In cavern womb, ‘fore Tullia’s tombe, th’eternal lamp burnt cleare:
Love-lamp divine, unchang’d, enshrin’d o’er fifteen hundred yeare.
—John Donne, the ‘Epithalamion’,
Stanza eleven, The Good-Night
26 December, 1613
(HEAVENLY GATES, DUNCANON: 291 RETURNS-OF-GREEN AND 119 DAYS EARLIER)
The Day of the Cicada began when the sun’s limb first lifted above the margins of the sea and the sacred insects began their musical serenade from the trees. Assembled at the Altar Gate before the Stair, the Nuncio and his entourage would stand poised until the orb’s red beam knifed up the Promenade and struck the high white Barbicans of the Altar Gate. It was as if they were suddenly set ablaze with fire. The horns would sound from the parapets, and into that glorious light the departing company strode, high banners flying, led by an honor guard from the Order of the During Gate in their feathered ceremonial battle-dress.
The Dawn March of the Nuncio was a sight no human should die without beholding. The reverse procession—the wedding parade of Emissary and First Mother upon their triumphal return, too, was a spectacle beyond mortal reckoning. Yet among all of the visions that the Eight Asylums offered mortal eyes, none took a pilgrim’s breath away more than that of DunCanon viewed from the sea on a clear night.
Zelien was the current pilgrim, the only human granted leave to indulge in that gravest of the craven sins—travel—and the Gods had granted him that sight in all its splendor. They called it the ‘Beacon’s Reach’; and if Zelien had been smitten with blindness in the hour he saw it, he would have died rejoicing that living eyes could behold no greater thing.
True, Zelien had not seen all of the historic human centers of achievement because in these latter days five of them had been overrun and defiled by enemy species. But he knew the descriptions, recorded by countless Cantors across six hundred millennia. Those who had seen all eight confirmed it: The crowning glory of human attainment stood here at the City-Beneath-the-Star.
It had happened seventeen Returns ago, on his previous mission. The tortured crossing of the Ocean Sea from Rome was entering its seventh Order and the wind carried the first rumors of winter. His three little ships were cutting smartly, in full sail, reaching on a force-five squall off the Labrador Banks. They were twenty leagues out when the ragged clouds suddenly parted and they spied it—the slanting rays of the Still-Star, swooping down out of the storm wrack like tidings from the Hosts themselves, transforming the city’s impossibly steep-sided white-washed central mountain pinnacle into a beacon. Such radiance seemed heaven-sent indeed to the young Envoy as he stood at the helm of the Niña on the hard side of midnight, cold salt spray lashing his face and sculpting a rainbow-halo out of the miraculous glow.
It was said that in ancient times the light from the Still-Star shone so fiercely that night was like day in DunCanon’s inner halls. In that age, legends told, the ancient trees of the city’s Forbidden Garden—said to be born of seed from the first garden—bore fruit of a sweetness that made men weep—the fruit of knowledge—a dangerous knowledge, a knowledge at once great and terrible, such that DunCanon’s scholars were both revered and feared among men of the world.
The city’s name literally meant ‘Fortress of the Holy Word.’ But in these latter days the light of the Star-That-Does-Not-Move had waned, and with it went the city’s influence. Both Chicxulub and Rome considered DunCanon a lesser member of the Guild, and seldom paid heed to the epistles from its High Masters.
Zelien’s current mission had found the light of DunCanon’s special Star disturbingly faded. It was the new Black Veil, which men were calling ‘Star-eater, grim reaper of the Ancestral Gods’. This dark omen had cursed Zelien’s second adventure from the day he left Tampico Harbor. Even as he was embarking, word had reached him that Jmen Zmactzil was found dead of a heart attack near the summit of the Red Temple with his sack of sacred Cicadas crushed beneath the weight of his body. That night Zelien beheld the Black Veil for the first time as a dark blot over Tullia’s lamp. There remained enough starlight to fix his latitude, but each following night there was less, and the Veil steadily grew, both in breadth and strength. By the time he reached Rome, the full dome of the night sky was consumed by the inexplicable darkness.
He hurried through his formal duties at St. Peter’s Basilica and up to the Halls of Da Vinci, canting the news of the world, exchanging the formal written Epistles and Books of Annals and Omens from Chicxulub’s Primates and accepting those from the Pope. He met with the College of Cardinals in emergency conclave to discuss the darkening, but no wit or scholarship seemed to point to an explanation, and so he set sail for the west with the tide on a forlorn mid-Gleam morning.
His crossing from Rome had been fraught with ill fortune, unfavorable winds, sudden storms and torn sails. Worst of all he had had to sacrifice the Pinta, turning it into a death ship when an outbreak of the Dark Pestilence began spreading among his crew. Those stricken were quarantined to the Pinta and none survived. The ship was finally set adrift with its black and red banner of quarantine floating from the topgallant like a flower o’er a tomb.
By the time he reached DunCanon meteor showers were filling the night sky with a steady hail of fire, and Tullia’s Lamp had grown so dim that he could seldom attain an accurate fix. It was with blessed relief that they finally spied the pinnacle one night. Yet the glow of the Still-Star now seemed little brighter than the full moon.
Needless to say Zelien found DunCanon’s Masters beset with grave consternation. They had hoped for words of enlightenment or remedy from the Envoy, but when Zelien came formally before the Masters in the Forbidden Halls to Cant his tales, he could offer them no comfort. Nor did he reserve any for himself. These were dark days indeed. The noon sun shone reluctantly, seeming muted and sullen in an unhappy sky.
Zelien had completed his formal duties in DunCanon. The gray sun was sinking behind bands of tired clouds on the Day of Fulfilled Lessons from the Downtrodden. He had sent his boats home, and his remaining bondsmen were in their apartments packing and loading wains for the journey west by land when he received a summons from the High Master to meet him—alone, and not in the Forbidden Hall but within the Heavenly Gates at the Eyrie atop the pinnacle—a place to which few men, not even the anointed Nucios, were granted entry.
Zelien now stood waiting before the heavy wooden gate, which was set in a mortarless stone wall high on the pinnacle at the end of a steep road. He was still gathering his breath after ascending the winding, spiraling route carved from the granite of the mountain. Before him stood, motionless and silent, a rank of armored guards, spears crossed before their chests, preventing passage. He had announced his presence and seen someone on the watchtower leave her post. What was the delay? Why were they meeting at DunCanon’s most sacred site?
“Clear.” The guard who had left reappeared at a crenel, leaned forward as she shouted. The guards before him straightened their lances and stepped aside even as the heavy wooden gate began to squeal and creak on its ancient wooden hinges. One of the two doors swung open, just enough for a man to pass, and out came Goliger Din wearing a pleasant but obviously strained smile. His long white beard was freshly combed, his bald head bare, his feet in simple sandals, and he wore a simple robe of the sort friars wore, except that it was white. Zelien saw none of the regalia signifying his station. Following him through the gate a young man appeared, similarly dressed, appearing timid and uneasy. Zelien took him for a squire, perhaps an apprentice.
“Nuncio Zelien. What is your sin?” The High Master extended his arms and the two embraced, as was DunCanon’s custom when one visited the household of another.
“I blaspheme daily. Yours?” He could glean no hint of the High Master’s purpose from his routine words of greeting, so he limited his own response to simple formality.
“Ahhh. The Gods only know what Sûl couldn’t find. I see you’ve sent your Brigands home. I have an excellent view of the Quay from my observatory. Come, I’ll show you, before it gets utterly dark out on the reaches.”
He turned and passed through the gate. The boy shadowed his master, and Zelien followed. “The low tide came just before sunset, sir, and the wind favors them. We might have waited for the next tide at dawn, but …”
“No … the wind will be turning to the south to oppose them. You’re a wise mariner, Nuncio. When do you plan your own departure? Or will you winter-over with us like the Nuncios of old?”
They had turned left and were following a path that paralleled the outer wall. This was a Concentric, much like the fortifications around the Alabaster Stair. To his right was a dry mote—a deep trench planted with razor sharp obsidian spikes, black as Hades and sharper than light, and beyond it rose a higher inner wall. “No, we hope to set off in two days, Master. I know that is sooner than I announced when we last met. But I think haste is prudent in this case. We will take the southern route, via the Narrow Road to Three Crosses, then up the Braided Platte. I shall forego the Forsaken Marches in order to reach Ercildoun directly and consult the Lady of the Mountain—the Oracle of Sinners’ Thew. She seems our last best hope for understanding these signs in the sky.”
The High Master nodded. “There are more meteors crossing the sky every night. There have been earthquakes.”
“Up here you can feel them. They shake the mountain, make it sway. Some of these rocks from the sky are crashing to ground. We suspect that the Dark Veil is an invading horde of rocks.”
“On a hyperbolic trajectory.” These were the first words spoken by the squire.
“I’m sorry, I’m not learned in maths, young man,” Zelien responded. “What does that mean?”
“I do not know, sir …”
Goliger Din interrupted. “Luke is no scholar, Nuncio. He is my chamberlain. Yet he suddenly seems to have become our own minor oracle. As this nebula has approached he says he has been hearing spirit voices, having dreams. He kept silent until this morning.”
“I … I thought I was possessed … or going insane.” The young man cast his eyes to the ground.
“I see. And what do the spirits say to you?”
“She wants me to be a prophet.” Zelien saw that the young man was shaking, and there was fear and confusion in his eyes. “She says look to the sky tonight from the high seat. Look to the Star-That-Does-Not-Move.”
Again the High Master provided the response. “An unknown mother-spirit, Luke says. There is to be a sign tonight. If it proves true, Ambassador, and perhaps even if not, I want Luke to accompany you to see the Lady and then return directly to DunCanon with report.”
“This can be arranged,” Zelien nodded, studying the young man. He seemed fit enough, and strong. He would be no hindrance on the road … unless … “Not everyone is cut out for adventure, chamberlain.”
“I have dreamed of far places since I was born, sire Nuncio. It is as though I have already traveled ... in another cycle, you might say.”
“What sort of far places? Describe to me what you have seen in your dreams.”
The young man’s eyes grew distant, as veiled as the sky, yet not dark but cast in a deep green that seemed older than the ages. Could the sky be green? When he spoke his voice did not seem to be his own. “I have reached Kilkinney … but the death-wind shrieks.”
He pointed heavenward, toward the Still-Star, and as he did there came a flash of light. The star seemed set afire. Streamers of white light spat like liquid out from it and spread, fading toward the south-western horizon. And then an utter blackness settled around them. The Star-That-Does-Not-Move shone no more.
* * *
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