Soon I will be the one who tells you what is right and wrong, good and evil, how to think, what to believe. I am divine. All shall know it, fear and adore me. I am the awe growing in you. Feel me pervading your soul. Obey only my will for I am your new prophet and speak the law of gods.
I wield all the sacred gifts. No one for centuries has possessed so many. I have surpassed all previous divines: you are mine to command.
One gift and I would have remained a mere priest, respected by the common people but only there to direct them, speak the divine’s mind: be her servant.
My first gift was to walk among the plants, to know them and not be slain. All kinds that creep on their tentacles across our dusty plains tolerate me. I touch and cut them, drawing sap. I’ve never been harmed.
My second gift is alchemy. From those towering flesh-eating creations I extract venoms, can understand, can mix and distil. I hold secrets of the very best. It stops bleeding, stops unconsciousness and intensifies agony. Torture of sinners and rebels is always a public entertainment – such gentle guidance the divine bestows daily upon the mob of common people. With my refined venom I can make such torment last until the beating heart tears out in my hand.
The present divine lacks this skill. While I keep the condemned alive I’ll cut hands, feet, genitals, whatever, from them and cast the parts down, down among the half-starved populace desperate for flesh – as the victim watches, conscious, helpless and screaming.
You will love me, worship me. I am the greatest for millennia and, by the setting of the sun, ascend to my natural place as the one divine.
A third gift grants a priest high seniority. Merely bearing a child with a gift is enough, and I have proven myself twice.
A fourth gift is exceptional. The old writings, quite unreadable, can speak in hushed voices to those they select. I have listened in the distant and sacred cavern of silent echoes.
The dead speak to me too. Today I hear whispers: the wisdom of long-deceased mages in these lightless crypts below our sacred city.
Yes, I have stepped on firm stone where lesser priests with bloated aspirations have found only void and death. Such blessings I possess that even the very rock yields to my will.
From the deceased mages entombed in these chilly depths, through their subtle soliloquies, I learn our saviour was a simple fool or, I suspect, a profound genius beyond their comprehension. Maybe she found reality: a mighty truth now overwritten. The truth is ever renewed. My first task as divine will be to rewrite history as I see it, how it led to me.
But such distractions, especially refinement of the priesthood and how it created my perfection, should not be in my mind now – despite the temptation. Down this dark crypt I stumble through grit and dust. The ribs of dead failures threaten to pierce my feet; skulls stub my toes and rattle away. Even the largest spiders down here can’t crack bones. The murmurings of priestly ancestors reveal a desire to bend my will to theirs. ‘Feed only your guard well to keep them loyal’. ‘Ignorance and terror are the pillars of power’. I don’t resist these wisdoms, argue or fight back. I am content with their truths; such policies have worked for centuries. But why are the whispers becoming so vehement?
They are hiding something? They insist I have gone far enough: that I must turn back. I trust them no more than that manipulative and devious liar whom I will replace on my return to the city above.
I grope forward in empty places, or trail my fingers along cobwebbed walls, and shake off spiders, spiders growing fiercer, larger and more savage. The wall opens into spaces from time to time and I feel sarcophagi or skeletons, ribs and skulls, some with scabs of dessicated flesh and hair still attached.
Dust beneath me deepens, undisturbed, lessening the pain of little bones digging into my naked feet. No one has been this far for decades … maybe hundreds of years. The present divine must have turned back long before. No surprise; she is a shallow scheming snake with no courage or nous. What voices and messages did she miss by retreating so soon? Was she panicked by the spectral warnings?
Though they intensify, the whispers echoing and growing strident, I’m not scared; I’m hungry to learn what our divine did not, was too cowed to witness.
I stop, gasping, one hand held out frozen, no longer groping. I’ve shocked myself. What I really want to learn is that I am truly divine and not merely the most talented priest of my generation. I doubt myself! Something fresh blossoms in me. Should I have listened to the warnings?
The dust gets ever deeper, finer, choking me even as I move with the greatest care. How much do I wish to be divine? Am I prepared to die suffocated? Each particle is a tiny blade; my sinuses and throat clog, burning raw, lungs grinding. The air is so thick now, breathing an unendurable torment. Salty blood runs and bubbles from nostrils to lips. Doubt and futility consume me. It’s better to give up, better to die. I am not divine: I am a fool too arrogant to turn back.
“Everyone is divine,” new voices tell me, clear and loud: speaking like the living.
I’m not dead? My lungs no longer whine like whistles and pipes. A solid stone floor here, well, hardly any dust. Light? there should be no light here. I’m lying face down, but where? Rising, I’m strong and steady, in a room now – not the catacomb tunnels. Everywhere I look is illuminated, but shadows chase the edge of my vision as if all behind me remains in darkness.
I whirl round, looking for a way to leave but see instead two people … no … living paintings: moving and talking on a huge arch like a temple door. A woman holding hands with another … a man? not possible! Both have a star on their foreheads: I must too – that explains how all I can see is lit.
Their lips move together, “Everyone is divine.” I stand dazed and trembling, robbed of strength by power irresistible. I don’t feel arrogant but crushed and insignificant: gods are addressing me. The figures begin to talk so fast I hear no words but instead images form from the deluge.
I see a time men enslaved women. An era of constant warfare, armies of men killed other men on the field of battle, commanded by male rulers. Now is the time women enslave men … and women kill women on the command of divines who live in luxury. Nothing has changed.
Is this all about freeing men from mines and fields? Accepting them as normal people? Will that lead to anything better? I can’t believe that.
The images describe balance and cooperation, kindness and tolerance. Radical ideas swamp me. I could end slavery, end the daily practice of the divine – selecting people at random, calling them rebels or heretics for public torture to keep the population entertained and fearful. No, such dreams are surely impossible. Maybe I could educate the mob. No, they are too…
“Everyone is divine,” the voices shake my bones, shatter resolution and destroy all I’ve ever been told. Ancient lies and twisted doctrines, evaporating black shadows, rip from my mind, fleeing bright new truths as if blown by storms of fresh air in blinding daylight.
Oh, I submit! Maybe, maybe these things could be achieved: your will be done. It would all have to be achieved slowly, cautiously though. Is that why I’m here – wherever here is? The two paintings, woman and man, release each other’s hands and begin to dance, whirling, arms entwined as their images fade, as does the arch, leaving me facing two mirrors of burnished bronze.
In one I see the divine I will cast down. She’s standing close to the crypt entrance with her bodyguard of shield-maidens – waiting for me. That she got warriors there is a mystery. How did she sneak them past crowding mobs and into the temple? It’s not allowed in a challenge for divinity. No, she must have sent some down days ago or know a secret passage. It’s obviously an ambush. She will have them slay me, and simply say I failed, fell down a hole, was a false divine.
She and her guards don’t see me even though they’re close enough to touch. Nor can I hear them speak despite it being clear they converse even as I watch; mouths move, heads nod.
The other mirror shows the temple ring of fire at the high end of the same corridor. I have to pass through those flames to prove I am divine. That’s easy enough. My skin is prepared with unguent – I’ll lose my robes and some hair but that doesn’t matter.
Through that twisting circle of incandescence I see today’s victims ready to be tortured – for me to prove I have the ultimate venom. Our doomed divine will have whipped the crowd into a blood-frenzy. Fail either the fire or venom tests and temple guards will throw me to the mob. Succeed and I am the new divine. All will prostrate themselves – especially the guard.
I touch the closest mirror. My finger goes through and I pull it back. A shield-maiden glances in that direction, frowns and looks away as if confused.
Is this all I have to do? Pass through the illusion of a mirror? It must be a gift the visionary paintings, the star-browed immortals, bestowed upon me. Without hesitation I step through the other mirror, into flames which roar and whine, lashing fierce but futile … for those few moments needed to impress the crowd below. The divine and her guards will hear the shouting and race back up here. I have little time.
The mob gasp, pointing as my robes blaze and fly in spiralling fragments glowing and drifting with the evening breeze. Whatever the old divine had planned, I have beaten and outmanoeuvred the scheming cow.
Flame and shadows dance on upturned faces and the courtyard battlements in reflected frenzy. These terrifying hordes of thousands really hold the power but are chained in lies and blinded by ritual.
Clothes burned away, I step naked towards the victims, holding only my curved dagger and flask of venom. I must look godly, silhouetted against the spitting inferno.
The mob falls silent, awaiting the spectacle of horror. The condemned, as always – stripped and dragged through faeces and rotting meat, hang in manacles caked with the blood of centuries. Each victim is covered in a seething mass of flies and crawling insects. I feel sorry these people will endure the worst agony the city has seen in hundreds of years, but soon all this inhumanity will be over for ever.
From behind, the divine’s cruel snigger and the gasping of breathless guards makes me freeze for a heartbeat. They are here so soon. Spearheads touch my back in readiness. But I’ll not fail. It won’t be me hurled down to be eaten alive and torn apart. No, false divine, the guard are mine in a few scant moments when my prowess is revealed.
I move towards the nearest rebel or sinner and ready myself to remove the flesh from her skull and face in strips.
She lifts her head, a bloody eye peering through matted hair, her voice little more than a rasping croak.
©Gary Bonn, 2021