by Scott Taylor
Aurus sweated onto his hands, will turning fluid as it ran down his arms. Above him, a structure of white, speckled stone bloomed. Its motion felt as part of his limbs. Maybe, if he put enough of his body’s warmth and effort into it, the building would become beautiful enough. The granite formed curving walls and a tall, gentle roof. But it wasn’t enough. Aurus pushed himself further, carefully arraying feldspar into petals that crowned the home.
He rested back, squating on the balls of his feet, and searched for something wondrous in this new offering. But its fine shape seemed to scorn the idea of a creature dwelling within. Had he been making such things before he was alone? Maybe he was blind, and it was all of his people who had seen clearly.
Evening was his favorite time of day, and he tried to focus on its beauties. The sky, yellow with the setting sun, framed his body. Light investigated the cracks and ribs of his horns, defined the shape of his bovine head. Where fur fell away beneath his neck, the skin was bronzed by its familiarity with that sun, well-suited to a body full in the chest and stomach. An old friend had once told him that his form fit his earthen divinity.
But the darkling sky didn’t seem to think him special. Its violet claws trailed along his buildings just the same as him, and laid out their shadows across the city in a languid intimacy.
Aurus couldn’t remember making every one of those walls anymore, but the edges of their stone played an animal memory into his palm. They recalled the designs that he had fallen into and out of love with, and each one offered a comfortable embrace past its doorway.
Near the western edge of the city, his own stone buildings stopped. There stood edifices of other materials, with designs that he had not dreamt. It was hard to look at them. He could not shape glass, nor metal, nor wood, but it was the brickwork that hurt most. Why would they break their backs to force together what Aurus could coax with a breath?
He had never demanded a price.
And yet, his people had gone. He gazed far down the road, where his city truly ended and a sweeping vista of grassy foothills began. The sight stirred a worried pace in his chest. Aurus turned meekly from the hinterland and began the long walk back to his temple. At least the streets were his stone.
As he walked, Aurus tried to divine some truth from the styles and oddities of the mortal buildings. What in them had been home to his people? What was worth their residence in this quiet, sparse land?
He drew miniscule forms from the stone beneath him, trying to create something divine. Some of them were nonsense, chaotic arrangements of parts that refuted one another. Worse, the others were sallow and ignorant of their own shape, a mere waste of their elements.
A cool wind tugged at his skin. Perhaps some warmth would make him feel better.
There sat a marble bath on the terraced edge of his temple. As he swirled a finger in its water, the chill drew a sigh from his snout. But, of course it was cold.
Some amongst his people had once lived in his temple, keeping it clean and furnished for him, cooking meals. They wore necklaces threaded with stones from the mountain caves to the east, polished to shine. Each night, they lit a fire beneath his bath. Warm water to soothe the Stoneshaper’s muscles.
When the last of his temple companions had left, they hadn’t taken their necklaces. But they had taken the wood axes. He tried not to be angry.
He could make another.
On this walk, the city’s emptiness seemed smaller in his mind.
The eastern road led to a small forest, nestled against the mountain’s foothills. What kind of tree would he chop? Short? Tall? How much wood did he need?
When he glimpsed the soft shape of treetops in the faded dusk sky, he kept close to his buildings. This side of the city was old, born before even his temple. Though each home had been empty since far before the last of his people left, he knew these weathered hides against his palm, the sweet roughness that played with his skin. He stopped at one and turned his head upwards. It rose as a diminutive tower, above its fellows, as if it knew something they didn’t.
Once, a young woman decided to leave her family home. She asked the Stoneshaper to create for her a tall thing, one with winding steps that led beyond the reach of her small town.
She was not understood by her people. Her way of speaking, her habit to look askance when she spoke, her complex thoughts about the simplicities that she was supposed to take for granted. But she had learned to live without being understood. Her great pain was that she could not understand them. The sharp games they played with their words, the dirt they allowed to settle between their fingers, the content joys that they found in closeness with one another.
So, the Stoneshaper had made a tower, upon whose spire the young woman could sit and consider her home. Aurus understood. He, too, sat sometimes in high places and watched his little world. He, too, thought he could understand his people if he tried hard enough.
The young woman often made tea in a stone pot that he had intended for soup.
Aurus took his hand from the side of the building and knelt, to plant his hands on a stone walkway that she had never asked him to repair. Stark grasses sprung up in its cracks. He breathed out, and a handle formed, curving beneath his fingers, nestling in his palm.
He always struggled with sharp edges. Aurus focused on the purpose of the axe, the warmth it would provide him, blessing its use as he did the walls of his buildings.
With a soft grunt, Aurus lifted his heavy body from his knees and delved into the woods. He found a thin, old tree, and though the axe was awkward in his hands, a stocky build eventually won over inexperience. With a huff, he left the woods, dragging the log along his roads.
Sweat poured from Aurus’s shoulders. He had managed to chop a few sections of wood from the old tree, but his muscles begged to stop, flush with an unpleasant heat.
Aurus lay back and let the axe fall to the floor. Above him swirled a lively sky, the very first stars like tiny luminous fish playing together in perfect ease. But below them, he had to struggle to catch his breath.
How was it so much work just to light a fire?
He let out a deep, frustrated lowing, lungs eager to expel the old air.
When his people had done this work, it was in appreciation. Now, it was just effort, just need.
His hand, used to a soft touch, picked up the axe again. He split off more sections for the coming fire, shredded bark for kindling. But by the time he was finished, a deep ache flowed beneath the fat of his chest.
Carrying the wood again sent thin slivers of pain through his muscles. He winced at each one. The stone of the world adhered to his will, and there had been little else in his life that needed the raw strength of his body.
Once the wood was piled in the cavity beneath his bath, Aurus planted his palms on the stone. He let his sensation fade from the cool evening air. He felt the weight of all his buildings as if they rested upon his back, he a great unyielding beast. Tree roots brushed his skin, and somewhere near the edge of his city there were the footsteps of little creatures. Animals come to graze on the forgotten gardens?
He continued to the hills from whence he’d come, and found in them the starkness of flint. It answered his touch, flowing through earth until it arrived in two flat pieces in his hands.
Thus began Aurus’s second trial.
His hands ached by the time he conjured sparks from the stone. He had never practiced this use of his own domain.
And yet, though he was only ever concerned with offering shelter and belonging through his art, Aurus finally cast a glowing breath on the shaved wood, turning its wayward ends a brilliant orange. They curled as the first flame grew.
He shielded the little flame from the wind with his body, and once it had grown beyond that danger, he ascended the steps beside him.
Warmth caressed his thighs and held him by the stomach as he lowered down. His skin no longer prickled. The water lapped at his neck, eager to explore the width of his shoulders.
A soft murmur escaped his snout, along with the extent of his breath. For a long moment, he sat with empty lungs. His mind remained still, allowed to quiet down in the embrace. This much was familiar, this much belonged to him still.
Aurus leaned his head back to rub his horns against the stone edge of the bath. He would embrace every pleasure that this night could give him, every luxury that a god might take for granted.
Steam and smoke alike took the offer of the fire to leave this stone ground behind, rising into a wide-eyed sky. A thin gray column connected the temple to shreds of clouds.
“I wonder if anyone would like to visit the orchards, they should be flowering,” Aurus said.
It was easy to pretend he was talking to his people. Harder, to pretend they were answering him. There had been people with whom he was close, and he could still see their dark, glossy hair. Their smiles shone in his mind. Their voices were fuzzier.
While Aurus had bathed and talked, some of his people would sit close and carve small treasures from alabaster stone. Aurus had never asked why they carved, when he was there. He didn’t want to dissuade them from doing it. Sometimes, it felt like he had peers.
He wished now that he had asked. It would make it easier to imagine them carving again.
But as Aurus’s eyes settled sadly on the empty spot beside his bath, he could focus on only that emptiness.
Even when the city leaders had pulled the young up by their roots and sent them to a far-off conflict, some of his people had stayed to watch over his temple. They had carved so often, then filled the very floors in little figurines of bulls and gentle creatures.
Aurus knew that a great pain ran through them, but it was not one that could be cured by a roof over their heads. He had been helpless. Even now, his throat choked at the memory.
There had been so few people after only so few years. Some of the last told Aurus that they were leaving, that there were too many empty spaces now to walk his streets, there were no seedlings in their gardens. They had to find somewhere for children to grow.
It had been a surprise when he finally found the city truly empty. But that had been years ago, and now the fire beneath his bath was dwindling.
Wrapping his arms about himself, Aurus begged the water to stay warm for him.
To fill the awful silence, he began to sing. Aurus didn’t sound as good as his people. His mouth and his throat were different, broader, not made for the delicate flow of mortal music. But he continued anyway, and slowly he considered the fact that he would never see them again.
The water cooled and slipped through his fingers.
That night, Aurus sat on a stretch of cloth and dabbed his drying skin with oil. With each brush, he thought of a person who had lived in his temple, and let them fade with the brushstrokes.
He ran his fingers through the fur of his head and recalled the shepherds and farmers of his city. His mouth watered at the thought of their offerings, and with mounting struggle, he released their names into his hide. His ribs ached.
He tried to release the people who had carved, let them join the earth beneath his fingers, but his heart raced. With a hitch in his breath, Aurus buckled forward and scrambled to pull all the bygone souls from his body. Each missing face weighed on him and he tried to clear the dirt from them, begging forgiveness for daring to let them go.
After a few minutes sitting in deep silence, he wound a cloth between his legs and draped a heavy cloak about his shoulders. It would be a cold walk.
Aurus drew his cloak tight, glad for a lining of fur to keep out the sharpness of the wind. He focused on the ground at first, teasing out the little details of all the packed stones in his road, with the pads of his toes. Despite a large body, Aurus could walk on these roads for days without a complaint.
Even as he walked westward, and found himself amongst the buildings he had no hand in, it was still his city. Whether or not he had anyone to share it with.
But then, it wasn’t quite him alone was it? Birds chirped from tall balconies, moss climbed up the glass facades to color all light green as it passed through them, and in the hazy distance of the night, bats flitted in and out of his periphery.
He offered a hand to the air. Sometimes moths would land on him as he walked, but he could not commune with those little creatures. Would that he was a god of animals; through war and streets and their fellows leaving, still there were always the beasts.
He stopped to listen to the motion of tiny creatures and memories of long-gone days surfaced in his mind.
Once, in his cave, a cougar had come to rest. She was injured and heavy with cubs. A creature of stone he might have been, but animals – just as people – seemed to know that he was not mortal. So she stayed, and her footsteps became a part of his days. They landed softly, disrupting the gravel at the mouth of the cave, always careful and thoughtful.
He’d been there when she gave birth, and watched over the young creatures until the time came that they were strong and grown enough to leave. The mother stayed, though, for the remainder of her brief time.
Finally, he gazed up at the sky. He had once been a god without people, but he could barely remember himself from those days. That ancient creature was so long gone, and would he not be lost again? What other god would have his face and his memories?
Then, murmuring through his thoughts, came the feeling of footsteps on stone. It was far off, to the side. Had it not just been the memory of the cougar?
Aurus turned, and for the briefest moment caught the shape of shoulders, a figure who stood upright. But it slipped behind a building just as soon as he saw it.
“Don’t trick me so,” he chided his own eyes. And yet, as they drifted up towards the final scraps of light before night ruled completely, he saw a length of smoke hung like a tapestry on the sky.
Something was burning. He followed the smoke with his gaze, and there was no mistake that it came from the very edge of his city.
There were not many stars out. Clouds were gathering, heavy and unconcerned, full of eager water. His bed waited for him in his temple, high and safe from the touch of the rain that would seek to fill his skin with chill.
He walked softly in the direction of the smoke.
An unfamiliar worry slowed Aurus’s strides as the first voices reached him. Amber firelight embraced the curves of metal buildings, turned windows molten. The vast, empty land beyond seemed to show that it did indeed hold more secrets than some soft, city-dwelling god could comprehend.
But he knew the voices of people. Perhaps they didn’t sing rhythms of comfort, but they could answer him.
He knelt, and rode the stone of the street like a river, silent, until he could hold tight to the side of a building that bordered the empty land. He pressed his body against it, uncaring of the cold metal on his skin. His heart was beating too quickly for that.
Some sat around a trio of fires, roasting meat and vegetables. Some lay in haphazard, dust-streaked tents. All of them were dressed in shabby armor and sweaty skin. A man stared silently into the fire. A woman rubbed the arch of her foot, trying weakly to commiserate with her fellows.
On their hips, they carried more weapons than they could have possibly needed, all in disrepair.
Only one of their number stood. He was a young man, who wore a fine cloak over one shoulder, and tried to hide his bandaged arm from his people. Beside him, sitting gratefully, a wiry woman spoke.
Tears welled in Aurus’s eyes, and he barely subdued his shaking shoulders. He didn’t know their language.
Even as those tears threatened to carve through his cheeks with the heat of a knife, Aurus stared at the people. He could at least pretend he sat with them at their fires, and he could imagine that he understood their commander.
The young man nodded at his messenger, and spoke a calm order to the people. He wiped soft curls of glossy black hair from his forehead, and the stark structure of his face became suddenly so familiar.
Aurus held his chest to keep the thumping heart from giving him away. He didn’t know this face, but he knew its parts, handed down from the streets of this city and cast in glorious shadow by firelight.
The man turned, but though Aurus didn’t move, he saw nothing. Aurus wasn’t within their camp. All beyond had to be simple darkness to him.
A seminal rumbling drifted down from the sky, and the commander looked back to his people, speaking whatever tongue replaced the Stoneshaper’s.
Dark clouds swept over the vault of night.
These soldiers, their march had been painful. And with only their threadbare tents it would be a wet, cold night. Whatever war had pushed them into this hinterland was exacting yet another cruelty.
Why would they not stay within his city?
They slung spare cloaks and other bolts of fabric over their tents, struggling against the first greedy hands of wind. Those who weren’t driving their tent-stakes deeper huddled in the paltry shelter, while their fires started to spit and sputter.
Fat drops of rain murmured on Aurus’s shoulders.
He planted his hands to the stone beneath him. A lost joy returned with a breath of cold air. He would again be of some use.
Earth rose as if the crest of a river swell, curving smoothly over the heads of the soldiers. It reached down to embrace the ground in thin granite pillars, and flowed until even the fires were concealed from the sky in time to save their last desperate embers.
The people stood astonished, and Aurus stiffened as some of their hands reached for their hips. But a few words from the young commander eased their stricken faces. With patient surprise, his eyes followed the flow of the new stone pavilion, and eventually settled on the dark spaces between the buildings. The fires weren’t bright enough to blind him anymore.
Aurus dared to move, just a few inches forward, as the young man’s gaze fixed on his form. He wanted to call out, but so many questions welled in his throat. Why had nobody returned to his city? Didn’t this boy know that he was welcome within Aurus’s walls?
He couldn’t get a single word out. He was grateful for the rain; Aurus must have looked a pitiful sight, the god kneeling in the dark, and he preferred that the commander couldn’t see him cry.
The man bowed, just barely, and returned his attention to his soldiers.
Aurus wanted to linger, but the rain had soaked his fur, cloak, and his underclothes stuck to his skin. Aurus shuddered, and dragged himself away.
After the excited flash of the commander’s appreciation, the weight of loneliness threatened to crush Aurus’s chest.
He laid in his bed, at the heart of his temple. Old furs covered his body, but they did nothing to soothe the struggle in his lungs. Had the man only come here as a stop on his journey? Had he not even known about the Stoneshaper?
Aurus had made so many wonderful buildings since his people left. He tried not to let the tempting heat of anger fill his limbs. All he had done was for the hope that someone would return. And now, they would prefer to languish in wretched tents?
He held his own hand close to his chest, curling in. Already, shame had followed its fleeting brother into his mind. He had never resented his people before. Perhaps he had already become so changed, perhaps Aurus was dead.
What was left in his place?
He stroked his own ear soothingly. Just a beast, he feared.
Aurus stayed in his bed until the sun had well risen in the sky. His bedchamber’s open walls looked out upon the old parts of the city, which shone in remnant water from last night’s storm.
They were animal pleasures, this sweet sunlight and the beauty of cool rain. And had he not hidden from the soldiers like a nervous animal?
What if the young man hadn’t learned a new language? What if Aurus had simply forgotten his own? He sat up, letting the furs fall from his chest. If he were so changed, he would have to leave this temple. This city.
He could not make his legs leave the bed, it all seemed so cold outside.
At first, when the smells of meat warmed Aurus’s nose, he screwed his eyes shut and tried to banish the taunting memory. But as he bent his head forward to find fault in his nostrils, his ears flicked.
A song drifted through the halls of his temple. It was much like the one he had sung the evening before, the same taught to him by his people. And though it was in the commander’s voice, he understood the words.
They were different.
The commander didn’t bless the quiet subtleties of life on his tongue. Not the way leaves felt when they fell against his skin, nor the thoughtful gaze of the moon when there was nobody else to see it. In his voice marched an endless campaign. A hand reaching for glorious plenty across a wounded land. He claimed to understand every soul. This young man knew that the yearning in his chest resonated with all others and drove his arm to lift high its whetted, metal burden.
Aurus finally rose, but he was unsure how to dress, unsure of what he was to be before the commander. So, he simply wrapped one large hide around his waist, tucking the fur into itself so that he could walk freely.
He forgot then that he had always liked to groom himself before he met with his people, and the shaggy fur of his neck betrayed it. However, he did remember to collect a gift.
The god found his last friend in the wide hall where he had once heard the gratitudes and requests of a warm sea of people. Pillars marked each side of the room, and a large dais of stone offered him a place to sit.
Today, his visitor had brought him a spit of roasted meat, and when Aurus sat in his familiar place, the commander bowed to him.
“Stoneshaper,” he began, the words of this language unsure on his tongue, “I trust you still enjoy the taste of lamb, as my mother told me. The meat is heavy with the salt of the road, but its sweetness survives. I am Yan, and I bear more gifts, earned in the costly way.” With a confident step forward, Yan set a small box at the base of the dais, near where Aurus’s feet rested on the steps.
Curiosity won over Aurus’s voice, and he silently opened it. Inside were trinkets of gold and crystal, glowing in the sunlight. The style seemed different from what Yan or his soldiers wore, but confusion couldn’t dampen the comfort blooming in Aurus’s chest.
“Thank you, Yan.” He looked up, hoping that Yan would say his name in turn. “I will give something to you.”
While Aurus reached for his wrist, where he had bound his peoples’ polished-stone necklaces, Yan spoke. “I’m glad to be welcomed, and I did come hoping for something.” He turned, not seeming to notice the stones, and picked up a bundle of dark red cloth. He knelt and laid it out before him. “A blessing, upon these.”
Each sword was unique, hilts carved in sharp lines from some pale wood, and blades hewn roughly from a dense, dark stone. Aurus murmured without thinking, “I don’t understand.”
Yan stayed on his knee, and regarded Aurus for a long moment. His face betrayed neither frustration nor anger, rather that same certain understanding with which he’d sang. His eyes were dark like his swords, his mouth a gentle line. He picked up one of the weapons, which fit his hand too well. “There is a valley, south of here. Our march was detoured by an attack,” Yan said this as if it was as simple a burden as a bundle of wheat, “and I realized in what land we’d found ourselves. There is little of use in this hinterland, and you must understand that our force is sent to save our allies. The enemy has penned them in that valley.”
Aurus’s mouth had run dry, and an unbidden flame sparked in his heart. He tensed his fingers. “These will not help you to march.”
“We’ve suffered losses on our journey. Too many.” Yan stepped forward, cradling the sword in much the way Aurus had once seen a shepherd cradle an orphaned lamb. “We were given poor arms, little leather, even less training.” He turned his head to the side, where the city spread beyond the temple. Aurus’s new creations sat there, stone flowers in full bloom. “Your blessing would render even packed dirt finer than shining bronze.” He walked right up to Aurus and sat, cross-legged before him. He still looked like a boy, even beneath the thin scars running along his shoulder. “I told my soldiers that you might still be here. I didn’t know whether to believe in my mother’s stories of divinity.” He rested one palm on the floor. “Perhaps you were some kind of monster. But you sheltered us.” He held out the sword. “They wish for your protection again.”
Aurus beheld the weapon. A terrible weight rested on the blade. How would it protect anyone? His flesh felt as fluid as stone, and he reached his fingers up to touch the edge.
It sang to him, a song far simpler than Yan’s. Glory tried to conceal a terrifying need, but stone could hide nothing from Aurus. His voice would be changed forever if he joined that song, and not into that of a beast, something bloodier.
“You would have me come with you?” Aurus asked. But he knew, if he gave this blessing, he could not stay here.
“I could teach you our language,” Yan offered.
He took the axe from Yan, but lingered, to feel the young man’s hands. Human skin promised to soothe Aurus’s loneliness, but Yan’s fingers were rough and calloused. And his muscles tensed at the touch.
With a soft motion, Aurus stroked the sword, from tip to hilt. “I’ve thought much about my people. Your people.” He couldn’t imagine them letting this boy march off alone.
Yan’s face didn’t change. “I think of them often, too.” He knew their language, but Aurus could no longer ignore the weight of his strange accent, the difficulty with which he spoke it. “All my soldiers think of their people. But we must march elsewhere.”
The young man, with the face of a boy, but not the eyes, continued, “It would help, to have something to believe in.”
Aurus felt his own pulse in his thumbs, where they pressed against the blade. More than excited, it was wholly unfamiliar to him, then. It was terrifying.
Scott Taylor is a short story and novel writer most interested in speculative and surreal fiction. He works as a fiction editor and lives in Bellingham, Washington with his family and an old, strange cat. With a fascination in the hidden wonders and terrors of the world, he explores multiple media of art, from prose to playwriting to music, finding that each medium feeds into the others.