By Kristen Strmel
The eyes of man did not always see beyond the sky. The hands of man did not always grace the sky.
There was a time, indeed, when humanity existed only on this earth. It was the place of the gods to dwell above the sky, the blue ceiling that arced above the realms of man with the clouds as its sentinels.
In one of these realms stood the ancient city of Velivend. It was a magnificent, sprawling city whose glory was renowned to the ends of the earth. Some believed that the gods once dwelt here before ascending to the sky, leaving behind a pristine jewel of a city in which humanity could bask. Even now the gods looked upon it with fondness, leaving mankind to their legends, for regardless of the truth, the city’s glory could not be denied. It was a testament to man’s power or divine ingenuity, depending on who you asked. Yet above all it was undeniably the center of the world.
From great Velivend hailed a man known as Emerias. He was an otherwise unremarkable man, save for his skills at archery. In his youth, his father had taken him into the wilds outside of the city, dotted with immense trees and sprawling rivers and all sorts of creatures the gods had ordained. The exotic animals of Velivend were one of its many attractions, and the ability to catch one was a quick way to fame. Yet it was not simple fame that young Emerias desired. A greater question drove him—an earnest, fiery desire to know why it was that humanity was destined never to gaze upon the realms of the gods.
It started the first time his father brought him out to the wilds. There, as they crept behind
trees and set nets across the rivers and searched for stones to sharpen for use as arrowheads, his father pointed out all the creatures they saw, explaining that they had been placed here by the gods for all of humanity. Even the trees and the rivers were their creation. The oldest buildings in Velivend had once been their abodes. But years and years ago, they decided to move back to where they came, leaving all of their gifts to man.
Young Emerias was confused. If the gods were so mighty, where were they now? Why didn’t they stay here instead of leaving?
That, his father answered, is because the gods are good and just. They saw that humanity needed a place to grow, so they moved beyond the land, up into the sky. They watch over us still from their place above the clouds and the winds, making sure we have all that we need.
This interested the boy. If the gods are on top of the sky, can anyone see them? If we climb a giant mountain with cliffs and caves and get to the top, will we meet the gods?
To that, his father laughed. Oh, no, boy. Their realm is a splendid place, ten times as glorious as Velivend. Humans are not meant to see it.
Emerias did not understand. The years passed, and he grew from a boy to a man. His skills improved each day. Rumors spread about him; some claimed that, once he set his eyes on a target, he never missed. Many begged him to teach them his secrets. He let the rumors spread and taught those who wanted to be taught. None of it was enough for him. For years, that single, great question had been growing within him. He and his father had not spoken of the gods since that day in his youth, when his father said that humans were not meant to see the divine realm, but the thought, the why of it all, had not left him. He needed to know why it was that humanity was consigned to wander the land, never as much as receiving a glimpse into the divine realm
above. And that desire—and wonderful, terrible human desire—would bring him both glory and ruin.
At first he attempted to speak to the gods themselves. Velivend was host to a great many places of worship, and it was said that, if one was pious and of a pure heart, a god might itself descend to answer a prayer. So Emerias time and time again joined the throngs of worshippers that crowded into the temples with their sharp arches and thick white pillars, and time and time again he knelt with them and whispered to the gods. Why is it that you may look down upon us? he asked. Why is it that you are free to gaze from beyond the sky while we are bound to this earth, unable to see past it into the place where you dwell? We spend our time in deep prayer, in great sacrifice, somehow content with the fact that we will never see those whom we have sworn devotion to.
The gods did not answer the man’s questions. Perhaps they saw him as a nuisance, another human who believed he was somehow entitled to their secrets. It was not the place of man to peer into the realm of the gods, they agreed, though not maliciously. There was no need for malice when it came to a simple, accepted course of nature.
One particular god, however, listened more closely to the man’s incessant pleas. Who this god might have been is not known—only that he seemed intrigued by this human’s unyielding quest for knowledge. Perhaps he held a particular fondness for humans; after all, it was said that man and god mixed in the earliest times, each walking amongst the other as if they were no different. Yet it had been decreed that man’s place was on the earth and a god’s place was in the sky, and so the gods moved up past the ceiling of the earth with only lingering sentimentalities to comfort them. As such, this god was just as wary as he was curious; he could not slip wantonly
down to speak to a human without taking precautions. Nor could he simply come to Emerias without a solution for what he sought. Fortunately, he had been observing him for some time, and it did not take him long to witness his skills with the bow. So he took to his workshop in his clouds, working quickly so not as to draw suspicion. It did not take long for his creation to be completed. Now, all that was left to do was wait for the perfect day.
Such a day did indeed come, where all orders of divine business on his kin’s part left him to his devices. He seized the opportunity, slipping past the firmament and descending to speak with the man.
Emerias was awestruck. A god had appeared to him at last, but at what cost? Was he finally to be punished for his inquiries? He had no way of knowing, but he steeled himself with the belief that he had done nothing wrong. Where was the sin in seeking knowledge?
The god spoke. You must know, he said, that a mortal man cannot breach the house of the gods, the vast expanse that lies atop the firmament, where your divine mothers and fathers dwell, gazing down upon you.
I know this, Emerias said, and that is why I have been asking you. Why is it that you will not answer me?
The others will not answer you, the god replied. I am the only one who will.
The god questioned Emerias several times, asking him if he was truly prepared to accept the consequences of his actions. For this god had thought of a way for the man to seize his desires with his own hands, but it could come at a great cost.
But if you are so intent on seeing what the gods will not allow you to see, he said, I shall grant you a way.
Emerias pondered for a few moments before answering. I am willing, he answered, if it means that humanity is granted the thing that has so long been kept from it.
The god had crafted Emerias a magnificent instrument: a long, elegant bow that shone with the rays of the sun, beset with a quiver that procured endless arrows trimmed with byzantine gold. Now he handed it to Emerias, instructing him that, if he truly wished to pierce the sky and glimpse into the divine realm, all he would need to do was shoot an arrow upwards.
Emerias set forth immediately. He first meant to loose the arrow from the center of great Velivend, but decided against it. The bowgiving god had assured him that the arrow would hit its mark so long as he pointed it upwards, but he wanted to be absolutely sure. The olden hills that surrounded the city were no mountains, but they would be a suitable perch. And he had another reason. From this vantage, he would have a clear view into the center of the city. Once he loosed his arrow, he would clearly be able to see how his people would react. He imagined them gazing up at the ruptured heavens, marveling at the view of the divine realm and wondering who could have provided them with the opportunity to do so. He would come down from the hill and into the city then, revealing his deed. Once he showed them the divine bow, they would have no reason to disbelieve that he was the one who had pierced the sky.
But he wanted to see it first. This hill was not terribly high, but surely, he would have a better view of the realm above the sky than everyone else. For years he had agonized over his inability to see it; there could be no fault in wanting to savor the opportunity. The more Emerias pondered this, the more giddy he became. He could wait no longer. The stage was set.
So Emerias loosed his arrow and shot down the sky, and the clocks of fate struck.
Up, up, the arrow went, glowing with a golden fire that could only be borne of divine providence. It soared forth in the guise of a flaming comet, and all the people of Velivend stopped to gaze at it. It pierced the sky only a few moments later, separating a massive chunk from the rest.
Just above, the gods seethed with rage, their dwellings shaken by the impact. Their eyes glowed with wrath, fists clenched with terrible intent, as they watched a piece of the sky fall away beneath their feet. This one man had taken it upon himself to intrude into their realm. He had done what no human had done before, and this could not go unpunished. Their anger great and their power greater, the gods decided that this mortal would pay for his arrogance.
All the while the bowgiving god stood amongst his kin, nodding quietly and agreeing. There was nothing for him to say or do; he had heard Emerias’ prayers and answered them. The choice the human had made was his alone. He had warned him of the cost.
And great the cost was. By divine wrath and will did that massive chunk of sky change course. Having once been headed for an uninhabited patch of plain several miles outside of Velivend, it now arched in the opposite direction, heading straight for Emerias on his hill. Yet the chunk was immense, and even the gods could only move it so fast. When it reached the ground, it was in Velivend rather than the hill. The people of the city had but a few moments to scream before the sky itself fell upon them.
From his place atop the hill, Emerias watched in horror. The sky had fallen into the center of the city, taking everything with it. A great wind flew from the epicenter, tarnishing even those areas that had not been caught in the initial impact. Buildings that had stood for centuries were blown away, leaving naught but scattered bits of rubble. Plumes of smoke rose from the ashes, drifting aimlessly into the air. And from the sky above the golden realm of the gods cast its light, shining upon a city in ruins.
In this realm the gods gazed down upon what they had done. Their rage began to dissipate, replaced by grief. Their displeasure had resulted in the destruction of a city they had always held dear. It had taken but a moment to erase Velivend’s legacy, and on the hill nearby stood the man whose questions started it all, eyes still wide with dread.
The gods decided immediately that something needed to be done. Although they were not yet willing to forgive Emerias for his hubris, the sight of the ruined city rendered them distraught. The hole in the sky, too, continued to gape, though few humans were able to gaze upon it.
And so the gods descended to Emerias, who prepared himself to be struck down by their hands. They dispelled this notion; instead, they had a task for him.
By your actions here today you have caused great destruction, great grief, the gods said, for not only the humans of this ruined city but we in our realm feel anguish in our hearts. But you, the one who set this into motion, must take responsibility—for you have seen into our realms, you have seen the birth of your wish, and this city burns for you.
I understand, said Emerias, and you can take my soul ten thousand times, but I ask you this: no matter what you do to me, please give those who survived a reprieve from this grief and provide them a new home, for they had no bearing on what I have done here.
The gods pondered and found that they, despite their anger at the man’s deeds, were moved by his pleas, and came to the conclusion that the destruction of his city before his eyes had been punishment enough. So they came before him yet again and said thusly:
The people of this desecrated city shall have the reprieve you wish for them, for we shall grant them a new city, a city not of this earth but not of our realm, but it must bare your name, for you, despite your remorse, must not be allowed to let hubris grow in your heart and repeat this grave mistake.
Emerias agreed to the gods’ request, willing to do whatever was required of him if it meant that the remaining people of Velivend could see sanctuary. So the gods by their own decree lifted the chunk of the sky into the air and suspended it there—for having not been of this earth, it could not remain there, yet having been separated from the sky by the divine bow, it could not be fitted back in. And so the people of Velivend who had survived this terrible ruin were allowed to settle upon this city of the sky, carried there by the creatures of the gods themselves, who thus procured for them the tools that they would need to rebuild.
That city continues to exist to this day, some claim, although it is difficult to reach, for it hangs below the window into the realm of the gods, who had decreed that only the survivors of Velivend, who had suffered so much, would be allowed to glimpse above the sky. And below the city sits a massive, gently sloping valley—though it is not a valley but a crater, still dotted with the ruins of the ancient jewel that was Velivend.
Few have reached this city. Fewer still have peered into the golden light above it, the light that man was never meant to see. And all due to the actions of one man. A man who wished for humanity’s revelation, whose mortal heart both destroyed and created, whose spirit they say still guards this place.
Emerias. The skyward city of legend, named for the man who once shot it down to the earth.
Kristen Strmel lives on the outskirts of New York City. She keeps a notepad and pen inside her pillowcase so that she can jot down her ideas in the dead of night before she forgets. She has a love of classical history, which often inspires her stories.