"He's here."

"Who? – Oh, him. You need to find a less painful way to call back your favourites."

"How was that painful? He just passed through the Veil, and now he's here. Besides, you know they're really glad when it comes. Gently into the good night and all that."

"Yes, but this makes it, what? The forty-seventh time? Forty-seven universes, and in each of them he ends up dying for a foolish godson with delusions of grandeur."

"He's still alive in the other eighty-eight, isn't he? Getting mobbed by fangirls in half of them. Becoming a multiverse voyager in some, even."

"You mean like now?"

"Well, you know what I mean. Besides, this is all in my head."

"'But what makes that any less real', I suppose you'll be quoting at me? Honey, stop pulling the strings of fate. Put the mortal back and let him rest."

"…Fine. I know where he should go. But really, what's the point of the gods if they can't meddle in mortal lives now and again?"






Thousands of years ago, when mankind was young, they believed in gods. The sun rose, the moon shifted, the tides fell, the seasons changed, and all of these were beyond comprehension. The material world collided with the intangible, the universe touched against its parallels, and this too was beyond understanding. Yet among ancient men there arose a few who were unafraid. They sought, they wondered, and some of them found an answer within themselves.

In their uncomplicated way they thought of gods. The things they could not explain, they were the work of beings beyond humans. And in truth some of them were. But the "gods" were not the perfect, all-knowing, all-powerful beings that they were thought to be. They were simply… more.

There are tales, for example, of powerful shamans called mog-ur, who could call upon the spirit realm for aid in the material realm, and whose awareness could travel along the line of time – back to the beginning, or onward to the future. There are tales, too, of ancient kings and queens in the ancient land of Mesopotamia, who suffered violent deaths before being joined with spirits, allowing them great power and immortality in exchange for their ability to walk in the sun. There were many, many stories of men and women who could change their form, or who were so adept at what they did – weaving, perhaps, or playing the lyre, or making things grow, or fighting, or planning wars – that they became known as divinities. Still there were others who found that they could harness energies that other people could not, and could manipulate these in ways that mimicked the larger scale of the world: people who could wield lightning, or stem the tides, or bring forth darkness like that of the night. And these, too, were called the gods, and though they walked the same paths that others did it was said of them that when nobody was there to see, they could enter worlds unlike our own.

Perhaps they could. Perhaps. If they did, none have returned to tell the tales.

Thousands of years ago, when man was still young, in the land that would someday call itself China, there were just such… higher beings. One of them could take the form of a gigantic white-furred snow tiger, and wielded great ability to use wind. Another could take the form of a great serpent-headed turtle, green flesh and black scales, and could call up great banks of cloud. Two took the forms of dragons, with a powerful body like a snake, fearsome toothy jaw like a crocodile, thick pearlescent scales and serrated spines as armour all over his body, eyes like living jewels, tail tufted like a lion's, face whiskered like a carp's, head horned like a stag's and four claws ending in talons like a hawk's; the one of blue could call upon the rain, while the one of golden yellow could move mountains. Still two more, siblings perhaps, took the form of large birds, with long wing- and tail-feathers like tatters of flame, save one was red and the other dark as night; each could control the treacherous tool of fire. And another took the form of a big brown bruin, shaggy fur and large soft-padded paws, and had great skill with all plants that grew. They were worshipped, and around each grew both a tribe and a cult following, and in time they became a legend. The legend spread and mixed, and changed, and reached even neighbouring countries; and the people endured, until…

One day, in what modern man would call the year ? (2333? ) BCE, descendants of the original beings came together under a single banner. Their animal forms remained, yet their interests had realigned.

Their leader was the Emperor, and he had the ability to transform into a golden dragon. His most trusted adviser was a priestess who could change into a brown bear. His army was led by a man who could turn into a water-dragon, who led the lances and cavalry, and a woman who could turn into a fire-bird, who led the assassins and the archers; the architect who built his castle was a man who could turn into a giant turtle; while his chief weapon-smith was a woman who could turn into a snow tiger. Dragon, bird, turtle and tiger all had their assistants, seven each, who aided them in their work and kept them from harm, and each group had their specialties.