Guardian of the Gods
by Tobi Ogundiran
Ashâke shed her priestly raiment and slid into the river.
The water was surprisingly warm against her skin, like falling into the embrace of a mother. Ashâke liked to think that the divine cocoon of the river goddess herself embraced her, and if she listened carefully, she could just hear Osun revealing deep mysteries.
Ashâke muttered an invocation: “Osun iya mi. Iya olodo, iya ajose ati iloyun, iya arewa ati ife. Ba mi soro. Si ona okan re kio si se afihan kayefi re.”
She sighed. The gods, like always, were deaf to her supplication. The other acolytes had long since been able to commune with the gods, to divine knowledge from the arbitrary patterns of cowrie-shells across divination boards. Soon they would choose their patron gods and become full priests, and eventually get sent out to other temples across the ten kingdoms. They would leave her, forever an acolyte, forever deaf to the gods.
Ashâke floated face-up, allowing the gently-flowing currents to sweep her farther away from the banks. Wispy clouds looped around each other in the deep night sky, as if mirroring the movements of the river below. The moon, a pale silver disk peeking out from behind the mountains in the east, spied on her nakedness.
Ashâke’s hands scraped the river’s shallow bottom as she employed a lazy backstroke. Her own peers had graduated two years ago. She would never forget her envy as she watched her friends enter the Inner Sanctum as acolytes and emerge as priests. She stood each time by the entrance, longing desperately to be among their numbers. She had learned the invocations word for word, knew the two-hundred and fifty-six verses of the odu ifa by heart. Why then, did the gods refuse to speak to her? She could hardly bear the pitiful looks the temple priests gave her, nor suffer the whispers of the acolytes. Deaf priest, they called her. Never to her face, though, the cowards that they were. And it was to these kinds of people the gods chose to reveal themselves?
Ashâke blinked the tears from her eyes, tasting salt as she licked her lips.
Floating in that river with nothing but the soft lapping of water and the cacophony of nocturnal creatures, she made a decision.
“Eyin orisa,” she said. You gods. “Hear me now. If you don’t speak to me, that means you don’t need me. if you don’t need me, then I don’t need you. I will leave the temple and never look back.” She paused, then added, “I give you one week.”
One should not give the gods ultimatums but she was done waiting for them.
Ashâke hurried through the forest to the mountain-temple. Though it was the hour of the owl, with some three hours left till dawn, it was best to be safely tucked away in her sleeping mat before the rousing bell, otherwise risk the wrath of the priests. They strictly prohibited sneaking out, but the temple was so far removed from civilization that night watch was an afterthought. Still, once or twice a priest would hold vigil, wandering the empty halls as they communed with the gods. It would not do to stumble into a priest this night.
Music. She could hear music coming from her left. The steady beat of drums, the rhythmic shaking of shekere, and ululating voices, blending in sweet, sweet harmony.
Ashâke hesitated, making out the faint glow of a fire, and several figures swaying – perhaps dancing – around the flames. Gods, she had never heard music so good; the singing they did in the temple was purely ceremonial, a bland call and response to welcome the gods before a divination. But this … if the gods could sing this was what it would sound like.
Her feet carried her in the direction of the music even before she made a decision, and a few moments later she burst into a clearing. Seven people danced around the fire with their instruments. They ranged from a young girl roughly her own age, to an old man who stood in the very centre of the circle, singing in a powerful voice.
They didn’t look surprised to see her, but instead smiled and gestured for her to join in their merriment.
Ashâke hesitated. She knew she should turn and go. She knew she shouldn’t speak to them (the priests’ warnings about talking to strangers rang loud in her mind) and yet, there was something about these people, about their singing which kept her rooted to the spot.
A young man with several loops of jangling earrings danced towards her, thrust his shekere into her hands and pulled her into the circle.
Ashâke danced with them, for a moment forgetting all her worries and troubles. How could she not, when the people around her were so happy, lost in the music they were making? As she listened, Ashâke realized that they were telling a story. The story of a man who journeyed to the ends of the world in search of his mother, only to find out that she was Death herself, and that his journey had been the journey of life, which will end, surely but certainly, in death. It was beautiful, poetic.
Griots, thought Ashâke in amazement. These people are griots.
She had heard tales of such people. The world’s memory. They spun history into songs and passed it down orally from generation to generation. Beware the griots, the priests warned. They will embellish for the sake of rhyme, warp to keep in time.
But then the priests could be a little judgmental, she knew that first hand.
The song finally ended and they settled around the fire. Ashâke remained standing.
“Sit, child,” said the patriarch. The one with the sonorous voice.
“I …” she looked in the direction of the temple. “I have to get back to the temple. I shouldn’t even be out.”
“You’re a priest?” asked the flutist, her eyes wide and dark. She sounded incredulous.
“Acolyte,” Ashâke corrected, the word a bitter taste in her mouth. She should be a priest. By the gods she should be a priest.
“An acolyte,” murmured the patriarch. The light from the fire cast his tribal markings into deep relief. “Bless your soul.”
The griots exchanged looks, and Ashâke felt for one wild moment that they knew her secret. That she was deaf to the gods and had been stuck as an acolyte for years.
“I suppose it is … commendable that you all still keep the faith,” said the patriarch finally. “Humans, after all, need something to believe in.” He paused. “Even if the gods are dead.”
Ashâke was not quite sure she heard correctly. “What?”
The flutist looked to the patriarch, then back at Ashâke. “The Fall of the Gods,” she said. “Surely, you’ve heard of this? Everyone … ah …”
Ashâke looked at them. Looked at every one of their faces and saw the truth in them. “This is – impossible,” she said, her voice barely a whisper.
They merely gave her pitiful looks, mixed with a little bit of guilt at perhaps having delivered such news to her.
“This is impossible,” she repeated, with a little less conviction. Gods were not men. Were not subject to the rules of men, much less something as final as death. They could not die. She did not want to believe, refused to believe. And yet …
Acolytes were given to the temple at a very young age, to forget their parents and dedicate their lives in service to the gods. She could barely remember what the outside world was like. Oh, she knew of the ten kingdoms, and the Tower of the gods in the capital leading up to Pantheon itself. All these she had learned in the temple to prepare her for when she finally became a priest and was sent out into the world to head her own temple.
“The gods are not dead.” Now it was a plea. “To say so is blasphemous.”
“Do you hear them, then?” asked the patriarch gently. “The priests of old could hear the gods when they lived.”
“Yes –” she began, then broke off. She couldn’t hear the gods. She had never been able to hear the gods. All the others could, though. From Iyalawo the High Priestess, down to the acolytes.
All except her.
Could it be that they were all lying?
She wanted to believe. It made perfect sense! It would explain why she had never been able to hear the gods. It would mean that she did not have a defect, that she was not unworthy, that the others were simply lying, pretending …
But … if everyone else lied, the High Priestess wouldn’t.
Or would she?
“I’m sorry to be the one who brought you such … news,” said the patriarch. His sleeve fell as he mopped his brow, exposing the mottled skin of his arm. “But such is the world we now live in. A dark, dark world without our gods.” He lowered his eyes and seemed to age several years in that moment. “Would that it were not so, but it is. I should know. I was there when they died … when they were killed.”
“No!” Ashâke doubled over with the weight of revelation, her world spinning.
“We should tell her the story,” a woman suggested.
“Maybe it is not the best idea,” said the patriarch.
“No,” said Ashâke. “Tell me.” If the gods truly were dead, she wanted to know how and why. She sat down in the circle, folding her legs beneath her.
“Very well,” said the patriarch.
The drummer stepped into the circle, his massive bata drum hanging from a strap around his neck. He struck the drum once, allowing the boom to echo and die out, before striking up a throbbing, soothing rhythm DUM DUM dum DUM DUM dum. The others inched towards each other and linked their arms together, swaying as they blended their voices in rich harmony. A simple hum filled the air, setting the atmosphere for the patriarch’s lead singing. This continued for a long time; strangely hypnotic. Ashâke felt in that moment like nothing else existed: the world was just the clearing in the middle of the forest, filled with griots.
Finally, the patriarch stepped into the circle, spread his ample arms wide and began to sing:
“In the land above the sky
Lived the King of all beings;
Olodumare, Father of gods and men.
For ages man lived, oblivious to the existence of the gods,
Stumbling through life like toddlers in a swamp.
Olodumare decided to reveal astral mysteries to men
He called the gods from the corners of the world
And commanded them to build a fort.
A tower, a gateway to link the realm of man and god.”
At this point, the patriarch waved a hand over the fire. It flared black, and in the flames appeared the vision of a tall, tapering structure. Ashâke knew it on sight, from depictions in the temple: the Tower of the Gods, connecting the world to Pantheon.
“The gods worked together and built the Tower:
Ogun, god of metal provided the tools for construction;
Sango, god of fire and thunder and lightning,
Shattered the Mountains of Abeokuta with lightning;
The rocks of which were used to build the Tower,
Yemoja, mother of the seas and rain
Held off rainfall for the duration of construction.
Several years passed, and when Oganju, the god of completion
Set the final stone in place, there was rejoicing and merriment
In all the land.”
The music took on a lively tempo as the patriarch waved his hand over the fire. Ashâke made out several shapes, caught in the throes of revelry: countless humans, dancing at the foot of the Tower. Among them stood towering figures, effusing a powerful aura: gods.
“The Tower was completed; there could now be direct
Communication between man and god as Olodumare
Had always wanted.
Every year at summer solstice, the Afin and his griots and select citizens of the kingdom could ascend through the Tower to Pantheon itself to partake in a Conclave of gods and men.
The gods taught man the secrets of divination,
How to divine the message of the gods through the arbitrary placement
Of cowrie shells across divination boards.
They taught men the invocations, the two hundred and fifty-six odu ifa,
Gifting man with the knowledge to successfully navigate the world.
These men became priests of Ifa.”
Ashâke glimpsed several men and women garbed in white priestly raiment, hunched over divination boards, casting cowries. But for the striking, imposing figures of the gods hovering above them, it could have been the temple. Her temple, where she had tried tirelessly to get the gods to speak to her. For a moment she imagined herself one of the priests, bursting with joy as the gods taught her the language of divination. Oh, how she would have cherished their instruction, basked in their attention.
The scene changed, and the music took on an urgent, dramatic tone.
“The Fall of the Gods came in the Nineteenth year
Of Alafin Tade the Third.
The Afin, with his griots, the High Priest, and select citizenry
Ascended the Tower to Pantheon.
Little did they know that among their numbers was a sect.
A secret cult with a dark motive. A cult whose name would ring forever
On the lips of posterity:
Ashâke shuddered. That word. It defied reason. Defied every natural law. She could hardly fathom how mere men could possess the power to kill gods.
Around her the griots swayed and sang. Tears glistened in their eyes.
“The Conclave opened with a feast as was custom.
There was merriment. There was music. There was laughter.
Olodumare sat in his throne at the head of the table, surrounded by the gods
And his children and thought to himself that he had done good.
As the feast drew to end, a man arose and called loudly across the hall:
‘Olodumare baba mi, permission to approach your throne. I have a gift for you!’
The GodFather, incredibly pleased, waved him over.”
A man rose from the table and strode slowly towards the throne. His was the pale skin of an albino, and a terrible scar raked his face, claiming his left eye. His golden hair grew into seven dreadlocks, which spilled over his shoulders.
His intent was written all over him, in the twist of his lips and the set of his chin. How could the gods have missed it? How could Olodumare himself have missed it?
As though from faraway, came the patriarch’s voice:
“The man went on one knee before Olodumare who said,
‘Tell me, son, what do you have for me?’
At this point, the man looked Olodumare in the eye and hissed: Death.”
In one swift, fluid movement, he rose to his feet, producing a terrible black sword from the fold of his robes. Olodumare’s eyes widened and he reached for his scepter. Too late: the man ran the GodFather through with his sword and Olodumare fell back in his throne, gawking in disbelief at the sword in his chest, at the jagged lines of bright light rapidly spreading over his chest, his arm, his face …
The GodFather exploded. Dead.
Ashâke crawled closer to the fire, looking at the stunned faces of gods and men alike. Tears flowed freely down her cheeks.
“Other figures rose from among the seated;
figures dressed in white, wielding terrible swords of destruction.
They laid waste to the inebriated gods.
The screams. Good gods, the screams. Terror, betrayal, pain. Ashâke felt every one of them, every single roiling emotion.
“The gods fled, or tried to flee, but they were no match for the godkillers.
Their senses were dulled by an excess of wine and sweet food.
All but Sango.
The god of fire and thunder and lightning rose with great fury
And brought the vengeance of the gods upon the godkillers.
Lightning rocked Pantheon as he swung his hammer in blind rage, felling godkillers
And innocents in the process.
The Afin fell, as did several griots, as did several priests.
Sango’s rage was so great that he destroyed Pantheon, shattered the Tower,
Sango’s terrible form blossomed in the fire, his eyes burning coals as he tore through Pantheon, sweeping with his hammer, belching fire like an enraged dragon, sending bolts of red lightning at friend and foe alike.
Sango stood alone among a heap of dead bodies, many of whom were his siblings. He raised that terrible hammer far above his head and screamed. Pantheon exploded in a brilliant spray of colours.
The scene changed, showing the Tower, dark and formidable, rising up into the sky, into Pantheon. For a moment it stood as it had for several centuries. Then, a powerful bolt of red lightning tore through the sky, slicing through the Tower. The top half shifted, teetered on its edge, then toppled to the ground, crushing thousands of people in the process.
Ashâke stared into the fire, tears streaming down her face. She bawled. It was painful. Too painful. The gods had opened Pantheon to man, and what did he do? Kill them. But why? What motivated the godkillers? What power did they possess that granted them the ability to kill gods? She sat staring into the fire long after the images vanished, long after the music stopped. She sat until the fire burned down to glowing coals, until the embers burned to white ash, until the morning breeze blew them away.
The sun streamed through the trees, jolting Ashâke back to the present, and she looked up to find herself all alone.
The griots were nowhere to be found.
Griots were powerful people, revered for their ability to immerse the listener in their tale. She thought of how their singing had conjured the images in the fire, how it had made her lose herself in the tale. As if she had been there.
Ashâke wondered where they were, why they left without bidding farewell. Perhaps they hadn’t wanted to disturb her, perhaps they wanted her to grieve the death of the gods privately. She doubted if she’d ever stop grieving. Her world, as she knew it, had shattered. Everything she knew – everything she thought she knew was a lie.
The only question was whether the others at the temple knew of this lie, if the priests were purposely perpetrating a lie.
There was only one way to find out.
Ashâke stood up, dusting the ash from her raiment, but she only succeeded in smearing it into the white fabric. Stained and weary, she set out for the mountain-temple.
Ashâke glided through a lone hallway in the temple, feet aching and shoulders slumped. Torches burned in brackets, but their warmth failed to dissipate the permeating chill in the mountain. Before she had hardly paid it any attention, like a mildly irritating itch in the middle of her back, but now it seeped into her very bones. It seemed fitting, as whatever hope she had held of ever hearing the gods had been quenched by the cold knowledge of their demise.
Vast open spaces and corridors composed the temple proper. Crawling tendrils choked the massive pillars, and twisting tree limbs garlanded the graceful arches, suffusing the temple with a forest-like aesthetic.
Ashâke approached the final courtyard that lay between her and her quarters. Several senior priests clustered around the pillared entrance, conversing in harried tones.
“There she is,” said Priest Mide, looking up. She broke away from the group and marched towards Ashâke, scowling. “Where have you been, acolyte?” She gasped as she took in Ashâke’s appearance.
“Look at your raiment, girl!” Priestess Essan cried, mortified. “What have you been doing, climbing trees?”
Ashâke merely stood at the foot of the stairs, suffering the stern gazes of the priests. She had never been caught sneaking back into he temple, always returning before sunrise. She should feel embarrassed, frightened. She should go on her knees and beg for forgiveness, but she did not care. What respect and fear she had held for the priests was gone, burned away in the fires of revelation. All she needed was the truth.
“Are you deaf, acolyte?” asked Priest Dunsin, jowls aquiver. “Where have you been? We were worried sick, we thought …” He exhaled forcefully, nostrils flaring.
Ashâke looked past him to where the acolytes were gathered in neat rows in the courtyard, cowries strewn across their divination boards as they tried to commune with the gods.
Liars, thought Ashâke. You are all liars!
“Do you have nothing to say for yourself?” asked Priestess Mide when Ashâke remained mute.
Acolytes gathered outside a nearby entryway, her peers and juniors, whispering amongst themselves, mocking her.
“Ashâke! I’m talking to you! Are you deaf?”
“You snuck out of the temple.” Priest Dunsin’s jowls quivered as he reprimanded her. This is not your first year here; you know never to leave these walls without a senior priest!”
She hated them, every single one of them for making her feel unworthy, tainted. Deaf.
Ashâke thrust her hands into her pouch and yanked out her divination board in a haze of burning rage. She smashed it to the ground, screaming as it shattered into several pieces.
The priests scattered, their faces masks of shock.
“What has come over you?” Priestess Mide gasped, horrified.
“The gods are dead!” Ashâke screamed.
Shocked silence greeted her words. Even the acolytes stopped whispering.
“What did you say?” croaked Priestess Mide.
“The gods –”
“No, you don’t,” growled Priest Dunsin, seizing her by the arm in a surprisingly powerful grip.
He dragged her out of the courtyard and down the corridor. Ashâke staggered after him, barely able to keep up with his strides. As they turned round the corner, Priestess Essien called out in a saccharine voice, “As you were, acolytes. Continue, continue, nothing to hear …”
Priest Dunsin did not lead her up the stairs, but turned to the right through a winding corridor and then down a flight of stairs.
“Where are you taking me?” She asked.
“Silence, you fool child.” His voice shook with anger. “Don’t you know when to keep silent?”
Past more open courtyards, down more winding corridors. It wasn’t until they stopped before an archway with a curtain of beads that Ashâke realized that Priest Dunsin had brought her to the Inner Sanctum.
To the High Priestess herself.
“Wait here,” He growled, then vanished behind the curtain of beads.
Iyalawo the High Priestess was rarely seen. In the seventeen years Ashâke had spent in the temple she had only ever seen the High Priestess twice. The first time being when she presented Ashâke with her divination board and cowries once she was old enough; the second time when the lifeless body of an acolyte had been discovered just outside the temple. She still remembered how tiny the girl had looked, how empty. The priests and acolytes had been thoroughly shaken, Iyalawo more so. But all through the burial ritual Ashâke had found herself wrestling with a traitorous thought, hating herself for even having it: one less acolyte. Surely the gods will speak to me now.
Priest Dunsin materialized a few moments later. “Go in.”
Ashâke regarded the fury in his eyes, and for the first time doubted herself. She wondered if she hadn’t made a grave mistake by blaspheming in the temple.
But there was nothing to be done now. She was too far down this path.
Gritting her teeth, she pushed past the curtain of beads and entered into the Inner Sanctum.
It was smaller than she imagined. A set of worn stone stairs led down to an oval chamber. A wide stone basin stood upon a pedestal in the centre, sweet-smelling green fumes curling lethargically from it. Massive raffia mats covered the walls like tapestries, with beautiful colourful straw woven into them. Upon closer inspection, Ashâke found that the colourful straw depicted a scene she had seen in the fire not three hours ago.
The Fall of the Gods.
“It is rare,” said a quiet voice behind her, “that an acolyte comes in here knowledgeable of the Fall of the Gods. That usually happens only after I have spoken with them.”
Ashâke turned around in time to see Iyalawo step out of the shadows. She dropped to her knees in deference.
The High Priestess presented a deceptively simple figure. The skin stretched taught over her forehead, pulled back by six stern braids. A simple white raiment draped across her lithe form, with several loops of red coral beads adorning her neck and wrists. But for the white horse-tail scepter in her hand she might have been any other priest.
Her eyes, though … her eyes were old.
The acolytes whispered that Iyalawo was more god than human. And standing here in this dim chamber, and under the scrutiny of those old eyes, Ashâke was inclined to believe them.
“It is true, then,” Ashâke croaked. “The gods are dead.”
“Is that what the griots told you?”
“I–” Ashâke broke off, frowning. She hadn’t told anyone about meeting the griots, not even the priests.
Ashâke had the distinct feeling that the High Priestess could see into her mind, could probe the deepest recesses of her soul.
“What do the priests teach you about griots?” she asked.
Ashâke licked her dry lips. “‘Beware the griots,’” she recited. “‘They will embellish for the sake of rhyme, warp to keep in time.’ But it’s all on the walls!” She gestured wildly at the hanging mats. “They were telling the truth–”
Iyalawo raised a finger. “A half-truth. Yes, the Fall of the Gods did happen. Yes, many gods perished on that fateful day.” She paused. “But not all.”
Iyalawo took her by the arm and led her to the raffia mats. “Just before Sango’s rage destroyed Pantheon and the Tower, some gods escaped, fleeing to our world. But this world is not for gods … especially with the GodFather dead.” She tapped at the scene of Olodumare’s death. “The essence of the GodFather was shattered into fragments, with the godkillers claiming parts for themselves, granting them incredible power. In the intervening years, many more gods fell to the godkillers, until they decided to go into hiding, to protect themselves. The gods appointed for themselves a guardian, locking the secret of their location away in this Guardian’s mind.
“But the godkillers are crafty. With the location of the gods’ hiding place locked away in the mind of the Guardian, the godkillers turned to another mode of warfare; a war of belief. For years the priests of Ifa have waged a war of belief against the godkillers. And it is a war we are struggling to win. If enough people believe that the gods are dead, then they will truly die. The only thing keeping them alive is our unwavering belief in them – the few of us who believe, anyway.
“This is the secret I reveal to the acolytes upon graduation, so that they can go out in the world, armed with the knowledge of the truth. So long as there are people who believe in them, the gods will continue to exist.”
Ashâke felt stupid. She was a fool. She had come into the temple screaming that the gods were dead. What would happen, if her raving caused her peers to doubt the existence of the gods, caused their belief to waver for even one moment?
But it wouldn’t have been so easy for them to believe her. They could hear the gods after all; unlike her, who had found it easy to believe the griots because she had never heard the gods in the first place.
She sank under the weight of shame. “I’m … I’m so sorry. I believed the griots. I was … desperate to believe that the gods were dead. Anything to explain why I couldn’t hear them …”
Iyalawo had a strange look in her eyes. “Ashâke,” she said softly. “Do you know why acolytes are prohibited from leaving the temple without senior priests?”
Ashâke shook her head.
“To prevent contact with a disbelieving outsider.” Iyalawo stretched out a hand and touched Ashâke’s cheek. “An ancient magic shields this temple, protects it from the godkillers. And that magic is held up by our collective belief in the gods.” Her eyes filled with sadness. “The moment you walked in here, the seed of disbelief firmly planted in your heart, the shield shattered.”
Tears sprung to Ashâke’s eyes as the implication of her actions came crashing down on her. “No. I believe now. I do!” She thought of that godkiller dressed in white, the one who had killed Olodumare. Terror washed over her. “I have doomed us! They will kill us all! But why? We are not gods!”
“No,” agreed Iyalawo. “But the Guardian dwells within the walls of this temple. The godkillers will come to claim the Guardian, and ferret out the whereabouts of the gods.”
Ashâke frowned. “The Guardian …is here? In this temple?” She looked up at Iyalawo, into those old knowing eyes, and staggered backwards with the weight of realization. “It’s you,” she breathed. “I knew it.” “
“No, child.” Iyalawo stepped closer to her, until Ashâke could feel the heat rising off her skin. “An acolyte held back while her peers graduated,” she whispered. “An acolyte frustrated because she thinks she is deaf to the gods. An acolyte safer behind the magic of the temple than out in the world where the godkillers loom at large.”
Ashâke stared in disbelief. “Me?”
The High Priestess nodded. “You were never truly deaf to the gods. You, in fact, are the only one who can speak to them without need of a divination board.”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “You’re wrong. It is impossible. I can’t even –”
Iyalawo seized her by the shoulders and blew hard into her face. Ashâke’s head snapped backwards as air rushed in through her nostrils. Heat flared through her body, and a high keening sound filled her ears.
She staggered backwards, grasping wildly as the chamber spun. Iyalawo’s voice came as if from the bottom of a well, distant and hollow:
“… I made a grave mistake … you were just a child, burdened with so much knowledge …”
Ashâke dropped to her knees, gasping. Intricate symbols appeared on her skin, tattoos of ancient glyphs filling out to cover every inch of flesh.
It was the language of the gods and strangely, strangely she could read it.
Ashâke’s mind exploded with a dozen images and she shuddered with the overwhelming knowledge of it all.
She witnessed the Fall of the Gods, felt their pain and terror as they fled to Aye, she knew their fright as the godkillers picked them off one after the other, as this harsh world of men consumed their godly power. She knew the moment they decided to go into hiding; a desperate, last bid at survival.
She knew the moment she was created, as the gods gave up a part of themselves into forming her. She saw the gods whisper the secret of their hiding place into her ears. Her, Ashâke. She existed as their vessel, burdened with their divine secret.
She remembered fleeing, racked with terror as several figures in white raced after her on horseback. Oh, how she had cried to the gods for help, how she had begged to be freed of this terrible, terrible yoke.
And the gods heard her.
She sat in a cave, a little frightened child, rocking herself as a storm raged on outside.
A figure in priestly raiment, drenched from the storm, gliding into the cave like an apparition; Iyalode, kneeling before her, saying, “Come, my child, you are safe now.”
The High Priestess crushed Ashâke in a hug, whispering a forgetting invocation in her ear.
Ashâke looked up at Iyalode, panting heavily. It felt like she had awoken from a deep slumber, and with waking came clarity., Everything made so much sense. “You found me,” she said. “You made me forget.”
Iyalode helped her to her feet. “I should never have done that,” she said. “I thought … I thought it would keep you safe.”
Ashâke thought of the hurt she had felt all these years, the loneliness as her peers graduated and left her. But now it all seemed mundane, childish. She hadn’t come to the temple to become a priest; she was something much, much more. And in her own way, Iyalode had kept her safe.
Ashâke gripped Iyalode’s hands in hers. “Thank you,” she whispered. “Thank you for protecting me.”
Iyalode’s eyes glistened. “It has been the honour of my life.”
Ashâke held the woman’s gaze and in the silence, comprehension passed between them.
“Where will you go?” asked Iyalode.
“I don’t know,” said Ashâke. “But I will find my way. The gods are with me.”
Ashâke turned and started for the stairs.
It took Ashâke six moons to reach the Tower.
It might have taken her a shorter time, but a thousand and one eyes of the godkillers filled the lands of Aye. Ashâke found a world mired in despair, convinced that the gods were dead, and it broke her heart to find the people without hope.
An unprecedented rainfall heralded her arrival at the old capital.
The rain had emptied the streets of people and if anyone looked out their window, they would find a lone figure, bent over against the wind, advancing slowly towards the city centre.
Ashâke stood before the Tower, gazing in awe at the imposing structure. Even ruined, the top half crushing most of the city, what remained of it rose high into the air. Intricate lines covered every inch of the Tower; the language of the gods writ in stone. Ashâke touched a trembling hand to the Tower, and for a moment she did not know where the Tower stopped and her hand began. The same symbols were etched onto her skin, flowing from the rain-slicked black of the Tower and onto the back of her hand: a whisper, a secret, a charge.
Ashâke turned up her face to the rain, basking in it, letting it soak her. The storm clouds churned above, lit with intermittent flashes of blue-white lightning.
And one flash of red lightning. Bright but brief.
The voices came at her at once, riding on the shriek of the wind and the rumble of thunder.
Ashâke grinned. At long last, she heard the voices of the gods.
“Hello.” she whispered. “What will you have me do?”
They told her.
About the Author
Tobi Ogundiran’s work has been shortlisted for the British Science Fiction Association Award, and longlisted for the Nommos. His tales of the dark and fantastic have appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, FIYAH, Tor.com, The Dark and elsewhere. Find him at tobiogundiran.com and @tobi_thedreamer on Twitter.
About the Narrator
Tobi Ogundiran’s work has been shortlisted for the British Science Fiction Association Award, and longlisted for the Nommos. His tales of the dark and fantastic have appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, FIYAH, Tor.com, The Dark and elsewhere. Find him at tobiogundiran.com and @tobi_thedreamer on Twitter.