The world did not begin with a bang, but a pair of fists. There were two brothers, locked in eternal combat, who collided, their wills so opposed and chaotic, that they broke a formless lump of stone tumbling in the void into three parts. The hottest of these fragments, closest to the break, formed the sun, ushering a cycle of life and death into the heavens. A wandering orb much smaller than the others, fell in line with the flow of time—the white moon. The remaining fragment, misshapen and primordial, formed the earth, for which all living things clung and struggled upon. The Brothers put their feet to this rock.
Roughly hewn as it was, the gods were not satisfied with the result, and so they fought upon the earth, again and again, each blow of focused strength like a painter’s brush upon the landscape. Mountains rose from their anger, salty seas filled with the sweat of their melee. Deserts were swept by their exhaling breath. Humanity was born out of their unfailing mercy, an overflow of divine intellect and might distilled into lesser flesh.
Creation was born.
This is what the people of Edorie believed. It was all they had ever known, all they had allowed enter their world view. And why not? They had the greatest evidence of true gods anywhere in all the delta.
They had the Aderfeya.
From a ledge in the upper city, Tungui’s legs dangled from his neighbor’s roof, desert wind blowing the loose fabric of his white chitons. It was a hot day in Edorie. Despite the sun falling at his back with an ever-steeper angle, cold night not far beyond, sweat poured from between his legs. He lifted the hem of his robes till they were over his knees, and fanned a hand beneath. The fabric had risen so high it was almost indecent.
He prayed the Aderfeya could not see.
A call to prayer rang out over the city, bells of a thousand shapes and tones chiming their discordant song, unique each instance the priests shouted either of the Brother’s names. Sometimes the tones were dark and melodious, the chingy bells of the upper terraces caught on the roiling desert winds, others, deep and somber, resonating in the mud brickwork of the city center like a heartbeat. And like life, ever changing, ever unknown, the Aderfeya’s followers believed each prayer different, as should be its call. But it was not just that, there was a rhythm to existence they were at the mercy of, a circadian cycle. Like the gods before them, they believed that time did not change. The towering Brothers were eternal and so were their prayers; every third movement of the sundial the people bowed.
Their words remained the same.
A shimmer of light began at the apex of a massive pair of statues, the Aderfeya, Brothers. They were too large for any man to have ever crafted. Edorie, their holy city, surrounded them in a protective bowl, rising on all sides, leaving the basin in which they stood free for worship and little else. Terraced homes of mud and brick, dozens of levels high, faced the Aderfeya. They were the center of their world.
Tungui’s eyes followed the slash of glimmering sunlight, then fixed upon hundreds of prostrate worshipers collected by the right foot of Lithae. There were many bearded men with open, white chiton robes, women at their backs, heads covered, faces veiled, nothing but hands protruding from thick fabrics. Neither were allowed to look upon the Aderfeya during prayer. For children, it was forgivable, but women? Never.
Tungui smirked at the worshipers and peered higher, aware he was likely the only soul in Edorie bold enough to look upon the Aderfeya during this glimmering, holy moment of Fourth Call. But why worry? Were they really gods? And if they were, how could he know their will? He saw them as grand, yes, but they were statues, that were somehow not statues.
They were two male figures, feet as large as houses, goliath heads cresting the sky. They were dressed in diminished, girded robes of the same style as their priests, chests bare, no adornments, but for thick bangles on each of their right arms. No one knew what they were made of, as it seemed like stone one moment, calloused flesh the next. No one knew where they had come from, they had always been. And when the light hit them as it would shortly, a faded mix of umber and ochre and rising violet, impossible surfaces would reveal gleaming gemstones of prismatic color.
Many a time Tungui wanted to touch them, and had tried, to see if he could feel their power and all-encompassing wisdom, but that right was reserved for the priests. The priests of the Aderfeya lived strict lives of chastisement, celibacy, prayer and blood sacrifice to earn that right. All Tungui had done was attempt to grow a beard, and what a pitiful attempt that had been.
In the fading light, the powerful musculature of the Brothers became more defined, shadows turning long, their golden forms silhouetted against the coming dark. He focused his regard on their raised hands, Lithae and Mortaer, each with one hand open, the other closed in a fist. The Aderfeya were locked in an endless battle, a slow struggle, life in the east and death in the west, with no resolution, just like man. Tungui wondered why. He could never imagine hating his own brother so bad he would want to strike him. Then again, Lithae and Mortaer still had time to change their minds.
In over a thousand years, no one in all the delta, let alone the city state of Edorie, had found something more awesome to worship—or envy. Not the golden calves or the dog head of the sun. Not the Bull or the Desert Cat. Not even the Reborn One. The Aderfeya stood tall, blessing all who lived west of the river. The Aderfeya brought back the dawn.
Tungui mumbled the evening prayer along with the crowd, “The Brothers are eternal. The Brothers watch over us. The Brothers will always be, and we will always serve the Brothers. There are no gods but them, forgers of creation. Brothers, take our blood and soul, we give it freely. You call the rain. You call the seasons. You take us into darkness and death each night until we find the life of dawn.”
His sandals clicked together as he kicked up his legs, feet suspended twenty cubits above a cart stuffed road. There came a scuffling behind him. He pivoted his head and smiled. “Hello, my brother. You have finally joined me. Lovely view, is it not?”
Jundo chuffed, tossing a massive coil of rope onto the roof, dust encircling its impact. “I should not have come. I should be praying. At second call before lunch, my heart was not in it. It has shamed me all day. I must be better.”
“Praying? Come now. Grandmother misses prayer half of each week, and she is still alive, uncursed. The Aderfeya have not harmed her. They bless her with life.”
“But grandmother is hardly able to leave her bed. Her knees are like dry, knotted wood, and she smells of rot. Show her some respect.”
He lowered his head and put his hands together. “Brothers forgive me. But I do not see how missing prayer once will cause me any harm. What of the pilgrims? They do not have a call, yet they are considered high among us. Would you like a date?” He held out a hand of dried fruit.
“Forget the pilgrims. They travel endless days across the physical waste as penance. You are acting like a child.” Jundo paused. “I know why you are out here.”
Tungui crawled over to the rope. “Oh, you do? Nice rope, by the way. Is it jute?”
“Only the best for family. And not so cheap either.” Jundo narrowed his eyes. “But this will not get you away from us. I know mother is hard, and even more so since, well—if you would just follow the teachings... She only wants the best.”
“Are you sure you don’t want a date?” He offered again.
His brother took three. “Tungui,” he groaned.
He withdrew his handful of dates, placing them back into a leather satchel. “Why do I have to hear this from you?”
“Because my beard is longer and darker.” Jundo raised his voice, then upon realizing he was speaking louder than the worshipers, he whispered, “Because I am the man of the house since father was killed.”
Tungui stood and tossed the rope over his shoulder. “I—I am—”
“It’s okay. He fought and died to keep the Bull’s people from Edorie. Now tell me, why do you need this rope?”
Tungui smiled and shook his head, regarding the angle of the sun. “Soon, brother. Soon.” And then he tossed himself over the side of the roof, scaling the edge of the mud-work building as easy as a fruit monkey.
“Tungui! You’re mad.”
Laughter bellowed from Tungui’s belly as he slid off an awning onto the street, his chitons, along with the coil of rope, miraculously not tangling. He took off through the crowds of worshipers, still prostrate, repeating the same prayers they did every evening.
“…You take us into the darkness each night until we find the dawn…”
As the masses were distracted, Tungui wound through a series of alleys and descending staircases that eventually tossed him out by the right heel of Lithae. The priests were too concerned with prayer to notice him. He touched the base of the foot and found it rough, not smooth. This taboo act of defiance gave him much pleasure.
Steep sunlight glimmered upon it.
“The Arnling was right,” he mumbled.
He tied a rock around the end of the rope coil, swung it in circles, then let go, rope shooting over the massive foot of a god. The prayers here were loud enough to cover the clack of the stone hitting the other side. He left the remaining rope over his shoulder but drew the rock covered end back, forming a loop around the Brother’s ankle.
He kicked off his sandals.
“Protect me,” he said, and started climbing, using the rope to shimmy up.
The first few steps were easier than Tungui had expected. Wherever sun touched Lithae’s body, the surface was rough and as easy to climb as the mud-work homes of the city. He even found small nooks and crannies with which he could use as foot holds as he threw his rope loop higher. He had to hurry. The prayers were almost at a close, and when they were, he would be noticed for sure. But if he was already high enough on Lithae’s body by then, what could the priests do but scream? A scream never stopped him before.
The loop of jute rope was heavy, Lithae’s ankle bigger around than the largest trees east of the river. By the time Tungui had reached the upper calf, sweat was soaking his chiton. He pressed upward, onward, past the knee. Prayers ceased, men and women started pointing. Over the thigh, middle, upper leg.
“Tungui!” his brother shouted from the base of the city. He did not look down, focus solely on climbing and not falling to his death. The muddy, city center was a long way down. Long enough to break backs and necks.
Once he had reached the bottom of Lithae’s girded robes, he tied off the loop and slipped a knife from beneath his chiton. Lithae’s open hand was just a few dozen paces ahead through empty air. He cut a new length of rope and tied another rock to its end. He spun the weighted line and tossed the rock, waited for the length to swing back towards him after passing over the fingers. He missed. His right foot slipped, the texture of Lithae’s skin shifting now that Tungui’s body was casting a shadow upon it.
“Brother’s help me,” he spat and was thankful for the loop of rope. It had helped keep him in place, plastered against Lithae’s hardened clothing. He tried again, this time looping the rope between Lithae’s fingers. As the rock swung back he took hold. He tied the length of rope into a knot, then tested it several times. It held firm.
“My brother! What are you doing?” Jundo kept shouting. It was too late to go back now. There were other voices, but he tuned them out. Only his brother’s words pierced the din.
Taking a deep breath, Tungui slid free of the rope loop and began to climb the length hanging from Lithae’s hand, using only his arms. He was a clumsy spider scaling a thread. For once, he was thankful for having toiled in the brickworks those many scalding days, his arm muscles stronger than most as a result. He pulled himself up, hand over hand, palms burning, till he was dragging himself over Lithae’s wide fingers onto his belly. He took several breaths and collected himself.
The view was breathtaking, the fist of Mortaer just above him, Edorie sprawled out below, a curving, endless horizon of sand and stone and a winding blue river. He swore he could see the lights of a city in the west.
Edorie was in a clamor. For once in his life, Tungui was the center of attention. He took a moment to relish in this. Jundo would later shrug it off.
“Okay. You’ve come this far. You can do the rest.” A youthful excitement filled every inch of his body. “To the top.”
He worked his way up Lithae’s arm with ease, the creases of the Brother’s muscles deep enough to lend hand and foot holds. Before he knew it, he was pulling himself onto the shoulder.
Lithae’s face loomed beside him, all angles and determined masculine essence. As Tungui stood there, he turned to face Mortaer, the brother’s eye glinting with something. Was it moisture? A tear?
Tungui was taken aback. He had never before seen this. He glanced up at Lithae, something different in his expression. He turned again, and for a moment, it was as if Mortaer had seen him, the focus of a god fallen on tiny, unseen Tungui. A kindness he had never known filled Mortaer’s expression, so close to that of Tungui’s father’s, yet so foreign. The wind billowed his chiton. There was a drip to his left. Something wet brushed his shoulder. He looked down. Lithae’s skin was damp, slick with... With what? The sky was open. There were no clouds. Rain had not fallen in months.
The sun dipped deeper. Twilight crawled its way over the horizon to take hold of Edorie.
Tungui suddenly realized he had not secured himself. The jute rope was left dangling from Lithae’s hand. Light vanished, the surface shifted. Tungui slipped. He gripped the edge of Lithae’s muscular shoulder, gemstones under fingernails, skin burning. They did not hold his weight.
He tumbled end over end, freefalling into darkness. The heads of the Aderfeya flashed yellow then black, obscuring from sight. This was when the Brother’s did their work, battling to bring the return of dawn.
The base of the city must have been close, the noise of rushing air reaching a crescendo. He wished he had had time to tense, to pray. All he could think was, “I’m sorry I shamed you, Father,” before he hit the ground.