IT WAS A DARK AND stormy night, and Prosatio Silban, thoroughly soaked, could feel a watchful gaze upon him as he parked his galleywagon under a crumbling iron roof.
He shivered, searching for the source of his unease. But nothing stood out amid the unfathomable gloom. Perhaps it’s only my storm-tossed fancy, he thought. I don’t need any unpleasant surprises.
(Before you ask how lucky he was to have found adequate shelter in such weather, O Patient Reader, you should know that his dray-beast – a buopoth named Onward – had sensory abilities not limited to the five or so shared by humans, cats, octopi and other sentient creatures. Thus, nighttime voyagings were not unknown to the intrepid pair; not common, but hardly rare either. The storm, however, was an almost unanticipated wrinkle.)
It’s a good thing Onward has sensory abilities not limited to mine, thought the beefy cook.
It’s a good thing Onward has sensory abilities not limited to mine, thought the beefy cook. We should never have left Pleasure’s Gap at sunset anyway – and certainly not under a threatening and cloudy sky!
The first thing he did was to light a fatberry-oil lamp and look after Onward’s comfort and provisioning. The rusting roof provided ample rain protection, the centuries-cracked mosaic floor was relatively dry, and two fatberry-cakes and a kind word later, the quaint lumbering beast had settled in for some well-deserved slumber.
Now for my dinner. But first, a good toweling. Prosatio Silban hummed a light and random melody as he opened the galleywagon’s door. Then a hot cup of yava, and – by the sustaining teats of the All-Mother! What is that?
“That” was a head-sized golden sphere wrapped in lambent blue flame, bobbing slowly at eye level above the galleywagon’s ornate braided rug. A deep voice spoke from everywhere and nowhere: “Welcome, stranger. I need your help.”
The cook’s mouth opened, then closed. When in doubt, act boldly, ran the old proverb, so he put on his most authoritative tone. “Who are you? And what are you doing in my galleywagon?”
“A fair question,” said the voice. “Let me give you a fair reply.”
What happened next was without equal in Prosatio Silban’s long experience. He felt as though he had shed a great weight, took a reflexive glance downward – and saw himself crumpled on the floor. He cried out.
“You have been divested of your body,” said the voice. “You may regain your natural state by completing the task I shall set before you.”
“May regain it?”
“We shall see what we shall see. I am Rothau, once known as the God of Beginnings. And you are in what remains of the last of my once-many shrines.”
“Forgive me. I know all six-hundred-thirteen of the Flickering Gods, and I have never heard of you.”
“Nor should you have, as I am not one of your gods. I predate by ages their arrival with you in these so-called Exilic Lands. I was once worshiped by the race you call ‘The Ancients,’ but they are now no more. My altar fire is unlit. You, however, can change that.”
“What makes you think so? Or that I would even wish such a thing?”
“Because if you do not, your soul and body will remain estranged,” Rothau said. “You speak of wishes? You will be just as intangible as one – as I am – lacking purpose and direction, altogether for eternity. Man or god in general cannot exist without a sense of their own significance, and you in particular cannot live without the satisfaction and meaning your trade imparts to you and your customers. What is that worth?”
The cook looked at his hands, or tried to. I seem to be insubstantial already, he thought. And I do not like it. Even in this small measure.
“What do You require of me?” he asked.
* * *
The landscape’s edge wavered in time with the sleeper’s deep breathing, accented by a soft and tuneless humming.
The landscape’s edge wavered in time with the sleeper’s deep breathing, accented by a soft and tuneless humming. Tall, multicolored flowers of uncertain genus towered over Prosatio Silban’s head, and he sought in vain a source of the light reflecting off their leaves and petals.
Where am I? he thought as a penguin floated past. And how did I get here – wherever ‘here’ is?
Then he remembered what Rothau had said: “I have been without hands or eyes since my last follower died eons ago, and I need at least three faithful worshippers to enable my transition from memory back to actuality. To facilitate that metamorphosis, your first task will be to enter the dreams of a young woman and save her from a recurring nightmare…”
I am already on my mission, the cook thought. And I must now complete it with no delay.
The sleeper’s breathing fluctuated, and the light turned to sepia. The horizon was no longer flat, but mountainous and constricting, and the music had become an eardrum-affronting metallic screech. Bloody eyeballs fell from the black sky, bouncing as they hit the bare earth. A trio of sinister men approached from the distance; faces distorted, eyes staring. But at whom? There was no sign of the dreamer – only the ragged sound of her frightened gasps.
The men came closer, raising jagged claws. Prosatio Silban reflexively lifted his own hand, and was surprised to see it obey his will. “In the name of Rothau, God of Beginnings, begone with you!” he cried.
And then, chaos.
The closest specter’s claw sliced through the cook’s raised arm; the latter watched his hand drop to the flagstone floor. The other two advanced, muttering; one stuck a claw into Prosatio Silban’s chest, and the other cut his legs out from under him, toppling the hapless cook onto his back with a sound not reproducible in writing.
Despite the mayhem, the cook felt no physical discomfort whatsoever – save the pang of being thwarted from achieving a noble and necessary cause. He tried to rise, using his good arm as a lever, but failed with a frustrated noise.
Why is there no pain? Prosatio Silban thought. O yes! it’s a dream! I suppose I’d better treat it as one. And quickly.
He raised his remaining hand toward his all-but-surrounding adversaries. A beam of pink light shot from his open palm.
The men froze. One by one, they slowly melted from the bottom up. As they disappeared, the light returned. A swirl of emerald sparks coalesced before the wondering cook into a young woman, auburn hair flowing out behind her. She smiled at him with the relieved air of someone rescued from long suffering.
“You will endure night terror no more,” Prosatio Silban told her. “You face a new dawn, thanks to the god Rothau.”
“I have been plagued by these nightmares all my life,” the dreamer said. “Now, finally, I can begin to enjoy my dreams. Thanks to the god, indeed. I shall always be grateful…”
* * *
The deadeyed old man stopped walking, sighed, and looked over the bridge rail at the river far below. I have been too many years alone and desolate, he thought. But soon I will be in the All-Limiter’s firm embrace. All I have to do is leap. Or, more accurately, drop.
He swung one leg across the rail, and was about to do the same with the other when a voice sounded in his head.
He grunted. Why not?
You are not too old to begin again.
Yes. I am. He swung his other leg over the rail so that he was standing on a small ledge jutting out below it, grasping the suspension cable behind him with one hand. And I have been for some time. Please. Let me die.
The voice gained urgency. Wait.
The voice gained urgency. Wait.
Because there is still much for you to do.
The old man grimaced. Like what? He stuck one foot into emptiness.
What was your business?
I was a shopkeeper with my wife, may she rest in the All-Mother’s bosom. We spent forty-seven contented years together. Our days were filled with happy commerce, and in the evenings I would play the synclarion for her to sing with me. But my days have been dark for longer than I care to remember.
Were you a competent musician?
Yes. I taught my wife to play, in fact. And she played better than I did! He smiled at the memory.
Could you teach others? asked the voice.
The old man’s breathing caught.
There is a place in your city where orphans spend their empty days. You would fill them with light.
A long pause, then: I have no light to give. He let go the cable and dropped into space.
When one jumps off a bridge, there is usually a unique sense of the rapidly decreasing distance between the bridge and whatever’s below it. At least, that’s what the old man had anticipated. But as he fell, he became aware of no breeze whistling past his ears; no anxiety roiling his stomach; no sight of the uprushing river surface. He might have been made of wind-tossed feathers. And his puzzlement only grew as he found himself floating back up to stand safely on the bridge ledge.
What was that? he thought.
As I said, you have still have much to do.
The old man patted his chest, his thighs, his cheeks. All were sound and whole.
Who are you?
A messenger from Rothau, God of Beginnings.
Another long pause.
Well. Perhaps I could add some light after all.
It is but within your reach.
One by one, the old man swung his legs back over the railing. Thank you, he thought with a smile, dusting off his hands.
Do not thank me. It is the god who made possible your new life.
Then I shall thank Rothau with a proper altar-offering, and teach my new students in His name. He smiled more broadly. This I affirm…
* * *
The studio’s air was thick with the oily smell of fresh paint; morning sunlight spilled in through an open window. The artist stood poised before a large blank canvas, biting the wooden tip of her doe-hair brush as she looked in vain for inspiration – any inspiration.
“Why are beginnings always the hardest part?” she murmured to herself.
“Why are beginnings always the hardest part?” she murmured to herself. “I don’t know where, or even what, to start. And this painting must be finished by the end of the day!”
She sighed, then exclaimed as the room suddenly grew midnight-dark. Before she could lay aside her tools and kindle a candle, a small section of the canvas was illumined by a coin-sized spot of pink light. At the same time, the white and black paint-dabs on her palette began to glow as though lit from within.
The artist creased her brow. Where could that be coming from? she thought. She put down her palette and stepped to the window. Her eyes were greeted by a sunny streetscape of familiar poured-stone buildings. Puzzled, she turned back into the studio.
Darkness, save for three precise highlights.
This could only come from the hand of a god, she thought as an unfamiliar name floated into her mind. “Thank you, Rothau, for showing me where and how to begin,” the artist whispered. She mixed the palette’s dabs into a grey blob and applied her brush. Beneath her quick hand, an ancient shrine began to take shape…
* * *
Prosatio Silban extended a hand from beneath the grey iron roof, but felt no falling raindrops. He shrugged his shoulders, marveling at the sensation, and smiled. The god is as good as His word, he thought, and turned to warm his hands at the dancing altar flame.