Advent of Dawn
Faith Lost and Found
Blood and broth spilled from his son’s colorless lips. Stinking of medicine, the reddish-yellow liquid dribbled down Draylan’s chin before Sidra Tuitis dabbed at it with a cloth. Sidra waited a moment for what remained of the mixture to slowly disappear from his son’s mouth. The slight movement along the skin of Draylan’s neck, as he managed to swallow, was the only action that told Sidra his son still retained some semblance of consciousness. Draylan never spoke, never moved a limb, never shifted his eyes, and never responded to any of Sidra’s pleading words or prayers.
For five years, Draylan had been this way. Sidra sighed as the swallowing stopped. He eased his son’s head back onto the goose down pillow, making sure not to alter the blankets in any way that would send another whiff of decay from beneath them.
Stroking his son’s forehead, his pasty hand appearing full of life compared to Draylan’s corpselike skin color, Sidra closed his eyes and muttered, “Oh Velik, the year has come and gone when you reached out to me in my dreams, promising my son, Draylan, would be well. Yet, nothing has changed. Here he lies almost dead to the world. Have I not pleased you in my endeavors? Has my faith ever waned? Have I not been committed to your cause? Why do you still punish me so?” Tears streamed down Sidra’s wrinkled cheeks, soaking his hair where it touched his face. He wanted to say more, but if he did, they may be words he’d later regret. Blasphemous words that may well bring his patron god’s wrath down on him. No, the time for such an outburst had not yet come. Sidra’s body trembled with the effort he used to restrain himself.
When Sidra opened his eyes, Draylan’s disposition hadn’t changed. His son’s gray eyes still stared sightlessly at the white ceiling. Through the covers, Sidra gave his son’s hand a squeeze, and trudged from the room, leaving the stench of sickness, medicine, and decay behind him.
Heart heavy as he walked down the passageway past his bedroom and out through his sparsely furnished living room, Sidra pulled the belt of his white robe around him, fixed his hood, and prepared for the worst. He stepped from his small abode into a gale, debris and dust swirling about him.
Gray clouds blanketed the skies above Velika, sunlight a dull glow trying to radiate through the cover and failing. A good day for dark deeds and dark words, Sidra thought, his robe billowing about him, whipped by the fierce winds that often howled down from Northern Arun. Slate and tile roofs spread far and wide, spires poked into the sky, and the Wheel of Velika—the five hundred foot gear that kept time—dominated the city’s center, rising higher than any other structure until mist hid the upper part of its rounded surface. Ahead of Sidra, the statue of the goddess Velika in her hunting regalia stood sentinel at the front of the temple. Wherever I look, the you taunt me while my son lays an invalid and worse. And still I pay homage every day.
The City of Wheels never sounded so silent as it did the minutes before the Hour of Prayer. The cries from the markets died to nothingness. No blacksmith hammers clanged from the Creator’s Workshop in their nonstop ritual of crafting weapons and armor for the Argon War. Neither was there the barked orders of officers as they drilled recruits in the courtyard at the Legion of Arms. Even the muted roars of magic from sorcerers in training ceased at this time. The silence at this hour was a feat the arcanists studying within the confines of the great libraries in the Collegium Arcane savored. The winds, however, paid no heed, wailing the fury of an impending storm.
Above the winds’ funeral dirge, a bell tolled. And another. And another. Soon, their gongs sang across the city, announcing the Hour of Prayer. Sidra looked toward the poorer sections of Velika where filth, crime, slums, disease, and death ruled. Somewhere down there, a child starved or worse, prayers unanswered. Some woman was being raped or forced into prostitution, her screams unheard. Some hardworking man was being robbed for the fruits of his labor, his cries lost in the gong of the bells. Where are you Velik, come to save the needy, with your declaration of a place of safety? Sidra turned his head toward the Great Temple of Velik, his mouth curling with the urge to spit.
Stragglers, human and nonhuman alike, with their heads bowed made their way toward the temple’s double doors. Cloaks billowing, they kept their hoods pulled down against the wind and dust.
A grim smile played across Sidra’s thin lips. Good thing he decided to keep his sermon a little later this morning. It would be a shame to have the tardy miss his words. Ignoring the eddies, he straightened and pushed on toward the rear entrance. Today would be a good day.
His footsteps on the flagstones resonated to the trembling beat of his heart as Sidra shuffled toward the door, every stride steadier with each step. He entered the temple, and for the first time, he didn’t bow or offer up a prayer to Velik.
No lightning struck him, no black arrow pierced his heart, and no god scolded him. If his smile was grim before, this one was a dark slit in his face.
“Good morn’, High One,” came the reedy voice of Priest Beron.
Sidra acknowledged the gray haired man with a nod. “Prepare my formal colors,” Sidra ordered. “And ready the horn to broadcast my words across Velika. Today’s service will be one they shan’t forget.”
Priest Beron dipped his head several times, but not before Sidra saw the frown on the man’s face. Still, as with everyone else, no one would dare question the High Priest’s decisions. At least not anyone who wasn’t upper echelon within the Valkyon Federation. Back bent, Beron hurried along the carpeted floor as much as a man who’d been hobbled by and barely survived the grey death—the same plague that had taken Sidra’s family—could be said to hurry.
Candles and incense spread their sweet aromas through the air as Sidra traversed the long hall to his room. Positioned between lamp-filled braziers, tapestries lined the walls. Many depicted Velik in all her glory during the Divine War, her silver and ebony armor aglow, as she struck down her foes with her black bow. Several others showed the city Velika in different stages before its completion and the palace that was once said to be the goddess’ home. The same palace from whose ruins they’d built the Great Temple. A fitting place for him to deliver his final tribute to the goddess. Sidra smirked.
Safe in the confines of his room, Sidra stripped off his robes. As best as his gnarled fingers could allow, he unstrapped the thin leather armor he wore under his priestly garb. Not enough protection against his many enemies, but imbued with magic as it were, the hardened leather provided just the right amount of a buffer against metal. Free of the armor, Sidra rolled his neck and shoulders, his long, black hair falling down his back where it brushed against the old scars. Sidra looked down over his bulbous nose and passed a hand across the matching white slashes on his chest and abdomen. Those too he’d received in Velik’s service. He scowled.
Fuck the gods and goddesses. They’ve had enough of my blood and my family’s. Sidra braced himself, but as before, no retribution came. He let out a deep breath.
Reassured of his purpose, Sidra waited in his undergarments for Beron to bring him the robes of his station. High Priest of Velik, in the city of Velika, one of the highest positions within the order one could achieve. He savored the thought with a smile. Whereas he hadn’t amounted to much as Prefect, his words as High Priest carried weight—a weight felt far within the Federation and beyond. Was he willing to sacrifice it all?
A knock sounded on the heavy oak door, and before he thought further, Sidra made his decision. He strode to the door and threw it open. Beron stood before him, his hand raised to knock again. Without a word, Sidra took the robes from the old priest’s hands and closed the door.
Sidra’s bony hands trembled as he faced the lone mirror encompassing the far wall. Today, he would don this garb for the last time. Purposefully leaving his armor where it lay on the carpet, Sidra slipped the samite garment, with its red velvet trim along the cuffs and v-shaped neckline, over his head. The robe fell around his gaunt body to his sandals, making him appear much bigger than he was, its silver and gold coloring in contrast with his dark eyes. Emblazoned upon the garment’s breast stood a sword encircled by a gear—Velika’s standard, Timely Judgment—as many referred to the insignia. Fitting. Sidra took one final look at the wrinkled skin of his face, the deep set of his eyes, expelled a great breath to steady his fluttering insides, and left the room.
As he strode down the hall toward the Chamber of Prayer, he held his shoulders straight and stiff. The tapestries and statues of Velik and the other gods seemed to leer at him or narrow their eyes in reproach as he moved past each. Sidra kept his eyes forward, ignoring them as best he could, muttering to reassure himself of his act. With each step closer to the doors that led to the pulpit, the butterflies flitting around his stomach and the shakiness in his legs and arms subsided.
His purpose was clear.
Priest Beron and Priest Mazor pushed open the doors to the chamber as Sidra approached. Organ music drifted in through the doors—the announcement of the High Priest’s arrival. The red carpet soft beneath his feet, Sidra held his head high as he entered and strode to the dais. Murmurs about the room dwindled to silence.
Sidra surveyed the chamber. Below him, lined before the front rows of benches, stood Velika’s most prestigious citizens. He could point from one to the other. Blacksmiths, artisans, rich merchants, ship owners, nobles bearing the colors of their station, and high ranked members of the Valkyon Federation in their silver, blue, and burgundy uniforms. From Consuls down to Prefects filled those pews.
Behind these lines of the well-off came the less fortunate who’d managed to make the trek across the city to be at the Great Temple today. Innkeepers, dock workers, common soldiers, farmers, and behind them, one or two peasants in the dregs they called their feast-day best.
Sidra took in their presence, one and all, his face like granite.
Beron began the prayer, “In Velik we trust, since the days the Great Wandering ended, and she gave us our home in Veli—” He cut off with a choking sound.
Multiple gasps swept around the Chamber of Prayer.
Sidra lowered his hand.
Free of Sidra’s magic that had blocked his throat, Beron gagged for air. He dropped to one knee before Priest Mazor helped him to his feet. Several in the crowd made to approach the pulpit, but Sidra’s scowl gave them pause. Most appeared in a daze, too stunned by the fact Sidra had stopped the prayer.
“Citizens, visitors, and friends of Velika—our fair City of Wheels,” Sidra’s voice was silky smooth, “where children die from disease, hunger devours the poor, and many live in squalor while we worry about wars far away across the land.” His voice traveled across the room, amplified by his own magic and by the announcement horn. “Is this what our worship of Velik, of the gods, have bought us?”
Sharp intakes of breaths and muffled cries were the responses to his blasphemy. Eyes shifted left and right. Citizens glanced at each other as if in disbelief of what he’d asked.
Sidra continued, “Our histories of Tera tells us two great titans, Shara and Arun fell into a great slumber. Their bodies created our lands and their dreams … Life. Magic, the Twelve Deities and all that came after derived from them. These same histories are rife with stories and legends of the gods battling in the Divine War, of gods protecting those they created, of gods saving one race or another, of gods destroying one race or another.
“Gods, gods, gods and more gods.” Sidra practically spat the words as his voice rose in pitch. “I ask you. Where are our gods? Where is Velik? I’ve watched for five years as my son slowly dies from the plague the grey death brought with only my magic to sustain him.” He pointed out several members of the congregation. “You, Master Federick, you, Consul Marshan, you, Legate Rionso, and many and more of you have seen your families whittled to nothing day by day, from one suffering to another, from war, to crime, to disease. Yet, we pray and pray and pray. Does Velik not hear us? Or are we part of some plot to see us to our slow demise?”
Sidra fought down the twisted smile from his lips as he took in their faces. Some wide-eyed expressions radiated fear and shock. Others bore furrowed brows and narrowed eyes as they contemplated his words. A few hands were raised, fingers pointed toward him.
Sidra frowned at that last. No, they weren’t pointed at him. His brow knitted tighter.
The room had become silent. Too silent. No clothing rustled. The armor of the guards at the doors didn’t clink. The wind outside no longer howled.
No one moved. In fact, they appeared frozen.
The hair at the back of Sidra’s neck prickled. A chill crept down his spine and his stomach knotted.
“Turn and face me,” a female voice ordered in a tone dipped in steel and ice.
Licking his suddenly dry lips, Sidra complied.
A woman, about his height, bearing a black bow, and dressed in the silver and black hunter’s regalia he knew all too well, stood behind him.
Velik’s eyes blazed with fury.