The Awakened City
Way of Ârata
By Victoria Strauss
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 2006 Victoria Strauss
All rights reserved.
HE WORE LIGHT—shimmering veils and coils of it, moving around him as he walked. It was not the natural radiance of his flesh, which only he could see, but illusion, shaped from the substance of the air. Beneath it he was as he had first come to them, naked but for a breechclout and the cloak of his long black hair. It was cold in the passage—the cold of rock, of deep subterranean places—and his body was tense with chill. A heavy golden chain lay around his neck. From it, cased in gold, hung an amber-colored crystal larger than a man's clenched fist, with a heart of flame.
The passage kinked. He could hear the crowd—a rushing sound that reminded him, briefly, of the hiss of wind across the meadows of his lost home. Ahead, a slash of brightness split the passage's black. He increased his pace, launching himself into the illumination as if into water.
Below, on the tumbled and stalagmited floor of a deep cavern, his faithful massed more than a thousand strong. To his Shaper senses they were not just a throng of men and women, but a roiling play of color and light, stippled here and there with the ordinary flame of torches. At the sight of him, they roared. He stood above them on the ledge he had made, his radiant arms spread wide, their adulation pouring like sunlight into the dark void at his center. He was warm now, warm as the heat patterns the torches printed on the substance of the air. He threw back his head and laughed.
"People!" he shouted. The natural acoustics of the cavern sent his voice pealing out above the clamor. "People of the Promise!"
"Fulfiller of the Promise!" they shouted back. "He who opens the way!"
"People of the new age!"
"Guardian of Interim, who speaks the word of the risen god!"
"People of Ârata!"
"Beloved of Ârata, who sets our feet upon the Waking Road!"
He was not certain when these phrases had become invariable. In the beginning, his calls and their responses had altered with each ceremony. But now the cadences were constant, as if they were part of a true religious rite, and not the basest and most final blasphemy.
He gathered himself and leaped outward into nothingness, focusing his will upon the air below his feet so that it grew slow and thick, allowing him to drift leaflike to the cavern's floor. Unlike the illusory brilliance in which he was clad, this was real shaping, accompanied by the flash and thunder all transformation made; but to his followers, who because of the strange proscriptions of this world had never witnessed unfettered shaping, his descent was not the exercise of a human power, but a miracle. He allowed his shimmering attire to billow as he fell, so they might glimpse his body; he knew that he was beautiful to both men and women, and that for many, faith was most urgent when it was bound to carnal longing.
He alighted gently on the broken rock. Before him, his followers were a scintillating wall—men and women and children, young and middle-aged and elderly, individuals and couples and even families. There were soldiers here, and blacksmiths, and seamstresses, and prostitutes; there were people who had given up their wealth to join him and people who had owned nothing to sacrifice. There were those who had passed all their lives in virtue and those who had followed the most violent of criminal pursuits. Yet in that place, in that moment, they were all alike, for they were all his creatures—stolen souls, every one of them, blackened past any point of cleansing with the blasphemy into which he had enticed them. The wonder and dread and desire in their faces seemed to flow from a single heart.
He stepped toward them. They parted like grass, those closest to him sinking to their knees. Slowly he walked among them, his hands held before him, palms out, so they could see the terrible scars the Blood of Ârata had inflicted when he brought it out of the Burning Land. They were allowed to touch his wounds if they dared, and many did, quick feather brushes of finger on finger, palm on palm—and occasionally a brief warm shock on ankle or hip or shoulder, as those driven by greater courage or greater need sought a more intimate contact. It had taken an act of will in the beginning to endure it, but over time it had become part of the larger thing he had learned to crave: their awe, their adoration, which for a little while filled up the emptiness in him where those same passions once had lived.
"Messenger," they sighed. "Beloved One. Most beautiful."
He made a single circuit of the cavern. Then he left them for the heights above, thickening the air before him to make a kind of invisible stairway he could climb. That was far more difficult than the trick he had performed to descend—beyond the capacity of most Shapers, in fact—but to his huge gift it was nothing. On the overhang again, he turned toward the faithful. They responded—not a roar this time, but a rumble, a mutter, which was somehow more powerful than the greater noise. He imagined he could feel it under his bare feet.
"People of the Promise."
"Beloved One." Many held up their palms, showing him the proof of their faith. "Child of Ârata."
"You who have gathered here in Ârata's name. You who have woken to the truth. You who in understanding have chosen me, and thus become my father's chosen. Look upon the sign my father has given, the sign of his rising, the sign of his will, the sign that his age-old promise soon will be fulfilled."
With his hands he swept aside the wreathing brilliance at his breast, revealing the great crystal in its setting of gold. Not one part of what he said to them was true: not what he claimed to be, not what he urged them to believe, not what he pledged for the time to come. But the crystal was real. He had taken it himself from the Cavern of the Blood, where Ârata had slept the eons away and now slept no more. Its realness was the reason he could lie.
"It is my task to bear this Blood, and my father's will, into a world that does not yet know me." The hugeness of the falsehood shook him, the completeness of the blasphemy. "It is your task also, you citizens of this holy community, this Awakened City. With me, you will open the way for Ârata's return, and bring an end to the Age of Exile."
"Ârata," they chanted. "Ârata who slept. Ârata who has risen. Ârata who will return."
"Abide now with me, in anticipation of the fulfillment of this sacred purpose. Abide in expectation of the sign that will reveal the predestined moment of our emergence. Abide in eagerness for the work that we will do when we march upon the lands beyond these mountains, and to their ignorance and corruption shout the truth we know—that Ârata has risen! That the time of cleansing is at hand, when all will be seared clean in the god's holy fires! That the primal age approaches, and soon will reign anew!"
"In faith we abide! In love we abide! In strength we abide!"
"I give you blessing now, in my name and in my father's name and in the name of the time to come. In my name, in my father's name, in the name of the time to come, I bid you go in light!"
He flung up his glowing arms. A flash, a pulse of sound, and from the air above the crowd burst a rain of gold. They shouted, jumping, shoving one another, snatching at the treasure. He had early realized the importance of providing them with items they could keep and hold, in counterpoint to the intangibles of faith; he gave them something with every ceremony, jewels or crystals or nuggets of precious metal. Many had substantial hoards of these trinkets, which they treated as holy talismans.
Fools, he thought, looking down at them. Ican say anything, and they will believe. I can order anything, and they will obey. The familiar dark thrill of it ran through him, and he shuddered. With his shaping he controlled the elements, the very framework of reality. With his voice and his person, he commanded souls. Were those not the powers of a god?
He left them, passing once more into the pitchy darkness of the passage. He abandoned the illusion that clothed him, the gaudy trappings of the role he played, and strode through the mountain's heart with only the light of his own life to guide him, and, on his chest, the trembling fire of Ârata's Blood.
In his private domain, a succession of cave rooms that he had shaped and altered in very particular ways, he sought the third chamber, where a circular well was punched into the floor. He had shaped it full of water before the ceremony; now he caused the water's patterns to dance with heat, so that steam billowed toward the ceiling. He removed the chain that held the Blood and laid it on the floor—gently, for in spite of everything he could not quite break himself of the habit of reverence.
He unwound his breechclout and slid into the warmth, sighing. He lay with his eyes closed, his long hair coiling round him like a shadow-memory of the light he had worn. The last of the ceremony's exaltation slipped away, and the residue of his followers, all the hundreds of little touches they had pressed into his skin, leaving him clean, leaving him empty. The hush of his quarters settled around him—the quiet of the deep spaces inside the rock, and, behind it, a greater silence. He could speak or cough or roil the water, and the mountain's quiet would be banished. The other silence was beyond his power to break. The shouting of his followers filled it, but only briefly.
He remained in the water until the balance began to tip, the relief of his aloneness eclipsed by the discomfort of it. He hated being alone. In some ways it was the most difficult part of his charade, to be pulled always between his contempt for the creatures who surrounded him, whose adulation he had grown to crave but could not endure for long, and his horror of solitude. He climbed from his bath and walked dripping to his bedchamber, where he pulled on his clothes, clumsy with his ruined hands. He made as much noise as possible, but he could still sense the silence, waiting underneath.
It will be different soon, he told himself. An end to loneliness. It was a hope, not a certainty. In the old days, he would have prayed. These days he had only himself to rely on, and knew it had always been so, even when he had believed in a listening god.
He tightened his belt and stamped into his boots (nomad-made, their toes shod with silver), and left his quarters, to walk the blind inner spaces of the mountain and fill them with the light and tumult of his power, shattering the silence until he grew tired enough to sleep.
LAST NIGHT I had the dream again.
It began as it always does. I stood between a pair of gilded pillars. In my hands I held a wooden box, its cover closed. Behind me lay a vast dark courtyard; before me, a wide room pulsed with light, though there were no windows, and no lamps burned.
Inside, so far away I almost could not make out their faces, my Brothers and Sisters stood in their present bodies, gathered as if for council—all of them, even those who were reborn into Arsace during Caryaxist times and thus were lost to us. Near each, crowded close as if for comfort, a host of shadow-presences drifted: the many flesh- shells each of us has worn, the changing bodies that have ferried our undying souls across the centuries.
Only I, solitary between my pillars, was absent from that gathering. Only I had no huddled shadows to bind my present form to the blood and bone and sinew that first housed me. I felt small and lonely, unmoored upon the flow of time.
I remembered the box. I fell to my knees and removed the lid. Within lay a heap of beaten-metal discs: mirrors, twenty-nine of them, one for each of my incarnations. Each, when I lifted it and held it close, filled up with my face, but when I lowered it grew blank again. That made me angry. It seemed to me they should reflect me even when I was not before them. Were they not my mirrors? How dare they show me emptiness?
In rage I hurled the box aside. The mirrors spun into the light, flashing, so that for a moment I was blind. When my vision cleared, I saw that my spirit-siblings had turned toward me. Shoulder to shoulder they stood, ranged in the original order of their birth, their shadow-lives lined up behind them. There should have been a place for me, sixteenth in the succession of Marduspida's children. But they had left no gap, no space into which I might insert myself.
Terror seized me. For my shadows were absent and my mirrors were gone, and there was only this one self, this singular Sundit, to challenge them.
Then I was awake, sitting bolt upright in bed.
After a moment I rose and wrapped myself in my stole and went to stand at the window, whose screens I had left open to the chill spring air. It was nearly dawn; gray light filled the little garden in the court outside. I performed breathing exercises, seeking calm. But as sometimes happens the dream was slow to fade, and I was still by my window when the sun crested the tiled roofs of the Evening City and the bells of Baushpar began to ring for Communion services. How many times, I wonder, have I dreamed this dream? Someday I must go back through my journals and tally its recurrences. It seems to me that it has changed since it first came to me in childhood, though I cannot quite remember how.
Perhaps I shouldn't dwell so much on such personal matters, which rise not from my immortal soul but from its present shell of flesh (for my journals do not record this dream in any of my other incarnations). We are meant in these pages only to make a record of the actions of our lives, so that future incarnations may more easily regain the wisdom gathered in other bodies—to memorialize our debates and decisions, not our fears and fancies. Yet I believe that there is value in a fuller portrait. Our souls endure, but our bodies change, and the vessel shapes what it contains. Should I not set down the odd experiences, the rogue thoughts, the unsettling dreams, if only that my future selves may better distinguish what is immortal in them from what is merely body-nature?
Or perhaps it's symmetry that compelled me to start this account as I did. I began the day in dread, and in dread I end it.
Vivaniya dined with me tonight. I did not suggest it; he came to me of his own accord to ask if he might join me. I was pleased, thinking it another sign of Dâdar's loosening hold on him, another step in the campaign he seems to have been waging, since his return from the Burning Land, to mend the rift between us.
He was late, which irritated me. When he arrived he plumped down on his cushion with barely a word, and shoved food into his mouth as if he did not taste it—which irritated me more, since I had taken trouble with the ordering of the meal.
"Where are you, Vanyi?" I asked at last, sharply. "For plainly you are not here with me."
His eyes rose to mine, guilty. "I'm sorry. It's ... I'm remembering yesterday."
"The council meeting," I said, imagining I understood. "We have all, I'm sure, been preoccupied with that."
He picked up his goblet, set it down again. "This so-called Next Messenger ... it's obvious he is no ordinary heretic."
"To put it mildly. But we already suspected that, or we wouldn't have sent our agents to spy on him."
"One of whom chose to join him."
"Yes. Clearly he is convincing. And clever." This had struck me very forcefully in yesterday's council, as I listened with growing dismay to the remaining agent's report. "To claim that it was he who brought down Thuxra prison, as the act of destruction foretold in Ârata's Promise, with everything that cursed place meant—there's a kind of genius in that."
"If it is a lie."
I looked at him sharply. "Of course it's a lie. There can no longer be any doubt that he is an apostate Shaper, but no Shaper is that powerful. Even in the days when Shapers went untethered, there's no record of such an act. Thuxra City was destroyed by earthquake."
"Oh, Sunni, Sunni! I am a wretched sinner."
The despair in his voice shocked me. He turned away, pulling his body inward and clasping his hands between his knees—the same pose he used to adopt when he was a child and had something terrible to confess. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Awakened City by Victoria Strauss. Copyright © 2006 Victoria Strauss. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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