Night. The false and infinite surface of the Q'Sh undulated in silence, its waves and billows of cloud drawing lazily in whichever direction the wind was blowing. An Expanse as far and as wide as the eye could see, the slow-moving yet stable body looked like a fog bank as big as an ocean. During the day, under the sun in a cloudless lavender sky, the Q'Sh sparkled in a gorgeous palette of colors, with an eternity of green- and purple- and red-filtered stalks of sunlight slicing through the superficial layers of cloud and eventually being swallowed up in the deepening gray. An ocean of clouds that swirled languidly and turned the most beautiful spectrum of colors, at times looking like a living rainbow, undulating and playing, glittering and shimmering with layer upon layer of semi-iridescent cloud. At times. At other times, when the winds raged in their wrath, it would grow blacker than the cold of deep, starless space. The void. And it would work itself into a frenzy of storms that was something between a cyclone and a tidal wave and a waterspout that would vomit jets of sulfuric acid from deep, deep down in the forever swirl of clouds, closer to the true surface, where life was impossible. The gray that turned to black, the black that turned into utter poisonous obscurity. The winds dictated the mood of the Q'Sh on any given day, and the storms that surged below.
At night, the sea of mist and clouds was a soundless and constant presence. It didn't exactly lap the shore the way that waves of water do, with meditative rhythm; nor did it hang motionless, like the heavy shroud of a planet. It moved. It undulated and rolled. When there was moonlight, the false surface took on a silvery hue that was both enchanting and terrifying. It became the tenuous legions of ghosts on a long-silent battlefield; and whether the shades of slain soldiers continued to tumble over one another in an eternal dream of war, or wander blindly in search of their souls amidst mountain ranges of quicksilver, the motion was ceaseless under the moon's soft, icy eye.
When there was no moon, or when the sky above the sky was clouded, the Q'Sh simply was. It could not be seen, it could not be heard. You could look out and see an abyss of darkness, a void, nothing more, that stretched out beyond an invisible horizon. And you could easily wander over the edge and fall through if you were not careful. And though you would see nothing at all, you would feel the immensity of the Q'Sh envelop and consume you in a dense fog that multiplied and multiplied again in density—suffocating one second, asphyxiating the next—and the environment would be hot, then hotter, then hotter still; and the vapor would become denser still, so much so that the rate of speed with which a body fell would drop—and go entirely unnoticed, because very soon you would pass into the sulfuric acid cloud layer, and billions of acidic nails would reduce you to residue a full league before having the chance to be pulverized by the intolerable pressure at the bottom.
A full league—or three Atmospheric Miles—is an estimate. The most sophisticated tools of measurement available have never been able to plumb the depths of the Q'Sh beyond the layer of clouds that spit acid rain, but one full league is an educated guess. Most instruments start to blur at the one-AM mark, and dissolve completely at about the two-AM mark. If the habitable land with its fresh air and potable water and rich array of abounding life was any higher in elevation than approximately one full league from the inhospitable true surface, the air would be unbreathable, and Pharathe would be altogether uninhabitable.
Unless, of course, something was able to sustain itself at the bottom of the Q'Sh somehow. Great thundering explosions echo up from the depths of impenetrable mist from time to time, drifting up and rolling in like half-repressed memories of childhood trauma. Booming bursts of chaos erupt from the deep Expanse and careen across the swirling fields and reverberate across the horizon like an avalanche. These are usually explained away as violent volcanic activity—and sometimes these cataclysmic thunders are indeed accompanied by columns of black smoke spewing miles high and mingling with the natural iridescent gray of the Q'Sh, turning the false surface a dull slate gray. But there are other theories—religious-leaning, or crackpot theories—concerning the secretive goings-on of the giants that supposedly exist far beneath the eternal undulations of cloud. The giants that supposedly built the titanic spires, the marvels of prehistoric engineering, upon which the continents of Pharathe had balanced since before recorded history. These had been constructed and erected with an utterly alien ingenuity that the most brilliant minds have never been even remotely successful in deciphering. The giants in their forges, maintaining, fortifying, uplifting.
It was the sound of children's stories, to most.
Soundlessly, the clouds tumbled and rolled, but the air was relatively still. A light breeze blew in from the northwest, just enough to feather and ripple the top layers of mist in a gentle southeasterly direction. The moon was at three-quarters full, so the false surface had a dancing shimmer to it that made it look uneasily alive. And searching, with cirrus tentacles and cumulonimbus fingers, probing like dark thoughts with the incomprehensible babble of starlight. The Expanse.
And now a shape cuts across the field in the three-quarters moonlight, silently. It races a full fathom above the false surface upon twin parallel blades that slice through the clouds and maintain its buoyancy. The small vessel streaks smoothly across the quiet of the night and the creeping fingers of the ever-searching and ever-rolling silver sea. There is no wake; the clouds rush in with shovels to bury the cut immediately following the airship's passage. The only sounds come from the muffled mechanical whirring of the rear propellers, and the occasional leathery rustling of the mainsail in the night breeze, solar cells sparkling in their slumber.
A solitary figure, hooded and cloaked against the damp chill, sits huddled at the bow, gazing ahead at a dimly-illumined cone amidst the eternity of shimmering clouds. The small fire burning and snapping against the cold sends out a beam of light from its mirrored cauldron out onto the false surface of the Q'Sh, the multitude of ghostly hands reaching out, grasping at the hull, failing, tumbling. It slices a thin beam of light through the fog, and all around it the darkness and the emptiness pushes inward, and obliterates the progress of the small ship. Claustrophobia sounds inaccurate, considering the immensity of the open Q'Sh, but the surrounding night pressing against the feeble cone of firelight closes on the insignificant vessel like the lid of a coffin, despite the sleepy and half-open gaze of the moon with its gauzy streams of light. The figure stands, warms his hands over the fire, breathes out a plume of his breath, and looks anxiously out into the night.
He paces in his anxiety, trembling more from dread than cold, the growing apprehension of the task at hand—which was...? He is looking for something out on the great sea of mist, but cannot seem to remember what it is. Had he been sent here? It is as if the darkness that envelopes the airship obscures his memory as well. His thoughts rumble through his head. Something is out here, something that he has been tasked to find. An important something. There is nothing out here, he thinks, but however many hundreds of fathoms of clouds rising and pouring over the globe; and eventually, another continent. Does the Q'Sh erase memories, thoughts, like the night that has erased this airship's progress through the mist...? Does the vapor devour thoughts like the periodic geysers of acid devour screaming mounds of steaming flesh? The plateaus of fog tower now like the walls of some incredible living cavern, surrounding the vessel and closing in to strangle the hooded figure trembling on the bow, threatening to capsize the airship and cast him into the void to be dissolved and reduced to a vapor not unlike the rising fog he breathes shallowly into his lungs and exhales in worried sighs.
But then, without warning, he has arrived.
The cloaked figure suddenly becomes cognizant of something directly ahead of the airship, looming. A giant parapet of fog? No, it is more substantial than that, more solid. More menacing than ever-changing mists and illusions. A shadow against the shadows, a shadow crystallized. He stumbles in the darkness to the back of the airship and stops the propellers in a flurry of excitement. He pulls excitedly on one of the lanyards, partially closing the mainsail. The vessel slows, then hovers. The figure turns the mirrored cauldron on its swivel upward against the shape gathering and materializing more clearly out of the mist. The swivel makes a sharp grating sound as it struggles to move. The fog, the infinity of damp air causing the mechanism to rust prematurely, rusting like anything else out on the Q'Sh, wearing out and rusting and becoming a useless hulk blown about by the cyclones forever, he thinks, as the cauldron shifts its mirrored eye upward.
Claw-like appendages reach out of the gloom in fifty different directions. A towering mass covered in tentacles (The giants...) reaching out for the intruder, and he imagines that the tiny fire will be extinguished and the mass will grip the airship in a multitude of nightmares by the light of the three-quarters moon and the thousands of dancing prisms glowing like razor-toothed fairies.The cloaked figure braces himself but sees no movement. A trick of the eyes, an illusion, the shadow of a shadow—no, it is a tree long dead, five miles high; its twisted branches are the arthritic caresses of an epileptic in the throes of demonic possession. A tree that has struggled through an agony of millennia, that has transcended the pressure and the corrosive rain, only to die in the land of golden air.
A tree, but how? Why? The dark figure ponders this as he swivels the cone of light across the ancient, gnarled boughs. The tiny airship inches forward, closer. The darkness and the silence presses inward from without, the feeling of claustrophobia returning, the coffin lid squeaking shut in damp air. And then the hair stands up on the back of the dark figure's neck with sudden, dawning realization. Hagiyon, the Tree at the Axis of the World. The bond between the giants and mankind, the bridge between the worlds.
But there is no method, no map, the trembling figure within his cloak and cowl has no recollection of how he came here, or from whence he came. But all this is secondary. He has discovered Hagiyon! and the path of progress has been forever changed. A new Heaven and a new Pharathe. And he will be recognized for always and for ever as a saint. He will be revered above Marsyas, he will be uplifted even by Barbaron. In his ecstasy, the figure steps forward, as if to receive his just crown, hood thrown back in a triumphant flourish, the cold of the night forgotten—he is the exalted, the anointed, he has discovered the Way. He is the Lamp in Darkness, the Messiah shod in the Shoes of Stealth...—
He steps forward one step too far on the bow of the small airship in his exaltation. With a cry, he tumbles over the side and into the vaporous jaws of the Q'Sh, the One True God. An offering to the Deity, he thinks as he is swallowed up in the ink. Blackness as he hurtles down, meditating only for the briefest instant upon the fact that Hagiyon did not reach out its primeval tendrils to save his life and secure him as the bringer of the Holy Branch to mankind....
Then panic, heat building in steam and clawing blackness; and will he live long enough to feel his lungs dissolve as acidic moisture rips through them in the tempest, drowning him in his own liquefied tissue. Knives in his eyes pressing into the back of his skull, the pressure (the pressure, oh, the steel grip around the neck the limbs the body) crushing bones, building up to a screaming crescendo, arms flailing, grasping at the ropes of shadow, falling, suffocating, burning; tumbling like the playful dancing of color in the kaleidoscope of the Great God Q'Sh.
Through the clouds and into his bed, Saleem slammed with considerable psychic force back into his body. He felt the mattress compress beneath him, as if a tremendous invisible weight had been thrust upon his thin and sweat-soaked bed sheet. His eyes burst open and he drew in a sharp breath of musty—yet deliciously cool—air, the thundering molten shards of roaring venom shrinking back to the deeper caverns of his mind and replaced by the sounds of birds on the living tree outside the filthy pane of cracked glass that passed for his window.
Thunder continued pounding in his head. He reached up and massaged his temples with the thumb and middle finger of his hand, blinking his eyes four or five times to reassure himself that he was indeed back in the safety of his bed. Saleem had had this dream before, but it was getting more realistic, developing. Usually, when he drank himself into oblivion, his sleep was dreamless.
He had emptied a jug of wine (maybe a bit more) the night before, and was thankful for his headache—the nauseating rumbling was only due to wine, not the tidal wave of pressure that multiplied exponentially below his feet, even now as he lay there with the sunlight trying desperately to push even a single shaft through his dirty window.
Saleem had the dream for the first time a couple of months ago, and it had repeated itself twice since then. The Q'Sh, the airship, the tree in the night, they were always there. The exaltation upon the bow. The fall, that horrible, horrible fall. That was what had become more realistic with each repetition, more distinct, more graphically and painfully detailed. This time, he would have sworn he awoke feeling the acrid aftertaste of burning air if he hadn't ended up blaming the wine instead. Saleem hated the Q'Sh. He was deeply afraid of it, its silent immensity, the utter loss of control. The height and the depth into swirling fury and a hundred-thousand knife stabs on the way down. And there was the fact that it acted as the catalyst that finally crippled his ambition—the thought Saleem dutifully pushed from his mind with effort, swept under the rug. He shuddered, performed a mystic gesture (meaningless, as they all were in and of themselves), and made a brief invocation of thanksgiving inwardly.
Men of God seldom interpret any phenomenon other than as a particular dealing of God with their soul. A Man of God has taken the leap of faith over the side of the airship as it hovers a mere half-fathom away from swirling catastrophe, as it were. This is what the dream meant, Saleem was certain. He was being tested. The Great God Q'Sh had plans for the thirty-three year old mystic. They were surely not as literal as finding the Sacred Tree Hagiyon, which may or may not actually exist; but, on the other hand, maybe they were. The question of validity was the primary difference between the OOS and the Outer Order (and from Saleem's exalted standpoint—exalted before his fall, of course—it was much easier to control those who believed in the literal). It was another way of asking whether the giants were metaphors for spiritual growth, symbols for the heart of a man, the uplifting of mankind upon shoulders stooped with the tremendous weight of selflessness and pure altruism; or actual living beings that roamed the trenches on the nightmare surface of the planet, who had fashioned in their primeval forges the pillars of unknown ore that supported the five inhabited continents. (The sixth and seventh are supported by naturally-occurring mountains, but even these are impossibly tall and cylindrical, and possess their own queer legends.) Since the first primitive models of the airship skimmed the false surface of the Q'Sh, no one had ever discovered Hagiyon, but that did not mean that it was not there, flourishing among the ever-changing mountain ranges of multi-colored clouds. After all, all seven of the continents together only represented a fraction of the Opal Planet.
Saleem was considered a gifted psychic in his youth—precocious, his father and his early instructors called him, and a perfect candidate for initiation to the Wardenship of the O.O.S., of which there were only seven active members at any time. The Wardens were the installed spokesmen of the One True God on Pharathe, the emissaries of the five established and the two un-established continents that composed the globe, and who collectively willed communion with the giants that lumbered and labored for the uplifting of mankind far below in the obscurity, the Nephilim of the Forgotten Time, of which much is archived. The O.O.S. (the Wardenship, really, the Invisible Heads, the Secret Chiefs) had existed since time immemorial in one form or other. The Wardens evolved slowly alongside the planet, and evolved from one Warden over six-thousand years ago immediately following the mass exodus from Szurrupak—sometimes called the Great Diaspora—to five Wardens three-thousand years ago. Most recently, one-hundred and fifty years ago, after the officially uninhabited continents of Xyle and haunted Szurrupak were recognized and formally represented, two more Wardens were appointed, bringing the current number of active Wardens on Pharathe to seven.
Saleem would have represented Azelphaphaj, the continent he had been born on, and the continent he had never strayed from. He would have assumed the mantle of Warden; he would have made the Invocation at the Rite of Glass. With time and training, his mind would have grown formidable, able to traverse great distances across the Q'Sh and link with the mind of the other Wardens, like a beaming cone of light thrown off by a flame in a mirrored cauldron. Able to become the unpredictable winds in their quarters, and thus predict the storms before their conception. There were accounts of physical dissolution on one continent and re-materialization on another that were dubious, but not entirely outside the realm of possibility.
* * *
Precocious was a good word for Saleem. When he was five or six, it began to dawn on the boy that he thought about things in a different way than other people. For instance, he could correctly guess the number and suit of random playing cards eight out of ten times in a row—sometimes nine, or even ten out of ten, when he was in a “mood”. He could flip through thick volumes with eyes averted, and stop the pages with one finger, correctly guessing the page number almost every time. (He would elaborate upon this game a year or so later, when he learned how to read, stopping at some page in the back with his eyes closed and repeating the word on the page that his finger had haphazardly rested upon. Or, sometimes the whole sentence; or even paragraph, when he was in a “mood.”) He would sometimes sit cross-legged in the front room with his eyes closed and think about whatever was happening outside. He would “see” the Courtyard with his inner eye, the people walking, their clothing. A man, umbrella (but it's not raining), blue coat with tails, mustache. He walks with a woman, yellow hat, hair dark—long, braided, perfumed. And he would rush from his room and go outside and see just those people he had thought about (He's carrying a cane not an umbrella it's close enough but there is a knife in the handle yes there is), although he could not actually smell the woman's hair.
He couldn't read minds. Technically. He didn't “know what you were thinking”; but sometimes he could tune in, so to speak; hear a mental word or two that did not spring from his own mind. Or feel a feeling. Sometimes, while walking through the cobbled streets of town, hand held firmly by his mother's (protect smother keep), some nondescript person would float by like a whisper, or brush Saleem with a flourish of coattails that would send shivers up and down his spine, chill him to the bone. And his mother would look casually down at him to make some remark and see how ashen gray and cold to the touch he had become, trembling, and ask him whatever in the world was wrong. And he would assure her that he was fine, but he felt something he couldn't quite understand, something bad, wrong, uncomfortable. And the nondescript person would make his way down the street, around the corner, up, down, and finally duck down a dead-end side street where he would pull a knife silently from the folds of his coat and wait to do his dirty work, whatever that might be, amidst the shadows and the stinking of garbage.
Tricks, games, all of them, Saleem thought at the age of nine. Amusements, a way to pass the hours. He was too young yet to understand the pure potential he had in his own mind, that with proper training and cultivation, he could one day predict the awful storms that occurred sometimes out on the sea of clouds, and save many lives. He could one day be like his father—more than his father, who was only a Companion in the Order. A First Degree Adept, yes, but merely a Companion.
Saleem often wondered about how other people utilized their minds to produce thoughts. If they couldn't see things the way he could, if they couldn't anticipate random chance, in what other infinity of ways did his mind differ? Did he see colors the same way? Could he see or hear layers of awareness on the objects of perception that the person sitting next to him could not? He knew that he was different from most people, which made him self-conscious and quiet; but he also knew that some of the people in the O.O.S. could play games like he could...just not as well. He slowly began to gravitate, therefore, toward the Order, his father's vocation.
Sargon noted his young son's interest with the utmost pride and joy. He went to pains to describe both the Orderand the Outer Order, which was the branch of administration to the community—the values, the customs, the ethics, all of which existed under the umbrella of the O.O.S.. And he hinted at the first inklings of reason brimming with esoteric wisdom just beneath the superficial interpretations of the basic symbolism of the Order, the pre-chewed and easily-digested bits rationed out to the masses, who could not be trusted to think for themselves—a fairly standard religious tactic.
Sargon also made special note of his son's tremendous abilities, despite Saleem's anxious attempts to hide them. A certain small degree of psychic awareness, “power,” as it is usually called, was required even for admission to the Companionship, yes, but it was the difference between theory and practice compared to what was required to be admitted for examination into the higher grades. In fact, the ideal as outlined by the Ancyent Codes was two Wardens to represent each of the seven continents, but the Order had found it next-to-impossibly difficult to locate candidates to fill even the minimum seven seats. Sargon saw the potential in Saleem, but kept this to himself. He did not want to alienate his son or isolate him further.
When he was very young, maybe three, there was an interesting episode that should be recounted: Saleem had been napping in his family's apartment under the watch of his mother. His father, reading from the Holy Books in the library downstairs (as good Companions are expected to do), became slowly aware that his attention was being subtly drawn away from the Book of the Red Giant and refocused on thoughts of his sleeping son. The Grand Library at Azelphaphaj Tower was large, inadequately lit (unfortunately, for a library), lined with bookcases seven, eight, even ten feet high, and crawling with the ghosts of long-dead Companions and Adepts who had pored over the book-lined shelves during their residency, reading the same words Sargon was reading now from the same book. A lamp on a chain suspended from the ceiling burned above the cracked leather wingback armchair he sat in, a tiny island of light amidst the gloom of centuries. The portrait of a long-retired Warden hung on a far wall, scowling down on Sargon in judgmental silence. And the room was silent, except for the far-off ticking of a clock in another section of the library, the unseen pendulum thick with a throat full of dust.
“And lo, I have come unto you in the ages before the ages were numbered...” he read absentmindedly beneath the flickering of the lamplight.
“At the first, my color was black—(Is Saleem too young to be in a bed? Will he fall and hurt himself?)—blacker even than the night before the marriage of Sea and Sky.”
He tried to ignore the subtle pull and continue to read, but he began to feel not only his thoughts turning randomly, insistently, toward his son (...Is he awaking yet from his nap? ...What will he grow up to become?), but Saleem's presence materializing in the heavy and somber air of the library itself, like an airship out of the fog, coming slowly into view. The ticking of the clock may very well have been his little feet padding down the dangerously steep stairs to find his father.
“—and I was washed in the healing waters of the Great God, and my color became whiter than snow— (Daddy!!)”
Sargon gave a start. That last thought was not his own. Gooseflesh rippled like a wave over his arms and on the back of his neck as he lifted his eyes from a book now containing pages of meaningless letters to see what appeared to be Saleem standing three feet in front of his chair; just outside the circle of light provided by the lamp, looking directly at him, through him. Motionless. Staring. Translucent.
The figure flickered, again like an airship coming in and out of focus on the hazy horizon of the Q'Sh. Sargon realized that he could see through the figure and into the quiet dusk of the room. As he watched, the figure shifted from semi-solid to translucent, became crystal clear, then unfocused. He would have thought it was a projection of his own consciousness, had the feeling of Saleem's presence not been so strong. He could almost smell him. It must be an apparition...
...or a projection of Saleem's consciousness.
As this thought hit him, along with its possibilities, the figure shimmered, then faded. The feeling of presence decayed like an echo, and was replaced by an intense awareness of the silent and unoccupied library, as if to counterbalance the seeming unreality of what had just happened. The ticking of the unseen clock resumed its place in his awareness, coughing softly in the dark. The portrait scowled from its judgmental place on high; its eyes were ice-tipped knives in Sargon's back. This was the first foreshadowing of Saleem's gift, and it excited his father exceedingly. Later, when he went back upstairs, Saleem was just waking from his nap. He asked his father in the broken words and sentences of a child what book he had been looking at, and if it had pictures.
* * *
Saleem dragged his bulk off of the bed, which groaned deeply with a sigh of relief, and a bolt of pain streaked through his head. He winced, began staggering across the torn-up tiles of the unswept floor toward the door, and stumbled over the empty wine jug from last night. He looked down at it and frowned. Cheap wine always, always, always gave him a headache. If he had had only one more customer yesterday, he would have made enough money to get a higher quality wine, and maybe he wouldn't have a giant crashing around drunkenly in his head now. He grunted, kicked the jug aside and made his way out the back door, where he pissed into a dead bush.
Back inside the hovel, Saleem moved toward the bed. He reached for a drape that had been tied back and pulled it across the length of the bed, concealing the moldy mattress behind a length of yellowish stained fabric. Dragging himself across the floor to a battered old table in the center of the room, he swallowed a cup of tepid water with a drowned spider floating legs-up in it, and nibbled on a stale hunk of bread on a dirt-encrusted cracked platter that had been left out from the night before. He cleared the platter and cup from the table, swept the crumbs off onto the floor with his hand, and threw a purple cloth over the table, making it into a sort of altar. In direct opposition to the surroundings, the cloth was clean and rich, royal, plush, and spotless.
He shuffled and weaved back toward the bed. Saleem's countenance changed slightly, softened, as he reached behind the drape and into a small space between the moldy stained mattress and the chipped stained wall. He withdrew his arm and was holding a small silver bowl that glinted even in the dim light. While the bowl itself was of pure untarnished silver, the inside surface was inlaid with a shiny black substance, like hematite. There were no other markings. It seemed ridiculously light. Saleem held it for a moment, looking it over, admiring its craftsmanship. As he held the bowl, Saleem's head began to grow fuzzy, distorted. He was close to sober now. Some of his nearly-atrophied power would creep back in when he wasn't drinking, and show him things. Small things. Just enough to lift scraps of information from the soft minds of his clients and convince them that he was communicating with some deceased relative with a message from the beyond, or that he could advise them in their problems and hardships, whether financial, marital, or spiritual. Just enough to pay for his hovel and keep himself too inebriated to see much else. He closed his eyes and began to see colors dancing, thousands upon thousands of gems sparkling, beams of light refracting through countless facets. A field of colors that melted together and began to swirl slowly, and began to resemble the sea of clouds, the eternal Q'Sh, the Eye of God.
Saleem opened his eyes and shook his head to rid himself of the unwanted vision. The motion sent a renewed flourish of pain through his wine-soaked brain, which stung him entirely back to the present. Sometimes he could see into objects, where they came from, how old they were, from whose hands they had passed over the years. The bowl was special; it was the only object Saleem had saved from his earlier life.
The bowl went onto the center of the table, and pure clean water was poured in from a wooden pitcher Saleem had hidden in a nearby cabinet with a broken handle. He glanced around, noticed the empty wine jug on the floor, grumbled, and shuffled over to it. He brought it to the back door, opened it, tossed the jug carelessly outside, and slammed the door again before the jug shattered on the ground. Now he was ready for work.
The front door was opened, and Saleem sat himself on his chair outside to wait for his first client.