A tale of Theros
Why do they bleed?" King Anax shouted to his servants, who milled around him helplessly. His fury echoed down the stark corridors of the Kolophon, the royal fortress of the king and queen of Akros. Cymede rushed into the banquet hall and to her husband's side. The king, with his powerful shoulders and muscular build, quivered with rage. Cymede followed his gaze upward to where the severed head of a stag was skewered on an iron chandelier. It was a Nyxborn stag, and it dripped rivulets of blood and star field into a glowing crimson pool on the cold stone floor of the empty banquet hall.
"Another day, another beheading," Cymede said dryly. This was the seventh day in a row that a mysterious severed head had been found in a different room of the fortress.
"This is no time for humor, woman!" Anax snapped.
Cymede shot him a dangerous look. When they had first married, Anax had a habit of demeaning her through careless words. His view that women were lesser than men was so ingrained that he never questioned his own beliefs. But Cymede did. In those early days, she fought him on everything from his habit of executing prisoners by throwing them into the Deyda River to his refusal to make eye contact with a woman when she was speaking to him. Anax's father was the same way - both men assumed the woman wouldn't be saying anything interesting, after all. Cymede had waged an emotional war with her king to be treated with the respect that she deserved. To his credit, Anax had seen her perspective and adapted. Many men wouldn't have been capable of that.
"It's always time for humor, my love," Cymede said. "I find it amusing. You now have a stag to add to your trophy room. Between the boar and the sable, perhaps?"
Actually, Cymede didn't find it amusing at all. But her husband was at the breaking point. If she showed her own distress, she was afraid he'd do something rash. It was best to downplay her concern in front of Anax and then do her own investigation into the situation. She still wasn't sure what they were dealing with. Anax believed it was a divine curse, and it might be. But it could also be a prank born of a twisted—but mortal—mind. Seven days and seven severed heads, and the security forces could do nothing to stop it. Despite having the best minds in the city working on the problem, only Cymede discerned the pattern. She was not about to share her discovery with her husband or any of the dim-witted oracles who had been no help whatsoever.
Each severed head was a Nyxborn—a creature born of the gods. The first day, it had been the head of a brindle boar. On day two, it was a bull. The rest of the week, they were given the pleasure of a severed swordfish head, a lynx head, and a sable head. And today, the perpetrator had left them a mighty stag's head. After the lynx, Cymede expected everyone to see what was happening as clearly as she did. But Iroas's priests and oracles were so focused on how the perpetrator was doing it, they didn't stop to think about the meaning behind it. Cymede saw that someone was killing animals that represented the gods. In this twisted vision, the gods had become the sacrificial lambs. Cymede suspected that the perpetrator was making a statement about the nature of the gods—and it was an insulting one, too. Iroas had no animal, but his detractors often used a boar to insult the patron god of the city.
"Take the head to the oracles," Cymede directed the servants. "And clean up this mess."
"They have told us nothing!" Anax said. "Throw it in the trash heap!"
Cymede rested her hand on her husband's shoulder. He was on the short side for a man of Akros. His stature made him defensive despite his renowned exploits on the battlefield. No one questioned his prowess as a man, but it was always in the back of his mind.
"The trash heap," she echoed. "You're quite right, Anax. This rubbish deserves no more of our attention."
Then she led Anax out the door and up into the west wing, where their chambers were. She flung open the doors to the balcony that overlooked Akros. When they stood on the balcony, they appeared to be at eye level with the Stone Colossus that loomed over the city. Cymede walked her king to the railing so he could survey his remarkable city. His extensive realm extended far into the mountains. Only the gods had greater domains. She waited while he stared at his horizon, and his breathing began to calm. It was only here on the balcony that her husband didn't feel small.
"You cannot let this ... child's prank get the better of you," Cymede said. A cool breeze blew in from the north. It was a hot and miserable day, and she thanked the wind for the small blessing.
"This is no prank!" he said.
"Then what do you think it is?" Cymede asked.
"Even the oracles of Iroas can't say. Why do you ask me?"
"Whoever is doing this knows you, Anax," she said. "They're trying to erode your sense of security, which is fundamental to you. I think this is someone close to you."
"It's probably just madman," Anax replied.
"He is not so mad as to thwart our guards," Cymede said. "Think about your past. Maybe the answer is there."
"It's not my brother, if that's what you're implying," Anax said. "Timoteus is away with the Alamon."
Cymede considered her next words carefully. The Alamon were one of the wandering bands of warriors who made up the itinerant portion of the Akroan army. These warrior bands were entirely self-sufficient, relying on hunting to supply their numbers while in the field. The Alamon warriors were tasked with killing stray monsters that wandered too close to the city. They were also responsible for keeping the minotaurs at bay, which they were doing with less and less success. These warriors had been a vital part of the Akroan army for as long as anyone could remember. Whenever there was a threat to the city, the king would call them back, and they would flank and overwhelm the invaders.
Cymede believed there were benefits to this arrangement, but it also made governance difficult. The leaders of these wandering warriors did not think of themselves as under the rule of the king in the way they should. The younger brother of the king believed himself the rightful king of Akros, and although he kept his distance all these years, Cymede worried when he might make his claim.
She waited too long to speak, and Anax knew what she was thinking.
"If my brother wanted to challenge me, he would call me between the pillars," Anax insisted. "There is no honor in leaving bloody tokens scattered around my home. There's nothing to be gained for him in doing that."
Except your increasing instability. Except your self-doubt, Cymede thought. Just a few months earlier, Anax let a self-proclaimed oracle convince him that a fiery sky meant that the minotaurs were marching to war on the city. With no evidence but the charlatan's word, the king had expelled the foreigners and made ready for war - and nothing happened. It had eroded the populace's confidence in their king.
"Yes, of course," Cymede agreed. "Perhaps you should implore Iroas for answers. Better yet, beseech him for action. The Silence of the gods has gone on long enough."
Anax nodded in agreement. "We'll hold a game this afternoon in the stadium. I will summon all the soldiers to exalt the glory of Iroas."
"You should," Cymede said. "Although there's a storm coming in."
Sure enough, clouds darkened the horizon. Usually Cymede would have attributed them to the worried brow of Keranos. But without his presence in the world, the oncoming storm felt wilder and more ominous. Cymede felt like something very dangerous lay hidden beyond those clouds.
"Rain?" Anax asked. "What of it? Since when does rain stop the pankration?"
"Of course not," Cymede said. So the spectacle would be half-naked men brawling in the mud for the glory of an absent god. Well, at least it would keep Anax from brooding all afternoon.
"Will you come?" Anax asked.
"Perhaps I will be there for the finale," Cymede said. "I need to take care of some issues with the supplies."
"Of course," he said. He kissed her cheek. "I'll see you soon."
She waited until he left the chamber, and then she bolted the door. There was little chance she would be back in time for the finale. And she was tired of waiting for others to find answers. She needed to find them herself. Although she could hear god-speak, Cymede had never proclaimed herself an oracle or let any god claim her as their own. But if there were any god that she would devote herself to, it would be Keranos. She related to his impatient destructiveness. She had closely controlled these qualities in herself, but she could happily worship one who doled out death strikes and divine insight in equal measure.
She removed her purple gown and the decorative bronze accoutrements. She put on a simple black dress, leggings, and a cloak. With her hair hidden under a black scarf, she could pass through the shadowy corridors of the fortress without notice. Cymede hurried down the servants' steps to the lower levels beneath the fortress. She ducked into one of the winter supply rooms and waited behind crates in the nearly complete darkness. When she was sure she hadn't been followed, she pulled the hidden lever that led to the secret tunnels below the catacombs. Following the tunnel would take her down through the earth to the Deyda River two hundred feet below. This exit was one of the best-kept secrets of the Kolophon. Only the king and his advisors were to ever know, and the knowledge was only to be passed down from man to man. But Cymede had a habit of listening at doors. She didn't agree with men having a monopoly on anything, and she used the tunnels more than any royal before her.
Cymede had secretly explored every inch of the tunnels and was surprised to find that, over the ages, people had left graffiti. Most were just names of people long dead. But some forgotten king had used the walls to write an enemy list with corresponding tally marks - although what he was counting was lost to the ages. Cymede had discovered that there were exits at two different heights above the raging river. The lowest door opened about ten feet above the water. A rope ladder could be lowered onto a narrow rocky beach during the dry season. During rainy season, the water rushed just below the doorway, and not even a triton could have navigated those treacherous currents.
The higher exit opened into midair a hundred feet above the water, and this was the one she liked to use. Perhaps there had been a rope bridge stretching across the gorge at one time, but there was nothing left of it now. No matter, she thought, as she flung open the heavy wooden door. The storm had moved directly over the city, and the air felt like it was bruised and weeping. A furious wind howled up the gorge and battered against her. Below, the waters of the Deyda crested like ocean waves, and the air crackled with energy. This was no god-storm. It was the natural world reasserting itself in the absence of the god's control. Keranos's domain was storms, and they were running wild without him. Cymede liked it. The primal energy of the wind and rain made her feel more powerful than ever.
She stepped off the edge.
The water rushed up at her as she fell. Before impact, she manipulated a wave to crest beneath her, and she used the energy to propel her into the air again. Simultaneously, she magically tore shards of stone from the cliff and placed them like steps ascending the slope of the sweeping wave. Each stone hovered briefly before her then fell away and splashed into the water below. This was how she walked the river gorge. Commanding water and earth, she trod upon the peaks and valleys of the waves. Thunder and lightning was like music in her ears as Cymede shaped the world to her pleasure. No one - not even King Anax - knew she could make the elements bow before her.
After a short distance, she let the wave set her down on the opposite side of the gorge. The storm raged while she followed a little-known path up the mountainside to Keranos's divine observatory. Let the men at their games and shows of athletic prowess. She would pray to the god of quiet insight and careless destruction, Keranos. It made her smile to think how furious he would be that a storm existed without his permission.
But if the gods had gone silent, then the world would fill the space.
When she reached the top of the cliff, the winds seemed to die down. She stood before the bronze observatory with its gleaming orb roof and perfect span of archways. Lightning played across its surface as it absorbed the energy of the storm. She'd been here many times before. Although she had never looked upon Keranos when he took the form of a man, she could feel his presence whenever he was near. With the Silence, she felt his absence like the cracked, dry earth cries out for rain.
The door of the observatory was slightly open, and the tiles of the foyer were slick from the storm. She pushed the heavy door open wider and walked inside. Torches lit the way, but they burned with a mystical fire that rain couldn't touch. The emptiness echoed around her. There were no priests who watched the observatory for the God of Storms. Keranos didn't have many oracles. He was particular and arrogant and believed few mortals were worthy of him. Cymede was one he wanted, but Cymede rebuffed his attempts to claim her. She had no interest in being owned by anyone.
Now she needed Keranos's guidance. He would know who - or what - was tormenting her husband. Their oracles couldn't discern it. She needed the voice of a god. She knelt on the stone floor under the opening in the roof. The sky above was still gray, but the black clouds had blown away. It was twilight, and the first stars of Nyx dotted the heavens, but no god-forms revealed themselves amid the chaos.
"I need you, Keranos," she said. "I miss your presence."
There was no answer except the rushing sound of the wind through the opening in the roof. In the past, she might have thought it was an answer. But now, who controlled the winds? She let the quiet fill her up until she couldn't stand waiting anymore. She hurried out of the temple, slammed open the door, and stepped into the rain-washed night. Nyx was brilliant, but only with patterns and nebulae. No celestial creatures dashed across the heavens, and she found no answers in the jumble of stars. Furious at the lack of response, she lashed out with stones. She carved off the edges of the mountaintop and hurled them at Nyx. They just arched into the sky and cascaded lazily back into the gorge. So she battered the observatory with her fury, but the divine bronze of the building wouldn't bend to a mortal assault.
"Keranos!" she demanded. "Give me answers."
She heard a rustling noise as a gust transformed into a small whirlwind and slammed into her. She tumbled backward and cracked her head against a stone. She lost consciousness briefly, and when she came to, she was lying flat on her back staring up into Nyx.
In the heavens, she saw a vision. Instead of god-forms, this vision was formed by the blackness between the stars. She perceived hulking creatures with the exaggerated horns of a minotaur. Then one became two, which in turn became four. The creatures multiplied exponentially until there were hundreds of their distorted forms. They lurched out of an open door from inside a burning room in an endless line, one behind another. The vision shifted, and the burning room became like a howling mouth. The face shifted incomprehensibly, until finally its features came to rest. And Cymede recognized that it was a satyr's face. A satyr was behind it all.
Cymede sat up. There was dried blood on the back of her head, but she felt strangely satisfied. Keranos had sent the vision to her eyes alone. To the rest of the mortals, the sky had only revealed incomprehensible splashes of color and pinpoints of light. She started back down the path for the gorge.
So some gods, like Keranos, were cheating the Silence. That surprised her not at all.