THE STIRLESS GOD by Scott J Couturier
(From a crossroads tablet transcribed by Hermides Senph, who knew the tongue of old)
Mirba first had the idea to kill the High Priest. Some will claim I orchestrated what follows: so I lay down these words. If any should pick them up in future years, they will know my part in what befell this valley, and why it is wisest not to tread here.
My father drummed for the high temple. I, in turn, trained in the arts of percussive ceremony, working with the village namu to create acute excitation among the priests of Narad. An old god from an ancient time, his sway now limited to our remote mountain valley, yet the harvests remained plentiful, the climate pure and serene save the fury of summer storms. So old was our god that none knew his countenance, save where it was graven on the stone pillars of his temple. His face looked like a lizard’s, which always seemed strange to me, since no lizards lived in those high passes. But then, the priests said Narad came from Outside. Once, in long lost centuries recorded in esoteric language on scrolls of crumbling horiak hide, he bestrode the world in awesome might, glowing with the ardour and majesty of starfall. Armies rallied to him, priests and kings and queens and enchanters seeking his goodwill to either secure, sway, or control. In my time all this was long resigned to the realm of legend, to scrolls read out by the priests of Narad every New Moon, or recited by their hierophants as they were borne through the village lanes on gilded litters. To commoners he bore a name half sacrilegious, half affectionate: The Stirless God.
For my part, I could drum well. I loved the smooth, taut, dry sensation of the membrane vibrating beneath my hands, the heartbeat set up by a legion of drums, to which the priests performed their oblations. Narad, to me, seemed a distant deity, though my father felt fervid devotion to the god of his evocation. He died when I was only ten cycles, his last injunction to take his drum and his place in Narad’s temple, at the head of his drummers.
What could I say to the dying man I loved so well? I acquiesced, took my father’s drum and his place. This meant access to the inmost rituals of the temple. Here, I came to know the cruelties and wantonness of Narad’s High Priest, Edra.
He was seldom seen by those of the village save on high days, when he emerged draped in a sevenfold veil, bare feet immured in a basin of aromatic oils as the lesser priesthood of Narad drew him along in a solemn, chanting train. His word was law in the valley, though he never spoke directly to the Town Council, nor issued edicts from on high, as his predecessors had done. Some thought this indicated a decline in the priesthood’s power: however, as I soon discovered, Edra ruled with an iron fist in a gauntlet of adamant, the velvet glove off cast in inner chambers where frolics of debauchery proceeded both day and night. Prized as a drummer, I not only played for the public rituals, but was swiftly drawn into Edra’s confidence, learning of horrors my father must have borne for years in reverent silence. Often as I played songs in praise of Narad, I thundered accompaniment to orgies or executions: Edra had a taste for the lonely shepherd folk who dwelt in the higher passes, smuggling them in by night, fodder for his pleasure.
By day, the rituals were carried out as usual. I became close with my fellow drummers, most of all Mirba: she, especially, felt a kindred horror at Edra’s excesses. Soul sick, we would play before the deep, mud ringed pool wherein Narad was said to slumber away the centuries. Mired in Time’s bane, only our worship kept him from fading away, dissipating into the ether that awaits all forgotten gods. Never once did I see a single ripple mar that glass black pool, save when sacrifices were tossed in from above. Mostly wheat and livestock, only occasionally a human life offered—once every ten cycles, a virgin male. It so happened the time for this dreadful tithe came soon after I assumed my father’s place on his ong drum. Feverishly I played, muscular arms flailing and laved in sweat, as the three hour ceremony culminated in Aghi—a young boy I knew, son of a cousin—having his throat slit by Edra, draped in diaphanous veils of supple golden thread. I watched Aghi’s body pitch down into the black lake of the god, for the first time in my life my rhythm faltered, though cries and wailings and screams of ecstasy rose from the gathered crowd, disguising my blunder. I stared in hatred at the High Priest, his golden surplice now stained with volumes of blood. I could see his erection as he turned to the crowd of supplicants, iron dagger weeping of circlet of gore at his feet.
Old and withered, his skin scored by over a century’s life, yet his eyes blazed with a malice that knew no depletion. Edra waited many decades to assume the position of High Priest, many assumed, in turn, that he had poisoned his predecessor, Agharah. Yet, as ever the harvest proved plentiful, and peace prevailed in the valley as of old. The village, worn by time and element, a lingering memory in a world that moved in obscure circles beyond the bordering mountain chains. How long since one of our people had left to travel beyond? How long since any traveller had come up the thin roads from the plains below, now overgrown and boulder strewn, bearing any news from outside? Perhaps all the world lay dead and silent, save the village: this theory got bandied about over robust mugs of ale, brewed from the hardy wheat we tended in the tough, gritty soil.
Soon after Aghi’s sacrifice (and the orgy of blood that followed—a night of depredation leaving us both sick for a week), Mirba first conceived of the plot to kill Edra. Hesitant at first, unwilling even yet to alter the millennial customs of our people, I instead turned my horror struck heart to love’s calling. I courted Iaga, a blacksmith’s daughter with fiery eyes, mane, and spirit: wild we ran together in the wilderness outside the village, coupling on the warm stones in summertime, huddling together under a single fur against winter’s blowing bane. For a time she distracted me, even as my mother and I must have distracted my father from his odious duties. Too, Edra suffered a sustained bout of ague that limited his blasphemies for a time, though we were still called to drum over his sickbed, growing dizzy from the opiate fumes of censors as he ranted and raved, spittle and tooth gnash and curse and moan interspersed with pitiful supplications to Narad for relief. I came to hate him even more, seeing this weakness, and even came to hate my father. Why had be bequeathed me the sacred ong drum? He knew what I would see, what I would be privy to… perhaps he hoped I would have the strength to intervene where he merely served in complicity.
One day I brought Iaga with me to Edra’s bedside. The old lecher saw her and immediately felt better, better than he’d felt, so he said, in nigh on half a century. With wheedling tones he implored her to strip and climb under the covers with him, urging me to up the cadence of my drumming in accord with his lust. Biting my lip until it bled, I watched as that old cadaver ravaged my love. She wept and cried out my name, which seemed to increase his fervour, once I sought to stand and intervene, only to find an iron halberd blade positioned at my throat. Looking about, I saw how all the guards leered, several pleasuring themselves to the spectacle. Afterwards they took turns, Edra watching the rapine unfold with a drool laced grin, his eyes lancing to me whenever my drumming slackened. The blade never left my throat, not the whole episode: I still bear a scar from the cut it inflicted each time I leaned forward to suppress a scream.
Afterwards, I brought Iaga into Mirba’s plot. My love became a favourite of Edra, who hadn’t taken a woman from the village since assuming his mantle of High Priest. She endured his ravages and perversion, in turn gaining his confidence, it was she who told us of the upcoming Ritual of the Moon, an ecstatic secret dance to be performed before the pool of Narad, its aim an evocation of the long senescent god. A dance done once every fifty cycles, as prescribed in the ancient scrolls—when the god could yet be stirred by mortal ceremony, he would rouse and rise above the waters for a brief moment, giving his High Priest a glimpse of his incandescent countenance. Again, such manifestations were legendary to me, an unfaithful servant to a god I now viewed as myth. Myth spread to enrich the priesthood, to keep the people of the village in ignorance: was it Narad who made the winds blow fair and the sturdy wheat grow, or was the valley simply a fertile place, tenanted by the shadow of some figment godhead? Between the three of us we contrived to find out.
To properly evoke the god, Edra would ingest a sacred compound of leaves and berries, in dosages strictly measured in the scrolls. As head drummer, I would lead the namu in thundering out a summons to the god of deep places and forgotten times, while Edra writhed and chanted, working himself into a sacerdotal frenzy. At least three oxen would be slaughtered, and then the god would rise from his pool to gaze upon his priesthood with somnolent beneficence. This in theory: in practice, a passel of shepherd folk had been secreted to the dungeons a week before, intended for use in foul revelries following the god’s wooing.
The day of the ceremony arrived. Attending as I did to Edra, he told me something of the ritual and imparted to me its basic rhythm, all the while huffing and sniffling, rueful that someone in (as he put it) his dotage should be expected to undertake such strenuous supplication. I smiled even as he prattled on, knowing what was to come—though, still far removed from knowing the outcome.
Iaga, worming her way into Edra’s twisted mind, discovered where and when the tincture of his ecstasy would be brewed. Late that night, she crept from his odious bed and descended to the chambers below, where the tincture stewed over an ever burning flame of sulfuric azure. Picking a few choice ingredients from the shelves, she tossed them into the toiling mixture, until the liquid frothed a red, ruddy tint. Then she left, returning to Edra’s skeletal embrace. When I asked her how she evaded the guards, she related how she used her body to ease all impediments. Edra, for all she despised him, had taught her well.
Meanwhile, Mirba and I travelled into the hills to trade for a rare white powder made by the shepherd folk, who had no reason to love Narad or his cult. One sniff, so they said, made the imbiber as strong as ten men, with the endurance to scale mountains. If our assassination was to succeed, endurance was a requisite. Gathering before the ritual, we repeated to each other encouragement for the path ahead, and together prayed a small prayer to Narad. Surely the god, once beneficent, would be appalled by the heinous liberties taken by his latter priesthood.
We all gathered in the inner sanctum, Mirba and I having taken our powder. Several other drummers had joined in the plot, though there were many still loyal to the old ways, we spread word of our intentions in secret. A sense of heady portent hovered about the pool, the very air alive with shimmers. I winced as I felt the powder exert its potency, my breath coming in sharp spurts as the namu set up their chanting overture. Braziers flared with aromatic gums as the words of archaic ritual were intoned, in a language now half lost to those who sang it. The sheer ancientness of the rites daunted me, who intended to betray the faith in which I was devoutly raised. Yet—surely all pageantry, just an onerous appeal to a god ages dead, if he ever existed at all. Countless ceremonies I’d attended, seeing fits of ecstasy resulting in broken bones, yet naught had I seen to identify Narad as the source of these transports. Rather the music, the gums of hashish and opium, the wild and mysterious words of another age, served as consummate cause.
At last Edra stalked into the chamber, dressed most magisterially. His gown shone like woven moonbeam, or so it seemed to my eye: a mesh of silver threads embroidered with starbursts in stitching of gold. His face looked horrible to me, transported already by the enhanced dose of the ritual’s requisite potion. He stormed into the temple with the force of a whirlwind, bellowing madly, drawing a sacred dagger and slashing it repeatedly over the pool. Above, through a chink in the ceiling, rays of pure moonlight shone down to anoint the black waters, which glistened as if razor edged. Was that a ripple I saw? But, no time to think—my thews began flailing as I set up the initial beat on my father’s ong drum. The namus yawped and cried out in time, some of them already drunk or nude (such displays were forbidden in the inner sanctum). Three bulls lowed apprehensively from the shadows near the pool, chained to a pillar of engraved jade.
The powder overtook my senses. So much energy! I pounded on my drum with frantic bliss, finding now the eternal tempo, the great thrumming beat of Night Eternal. The moonbeams intensified their glow as Edra set up a berserk dancing, his moves drawn from the sacred texts but executed wildly, with no inhibition. For once I saw the sardonic and evil priest truly work in worship of his deity, driven via sheer chemical transcendence. The air, again, seemed to shimmer, and some of the namus fell to their knees, whelmed to awe by the mystic spectacle. The braziers belched and fumed, until the air hung with a sickly sweet mist.
Looking to Mirba, I saw her similarly swept along, eyes glassy and pupils pin pricked, hands furiously pounding at the skin of her ong drum, beads of sweat leaping from her forearms like grasshoppers in high summer. Some of the other drummers were already slackening, clearly perplexed by our frenzied mania, but others knew, and played all the harder, watching as the elderly Edra lunged himself into ever intensifying apoplexies of veneration. Driven by a power beyond himself, something the drugs allowed to enter his form and animate him to their purpose: I know this now, though even as I drummed him to ultimate lunacy I remained, in my tiny mind, sceptical of all I’d been taught of the valley, the village, and its long slumbering god.
Several of the guards, hoping perhaps to advance the ritual, unchained the cows and brought them to Edra. He, in turn, drew a blade of meteoric iron from the mantles of his robe, often stars fell in these high hills, and always Narad jealous for more ore from the void, his former dwelling place. But, instead of slaughtering the cows, he beset the lead guardsman, skewering him through the throat and kicking his startled, half dead body over the rim of the pit, into the unquiet mere below. With a loud splash the sacrifice was accepted, accompanied by the man’s expiring scream. Edra cackled and danced insanely from foot to foot, chasing away the remaining guards while the namus gabbled and squawked like a gallery of infernal birds. I looked again to Mirba, her mouth split by a terrifying leer, hands bloody on the surface of her drum. Looking down, I realized I’d pounded all the flesh from my palms, strips of it clinging to the drumskin now thundering eternally, profoundly, of its own divine volition. Opening my mouth I released a long, ragged cry, joining in the priesthood’s writhing cacophony.
Edra returned to the altar stone above the pool. He levelled his knife, I thought to skewer the bulls, but no: I gasped with joy to see him raise the blade and slit his own throat! Blood spewed into the pool below, dappling the dark waters, each droplet caught crimson in silvering moonlight, garnets chased by mercury into a rippling abyss. And still we played on, played on as Edra staggered ecstatic at the pool’s edge before slumping back over the altar stone, hands reaching up to gouge his eyes from their sockets. Laughing madly, these he cast into the pool. Thunder thunder thunder of the drums—and then I saw.
Splitting the surface of the water. The face, vast and inhuman, of some aeon dead thing. I have said Narad looked like a lizard, to judge by the carvings on his temple, but no referent to earthly life did I see in his eyes of cold aquatic fire, his slippery flesh fringed with vestigial scales. Roused by the death frenzy of his High Priest, the Stirless God had defied his twilight to return to consciousness, rising to appear before his jaded, insensate, terrified worshipers.
Narad ascended from the pool. To say the namu were terrified!—screams and wailing of uttermost despair, rendings of garments and flesh. Those who already debauched themselves convulsed and collapsed into shivering, pain wracked sacks of meat. Others fled the chamber, some wailed in desperate worship, while still others thought to assail the god—one man even levelling a shot with his longbow. The shaft adhered to Narad’s slime crusted skin, absorbing into the fleshy greyness of his hide. Two eyes, globes of a god roused against his will, yet in answer to unceasing supplication—we as crowing cocks to his kindly slumber. Seeing the state of his worshipers, their degradation and negligence, their self-indulgence and cruelty, he smote the whole congregation on the spot with one appendage of floppy, sticky slime. And still we, the drummers, played our parts, me and Mirba solely now. The others had all fled. We did not.
We kept playing as that vast grey thing crawled up from its pool of liquid torpor, shaking off blind dreams of oblivion. Looking to us, its eyes swelled with a light I can only characterize as appreciative. It absorbed the remaining bodies that had not adhered to its appendage, belched prodigiously, then flowed from the temple like a spring torrent, inundating the village. We heard their cries even from where we played, prisoners now of that fiendish powder which kept our hands flailing until our drumheads sundered. Looking down, I saw the white of bone peeking through my tattered flesh.
So I inscribe this tablet with hands flayed and bandaged, to recount how the god Narad became roused to wrath from his many centuried stupor. Our meddlesome thirst for revenge is to blame, yet, is not his temple now silent and empty, devoid of Edra’s filth? Narad devoured the village, man woman and child, consumed their houses, the horses and cows, the sheep in their pens, devoured all the grass and grain, greying the ground beneath. Nightly now he flows about the valley, and nothing can assuage his hunger, so that travellers (should any come) are not safe in these lands. Only Iaga, my love, was spared, fleeing hillward before the ceremony to take shelter with the shepherd folk: but, she chooses to remain with them. Now Mirba and I go forth as wanderers into a worldwide and foreign. Know what we unleashed we did not intend, know also the hunger of a god is not to be lightly risked, should you pass this way.