We are the ones who guard the gods. We are the stewards of their shrine, the gatekeepers of their temple. My family have served them for generations, and been blessed in return for their service. I am the last of our line, the youngest.
The gods picked me from my brothers and sisters and elevated me to the priesthood. I do not know why. Perhaps they saw something in me that day, when I was still blind and pitiful. The gods know all things, they are wise beyond our comprehension. They are more powerful than us, not only with the incredible strength and dexterity of their limbs, but masters of great magiks, doors spring open before them without a touch or word, darkness flees when they enter a room. Yet still they allow us to serve them in our small way. We do not know why they permit us such liberality, but the honour is ours. The gods know all things, and the King of the gods, our Ancient One, is wiser than all.
The Ancient One is dying.
I could not believe it when my father told me. He could not believe it either. But we could not deny the evidence of our own senses. We went to grandfather. He is almost deaf, blind, and he could not even smell anymore, which is a blessing for he has grown pungent with age and would be embarrassed were he to know. But the gods still permit him to stay in his accustomed place, even to sleep upon the Shrine itself, to bask in the warmth of their own presence, a great honour. He has served them from childhood, performing whatever tasks he was capable of, teaching my father the rules of the Temple, and me in my turn. To serve the gods is the greatest joy of our lives. And grandfather has lived well. It would perhaps have been a mercy to leave him in ignorance. But we owed him the truth. He would not accept it though. He has seen his father die, and his father’s father. But the gods do not die. They live on. He shook his head and refused to listen any more. We left him to sleep.
But the Ancient One no longer took us out into the greenlands to worship him any more. It had been many days since he even left his shrine, longer than I could remember. And foreign gods visited the Temple more regularly, spreading themselves out, filling the Temple with their presence. The children of the Ancient One had returned home also, spending longer than was customary, and their approach had not been greeted as was usual by the lights of glory and the miracle of the tree appearing within the heart of the Temple, blazing with light and precious gems. The house was gloomy, lights were low, the talk of the gods was hushed and sad. My father and I did what we could to help them, though we were cautious, not knowing their ways as well as we did the Ancient One and his Mistress. My father remembered the child gods from his own youth, though they had changed immeasurably since then, yet he said they still smelled the same. They remembered him, he believed, and it was true that they seemed to treat him with some measure of familiarity. They did not know me, and I did not know them. Yet I followed my father’s lead, and I seemed to please them, which gave me joy, allowing me, for a time, to forget the Ancient One who remained within his Inner Sanctum upon his shrine, dying.
We worshiped the other gods instead, we believed this was what the Ancient One would want us to do in his absence. And to be honest, we wanted to ourselves. We were getting anxious and frustrated within the Temple. Only grandfather was allowed to enter the Ancient One’s presence, and he would no longer speak to us after he had refused to accept our words. Father and I slipped in one day, when the great gates were opened, and faced our god with bent necks, and a respectful countenance. He laughed, a great booming noise that thrilled us, and brightened our eyes. He caressed us like he always had, and for a time we could forget the smell of death in the room. But then he fell back upon his bed, his breath shallow. And grandfather noticed from his position at the foot of the shrine and snapped at us and we fled, ashamed that we had weakened our god with our joy.
Those days were hard days, dark days. We could not understand what we were to do, what was to become of us. The Great Mistress had never treated us with familiarity. My father and I may still be strong enough to learn the rites and ways of a new Temple, perhaps one of the god’s children would take us on. We had been well trained, and we seemed to please them. Grandfather though smelled wrong, and was too old to worship the gods in the open spaces, to dance and chase before them as they liked. When the Ancient One died, would he last much longer? Would he want to?
For uncounted days the Ancient One lay in his bed. Occasionally we visited him, unable to stay away, desperate for his voice, his touch, to pretend, even if for a moment, that he was all right, that everything was at it had been from the beginning of time. But mother death cannot be swayed by hope and dreams. She comes for us all, and to our utter horror, the day came that she took our god from us.
Bereft, we mourned him, father and me. We wept for him, for the days we spent at his feet, enjoying the glory of his presence. Worshiping him in the fields and parks with our dance and our chase, truly alive as we flew across the wet grass beneath the trees. The still-cold morning sun upon our backs as his voice boomed behind us, calling our names, his glorious laugh filling our ears. And caressing us as we returned to him with the objects he had thrown for us, our eyes closed in joy, our tails drumming the ground in bliss. We served our god and we loved him for allowing us to, for teaching us how, for raising us to himself, and giving us our place in the world. We were not like the lost ones we heard sometimes beyond the Temple precincts, wandering the dark streets, howling at the open sky. We were blessed. And now? Now those days were gone. Would we wander now, lost beneath the moon, with no place to rest our heads, blinded by the lights of foreign gods as they roared about in their burning chariots?
Our god was dead.
Grandfather died soon after. We found him, curled up in a corner of the Temple grounds. He had not wanted to profane the memory of our god by dying in the inner rooms. He had found a quiet place to sneak away to. We brought the children of our god to his body. They honoured him by burying him beside his fathers at the back of the Temple. He would have wanted it so. They spoke words over him, great words that were beyond our comprehension. But we understood them well enough. They were speaking of grandfather, and his love for his god. We understood that well enough.
Then of course the rooms were shut, the great gates opened. We were no longer to guard them for there was no god to protect any more. The Great Mistress followed her children out of the empty house, the children carrying her possessions to a great chariot. So she was to leave also now that the glory of our god’s presence had left. Piece by piece the furniture and ornaments of the Temple were removed. Soon the Temple stood empty, with only ourselves left, alone. I wanted to howl, feeling the sky yawning too wide above me, feeling lost, with no place or duty. I saw father feeling the same, his eyes downcast, his mouth set tight, his legs and tail tucked beneath him. Were we abandoned, to wander the world like ghosts?
But our god’s children remembered our long service, they did not abandon us. Two of them returned and took hold of us. They led us out into the world. I looked at father and he looked at me. One of the new gods led me to their chariot and another took father to theirs. I called out to him one last time. He cried back, and we knew, in that moment, whatever happened, we would never see each other again. It was only then that we howled.