Rated something higher than normal for a single strong swear word.
Inspired by the trials of Apaecides, which I care decidedly less about than the awesomeness of Arbaces. On behalf of The Last Days of Pompeii, a book that never should have been forgotten.
The column scrapes forward on hands and knees, noses pressed to the ground, lips kissing the holy stones. Sackcloth robes scrape at their skin, rubbing joints raw; each movement brings pain, discomfort that is only heightened by their prostrate forms, the coarse material stretched tight over tender flesh.
Their idol casts a shadow across their backs, elevated to the heavens, placed on a pedestal amongst the ranks of the gods. Reflected in their eyes is a holy icon of little more than sovereignty, immutability, perfection. High above them, on cushions of silk and jewels, rests the fledgling husk of their affections. It is both living and dead, spring and winter—the hollow crust of a broken egg wrapped around the god’s thriving foetus. And yet it is neither, a savage permutation trapped in an endless cycle that leads nowhere, spinning endlessly through autumn and summer, always too alive or not quite alive enough.
One day, though, flame will engulf it before their eyes, and from its ashes will rise nothing less than a god, soul purged by fire, immortality proven in death.
Falacer, yours was the one true will, the one true judgment… Your hand balanced the scales on which our deeds rested; against your spirit were our intentions weighed.
The words are not chanted so much as created, coming together from syllables half-whispered from lips, half-slid from between the stone wall. Each swing of the tapestries, laden with the heady fumes of incense and body odor, rushes the air through their ears, the hymns through their bones. The music comes from an incomprehensible, intangible elsewhere, vibrating up from deep within, reducing them to quaking heaps of piety and devotion.
And then you were driven from the face of this earth by the gods. Nature turned against you. The very seas rose up to drown you in their wake; the skies broke open to rain fire down upon you. Yet though you were smitten down by the hatred of these wicked, and though even your golden scale was melted into lead, you endured.
The children come now, two by four.
The egg flashes in the light, shifting through color changes as the sky at dawn. The pious are the people, the masses, those entitled to rights and property, if not wealth—they see riches beyond those of natural life, and they crave more.
Sweet voices, now—the notes of the young, the innocent, the ones who wear robes of white and not of sack.
At the height of your peril, you sought to assume the lowliest of forms.
These are the words of the masses as one—the opinions of the wise, the sentiments of the brave. These are those who humble themselves before each other, who grovel at the feet of their god. These are those who give that which they hold most dear to slake the thirst of their savior, their redeemer, the one who will raise them up as gods at his side. These are those who sacrifice their future to revive the past.
Now, you await, trapped as an embryo of the lowest of the low, a beast groomed to violence and hatred.
A knife on pale throats, one after another stained with blood.
Rise, O Falacer, rise from the ashes and the flame…
(And the pilgrims smile upon the dead children, peace in their eyes.)
Behind the Curtain
One by one, the bodies fall.
Judah turns his eyes away.
“Fools,” the priest says, hand over his face, eyes to the ground.
“Vox populi,” murmurs his master—the Sanhedrin, the Philistine, the high priest of Falacer. His is a temple of parlor tricks and rabbit holes. One foot in, and you will never get out. “It is what the people want.”
Yes, this is the voice of the people, and it is moaning beneath the weight of its god, panting and heaving and groaning as it places one foot in front of the next, back bent under the litter of superstition and manipulation. This is the voice of the bourgeoisie, the voice of the mob, the voice of men of little learning and lesser thought.
“Panem et circenses,” counters the pale-faced man. “Diversions. Lies. You feed them, you entertain them, you stuff them with hope until they’re running around headless, spilling it from their seams. They do not want this—they simply know nothing else.” And is that so wrong? something in him asks. He shoves it away.
The high priest smiles his cold smile. “Now that you have seen beyond the veil, you wish once more for the solace of impassioned ignorance and darkness… It is natural. Do not redirect your ire: you have only yourself to blame. Soon, you will come to terms. I once felt much the same way.” He lowers his head, and the oil-anointed skin catches the reflection of the flames. His smile grows; his black-rimmed eyes retreat from the glare, nothing but chasms in the dark.
I once felt much the same way.
That phrase holds so much horror to the young priest—so much promise, so much hate. It insinuates change, innocence, a man once pure, now twisted by the sleights of hand he performs before the unknowing masses. It promises power, promises lies—Judah does not wish to be the man with the skeleton-hole eyes and the magic rabbit in his hat and the mirrors in his sleeves. He does not want anything more than he does not want to belong to Falacer, or belong to Falacer's high priest.
After the silence, the priest turns. The incense leaps into colored smoke at his hands. There is something in the way he talks, the way he moves—it calls up the mysteries of the temple, the passages hidden behind tapestries, the thick tang of burnt offerings in the air, the play of light and color and shadows in the corners.
There is magic in the man, something that does not come from their counterfeit god or from the games he plays with the minds of others. Forty-five degrees between light and egg, the man once told him, and the illumination cast upon the godhead will tell you any tale, tall or short. Forty-five degrees gives them their truth. He uses numbers, uses mirrors, uses tricks of the light and tricks of they mouth and tricks of the eye. But in him is a charisma far beyond simple falsehood.
(Judah sees this, now, and wishes he had remained blinded in the smoke. Training beasts to squabble for riches and glory may not have been a worse alternative to this salvation. But they chose him, sought him out, and once you become the Priesthood of Falacer, you are never anything else....)
“Why the children?” It is dull, whispered. The voice of one who has understood something that has torn away his very world, who walks with a knife protruding from his back, stealing away his youth and his life. The voice of one can do nothing to regain what he has lost.
They worship this empty husk of a martyr, these remnants of a god long gone—they pray, they weep, they grovel, they condemn, they kill for this absent god, this lie that they feed off of. He is their only glimmer of hope in this decayed world, and he is nothing but a ghost. A fairy tale. The smoke behind the mirrors. The high priest knows this, knows that their suffering comes to naught, that their gold and wine only lines his pockets—so why does he take their children?
“If they did not give their hope, they would give nothing at all.”
It should be cruel, vile. Judah should be retching. He should be tearing his robes at their seams, dashing the incense from the sky, razing the temple with its forbidden fruits and its misbegotten tithes to the ground—he should be freeing them with the truth, dosing them with the antidote to the poison that runs through their lives, their pocketbooks, their very blood. He should be screaming at the grovelling masses, delivering them from their eternal waiting. “Your god is dead,” he should be yelling, “your children bleed for nothing.” He should be mourning for the death they have been fed. But he is not, because even this lie, he realizes, is preferable to that truth. Better a faulted placebo than the horror of reality.
We are not the poison. We are the antidote. One more second, one more hope. It is what they need.
They are before the altar, now. The people and their flea-bitten pets have crawled back to their miserable holes, leaving their dead children for the gods.
Judah begins his daily chores.
One child, two, slung over his right arm. They dribble blood across his feet. Stumbling to reach for a third, he pauses. Eyes wide, throat gaping—Judah looks away. “They look… happy,” he remarks, mouth twisting.
The high priest is raising a brush to the egg, angling it this way and that, spotting a dab of sparkling silver here, some blueberry dye there. Its divinity must be complete. He reaches to the lights behind the curtains, gives them a twist (forty-five degrees from light to egg—only then can the god truly glow) before answering.
“Of course. They do not die for themselves.”
“Or without due intoxication.” Judah’s voice is amused. It horrifies him.
The high priest turns to look at him, black-rimmed eyes expressionless, mouth severe. “Indeed,” he says finally. Judah thinks he sees the corner of a smile on the man’s lips.
Gods, he hates that face, the expression beneath it—the glee, the malice behind the pleasure. A true smile is happy and little else. This is a painted-on veneer, a sneer in intent and a pacifier in execution. (Lately, he has been finding it on his own face.)
He shudders. It is already too easily that he becomes accustomed to this death, too easily that he can smile with dead children in his arms.
Judah accompanies the processions, now. At first, he merely watched the last grovelling steps, the chanting and the pleading before the altar and the egg. Now, he walks amongst them, incense pots slung from the ends of the pole laid across his shoulders, robes gathered off the dirty cobblestones. He remembers those days in smaller scale, when his village would crawl down the main street to the makeshift altar at the town’s forefront. The days where he still had the people’s hope…
Something in him cannot call it wrong, these fabrications, these fables. They are miserable, but they believe they may be happy—he, better than anyone, can understand what it means to lose that luxury.
Each day, the people stumble and groan through the streets, hands to the heavens. Some days, they bring food; others, riches—fine silks, spices, furs of feral beasts, relics of war and family; and still others, children. The temple makes no demands. He has found patterns in their pleas, though—a death in the family provokes wheat and grain, a mold on a crop, livestock. Each day they suffer through the same streets with the same burdens and the same prayers. Judah had no ties to the city worship, just weeks ago, but now he can recite their hymns and hopes better than his own hometown.
All in all, it is a dull drudgery, day after day. No true changes; no true results. They offer before the altar, gaze hopefully towards the pedestal. They see Falacer in the change of the winds, in the flicker of the shadows of trees at night—a reflection, a wisp, and nothing more. Their god never truly reveals himself (and Judah is beginning to wonder if it is not because he does not exist). Regardless, their prayers come, unsurprisingly, to nothing.
But they see a truth in the lies, and that gives them life.
And then one day, someone else sees beyond the mirrors. It is after the masses have wandered back to their miserable existences amongst the decay of the earth, away from the splendor of the god’s temple. One remains behind, eyes on the idol, hands tip-tapping on the ground.
Judah melds into the heavy smoke and the shadows to merely watch, like he has been so apt to do lately.
The boy scrambles to a standing position, using elbows as leverage; his knees protrude from malnourished legs, weak and wobbling and sickly. A moment of stumbling, and Judah nearly rushes forward to lift him out of a headlong tumble—but he’s up, and he’s stalking forward, a glint in his eye and hands twitching in circles. There’s something of beast in him, in the way he stalks forward, circles the illuminated pedestal and its glowing icon.
Rage tightens his posture. Back rigid, limbs shaking, neck jerking, he raises a hand to the egg. Judah starts forward, reaching for the dagger in his sleeve. The hand retreats, though, trembling with ardor. The child’s face twists.
“What are you waiting for?” he demands, voice tight, stretched thin—paper thin. All it would take is a simple breeze, and his words would be nothing but scraps and rubbish in the air. “Why don’t you live?”
The aggression is more pronounced, this time—a jabbing step, bared teeth, clawing hands. A slap. On its pedestal, the egg begins to tumble; one step out of the light, and its rainbow glimmer has faded to gray and silver. It begins a descent, twirling, tumbling.
The priest is there, ready, as always, to pick up the pieces. Ready, like a good priest. (Humpty Dumpty had a great fall… But this Humpty Dumpty does not just have the king’s horses and the king’s men—he has the hands of the gods.) Judah has his arms around the child’s throat in a moment. His heart beats against Judah’s palm. The steel blade warms against the child’s flesh. Judah expects violence, resistance; the boy just sags against him, arms slack, eyes squinting shut.
The egg cracks sickeningly against the ground.
His eyes dart between the ground, the pedestal, the child. Sacrilege—the child has struck the very gods. The child is the future, the egg is the hope that devours the future. The child has struck it down, smitten it from its perch like a god casts blight on any society too prosperous. Falacer has fallen from his almighty perch; he has fallen, and he will not get up. Somewhere in his mind, cultures and superstitions have been crossed. Sacrilege, apostasy—the god has fallen (something—hope, future, life—has knocked him down) and Judah has not picked him up. The high priest has no patience for the faithless. For that, this child (Judah) will die.
The people will bleed, the people will die, the child will die. Without their god, they will (be free) have nothing—(freedom) life means nothing without their godhope. Falacer (Judah) must…
Judah blinks the shock out of his mind. “Come with me, boy,” he says, and his words are lost in a snarl of anger and confusion.
Minutes later, the boy finds himself thrown to the ground in the back-alley behind the temple.
“Run. Run for your life.”
It is all he says. The priest turns his back on the child.
When Judah returns to the stone pedestal and its charge, all he sees is the back of the high priest and the hands that readjust the lighting, restage the scene. If forty-five degrees tell the reality, then the other three hundred and twenty-five must tell a lie. What we see is only a projection—we understand only a shadow of the truth, cast and distorted by the light of the fire. So do the forty-five degrees remove the shadow or the flame?
Regardless, the god resumes his rightful place. He is a figurehead once more.
(He tries not to notice the look the high priest gives him, the one that seems smug, almost proud. Judah wants to vomit at the idea that he may have done this man's right thing.)
It is only afterwards that Judah realizes he remembered the egg before the child. In that moment he knows that his soul truly does belong to Falacer, understands that he has already become the magician with all the loathing and doublethink that this entails. For the only one who can tell a lie is the one who knows the truth... And there cannot be a lie unless there is someone to tell it.
Rise, O Falacer, rise from the ashes and the flame…
Deus ex Machina
In the darkness of the temple, a lone pinprick of light touches the lauded seed of Falacer. It stands in the center, barren and unadorned, but for the colors it casts—reds, blues, purples, swirling about in glimmering strands reflected from mirror to mirror above its pedestal. Occasionally, the colors break off, fracture and sputter into the air. This, because of a crack: a breach of faith. Where the hope fails, so does the lie.
This crack begins to widen. The egg shudders. A fissure deepens from the base of the egg to the tip. The schism divides. A burst of light. The egg is no more—Humpty Dumpty has fallen.
But the lie must live on.
And so, in the darkness of the temple, four hands, pale and long-fingered, begin to gather up the forgotten pieces. In the center of the pedestal now curls a beast—one that is far from the people’s Falacer, portly and gray, snorting and awkward. There is no dignity, no awe-inspiring aura of power. For, indeed, the poor thing is not a god. One of the hands floats through the darkness to ferret the spring-tailed monstrosity away into the deepest reaches of the city. The other three continue their spectral cleaning.
At last, the pedestal is bare.
Upon it, they place a new egg, a new god of rainbow swirls and silver paint. It will sit, like the last, for a very long time. It will be, like the last, worshiped. Revered. They will cry for it; they will sing to it. They will kill for it. The hands retreat into the shadows and the smoke.
In the darkness of the temple, these deeds will not be remembered. Its priest will hide them behind the mirrors.