Chapter 17: From the Gates of Heaven to the Mouth of Hell
Copyright© 2011 by Celtic Bard
Although the Illuminant capital of Gen-Vir was nearly three weeks travel from the Imperial border, Zizziriz lead the travelers over a small hill near noon the following day to stare down at a glistening city nestled in the crook of a wide and rushing river that had its origins in the mountains of the Netherlands to the north. Three airy, lacelike bridges spanned the huge flow, held up by impossibly thin supports of pristine white stone with flashing veins of gold and silver, carrying all manner of traffic from the northern bank to the southern and vice versa.
The city itself was as much or more of a marvel. Within the boundaries of the unfortified metropolis lived nearly a million Illuminants and Gnathar, Ce'al and Nultrites, Gnomes and Jotnar. Even at their distance from the city, Jonar could see the teeming crowds surging through the streets of Gen-Vir like blood through arteries. And towering over the wide, straight streets were the most marvelously fanciful structures Jonar had yet seen in his travels. Gleaming towers and spires soared hundreds of feet into the sky only to be joined by bridges just as light and airy as those spanning the river. Palaces of rich Gnome merchants and successful Jotnari fleet captains vied for opulence with the lavish compounds of the northeastern Ce'al Matriarchs and Nultrite tribal chiefs while Gnathar nobles and mercenaries sought to enrich their Houses from within estates that rivaled even the expansive campuses of the celebrated Illuminant universities. Minarets and domes covered in golden marble called the faithful to the dozens of temples and shrines dedicated to each of the five Gods worshipped in Gen-Vir and the very air shimmered with the notes of each denomination's bells raising hymns to the heavens in praise to their God.
And in the center of all of the marble and gold, onyx and quartz, sat the Grand Royal Palace of the Enlightened. In a city full of incredible feats of architectural genius, it was from this most awesome structure of all that King Dzeriz Mozari XXXI ruled the most advanced and oldest culture of Titia-Lohr. His banner, the crossed red scimitars on a white field, flapped in the light autumn breeze as it had for longer than the other races had existed. He ruled the eldest of the races of Titia-Lohr and had for nearly a century.
"Shall we continue? We have a long ride yet ahead of us," Zizziriz remarked blandly, floating down the hill.
"That is incredible!" Illyana said, hugging Jonar's arms with excitement, her breathing rapid and her trim body practically vibrating within her husband's embrace. "Thank you, Jonar! Without you, I would never have even dreamed of seeing such beauty in this life." Jonar looked around at his friends as saw that they were in a similar state of awe so he simply followed the glowing Illuminant into his city, stunned into silence himself.
They all rode through the city in somewhat of a daze, gazing around like country yokels and not caring where they were led. Somewhere near the center of the city, surrounded by a huge lawn turning brown with the coming of the northern winter, was the great library of the Order of the Ever Present Truth. The truthseekers were headquartered in Gen-Vir and accordingly their facility in this majestic city was more than four times the size of the library Jonar visited in Hynost-Qaanzyr. Hundred foot tall bronze statues depicting all of the races of Titia-Lohr, including the extinct ones, fronted the massive building. Looking at some of them, Jonar was glad they were extinct. Beyond the statues was a portico high enough that the statuary could easily have been placed beneath it. Holding up the front of the building were caryatids and atlantes of the various races living today. Atop the portico was a massive rose quartz dome with black and white marble ribs meeting at what looked like a huge diamond statue of an Illuminant blazing in the light of the sun.
Zizziriz led them past the giant bronze statues and to the foot of the stairs leading up to the House of the Order of the Ever Present Truth. They were drawing quite a bit of attention but Zizziriz ignored it as it waited for them to dismount. The stairs, like those in Hynost-Qaanzyr, were inscribed with letters. This time Jonar could read them and he realized that each step had one of the laws of the Order carved into it, from least important to most.
They began to climb the stairs, leaving Alyssa and Kyftassa's mounts in the hands of a couple of robed and hooded truthseeker initiates. "All who Serve within in these Walls must Take the Oath" was inscribed in the walk below the first step. Jonar noticed that Gnusyl and the other Gnaths lowered themselves to the grass to warm themselves in the afternoon sun, meaning that they all thought their companions would be a while.
"Oath Breakers Are no longer Seekers of the Truth" stated the first step. Jonar was even more impressed with this House of the Order of the Ever Present Truth than with that in Hynost-Qaanzyr. It wasn't just the size of the building, either. While he knew from his reading that the Ce'al were considered among the finest artists on Titia-Lohr, the Illuminants who created the work of art they were ascending to were leagues ahead of the Ce'al who constructed the Meikari capital's House. Jonar could see individual hairs ruffled by some long ago breeze on one of the atlantes and beads of sweat rolling between the breasts of the caryatids holding up the portico.
"Those who Fail the Laws of the Order have Broken the Oath" read the second step. The doors of the House opened as they looked up at the amazing building. They were magnificently carven doors with exquisite iconography of Genifer-Elia and Sol framed by polished steel hung on hinges that didn't make a sound, suggesting at least some Gnomes aided in the construction so many centuries ago. From within the House emerged four figures: three Illuminants and a Gnome, all garbed in the white robes of the Order.
"No Member may Harm Another in the Search for the Truth" proscribed the third step. The Gnome looked oddly familiar to Jonar as he studied the little group so obviously waiting for them at the top. Jonar thought that perhaps the Gnome was related to Donnar and then he remembered that Gnomes were territorial and the Kingdom of the Illuminants was within the range of the Nethar Dominari.
"The Order's sole Purpose is to Seek the Truth" informed the fourth step. By now the others had noticed the four truthseekers awaiting them and were muttering amongst themselves about who they might be. Zizziriz was keeping its silence despite Lord General Yothorinsson's irritated demands for answers. Jonar wished Sancyr wasn't so rude with his demanding attitude and from the grimace on Myka's face, so did she.
"Debts to the Order Must be Voluntary" assured the fifth step. The Gnome seemed to be glaring at him, Jonar realized. He suddenly wondered if the Gnomes' territoriality was extended to include him, now that he was an official member of the Axeforger Sept. He looked down at the ring on his finger and then back up at the Gnome.
"Only Deeds May Be Exchanged for Enlightenment" cautioned the sixth step. The Gnome was glaring even more fiercely and Jonar was sure it was because the little man knew he was adopted by the Axeforgers.
"The Truth May not Be Stolen or Forced" the seventh step sagely quipped. Zizziriz quicken its floating up the stairs, forcing the others to do the same. Jonar tore his gaze away from the scowling Gnome to watch where the Illuminant's feet should be but the thing did not walk. It floated.
"Only the Truth May Defeat Evil" instructed the eighth step. Jonar could now see the Illuminants a little more clearly. They did not glow as much as Zizziriz did. He did not know whether it was because Zizziriz was younger and did not have as much control as its fellows or whether those at the top of the steps were simply more versed in accommodating non-Illuminants in a social situation.
"The Truth Must never Be Molested" alerted the ninth step. Given Zizziriz's interactions with Jonar and his friends, he was willing to believe Zizziriz was less used to dealing with non-Illuminants socially. The truthseeker did not really seem to know how to deal with them and seemed to be shocked at least once an hour by something Myka or Alyssa did.
"The Truth is Immortal" guaranteed the tenth step. Two of the three Illuminants were of the same sexless features as Zizziriz, now that Jonar really looked at them. The third one, however, looked to be female. She had long white hair, glowing white skin, white eyes that seemed to curve upward even more than Myka's, giving her an ageless kind of beauty. Jonar had to turn his attention back to the still-glaring Gnome to prevent himself from staring at her.
"Sol Is the Guardian of the Truth" instructed the eleventh step. Illyana and Alyssa seemed to notice the Gnome's attitude towards him at the same time; they both maneuvered themselves to either side of him, adding their frowns to his as all three of them focused their attention on the tiny truthseeker.
"By the Grace of Genifer-Elia Was the Truth Conceived" declared the twelfth step. By now, all of Jonar's friends had noticed the little Gnome and they were looking at him with great interest. He seemed to be somewhat taken aback by the sudden support of the entire group for the Gnathar boy. He took an involuntary step back.
"Evil Will always Seek to Distort the Truth" warned the thirteenth step. The Illuminants were now looking at the Gnome as well. They said something in the Gnome language which didn't carry to Jonar and the gray truthseeker turned around and stiffly walked back into the House.
"All Have a Right to Seek the Truth" proclaimed the fourteenth step. The three Illuminants turned apologetic expressions on Jonar as they neared the portico.
"Truth is Knowledge without Bias" was the simple statement on the top stair. This simple idea was the impetus behind the Order of the Ever Present Truth. All members spent their lives seeking pieces of perfect, impartial knowledge simply for the sake of the search. As Jonar and his friends reached the portico, a kind of calm serenity washed over them.
"Welcome to the Grand Library of the Order of the Ever Present Truth, Lord Telanar, ladies, gentlemen," the female Illuminant said in an almost seductive voice. "When the oracles pronounced your imminent arrival, we were elated and sought to assure your every comfort during your short stay in our city."
Sancyr looked at Zizziriz. "They knew we were coming? How?"
The truthseeker gestured to the woman. "Lady Myzatia just told you, Lord Yothorinsson. There are prophesies about young Lord Telanar."
"Please come into our House," the female Illuminant, Lady Myzatia, said pleasantly. "This is a discussion which is better held in the comfort and privacy of my office."
As in the Order's library in the Meikari capital, the headquarters of the truthseekers was simply an enormous, multi-tiered room lined with shelves which held the total sum of knowledge still existing in Titia-Lohr and gathered by the Order of the Ever Present Truth. White-robed truthseekers and gaily clad citizens roved the shelves, consulting the treasures of the Order for enlightenment or enjoyment.
Also as in Hynost-Qaanzyr, there was a labyrinth of offices, laboratories, class rooms, storage areas, and living quarters beneath the library. The Illuminants led Jonar and his friends over to a stair leading to these basement rooms and away from the prying eyes of the patrons of the library. As soon as Lady Myzatia passed over the top step a brilliant, sourceless white light flashed on, illuminating the curving stairs.
As they walked down the steps and through a wide marble hall they could hear the murmuring of students and teachers behind the closed doors facing the corridor. At the very end of the hall was a simple door much like the others except this one had a small wooden plaque inscribed with characters Jonar could not read. The Illuminants led them through the door and into a spacious office occupied only by a large desk, a dozen overstuffed chairs, and a cabinet which held several dozen crystal decanters.
Zizziriz immediately floated over to the cabinet and came back with a tray holding several silver goblets and two of the decanters. While Jonar and his friends sat in the indicated chairs, Zizziriz passed out the goblets and offered each of them either the excellent wine or a sweet smelling fruit juice. Jonar completely ignore it, focusing instead on the other Illuminants who were in turn watching him to the complete exclusion of the others. When Zizziriz joined its apparent superiors on the opposite side of the desk, Lady Myzatia sat back in her large chair and smiled warmly at Jonar.
"Well, Lord Telanar, you have had quite a year," she began with a gentle smile. "I knew of your existence before you became wrapped up in Meikari politics simply because you were the unfinished end game in the perpetual caste struggles of the Empire. Never did I imagine that you would survive the wilds, never mind grow into the giant you seem to be destined to become. And imagine my greater surprise when the oracles told me you were the one of whom the prophesies spoke."
Silence stretched out. Jonar had nothing to reply to her statements with so he simply kept his mouth shut. The others seemed to be very uncomfortable with silence, especially in a room full of people. Jonar, on the other hand, had spent the better part of three years with no one but Gnusyl to talk to and they need not speak aloud to communicate.
It was Sancyr who finally gave into the urge to speak. "With all due respect, Lady Myzatia, we came here for a purpose," he said, trying with all the skills he inherited from his diplomat father to keep his tone civil.
The High Commissioner of the Order of the Ever Present Truth slowly swung her irritated gaze to Sancyr sitting farthest from Jonar, her face giving the impression of frowning without actually doing so. "Lord Yothorinsson, let us all be honest with one another," she said levelly, her voice smooth and musical despite the crispness of her enunciation. "You all came here with a reason, each different than the others. Lady Myka came for the noble reason of her sororal love for Lord Telanar. Lord Xavear Losh'Varri and Lord Lailar Ulfjansson came here for the political reason of foiling plots the Lords of Meikar saw coming out of Zondroland. Lord Brandar Brandarsson came in order to watch their moves for his masters in Dorkan City. Lady Illyana Brashklarsdaughter came for the selfish reason of exploring a world she knew existed but was forbidden to even dream of seeing.
"And you, Lord Yothorinsson, you came for the most selfish reason of them all. It is your hope that this young warrior will actually succeed, thereby elevating your caste beyond the level of mere warrior caste to a state of being the caste of the Holy Warrior of Sol," the Lady Illuminant discerned with scathing disdain. She shook her head; her luminescence increasing with her displeasure at the Gnathar general's motives. "You may try and convince yourself you are doing this to protect Lord Telanar, providing him with the required immunity to certain Imperial Caste Laws, but that is simply an excuse. It is in your mind, and the minds of those supporting your actions, to use this ignorant boy and the Gods' will to win your battles for you."
"What laws?" Jonar demanded with concern, speaking up before anyone else could continue.
Lady Myzatia glared direly at Sancyr before turning her head toward Jonar. "Do you think you could keep a civil tongue if I bring in the Nethar Gnome you saw on the steps outside?" Jonar nodded confusedly at her biting tone towards him when he was not the one who started the glaring match. The Illuminant flicked her wrist. The office door opened and admitted the same Gnome that had been glowering at Jonar when they had ascended the exterior stair of the House. The little gray man stomped over to stand beside the Illuminants, his face still a black cloud of displeasure. "This is Ixar'Loau Lawgiver, the chief counsel of the Order. Ixar, tell Lord Telanar of the Caste Law which has been invoked against him by the Elders of Telanaria."
With a grimace, the Gnome drew himself up and inhaled deeply. "In accordance with the Imperial Gnathar Caste Law of Exile, Jonar Telansson of House Telanar must complete the task set him by the Elders of Telanaria within one year or his citizenship of the Empire is forfeit henceforth. Within the one year period, he is neither protected nor acknowledged by the laws of the Empire of the Gnath and as such, is deemed persona non grata by His Imperial Majesty."
Jonar looked at the Gnome blankly. "What the hell did that mean?"
"It means that Lord Arar is permitted to have you killed by any means he sees fit by the Imperial Caste Laws since as far as the Empire is concerned, you do not exist," Sancyr mumbled sourly. "Until you retrieve Vindicor-Kimber and produce it for verification by an Imperial Court, your life is in danger and that bounty Lord Arar placed on your head following your exile is valid."
They all stared at Sancyr with astonishment. "How could this be legal in what is supposed to be the greatest nation on Titia-Lohr?" Alyssa demanded hotly, her eyes flashing with her outrage.
The Illuminant smiled gently at her. "You, better than all of those here, should know that answer, your Highness," the truthseeker replied softly, her eyes actually kind as she gazed across her desk at the Meikari woman. "As one of the preeminent Players in Meikar, you know how these things work. I think that if the Great Houses knew that you, of all these people Lord Telanar has surrounded himself with, have come for the most virtuous of reasons, they would fear you and your presence much less. Despite your cynicism towards the world, you are still an innocent. The love of your universe has been pulled into the Game not by choice and not by mistake but by destiny and heritage. You may have begun your journey to find and love him, but in the end it will be you who helps guide him through the dangers the enemies of his caste have laid before him. And enemies not yet known.
"And when I tell you the dangers of this mission you have voluntarily joined for your love of this boy, you may wish to have never met him," Lady Myzatia warned direly in a dreadfully bleak tone, her eyes flat and unwavering. When Alyssa angrily shook her head in denial, her eyes darting to Jonar's pale, emotionless face, seeking the deep, liquid sapphire eyes that tug at her very soul, the Illuminant smiled gently. "Do not shake your head, child, for you know not what you say. To begin with, only you, Lady Illyana, Lady Myka, and your half-brother will be permitted to leave this House with your young warrior. The Gods have spoken and any others accompanying Lord Telanar will be destroyed, causing your love to fail and forfeit his life as a consequence."
The four gnath lords bolted to their feet in protest. "But-"
"Sit down and shut up! Your roles in this affair are at an end for the moment!" Zizziriz roared, silencing the Gnathar. "You may remain here as guests of the Order until the journey of these few chosen concludes or you may return from whence you came. You will, however, be monitored by some few of the King's people to assure that you do not follow Lord Telanar out of the Land of the Illuminants."
"But I can't ensure the safety of the ladies all by myself," Jonar protested, his eyes taking on a haunted look. "I had enough trouble keeping Myka out of danger by myself in Meikar. I have no idea where I am going next, but it has to be more dangerous than Meikar if Vindicor-Kimber has remained hidden for all these centuries."
Lady Myzatia rose and nodded towards a stoic Kyftassa. "Prince Kyftassa will be going with you," she said, looking at Alyssa's brother. "Besides, I did not say you would not be joined by others once you were on your way. There are those who will aid you on your quest. Most you have never met, nor will you remain in the company of most long enough to know them. But one you must look for most carefully, for he is a difficult man to find. He will be shrouded in black and most likely be mounted on a black stallion of unusual intelligence. In his hands you will find a massive dagger-axe with a viciously hooked blade. He is a master of the territory through which you will have to travel and has been given a destiny by certain Gods to fulfill while aiding you in fulfilling yours. He probably already knows you are on the way, for he is a savant of the arcane sciences.
"Now, I know you must be tired after your journey, so Zizziriz will show you to your rooms until the evening meal," she told them, nodding to the theologian. "I would be honored if you, and your companions, would dine with me this evening. Until then, rest and refresh yourselves for your journey."
As they all rose to follow Zizziriz, Alyssa saw Jonar stop out of the corner of her eye and turned to see what he was doing. His face took on a mulish expression the Meikari princess so loved him for. "I am not going anywhere until you give me more details, Lady," he declared firmly, his deep voice rumbling dangerously.
The Illuminants all looked shocked and it was a few seconds before the High Commissioner recovered enough to reply, "All in good time, my Lord. Were I to give you certain details now, your allies who are forbidden to accompany you will use that information to circumvent me and my King's decree that only those chosen to travel forward be permitted to do so. You must trust me, my Lord. It is in the best interests of us all." The female Illuminant seemed to be almost pleading with the Gnathar boy, begging someone over whom she had much leverage.
Alyssa approached Jonar and wrapped her arms around his, absently noticing that he felt more muscular than he did the last time she had really seen him back in Meikar. The princess looked around Jonar at the entreating gaze of the truthseeker and sighed. "I think we have to trust her, love," she whispered to the boy. "If this is what gets those barbarians in Telanaria to leave you alone, perhaps it is worth it to play her game for just one night."
Jonar tore his gaze away from the four glowing apparitions before him to look down into the appealing face of the Meikari princess. He nodded and turned to follow Zizziriz but just before he left the room, he looked back over his shoulder and said, "Just know that if you play me false and someone I care about is hurt as a result, you and all of your kind will be hearing from me." His tone was darkly foreboding and his face bleak and unforgiving, sending shivers of an emotion Illuminants had no name for through their very souls. For the first time they realized why the God of Justice had chosen this looming, skinny, ignorant Gnathar kid as the One chosen to bear his instrument of power.
Night had fallen and Illyana vanished almost as if by magic. Jonar was starting to worry until Alyssa, his new wife, found him. With a wicked gleam in her yellow-green eyes, she sat on his lap as he sat by the fire in the sitting room connecting three of the guest quarters under the library of the Illuminants. In a sultry whisper, the Meikari princess told him that Illyana had taken Myka over to the quarters shared by Sancyr, Lailar, Xavear, and Brandar for an extended game of squares. With a naughty grin, the princess pulled his face down to hers for a kiss which started out languidly sweet but turned fiercely hungry as the two newlyweds seemed to be trying to inhale each other with the intensity of their emotions.
Not two hours ago, Jonar, the Princess, Illyana, Myka, and Prince Kyftassa followed directions given by Zizziriz to the closest Temple of Sol in Gen-Vir. The Cathedral of Truth also happened to be the largest of its kind in the world. Larger than the Order of Ever Present Truth's library complex, the Cathedral was located a few hundred yards down the main boulevarde from the library. As with nearly everything else in the magnificent city, the Cathedral was a wonder. All pristine marble and gilt statuary, mist quartz and colored crystal windows, the temple was not only the largest on Titia-Lohr, but it was also the seat of power for the Archpriest of Sol, Aevinaarziah.
The Archpriest had been seeing to the set-up for a service when the five heathens entered the Cathedral. The Illuminant had turned with an irritated dimming of his radiance when the doors opened. Its luminescence then flared briefly when it saw Jonar enter the temple armed with both his sword and his axe. "What is your business in the Temple of the Divine Arbiter?" it had demanded harshly, glowing eyes flicking over the three females and Kyftassa.
"My Lord Aevinaarziah," Jonar replied respectfully with a bow, "I wish to be married to this woman under the jurisdiction of Sol. Can one of your priests marry us right now?"
Aevinaarziah frowned. "You are the one they are calling the Lord of Telanar, are you not?"
"Then aren't you already married to the young Gnathar female to your right?" he demanded, his tone colored with disgust. "I will not sanction a polygynous marriage in this temple. Take yourself and your lackeys elsewhere! I care not what Lord Sol has in store for your future, I will not sully this temple by breaking the royal law codes!" With that, the Archpriest had turned away from them and drifted back up to the altar where several other Illuminants were murmuring to each other and darting worried glances at Jonar's darkening face.