Into the Forever Place by Luke Thomas

I fasten the last braid about Jad’s shoulder and step back. My belly flutters as I look him over, which isn’t normal. I’m never more comfortable with anyone than with Jad. Today, though, he is to be venerated, and he looks the part. The dyes used for this sash are precious, but only now do I understand what that means.

We both examine his reflection in the slab of mirrored glass leaning against the wall. The mirror’s old tain yellows everything—the wood slats of the walls, my pale skin, Jad’s dark—it’s all yellowed except the braids of the sash. They wind around his lanky torso in blues and greens more vivid than life. I know the veneration ceremony is about the clan, not about him, but we can both see he looks splendid. His chest swells. I can’t help but laugh. “Jad…you’re actually preening.”

The bright brown gleam of his eyes darts toward me in the mirror. He blinks, realizes how puffed up he is, and laughs. This doesn’t last long though; Jad recovers himself more quickly than I can manage. He’s a trained storykeeper, after all, and can isolate the rhythm of his breathing and trim the laughter right out of it. I’ve no such control.

“The exhorter will be here any moment,” he says, settling down. I nod, but still struggle to contain myself.

He turns to me. “Find calm,” he intones, placing his hand on my diaphragm. “You want the exhorter to see you’re ready to foster a legacy yourself, don’t you?”

I grunt, hitting his hand away. “Do me a favor and save that until after you’re venerated.” He shrugs and pulls away, but he did calm me down. That fluttering has left. It’s Jad before me, my closest friend, and I’m so happy for him. “Are you nervous?” I ask. “I mean about drinking the cull-sap?”

“I am nervous about what will happen after. In there. Where will I find myself when I wake up there? Will I have to realign the dead man’s version of the forever place for myself?” His graceful hands add significance to his words. He seems to hold the possibilities out for me to examine for myself. To sniff, to touch. “No,” he continues, “drinking cull-sap is not what I’m anxious about. I’ve recited histories while poisoned by all manner of things. I’ve made an accurate scrying after a week without sleep. Cull-sap won’t be worse than anything I’ve already gone through.”

I nod. Though I believe he’s ready, I can’t really believe he has zero apprehension about what will be presented to him in the ancient cup. The vessel of petrified wood, carved with the sphenograms of the old cities, has been in our clan’s possession since before the Lightbringer delivered our ancestors from their prison scores of generations ago. The cull-sap within the vessel will carry, like so many germs, the seeds of memories that go back just as far.

Jada-Mero will imbibe half of dead Geb-Ibbi’s ool. The ool, the venerated organ: over time it will grow in Jad’s chest, and entwining its strands with the substance of his mind. He’ll be able to reknit the memories of the priest who took that cup from his pantry, the cup and some other meager possessions, four thousand years before today.

With his ool Jad will preserve the priest’s shock of being sealed below the temple by his cruel, duplicitous king. If Jad’s as skilled a storykeeper as we think he is, he’ll preserve the fear of the dry suffocating dark, and the awe of the Lightbringer’s appearance from the vent between the worlds. He’ll conjure that up for our people to experience in turn. And so many other memories.

But first, Jad will let the acidic cull-sap scorch his insides while it does its work on his body.

Jad senses the course of my thoughts. “The elders want to be sure we can carry out our duty even under the influence of enemy powers,” he offers by way of comfort.  “Yooza, I’ve been subjected to plenty of things more painful than cull-sap.”

I shake my head. “It’s just…they say it burns terribly. And brings such changes.” My face flushes. The heat of my blood reminds me of my own training. It traces the scars where my nerves were dulled and hardened or, in some few places, heightened. I know I’m being silly, apportioning too much dread on one aspect of veneration among many. Yet the drinking of the cull-sap, the implantation of an ool, is the hinge on which everything moves.

Jad snaps his slender, dark fingers in front of my eyes. “And don’t you let me prattle about pain.” He squeezes my upper arm. Playfully, tenderly. Flirtatious in a fast, mischievous way only Jad can pull off. I barely feel his grip on my hardened skin, but the heat of him warms my blood.

Jad has a romantic largess. A courage. We both know that who I take for a husband is up to the clan elders, but over this last year of harsh training we’ve admitted our hopes out loud. Maybe loud enough for the elders to take the suggestion. It’s no secret that I’m progressing quickest of the exhorter’s apprentices, and that I have a high threshold for the spur powder that enhances our bodies. Jad’s been called earlier than normal for veneration due to Geb-Ibbi’s untimely death, but that’s because Jad is a natural storykeeper.

He and I, we’re good. I don’t feel vain saying it. Together we could lead the clan to great things. The question is whether the elders will see fit to send either of us to marry into another clan, to cement an alliance. The eleven clans are united in name, but that’s hardly the reality.

“Your veneration day will come in no time.” That look is coming into Jad’s eyes as he says this, that narrowing gleam that’s so contagiously inspiring. “We’ll stand together among the elders.” He steps close to me, our bodies separated by inches. I feel the heat he radiates, most of all on my nose, my ears, the inside of my wrist; places where my nerves are hyper alert. “My warrior consort, right? My protector. The council won’t separate us. We’ll be on the council. We won’t let them.” I open my mouth, but have no words. But I don’t need them. He knows my thoughts and gives me words. My poet, the sun at my back, warming me even while my flesh is hardened and made cold. For him I’ll fight anyone and win. I’ll—

Jad kisses me. Our caution, our fear of being denied, they vanish. My thoughts, too.

###

It’s a long time before we pull apart. I hear footsteps approaching and recognize the gait. Fannoz-Kor, my superior. I push Jad away and have to laugh at his surprise, his gawky reawakening to the situation and all of our old fears. Maybe mine is a grim laughter, but no matter what a newly venerated Jada-Mero has to say about it to the council, he cannot guarantee that he’ll even continue to live in Nin-Gish-Hogga a month from now. Sometimes pretty words are just that. Men forget that more easily than women, and that’s why we generally have to don the spurs and protect them.

Naturally, my desperate thoughts stray to the other apprentices, the young men who envy Jad’s early ascension. Certainly there are plenty of male warriors who I train with, but they succumb to the spur madness more quickly. Men can only cultivate dense, contained clusters of the spur matter. Women can withstand widespread augmentation to our skin and muscle. Male warriors gain weapons. Women become weapons.

As if summoned as a case in point, the exhorter of the Clan of the Constricting Serpent whips the curtain open and glides into the dressing chamber. Her toxic green stare squelches my already deflated humor. Jad, too, snaps to attention. Is there, anywhere on Ulro, a place where good feeling can escape Fannoz-Kor’s talent for killing it?

“Jada-Mero,” she says, “are you prepared?” It’s only nominally a question. The exhorter has little truck with questions.

Jad swells up, mocking his posture from a few minutes ago. “Lead me to the place before the exodus,” he says, with gravity, as if she doesn’t know the details of the ceremony. The maniac has already created an inside joke of our last moment alone. Fannoz-Kor simply beckons for him to follow. She spares a glance for me, her student, before she leaves, but if she has any inkling of my anxiety, any sympathy, none shows. I salute her sternly, and salute Jad, who will presently be an elder. I smile at him with my eyes.

###

The procession winds down the causeway and through the avenues of the bazaar. Above our heads the late day sun shines through the bazaar’s canopy of dyed cloth. As Jad passes, wrapped in his sash of fabric fit for the finest tapestries above, the clan falls in behind him.

Our people fan out around the place Jad chose for the ceremony, under the tapestries that depict his favorite part of the history of the eleven clans. Above us are no well-defined pictures from the recorded past as there are in the outer tapestries. Here there are no snarling yupic crouched like dumb beasts during the times of strife, nor are there depictions of our later yupic allies, standing stoic and bipedal alongside the clans of men when we rose up against the cloven-hoofed oppressors. Here, near the center of the bazaar, we are within the great ring of black cloth that marks the exodus from Earth. Tangles of color signify the explosions of life that simply occur naturally back on the old planet. Great pyramidal shadows represent the cities of tens of thousands, and bright filigrees of glitzy textile are the kings who ruled those people with chains of gold.

Jad has told me what these tapestries, more notional than those that depict more recent events, mean to him. Of how, as a boy, he was daydreaming under these tapestries when he was enlivened by the need to pursue a position as a storykeeper. “It was a shock, a conviction that washed me over all at once,” he said. “It pinned me down, assured me I would set foot on the world on which these forms and colors are based. Even now, when I’m here, I feel the needle pricks of destiny on the back of my neck. No matter how much storykeeper’s control I build up, I’ve never been able to quell the crazy notion that some day I’ll see Earth with my own eyes.”

###

I’ve settled myself atop a hillock across from the platform on which Jad stands as the ceremony begins. When he sees me, his smile shines. He is resplendent, his eyes suffused with that gleam. Sar-Tabarazzon himself presents Jad the cup. This stocky codger is a living legend. More than a leading storykeeper, he’s a visionary. Decades ago he masterminded the great settlement. Because of him the human clans took stand after stand against the enemy, winning a dwelling place for every clan. One by one we founded the hides, our fortress towns, and ended generations of migratory existence. Sar-Tabarazzon will be remembered for a long time, even by those who can only gain memory the animal way.

“Are we ready?” Sar-Tabarazzon asks for all the people to hear.

This seems an odd question, as Gerrioz is not yet alongside Jad on the platform. Gerrioz is the warrior who will receive the other half of Geb-Ibbi’s ool, a thug but a decorated veteran. He’s not the new veneration that most of the clan is abuzz about, but certainly he is entitled to his share of pageantry.

Jad speaks quietly to Sar-Tabarazzon, and I’m sure he is asking about Gerrioz’s absence. The old storykeeper smiles warmly, but doesn’t answer Jad directly. He whirls around and grandly addresses himself to the audience.

“There has been a change,” the old man crows, reaching both arms skyward. “A change that came down from above.” All grows quiet as the onlookers wait for him to go on. “This moment,” he says, strong voice trembling, “is the beginning of the age of redemption. We have waited generation upon generation, and we have kept the faith. Now, here and on this day, the Guiding Light will again walk among us!”

Maybe Sar-Tabarazzon expected cheers, but he is answered by a stunned murmur. Jad leans down and asks him something, a look of concern dimming his features. Sar-Tabarazzon seizes him in a paternal embrace as if to lift him up for all the clan to see. His words boom out, resounding between the rocky valleys of the bazaar. “The Lightbringer has sent me a message: He is returned! He has asked the Clan of the Constricting Serpent to take up a great honor. Jada-Mero, the young son we are most proud of, has been elected to be the lantern that lights our way out of this long dark!” He pauses again for effect, but the silence is only more complete.

I forget, for a long time, to breathe. This is too much of something. Too much of the thing that scares me about cull-sap.

“This is no routine ceremony of veneration,” Sar-Tabarazzon continues, holding the cup aloft, “within this cup is not a half but an entire ool! A full, undivided organ, yes, but even more on top of that! Through dead Geb-Ibbi’s ool, the leader will return to reunite history with destiny. Bid farewell to this,” he gestures with an outstretched arm to the bazaar and the high wooden walls of Nin-Gish-Hogga, “this mere subsistence.” He spat the word out like something fed him by force, even though he was instrumental in settling the place. “The Great Roving will commence again, and the eleven clans are to be the vanguard!”

At this, the message finally breaks through. All humans know what the Great Roving means—conquest, luxury, and most of all, a way home. The howls of a few warriors soon builds to a flood of noise. My people’s joy crashes against my shock. I feel miniscule.

A raised fist from the exhorter quiets the gathered, and all their eyes turn to Jad. Sar-Tabarazzon thrusts the cup toward him. “Jada-Mero, will you accept the honor that our savior, Urizen the Lightbringer, has offered to our clan first among all the eleven?”

“Our clan…” Jad says, eyeing the cull-sap, “what will happen? What will change about my veneration?” He hardly projects his voice but I hear him clearly.

Jad is speaking to the old man alone, and instead of speechifying further Sar-Tabarazzon replies quietly, personally, even with tenderness. But this, too, we can all hear given the taut silence: “That you ask after yourself at this moment, Jada-Mero, shows why you were chosen.” He pauses, a paternal effect. “Your ambition will give him strength. If only I was your age,” he flicks a tear from the wrinkles around his eyes. “I’d have been able to become more than a mere storykeeper. You, my son, you will become Him.”

Jad stands frozen. Memories race through my mind as I look on, reaching back past these last grueling years of training and study, back before we determined, together, to undertake our apprenticeships. I remember running with him through the valleys of the bazaar. To us, the canopy over our heads was nothing more than a way for the sunlight to wash us in pretty colors while we played. It wasn’t the long story of exile, glory, and betrayal that I know now. The history Jad has explained to me on so many sweet, warm days. A story that seemed separate from our present, until this moment.

Sar-Tabarazzon hoists the cup higher. Jad scans the crowd, finding me once more. He’s scared, and I don’t know what to do. I cover my mouth to stop the wail of grief or the scream or the kiss I want to send his way. I want to tell him that I’ll wait to greet him, like we planned, so we can stay up all night and talk about what he saw when he awoke in the forever place.

But ‘you will become Him,’ Sar-Tabarazzon said. If Jad becomes Him, where will that leave me? I lose sight of my poet through a veil of my own tears.

“Sar-Tabarazzon,” I hear Jad say, forcing strength into his lungs to speak like a storykeeper ought to, “will we…will I bring the clans home? To Earth?” The old man nods for all to see. After an awestruck pause the people cheer wildly. I wipe away my tears in time to see Jad seize the cup. He drinks. I’m seized by a spectral gag on his behalf. I’d feared the cull-sap would burn but I had no idea how bitter it could be.

###

Jada-Mero wakes in a new place. It’s dark, warm, and filled with noises of life like he’s never heard. Chirping and chittering from small creatures, and the slink and prowl of larger ones. Reaching through the gloom he touches a leathery, vegetal thing. Suddenly, he is overwhelmed by the impression that he is surrounded by life that is perfectly natural and wild; sown by no agriculture. He breathes the sweet air, and can taste the last word he spoke before drinking the cull-sap. Earth. How long ago was that, that he could already have been transported here? Is he really in a forest that wasn’t designed or molded by humans, or cloven-hoofed devils, or even the Lightbringer’s own hand?

A golden glow springs up in the distance, reaching him through the giant trees. He starts to climb upward. The way is steep, but he clings to mossy and wooden things arranged in thrilling randomness. He makes progress toward the light.

He reaches the cusp of the immense depression in which the forest grows. He emerges from the trees and sees what is beyond. His heart recoils with disappointment.

This is not Earth.

How could he forget everything he’s been taught of veneration in the moment he is granted an ool? This place is not out-real, it’s in-real. The forever place, the land made of memories. He rubs his chest to sooth the turmoil of recollection. He should be overjoyed to be here, yet like a child he is dismayed that he didn’t awake, miraculously, on the long-gone homeworld. This place contains the seed of every idea that has ever helped or befallen mankind, and yet his reaction is to think only of childish, selfish adventure.

He breathes, finds his operative rhythm, and lets his heart steady. He must commence his duty as a venerated storykeeper, and take stock of the realm of ideas.

Before him is an expanse of shattered things. Slabs of white stone strewn in jagged masses, tortured by protrusions of all kinds of metal. This ruination is lit by a sky that sags with stars. As expansive as the plane of ruin is, however, he can see that it is bounded by four distinct borders. Behind him lies the closest region. The sunken land of the forest still issues its indifferent wilderness noise. The North, then, is where he woke up. It’s his origin within this place.

Out to the left, eastward, the ruins run along a great wooden palisade. In the clear night air, he can see the wood glowing with an inherent warmth, which is enhanced by the many wide windows that flicker with the light of the hospitable fires inside.

Far to the west the broken stone and metal sink into a dark sea. Beyond that border, the sea rises up above shore-level as if merging with the sky. Jada-Mero is reminded of how storm clouds viewed from a distance appear to smudge the horizon into the ground. Yet in all of that darkness there is no commotion of a storm. The entire gloomy volume is rigorously calm.

He peers across the field of ruin, past where the continent seems to end. A single tower rises up out of the void. This structure exceeds any possibility he has ever conceived of for height. Even with the sky so cloudless he can’t see the merest hint of an upper limit. The tower looks pale silver in the starlight, but by now he knows what it is. The Spire of the South is, he knows, golden.

He is only looking at the tower from afar but feels compelled to go there, to climb it. He nods to himself, recognizing the way this place works. If he concentrates on each of the four border regions, four distinct sensations overwhelm him.

It’s amazing how surprising a thing can be when it is exactly as those who experienced it before you said it would be.

Behind him, in the north, lays the forest of awe and exhilaration. Contemplating the wall at the eastern border assures him that it was not built to keep anyone out, but to shelter and warm all who enter. He lingers on his view of the great palisade and feels nourishment and succor. Turning his focus south, to the tower, incites his ambition once more, and he can hardly remember the contentment he felt seconds before, looking east.

How does looking west affect him? This is harder to describe. Happiness, sadness, outrage, and serenity are present within something larger, a burgeoning feeling that can only be expressed in one word: Rightness. The way things ought to be. A powerful sensation, perhaps even stronger than what is provoked within Jada-Mero by the other sights, but indistinct.

How could he have been disappointed to be here? Because it is not Earth? Hardly a reason.

He ventures forth into the stone ruins. It’s not long before he comes within sight of the source of the golden light he followed out of the forest. Someone is tending a campfire of gold flame, not a stone’s throw distant. This figure’s silhouette is dark like the western gloom, but more solid. When Jada-Mero draws close enough, he sees that what he took to be the silhouetting effect of the firelight is, in fact, how the stranger looks. His body is covered by a coat of black hair that clings to him like skin. His face is a mask of black feathers, punctuated by two golden eyes.

“Jada-Mero,” one voice speaks, though it sounds like a chorus of many, “thank you for coming.”

“Thank me? I…”

He can tell the voice comes from the feathered mask, yet no mouth seemed to be moving behind it.  “You will say you had no choice, but that is untrue. What is true is that you could not choose other than what you did choose.”

Jada-Mero is ashamed that he entertained the thought of not drinking the cull-sap. He nods. “I had to do what was right.”

Urizen looks out to the West. “No,” he says, “you did not choose out of righteousness. You chose out of magnanimity. You did what was large, and could not have chosen the smaller act.”

Could it be that this was even more true than what the Lightbringer had said a moment ago? Instantly Jada-Mero can see that this being has just explained what lay behind every choice he’s made through his entire life. He looks past the edge of the firelight at the ruins of the eternal continent. It is a place he would love to explore, but he stands assured that his is a different destiny.

“I am ready,” he says. He remembers Yooza. The memory stings. Does he believe he is truly ready? He can’t not.

Something moves amidst the rubble to his right. He doesn’t notice fast enough to catch it, but the movement leaves a predatory wake. Should he run? Another glint of motion. A mane of gold trails a swiftly moving figure. He looks to Urizen, trying to hide his alarm. Before he can say anything, a remarkable woman emerges from behind a stone. She steps very close to him. He stumbles back. Her body is all of a gleaming, liquid gold. Her eyes are hideous—one is entirely dark and the other shines with a caustic green light that makes his recollection of Fannoz-Kor’s stern aspect seem a comfort. The woman opens her arms to him.

He can no longer suppress it, the need to run, but even as his muscles start him bolting, he glances at Urizen where he stands behind this fearsome woman. The sight of the Lightbringer is enough to anchor Jada-Mero back in place, and make him step into her golden embrace. He has only the vaguest idea of the consequences, but that step is the most difficult thing he has ever done.

Her arms coil around him, catching hold with tremendous strength. Her grip tightens. She melts serpentine as she wraps around his whole body. Is this constriction meant as tribute to the patron of his clan? If so, it is a grotesque gesture. He struggles, but doing so just makes his body pulse painfully, as if struggling will force his skin to burst. “I—” exerting all his powers of speech, he can manage a few words to the Bearer Out of Darkness, “I’m willingly yours. Please…not like this.”

Urizen approaches. The gold woman’s hold only tightens. “I am sorry, Jada-Mero, but this is the only way,” sighs the choral voice. Urizen’s dark hand touches the liquid metal squeezing Jada-Mero’s chest and in that instant a panic of revulsion erupts within his torso, his eyes, his muscles, his joints. Something is being ripped out of him. Ethereal sinew stretches, ruptures and snaps. As his being is removed, it screams and fights. He screams with it.

###

Eventually it is done with.  The struggle abruptly ceases. The victim drops, breathing slowly but evenly. He finds the ground cold, but not objectionably so. Standing over him is a man who looks strong and intelligent. He looks familiar, very much like an image that he’d seen in a yellowed mirror in another place. This man wears a colorful sash. He speaks with a voice that seems to have many other voices speaking with it. “You won’t suffer any more,” he says, “I caused no more agony than was necessary, but you must understand it’s paradoxical for one to willingly cede his own force of will.”

The victim is given the impression that he is supposed to nod in agreement, so he does. That done, he lets his head loll backward and looks up at the stars which are, at least, something steady to look at. He has a vague memory of thinking stars were very good things, but he doesn’t see anything special about them now. Dots are dots, something to focus on and not even very good for that. Soon, he grows dizzy, which feels bad. Fortunately his head lolls in another direction, and he finds himself looking at something easier to watch. It is the corner of a big white rock. It keeps still, and that is good.

###

I move through a singing, a swaying, worshipful crowd. The Clan of the Constricting Serpent celebrates to give Jada-Mero strength while he lays in the throes of his first journey in the forever place. I stumble past abortive conversations, speculations on what is different this time. On why the sap is taking so long to work, why the young storykeeper thrashes so.

Finally, unable to stomach the waiting, I push my way to the edge of the ceremonial platform. My fellow clanspeople give way easily before my spur-hardened elbows. I catch sight of the mane of Jada-Mero’s hair, where he is curled on the floor above our heads. I bore through the final yards separating us, calling his name. “Jad!” I cry, but I’m cut off by a hard hand clasping my shoulder, stabbing a thumb into the vulnerable flesh inside my clavicle.

It’s Fannoz-Kor. I look at my teacher, and can feel the hatred contorted on my face, but can do nothing about it. I expect some stinging blow for my insubordination, but instead Fannoz-Kor’s grip slackens. “It’s done,” she says. “We can only wait.”

I shuffle forward and raise myself as high Fannoz-Kor will let me. At last I see Jad clearly. My poet’s lips are moving, mouthing something that I can’t make out. Sar-Tabarazzon kneels by him watching until Jad’s lips close tight and a fit wracks his body, prompting the old man to press on Jad’s shoulders and forehead with all his weight, to keep him stabilized. Storykeepers know medicine, but I can’t help thinking the old man is only trying to minimize the amount of suffering, of mutation, that his audience sees.

That’s when Jad’s head lolls backward, and his eyes open. I don’t see the blank sclera I expect, the eyes of someone in nightmare. Instead he is awake, looking up at Sar-Tabarazzon. Or so it seems, but the old man tries to acknowledge him and receives no response. I watch Jad’s profile. After a few heartbeats of calm his face sours into a cringe like an infant who is about to spit up. He tries to pull back. All he can manage is to loll his head to one side. Now he’s looking at me.

I smile at my poet. “It’s alright,” I whisper. But I realize I’m wrong. His eyes lack every trace of their impatient, prolific gleam. His gaze is dull, not perceiving anything. I, too, go dull. My senses numb, my entire body hardening like my knuckles. Something is wrong, but I don’t know enough about venerations and ools to know what. If Jad took on a whole ool instead of a half, is it all a gain for him, as Sar-Tabarazzon seemed to imply…or does all that extra past crowd out its present bearer?

Suddenly Jada-Mero stands up, looking around him with none of the shock of the recently revived. He sees me but doesn’t acknowledge me. I say his name over and over, “Jad,” but the clan calls him a different name. Many names: Lightbringer, Bearer Out of Darkness. Urizen. It is to the clan that he goes. They are louder than I am, and they occupy all of the young man’s attention as he begins to address them.

Numb, I keep saying his name, not hearing his speech about Rovings and destinies. Fannoz-Kor permits me to mumble into incoherence, drowned out by the voice of the golden leader and the cheers he summons. She props me up, and waits for the mania of my grief to pass. The exhorter, at least, is still human.

______________________________________________________________________________

Recently Luke published an essay in The Escapist about videogames and education (‘Will Grind for Grades’) as well as a digest of a work of popular economics with Hyperink. The most boring part of his bibliography is, excitingly, classified. He ghostwrote a trade published book about interior design, successful enough to be in its second printing.

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