“Do we really need to go see that old, wet blanket?” Dare complained, not for the first time since leaving camp.
Our footfalls made no noise as we ran down the dirt, then cobbled streets. Everything was built better the closer you got to the palace. The cobblestones smoothed out, and the design of the houses was grander and increasingly spaced out. The number of guards went up, too.
“Mother said it would help us figure out who the man with the silver eyes is,” I replied, also not for the first time.
The lamplight cast a ruddy orange glow on us and everything we passed. The magefire lamps were only in the wealthier areas. Novice fire mages went out into the city, and with a snap of a finger they lit the lamps. Closer to where we lived they still used oil lamps. The danger of an accidental fire was higher with them. I preferred the soft yellow glow, almost like good butter, of the oil lamps over the harsh orange of the magefire.
Dare scoffed. “He let you go, didn’t he? I say we leave well enough alone, and no trouble will come our way.”
I frowned. It was true, he let me go, but it seemed conditional. Like he was waiting on something before coming back and having his Devourer eat me. “Your determination has not yet been made…” His chilling words were brittle and sharp in my mind, as though they could cut me simply by thinking them. I shuddered. Dare was wrong. He may have let me be, but there was an invisible guillotine hovering over my neck. All our necks.
I didn’t reply this time, and Dare fell into a grudging silence. Though his construct was meant to defy authority and bend the rules, there was a limit. When four of the five of us made up our mind about something, he had to go along even if he didn’t agree with it. It wasn’t that he wanted to leave me to be eaten by a Devourer because he didn’t care, he just didn’t want to go to Kairon’s.
Something was…off when we got to Kairon’s shrine. Two guards were outside the wrought-iron gate. Beyond that patrols ranged the grounds, and yet more guards were posted at the entrance to the shrine’s main building.
Dare and I exchanged raised eyebrows.
“Well, Mister High and Mighty seems worried about something.” He stood with his hands on his hips as he took in the sight. “I’ve never seen so many totems.”
He was right. The guards were totems, not humans, and there were more posted here than I’d seen before in the entire city, combined. Totems were made of various materials, depending on what’s handy: wood, metal, stone. They could be formed into anything, like animals and giants. Usually, though, they were human-shaped, above average human height, and a little wider. The bigger the totem, the more power it took to maintain it. What struck me was the sheer number of totems, and how well they were constructed and maintained. To have this many, operating independently, and made of stone? I couldn’t conjure this much power if I had fifty years to gather it.
We slowly approached the gate. We didn’t know what the totems’ orders were. Rather than being skewered or chopped in two by the wicked sharp halberds, we were cautious. The weapons weren’t made of stone like them. The poles were a sturdy wood, and the blades were metal and glowing a strange blue. Like when lightning hits the ocean. Their heads were nothing more than chiseled, solid stone helmets. It matched the rest of them, as though they were armored in solid stone.
“Identify yourself,” one of the totems said. It was difficult to tell which. Totems always had this strange echoing rasp, and no faces or mouths that moved while they talked.
“We are Play and Prank from Haven, and we wish to speak with Kairon,” I replied, my voice only a little wobbly. I didn’t know what the weapons were enchanted with, but I imagined it wouldn’t do me any good to find out.
Most weapons couldn’t kill gods. Devourers could, of course. Then there were special magics that could do it, but only other gods possessed such power. I didn’t know if Kairon had the halberds forged to kill gods. The need to do so was rare, but by the looks of the weapons, Kairon was ready for anything. Just in case.
There was a long pause, and I had to wonder if totems could think. It was a silly thought, since totems could only follow orders. Sure, these ones could probably do a wide range of actions, but only what was given to them by their creator. Anything outside those bounds, like authorizing people to go into the shrine, they would not do.
Just when I started to think we should hightail it out of there before we lost our heads, the totems rumbled as the rocks ground together when they moved from in front of the gate.
“Access granted. Do not leave the path. Go straight to the shrine building.”
The gate swung open on silent hinges. Dare and I made our way past them, pace quick and shoulders tight.
“Thank you,” I managed to say, voice breathless with fear as passed. Then Dare laughed at me, and I almost slapped my forehead. Totems don’t usually get manners put into their understanding. It would be like thanking a building for standing there.
“You are welcome,” one of them replied.
Shock jolted through me as though I was hit over the head by a club, and I started at the response. My mouth hung open, and I hadn’t realized I’d stopped walking until Dare pulled on my arm.
“Come on, Jolly,” he urged. When I stumbled as he pulled me off balance, the movement got my brain working again.
“Did it…?” I couldn’t even finish the question.
“Yeah, it did,” he said, his thoughts darkening his face. “For him to make them that sentient–” he stopped mid-sentence, not sure where to go with it, and shook his head.
“Then worried doesn’t even begin to cover how he’s feeling. Still think we shouldn’t have come?” I gave a verbal jab. He scowled, but didn’t answer.
The path to the shrine had smooth, white gravel, like thousands of tiny eggs shifting beneath our feet. The patrols who crossed the path paused to let us go by before continuing on their circuit. They moved over the grass, and it took me a moment to realize why they didn’t leave torn earth in their wake. They were walking on the air, about an inch above the ground.
All this going on, yet Kairon was still worried about how his grass looked. A laugh sputtered out of me, and Dare’s head jerked to me at the sound.
“What?” he asked, glowering at me for surprising him. I pointed out what the totems were doing, and Dare scoffed. “What a persnickety jackass.”
I shushed Dare, casting a nervous glance to the totems. “Oh, get over it. If they were going to attack me, they’d have done it at the gate. Kairon knows what I think of him.”
Well, he wasn’t wrong.
I relaxed a little. “That doesn’t mean you need to tempt fate with all our lives,” I reminded him. He rolled his eyes, but said nothing more.
I wasn’t wrong, either.
The shrine was as old as the city itself. In fact, it was the first building they erected when they decided to establish the city. The wood was sturdy, old, but well-maintained. The front archway stood over a large offering box. The roof was triangular, but curved inward with shingles painted white. It was perpendicular to the roof over the rest of the shrine, but twice the width of the porch, in length, to the right and the left. Just beyond the archway was a small porch that ran the length of the building, and all the way around.
We moved past the box, along with two more guards, and went to the polished, dark walnut double-doors. There were four guards here, two on each side, and the ones closest to the doors opened them for us. Despite the doors’ weight, the totems opened them easily, and the hinges made no noise, just like the gate. The only sound was from the totems, their rocks grinding and grumbling as they moved.
The inside was lit by magefire, and was a wide, open space with mats evenly spaced over the floor. They were for worshipers to come in and pray. An aisle was clear through the middle, leading to the back to a raised platform. On the platform was a low couch, though calling it a couch was too banal. Yet calling it a throne would be too extravagant. It was so low, that if a person put their feet flat on the ground, their knees would rise above their waist, making them look as though they were crouching.
Kairon sat on it, his ankles crossed loosely on a small, golden cushion on the floor.
“Welcome, Haven gods,” he greeted. His voice was silvery, almost musical. He held his arms out and away, with palms toward the vaulted ceiling with wooden beams. Incense wafted through the air, making it a little hazy, and the scent of nutmeg hung on the air like a heavy curtain.
“Greetings, and well met, Kairon, god of wealth and prosperity,” I replied. I tilted my chin a little to the left and dropped my head a touch, as well as executing a small bow. Mine was deferential, giving respect to a god far more powerful than me. Kairon was always a stickler for etiquette.
Dare’s bow, on the other hand, tread the line of mocking and disrespect. It was nothing new, though, and Kairon didn’t even break eye contact with me to look at him.
“What brings you to my shrine this lovely day?” he asked. He lowered his arms, and placed his hands, one over the over, lightly on his lap.
After he spoke, an acknowledgement that we could proceed, we walked to the final row of cushions in front of the platform.
“Why do you have so many totems wandering your grounds on such a lovely day, keeping your worshipers at bay?” I asked, gesturing to the empty cushions.
Kairon’s shrine was never empty. Someone was always praying to him for prosperity and money. Kairon could be officious, and I didn’t have a lot of time to tiptoe around his ego. Plus, catching him off guard might reveal more information than he would be willing to give us. You never knew.
Surprise fluttered through his eyes. A jolt of displeasure tainted the air, and it left the taste of copper on the back of my tongue. It took all my willpower not to smack my lips and swallow to be rid of the taste.
“I expect such insolence from Dare, but not you, Jolly. I thought you knew better.” His voice was sad, and it made the air heavy and oppressive. I had to swallow back tears and the urge to throw myself to the ground, begging forgiveness. Dare grabbed my hand, and our connection bolstered my resolve.
The more powerful gods could evoke emotions in others with theirs–even lesser gods. It was how they inspired people who visited their shrines. When humans came to Kairon’s, they left with a spring in their step. They believed they’d be successful and profitable, or whatever their desire was. The gods actually did very few miracles, where they actively bent the fabric of fate, reality, or whatever to give a person their desired outcome. Most of the time they simply inspired people to better their situations themselves.
Kairon doing this to fellow gods was a slap in the face. However, it was overlooked and not given much attention when done to gods like Dare and me. We might be gods, but we were not his equals. The only reason I could resist was because of my bond with the others. Mother had been right to send Dare with me. Not just for added help in avoiding Devourers, but protection from Kairon, too.
So what did I do about his blatant insult? Ignored it.
“I saw a man with silver eyes tonight.”
This time his astonishment reared him back as though I’d been the one to slap him.
“You lie,” he said, breathless, and dropping any pretense of protocol.
“I do not,” I said, firm and unwavering.
For the first time in my existence, Kairon looked worried. He ran a long-fingered hand, heavy with rings of various metals and gems, through his short, golden hair. As the strands moved, they reflected the magefire, as though they were made of the metal he promised to people.
“This is…disturbing, to say the least,” he finally said after a long, tense silence.
“Who is he?” Dare asked, finally speaking. I opened my mouth to warn him not to piss Kairon off, but he gave my hand a reassuring squeeze. Or maybe he was telling me to shut up. If I had to bet, I’d say the latter.
Kairon waved a hand through the air. “Who he is, is not important. He is merely one amongst many,” Kairon said, dismissing the question. “What is important, is what he is.”
I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, and exchanged a wary glance with Dare.
“What is he, then?” I asked, wondering if I wanted to know.
Kairon leveled an ominous look at the two of us. His eyes, gold as all gods’ eyes are golden, reflected the magefire like two coins out of the many in his vast fortune.
“He is a demon, and his coming spells doom for our city.”