Skola Valley was infamous for its endless revels. Miles away, in the back rooms of Meletis, people whispered tales of the debauchery of satyrs. The drums and cymbals crashed from morning to night. Cups overflowed, the dancing never ceased, and all desires could be fulfilled, or so they said. The tales of orgies and riotous celebrations spurred humans to make the arduous trek from their walled polis through the Nessian Forest to this isolated valley where they could experience the bacchanalia for themselves. Framed by verdant trees and bathed in the light of the bonfire, humans and satyrs mingled in the pursuit of everlasting euphoria. The reputation of the valley was well deserved, but not tonight.
Xenagos, the satyr-king of the Skola Valley, glowered disapprovingly at the revelers swaying on the grass below him. He perched on the edge of a chaise lounge on a wooden platform above the revel ground. To the revelers, euphoria was the end goal. A night of mindless release, and they were sated. Food was plentiful, work was scarce, and the satyrs of the valley lived for the celebration—all the satyrs except their king, who had become jaded to the pursuit of pleasure. Revels were tiresome but acutely necessary.
Xenagos had seen more and endured more than his brethren could comprehend. Not one of them could appreciate the burden of his gift or the trials he had to go through to give these light-hearted revels lasting meaning. Seething with frustration, Xenagos slumped back with his double-pointed spear resting across his chest. It hadn't been so long ago that he'd been a foolish believer just like them. But once his spark ignited, he'd seen beyond the boundaries of Theros, and everything he thought he knew had been shattered. Even the haughty sphinx, prognosticating in his cave, had never alighted on other worlds like Xenagos had.
He'd always known there was something special about him, but his burden was truly unique. There must be some grand design because most mortals couldn't have handled seeing the infinite planes—they would have gone mad with the knowledge. Only a mind like his could truly profit from the experience. But still, he had never asked for this ability. It was thrust on him in a moment of great weakness. And now he shouldered the responsibility of leading these bleating sheep. For he alone among mortals—and gods—knew what was best for them, what was best for this tiny speck of existence known as Theros.
"Hail Heliod, Lord of Breakfast," Xenagos shouted. "And Thassa, Queen of Puddles!"
At the sound of his voice, the revelers paused. With a practiced motion, the crowd turned to their king and laughed politely. But it wasn't loud enough to satisfy Xenagos. A fiery light flashed in his eyes, and the audience began to laugh uproariously at his jest.
Xenagos sighed. How he desired genuine emotion. He could make people do whatever he wanted, but such directives could never satisfy the depths of his cravings. Xenagos released his foolish flock back to their dancing and motioned for his attendant to fill his ceramic cup. With a heavy heart, he considered what he should do about the current atmosphere of the night's festivities, which was made up of mostly satyrs and a few humans, or stubs, thrown in for good measure. The revel was tepid. Unless it ramped up, the night would gain him nothing at all.
As the sun set below the horizon, Nyx materialized in the sky above the valley. With nightfall, the god-forms and celestial creatures would begin traipsing across the heavens. Xenagos didn't like eyes of the gods upon him and his domain. He wanted to avoid the attention of Nylea most of all. She believed that Xenagos and the satyrs occupied the valley at her pleasure. He began casting a protective spell because it was his pleasure that the air above his valley become as dense as a roof to block the vision of those unwelcome in his house. He cast the spell with little effort, and a thicket of ethereal vines crawled over the valley and settled like a living dome above them all. Nyx's shifting light still found its way through the gaps, but the gods couldn't easily spy from their lofty realm.
The revelers burst into applause at the sight of the twining foliage and the dappled light playing across the emerald grass. They raised their cups to Xenagos, and he felt the energy of the revel increase. His heart beat faster. His veins crackled inside his body. But he needed more. Casually, he crossed one leg over the other and cast tendrils of capture-magic that snaked around the fire and looped around several dancers. It gave him momentary pleasure to snare revelers in the noose of his unseen control. But it was too easy to be interesting for long. Spellcasting was particularly easy here where the land was naturally infused with the essence of divine magic. In the Skola Valley, you could practically dig a hole and find the earth glittering with the stars of Nyx.
He'd ensnared three dancers: two female satyrs and a young man named Deiphon who arrived from Meletis only a few days before. The scion of a wealthy family, Deiphon was a handsome young man with curly dark hair and a sense of entitlement. He'd been drinking wine all night, which made him especially easy to control. Like all human stubs, he came to the valley with the idea that life would be one long party. Xenagos let the females slip from his mystical grasp. He could manipulate satyrs all day long with little to be gained from it. But the young man was more interesting. Deiphon fancied himself a gifted speaker, a teller of god-stories. And Xenagos wanted to test those skills.
"Deiphon!" Xenagos called to the young man. "Come and join me at my table!"
The crowd twittered jealously. The revelers had been keeping an eye on the platform as the satyr-king sulked. Now his honored guest had been chosen. Quickly, a table was set up and attendants brought plates of fruit, figs, and barley bread. Dark red wine overflowed the edges of the two-handled cups, and the mood of the revel lifted considerably.
"You honor me," Deiphon said as he settled against the blue pillows.
"What news of the world?" Xenagos asked politely.
"Callaphe the Mariner has returned," Deiphon said triumphantly as if he'd accomplished the feat himself. The revelers murmured excitedly. Xenagos was disappointed. The legends of Callaphe—a sea-faring trickster who stole trinkets from the gods and cast them over the waterfall at the edge of the world—meant nothing to him.
"How interesting," he lied.
"Yes, she was seen on the waves off the Siren's Shipyard," Deiphon said. "And on a stormy night in Meletis Harbor."
"Perhaps she means to steal Heliod's crown," Xenagos said drily.
Xenagos could see that Deiphon heard the edge in his voice. The young man closed his mouth and reached for his cup. Most people would have blundered on with the story, but Deiphon clearly sensed the satyr's disapproval. Perhaps he was more perceptive than Xenagos had originally thought. And perception was something that the satyr-king craved desperately.
"Enjoy your drink, boy," Xenagos said warmly. "And then tell me a god-story."
Telling god-stories was a highly prized skill with unspoken rules for both the storyteller and the listener. Deiphon smiled radiantly at Xenagos's request. He seemed unsurprised that he had caught the eye of the infamous satyr-king.
"My lord, I could not do a god-story justice," Deiphon demurred.
"You speak with a silver tongue," Xenagos protested. "Even the gods in Nyx will surely sit and listen."
"You're too kind," Deiphon said. "But if it pleases you, King, I'll tell you a new story I heard on my journey here. If you will pardon my inadequate oration . . . ?"
"I give you leave to mutilate it," Xenagos said magnanimously.
Deiphon adjusted the pillows around himself and rested his elbow on the high back of the chaise. Revelers crowded around the carved legs of the platform. Xenagos sat up and leaned slightly forward, as if he couldn't bear to miss a single word.
"As we all know, Purphoros has been absent from the night sky for ages," Deiphon began. "He toils in his mountain forge and neglects his duties to his brothers and sisters in Nyx."
Xenagos nodded politely. A boy raised in Meletis was predisposed to see the conflict between Heliod and Purphoros in such a light. The Meletians adored their god of the sun while Purphoros was considered the fallen brother, the low dweller. A young man from Akros might have described it the other way around.
"Years ago, during a time of troubles with the minotaurs, Phenax began whispering in Heliod's ear. He told Heliod that Mogis plotted to capture him and keep him prisoner in his Temple of Malice. The God of Slaughter planned to carve the name of war upon Heliod's face."
Xenagos recognized these events, which had occurred barely a decade earlier. Deiphon spoke as if they were the distant past even though the boy would have been alive, though very young. On Theros, history had a way of transforming to myth much more quickly than on other worlds. There were nuggets of truth in what Deiphon said, but much of it had been warped by his limited perspective.
"Heliod wanted to remind Mogis that he was lord over all the pantheon," Deiphon continued. "So he asked Purphoros to rebuild Nyx. Heliod desired Nyx to become like a grand palace for all to witness his glory. But Purphoros refused to construct such an edifice because he had thrown his lot in with Mogis and placed his fingerprints on the dark god's altar."
Xenagos made a little grunt of derision, but Deiphon didn't hear him. The boy's story had turned into Heliod propaganda, which was even more irritating than the arrogance of stubs. Of course, the boy couldn't appreciate Purphoros's creative side, how he would make something beautiful only to cast it into the fires to destroy it and begin again. Xenagos had no love for the God of the Forge, but he could relate to the passion of his spirit.
"After the two quarreled, Purphoros forged a sword in the fires of his mountain," Deiphon continued. "He was jealous of Heliod and didn't want Nyx to reflect Heliod's glory. Purphoros wanted to humiliate the God of the Sun, but in his frenzy to destroy, he made an error. He lacked the precision of Thassa, God of the Sea. He did not have the finesse of Keranos, God of Storms. So in his destructive fury, he unleashed the mighty Polukranos from his home in the sky."
Now Xenagos felt a spark of interest. Everyone knew the myth of Polukranos. Eons ago, Nylea had immortalized him in Nyx after he annihilated a massive polis the size of Akros and Meletis combined—or so the mythmakers claimed. Nylea transformed the hydra into a celestial creature because she could not bear to let him die, but she knew that he was too destructive to exist among the mortals. And Polukranos stayed in Nyx until Purphoros's Sword set him free once again.
"Heliod found himself in a grave situation," Deiphon continued. "When the hydra touched the earth, it would lose its cloak of stars. Polukranos burned with a mindless hatred for civilization, and Meletis, the greatest city of all time, was in peril. But Purphoros had challenged Heliod between the pillars and was determined to destroy Nyx. Of course, he could not let that stand. So he called to his eldest brother, Kruphix, who rarely emerged from his Temple of Mystery at the edge of the world."
Xenagos grew impatient with the way Deiphon's lips curled at the end of each slow sentence. He'd heard this story a thousand times. Was there some new event that would soon be engulfed into the legend? If the mortals were already telling tales of the hydra, and the gods had yet to notice . . . well, then Xenagos's plans had progressed more quickly than he predicted.
"And Heliod called to his beautiful sister Nylea . . ." Deiphon was enjoying himself too much. He spoke in an exaggerated voice intended to imitate the forum storytellers who attracted huge audiences in Meletis.
"Yes, Nylea spread a net of vines, and caught the hydra as it plummeted," Xenagos interrupted. They all knew how the story ended: Heliod bound the hydra. With Heliod's help, they lodged the hydra into a vast cavern, and Nylea settled the great Nessian Forest above him. And Keranos sent a mighty wind to carry Purphoros's Sword into Thassa's ocean where it was claimed by the ruins of Arixmethes.
"And blah, blah, blah, Kruphix slapped their hands and told them to never do it again or they'd be sealed into Nyx like bad children," Xenagos quipped.
There was a stunned silence. The telling of a god-story had certain rules, and Xenagos himself usually abided by those rules. It was he who'd asked for the story, after all. It was considered a great rudeness—indeed a comment on Deiphon's manhood—to be hurried in such a way. The satyrs who were gathered around Xenagos's platform quickly hid their surprise, but Deiphon looked wounded by the satyr-king's interruption. Xenagos's eyes narrowed. Deiphon would spoil the revel with his pouting.
"You said you'd heard something new on your journey here?" Xenagos prompted.
Several of the satyrs knew the dangerous tone of voice and began to inch away from the platform. Out of the corner of his eye, Xenagos watched them back away like dogs about to be whipped for bad behavior. Cowards. If he let them all slink away, the grassy circle would be empty except Deiphon. He wanted an audience. If Deiphon loved attention so much, he deserved to have it.
Deiphon sipped from his cup and shrugged dismissively. "I heard that the hydra has risen again."
The shocked satyrs began to whisper among themselves, and Deiphon looked surprised. He'd spoken with no dramatic effort, yet that sentence had the largest reaction from the onlookers.
"King Xenagos, thank you for your hospitality, but I am feeling very tired now," Deiphon said. He made a perfunctory bow while still seated. "With your permission, I'd like to retire."
Xenagos barely disguised his fury. He sat down next to the young man and slipped his arm around his shoulders. Deiphon, all sense of merriment lost, tried to shy away from the satyr's touch.
"But you came all this way to enjoy the fruits of this valley, where pleasure knows no bounds," Xenagos said.
"Yes, and it has been most entertaining . . ." Deiphon trailed off when Xenagos placed a heavy, controlling hand on top of the young man's head.
"Why is there no dancing?" Xenagos called to the crowd in a fatherly voice.
A red mist rose up out of the enchanted ground and shimmered around the legs of the revelers. The mist was accompanied by the sweet smell of oranges, and the onlookers felt an immediate wave of contentment. With eyes glazed, their bodies began to sway gently to nonexistent music. Some locked hands and danced faster. Others knelt to gather piles of stones.
Xenagos's fingers threaded themselves among the strands of Deiphon's silky hair. Still seated on the raised platform, the mist had not yet risen above Deiphon's feet. The young man gazed at the darkening horizon.
"You seem thoughtful, boy," Xenagos said.
"I'm thinking of the white sands of Meletis Harbor," Deiphon said. He wasn't just speaking, he was pleading. The desperation in his voice made Xenagos's heartbeat quicken.
"If I have offended you, King," Deiphon said quietly. "I am very sorry."
He had anticipated his fate, Xenagos noted. Most men wouldn't have, but it changed nothing. He no longer cared about Deiphon's perceptiveness. Slamming his fist against Deiphon's skull, Xenagos knocked the young man off the edge and to the ground. He lay there stunned for a moment as the red mist clouded his eyes. Inhaling deep breaths of the citrus-scented air, Deiphon stood and began to spin in slow circles, a look of utter concentration on his angelic face. Xenagos incited the musicians to pick up their instruments and play, and the dazed revelers accelerated their movements with the rapid tempo of the pipe and drums. The pile of stones grew from the height of an anthill to the height of an altar.
The spectacle didn't hold Xenagos's attention for long—he'd seen it so many times before. He turned his attention to the platters of food so he didn't see the glassy-eyed satyrs surrounding the wayward storyteller. As Deiphon danced, a satyr swiped a stone from the pile and hurled it at the young man. Another joined in and then another, until the rocks rained down on him. Deiphon was oblivious, like a blade of grass taking no notice of a passing storm, even as the repeated blows knocked Deiphon backward. He made no attempt to dodge the impacts even as he fell, bleeding, to his knees. His lips were frozen in a happy smile. Xenagos allowed the satyr stone throwers to disperse. Now that the damage was done, he wanted to prolong Deiphon's last moments.
"Bring me an oracle, but not Kruphix's idiot," Xenagos ordered his attendant.
"That's the only oracle you have left," the attendant reminded him.
Xenagos snorted at the fragility of god-speakers and motioned for the attendant to retrieve whoever they had in the cells of the caverns below, even if it was a crazy woman who lived backward, or whatever nonsense the mythmakers claimed to be true.
There was a rumble of thunder, and Xenagos frowned at the sky. Why was the God of Storms knocking on his roof? No rain fell here unless it pleased Xenagos. The thunder rolled again, louder this time, just above his valley. Xenagos flinched as a lightning bolt blasted down from the sky and burned a vast hole in his vine-roof. Keranos's strike breached Xenagos's protections and actually touched the ground, not far from where Deiphon lay dying with a crushed skull on the blood-stained grass. The energy crackled along the ground. The revelers hadn't reacted to the sound of the bolt, but they felt the energy as it hit the ground, and it sent them scattering. Xenagos was left standing alone before a deserted field. As the drops pelted down through a ragged hole in his leafy roof, he shouted a mild curse at Keranos.
"Did Deiphon leave you a pretty bit of sea glass?" Xenagos taunted Keranos. "Or are you just jealous of my stubs?"
Flanked by his attendants, the oracle approached through the misty downpour. She was a beautiful woman with eyes the color of almonds, and long black hair. She seemed relaxed and distant, not like someone who had been kept captive for weeks below the ground. When they'd first brought her to the valley, she revealed that her name was Kydele, but she'd said nothing remotely useful since, even when coerced. That was typical of the oracles of Kruphix, who was said to be the eldest and most inscrutable god. Kydele glanced from Xenagos to the dead boy.
"Keranos is right to be offended by such senseless killing," she said. It was the plainest thing he'd ever heard her say. Her hair was slipping out of its binding and hung in front of her face. She peered at him through the dripping strands, and her eyes reflected the star field of Nyx.
"Don't speak unless I tell you to," Xenagos said. It sounded petulant even to him, and she scoffed at his presumption.
"What do you want, King Stranger?" she asked.
"Tell me what you know, and you can leave," he said. He slumped down in the soggy pillows in a fit of self-pity. The revel was spoiled. His heart beat with a slow and irregular rhythm, and he was unnaturally tired. He had been hopeful that Deiphon's story would be useful, but mortals were too blinded by their own self-interest. Now all his oracles had perished except this one. He needed a better way to see the entire world than snatching god-speakers from the streets as if he were some lowly priest of Erebos.
"You could never contain me if I did not choose to be," she replied. It was not Kydele's voice anymore, it was the multilayered voice of the divine. Kruphix must have been watching through her eyes, that passive, infuriating elder god.
"Is the hydra truly wandering among mortals?" Xenagos asked.
"The floor of the forest spits, and Polukranos tastes the mundane air," the oracle told him.
"How do I get to Nyx?" he demanded.
Kydele, like all of Kruphix's oracles, displayed two additional arms made of a shadowy star field that mimicked the form of their god. Kydele's shadow arms flowed as though she were dancing, but she said nothing. Xenagos sneered at her through the rain.
"You look like a flailing insect," Xenagos said. "A beetle tipped upon its back."
"So through the roots and into the watery cradle of Arixmethes," the oracle murmured. "A lost city with no roots of its own."
"What about Purphoros's Sword?" Xenagos asked. "The mythmakers say the fates of the sword and the hydra are bound together."
"Mythmakers cannot measure the bottom of the sea to the edges of the cosmos," said the oracle.
"How do I get to the edge of the world?" Xenagos said. "I know there's a way into Nyx beyond your waterfall."
"Come leap off the side, and I will gladly dash you against the rocks of existence," Kydele said.
"Did my revels awaken the hydra?" Xenagos demanded.
"From the eternal fires to the shards of sky to the peak of Mt. Velus," Kydele told him. "And then the void. But void no longer."
"Speak clearly," Xenagos ordered, "or I will cut your tongue from your mouth."
"You think you can hide what you're doing?" the oracle asked. "The gods are well aware that something is amiss."
"But do they know it is me?" Xenagos asked.
"Soon everyone will know your name," she said. Xenagos was flattered though clearly she did not mean it well.
Kydele turned her back to him and went to the body of Deiphon. Xenagos decided that he hated Kruphix's oracles most of all. She'd let herself be taken captive to spy on him. He should kill her now before Kruphix deciphered his plans. The strands of hair hanging in front of Kydele's face became like the veil of Athreos as she helped Deiphon's soul find passage to the Underworld. So much fuss over one arrogant human.
"Thank you for the lightning, Keranos," the oracle said to the sky.
Instead of killing Kydele, Xenagos thought maybe he would just control and humiliate her in his valley. Her strange god-sight was better than none at all. But he felt weak after the disappointment of the revel. Her mind was clear and unimpaired, while he felt shaken and spent. He didn't want to test his strength against a female, so he did nothing as Kydele transformed into mist and vanished through the gap in the vine-roof. She would journey back to Kruphix's Tree at the waterfall at the edge of the world where her god monitored the pulse and ebb of time and creation.