Before the deeds of noble souls were recorded, back when elven lives were as brief as humans, there was a woman. Only Aria would know her name. Only Aria could draw her face. But why would She? The woman was as wicked as they come. She had lived a life of dishonor, of discord, of destruction. She raided anyone with food; she ravished anyone with beauty; she ripped apart any who protested her leniency.
And when she was with child, she grew far worse; for now, she could claim it was all for her upcoming life she would protect.
And protect her son she did, through fury and flame. She burned forests and sowed terror, just like the dragons she was hiding from.
Her constant rage blinded her eyes. Her constant hunger muddled her nose. Her constant excuses for her actions deafened her ears.
Her son had none of his mother’s cruelty. As a young boy, he chased butterflies and rabbits with only innocent curiosity in his heart. She demanded that he stay still so that she could protect him properly, but he knew not the dangers of the wider world or of the woman who brought him into it.
One day, she returned from her hunt to find her son gone. She followed his tracks to a nearby village.
Enraged over the audacity to take her son from her, she slaughtered all she saw and set every tent ablaze. It was not enough. Her hunger for blood could not be sated. She barged into the burning tent that the village warriors had tried their hardest to protect, expecting to find their greatest treasures. Instead, amidst the burning wreckage, she found the bodies of their children, her son among them, clutching a wooden toy dragon.
Only then did she realize her error. Only then did she understand her son had gone to the village to play with the others. All at once, the veil blinding her for so long was wrenched away.
She was monstrous. Beyond redemption or reproach. She had burned innocent children. She had burned her son.
She knelt in the smoldering ruins of what once was a village and wept, praying, to whom, she did not care. Her tears mixed with ash as the fire she began turned to smoke.
And then a goddess came before her.
The woman blinked up at the regal figure. “Do I know you?
“I am unknown to you because I am unknown to your kin.” The Goddess towered above her kneeling form. “No mortal gives me their worship. Only beasts pray to me.”
“Then why have you answered my prayer?”
“You are as low, if not lower than any beast. Why should I place you apart from the rabid creatures wishing for a peace beyond their reach?”
And the woman bowed her head for she knew she could not argue otherwise.
The Goddess spoke, “Many pray when you come upon them, but you have never seen a reason to do the same. Why have you broken this silence?”
“I feel a gnawing emptiness.” The woman struggled to find the correct words, “I have tried to fill it, but in vain, and now, after all I have amassed, and all that I have consumed is for naught, I know now that the fault was within me. It is too late for such knowledge. I have done the unthinkable, the inexcusable, the irrevocable. I have killed my child. I have killed many a child.” A root of revelation began to burrow into her heart, and she took a ragged gasp. “I have caused countless other mothers to weep as I do now. All this…” The woman knew not what to name it.
“Sin?” the Goddess said gently.
“Sin. All of it is mine to bear, and the weight of it is too great. It crushes me to plea, plea as I have never done before.”
“I hear your plea and know that your newfound humility is sincere. What would you ask of My Grace?”
“I wish to be better, your Grace. I know I can be better.”
“Prove it,” the Goddess commanded.
The woman spent a lifetime denying all weakness, but here there was only truth. “I don’t know how,” she said.
“Good,” the Goddess whispered. “That is a good first step. To begin the path to any knowledge, one must always admit they do not know.”
“Will you guide me then? Show me what I must do?”
“Will you devote yourself to me, in this life and all the lives to come?”
“Lives?” The woman knew of only one. “I thought Abyss swallows me whole after I am gone?”
“Not for you. Your evil runs too deep. And to be cleansed, one must learn, and to learn, one must suffer, again and again. In one life, bleeding into the next, until what is right is as natural to you as breathing.”
“For how long?”
“For as long as it takes you to learn.”
The woman was a beast, and all beasts shy away from the threat of pain.
But she was more than that.
And for the first time, the Goddess of Beasts touched an elf without rebuke, brushing the woman’s tears from her eyes. “You will submit to this penance?”
The woman sunk into Her grip. “In this life, and all the lives to come.”
The Goddess tilted her chin so that the woman could see her own reflection in Her gaze. “You will place your soul in my care?”
The woman did not shrink from what she saw. “In this life, and all the lives to come.”
She withdrew Her hand. “Then say My name.”
She opened her mouth to tell Her she had never told her, but the words died at her lips. She felt the Goddess beneath her skin, pounding in her skull, blooming in her soul. And a name rose above such ecstasy.
“Aria,” she breathed. “Aria, what must I do?”
Aria looked upon Her sole disciple, and Her words were final.
“First, you must end this ruined life and begin anew. Let your sins feed earth and root.”
And so the woman took her bone knife, the one she had wielded to do so much evil, and gutted herself open, and as she watched her blood seep into soil and cinder, she relaxed and tasted hope on her tongue.
Aria took her soul from the jaws of Abyss and gave her new life in the form of a blind worm.
She writhed beneath the ground, eating what she could find until a bird ate her in turn.
With her body destroyed once more, Aria brought her untethered soul to a great sycamore and let it rest. There She spoke to her again, “what did you learn?”
“That dirt is stifling, and life is hard.”
“You always knew that.” The Goddess encompassed her. “You did not learn. You viewed the experience from the eyes of the woman you told me you’d leave behind. Perhaps to be open to what is before you, you must forget what once was. You will not remember your lives before. Only in feeling will your past entities guide you as you craft yourself into someone new.”
“You will not guide me?”
“I will be beside you, always. And I will teach you My every tenet in time. But it is up to you to learn what I teach and follow what I say. So let us try again.”
The woman was birthed once more as a worm, deep in the earth, and this time, she knew not of the world above. Her world was only the tunnels of her mother and her mother before, and then those that she herself dug. Roots were her mountains, and all that decayed was her feast.
When at last she died, decaying into the dirt she loved so much, Her Goddess, who sometimes warned her of when a hungry mouth would strike, gathered up her simple soul and placed her into a sturdy Oak seed.
As she grew, they talked.
“Why am I a tree, your Grace?”
“Trees are the most innocent things that live. They are patient and slow. Here, we may reflect. What did you think of your life, little one?”
She thought for a long time, and the great Aria let her think. “My dirt kept me safe, and my food made me grow long, but the beaks that snapped up my mother were horrible monsters. You should get rid of them!”
“Those beaks were part of much larger birds,” the Goddess replied, “and they were as alive and hungry as you.”
“I don’t care,” she told Her.
“Perhaps you would care if you were one.” And at once, her soul flew into a great blue egg, a color her past life had never known. A crack appeared in her blank world, and soon she saw a new kind of blue in the sky above with the eyes of a robin. Her nest was soft, and the worms her mother brought her were filling.
But then she flew, and freedom was as uplifting as the breeze in her ruffled feathers. She never wanted to touch the ground and the filthy dirt. The only time she dained to was to snap up the worms she loved so much; until a cat plucked her from the sky and ate her whole.
Aria took her soul and placed her in the seed of a Willow, and she grew as they talked.
“How was your life, light one?”
“I loved flying high in the sky,” she said at last, “but the cat dragged me down to its level. It doesn’t deserve to do that.”
“The cat is not beneath you. Evidently, seeing as one ate your wings.”
“It should not be allowed to.”
“Perhaps you would say otherwise if you were one.”
And at once, she heard the mewling of her sisters, and she greedily drank her mother’s milk.
But as a cat, solitude was her preference, her shield.
She could hunt herself, for herself, and such self-reliance brought joy to her claws.
But on one of her solitary hunts, a wolf pack trampled her underfoot.
Aria scooped up her single soul and set it in a Maple seed.
“What did you think of your life, lonely one?”
“I wasn’t lonely,” she said. “Being alone is best.”
“You were killed by wolves who moved as one.”
“Well, that must be because they knew they could not defeat me alone.”
“Perhaps you would offer a different reason if you were one.”
And at once, she woke up again in a den beside her sisters, drinking from her mother’s milk. But this time, as a wolf, she did not hunt alone. She chased stags in the winter and rabbits in the summer, with her sisters beside her always. She would do whatever it took to feed them. With that in mind, she picked at an elven village’s scraps and was speared to death.
Aria took the echo of her soul and placed it in a Rowan seed and began once more, as she grew, “what did you think of your life, loyal one?”
“I loved my family and the harmony our howls brought.”
“Why did you steal from the village?”
“My family needed to eat. I had to try.”
“Even though it cost you your life.”
“It was for my family. I cannot regret it.”
The words made Aria pause. “Do you know that the elves who slaughtered you thought the same?”
“That cannot be so.” The rowan grew gnarled and unbending. “We cannot possibly think alike.”
The Goddess sighed for the glimmer of something more had faded. “Perhaps you would think differently indeed if you were one.”
At last, she walked as an elf once more, each step guided by the firm hand of her mother, and the distant hand of Aria, who sometimes told her when to hide and when to aim.
She loved her family, her sister most of all, but she fell ill, and no rest would quiet her cough. The nearby healer was hard and would not save her without reason, so the woman hunted every wolf she could find and offered the healer their pelts.
The healer told her to cut sacred trees for his medicine and tree after tree did she eagerly cut down.
The healer told her to take the tongue of an innocent for his medicine, and get it she did.
The healer came to her sister and called upon the powers of Telamon to twist her and keep her breathing with only a semblance of life.
Enraged at being fooled, she slaughtered the healer, the healer’s mate, and the healer’s family.
When the village came to end her sister, for her life frightened them so, she slaughtered them until they slaughtered her.
Aria gripped her soul and set it in an apple seed. As she grew roots, the Goddess grew stern. “You failed to be better.”
And though the woman’s memories of her past lives blurred, she still felt their weight. Tired of feeling the relentless guilt, the apple tree bowed her branches. “I know.”
“I see now that to feel compassion for your world and the people in it, you must know all their misery. You must live it. If you are cruel in this life, then let you be crippled the next. If all you do in your freedom is slaughter, then may you forever be a slave. Are you frightened?”
“Yes,” the woman admitted.
Aria softened. “The Dragons’ Goddess devours her worshippers. With a prayer, I will do the same, and you may know the peace of nothingness.”
The apple tree grew tall and firm. “No, not yet. My only prayer is that you bestow upon me another chance.” She flowered, trying, but failing to bear fruit. “I can be better.”
Aria would answer that prayer.
Again and again, did she live. And again and again, did she die. Daughter to Motherless to Daughter again. She would live out the hardship of any creature Aria thought had a lesson Her disciple could learn, whether it be eel or eagle or elf, though as an elf, it was so much easier to sin, and so much easier to suffer. So suffer she did.
Cruel to crippled, slaughterer to slaves, indeed. She was orphaned, maimed, betrayed, reviled, and everything in between.
She witnessed the horror of Loria with sightless eyes and again in the silence of sliced-off ears.
Enslaved in one form or another every time.
She served many masters; some drunk, some devious, some deranged. All were unkind. Aria had surely seen to that, and yet, never did she run. For the true master of her soul had given her this punishment, and she would see it through, even when she could not remember the crime she suffered for.
And every time, Aria would meet her fallen soul, reminisce on the harsh life behind her, and offer to end it. Devour her as the Dragons did.
“Not yet,” she would say. “I must be better.”
And soon, she did rise above her lives of shackles and experience new paths, nobler paths.
First a weaver, then a warrior, then a war-weary witch.
As a gatherer, she learned to observe, and as a hunter, she learned to act. Through them all, she learned of her own depravity and endured the torment of Loria.
With a single prayer, it would all end, but the woman prayed only to be brighter in the dim world.
Loria, however, grew far dimmer for soon the dragons did more than burn the land and people. They subjugated the land; they enslaved the people until they were like gods themselves.
But a woman still followed the words of Aria, even if no one else did. She grew old tending to the fruit trees of the village. Gripped by terror, the village served the dragon lord, Greysmoke, and served him well. Gripped by survival, they fought their kin for his amusement and fought them well.
They captured a rival village’s children, and Greysmoke decreed they would be burned for their mothers’ rebellion.
The elderly woman objected for they were innocent of the evils of dragon or elf. Her kin ignored her as they lit torches.
She ran to her grove and called out to Aria, “Your Grace, help me. Guide me as you have done before.”
And Aria came before her. “What troubles you, long-lived one?”
“By dragon decree, they will kill children. Something must be done!”
“Because it is wrong!”
Aria smiled for the briefest of moments. “What can you do?”
The elder bowed her head. “I am but an old gardener. I am nothing against the grandeur of life in this forest. How could I do something so much bigger than myself?”
“Your humility does you credit, and I know that it is sincere.” Aria clasped her shoulder. “Sometimes though, to do what is noble, you must briefly believe you are greater than you are and become it. Know that you have my blessing to rise above your place and do what you know is right.”
“But what if I am not enough? What if I fail?”
“The children will die.” She paused. “But you can still prevent them from succumbing to Abyss.”
“What must I do?”
Per Aria’s direction, she took seeds from her grove and brought them before the children held in a single tent.
She handed them out, each in turn, oak and ash, elder and alder, hazel and yew.
“Clutch these close, for you very well may fall tonight. If you ask the Goddess Aria, she will save your soul from Abyss and give you another life, a better one, one you deserved to live.”
And each child did as they were told.
She led them from the tent, but the village gave chase, and shot each child down, one by one, until only the elder remained.
Traitor, they called her, and eagerly did they burn her in the children’s place.
Aria came down to the ashes where her soul lay, and let her speak.
“Why am I not a tree, your Grace?”
“The trees have nothing more to teach you; it would seem.”
“What did you think of my life, great one?”
Aria contemplated the remnants of an old soul. “Well-lived. If you ask me for eternal peace, for true death, I will grant it.”
“But I have yet to serve you to my fullest extent.” The elder was firm. “I know I can be better.”
“No.” The Goddess was final. “You will be better. I will make it so. You have cleansed yourself of all past sins, and now, clean at last, you will rise.”
She drew the long suffered, mortal soul within herself, and spoke, “from me, you are reborn, my child. Forever changed. I give you endless youth, life aplenty, and the wisdom to use it well. Do you accept this reward from the penance you have so long suffered?”
“I do, in this life and—” the woman took a new breath in a new form, and at that moment, the memory of all her lives returned to her, filled her until she overflowed with the wisdom gained from endless suffering, and endless failure.
“Let your past guide you from this moment until your last.”
Even with such knowledge, the woman would still aim to learn. “Will you still guide me, Mother?”
“Always, My child. In this life, just as in all the lives that have come before.”
Aria gently took her hand, and the Mother rose from the ashes of the Elder, eager to teach and to be taught, to live and to give life, to guide and be guided by the AllMother beside and above, in this life that had just begun and all the lives that could come.