“Why should the world balk at returning what it cost us to break its chains? It is not tyranny to receive our due, only the achievement of balance. There can be no shame in this, only in allowing empty charity to stand in the way of what can still be done.”– Kreios Maker-of-Riddles, amphore for the Sublime Auspice
Antigone was no longer afraid of the woods.
Barefoot, for her sandals were little more than rags and the god had not seen fit to replace them, she walked on soft moss and rocks. Through brush and bushes, following little rivers and climbing trees. Antigone had dreamt of this, of knowing the world beyond the shrine without fear in her heart. Yet in the dreams she had only ever ceased to fear the woods when the woods came to fear her. When she slept she wielded the powers of the god and all the world bent as she wished, warm and bright like firelight. Instead, the girl knelt by the river and drank of the clear water as the great she-wolf Lykaia watched over her.
“It doesn’t look the same, by day,” Antigone told the wolf.
The great wolf whined, cocking her head to the side. She did not know whether Lykaia was a clever as a human or a god, but Antigone knew that the she-wolf was no simple beast. The girl could remember someone telling her a story about a great wolf, once, a wolf that prowled the sky and ate the sun to make it night. The great fire burned its stomach and it spat it out, come morning, but try as she might Antigone could not remember who had told her the story. It had been… it had been a man, she felt sure. Someone warm, someone she had trusted? But she could not remember a face, or a name. It worried her, but not for long.
If she were sick the god would have healed her, so she could not be sick.
“I thought this was a fearful place,” Antigone told the wolf. “That it was… desperate.”
The she-wolf whined in conclusion. She bit her lip.
“I thought it was a place of death,” Antigone finally said.
That it had been filled with nothing but it, like a slaughterhouse covered by tall branches. Lykaia snorted, then drank of the river too. It did not look like she disagreed with the description.
“But it isn’t,” Antigone told the wolf. “Not really. There is death here, but there is death everywhere. And there’s so much more!”
She looked around, thirsty even though she had drunk her fill, and a glimpsed it all. The redbirds singing, the snake coiling on the branch. The moss in the shade of trees, the rotten carcasses where mushrooms grew. The tall branches blotting out the sun, the deep roots seeking water. The forest was not just life or death, it was both. Always both. Like a snake eating its own tail, or a wolf swallowing the sun only to spew it out. It was terrible and it was beautiful, it was loving and it was merciless. It was, she thought, in balance. The thought shivered within her, and Antigone stumbled. Suddenly dizzy, she had to lean down in the grass and wait until the world ceased spinning. Lykaia nudged her, eventually, and she leaned against the great she-wolf as they returned home to the shrine. The strange dizziness had passed by the time the god came to visit her but somehow he seemed to know.
“It is remarkable,” the giant-god rumbled, gently holding her chin.
“What is?” Antigone asked.
“You understand,” the god said, “better than any of your kind should. They teach it out of you, Antigone, as you grow. The true way of seeing things. And yet your eyes are opening.”
She shivered again.
“No matter,” the god finally said, releasing her chin. “Answers always come to willing ears. We must be patient, you and I.”
“I will be,” Antigone promised.
The god looked amused.
“The she-wolf will teach you if you are not, I think,” he said. “She is wise, even for her kind.”
They ate together, and when the time came the god told her again of old and far off things. The menace of the drakoi had been ended, the god told her, but it was not the end of the story.
“Stories never truly end with victory,” the god told her. “We only cut them there so that they might be easier to swallow.”
Antigone sagely nodded. She, too, knew the peril of taking bites that were too large.
“It was a different world we found around us,” the god said, rumbling voice sounding wistful.
His power sang out, thrumming along with exhale of the once-god’s breath. Like heat mirages, thoughts and memories danced in flicked among the raised stones.
“The Long War had lasted for a thousand years, Antigone,” the giant said. “Waxing and waning between truce and strife, and while we shattered ourselves putting an end to the tyrannies of the drakoi all manners of creatures had sprouted underfoot.”
The girl shivered, as for an ephemeral moment every painted thought shimmering between the stones had been a red and bloody ruin, fire and screams and smoke. She had seen the silhouettes of great cities torn apart, old and merciless things sleeping among the carnage. But the wrath had passed, and beyond it the world looked… young.
“The stouts and the stalkers we had long known as peoples cowering away from the wrath of the drakoi in their deep caverns,” the giant-god said, his words reflected by the sight of short bearded folk and nimble small green creatures. “The cautious greys that had hidden below tall peaks we did not often find, but they were known to us as well. Yet with the old tyrants gone, they all crept out of their hiding places.”
Like green sprouts after winter, Antigone saw them. Walking ashen grounds with childlike wonder as they looked up at the sky and saw nothing.
“Yet not all children were so cautious,” the giant rumbled. “Out east by the sea, we found some fresh race – fangs, we named them, for their ferocity – had been birthed in the steppes and gone south, daring even to claim the ruins of the Windless City.”
Intricate towers, Antigone glimpsed, that fire had licked and force of arms shattered. Among them, like filth on snow, swarms of large greenskins raised tents and banners. The fought and burned and forged, butchering animals and each other. She was not of the once-god’s people, but even she found a deep sense of revulsion welling up in her throat at the sight.
“Yet most astonishing of them all was your own kind, Antigone,” the god said. “Humans had long been known to us, but never like this. While our cities burned and we murdered gods, a race of hunters that had been as much animals as horses and wolves had begun tilling at the land.”
Huts of mud, Antigone glimpsed. Fences and cattle, fields where green things grew. And the lands they changed, but everywhere humans were seen.
“All these ungrateful children were sinking roots into the ruins of our great works taken from us,” the once-god rumbled, with the faded trace of a great and terrible anger in his voice, “spreading like weeds across lands we had destroyed ourselves to free. And of them all, humans were the worst.”
The mirages flickered and for a moment Antigone wondered what it must have been like, looking at her own kind through the eyes of a god. Knowing that all that stood between you and the death of those fragile things was your unwillingness to pick them up and squeeze.
“You spread far and wide,” the god said, “and unlike older peoples did not seem to shun any parts of the world. You found ways to thrive in heat and cold, among heights and caverns. You swam lakes and crossed rivers.”
It was not the way of the Titans, this. Antigone had learned it. A people whose words reverberated in the world like theirs did, whose very will was power, would not change themselves for the land. They would change it to suit them, and never even consider there might be another way.
“In the hundred years that followed,” the giant quietly said, “whenever we returned to our abandoned cities we so often found humans scuttling in their shadows like rats it became… expected. Always pawing at our creations, sometimes in greed and sometimes in worship.”
A hundred ephemeral glimpses of people standing in the shadow of great towers and temples, works that bent sunlight and soothed deserts with rain. She understood, deep down, why the ancients would have sought to cling to the greatness of an older people. Was Antigone’s own life really so different?
“Our children, they who called themselves the Gigantes, saw this and knew rage,” the god said. “They knew fear, they knew dismay, and most fearsomely of all some of them saw this and knew avarice.”
The once-god’s tone was heavy, pained.
“No longer were the young races called children as we called ourselves, siblings under the Makers,” the giant said. “They had names, from then on. And the creatures we named we thought to have power over.”
Not, not pain, Antigone thought. Shame. And between the stones danced lights showing three great crowds, each standing facing each other in the backlight of a great cloudy mountaintop.
“Some called for a purge,” the giant said. “A thinning of the herd, like pruning errant growths.”
The horror of that sunk in, over a long moment, and Antigone found that in the pale light of the mirages she could almost glimpse scarlet, bloody veins.
“They were few,” the god said. “We were not so far fallen. But others desired to reclaim our ancient cities and close them to our lessers, leaving the young races to die in the mud, and that chorus was sung by many throats.”
Hidden cities, Antigone glimpsed, shrouded by mists and winding paths that no mortal could pierce through no matter how arduously they tried.
“Yet there were even more who beheld the young races and spoke of rule,” the god said. “Were the young races not the ones who came to us, sleeping in the shade of our wonders and worshipping our works? Why should we not let them serve us, let them repay us for the freedom we had won them at so steep a cost?”
Every word grew more mocking than the last, though by the last one Antigone felt there was as much bitterness as mockery to be found.
“And so the last of the Titans met,” the giant said, “we last few of the few, so that a path might be found that would not further sunder an already sundered people.”
One by one the mirages died, like candles snuffed out, until only the last fading embers of the fire remained.
“We would fail in this,” the god simply said.
He spoke no more that night, and Antigone did not ask.
Antigone was growing.
Her clothes were getting too small, and the god often brought new ones. He taught her and showed her the stars, how they moved and how they sang, and by day while he was gone she studied her lessons and walked the forest. The woods were as a second home to her now, even without Lykaia at her side. She knew other beasts now, cats with shining eyes and snakes that talked like humans without a mind. She had sung with three-colour birds until the rain came and nestles deep in the heart of old trees with affectionate foxes in her lap. She had even glimpsed strange creatures, at times, that looked like humans but sang with the world in the way that the god told her humans did not. Beautiful and terrible the creatures had been, wicked in a way that beasts were not.
Of those and the thin places from which they came, Antigone steered clear.
She had thought herself in a place beyond the reach of humans, so it was with utter startlement that she learned otherwise. Come a sunny morning, she found a band of them moving through a clearing. They wore steel and leather, were armed with hooks and swords. Their steps were the steps of hunters and they eyes moved without pause, but they chattered like songbirds. Antigone, seated in a tree, eyed them curiously. Lykaia had gone to hunt, she was waiting for the she-wolf to return with red fangs before heading back to the shrine.
“Alas, I do not see the promised riches,” a man said. “Just a lot of fucking things trying to kill us very hard. Are you sure of the tale, Almera?”
“It was one of the Binder’s Blood that told it,” a woman replied. “They do not err in such things.”
Some of them did a sign with the hands after that, to Antigone’s wonderment. She felt like she might have seen it before, but she was not sure where. After all, she knew nothing of her life before she had found the shrine. She mulled over the matter, and decided that this might be a hint as to where she had come from. It was worth speaking with these, and perhaps trading.
“What are you looking for?” Antigone asked from the tree.
Several jumped or cursed, and all brought up weapons. She crawled forward on a branch, head popping out from between the leaves, and asked the question again. Some loosened their grip on their steel when they saw her, but not all.
“What manner of spirit are you?” a man asked.
“I am a girl,” Antigone patiently said. “And I know things.”
“Do you?” a woman smiled. “How lucky for us, darling. We are looking for an old place, made of stone.”
“The bald barrow?” she asked. “I know where it is.”
“No,” another woman cut in, tone curt. “It would be a temple. Answer us, spirit, where is it?”
“The shrine?” she skeptically asked.
“Yes,” the woman hissed, excited. “The temple to the Maker of Riddles. You know where it is?”
“Why do you want to know?”
She must have said something both wrong and right, as several of them looked excited as well but all five raised their weapons.
“I asked you a question, spirit,” the same woman said. “Answer it or suffer the consequences.”
“You don’t have good intentions,” Antigone said, cocking her head to the side. “That won’t go well for you.”
“If you were mighty among the Splendid, you would not have tried such a feeble bargain,” a man mocked. “We have cold iron, creature, do not try our patience.”
Antigone’s fingers clenched.
“Leave,” Antigone said, and the world heard.
There was a ripple in the air and the humans screamed in fear. One of them, who had a spear raised, began bleeding from the ears. The girl drew back in shock and horror. She’d not meant to…
“You little witch,” the woman who had called her darling earlier screamed. “What are you?”
One of them threw a javelin at her and it sunk into the wood next to her calf after nicking it, but Antigone let out a breath of relief when she saw a streak of grey move at the corner of her eye. Lykaia fell onto the humans without pity, smashing one into a tree and ripping open another’s throat in the blink of an eye. It was too much: the rest fled. Lykaia, red in tooth and claw, wanted to pursue. Antigone felt exhausted and strangely sad, however, and so she insisted they return home instead. The she-wolf reluctantly agreed, leaving the bodies for the scavengers. She told the god everything when he came that night, though as she had expected he already knew it all. He did not seem angry that deaths had happened, instead patting her head comfortingly.
“Most of your kind are petty creatures, Antigone,” the god said. “Do not expect much of them.”
She solemnly nodded, and after a moment the god softly laughed.
“Not that my kind are of superior make,” the giant said. “The Gods abhor perfection, child. It leaves nothing for us to seek.”
“Were they really looking for the shrine?” Antigone asked.
“It has happened before,” the god rumbled. “This place was once known to others of my kind, and the knowledge will have trickled down to some of those they taught.”
The god watched her with a smile.
“It seems you learned the name I was once known by,” he said. “You had some gain from the bargain.”
“Maker-of-Riddles,” Antigone murmured, speaking the words correctly.
“It has been long since I last heard those words,” the god said. “It is a strange thing.”
He sounded almost sad again, as he had often been since the night he’d told her that the council of the Titans would fail. He’d not continued the story since, speaking only of older matters and strange legends.
“Grief, but not so sharp as I had thought,” the god murmured. “So perhaps I will speak, after all.”
“Of after the Long War?” Antigone quietly asked.
After a long moment, the giant-god nodded.
“When the Titans met that night,” the god said, “among us, seven spoke of dominion and only one disagreed.”
There were no mirages this time, not swirls of colour. Only soft words by starlight, with the tall stones circling around them like a mother’s embrace.
“It was not that we shared the avarice of the children,” the god said. “It was that were was so much to do, Antigone, and so few of us left to do it. We thought – I thought, for that night my voice was foremost among the follies – that it would be… transitory. We had connived a way to return all we had lost. Service need only last until we had returned to our old glory, and then the bonds could be released.”
The giant sadly smiled.
“One would not brook this,” the god said. “And you bear her name. In her fury she cursed us all fools and monsters, drakoi in children’s flesh, and to neither argument nor censure did she bow her head.”
The god looked up at the stars, wistful.
“Seven of us against one, and she did not bend an inch,” the giant said. “And so compromise was struck. She would have leave to go west and found cities as she wished, where it would be her gentle hands that set the laws, and in our old cities instead it would be avarice that held the reins.”
He looked back down at the earth, and Antigone somehow felt like weeping. There was sorrow in the retelling, sorrow that was older than stone or wind.
“I was fool twice over, child, for it was my foolish conniving that we attempted,” the god said. “Even as she went west and founded eighteen cities, we built atop mountains of broken backs until I had crafted a riddle I could ask of all the world.”
The god shook with anger.
“And even though she despised the entire bloodsoaked altar, when I called she returned,” the giant said. “And the Titans met one last time, that together we might move the Pattern itself.”
A long, desolate silence followed.
“The Fall broke many things,” the god softly said. “Places and peoples, cities gone in the blink of an eye or never made at all. So much was lost, in that moment of utter folly. And the worst will always be that of the seven and one that stood together that night, the sole who survived was the least worthy.”
Antigone’s throat tightened as the colossal silhouette turned to look down at her.
“I am Kreios Maker-of-Riddles,” the giant said. “I was once a god among many, and our demise broke this land in ways that echo still. My children thought me a god still, in the wake of our ruin, and so I left them to find their own way, their own choruses to sing.”
“So why did you come here?” Antigone heard herself ask.
“There was a city not far from here, once,” Kreios softly smiled. “One of eighteen. And when the moon was kind, and our prides allowed, I sat among these stones to speak with a dear friend.”
“I cannot be her,” the girl murmured, terrified of disappointing him. “I never knew her.”
“Be who you are, Antigone,” the Maker-of-Riddles spoke in a rumbling voice. “Without lie or apology. Without fear or regret. Of you I will never ask more nor less.”
He laughed again, bathed in starlight.
“Do this, my child, and you will have done more in the span of your short years to honour her than I did in the crawling eternity of mine,” Kreios said. “I never understood it before, you see. That was it always about learning when the torch must be passed.”
“I don’t know who I want to be,” Antigone confessed.
The old god smiled, heartbreakingly gentle.
“Let us learn, then,” Kreios said. “Together.”
Over the many seasons that followed, sometimes humans came to the clearing again.
Seeking, it is said, a witch of the woods.