Hephaestus Sanctuary

 

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Chapter 1

Hephaetus Sanctuary

By Christopher Stamfors


 

A door opened and a man stepped out, squinting at the sun. The day was clear and he let the sun fully engross him. It had been a long winter, he thought as he went out to inspect the field. Much of the snow had melted, but the ground was still hard. It would be another month before he could sow the seed for this year's harvest. He glanced up at the mountain that was tall in the distance. It was still covered in white but he knew (as sure as spring would come) that they would come knocking on his door.

And so the people tilled their land and sowed their seeds. The harvest was good and the air was mild. The farmer went to bed early, knowing that tomorrow, they would come. And he was right, for later the next evening, a tall man knocked on their door. He wore a black cloak and a sombre expression. The farmer knew they weren’t much for talking and went to business. They exchanged food for silver. The stranger raised a large sack, filled with various animal produce, over his shoulders and was gone. The farmer stood by the doorstep and watched the stranger lumber away, carrying much more than any normal man ought to. He didn’t think of them during the winter, he didn’t like to, because they were not men, they couldn’t be. A cold breeze caressed his forehead. The summer was at an end and it would be another year before they descended the mountain.


 

In a small, dimly lit room, she was staring at a fire. The flames engulfed the pot that hung over it and she waited for it to settle before she’d pour water into it. She was not used to sitting alone, and her mind drifted away. She was reminded of her husband, sitting next to her, being silly and making the time fly by. The fire settled into a hearth and she poured the ingredients into the boiling water, tasted it, and waited.  

She knew nothing of what was happening outside:

The sun had almost set, casting purple twilight over the horizon. Men in dark hoods wandered between the houses, disappearing and reappearing as they became invisible in the shade.  There were several of them, dashing ghostly from wall to wall, some standing like a sentry, watching the horizon. On the southern end of the village, one of those Sentry’s kept his eyes peeled, when a figure emerged from the horizon. Snow, that had collected on his cloak, crumbled as he dashed towards the stranger:

The stranger was a weary soul. Each step felt like a ton as his feet were buried knee deep in the snow and he did not notice when two dark hooded men emerged in front of him. They seemed to tower over him as he himself stooped to keep the wind from his eyes. “Are you lost, friend?” One of the Sentries asked in a dark sort of way.

Was he lost or had he found the right place? He wasn’t sure. The only thing he knew was that something drew him, something burning inside him that forced him to go on. The stranger glanced up at them and saw that half their faces were covered by a hood, their left and right eye respectively. When they saw his face, their one eye widened as if transfixed by his appearances. But nothing else revealed what they were thinking as their expressions remained cold and neutral. The stranger touched his face, wondering if there was something wrong with him when he realised he could not picture what he looked like. After a moment, the dark hooded men collected themselves and gently placed their hands on his shoulders, urging him to follow them to a small cabin where he could rest. But the burning did not allow him to rest. Feeling close to his goal, he quickened his step, but the two black figures lurched on him and grabbed him by the shoulders, insisting that he cooperate.  

They pinned him down, and his chest burned more brightly, glowing in bright red and orange through his clothes. His weariness melted away and with new found strength, he broke free from their grip and rushed towards the village. The Sentries didn’t hesitate and drew their weapons. Beams of light zoomed through the air, hitting the walls on the houses, harmlessly melting the ice and snow that caked on the walls. They all missed and it seemed like the stranger would get away when he felt a pain through his ankle and he collapsed around the corner of a house. But when they came to collect him, he was gone.

Do you remember the woman from before? She had heard the commotion and she looked out to see what it was about. It was almost night now, only a slither of light still remained in the sky and it took a moment before she realised a stranger sprawled on her doorstep, half covered in snow. She stared at him for a while, conflicted. She wanted to help him, but what if he was dangerous? He squirmed in the snow. Her heart could not bear see him suffer and she opened the door and dragged him inside. Black liquid streaked on the floor from his ankle which she patched with linen as best she could. His clothes were soaked and she undressed him, wrapping him in blankets near the fire. For a moment, everything was still as she gazed down at the stranger on the floor. She noticed how his face was in perfect symmetry; his chin was strong and his hair curly and yellow. Everything about him was perfect and she thought he must be a god. She felt her cheeks flush and she forced herself to look away. Maybe this was a bad idea? He was a stranger and they were sure to come looking for him. What would they do if they found him here? As she contemplated her choices, there was loud knocking on the door that made her wince.

One of the dark hooded men stood on the other side, asking if she’d seen any strangers pass by? The woman glanced at her neighbours houses and saw that they were knocking on all the doors. She realised they had no idea where the stranger had gone and that they did not suspect her. “I haven’t seen anything,” she said and the hooded man nodded, thanking her for her cooperation and went away. Now, you might find it strange that they didn’t search her home? But you must realise, this sort of thing had never happened before. They did not question the villagers loyalty and they certainly did not expect it to be broken by a kind heart and a beautiful face.

When the door closed, she pressed herself against it. Her heart was at her throat and she breathed heavily. She had never lied before, but now that she had, there was no turning back. The stranger did not wake up that night, nor the following morning. The feast, that she had prepared for, came and went, and during all this time, she could think of nothing else but the stranger. But one night, when she was asleep, she heard bustling downstairs. She rushed down and saw the stranger rummaging through her drawers. He was completely naked and in any other situation, she’d look away, but now, she simply stared. His limbs were in perfect symmetry… and his muscles… He was perfection! Except for the bandaid on his left ankle. It took a moment before she became aware that she was staring and she quickly looked away and covered her face with her hand. “I’m sorry!” She shrieked.

He stood there, silently observing her. “Where are my clothes?” He said.

She pointed to a coffin next to the cupboard. When he was dressed, he turned and said. “Thank you.”

Silently, she turned to meet his eyes. It was the first time she’d looked directly into them and somehow she could not draw her gaze away. He observed her too, for a moment, when he suddenly hissed and clenched his teeth, moving his hand towards his chest. “I must go,” he said and turned towards the door.

“Wait!” she said, placing her hand on his, hindering him from turning the doorknob. He glanced down at her hand, noticing she was missing her ring finger. She removed her hand as if burned by his gaze and hid it behind her back. She didn’t know why she did so; she had never felt ashamed about her missing finger, but seeing the perfection that was this man… She wanted to hide it. “I— They are still after you, you know. They’ll catch you if you leave,” she said.

But the stranger just looked at her vacantly and made another effort to leave. “You can’t!” she shrieked and embraced him around the waist. She didn’t know what had come over her. Why was it so hard to let this man go? She didn’t know, but, for whatever reason, she knew that if she let him leave, she’d never see him again and the thought alone made her tremble. The stranger did not resist her at first, but as she refused to let go, and the burning in his chest became stronger, he tried to force her off. Then, it all stopped. All the energy that had gathered within him drained and he collapsed on the floor. She held onto him, still, and he fell into her lap. For a while, he didn’t open his eyes, but when he did, it was as if he saw the world for the first time. His mind was clear and the urgency was gone. He noticed how pleasantly the room smelled of firewood; how the furniture was half-moon shaped to accommodate the rounded walls; how her front teeth peaked behind her lips; and how her soft breasts pressed against him.

They didn’t move from that spot for a very long time. Only at dawn, when the light shone through the windows, did it revive them. She was the first to rise. She held out her hand and led him upstairs to her bedroom. They spent all day in that bed, and only the next morning, did they finally talk: She felt his chest rise and fall and she thought there was nothing in this world that could make her get out of bed. A pang of guilt clenched her hand, scratching the stranger’s skin over his stomach. What would her husband think if he knew? How would she feel in his situation?  

“Is something wrong?” the stranger asked.

She glanced up at him and their eyes met. Somehow seeing them made the guilt wash away. He was a god, she was sure of it, only a deity could make somebody feel this good. She sat up and locked her hands together and took a breath. “I have a husband,” she said.

There was no reaction from him, which surprised her. “He… He was buried in an avalanche a month back.”

“I’m sorry,” he said and placed his hand on hers.

She held it and caressed his hand with her thumbs. “Don’t be, he’ll return, eventually.”

His eyes grew wide. “Excuse me?”

“The Maker will get him back to me, when he’s ready.”

Her whole body quivered and she stared down her hands. How would he react to this? Would he leave her, or… would she make her leave her husband? Her cheeks flushed at the thought, both embarrassed and guilty for thinking it. But the stranger’s mind was somewhere else. He was seeing back to a time when he was still searching the world. He’d seen people die. He’d seen people buried or burnet when their bodies won’t carry them anymore. He’d seen people crying over the dead because they knew they would never see them again. The dead do not return, he was certain.

When no answer came, she tried to lead the conversation elsewhere. “A— Are you going to tell me about yourself?”

Broken from his revery, he blinked.

“Where do you come from?” She asked.

“I’m… I’m not sure,” he said, gravely.

“You don’t remember?”

“I…” He tried to recall, but all he could see was him walking, climbing, swimming; sometimes alone, sometimes with a group, but he was always moving, searching. “I don’t know… I have never considered it before…”

She looked at him, quizzically.

“It’s like I have never existed until now,” he said and placed his hand over his heart. He couldn’t feel it and he smiled. “It’s thanks to you,” he said and turned to her. “It must be… I wanna know more about myself, about you and this world.” Her heart skipped as he beamed at her. To make another person this happy…. She’d almost forgotten what it felt like. In her head, she decided that she’d do anything to help this man. “Do you at least remember your name?” she asked.

He shook his head.

She laid her head back on his chest. “Don’t worry. We will find out, together.”

He drew his finger through her black silky hair and thought of nothing when he asked. “What do you call yourself?”

“Jessica.”

 

After spending a couple of days at her home it was clear how much he needed her. The burning would return whenever she was gone and he had to fight the urge to leave the house. Up until now, he had never questioned what the search was about, what he was searching for and why. It was all because of her that his mind had become his own, perhaps for the first time ever because he couldn’t recall a time when he wasn’t searching. Now, he could explore his memories freely and he started to notice things that hadn’t occurred to him before. He recalled a time when he tried to swim across a large lake. But the lake proved to be much bigger than he realised and he would’ve drowned if he hadn’t been picked up by fishermen. They took him to shore and he didn’t give them a second look, not even a thank you, and continued mindlessly on his journey. He wished that he could return to that shore and thank them properly one day.

The fire crackled as they sat next to each other, watching the pot boil. It had been about a week since he’d been rescued and this was the first time he joined her in a meal. He glanced at her nervously. There was one memory that stood out to him, about a time when he’d joined a caravan and was sitting by the campfire with a dozen other people. He wasn’t talking to anyone, thinking of nothing. Only resting so that he could continue on. A young man had come up to him and offered to share in his meal, but he had rejected it. The young man had frowned, and he must’ve felt personally insulted because the caravan was gone the next morning. That they left him wasn’t the reason why he remembered it so vividly, but for the fact that he had rejected the young man’s kind offer. No matter how hard he tried to recall, he couldn’t remember a single time he had ever taken a meal. People ate, he knew. People die if they don’t… Then what did that make him? He glanced at Jessica as she rose to stir the pot a second time. What would she think of him if he didn’t eat?

After about an hour, the soup was done and she poured the contents into a container. He decided then that he’d make himself eat, no matter the difficulty. “I’m going now. See you in a bit,” she said.

He raised his brows. “Where are you going?”

“To the temple, of course. With the others. I won’t be long,” she said and left him to himself.


 

He’d tried to make sense of what had happened. Maybe the villagers had communal dining? But if that was the case, why hadn’t she left anything for him? When she came back, he decided to ask her directly. She was shocked. To her, it had been the most obvious thing in the world that people didn’t eat. “Only the gods had the luxury to explore flavour,” she said.

He decided not to refute this, he was actually relieved - they were different, just like him. Perhaps there was meaning in finding these people?

Another week went by and Jessica went to make another offering to their Maker. He recalled other people also making offerings, during his travels, to their gods. It wasn’t uncommon. He felt the bandaid on his ankle and the wound that refused to heal. Perhaps this was another thing they couldn’t do? He had seen people heal from wounds and get better, it was something regular people could, but they weren’t regular, that much was clear. Weeks turned to months but nothing from his memories revealed who he was. Even though he tried harder and harder, becoming quieter and quieter. Jessica took notice but there was nothing she could do. The urge would never leave him, he realised, until he found what he was searching for, the purpose of his life.

They were sitting by the fire, no pot hung over the fireplace this time. The mood was sombre and though it was barely noon, it was still dark outside. “Who is this Maker,” he said.

“He made us…” she simply said.

“But haven’t you ever wondered why you live so far from everything else?”

She shrugged. “This is the only life we know. I’m sure there’s a reason.”

He scratched his wound and sat silently, brooding.

“He’ll be able to fix that, if you let him,” she said.

“I’m sure he could… What would you say if I believe he might be the one I’m searching for?”  

“That you are probably right…”

“And you still want me to see him? Aren’t you afraid what might happen?”

“Yes, I am very afraid, but what can we do? You can’t hide here forever. They’ll know you didn’t die that day when the snow melts.”

She had told this to him before, that the Sentries believed that his body was buried somewhere in the snow. They were waiting for summer to search for it and time was running out, still, he wasn’t sure he wanted to go through with it.

She placed her hand on his and smiled lovingly. “It’s not strange for people to pray at odd times. We can go in the middle of the night and nobody will know you’re there. If we run into anyone, I’ll just tell them I’m going to pray for my husband.”

He looked at her. She was sincere. During all this time she hadn’t mentioned her husband even once, except for the first night. He hadn’t come across these words before, husband and wife; they had no meaning to him. He’d seen people together, often men and women, and it hadn’t occurred to him that is what they call marriage. At least he thought they were married, some were very young, others didn’t match in age… Love was another new concept for him. Did he feel love towards her? Was his love stronger than her husbands? As she looked at him with such brightness, it seemed that she loved him and she wanted to do everything to help. If that was the case, he saw no reason to hesitate. It was time to end this. They prepared by putting on dark cloaks to hide better in the night. The sun seemed keen to remain up, longer this evening, as they waited for nightfall. Perhaps it was the changing seasons or maybe it was the tension that held them to the moment, whatever may be the case, everything would change after tonight, no matter how it ended. Jessica tried to break the tension by talking about her husband. “He was such a joker and he was friends with everyone. They gave him a hard time because his jokes are a bit raw, but he can take it as well as he can give it back. They really love him…” She said, her voice fading out.

She was quiet then and they didn’t say much before the last slither of light disappeared below the horizon. It was now complete darkness, save for the light inside the houses. But as they exited the village and reached the open field, the only light was ahead of them. A brazier always burned near the temple entrance to guide travellers in the night. Snow crunched under the feet, burying them to their ankles. They moved slowly, but surely, and it seemed that they had gone unnoticed when Jessica bumped into something invisible that made her stagger. “Who’s there,” a dark voice said.

It took a moment before she answered. “I— It’s me. Jessica,” she said.

“Jessica? What are you doing out so late?”

“I couldn’t sleep. Richard has been gone for so long and I thought—.”

The Sentry’s voice became softer. “I understand. I’ll pray for him too.”

“Thanks.”

They waited a moment, hoping that the Sentry would patrol somewhere else, but he didn’t move. They were forced to move and they could only pray that he didn’t hear the second set of steps in the snow. But the air was still and after a couple of feet, the Sentry bellowed “Halt! Is somebody else with you, Jessica?”

Her heart raced, what was she supposed to say? Then, the stranger spoke in a hoarse voice. “Can’t hide anything from you, can I?”

“Who’s there?”

“It’s me, Richard!”

“Richard?! But— Oooh you scallywag! Thought you could hide from me eh? What’s with your voice?”

“Try being dead for a couple of months and see how good you sound afterwards.”

“Hahaha, alright, I get you. You should thank the Maker properly, otherwise he might not save you next time you do something stupid.”

“Bah! He loves me no matter what!”

They laughed and continued on their way. Her heart was beating fast, and though he couldn’t see it, she was beaming at him. “That was amazing!” she hissed.

He nodded, too excited to steady his voice. It had happened at the spur of the moment; he’d grabbed his throat to distort it in any way he could and the rest had come out on its own. “The words simply came to me,” he said, clearing his throat.

She leaned on him and grabbed his arm and they walked slowly towards the cave. The fire from the brazier fluttered near the entrance. The wind was picking up and they entered the cave. It didn’t seem like a temple, at first, but soon he noticed marble pillars on either side with an altar at the end. Somehow, it was even colder inside. They went cautiously to the altar that was large like a table. It was here the villagers placed their offerings for their God to devour. Jessica motioned him to kneel before it and she murmured her prayers into the air. It was calm but somehow he couldn’t relax to close his eyes. He had never seen a god, before, and rather than pray, he wondered what they look like. He imagined they could look like anything, they are gods, after all. As they rested quietly on their knees, the wind whining outside, nothing happened for a long while. He glanced at Jessica, who still had her eyes closed with her hands clasped together. He was about to ask her if something was supposed to happen when there was a sudden gust of wind coming from behind the altar. The wind was mild, warm even, and she stood and motioned him to stand up with her.

“Is this supposed to happen,” he whispered.

“I don’t know,” she said and went around the altar and into the darkness of the cave. He followed her. It wasn’t dark for long; there was a faint, murky glow, that became brighter as they followed it. The air was getting warmer, and every now and again, there was a loud thud of metal against metal echoing in the narrow hall. They rounded a corner and came to a larger room. It was hard to see anything because of the murky air; heat twisting the light and smoke gushing from a large stove. In front of the fire, there was a large creature, hunkered over it, twice as large as them. It had it’s back turned and they didn’t reveal themselves. They watched as the creature hammered on glowing hot pieces of metal and placed into a batch of water that hissed and steamed. After a while, the creature put away his tools and without turning, said. “So, you have found me.”

They came out of their hiding place and saw its face. He was dazzling! His face looked a lot like the stranger’s, but their beauty could not be compared. It was as if his very appearance tickled sensations that they didn’t have, overwhelming the senses they did possess. They had to look away to not get overwhelmed, yet, she knew where his gaze was fixated. “You had help,” it said. “By one of my own, no less.”

They didn’t answer and simply watched the floor as it came closer. They noticed how it dragged his right foot across the floor, like a limp. It leaned forward and closely examined the stranger and neither of them said anything or tried to prevent it. “Hmm, yes, a fine piece of work, exquisite details and proportions… Perfection if I’d seen any,” it said. Then, it tapped his finger on the stranger’s chest. “But… They don’t know how to make you right on the inside,” he said and sighed. “A pity.”
As this all went down, she couldn’t help but glance at the large anvil by the fire. She saw arms and legs splayed over it, and as she looked closer, she noticed who was lying there. “Richard!” she shrieked and dashed towards him, forgetting who she was in the presence of. As she kneeled before her dead husband, she felt the God approach her. “It is not easy giving life to something that didn’t have it; it is even harder to give life to someone that had it.”

She didn’t move a muscle.

“I just hope,” it continued. “They’ll allow me to finish him.”

He grabbed his hammer and gently pushed Jessica to the side, when, the stranger took a step forward and said. “Do you know who I am?”

The God jerked his head around, looked at him and then glanced at Jessica. He smiled. “So, she is not the only one smitten, then, I am glad.”

Jessica blushed.

“It’s unfortunate that you’d lose your life only just when you started to appreciate it.”

She stared at the God but quickly looked away. “He— He’ll die?”

The God nodded softly. “It was his purpose to find me. Now he has. And I will return to Olympus, whether I like it or not.”

Staring at the floor, she whimpered. “But you can save him?”

The God glanced upwards and waited, as if listening. “Only one,” he said.

Jessica and the stranger locked gazes and felt his warmth and eagerness to live. Then she turned to her husband who laid lifeless on the anvil, his eyes cold and empty. How could they make her choose? But as she rummage through her mind, she knew what she wanted. She staggered to her legs and leaned over Richard and kissed his cold lips. “Goodbye, my love. We’ll see each other in another life,” she said.

The God placed its giant hand on her shoulder. “Love is the only thing that can stir the hearts of the gods,” it said.

It didn’t take long for the god to fix the stranger and with his new heart, it was decided that he had a name. His name would be Hemphatius and he would live on with Jessica, for as long as anyone was able without their god. For their god would return to the heavens and the villagers were no longer bound to their mountaintop. Only a few would leave their village as they were accustomed to their way of life. They would continue to offer meals to their god, but only animals would feast on it or be left to rot. As for Jessica and Hemphatius, they would explore the world and Hemphatius would retrace his steps to give proper thanks to the people that had helped him along the way and perhaps even find where his story all began?   

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