The black shrikes are shrieking. They flock around the celestial towers in raucous, rushing waves. They only get this way when blood is in the air. Death has come to Vallya, the city of the gods.
Ephea cowers and ducks as he hurries across the courtyard to the central tower, trying not to spill fruit from the golden tray he carries, or wine from the goblet. The shrikes will not attack him but when they get in their death frenzy they are mindless and fly blindly into things, like walls or trees or careless servants, god or no. And he is a god; son of Kraius, the godking, though his mother is not Queen Elenor and he is far down the list of bastards.
Safely inside the tower, Ephea pauses to catch his breath. He wonders vaguely who has died. Not some inept servant, surely? The black shrikes seem mighty worked up for a mere mortal’s demise. Maybe, then, the frictions between the lower houses have escalated to the death of some minor godling. Serious times.
The circular tower is perhaps a hundred yards across, and a wide, ivory staircase travels around the inner wall. Rising up through the centre of the tower is the First Tree, from which all other trees fell; it is long dead, but preserved and still impressive to behold. Some say that when it falls, Vallya will fall with it. Because of the tree, there are no floors below Kraius’ throne room at the top and, above that, his chambers.
At the foot of the pale stairs Vorka and Haftagg stand guard. Gods of light, their gleaming skin imbues the ivory steps behind them with a translucent luminescence. In abrupt contrast their spears have hafts of raven oak, so black it hurts to look at them, as if a piece of the world is missing.
“Hey, Godska,” Vorka booms, “scared of the birdies?”
Godska, they call him. The god who is a slave.
“Maybe Godska is afraid they are here for him.” Haftagg says, “Maybe he is afraid that today will be the day we kill him.”
Ephea knows they will not harm him, they dare not defy Kraius, but they threaten him every day. He has not quite grown used to it.
No other god is a servant; that is what mortals are for. But one day Kraius presented him to the court and declared that this godling bastard of his was to be his personal servant. In truth, Ephea remembers little before that, flashes of brightness; firm hands holding him, shaping him; a deep voice counselling patience. Ephea does not remember his mother, and no one has ever told him her name.
He steps between Vorka and Haftagg, not looking at either of them, holding his head high, swelling his chest to show them how ineffective their taunts are. He fools nobody. As soon as the two gods are out of sight below him Ephea lets out the breath he has been holding. He trembles slightly.
It is not a short journey to the top of the tower.
At the doors to the throne room, Shin and So stand guard. Foreign gods from the Eastern Isles, Ephea would like to think of their silence as a kindness, but in truth it scares him almost as much as Vorka and Haftagg’s jibes. They are taller than any god in Vallya except Kraius himself, and more slender. Ephea has seen them sparring, and they move like liquid, like dragons, dancing and flowing sinuously around each other.
They have skin like mahogany with darker whorls carved into the surface and they wear nothing but blank masks of bone with shadowy eye slits. They are so unmoving at their post, and so different, that for the longest time Ephea had thought them statues; before his lessons began and he learnt of the world beyond Vallya.
This early, before court is assembled, the throne room is eerie. Such a vast space, so obviously meant to be peopled, so empty. The throne though, even unoccupied, is imposing; it throbs with a vast power. It is all that remains of the Star Father’s heart after Kraius ripped it from his chest, a constant reminder of the godking’s unmatched power.
Ephea remembers his lessons. Of the Star Father, Kraius kept the heart for his throne; the bright eye he set circling the world, giving warmth and light to all and the blind eye he slung into the sky so that night might not always be so dark; from the bones he built Vallya, to house the gods, and the flesh he consumed in a year-long orgy of feasting, blood and sex.
Behind the dais and the throne is a doorway which leads to a smaller staircase circling upwards to the royal chambers. This archway is unguarded, anyone passing through it but the King and Queen or Ephea would find it leads not to a staircase but instead transports them to the pit of the Archon, Lord of the Dragons, prisoner of the gods.
Unlike the main staircase there are windows in this last stretch and Ephea can see the black shrikes outside: a dark, frantic cloud. The air is thick with them, more than he has ever seen before. This is where they are focussed. Their shrieks are a terrible wail and Ephea feels a deep dread land on him like a suffocating shroud. He runs then, not even turning back for the apple that tumbles from his tray and thumps softly down the steps behind him.
He bursts into Kraius’ sleeping chambers and the tray and goblet fall from his hands, forgotten, as he stumbles and crashes to his knees. Glistening, perfect fruits roll across the floor and a pool of red washes out from the golden goblet but Ephea sees only one thing: Kraius, mighty godking, pinned through his broad chest by a sword of writhing, black smoke.
Godstorm pt.2: Wailing Winds.