“All the other gods are waiting, Natsuko,” Fuyuko said, his childish voice high and excited. “Hurry up and choose.”
Natsuko frowned at her twin brother and went back to her contemplation. She’d been in the Hall of Faces for days now, trying to make a choice. Millions of paintings surrounded her, one for each human in Hosa, Ipia, Nash, and Cochtan. Even as she watched, one of the paintings curled up around the edges, the parchment yellowing, the ink fading. Another human had died. They were always dying and in such great numbers, especially in the past hundred years. A hundred years of war and so many lives lost. The parchment crumbled away, the last traces of the face it once held gone. Changang, the God of Life, would be around soon to replace the parchment and paint a new face. It was his role up in Tianmen, to keep the list of humans up to date. But even Changang was waiting for Natsuko now.
“I have to pick right,” Natsuko said defiantly. “We only get one chance at this.”
“I know, sister,” Fuyuko said, his boyish face crumpling into a frown. “Of all the gods, I know!”
Time to make a choice. Natsuko blew out a sigh and plucked one of the paintings from the wall. A middle-aged woman with lines on her face that spoke of easy smiles long since replaced with guilt and grief. A life of pain, of hardship, of loss. This face, this human, of all the millions around her, might understand. “This one,” Natsuko said. She had expected it to feel right when she picked the painting she needed, but there was nothing. Michi, the God of Omens, would probably have something to say about that, but then Michi had something to say about everything. She never shut up.
“Are you sure?” Fuyuko said sceptically. He was staring at the painting and pulling that face that meant he thought his sister was mad. Such an easy boy to read. Far too earnest. That was why they were playing the roles they were. It could be no other way.
Natsuko grinned at her brother and nodded emphatically. Then she grabbed his hand and pulled him from the Hall of Faces. They rushed through the jade halls of Tianmen. It was oddly quiet today. All the gods were gathered in the throne room, waiting to begin the contest. Waiting for her.
Natsuko slipped through the great doors of the throne room, clutching her painting to her chest and still holding her brother’s hand tightly. She wouldn’t let him go, not when they were so close. All the gods turned to watch her enter. Hundreds of them, some her friends, others anything but. Some few even snarled at her. All the gods had enemies, even child gods like Natsuko. Up on the dais, in front of the jade throne, Batu waited. The God of War, the Tianjun for the past hundred years. For a century he had ruled heaven, and for a century the world below had known only war. But now they had a chance to change that. Natsuko had a chance to change it. And she would pay any price.
“Are you ready, little Natsuko?” Batu asked, smiling at her. He was not unkind, for a god. He stood bare-chested, bronze skinned and not a hair on his head save for curling eyebrows and bushy chops the colour of fire. His ceremonial beads hung around his neck, his only ornamentation. He leaned upon his staff, a weapon no other god, mortal, or spirit, could lift. He was radiant, and the jade throne was his. For now.
Natsuko strode forward through the gathering of gods, dragging Fuyuko behind her. “Were you all waiting for me?” she said with a giggle.
Batu laughed. “Well we can’t do this without us all here. Though I will admit I was about to send Sarnai to drag you here, ready or not.”
Sarnai, the God of Fire, sneered down at Natsuko. She was taller than most gods and appeared half-reptilian. A long tail coiling behind her and scales peppering her skin. Fire dripped from her mouth whenever she opened it and it gave her a terrible lisp that made her insufferably difficult to understand. “I see you have chosen,” the fire goddess said. “May I see?” She extended a clawed hand and Natsuko clutched the painting a little tighter to her chest. Sarnai only cackled in response, fire spraying from her lips. She carried her own painting, though the face upon it looked more machine than man.
Batu raised his staff a little and then tapped the head on the floor. The sound was as loud as ten gongs struck at once and reverberated around the throne room. He waited for silence and then grinned. “It’s time,” he said, clearly far too pleased with himself. “Every god who wishes to challenge for my throne, step forward.”
Natsuko stepped forward to distance herself from the gods who wished no part in the contest. She wasn’t alone. Thirty-five of them were choosing to take part. Each of them carried a painting in one hand, and their artifact in the other.
“So many of you,” Batu said with a sardonic grin. “Has my time as Tianjun really been so bad?” He held up a hand before any of them could answer. He knew exactly what his rule had been, and did not care. After all, he was the God of War and war was his purpose. “You all know the rules. And you all know the price.” His gaze settled on Natsuko and there was sadness there. No other god was giving up as much to take part as her.
Batu drew in a deep breath and raised his voice, his tone formal now. “We have gathered here, we gods of Hosa, Ipia, Nash, and Cochtan, as we do just once every hundred years. To see which of us will sit the throne for the next century. Which of you will take my place? Leave your artifacts and I will seed them. Take your paintings and find your Champions.” He pointed up to the sky and the moon sliding across it. “Hikaru?”
Hikaru, the God of the Moon, took a step forward on slippered feet and bowed her head. For a moment, the moon seemed to shine a little brighter. “In twenty five days the moon will be full again.” Natsuko almost laughed to think of how such a thing would confuse the humans. The star gazers took great care to document and predict the passage of moon and stars. Hikaru had just sped up the cycle and thrown all those predictions into chaos.
Batu smiled again. “The contest will start with the light of the new day. Good luck, and…” His grin spread wider still, stretching his face into something menacing. “I hope you all fail.” Most of the gods chuckled at the joke, but Natsuko didn’t. She saw underneath Batu’s humour and wondered what he might do to bring all their failures about. He wouldn’t be the first ruler of heaven to rig the game. “Well don’t just stand there. Get on with it.”
Each of the participating gods stepped forward and left their artifact before the throne. Natsuko went last, struggling to let go of the thing she cherished most in the world. But she had to. It was the cost of entering the contest, and the only way to bring an end to Batu’s reign.
“I’ll give it a good home,” Batu said quietly so no other gods could hear.
Natsuko clenched one hand into a fist, the other still clutching at the painting. “Away from your wars?”
The smile slipped from Batu’s face, replaced by a look like cold steel. “There is no such place. After all, I may have just twenty five days left to rule. I intend to engulf the world in battle like never before, little Natsuko.”
Natsuko winced, then glared up at Batu. “I’m going to stop you.”
The God of War grinned wide. “Then stop me.”
Natsuko glared at Batu a moment longer, then she turned and strode away as fast as her little legs would carry her, leaving her artifact behind. Her heart broke and she struggled to hold back tears. It had to be done. It was all part of the plan. Fuyuko’s plan. Only he didn’t have the strength to carry it out. That was up to her. “I hope you’re the right choice,” she whispered to the painting.