Chapter 27 Hat

        The ruined, moss-strewn stones loomed large from their bramble tangle. Tall grasses, threading through the briars, caught the breeze and the hazy evening sunlight. Swallows flitted between majestic arches, chasing each other in knotting dives and loops, a swooping dance of aerobatic ease.
        The building had not been visible when, earlier that afternoon, Roween had led the way deep into the untended woodlands. Conley had first glimpsed its ancient walls only moments before the army of trees finally opened ranks, ceding space to a grave of architectural grandeur.
        "Hot, Ro, what is it?"
        "Purian monastery, Medreph showed me it. Sorry, I thought the path was bad then, it's even worse now, probably no-one's been here for years."
        "It's magnificent!" She coughed. "How did Medreph discover it? It looks deserted."
        Roween gently steered her horse toward the paving stones, barely visible through the matted undergrowth that beweeded the once- splendid structure. "I don't know, he had Eletic maps, maybe they recorded this place from times when it was prosperous. He always used to spend a day here, he said, exploring. It's vast."
        Conley was following, looking about at the weathered, collapsed masonry, becoming increasingly awed with every sight of time- intricate carving, or faded, cracked fresco.
        "There's a courtyard inside, with double-level cloisters. The thorns haven't penetrated that far yet, we can leave the horses there to graze, sleep under cover if it looks like rain." It didn't. "There's even a small pool, running water."
        "We'll be safe here, then, for a few days." She cleared her throat. "No-one would spend five hours on that winding path unless they knew where they were headed, and it looked so unused, I can't believe there's possibly anyone else around."
        "It's not the only way in, just the quickest, but yes, we should be fine for a while, so long as we don't light a fire, attract attention."
        Conley pushed against a creaking, rusted iron gate, stared into the green shadowness ahead. "This way?"

* * *

        It was growing dark. They'd eaten apples, just ripened in a gnarled orchard that still bore fruit, sheltered as part of a walled garden. Conley indicated she was longing to investigate the rest of the remains, but it would have to wait until the morning. Night animals were beginning to stir, there were noises in the woods; Roween felt it was wiser to return to the known safety of the courtyard. They flattened some grass in a corner, sat down.
        "So what purpose does this complex serve, then, Ro? Like a huge temple?"
        "In a way, yes, it's a sort of abbey. Abandoned maybe hundreds of years, long enough for its fields to surrender to forest, the stones to crack to ruin, for all but books to forget it ever existed."
        Conley began a small light spell. "The size of these buildings, the order that dwelt here must have been very wealthy, commanded much power. What happened to it? Why did it decay?"
        Roween shrugged as she watched her companion's hand sliding easily into the gestures. It saddened her, in a way, that some day - because of her - such a skill would be worthless. "There was a Purian queen," she recalled, "abolished the old religion, wanted the wealth of the church for herself, took it. I think its influence must have been fading in any case, or she couldn't have done what she did. If our own past is any guide, the monks were corrupt anyway, selfish, greedy, long abandoning any pretensions of worshipful prayer or study."
        Conley's light flickered into being. A faint, white cast betrayed the pillars of the walkway, like enhanced moonlight; exaggerated shadows swayed with every tiny movement, voluminous cloaks caught by the wind.
        Roween glanced around, wearily. She felt sure now that Ansle was alive, in control. Was here a safe place any more? Was anywhere?
        Conley listened, open-eyed, as if the surrounding stones were speaking to her, captivated by the glow-magic. She shivered. "Do you think the Messenger has places like this?"
        Roween felt small against the massive backdrop, her skin a bluey grey in the half-bleaching light of the spell. "I don't expect so," she replied, "not new, anyway. These places take decades to construct, he's only been on the scene for maybe ten or twelve years. He'll have refurbished some that were to older gods, though."
        Conley leaned back, let her hair flow behind her, looked upwards to where the first stars were peering through the veil of the night sky. "I don't believe in gods. I know the tenets of the Books, of course, from school; I read a little of Chaienish lore in classics lessons, too, though nothing of the Message. But I know there are no gods."
        Roween smiled, rubbed her neck. "For centuries, Con, people have been staring out into the vastness of the night, the birthplace of philosophies, dreams. They've pondered on its immensity, its actuality, sought explanations, a meaning for it all. Whence did it come? Who created it, and why? What purpose do mere humans serve in a darkness of such magnitude?" A sigh. "The skies have inspired a thousand religions, Con, and will inspire a thousand more. And yet you, you casually glance upwards and blankly announce you don't believe in gods!" She laughed.
        Conley looked at her, askance. "You're not telling me that you do?"
        Roween shook her head, still smiling. "No, it happens I don't, it was just the way you leaned back, beheld the wonders of the universe, and didn't so much as hesitate in denouncing the very notion of gods. It was just so, well, innocent, that's all."
        Conley humphed and lay back in the grass. Roween chuckled to herself. Sometimes, she just couldn't help but feel like hugging her.

* * *

        After a time Conley spoke, her voice contrasting with the musical tinkle of the courtyard's half-hidden fountain. "Do you know much about the Message, Ro?"
        "The Message?" Roween had been thinking about it herself. "Superficially, yes, just what I picked up last time I came this way."
        "What I saw in Rhiev disturbed me, and then all those Followers, the intensity of their belief..."
        Hastily, "Yes, well I can give you some idea of what they hold true, if you like. Oh - if you don't mind talk about religion, that is."
        "No, it's fine, I'm comfortable with it."
        Roween grinned. "That's good. So, do you want the full myth or a rough outline?"
        "A rough myth..."
        She looked down, hooked a finger under her chin, collected her thoughts. "Well I might get some of the names wrong, but I can give it a roll. It all starts off with nothing but Existence, and Existence is a god called Lon. He looks on himself, thinks a bit, and manifests three different aspects of his being: objects, change and feelings."
        "Interruption!" shouted Conley, suddenly, rather too loudly. "Sorry," quieter, "but what do you mean by `manifest'? A form of parthenogenesis?"
        Roween rested back on both arms. "Yes, manifesting, it's a central concept of the Message, one of the ways it devours other religions. Any deity can manifest another one of the opposite sex. That god or goddess will usually have responsibilities that are some specialisation of those of the manifesting goddess or god. When the Message absorbs another creed, they just say that that religion's gods are mere manifestations of those of the Message. Sometimes they might simply identify them one- to-one, but usually it's by manifesting, since that gives the gods of the Message a certain superiority."
        "So you mean the Message has a stock of gods at the ready in some classification hierarchy? And when the Messenger wants to invade a country full of frog-worshippers, there'll be a god somewhere he can claim is the real Frog of Frogs, and that their existing Holy Froggy is nothing but a manifestation of it?"
        Roween chuckled. "Yes, in a way, not for frogs of course, but there are some gods that occur in many pantheons, and the Message is designed so as to be primed for accepting them. Take its goddess of war, Taloss. Most gods of war are male, like the Akrean Tah, and the Davian Lyod Mar. The Messenger can easily claim that these are no more than local manifestations of Taloss. However, the Purasans have no overall god of war; instead, they have several semi-deified spirits of dead warriors, both genders, and with overlapping spheres of interest. This kind of set-up isn't so easy to assimilate into the hierarchy through manifestation, but there is a secondary way, using children."
        "Well before you delve into the intricacies of that, can you give me some more of the background? So far we have this one god and he's manifested three - goddesses?"
        "Yes, sorry. The three are Kyri, goddess of objects, Lona, goddess of change, and Eskh, goddess of feelings. Kyri is the eldest, so she works first. She creates the earth, the sky and the sea, and manifests three gods to watch over them. Mun is earth, I don't remember the other two. She also creates the sun in the sky, to light her creations, but doesn't manifest a god because the sky, sea and earth are so much bigger than the sun. Neither does she manifest gods for the creatures that she's placed on the surface of the earth, and in its seas and skies. She sees that what she's created is beautiful, and steps back."
        "She sounds stupid to me. And vain."
        "Well that's right, she's supposed to be. Anyway, Lona, goddess of change steps up, as second eldest, and decides that this is all very well, but everything is still, motionless, like a painting. So, she gives movement to the air, the seas, the rivers, and manifests gods of wind, rain and current to look after them. However, she also gives movement to the sun, and manifests a god for it, Ast, he's called."
        "I remember the name from Rhiev..."
        "Yes, well this change to the sun doesn't please Kyri, because when it moves out the sky there's nothing to light her creations. So she makes the moon, to illuminate the world at night. This irritates Lona, so she in turn imbues it with movement and manifests herself another god, Trell or Trill or something. Kyri loses her light source again, so she makes planets, and Lona moves these, too. Finally, Kyri creates the stars, and she puts them everywhere in the sky, so even when Lona moves one there are always others visible. That's how their dispute was resolved, and it's how we got Time."
        "So, at this stage we have two bitchy goddesses. Why do I just know the third one is going to be a goody-goody?"
        Roween shuffled back against a column, settled down again, sitting on her foot. She could see Conley gesturing, the light was probably about to dim out. "We've not quite finished with Lona: she gives movement to the trees and plants that Kyri has created, but doesn't manifest gods for them because they are so many and so weak."
        "And it would have been so inconvenient for the myth..." She held her penultimate gesture, waited for the old spell to cut out.
        Roween felt a murmur of pride, continued. "Once Lona steps back, it's the turn of Eskh, goddess of feelings. She sees a world of ever- changing vitality, but with no direction. Only the gods are able to appreciate its beauty, to add to it. So she gives senses to the creatures, and manifests a god, Teder, to help in their use. She distils in the creatures desires, such that they have a purpose in life, and Anean is the god she cooks to watch over them. Notice how handy it is having a male god of desires to manifest all those goddesses of love everyone else uses."
        "Yes, I had..."
        "Now Eskh stops short of giving feelings or desires to the plants, because she fears that too much interference will annoy Kyri and Lona."
        "Smart girl." She released the light spell, just as the old one died.
        Roween beamed her smile. "You've heard this before, admit it!"
        "No, not at all, what do you mean?"
        "Well you said she was smart."
        "So? Oh, I see, yes, `thinking powers' have to come from somewhere, and there's only three goddesses... She's goddess of intelligence, right?"
        "Near enough - the term they actually use is `wisdom'. Eskh is the wisest of the goddesses, and she bestows her wisdom on just a few of the creatures. She knows her pseudo-sisters, or whatever the relationship is called, might be angry, so she makes herself be the goddess of wisdom, rather than manifest a new god. She has another name in that context, Keskh, I think. Sure enough, the other goddesses are not pleased. Kyri doesn't like these creatures - which we know as humans"
        "- surprise surprise"
        "- she doesn't like the way they create objects of their own. Lona doesn't like the way they change things to suit themselves, as she's supposed to handle all changes. Anyway, together they ask Lon to manifest a goddess of nothingness, so this new goddess can destroy the humans. However, he refuses, because he sees that Eskh is wise, and that her actions are good."
        "That won't stop them, there's a god of death to come yet - everyone has a god of death."
        "Well it may be crudely obvious to you, yes, but remember this has to be understood by people who've never had an education, who are used to simple, oral stories rather than tightly-plotted novels... So you're right, of course the sisters don't take it lying down, jealous backbiters that they are, and they put together a plan. Lona gets together with the god of the earth and bears him a child, Wul, god of the otherworld. For religions with an evil god, the Messenger usually identifies him with Wul. Kyri then creates this otherworld for Wul to rule over, which is basically either an empty, boring, cold place, or a crowded, boring, hot place, it sort of depends on who you talk to. Next, Kyri gets into bed with the god of wind and has a son, Loss, god of death. He's the one who gets to carry people off to the otherworld."
        "So these children, they could be any sex really?"
        Roween nodded, adjusted her position to stop her leg going dead. "Yes, male or female, doesn't matter; it's the Message's way of dealing with those pesky, ill-fitting gods and goddesses that other religions sometimes have; a means of tying up loose ends. Gods that don't mesh properly with the mainstream set-up tend to be popular, cultist. Claiming they're children of Message gods is a neat solution. Most evil gods and gods of death are male, so they equate with Wul and Loss. Sort of sets the precedent."
        Conley sat up. "Well that about covers it, then. You've described the main gods, they explain all the great issues, so the rest of the Message is just so much detail."
        "Ah, no, almost, but there's the final hook yet." She rubbed her calf as pins-and-needles set in. "As it stands, once you're dead that's it. So Eskh decides to create learning and writing, but she doesn't want her work subverted by the other goddesses. Hence, she goes to Lon directly, and asks him to father her children. She has twin daughters, Loneskh and Eskhlon, easy to remember. Loneskh is learning, Eskhlon is writing. The other big two goddesses aren't going to mess with them, because they're Lon's children, and Kyri and Lona are frightened of him. They accept the two new goddesses without complaint. What they don't realise until it's too late is that Eskh has outsmarted them, and she now has a way to get people out of the otherworld."
        Conley rested on one arm, stroked the nose of her horse as it wandered nearby looking for grass the best length to eat. "I can see why an account of reincarnation would be useful for swallowing certain religions, but I don't follow how learning and writing can help."
        Roween paused, then nodded. "When you die, Loss takes you to the otherworld. There, you can recollect everything about all your past lives, so you can ponder on your fate. The length of time you stay is dependent on how much people remember you after your death, because in a way you live on in folk's memories even after you've died. Writing, recording deeds - even to us, learning of things passed can seem to bring history to life. In the Message, it actually does: the more that people think of you when you're dead, the more your reincarnation becomes a reality. If they continue to respect you, your actions; if they hold you up as an example of how people should live, long after you've gone - it's like your spirit lives on. Surely, after a time, after enough experience of this existence in words and thoughts and minds, your soul is strong enough to make the transition back from the otherworld, and you can be reborn, come alive again? Everyone has a vain streak, everyone likes to think they'll be remembered after their death for something. People in positions of power especially so, they expect it."
        Conley was thinking. "Yes, I can see how that could be quite seductive to anyone with a big ego."
        "As have mages?"
        Conley laughed, wheezed a little. "As have most mages!"
        Roween smiled. "So, it's quite well thought-out, really. It's not just remembering people's names - so what if you do know your great- grandfather was called Arvin - it's their actions, what they did and why they did it. That's why people need to make a real contribution, not just publicise themselves, shamelessly erecting statues all over the place or whatever. The Message gives the little people hope, too, that even they can get out of the otherworld before long if they did the right things while alive. For lowlives, unambitious peasants, they simply have to be good and well thought-of, leave messages at temples and shrines for Loss to pass on to dead people, and it'll all help reduce the duration of their stay when they eventually die themselves. You don't have to daub yourself in glory to be remembered."
        "Something for everyone," Conley observed. Roween noticed she was gesturing again, couldn't make out the spell. "It sounds quite a caring religion, really - isn't it a form of ancestor worship, like the Nachatee practise? There are bound to be far worse religions, anyway." She looked at her hand a moment as it moved. "So why are the Followers so intimidating? Why is everyone so scared of this faith?"
        "It's the Messenger. He claims to be the son of Lon and Lona, which puts him on a par with Loneskh and Eskhlon in terms of status. His charge, he says, is to ensure that everyone understands the true nature of things, that they believe the Message."
        "But what is the Message? That Lon is chief god, and if you're good then when you die you'll come back sooner rather than later?"
        "You don't have to be good, just remembered. Yes, the Message is acceptance of the myth, but like any religion it's more than that, it's an entire system of beliefs, complete with rituals and its own morality, a whole outlook on life. There's a nutshell that's supposed to sum up the essence of its theology: `things exist to change'."
        "I see. So that's why the Messenger chose his parents the way he did - the god of existence and the goddess of change."
        "Perhaps; I don't know if the encapsulation came before or after the ancestry."
        "So the reason people fight against the Messenger is because he's an evangeliser?"
        "Partly, but it's the way he does it." Roween absently pulled a lock of hair behind her ear. "He says that the best thing you can do to be remembered, something really worthwhile that will ensure your wait for resurrection will be brief, is to convert a non-believer to the Message. Failing that, it's to send them to the otherworld before you."
        "`If you're not with us, you die.'" Conley nodded, slowly. "Now that's sinister". She looked down at her hand again as it flowed through familiar permutations of the five stylised positions. "Hold on a moment, sorry, I have to cast this spell..." Rolling over to face the centre of the courtyard, she flew out the last gestures of the sequence. Roween braced herself; the air began to move, slowly at first, then sporadically quicker, small gusts. Conley continued the hand flicks.
        "That doesn't smell too good, Con, do you want me to - "
        "No, I won't be much longer, just a wind, getting rid of the mosquitoes..."
        "Leave them, no, keep it down!" She was struggling into a crouch, frowning like her head ached. "It's like looking at the sun, I'll have to blink!"
        "That's it, finished." Conley broke off, and the minor cyclone dropped. The algae-marbled basin of the small fountain stood proud again, amidst the straw-like matting of now storm-damaged grass stalks. The courtyard looked eerily untidy, like Roween's hair first thing in the morning, in need of a brush.
        Conley drew herself up into a sitting position, looked over to her friend: Roween was on her hands and knees, her eyes closed, nose wrinkled, trying to breathe steadily.
        Conley gasped. "I'm sorry, Ro, it was only a little breeze, there were things buzzing round the horses." Roween tried to kneel up, still dizzy, as she scrambled towards her. "I didn't know you'd - I thought you'd just have blotted it if it was too much, you didn't have to hold back for me, I - if I'd have known it would hurt you..." She put her arm round the other girl's shoulders. "Are you alright?"
        Roween blinked, let out a long sigh.

Copyright © Richard A. Bartle (
21st January 1999: isif27.htm