The ruined, moss-strewn stones loomed large from their
bramble tangle. Tall grasses, threading through the briars, caught the
breeze and the hazy evening sunlight. Swallows flitted between majestic
arches, chasing each other in knotting dives and loops, a swooping dance of
The building had not been visible when, earlier that afternoon,
Roween had led the way deep into the untended woodlands. Conley had
first glimpsed its ancient walls only moments before the army of trees
finally opened ranks, ceding space to a grave of architectural grandeur.
"Hot, Ro, what is it?"
"Purian monastery, Medreph showed me it. Sorry, I thought the
path was bad then, it's even worse now, probably no-one's been here for
"It's magnificent!" She coughed. "How did Medreph discover
it? It looks deserted."
Roween gently steered her horse toward the paving stones,
barely visible through the matted undergrowth that beweeded the once-
splendid structure. "I don't know, he had Eletic maps, maybe they recorded
this place from times when it was prosperous. He always used to spend a
day here, he said, exploring. It's vast."
Conley was following, looking about at the weathered,
collapsed masonry, becoming increasingly awed with every sight of time-
intricate carving, or faded, cracked fresco.
"There's a courtyard inside, with double-level cloisters. The
thorns haven't penetrated that far yet, we can leave the horses there to
graze, sleep under cover if it looks like rain." It didn't. "There's even a
small pool, running water."
"We'll be safe here, then, for a few days." She cleared her
throat. "No-one would spend five hours on that winding path unless they
knew where they were headed, and it looked so unused, I can't believe
there's possibly anyone else around."
"It's not the only way in, just the quickest, but yes, we should
be fine for a while, so long as we don't light a fire, attract attention."
Conley pushed against a creaking, rusted iron gate, stared into
the green shadowness ahead. "This way?"
* * *
It was growing dark. They'd eaten apples, just ripened in a
gnarled orchard that still bore fruit, sheltered as part of a walled garden.
Conley indicated she was longing to investigate the rest of the remains, but
it would have to wait until the morning. Night animals were beginning to
stir, there were noises in the woods; Roween felt it was wiser to return to
the known safety of the courtyard. They flattened some grass in a corner,
"So what purpose does this complex serve, then, Ro? Like a
"In a way, yes, it's a sort of abbey. Abandoned maybe
hundreds of years, long enough for its fields to surrender to forest, the
stones to crack to ruin, for all but books to forget it ever existed."
Conley began a small light spell. "The size of these buildings,
the order that dwelt here must have been very wealthy, commanded much
power. What happened to it? Why did it decay?"
Roween shrugged as she watched her companion's hand sliding
easily into the gestures. It saddened her, in a way, that some day - because
of her - such a skill would be worthless. "There was a Purian queen," she
recalled, "abolished the old religion, wanted the wealth of the church for
herself, took it. I think its influence must have been fading in any case, or
she couldn't have done what she did. If our own past is any guide, the
monks were corrupt anyway, selfish, greedy, long abandoning any
pretensions of worshipful prayer or study."
Conley's light flickered into being. A faint, white cast betrayed
the pillars of the walkway, like enhanced moonlight; exaggerated shadows
swayed with every tiny movement, voluminous cloaks caught by the wind.
Roween glanced around, wearily. She felt sure now that Ansle
was alive, in control. Was here a safe place any more? Was anywhere?
Conley listened, open-eyed, as if the surrounding stones were
speaking to her, captivated by the glow-magic. She shivered. "Do you
think the Messenger has places like this?"
Roween felt small against the massive backdrop, her skin a
bluey grey in the half-bleaching light of the spell. "I don't expect so," she
replied, "not new, anyway. These places take decades to construct, he's
only been on the scene for maybe ten or twelve years. He'll have
refurbished some that were to older gods, though."
Conley leaned back, let her hair flow behind her, looked
upwards to where the first stars were peering through the veil of the night
sky. "I don't believe in gods. I know the tenets of the Books, of course,
from school; I read a little of Chaienish lore in classics lessons, too, though
nothing of the Message. But I know there are no gods."
Roween smiled, rubbed her neck. "For centuries, Con, people
have been staring out into the vastness of the night, the birthplace of
philosophies, dreams. They've pondered on its immensity, its actuality,
sought explanations, a meaning for it all. Whence did it come? Who created
it, and why? What purpose do mere humans serve in a darkness of such
magnitude?" A sigh. "The skies have inspired a thousand religions, Con,
and will inspire a thousand more. And yet you, you casually glance
upwards and blankly announce you don't believe in gods!" She laughed.
Conley looked at her, askance. "You're not telling me that you
Roween shook her head, still smiling. "No, it happens I don't,
it was just the way you leaned back, beheld the wonders of the universe,
and didn't so much as hesitate in denouncing the very notion of gods. It
was just so, well, innocent, that's all."
Conley humphed and lay back in the grass. Roween chuckled to
herself. Sometimes, she just couldn't help but feel like hugging her.
* * *
After a time Conley spoke, her voice contrasting with the
musical tinkle of the courtyard's half-hidden fountain. "Do you know much
about the Message, Ro?"
"The Message?" Roween had been thinking about it herself.
"Superficially, yes, just what I picked up last time I came this way."
"What I saw in Rhiev disturbed me, and then all those
Followers, the intensity of their belief..."
Hastily, "Yes, well I can give you some idea of what they hold
true, if you like. Oh - if you don't mind talk about religion, that is."
"No, it's fine, I'm comfortable with it."
Roween grinned. "That's good. So, do you want the full myth
or a rough outline?"
"A rough myth..."
She looked down, hooked a finger under her chin, collected her
thoughts. "Well I might get some of the names wrong, but I can give it a
roll. It all starts off with nothing but Existence, and Existence is a god
called Lon. He looks on himself, thinks a bit, and manifests three different
aspects of his being: objects, change and feelings."
"Interruption!" shouted Conley, suddenly, rather too loudly.
"Sorry," quieter, "but what do you mean by `manifest'? A form of
Roween rested back on both arms. "Yes, manifesting, it's a
central concept of the Message, one of the ways it devours other religions.
Any deity can manifest another one of the opposite sex. That god or
goddess will usually have responsibilities that are some specialisation of
those of the manifesting goddess or god. When the Message absorbs
another creed, they just say that that religion's gods are mere manifestations
of those of the Message. Sometimes they might simply identify them one-
to-one, but usually it's by manifesting, since that gives the gods of the
Message a certain superiority."
"So you mean the Message has a stock of gods at the ready in
some classification hierarchy? And when the Messenger wants to invade a
country full of frog-worshippers, there'll be a god somewhere he can claim
is the real Frog of Frogs, and that their existing Holy Froggy is nothing but
a manifestation of it?"
Roween chuckled. "Yes, in a way, not for frogs of course, but
there are some gods that occur in many pantheons, and the Message is
designed so as to be primed for accepting them. Take its goddess of war,
Taloss. Most gods of war are male, like the Akrean Tah, and the Davian
Lyod Mar. The Messenger can easily claim that these are no more than
local manifestations of Taloss. However, the Purasans have no overall god
of war; instead, they have several semi-deified spirits of dead warriors,
both genders, and with overlapping spheres of interest. This kind of set-up
isn't so easy to assimilate into the hierarchy through manifestation, but
there is a secondary way, using children."
"Well before you delve into the intricacies of that, can you give
me some more of the background? So far we have this one god and he's
manifested three - goddesses?"
"Yes, sorry. The three are Kyri, goddess of objects, Lona,
goddess of change, and Eskh, goddess of feelings. Kyri is the eldest, so she
works first. She creates the earth, the sky and the sea, and manifests three
gods to watch over them. Mun is earth, I don't remember the other two.
She also creates the sun in the sky, to light her creations, but doesn't
manifest a god because the sky, sea and earth are so much bigger than the
sun. Neither does she manifest gods for the creatures that she's placed on
the surface of the earth, and in its seas and skies. She sees that what she's
created is beautiful, and steps back."
"She sounds stupid to me. And vain."
"Well that's right, she's supposed to be. Anyway, Lona,
goddess of change steps up, as second eldest, and decides that this is all
very well, but everything is still, motionless, like a painting. So, she gives
movement to the air, the seas, the rivers, and manifests gods of wind, rain
and current to look after them. However, she also gives movement to the
sun, and manifests a god for it, Ast, he's called."
"I remember the name from Rhiev..."
"Yes, well this change to the sun doesn't please Kyri, because
when it moves out the sky there's nothing to light her creations. So she
makes the moon, to illuminate the world at night. This irritates Lona, so
she in turn imbues it with movement and manifests herself another god,
Trell or Trill or something. Kyri loses her light source again, so she makes
planets, and Lona moves these, too. Finally, Kyri creates the stars, and she
puts them everywhere in the sky, so even when Lona moves one there are
always others visible. That's how their dispute was resolved, and it's how
we got Time."
"So, at this stage we have two bitchy goddesses. Why do I just
know the third one is going to be a goody-goody?"
Roween shuffled back against a column, settled down again,
sitting on her foot. She could see Conley gesturing, the light was probably
about to dim out. "We've not quite finished with Lona: she gives
movement to the trees and plants that Kyri has created, but doesn't manifest
gods for them because they are so many and so weak."
"And it would have been so inconvenient for the myth..." She
held her penultimate gesture, waited for the old spell to cut out.
Roween felt a murmur of pride, continued. "Once Lona steps
back, it's the turn of Eskh, goddess of feelings. She sees a world of ever-
changing vitality, but with no direction. Only the gods are able to
appreciate its beauty, to add to it. So she gives senses to the creatures, and
manifests a god, Teder, to help in their use. She distils in the creatures
desires, such that they have a purpose in life, and Anean is the god she
cooks to watch over them. Notice how handy it is having a male god of
desires to manifest all those goddesses of love everyone else uses."
"Yes, I had..."
"Now Eskh stops short of giving feelings or desires to the
plants, because she fears that too much interference will annoy Kyri and
"Smart girl." She released the light spell, just as the old one
Roween beamed her smile. "You've heard this before, admit
"No, not at all, what do you mean?"
"Well you said she was smart."
"So? Oh, I see, yes, `thinking powers' have to come from
somewhere, and there's only three goddesses... She's goddess of
"Near enough - the term they actually use is `wisdom'. Eskh is
the wisest of the goddesses, and she bestows her wisdom on just a few of
the creatures. She knows her pseudo-sisters, or whatever the relationship is
called, might be angry, so she makes herself be the goddess of wisdom,
rather than manifest a new god. She has another name in that context,
Keskh, I think. Sure enough, the other goddesses are not pleased. Kyri
doesn't like these creatures - which we know as humans"
"- surprise surprise"
"- she doesn't like the way they create objects of their own.
Lona doesn't like the way they change things to suit themselves, as she's
supposed to handle all changes. Anyway, together they ask Lon to manifest
a goddess of nothingness, so this new goddess can destroy the humans.
However, he refuses, because he sees that Eskh is wise, and that her actions
"That won't stop them, there's a god of death to come yet -
everyone has a god of death."
"Well it may be crudely obvious to you, yes, but remember this
has to be understood by people who've never had an education, who are
used to simple, oral stories rather than tightly-plotted novels... So you're
right, of course the sisters don't take it lying down, jealous backbiters that
they are, and they put together a plan. Lona gets together with the god of
the earth and bears him a child, Wul, god of the otherworld. For religions
with an evil god, the Messenger usually identifies him with Wul. Kyri then
creates this otherworld for Wul to rule over, which is basically either an
empty, boring, cold place, or a crowded, boring, hot place, it sort of
depends on who you talk to. Next, Kyri gets into bed with the god of wind
and has a son, Loss, god of death. He's the one who gets to carry people
off to the otherworld."
"So these children, they could be any sex really?"
Roween nodded, adjusted her position to stop her leg going
dead. "Yes, male or female, doesn't matter; it's the Message's way of
dealing with those pesky, ill-fitting gods and goddesses that other religions
sometimes have; a means of tying up loose ends. Gods that don't mesh
properly with the mainstream set-up tend to be popular, cultist. Claiming
they're children of Message gods is a neat solution. Most evil gods and
gods of death are male, so they equate with Wul and Loss. Sort of sets the
Conley sat up. "Well that about covers it, then. You've
described the main gods, they explain all the great issues, so the rest of the
Message is just so much detail."
"Ah, no, almost, but there's the final hook yet." She rubbed
her calf as pins-and-needles set in. "As it stands, once you're dead that's it.
So Eskh decides to create learning and writing, but she doesn't want her
work subverted by the other goddesses. Hence, she goes to Lon directly,
and asks him to father her children. She has twin daughters, Loneskh and
Eskhlon, easy to remember. Loneskh is learning, Eskhlon is writing. The
other big two goddesses aren't going to mess with them, because they're
Lon's children, and Kyri and Lona are frightened of him. They accept the
two new goddesses without complaint. What they don't realise until it's too
late is that Eskh has outsmarted them, and she now has a way to get people
out of the otherworld."
Conley rested on one arm, stroked the nose of her horse as it
wandered nearby looking for grass the best length to eat. "I can see why an
account of reincarnation would be useful for swallowing certain religions,
but I don't follow how learning and writing can help."
Roween paused, then nodded. "When you die, Loss takes you
to the otherworld. There, you can recollect everything about all your past
lives, so you can ponder on your fate. The length of time you stay is
dependent on how much people remember you after your death, because in
a way you live on in folk's memories even after you've died. Writing,
recording deeds - even to us, learning of things passed can seem to bring
history to life. In the Message, it actually does: the more that people think
of you when you're dead, the more your reincarnation becomes a reality. If
they continue to respect you, your actions; if they hold you up as an
example of how people should live, long after you've gone - it's like your
spirit lives on. Surely, after a time, after enough experience of this
existence in words and thoughts and minds, your soul is strong enough to
make the transition back from the otherworld, and you can be reborn, come
alive again? Everyone has a vain streak, everyone likes to think they'll be
remembered after their death for something. People in positions of power
especially so, they expect it."
Conley was thinking. "Yes, I can see how that could be quite
seductive to anyone with a big ego."
"As have mages?"
Conley laughed, wheezed a little. "As have most mages!"
Roween smiled. "So, it's quite well thought-out, really. It's not
just remembering people's names - so what if you do know your great-
grandfather was called Arvin - it's their actions, what they did and why
they did it. That's why people need to make a real contribution, not just
publicise themselves, shamelessly erecting statues all over the place or
whatever. The Message gives the little people hope, too, that even they can
get out of the otherworld before long if they did the right things while
alive. For lowlives, unambitious peasants, they simply have to be good and
well thought-of, leave messages at temples and shrines for Loss to pass on
to dead people, and it'll all help reduce the duration of their stay when they
eventually die themselves. You don't have to daub yourself in glory to be
"Something for everyone," Conley observed. Roween noticed
she was gesturing again, couldn't make out the spell. "It sounds quite a
caring religion, really - isn't it a form of ancestor worship, like the
Nachatee practise? There are bound to be far worse religions, anyway."
She looked at her hand a moment as it moved. "So why are the Followers
so intimidating? Why is everyone so scared of this faith?"
"It's the Messenger. He claims to be the son of Lon and Lona,
which puts him on a par with Loneskh and Eskhlon in terms of status. His
charge, he says, is to ensure that everyone understands the true nature of
things, that they believe the Message."
"But what is the Message? That Lon is chief god, and if you're
good then when you die you'll come back sooner rather than later?"
"You don't have to be good, just remembered. Yes, the
Message is acceptance of the myth, but like any religion it's more than that,
it's an entire system of beliefs, complete with rituals and its own morality,
a whole outlook on life. There's a nutshell that's supposed to sum up the
essence of its theology: `things exist to change'."
"I see. So that's why the Messenger chose his parents the way
he did - the god of existence and the goddess of change."
"Perhaps; I don't know if the encapsulation came before or
after the ancestry."
"So the reason people fight against the Messenger is because
he's an evangeliser?"
"Partly, but it's the way he does it." Roween absently pulled a
lock of hair behind her ear. "He says that the best thing you can do to be
remembered, something really worthwhile that will ensure your wait for
resurrection will be brief, is to convert a non-believer to the Message.
Failing that, it's to send them to the otherworld before you."
"`If you're not with us, you die.'" Conley nodded, slowly.
"Now that's sinister". She looked down at her hand again as it flowed
through familiar permutations of the five stylised positions. "Hold on a
moment, sorry, I have to cast this spell..." Rolling over to face the centre
of the courtyard, she flew out the last gestures of the sequence. Roween
braced herself; the air began to move, slowly at first, then sporadically
quicker, small gusts. Conley continued the hand flicks.
"That doesn't smell too good, Con, do you want me to - "
"No, I won't be much longer, just a wind, getting rid of the
"Leave them, no, keep it down!" She was struggling into a
crouch, frowning like her head ached. "It's like looking at the sun, I'll have
"That's it, finished." Conley broke off, and the minor cyclone
dropped. The algae-marbled basin of the small fountain stood proud again,
amidst the straw-like matting of now storm-damaged grass stalks. The
courtyard looked eerily untidy, like Roween's hair first thing in the
morning, in need of a brush.
Conley drew herself up into a sitting position, looked over to
her friend: Roween was on her hands and knees, her eyes closed, nose
wrinkled, trying to breathe steadily.
Conley gasped. "I'm sorry, Ro, it was only a little breeze, there
were things buzzing round the horses." Roween tried to kneel up, still
dizzy, as she scrambled towards her. "I didn't know you'd - I thought
you'd just have blotted it if it was too much, you didn't have to hold back
for me, I - if I'd have known it would hurt you..." She put her arm round
the other girl's shoulders. "Are you alright?"
Roween blinked, let out a long sigh.