The city of Phempor sweltered and sweated in the morning sun. The morning mists crept through the alleys, prying into cracks in the crude wooden doors and empty windows with damp fingers. In other places in the world, the mists watered crops, orchards, gardens; here, they merely turned the filthy dirt streets into mud.
A man, neither very young nor very old, strode through the mud with a purpose, trying to avoid the patches of darker brown that marked where excreta had been tossed into the street. Working men and women were already about, trudging with dull, downcast eyes to toil in dry fields. The people of the city were impoverished, but they filled the warrens of their honeycombed dwellings with many children; after all, in a land such as this, what other entertainment was there to be had than procreation?
For eight years Noah had lived alongside the peasants. It was not the longest time he and his comrades had spent in one mission field, but it was longer than most, for the need was great. They had started in the small, dusty communities of the region, and for the last few years had worked in the slums of Phempor itself. Much of his work had been of a practical nature. The application of sound farming principles, ingrained in him from his youth in the lands of Eden, to even this poor soil had led to markedly increased crop yields of the tubers and squashes that were staples of Phempor’s diet, aided by regular animal sacrifices in the altar houses they had planted about the city. The strong arms of the missioners had helped build many homes and dig many wells, and parts of the clay slums now had rudimentary waste channels running to the sulfurous bogs outside of the city. Phempor’s ubiquitous structures were the round-roofed clay hovels that clustered closely together and pressed almost to the high-walled palaces of the ruling class, like prostrate beggars clutching at the hems of noble robes.The palaces lay in the middle of the city, but for the peasantry that surrounded them, they might as well have been a thousand leagues away. After much work and prayer, though, Noah’s invitation had come. He was finally to meet the reclusive prince of Phempor.
His destination loomed ahead, broad and dark against the bright blue sky. Messages of truth and hope, of the Creator God and His will for the world, bubbled easily to the surface of his thoughts. They were well-rehearsed, given freely many thousand times and honed by study, prayer, and discussion to pierce a man’s soul. Well it was, too, for times such as these, when the chance might not come again to witness the truth to these rulers of men. A good word well-planted in fertile soil might bear fruit for an entire nation-state.
Noah smiled as he walked, reminiscing on the successes the Lord God Creator had blessed them with, on the many of His children who now called on His name and made sacrifice to Him out of fealty and love. This was his true work. Many others had joined the work over the last four centuries. Paths crossed and branched and began and ended, all weaving a holy tapestry for the Creator God’s glory, and ancient truths had reawakened in many places they had been lost. Phempor was one such place. While its barren soil bore the curse of the land poorly, the souls of its people had been ready for harvest. Noah found that this was often the case; those without earthly needs seldom realized their spiritual needs, but poverty bred hearts hungry for hope and a willingness to listen.
At first, their message had fallen on deaf ears, but care and persistence had paid off. Now, Machmanis, one of the first of the peasants to take up the faith of old, had assumed full duties at one of the modest altar houses, and Felun’s zeal was as great as Noah or any of the others. Young Gaen had expressed interest in continuing with them to their next mission field, whenever and wherever it might be, and some of the missions they had planted had even begun to plant missions of their own.
Still, this was the opportunity he had prayed for. For all of its change for the better, Phempor was still dangerous and dirty. The populace was hard-pressed enough, but crime was rampant. Women and children disappeared regularly. Gangs of brigands fought bloody, secret battles for control of alleys and muddy pools, answering only to rival gangs, since the Phempor guard remained within the confines of the palaces. There was much idolatry; clay was in abundance, and sculptors made a steady living crafting sun-dried figures, blind and deaf to their supplicants. These things did not have to be. Noah had seen it before: a righteous ruler, living as the Creator intended, could bless his own people, change how they lived their lives, in ways Noah could never do.
The palaces were enclosed by a tall guard wall built of red salt-glazed bricks that caught the sun like liquid. Iron lamps sat atop the angular buttresses that supported the wall every so often; whatever fuel filled the lamps burned bright blue. Dark doors set in the guard wall opened for Noah, seemingly of their own accord. He walked through them.
The courtyard was barren. No one greeted Noah as he crossed the dusty space to the wide steps leading to the main palace entrance. Two bare-armed, leather-clad palace guards stood at the door, both holding barbed spears in one hand and long leather leashes in the other. At the ends of the leashes, iron-grey wolfhounds strained against their masters and paced back and forth, roughly describing the arc that the leash length would allow. The courtyard stunk of dog feces; obviously no effort was made to clean up the wolfhound droppings that littered the ground.
Noah took the stairs two at a time, smiling at the hounds despite their menacing growls. The guards’ countenances were imperceptible in the shadows cast by their lowbrowed helms and faceguards that swept past their cheeks and nearly met a hand’s length past their noses. The most striking thing about them was the symbols scarred into their necks, clearly a result of branding. They did not acknowledge Noah, but neither did they move to stop him. He strode on, through the door that again opened for him with no sign of human action.
The palace interior was swathed in shadows, and a moment passed before Noah’s eyes recovered from bright daylight. As the darkness gained shape and hue, he raised an eyebrow in mild surprise. While the courtyard he had seen was in accord with the dirty quality of the city, the inside of the palace was opulent. Indeed, Noah would have thought he had stepped into a hall in Enoch – rather, Atlantis, as it was now named – or Havilah, had the stench of the courtyard not faintly followed him through the door. Sculptures and frescoes decorated the walls and columns, dim and dreamlike in the low light cast by more blue-flamed lanterns. Details of the art were difficult to make out, but each example was obviously done by a master in the form. Still, the more Noah looked around the room, the greater an uneasy sense of malevolence nagged at the edge of his consciousness. Whether the simple dichotomy of beauty in shadow, or some intentional twisting and warping of the figures by the artists, done too subtly to pinpoint, he was relieved when a man finally greeted him from a doorway across the entrance hall.
“Welcome, Noah of Eden. You are expected. Come, enter freely, of your own will.” The man was thin and severe, dressed in a simple, straight black robe, and strikingly pale. He spoke with a heavy accent unfamiliar to Noah’s well-travelled ears, but the invitation was an answer to many years of prayer, and Noah gladly followed him.
They walked quickly through a maze of hallways, and the missioner soon found himself completely disoriented. Rather suddenly, a turn took them through a high-arched stone hall, and Noah stepped blinking into a flame-lit room, complete with a coterie of courtiers who stopped and stared as one at the newcomer, and the prince of Phempor himself gazing down from his ebony throne at the end of the room.
Like the rest of the palace so far, there was no source of outside light, but the lantern flames here were a comfortable, homey, normal orange. Many of the courtiers’ faces lit up at the sight of Noah, jovial and friendly. Each man and woman was dressed in dark clothing of fine fabric and cut, fitting for an audience with royalty. Like the man who ushered him in, the people who smiled at Noah now were pale of skin, as if none of them saw the sun. Many of them were quite fleshy, obviously well-fed, a stark contrast to the gaunt, bony physiques common to Phempor’s peasants. Noah suppressed a frown. What secret store of food were these fat folk hiding in these palaces, and why had they not shared it with the starving populace?
A loud, light voice pulled his attention to the prince. “And you must be Noah!” he said. “Come closer! I am told that we have much to discuss, you and I. Come!” The prince stood. He was young, or appeared so, trim and starkly beautiful, and just as pale as everyone else Noah had yet seen in the palace. His slender, almost effeminate, hands had clearly not known labor of any sort, and with one of them he patted Noah on the shoulder.
“What luck! You have arrived in time for our banquet. I know that you wish to speak to me – an honor! – so shall we walk and talk?”
“My message is for the ears and hearts of your courtiers, too.”
“Of course! All of you,” the prince said, clapping his hands, “follow us, and listen closely to what this man says! Now, Noah, if you please. What message is this? A good one, I hope?”
“The best.” Noah took a deep breath. This court was certainly the most informal he had ever experienced. A camaraderie seemed to exist among these denizens of the palace, and the prince was surprisingly friendly and open. Like the farmers from whose stock he came, Noah had planted the seeds with toil and sweat, and now he prepared for a harvest. “Prince, I will tell you an ancient truth. We are immortals under a curse.”
“Intriguing! Do tell more.”
“You and I, and all here, were made by the eternal Creator God in His very image. The first of us, the man Adam and the woman Eve, were placed in paradise and fellowshipped with the Creator Himself, wanting nothing. They were perfect of form, undying, happy and fulfilled, but they were not merely playthings for the Creator God, not puppets. They were free to choose to do what they would, to go where they wished.”
“This sounds very nice indeed! What happened next?” The prince leaned closer as they walked.
Noah’s tone took a grim timbre. “They were deceived into disobedience, prince. Satan, the Serpent, once the highest of the Creator God’s servants but now set in rebellion against Him, tempted the woman Eve with the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. The man Adam followed. They disobeyed the one command that their Lord had given them. Fellowship was broken. The man and woman were cast from paradise, never to return, and a curse was set over the world. Death and pain, struggle and toil, was now the lot of man.”
Quiet murmurs of disappointment and concern floated from the following courtiers. The prince frowned. “This story has become rather depressing, Noah.”
“And depressing it was, prince. No tragedy could have been greater. But with the curse came hope! To our great benefit, mankind was not to live eternal in this cursed flesh, sinking ever deeper into its sin, apart from the Creator. His justice demanded punishment for disobedience, but His love remained. He promised a Redeemer, who would free mankind, and indeed the whole of creation, from the curse. Even death itself, the last, final enemy, would be destroyed, and all would be renewed to be what it once was, to what it was intended to be.”
Scattered clapping came from behind, as if the courtiers had witnessed a bard’s bravura performance. The prince’s interest could not be denied. “A very fine story. So, tell me – what are we to do now?”
“We obey the conscience given us by the Creator God,” answered Noah. “We hope for the coming of the promised Redeemer, and we walk in righteousness while we wait. We treat our fellow men as we ourselves wish to be treated.”
The prince slowed his walk and pursed his lips. “And this is why you have toiled alongside the people of this city?”
Noah smiled. “Earthly work can open minds to spiritual truth. If even one soul attains to the hope of redemption, I consider it well worth the effort.”
“Ah.” The prince grew quiet. His mouth twitched at the corners, as if he were suppressing some joke of supreme hilarity. “You believe all of this to be true, do you?”
“I know it to be true, prince.”
“Know it! Well, Noah, allow me to share with you what I believe.” The prince glanced back at his fleshy followers with a conspiratorial grin. “I believe in what I see with my own eyes, and what I see is this. Each of us has a time, a thousand years at most, to suck as much pleasure from this life as we have power. I will waste no time thinking on a God I cannot see, nor the origins of the world around. It is what it is. That is enough. Might there be things that lie outside my perception? Perhaps, but why should I concern myself with them?”
Noah had a dozen ready responses that leapt to his lips. He was not surprised at the opposition that he now encountered, that he had encountered countless times before. Before he could speak, the prince abruptly exlaimed, “At last, we come to the banquet hall! I must say, I am famished.”
The smell of meat and spices was heavy in the air, mingled with a faintly sweet, metallic scent. At first Noah couldn’t identify the curiously familiar smell, although he knew that somehow he was no stranger to it. As he struggled to place it, the group rounded another corner and arrived in a wide hall. Long tables were spaced around the brick-paved floor, with short staircases leading to shadowy alcoves in the hall’s corners. Fireplaces lined either side of the hall, and servants with the same sort of scars on their necks as had the palace guards stood at attention around the room.
The prince gestured to Noah with a broad smile. “Please, sit at my table.” Noah could not very well refuse, and he followed the prince to his seat. Each place was set with ornate silver settings, but the tables were bare of food. The smell of the feast was stronger now; Noah abstained from eating meat, though it did smell quite good, but the strange scent somehow decreased his appetite further.
Once the courtiers had been seated, the prince stood and clapped. “Bring food and drink! And be quick about it!” The servants disappeared into dark arched doorways.
They reemerged two at a time, carrying long platters that were placed on the tables in front of courtiers who licked their lips in anticipation. Butcher shops would always be strange ground for the missioner – those who kept the old and true ways held to a vegetarian diet – but what confused Noah at first was his surety that herds, of any kind of animal, sizable enough to provide for a feast as this simply did not exist in the fetid wastelands around Phempor.
Upon each platter lay a fat white fish, each as long as Noah’s arm, still steaming. Knives stuck deep into the ribs of the creatures. One fat, greasy-haired man at the closest table pulled out the blade with vigor as soon as the platter touched the table. He began carving slices and serving his tablemates. Noah thought he might ask the prince about the source of such bounty, and why such a source had not been used to help feed Phempor’s hungry population. He preferred to do so before he himself was obliged to refuse the meat and risk hurting the prince’s sense of hospitality, but his host cut off his question and motioned for his silence. Noah acquiesced.
Scarred servants began filing out of side doors carrying trays of silver goblets to each table. All of a sudden, Noah recognized the smell. He feared nothing and no one but the Lord God, but a visceral terror now clutched his heart in an icy, shocking grip, and a chill swept over him. The color drained from his face, and he stared at the prince with unbelieving wide eyes.
The prince returned his stare with a cold smile. “Welcome to our feast.”