up then, he’s eyes bright. “And then it called to Celeste.”
“I didn’t cross to the Overworld. I choose to be in this new world, carved by the rebels that wanted a clean place for the Fold.”
The high-lord nodded. “The Darkness couldn’t draw you in. You refused to fight it and to save the high-lords, so I returned you. You’re the only one the Fold has called since the Darkness has arrived. You’re the master. You’re the one that should fight it.” The high-lord offered me his arm. “I will fight beside you.” His head was bowed to me.
I grasped his arm, accepting him and waited for him to lift his gaze and meet my own. “You’ll die beside me.” I said instead. “I don’t have an army, I can’t possibly fight the Darkness and it’s… things.”
The high-lord stood and briskly took the lantern into his hands. "If you don't mind." He said and started off down a winding trail into the wooded forest. “You do have one.” He whispered in pure excitement.
I laughed at him. “It’s just us and our children here.”
“No!” He said and held the lantern high. The lantern had appeared in front of where the Fold would be every day. We knew it was a gift, but there wasn’t much use for it here. We hardly needed the help to see in the dark. Atlas thought it was another sign from the Fold to trust in it, to return day in and day out.
The high-lord went to a dried dirt mound at the end of the trail. “I’ve been throwing the Mortals back, but none of them enter back to their own world. They all perished passing through the Fold into the Underworld, but they’re eternal beings. I theorized and theorized about why they perished through the Fold when you hadn’t and when Atlas obviously hadn’t. There had to be a reason. The original rebellion, they all perished when they were tossed back.”
“What’s your point?” Atlas barked in irritation. I stilled him with a touch of my hand on his arm.
The high-lord kicked the dirt loose in one spot and slammed the lantern down, the flame bursting and groaning, then disappearing into the soil. The high-lord stepped back to stand beside us. “You see; I’ve only seen the lantern a few times. The first time was a millennia ago when I was called to the Fold. It’s a life flame, an eternal life flame. When I touched the flame in my past it awakened my eternal soul and shoved me through the Fold to the Overworld. I saw the lantern appear at the gateway in Overworld a few nights ago and every night after that. I thought I needed to bring it to you to awaken them, but it was telling me it was already here. I saw the lantern when Celeste opened the Fold. That's when I made my choice to leave there. The high-lord chosen Mortals weren't dying, they were being put into rest by the Fold, tricking the Darkness into thinking we were all dying.”
“Well, you killed the life flame. Does that satisfy you?” Atlas said begrudgingly as he nudged the iron encasement the flame was in before the man shattered it.
“Just wait.” He insisted.
“What is your name, high-lord?” I asked, looking to my side to watch him.
“Julious.” He whispered. “I can hear them-”
Screams bit into the air as arms dug up through the dirt. I stepped forward, grabbing the outstretched arm and pulled them up out of the ground, and then another, and another. Men and women were pulled up, all of their wings opening, of all colors. I watched as Atlas and Julious helped the others get their bearing and move them off to the side.
For a long moment the dirt became still. “There were less than a hundred.” I said, questioning Julious when it seemed like it was all finished.
“The Darkness can’t fight us all.” He said with a small smile.
“At least we have an Army.” Atlas came to stand at my side as the confused beings all dropped to their knees in front of me when they realized where they were. They could feel my power. Julious stepped to the front and did the same. Presenting them to me.
“Your Army, Celeste, submits to it’s master.”