percevale

There are seventeen temples in the city of Senbeel. Inside each temple burns the sacred fire, and the great-great-grandsons and daughters of the god of the temple guard it.

It was long ago that the gods came upon Senbeel, their screaming hurricane breath and dragonfly-wings and star-eater mouths wrapped up in flesh. (It was not mortal flesh, still- it was made from the air and coal-smoke and it burned with that coldest, palest fire. The gods of Senbeel would have been empty, if you cut them open, in the way that the space between stars is empty.) And so the gods had their children and their grandchildren, and then they grew bored of the world of mortals and followed the bridge of twisted space back to their own world, where thought and dream touch the borders of Making.

The elders of Senbeel can make a thin echo of that bridge of warping sky, and send a man across the rift to the world of the gods, and the great sages and scholars who are bold of heart often dare to venture there. Few return, their eyes shattered in their sockets and the soft insides of their skulls emptied out with that cold white flame.

But- regardless. This is a story of what happened in the fourteenth temple, in the days when the white walls of the temple were carved with the holy name of the god Ashtekarn. The spring in the temple had run thick and black for three days….

"It is good the other temples have opened their water to us," says Cortash, the oldest of the guardians. Her hair is shot with white, her eyes large and grey. "Or we'd have nothing left for the rituals." She knits her hands together, the dusky skin rough with age and the palms callused with the use of sword and blade.

The captain of the guard is a young man, his hair raven-black and his skin copper and shining. He folds his arms across his chest as he leans against the stone wall within the sanctum of the guardians. "The sacred fire still burns," he says, fierce-voiced and with his hawk-nosed head held high. "And if the fire is fed by the breath of Ashtekarn, She cannot have left us. So why, then, soothsayer, does the spring run black?" This last is shot at a young woman in a white robe, her neck circled by a rope of heavy bronze and gold medallions. In one hand she holds a knife of bronze.

Sashai the Soothsayer shakes her head, her brown-bronze hair falling down across the angles of her young face. Just barely into adulthood. Her arms are soft, and so are her hands, but her fingernails are short and there is blood under them. "Ser Vara. The blood is not silent, but the words are strange," she says. "Let the people sing our legend, and I will search again for Her."

Four guardians in the inner sanctum of the Fourteenth Temple. The Captain, the Elder, the Soothsayer. The Fire-Keeper, Suvakri, says nothing. Their eyes are white as the flame of the gods, and as the flame which burns in the shallow bowl. A veil obscures the lower half of their face, dyed blue as the evening sky with indigo and seashells from the pools that lie below the Second Temple.

"And there is the sickness," Sashai murmurs.

"There is the sickness," says Vara, the Captain.

Cortash spreads her gnarled hands. "The sickness has killed no one. It is from the springwater, most certainly, and most likely holy Ashtekarn has turned the waters black to warn us." (Thus far, it is only the children of the Fourteenth Temple who have been eaten with the fever-sickness, and the mingled pain of nausea and hunger it brings with it to chew on your gut. Perhaps it is only the water.) "Let us go out, and let the people sing our legend while you pour the holy water upon the steps."

The stars stood in silence watching,
Tossed on high by wind and wing-beat.

They stand on the steps, and the temple-warriors flank the steps with their shining spears held high. The people below sing, against the sickness and the black water. Vara looks over them, and he is at peace. It is his people who are here, his family beneath the wing of Ashtekarn, the voice of blue fire. The outside of the temple shines as it ever does, with tiles of white and blue glass.

Sashai raises a pitcher and pours it upon the steps, and the purified water flashes in the sunlight and steams against the heated stone. The hem of her white dress is sodden. "Sing," she cries out to the people, her voice many-layered. Their voices seem not so strong as usual, as they chant the ancient songs, and Vara steps forward and throws his proud head back, hair flowing down his back as his voice joins the choir.

Ashtekarn rose and shone among them,
She the god of voice and fire.
Laughing Lady of the heavens.

A tremor shakes the world.

There is a high cry, and Cortash falls to her knees from where she was singing. Vara rushes over, though Sashai is too deep in the song-dream to even hear the wail. "What is it?" he asks, but he can tell already from the old woman's sightless eyes and the way she clutches at her stomach that the sickness has come upon her. "Did you drink from the fountain?"

She shakes her head, fumbling blindly for his arm to rise to her feet. A howling scream has broken out somewhere in the crowd, a searing and inhuman noise of lamentation. More and more voices pick it up, and Sashai staggers back from the steam and the water as the song is broken.

"Sing, people of Ashtekarn," Vara shouts, his commander's voice ringing over the crying of the people. Even as he does so, his vision blurs. Shaking, the way the sky is shaking. The populace begins to feed upon each other. Knives are drawn. Vara presses the back of his hand to his head, staggering backwards to fall against the glimmering blue mosaic wall. He sees a child in the crowd lapping from a pool of spilled blood, blood upon the ground like the blackness that wells from the holy fountain. "Soothsayer, what has come upon them?"

Sashai stands, in her soaking white dress, with her medallions clinking around her throat and her wrists. She stands like a young tree against the wind, swaying with the changing of the world but with her shoulders back and straight and her face turned forward blindly. Coils of steam still linger around her, longer than any steam should, and her bronzed hair floats in the air as though she were underwater. "I do not understand the words," she wails, though it is not to him. "The words are only of destruction!"

The captain calls his guards to him, and only a few reply. "Where are we?" asks one of them. "Whose temple is this, that stands so empty?"

The people swarm up over the steps, fighting with each other. Some of them break free from the crowd, rushing into the temple and plunging knee-deep into the pool of black water below the holy fountain. Whose holy fountain? The fountain of the great god-

"This is the Fourteenth Temple," snaps Vara, who cannot remember the name of his god, who cannot remember the name of his great mother, the voice of blue fire, the one who is devoured upon the sharp rocks of Koralkan, the one who screams forever against his- what? The dead god. The god is dead. The god is bleeding and consumed and it is the offal that bleeds darkly from the spring.

Again he presses his hand to his head, blinking to clear his vision. "You three," he says. "Keep the people out of that fountain. I go to speak with the Fire-Keeper." He runs inside, leaping over a child who bleeds from the mouth, who scrabbles on the ground for food. The captain has nothing that will fill its hunger.

"Fire-Keeper," he cries as he throws open the door to the sanctum. "The god is dead-"

The fire still burns.

Suvakri the Fire-Keeper hunches over it, their veil removed to show their burn-scarred face. They look up at him, eyes shining with unshed tears, and in the stark light of the white flame the shadows are oh so terrible. "It is something else, now, whose breath feeds the fire," they whisper. A sound just able to be heard above the screaming. "The god of the Fourteenth Temple is and always has been slain."

"The gods of Senbeel cannot be slain," says Vara. "They don't even have bodies."

"Not here," says Suvakri, bowed. "The night is fallen on the Fourteenth Temple. There will be no morning."

"There will be a morning," the Captain retorts.

The Elder is torn apart on the outer steps, and the Soothsayer stands upright and slender in the middle of the storm, her mind caught in madness. The Fire-Keeper weeps into the flame. Vara the Captain draws his sword, forged in the Thirteenth Temple, the temple of Mbai the smith-god. The blade is made of watered steel, and so pale as to look nearly white in the dancing shadows.

"You can open the twisted bridge. And take me to the dream-realm of the gods." His eyes gleam. "I will slay the thing which has destroyed our god."

"It will change nothing."

"I will have my vengeance."

The Fire-Keeper sighs, and they pass their hands into the flame. "Sit," they say. And the Captain sits crosslegged on the floor, and looks up at the painted ceiling. The places which once had the name of the god have been twisted into abstract lines of gold and white, patterns which spiral ever smaller.

With a great churning of air and earth and a sudden pain which spikes through Vara's temples, the bridge is opened.

The sanctum is here in reflection on the other side of the bridge, but it is of black stone, polished to a mirrorlike shine. Vara's reflection is shattered into eternity, and it hurts. The stone moves, and ripples, and Vara sees it is a snake, or perhaps a great wolf with a smooth hide like a beetle's carapace, and it opens its great mouth and smiles and between those world-render teeth, each one as real and as fleeting as a strike of lightning, Vara sees the name of his god who is dead and devoured for the ambition of the wolf

"I am Vara, the Captain of the Fourteenth Temple," he says, and raises up his sword. The wolf-head laughs, and the laughter flays him with long strokes that bite in places down to the bone. And his bones are made of teeth.

"There is no temple but my temple," snarls the beast. Its shining skin bubbles with eyes. Vara rots and dies and is remade. "I came upon your god while she was sleeping, and there is nothing left."

Vara's hand tightens around the leather-wrapped hilt of his sword, and he strikes upwards. And somehow, to some facet of the murderous beast which has slain his god, he strikes true. He screams, and the wolf tosses its head back and throws him through all of space and through the newborn stars.

As he spins and screams above the wheel of the world, the beast bounds after him. He strikes again. It recoils, claws as long as galaxy-arms striking for him. Vara catches it by the tail and drags it through the bridge and into the temple once again.

He strikes at the creature as they fall through the bridge, through the swirling color and fire, and the two of them are lying on the floor of the sanctum, and the death-throes of the wolf strike apart one wall and send white and blue tiles falling like rain. A rain which sounds of bells. Vara had thought it would bleed.

"It is dead," murmurs Suvakri, standing over the wreck. Hazily, Vara looks up.

"I had thought it would be harder," he says, but his voice is wrong. And the air is wrong. He gags and clutches at his throat, expecting it to crumble apart, but his fingers meet only flesh. "I had thought it would bleed." The marks of his sword are in its gleaming hide, over and over.

"You smote it through the head."

The Fire-Keeper raises their head, slowly. In their hands they hold the shallow bowl, which was once filled with the ever-burning divine fire. It is empty now, and cold- the inside streaked here and there with the traces of black water. Outside, the screaming has stopped. It is replaced with the sounds of several people sobbing softly, and someone beating a fist against the sanctum doors. "What shall we tell the people, Captain of the Godless Temple?"

Vara saw the name of his dead god in the mouth of the beast. His head feels fit to split apart, and his limbs should be running down through the stone of the floor. It is not real enough. But he knows the name- "Tell them," he says, hoarsely, "Tell them the god Ashtekar is dead."

And he falls atop the body of the great black god-eater wolf.

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