The Mirror of Aethos

Long ago, there lived two Veroxian brothers, Ziraeel and Vronrei. They were rare because they had been born on the same day, which all people know is highly uncommon. Those who knew them said they were one soul split into two bodies, and so it seemed, for from the day they were born, they never left one another’s side for long. They sat next to one another in their classes, slept in beds set side by side, and where one went, the other followed.

They lived in a town that was well known for its temple to Aethos. People from all around came to ask the Aethan priests to send their loved ones to the next world. Ziraeel and Vronrei’s mother was one of the workers who kept the temple clean, and so the boys spent much of their time in the temple after their classes had ended and on days their father was busy at the green houses. Ziraeel in particular was fascinated with the ways of the funeral rites, the runes, and the goddess of death, and he and Vronrei learned more about Aethos than most enorians ever would.

So when they had grown and finished their studies and Ziraeel, the older by mere minutes, joined the Aethan priests, Vronrei wasn’t far behind. No one was surprised. The two brothers worked hard and were happy in their service to Aethos. They spent many hours perfecting their co-run funerals, taking extra care to learn all the ways in which they would best please Aethos.

With the help of his brother, Ziraeel even learned how to save lost souls from the realm of Kezerien and send them to their rightful afterlife in the Aether, which had thus far never been done as far as anyone knew. Even at the temple, the brothers were never far from one another. They even slept in the same room in the temple housing, though it wasn’t necessary. And everyone was certain they would pass together in their sleep long in the future, when their wings drooped and their dark hair was streaked with grey and their eyes had turned the color of the moon.

But then tragedy struck, and Vronrei was killed.

Ziraeel felt like he’d been torn in half, his heart ripped to pieces. He didn’t know how he could possibly survive this. He wept for days, begging the gods to take him, too, for he could not live without the other half of his soul. But the gods did not take him. It wasn’t his time.

In a moment of respite from his weeping, Ziraeel remembered a tale his mother had told the two of them during their many hours in the temple. She’d told them of the mirror of Aethos, an item so special it allowed the griever a chance to see their loved one again. But only the most special and loyal were given the gift of the mirror. He sat up from where he’d been lying on his bed, thinking for sure he would be given that chance. After all, he was an Aethan priest, was he not? He had been loyal and faithful in his task, in his worshipping of their goddess. He had loved her all his life. He thought surely he, of all people, would receive her blessing.

He told no one of his plans, for he knew what the other priests would think. The dead were meant to stay that way. They should be left at peace, his mother would tell him even in her grief, but Ziraeel needed to see his brother. Just once more.

And so the day after Vronrei had been sent to the Aether, in the most intimate and beautiful ceremony Ziraeel had ever performed, Ziraeel went into the temple after everyone had gone to sleep and threw himself at the feet of the statue, the beautifully carved likeness of Aethos. There, with the moonlight streaming in through the windows above, he begged her to let him see his beloved brother again.

Aethos, in her realm, surrounded by her flowers and the dead she watched over, heard his pleas. She felt his pain, had seen the pain Vronrei felt even still, despite the peace he should feel in the Aether. And both brothers had been nothing but the best of her worshippers. She had been impressed when Ziraeel had managed to save a number of souls from Kezerien’s realm, for she knew her nephew did not give up his fire spirits easily.

And so she bestowed upon him the blessing. She sent him her mirror to find when he returned to his room in the house where all Aethan priests lived.

Ziraeel stared in shock at the sight of the ornate mirror when he walked into his room. It stood taller than him and seemed to glow with an inner light. He’d been so certain Aethos had ignored his pleas, but here stood this mirror. And who else could have sent it to him?

His eyes welled with grateful tears as he stepped toward it. He told himself he just needed to say goodbye, because he’d been unable to. And saying goodbye would somehow make the loss bearable, though he knew he would never be whole again. He spoke his brother’s name, calling to him.

When Vronrei appeared in the mirror he looked the same as he’d always been with his shining green eyes and his milky skin, with his looping horns and moth-like wings. He smiled his familiar smile, and Ziraeel wept with joy at seeing his brother again. He reached out to touch Vronrei, but his fingers met only the cold surface of the mirror. If only he could hug his brother one last time, but this would have to do.

They talked as if nothing had changed. For hours and hours, well into the night, and Ziraeel barely felt his hunger or thirst, too wrapped up in seeing the other half of his soul again. Ziraeel asked Vronrei how the Aether was, and Vronrei asked about their parents and the woman he’d fallen in love with, though only Ziraeel knew about her, for Aethan priests were meant to only hold Aethos in their heart.

This went on for days. Ziraeel shirked his duties. He barely slept, barely ate. On the rare occasion he had to leave the mirror, Vronrei swore he’d still be there when Ziraeel came back. And upon Ziraeel’s return, his brother was always there, smiling at him. For even in the Aether, Vronrei’s soul cried out for Ziraeel.

Their mother questioned him, and Ziraeel claimed to be sick with grief, which wasn’t entirely untrue. And so she let him be, though she spoke to the priests and her husband about her concerns.

Only when Ziraeel’s vision started doing strange things, when the edges began to dim and lights danced before his eyes, did he remember the warning. His mother had warned the boys that those who stared too long within the depths of the mirror would lose not only their sight, forever, but also be no longer able to even hear their lost loved one.

But he hadn’t had enough time. He wasn’t ready to give up his brother yet. There had to be a way for him to prolong this, to spend just a little more time with Vronrei. Surely Aethos would understand. She was the goddess of death. She understood the grief associated with it, he assured himself. He didn’t tell Vronrei what was happening, not wanting to worry his brother. Nor did he tell him what he planned, for he feared Vronrei would try to deny him.

Once he had hatched a plan, Ziraeel went in search of all the mirrors he could find, and he set them up around his room to allow the image of Vronrei to bounce around to the other mirrors. He hoped it would minimize the effect and slow the blinding, and he was right. When he gazed into the other mirrors, his vision stopped dimming and dancing.

And Ziraeel was thrilled he’d outwitted Aethos and her mirror tricks. Once he may have worried it would anger her. Once he would never have done a thing to upset the goddess he had loved all his life, but all he cared about anymore was extending the time with his brother, and now he had it.

But this made Aethos angry, angrier than he could have imagined. Those who were dead were meant to stay that way. It was the way of things, and she, on rare occasions, gave her blessing for certain special people to say goodbye. She had given a man she thought to be a loyal, faithful servant one such rare blessing, and now Ziraeel was taking advantage of her kindness by deceiving her and thinking himself smarter than a god.

And so she punished them. She split Vronrei’s soul between all the mirrors, fragmenting it, tearing it apart, and causing Vronrei to howl and scream at the torment. Vronrei became angry and violent, banging on the insides of the mirrors, causing them to crumble and crack, which only caused him more pain.

Ziraeel dropped to his knees, covering his ears and weeping. He begged Aethos to stop, telling her he was sorry for the deception. He begged her to release Vronrei from his torture, swearing he would never try to do anything to upset her again.

But it was too late. Aethos would not stand for such insolence, and so she left Vronrei split between the mirrors and took Ziraeel’s sight, and though he could no longer see his brother, Ziraeel was forced to listen to his tormented screams for the rest of time.

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