Friday, May 15, 2015

Whisper from the Dust: Chapter One

For Stefan
Part One
And any person may, at eight years, and sixteen, and at twenty- four, come to the local Temple to be tested, to see if he or she might serve.
- The Rule of the Jade Temple, by Historian Stalef
He always knew it would end with a knife. The blade slid across his cheek as though filleting some small animal. It scalded and seared and he bit his tongue to keep from screaming. The Temple’s anteroom was dark and hot and he was half-blinded by the torches on either side of his face. He sweated like a madman. The ropes that bound him to his chair, ostensibly for his own protection, chafed his wrists abominably.
Apprentice Marl peered into his eyes – seeing, Del imagined, whether or not he suffered. Whatever the young Historian glimpsed, he smiled thinly from beneath his jade cowl and heated the blade again for the next incision. Soon Del would carry six scars in sum; four he’d gotten in years before.
When Marl smiled, Del hated him. Del hated Marl's long winding frame, his grand column of a nose, his high cheekbones. Del hated his shining brown eyes, and his smell of incese and parchment. He hated that Marl's stride as he walked around the chair was smooth and self-assured. And he hated most of all that Marl's dark, soft jade robes granted him access to the Temple's vault of the electric tomes of Profusionist history.
Del wanted that access more than anything. And he was just as tall and thin as the apprentice, but his mane of auburn hair and beard were both unkempt. And his eyes were dulled by the ache of protracted malnutrition, and he stank of the Market's sweat and dust. When he walked, dejection slowed his gait - and it was the weight of poverty instead of Temple finery that stooped his shoulders. Marl showed him, then, everything he could have been, given sufficient opportunity. 
“You are marked, Del Tanich of Ariel,” said Historian Senre, his words rumbling from the darkness beyond the apprentice.  “You may not study at this or any other Temple of the History of the Profusion. You may not attempt to join the Order of the Children of History again.  This, I, Senre, Head Historian of the city Ariel, decree.”
Del might have mistaken his booming voice for that of the exaltants, were they not gone from the world entirely – and if he had not seen the fat old man nearly every day for twelve interminable years. The Temple cared for orphans, and Senre had headed the local Temple for as long as Del could remember. So it had been Senre who had taken Del off the street when he was very young, Senre who had funded his meals, and Senre who had steered him toward the studies of rhetoric and sums. Del owed very nearly everything to him.
“Yes,” Del said, “I fear I shall always be a disappointment.” He wondered if he would be ashamed whenever he finally did kill the two of them.
As soon as Del’s mouth was still, Marl made the other incision on his right cheek. The knife, heated to glowing orange, would scar for life. Del would forever bear marks like those of hardened criminals, or those who deserted the veilmen, though his were cut horizontally. Still, another offence would now mean his execution. 
“Do not take it hardly, Del,” said Senre. “Few have the stomach even for a second trial, let alone a third. Failure frightens the young. Strange, isn’t it? The righteous fear not – that’s what you should remember, Del. These mark you as a necessarily honest man.”         
“Or an incompetent criminal,” Del said, wincing. He kept forgetting to be insincere. Marl still stood over him, inspecting his work, turning his neck this way and that. Del began to suspect he’d enjoyed employing that blade – a state ill befitting a Historian. They weren't supposed to enjoy anything.
“You merchants are so self-conscious about your associations,” Senre said, writing at a lectern in the corner.  “You need not be. Oh, I know there are those elements in the Market who oppose the Temple, who consort with smugglers and purchase power with wealth. But they are not many, I think, and cannot be very much adept at cooperation.”
“So we don’t pose a threat to you,” Del said. He knew that Senre was writing the letter to the High Historian that would forever formalize his verdict concerning Del. “That's good,” he added, “because our taxes must contribute a tenth of the Temple’s revenue by now.”
Senre did not pause his writing. “Come now, Del, it is not good for you to be insulting. Besides, the donations of the people keep us comfortable enough. There, I said it – though Marl here would disagree, never in this life are we freed of base desire, never in this life does reason liberate our souls. But you need to see that not all things can be counted in your coin.”            
Senre finished writing with a flourish and walked across the room to seal it. He had the soft jowls and red face of the obese, and his fingers when he reached for the nearest message case were thick and shortened like a child’s. But Del could not help but see in him authority and that trait men called grace. Senre maintained his rank despite his physical appetites. He compensated for weakness by force of intellect. Following the Revised Orders, he had even let his hair grow a bit, though of course the top of his head was always bald.
But Apprentice Marl, who finally released his grasp, carried no hair on his head at all. He followed the discipline of the Old Orders, the unaltered ones that Historian Staleph himself pronounced four hundred years before. He had found no weakness, then, and thus needed no compassion.   
Del now wished that Historian Senre had wielded the blade. The whole ceremony was dragging on. The tiny, silvery, dust-like machines in the plastic testing cubes had slid away from his hand nearly a watch before. They had not even warmed his skin. And so the slim metal pages of the Histories of the Profusion would never scroll their lines before his eyes. They would always remain to him as dim and blank as stone. He could already hear the disappointment in the smooth deep voice of Ryn Batyst, though his mentor would try to hide it. 
He did not need to affect his scowl. Infiltrating the Temple would have been a master stroke. The Blooded were not the first group to have dreamed of bringing the Temple down, but they were the first who might succeed, and he had wanted to contribute.
Around him, the light of the torches limned the brass and gold and jade of the Temple’s intricately ornamented side. Along the way the light threw shadows among the relief carvings of the exaltants of the Profusion departing the galaxy and the exaltants shaping Thaeron by artifice. Machines the size of cities and spiraled like shells scooped up mountains and carved out the oceans between the continents.
Yet no one knew where those machines had gone. And no one knew what the exaltants of the Profusion had looked like. But that stopped no Temple from displaying their likeness everywhere: humanoid beings made entirely of golden light, people as they might become through theophany, winged with wisdom and casting not shadows, but illumination. The Historians published whatever truth they chose. 
            Marl wandered back to Del’s side. He sniffed and brushed the dust off of the beige collar of Del’s best but tattered tunic. Del wondered why he had not put the knife away. But, in the next instant Historian Senre turned toward Apprentice Marl with an abrupt whirling of his dark jade robes. He raised a finger, as though he suddenly remembered something – and Marl’s knife nicked at Del’s throat. He jerked in astonishment, which movement meant that the blade pressed more closely against his skin.
Senre stepped toward them both.
Del clenched his jaw and bit back a low despairing cry. He was doomed, then. They knew everything. He would be tortured until he died or gave up his accomplices. Marl clamped a hand against his forehead, and forced it back. Del feared for the Blooded because he would not hold out. He had never been resolute. 
But with a rustling sound Historian Senre drew from his sleeve a scroll of ordinary parchment. He unfurled it before Del’s eyes.
Del froze his face, afraid to react.
Upon the sheet was sketched in gray ink the portrait of a young artist. He recognized her instantly. She sold her art in one of the stalls down the street from him. She brought four or six paintings each morning and produced more throughout the day, selling them in turn.
“Do you know this woman?” Senre asked.
She never spoke to him. Instead, she walked past in calm determination, as though she did not see him. He wished he were so cool. When he saw her, his mind whirled like the frames of a daguerreotype. A sort of electric paralysis seized him, as though he were epileptic. He had hired a girl the first night he left the Temple’s care, but to this one he stammered to say hello.
She was never dusty.
Marl twitched the knife against the skin of his throat again. “We said, do you know this woman? We’ll know if you lie, we always know.”
Daily, he cursed himself for cowardice. His only consolation was that she rarely spoke to anyone. And once, at the height of boldness, he had purchased one of her self-portraits. It had cost him a week’s earnings. But he could not help but buy it when she saw that she had drawn herself walking by the canvas, dark red hair trailing as she passed, ringlets shivering in her wake. She reminded him of someone he couldn’t quite remember. He had found her name, Adlasola Oso, signed along a branch in the painting’s background. 
He shook his head. “No,” he said. “I have never seen her. I swear that I have not!”           
            The porcine senior motioned again and Marl delicately danced the point of the knife across Del’s throat.  “Good,” boomed Senre. “We believe you, but… have you ever heard of the Blooded?”
            Del’s mind lurched. He was totally confounded. Were they toying with him, not satisfied to simply have him in their grasp? He had never been a good deceiver, and Historians trained to read each other’s lies. 
“N—no,” he stammered, “What are they, one of the smuggler’s gangs?” He began to tremble. “No! I swear I do not know!”
The blade pricked another drop of blood from his throat. The Head Historian’s gaze bore upon him with piercing calculation. Long ago, he would have assassinated his predecessor to take the seat of Ariel. And he would now be training Marl to do likewise to some other key Historian. The horror of all their mental discipline was that they truly could master their emtoions to an unnatural degree. 
But Senre withdrew, sighing. He nodded to Marl, who cut Del’s bonds and turned away, holding the knife before him. But, Senre, still standing at his feet, pointed to the scroll just as Marl vanished behind a heavy jade-dyed curtain.
“Well, she has heard of the Blooded, if you have not. Beware, Del Tanich. They are terrorists. The Faith doubts me, and says I’m chasing rumors. But the Blooded would destroy this city. Why does this woman ask for them? Our artist is quite fantastic, don’t you think?”
“Oh,” Del said. “Yes. It’s striking. She could be real.”
Senre nodded. “She is all too real. And while we would not harm her, we would like to ask her questions. Why would anyone seek the Blooded? How do they recruit? If you find her, we might find some...unofficial capacties, within the Temple.”
            And he nodded once again to indicate that Del could go. Still shaking, Del rose and walked dazed toward the great double Temple door. When he thought of Senre’s question about recruiting, he nearly laughed outright. The Blood of History had its ways.
But the long walk across the broad stone sanctuary was sobering. He had just stepped closer to death. He could only thank the lingering grace of the Profusion that Head Senre’s familiarity had dulled his perceptions. No doubt Senre remembered the rashly pious youth who'd gone to Temple every Eightday. In a few more paces, Del had driven away even his fears. 
Outside, atop the broad Temple stairs, stood a baker in his faded white guild smock, with hair like a mess of straw. No doubt the man had just observed the Rites of Dusk, those devotions which marked the final extinguishing of light before darkness fell. The evening rites were the most popular, because everyone knew that humanity lived at the end of the long diminution of its days. Even now, Thaeron downed the last dregs of the benefits of the Profusion throughout the galaxy - and called it grace. 
“Beautiful evening, yes?” the baker asked, nodding in his direction.
Del nodded again. “I prefer the evenings. The sun’s not been down an hour, there’s no smugglers or thieves, no courtesans or gangs. Honest merchants can just walk home smelling dinner – rice and beef and eggs.  It’s the time for ordinary men.”
The man smiled. “Ah, look,” he said, pointing back over the Temple’s outline of dome and spike and spire. “Perhaps the exaltants still listen. Isn’t that supposed to be a sign?” 
            Del followed the baker’s pointing finger toward a streak of fire in the sky and shook his head. The street around them was filling with a dull whisper that deepened to a shriek as the object came toward them from the south. “No,” he said, over the noise. “You are thinking of a meteor, but those are smaller, and make no noise. This comes too close and fast.”
“Then what is it?” he asked, as the trail of orange and yellow flame streaked overhead, beyond the mountains, and fell sharply toward the Fackablest, the boreal forests of the north. “Something from the exaltants themselves? Perhaps they’re returning from beyond the void.”
Del shook his head. “No. But it is a relic of the Profusion – that plume comes from the engine of a starship. The crews are long dead, of course, though their equipment still guides them to their destination. But because no one helps them land, they stumble into our atmosphere and burn.”
The other man sounded uncertain. “That seems like an omen to me, Initiate.”
Del shook his head again. “I’m no part of any Temple. But I suppose it is an omen. It will only happen once or twice in our lifetimes. And the Historians thought there might never be another. It's just that no one has ever been able to guess their significance.”
“Well, it couldn’t be a good one,” the baker said.

Whisper from the Dust: Chapter Two


The Blood is rising! The economy of History is the economy of Blood. We purchase our lives from Blood. For four hundred years the Temple has bled us and told us that we do not know the truth. But, my friends, we know a little more about Blood and History than they!  

- Pseudonymous

“Welcome, Blooded, to the mystery!” shouted Ryn Batyst.

All the other Blooded cried out in response, a roar that threatened to escape the secluded glade. Rarely had the Blooded been so excited. Del shrank further back into the shadows at the edge of the wood, watching his mentor carefully.

Ryn Batyst was a master blacksmith and a towering mountain of a man. His long, shaggy hair had begun to gray but his shoulders and arms and legs were all still enormous, in keeping with his craft. He lived near his shop in the district known as Markethome – and chaired the Public of Guilds which represented all the legal merchants and artisans in the city. The greatest infiltration the Blooded had ever accomplished was when Ryn had first opened the Wells of the Dead, because he himself was about to come to power.  

He said, of course, that Del had been first. He always pointed to Del. But Del would have been an infant when Batyst first heard the call of the Wells, and he felt little more useful than one now. News of his failure would have surely reached Batyst. And Del dreaded relating the details.  So he skulked in the shadows behind the few dozen Blooded who had been called and waited for the Well to open, hoping that his mentor would not notice him before it did. 

Tonight they had gathered in the valley east of the city, in the foothills of the mountains, near the Profuse River’s fabled source. The springs were believed sacred; the dead abided there regardless. The Wells of the Dead surrounded the city of Ariel, though only the Blooded knew of that necropolis. 

“The time of our exultation is at hand” boomed Batyst. “The age of freedom will soon be here!” Another heightened cry died as Batyst waited for silence, looking out into the diverse faces of the crowd.

And the Blooded were diverse. A smuggler stood in front of Del, his leathers dripping river water and his face blackened with soot after an early job. Ahead of him stood a young scribe employed by the Banker’s Guild, clad in the purple robes of his association – and ahead of him a newly rich merchant from one of the mansions on the Hill. But beside him stood an ancient farmer and his wife from the valley, a poor and placid pair who never spoke to anyone.

Ryn Batyst had all their attention now. “We have seen a wonder. A relic of the Profusion has crashed upon our world! A ship that once spanned stars has come back to us in fire and flame. And I ask you – did it ask the Temple for permission? Did it ask the Historians where to land? No, the grace of the Profusion is wild. It is wild, and it is free.”

The Blooded quieted. They rarely considered anything beyond the city and the valley that surrounded it. But a ship from among the stars had come, crashing far beyond their mundane reality. 

“So it has passed us over. It has gone to the Liberties. Even those who reject all technology have more grace than a city with a Temple! Anything is better than a city corrupted by Historians! But the Libertines will come back, my brothers, my sisters, cmy hildren. For the grace of the Profusion has returned to them - and begun the exaltation of the world!”

Some new Blooded gasped, but Del almost laughed. He and all the older Blooded knew that Ryn predicted the end of the world once every octad or so. But he was telling the truth in other ways, and besides, one of these days he was certain to be right.

“The Libertines will return,” repeated Batyst, “And we will show them that Ariel, too, is a Liberty, the first and last Liberty! And we will take back the wealth of the Historians. We will open its vault and release its treasures to the people. What we have given up in charity and bribes and taxes we will take back!”

From beneath Del’s feet came a slow tingle and buzz. He sighed in relief. The opening of the Wells of the Dead would end the sharp ache that had lived in his skull for nearly three watches now. And he would be the first to answer. He always was. Ryn Batyst insisted. 

            “The Temple,” Ryn was saying, “would make this world weaker by claiming the Profusion for itself. They would lock its light away. But our exaltation is at hand! We are the relics of the world, and we are waking up!”

Del stepped forward, shedding his rough tunic and undyed trousers a he went. The Blooded parted to let him pass.

“Freedom will fill this valley with fire and with flame. The Historians cannot stop it. The Temple cannot stop it. Because the gifts of the Profusion are our own! We are History's true children. Yes, now we wear the night and whisper, but we are waking up! Our time is nearly here!”

The Well’s sentience probed Del’s mind like an itch. Batyst, as always, had timed his speech perfectly: upon its last lines Del would lean backwards and fall naked into the earth, as the Blood of History preferred. He relaxed and emptied his mind as Batyst roared in the darkness.

            “Blooded, our time is coming, and soon. It is written in the sky! History will call her true children, and we will rule the way the exaltants intended, and bring the Temple of History crashing to the ground!”

The Blooded erupted, cheering and howling. Beneath the soles of Del’s feet the soil separated. The itch inside his brain became a fire.  His feet and ankles and then his legs sank through soil and stone and into Profusionist metal. Taking a deep breath and spreading his arms, he let himself fall backward. The Well of the Dead opened to let him in. He passed through earth and rock and Profusionist metal alike.

Ryn claimed that it was like being born again, and he could not disagree. He fell into the Well's sea of thick red fluid and lay still. He couldn't move. That was why it was better to fall in backwards, arms and legs spread: it was the position the Blood of History most easily supported. He gulped down the Blood, because that was the only way to breathe. The light that let him see the Blood's color was dim, and no one had ever seen its source. 

But this time, he met none of the dead. He shared none of their memories. Instead, he saw someone whom had never lived. He knew that immediately, just as he knew she would not show the past.    

She wore loose white robes, and crimson hair flowed around her face. She lay buried in the earth. A wind blew the soil away, a wind as dark as the emptiness between the stars. It rose around her like a fog, though it did not touch her. Its whisper grew to a roar that he thought would drive him mad. But she rose and stood and walked through it. 

She strode the streets of Ariel. At each step, her breath repelled the black wind. In one hand she held a quicksword, in the other a lightspear. Her steps shook buildings. Above her nine moons circled; she reached up to drag them down. Nine demons followed them, creatures of the void. They stood a third again as tall as any man, and their wings would have spanned a great hall. Their skin matched the black wind that surrounded them, their wings and horns burned with orange flame, and their arms curved into glowing swords.

She breathed out and they drew back. She slit their eyes with the quicksword. She pierced their breasts with the lightspear, and her breath became a white cloud of walking forms. They were veilmen wielding Profusionist machines, and they cleared the demons away. When she reached the fallen moons, she crushed them in her palms.

Around her, white buildings sprang entire from the earth. Their spires reached the stars. Their whiteness matched her breath and skin and robes. The night become a day that would not end. 

            “Come, Del Tanich Ariel,” she said. “Come.”

            She climbed atop the cliffs of the Word of Faith, straddling the Profuse River. The white wind sang beneath her and swept across the world, a roiling whiteness that grew and rose and brightened till it was all he saw.         

He woke pained and dazed on the cot within his room. As usual, he had had to be carried home as though he had been drunk, a ruse the guards had not yet doubted. But the aftermath of the Blood of History was worse than inebriation. In him it induced something like what Historians called a coma, and the longer he stayed in the Blood, the longer it persisted.

He was glad to be awake.

Once, he knew, all the Blooded who entered a particular Well of the Dead must have experienced the same memory, shared the thought and feelings of one, and only one, dead person. Now, whether due to corruption or merely long senescence, visitors who came to a Well often remembered different ancient dead, or could not recall experiencing anything at all.

It was as though the Blood of History was becoming confused or losing its integrity. Sometimes, he knew, some Blooded had even gone in to the Wells of the Dead and not come out. Their bodies were never found. It did not happen often, but it was enough that those who knew of it were terrified. Worse, Ryn had once allowed that it may have been starting to happen more frequently.  

And now one of the Wells of the Dead, or the Blood of History within it, had called him by name.  

It was nearly noon and hot. He had missed the morning’s profit. He felt ill. The Blood was unnatural, and the body did not like it. Sometimes, he was sick for an entire day. Perhaps this too was the long degradation of the Blood in time.

He was slow getting dressed. His head ached, and he had no appetite, though he should have been ravenous. Yet he put on the gray tunic and trousers he had washed and dried the day before, picked up his heavy sacks of seeds and stepped out the door, into the whitewashed light of Ariel.

As he walked, the glare off the buildings made his head hurt even more, as did the boisterous crowd, most of whom were brawny quarrymen or ironmongers returning to work. So he was surprised when he met again the stranger he had first encountered only the day before. 

            “Have you heard, brother?” the baker with hair like straw asked, as Del was bending over to pick up his sacks after a rest. He squinted and looked around. Sweat poured over his eyes and he could not see much more than the broad fa├žades of Ariel’s low white buildings, none of which rose above three levels, lest any surpass any part of the Temple. 

“Heard what?” he asked, as he began walking again.

The baker followed. “Anything! That our starship crashed in the Fackablest and that the Faith has asked Dovan Santu to look for it. Any of it?”

Del smiled. “Well, it sounds like you have already heard everything yourself. How can I add anything to that?”

“Ha! I suppose you're right. But you said the other night that you weren’t with the Temple. And I see your scars by daylight now. So, friend, why all these sacks? What poor trade do you haul upon your back?”

Del showed him his talisman on its pocket-chain. “There’s no smock or cloak for us.”

“Sowers’ Guild, then?” he said. “A small but venerable brotherhood.” He looked again at Del’s sacks. “You take the remnants from the barge?”

Del nodded. They were nearly at the Market now. “Every Fourday it comes for the farmers in the valley,” he said, “massive as a field itself. Seeds from Sepira, Nogilia, Nesechia – everywhere that’s fertile. We take the leavings for a nominal price. Then we hump the sacks to home and on to Market. Nearly everyone has some kind of garden on their roof, and some seeds are good for eating, or relieve sickness or pain.”

When they turned the next corner, Del saw at last the endless bizarre of booths and stalls and established shops that was the Market - and winced against a suden wind. Crushed more finely near the Market than elsewhere, the white stone of Ariel’s streets became in summer the dusty cloud that covered every mountebank, charlatan, and honest man who barked a ware. The particles worked their way onto every cotton shift, twill shirt, fine silk chemise or makeshift woolen trouser that any poor hand had sewn, not to mention the tomatoes, plums, artichokes, cauliflower, potatoes, honeydew, durians and strawberries that came from his seeds – or the breads, pies, cakes, and spiceloaves produced by his new acquaintance. 

“I rent from Gurloes,” he said, “and sell under his protection.” 

The baker grunted. “You’ll be to the east then,” he said, “by the chandler’s row. You’re in your eighth year?”

As they walked, Del readjusted the burden of his sacks. “The Temple saw to my apprenticeship when I turned sixteen. They said that people trust me, and I’ve always been able to keep a ledger.” 

“Well, the Historians are good for that,” the baker said. “Four more years, you’ll take an apprentice of your own. Good business, those. Customers know that you’re established. You’ll do alright.”

Del stopped. They had reached his booth. He stepped inside, and he held out his hand.

“Profusion keep you,” he said.

            The baker nodded and shook it. “Its grace saves us all.”

Soon Del was opening his sacks and pulling out the smaller bags of seeds within them. He had just placed the first of these on his counter when he felt a warm hand upon his own.

He looked up and found himself beholding the bright, green eyes of Adlasola Oso, half-hidden by strands of her scarlet hair, which had been caught in another breeze.

“A cup of sunflowers,” she said, “for my garden.” Then she leaned closer, smelling of soap and fresh linen. Her face was pale and very smooth. She whispered, “I seek the Blood of History. They say you know the way.”

Friday, August 15, 2014

A Time for Renassiance: Part Three

              Faced with prosecution and imminent demise, I did what thousands of other foolish old men have done. I stood up to bargain.  “You have a problem” I stammered, as loudly as I could.

              The divine being paused, though it did not look up. I suppose it did not need to.

              “You do not belong here,” I went on. “You are not of this world. You’re not meant to take this form.” The flaming god took three steps up instead of two. The limp seemed suddenly less serious. Sweat surged across my skin.

              “How else could a human have injured you? How else could a mortal have cut your leg?” I swear the stairwell swelled around it, a simple distortion of space or time.

              “Yes, you killed them all, you killed each and every guard, but you only fought two hundred, and you caught them by surprise. What if they had ridden Profusionist machines? Could you have dodged that sword stroke then? It’s not human technology, you know. It’s divine, blessed by those like you.”

              The being paused again, halfway up the stair. Static stood my hair on end. Wind blew erratic through the tower.  The pages of the histories on the tower’s spiraling shelves hummed noisily to life.

              “You want to claim this world, but you did not kill everyone. You only killed the ones who immediately opposed you. The ones who stayed awake. The ones with shrouds around them, keeping the machines away. The machines, is that it? The black cloud, this dust, they are loyalty machines? I have read of such devices.”

              The stones of the floor shook with its step. It had nearly reached the top. My robes lay hot against me.

              “You would have our service. You have mine already. I have already inhaled them, yes? I stirred some dust, but there’s no dust in here. They’re in the rock, aren’t they, your loyalty machines, in the jade!”

              The tips of its horns appeared above the floor. With another of its lurching paces, they distended, filled with roiling liquid fire. I fell back against the wall.

              “But you will be opposed. You took this city by surprise, but the Historians of Kasora will not pass away unnoticed. We’re politically important. They’ll raise whole armies against you, millions your machines won’t reach. There are many other lands, an entirely separate continent.”

              Its head appeared above the floor, gaunt, but larger than a man’s entire chest. Even swept back, its wings filled the stairwell with their flame. With another step its scythe arms extended, the rear blade nearly touched the tower ceiling. Its entire torso soon reared above the floor, flooding the cell with heat.

              “Let me go. Send me. I know someone –.”

              The god stepped into the chamber. Hunching, it approached. Its breath shook the tower stone. Strange text scrolled across its flesh, black glyphs I did not understand. It held the Profusionist relic out toward me. The cylinder was a little shorter than my arm, and only half again as wide, tiny against the bulk of the god. The loyalty machines rose toward it, seeping from the jade.

              “I know the man who leads them. Let me undermine the Faith. I have influence over him. I’ll infect him with your machines. I’ll –.”

              The god roared. It spoke but its voices made no coherent word. Ten thousand tongues of sound sent clean cracks throughout the jade. My bowls and bladder voided.

              “I’ll infect him. I’ll take them to him. I’ll make him loyal, the whole world will follow. Let me take a relic, let me help you.”

              The god loomed over me. Its gaze touched every cell I had. I curled against the wall. 

              “Please let, please permit, only I don’t know –.”

              With its scalding left hand the god reached out and turned me toward it, my back flat against the wall. I cried out as it reached through my robe to flesh, leaving a mark I’ll always bear.

              But I cried out louder when the god reached out its other black and flaming hand and thrust the relic clear into my chest. 

              My scream collapsed as all the world turned black.  

              I woke on a sentient Profusionist ship, following the Kasora River north. In another day I’ll reach the ocean, in three more Thaeron’s northern continent – and in three after that, my former pupil Jerem Cozak, now Thaeron‘s noble Faith. I woke to my new destiny, cradling the cold weight burning between my shattered ribs. I doubted its reality, until I spread the tattered remnants of my robe. Charred flesh lies beneath, black as the mechanical dust that it sustains. Divinity’s touch is never gentle.

              I hold their Profusionist relic inside me, a dense and sentient cylinder the size of my forearm. The loyalty machines use it to cooperate. It is a center of their intelligence. It’s how the gods woke them from the earth. But I should be dead. Perhaps I’m dying, my organs poisoned or destroyed. It’s constant pain. I defy all nature to breathe with it inside me. I will be ill, I know, until I finally collapse. But I carry the grace of the gods themselves. 

              So I remain awake while the loyalty machines do their work inside me. They’ve made it clear I’ll go quite mad during my transformation, but what comes without sacrifice? My sanity does not matter, only my allegiance. Thus I write to you, stranger, as I speed across an ocean between two continents, cradled within my sapient ship, to leave some accounting of my choices and desires. I’ll seal this in a flask and throw it overboard, as though I lived in Profusionist times.

              Gods willing, that might prove true. 

              But are they gods? Burning, are they demons? I can tell you this: they compel. They design, they orchestrate, they signify. They redo what’s been undone, restore our center, straighten out our line. Gods return. Gods manifest themselves in their creation. Gods involve themselves in our affairs. It’s demons that leave us to live like beasts. Demons vanish in the stars. Demons leave us to our own devices. Would demons or gods so emphasize our loyalty? 

              Facing one, I’ve found the answer does not matter. Divinity, like evil, dwells beyond our comprehension. Mystery grounds all our suppositions, requires more obedience than understanding. We must leave judgment for one another, and wonder and horror for our gods.  

              But I shall not digress again. The transformation progresses swiftly. I have much work to do. In one week I reach the city of the Faith. My opponents, if they live, would say I have proposed to corrupt my pupil once again simply to postpone my death by a few brief months.

              I would say I’ve simply missed him. Besides, I have new revelations to impart. It’s time we resumed our former intimacy. It’s time the gods renewed their acquaintance with the world. It is time, in short, for a renaissance.