Gods of Man

For the Strange The Dreamer Competition

When the Gods' War takes a turn for the worst Mateus Cedan becomes a boy touched by Death. What will become of the boy the Gods ignored?

[Author's note: I may just be able to squeeze a few more pages in if I'm lucky, otherwise I'd love to continue this story after the competition has closed.]

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2. War's Storm

It's a bleak a day as ever as I swing my legs over the precarious edge of Adler's Ridge, as it is now, a 50ft drop into a rocky tide pool. When the weather turns later, as it always does, high waves will batter the hard limestone and burst into flotsam and mist. Thunder rumbles in the distance as the storm hungers to let loose.  

The Gods are at war. Or so they say. A war that's lasted a thousand years.   

How many days is that, I wonder, since a person last saw the sky? We learn about the dangers of exposed light at the academy, that the clouds protect us from the sun's harmful rays. But I can't help thinking - a ball of pure light - doesn't it sound beautiful?   

Snap out of it Mat, I will myself. I can see the tide coming in and the waves start to pick up. Night is falling and if the Matron realises I'm gone, she'll put me on top of this week's chore rota and I am not prepared to clean up after the dinner crowd.   

I force my legs back from the edge and stand, brushing the loose earth from the backs of my thighs. One last look at the endless stretch of water and I allow myself one more wondering thought: what could be out there? I shake my head dismissing my own stupidity. A person like me would never find out, not today, not ever.   

Throwing caution to the wind, I pace to my bike and quickly mount it, practically pushing it down the steep incline I had carefully walked it up from.   

Wind tosses my bike from the edge and I swerve onto a leveled-out path that leads back to a dirt road. Soon enough, I'm back on the main road, pedaling against on coming traffic, racing the oncoming storm.    Thunder rolls overhead as I pull into the gates of a once elegant estate. I'm greeted by an unkempt garden filled with tall grass and overgrown hedges that I imagine were once sculpted and beautiful. The main building is now only reminiscent of its once pleasing Victorian style. But ever since the first world war forced the tenants to give up the land, it's been converted into an academy. I read the sign on the stone arc above the main doors as I approach: Reaver's Academy for Disadvantaged Children.   

I swirled saliva around my dry mouth and spit. It's just another stupid name for an orphanage, a place where kids are put when they're parents don't want them. I made peace with that fact a long time ago.   

With the world the way it is, it's not unusual for parents to give up their kids. The government has always struggled with poor food production because of the storms and trade is difficult if not near impossible. Half of the imports by sea end up in the sea and planes weren't built to fly through serious electrical storms, not like these. Money doesn't grow on trees like it should and so paying for absolutely anything is difficult.

They told me once that I had been sick when they found me out by the porch where all the babies are left in the cold. My parents had probably thought a newborn wasn't worth the trouble, they could always have another right? Not worth the money it would take to save me. So there I was, left on this very porch. 

I think about it as I dismount my bike and walk around the few stone steps leading up to the main double doors. There was no way the Matron wouldn't see me if I literally just walked through the front door. I had a system in place, and it was usually full-proof.   

By now everyone should be finishing dinner in the mess hall, aptly named for the chaos left behind after 200 children sit for meals. The Matron should be on duty, leaning over each shoulder to make sure all vegetables were eaten.   

With such a sound plan, you can imagine my surprise when I walk in through the side door to the dormitories to find a great hulking lady staring daggers as me from the other side of the entryway.   

"Mateus Cedan!" It bellows with a distinctly Hispanic accent, steam rising from its ears. The Matron stomps furiously my way. The few coats hanging by the door shook with each step.   

I froze, the colour draining from my face as it came within close enough a proximity to hers that I could see the pores of her bulbous nose. "You were allowed one hour off grounds! ONE." Spittle flies into my eye as she speaks and I blink, looking down. I hear her inhale a breath but no words follow.  

"Ms. Herrera please send Mateus up to my office once he's put the bicycle away." The principal, Dr. Clifford Rey, needs no introduction nor explanation. My head shoots up and our eyes meet before he turns and continues up the side stairs.   

I look back at the Matron, Ms. Herrera, an occupational name that in Spanish meant "ironworker", and with big round shoulders and a sourly-aged face that grinds me down like a spice mill, she sure looks like one.    "This conversation is not over. Now go put that thing away and go to the Dr's office." She turns on her heel with surprising agility and disappears behind a door.

I push the bike through the corridor counting my blessings. Although I shouldn't get too excited, that surprise summons to the principle's office doesn't bode well. As I pass through to the other side of the building and toward the gardens, I can hear the muffled shouting of the Matron scolding some other kids about five rooms down. I shudder, better them than me.   

I walk the bike through the back gardens, consisting of about an acre of the same long grass as before with tall old trees at the far end. I can just make out the silhouette of the sports shed from here.

I am about six paces into my walk when an arm tackles my neck from behind.   

"Matty!" I hear my name like a war cry in my ear and drop the bike on its side to defend myself. When I manage to  turn around my eyes meet a cheery-faced idiot with stains around his mouth. I know this stupid face.   

"Gods Iain, where did you come from?" I scowl at him as I rub my neck. He throws his head back in a fit of laughter.

"Miss Alley says the faeries brought me down from the storm in the sky, but I think we're all old enough to know where babies really come from." I'm pretty sure my face is as disgusted as I feel right now, as I look him straight in his cool blue eyes. For a moment my mind wanders: could the sky once have been as blue as that?   

Iain slaps my back so hard I nearly tumble forward. "From parents who didn't want me, just like all the other kids in this shite-hole. You dirty bastard!" Well that blow certainly woke me up out of my daydream. "Isolde's sake do you have to be so heavy  handed?" He grips my shoulder and beams a smile from some miraculous reservoir of happiness I could never find for myself. "I heard the Monster from the kitchen and finished early to come and jump you." Monster, that's what we call the Matron behind her back. I think it suits her better.

I glance at him from the corner of my eye. He's got a dumb face, rosy in the cheeks and always creased in a smile. But he's got a quick mouth and sharp mind and he's as smart as they come in Reaver's Academy.  

"I just needed to get out for a while." He releases my shoulder as I bend down to pick up the bike. "Mate, don't we all." I can hear the wistfulness in his voice. Every kid dreams of leaving this place, except no one ever considers that once you're 18 - you're on your own - forever. I rub my shoulder from his rugby-player-grip and for a moment I contemplate what my life had been like without him.   

I'm not the social kind, I was so sickly growing up that the teachers nor the Matron ever let me outside. I'd watch all the other boys play football on the grass and wonder what it'd be like to kick a ball that high. That's when Iain saw me, from my tiny window and waved. Next day he brought me a football and asked if I wanted him to teach me how the game works. I kicked my first ball that day and broke the ceiling light. The Matron got so angry she told me to just play outside and if I get more sick and die then so be it.   

This boy is more than a friend, he's a real brother in a place where family doesn't exist.   

Iain takes the other side of the bike as I walk it down the small dip onto the grass. "Y'know I tried to stall as best I could, told the Monster you came back earlier and got sick and went to Alice, but she busted me there and then since it's the nurses day off and all." I try not to let him see me glance at him when he called the nurse by her first name. Reaver's is an all boy's academy and me and Iain are nearing 18 now, so I understand that he wants to talk about why his girlfriend didn't tell him about her day off. But I just think he's playing a dangerous game playing around under the teacher's noses.   

"You know Alice told me I can come live with her for a while until I find work. It's going to be great finally burying this place in the dust and starting a new life, providing for my woman." He stretches his arms behind his head and shines with an even more annoying brightness than before.   

"You got it all figured out, huh?" It's not that I wasn't happy for him, I was, but talking about just reminded me just how little time we have left.   

Iain is older than me by a few months, so in two weeks he'll graduate the academy and leave the security of having somewhere to fall back on, leave behind this crazy life, leave me. I shook the thoughts out of my head, but Iain must have caught them on the way out because he stopped us both in our tracks and looked me dead in the eye.   

"I've always got your back. I did then, I do now and I will later. You just got to survive a few more months and then we'll be brothers united again against the world. I've been talking with Alice and she says she doesn't you staying with us until you find your feet." I laugh, a real genuine laugh the kind only Iain get out of me.

"Isn't that what you're there to do?" I tap him jokingly with my elbow and he laughs too. "Don't worry brother, she'll be singing a different tune when we actually spend some real time together." He's cocky and smug and I wish I had even an ounce of whatever charisma he had been born with. I didn't even notice the ring until it was held out in front of me, a shining gold band with a tiny crystal that could in now way be a diamond, right?   

He looks at me with the most sincere smile he's ever had and adds "and maybe after I give her this."   

I don't even realise my jaw is wide open. I have so many questions my mouth beats my brain to the chase. "What the? Is that? Where did you get that?!" I just about manage to formulate words. He chuckles like a kid who just slip he has a special secret. "I've been taking an apprenticeship with Mr Sowerby who owns the construction company just east of town and he's been paying me a little more than he should for some good work, knowing my situation and all-"

"Wait you're telling me you bought it?"

"Yeah"

"With money you could've use to get out of here, for the future Iain-"

"Matty..." he cut me off but this time he wasn't his confident, beaming self, he was serious - heart and soul. "Matty she is my future. At least I want her to be."   

I want to scream at him: that she's too old for him; that she's only his first love; that how could he be so stupid as to put his entire life on the line for some girl. But I didn't. I couldn't. I can see it in his face, his stupid, dumb, smiley face - he was going to leave me and live the best life he possibly could and who was I to stop him. I swallow my feelings and meet his eyes and try, so hard to sound just fine. "Mate she'll love it, congrats."

His face lights up like a candle and he throws himself on me in a deathly embrace. "Iain I'm suffocating" "Sorry, sorry!" He lets go and stands back, smiling like the happiest damn idiot in the world and for a second that's what he looked like.   

Suddenly the sky opens up and a sheet of ice-cold rain falls on us. Thunder claps loudly, roaring through the dark clouds above. It's so loud I can barely hear Iain even though I see him shouting.   

"Quick, lets get this to the shed and run back before we get locked out!" I just nod, knowing there's no point in trying to respond.  We race down the field, our footsteps beginning to land on soggy mud.   

We quickly reach the shed, just as I nearly slip in the puddles of dirty water now going ankle deep. Iain catches me by the arm and pulls me away from the bike he picks it up over his head. The ring box slips out of his pocket but he catches it expertly in one hand and tosses it to me. I can't hear it but I can see him tell me to look after it.   

I watch as he begins squelching towards the shed, wading deeper into the puddle. He has the shoulder's of a rugby player too, and I begin to wonder just how much he worked to buy this little ring. I open the box and take another look inside. The ring isn't impressive by any means, maybe I was being too hasty when I told him she'd love it. Don't girls want rocks the size of their finger? I suddenly felt something at the pit of my stomach. I really hope she'll like it, Iain deserves to live a happy enough life for everyone here at the academy.   

Lightning flashes across the sky, lighting up the grey clouds with streaks of gold and blue. A bolt suddenly hits the tree behind me with a loud CLASH! I hear the wood creak and smell the sour scent of burning. I panic and run out of the way and into the sodden field, preferring muddy socks to being crushed.   

I bite my tongue and instantly eat my words. The thick old tree begins to fall, as if in slow motion before my shocked eyes on top of the shed. Wood meets heavier, more solid wood and the shed goes down, split in two like the Titanic, except this time its not DiCaprio sinking, it's Iain, my best friend, my brother, my only family.   

I don't even feel the pain, but when I look down my leg has a splinter stabbed deeply into it, blood rushes down my leg and mixes with the brown puddle water. I stare as the puddle fills with my blood, turning a deep crimson and I curse the Gods and their war. And I curse Death. You hear me Cedany! You should've taken me. It should have been me.

Thunder continues to roll like an orchestra in symphony. Out from the dark clouds dark clouds of ash drop in perfect form. I get a sudden flash back to religious studies, the Old Evverian religion believed in the Ourer, or Hylhounds as some poems called them.

I watch them move like ink in water through the rain and down towards Iain, towards me.   

"Fine", I say to no one. "Take me too." I hold my arms out as the Ourer smacks straight into my chest and disperses into the wind, turning the world black.

My last thought, I think, is of the ring in my pocket and the stupid dumb face of the happiest boy to ever live.

And then somewhere, deep inside the recesses of my mind, a voice. I can't hear what it says, but somehow I know it's the voice of Death, and it's calling for me. 

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