“My son is sick,” Powell says. “He has a fever and won’t wake up.”
“Have you taken him to Alemany and Lombard?” Castro asks.
“I did. They tried everything they could, but Geary still wouldn’t wake up,” Powell replies, his voice quivering.
“I see,” Castro says.
He runs his fingers through his long white beard, deep in thought. It’s late at night and Castro sits in front of the fire, whittling away at a piece of wood. “You want me to head to the Golden City, I presume?” Castro says.
“Yes,” Powell mutters.
“The seas are wild this time of year,” Castro says. “It will be hard to sail there.”
Powell falls to his knees. “Please Castro,” he begs. “Geary’s all I have.”
Castro sighs. “We’re only supposed to go into the city during the day of the long sun,” he says.
“He’s only a child, Castro.”
Castro stares into Powell’s eyes, eyes that reflect the dying light of the fire. “How long does he have?” Castro asks.
“A few days, maybe less.”
“Go to your son. Spend as much time with him as you can. I’ll sail to the Golden City at first light.”
Powell hugs Castro. “Thank you,” he says as tears fall from his eyes.
Powell runs to the medical hut and Castro goes back to whittling. “You can come out now,” he says. “I know you were listening.”
I step out from behind the tree and sit down on a stump next to Castro. “It’s rude to eavesdrop, Octavia,” Castro says.
“Are you really sailing to the Golden City tomorrow?” I ask.
“I suppose so,” Castro says with a sigh. “Would you like to come along?”
My heart skips a beat. “Do you think I’m ready?” I ask.
“I guess we’ll find out tomorrow.”
I can barely sleep that night. At the young age of 16 years, I have been chosen to accompany the Lorekeeper on a pilgrimage to the City of the Gods. When Castro comes to awaken me the following morning, I’m already wide awake and ready to go.
Castro’s retainer, Hyde, is waiting with the boat down at the dock, holding his holy staff. Unlike Castro, who’s an elderly remnant of a man with matchstick thin limbs, Hyde is a bulky, intimidating man more than capable of defending himself in a fight. He’s the sole reason Castro is able to go into the city safely. When we arrive at the dock, he gives me a disapproving look. “You’re bringing the kid?” he asks.
“I am,” Castro replies. “My apprentice will need to learn about pilgrimages eventually, better now than when I’m too sick to go with her.”
Hyde grunts and climbs onto the boat. Castro and I climb on and Hyde pushes the boat into the water. The tiny boat cuts through the fog as it floats away from the island. For the first time in my short life, I leave Angel Island.
The legends say that, when Gods dropped death from the sky and drowned the world in fire, an angel protected this island. Even as the world died, the people of this island survived. Our ancestors swore to only leave the island once a year, out of fear of angering the Gods once again.
“The sea is rough this morning,” Hyde says as he opens the sail. “We won’t be able to land at the city’s docks.”
“We’ll enter the city through the bridge then,” Castro says.
“You really want to risk going through the forest?” Hyde asks.
“We don’t have a choice. Powell’s son will be dead by the morning if we don’t get this book. We can’t wait for the sea to calm,” Castro says.
“I know, but I’m worried about heading into the city this early. The Gods might get mad that we’re going on a pilgrimage on a day other than the day of the long sun,” Hyde says.
I sit in the back of the boat, keeping quiet and watching Castro and Hyde as they work. This is the fifteenth time Castro has gone on a pilgrimage and the sixth time that Hyde has accompanied him. Normally, the two of them wouldn’t be worried. Of course, this isn’t a normal pilgrimage; this time they’re venturing into the city during the fog season.
According to the legends, the Gods created man out of clay and fire at the beginning of time. The Gods gave man the gift of knowledge in the form of Sacred Tomes. Using this knowledge, man built the Golden City as a monument to the Gods.
But, as time went on, the knowledge bestowed by the Gods corrupted the hearts of men. Instead of using the Sacred Tomes for worship, men used them to kill one another. The Gods, angered by this, flew through the sky and dropped fire on mankind, killing them like grass beneath their feet.
The people of Angel Island, afraid of angering the Gods again, limit the knowledge we take. We only allow a single man, known as the Lorekeeper, to know how to read the Sacred Tomes. Every year, on the day of the long sun, the Gods permit the Lorekeeper and his Retainer to venture into the City and bring back knowledge.
Through the fog, I see a fortress of stone sitting atop a small island. “Is that the city?” I ask.
Castro smiles. “No, child, that isn’t the Golden City,” he says. “The Golden City is much greater in size than even Angel Island. That small island is the Scarred Man’s Tomb.”
He tells me this fortress is the Scarred Man’s Tomb. He tells me the legend. His words dance like fire. I see each and every picture he paints with his wise tongue with crystal clarity.
“The Scarred Man was once a Warlord, born long ago. Before the Gods dropped fire on the world to punish man for his sins” Castro says. “The Warlord fought many battles from his palace on the lake, and grew his golden treasure hoard until it stretched high into the sky.”
“The Warlord, unsatisfied with the spoils of his conquest, climbed his great gold pile into the heavens. He waged war on the Gods, hoping to add their wealth to his own. For his insolence, the Gods slashed his face, so all who saw him would know of his failure, and threw him from the heavens.”
“The Gods ordered man to build a great tomb, where we chained the Scarred Man to a wall. The Scarred Man fought to break his chains, to escape from this accursed cage. Soon the man was gone, replaced by a rabid beast lashing out at the world. By the time night fell, the Scarred Man was gone.”
“When the beast eventually died, the Scarred Man’s soul remained, unable to pass on because of his rage. The spirit of the scarred man slaughtered his former captors. The devout among mankind, to contain this accursed spirit, split the tomb from the mainland. It floated out near Angel Island, far from the shore of the Golden City. Some say that the Scarred Man’s soul still roams the cages of that accursed tomb.”
“Really?” I ask.
“Really,” Castro says with a smirk. “One night, during a thick storm, Hyde and I stayed in the tomb. As I fell asleep, I felt a pair of frigid hands grab my throat. When we woke up, my neck was covered in wounds from the Scarred man’s fingernails digging into my skin.”
As Castro finishes his story, I gaze upon the Tomb. I swear I see a translucent figure standing upon the beach, waving at me. I shiver and Hyde rolls his eyes. “Don’t scare the girl, Castro,” he says while turning to face me. “The weather forced us to spend a night there the last time we went on a pilgrimage, but nothing happened. There aren’t any ghosts there, or any living things for that matter. Angel Island is the only place where people survived after the Gods burned everything.”
Castro starts laughing and I scowl at him. “I had you for a moment, didn’t I?” he says.
“Did not!” I shout.
Castro keeps laughing. Slowly, the laugh turns into a sickly cough. Hyde freaks out and places his hand on Castro’s back. Castro shoves him away. “I’m fine,” he wheezes.
“No, you aren’t,” Hyde replies.
“Maybe not, but there’s no going back now.”
Castro has been getting sicker and sicker recently. Part of the reason he took me under his wing as his apprentice is because he knows that he’ll only be able to go on a few more pilgrimages. Alemany and Lombard, the village healers, have resigned to the fact that there is nothing they can do to save him. After all, Castro has the knowledge sickness.
The job of Lorekeeper comes with both great honor and great suffering. The Lorekeeper is, more than anyone else in the village, vital to our survival. The Lorekeepers teach us to fish, to farm, to treat our wounds. They carry the stories that inspire our children. The knowledge they possess is both powerful and cursed. Every time a Lorekeeper goes on a pilgrimage, they get sicker and sicker as the knowledge they possess poisons their bodies. Even their Retainers, who don’t read the sacred texts but do accompany the Lorekeepers to the Golden City, eventually succumb to the knowledge sickness.
Castro is already older than most Lorekeepers. I think he stayed alive for so long because he was waiting for me to come along and become his apprentice. Nobody else, in all of the time Castro has been the Lorekeeper, wanted to become his successor. They were all scared of the Golden City and the knowledge sickness.
Eighteen moons ago, three days before the day of the long sun, I came down with a fever that wouldn’t go away. When Castro and Hyde returned from the Golden City, they brought knowledge on how to save me. I decided that, even if I would eventually die from the knowledge sickness, I would repay Castro by becoming his apprentice.
Hyde lands the boat on a beach at the base of a large hill. I look up and, through the sea of fog, saw a crimson bridge stretching as far as the eye could see. I’ve seen the bridge before, back on Angel Island, but never truly grasped how big it was. Two metal towers, the color of blood, stretch into the heavens. Countless ropes hang from these towers, suspending a road of stone hundreds of feet in the air.
I stare at the bridge, unable to comprehend its majesty. Castro notices me staring at the bridge and smiles. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” he says.
I nod my head. “I can’t believe that people could build something so wonderful,” I say.
“You’d be surprised at the things we were able to do back when we had the knowledge of the Gods,” he says.
We climb the hill and walk across the great bridge. The bridge is covered in large metal boxes. Each of these boxes sits atop four rusty wheels and is covered in windows made of a material that looks like water. I look into the box and scream.
Three skeletons sit in the box, slouched over in their chairs. I stumble backward and Hyde slams his staff down on the windows, shattering them. “What’s wrong?” Castro shouts.
I point at the box, unable to form words. Hyde glances inside the box and sighs. “False alarm,” he says.
Castro looks inside the box and chuckles. “Don’t worry, Octavia, these people can’t hurt you,” he says.
“These boxes, what are they?” I ask.
“Chariots,” Castro replies. “They’re like boats but they work on land. They were gifts from the Gods. The city is filled with them.”
“And the bones?”
Castro bows his head for a moment, carefully considering his next words. “When the Gods dropped fire, some people tried to escape using their chariots. Most of them didn’t make it,” he says.
Hyde pulls his staff out of the chariot’s window and groans. Part of the paint has been scratched away, leaving silver scratch running down the staff’s head. Hyde sulks for the rest of the time we spend on the bridge. I don’t blame him; his staff was a gift from the Gods.
According to Castro, Hyde found the staff lying in the middle of the road on his first pilgrimage. His staff is made out of metal, a durable material that only the Gods can create. A large circle sits at the end of the staff, containing four letters outlined with paint the color of blood: STOP.
STOP is a Godly word Castro taught me; it means to make something cease moving. Castro and Hyde, after finding the staff, came to the conclusion that it is a weapon created by the Gods for stopping enemies. It’s Hyde’s most prized possession.
It takes us thirty minutes to cross the bridge. At the end of the bridge lies a dense forest, one that feels like home. “The Golden City is on the other side of this forest,” Castro says. “We’ll have to stay along the northern border so we can avoid the fang-beasts.”
I shudder at the mention of fang-beasts. According to the legends, these monsters were once friends of humanity. But, after the Gods dropped fire, they began attacking us, using their superior strength and speed to tear us apart. The main reason we normally land on the northeast shore is to avoid the fang beasts.
The three of us slowly walk through the forest, trying our hardest to avoid the attention of the fang-beasts roaming the woods. After an hour of walking, we finally exit the forest. Before us lies the Golden City. I stare in awe at the magnificent buildings and the great towers stretching in the distance. I stare at the glistening bay and the streets sloping down green mountains. And, most of all, I stare at the crater surrounded by charred buildings sitting in the center of the Golden City.
I take a step forward to get a better look and step on a twig. As soon as I step on the twig, Castro shoves me away. A fang-beast jumps out from the forest and tackles him to the ground, sinking its teeth into his arm.
Hyde smacks the beast with his staff, knocking it off Castro. He grabs Castro by the arm and runs into the Golden City. I chase after him, hunted by the beast. I trip and crash down onto the stone streets. I close my eyes and wait for the fang-beast to eat me.
I hear the sound of slicing flesh. I open my eyes to see Hyde standing over the beheaded corpse of the fang-beast, his staff resting on his shoulder.
Without a word, Hyde walks back to Castro, who is sitting against a wall. His right hand is crumpled and covered in blood. I overhear the two of them talking. “We need to go back,” Hyde says.
“No,” Castro snaps. “We still need to visit the Brary”
“Your hand is hanging on by a thread!” Hyde shouts.
I wince. I’ve never seen Hyde show so much emotion. Castro just shakes his head. “Even if we went back now, they wouldn’t be able to save my hand,” he says. “We might as well get some use out of this journey.”
“I swore to protect you-”
“Then you’d better come along,” Castro says with a smirk.
Hyde rips off his shirt and makes a makeshift bandage for Castro. “The fang-beasts travel in packs,” Hyde says. “We need to get to the Brary before more of them show up.”
“I have an idea,” Castro says as he limps over to an abandoned chariot.
Castro and I climb inside the chariot. Hyde pushes it to get it rolling before jumping in the back. We ride the chariot down the winding streets of the Golden City. When we reach the base of the hill Castro slams his foot down on a lever at the bottom of the chariot, forcing it to a stop.
The Brary, a holy temple built to store the knowledge bestowed by the Gods, is only a short walk away. As we approach the Brary, I see the large letters hanging on its wall, some of them so faded I can barely make them out: GOLDEN STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY.
“Why is it called the Brary?” I ask.
“The word Brary is derived from the word Pray. Brary is a place you go to Pray,” Castro replies. “The secret to being a Lorekeeper is being able to figure out what words mean based on their roots. For example, we know that Golden means built by the Gods because it is spelled like the word God. Thus, the Golden Sity Brary is a place of worship in the Golden City.”
We walk into the Brary and I see countless shelves covered in Sacred Tomes. I grab one from the shelf and glance at its title.
D-I-C-T-I-O-N-A-R-Y. Dik-tee-ona-ree. It isn’t a word I recognize.
I flip open the Dictionary and quietly read a section. “P-R-I-S-O-N, Pri-sohn” I whisper. “A building in which people are legally held as a punishment for a crime they have committed.”
I squint at this section. I don’t know all the words, but I know enough to figure the passage out. The Dictionary explains what things are, and a Prison is another word for tombs like the Scarred Man’s.
I flip through the tome. There are so many definitions, so many godly words to consume. In five minutes, I learn more than Castro taught in a year.
I sigh and put the tome back on the shelf. It isn’t what we’re here for. Besides, it’s not like I can just bring it back with me. But, as I try to let go of the tome, my hand won’t release it. After making sure that Castro and Hyde aren’t watching, I slip the tome into my pocket.
I look around and find Castro searching through a section labeled M-E-D-I-C-A-L, looking for the information that we came for. He shouts my name and I run over to him. “Yes?” I ask.
“Help me look for anything on home remedies,” he says.
We search through the shelves for a tome that can help us. I find one and hand it to Castro. He smiles as he flips through the pages of the tome. Eventually, he finds the passage he’s looking for. He rips the page out. “Read this passage to Alemany and Lombard when you get back,” he says, slowly. “Make sure they burn it after Geary’s healthy.”
Castro coughs and falls over. I shout for Hyde and he comes running. “Make sure to read some fiction too,” Castro says while grabbing my hand. “The kids’ll love that.”
“We shouldn’t have gone back earlier,” Hyde says.
“It wouldn’t have mattered, Hyde. Even if they could’ve saved me, I’m an old man,” Castro says. “Powell’s son has a long life ahead of him.”
“This is all my fault,” I say through the tears.
“Your fault? Octavia, don’t even consider the thought,” Castro says with a smile. “This is the will of the Gods. We broke their laws by traveling into the Golden City and they took their sacrifice. Better me than one of you.”
“You’re the Lorekeeper now, Octavia,” Castro says. “Make me proud.”
And then he was dead.
“Grab your things, Lorekeeper,” Hyde says, his voice quiet. “It’ll be dark soon.”
I don’t move. I can’t move. I just sit there, holding Castro’s body.
Hyde slams his staff on the ground. “I said we’re leaving!” he shouted. I notice a tear dripping from his eyes. He wipes it away, hoping that I didn’t see it. “Castro died for Powell’s brat, I’ll be damned if we don’t get back in time to save the little gremlin.”
I follow him out of the Brary. We take a different route out of the city; we go to the docks that Castro and Hyde normally land at. Hyde finds a small boat pushes us out to sea, using his staff as a paddle.
The sea rocks us back and forth, and we struggle to stay in the boat. Hyde uses his staff to keep the boat afloat, but only barely. “Get down, we need to keep the weight in the boat low,” he says.
I hide in the bottom of the small boat. I notice a small black box on the back of the boat. Something resembling a metal flower dips into the water. A word I don’t recognize is painted on the box. “M-O-T-O-R, Moh-toh-ra,” I say. “Hyde, what does the word Mohtohra mean?”
“Shut up and let me focus on the sea,” Hyde grumbles.
I pull the dictionary out of my pocket and flip through it, finding the M section. I read the words out loud. “A machine that supplies forward power for a vehicle,” I read. “Hyde, what does the word Bee-hi-clee mean?”
“I’m not Castro, I don’t have to answer your stupid questions.”
I flip to the V section. “A thing used for transporting people, such as a car, truck, or cart,” I read.
I look down at the boat. A thing for transporting people. Kinda like a chariot. Or a boat. And, if a motor moves a vehicle, then the black box must be used to push the boat forward.
I look at the motor again. A red cord sticks out of the engine. I pull it and the engine roars to life, pushing the boat forward. It slices through the waves as we rocket to Angel Island. The speed helps keep the waves from knocking us over.
Hyde slams his staff down on the engine, destroying it. The boat comes to a stop. “What did you do?” he yells.
“The mohtohra, I made it work,” I mumble.
Hyde snatched the dictionary out of my hand and holds it over the waves. “You tried to bring a tome back to the island!” he yells. “What the hell is wrong with you.”
“Give it back!”
“Castro died because you broke the rules, you stupid brat!”
“I said give it back!” I stand up and look him in the eyes. My hands tremble. “I am the Lorekeeper! Guardian of Angel Island! Successor of Castro! And you will give my book back!”
We stare at one another for a solid minute. Then Hyde sighs and hands it back to me. He returns to his rowing. “You’ll lead us down the path to hell,” he said.
“Perhaps,” I say. “But, the path to hell is still better than this path we walk now.”