Light poured through the heavy canopy, dusting the area with glints of the mid-day sun. Each spot felt warm on Valen’s skin as he pushed the cloth across the stone base. A dozen years of neglect and apathy had left Pimquel’s shrine black, home to small insects and long dead leaves. It was just off the river’s edge, several minutes walk from the main road and through a wall of tall brush. Crickets sang and frogs bellowed. It was a beautiful space, fit for the river god. Round at the top with a hollow base, the shrine was easy enough to clean if maintained and Valen silently cursed the people who, once again, gave up on pleasing the gods.
“If only they knew how persistent the god of destruction was,” Valen muttered. The months he spent following Runihara, cleaning shrines and sleeping freely under the stars served to remind him how lazy humans were. He coughed into his elbow, rolling back the sleeves for the fifth time. The soft outer robe sat folded inside his hat, just past the dirt bank. It was too pretty a gift to sully while cleaning. And it was warm. Valen smiled.
Fish sprung in the river. They leapt above the gentle pace of the water, forcefully making their way up the mountain. Valen refused to follow, even if was an easier trip than his current one. There was no love for what lay behind him, but there a looming sense of curiosity for what was ahead of him. His master’s mood seemed fit to change at will. The moment it felt he could push past the frigid breeze and run his fingers over warm flesh and a friendly form, ice shot up his hand and kicked him back in a gasp for air.
Valen’s eyes wandered to the violet coat nestled under a tree. The morning after he’d received it, Runihara’s mood grew darker. He was at a fault. It was not a question of who, but rather why the conversation affected the god so gravely. The sort of self-loathing that vibrated between them was a stone wall. Why the god pushed so much misery and death upon the humans, what purpose it served, whether it was truly necessary – these were the questions that nearly ate a hole in Valen’s chest. And when they all fell on the ground at Runihara’s feet, the god did not speak clearly.
The corners of Runihara’s eyes twitched. They bore into Valen, glinting in the dim morning sun. “All things happen for one reason or another,” Runihara told him, “But I am a void of death and suffering. Everything I touch dies. How does anyone enjoy that?” The god stood, turned sharp and vanished within dense trees. Leaves crumbled, lost their color and fell to the floor. Branches cracked and snapped. The ground turned sallow and the woods became weaker.
Valen bit his fingers into the stone shrine, catching his nail and scrapping his knuckles. He snapped his hands to his chest and hissed. Tears rose in the corners of his eyes. It was ridiculous to think Runihara was crying, but Valen was certain he had been hurt. It ached in his chest, guilty desire emptying into his stomach. Every minute was more confusing. His purpose had become elusive, lost in a blurry understanding of human and gods, and their places on this world. His heart pounded in his ears. Regret filled Valen’s throat. He chocked back the urge to vomit and with deep breaths, resumed scrubbing.
“Have you finished,” Runihara asked, stepping into view and glancing down the river. Startled, Valen rubbed his eyes clear of the remaining tears, hoping they weren’t too red. He could feel Runihara’s gaze, shivering. He scrubbed harder at the stone, his clothing bumping something that made a loud clanking sound in the cavity of the shrine.
“Why are there chains?” Valen scooped them into view with the rag, a chill filling his bones.
Runihara’s eyes were wide. His brows were raised. For such a small moment, he looked human to Valen. “The chains,” Runihara replied. “Punishment. Some gods went against the order and for such a thing, they were cast from Ahavalla. If they could not follow their path willingly, they would be forced to do so. Death is the only escape from a God’s destiny.”
Valen swallowed, his fingers tugging at the tension in his chest. Gods imprisoned in shrines humans had forgotten. He could only imagine the loneliness, the emptiness that filled such a being for so long a time.
“Gods die?” It felt like a ridiculous question.
“Gods are punished,” Valen questioned.
“We can be. We have feelings too, if that hasn’t become apparent.”
Thunk. Valen hit his chest with his fist. His head felt dizzy. For gods to live lives like humans, to live and die, to fear and feel, was a revelation. Air caught in his chest. His eyes focused on the chains, a voice called to him. Faint, fuzzy, the voice trembled. Valen’s fingers tapped the forgotten shackles, his nail climbing the links. They burst into luminescent dust, scatting into the air and evaporated. A desolate buzzing filled his ears.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Valen stammered, wiping his face clear of falling tears. “These things make no sense. What I am doing makes no sense. If what I’ve become isn’t worth the village, what was I suppose to do? And why? Why is it I have survived your touch if everything is so easily broken underneath you? How have I escaped your destruction?”
“I marked you.” Runihara turned his back. “The bite I gave you is temporary. It has already begun to fade. When it has gone, so too shall be your only protection from my touch. You, like anyone, would turn to rot and fade with time.”
Runihara walked away. Valen breathed into his sleeves, listening to the fading footsteps and fell apart in the silence.
“I’m not special,” Valen whimpered. Again his heart beat, each thundering thump echoing in his head, the tips of his ears growing hot. He bit his lower lip and dug his fingers into his arms. “I’m not special for you.”
“I will see justice done, Runihara. Black gods have no place within Timera!”
Valen dropped the cord of his robes short of a complete knot and lifted his head. He leaned to peer through the brush. Runihara stood before a woman bolstered in heavy armor. Short black hair and red eyes, she scowled through the creases around her eyes. Valen stepped back, his hands quivering, but Runihara stood firm.
“Humans should not be forced to suffer at your whims,” the woman shouted. She spit her words with a belly-deep voice. “And you unleash your destruction on Ahavalla, upon Lord Mabuz and Lady Hi.”
Valen pushed his shoulders back and dragged his feet several steps closer. The woman’s rage emanated from her entire being. It tore through the quiet space between them and each word hit like daggers. Sharp tongue and scornful glares, it was clear her feelings for Runihara were nothing kind. Valen hugged himself, trying to shrug off his awareness to no avail. He stared at his feet.
“Perhaps,” Runihara replied.
A tree fell in Valen’s mind. The sharp cracking sound crashed into his dull train of thought. He grabbed his chest and scratched at the sharpness beneath his skin. The sound that carried in Runihara’s voice was surrender. It wasn’t the first time such a sound flowed through his words. Valen’s lips parted, words caught in the pit of his stomach. They churned and throbbed within him.
“Humans are fragile creatures, not unlike gods. Darkness can swallow them in the blink of an eye.”
The woman pointed her axe at Runihara, the sound of armor shifting with each motion. “Darkness should not live so carefree. You and the others – you are an eyesore.”
Urgency rose through Valen, his feet heavy but moving. He pushed past the brush, a thin branch hitting his neck and dragging across his skin. He stepped forward, eyes set on the woman, and placed himself between the two. Runihara adjusted his shoulders and stood taller, Valen’s gaze moving to him.
“Valen,” Runihara whispered. His brows were slanted, his thin lips resting atop one another.
In a moment, beneath the steady gaze of a god and the vicious glare of an enemy, Valen’s knees grew weak. “I-I heard shouting,” he admitted. “I thought something…something was wrong.”
The features of Runihara’s face softened. “Ashtad, paid me a visit,” Runihara mocked, his hand motioning to the armored woman who lowered her axe. “She’s the Wandering God of Justice.”
“Justice,” Valen contemplated. There were said to be gods for every state of being, but to meet one was something of an experience. He turned to her, watching her motions. Every flinch of her body raised the hairs on Valen’s neck. Her vivid red eyes glanced down her nose at Valen.
“A human.” she grunted. “He should submit to erasure.” Her axe raised higher, flipping upside down in her hands. Ashtad looked him over, gaze falling on his neck. Valen’s body screamed, his hand darting to cover the mark on his neck. Her reaction, the darkness that clouded her eyes, stole his breath and thinned the air. “How dare you! You put your filth upon a human like a claimed toy?”
Ashtad’s hands clenched around the handle of her weapon. The leather groaned as it folded and compressed against the metal. Her teeth ground together, brows dug deep into the bridge of her nose. She growled Runihara’s name, lightning bursting from her axe.
Runihara’s hands clutched Valen’s shoulder and pulled him back. He shifted before Valen and flicked his wrist, swatting the strikes of light away with ease.
“You marked a human? You intend to keep him? Until when? Until he decays and crumbles under your weight? Until your fingers pierce his softened, black flesh and his bones turn to dust?” Ashtad spit once more, her words slurring through her locked jaw. “He’ll kill you,” she boomed, eyes snapping to Valen. “He’ll lay his darkness inside you and eat you from the inside, corrupting you until you are nothing.”
Valen felt uneasy, his fingers gouged into the length of his robes. He’d understood, Runihara’s magic protected him from becoming like the fawn from before. His body was no less susceptible than the next and he was doomed to a life of distance intimacy, but Valen wasn’t afraid. He wanted angry, he was jealous, but behind each breath he took, reassurance resonated. Runihara was not malignant by nature, he was not his powers. Valen didn’t fear Runihara unlike the armored God of Justice raging with cracks of lightning around her.
The hand that briefly squeezed Valen’s wrist shook, fingertips lingering on the base of his arm and rolling down the pad of his hand. Runihara sighed. “You are not wrong, Ashtad. Which is why I will leave him in the human city of Lus.”
Lus was five days down the mountain, just beyond the port of Osa.