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Chapter 14. WORLD OF THE DEAD


We return to the room with the garden and Raz constructs a new window. We travel for a long time through the sub-universe of lights, finally emerging on top of a stone slab. The walls of this chamber are dotted with holes and windows, through which I can see thousands of tombs and monuments, encircling us like silent, frozen sentries.

Raz slips through one of the larger holes and I follow, gazing solemnly at the ranks of graves. Even though the tombs differ in style and size to those on Earth, there's no doubt that this is a graveyard. It has the feel of death.

"This place is massive," I whisper, goosebumps rising.

"It is a cemetery world," Raz says.

"You mean everybody's dead?" I gulp. "Was it a war?"

"There was never life on this planet," Raz says. "But there are populated planets nearby, and advanced beings move freely between them. For centuries they have been bringing their dead here, laying them to rest on a world of their own."

A world of the dead. My goosebumps spread. I'm not easily spooked, but this is creeping me out big time.

"By shaping the minds of this universe's creatures, we hoped to cheat destiny," Raz says softly, returning to the lecture. "We knew we would die before the universe ended. We thought if we spread intelligence, the beings we created might carry on the fight.

"There are now millions of races with the power of thought. Many are more advanced than your people. But intelligence was never intended for this universe. The earliest creatures showed no signs of evolving and developing souls."

"What do you mean by that?" I stop him.

"Every intelligent being has a soul," Raz says. "Animals don't. A soul forms when a creature thinks for the first time, when it reasons and makes plans. It is a fascinating process. In some species it happens in every member at the same moment. In most, one of them makes a mental leap, then bears young and they pass it on, intelligence spreading like a disease.

"We cultivated the disease. It was much harder than we imagined, but once we made the breakthrough, we quickly mastered the arts of education, then split into small groups and set off for the far reaches of the universe, sowing intelligence everywhere we went.

"We had no right to disturb the natural balance," Raz sighs. "But you are a child of our meddling. Would you rather exist as a mindless beast, running wild, no understanding of the past or plans for the future?"

"No," I answer after a short pause.

"Nor do most others. They have the choice. We can't force a species to evolve. Some fight it and return to their simpler ways. But most rise to the challenges we set. Life is easier for animals, but so much richer for those with the ability to love and hate, fight and make peace, dream and hope."

Raz falls silent as we walk among the tombs and headstones. After a while I come to a small, unimpressive tomb. I almost walk past, but Raz coughs softly and points towards the upper-right corner.

A tiny chessboard has been carved into it. As my eyes narrow, Raz points to the left corner, where another board has been carved. Then he nods at a tomb four rows over. A large, intricate board has been painted over the center of this one, the name of the deceased worked in among the black and white squares.

"The Boards are key to the process," Raz says. "We created them out of material drawn from the Crux. Modeling them after the Kah-Gash, we created mini-universes of sixty-four zones. Once a species evolves to a certain point, we isolate their souls and take them into a Board, so that they can develop at an accelerated rate. We also teach them about the origins of the universe, the Kah-Gash and the Demonata, the need to reach for the stars, to fight for the future of the universe."

"How come I don't know all that?" I ask.

"You have an undeveloped brain," Raz says, then raises his hands as I bristle. "I mean humans in general. You have not evolved to the point where you can make sense of all that we taught you. Every species is the same. It takes time to work your way through the mysteries of life." Raz grimaces. "Humans will never complete that journey. The Demonata will cut short their growth. Universal understanding is not to be yours."

I blink and look away, stomach tightening. I spot something far overhead. I think it's a falling star, but as I focus I realize it's a spaceship. Unlike the floating city, this looks more like the rockets I've seen in movies and on the covers of science-fiction books.

"A glorified hearse," Raz says.

We watch in silence until the ship settles out of sight beyond the ranks of tombs. "Can we go and see the burial?" I ask.

"No," Raz says. "I have something else to show you."

He leads me through a maze until we come to a black, round stone. Its edges are as smooth as a polished gem's. It's set in a small pit, circled by a number of large tombs. Candles burn around the edges of the pit, but they're not normal candles-the wick doesn't burn down and the flames never flicker in the soft wind.

There's a magical buzz coming from the stone. My fingers curl inwards and my nostrils widen. Magic floods my pores.

"It's another lodestone," I note.

"Yes," Raz says. "Beranabus thought the stones were of our making but they are actually the remains of planets from the original universe. Most were reduced to dust, but fragments of some survived and drifted through space, sometimes burying themselves in the fabric of freshly forming worlds.

"The stones were charged with the magic of the original universe. We used them to travel swiftly from one planet to another. They acted as universal markers, guiding us, allowing us to cross vast expanses of space swiftly. Unfortunately the lodestones could be used to serve the forces of evil as well." Raz laughs bitterly. "We never guessed that the species we assisted might prove as vicious as the demons we hoped they would fight."

"Mages used lodestones to open windows to the Demonata universe," I groan.

"We assumed this universe's creatures would care primarily for their own," Raz says. "But many craved power. Each world produced individuals with magical talent. Most used their power to do good, but some became tyrants. They crushed their enemies and ruled with a monstrous authority."

"You could have stopped them," I growl.

"And replaced them?" Raz asks wryly. "Established our favorites as rulers? No. We were determined to guide, not rule. We looked on with despair as the rotten few caused misery for millions. But we never intervened. Every species must be free to make their mistakes, enjoy their triumphs, lament their catastrophes. That is our fundamental belief."

Raz sighs again. "The windows were bad enough, but then some used more powerful lodestones to create tunnels and entire civilizations fell. We realized more would follow, that the Demonata would cross in greater numbers and spread. We thought about shutting the project down." He chuckles humorlessly.

"Why didn't you?" I frown.

Raz shakes his head. "You don't realize what that would have entailed. We had visited millions of worlds. There were billions of intelligent beings scattered through the universe. We'd have had to-"

"-kill them all," I finish hoarsely.

Raz nods. "That was not an option, so we dismissed it. Besides, the demons could not ruin every world or kill every living being. It was physically impossible. The Demonata might destroy much, but not all. Life would continue, even when we were gone.

"That changed sixteen hundred years ago." Raz's features darken. "We had pressed on with the program. All looked positive. But then, on your world, an insignificant, unremarkable girl altered everything. She turned the laws of life on their head, and introduced a new player to the game, one who could guarantee victory for the Demonata."

I gulp. "You're talking about Bec, aren't you?"

"Yes," Raz says angrily.

"And the new player?" I ask.

He stares at me heavily, then says, "Death."

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