Stories of Imaginary Places

Issue 1: Lairë (Summer) 2003


 In this issue:

The Festival of the Old Gods

by Robert Bee

Vilmar stalked warily down the strangely deserted streets. Strangely deserted for tonight was one of the great celebrations of the year, the Festival of the Ancestors, in Kaldos, a city renowned for its joy-mad debauchery. The festival honored the city founders, those paternal bulwarks of patriotism. Tonight the dark streets lay devoid of traffic, only a few skulked about in the darkness: people whose business pressed them so strongly that they would brave the Censor's militia. Vilmar weaved through the back alleys and obscure back streets, clinging to the shadows whenever he had to cross a thoroughfare, moving from hiding place to hiding place in the courtyards adjoining chateaus. Although he was a big man, stout from the ale and beef of better days, he still moved cat-like and silent. His body was perfectly balanced from years of training in the theater and with fencing masters.

The fact that Kaldos was a city of courtyards and gardens created many hiding places: the fountains of courtyards, the carefully cultivated trees and hedges of the wealthy. Even the alleys running past the shanties of the poor allowed him places to creep through shadow.

The censor, Phrilmas the Particular, had outlawed the Feast of the Ancestors, decried its poor moral effect and the thievery, debauchery and rapine that accompanied its celebration. This was an especially auspicious year to cancel the festival because every twenty years the city sacrificed a human to honor the Ancestors. A gruesome custom but one the city had always adhered to. There was much anger and murmuring over the Censor's decision, but none dared oppose him. He had full support of the Emperor.

Vilmar's careful progress ceased when he found his quarry at the Square of Transitory Life. The philosopher, Thilphratus the mad, ranted loudly at the top of his voice — not to another person — the square was empty — or even to himself, but to the statues. He's living up to his reputation at least, Vilmar thought.

The philosopher played his part well: he wore his beard in the old style affecting the appearance of the city's founders. Ink stained his fingers and his tunic, even his beard was stained from where he had ceased dipping his quill into an ink well and stroked his beard in rumination. Behind him the marble pillars of government buildings loomed. The official buildings dominated the hill before him, making the wooden dwellings of the masses appear paltry in comparison. The law required every building in the city center of the city to be built of marble, from the palaces of the nobility to the buildings of government. The wooden shanties of the poor sprawled down into the lowlands.

Vilmar watched the streets making sure the militia was not about. The gods protect fools and drunks, he thought. He leaped into the square, applauding. "A grand performance. Do the statues answer you, Thilphratus? If not perhaps the guard will before dragging you away in chains."

Thilphratus responded in a voice distant and ruminative as if inspired by something beyond both of them. "These statues once spoke and moved; vital life still resides within them like sap frozen in the veins of trees."

"So lore has it."

"Not lore, truth. All the statues once lived. The gods immortalized them in the public square as a reward for civic duties before transporting their souls to heaven. Observe: he was once a dancer who performed for the moon goddess. During the ecstasy of his greatest dance, the Moon Goddess transformed his mortal coil into a statue, eternally preserving the living art. From time to time he returns to life, reenacting his performance. But he has not done so for decades. We are unworthy of the old magic."

"Your servant mentioned money when he spoke with me. Surely you did not summon me here to discuss hoary old tales and legends."

"Nay, I summoned you here to talk of mysteries and how to liberate them. You are much like these statues: frozen, uninspired, forbidden to write plays."

Vilmar thought how true that was. He had stopped writing even before the censor banned the live performance of plays. He drank more than he wrote. He had written three famed plays in his youth and still lived off the proceeds.

He had begun to question the value even of the earlier plays. They were amusing certainly — risque and bawdy. But he feared there were no grand themes or ideals to them. In recent years he found it difficult to put pen to paper because he lacked confidence in the loftiness of his ideas.

Vilmar realized the philosopher was studying him closely. The philosopher said softly: "The censor has banned the Festival of the Ancestors."

"Aye, he claims that the human sacrifice involved is inhumane."

"The sacrifice is more than a tradition; it is a mystery, a necessary mystical foundation for our city. The censor bans the old ways." He spat. "He is a barbarian. A writer like yourself must miss the old ways as much as I."

"I am an artist without a stage now that the Censor has closed the theaters. So I scribble pamphlets, a copper a line." Vilmar found the hack work easy if unstimulating; he wrote sordid and sensationalized true accounts of highway robbers, murders and rapists, only occasionally embellishing to make the narratives more readable. He had no other source of income. He could not even write the pedantic closet dramas some playwrights produced for patrons now.

"A copper a line. I can pay better than that." The philosopher reached in his pouch and extracted a handful of gold Sultans, allowing them to rain from one hand to the other. "Would you like to work again?"


Thilphratus swept an arm around his head. "This square contains the mystery that will unravel the Censor's meddling. You do not understand me. This way of thinking has been lost, but you will soon see."

"I have no time for riddles. Unless there is coin, I return to my scribbling."

"You are a master with your sword," Thilphratus mimicked fencing motions. "You can handle stray guards and rats. I was present when you dueled the swordmaster Meekar."

Vilmar thought back on that occasion. He had indeed fought and won a duel with the swordmaster Meekar. His friends tried to dissuade him from fighting the duel, thinking he was committing suicide, but instead he had run the man through. Only being in the good graces of the Duke saved him from prosecution.

"We will play on the ignorant superstitions of our fellow citizens. I have a plan that will shake the city to the foundations. We will break into the Hall of the Founders and drag the Founder's gruesome mummies into this square. A crowd will gather to see their ancestors risen from the tomb."

"Sacrilege," Vilmar murmured.

"Sacrilege! An advanced man of our age, a man of reason! Think not sacrilege; think we play on the superstitions of the ignorant. They will believe the old gods walk again. The censor will not survive the night because of the ensuing riot. It should appeal to your artistic sensibilities. Think upon it: a dumbshow of mummies."

The plan would work, Vilmar thought. When one person saw the mummies on stage, rumors would spread through the city, and a mob would throng the square within hours — curfew or no curfew. Before morn the rioting mob would kill the censor. Vilmar had no problem with the censor's death; the censor had executed writers and actors who violated his decency codes.

"The theaters will reopen, and we can began the process of returning the people to the old ways, the traditions of our forefathers."

The Censor of Kaldos

Phrilmas the Particular gazed upon his trap with satisfaction. He employed many spies in the city and through their efforts he had gleaned that there was to be some type of ritual in this chamber. He gazed around the Antechambers of the Ancestors, staring contemptuously at the old mummies and the carven rites on the walls. The people of Kaldos placed a great deal of superstitious reverence in this room. The city's founders were interred and mummified here.

"Awaiting further orders sir." The commander of his personal guard stood before him, sweating profusely.

"Why Lomarus, you are not intimidated by all this superstition?"

"Sir, the men do not like this duty; too many of the city's beliefs coalesce here. You are not a Kaldosan; you would not understand."

He winced. How often did the people of this city remind him he was not one of them. They ridiculed his accent in skits and parodied his appearance in vulgar drawings. But he would control them at the emperor's behest. Their ancestor worship and their worship of every stray god would cease. He would replace the pantheon with the one true god. "Bring your men to attention before me."

As the guard moved away to organize his men, Phrilmas' second Raktus moved forward. Phrilmas stared at him with barely concealed contempt. Raktus the bootlicker, the local satirists called him, and for once Phrilmas agreed with them. Raktus would do anything his superiors told him to do, not out of loyalty, belief or justice, but out of fear and desire for preferment. However, Phrilmas had learned to make use of the poor tools offered to him.

"My Lord as you ordered the last of the bawdy houses were torn up. The whores and panderers we locked in the tower dungeons."

"Good, finally we have cleaned another district of the city." He smiled smugly, although he was disgusted at how long it had taken Raktus to carry out his orders. Many of the bawds have managed to hide themselves. He would have to take care of them later.

"May I leave now my lord?"

The fool was trembling. "No, you shall stay here while we wait for the violators of the curfew." He was going to teach the fat coward a lesson.

The guard ranged his men before Phrilmas.

Phrilmas addressed them, happy that at least they had enough self- control to hide their unhappiness from him. "I am disappointed murmurs of superstition emanate from among my hand picked guard, all of whom I pay well to guard my person, and all of whom enjoy the prestige of their position. I will dispel your fears and show you show how boundless they are. " He reached with one hand, grasped the face mask of one of the ancestors and ripped it away. Several guards hissed. He held the death mask in his hand.

"See. Nothing happened. No divine retribution, no angry gods. Naught but an old sack of preserved flesh and an iron mask. In the last few years learning and reason have made tremendous strides in the Emperor's court. We will bring those improvements here: both in terms of improvements in the aqueducts and sewage systems as well as improvements in the city's morals. We will banish superstition, which traps this city in a secondary position in the empire. I hope all of you are with me. Take your positions."

The Antechamber of the Ancestors

Thilphratus and Vilmar stood in a dripping tunnel under the antechamber of the ancestors. "This secret tunnel under the city's foundations was built by the founders and maintained by knowing acolytes," Thilphratus pointed out.

"How could you possibly know of such a thing?" Vilmar asked.

At first he seemed reluctant to answer as if revealing too much, then he said: "I came upon it by accident in my researches."

Vilmar was beginning to believe that Thilphratus was more knowledgeable than he let on. He was mad like a fox.

"I have also learned a few spells in my researches. The old hermetic mysteries are more powerful than many imagine. I shall open an aperture into the room above so we can proceed with our plan." He drew some figures and symbols upon the stone. Above them Vilmar thought he heard boots and men moving about. He tried to point this out to Thilphratus, who waved him down insisting: "this spell requires a communion with the forces of the universe, and my concentration must not be interrupted."

Thilphratus made a cascade of mad motions and movements while Vilmar paced under the ceiling listening to the footsteps. Had the Censor placed guards in the temple? He would not do so; it would be a sacrilege. Then again, he would not care about sacrilege; he did not believe in the old ways.

An aperture appeared in the ceiling just as the philosopher had promised. At first as small as a line drawn on parchment, widening to the length of a man's foot then large enough to admit their bodies. They stood beneath the long hole, where they would crawl through and lower the mummies.

Faces appeared above them, in the opening. At first Vilmar thought they were ghosts or spirits before realizing that it was the censor and soldiers. Their excited voices reached them, one of the soldiers babbled: "the gods punish us, they return on their night of festival, their night of sacrifice."

"Silence!" the censor ordered, his commanding voice silencing all opposition. His eyes glared red with anger.

"The two of you, did you create this puncture? I knew someone would try mischief tonight. Here are your gods you superstitious fools!" he said to the soldiers. "You men into the breach. I want them alive, so I can roast them in the public square for all to watch."

What has that fool philosopher got me into? Vilmar thought.

The soldiers drew their swords as their officer barked orders. The crack lengthened and widened. The sound of tearing stones, plaster and wood filled their ears, the wrenching of a great shifting weight. The ceiling collapsed: a flood of stones and wood and mortar all about Vilmar and Thilphratus. Vilmar closed his eyes expecting death as the avalanche roared around him. When he opened his eyes the stones had fallen around him and Vilmar in an orderly fashion, as if planned. The censor and his men were buried alive.

"Remarkable!" he announced and grasped the mage. "You're a mage not a philosopher, a wizard for the ages. Imagine: our enemies buried and we unscathed. Did you plan such a thing?"

Thilphratus stared blankly about as if in shock, then came to. "Aye, thus do my enemies perish."

Before Vilmar could respond, Thilphratus began climbing the wall. Vilmar took one look at the rubble and the buried bodies — some were not completely buried and were beginning to stir — then followed him.

They clambered up into the next room, the chamber of the ancestors. The floor had collapsed in the antechamber, but the two rooms housing the mummies had been unharmed. The philosopher's magic had been quite specific and controlled, Vilmar thought. Staring at the mummies filled Vilmar with awe. For years in religious ceremonies, they had heard of the founders preserved in a row in their temple, but no one other than their priests and tenders ever entered their resting place.

Thilphratus ripped away a death mask revealing a withered face. "The populace will be awed to see the founders of the city in the square again. The sight will inspire the people to return to the old ways."

"So that is your plan!" growled an angry voice from behind them.

The Censor stood in the doorway naked blade in hand. He was bloodied, his rich robes of office torn in tatters. His left hand dangled broken.

Vilmar drew his blade. He could handle the battered Censor, but four of his soldiers stood with him, blocking their only line of escape.

"Bind them, I will make sure they are suitably punished."

Vilmar silently vowed to himself that he would not be taken alive. He could not fight five swordsmen — the philosopher would be useless unless he knew more magic — but he would sell his life dear, a fate better than public torture.

The philosopher tugged at his arm. "Hold them off while I complete the spell. That is your purpose here." They retreated into the rear antechamber, and Vilmar held the soldiers off in the doorway. The soldiers were dazed from the fall. The first sluggish warrior Vilmar wounded in the arm. The second was a better swordsman, but blood flowed from a cut in his head. Vilmar parried a thrust before wounding him in the leg. He did not know what the fool philosopher was doing. He could hear him chanting and burning parchment behind him.

Movement to the right attracted his attention. One of the mummies flexed a hand, testing a limb after long disuse. He backed away from the swordsmen before him and gawked at the ancient creature awakening.

All around the ancestors ripped away their death masks and stumbled forward.

They surrounded the censor. "Fight them, it must be a gross trick!" the Censor yelled, but the soldiers fled. The creatures grasped the censor and his second, ignoring everyone else. They dragged them through the temple and flung open the front doors.

The philosopher ardently followed them. Vilmar trailed them warily, leaving enough room to flee from slow moving dead men or gods.

They dragged the censor into the amphitheater as he said nothing, the shock and horror convulsing him.

In the square a crowd had gathered. Vilmar found out later one of the priests had organized the crowd, having heard a prophecy in his dream that a miracle would occur.

The leader of the founders Zacarriah — the man who sacrificed a ram on the site of the city square and consecrated the city so many centuries ago — announced in a voice too powerful for such withered lungs: "We are thirsty for our blood sacrifice tonight; the sacrifice that the city forgot. Have you forsaken us? We who made this city. We who fought the barbarians to clear the land. We whose loins produced your ancestors.

"O shame on all who have ceased to honor the old ways, for you cease to honor what is great and true within yourselves. If you forget us again, our sacrifice will be the city itself. The city will fall; we will not spare it. The stones will crash from the walls. Your wives and virgin daughters will have their locks pulled by invaders; their innocence stolen in the bloody dusk. O hear us, do not forget us as the blasphemous fool did!"

As Phrilmas screamed and begged for his life, the Gods pressed him into an empty threshold. He fought to no avail, for they held him firmly. Vilmar thought they would smother him there. Instead the stone moved, flowing over his body while he screamed until encased in black lava stone. His expression was one of eternal misery; his punishment for trying to halt the old rites, and for failing to respect the gods. His mouth was frozen in an eternal scream, his tears were frozen on his cheek. His eyes stared in horror at mysteries deeper than reason.

Thilphratus approached the gods. "May I be memorialized my lords, my part in this always remembered?"

"You shall be so rewarded." They pressed Thilphratus in a alcove.

"No!" Vilmar shouted.

The living stone flowed over Thilphratus turning him into an eternal tribute to the old ways. Phrilmas' punishment was Thilphratus' reward. A paradox like so many of the gods' acts.

Zaccariah shouted at the murmuring crowd. "The new censor is Raktus. To avoid peril, he will restore the old ways."

The old gods shuffled back to their temple, and Vilmar gave them a wide birth. The crowds was on its knees and in awe. Several screamed insults at Raktus; the man was in danger of losing his life. His benefactor was dead, and no authority existed to protect him.

Raktus, much to Vilmar's surprise, rose to the occasion. He announced: "In honor of the gods, we will have three days of feasting. We will have wine barrels at the square of transitory life tomorrow. I declare a general amnesty for all arrested under the Censor's rule." The crowd went wild, and Raktus was carried away on their shoulders.

At last, Vilmar thought, a censor that understands his city. He walked to the statue. Thilphratus' face was encased in rock and convulsed in religious ecstasy. His soul lived in bliss. Vilmar envied him for having a firm belief and connection to the divine; he was always dissatisfied with his writing because he was not sure what he stood for or what he wanted to say. Too often he merely entertained in the tradition of risque tales. He traced his hands along the stone — it was still warm. He could not bring himself to look at the censor; he forcefully averted his eyes. Thilphratus did not want him on the adventure merely to hold off the censor's guards. No, he wanted fame. He wanted Vilmar to write his legend. He had given Vilmar a "noble" theme: a tale of respecting the gods and the old ways, a tale of tragedy and liberation. Vilmar would not disappoint.

Robert Bee published over 20 stories in a variety of zines including Glyph, The Black Lily, Parchment Symbols, Welcome to Nod, Blue Murder, Outer Darkness, Plots with Guns, Cabal Asylum, 69 Flavors of Paranoia, Midnight Gallery, Eternity. He is a high school teacher living in New Jersey.