A Story for an Age Distant and Past (Part 8)
Year 4 SC (1512 Stayatam), Sha-Mikat
Tajani, Qela, Jamitayyin, and Abilel rushed through the Miktaban, making their way outside to see the fire licking across the city. Tajani was speaking to a commander as they neared the main gate. “This can be containable. We will lose a lot of roofs, but the buildings here are mostly stone. Focus on saving lives, and books, not houses. Oh and definitely deploy the reserves.” The commander nodded and rushed off. All of the offices were buzzing, attendants and secretaries and administrators all dashing about. Tajani looked around at the chaos as they stepped outside. When was the last time this place was just a library? She thought.
The fire looked just as bad from the street level. Most of it was thankfully across the river, away from the library, but it was considerable. They will lose houses indeed.
“Iqashit agents, I imagine,” Qela said.
Jamitayyin stepped up next to her. “Or Bkhanif. I wouldn’t put it past my damned family to salt the wound like this.”
Tajani walked past them both. “”Let’s just get to the Gate.”
The journey through the city was quick. A contingent of guards had insisted on accompanying them, though they met no resistance, and in fact the streets were mostly empty by now. The mountains to the city’s south got closer, and they wound their way around to the south of Sha-Mikat. A well-worn path led into an unassuming sandstone grotto shaded on every side by steep desert cliffs. Tajani had walked this road countless times, to pray at one of the holiest of places, that which stood before them all then, a towering stone doorway carved deep into the cliff-face. The details were intricate, but the facade weathered, betraying the structure as older than any other. Indeed sand had blown up high against its base, and the doors seemed utterly unmovable, not only due to their enormous size, but also that there were no discernible cracks in the stone itself. It seemed at first glance like a mere carving, and yet Tajani felt its presence, its holiness, and knew that once, so long ago, in a more peaceful time, it had been open. The Gate of Yongit, closed during the Deep Magic Rebellion, sealing their God inside ever since.
There was a moment of silence among the group. Abilel slowly, meditatively, opened the book he clutched closed to his chest, turning each ancient, fragile page with a religious precision.
“Here,” he said in a hushed voice, looking back up at the gate. “The Story, for opening the Gate. It’ll have to be crafted.” He looked at Qela.
Tajani tensed. “Storycrafting? How are we to do that?”
Abilel opened his mouth to speak, but Qela put up a hand and stepped forward. “Tajani, I am a Storycrafter. I-”
“Pardon me?” Tajani charged up to Qela, looking at the younger woman in the eyes. “A Storycrafter?”
“Yes, your Scholarliness. I wanted to say of it earlier, but I was worried that you would, well…” She gestured to her mentor’s aggressive stance.
Tajani paused and stepped back slightly. “This cannot go undiscussed. Have you burned books, to practice your… art, while under my tutelage?”
Qela’s face fell. “Yes. But never from the Miktaban! And I have always been sparing, never more than I need.” She looked back up towards Tajani, a clear shame in her eyes. “It kills me each time as much as it would you.”
Tajani felt burning inside her. A Storycrafter, a book-burner, committing her sins, while under her very watch! The fires of Sha-Mikat felt far more personal. But the shame in Qela’s eyes, the regret and sincerity. This woman was one of the most pious people she had ever met, and her strongest pupil. She would have trusted her, relyed on her, far sooner than any sniveling old Mikat politician that claimed to respect the holiness of books.
She unclenched a fist that she hadn’t realized she was making. “This will not be over.”
Qela nodded soberly.
Jamitayyin stepped up between them, gesturing to the Gate. “I won’t pretend that I care as much about this as you two do, but we are in the middle of war! Can we discuss this later? And save our people first?”
Tajani let out a stressed breath. “Yes, of course, Jamitayyin. Abilel, would you?”
The old man nodded and handed the book tenderly to Qela. She ran her eyes over the page, soaking in the words. After a moment she lowered it and looked up. “This is a powerful Story. Simple, but intense to tell. I do not possess any Story that will work.”
Jamitayyin turned back to her. “Well what does that mean?”
There was a pause. “It means we have to burn a book,” Tajani said.
“There’s only one book here,” Jamitayyin said, glancing at the tome in Qela’s hands.
Abilel gasped. “That is an ancient manuscript! Written during the Enlightened Age, perhaps one of a kind.”
“Then what other option do we have, Abilel?” Qela asked. “We don’t have time to go back to the Miktaban to find another, not without giving the Badhit and Iqashit more than enough time to reach the capital.”
Tajani’s fist returned, the hopelessness building inside her. If she burned a book, if she sinned, to prove her faith, then how was her faith in any way proven. But if she did not, then the Gate would remain closed, and her faith would forever be impure regardless.
Abilel closed his eyes, as though to recite scripture. “The Story of another, an individual, could be used. It is rare, but known. The Stories of people are powerful things indeed, and can be willingly given to a Storycrafter.”
Qela lowered the book, looking at the old man. “Abilel, no.” He simply re-opened his eyes and returned a smile.
Her faith would forever be impure. Tajani stepped between them. “Then take mine, Qela.”
Jamitayyin immediately grabbed her shoulder. “Absolutely not.” He pulled her back. “The world needs Tajani. I failed my people, the Miktaban, and Yongit. If anyone is sacrificing themself here, it is me.”
Abilel raised his hand peacefully. “Respectfully, I won’t allow either of you this honor. Neither of your stories are complete. I am old, my clan is all but dead, I am, as you could say, prime kindling.” Qela opened her mouth to speak, but Abilel put his hand on her shoulder and looked her in the eyes. “Girl, everyone else here has a future, a future in returning Yongit to the OnKitabie and bringing peace to our people. I am done with my mortal life.”
Neither Tajani nor Jamitayyin objected, instead stepping back. They watched as Abilel closed the book in Qela’s hands, then turned towards the Gate and knelt. Qela set the book on the sand by her feet.
“I have no idea how this works, Qela,” Tajani said. Who was this woman, Storycrafter, scholar, warrior, who Tajani had somehow ended up mentoring?
Qela released a long, stressed breath, stretching her arms before her, towards the Gate. She held her right hand up, pointed towards the carving, and placed her other gingerly on Abilel’s head. The man closed his eyes peacefully.
Qela spoke out, her voice echoing against the cliffs. “Abilel Kazeyish, chieftain of your people, devout follower of Yongit, do you give me your Story to open this Gate and save our people?”
Abilel’s “yes” was almost too quiet to hear.
Qela sucked in another breath. Her eyes opened. Tajani saw that determination, that ferocity to do right, and that fragileness. She knew that kind of youthfulness. The best kind, the kind insistent on forcing the world to become better. She had been that once. Now, on the eve of her triumph, she realized that she still very much was, despite the illusions of age trying to convince her otherwise.
“I am of the desert-born.” Qela’s Story cracked against the stones.
“I am of the spirit blood. I am of the past, and I am the future. I am of the book-taught.”
She lowered her hand slightly, and her voice dropped to an almost-whisper.
“And I am worthy of this Court.”
A wind blew in from the south, scattering the grotto’s sandy ground. As it echoed around the mountains, Abilel, eyes closed, let out a breath that mixed with the wind, flowing through the sand that blew around the Gate. His eyes opened, but their light faded quickly, joining the wind as a column of sand was blasted up into the sky just before the Gate. Qela’s outstretched hand tensed, as though it was part of the wind as well. For a moment, Tajani thought she saw Qela’s eyes glowing slightly, a white that channelled, empowered, or even directed the wind that whipped by. Tajani and Jamitayyin were forced to step back as the whirlwind of sand before them climbed higher in the sky, above the mountains, and roaring as fiercely as a thunderstorm.
And in the chaos, as Abilel’s body slumped and disappeared into the sand, Tajani saw the stone of the cliff moving. The Gate, slowly, powerfully, swung open.