The gods of Theros continue to fight as Xenagos lays out his evil plot.
* * *
When Heliod, the god of the sun, first appeared, he cast the first shadow on the world of Theros. Fearing this shadow, he cast it away to the farthest reaches of the plane. That shadow was Erebos, god of the dead and ruler of the underworld. Though banished from the realm of Nyx, he accepted his fate and expects all mortals to accept theirs.
Erebos smirked to himself. Humans had an uncanny ability to remember and forget simultaneously, he thought. Oh yes, he had heard the story thousands of times; of how he was "banished" from Nyx. That was not entirely true. Oh sure, Heliod did fear him, and had expressed that he was not comfortable seeing him in Nyx. And perhaps he did use the word "banished" when he said those things, but you can never banish a god from anywhere. He was just a very busy man was all. Humans should try running a world populated by hundreds of thousands of faceless souls who all wanted to do nothing but escape, he thought, and see just how much time they had for cavorting around and playing petty games with living mortals.
However, that had not stopped him from visiting Nyx on occasion. The living world still fascinated him and gave him a sense of longing. But it was the longing of a collector he felt, not a longing to be a part of it. Erebos was the collector of souls, and who would not want to see the potential playthings that would be within his grasp soon? The other gods may have played with the mortals like dolls all their lives, but he would ultimately have them all when it was said and done. That was just part of accepting fate, he snickered to himself.
At the present, he was hidden in a threshold, watching Heliod, Iroas, and Purphoros. Heliod's brow was furrowed in frustration and confusion. Such a charming look, Erebos thought. Despite how highly the mortals thought of the king of the gods, it was a common look upon his face. Rarely did he really understand how the world worked.
Iroas' four hooves clopped as he walked around the massive table that was the representation of the mortal realm. While there were a great many figurines, which were merely totem figures to represent mortals, they were all fixated on one in particular. Her figure was only one among many standing upon the center of the city of Akros, a warrior really no different from any other. In a billowing cloak, her figurine stood, proudly holding its sword. "I don't understand," Iroas said. "Why are you so concerned with her?"
Typical of the centaur-god of "just" war, Erebos thought. He always went straight to the point. Heliod let out a frustrated sigh, still staring at the figurine, not even bothering to acknowledge the other gods. "It is as if she appeared out of nowhere," he said at length. "One day this figure was here, it was lost for years, and now it's suddenly here. That does not just happen. Why is she here, and where has she come from?"
Erebos peeked further from his vantage point, and he saw what the others had not seen. The figurine had a certain sheen to it, one no one would have noticed unless they were looking for this quality. He returned into hiding to hear the rest of their conversation. "Perhaps it has been lost," Iroas offered.
Purphoros finally spoke up. "Whatever the case may be, I know that sword. It was my own. Do you recall, Heliod, the fight we had those years ago? It feels silly now. I don't remember why we started it. But I remember you knocked my sword from my hand, it fell to the mortal world, and was never seen again. That is this sword, I just know it."
Heliod scratched at his beard, now even more confused than before. He picked up the figurine and moved it on the map to his temple in Akros. "Very well, I'd like to know more about her," he said, seeming to settle the matter.
Heliod left, and was quickly followed by the others. Just like clockwork, Erebos knew. There was a brief time when this room in Nyx was empty and he had it all to himself. He strode over to the table and picked up the figurine. None of the other gods seemed to take notice of how certain figures had a distinct shine to them. These were special souls, Erebos had discovered, who were not bound to the mortal world, or any world for that matter. They came and went as they pleased. These beings had no sense of fate, no need to accept it. They were as capricious as the gods, if not more so because they liked to interfere in the world not because they could, but because of some unknown purpose they had. It frightened and sickened Erebos. He longed to collect one of these souls, just to put them in their place. But they were so fickle and left on a whim, he could never capture one.
Not this time, he thought. He would have this one, and it would be all the sweeter because it was one that had captured Heliod's interest, and Erebos truly loved when he could take away those who found favor with the sun-god. But how to do it? Erebos studied the table closely. Unlike all the other gods, who spent all their time here, Erebos knew every one of the figures by name and their placement on the table, and he was only here for brief periods. Scanning the board, he found what he was looking for, just outside of Skola Valley.
He had found a figure in the shape of a satyr. It had the same shine to it as the warrior that concerned Heliod, and this one too made frequent appearances on and off this table, but as yet, no one had noticed. This one had ambition enough, and he just needed a push in the right direction. Satisfied with his idea, Erebos set the piece back down. Strolling out of the room, he paused to look at Heliod's throne. With a shrug, Erebos took a seat in it, marveling at the view of the mortal-realm table from its slightly higher vantage point. Heliod may be king of the gods, but Erebos was the one who truly ruled the mortals. Their souls belonged to him, and he would have the soul of a planeswalker in his midst in due time.
* * *
On the day Phenax was born, he created a golden mask to forever conceal his face from the world. But, he spoke and acted as though this mask had always been his face in such a way that he convinced the other gods that this was so. Thus, Phenax created the first lie. When he shared this knowledge with the mortals, he created deception.
Gods were like humans, Phenax knew; they could be fooled by the simplest lies. He had returned to Nyx earlier than all the others. Fighting amongst themselves and fighting the "sun's champion" no longer amused him. No, the real fun was up here. Phenax lounged in his throne around the Table of Theros, his feet thrown casually over the armrest. He held in his hands the figurine of the satyr, the one they called Xenagos. Erebos was not the only one who wanted to use this mortal, but Phenax did so for reasons entirely his own. Erebos wanted to enforce his power over fate. Phenax wanted to change the status quo for the sake of fun.
The god of deceit was whispering in the ear of the little figurine. How else would Xenagos have known the greatest fears of the gods and used them to pit the gods against each other in a battle to claim the sunspear? Phenax let out a high-pitched giggle as he placed the piece back on the board. He felt sorry for the other gods. Why would they bother playing this game if they did not find amusement in it? What else were games for?
No, they did not know how to play. They all revealed their hands to each other. The only way to really play was to not show your strategy, and Phenax was the only one who knew how to play. No one ever knew what he was up to.
Unfortunately, this game was coming to a close, but he had another game to keep him happy anyway. He looked to the other side of the board, towards his new city on the ruins of what was once Iretis where there was a game piece which only he could see. Ashiok may have thought that Phenax had granted them invisibility as a gift. Oh no, it was all for his own benefit. Phenax did not want the other gods to know his game just yet.
He would have moved a few more pieces around, but a sound alerted him to the return of the other gods. Kruphix had seen enough and had gathered all the gods back to Nyx until matters could be solved. Spoil sport.
Phenax took his place casually among the crowd of gods. None seemed to notice his absence on the realm of the mortals, so deep in their own quarrels. Only Erebos greeted him coldly. In seemed that the god of the dead was still sore at the last influx of souls Phenax had helped escape. What did it matter to that old, dried up god anyway? It was not like the returned had truly escaped their fate, which Erebos valued above all else. The returned forgot themselves. They were faceless. They were without identity. They were nothing. And besides, they would return to him unharmed, more or less.
Kruphix was trying to settle their squabbling long enough for them to listen, but to no avail. Mogis and Iroas were already at each other's throats, and horns and hooves were flailing about. It was only the loud clap of thunder that finally silenced them all. "Thank you, Keranos," Kruphix said, nodding to the god of storms. "I have sealed off our entrance to the mortal realm. We will stay here until this situation is sorted out. There is no reason to panic."
As if on cue, the gods looked on in horror at the Table of Theros. The light of the enchantment that kept the table alive and active seemed to go out, and darkness fell upon the mock representation of the mortal world. No longer could the gods see their pawns. They seemed to have vanished. That was interesting, Phenax thought. The only way that could happen was if there were no more oracles. It seemed that the little satyr was more unpredictable than he thought. What fun!
This strange development, however, drove the other gods into more fighting, all of them accusing the others of causing this mess. The little satyr certainly did know how to put on a good show. Phenax would have enjoyed this more if it was not for the glares Nylea was giving him. The goddess of the hunt was a shrewd one. "You knew this was going to happen," she said, more as a statement rather than a question.
"And what makes you say that?" he asked, trying his best to sound innocent.
Nylea did not answer his question. "I don't think you realize the danger you're putting us all in. That satyr…that thing intends to-"
"I know what he intends to do, my dear Nylea. I just say, embrace it. Enjoy it. This place could stand to have a few changes."
She crossed her arms, her voice never wavering. "You may just get what you want, Phenax: chaos for the sake of chaos. It won't be so fun when he deceives you."
Phenax only laughed, shaking his head. It infuriated the other gods that they could never read his emotions behind the golden mask. "Sweet, innocent Nylea, you think you've got this all figured out. Haven't you seen it yet? He's far too unpredictable. Don't get me wrong, I love that, but you're giving me way too much credit here. Besides, I'm sure there are other gods who would benefit from his plans." He cast a sideways glance towards Erebos as he said this. Erebos only glared back, now starting to realize just how clever Phenax was.
Nylea was about to argue with him further, but a sudden clattering sound interrupted all the arguing. From the dozens of niches in the walls, hundreds of figurines spilled out, falling onto the board. These were not just any figurines. These were the special ones; the nyxborn, the favored creatures of the gods that they kept with them personally in the realm, only to be sent to the mortal world if absolutely necessary. Now, they were spilling out into the world in droves, starting a war with the mortals.
Panic erupted. The gods each seemed to retreat into themselves, no longer speaking to each other. They were too suspicious for that now. Someone had unleashed the nyxborn on the world. It was war in the eyes of Iroas and Mogis. It was destruction in the eyes of Ephara and Karametra. It was a disaster to Nylea and Heliod. It was the perfect opportunity to Erebos. To Phenax, however, it was the ultimate deception, and it was beautiful.
* * *
In the beginning, there was time, that unseen and unknown horizon. It was always there, and he named himself Kruphix.
Collective consciousness was such a tricky thing, Kruphix knew. One day there would be a new myth the people needed to believe, and a new god to represent that concept. And it always seemed as if it were only a day before everyone would wake up and think that that myth and that god had always been and that it was not a new idea. Yes, mortals were a wonder in that regard. He just wished he could say the same of the gods.
The gods, on the other hand, seemed to be forever cursed with collective forgetting. It seemed they never remembered their lowly origins, never remembered that they did not exist before mortals, never remembered that their existence was fleeting. Being cooped up in Nyx, the gods had gotten progressively more violent with each other, with the mortal world. For once in a long time, they were afraid, but they were afraid of the wrong thing.
Kruphix watched pensively as they continued to squabble across the table. Some communication with the mortal world had come back, and some of the gods could once more see the figurines of some of their favored worshippers. However, they were all participating in a game of war, all moving their nyxborn armies across the board. Mogis and Iroas had been the worst of the two. Two gods of war, one of the honor of war, the other of the slaughter and pain of war, brothers in arms, but enemies for all eternity. Mogis, the minotaur-god of slaughter had taken the opportunity to beset Iroas' beloved city of Akros with his minotaur army. Iroas had responded with an army of his own, ready to take on the siege, and he was confident because Heliod had lent him his favored champion to aid the fight.
Heliod and Nylea, meanwhile continued to argue with the others of the dangers of the satyr figure, who also was placed in Akros. That little figurine had caused so much trouble, Kruphix thought. It was almost humorous how the gods thought they controlled the mortals with these little totem figurines. Kruphix had once been curious about the little pieces and had examined them. Just as he had suspected, they were nothing more than plaster. Oh sure, they had some enchantments placed on them to have some effect on the mortals they represented, but they were still useless figurines. No one controlled the whims of mortals.
He would have mused on his thoughts more if the ongoing battle between Mogis and Iroas had not turned violent. In an instant, Mogis had leaped over the table and proceeded to try and strangle Iroas. Iroas reared back on his hind legs, lifting Mogis for a brief moment and slamming him back to the ground. The other gods tried to intervene. Kruphix was not worried. A god could never kill another god. He strode over slowly, and pried Iroas off of Mogis. "Just like children," he scolded. "Do you see yourselves? All of you, this fear and suspicion has to stop now. No one is in danger. This is only…"
"What do you know, elder god?" Mogis snorted. He always was the petulant one.
Kruphix turned his starry eyes to the minotaur-god. "I know enough," he said cooly.
"Oh sure," Pharika taunted, the gorgon-goddess slithering over to put in her two cents, "he's the god of unknown knowledge, yet he refuses to share it. That's the best bluff I've ever heard."
"If you knew the truth, you would…" Kruphix began.
The discussion was brought to an immediate halt. The table began to emit a bright, burning light. Only minutes ago, or what seemed like minutes to the gods, Iroas' armies had won and were celebrating their victory. The small, satyr figure grew in stature and began to take on a fleshly form. When the light had faded, the satyr had become a god like themselves, his tribal paint on his body having taken on the starry form of Nyx. "Usurper!" Heliod growled.
The satyr laughed heartily. "It's Xenagos actually," he corrected, "and I prefer the title, 'God of Revels' if you don't mind."
Heliod was not as hotheaded as Iroas or Mogis. Kruphix could tell he was seething inside and all hell had broken loose, but he did not throw himself at the overly-confident Xenagos. Kruphix looked around the room. All of the gods were terrified. A god's greatest fear is being forgotten, Kruphix told himself. While this process had been done before, and mortals accepted new deities without much fuss, the gods feared it the most because it reminded them of how frail they really were.
* * *
Gold…gold is useless in the land of the dead. It is natural, part of the earth itself. It is only an illusion we have created that we ever "earn" it. No, it is the things we make from the sweat of our brow that are worth something. Only the god Athreos could see that, and that is why he made the clay masks we make for our lost loved ones the currency of the underworld.
Many mortals forgot Athreos. They always thought of and feared Erebos because he would be there at the end. They always remembered and thanked the gods who blessed their lives. Never did they remember the god who transitioned them between those two extremes. He was also the silent god, who never spoke anything of his will onto the mortal realm. And he was just fine with it being that way.
Athreos was like Kruphix, he had no pawns upon the board. He did not play the game at all. Why bother? He would see them all anyway on their final journey. He saw to it that they were comfortable and had full pockets when they entered Erebos' realm. But unlike Kruphix, Athreos often watched the gods play their game. Why? He did not even know himself why he liked to watch. Perhaps it was because he wanted to know the lives of those he ferried across, to feel some connection to them in their last moments on the soil of the living world. Perhaps it was sympathy, that he felt sorry for them. Ah well, he would think of a good reason one day.
Being the silent god, Athreos had a lot of time to think. He had seen the recent events play out in Nyx. He had seen a mortal ascend to godhood only to have that taken away from him in an instant by two mortals who somehow entered Nyx on their own. He had witnessed a god die before his eyes. Had that happened before? He felt as though somewhere, in some distant memory, he had. He shrugged his hunched back, letting the thought fade.
More importantly, he had seen Heliod, the wise and just ruler, kill his own champion simply because he feared her and all she represented, even after she had saved their realm. Had that been the right thing? Was that fair or just? Were the gods really thoughtless children as Kruphix sometimes accused them of being? These were thoughts which would weigh heavily in his mind for a long time.
He turned to look at the soul sitting in his boat now. She was hardly the sun's champion anymore. This frail shade had already lost so much of her identity as they sailed further inland. Her skin had already dulled and lost its muscle tone. She was beginning to look a lot like him. They were getting close, he reasoned. He knew behind that gorgeous clay mask, there was only a blank grey slate underneath now. He no longer heard her…or he supposed now "its" breathing.
Yet, while its memories and identity were gone, the personality was still there. He always did wonder if there was a way to trigger their memories. Phenax had tried after he helped them escape, but found no success. But then, he gave up easily on that task for other amusements. What did they need their identity for anyway? he reasoned. Athreos liked to believe different. For once in a lifetime, the god spoke. "I will tell you a story to pass the time," he said, his voice low, calm, but horse from little use. "It is about a mortal worthy of the greatest honor, greater than that bestowed to the gods. She was the sun's champion…"
Unfortunately, there were no signs of recognition of her life that came from the desolate shade. Or if it did remember, it gave no sign of it. Athreos sighed and returned to silence as they approached the shores of the underworld. He helped it climb off the boat and place its feet for the first time on the dusty ground. He gingerly removed her mask and with his scythe, he shattered it into hundreds of pieces and placed them in its pocket. With a mask as beautiful as that, it would never know of want in the underworld he thought, as he gave it the currency of the land of the dead.
From here, his job was done. This was always how the games of the gods ended, and he did not know why, but he actually shed a tear for this one. Perhaps it was how unfairly they had been used as a pawn by the gods. Perhaps it was because on some level, he knew this was no ordinary mortal, and that something big had been lost because of a stupid game. Athreos tried to put it out of his mind as he made his way back to the boat.
He turned and looked back one last time. He saw Erebos reach out his great hand to lead the shade, like a parent guiding a child home. Though this time, Athreos did not think of the master of the underworld so kindly. Erebos wore the face of a god who had won a game, and had claimed his prize. The gods indeed played with their little toys, but in the end, they always ended up in the hands of Erebos. That was just fate.