Prayer for the Storm
One would think that after staring at the same hole in the roof for nearly a century that the view would grow tiresome. Yet the sky was ever changing. A fact I knew well having been made beneath it. The acolytes and pilgrims had thought a piece of sky was what gave me life. Sometimes I too indulged in the lie.
Today was one of frost and feather down snow. The space above my resting spot glittered with floating ice crystals. Though a breeze whirled the air above the ruined temple, what snow breached the hole, did so slowly. Within this tomb, all was chill and stillness. The water that had seeped into my cracks in warmer days seemed as much a part of me as the stone of my body. In the freezing and expanding, it had both broken and repaired the fractures racing through me. It eased aches I hadn't known I could feel.
Usually only the braver animals kept me company. There was one raven in particular who enjoyed perching on a facial striation before battering small objects against me. I liked to think we had an understanding of sorts. It wouldn't defecate upon my face, and in return could use said face as a tool. But today it was not a mouse or a bird that entered the greeting chamber, but something I hadn't seen in untold years: a human.
Their footsteps echoed down the entrance hall, accompanied by the tired clinking of glass and buckles. I could tell when they reached the chamber, for the footsteps stopped and there was a sharp intake of breath.
"I can't believe it's…eh—don't jinx it." A female voice. Deep and throaty, but painful, as if it had been scraped raw.
Cloth swooshed as she clambered over broken pillars. Stone clattered and snow crunched beneath her feet as she walked past me towards where the main doors should be. All I managed to catch was a flash of purple at the corner of my vision.
A short time later, there was a whispered, "Damn. Now what?"
As I'd remembered. The doors had been destroyed when my sibling had been thrown against them. My sibling had been soon to follow. Half their body turned to dust by some foul spell. They had left me alone to wait out eternity.
Time was not as important and measured to me as it was to my creators, but even I could tell the woman grew frustrated as the sky began to turn orange. I had thought she would be glad. The cold snap had passed and the sharpness in the air had lost its bite. The deep thrumming within me that pulled and promised had passed. The storm had skirted around the ruins.
I hadn't been paying attention to what the woman was doing for quite a while, so it came as a surprise when she said, "Well, what do we have here?" What followed was the beginning of my awakening.
I could feel a leather glove pawing somewhere deep inside me, stiffly curling fingers around a chipped surface. Halfway across the room, the woman had somehow found my bond stone—rock taken from my core and containing half my soul. I thought it had been destroyed, so long had it been since I felt.
The woman rolled the bond over in her hands, bringing it close enough to her face I could feel hot, moist breath. Her voice seemed deeper. I could feel the vibrations in her words, and the hollow rattle in her lungs. It made an odd contrast to the sounds my main body heard.
"Are you what I think you are?"
She had the bond. I had to obey.
"And what do you think I am?" My voice came from my body, grating with disuse. It seemed both smaller and larger than it had once been. Despite my weakened state, it was more than enough to fill such a broken room.
She dropped the bond, and it rolled through the snow to stop against a piece of rubble. "Holy shit! …Where are you? What are you?"
Though not compelled to answer as she no longer possessed the bond, it had been so long since I had conversed. "I lie on the ground and stare at the sky. As to 'what'…I'm sure you can infer that from the 'where'."
"Holy shit," she repeated. Footsteps cautiously approached me. "You're still functioning… Even after all this time?"
"Okay. Okay, I can work with this."
A short time later, my bond was in her hands again. Though her voice shook, she commanded, "Stand."
And so I must.
Joints and sliding plates ground each other to sand, no longer fitting the way they should. The ice in my cracks groaned and squeaked as it was pushed into shapes it hadn't intended. I raised my hands, twisting to see how patches of white lichen crawled over me like a disease. Brief inspection complete, I tilted my head to see the woman.
Her head barely rose to my knees, so similar to most people in height. In contrast to the white, grey, and blue of winter, she seemed a traveller from another world. So warm in a faded purple cloak covering nut-brown skin. Her black hair was streaked with age, winding down in the braid flung over a shoulder. It reminded me of my own rash of lichen. In one shaking hand was a staff of blond wood, in the other, my bond.
She licked her lips before nodding. "Good." With growing confidence, her hand snapped towards the broken door. "I need you to clear the rubble. I don't care how. Just get it done."
I spun my head without moving my body. For a long moment I examined heaps of snow covering what might have been my sibling's body. Beyond those broken steps was the remains of pillars that had once been carved with the thrill of wind and clouds.
My head returned to its natural position. "It seems possible."
"Then get to it."
This woman didn't ask very nicely. The priests had at least been gracious in the embarrassment they felt over what I was. The early ones had at least. Halting over the chaos of the room, crunching the rim of the fountain beneath my feet, I reached the door and began to pry the boulders away.
As I worked, I asked, "Why have you come here? All the riches have long been plundered."
"Excuse me?" She was clearly surprised. Maybe at my question, maybe at the fact I could hear her despite the cacophony. She understood enough of the bond stone to know 'what', but not enough to understand 'how'.
"You come from the far south. The heat of the sun and the wind of the plains have left their marks. Are your people still called Uwpechi?"
"…No, that's our neighbour. I'm from Axlil."
"I see." I had not heard of that place before. It had to be new. "Why have you come so far?"
"Why else?" She laughed, bouncing the bond in her hand—just a little. "I'm looking for a Soul Fall."
"Then you seek to—"
Her voice was suddenly cold. "That's enough of that. Keep your mouth shut—figuratively speaking—unless it's bloody necessary."
And so I must.
The passage beyond fared better than the greeting chamber. In some places, the destruction was so little I could catch glimpses of stained gold and blue frescoes. It was a simple thing to recall a hallway without holes. Incense smoke hovering around my head as if it were buoyed by the priests' prayerful songs.
I led the woman forward, still feeling too large as snow blew down the tunnel towards us. I ignored the passages branching off. They were too small for me to enter, and the path to what the woman sought was straight and relatively clear.
Her breathing was ragged, distracting and too loud as she kept the bond tucked in her coat's breast pocket. Despite the fact I loomed over her, it felt the other way around. As if some slavering monster-god hovered over my shoulder. Once a priest that carried me had gotten a cold. I'd told him what I'd been thinking, and then he'd chuckled in delight. I wondered if the woman would be similarly amused.
Hard evening light and the bluster of wind greeted us as the hall led to the courtyard. Here the mountain had been roughly flattened, with several asymmetrical layers barely large enough for me to navigate. The fruit trees lay dormant, their naked branches waving me by as I led the woman up the ramps to the highest platform where a small wall had enclosed a pool of water. It was barren now, the precious tiles pilfered.
The woman stepped past me, and heaved herself over the wall. Sliding down to the bottom of the pit, she slowly turned with her cloak whipping about her. Rotation complete, she stared at me a long moment, before sitting and hastily beginning to pull objects out of her bag. Frenetic motions involving vials, dusts, liquid and a small screen of rainbows that clinked together like gems. I understood none of it, but after she was finished with each object, her movement grew more feverish.
When nothing else emerged from the bag, she threw the screen with a frustrated yell. It broke apart, beads springing free to colour the snow. The woman stared down at her hands, shoulders heaving. First she began to sob, and then to shriek with laughter. That too trickled into silence, and she fell back and stared at the sky with a blank expression. A mimicry of my previous state.
She eventually rasped, "I'm fucked. I'm so fucked and there's nothing else I can do."
I could feel her heart pounding against her ribcage despite the calm demeanour, but decided to ask anyways, "May I speak now?"
"Sure. Go right ahead."
"Who were you trying to save?" People didn't chance visiting a Soul Fall for any reason. Sometimes it was devotion, sometimes study. Though I had learned the most common excuses were the lust for power, and to rescue a loved one from some terrible ailment. Judging by her reaction, it was not the former.
"You're smart, construct. Smarter than the ones back home anyways."
"What do you have…an eighth, or a quarter of a soul?"
"All of one."
Her whistle was long and low, and her heart had started to slow. "No wonder. Nowadays we make 'em with about…a forty-fourth? Most can't even speak."
I remained silent. I couldn't imagine what such a creature would feel. How pitiful it must be.
She was growing colder beneath the bond, the sweat she had worked up cooling as the heat was stolen away. Her speech became languid. "…It took three years of research to get a general idea of where this temple was. Did you know that? Another of planning, and another to travel here. Five years of my life—gone. Just like that. I'm more than half dead at this point, and I just wasted five years.
"Now…I don't have enough supplies to get down the mountain. I burned too many bridges back home. And I used my last dose days ago. I'm done, construct."
A smile appeared on her lips; it did not reach her eyes. "Who was I trying to save? Well, the answer to that is: the most important person in my life."
As I'd thought.
"Me." She tilted her head, glistening streaks lining her face. "And now I'm going to die out here without the company of anyone I care about. It's kind of ironic really."
With one last rattling sigh, she picked herself up, brushing away the snow before staring up at me. "Can you think of any nice spots for me to breath my last?"
"Yes, I know of one."
As we trudged back through the temple, I was glad I hadn't revealed the truth. The temple's Soul Fall had never been real. Only an illusion created by the priests to give unneeded credence to our god. Knowing the journey as pointless thanks to time was better than knowing it as pointless in entirety.
"And then if you add powdered arit worm to the mix… Light! See?" The glass vial's pink liquid roiled before turning pale green and giving off a glow. The woman, Tawsun, waved the vial at me.
I craned my head down to where she sat on my leg. "Very impressive."
She shrugged before heaving the concoction at the wall. It shattered, spraying in a grotesque pattern. Tawsun eyed it a moment before turning back towards the fire merrily flickering on the patch of frozen earth I had reclaimed from the snow. She was quiet for a time, only occasionally taking a swig from another bottle.
Her last camp was set up beneath the same hole I'd stared at for years. She'd thought it a nice gesture, and then finally introduced herself. Tawsun, an instructor of alchemy at a school in a grand, southern city. In exchange, I had told her to call me Itaxai.
She'd proceeded to pull out the remnants of her supplies and show me basic experiments. All the while she spoke of home. Tawsun missed the heat and how flat the land was. She yearned for her apartment overlooking both river delta and school campus. And she sincerely ached for those she'd left behind.
All the while I listened, not as much to her words, but to the losing battle taking place in her lungs. Each breath was heavy and wet. Within the next few days, she would be dead. Her body would wither, be eaten, and the bond would fall to the earth and be lost once again. Would it be held again before my stone crumbled entirely?
"Hey." A tone both soft and warm, tinged with embarrassment. "If I…prayed, would that be alright?"
A tingle I had forgotten passed over me in a ripple of grey light too fast for the eye to see. "The Savage Sky would welcome your entreaty."
"I meant to my home gods, but yeah…why not? It's not like the Siblings ever gave a damn about me." Tawsun slid down, cloak slithering after. Her stance wobbled, and she kept one hand on me to keep from falling. "So if I'm going to do it, I may as well do it right. How does your, er, 'Savage Sky' like to be worshipped?"
Tawsun let out a breathy laugh. "Pray sincerely to a god I've only read of in musty, old tomes. Why not? You're a funny one, Itaxai."
Despite her irreverence, when Tawsun knelt and tilted her head up to stare at clouds racing over the stars, I knew she was true. Raw words of hope and regret were laced with tears and choked laughter. Tawsun's prayer was an expression of her soul, and it quickened that pulse inside me.
When at last her ragged throat went silent, the fire had died low. It crackled loud in the stillness. Tawsun wiped her gloves over her face before turning to look at me. "How did I do? Did I pass or will lightning strike me down now?"
"That was perfect. There will be no lightning."
With a nod, she started towards the tent. "Good, because I don't think I can do it again. That was exhausting. I'll turn in for the night. I hope I'll see you tomorrow for one last sunrise."
But before she could even open the flap, I heard the faint echo of yet more travelers entering the temple. The way I'd moved my head towards the sound must have alerted Tawsun, because she asked, "What? What is it?"
"More visitors. I think five."
"…Shit." Tawsun's eyes went wide and her shoulders slumped. After a moment of shock, she scuttled and pulled down the bag she'd left resting on my leg. "Shit, shit, shit. I can't believe they followed me up here. I thought after Gaffyu I'd gotten rid of them. Shit!" Her heart was pounding, straining against the dwindling amount of air it received.
Digging through the bag, she pulled out three vials, and carefully poured them together. Holding it up to eye level, she winced as the sound of the hunters carried promises of steel and pain.
Without even a backward glance towards me, Tawsun darted into the deepest shadows next to the door and went still. It was not long after that three men and two women emerged into the chamber. Alert and guarded, they stared at the fire and my seated form.
"Meggaj?" The largest of the men asked. He carried an enormous, studded club on his back.
"On it," the smaller woman replied, and immediately came to investigate the campsite. The others began to split up, and that's when Tawsun struck.
The glass vial was hurled into their midst. Glass fractured and liquid began melting flesh. One man shrieked, clutching his face as skin dissolved and blood poured through his fingers. The other woman hissed, throwing off her jacket before roaring in rage. She charged.
Tawsun was clearly not a fighter. She got in only a couple swings of her staff. Then the burned woman gripped her by the braid and threw her to the ground. While the large man watched and the others saw to the dead man, the burned woman placed a boot on Tawsun's chest and pulled a strange instrument from her belt. The metal glimmered orange and there was a waiting fire stored inside it.
The burned woman pressed, and the instrument discharged. Tawsun writhed like a pinned insect beneath the boot. The blood from her shoulder quickly soaking her shirt and coating my bond in red.
Looking to the large man, who nodded, the burned women fiddled with the fire instrument again and took aim. Tawsun screamed, reaching out towards me. "Itaxai! Help me!"
And so I must.
Black clouds tumbled over each other, racing to hide every single star and the world halo from earthly view. Three points of light remained: fire, the glow potion, and the steely blue energy that coruscated over me in violent twists.
The hunters stopped as the world around them grew charged and cold. The heat leached from the air as the clouds above billowed. Finally, the small man pointed at me, his voice was blurry and indistinct. Hollow and meaningless.
Power coursed through my limbs, making them weightless as my body began to detach into smaller and smaller pieces. I twirled, held together by what felt the smallest of attractions. My head bobbed gently, finally free to turn any which way. I had broken apart as I should. But the smallest sphere, was warm and safe. Fed blood and energy by the priest who had invoked my name.
I was Itaxai.
I WAS STORM.
I WHIRLED. MADE BLIND BY MOMENTUM. FRACTIONS MOVED IN PERFECT MOTION. INFINITELY COMPLEX AND BEAUTIFUL. INCOMPREHENSIBLE.
THEY DODGED AND DARTED. DARING TO RESIST. BRUISED AND BATTERED. BUT NOT BEATEN. NOT YET.
BY MYSELF IT WAS WRONG. THERE SHOULD HAVE BEEN TWO. NOT ONE. THERE SHOULD HAVE BEEN LIGHTNING. THERE SHOULD HAVE BEEN THUNDER. BUT I WAS ALONE. LIGHTNING DIED. THERE WOULD BE NO THUNDER.
I WAS BROKEN. BUT I WAS ENOUGH.
THEY BECAME COMPLACENT. THEY HAD NOT DIED SO THEY THOUGHT ME WEAK. THE BLOOD OF THE LAST PRIEST FED MY FURY.
JEERS WERE CUT SHORT. AIR SEIZED FROM FRAGILE LUNGS. THEY SCREAMED. ONE ATTEMPTED TO FLEE. ONE FELL IN AWE. FEAR. AWE.
IT IS THE SAME.
PALE-FACED. SHAKING. TWO MADE A STAND. METAL STICKS THAT WHISPERED FIRE EXPLODED WITH SOUND. PITIFUL. SMALL COMPARED TO MY FURY. A FRACTION WAS HIT. THE STONE BROKE AND PLUMMETED. AWAY FROM ME IT HAD NO LIFE.
I COULD NOT BE STOPPED. CYCLONE OF STONE MET FLESH. TEARING. PULVERIZING. BREAKING. RED MIST AND SPLINTERS OF GORY IVORY. EVEN THE SHRIEKS WERE DEVOURED.
TWO LEFT. ONLY ONE RAN. THE OTHER PRAYED. HE PRAYED TO THE WRONG GOD.
THE RUNNER KEPT HER BODY. I HAD used most of our energy. She bled out in a matter of moments from the hole a fragment of me had punched through her chest. My rotations began to slow as the wind faded and the storm went from blizzard to light snowfall.
Gradually, I put myself back together, hardly noticing the chunk that had been taken from the back of one hand. I stood over a pile of steaming red growing cooler as white began to drift in. I had chased the burned woman quite a ways into the entrance tunnel. We were nearly outside.
I paused at the short remainder of passage before returning to Tawsun. Her heart had grown sluggish, and her body cooled. I hoped I had not accidentally damaged her in my fury. She lay in the dark, her blood and the smears of the hunters freezing her clothing stiff.
I crouched over her, and called her name as gently as I was capable. "Are you conscious?"
"Yes," she moaned. "But not for long. Damn it…Itaxai, how did it…come to this? I was ready, but not like this…" She started to cry before cutting herself off. "Can you…leave the temple?"
I'd never done so, but if she commanded it… "Yes."
"Good. Because I…won't die. Not here. Please…carry me down…village…"
Her sentence trailed into nothing, but the order was clear. With fingers so large, I was clumsy in picking her up. I got just as much snow and stone as woman in my grip. Cupped and sheltered within my hands, I took her to the temple entrance. The world's halo shimmered bright and turquoise, a slash through the dark night as the snow continued to fall.
I stared down at the tiny, human footsteps, before placing my own over top them. With a lumbering stride, I began to race against Tawsun's failing body. The bond jostled over her heart with each step. This time, it was me who kept her warm.