The Waste of Ages
Yeah, so. I kinda wrote this thing. It's half parody, half-idea. I'm sure this sort of thing has been done many times before, given the popularity of my main source of inspiration, but, well, here's mine. Add it to the pile. I'll probably want to revise it at some point, but I still want to put it up even in its current, assuredly amateurish form, because I'm one of those people who never finish anything. If I don't do it now, I might not at all. Also, yeah I threw a random Poe quote in there because I just thought it was funny. What else? Oh yeah, tell me at which point you got it. I doubt I pulled off the intended effect precisely enough. Bite me, I'm new at this, alright?
The Waste of Ages
Oh, what macabre mockery one might make of that crude shadow-puppetry we revere as history, if any might step outside its bounds and feel the pull of those maleficent, primordial forces tearing at fabrics more subtle yet more durable than that of our pale reality. We kick up dirt and imagine to have maimed the world’s crust even as the dust settles in our wake, we children of this age which others hence may call ancient, midwifed by steam and cradled in concrete; we fancy ourselves masters sweeping aside the veils of the unknown, while half-slumbering beyond those veils creep tectonically such monstrous wills as could fold the totality of our existence again into the universe’s complacent flow with no more effort than one brushes aside an errant leaf.
Indeed our world bears the scars of their past stirrings, evident to the unlucky witness yet of unknowable sweep. Had I only let such madhouse visions lie beneath the horizon I might have lived my ephemeral life never knowing the fate of the ground beneath my feet. Would I had not born the burden of a mind drawn to the gloomy culverts of knowledge, of a spirit too easily seduced by searing unknowns. Would I had never sought the southern flame over the wastes or those barbaric remnants of more wretched times.
Yet I was newly grown, groomed and diplomad within the walls of the Academy and drunk on those petty scraps deemed knowledge by the gray-whiskered fops presiding there, so when rumors spread of quaint antiquated customs and beliefs among the Smitten I sniffed all too hungrily at the promise of new secrets ripe for my prying. I stole away in the dead of night, fearing with the certainty of insanity that others might covet the object of my obsession. So I lay in the first passenger car behind a steam engine for three days, twitching suspiciously at every passer-by, expecting spies and pursuers which failed to appear. To pass the time I perused the scant few moldy tomes I’d secreted away from the library before leaving, old works I hoped would show new truths. Of the Smite they spoke merely what any student knows. Many generations past, our ancestors had traversed that bleak expanse and, having once stirred the dust across its surface, said no more of its shifting depths. Those scattered folk who scraped whatever existence they could from the Smite’s shores, though mentioned in many ancestral accounts, had never been deemed worthy of study in themselves. Indeed there was no single people to describe.
In the days when history was merely a quasi-fictional grope for the glory days of monster-slaying heroes, the vales opening into the shifting sands were home to the most fearsome mystics of the blacks. Their fanatical aggression and rumors of a host of nightmarish, supernatural powers did much to unite our ancestors’ disparate nations against them, but little to promote the preservation of their artifacts. By the time of the founding of the empire, the learned simply took it as accepted fact that it was the blacks who named the Smite, some going as far as to suggest they had called it forth as an obstacle before our revered nomadic forebears. Whatever kernel of truth may have originated such fantastic claims was buried with the savages themselves under the relentlessly encroaching dunes. Imperial scholars were drawn to the north and the great westward expansion rather than the trackless southern waste, and with the solidification of the church’s power the notoriously eccentric borderlands fell out of polite discourse. Among the bones of the savage race had arisen a hodge-podge of the descendants of legions disbanded at the end of the wars of extermination, desperate herders driven out of richer heartland pastures, the beggarly refuse of distant, growing cities and fanatics of outlandish sects seeking their myriad gods or hounded to the edge of nothingness by the church.
These dregs were culled sporadically as the land shifted beneath their feet, as the burning dust of the Smite claimed valley after valley. When in desperation those abject herders and miners demanded new fields, the empire’s heartland rebuffed them. When, starving, they turned to banditry, they were decimated. Time and again the pattern repeated, and though in our modern, enlightened times the Smitten are merely discounted and derided, no student of antiquity can escape the realization that soon enough the desert will once again push them into conflict with more civilized peoples.
It seemed to me in my mania that history herself had contrived my birth so I might brave those lands unmolested. Two generations had passed since the last uprising, long enough for enmity to cool yet not so long that it should spring anew. The name Nushtomin beckoned me, from travelers’ reports both recent and ancient spinning fanciful tales of the town’s nearly prehistoric yet abandoned temple and queer-faced, standoffish inhabitants, from my grandmother’s stingily dispensed tales of her girlhood before her family was shattered during the last rebellion and forced to migrate northwards, and not least from the dusty pages of an older tome which I’d found folded within an unread book of Smitten history, wherein some other, more fortunate seeker than myself had scribbled: naught but the Holders’ will balances the spire of Nushtomin.
I could find no other reference to these Holders, yet far from deterring me this lack only spurred my fevered mind into fanciful imaginings of their nature. Nushtomin I knew of, could map and imagine, could wring for its secrets of those shadowy figures. To strengthen my delusions, the threads of history threw into my reach on the last day of travel, into the same passenger compartment, a Smitten laborer returning to his family in that same town. Though initially taciturn and shut off in the clannish manner of those small, isolated warrens of hill-folk which litter the countryside, he became more willing to speak after he learned of my grandmother’s lineage, and recommended an old-fashioned inn away from the town square. We split the cost of a coach from the rail line to isolated Nushtomin, and through boredom if nothing else he let slip a few words on his birthplace. Of the church he would say nothing but inclined his head and intoned that it was much like any other in a way which seemed rehearsed and half-fearful. He was more open on the subject of the settlement’s decline with the disappearance over the past few generations of surrounding herding villages which had traded for the miners’ metal. This had in the past been a great source of wealth and the only reason such an ignorant backwater had ever entered the pages of history books: ingots of the purest steel smelted anywhere trickled out of this tiny border village, though in such short supply that it never attracted as much attention as it should have. Half-asleep on the night before our arrival, my companion mused that they could break much more of it out of the ground, if only the servants would allow it; whereupon his attention was drawn to me and he sniffed uncertainly.
“You have the look” he mumbled, and would say no more.
A sane mind would have heeded such an omen but my fixation would bear no qualms. We parted ways as soon as the coach halted, he scuttling away as though eager to shake my scent, I eagerly dragging my luggage toward the inn to which he had pointed me. The building was cramped and dingy but the only one in town of cosmopolitan if dated construction. The rest, from the little I glimpsed during the next week or more, consisted of expansive, labyrinthine family dwellings whose moldering galleries cored into the hillsides spoke of a more prosperous past, which impression only grew as one approached the town center, dominated by the squat, half-sunken dome of the ancestral edifice of worship buried beneath the overhanging hillside beyond which burned the Smite. Thence outwards, Nushtomin’s unpaved streets wound about a senseless twisting clutter of back-alleys, half-collapsed embankments and boarded-up entrances to abandoned homes. The church itself bore the marks of much neglect, despite the utmost reverence in which it was held by the populace. Deep cracks adorned much deeper stone walls and its grounds were so overgrown with a foreboding mix of poisonous or needle-studded dryland scrub as to make approach nigh impossible except by the narrow path cut toward the front entrance. This was invariably locked.
Day after day I asked and awaited some service which I might attend, some opportunity to speak with the monument’s caretakers. The locals would say nothing on the subject and any mention of entry would be the end of the conversation, until finally I found myself actively shunned by every inhabitant. Ten days I spent in maddening denial until passers-by would cut across alleys to avoid me and even the innkeeper would only incline his head wordlessly as he took my money. I began to wander the streets in circles, an unwelcome haunt awaiting its exorcism. My books yielded no more clues, the goal within my reach eluded my grasp and the locals’ growing distrust and disdain for me showed with their every stiff step, every twitch of a nose and hissing inhalation.
With no other recourse, I took to extending my wanderings hour upon hour well into the cold nights. Something deeper than my imaginings drew me to seek an end to these strange alleyways’ circuitousness. I grew to recall every muddy hole and obstructing boulder, could recognize the angle of each turn even in the pitch-black of night. Thus, in desperation and near surrender, I at last discovered that the temple was far from abandoned. Dim lights showed through its cracks. Atonal chanting rang its opaque windows in the chill predawn hours. I began to wonder at the meaning of such secret gatherings and would frequently imagine soft padding footsteps behind me. The second night I returned beaded in morning dew, my host was waiting for me in the common room. He demanded to know how much longer I intended to extend my stay. I made some vague half-answer and hurried away.
The weather steadily worsened. Crosswinds blew thin wisps of desert dust over the ancient dome, mingling it with street-grime in brown-and-yellow eddies. What money I’d brought with me was running low, yet I was forced to delay my inquiries to avoid further suspicion. I altered my wanderings to seek out the entrances to the town’s famous mines, which I indeed found suspiciously abandoned. Most were collapsed. None showed any use in many lifetimes. Only one did I find safe enough to trudge through for the better half of a day. At its end a vertical shaft had been cut into the bedrock, dipping to impossible, un-echoing depths. The lifting cages and platforms had long disappeared leaving only the rusted ends of a few chains hanging from the shaft’s ceiling. My lamp nearly exhausted, I turned back through the long tunnel. Nearing the entrance, I began to hear a strange tearing and snapping and hurried my pace. I was greeted at the edge of daylight by the grotesque sight of a figure hanging from the ceiling, twitching spasmodically. Only as he dropped to the ground in a shower of rotting splintered wood did I realize he was using an iron bar to dislodge what few support beams remained. He was attempting to collapse the tunnel!
As he saw me he swore and ran. Too tired to pursue and blinded by the sudden breach into daylight, I staggered after him fruitlessly. His hooded figure vanished into air now thick with windblown dust. Behind me, showers of topsoil signaled the tunnel would not long remain standing, but I had other concerns. If they had stooped to attempting to murder me, then my lodgings at the hostel were by no means safe. Cursing my single-minded folly I hurried back and under cover of night, through the obfuscating dust-storm, made my way through the kitchen entrance unnoticed up to retrieve my belongings. I was too late. Some of my books had disappeared, others been torn to shreds. All I’d brought with me lay strewn about in pieces, luggage cut apart to search the linings. My only consolation was that they had not discovered the page containing the handwritten note, which I kept on my person at all times. Wondering when they would return, I realized I could not remain there. Neither could I escape anywhere else. Exhausted and defeated, my hair thick with dust, sand and desiccated topsoil, I collapsed against my door.
I seemed to have hardly closed my eyes when I was roused by scratching footsteps in the hall. The windowpane, still shrouded in night, clattered softly with the growing fury of the Smite’s exhalation. It was calling. The thrill of mortal danger invigorated me and I was possessed of a greater certainty than I had ever known, or will know hence, however long I may wander this prison to which I condemned myself. Whatever madness had gripped lonely Nushtomin on the edge of the golden wasteland spread miasma-like not from the swirling emptiness beyond its borders but from beneath it, welling up from below the temple in crepuscular hints of candle-flame and chanted echoes riding the chill predawn air. Hastily, I pushed whatever furniture I could in front of the door. Rattling and soon heavy impacts against it were accompanied by a growing tumult of voices in the hall. My own folly had rescued me. Knowing that I knew of their machinations, my pursuers had not expected me to simply go back to my room and sleep. Only now, returning after a fruitless search, had they discovered the truth. I broke the latch on the window and hurried out, slipping along the weed-covered wall and into the fluting cacophony of the now stormy streets.
The dust-storm from earlier had grown into a mighty gale which tore at one’s skin with a myriad pitiless claws, as though a great will beneath the earth drove it to rise up against life’s efforts. Covering my limbs and face as best I could, I slid along the narrow alleyways as a cry and panic spread behind me. Aimlessly I wandered the streets, blanketed in a growing maelstrom of sand, dust and the half-glimpsed shapes of those hunting me. For what reason? Now more than ever, with dawn breaking beyond the village’s crumbling edge within my sight, when it would have been so easy to escape, now more than ever I found my feet turning among the broken streets, inward. Inward toward my doom, inward to secrets best left to rot beneath the wastes, into the thatched brambles and venomous scrub encircling the church I dove! Here at least the wind finally broke and I fell again prostrate coughing out mouthfuls of dust, waiting for the burning in my lungs to subside and praying in my frenzy to the very Holders lurking beneath this crumbling madhouse, to the rape of whose secrets my journey was dedicated, praying to them to guard me from discovery.
None came. The queer chanting of the villagers’ pre-dawn gathering rang the chapel’s windowpanes, a service the likes of which I had never heard before. Dragging myself to a corner of the lowest glass, I dared a glimpse and was transfixed. Many of the townsfolk stood in orderly rows, reaching up toward the ceiling then lowering themselves prostrate toward the floor, mumbling something incomprehensible in a thick, unnatural speech. Before them a most uncanny priest spoke a dark mass. I knew him at first sight, though only one other glimpse had I caught of his darkened visage, in the mouth of the collapsing mine entrance.
“Praise to those whose grand works assure our bounty!” He chanted, then slipped again into the guttural flow of that alien tongue.
I knew now what my travelling companion had meant when he had said I have the look. Since birth my hair has shown a certain peculiarity, a perfectly ordinary light brown for the most part running into a tinge of black toward the front. It had garnered me no end of ridicule as a pup – yet here was one in whom this streak ran true.
“Cower before the dead gods!”
What I had taken for a hood when glimpsed through the sandstorm proved a queer jet-black mane of hair running halfway into a brilliant white toward the back. How long, I wondered, had such pagan apparitions held sway in this dust-choked corner of the empire? Through dynasties and uprisings the stonework endured, incubating within itself this seed of a nameless past, this servant of the elder gods. I tasted the air and found it thick with my own fear among the swirling dust.
“Beg the Holders for clemency as we trespass into their realm!”
The crowd mumbled a guttural response then: “Lead us, servant.”
Several moved aside and bent to claw at the floor, removing a large, strangely angular slab of stone, perfectly straight and equal on all sides. I witnessed them disappearing one by one beneath the floor then was alone. About me the storm howled ever fiercer. Beyond it my pursuers shouted angrily at each other. How long before I choked to death or died of thirst or more likely, was found when the swirling orange scourge abated? No, I told myself, the only way now led down. Hearing no more sounds from within, I searched for an entryway. Circling along the wall’s curve, I found a windowpane cracked heavily enough that much of it came away with little enough noise that it was easily covered by the scrape of sand against the stonework. I peeked inside. Empty. Carefully, I crawled through, and without giving it a single thought, dashed down into the blackness.
Immediately I began to slip. The tunnel was not made of stone, but metal, sheer and deathly cold. Scrambling for purchase, I finally discovered a series of crude steps gouged into one half of its floor and was able to continue safely, stopping every once in a while to listen for the black-headed servant and his ilk. Yet no sound relieved the endless descent but a constant whisper of wind caressing my hair, flowing downward into the depths. I guessed they, accustomed to this path, were making much better time than I was. My feet began to race freely in excitement and with them, my heart. This was no ordinary metalwork. Along its walls, a system of pulleys and rails were affixed, and these I recognized as the crude work of country ironsmiths. But the tunnel… the tunnel itself was not made by any hands within the cities. Conceptions of a more and more poetic rein haunted me. I tried to imagine the hands of Smitten laborers polishing such work, of bandits and ham-herders, of the degenerate offspring of derelict ancient legions. No. There was no reason, no mind akin to my own, I told myself, which would create such unnatural, seemingly purposeless work. There were no curves to it anywhere. Several times it met other identical tunnels and grew in size until it was larger than any capital city thoroughfare, eerily flat walls lost in the perfect blackness. Its floor did not twist in sensible arches but tore and broke sharply up and down, here leveling somewhat, there dropping perfectly vertically for what seemed like the span of trees. Many times I nearly fell to my doom when the slanted floor suddenly turned into a sheer drop, but soon I learned to feel for the markers the servants had placed for their own use and warning. I trembled at a nightmare vision of being caught in the jagged path of a lightning bolt, shooting down deeper and deeper. Finally, a vague hint of light warned of change and I came abruptly to the Spire of Nushtomin.
I needed no signs to recognize it. I had travelled until now among the upper branches of a hollow iron tree and now, finally, I had reached its trunk – this was the Spire, a perfectly solid, gigantic void driving nauseatingly into the abyss. A few oil lamps managed only to convey the vastness of the dizzying drop, their paltry flare getting lost in the gloom, guttering in the flow of air which met from all branches and whispered hauntingly into the bowels of an alien metal world. I will not say, cannot, what thoughts drove me on. I knew now that no workers could ever have built such a thing, no herders or roughnapes, not even the mysterious blacks. The savages might have stumbled across this place as I had but no, no, no, I tell you I knew even then, I knew no living people nor those lost to the flow of time had sunk such a mighty frame into the deeps. Here the riddle was answered: naught but the Holders’ will balances the spire of Nushtomin! Down.
Down. How long did I fumble inside that unlit sameness? Not long, though it was several times the depth of even the deepest halls ever delved by the Academy’s masons. Not short, though I dropped through it breathlessly, paying no mind to the growing signs of activity ahead. Finally, feeling the air change toward the bottom of the shaft, a deafening crack made me drop the rest of the way. For a while, I sat catching my breath, listening to a horrendous cacophony of smashing and rending metal. Slowly, I exited the metal spire and crawled down a series of the Smitten’s rails and pulleys, along a vertical expanse of rough concrete laden with aeons’ growth of fungal detritus. Voices approached, and I retreated into the shadows among the piles of debris lining an unfathomably wide granite floor. Slowly, several large carts came into view, pushed by muscular Smitten miners, filled with jagged slabs of shining or blackened steel. I cowered and waited for what seemed like several hours as cart after cart was brought and loaded onto the rails to be raised along the spire toward the surface. Every so often, more crashes and explosions and the screech of metal on metal trembled through the air.
After it seemed most of the workers had passed on their way back toward the surface, I risked moving on. It was a simple game to follow their trail, to follow their folly, rough heaps of rubble and the fragments of ages past, skeletons abandoned to rot in shadowed heaps, remains of fights carried through the ancient days, small vicious bodies of the blacks intermingled with rough bark-like scraps of legionnaires’ leather and copper armor. I felt like laughing when I finally saw it from afar. Whatever iron Nushtomin’s dirt had ever held had never amounted to much. On the endless granite floor of this unhallowed lair of titanic forces a gigantic slab of rock the size of an entire city quarter lay flat. It may at one time have been a perfect plane, endowed with the same inveterately angular symmetry of this implacable architecture, yet now its edges, as far as I could see in the waving light of the servants’ lamps, was pockmarked with crags ripped into it by dynamite and diamond saws. I barely had pause to wonder at my own revulsion at their audacity who would dare to plunder the demesne of their own gods. Many of the personae here were as the servant who had descended from Nushtomin, black hair meeting a brilliant white toward their back. They wandered to and fro directing the lesser villagers in their labor. Were these the purer blood directing the lesser mongrels?
Yet it was not they I had come to see. In the wavering lamplight, a grotesque, tremendous break could be espied along the cavernous wall. Once in a while, one of the servants would wander through it and out of sight. I followed, though my feet were beginning to tremble along the unnaturally straight and smooth floor. Nowhere did the reassuring curves of habitable dwellings appear. The wall ended in a maddeningly perpendicular pillar of metal. Beyond it, an eerie light displaced the natural darkness. It shone upon him as he walked , upon me as I crawled behind him, upon a madhouse emptiness of white, dead granite and concrete, cemented steel fused into endless tracts up and forever along into points and right angles, more precise than any eye could follow, than any hand could shape. I would have laughed, but had forgotten the shape of laughter. An almost sickening smell of food emanated from one cavern, unspoilt even after this long – how long? How many generations had passed down here, until my ancestors crawled back out to interbreed to with the savage brown-haired natives, to breed a bastard race which called itself an empire to help them fight off the invading blacks?
For I knew now the call my blood had heeded from the Academy’s pretense of a library, the truer knowledge which had driven me so far. I had the look, oh yes, I had the look, I had the hood. I gasped and almost gave myself away when seeing in a room brightly lit from dizzying heights, lit through the dirt as though the sun itself could shine through concrete and steel with a white humming light, saw the magnificent remnants of a timeless age. Metal frames in square, perfectly square patterns, lined the top of a perfect, perfect cliff. I dug my claws into the wood on its side and climbed, witnessed the bodies I knew would be there, locked forever inside the steel gibbets, offerings to the mad gods who had walked glorious histories before the dawn of time, live sacrifices to the dead masters. I walked on.
I knew not how I knew, yet knowing comes of blood and marrow in asylum whispers of crackling lightning bolts along the ceilings of such monstrous temples. Now understanding the breaks in the walls to be doorways between temple halls, I walked that emptiness past abandoned wildernesses of rectilinear prehistory. Above, above the light, above the steel and cement, above the Spire and the dirt, there flowed a merciless wasteland of sand, swirling in futile abandon to the music of that infernal static buzz. Here, all was still and dead. Yet every temple has an altar, a place of offerings and prayer and I sought it by its priesthood. I was spotted, from a doorway an eternity away, a soft brown-haired intruder. I wanted to scream at them: do you not see my scalp, do you not see the mark, the mark you left upon me, the mark my grandmother carried out of this titanic madhouse? Do you not see the hood? Yet even the hood is only an impurity, even you are not of the old blood. I knew what to look for, now. I ran, instead. I ran, they followed, and finally a figure, wizened and decrepit at the base of a steel gateway thicker and more imposing than the others, blinked its pink eyes in shock at my approach. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of snow.
I barreled past him. Here the world ended. Here, eternity held sway, and not even the servants dared enter. I jumped over strange black sinuous creepers running from horizon to horizon. I ran among the sound of bubbling ichors and the hissing mists reeking of predatory divinity. I ran up a slope of pure glass, cleaner and smoother than any made by mortal hands, scrambled along its metal edge. Ignoring the shouts of other scrambling white figures in the distance, I scurried breathlessly on all fours along the icy edge of a growing precipice, along the incline of frosted glass. Too late, too late, in my frenzy did I stop, among that diabolically hollow untwisting of space; why did I stop to look? For through the glass I glimpsed as through the fog of a dying year, through the glass which has stood longer than recorded history, glimpsed that which should never have been known. At first, I only thought I was seeing a few sparse hairs, yet thicker, much thicker, like those of the legendary monsters whose remains are dug up now and then, beasts the size of entire warrens, which did not survive the sicknesses borne upon the winds of the Smite and are no longer of this world. Sparse hairs dotted a slick, batrachian hide extending far below me in the frozen ancient chamber. The dead god’s belly sloped away on both sides, and far to the sides somewhere below me there hung immobile two immense limbs. Their muscles were those which had cut this endless subterrane, their bones and sinews had outlasted entire civilizations, here in its realm beneath the waste of ages, and those fingers, long and sinuous even in their sprawling omnipotence, were, I knew instantly, knew inside the part of my brain which had wandered untouched from out these same hellish catacombs so many generations ago, were perfect, each the size of my body, for holding.
I looked up. Above me towered a visage such as those dreamt by poppy addicts, a flattened insectoid mask of greater proportion than even our greatest statues, its lips wet and hungry, its salamander slickness broken by a triangular, predatory nose, and its eyes, its eyes, ah, ah. I tumbled down, gibbering in despair. I fell to the bottom of that eternal wintry prison which a mad god had built for itself and I ran, ran from the openness, from the vulnerable airiness of that vertiginous undecayed ruin of forgotten days, from that leprous pit of grasping morbidity. I sought escape, for in that instant when I looked upon it, that eyelid, that horrible leathery globe – had trembled.
That is not dead which can eternal lie! The dead gods, the elder gods, slumber beneath the deeps and we their servants who have forgotten those who held us in thralldom in the days before the curse of consciousness fell upon us, will be caught in their rising and swept aside! From that frozen charnel monument I followed the black leathery vines to a break in the wall and dove through it, my tail flicking behind me, escaping into blissful darkness. Yet there is no escape. I wander up and down, climbing constantly, sometimes falling, along the maddeningly unnatural right angles of this temple’s structure. Now left, now right, an impulse bred into our race from time immemorial, from antediluvian blood inherited from those white-haired, true-bred servants, priests of unholy rectilinear order. Now recognize a path you’ve taken before, find another one, find a reward, I will find my reward, left, right, up, down, find a new path, finding my way to my final reward. Through the walls, the walls, I run through the walls.