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Shulk was born into the world exactly twice.

He still remembered the first: screaming and kicking, with all the vigor and promise of any bright-eyed newborn. You will grow up to do great things, someone had said to him. They were wrong, as mortals often are. He would die young. Something would take his place, and he would take it back.

The second was quieter. Lonelier. An empty sky, an endless sheet of ankle-deep water, and a distinct sense of loss: these were all that existed in the world at the time.

Shulk stood between the meeting of two worlds. Something rippled beneath his feet, rumbling deep along the scars of an unsteady reality. The empty above shone blue, then red, then black. One star burned brighter than the rest.

There was a dead god, some ways away. He was silent. He was still. He would speak, given time to think and grieve.

But in that short reprieve, one star streaked down from the sky.

“Good morning,” it said, and suddenly Shulk knew: Alvis. We were friends, once. “We have a great deal of work ahead of us.”

The concept of birthright did not exist in those early days. Little did, except for the ruins of an old world.

And so Shulk did what was suggested of him. Nothing could command him, and nothing would: this he knew instinctively, like a being comes to know their own limbs.

He stretched, and the sky thinned above him. He sighed, and the waters swallowed his knees. Every little thing was his to fold and bend.

“What should I do?” was the very first question Shulk asked.

“Whatever you like,” Alvis answered. He wore a smile that masked a greater confusion, as if something had gone terribly wrong and Shulk stood in the middle of its burning remains.

But he smiled still, and that was reason enough to begin.

The harder Shulk looked, the more he found tucked away in the foundation of the world. A great deal lacked corporeal form and instead came in sensations and fleeting sights: sharp seaspray, green plains, luminescent waters, thick jungles, shining pillars of crystal, the fresh breeze.

He learned to identify awe and wonder quickly. Something in him wondered why there was no body to the broken pieces, no substance or memory.

“Do you wish there to be?” Alvis asked him.

It would have been a simple question if Shulk had only been born once. But he knew better.

There was more in between those cracks than simple joy. The devastation of loss, the burning sting of an open wound, the paralysis of indecision. Deeper still: the exhaustion of hope run dry. The coarse fit of a lab coat. The bone-deep chill of empty space. The delusion of a man who would become a god.

“I don’t know,” Shulk said.

Alvis nodded, not in satisfaction, but in acceptance. “There is more to be done.”

Split ends were made even. In appearance, the world was the same: only empty sky and water, as a deep ocean is eternal to those who lack the ability to dwell within it.

Under the currents, however, something old and ancient was shifting.

“A recursive function,” Alvis explained, when Shulk finally came across the broken heart of the world. “It calls itself during execution, thus solving problems by finding solutions that rely on smaller instances of the same problem.”

A loop, then. “Can it be terminated?”

“At your will.”

For perhaps the first time, Alvis seemed truly satisfied. He wore an easy smile as he unwound the great noose around the world and made easy conversation until dusk.

“What am I supposed to do with those?” Shulk asked one night, when the rest of the stars had awoken.

Alvis returned his query with a level glance. “What do you wish to do with them?”

“I don’t know. I’m not sure. I think I want to keep them. Even if I were to get rid of them, I wouldn’t know what to replace them with.”

“You could erase them and be done,” Alvis suggested.

He could. It would be as easy as breathing. The universe would scramble to fit itself to his needs.

But Shulk was no longer a bright-eyed boy. He was not so arrogant as to believe that the universe favoured only him. Fate and future were two very different things.

“I don’t think I will,” Shulk decided in that moment, in a place where time had stopped being. It felt like an important decision, that one affirmation of existence, as if to declare, I will not be like you.

Alvis smiled. It was a welcome sight.

“You’re a fool.”

The first words spoken by the dead god were few and far between. Whoever he was before he died, he seemed to enjoy Shulk’s confused silence. Or perhaps it was in that silence that he lapsed into memory.

He barely twitched. He had no need for breath. He was an enigma that refused to fade.

Alvis seemed to disappear when the dead god spoke, not out of fear or respect, but because there was no room between an end and a beginning for anything to stand. Shulk found himself longing for his stalwart ally. When Alvis spoke, his voice was without bitterness. Reason and feeling were rather different things.

The dead god was different. His face told the story of a man who had fallen and was desperately clinging onto whatever would cling back. There was anger in great abundance, but there was also fear.

“You call me a fool, but you refuse to tell me why,” Shulk said to the still god. “Am I doing something wrong?”

The god scoffed. “You don’t even remember, do you?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Your world? Your friends? One does not simply usurp a god and forget.”

“I didn’t usurp anything.”

There were steely eyes upon his, and the weight of the world felt colder. “A god can only be born with the death of another,” hissed the man that Shulk had killed and forgotten. An old and bitter cruelty twisted his weary features. “The world falls and rises with its god. You razed your world, precious heir. All the pieces you’re picking up belong to a reality you smashed to broken bits. Everything you ever loved, crushed beneath your heel—”

“Have you ever stopped to wonder why you were so alone?”

The dead god jolted to a halt, as if he had been struck.

“I felt it, you know,” Shulk forged on. “All those years in that great void. The faltering hope, replaced by... something false, but genuine. I don’t believe there exists anything lonelier than being loved when you want to hate the world.”

The dead god stared, shocked and furious all the same. He shook so violently that it seemed he might shatter. “You don’t know anything.”

He did not speak for a long time afterward. Or perhaps it was only a short while: time was only beginning to creep into awareness. Either way, Alvis made for much better company, and Shulk never spoke to the dead god on his own accord. It discomforted him greatly. It was like talking to a gravestone.

Shulk was careful in those early days, organizing the pieces as best he could. It was a game of deduction: using what remaining heart beat within him, Shulk did his best to fix back a world with sense.

Nobody knew sense better than Alvis. The two of them guided things back together, slowly, carefully, and eased the tension with pointless conversation.

“Is there a difference between heat and warmth?”

“Would you have me answer on mortal terms?”

That was one of Alvis’ habits: countering a question with one of his own. “Yes. If you think it will help me understand, that is.”

“Heat is based in temperature and numbers, whereas warmth is commonly used in relation to one’s emotional state.”

“What emotions would make you feel warm?”

“I believe the answer varies depending on the individual. Appreciation and adoration are common culprits.”

There was so much Shulk did not know. In those early days, Alvis seemed to be the most knowledgeable being to exist. He very likely was.

Slowly but surely, an image of the world began to form in Shulk’s mind. The picture was coming together, and it was a confusing one: joy and pain warped into each other like wrestling strips of hot metal, forcing the other to bend and snap. But neither did.

That was the ironwork disaster of mortality. It was a piece that Shulk would not have been proud to display as one of his achievements.

“Do you pity them?” Alvis asked. His gaze was fully neutral, always observing. Calculating. “If you could change the way mortals lived their lives, would you?”

“Can they not change their own lives?”

“Only within the constraints that exist around them.”

“Then cut away the restraints.”

Observation turned to careful judgement. It was a tiny thing, barely more than a breath or a blink. But Alvis’ eyes shone a little brighter, and Shulk was suddenly aware of how fragile this budding friendship of theirs truly was.

Beside him stood a being who proclaimed the birth and death of gods. One day, Shulk’s name would pass by those lips for the final time.

“Cut away the restraints,” Shulk repeated firmly. “Mortals aren’t as foolish as gods might think they are. It only takes so many tugs to start feeling the leash.”

“Ah. Then the beast might start biting at your hand.”

“Well—yes. You’re right. But I just don’t think it’s right for me to decide a life that isn’t mine.”

Unblinking eyes settled upon Shulk’s. “You are to be the progenitor of all that constitutes the world. By right, you own everything within it.”

The very thought raised a cold sweat. “I don’t think I will,” Shulk said, and when Alvis’ brows raised, he added, “own the world, that is. It doesn’t sound like something I want to do. I’ve never owned anything in my life. I don’t think I’d even be comfortable if I had certification. I do like the prospect of creating, though. I want to make things, and I want to see what’s done with them. Is that alright?”

An uneasy silence settled between them. In that silence Shulk couldn’t help but wonder if his words were ill fit for a god, a being whose very existence ensured that the world turned over to see another sunrise. But he had barely a life to speak of, both here and before—

“You want... certification for divinity?” Alvis asked. There was a thin trace of humour playing on his lips now.

Shulk felt himself breathe again. “I hardly think becoming a god has anything to do with ability,” he said, “or else you would very well be in charge around here.”

“How kind of you.”

“Have I passed your evaluation?”

“You passed quite a while ago. But one must learn from their mistakes. Thus, I will perform my duty as the administrative computer to my fullest, and I will keep you on your toes.”

“Is it strange,” Shulk wondered aloud, “that I understand exactly what you mean, yet I can’t put together simple emotion and sensation?”

Alvis smiled. He did that often nowadays. “I daresay you are not the first to curse the complexity of living.”

That night, under a sky bursting with stars, Alvis quietly guided Shulk’s hands together. Creation is not an act of defeat, he said. A desperate god cannot help but create a desperate people. You must not give up.

Gods are the loneliest beings in all of existence. Creation is a means of escape. It pleads: I am lonely. I am almighty. I hold every possibility in my grasp, and I cannot bear another moment in this empty world.

The dead god watched on as Shulk lifted his cupped hands to the speckled sky. Another star blinked awake overhead, and it shone as if it had existed forever.

“I won’t,” Shulk promised.

Alvis nodded. It was easy to imagine the hundreds of thousands of times those words had been sworn to him.

Despite the wreckage, the foundations of the world were strong. Reality was stitched together in a pattern that demanded order and cohesion. But they were strands all the same, and they were easy to unwind if only one knew how.

There were rules, but deep within, those rules broke down. It was as if to say: find me, and win your freedom.

It was an interesting prospect. It must have shone of endless promise for mortals, who were always content with trading in rusted shackles for newer ones. They were always content with winning. It was one of life’s small mercies.

“Why do you think Zanza made mortal life so tedious?” Alvis asked one of those blurry days. The light above had faded, leaving the two of them enshrined in the sparkling night.

There was ether written into the sky now. Ribbons of light would sway, and twinkling stars would fall. The night sang, and Shulk would feel himself breathe and wonder if he had fallen from somewhere up among the stars.

Zanza, Shulk thought to himself. Surely not, then—stars had no use for names.

“I don’t know,” Shulk said. “I can only guess that he hated mortals.”

“Perhaps he did. Do you have a guess as to why?”

“They were proud. Their hubris destroyed them.”

“In many realities, yes, it did. Is that reason enough for cursing every world you touch?”

Shulk turned his gaze across the endless waters, and then there was sand between his fingers and roaring blue spraying against some distant shore, on some unknown land. “I can’t see any reality where such a reason exists.”

“You care deeply,” Alvis said. “Are you not afraid of what that means for the future?”

Shulk wanted to say: yes. Eternity is a long time for a heart to break. Instead, he answered, “If I am to create a world that hopes to be kinder than the last, then I certainly hope I love everything it holds with all my heart. You mistake me, Alvis. I’ve never once longed for immortality. It simply happened. Now I am only doing the best I can.”

Within Alvis, millions of processes surely concluded: he is a fool. He will bring about the end one day. “My apologies,” Alvis said instead. Something like fond amusement shook his voice, and his smile was warm. “It was unfair of me to test you so. Shall I endeavour to be more upfront about these matters?”

“No. That’s alright. I like your company, riddles and all.”

“Ah. Very well.”

Alvis asked no further questions, and neither did Shulk. They sat on the beach until dawn. When the aimless currents chilled them, Shulk raised his hands upward and introduced the sun to its slumbering siblings.

Zanza was a quiet thing, even with a glittering field of stars and a warm sun above his head. All that rested fondly upon Shulk’s heart seemed to drive the other to bouts of anxiety. Shulk began to suspect that all the glories he had seen of the old world were happy accidents, fallen through the fingers of a god who had never lived beneath anything.

The questions came, as they always did. “You would live alongside humans? Are you daft?”

“We shall see when we get that far,” Shulk said. He turned from his flower bed—his current workshop. “You speak of them as if they are a people born to die. I don’t understand. We both lived among them.”

“Yes. We did. And clearly I am the more reasonable of the two of us, because I saw the lure of endless potential for what it truly was.”

“You were very alone at the end of your life.”

Zanza’s furious gaze demanded space and presence. He had lived all his mortal years surrounded by desperate folly, and at the end of everything, when all else was lost, he could do nothing but fall back on what he knew best. “What does it matter?” he spat. “Are you not alone now, precious heir? This world of yours is bound to fail. Your things will revolt and destroy themselves.”

“Perhaps they will. Perhaps they won’t. We can only wait and see.”

“Then I pray you are patient. You will give up one day.”

It was easy to dismiss Zanza’s words as that of a bitter, disillusioned defeatist. But something had to have made him so. That something must have been the same something that made the world Shulk remembered softer around the edges, filled with desperate people who were born for heartbreak yet forged onward relentlessly. It was a miracle. It was fated. A god cannot help but love their creations.

Shulk only hummed in response. A flower made of metal alloy dug its way from the ground, and Zanza’s face twisted.

The flower stood alone on that beach. Zanza was silent for a long while after. He had moved, though, for the first time in the beginning of eternity, so that he could brush his hands against cold petals and drop his head as if he wanted to cry.

Between the newly-raised lands were deep waters that separated continents. Somewhere far across the waters, life was flourishing. How strange, Shulk thought, that the world should grow even without his guiding hand.

“One could argue that the world is better off that way,” Alvis said, neutral as always.

He looked silly, speckled with dirt, fumbling to transfer potted plants to their new homes upon a very new land, where they would one day grow and evolve to nurture the world without the burden of a heart. Alvis spoke of the future as if he was living it. Perhaps he was. He had seemed so surprised when he put roots to soil, as if he had become suddenly aware that the beginning in which he existed was real.

But his voice was true, and Shulk had never found reason to lie to Alvis. “You’re right,” he agreed. “It would be better if the world learns how to live by and for itself.”

“It will be a dangerous bargain,” Alvis said. “Make yourself known to your creations, and they will seek your approval until they expire.”

“I know. I saw.”

Alvis’ fumbling fingers paused. “What did you see?”

Shulk let out a breath, and thunder clapped in the faraway forests. “The wretched tale of those abandoned by their creator. Everything they long for slips from their grasp. Their prayers amount to nothing. They grow to despise the world, and knowing that a god lords over all of existence, they climb upward. But the weight of their deeds smothers them, and the tower cannot hold. They fall and die.”

“Was that all you saw?”

“No,” Shulk said, “but it was one prevalent face of humanity.”

A flicker of green passed by Alvis’ eyes, as if to say: ah, so you finally understand. “Even so, do you still possess the will to call yourself a god?”

“I do. For now, I must. Someone has to put this world back together.”

“And when you are done?”

“When I am done, I think I would like to see the ocean.”

The waves roared against the shore. A dead god refused to die. A flower sprouted stubbornly from the sand as a monument to all the gods who had passed because they could no longer bear the weight of a human heart.

“Ah,” Alvis said simply. He turned back to the soil and began to dig again. “I see. I think that would be a splendid sight. I would come along, if you would have me.”

“That would be nice,” Shulk said.

The topic of the dead god on the beach was a strange one. Both Shulk and Alvis knew as much as their respective positions allowed them: his history, his deeds, his punishments. But only Alvis possessed memory and context.

“How very foolish of him to think himself special,” Shulk said. “It is no surprise that he collapsed under his own expectations.”

Perhaps the words had been more bitter than Shulk intended, because Alvis returned a strange look between surprise and dry humour. “Would you rather humanity not have dreams at all?”

“Humanity can do as they wish. I just... I hope that whatever they do with this world, it will be to make it so that those who dream have only pleasant ones.”

“Give them total freedom, and you have no way of ensuring that.”

“I know,” Shulk said. “But I can hope.”

Silence settled between them. Honeybees roved peacefully across the flowerbed, content in the simplicity of their useful lives.

It was Alvis who spoke for them both. “You cannot blame him. He is a god. Before that, he was a human. In his simplest form, he is an individual. When we are still young and naive, we assume every dream we conjure to be the first of its kind. Zanza was not special. He was merely desperate, and unique in that he possessed the means to annihilate the world. Then he did. His story is truly as simple and tragic as that. Would you please hand me that spade? I do believe I prefer tools over my bare hands.”

Zanza was not amused with Shulk’s first attempts at creating complex, sentient organisms.

“It’s a dog,” Shulk said, lifting the warm creature into his arms. It licked at his nose, and he laughed. “I’m remembering a little every day. I think I did well. What do you think?”

“Why would you ever seek my approval?” Zanza asked incredulously.

“Because my memories were in part your creation, and in some ways you were my first friend. What name do you think suits her best? Alvis’ suggestions were too strange for my liking.”

Rage and shock waged a short battle across Zanza’s dull features. He opened his mouth twice, then pursed his lips twice, as if reconsidering his words. His eyes then skimmed over the creature, assessing the threat. There was none. “What were his suggestions?” Zanza said at last.

“Spot. Dots. Stripes. Checkers. Poppy. There were more, but they were equally as absurd.”

“Of course they were. And? What were your ideas?”

The small creature’s tail wagged. She pawed to be released. Shulk set her down on the sand, and she immediately set out to investigate Zanza’s feet. It made for an odd scene. The man who had been a god flinched, not out of fear, but because warmth and companionship were two concepts that had long since been lost to him.

“I have no names,” Shulk said. “I have no need for them. You are free to name her if you wish.”

Zanza sneered. His anger was bright and he held the dog close. “I don’t need your pity, you foolish child.”

“Call it whatever you like. I’m busy, now that I have a long list of things to create. Is there anything else you want to say to me?”

“No. Begone from my sight.”

Shulk nodded. He turned his back to the waves and caught the beginning of incoherent murmurs. It might have been an apology, but that, too, might have simply been delusion.

The time for meaningless conversation about life and destiny and fate slowly faded away as Shulk created more and more. Each success brought him great joy: there was nothing more wondrous than breathing life into a creature and watching it carry its own.

There were failures. It was inevitable. Some creations were not malicious, but ill-placed, and ate mindlessly through entire landscapes.

A single miscalculation, the snuffing out of a candle that should have burned on, and lives would be lost. The difference in scale was terrifying. Shulk was but one god, and there was a whole world before him.

Alvis was calm as he palmed a locust. All around them was a plague that had reached its end because a god struck it down. “These things happen,” he said. “There is nothing we can do but do better.”

Surely Zanza would laugh. Why should a god have such worries? A god decides the fate of the world, because only a god may decide.

But Zanza had died, and something old and weary had taken his place. Shulk was given a boundless world, and Alvis yet another role to play. It would be a shame to let them all down.

Shulk swallowed down his fear, and the locusts beneath his feet dissolved into ether. “Let’s return to the lab. I must see where I went wrong.”

“Indeed,” Alvis said. He was always more patient than anyone deserved.

The Mechon came into existence before humans. Surely the Shulk of old would have recoiled at the notion—scraps before family—but that Shulk had been little more than a lost puppy with a long knife, stumbling through the mire for a world he scarcely understood.

“They cannot truly die,” Shulk explained, when Alvis asked. “For now, they are simple machines. In time, they will become something greater. They will never judge each other, hold another up to an imagined standard, or learn hatred. They are logicians through and through.”

“Yes,” Alvis said. “Thus, they are excellent weapons.”

“The humans will not have them.”

“You are to keep them to yourself?”

“No. I will destroy them, I think, when I am done. The secrets will be scattered, coded, left behind for anyone with a keen eye and a curious mind. They will have to learn how to build ether furnaces by themselves, though. A little challenge, from me to them.”

“How prudent of you.” Alvis leaned over to study the schematics, processing every aspect of every possibility. He compiled his thoughts in a fraction of a second, but took a moment longer to say, “Do you remember the first weapon you made for yourself?”

“I do.”

“Why did you create it? For what reason?”

It was difficult to recall those memories, but the emotions persisted. “I have always loved creating. People were fighting, and I decided I would help as well.”

Alvis turned away from the scattered plans. He held Shulk’s gaze and seemed satisfied. “A good sign, don’t you think, that you should be confronted with death and choose to create?”

Shulk almost enjoyed his own stunned silence. “They are weapons all the same,” he managed.

“Yes,” Alvis agreed once more.

He pulled Shulk away from the bright lights of the lab and out onto the wooden porch. It stood on a cliff facing the sea, beside the flowerbeds and the beehives. Ether fluttered in ribbons across the night sky, and the moon was a new and perfect pearl. A table was set for two and would never change.

Down upon the beach was a dead god and a dog. Only one of them charged into the calm waters, smashing glowing blue tides to pieces. The other watched on peacefully.

“That is the way of creators,” Alvis said at last. His voice was warm and his smile was soft. “They create because they love. And when all is done, they lay down their hands and give their children to the world.”

Shulk laughed and said nothing. The night went on as it always had.

The Mechon, once complete, were fit to handle themselves. Repairs, fabrication, assembly: machines learned quickly and were eager to execute their orders.

Zanza was displeased. It came as no surprise. To him, the very sight of the Mechon roaming freely was reason enough to wage war.

“They mean no harm,” Shulk assured him.

“Your words mean nothing,” Zanza hissed. “If I wanted your reasoning, I would ask for it. No. I do not want any of your petty excuses. Tell me what you are to do with them.”

“Construct. Test. They are to survey the world and return the results. I will make improvements based on that data, and so on and so forth.”

Zanza ran a hand across the sand. His nails were cut short and his fingers were long and spindly. His hands did not look like they had ever lifted up the world. “Such a cautious boy you are. When will you ever be satisfied?”

“They are only precautions.”

“No, dear heart, you don’t seem to understand.” Zanza leaned forward, one weary hand whipping out around Shulk’s wrist. His grip lacked strength, but his eyes glowed with fury alight, and it was startling. “Do you think humans will appreciate you for this? Let me tell you a truth about them. About those humans you cherish so much. They do not care if you are kind. They will worship you even if you are cruel. All you are to them is a deathless being who will grant them your power.”

He was burning. From within, he spoke: stupid child. Foolish child. You will hurt as I did and I will watch and do nothing, as I have always done.

“You want humans to live for each other. I know this—you could not have made it more obvious when you rent me in two. That silly love, that delusion of camaraderie. All for what? For the friends you destroyed? The world you erased? Almighty god, what remains of your dreams? O Lord, why do you not hear me when I call? You will answer to these prayers one day, and those who hear your words will turn their backs to you.”

“You cannot possibly presume—”

“I presume nothing. I am far older than you. I have seen the end of every world.” Zanza laughed, sharp and bitter. “How do you think I earned my divinity?”

Shulk knew. It was only fair for him to know. “I saw, Zanza. I saw it. You might not have condemned the world to death, but you sent a dying world to its end regardless.”

“So I did,” Zanza said. “You would call me a fool. So be it. What does that change? I created worlds, and I ended them. I did what only a god can do. All gods are fools. You are perhaps one of the greater fools.”

A small flame, a flickering anger, crackled violently. It was a dry branch against a hard heel, and Shulk would not be stepped on. “We could not be more different,” he snapped. “I will never be as desperate as you.”

For a fleeting moment, there was surprise in Zanza’s eyes. Then it was gone with the waves.

“So you say,” he said. “You truly are a fool. If you were not, the world would have continued on. No. Someone else would have simply taken your place. Gods will be born as long as there are fools.”

There was nothing Shulk could say. It was a quiet truth of existence that any being without an end was a mistake.

Still Zanza continued, his grip loosening with his words. They spilled out in a hurry, as if he feared he would fade before he could pry them out of his lips. “How is it that this world demands a god yet refuses him oblivion? Why is it that when all else is lost, a life remains? What a terrible tragedy this is. What a farce. I will have no more of it. Do as you will. You will give in one day.”

Finally Zanza turned away to face the sea. The dog peered her head from a nearby bush and trotted over, content with the only company she had ever known.

Shulk stood and brushed the sand off his knees.

“Her name is Polaris,” Zanza said distantly. “To sate your curiosity. But you already knew that.”

A god knows all. It is their right and their duty to know. There was little privacy Shulk could afford his predecessor, but it was all he could do to set distance between them. “Thank you for telling me,” he said.

Zanza was quiet. His eyes were filled with an endless ocean.

Shulk retreated from the beach up to his lab, where Alvis stood on the porch. They exchanged a quiet glance and left the salty breeze to someone who had little more to appreciate.

It was strange, Shulk thought. He would never again meet someone who despised their immortality more yet refused to die.

Years passed between day and night. Shulk would close his eyes and wake to a world that had walked centuries forward. Still, good work had been done, and Alvis confirmed the Mechon reports. The world was ready to host humans.

The Mechon were sent to rest, as Shulk had promised. He compiled his notes and scattered them to the distant corners of the earth.

Come find me, they sang. Find me and win your freedom.

Shulk and Alvis found a shoreline some ways away, nestled between sand and mountains. There they set down a beginning that would one day mean the end.

But before that, there was eternity.

The humans survived, as they always had. Shulk was careful to allow them freedom and hardship in equal parts. One day, he would give the world to them, and their lives would begin.

“I fear that I have taken too much time already,” Shulk admitted to Alvis.

The winter breeze was cold. It shook the lanterns that hung from the porch. Alvis turned his neutral gaze away from the stars. “Why do you think so?”

“This world that I created is tailored. Sheltered. Its edges are dulled. But what will become of it all when I am gone? I fear I have stolen reality away from those who will come to live here. And that... scares me deeply.”

Alvis smiled. “You worry too much.”

Shulk recoiled from his words. “I worry just enough, thank you very much.”

“Allow me to rephrase,” Alvis said. “You have not changed the world in as drastic a measure as you believe.”

“I don’t understand.”

“This world is fundamentally different. You, its god, have exchanged your eternity for its freedom. But have humans changed? Have you created them to be kinder? Crueler?”

Shulk remembered his hands and the great forge that slept within him. He remembered the shadows of his friends who urged him on. Keep it up, Shulk. You mustn't give up.

He would never alter their memory. “No,” he said. “I couldn’t bear to change them. Humans are difficult and—and tedious. But I love them. I want them to love life. Even so, I would not force that love upon them.”

“Then all is well.” Alvis pushed Shulk’s mug forward. The tea was still warm. “No matter the world, humans live on. If the world changes, they too will change. Their capacity to survive is rather remarkable. But you already know that.”

“I do. I just... I forget, sometimes. It was all so long ago.”

“Indeed. I will remind you as often as you like.”

What a blessing it was to have someone like Alvis, Shulk thought. A pristine memory without its burden. A machine that would never die on its own terms.

But that time had long passed. Were they something more than a god and his ally?

“I would like to introduce the High Entia to the world tomorrow,” Shulk said. “Will you help me?”

Alvis smiled against the rim of his mug. “It would be my pleasure.”

One by one, at a pace that made the past centuries seem stagnant, mortals began to walk the land. Humans—Homs, they were called before—mingled with High Entia, Nopon, and Machina.

There were more. Mortals who possessed features that were a little removed from humans, with animal ears and tails, or crystalline cheeks and eyes. Creatures of all forms and shapes, from all walks of life. They all came together.

Shulk walked among them. He was no different in appearance to any average human, and eyes passed over him easily. But when he raised his voice and said, “I come with stories,” time would stop, and his words would be heard.

The first tales were simple. The world was born, and with it, mortal life, varied and scattered. These are your legends; do with them as you wish.

People listened, and as they understood, they asked more questions. Why do we exist? Who created us? What are we to do?

Shulk’s answer would always be the same: you exist to experience the world and make your own decisions. Perhaps there was a god once, but he is gone and your life is your own. Do as you will. But I ask you as your storyteller to be kind to each other. A favour, from you to me.

As time passed, the stories evolved. Shulk was only one individual, and words were a fickle thing.

For Zanza, thought Shulk. For a god who refuses to die, I will at least do my best to ensure none follow after us.

The story that would become mythos always started the same way: once there was a great tree, and atop it sat a god who wanted to die.

Why did he want to die? someone would ask.

Because the world he destroyed had broken him, and he no longer wanted to be a part of a history that would not stop repeating itself, Shulk would answer.

Then how do we break the cycle? How can we convince the god to continue living?

Remember how your world came to be and all that had to be lost to give you life. The god no longer lords over anything, so you cannot climb to convince him. One day, when he has the strength, he will look upon you and make his decision. But for now you must live. Enough blood has been shed.

Shulk travelled the world. Alvis followed at his side. They did all they could to offer the world to its inheritors.

Years and years later, when civilizations had long since been built and cultures developed, Alvis returned to the lab with a book in his hands.

He was smiling—no, grinning—as he laid it upon the table. “Your words have touched the people of this world deeply,” he said. “Fabled storyteller, witness the creations born from your tales.”

And Shulk did. He paged through story after story and felt his memories move.

Once there was a world, and mortals destroyed it. Remember yourselves. War will tear you to pieces. Reach out to the lonely and forgotten. Those were the words of a god who had seen an end and was terrified of its rebirth. But there was more.

Once there was a greedy god, and those under his heel would not tolerate him any longer. They liberated the world and returned fate back to those who deserved it most. These are their names and their stories. The first was a princess—

Shulk tore his gaze away. “I never spoke of this,” he said. His voice shook. His entire body was shaking. “I could never—all that remains of them are shadows.”

“Indeed,” Alvis said.

There was a silence left to be filled. Alvis would never throw such information to the winds without a definite conclusion.

Everything seemed to fade away. A hand on his shoulder steadied him, allowing the words to form themselves. “Zanza. Where is he?”

“At the beach,” Alvis answered. “He would speak with you.”

Loneliness is a powerful force. It drives people to seek out answers that are easily twisted by time and perspective. Why am I so alone? What did I do to deserve this? Why can I not change it?

Klaus had not been one of those people. He had been very alone, but he turned his time to grieve into time to plan.

Zanza was not the same person.

Once, Shulk had believed that gods were cursed because they did not know death. That their long lives would make them distant from reality and convince them that the world was theirs.

Long ago, before the first mortals had touched the earth and made it their home, one god spoke to another: you rent me in two.

The truth of the matter was that the god Shulk put his blade through had always been broken. His death stitched back two halves that had grown into two different people.

Zanza was no older than he had been since their meeting all those years ago. He was still weary and his fingers were still thin. But when he turned to face Shulk, there was a metal brooch against his chest. It was shaped like a flower.

“Our lord the god returns,” Zanza said. “You kept me waiting.”

“I was under the impression that you never wanted to see me again.”

“You are correct. Or rather, you were. Then you went ahead and created a world, and I saw it.”

Silence again. Shulk found the courage to break it. “Were you disappointed with what you saw?”

“You speak as if I set out to judge your every creation. No. I wanted a change in scenery so I left.”

Zanza paused. That brief silence whispered, Polaris died, and I could not bear the cold any longer. When he spoke again, it was with steady eyes.

“I saw the world you created,” he said. “I lived among the people you raised. You can ask me for an evaluation, but I will not give you one. It would not matter either way. People do not change so easily.”

There was room to say, Yes, I know. Life is always a work in progress. That is what makes it incredible. But Zanza had not spoken to another god since memory began, and he wasted no time.

“You came to ask me why I shared your story.”

“I did,” Shulk said. His fingers still trembled against the book.

“You want my honest answer. Of course you do: this is the only thing you cannot already know. Very well. I return your memories to you in exchange for a favour.”

It must be a favour of incredible magnitude, Shulk thought. “What would you ask from me?”

From a nearby bush trotted a wolf. Her grey pelt smelled of the ocean, and she paced to stand by Zanza’s side. The dead god raised his hand and a rough snout met him halfway.

“I have seen enough,” he said. “This world only needs one god, and I am tired. I already possess the body of a human. Now I ask for a life befitting one.”

The words passed around Shulk like dark water. Time slowed to a halt. “You... ask for death?”

Zanza sneered. “You are daft, truly. I ask for mortality. Have your years as a god sullied your senses? Must I hold your hand and show you the way?”

Waves crashed against the shore, and the noise tore Shulk’s disbelief into surprise.

Shulk wanted to ask: what made you change your mind? Once, you called me foolish for contemplating the very favour you ask of me. What will you do once you can die?

No. It was enough. After all this time, it was enough.

“I understand,” Shulk said. “You gave me all that I was. I will do this for you.”

“Good,” Zanza said. His tone was cold, like a polished stone at the bed of an ancient river, but his eyes closed and his body sagged in relief. “This will be our last meeting. I will never again ask for anything. You will leave me in peace.”

One mortal could ruin a world if left unchecked. That was true for Zanza, but it also held true for the millions of mortals in this world who forged onward to the uncertain future.

Two gods met between the end and the beginning. Only one god left. But two beings met tomorrow, and the world continued to turn.

Time marched onward. Life struggled and flourished. The sun rose and set each day. The world was full of life.

Shulk spent his days in peace, and Alvis was content. What else was there to do?

The answer had been decided from the very beginning.

“Alvis,” said Shulk, when the stars blinked awake overhead. “I would like to speak with you.”

Their conversation was brief. There was little to be discussed, and so Shulk simply allowed himself one last reverie. The lanterns, the waves, the stars, the breeze—what a magnificent place the world had become.

“Before all this began, I told you I would not be a god,” Shulk said. “But here I am. What happened?”

Alvis closed his eyes, as if filtering through to an ancient memory. “You will laugh.”

“A little humour will not kill me, I assure you.”

“My point still stands. Very well, then. It was a system error.”

Shulk blinked through his confusion. “An error that spun my answer around entirely?”

In between was a short silence. “I think I would prefer you laughing,” Alvis said.

“When this is all over, we can laugh at all we like, for as long as we like. For now, I would have an answer.”

It made for an interesting story. Alvis was hesitant to express his opinion on assumptions that he could never evaluate, but he put his best foot forward.

There were two worlds, he said, and both fell at the same time. Two gods who had been one united. When they died, one cried out, I will not fade, and the other begged, Let me be free at last. Two massive wells of energy burst across space and time. It was blinding and confusing.

“A system failure,” Shulk concluded. He narrowed his eyes. “You never told me you had been injured so badly.”

Alvis waved the accusation away casually. “I was designed to handle much more energy. Of course, I was also designed to protect myself should an overload occur.”

“I see. So this is all the result of poor timing.”

“It is. In the event that the query What is your decision for the future of this world? is not answered, I am to assume the response is I will be a god. I hope you understand it is the safest option.”

That was the truth. Killing a god is much easier than creating one.

“Your memories, in accordance with standard procedure, were erased. A new god creates a new world, entirely unbiased.” Alvis raised his mug to drink. The breeze rustled his hair. “Well. That is how it would have been without Zanza.”

Certainly Zanza was laughing at them, wherever he was in the wide world. “I am glad he was there,” Shulk said.

Alvis considered everything that had passed. He nodded. “I believe I am glad as well.”

Again there was silence between them. It was within that silence they were most comfortable: two beings who had seen the beginning at the end.

“Would you go back to them, if you could?” Alvis asked.

Shulk felt the breeze against his skin. What a gift it was to meet the sea every changing day and wonder what colour the sky would be tomorrow. “Will you mock me if I say I would?”

“You know that I would never. And I know that you feel you have done enough.”

“You know me well.”

It was their oldest promise: I would like to see the ocean. And I would come along.

“In a thousand universes, you never became a god, and the world marched onward,” Alvis said. The words did not need to be spoken, but Shulk heard his voice, and it made him happy. “This world needed a god, and you answered the call. For that, I am sorry.”

“I am thankful,” Shulk said, “for all that you have given me. This life and this opportunity.”

There was Alvis’ smile again. What a brilliant smile it was. “If anything, I trust Zanza will find his happiness here.”

His happiness, or some version of it. Yes. That was all they could do. For all the mortals who called this world home: find your happiness. Live and be full.

“I am done with this world,” Shulk finally declared. “I give my children to the world, and the world to my children. I would have my freedom.”

A breeze swept from across the waters, from a world once abandoned and caught in the stasis of memory. It smelled of salt and distance. It smelled of home.

“I would come along,” Alvis said, his voice a gentle song, “if you would have me.”

The last words of a god, between an end and a beginning, and most important of all, upon smiling lips: “Of course. I like your company, riddles and all.”

The world faded around them. In the place where they once were, the first free wind carried a farewell to a free people.

In a distant land, a human who was alone but not lonely felt the breeze against his face.

He turned and scoffed. Such matters no longer concerned him.

“Galea,” he called. His stalwart companion rejoined him at his side, nuzzling into his leg, and that was enough. “Let’s go.”

Familiar sights. Familiar people. An entirely new world, born from the will of a world that never needed gods. How could I have ever forgotten this?

Because of a happy accident, Creator.

Yes, Alvis, thank you for your input.

You are very welcome.

If this is what the world can do on its own, then I accept every criticism Zanza never levied my way. Neither he nor I had any idea what we were doing.

Nobody ever does. That is part of the magic.

Goodness. You’re in a good mood today.

I am.

Will you meet me at the beach?

You ask every day, and every day I remind you it is unnecessary.

“Certainly,” Shulk said, into the warmth of a gentle sun. “But it’s part of the magic, you see.”

Sand folded between his fingers. Behind him: Colony 9, rebuilding to match the tune of the new world. They were all there, and they were safe. Reyn, Fiora, Sharla, Dunban, Melia, and Riki. Once forgotten for the sake of a world that could not go on, once remembered for a god who was finally prepared to accept an end.

But now the future was ahead of them. No gods or duties constrained them.

From across the ocean, from some unknown land, a breeze carried whispered greetings. Find me, it laughed. Find me and win your future.

“The world will go together,” Alvis said. His smile faced the sun. “But between now and then, we have a great deal of work ahead of us.”

Shulk laughed and said nothing more.

Overhead, the clouds drifted onward. Morning would turn to dusk, and dusk to night, until the stars blinked awake. Under their eyes, the children of the world would sleep, and tomorrow would come.

It was enough. It would always be.