Below is my submission:
Watcher of Relics
The last Templar of the Holy City might have wished for a proper ceremony of departure, but there was no more time. The icons of the Gods, which had kept a silent vigil over the people of the City, had protected them for generations and been venerated by them in turn, had been left to stand in an empty shrine, with no prayers to hear and no pilgrims to bestow with their blessings. Isokouno had remained by their side as long as he could, had swept the floor of the shrine and refreshed the small offerings that had been laid at the foot of the altar where the icons stood, until the very end. But it was time to leave: it was no longer safe for pilgrims to visit the shrine, and no longer safe for the icons to remain.
And as there were no longer any others to attend to the icons besides himself and two young initiates, today he would carefully wrap the icons in protective shrouds, place them in their reliquaries, and convey them to the Temple that had been hastily built in the valley below, a day’s journey from the City, where they would be safe. Where they could watch over the remnants of their people, in faithful hope of better times.
Isokouno had risen early, had checked the Temple spring and then washed himself, had performed his ablutions, and had said his prayers before sunrise. Lacking attendants and supplies it wouldn’t be possible to perform more than an abbreviated ceremony to venerate the ancient Gods, but it would have to do. The Temple in the valley was preparing a ceremony of investiture for their arrival this evening, and they would have to hurry to reach it in time.
The Templar looked over the last of the icons, alone on the altar. There were nine of them, of various forms, the most holy of the relics the Gods had left for mankind before They had left this world. The larger relics, some larger than a person, had already been brought down into the valley, on carts or carried in barrows, and already stood in the shrines of the new Temple. The Templar sighed.
“It’s a blessed place, elder Brother Ylikain-hen. The shrines are protected within a grove, surrounded by trees, with a clear spring. It is an auspicious place. The icons will be appropriately venerated there.”
Isokouno looked back at the initiate who had been standing respectfully at the shrine’s entryway. “I know,” he sighed, “and I know they can’t stay here any longer. Still …” he trailed off, making a helpless gesture to encompass the remains of the mountain shrine.
“We shall return someday to bring the Gods’ icons closer to their home again. Pilgrims will still come here to bear witness. They will keep the faith.”
The Templar felt as though he had failed the Gods. Or been abandoned by them, he wasn’t sure. It left a bitter taste in his mouth, and made him feel so incredibly tired. But there was nothing more he could do.
He looked out the collapsed southern wall of the shrine, out into the city, and felt a sickening knot in the pit of his stomach.
He hadn’t slept well, since the Holy City had fallen. He still felt the panicked, animal fear that had gripped him and everyone in the Temple, in the City.
The thing had come in the night, a bright light over the City of the Gods, high above them in the mountains to the northwest. It had illuminated the sky brighter than day, cold white and painful to look at. They had all come out of their quarters, the pilgrims that made up most of the Holy City’s residents had gathered in the courtyards and squares, squinting and amazed, shivering in the alpine cold.
Then they had heard the sound of the thing: a terrible low whine, oscillating and thrumming with a strange, alien irregularity. It had made him queasy, the way the sound and the light didn’t match rhythm, the way both pulsated with menace and power. The way he felt it in his bones like a throbbing ache.
They had wondered, if the thing truly were coming from the City of the Gods, how it could be so bright and loud, so far away. In the strange light they could see the alpine grasses, all along the slopes surrounding their Temple, swaying and rippling like waves without any wind to move them.
It had been a strange sight, and the people of the Holy City, Templars, initiates, acolytes, and pilgrims alike, had wondered what it might mean, what sign the Gods might be giving them. If perhaps it had meant that the Gods might be returning to walk alongside them again. After so many generations wandering alone in the unforgiving wilderness, perhaps they would finally be blessed with the Gods’ presence once more.
The sound and light had been steadily growing in intensity, and now it was painful to look even indirectly towards the City of the Gods, and people were covering their ears.
And then the evil things had happened. The Gods had smitten Their followers with Their strange and terrible power. Crouching down, covering his ears and squinting in the light, he had seen the pilgrims in the square before the Temple doing the same, when something in the air had … rippled. Without warning a perfect line in the air had sliced through the square, through the crowd of huddling pilgrims, at a strange angle. One one side, nothing. But on the other side of the line, as if a hateful God had swept Its hand across the square, the people had been thrown with such speed and such force against the buildings that the walls had crumpled with the impact. The plaster had cracked, the bodies of the people crushed by the unseen fist, instantly dead. The buildings buckled and collapsed, blown off their foundations and swept back into the streets behind them, dragged away like they were nothing.
That was when Isokouno heard the screaming. Even in that awful noise, he could hear the screaming.
Still unable to comprehend what he had seen, he turned in the other direction, and could see clouds of dust billowing up from other parts of the Holy City, could hear the roar of stone and plaster crushed and swept aside, could hear the screams of people fleeing in terror, the moans of the dying. The crowd in the square before the Temple broke free of its shock, and the people fled in panic, running for every side street, in every direction, trying to get away.
As he stared, uncomprehending, he dimly noticed the mountains in the distance. The peaks of the northern range stood out, sharply illuminated. Two or three of them, seemingly at random, had their peaks sheared off. As he watched, the shoulder of another buckled, a torrent of rock and ice and dust rushing down the mountainside, inaudible in the noise.
A second line sliced through the square, just past Isokouno’s shoulder, missing him by less than a hand’s breadth, and crossed through the outer walls of the Temple. With another ripple, the entire wall was pulled off its foundations, rushing upwards into the still-blinding night sky. There, for a moment, the stones of the Temple wall stopped, hanging in the clear air, floating, glittering in the white light. After a few hitching breaths, as he stared at the stones in terror, they were sucked into the heavens with such speed that they seemed to disappear, vanishing into the air without a trace.
It had happened so fast that the Temple walls along the edge of the line had only at that point toppled over, collapsing in heaps along the ragged edge.
The terrible thrumming in the air abruptly stopped, and a second later, the light winked out. There followed a silence so profound, he felt as if he had died without being aware of it.
But then he had heard the cries of the survivors, the distant sobbing from other parts of the Holy City that had been struck. He heard the dying rumble of a distant avalanche.
Numb, his ears still ringing and blind in the sudden return of night, he stumbled out into the City, to try to look for survivors, to help and injured and say prayers over the dead and dying.
The whole thing had barely lasted a few minutes, and the Holy City had been laid waste. The Temple’s attendants had spent the rest of the night, and the days that followed, trying to help the remainder of the people of the City. Isokouno had barely slept, dragging himself from one affected part of the City to another, doing what he could.
In one way, the City’s decline had been a blessing. There had been few people in the City to begin with: only the seasonal pilgrims who had made the trek up from the valleys into the highlands to visit the City, to venerate the Gods in Their ancient Temple, to pray for Their return and to meditate in the place of Their power. This had been the place where the Gods had last lived alongside mortals, this had been the City they had built after Gods and mortals alike had been forced to flee the place of their birth.
As the Gods had been cast out of Their own City as well, it had been here, on this plateau on the edge of the mountains, where They had had made a home with the mortals of this world, had cared for them and protected them. Had taught them the secrets of farming and architecture, had given them laws and wisdom, had endowed mortals with knowledge of healing injury and understanding the heavens. When the Gods had walked alongside them, mortals were said to have lived many times longer than they did now, had been capable of things that could only have been the stuff of myths and legends.
It had been a better world, full of beauty, blessed with the shining light of divine providence.
But the Gods had left them long ago, had gradually faded into the wilderness, had died or simply abandoned Their people. The growing seasons had become shorter, the winters crueler, the food they had been shown how to grow had given less and less each year.
Gradually, the Holy City had declined as people left for more fertile ground to the southeast, below in the valleys where it was warmer, where the fields were easier to tend. The Gods had shown them how to make winter-houses for their seedlings and plants to survive the cold, but the broad plains beyond the valley were better suited for the crops that were needed in ever-greater number to feed the people.
The Holy City was finally abandoned by the ruling council, moving the seat of the capital down into a valley between two mountain ridges, called the Fingers of the Gods, when Isokouno’s grandfather was a child. Most of the Holy City soon followed; and now, after only a couple more generations, the Holy City was little more than the Temple grounds, and the guest-houses for visiting pilgrims.
It had still been a large settlement: this had been the holiest place of their ancestors, the last home of the Gods, and so pilgrims from all throughout the valley country, and even from the islands further to the south, had come here to venerate their ancestors and the ancient relics that still resided here, to pray in the Temple of their forefathers.
But much of the City had been left to decline, the houses had stood empty, many of the streets further away from the temple had become overgrown. The paving stones surrounding the Temple, made of a strange shimmering ceramic that was said to come from the City of the Gods itself and which none knew how to make, had been scavenged from the other parts of the City. The square before the Temple had been paved in a strange, irregular pattern from stones of many sizes, had shimmered with a black iridescence that was of such an uncanny, alien beauty that pilgrims had gradually concentrated mostly into the guest-houses surrounding the Temple square. The other parts of the City had become residencies for those who served them, tending to the hospitality of the faithful. But they, too, were gradually but inexorably fewer in number with each passing year. And so it had been the only small mercy of the terrible calamity that had brought the City to ruins, that there were no longer many people living there. In the days afterwards, as they surveyed the wreckage of the Holy City, they had found whole quarters completely destroyed, street after street where the houses had been obliterated down to their foundations, places where the buildings had been ripped from the ground without a trace, places where the ground itself had been scooped away by some awesome and terrible hand, leaving a crater that collapsed into the hillside in the aftermath. The Holy City, once the beating heart of the world the Gods and mortals had built together, was left a shell.
It was all at an end now. In the aftermath of that terrible night, the Temple’s council had decided to move the relics, to bring them down to the Temple in the capital, to join the civic government in abandoning the Holy City at long last.
It was the last day of summer, and tomorrow the icons would be needed in the shrines of the valley Temple for the people to venerate in preparation for autumn. He had remained as long as he could, overseeing the careful preparation of the largest of the relics, had seen them off on the path down into the valley one after the other. The nine on the altar before him, the holiest of them all, the center of the Holy City’s spiritual world, were to be moved only at the last possible moment. He had insisted, had promised to keep watch over them himself, to observe propriety throughout the waning days of summer, to bring them into the valley only when necessary. He had kept his faith, even in the face of calamity, that the Gods had not become angry, had not smitten Their children, that They might return. He had kept faith that perhaps the disaster that had befallen the Holy City had been some other sign, that the Gods, ever inscrutable in Their motives, had meant something other than anger as They had swept so many of the faithful into oblivion.
“Some of the other initiates have said they think the light was a funeral pyre. They said the Gods were dying, and the terrible thing was the rupture brought on by Their death.”
Isokouno turned to the initiate, considered his words.
“I’ve heard much the same. But I took a vow to keep my faith to the Gods in Their benevolence and perfection. I swore to attend to Their rites in the faith that They might return. As did you.”
The initiate looked downward, chastened. Softly: “Forgive me, elder Brother Ylikain-hen. I am still ignorant and lacking in strength.”
“Faith is difficult, young Brother. All the more difficult in trying times.”
“Thank you for your indulgence, elder Brother Ylikain-hen. I am always grateful that you have been generous and patient in teaching me the way-”
Isokouno held up a hand. “We need to begin. There isn’t time.”
He smiled slightly.
“But thank you. You have both been good students.”
At that, the initiate called his counterpart, a Sister from the valley Temple who would learn the rites of departure from Isokouno. The two of them, young and only just hearty enough for the long climb to the Holy City from the valley below, had not been the best students at the Temple School, but had been eager and pure of heart. They had understood the gravity of the Holy City’s request to the valley Temple for two initiates to attend the Templar as he prepared to bring the holiest of the icons down from the place where they had stood since time out of memory, and they had volunteered. As they were both of them too young and inexperienced to be of great help in evacuating the Temple, they had remained by Isokouno’s side, helping to prepare the shrine in its last days.
It was still early morning, but the sun would rise soon. They needed to complete the last rite of the Temple before it passed the horizon.
All the other icons had been safely wrapped and stowed in their reliquaries, save for three. The most precious relics of the Holy City, the last of the Gods they still had, the three icons were the focus of the most somber and grave of rites in the Temple.
Isokouno led the two initiates in prayer, and they performed a shortened form of the rites of departure.
At last, Isokouno took the three relics, and began to arrange them in their proper place. The Lantern, a small round relic the size of a hand, was smooth and smoky, with a ring of ceramics around it. A bundle of thin filaments, finer than any hair and delicate extending from the Lantern’s underside, he carefully lay flat across the altar. The Voice, somewhat larger, was blocky and irregular. Several small appendages pointed out from its lower section, radiating at odd angles. He lay a few of the filaments from the Lantern alongside them, and said a small prayer, beseeching the Gods to speak to them today. The Sister took a small piece of incense and lit it with a sparking-stone, waving a thin strand of smoke around the altar, whispering a prayer. The Brother poured water into a small vessel, and placed it on the altar to the side of the three relics. Isokouno dipped his fingers into the water, and gently touched the small appendages of the Voice, and then brushed the filaments of the Lantern.
Last, he placed the final piece, the Key, equidistant between the two relics, and rested his fingertips along the top. It was a strangely curved piece, with loops and shapes of uncertain form wrapping around it. It looked like it was made of the same strange ceramics that composed the paving stones of the Temple square. Along the inside of the Key’s arching length was a small section of what looked like a bottle of clouds, pale white and shifting.
Isokouno caressed the relics, as he and the two initiates said the last lines of their prayers of beseeching, praying for the Gods to cast a brief shadow into the world of mortals once more.
For a while, there was nothing, and Isokouno felt the pangs of despair and hopelessness gripping him. The Gods had smitten Their most faithful, had struck Their pilgrims from the face of the earth, had ruined the City where They had once lived alongside them, and now the prayer of beseeching They met with cold silence.
The last Templar of the Holy City felt himself about to give up. He was so tired, he felt he had nothing left to give. Watching the last life of the Holy City drain away in the chaotic weeks of the evacuation had left him exhausted, and this last abandonment was almost more than he could bear.
He said the prayers again, fighting back tears, clenching his hands together, hoping to be spared, at least, this last humiliation.
For a while, there was nothing.
Slowly and haltingly, barely perceptible at first, the Lantern began to show light. Behind him, Isokouno heard the young Brother stifle a gasp as the light grew, until the Lantern was glowing pale and wan in the predawn twilight of the ruined shrine.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, the Lantern was shining steady, its strange power slight and uncertain, but there nonetheless.
With a practiced motion, carefully as he could, Isokouno took the Key, and brought it alongside the filaments of the Lantern. The one gossamer thread, slightly darker in color after so many generations, he gently grasped in his fingers, and threaded as carefully as he could between the various loops and bends of the Key.
When the filament was finally in place, the light emanating from the Lantern changed slightly, and then, for the last time in the Holy City, the Voice spoke.
Isokouno could hear both initiates catch their breaths at the sound of it, the strange Voice coming from seemingly everywhere and nowhere. They had certainly been told of the rites, of the awe and wonder of hearing the Gods speak directly to mortals, but had likely not believed it until the had heard it for themselves. Now, their faith was certain, for they were all of them in the presence of the remnants of the Gods.
The Voice spoke in an ancient dialect, lost to living language, difficult to understand. Only a few Templars who studied the ancient writings carefully and attended the rites could understand even a part of it. Much of what the Voice would say was already lost, having vanished with the passing of so many generations.
Isokouno had been selected for this vigil, had stayed until the end, because he had been one of the most diligent of the Templars in seeking to understand the words of the Gods. He had even learned, with the help of the wisest of the elders, how to understand a few of the markings on the relics, had understood how it must have been part of the written language of the Gods Themselves, inscribed with Their own hands.
As best he could, Isukouno tried to understand what the Voice said, but there was still little more than a few isolated fragments he could make out. The Voice spoke in broken sentences, making understanding all the more a struggle.
The Lantern occasionally wavered. But then, the Voice said:
… s the message of the vess-
…stress. We were … -olony … -d to make landfa- …
… -ore breach … failing.
… missed primary land- … -erstruct- … damage- … unable to launch …
… -ifteen other colony sh- … -aining in orbit … -munication unsuccess-
-peat this mess- …
-cting temporary shelters … -ip AI maintaining …
-elve thousand coloni- … -ualties … reduced capa-
-ood stores should hold, local terrain should be ara-
col- … -ake … landfall
And with that, the Lantern finally faltered, and the Voice fell silent.
They knelt at the altar for a long while in silence.
After a time, the Sister spoke softly and asked: “what did the Voice say?”
Isokouno thought for a moment. The words had been difficult to understand, the dialect obscure, and even when he did know what the words had meant, they hadn’t made sense together.
“It was a lesson. A story of how the Gods came to us, and how we might live in this world. It told of how mortals might live according to the Gods’ wishes, and how to keep faith.
“But even I am too ignorant of the Gods to be able to say for sure what was meant. I shall have to discuss it with the High Templar. Which will have to be this evening, and thus we need to hurry.”
The relics had gone dark, and Isokouno showed the two initiates how to wrap them. They were both of them terrified of handling the icons, the Key especially as it was now warm to the touch. They were unsure what to make of any of what they had seen.
But they had been faithful, had volunteered for a lonely summer tending the last of the Temple of the Holy City while the other initiates in the valley had spent theirs in relative comfort, and the two initiates had thus been blessed to hear the Gods speak in Their own voice.
They placed, with great tenderness and care, the last of the icons into their reliquaries, and each took one of the cases to carry down the mountain path. There was nothing left in the shrine of the Gods, the place was cold and lonely. There was only one last thing to do.
Isokouno took from the corner of the shrine, from the old cabinet that had once held the Temple’s most precious scrolls, a small tablet. It had been made from the hardest stone they could find, had taken him most of the summer to etch properly.
Carefully, he set the stone into the niche at the foot of the altar, where its message could be read by any who came to visit the wreck of the Holy City.
He had struggled for a long time to find the words that needed to be written. They were in the ancient dialect of the Gods, using words that were still spoken in the various languages of the mortals that had scattered into the world in the Holy City’s centuries of decline. It had been his hope that the Temples would preserve the language of the Gods above all others, and that thus his inscription would still be understood by those who might someday return to this place.
This place was once the High Temple of the Holy City, attended by Gods and mortals alike, gateway to the City of the Gods’ Landing on this world, the ancient fortress in the mountains from which mortals and Gods were brought into this world and which they were forced to flee. This is the inscription of Ylikain-hen Isokouno, last Templar of the Holy City, on the last day of summer in the eighty-seventh year of the Valley Temple, left here in faith that we might one day return to walk in the light of the Gods’ favor.
He read his inscription a few more times. He was unsure if any would ever return to this City, after the disasters that had struck, the horrors that had befallen even the faithful. But he had to have faith.
He looked at the words in their strange dialect. As he thought about the incantation the Voice had said, he remembered one of the words it had spoken. It was an ancient word, but still used in some variant among almost all of the people of the various settlements and cities of the world.
He looked again at his inscription, and read the word as he had tried to render it in the ancient script of the Gods. It was one of the few he was mostly certain he could read correctly, and so he had tried to inscribe it in the ancient manner.
In some dialects, a variant of the word also meant “birthplace” or “origin.”
Isokouno turned from the altar for the last time, the two initiates already at the Temple’s entry, each carrying the reliquary on their backs. As he looked out into the ruined Temple square, the sun finally broke free of the horizon to the east, bathing the whole city in the soft pink light of early morning.
As he joined the initiates, they looked at him with a strange expression, a sort of fear, mixed with respect, having seen the strange wonders of the relics he had tended, had prepared with his own hands, had brought to life with his prayers.
As they descended through the ruined city, towards the path that would bring them out of the highlands and into the valley below, Isokouno realized he had made a decision.
“When we reach the Valley Temple, I shall be staying with you only until the Autumn Rites are concluded. After that, I am going to leave the city.”
“Where will you go, elder Brother?”
“There are a few who still range here in the highlands. I plan to seek them out, to minister to them in the high country, closer to the Gods.”
“But there is no longer a Temple here. How will you conduct a ministry?”
“I think,” he considered, “that I am going to minister … call it an Itinerant Ministry. There are those who can live in the highlands for many seasons on their own, having learned the lessons the Gods taught our ancestors. I mean to find them.”
The two initiates looked at one another, and walked silently for a while. Finally, the Sister said:
“I think we should come with you.”
The Brother nodded.
Isokouno looked at both of them, and thought for a while.
They would form a Peregrine Temple, seeking out the solitary rangers of the high country, keeping close to the Holy City, visiting the Valley Temple on occasion to participate in the rites, occasionally to hear the Gods speak. They would build no great shrine, but instead would seek out relics in the wild country of the highlands, would perhaps even dare to venture to the City of the Gods itself, to find more remnants of the Gods’ passage through this world.
Here, in this strange, alien country, where mortals dwelt at their peril, they would remain closer to the Gods and their strange power. They would learn to follow the paths the Gods had taken when They abandoned mortals, in the hopes that they might one day, at long last, walk alongside Them again.
They would seek to find remnants of the world the Gods had built, to mark the way for those mortals who might follow, in the hopes of one day finding their way back to Their sheltering hands, to rest, at long last, in the warmth of their love once more.