The priests had said prayer would save his mother, so Osar prayed for a year and a day. Dawn til dusk, beseeching shadow and sunlight. Oft late past the darkening hour he’d bowed his head and grovelled, bargained, begged. He had devoted himself to Dionas the Golden God. But Dionas hadn’t heard the prayers, or worse, refused to answer them. Even the gods couldn’t cure cancer.
Osar wrenched another weed from the overturned earth.
And for all of his devotion what did he have to show for it? A grave dug by his own hands and a dead woman to fill it. The Golden God might have been the city’s patron and its father, but Osar didn’t want to trade his mother for a surrogate deity.
Osar gained his feet, brushing dirt from his vestments. His knees were muddied and earth was jammed between his toes thanks to the open-end sandals. His hands, soft and delicate from months of prayer, were bloodied and engrained with dirt from tending to the grave.
A voice from behind Osar made him turn around.
“A soiled priest? Don’t let the Archsaji catch you looking like that.”
Quilon hobbled and wheezed his way through the temple gardens. The ancient saji laid one hand on Osar’ shoulder, the other on the grave marker. The golden star gleamed in the sunlight, its polished surface glinting through the gaps between Quilon’s gnarled fingers.
“A golden star? My boy, this grave must have cost you a year’s allowance.” Quilon’s hand fell from the marker.
“It did.” Osar scowled at Quilon. The old man had left smudged fingerprints on his mother’s grave. Osar used his sleeve to clean it.
They stood in silence, heads bowed over the grave. Osar picked at a loose thread on his yellow vestment. He wanted to be alone, to think of his mother. Quilon’s presence was distracting. He was always sticking his nose in Osar’s business, but Quilon maintained it was part of his tutor duties.
Quilon cleared his throat. He pulled at his five-point wispy beard, crumbs of whatever he’d eaten for breakfast and dried skin falling to dust the grave. “The gods have their ways.” He shook his head, bald pate catching the sun. “We all live and die to serve their higher purpose. Come now, we have morning prayers to attend.”
Osar pushed Quilon’s hand from his shoulder, a little more roughly than he meant to. “I’m not going.”
“You’re not going?” Though it was a question, Quilon didn’t sound surprised.
“No,” Osar said.
Quilon wrung his baggy sleeves over his hands, clasping them before him. “But every priest must attend morning prayers.”
“I don’t want to be a priest any more.”
“But you’re my novi.”
“I don’t want to be your novi any more.”
“I see,” Quilon said. His watery eyes stared into Osar’ own. One lid drooped over the rheumy white, but Quilon kept staring. “Four more years and you won’t have to be a priest or a novi anymore.”
Osar matched the gaze as long as he could before blinking. He dropped his eyes to Quilon’s chest in defeat, only to find the gold star medallion Quilon wore staring back at him. Wherever Osar looked or went since joining the temple, the temple seemed to be watching him.
“What do you want, Osar?” Quilon asked.
“Not even the gods can give me what I want.” His right hand wormed its way into the pouch on the front of his vestments, fingering his mother’s charm. The gold was warm to his touch.
“The gods give and take for reasons beyond us mortals.” Quilon sighed and turned away. “If you want to know why they took your mother ask them. But there’s no better way to ask them than through prayer, and there’s no better time than now. Morning prayers it is.”
Osar fell into step behind Quilon, almost tripping over the old saji’s shuffle of a walk. Other priests appeared from the gardens. Shaven headed and yellow robed, the bearded men all made for the temple, sparing neither Osar nor Quilon any notice.
Osar looked back over his shoulder, past his mother’s grave, through the palms, over the flowerbeds, spotting the gilded gates in the distance. Even from where he stood he could just make out the gleaming figures standing guard in their golden armour. Though the Paladins were there to keep the public out during the closing hours, Osar didn’t think they’d let him past either. His fingers searched the collar about his neck, tracing the outline of the star-shaped lock at its front. Four more years until it was meant to come off.
The tolling of the gong seemed to shake the very earth itself. Osar looked ahead to the temple and his eyes roamed up its central tower. He blinked as the gong flashed brightly from the penultimate level. At five storeys tall the tower was the tallest structure in the Golden City. The temple itself circled the tower, stooped like a gathering of priests knelt before a great idol. Made of sandstone walls and an arched roof of greened copper, the temple was a testament to the Golden God’s provision. It boasted stained-glass windows bevelled with gold, and statues of pudgy-faced cherubs. Osar hated the cherubs – he’d grown up on the streets of the Golden City, and despite Dionas’ title as the god of provision, Osar had never been provided with enough to stave off hunger, let alone grow pudgy.
Scowling to himself, Osar stooped like a good novi should and followed Quilon into the temple through the grand double-doors, wide enough to allow a horse and carriage. A pair of novi heaved the doors inward behind them, careful to leave a definitive crack. The temple doors were never closed. As the priests would say ‘the door to the Golden God’s house is always open.’
They were late judging by the number already gathered. Osar followed Quilon’s instruction and together they took their place at the rear of the congregation. The inner wall of the temple was a succession of five golden pillars supporting wide stone archways. It bordered the circular cloister that in turn surrounded the tower. Priests stood in concentric lines, all looking inward, all as bald as Quilon. Not for the first time Osar was struck by how odd the priests looked, almost alien with their beards combed and oiled into five-points. Younger members of the temple, those not yet old enough to grow facial hair, wore gold rings on their collars, one for each term served up to five. There was something disturbing about the way the priests all spoke and moved in the same way. Even if they weren’t dressed in matching yellowed vestments it would be hard to tell them apart. Osar ran a hand over his own head feeling the coarse bristles of hair starting to grow through. He’d need a cut soon, or it’d mean extra chores and a scolding. Doubly so if anyone other than Quilon realised Osar should be growing the next of his five beard points now that he was into his second novi year.
Archsaji Ponti descended from the spiral staircase leading up into the tower. The tower’s base mirrored the temple’s interior wall, five pillars between archways, allowing everyone to see the Archsaji. The base was home to a dais, and upon the dais squatted an unrecognisable shape cloaked in a green shroud. Ponti took up his place on the dais next to the shroud, turning on the spot, hands raised, welcoming the priests. The Archsaji was as powerful in office as he was in frame, broad shouldered and barrel chested. His sleeves were rolled back over bulging forearms, thick with hair and muscle, and even though the top two buttons of his robe were left undone, the fabric was noticeably straining. Ponti looked more the warrior than a man or worship.
“Before we begin this morning’s prayers…” Ponti’s voice rumbled like thunder through the cloister. “…The city is rife with rumour of the Opel invasion. Some say the horde has laid siege to Taasur. Others say they have made it as far south as the Iaria Bridge.”
As Ponti continued with his speech, Osar found his attention wandering. Beyond the temple he could hear the city stirring. The low buzz of gossip, the pitch of gull cries, and the distant drone of the grand waterfall north of the city. Above it all Osar picked out the grind of the temple’s gates. They shouldn’t be opening yet. The public weren’t permitted into the grounds until after morning prayer.
Osar listened to sound of booted feet on the temple’s cobbled path beyond the doors. He glanced around the congregation. The other priests were listening raptly to Ponti and none seemed to have heard the approaching strangers.
The temple door’s creaked on their hinges. Osar stole a look in their direction. Sunlight spilled through the crack. No-one peered back at him, no-one knocked. He returned his attention to Ponti, attributing his suspicion on another sleepless night of mourning.
Ponti raised his hands and the priests lowered their heads. “And now we pray.” He turned to the shape on the dais and swept the shroud from it. Light caught on the crystal’s clear surface, sending fractured beams skittering across the congregation.
One of the beams pointed at Osar’ chest. He stepped to the side, jostling Quilon to get out of the way of the crystal’s radiance. A sudden chill crept up his spine. The light from between the doors behind him dimmed and a shadow fell over Osar.
Ponti continued. “Whatever truth lies in the rumours of the Opel invasion, we shall pray for those outside the Golden City.”
“Do not pray for them.” A voice boomed. The temple doors slammed open on their hinges, wafting sand and grit over those priests at the back of the congregation. “Do not pray for those that are already doomed, Archsaji Ponti. Pray for those you can still save, including yourselves.”
“Ah, Goldlord Paladin! What a pleasant surprise.” Ponti looked surprised, but he didn’t look too pleased at being interrupted. “I believe the gate guards have let you in early. The temple isn’t open until after the morning prayers. If you’d be so kind to wait-”
The Goldlord led four other Paladins through the temple doors, two abreast. The Paladins marched to a halt in perfect order, golden armour ringing through the stunned silence. They stood statue still. The Goldlord raised a hand and in perfect symmetry the Paladins parted to form a line before the doors, blocking the only exit. They cracked the butts of their morningstaffs on the sandstone tiles and let their tower shields rest.
“This cannot wait.” The Goldlord’s face was hidden behind a full-face helm, muffling the voice. The helmet – expertly forged to the likeness of a phoenix in flight – and the rest of the Goldlord’s armour spoke of power. A golden breastplate sculpted to portray the perfect physique, a leather belt adorned with gems and jewels, and a cloak and ankle-length skirt of the finest white silk. “The rumours you speak of are true. The Opel have laid siege to Taasur.”
The priests erupted. Tears, wails, cries and screams; if the news hadn’t been so grim Osar would’ve laughed at fat Horker for fainting. The Paladins stood in silence at the temple doors, making no signs of moving as the priests sought to push past.
“Silence!” The Goldlord’s voice echoed like thunder within the temple.
Osar clutched to Quilon’s arm. The old saji gave Osar’s hand a reassuring squeeze.
“Archsaji, convene your saji.” The Goldlord commanded. “The King has invoked the Call.”
The Paladins snapped to attention, hefting their shields and readying their morningstaffs. Without as much as a by-your-leave the Goldlord swept from the temple, the Paladins in step at his heels. The priests returned to their uproar. Ponti lowered his arms, but despite the grim news of Taasur’s fall a wide smile spread across his face.
Osar felt a small hand tugging on his own.
Litys, an orphan novi barely seven years old, looked up at Osar through teary eyes. “Dionas save us.” Litys’ bottom lip trembled.
Quilon whispered, “Dionas will save us, do not fret child.” He bent down before Litys, knees and back clicking. “That is why King Midysius has invoked the Call.”
Osar bit down on his lip. He’d prayed for over a year, begging the for deliverance of only one life. But if Dionas couldn’t save one life, how could he save a city?
Ponti’s voice cut through the priests’ clamour. “Calm down everyone! Please calm down.” His tone swept over the congregation like a wave, washing away their panic, whispers and tears ebbing away. “Return to your duties, pray in your own time. We will open the gates early to give council to the people. They are just afraid as you are. Comfort them. Comfort yourselves.”
A ripple passed through the crowd. Some nodded, other gave voice to fears or faith. Fat Horker groaned where he lay.
Ponti spoke over the rising volume, “Saji, we have work to do. Bring your novi.” Ponti swept from the cloister, disappearing in a flutter of vestments as he mounted the steps leading into the tower. The crystal shimmered in his wake, the shroud forgotten on the dais.
Quilon creaked upright, sending Litys to help those struggling with Horker. “Osar, come with me.”
“No buts.” Quilon shook his head. “Four more years, remember? If you’re lucky I’ll be dead before then and you’ll return to normal novi duties rather than serving a saji.” Quilon’s laugh choked off on the sand and dust in the air, and he hobbled toward the tower.
* * * * *
Osar had never been inside the tower before. He wasn’t allowed. Not many of the priests were. Strictly Ponti and the saji – though Osar had a hard time imagining Quilon and the other old men frequenting the steep spiral staircase without help. Though the four other saji had their novi with them now, the younger priests kept their thoughts, tongues and hands to themselves. Aware that he shouldn’t be there, Osar kept close to Quilon’s side, though his attention ran away from him.
Whatever was going on, whatever the Goldlord had meant by ‘the Call’, it was important enough to assemble all of the saji. Osar had never heard of such a thing.
The tower was much wider on the inside than it appeared from the out. Below, daylight spilled between the five pillars holding up the tower. The light refracted through the crystal on the dais, sending glimmers dancing up the entire length of the tower interior. Osar followed the lights all the way to the top, where they shone all the brighter upon the star-shaped gong suspended from the floor of the uppermost level.
The saji and their novi filed one-by-one into the chamber at the top of the tower. Osar inched around the purpose-built holes in the floor – risking a dizzying glance down to the crystal. Like the tower base, the chamber was ringed with golden pillars and arches, and the vaulted ceiling was mantled with green shrouds like the one for the crystal. The wide arches gave way to vista views of the Blasted Lands beyond the city, stretching to the horizon and back. Sun, sand and scorched earth, a far cry from the bounty of the Golden City’s paved streets, fresh water fountains, and exotic flora. To the north the Prospect Falls were wreathed in as much dust as they were mist, veiling the orange ridgeline. The Founding Flow river wormed its way free of the mist and made its way to the Golden City, parting through manmade channels to supply each of the five points with water, before going on to join the sea hundreds of leagues south.
Leaning toward the closest window and craning his neck to look down over the temple grounds, Osar wrestled vertigo from pulling him closer to the edge. Even his sleeping quarters, set in the third and highest floor of the outer temple wall, were lower than the tower. Squinting, he spotted the two Paladins on guard at the gate. As he watched, they heaved open the gates to let the public in. Men, women and children, flooded in. The priests met them in the gardens with open arms. Word had spread quickly of the Opel’s invasion.
Booted feet on stone and the clank and jingle of armour echoed up from the tower below. The priests fell silent as the Goldlord marched into the chamber as unannounced as he had interrupted their earlier prayers, the same four Paladin’s in tow. When King Midysius’s appeared at the top of the stairs the priests dropped to their knees, palms and foreheads pressed to the dusty sandstone.
“Up,” Midysius commanded.
Osar helped Quilon to his feet, other saji groaning for their old bones. The four other novi stood shaking behind their mentors.
Ponti stepped forward. “My king, the saji are assembled as you requested.”
Midysius’ hawkish glare passed over all of the saji and novi in turn. Osar flinched beneath the King’s appraisal, brown-gold eyes gauging the sum of his worth like a fickle merchant. Midysius’ face was as weathered as the sand-stormed reaches of the Blasted Lands, lines on his brow, creases at the corners of his eyes. Yet his expression gave nothing away. He held his head high, his golden crown sat atop a mane of fading blonde streaked with silver. Back straight, broad chest puffed out soldier-like, he white-knuckled his sceptre as if holding a sword.
“Taasur has fallen.” Midysius’ voice fell with the finality of an executioner’s axe. “The Opel are coming.”
“Forgive my ignorance.” Ponti held up his hands. “But Prince Herak has defended the Black Border for seven years – how is it that the Opel have passed him?”
The temperature in the room seemed to plummet. Sticky sheen from the morn’s heat turned to cold sweat on Osar’s back. Even the Goldlord shifted wordlessly, though the phoenix-helm betrayed nothing.
Midysius fixed Ponti with an even stare and something seemed to pass unsaid between them.
Osar clenched his teeth to stop them from chattering. ‘Prince Herak is dead.’ The thought sank a cold dagger of dread into his gut.
“The Opel must be destroyed.” Midysius strode towards Ponti, raising his sceptre as if he was going to strike the Archsaji down. “Destroyed. Man, woman and child. Warrior, worker and priest.” The sceptre swept down.
Its point stopped a hair’s width from Ponti’s nose. To his credit Ponti didn’t even flinch, shovel-like hands clasped at his back. The air between them seemed to throb with power. Each man was as big as the other, with enough power in the point of a little finger to condemn or save the city and its people.
“The Opus Stone.” Midysius gestured with the crystal mounted onto the end of his sceptre. It looked like a shard broken off of the crystal at the tower’s base. “With this you can complete the Call?”
Ponti’s eyes were locked onto the crystal hovering before him. “Yes.” His voice came out breathy, little more than a whisper.
Midysius took the crystal in one paw-like hand and snapped it clean off the sceptre. The Goldlord made to protest but a hand from the King bade silence. Midysius offered the crystal to Ponti.
“Do it.” Midysius’ whole body was shaking, outstretched hand the worst of it. “The Opel are a godless nation. Bring down the wrath of the gods on them. Petition Dionas and see them destroyed.”
Ponti’s gaze never left the crystal as he spoke, “it will take twenty-five days.”
“Just see it done,” Midysius said. “What more do you need?”
“Only the Opus stone.” Ponti accepted the offered crystal in both hands with ceremonial care. “One saji each day will help with the spell. I have five, they can decide between them who will begin.”
Quilon hobbled forward. “I will, if you allow it, Archsaji.”
“Very well.” Ponti didn’t look up from the crystal in his grasp. “Dismiss your novi. You other saji, I will require a replacement for Quilon tomorrow, he will need to rest. As will each of you in the days to come.”
Midysius dropped his voice to barely a whisper, but it was no less commanding. “Tell no-one of this. What happens within this tower, stays in this tower. That goes for all of you.”
Ponti crooked a bushy brow. “You would deny the people hope?”
Pausing halfway to the stairs, Midysius cracked his sceptre on the stone underfoot, making Osar jump.
“No I would deny them disappointment if this doesn’t work.” With that he swept from the tower, the Goldlord and other Paladins in escort.
The other saji and their novi followed thereafter, and Osar went to Quilon’s side.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
Quilon smiled. “We are going to summon a god.”