“It’ll be all right,” says Ki-yu, now and tomorrow and several thousand years ago. And she’ll say it again in five minutes, when her face reconstitutes itself in the jelly sludge that covers the prison floor. The Thoughtbringer rests his head against the wall. He breathes in, he breaths out. He feels a faint buzz in his throat and belches up a hoard of silver-winged beetles. They swarm through the room and batter themselves to death on the stone walls. Nothing lives here long. Only him.He can no longer feel the world outside and he sometimes imagines it has all corroded away. The vales of trees that whisper in the night and the long river that glimmers silver beneath the light of the moons and the low thatched huts where the humans thrive are perhaps all gone.Then his feet touch the earth and as he walks the banks of a shallow stream he sees her. Small, brown, glossed hair like a raven’s wing. He moves toward her. And now the fires burn as she wails for him, and now she is gone with the entire earth, and it is only him inside the mountain.Many-legged centipedes and millipedes crawl along his skin until they are burned away by his tears, which flake and fall as embers. Then he sees her again and the visions fade. The Thoughtbringer’s mind grows clear and he is calm as he reaches out to trace the curve of her cheek. “It’ll be all right,” she says, and then she is gone.***Ki-yu lays her head against his chest and listens to the heartbeat that made the world. Ta-rum, ta-rum it echoes, inside his ribcage as it echoes in the steady roar of the ocean and the quiet hum of the forest at night. The Thoughtbringer weaves his fingers through her hair and watches as the early morning light streams through the window. Outside the other tribeswomen sing.“Thank you,” their voices resound, “for the sun and the moons and the steady earth.”The chant is young as the humans are young, but it gives him pleasure to hear it. Ki-yu stirs against him. His hand traces the skin of her shoulder as she begins to hum along.Ta-rum, ta-rah.“Do you love me?” he asks. The air inside the hut grows warmer; it is sweetened by the scent of honeysuckle. Petals erupt on the surface of their wedding bed and rain down from the ceiling.“We all love you,” she replies. Then she leans down and cups his face with both hands, and she kisses him. Then as she moves to slide out of bed he catches her.“Don’t leave me,” the Thoughtbringer says. But she moves away, and he sees her silhouetted in the light before she slips into her beaded dress. Now he moves, and kneels at her feet and brings her ankle up to rest on his knee as he laces her boots. Soon she is gone. Soon she will be gone forever. Or perhaps it is still an eternity away – he cannot be certain. Through the window he watches her join the other women, and then he leaves. He walks the clouds that rise in tufted peaks and descends far into the waters of the ocean, until it is too dark for even a God to see. He imagines a storm and it falls in a far-off land, with flashes of lightning and thunder that pulses through the air. The Thoughtbringer wills new life and it stirs within the womb of a mare as she edges timid across the plain. A cloud of butterflies with rich blue wings pass him and he thinks of Ki-yu, of her raven hair, then dozens more burst black-winged from their cocoons and take to the sky.As he moves through an ancient forest a small bird alights on the gnarled branches of an ancient tree that rises as high as the mountains.“Such joy,” she says. “The humans sing our praises. Your human woman is keeping you well.”He watches the bird. “Her name is Ki-yu,” he corrects her. With a faint chirrup she becomes a snake and slithers down the withered trunk and when she touches the ground becomes a girl with pale white hair and reaches for his hand. “Thoughtbringer, most ancient of us all. I wish you could feel what the humans feel. What she feels for you.”But he does feel, more than what Ki-yu feels, and he will feel it for eternity. “Never mind,” he says, “You do, youngest of us all, and that is enough.” And then they move together for a while, and as they do she changes, fox and dove and fish and woman. Through her he feels all the creatures of the earth and they thrill with joy as the bright sun reaches the center of the sky. The Thoughtbringer laughs with his sister-daughter, who he loves above all other Gods. He loves her even more because she is she who made Ki-Yu.##Sixteen years before he rises from Ki-yu’s bed Thoughtbringer walks the earth. Shapechanger flies to him. Her feathers scatter as she tumbles down at his feet and tells him a dozen daughters of her tribe have fallen at the hand of their rival, and she leads him to where they lay still on the bank of the river where fifteen years later he and Ki-yu will meet.Their blood still glistens where it has poured out on the stones, and on Shapechanger’s face where they run like tears. She is an eagle and a wolf and the dark angry creature that stalks the night. “Kill them with me, father-brother,” she says. Thoughtbringer wants to reach out and touch her. He considers her wishes. The warring tribe belongs to another of his kindred, but he has little love for Lifetaker. And he is not a benevolent God. But Shapechanger is injured, so he goes with her and when day ends all the men, women, and children of the other tribe go to sleep inside their caves before the Gods’ sharp spears jut down and pierce their flesh. And now the caves bleed too, and the waters that trickle down from them are red.Now he returns to the dead girls. He is most interested in the youngest, who has not even lived a year. She is so small. Thoughtbringer reaches down to touch her soft black hair. “Can you make them live?” says Shapechanger.Thoughtbringer shakes his head. “Not all.” But he can’t bear to let their beauty fade from the earth so he goes from girl to girl and in his mind he gathers the beauty of each. He gathers soft tawny skin like the hide of the deer and wide eyes like dark corn and the weaver woman’s fingers and the fisher girl’s feet. And he twines them all together and presses his lips against the child’s lips, and she stirs and she cries and she lives again.##When the time of the early humans is long forgotten they remember Ki-Yu’s name. In great stone churches raised on metal streets the preachers speak of sinners and they speak of fire and they speak of the great prison where evil men and women go when they die. There are temples where the scholars debate great things, and denounce the existence of all gods but two. Shapechanger is the only one who still walks the land. She is sometimes a bird, and sometimes a fish in the great, wide ocean. Every age that passes her domain grows smaller, as mankind spreads across the earth. Some of the others have died, and Light-Child lives only in the sky.The people bow and they pray to Lifetaker, who hovers in the shadows and licks his lips in delight as he waits to feast on their flesh. They denounce the demon-woman who seduced the great God of creation and made him betray the world, and on the holy day a figure in her image is erected at the center of every city. ##She sits by the window by the light of the moon as Thoughtbringer rests once more in her bed. Her belly is swollen and for an instant in time life stirs inside her. Lifetaker crawls along the floor, a shadow. He avoids the moonlight that streams through her open window, but still some of its glow manages to reach his skin, the pallid flesh that is stretched taut across his sharp bones. He is a skeleton without meat, trapped in the shape of man and dog and the terror that creeps inside all men’s souls. He moves toward Ki-yu and she cannot retreat from him as he crouches before her.With a slender claw he punctures the flesh over her womb. “My payment for Eldest saving a life that was mine to take,” he whispers. Then he leans down to suckle on the open wound. Thoughtbringer keeps his eyes closed but he listens to the terrible sound. In his prison he sees the discarded fetus abandoned at the center of the barren floor and when he reaches out to touch it the thing lets out a terrible cry and he stomps it to death with his bare feet and never once does he think that this is something he should not have done.In the bed he waits until the sun rises and he goes to Ki-yu and promises that he will give her another to fill her empty womb. But tears streak her face and she pushes him away.On this day the mountains shake and they vomit liquid fire. Shapechanger feels the screams of the humans as they die and goes to find Thoughtbringer, who has chained his body to the center of one of these pits. By nightfall he has calmed again. Shapechanger carries him back to Ki-Yu’s bed, with a soft kiss, feather-light as the down that now covers her arms. Now she is mother to him, her role shifted to matron of the god above all gods. She sits beside him awhile until Ki-yu stirs and wakes him, then swiftly flees through the window on heron’s wings. Thoughtbringer pulls his bride into his arms and against his chest. In his head he hears Lifetaker’s laugh, like dead leaves that rustle in the wind.Across the world the humans hear Lifetaker laugh.##The earth is covered in enormous purple flowers that grow like leeches, whose sharp teeth pierce whatever they touch, and suck the life from everything. They cover the sands of the desert and glitter with frost in the far north and the far south. Then the flowers bloom and become enormous lizards and crawl in bunches over the land, and they hiss.Ki-Yu presses her lips against Thoughtbringer’s lips. “It’ll be all right,” she says, and they disappear. She has long since abandoned her tribe. Now she lives along the river where she once died in a small home that Thoughtbringer has made her out of glass.There are streaks of silver in her hair and he is confused. It seems like only an instant ago she stirred to life and a fraction of an instant since the child was lost. Ki-yu holds him and he places his head against her chest and listens to her heartbeat. Tum-tum-tarum, like the rain as it pelts against the rooftop. When she stills and sleeps he removes himself from her and goes outside. Shapechanger reaches for him but he escapes her grasp. Swift thoughts rush unbidden through his mind and a dozen moons flicker to life in the sky above, varied moons of many colors. Shapechanger cries as coastal tribes are thrashed in the waves as enormous tides rush in on the shores. Then the moons shatter and pieces of them streak the sky.Shapechanger reaches for him again. “Eldest.” But he rushes from her and runs fleet-footed along the earth as images rush through his mind and become reality. Enormous serpents slither and crawl in the foam of the ocean and human women with teeth as long as daggers slide up through the earth and water turns to blood. It is a night of horrors for human and God alike. They will speak of it for ages to come, until it is a whispered fable told only in shadows.##The Gods gather at the highest peak of the first mountain that formed when the earth was new. Shapechanger curls up as a small furred creature by the feet of the Windmother, who speaks in hushed tones with He-Who-Is-Hidden, who is himself only a voice that comes and goes in a faint echo. “He is old,” says Windmother, “He who made us all. Time has stretched so long for him that his mind has begun to shatter.” A breeze stirs up the hair around her face, which is white as hoar-frost. Her face is downcast, creased over with shadows. Sadness has taken the Gods as they watch the descent of he who made them. “But the human woman keeps him whole enough,” says Light-Child, whose voice spills over the group like morning sun as it edges up over the horizon.“Ki-yu,” mutters Shapechanger sleepily.Lifetaker says nothing. He suspects that the other Gods will try and save Thoughtbringer, but it is the dawn of a new time on the earth. The time of death and the end of creation. He huddles at the edge of their gathering and crushes ants into the grass with the bone of his index finger.And Thoughtbringer watches, without them knowing that he watches, as his mind slips back and forth between now and now ten-thousand years ago and now one-million years from now.Stones of ice and stones of fire fall from the sky. Lifechanger leaves the other Gods to whisper into the ears of the humans that she is the one who has caused this, who has broken him, who has broken the world. They have not decided yet but he can plant the seeds. His child is discord and he rears it well.##It is the end of time. Thoughtbringer is bound wrist and ankle to the walls of his cell. Spikes thrust up from the floor and impale him. His chest opens wide, flayed like a carcass and at the center of this maw his heart still beats. Black-winged butterflies dart in at the corner of his sight and he remembers the day he created them, so long ago. He falls to the floor as the chains disappear and wraps his body in a cocoon of silk. He does not rest until he is covered in it and immersed in darkness. There is pain as his flesh knits itself back together but it is inconsequential. All the others have gone. Windmother and He-Who-Is-Hidden, and Light-Child and her twin Dark-Child, and Shapechanger. All are gone except Lifetaker, who paces outside Thoughtbringer’s cell and waits for the last fragments of the world to dissolve, to dissipate into nothing. He waits for the mountain that holds him, the first that was formed when the earth was new, to crumble into fine powder. Then he will feast; he will consume the life of the eldest. It is only then that he will starve and fade.Thoughtbringer trembles. Millions of years ago now he is being coaxed by the other Gods into the hollowed chamber from which even his thoughts cannot escape. Thousands of years before that the Thoughtbringer carves the chamber himself, aware that a time will come when he can no longer control his mind—a time when he will be a danger to that which he created, and when not even the woman he created can save him.##Ki-yu is fitful as she sleeps. Her dreams are punctuated by evil visions, of ebony snakes that rise up from deep waters, and clouds that drench the earth in blood. She is awakened by the shouts and chants as tribes of many nations gather around her home. They hurl rocks and batter the sides with spears, until finally the house that Thoughtbringer created shatters around her. Shards of glass dig into her skin, to form narrow gashes. She doesn’t notice them as she is bound in ropes and carried away. Shapechanger, as a fox, darts about their feet and screams, but she can no longer become human, because her love for the creatures is lost. They chant and they sing. Ta-rum, ta-rum, ta-rum, beat their drums. Ki-yu is taken to a low valley where an entire forest has been felled to build her pyre. She is silent as they scream, “Demon-woman! She has bewitched the Thoughtbringer!” They secure her at the center and scramble away as the fresh wood is doused in oil and in pitch. Lifetaker prowls the crowd, unseen by Shapechanger, as the flames devour everything. He breathes in the thick black smoke, tainted with the delicious taste of death. It is destruction at its most sublime. Finally Ki-yu screams as the fire engulfs her. She is so small. She burns so fast.In his cell Thoughtbringer burns, with flames of red and green and silver and gold. Dozens of birds writhe and burst out from under his skin and all he can do is cry, “Ki-yu!” until her face appears in the fire. And she reaches forward to kiss him, and she says, “I love you.” And for now she is gone.##It is the beginning. The Thoughtbringer floats in the shadow and the darkness of space. His mind is empty. Then he sees a face, and he loves the woman that will bear that face.He reaches out and imagines a world where, someday, there will be Ki-yu.