No Gods but Men

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The village celebrated the dying of the light. Drunken revelers lined Red Stick’s single dirt road, tribal boundaries eddied by the foot stamping skirl of whistle and hand drum. Despite the jovial mood, I knew better than to brave the red-gold light of the setting sun. The sight of me would remind them of what was to come, what they were working so hard to forget.

Narantuyaa.” My name flashed like brook trout amidst the murky babble of conversation. It meant sunbeam in the lowland dialect, but the villagers spoke it like a curse. Before Arigh had broken the Temple, they would’ve happily bound me to a stone at low tide—thus did the Cants of Light prescribe for witches. Perhaps at Piketown they still might, but Red Stick was far from the old provincial capital, and Temple doctrine had mostly given way to the practicalities of surviving the long night. There were horrors in the dark, terrible things that slipped through the frayed seams of our world to spread death and madness. When they came creeping into Red Stick, a witch was a fine thing to have around. In the light though, I was safe to hate.

Men, women, even children made warding signs as I passed, hands crossed and fingers splayed to mimic Heruar’s fan. They called me traitor, heretic, ignoring that I’d been taken by the Temple as a child—another virgin bride destined for the harem of a jealous and petty god. I’d been eighteen when I met Arigh, full of foolish notions collected from the few poems and chapbook romances that made it over the Temple’s walls. He’d been handsome and exotic, a sorcerer from the heart of the Old Empire, skilled in the ancient mysteries. More, he’d been someone I could talk to, someone I could touch. Heruar had seemed a distant god. There were stories, yes—floods, lightning, and the like—but my dalliance had seemed such a small thing. How could I have fathomed the pettiness of divinity?

I met the villagers’ contempt with a narrow-eyed scowl, muttering as if I were thinking of some curse to lay on them. I wasn’t, but they retreated nonetheless.

A muffled cheer came from town, fading into the warm peal of steel drums as dancers took to the street in anticipation of the hallowed spinsters who would lead the festival. But for a moment of weakness—well, more nine months of weakness —I might’ve been among them, basking in the sun’s faded glow.

My yurt lay just beyond the estuary, shielded from the view of my betters by a stand of gnarled poplar. I batted aside the tent flap, then paused. Someone had lit a fire in the battered copper pot, helping themselves to my small stock of dried lavender to cut the acrid smell of burning saltwillow.

The maze of bloodstained trigrams I’d inscribed on the tent poles should’ve warned me of an intruder. Another witch then, although I had no rivals and nothing worth stealing.

A woman sprawled in my single rude chair, booted feet propped upon her travel pack. Her face was concealed by a hood, but she wore leather pants and a wide-sleeved shirt laced tight over the bodice and drawn at the waist by a thick belt from which hung a sword and dagger, both curved in the old imperial style.

“What do you want?” I feigned nonchalance, hoping the shadows would conceal the surreptitious movement of my hands as I summoned a particularly nasty bone-shattering curse.

She leaned into the firelight, drawing back her hood to reveal severe, high-boned features, dusky skinned and thin-lipped with dark eyes that seemed to sparkle in the murky firelight. It was a face I knew well—twenty years ago, it could’ve been mine.

“Hello, Mother.” Lian affected an Imperial accent, vowels whetted to grating sharpness. She’d inherited her father’s flair for the dramatic.

“You’re back.”

She smiled. “I always come back.”

“I don’t have any money, and if you’re looking for someplace to hide—”

“I’m not in trouble.” Many had been taken in by Lian’s earnest tone, her wide, guileless eyes. I’d seen her wrap people with words deftly as a hunter snares prey, smiling and sincere right up until she slipped a dagger into their side. My daughter always lied best when she was in trouble.

“Get out.” I opened the tent flap and stepped aside.

“Please.” She slipped into the throaty lowland burr of the coastal marshes, hands stealing to the slight swell of her stomach. “I’m pregnant.”

I snorted.

“It’s true this time. The father is a smith out of Piketown, a good man. We—”

“—just need a little money to help set up a forge.” I didn’t even try to hide the bitter twist of my lips. “Or is it to pay a dowry so you can marry?”

She gave a wry nod. “Well yes, actually, but—”

“Spare me, Lian.” I glared at her, a litany of cruelties building behind my gritted teeth. She would take my money, my food, my love; promise me whatever she thought I wanted, pulling lies from the air casually as a spinner might draw thread from wool. Then, when things fell apart, she would run—just like always.

“I don’t want money.” Lian spread her hands. “Just your help.”

Something in me stared to unclench. She knew my weakness, was living proof of it.

Lian returned my stare calmly, her eyes like my mother’s, like mine. Had there been any hint of her father there I could have denied her, cast her into the swamp without a second thought, but Arigh’s gifts were writ upon her soul not her face—that was mine alone.

“Whatever it is, I won’t help.” I said, hating the tremble in my traitorous voice.

“The old Temple of Heruar, where you and Father—”

“Night-cursed ruins.” I looked away to conceal my sour frown at the memory of Arigh’s betrayal.

“How much was left behind when the temple fell? Relics, treasures, gold enough to see us through a thousand nights. It could be ours.”

“Madness. The dark—”

“Who better to brave the long night than a witch?”

“There may still be wards on the temple.”

“And who better to slip past them than a priestess?”

“No, I won’t risk my life on another of your gambles.”

“Oh, your life, I’d forgotten.” Lian moved around the tent, one hand trailing along the mud-spattered felt as her voice flattened into the rhythms of poetry. “So is the farmer wedded to the plow, the holy to the word, but tilled fields cannot bind hearts, nor walls contain them.”

I squeezed my eyes shut rather than let her see the tears in them. Lian couldn’t have known her father had used those same words to tempt me from my cloister. Even after all these years his voice slipped like a chill wind through my thoughts, reminding me my life was but a cage. How many stolen evenings had we spent below the spreading shore pine and tamarack, wrapped in his cloak, discussing life, poetry, the world beyond Temple. He’d told me stories of High Chorumal, the cradle of the Old Empire, destroyed by the hubris of those who would bind gods to the will of men. He spoke of low, river valleys; of lakes filled with horses that could breathe air or water; of high, cold mountains inhabited by people who worshipped clouds and raised strange, twisted scaffolds of bone and sinew so their dead might reach the sky. He’d made the world seem so strange, so wonderful.

I’d thought Lian had inherited Arigh’s ambition, when really she was burdened with mine. For all my faults, I’d always tried to do right by her, could I do any less for my grandchild?

“I’ll need time to prepare.” I pressed a hand to my forehead, eyes squeezed shut as if to shut out my foolishness.

“Thank you.” Lian embraced me and I could feel the press of her belly through my thin robes. The baby gave a little kick, already struggling to reach a world that didn’t care whether it lived or died.

A new life, a new mistake.

The forest was different in the dark, the usual chorus of frogs and fiddlebugs replaced by the expectant hush of a predator ready to pounce. Cattails and skunk cabbage left greasy stains on our cloaks, drawn tight against a musty breeze that was somehow both humid and icy. The stars were barely visible in the deepening gloom. I remembered trying to teach Lian to navigate by them, back when she’d wanted to be a sea captain, but her fancies had always been like arrows shot high and at random, forgotten before they could ever hit ground.

“They say there’s fewer every time.” She began to draw her sword, then let it slide back into the sheath with a rasp that set my teeth on edge.

“What?”

“The stars—they say more disappear every night.” Lian’s sword rasped again. “I wonder where they go.”

“I wouldn’t know.”

“Do you think the darkness has gods as well?” Rasp. Click.

“Will you stop that?”

“Stop what?” She did it again.

I glared at her scabbarded sword.

“It relaxes me.” She frowned, expression thoughtful, then her sword rasped again.

“Heruar’s balls, girl!” I turned on her. “I should curse—”

“There’s something out there.” She’d dropped into a wary half-crouch, blade glinting in the torchlight.

Beyond her, the darkness seethed.

Loose and liquid, the creature rose into the torchlight. Twice Lian’s height, its body was a knot of long, boneless limbs writhing over and around each other like a nest of snakes. Dusky spirals coiled and uncoiled, the creature’s twisting outline lost like smoke against a stormy sky. It had no head, just a wide gaping mouth at its center, ragged and toothless. Its scream was tortured metal. Mouthless, it rose in terrible chorus, a rhythmic, shrieking wail that seemed to mimic the cadences of speech.

I swear I heard it call my name.

I watched, paralyzed as Lian’s sword flashed out to sever one of the creature’s thick, muscular limbs. It writhed after her, lashing the ground with wild fury. Although the strikes seemed uncoordinated, there were so many Lian was hard-pressed. Steel met flesh with a wet smack as she parried a writhing limb, the force of the blow sending her staggering back. She cast one harried glance at me, then ran.

Just like she always did.

Anger cut through the panicked snarl of my thoughts. I considered sending a hex winging after my faithless daughter, but the creature was more dangerous. Curses spilled from my lips, weak but plentiful. My magic seemed to catch the creature’s attention and it flopped toward me. I stammered through my meager repertoire, striking the thing with fever, blindness, even sour milk. I might as well have been cursing the sea.

The creature loomed above me, serpentine limbs splayed like the fingers of a great inhuman hand. What I’d thought was a wet, gaping maw at its center was actually just a hole in the air. The limbs didn’t surround it; they came from it.

Dully, I raised my torch to illuminate the carpet of long wormlike bodies on the other side, each fighting to slither through the tiny gap. There were more beyond, a vast plain churning with the things, the empty sky above lit by the glow of distant flames. The creature was not one thing, but many, tearing at one another as they struggled to get out.

I’d seen something like this before, back in the Temple. I could almost hear Arigh’s triumphant shout as his sorceries tore the Heruar’s golden vault asunder while the drill abbesses looked on, powerless to intervene. I’d given him our secrets, trading the ancient mysteries of our order for a fistful of lies. Had Arigh known what darkness his desecration would unleash? Had he cared?

The steel-on-steel screech came again, hooked claws gouging at the ground in a vain attempt to find purchase. The creatures cared nothing for us, had only been reacting to Lian and my attacks. If I just remained still and Lian stayed—

“Mother, run!” My daughter launched herself at the thing. The creature flailed at her, and a lashing claw opened a long gash on Lian’s arm. She shifted her grip to hack at it two-handed, but one of the looping tentacles sent her skidding back.

“Stay still!” I tried not to flinch as talons passed close enough to stir the hair on my head. “It doesn’t want us!”

Lian tensed as the thing thrashed toward her.

“For once in your life, listen to me!”

She glared, but didn’t move.

The creature made a ragged circuit of the clearing, then crashed into the darkness.

I waited a slow hundred count before nodding to Lian. We moved off, taking care to tread lightly.

“How did you know?” she asked after we’d traveled some distance.

“Magic,” I lied.

“Sorry I ran.” Lian gave a tentative half-smile.

I returned it, if a bit awkwardly. “You’re a fool, but thanks for coming back for me.”

She nudged me, grinning. “I always come back.”

Lian hissed as I pressed the compress to her wound.

“It burns.”

“That’s how you know it’s working.” I bound her arm with strips of linen, trying to swallow my grin. I’d used more nettles that were necessary. Lian had a baby to think about; maybe memory of the pain would give her pause next time she decided to do something stupid.

We stood to pick our way past the roots of a stand of swamp willow, gnawing on smoked salmon and hardcakes. To our right, the estuary gurgled seaward. I didn’t recognize the surroundings, but that was to be expected. Nothing lasted long in a tide marsh.

“Is this where Father died?”

Lian’s question startled me, and I looked around. There was milkweed growing through the cracked flagstones, and a ragged fringe of bottlebrush crowding the murky water of the reflecting pool, but this was the plaza where I’d first met Arigh. He’d been among those begging for alms, dressed in patched, woolen robes of a coastal trader, but set apart by his pale eyes, beardless cheeks, and long, braided queue. I couldn’t believe the drill abbesses had let him into town—foreigners were always suspect—but they’d passed him by with barely a glance. That, more than anything, should’ve made me wary.

Arigh had smiled as our fingers met over a crust of old bread, his grin quiet, tentative, and a little bit sad. I wonder now if he’d tried it on every novice who crossed his path, or if I’d been his target from the beginning.

“Was it here?” Lian asked again.

“No.” My reply was the rattle of a dying crow.

Rasp. Click.

“You never told me what happened,” she said.

I pressed my lips together, afraid of what might spill out. How could I tell her about the screams that had chased me from the temple, and the shame of watching my friends unwound into skeins of bloody thread. All by the throng of clicking, crawling monstrosities that had burst from the hole Arigh had torn in the universe when Heruar finally came to claim what was his.

“We should go,” I said.

Lian cast an irritated glance over her shoulder, then nodded.

The temple’s great iron-and-bronze doors were scabbed with rust. Lichen skirted much of the gate, the vague outline of protective filigree just visible beneath. Lian approached, but stopped when I raised my hand.

“Wards.” I pointed to the lichen around the gate, which shifted as if something crawled beneath it. I scraped some away to reveal the gold and copper wire set into the stones. The filigree had slithered near the edge, bunching like a coiled snake in preparation to cut my daughter to ribbons.

I bowed my head, feeling doubly a traitor as I pressed a hand to the slick stone of the wall. The Cants came as if it had been days rather than decades since I last spoke them. Gold and silver threads crawled up my arm, and for a tired, resigned moment, I hoped they would take me. But they only brushed across my skin before withdrawing back into the stone.

With a shower of rust, the gates creaked open.

At my nod, Lian drew her sword and crept forward, but no razored wires leapt from the gate.

My feet carried me down the old novice paths, threading moss-covered pillars, and halls empty of even the echoes of lavender and sandalwood incense. Each step churned up more I’d thought forgotten—hours spent on my knees, polishing tiles that were now little more than rubble; the small alcove where I and countless other novices had hidden to listen to the priestesses sing the Cants of Dawn. The memories came like knives drawn across my flesh, whetted with the knowledge I had helped cause this ruin.

Great scars marred the walls, holes where stone had run like water with the heat of Heruar’s fury. The god had been too bright to look upon, but his outraged bellows had shaken mortar from the ceiling. I remember crying out, not for mercy, but forgiveness. At the time, he’d seemed a force of nature, powerful and unquestionable. Now, all I could picture was a child throwing a tantrum when his toys were taken away.

What manner of god would treat his faithful so cruelly? Who could worship such a thing? Unbidden, my thoughts filled with the image of the barren, lightless place I’d seen at the center of the many-limbed thing.

If there were gods of the night, perhaps it was kinder of them not to feign humanity.

A worn flight of stairs led down to the garden. As a child, I’d played among the greenery—games of blindcatch and pâque pâque with the other novices, our wild shrieks daring the displeasure of the older nuns.

I had expected to see bones, armor, some evidence of those who had been at the Temple when Heruar and Arigh tore it apart, but there was nothing.

The garden was even empty of trees, the ground covered by a skin of oily muck. The Temple loomed above the destruction, its high steeple pointed heavenward like an accusatory finger. Once, it had been constructed of gleaming marble shot through with veins of gold. Now its exterior was dark as a false promise, smooth and yet somehow possessed of an unsettling irregularity. Walls that had risen in precisely measured cubit now canted at brooding angles, lending the whole structure a hunched and predatory look.

I swallowed against the sudden dryness in my throat. “That isn’t Heruar’s Temple.”

“What does it matter? We’re here to rob the thing, not pray to it.” Lian waded into the sucking mud.

I conceded with a reluctant nod, wincing as the cold, oily muck came up over the tops of my boots. As we drew closer to the Temple, I realized what I’d thought to be basalt was actually smoky glass. Although it reflected nothing, somehow I could see shapes below the surface—strange, liquid figures that pulled at the eye, hovering just beyond the edge of comprehension.

The wooden doors were carved to resemble a jumble of human bodies, limbs intertwined, their faces relaxed in death. My stomach tightened as I recognized some of them.

“Help me with this.” Lian sheathed her sword to put her hands on the thigh of the drill abbess who’d taught me how to read.

I grasped a protruding arm, its owner thankfully buried deep within the mass. The flesh was hard but warm to the touch. Grimacing, we pushed, and the door ground open.

Stepping inside was like slipping into a pool of oil. The air clung to me, the damp soaking through my robes to coat my skin in a thin film of grease. Our torches burned low and sickly, the normal orange-red glow shot through with streaks of bilious green.

The room was long and columned, a moldering carpet running between rows of benches. Faded tapestries surrounded a raised dais made of the same scorched glass as the outside, unmarred by joint or mortar, but rippling with indistinct shapes. Upon it sat a golden idol, vaguely humanoid, but stooped and twisted. It was of a man on his knees, arms raised as if in supplication, an agonized expression on his perfect face.

We climbed the stone stairs to the dais. Slippery with moss, they were set at an odd angle and just a bit too long, as if not meant for a human gait.

Lian regarded the idol. “Is that—?”

“Heruar.”

“A cruel and petty god for a cruel and petty world.” The words were muffled, as if spoken through layers of cotton wadding. Even so, I recognized the voice.

“Arigh?”

“I was. Now, I am almost a god.” Shadows coalesced behind the altar, taking on the shape of a man, hands resting on the shoulders of the golden idol. All around, the figures within the walls began to shift and move, becoming more distinct, more separate from the stone that housed them. I caught glimpses of grasping claws, glittering eyes, and the coils of long, segmented bodies winding into shadow.

My gaze slipped back to the idol, to Arigh. I’d seen him die, flesh boiled away even as he sought to bind Heruar in chains of night. Had I been wrong? Had he succeeded?

“Lian, we have to—”

She brushed past me. “You promised me gold, father.”

“Gold, and more.” His smile was a starless sky. “You did well to bring her to me.”

“Sorry, mother,” I could only gape as Lian swaggered toward Arigh, hands resting smugly on the pommels of her sword and dagger. “I’ve got a baby to think of.”

My throat felt tight, my tongue dry as old driftwood. “I don’t understand.”

“How could you?” Arigh cocked his head. “I have walked the shores of far Oriab, traded tales with godlings in the night markets of Celephaïs, wrestled a shard from the nameless rock and carried it here to seed. Soon I will rise, not golden, but vast as those who move beyond the stars, my Empire will defy comprehension. I have parted tides of darkness, shattered the barriers between worlds, and yet I cannot take the final step, for I too am bound, to this place, to you, Naran.”

I winced. The last time he had called me that we’d been laying in tall grass, arms around each other, his face so close to mine I could feel his breath on my lips.

“As you were a path to Heruar, you have now become one to me.” He raised a hand. “And that I cannot allow.”

Claws clicked on the stairs behind me. I didn’t turn, there was no point. I looked to Lian, now just a few steps from Arigh. I don’t know what I expected to see in her face, conceit, satisfaction, greed, anything but wide-eyed earnestness.

“Father.”

“Yes, my child.”

Through the pall of fear, I found myself wondering if Arigh had always been this insufferable.

“If you’re to be a god, you’ll need a high priestess.” She knelt before him.

“Daughter.” Arigh raised a hand from the idol to rest it upon her shoulder.

“I love you.”

He smiled. “Love is a fool’s—”

Lian lunged, smile never wavering as she ran her father through.

With a shriek, Arigh hurled her away. She stumbled from the dais, sword clattering behind.

Golden light spilled from Arigh’s wound, casting the temple in harsh relief. He pointed at Lian, his scream almost inarticulate with rage.

Lian snatched up her blade and rose just in time to meet the first of the creatures. I caught a flash of dark chitin and large, luminous eyes before she cut it down. More skittered from the shadows, mouths wide, ragged claws twitching. Lian backed up the stairs, sweeping her sword in wide, looping arcs. The creatures appeared to give no thought to the blade, climbing over the bodies of their dying comrades in a hissing, spitting mass.

Something swept my feet from under me. My head rebounded from the tile, bright colors obscuring my vision. I rolled on my back to see Arigh on his feet, and hissed a curse at him.

“My old hexes?” He waved as if dispelling a bad odor. “Surely after all these years you’ve come up with something new?”

“I was a little busy raising a child.” I aimed a kick at his knee and was gratified to see him stagger back a step, hands pressed to his wound. Sunlight bled between his fingers, the skin of his face and hands losing its ebon tone.

I scrambled to my feet, casting an anxious look down the stairs. Lian was bleeding, her face a mask of concentration as she hacked at the churning press.

“They won’t kill her.” Arigh’s smile dripped with cruel promise. “No, your daughter will suffer—”

I drove my fist into his wound.

Arigh stumbled toward the altar, hands outstretched. I followed, kicking and punching, my eyes watering from the noonday glare. Thin lines of light crawled across Arigh’s hands and up his neck, veins of glowing gold pulsing just beneath his skin. His flesh had taken on the coppery hue I remembered, the man behind the shadow finally peeking through. He pawed for the statue of Heruar, but I slapped his hand away.

My hands found his throat, hot as a fistful of coals. I screwed my eyes shut against the glare, Arigh’s features picked out like a fresh brand against my darkening vision. The smell of scorched flesh made me gag, but I held on, spitting curses into the brightness as I bore down.

His punch snapped my head back, and I grimaced at the taste of blood. More blows rained down, buffeting me like waves. My world narrowed to a single point, even the blistering agony of my hands receded to a dull buzz. Eventually, the brightness dimmed enough I could open my eyes.

His flesh had taken on the waxy hue of a paper lantern, the light that had made a shadow of him guttering to almost nothing. Arigh pawed at me, each blow weaker than the last. I only grit my teeth and squeezed, our faces close as lovers. His lips brushed my cheek, trying to form words, but I’d long ago ceased caring what he had to say. I held on for what seemed an eternity even after he’d gone limp, willing my tired grip tighter and tighter.

Lian’s panicked shout came as if from the end of a long tunnel. The pain came rushing back, the weight of bruises, burns, and broken bones almost bearing me to the floor. I turned, any hope I had of Arigh’s creatures going the way of their master dashed as I beheld the tempest below. If anything, his death had unleashed them.

Lian swung her sword in tired arcs, spattering the steps with dark blood. I could see the strain in her face, the exhaustion in every unsure step she retreated up the stairs. I caught my breath, gaze slipping to the idol. Heruar was here. If I destroyed his prison, he would—

Probably kill us all.

I laid a hand on the idol, wincing at its warmth on my scorched flesh. Shadow crept over my fingers, and I sighed as power filled my body, knitting bones and cooling burns.

The world shrunk, infinite depth reduced to the forced perspective of a painting. I felt I could poke my finger through the canvas, burning holes as Arigh had done. There were things in the darkness beyond, vast and uncaring, so limitless in scope the very conception of divinity buckled beneath their slightest movement. I could creep among them, shielded by insignificance—watch, learn, change, and return a god in my own right.

For a moment, I was tempted, but only for a moment.

I pulled my hand back with a gasp, shadow clinging to it like a second skin. I extended it to the screeching mob. There was a flash of light, the silence that followed broken only by Lian’s labored breaths and the soft ping of cooling metal.

I closed my fingers around the last small kernel of power I’d taken from Heruar and brought my hand to my mouth. I felt it fill me, tiny, but enough to suit my needs.

“Quite a display.” Lian limped onto the landing.

“I have my moments.”

She eyed the idol. “Heruar’s in there?”

I nodded.

“Don’t suppose he’d be grateful to be free?”

My pained wince was answer enough.

“I suppose we’ve managed well enough without him.” She gave a wistful sigh. “All that gold, though.”

“Did you plan this all along?” I moved beside her, slipping my arm around her waist to support her weight.

She laid her head on my shoulder. “Something like that.”

“Your father,” I said as the trembling slowly left my limbs.

“That old bastard? He came to me in a dream.” Lian’s cough became a rasping chuckle. “I’ve never had a father before, what’s the point of starting now?”

I let the tiniest bit of power flow into her. She stiffened, then relaxed. I could feel the life growing inside her, hoping, dreaming, struggling to reach this heartless world. A mistake, but a good one.

“Your baby,” I asked. “There’s no smith in Piketown, is there?”

Lian laughed, bright and clear.

“Who is the father?”

“Does it matter?”

I held her tighter, breathing in the steel and leather smell of her hair, then looked at Arigh’s crumpled body, wisps of smoke still rising from his sun bleached robes. For the first time in a very long time, I felt like everything was going to be alright.

“No, I don’t suppose it does.”

end article

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Evan Dicken

About Evan Dicken

Evan Dicken's fiction has most recently appeared in: Analog, Starship Sofa, and Autumn Cthulhu, and he has stories forthcoming from publishers such as: Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, and Chaosium. Feel free to visit him at: www.evandicken.com.