Caelum is a city of forgotten gods. Here, temples rest on the hill slopes, basking in a sun that shines on minor and major deities without discrimination. All are equal here, lost in the oblivion of time.
Horatius loses consciousness on the outskirts of the city. He has been walking without water for a day now, his supplies long gone, and as he falls to his knees on the ground, he can only hope that someone from the city will see and save him.
When he comes to, he is lying on a cool stone floor with a damp cloth pressed to his forehead. Someone is bending over him: a man with long black hair and eyes gray as the winter sky.
"How are you?" the man asks.
"Thirsty," Horatius croaks.
The man sets a jug of water next to him. "Here."
Horatius sits up. As he does, he can see that he is in what appears to be a temple. Slender, fluted columns support a flat roof. There is only one wall, the one he leans against as he takes the jug of water and drinks in loud gulps. The other sides are open to the air, letting in light. A fountain flows in the center; when Horatius finishes drinking from the jug, the man takes it from him and refills it there. "Who are you?" Horatius asks him.
"Celahir," the man says. "God of wind."
Horatius, never one to be unduly impressed, even by gods, says, "A god? Living on earth? I've never heard of that, or of you."
"Of course you haven't," Celahir says mildly, coming back and giving the jug to Horatius. "Only forgotten gods live here."
"And where is here?"
Celahir simply says, "Caelum. The city of forgotten gods."
Humans are uncommon in Caelum. "Once every few hundred years, a traveler collapses outside the city," Celahir tells Horatius, "and I take him in."
Visitors come by the temple to see Horatius. It's a strange procession, but after the twentieth visitor Horatius begins to forget that he is in the presence of deities. There are gods who look human, like Celahir; gods who have extra heads or limbs; and gods in the form of animals, including the panther god Saranel, who eyes Horatius hungrily (Celahir politely escorts Saranel out of the temple before he can get too close). But for all their strangeness, they are still flesh and blood, warm to the touch, each with distinct personalities and idiosyncrasies.
"They remind me of people," Horatius says to Celahir. "Well, except perhaps for Saranel."
Celahir says, "Gods are people who have been elevated by others onto a pedestal. It gives them power, and when they've fallen, they're still people. Forgotten people."
"And what happens to their power?"
"I was the god of winds. I can still call on them, but what would I ask them to do? Bring rain? Push a ship to its port?" Celahir sighs, twisting his long hair into a braid, and says, "The people who used to worship me are gone, and the people now--they've long found someone else to ask favors from."
Horatius has only stayed with Celahir for a few days when he discovers that Celahir has a dog. There are many things he doesn't know about Celahir, but the dog surprises him the most. Horatius finds out about him when he falls asleep in the heat of the afternoon and wakes up to a cold, wet nose nuzzling his neck. He sits up, gasping. "What in the Singer's name--"
A mangy dog sits on its haunches, looking at him. Its fur was originally white, Horatius thinks, but a fine coat of dust has turned it golden. A long snout and alert, amber eyes make the dog appear wolfish. Horatius edges away slowly.
"Don't mind Nero," Celahir says, strolling into the temple. He must have been on one of his walks, the ones he disappears on whenever Horatius sleeps off his lingering exhaustion. Horatius has woken up on his return several times.
"Is he a god?" asks Horatius, remembering Saranel very distinctly.
"No." Celahir crouches down beside the dog and scratches him behind the ear. "Nero is only a dog. A good one, though. He likes to walk with me sometimes."
Nero stretches his neck towards Horatius, sniffing. Horatius flinches back.
Celahir laughs. "He's just curious. He doesn't know who you are yet."
"He might bite."
"He won't." Celahir smiles, eyes mischievous. "Why, you're afraid of dogs, aren't you?"
"Where I come from, the dogs are wild," Horatius says stiffly.
"Nero isn't wild. A little uncouth in his manners, maybe, but not wild."
"How can you be--" Horatius's words are cut off as Nero tackles him, knocking him onto his back and licking his face. "No! No, get him off me, he's going to bite--"
Celahir laughs, but he tugs at Nero, trying to pull him off Horatius. "He's--he's only saying he likes you," he gasps out between fits of laughter. "He likes you!"
Nero finally takes his paws off Horatius's chest. His tail wags furiously, his eyes as bright as Celahir's. Barking, he licks Horatius's face one more time.
"He likes you," Celahir repeats, hugging Nero. "He won't hurt you."
"He's big enough to," Horatius grumbles.
"Don't be such a child," Celahir teases. He brushes a hand over Horatius's cheek. "You're not hurt at all, are you?"
Horatius shakes his head. For a moment, he wants to take Celahir's hand and hold it to his cheek--it's soothing, the opposite of what Horatius would have expected from a god's touch. But Celahir pulls his hand away, and Horatius lets him. It's only been a few days, he thinks: too early for him to develop a flutter in his chest whenever Celahir touches him. He puts it down to the fact that Celahir is a god and lets the moment pass.
"I was traveling to Sabine when you found me," Horatius tells Celahir. "I have to be there by the Singer's festival."'
Celahir is cooking. He cooks every meal for Horatius. Horatius has asked him if he needs to eat, and Celahir has said no. But he still knows how to prepare food. He gathers herbs that grow in the shade of his temple and cooks whatever game Saranel shares with him. Today it is some sort of soup. Celahir stirs it over a fire and asks, "When is that?" His eyebrows draw in as he tastes the soup. "Too salty."
"The second week of Marza."
"That's a few days after Saranel's feast day." Celahir ladles some soup into a cracked earthenware bowl and hands it to Horatius. "You should stay until then. You need to rest."
"You're still weak. You passed out from lack of water. You could have died!"
"I've had plenty of water, and I'm fine now."
"Just stay," Celahir says. "Please."
Horatius sighs. "Why?"
Celahir sighs, too. "Because," he says, as if he is explaining something to a slow child, "I want to take care of you."
Horatius sips the soup slowly. He doesn't say anything, doesn't look at Celahir. Still, he can feel Celahir's eyes on him.
"How is the soup?" Celahir asks.
"Do you want more?"
"Yes." Horatius hands the now-empty bowl to Celahir. He watches Celahir fill it up again, and he says, "I'll stay until after Saranel's feast day. Then I have to leave."
Celahir only nods, but after he gives the bowl to Horatius, he reaches up and brushes a strand of Horatius's hair away, gently.
Horatius stops Celahir as he walks out of the temple for yet another walk. "Take me with you," Horatius says. "I'm tired of being in this temple."
"Aren't you afraid that Saranel will eat you?" Celahir teases. "Or Nero? He might come with me."
Horatius frowns. "I'm not afraid of Nero anymore," he says. "And you wouldn't let Saranel eat me."
"Are you sure? What if he's very hungry?"
Horatius stands up and walks over to Celahir. Stretching, he says, "You've decided to take care of me. You wouldn't let anything like that happen."
Celahir does not acknowledge this, but he doesn't stop Horatius when Horatius follows him out into the harsh sunlight. Horatius shades his eyes and regrets his decision to leave the cool marble floors of the temple. He doesn't go back, though, and follows Celahir along a well-worn path that meanders from the temple.
"Is it always this hot?" Horatius asks Celahir.
"We're in the middle of the desert. Of course it's always this hot."
"You would have thought the founders would have chosen a better place for a city. Somewhere near a river, perhaps."
Celahir tucks his hair behind his ear. "I wanted a city by the ocean," he says absently, "where the breeze is always blowing. But there were already gods who claimed the shores as their own, so I came here."
"So this is your city," Horatius says, surprised. "You were the first one here."
"Yes." The path climbs up a steep incline, and Horatius's breath comes unevenly as he follows Celahir, who strides along easily. They reach the top of the hill, and Celahir points down to his temple. "Look," he says.
Horatius does so, and sees what he couldn't before: Celahir's temple lies in the center of the city. The other temples spread in a sloppy but steadily widening circle. They all stand in various states and forms. Horatius can see temples with fluid pillars and arches like Celahir's, and temples with strange, triangular shapes. Some temples are simply hollow hills, with stone figures of animals and winged beings guarding the entrance. Others are elaborate palaces, plated with gold that flashes in the sun.
Celahir says, "We all came here, and we all built this city on memories."
"That's a shaky foundation," Horatius says, still looking at the city. The air shimmers in the heat, distorting images into elusive mirages.
Celahir replies, "It was all we had."
Sometimes Horatius watches Celahir play with Nero. Celahir throws a stick for Nero to fetch, and Nero runs for it, fast as an arrow. When he tires of the game, he curls up half in Celahir's lap, tongue hanging out, panting. Celahir strokes his fur gently, talking to him. The words are inaudible to Horatius, who stands behind a column in the temple.
Saranel catches Horatius watching Celahir once. "He's inordinately fond of that dog," Saranel says, as Horatius wonders if the panther god is hungry enough to eat him. Saranel might be able to read Horatius's thoughts, because he says, "Oh, you can relax. I won't eat you. Celahir would throw a fit if I did."
"Oh," Horatius says. He is not very convinced.
"I once asked if I could eat that mangy mongrel, and Celahir wouldn't talk to me for days."
"Nero is very important to Celahir," Horatius says, as Nero tackles Celahir to the ground and licks his face.
"He calls Nero his friend. I ask you, who has a mutt for a friend?"
Nero settles comfortably on Celahir's chest. Celahir laughs; Horatius can hear that much, and he smiles as he watches Celahir stretch out on the ground, Nero sprawled out on top of him. "He's lonely, and Nero is affectionate."
Saranel lies down on the ground, tail swishing across the marble floor. "He'll be heartbroken when Nero dies," he says.
Celahir is scratching Nero behind the ear, eyes closed. Something in Horatius's chest clenches. "Yes," he says. "He will be."
"Who is the Singer?" Celahir asks Horatius once, as Horatius eats dinner: a rabbit that Saranel caught, stuffed with herbs and roasted.
"He is an avatar of the gods," Horatius replies. "He intercedes on our behalf with wind, water, earth, and fire."
"A powerful god."
"Not a god. Only an avatar."
"But you worship him."
"He helps our crops grow and protects our homes from disasters," Horatius says. "We thank him for that."
"How long has he been worshipped?"
"I don't know. For a long time." Horatius looks at Celahir, who is lying on his side, Nero curled up against him. "Do you think he'll be forgotten, too?"
"Eventually, all things are forgotten."
"Maybe he'll come here."
"I'll ask him about you."
"You would want to know about me, after I've gone?"
Celahir nods, his fingers threaded through Nero's fur. "Of course. It's not often that I have a visitor. I'll remember you."
Horatius sets his plate down and walks over to Celahir. He sits next to Celahir. Hesitantly, he strokes Nero's fur, keeping his eyes on the lazy dust motes that rise from it and not on Celahir. "And what if the Singer doesn't come here?"
"Then I will ask the wind to bring me news of you," Celahir says quietly. He falls silent for a moment, and when he speaks again, his voice is a lyrical hum: "But if you wander far from me, I only ask the wind to keep you safe, to blow the dust of your footsteps back to me."
In Nero's fur, Horatius's fingers curl with the effort not to close the few inches between them and hold Celahir's hand.
Saranel's feast arrives sooner than Horatius wants it to. The celebration takes place at night. When the sun sinks below the horizon, Caelum suddenly explodes with lanterns and bonfires.
Celahir gives Horatius a mask to wear, one of a wolf. He chuckles when Horatius gives him a baleful glare. "For you to conquer your fear," Celahir says.
"I'm not afraid of Nero anymore."
"Of course not."
Celahir dons the mask of a hawk, and then the two of them, Nero by their side, set out into the night.
The largest bonfire burns in front of Saranel's temple. A multitude of gods has already gathered there, their hands joined as they circle the fire again and again in an intricate dance. Shadow and light interweave; human limbs become wings and claws, and the masks come alive, their features shifting. On a large boulder that faces the fire and the dancers, Saranel sits, his dark fur glistening in the light.
Horatius hesitates, trailing behind Celahir. But Celahir turns around and waits for him. Holding his hand out, he calls, "Horatius, come dance with me!" Nero barks loudly.
Horatius walks forward and Celahir takes his hand. His grip is firm, warm, and Horatius doesn't draw away. "I don't know this dance," he says instead.
"It has no form," Celahir replies. "You simply move with everyone else." He tugs Horatius toward the fire. As they come closer, the circle opens, making room for them. Celahir and Horatius slip inside and the circle closes; the dance continues without a break.
Horatius stands stiff at first, pushed along by everyone else. But Celahir squeezes his hand and says, "It's all right, Horatius. I'm here. Do what I do." Celahir dances with the circle, his muscles loose and relaxed. Behind the eagle's mask his eyes stay locked on Horatius. Horatius doesn't look away, and slowly, he begins to feel the rhythm throbbing in him. He allows it to guide his arms: rising, falling, twining with Celahir's and that of the god to his left, who wears the mask of a tapir. Outside the circle, Nero sits; Horatius can't see him, but he can hear him as he tilts his head back and howls at the full, clear moon.
Celahir has left his hair loose for the night. It tumbles down his back and falls into his face, tangled, as he dances. When he leans down towards Horatius, Horatius smells running water, clean air, and just the hint of salt: the wind. "Are you glad you decided to stay?" Celahir asks Horatius.
Horatius nods without hesitating and curls his fingers more tightly around Celahir's: "Yes."
Horatius leaves the day after Saranel's feast. Celahir and Nero walk him to the outskirts of the city. "Do you know your way from here?" Celahir asks.
"Yes," Horatius says. He kneels down in front of Nero and, slowly, reaches out to scratch him behind the ear. "Good bye, Nero." Nero licks him; Horatius winces, but doesn't pull away. After a moment, he gently pushes Nero away and straightens up.
"Good bye, Horatius," Celahir says quietly.
Horatius reaches out and touches Celahir's cheek. "Good bye, Celahir, god of wind," he says. He smiles. "Remember to ask the wind about me."
Horatius says, "Maybe the wind will bring me news of you, too."
"You would ask?"
Celahir leans forward and kisses Horatius lightly on the cheek. "Thank you," he whispers.
"Will you say a blessing for me? Your blessing."
Celahir nods, and as Horatius turns around and starts walking down the road, begins to sing: "You embark on a long journey now, to wander lands that have not yet known your touch. I do not know where you go, or how long you will wander. But if you wander far from me, I only ask the wind to keep you safe, to blow the dust of your footsteps back to me."
Horatius closes his eyes, lets the tugging of his heart go unheeded, and keeps walking, continuing his journey away from Caelum, city of forgotten gods.
author's notes: i came across the idea of "forgotten gods" in neil gaiman's novel american gods. when i signed up to write for the imaginarybeast's issue "cities," that idea came to mind, and i decided to write about a city full of forgotten gods.