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SWC14 - The Starmaker

Arisia'14 Student Writing Contest - 1st Place Winner

The Starmaker

By Amanda Ugorji

I have probably seen a thousand stars shoot out of the mountainside that concealed the Starmaker's workshop, but I have never seen the Starmaker himself. Every time I hear the familiar rumbling that signals the birth of a new star, I race down to a nearby peak to watch. I wait for the defining shudder that ripples through the mountain as the star is launched. The star’s flight is silent and precise. My eyes always follow its glowing trail as it soars across the sky and settles into its new spot in the heavens.

Not many know how he does it, creates stars, that is. Only the young gods, and even some demigods like me, who have tried to become his apprentice have seen him perform his craft. Even they were sworn to secrecy. Most don’t even know his real name. Starmaker never traveled up to the peak of Mount Olympus where the gods lived, nor did he venture near Tartarus where his brethren were confined. He must be the only being who knows how to make stars, otherwise Zeus would have banished him to suffer with the rest of the Titans.

I have heard rumors that the Starmaker is cruel and pitiless. They say he is cold and efficient and has not once missed one of Zeus’s deadlines. One god even told me that he slays any apprentice who doesn’t serve him well, but I wonder how someone that All I know for sure about the Starmaker is his beautiful stars and that no apprentice has stayed with him for more time than it takes to make a single star. No matter how rigorous the task, I promised myself I would be the first to break this cycle, the first to learn the craft of starmaking. I would prove that a demigod could be as great as the Starmaker.

I could hear a distant clanging of metal and the scuffling of feet at the entrance of his cave. No markers, other than the snippets of noise that wound their way through the tunnels, indicated which direction to walk. I stumbled into a few dead ends before I found the towering cavern the Starmaker called his workshop.

The contents of the colossal cave were minimal but impressive. High, jagged ceilings and walls made from natural rock contrasted with the smooth limestone floors. A massive slab of granite the length of six cows stood in the center of the room. To the left of the enormous table, a shelf held cast iron tools and containers. Some jars reached up to my chest and all of them were full of substances I could not identify, some of them moving. On the other side, sat a large basin full of water, a water pump, and a fireplace. Giant torches welded to the walls illuminated the room. In the back of the cave, a hole no bigger than three of my fists punctured the wall. A rectangular stone with a concave surface protruded from the rock below the small cavity.

     I stood in the gargantuan doorway and studied him as he worked. His solemn face was trained on the table in front of him. I had never seen a Titan before. Prometheus and Epimetheus didn’t venture to Olympus much. His body was massive. The mammoth table in front of him looked dwarfed in comparison. The rhythmic movement of his arms captured my gaze as he swiped a towel back and forth against the smooth countertop. Starmaker still hadn’t noticed he had a visitor and was pulling out a glass jar so enormous that its top reached his hip. In the jar, on the bottom sat a single orb the size of a chicken’s egg. Dull light pulsed from the orb in a slow, sleepy rhythm. Light coursed through it the way blood courses through a heart. When the Starmaker unscrewed the jar’s lid, the orb suddenly illuminated completely. It reminded me of a small animal that had just woken up. The ball of light seemed to get its bearings and began ricocheting indignantly off the glass walls of the container. It moved with impressive speed, and I was expecting the glass barrier to shatter.

If Starmaker was fazed by the mysterious glowing orb, his surprise did not slip through his stern façade. I could see no strain in his muscles as he slid the lid to slip an agile hand into the jar. He studied the movement of the light for a moment before swiftly cupping it into his hand and thrusting both his hand and the orb into the waiting bucket of ice water. He made no unnecessary movements. The hairs on his arms rose and his jaw clenched as minutes ticked by, his arm still submerged in the freezing water.

At first, when he stuck his hand in the water the ball of light began to thrash. Although I couldn’t see the water in the bucket, the reflection of the struggle illuminated his face in random bursts of light. The orb began to squirm less and less wildly, until the Starmaker didn’t need to grip the side of the basin to steady his arm. It took me a moment to realize that the orb was drowning.

I realized that I had emitted a gasp only after the Starmaker looked up. All it took was one moment of distraction, one slight loosening of his grip for the watery orb to slip through his grasp. The light freed itself from the frigid water and lurched into the wall. Slightly dazed, it shook itself out, then bounced off the floor and ceiling and flew over my shoulder. The orb whispered its gratitude as it flew by. My gaze followed the ball as it wound its way up the tunnel towards the opening of the cave.

A clanging noise sounded behind me and I whipped my head back toward the Starmaker. The noise was from the lid of the jar he threw onto the damp stone ground. His eyes stared into mine, stony and accusing. The gaze was too strong; I had to lean against the cold archway to stay on my feet.

“Why are you blocking my doorway?” Starmaker demanded, as he strode back to his work table. He filled the whole room with his voice, gravelly and low, the voice of a mountain.

“I am your new apprentice,” I stated. My words got lost in the cavernous ceilings. I wondered if he even heard what I said.

Starmaker eyed me. Confidence drained out of my body, condensing into little beads of sweat on my brow.

“Go put on those shoes over there, ‘new apprentice’” he commanded. “Zeus ordered this star to be out tonight, and you just cost me my materials.” Anxiety laced his voice, and I wondered what would happened if he missed a deadline.

I located a pair of sandals by the entrance; small wings protruded off either side of each shoe. They were a miniature pair of the ones the Starmaker was wearing. As I wrapped the leather straps around my feet, I watched Starmaker gather his supplies. He filled a sheepskin sack with a small jar and a flute. A long pole with a woven net at the end clattered on the floor near my leg.

“You will watch what I do and follow my instructions. You will not speak unless you are answering one of my questions.” He walked out into the damp passage. “Follow me, and bring that soul catcher.”

He strode down the passage to a cliff near the entrance of his workshop. Without looking back at me or even at the ground, he took a step off the mountain edge. I dashed to the ridge only to see a large shadow moving quickly through the sky. His figure was accelerating, and before I had time to think about what I was doing, I too threw myself off the mountain. For a brief moment, I simply fell. But, before I reached the tree line, the wings on my shoes began to flutter, and I soared through the sky. Though I was hundreds of feet behind him, I noticed he slowed to match my pace so I wouldn’t lose him in the cover of the night.

Rather quickly we came upon a town of humans. Hypnos had bestowed upon them all the gift of sleep. Descending to street level, the Starmaker still hovered a few feet above the ground. We glided silently past house after house. His eyes lingered on the windows of every home, his ears straining to hear something.

Snapping his head east, he raced toward the end of the road. At the outskirts of town, he slowed. Gliding gently towards a small cottage, he spotted a newborn through the shutters. Taking a shutter between his massive fingers, he revealed her face to the moonlight. A small tuft of hair graced her small head, and her squirming body was swathed in blankets. The small human’s heartbeat was steady and her breath shallow from sleep.

In the darkness I thought I saw grief flash across the Starmaker’s face, but I wasn’t quite sure. He silently retrieved the flute from inside his bag.

“When you see it, trap it in the net,” he said quietly, but without whispering. The Starmaker was much too serious to whisper.

I wanted to ask what “it” was, but his orders from earlier were still fresh in my mind, so instead I readied my soul catcher and waited.

The Starmaker sat on the roof of the house, and rested the flute right below his lower lip. I was surprised the house didn’t collapse under his gigantic frame. He closed his eyes and inhaled a soft breath before blowing into the instrument. At that moment, I could hear nothing besides the enchanting, haunting notes that streamed out of the flute. A tortured, wonderful melody filled the air. Without my knowledge my body began to float closer to the source of the song. Out the corner of my eye, I saw something glowing from inside the house. Tearing myself away from the siren-like tune, I stared as wisps of light escaped from the child’s body. The strands were gathering in a sphere above her heart. With each stream of light that exited the infant, her body grew weaker. The pink that colored her chubby cheeks dulled to sickly white. Her pulse grew weaker and weaker as that of the orb grew stronger and stronger. A final ribbon of light exited the baby’s body, and the newborn lay still and cold.

The now complete soul swayed towards the haunting tune. Dread wound its way up my body as I realized what I had to do. Starmaker’s eyes opened and pierced me with their stare.

It is time, they said.

Sweat loosened my grip on the pole, so I had to readjust my hands. The spirit was thoroughly seduced by the song, so it was too easy to trap it in my net. Even after I caught it, it didn’t resist me as long as I moved it toward the song. I cupped my hand over the opening just in case. It was a good thing I did because Starmaker had to stop playing the melody to open the jar. A small wave of disappointment washed over me as I realized the song was going to end. As soon as the music ceased, the soul began to panic. Pulling the net towards the house, it tried to return to its body, desperately trying to escape my clutches. I could feel its warmth as it bounced around the net. The Starmaker positioned the jar in front of my hand and gestured for me to move my palm. It was hard to peel my fingers off the net, to aid the death of one so innocent, but I had promised myself. I removed my hand, and the soul zoomed out of the net, full of false hope. The lid made a snapping sound when Starmaker screwed it on. I looked down at my hands and was surprised that no blood stained my skin.

I didn’t see his face as he placed the glowing jar carefully back in his bag, or as we flew home, or as we landed on the mountain, or as we trailed through the cave back to his workshop. Even when he finally turned around to instruct me where to place the soul-catcher, his face was blank.

I watched numbly as he drowned the soul. The light completely faded away, and it lay as frigid and pale as the newborn’s body. Starmaker poured vile after vile of liquid on the orb until it was coated in a clear gel. Placing it in the fire caused the blaze to soar into the air. With a pair of iron tongs, he lifted the smoldering ball up and brought it to the back of his workshop. White flames licked the newly made star. The Starmaker’s creation glowed so bright, I couldn’t stared at it for more than a few seconds. A massive mallet I hadn’t noticed before was stationed next to the hole in the cave. Starmaker placed the star in the hollowed part of the table and hoisted the mallet up to his shoulder. After winding up, he swung at the star. It shot across the hollowed rock and soared into the sky. The force of the swing vibrated through the mountain, causing the rocks to moan and tremble.

Starmaker placed the hammer back in its spot and walked over to his workbench. Without looking at me, he began to clean up his work station. I observed how he wiped down the table, how he poured the leftover water into the fire. I noted his swift, adept movements, and his unwavering concentration. Finally, he finished and looked up at me.

Will you stay or will you go?” he asked. No hope specked his voice. It was a question he must have asked a hundred times. Always with the same answer.

I stared at him and hunted for some reason to stay. I searched past his façade, his daunting physique, his powerful voice. Behind his cold eyes and curt mannerisms, I finally saw him.

He looked so very tired.

If my hands were sullied, his were caked. I could still feel the repulsion in my stomach, the pure horror of watching someone give in to a siren. I think he could feel it, too. His callousness is the only thing protecting him from the pain. The torture he must endure now is no better than Tartarus. It must hurt to look at the sky, to hear how beautiful and pure the stars are.

I looked in his grief filled eyes, and I gave him a curt nod.

Yes,I will be your apprentice, yes, I will share your burden.

A breath of air whooshed out of his body. His strong exterior crumpled away to reveal the distress in his heart. Relief radiated from his face. He strode over to me and held out his hand.

Welcome, my apprentice. You may call me Astraeus.”