i shall remain
a fable about divinity, choice, and the meaning of freedom
“The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away” – Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”
dawn has just begun to crawl into the sky, its colours flaring orange, violet, and green through the smog, when the warlord arrives at my temple by sea. Selen, my gorgon, hisses and uncoils her enormous body from where she is wrapped around one of the unfallen pillars in my sleeping chamber. her serpent mane frothes, a hundred forked tongues testing the air in anticipation. but Selen does not need to warn me. i know he is here.
it has been so long since my last supplicant that my skin has gone hard and cracked, like clay left out in the sun. scales rain down from my head-tails as i rise from the lichen-covered dais where i have lain for the past three moon cycles. the sound of the warlord’s motorcade echoes off the cliff walls into which my temple is etched. i can hear only a few engines – three or four at most, which is unsurprising. even warlords fear being known to visit me.
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i cross the stone room and stand before my altar, Selen at my side. she licks my hand as i caress her absently. gingerly, i lift the box of beaten metal and seashell on the altar and slide back its lid every so slightly. light – life – flares within, and i snatch it, this morsel of soft, shimmering essence, between my long sharp fingernails. this is the last. i have saved it all this long while, denying myself, in anticipation of this day. no matter. it shall soon be replenished a thousand times over.
throwing my head back, i drop the shred of essence into my open jaw. warm floods through my body, down my throat and into my gullet. in that moment, i am, briefly, everything – the roaring of the ocean, the sting of the salt. i am the sky and the screaming drones that fly beneath it. i am the sun-blasted earth and the spined plants that take root within.
the euphoria of the essence fades, but its replenishing effect does not. my skin is as fresh and moist as the day i was first called into Being in the Shining City. my scales, fully restored, are iridescent, bright as stars. my headtails are long and supple. sensing my transformation, the surge of my Divinity, Selen purrs and rubs her body against mine in ecstasy.
i smile, reveling in the sensation. for in rare moments like this, my Divinity is for no one else – not for Shining Daddy, not for any supplicant – it is just for me.
i walk the cavernous expanse of the chamber, skirting broken statues and toppled pillars as i go. i step out onto the once-majestic ziggurat carved into the cliff in which my temple was made.
ascending the steps from the beach is the warlord, dressed in raiments of red and black leather and silver metal. from his colours i discern that he is the greatest warlord in the region – the one to which other warlords pay tribute in food and oil and labour and other such affairs in which i have little interest. he is the one the others fear. on the sand below wait his guards, a lonely pair of them, and sworn to secrecy on pain of death, no doubt.
i stand and wait. Selen towers on all fours behind me, her serpent writhing and spraying venom into the air.
he reaches the top of the ziggurat, one step below mine, and stops. he pulls off his war-mask – an ugly, crudely wrought thing – and i see that his face is weathered and lined. he old in the years of those who dwell Below, but his body is muscled and strong. in his eyes, i see the deaths of all those he has killed, an unending vision of slaughter. i hear their screams, their pleas for mercy, i hear the threats this man, this Below-dwelling creature, has uttered in the dark.
in his hands, i see the blood he has spilled, the bodies he has beaten and torn apart. these are hands soaked in the stories of violence, hands that could break open a creature such as i, fragile as i have become since Shining Daddy forsook me.
his eyes wander over my naked body, my shining scales and head-tails, my bare breasts and phallus. hunger sparks within him, and wonder, and fear, and greed.
kneel before me, i say, and he does.
in the Shining City, i wanted for nothing. i had power, and grace, and wisdom beyond measure. i was Best Beloved, Daddy’s Delight, preferred child of the Shining Father by whose Divinity we are all called into Being.
i had many names, then, and titles too, though even i have forgotten most of them by now. i tended His garden and His creatures and drew his chariot. i built great monuments of crystal and coral and shimmering nacre in testament to His glory. i delivered His judgments to the dwellers Below, and they looked at me in terror and awe. all this was mine, and more.
my highest honour, however, was the time i spent each evening in the uppermost tower of the Shining City. there, i and i alone attended to Shining Daddy. there, i performed the duty that i loved the most: i sang for Him the songs of Creation. i sang with the voice that He had given me, the voice that sounded like the light of His Divinity piercing the darkness of the void for the first time. i was that light, that sound, that colour, that song. no other in all of Creation had been given a voice such as mine. every night, i sat upon his lap and sang my heart out for him.
it would be a lie to say that i don’t still miss those nights, sometimes.
He took my singing voice away when i left the City. what Shining Daddy gives to you, Shining Daddy can take back. This is not a punishment, He said at the time. For I do not punish my children. Even as you abandon me, you must know that I love you still.
but he took it away, all the same.
the warlord kneels at the mouth of my temple and performs the ritual sacrament, a hodgepodge of prayerful words and gestures that he does not know the meaning of. likely he learned it from a Below-dwelling priest or sage, some mumbler of fables and mythic half-truths.
i take the offering from his outstretched hand, a jangle of metal coins and jewels and computer circuitry. a small fortune to those who live and die Below, but nothing to me except that it is a sacrifice. it is something that is given up for something granted in return. this, the most ancient of sacraments, still holds power in the Below.
i put a hand to his chin and raise him to his feet. taking him by the hand, i lead him back into the temple, the gorgon hissing at our heels. he tries not to react but cannot help from recoiling from Selen ever so slightly, which pleases me. powerful men should have something to fear.
we enter the shadowy cavern of the temple’s inner chamber. the warlord cannot see in the dark, but i smile. i love this next part.
raising my arms in the air, i rasp a long, guttural sound that rends the air and makes the warlord shudder. my days of song may be over, but my voice has some power in it still. behind us, Selen rises on her hind legs and croons in harmony.
on the wall all around us, bioluminescent mosses and algaes flare to glowing, blue-green life. the lichens growing on my dais alight as well. the effect is satisfyingly dramatic, and the warlord is suitably impressed. i turn to him, standing at my full height, and drink in his frightened wonder.
bare yourself, i say to him, and he does, scrabbling at his garments like a child ordered by its parents to bathe. in moments, he is naked, and though his body is heavily muscled and criss-crossed with battle scars, he is boyishly shy, shifting from one foot to the other. so much the better. he will not think to try and violence against me, to seize against my will what i am not prepared to give.
i am one of the lucky ones. there are others like me in the Below, fallen children of the Shining City, who have no temple to sleep in, no gorgon to guard them. when i left Shining Daddy’s side, i took with me the vestiges of the great power that his favor afforded me: the powers of creation, transformation, and healing.
I was the first: the first that Shining Daddy called into Being and also the first to leave him. many of those who have since followed me were not so favored, and so they brought less power with them into the world Below.
those few of us whose Divinity remained intact enough to do so created temples and monuments on the edges of the society of Below-dwellers, drawing them in with our powers of glamour. we took our great familiar daemons from the City with us as guides and guardians, relying upon them to keep us safe from the violence of those Below-dwellers who sought to destroy or enslave us.
but the greater part of my ex-Shining siblings had been granted no daemon familiars in the first place. their powers of Divinity had been small in the Shining City, and are smaller still Below. unable to reshape the elements at will and without guardians to protect them, these members of my brethren are forced to wander the murky depths of the Below with only meagre enchantments for protection.
they wander from city to city seeking offerings and sacrifice, seeking essence from the dwellers Below. sometimes they receive it, for there are dwellers who still know the true meaning of Divinity.
but sometimes, marked as monsters by their wings, scales, tentacles, and other physical features uncommon to the Below-dwellers, they are often attacked and hunted down, tortured and slain. some are forced to endure such agonies of physical labor has have never been known within the ivory walls of the Shining City.
worst of all, however, is when the Below-dwellers discover the power of the fallen ones’ Divinity, its miraculous effect on life, and attempt to take it for themselves. they do so with violence, instead of the offerings, the essence, that we require.
yet despite these horrors, small scores of my fallen siblings continue to leave the City. every few centuries, another one arrives in the Below. they will follow you, Best Beloved Shining Daddy said to me once, they will finish what you have begun.
he did not say, you are leading them to ruin. he did not say, you have brought suffering and death to your brethren, Best Beloved, first of my children.
he did not need to say it.
the warlord lies naked on my altar. in the blue-green light of the bioluminescent algae, i can see the greying sores, open and weeping, that mark his body. the stink of decay, of mortality, comes from them. in these wounds, i see a future full of pain and slow dying.
is it true, the warlord murmurs, his eyes wide, that you can heal me, goddess? or god, or whichever it is that you are?
i do not answer him for a brief time. i let him rest in the fear, in the knowledge that his life is in my hands. i was not always so cruel. but time in the Below has hardened me.
yes, i say finally. it is true. and he moans in relief, this fierce hard man who has tortured and slain. tears run down his scar-lined face to water the moss of my temple with liquid salt.
the gift of my Divinity is delivered through touch. it has always been, since beginningless time. some of my fallen Brethren perform the miracle of healing through the transfer of breath; others, through the sharing of blood. still others do so through acts of consensual violence, a deliverance through the pleasure that is born out of pain. there are as many ways to exchange Divinity as there are Daddy’s children.
it begins, however, must always begin, with intimacy. with trust. with sacred exchange. this is an ancient law, a law that is older than the Shining City, older than me, older perhaps than even Shining Daddy himself.
blasphemy, He would say, if he heard me say this. once again, you break my heart with your infidel thoughts, Best Beloved.
with slow deliberation, i lay my hands on the warlord’s nude body. he cringes reflexively, for the feel of my flesh on his is strange, but i do not falter. i lay my palms against the hair and skin, the muscle and sinew of his chest, until his breathing his steady and his eyes are calm. and then i begin.
it starts with long, slow, gentle strokes. at my mental command, my palms secrete a sweet-smelling oil that smooths their path. the warlord makes a small, wordless sound of pleasure. i continue on, my strokes gradually becoming deeper, until i can feel the radiance of his life within – the energy currents of essence that flow through all living beings. my Divinity calls to that essence, heightens and awakens it. the man beneath me moans.
deeper and deeper into his body i dive, increasing each movement until my breasts are flush against his chest, my thighs pressed into his midsection. my head tails coil and uncoil, caressing his face and throat, sliding down to touch each part of his body. he grunts and presses against me, hard, then harder still. with powerful hands, he grabs my arms pulls me against him. emotion and sensation roil within him, his essence burning beneath my touch.
overcome, he grabs my throat.
the gorgon roars and crashes down from above, slamming her forelegs onto the altar on either side of my and warlord’s entwined bodies. he cries out in terror as her jaws plunge down, but caught in the gaze of the golden-eyed snakes that make up her mane, he cannot move. he is transfixed.
Selen holds him there, caught and squirming for a long, terrible moment. the bravado drains from him. i feel his terror, his surrender. i pluck his hand from my neck and catch his gaze with mine.
do not presume, i say, and he makes the barest of nods. Selen withdraws and his muscles go slack beneath me.
i give him time to recover, and then we begin again.
there are those who might whisper that i was banished from the Shining City for crimes of blasphemous thought. others still might say that i attempted a coup, that i grew arrogant and prideful of my own powers. they might say that I gathered a host of rebellious brethren by night and led them in fruitless revolt against the omnipotence of our creator.
those who say such things are credulous fools, or else venal gossips. they know nothing of Shining Daddy nor the nature of His love. Shining Daddy banishes no one; his methods are not so crude. Shining Daddy never withdraws his affections, for a love that ends is an imperfect love, and my Father is perfection itself.
i want you to know, He said to me on the day that i left, that you do this by choice, and by choice alone. my love is infinite and unending. you are the one who spurns it.
i know, i replied, for what else was there to say?
let it be known, He further decreed, that I am as merciful as I am powerful, as powerful as I am wise. and so my forgiveness is always available to you, my child. you need only repent, and you may return to me.
i know, i replied.
willful Beloved, most ungrateful of children, Shining Daddy said to me, I see that you are resolved in this, to carry your corruption to the ends of space and time and back into the void from whence I summoned you. and for what? for foolish pride? for some juvenile, short-sighted rebellion against the order of things, which neither you, nor I, nor any thing in this wide Creation might change?
no, i said, though i knew better than to argue. i go for a freedom of my own making. i go for a Divinity that is mine and mine alone, to give or withhold as i decree. i go because i have seen what lies Below, and i have seen the Shining City, and i have seen your great Design through to its end, and i will have no part of it, not while this freedom of will that you have given me still beats inside my chest.
and he might have been angry with me then, and stricken me, had he not been so perfect a being. perfection is not petty.
my child, he said, and his voice was terrible and gentle. my love and my Design are one and the same. they are as infinite and undying. freedom of will i have given you, for that is the nature of loving, but you can not and will never be free of my love.
i know, i said, for it was true. what else was there to say?
the warlord hums and writhes beneath my glowing hands. the essence within him rises and falls like the surging of the tide beyond my temple. higher and higher i ride its waves, until it crests and bursts within him, filling me with its light.
and for a single instant, i am there in the place where i was made. i smell its perfumed air. i see its skies, blue and free of the smog that chokes the Below. i hear its music, taste the sweetness of ambrosia, i soar among the vaulted arches and spires wrought in architecture so glorious that the memory of them still makes me long to weep.
essence. it is the power of Creation, of light in the Void. it gushes forth from the warlord’s body, filling me with life, and i drink it in thirstily – enough to last for several moon cycles, and to save for times of need. my Divinity flowers in answer, a glorious unfolding of silent song that nonetheless makes the air hum and the temple walls tremble. i blaze like a star, so bright that the warlord must shield his eyes.
and when the light fades, his sores are gone. his sickness is healed. this is power of Divinity when fed by the essence of dweller Below: life for life, a sacred exchange, the oldest sacrament.
the warlord shudders a final time. i sense the relief that rolls through his bones, followed by a sweet, aching sadness that wells up from the core of this wicked, wretched creature. in my presence, he longs to be more than what he is – more than this limited being ruined by the unrelenting violence and suffering of Below.
there was a time when i believed that my Divinity could cleanse the corruption of the dwellers Below. i thought that if only I could bring enough of them to me and my brethren, bring them to their knees with my power and grace, i might love them enough to turn this entire putrescent world into something both beautiful and free – a place purer than the Shining City ever was. for a time, I pursued this prideful dream, so that cults of Below-dwellers lived and died building monuments in my name.
the more fool, i. Shining Daddy’s love indeed runs deep – so deep that it found a home in my heart and tried to remake me in His image. i would have ruled the Below with His hand, in His Design, and thought myself free. but i know this now:
love that you cannot leave is not love.
the warlord is gone when the dusk begins to fall, returned to his petty wars of conquest. outside my temple, the ocean rises and falls. there were once giant creatures that swarmed through the waters of this place Below – leviathans that ruled over ecosystems of infinite variety. now, the boiling seas are full of poison and acid, giving rise only to vast fields of algae and the bacteria that live there.
my Father’s Creation is dying. it is collapsing in on itself, consuming itself. it may take eternity, but the day will come when it is gone.
from the ziggurat of my temple, if i strain what powers of vision are left to me, i can still glimpse the Shining City. it shimmers through the smog-filled skies of Below, invisible to all but me and my fallen brethren. even i can barely make it out – perhaps, after all this time, i am only imagining that i can see it.
further and further away it drifts from Below, unmooring itself from our inevitable descent into the Void. despite the unending chorus of anguish that echoes from this world, it has been many, many milliennia since Shining Daddy or the children who still serve him have descended to answer those prayers.
that is why those who dwell Below still seek us out, me and fallen siblings – monstrous though we may seem to them, with the stigma of blasphemy still clinging to us. ours is the only Divinity they might still hope to see.
it is not too late for me to escape this fate. even now, i can feel the pull of Shining Daddy’s promise. i need only repent. i could ride my gorgon into the sky, back to the Shining City, i could sit in His lap and sing to him in the highest tower. He would redeem me, forgive me, is waiting for me to return, i can feel it now, as i feel it every moment of every day.
i am tempted, sometimes.
but here i have chosen. and here i shall remain.
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