The Fall of the Word
by Chad Brunner
I am Namer.
Outside the window of my study, by the raging light of the torches held in misguided fists, I can see the stone portal at the entrance to the monastery, and the title etched into its gray skin: 'The Keepers of the Word'. But the angry shadows rising up from the valley far below could hardy decipher the strange carvings, and instead they spit out other titles... witch... devil... blasphemer. If only they were shown the reflection of the ignorance within their eyes, perhaps they might know the truth. But from the pounding on the great wooden door far below, and the frightened shouts of the acolytes, such an awakening is not to come this evening.
I turn from the window with a sigh, and Name the stone, which molds to my will and seals over the opening, to prevent the errant flaming arrow from finding its home in this sanctuary. It will only grant a few more moments of peace, but we have known this moment was to come, and we have prepared well. Already, I can hear the strict voices of the deacons, commanding the fearful students, demanding their focus for the task ahead. In a matter of moments, order is restored and the wood is Named in a trio of tongues, strengthening the portal from the assault of the villagers. There would be time now to prepare.
The Dawn of the Keepers arose with the rise of the Renaissance. We soared in the ecstasy of the Word and saw the power it had to bind the hearts and souls of man. We found our mentors in the writings of the Greeks and Hebrews; those ancient scholars who saw long ago the truth of the Word. We found our members in the universities and grand libraries of Europe; minds already blossoming to the potential of the Word, torn open in fevered sweats and night terrors from reaching too deeply beneath the ink bound upon each page.
Our truth comes from the genesis of existence. When the First Voice spoke the first Word, which was Light, and the Word parted oblivion, and the first Names became Day and Night. The First Voice spoke for six days, granting each facet of reality a unique Name. A Name which could be called upon to command mastery over it. A Name which could bind it to another, or scatter its essence to oblivion once more.
Thus, the Keepers existed in devotion to the First Voice, dedicated to the discovery and preservation of the Names of existence. We found our home in an ancient monastery in the heart of the mountains, and endured our seclusion to better serve the First Voice and our divine purpose.
Wood splinters and cracks downstairs as the door begins to weaken under the weight of the villagers' anger. We hold no contempt for their ignorance or fear, and already the students begin to fall quiet below in the antechamber, each accepting their fate. With a thunderous crack, the door explodes inward, and the barbaric howls spill into the sacred silence. I hear a few panicked pleas for mercy, but they are cut short with blade and club.
I can hear the bare, unwashed feet padding across the smooth stone and doors being torn from their hinges. In moments, the sickening smell of smoke winds its way to my chamber. The loss suddenly weighs heavy on me. Countless years of study destroyed in a flash of hatred. The lives of the others could have been replaced easily enough. But the knowledge is now lost forever.
I make the final preparations. Unlike the others, I will not spare those who challenge my private sanctuary. I look over the papers laid out before me, mentally reviewing the Words I will need for the battle ahead. With calm assurance, I stand and turn to the door as a distinct metallic step can be heard clunking up the stairwell. Alric, no doubt, come to challenge the head of the 'Coven' in singular combat. So be it. The Word shall protect me.
They were never meant to understand our purpose. They never wanted to know the truth of their existence. It was far easier for them to move through their lives, wrapped in the warm comfort of monotony, breeding like rabbits and dying in shallow graves. There is no arrogance in that analysis. It is merely a cold acknowledgement of the futility of their lives. They existed to continue the cycle and to provide those meats and vegetables we would need to survive in the monastery. We used our knowledge of agriculture and husbandry to increase their output tenfold, and merely asked for a small percentage of their harvests to fill our stores.
Looking back upon the incident, it is easy to see how merely the smallest seed of fear can soon grow into a rampant, choking weed which destroys the entire field. The acolytes were down in the village to gather the monthly stipend of food, when one of them happened to wander into the grazing lands of a herd of cattle. The bull became enraged and charged the intruder. In panic and fear, the student Named the bull, and struck it dead in a rather spectacular spray of blood and internal organs. In any other case, it might have been a matter of compensating the farmer for the loss of the stud, but the daughter of the farmer witnessed the scene and was disturbed, to say the least.
It didn't take long for the whispers of 'witch' to roll through the village like a cold fog, soon swirling around Alric, the Captain of the Guard. He took up the crusade like a warrior of old, pledging to purge the satanic taint from his lands. Soon, any misfortune in the city was attested to the presence of the monastery, and the shipments of food became smaller until they stopped entirely last month. Since then, the Keepers had rationed what little food remained, but it was only a matter of time before Alric came with the villagers to finish his 'divine' mission.
Silence lingers near the door for a moment as the footsteps stop. With a crash, the door explodes inward, revealing the dark visage of Alric in all his glory, splatters of blood across his armor and a fresh crimson stream running down the tip of his blade. His voice is a low baritone that rattles through the chamber.
"Prepare to return to Hell, Warlock!"
I raise my hands in mock defense, though I know no skin and bone could stand against blooded steel. But my power lies in the Word, and my victory is assured.
He raises the blade and charges to split me cleanly in half. I sing forth and Name the steel as the blade splashes harmlessly across me like quicksilver, falling to the floor in pools of liquid metal. The expression on his face is almost worth the price being paid below in the library.
"Defiler! You cannot stop the hand of the Lord!"
He falls upon me, the weight of his massive girth and armor crushing the breath from my lungs as we crash upon the table, scattering parchment into the air. His mailed fist raises high to crush my skull and I gasp the Word of stone, commanding the floor to rise up and shield me from the blow. His fist strikes the shield and the cracking of earth and bone rings out, followed soon by a howl of pain.
I manage to roll off the shattered remnants of the table, scrabbling back to a corner of the room, fighting to recover my breath. Without my voice, all of my knowledge would be for nothing. Alric staggers from the wound, his hand now hanging limply at his side, the hand useless for the moment. Reaching beneath his blood soaked surcoat, he draws a long, thin stiletto with his off hand.
I have only a moment to act as the hand raises to throw the blade, and I Name the heart, crushing it with the weight of reality itself. But even as death comes to take Alric to his righteous ends, the stiletto flies through the night and finds its home deep within my chest. In a matter of seconds, I feel the chill across my skin and blood flowing up into my throat. A single breath... a single Word to conclude this life.
Even Time is a Word, and I have thought what it might be like to go back to that single moment, to change the Word. To free myself from the bondage that now links my very essence to the stones of this fallen monastery. I watched the villagers finish their destruction, taking our corpses out into the library, burning our bodies with the books that had become our existence. It was a good end. I could not imagine a more fitting one for any of us.
I linger here in the hope someone might return to this sacred keep, with the knowledge to part the veil and ask for me to teach them the Word once more. As long as the stones remain, so shall I.
Silent and voiceless, I wait.
Story copyright © 1999 by Chad Brunner
Artwork "FOTW" copyright © 1999 by g.k. Senthil Kumar <firstname.lastname@example.org>