One day, Eanna brought someone new with her to Shadowhawk House. She said his name was Lucius and that he was a famous playwright. Apparently he had wooed her with his charming words while doing research at the homeless shelter for his latest play.
Or...something stupid like that, anyway.
As a writer, Lucius was given to all manner of artistic exaggeration. When he first met me, he called me "Kyprosa's shadow". I still wonder if he knows exactly how right he was.
Since most of the teachers at the Ayanad Library were Elves, Kyprosa had been hearing about the upcoming festival for weeks. She'd promised to attend and try to spot Aranzeb in the procession. The rest of us tagged along to see what all the fuss was about.
When we arrived at the festival, the streets were full of people. It was as if all of Delphinad had come out for the celebration.
Kyprosa held my hand tightly as we forced our way through the crowd. Gene and Melisara's Shadowhawk uniforms normally guaranteed them a wide berth on the street, but they did little good in the throng of eager festival-goers.
As we reached the front of the crowd, the sight of the parade nearly took our breath away.
Hundreds of Elves filled the promenade, performing elaborate dances in their finest regalia. The moment one group passed by, another would take its place, each accompanied by a team of musicians. Acrobats performed amazing stunts to the cheers of the crowd, and mages filled the air with colored lights and patterns. I had never seen such pageantry.
Kyprosa finally spotted Aranzeb amongst the performers and began jumping up and down, waving with her free hand. I was immediately dragged along behind as she tried to keep up with him. Gene followed, muttering sullenly to himself, and the others struggled through the crowd at their own pace.
We caught up to Aranzeb at the Pantheon; the massive church in Delphinad where each god is worshipped. He was speaking to an older elf who wore the ornate robes of a mage.
"That's the Archmage Alexander," Kyprosa whispered out of the corner her mouth. "He's the head of the Ayanad Library."
I examined the archmage curiously as we approached. I was tempted to try to invade his mind, just to see if I could, but I assumed that would get Kyprosa into trouble. Instead, I waited politely to shake his hand in greeting.
The second his hand touched mine, however, the voices in my mind screamed in alarm.
I moved without thinking, snatching my hand out of his and pushing at him with the full strength of my power. His eyes widened in surprise and he brought up his defenses just in time, shielding himself from the brunt of my attack. But even then, he stumbled back as if struck by a heavy blow. I crouched, mindless fear and panic coursing through me, hissing like a cornered cat.
There was a moment of shocked silence before the others could react. And in that second of perfect stillness, I hear the archmage whisper a single name in disgust.
The next day, Kyprosa was banned from Ayanad. The mages who guarded the portal refused to answer any of her questions, turning her away without a word. She returned to the Shadowhawk House, heartbroken, pleading with Aranzeb to confront the archmage about her unjust punishment.
When he returned, his face was grim.
"The archmage says he refuses to teach anyone tainted by Prince Raeven's heretical magic. He says Raevan is a 'servant of the Akasch.'" Aranzeb frowned, looking to Kyprosa in confusion. "But I don't understand. Who is this man to you?"
Kyprosa was shaking in outrage.
"That...that man is our father. He was exiled from our kingdom years ago. Our grandmother never gave us details, but the rumors in the villages were enough. Dark magic. Profane rituals. They still whisper his name in fear."
She slammed her fist on the table. "But this isn't fair! Why should we suffer for our father's crimes? I've never even heard of these 'Akasch'. Raeven's experiments couldn't possibly have affected me or--"
I could practically hear her teeth clack together as she stopped herself mid-sentence. She froze, hand still balled up in an angry fist, carefully keeping her eyes locked on Aranzeb's.
Slowly, he turned to look at me.
The final puzzle piece fit neatly into place.
It was not fate's design that had granted me my gifts. I realized; it was my father's. I had been born--perhaps even created--to be a living key. Endowed with the ability to pierce the veil between the many worlds. To enter even the furthest, darkest dungeon, and to throw wide its doors.
I didn't bother asking who the Akasch were. I knew them well. I'd been hearing their whispers all my life.
When I looked up from my hands, I saw tears in Kyprosa's eyes.
"Oh Orchidna," she whispered softly. "What did he do to you?"
Over the next few days, Shadowhawk House became a flurry of activity. Kyprosa pored over any notes she could dredge up regarding our father's heretical research, trying to find an explanation for my powers. The others pitched in as well, scouring both the Delphinad and Ayanad libraries for references to the mysterious Akasch.
We soon found that any mention of the Akasch or the Abyss was noticeably absent from all major records. It was as if someone had gone to great lengths to expunge them from history altogether. We were reduced to paging through endless books of myth and religion, searching for hidden clues to the nature of the creatures I had seen.
But the more we read, the more we noticed a strange pattern in the stories of the gods.
It was Lucius who first put our thoughts into words.
"This can't be right," he said. "All these gods, across all these different cultures...They all boil down to a handful of basic archetypes!"
Kyprosa looked up from Raeven's notes in surprise. "My father frequently calls the gods 'puppets' in his notes. He says they're more like...tools, almost. Sent by a higher power to guide mortals' fate."
Across the table, Aranzeb scoffed. "Come now. The Pantheon has records of miracles performed in front of whole armies! How could the gods not be real?"
But Lucius was undeterred. "I'm not saying they weren't real," he explained. "I'm saying they might not have been gods. What if they really are just tools, sent to control us? We'd be idiots to worship them!"
"You should be careful," Kyprosa chimed in, her tone uncertain. "Prince Raeven was labeled a heretic for ideas like this. The Pantheon doesn't take kindly to being called a bunch of frauds."
Lucius only laughed.
"Hang the church!" he said. "You don't think the people deserve a chance to decide for themselves?"
He stood up from the book-laden table, stretchings his arms theatrically, then gave me a roguish wink. "Besides, we've made all the progress we're going to today. I'd say it's high time I take a break from reading and do a little writing of my own!"
That night, Lucius stayed up for hours writing a new play for the public theaters of Delphinad. It was a satire, ridiculing the Pantheon as the foolish devotees of blatantly false gods. It skirted the border of true heresy, while raising troubling questions for the church under the guise of humor.
It was wildly popular.