The Destroyer danced, and existence unraveled, one atom at a time. Time stilled. The stars flickered and were snuffed. Far worlds crumbled into cosmic debris, to be swept away by the black seas of eternity as they converged on the universe’s center, incomprehensible and inescapable. At the heart of existence, the world sang out its death-cry.
On Atlas’ mountain, Gilgamesh watched, frozen, as a strange goddess shimmered into view, her skeletal features taut as she gave voice to the wail of the world’s ending. The light of the newcomer’s arrival seemed to set her ablaze – as if she burned with the world. She held up her hands – in protest? In welcome? He could not say – but the dancer did not cease his graceful movements.
The song he danced to was an incomprehensible roar to Gilgamesh’s ears. Like the crash of surf against rock, but doubled and redoubled beyond all endurance. A thunder that echoed out of time’s heart, shattering the fragile glass world caught in its path. He could feel that thunder pulsing through the rock beneath his feet, reducing the mountain to dust and memory. It was a slow-motion collapse; so slow that his balance suffered not at all. One moment, he stood on rock, and the next…sand. Then, nothing at all.
But he was not falling. None of them were. It was as if being so close to the epicenter had spared them being consumed – at least, immediately. He looked down at his hands and saw that they were coming apart like dust on the wind. Their substance was being torn apart as slowly but as surely as that of the world around them.
Beneath the all-consuming roar, he could hear the voices of his gods, crying out. And not just them. It was as if the voices of every inhabitant of the world, mortal and divine alike, sang out in unison. Their voices joined that of the skeletal goddess, and her song became theirs and was subsumed by the roaring cacophony of destruction.
The Destroyer danced, picking up speed. Gilgamesh felt Tiamat force herself past him. She sprang into the arc of the dance, into the heart of the light. Was she trying to stop it – or join it? He did not know, but something told him either way that she could not accomplish it alone. He stretched out his hand and caught at the glimmering flash of scales. Nor was he the only one. Persephone, Merlin and the others were there as well, all moving with him as if they’d all had the same thought in the same moment. Maybe they had. He could feel them, even as he felt Tiamat. A great mingling, even as their very beings unraveled into motes of light and shadow.
Through them, he could feel Tiamat attempting to grapple with the forces the newcomer – Shiva, someone whispered; Merlin, perhaps, or maybe Atlas – had unleashed. But it was too much, too fast. Like sand, it slipped through her claws and he heard her roar of frustration echo out across infinity. If Shiva heard, he gave no sign. The dance of unmaking continued and Tiamat screamed in fury as it began to consume her. She was drowning in the very sea she had roused. He felt her frustration, her disbelief and it was echoed by his own. So stubborn. So foolish. All of them had been so foolish.
Perhaps it was better this way. To be unmade and let whoever came after try again. Maybe they would get it right. But even as the thought occurred to him, he cast it aside. Surrender was anathema to him. He was a king. The first king. And he would not surrender to oblivion without a fight.
He felt a similar determination from Arthur, Bellona and the others. It strengthened his own and he cried out, trying to get Tiamat’s attention. But she ignored them; or maybe she simply couldn’t hear them over the sound of her own fury. Then – a light. A burst of something, or maybe it was the idea of something – a memory of lightning and starlight; of hoarfrost and thunder and a fire as old as time. He felt new presences in the chaos. The gods were not going gentle into the night.
He heard the roar of Zeus’ lightning, and Odin’s guttural war-cry. He felt the rumble of the earth as Terra and Geb flung the last of their strength against the devouring ocean, and the crash of Jormungandr’s scales as the great serpent coiled about what remained of the world, holding it together for an instant longer.
Amaterasu’s blade joined that of Tsukuyomi, darting against the tide. Chaac’s thunder mingled that of Thor, as Yemoja’s waters met the incoming tide in a great cascade. The gods of every pantheon were here, in some form or another, lending their strength to the cause. He saw a shadow that might have been Neith stride through the chaos, hand outstretched. Behind her came a flickering outline of starlight – Olorun. They called out as one – one pantheon, one voice.
Tiamat flinched. Turned.
Gilgamesh felt Persephone’s hand on his shoulder, and heard her whisper, Now. Strike now. But he knew that she did not mean to strike with his sword or fist, but rather his words. “Tiamat, you do not face the end alone – not this time,” he cried out. “We are here and we will face the end with you. If this thing can be done, it must be by all of us together.”
For what felt like an eternity, Tiamat stared at him. At them. He felt her mistrust. Her fear. She had trusted the gods once before and been betrayed. But it was different now. It had to be. For all their sakes.
Together, then,” she growled, at last. She threw back her head and roared, and Gilgamesh joined his voice to hers. The gods cried out as one, and the sound met the abyssal roar of the cosmic sea – and for an instant, drowned it out. A cry, not of fear or hate, but of defiance. Of promise and intent. A song of creation, as had been sung by Tiamat herself in the dim, first days before man or god existed.
At the sound of it, Shiva slowed his dance, and finally…stopped. Tiamat turned, and Gilgamesh joined her. Shiva stood, staring up at the abyssal emptiness above. He glanced at them, smiled and – without a word – started a new dance.
Gilgamesh felt light-headed. The voices of the gods fell silent one by one, as if something were snatching them away. Soon, only he and Tiamat remained. But the dance continued. It was more graceful than the first and beautiful rather than terrifying. He felt strangely calm as he watched Shiva move. “What…?” he began.
“A dance of creation,” a familiar voice said. Gilgamesh turned. Olorun stood behind him, and with him, Neith and Atlas as well. Tiamat glanced at them, seemingly unsurprised by their presence. There were others as well, but Gilgamesh could only dimly perceive them. Even so, he knew them for the oldest gods, the ones who had seen more than one revolution of the wheel. “The dance of destruction is always followed by that of creation. A new world rises from the ashes of the old. Or so it was explained to me by a curious fellow with the head of an elephant.” Olorun flexed his hands. “I can feel new stars burning in the heavens. I feel stronger than I have in ages.”
“New stars, new worlds,” Tiamat rumbled. “The sea recedes and buried seeds sprout anew. Even as it was the first time.”
“Will it be the same as it was?” Gilgamesh asked. “Will the others be as they were?
That depends,” Olorun said. “I left the stars in order to fix what I thought to be broken. But the longer I stayed, the more I came to realize that I could not.” He looked up at Tiamat. “None of us could. Not alone.”
“The fate of this world does not rest in the hand of a single god or goddess,” Neith said. Her eyes were on Shiva, but her words were meant for all of the gathered gods. “It has always been a shared duty, and one we have forsaken for far too long. But now, we have a chance to set the wheel once more onto its proper course.” She looked at Tiamat. “If we can put aside the past, and act as one.”
Tiamat looked away. “I am tired of war, but where there are gods there will always be conflict. They – you – are petty things, and you indulge your whims too easily. Why should I build a new world, just to watch you destroy it all over again?”
Gilgamesh cleared his throat. “Because, oh Glistening One, this time you will be there to ensure that they do not. And so will I. Gods like Arthur and Mulan – even those like Merlin – will strive to ensure that the balance is maintained, and that no great threat is left unmet. And mark me, there will be threats…a new world will bring new dangers. New enemies, new gods.” He paused and smiled. “New stories, even. But together, we can ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated in this turn of the cycle.”
Atlas laughed and spoke up for the first time. “Yes, why not make some new mistakes for a change?
Tiamat gave a rumbling chuckle and looked down at Gilgamesh. “A new world, one where all gods have their place, including myself. It will be crowded.
”Chaotic,” Neith said, smiling. “The strands of fate will grow tangled as new destinies emerge.” Her gaze flicked to Gilgamesh. “What was once predetermined will no longer be certain. What was once impossible might yet be.”
Gilgamesh nodded. “It will be interesting, if nothing else.” He looked at the others. “What are we waiting for, then? Let’s get on with it.”
It is already done,” Shiva said, as he came to a halt before Gilgamesh. The air gave a sudden ripple, and before Gilgamesh’s astonished eyes Tiamat and the others wavered like mirages and vanished. All save towering Atlas.
“Where did they…?” he began.
“To their proper places,” Shiva said. “As you must go.
Gilgamesh hesitated. “Did we make the right choice?”
Shiva smiled. “Go home, King Gilgamesh. A new future awaits.”
Shiva gestured, and Gilgamesh wavered and vanished as the others had. He paused for a moment, then turned. Behind him, the plateau was much as it had been before Atlas had set aside his burden. The Titan crouched before him, weighed down once more by the heavens. Shiva looked up at him, frowning. “It does not have to be this way, you know.”
“You know that it does,” Atlas said, looking down at him. He smiled grimly. “I am used to it.” He shifted his weight, adjusting his burden slightly. “Even so, it might be that I am able to set it aside every so often in the future. Who can say? After all, a new world brings with it new possibilities.”
“Yes. That is largely the point.” Shiva waved his hand and a tsunami of flower petals rose about them, cascading upwards and outwards. As they billowed, they revealed images of other places. In one, Zeus sat upon the throne of a restored Olympus, Hera by his side. In another, Odin threw open the doors of Valhalla as Ratatoskr whispered something in his ear. He saw Set clash with Horus somewhere along the Nile, and Bellona pursue a cackling Discordia through the corridors of an ancient temple. Hades and Persephone sat side by side in the underworld, and Baron Samedi strode whistling through an ancient burying ground.
The flowers swirled faster, revealing more of this new, but familiar world. Shiva saw a chicken-legged hut stalk through a dark forest, while inside two witches – Baba Yaga and Morgan Le Fay – discussed some point of magic. He saw Arthur and Merlin standing in an audience chamber before an immense circular table. They seemed as if they were waiting for someone. Far to the east, Mulan sparred with Sun Wukong amid a cherry grove, while Guan Yu watched in approval. Farther still, Tiamat reclined in her temple as Gilgamesh respectfully requested an audience with her.
The flowers rippled and parted, revealing a clash between Tsukuyomi and Susano. Moonlight flared as the two gods met in the center of a surging river. The flowers spun again and again. Shiva saw Olorun call down the light of the stars to illuminate his path through a deep cavern, as above, the crouching upside down shape of Camazotz watched. He saw the oceans froth and Charybdis rise to confront Kuzenbo, the king of all kappa.
Shiva gestured and the flower petals stilled. “Well?” Atlas asked. “What do you think? It seems as if all is as it was to me.”
Shiva pondered the question. The gods would clash, as they always had. It was in their nature. But perhaps the little fires of conflict would not grow into an impossible conflagration as they had so many times before. There were those who would work to ensure it – including himself. But even so, there was no way to predict what the future held.
“I think…we shall have to wait and see.” Shiva looked up at the Titan and smiled. “Whatever comes next will be interesting, if nothing else.”