Chapter I - Dusk
The two brothers looked down at their once almighty father, wrapped in thin linen, lips rock-dry and skin pale as cigarette ash. He peered back at them through tiny slit-eyes.
“Sultan? Is that you?” the old man whispered.
“We’re both here, Father,” Jahre said.
Sultan, the older of the two brothers, pulled up a chair and sat down next to his father. He took his hand in his and felt his weak pulse. It was hard to believe that the man before him, wrinkled as a dried prune as he’d become, remained the most powerful being in the universe. The hand he held, he recalled, had created their little paradise, separate from the vast emptiness of eternity. Jahre walked over to the other side of the bed and pulled up a chair, too.
“The healers say I only have a few days left, at best.”
Jahre turned to the door and saw Michaela, the head servant, still standing there. His glare traced a path through the darkness, settling on her, like a hawk on its prey. Her presence in the room was no longer required – Jahre’s eyes made that much clear. She scurried out, leaving the men alone with their father.
“I don’t know what I’ll do without you, Father,” Sultan said, sobbing.
He squeezed his father’s hand and felt him squeeze back, weakly. There could be no doubt that the old man’s body was failing him.
“You’ll go on without me, and do greater things than I have. But, that can only happen if you do, now, what needs to be done.”
The All Father’s eyes met his son’s with the gravity of stars aligning. The words chilled Sultan’s very bones.
“I’m not ready,” he replied.
“If that is true, then I’ve failed as a father.”
Sultan wiped the trickling tears from his cheeks.
“That’s not true, Father,” Jahre chipped in.
“A parent’s role is to raise their child to be able to live on without them,” The All-Father said, still keeping his eyes on Sultan. “Once I am gone, these people will look up to you for guidance and leadership. They expect you to be ready.”
Jahre squeezed his father’s hand, but the frail, old man kept his eyes focused on Sultan, his most-cherished first-born son. He felt a wave of emotion ready to burst forth from inside him. He wanted to shed tears for his father, but he could not let him see any signs of weakness from him.
Even in his dying moments, he still acts as though I do not exist, he thought.
“Can you live on without me?” their father asked.
Sultan shook his head. “Not yet, Father. I need more time.”
“I, too, wasn’t ready when my time came, but I did my duty because it had to be done, and it had to be done by me. Do you expect your brother to do your duty for you?”
Despite the clear contempt in his father’s words, Jahre’s eyes still lit up. All he had wanted was for his father to acknowledge his presence, even if the words seemed to leave a bitter taste in his mouth. He had watched his brother being trained for this role since he became old enough to understand what was going on. No training was ever given to him, however. His father’s boots were Sultan’s to fill, and no one else.
“Maybe it’s time to let the power go. You have slain all our enemies. We have no more need for it. Maybe it’s time to let it return to the universe,” Sultan said.
Even in the darkness, Jahre could see the resolve on his brother’s face. If there was one thing he and his father agreed on, it was that Sultan’s idea of letting the power go was complete madness. They had laughed it off as just fear of responsibility when he’d first brought it up, but he had repeated it on many other occasions, and there was genuine concern around the garden that he was serious about not ascending.
The All-Father’s face contorted as if his flesh had been pierced by some hot, sharp object.
“You need to get that silly idea out of your head!” he bellowed, summoning what little divine strength he still had locked away within.
The words shook the room, and both boys instinctively recoiled, putting distance between themselves and their father. Loving and caring as he had been, he had also never been one to spare the rod when the need arose. Deemed to be the weaker second son that should have never been allowed to live, Jahre got the worst of it. Instead, however, of swinging at them, the All-Father sunk back into his pillow and his eyes closed slowly. The brothers exchanged looks of relief. Sultan kept his hand on their father’s wrist, monitoring his pulse.
“You have to do it,” Jahre muttered.
Sultan sighed and looked down at their father. His breathing was becoming weaker with each passing day – there was no doubt that time was running out for him.
“I will go into the mountains this night to decide. When I return, maybe tomorrow or the day after, you will know my decision,” Sultan said, rising to his feet.
“Let’s hope he holds on til’ then,” Jahre replied, keeping his eyes on the floor.
Sultan put a hand on the All-Father’s chest. “Two days, Father. That’s all I need.”
Chapter II - Temptation
A few minutes later, Jahre walked into his living quarters. He felt his limbs ache as if he had walked for days. He knew his way around the dark, empty room well enough to make it to his bed without knocking anything over. He stripped naked and slipped between the soft, satin sheets. The warmth embraced him with maternal gentleness.
“Jahre, is that you?” Evan asked.
He reached across the bed and felt the warm, tender skin of his naked partner. He wrapped his hand around him and pulled him closer.
“It’s me, my love,” he replied.
“How is the All-Father?”
Jahre felt grateful that the pitch-black darkness could hide the pain on his face.
“They say He won’t last another week,” Jahre replied, choking back his tears.
He took a deep breath to calm himself. His father’s attempts to make him stronger had only taught him to better hide his weaknesses.
“Has your brother changed his mind about taking his birthright?”
Jahre swallowed hard. “Not yet. He will be going into the mountains tonight. Says he’ll decide when he returns.”
“What if he chooses not to take it?”
“I don’t know!” Jahre snapped.
An awkward silence hung between the pair, like a puff of smoke on a windless night. “I’m sorry. That was unnecessary.”
“I know this is hard for you,” Evan said, putting a hand on Jahre’s cheek, “but if He dies a natural death, His power will seep back into the universe. Who will protect us, then?”
“He’s defeated all our enemies. They cower in the shadows, fearful of what we… He can do to them.”
“What happens when they hear that His son chose not to take the power?”
Jahre felt a tightness in his stomach. The All-Father had taken the power from His father before and used it to carve a place for them in the swirling mists of Eternity. There, powerful entities lay dormant, kept at bay since time immemorial, but ready for the day the kingdom would be defenseless so they, too, could lay claim to the world He’d built. He did not doubt that Evan was right. If Sultan refused to take the power, the kingdom would perish.
“What do you want me to do, then?” he asked. “I’ve tried talking to him. If he won’t listen to Father, what makes you think he’ll listen to me?”
“He’s not the only one who can take the power, you know. If Sultan is not ready to step up and do what is expected of him, maybe someone else should. Your father has always thought you weak – maybe this is your chance to prove Him wrong.”
The words lingered between them, neither of them knowing exactly how to follow them up. It was not the first time that Evan had broached the treasonous idea, and he took note of how, each time, Jahre seemed to be less outraged by it.
“You know I can’t do that,” he replied weakly. Evan sensed the lack of conviction in his voice.
“If not for yourself, then do it for the kingdom,” Evan whispered.
The gift is not for you. It has always been Sultan’s. The words had been repeated to him so many times that they had become a personal motto. Though Sultan had never been one to lord it over his little brother, he certainly carried himself like a man who knew he was destined to wield ultimate power. He tried to push the thought away, but the seed of corruption had already been sown. He pulled Evan closer and wrapped his arms around him, feeling his warm skin against his own. The room fell completely silent, though it wasn’t a good silence, but an ominous one, like the one that precedes a particularly violent storm.
“Sleep,” he said. “When Sultan returns, the Ascension Ceremony will begin, and it’s unlikely that we’ll get to sleep properly for days to come.”
Chapter III - Lost
As Sultan left his father’s chamber, he wandered without aim, his mind in too much turmoil to focus on anything.
‘I cannot kill my father,’ he thought.
He knew, however, that that was their tradition. From his Father to His father before him; men in their family never got to die peacefully in their sleep. That was not their way. You dishonor your father by leaving him to die a pauper’s death, he heard a voice say.
He looked up at the stars and saw the thousands of eyes of his ancestors looking down at him. Staring up at them always made him feel small and insignificant. He knew that would change if he took the All-Father’s power. He would be in touch with every particle in the universe. He would feel their vibrations and they would speak to him. He would be one with existence. At least, that was how his father had described it to him. On nights like these, they had taken long walks just beyond the garden, and his father had told him stories to prepare him for his ascension.
“Why am I not ready?” he wondered out loud, but an answer was not forthcoming.
It wasn’t as if the idea of killing his father had only been just presented to him. He had known since he was old enough to have the vaguest notion of death, and he had been groomed to lead since before he could even read. He hugged his robe tightly – it was a particularly chilly evening. The weather had become more and more erratic as the All-Father’s grip on reality loosened, and he knew that things would only get worse before they got better.
All was dark and quiet around the garden, and he considered going back to his chamber; to his wife and daughter. He’d not told them of his plans to go into the mountains. He was prone to making important decisions without consulting his wife – something she was not very fond of. He did not find the thought of going back into the garden particularly appealing. He looked far ahead of him at the stretch of desert that seemed to go on forever. The path that separated the desert from the garden also led up into the mountains. There, he could find solitude, and maybe, just maybe, the answers he sought would find him.
Chapter IV - The Fall
Jahre had been tossing and turning in bed for hours when he finally concluded that he was unlikely to sleep that night. He stared up at the ceiling in the crushing darkness of his quarters. Everything was silent – vacuously so, save for the sound of Evan snoring gently next to him.
“Maybe you are right,” he whispered to his sleeping partner, stroking his hair.
Half asleep, Evan swatted his hand away and rolled over, turning his back to him. Jahre sat up on the edge of the bed, placing his feet on the cold floor. He had tried to ignore the seeds that his partner had planted inside his head, but they had taken root and were refusing to let him go. I can’t do it, he thought, but deep down he knew that he’d wanted to do it his whole life; if not for the power, then just to see the look on the All-Father’s face as the light left his eyes.
His father had hardly made an effort to hide how unwanted Jahre was. It was no secret that the All-Father wanted a daughter. He looked down at his sleeping partner.
‘Maybe I was meant to be my father’s daughter,’ he mused.
He quickly brushed the thought away. He had enough to worry about as it were. He slid his feet into his soft, fluffy slippers and strode over to the wall where he’d hung his robe. The night was cold and the air felt pregnant like something was about to burst forth from it. He cast one final glance at Evan, before quietly opening the door to their chambers and slipping out into the night.
He hurried along in the darkness of the night, keeping his head low. He, too, felt the penetrating gaze of the million eyes of his ancestors looking down at him contemptuously. He truly felt, for the first time, that he was a pariah – a white elephant – and maybe his father had known it all along.
‘You would dishonor your father’s name? For what?’ the voice in his head asked.
He ignored it. He paid no mind to where he was going until he realized where his legs had taken him. He glanced nervously around to make sure that no one was watching. He knew that the All-Father always demanded to be left alone at night. Even on his death bed, he was still the most powerful being in the universe, and no guard could protect him better than he could protect himself. He wondered, for the final time, if he was not tempting fate by visiting his father alone.
‘Maybe without Sultan around, he’ll finally acknowledge me.’
He opened the door and slid silently into the room. Candles adorned the walls, though they were few and far between, illuminating the room only partially. Jahre trod lightly as he approached the bed. His Father’s breathing was slow and shallow, and right up to the moment he stood next to the bed and looked down at him, he’d been convinced that the old man was asleep. Instead, He was staring back up at him, and His eyes filled up with recognition.
“I’ve been expecting you,” the old man said weakly, swallowing hard. Jahre found himself momentarily dumbstruck.
“Umm…I…” he stammered.
“Speak freely, BOY,” the All-Father boomed.
Jahre remembered that he could count, on one hand, the number of times his father had called him ‘son’.
“I just came to check on you,” he lied.
“How I could have fathered such a spineless boy is still beyond me. I tried to make you strong, boy, but you’ve so far proved me right.”
“Right about what?”
“Your destiny is to bring shame to this family. Your mother should have listened to me and terminated you when she had the chance.”
Jahre’s rage almost turned to nausea. He resisted the urge to cry out. His hands trembled, crying out for blood. All he wanted to do was wrap them around his Father’s neck and squeeze until the old man stopped struggling.
“Just tell me why, Father. Why do you hate me so much?”
The All-Father turned away.
“How have I brought shame to this family!?” he continued. “Is it because I love another man?”
Jahre walked around the bed. He wanted the old man to look him right in the eye as he answered.
“Your destiny is to bring shame to this family,” he repeated. “Tell me, why are you here?”
The question caught Jahre off-guard. He knew of his father’s power of prescience, though it was the least revered of his powers. He had made it clear on many occasions that they were more of a burden than a curse.
“Imagine a tree with eyes,” the old man had once said to Sultan and him, “cursed to watch helplessly as the ax falls upon it – that is how it feels to know what is coming and have no power to stop it.”
Jahre took a deep breath and met his father’s gaze. “I’ve come to do what needs to be done for my people.”
“Do what you must, then,” the All-Father said.
He closed his eyes and waited. Despite every fiber in his being crying out for him to stop, Jahre pulled the pillow out from beneath his father’s feet and fluffed it. His hands shook as he brought it down over the old man’s face. The old man did not resist or struggle. Jahre shed tears that night, as the life force seeped slowly out of his father and into him. When he was satisfied that the old man was gone, he straightened himself and lifted the pillow away. His father’s face was calm and serene – like that of a man who had died peacefully in his sleep.
Chapter V - The Return
When Sultan finally snapped out of the dream he’d been having, he found himself sweaty and muddy lying on the ground. He had been on his knees crying out to his ancestors to give him a sign. The vision they sent him had chilled his very bones. He saw rivers of blood flowing through the Eternal City. He did not doubt that it was the blood of his people.
“What can I do to stop it?” he cried out.
He caught glimpses of the starry night through gaps in the trees. His ancestors gave no reply. He knew, deep down, that the one vision he had received was more than they gave on most occasions. This had led him to wonder how his Father’s power of prescience worked; if He got flashes of the future like that or if time worked differently for Him such that past, present, and future congealed into one. He wondered, too, if his vision was meant to be taken as a metaphor, as a possible outcome, or as the future, set in stone and unchangeable.
Sultan rose to his feet and dusted himself off. The conviction in his heart told him that he knew what he needed to do. The two nights he had spent in the mountains were more than enough. His father had very little time left, and he wanted to spend as much of it with Him as possible before the Ascension Ceremony.
The journey back was much easier – the path took him downhill the whole way and it felt much shorter than before. When he got to the foot of the mountain, he felt almost immediately that something was different. The subtle electric buzz that had been in the air was gone. Everything seemed calmer, now, and though he had hardly paid attention to the weather, it occurred to him that it had started to get better. He tried to ignore the dread this induced in him.
“I haven’t had anything to eat in days,” he told himself.
He knew, however, that it was not hunger. He had fasted for much longer on several occasions and had felt nothing close to what he felt then. He slipped past the shrubs at the edge of the garden as he made his way towards the center. His every step felt heavy and forced like there was some ethereal force holding him back. The sun was just rising, and the garden was still dark. The morning silence was broken occasionally by the chirping of the blissfully ignorant birds. As Sultan approached the edge of the garden’s inner sanctum, he encountered the first sign that things may have spiraled wildly out of control during the time that he had been away.
“Who are you?” he asked.
He found himself staring at a naked couple that he did not recognize. He knew everyone in the Eternal City, and he had certainly never seen those people before. The pair stared back at him but gave no response. They looked just as confused as he was, if not more. They tracked him with their eyes as he eased past them. As soon as they were out of sight, he broke off into a brisk walk. There were only two people he trusted enough to appraise him on what he’d missed, and he was yet to decide which one to see first. The inner sanctum was uncharacteristically quiet and empty. He knew that most of their neighbors were early risers who preferred to get the day’s work done early. He allowed his legs to lead as they took him to his Father’s chamber. He stood by the door for a moment, hesitant to enter. He did not want to have his fears confirmed. He took a deep breath to calm himself, before pushing past the curtain and entering. The first thing he noticed was the extinguished candles. His gut told him that there was no need to check the bed, but he did so anyway. It was empty.
He ran out of the room and bumped right into his younger brother, Jahre. He realized immediately that there was something different about him. He was far from the cowering, impish character he’d known and loved. He stood up straight with his head held high, and there was pure energy radiating off of him. The power signature was unmistakable – it was the All-Father’s.
“What have you done?” Sultan cried.
“I did what you were too weak to do,” he replied.
Sultan resisted the urge to grab his little brother by the neck. The young man’s eyes were aflame – rage, hatred, and pure, unadulterated power had consumed him.
“If you push him too far, one day he’ll snap,” he recalled telling the All-Father.
His response had been coy like he knew this was coming.
‘What’s going to happen will happen,’ he had replied. ‘We’re only here to watch the show.’
“You…you…you killed him?” Sultan blurted out.
He had known it from the moment he’d seen the naked people, but he fought hard to keep the ugly thoughts at bay. Not even Jahre would stoop that low, he had told himself.
“He was going to die either way!” Jahre snapped.
Sultan took a deep breath to calm himself. “Who were those people back there?” he asked, pointing in the direction he had come from.
There was a momentary flicker of shame in Jahre’s eyes. A part of him seemed to recognize that he had done exactly what his father had told him he was destined to do. He had brought shame to his family.
“Look around, brother. Where do you think everyone is? They are in their homes hiding because they despise me. They loved Father. They love you! I’m just the second son that no one wanted.”
“So, what? You went along and made people who would?”
“Oh my stars, Jahre! Are you hearing yourself? You created life just so it could love you? Is there no limit to how low you’re willing to stoop?”
Jahre turned his gaze away. For a moment, the cowardly little boy Sultan had watched growing up was back – the one who was always looking for the approval of those around him. The little boy who had believed so little in himself that he needed others to do it for him.
“I’m the Almighty, now,” Jahre said, “but the people love and follow you. Set them straight, or I will.”
“You’ve brought shame to this family,” Sultan muttered.
“I was never a part of this family and you know it,” Jahre replied. “That’s why I had to create my own.”
Chapter VI - Expulsion
“You can’t win,” Lily said, placing a hand on Sultan’s cheek.
She turned his head to face her and kissed his lips softly.
“I need to try – for our people,” he replied.
“You don’t owe them your life.”
“This is what Father would have wanted me to do.”
“You don’t know that!” Lily snapped. “He’s your brother. Maybe the fact that you’ve all already made your mind up about him is what’s driving him over the edge.”
“He created life! That was the one thing that Father vowed not to do. It is not our place to imagine ourselves as gods – as creators of life, – or have you forgotten his words? He fought wars against men who had similar designs for that power.”
Lily stood up and walked to the edge of the room. She wore nothing but a silk robe which she held close to her body. Her long, dark hair was braided into a thick ponytail that cradled the small of her back.
“So, what then? Do you want to die to prove that you’re an honorable man? What about me? What about the promise you made me?”
There was pain in Sultan’s eyes as he stared up at Lily. Not even the darkness could conceal her anger. Yet, he knew what he needed to do.
“It is often those least equipped to do so who crave the power to rule over other men,” Jahre said absentmindedly.
He took one last long look at Lily before rising and leaving their chamber. He did not say goodbye, but he’d resigned himself to the possibility that he would never see her again, a burden that he chose not to place on her shoulders. A single thought looped in his mind as he walked beneath the dizzying blackness of the night sky.
’Those abominations must be destroyed’, he thought.
He had not thought of how he would do it. In the many battles he had fought alongside his father, he had never been tasked with killing such defenseless creatures. The very thought of it made him shudder, but he knew that it had to be done.
The walk to where the gentle creatures had been felt to him much shorter than before. He imagined that he must have been too lost in thought to keep track of the distance he walked. He found the pair drenched in moonlight, their baby-smooth skin shimmering amidst the darkness of the forest. He approached slowly, doing his best not to startle them.
“Father! Is that you?” the man cried, running up to him.
Sultan realized immediately that the creature had him confused with his brother. It came as no shock, given that, in their youth, most of the people in the garden constantly mixed them up, too. As they grew older, their differing styles had made them much easier to tell apart, especially for those that knew them well.
“It is I, my child,” he said, doing his best impression of his brother’s soothing, baritone voice.
He cringed as the being fell at his feet and kissed them feverishly.
“Up!” he cried, pulling the man up by his shoulders. “It is wrong to worship at the feet of another like yourself.”
The creature gave a puzzled look. He turned his gaze to his female companion, who was slowly approaching them. Sultan noted how comfortable they were without clothes. He had heard of a time when people around the garden had been the same way, too. Then, their bodies had become something to be hidden – an object that some coveted and others were too ashamed to reveal. Beyond that, there was something else in their eyes; or rather, something lacking. He saw no desire for each other – only love for him.
“What is ‘wrong’?” the woman asked.
“Nothing, just that…” he began, before realizing that he might have misunderstood her question.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“You said ‘it is wrong to worship at the feet of another like yourself’. What is wrong?”
The question seemed to hit him, and he almost staggered back. He had never actually considered what it meant for something to be ‘wrong’. It was then that he realized what his brother had done. He had deprived his creations of true knowledge. He had endowed them with just enough to worship him, but nothing more. That was why they showed no desire for each other. They did not even know that they could desire each other.
“How many people would never fall in love if they had never heard the word?” he remembered his father saying once.
“It is better if I just show you,” he said, taking a step towards the woman.
A million thoughts flashed through his mind, including the vision of his loving wife crying out for him to stop. Even that was not enough to stop him.
Anyone can do great things for what they believe in. What separates them from the truly great is the ability to do terrible things for their beliefs.”
He put a hand around the woman’s waist and pulled her closer until he could feel the crests and ridges of her body pressing against him. Her pulse quickened as something awakened within her. He saw, in her eyes, a sort of imbecilic trust. The man watched as Jahre laid her down and lay on top of her. She wrapped her hands around him and held him close as if she was afraid that he would not finish what he had started. He pulled away from her and grabbed the man’s hand; he fell to his knees.
“You think I should be worshipped because I have created you, but the power to create life is in you, too. It is in all of us. It is not for one man to lord over others.” There was recognition in the woman’s eyes – she knew exactly what he wanted her to do. She wrapped her arms around her companion’s neck and pulled him down to her. Sultan rose to his feet and watched. It was clumsy at first, as the man tried to find his bearings. The knowledge was there, however, in the deepest recesses of their minds. He’d only had to unlock it. He felt pride as he watched the two tangled bodies united, as they had been made to be.
The awe-filled silence that had descended upon the garden was suddenly broken by loud rumblings of thunder. Sultan looked up and saw that the sky was still clear, which could only mean one thing. There was a crack of lightning that lit the forest up like the afternoon sun. He covered his eyes, and when he reopened them, he was standing face to face with his brother. His eyes shone like the stars, a look he’d only seen in his Father a few times. If there had been any doubt in his mind about his brother wielding the true power of the All-Father, it was immediately extinguished.
He noticed that the man and woman had hurried to their feet and were now doing something that he’d not seen them do before – they were covering their genitals. Jahre noticed this, too, and that only served to fuel his rage.
“What have you done?” he cried.
His voice had the force of a thousand trumpets blown at once, and the thunder seemed to echo his pain.
“I did what had to be done,” Sultan replied.
“Now, they’ve become like us!”
“Anything is better than what you’d made them.”
Jahre turned and looked at his creations – he could see the fear in their eyes. They were now afraid of him. He knew they were no longer the innocent beings that he had made. Their love for him was now tainted by fear. He knew better than anyone how easily mixed up the two emotions could be.
“Get out of my sight!” he yelled at the quivering beings.
It was only then that Sultan realized what he had done. He watched as the naked couple scurried off like a pair of gutter rats.
“And you,” Jahre said, turning to his elder brother, “you just couldn’t let me have it, could you. You didn’t want the power, brother. You were too spineless. I was never a part of this family, and you won’t let me make my own.”
“Yes,” Sultan said, stepping closer to his brother, “I corrupted them. It’s my fault that they did what they did. Spare their lives, punish me.”
“No! They had a choice! They chose to follow you! So, now, you must follow them. You will languish and toil in the land of mortals with them. You will love them while they despise you, and then you will watch over them as they suffer for an eternity.”
Jahre snapped his fingers, and everything went dark. When Sultan’s eyes finally readjusted to his new surroundings, he found himself in a vast, dark, and acrid smelling cavern. All around him was fire and brimstone, and the familiar faces of his father’s once-loyal servants, only that their faces had been morphed into hideous things. He saw no need to ask where he was; somehow, he just knew. His brother had won the battle, but where he had seen servants, Sultan saw an army. Along with the creatures that his brother had so readily cast away, Jahre saw that all hope was not lost. One day he would take back what had been stolen from him.
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