The Dead Letter
Musings on the Xenology of Nations
I must confess, it has been some days since I last wrote. I have been avoiding this section.
My hand shakes; I am in the presence of that holy fear, a priceless gift I know, yet not one I embrace with my whole being.
I have watched myself carefully, said nothing of my political convictions for years now, made no further attacks on the radical Sar-nanardu-chal (the romantic isolationists I mentioned earlier who blame the supposed fall of Keepers from their ancient glory on the introduction of Nanardi from the other Nations); I have not published the fruits of my xenological research.
Still, they know. I have been passed over again and again for the privilege of being killed and embalmed; I am now by far the oldest lecturer in the department, all the others having been granted rest in a manner that is said to almost guarantee Tasharafun. I have never been financially successful; I cannot even afford a suspect peasant's mound burial with a single paid funereal howler and a cheap enamel inscription in a crowded public hall. I have been snubbed, excluded from every burial society in the city. I am growing daily more enervated. I twitch.
Theralda's visits are a comfort and a solace, but also a mixed blessing. She is well esteemed by my people, and a few decades ago my association with her would have brought me honor. But in the current climate, such a relation with any outsider, particularly a Dwarf, is highly suspect. I fear it worsens my case.
In fact, I believe I am guilty of the unspoken accusations. First, I am a heretic. I have long since gone beyond the accumulation of useful knowledge for the business of easing the way into the darkness, or the quest for the open question that leads to the apprehension of Mystery. I have been seeking knowledge-for-it's-own-sake, or worse yet, certainty. I am infected with Clarity, I stink of it. I do not blame you, friend; if a fool tries to builds a pyramid from water, no one blames the water for his failure.
Second, I am a traitor. We are Keepers of Secrets, yet I have been yapping our secrets to the wind.
Third, I am mad. Each time I have been passed for the honor of the grave, I have grieved, but another voice in me, an alien voice, has been relieved. Not that I love prancing creakily in this outworn body!
No, it is that clarity-lust, that hunger after knowledge, that makes me foolishly glad for more days in the too-bright, twitching, noisy, stinking world of the living. As if learning more would do more than poison me for that moment when I face the Bone-white Fathers, and all is swept away!
The Shadow Friend
There is but one cure for a Keeper with the disease I have. I know it, but I do not report my crimes, and beg for the honor of the cure. Partly I am afraid that they will not waste the resources on an old fool like me; they will leave me as I am, only more of a laughing stock; or end me, but let me lie unburied, unmarked, soon to be Tasaral. But even more, I think, I am afraid of the cure itself.
The cure is a Shadow Friend.
Shadows and Keepers are brothers in Mystery, we have ancient and strong relations. In some sense, the foreign policy of the Keepers has always been divided between a faction, usually the majority, which prizes Shadows as our most important allies, followed by Imps, and an almost always much smaller faction that looks to Dwarves and Gargoyles. I am by nature of this Orderite faction, which is now more even than usual in disrepute. The Sar-nanardu-chal are Strifites, and very close to the Shadows; of all the Nations, only the Shadows brought no Nanardi, no ideas or fancies; instead, Shadows bring nightmares, which are Tanardi, one of the most sacred states of existence.
The institution of the Shadow Friend is old, much older than the current political scene; it was already well established and much used even in the days of Queen Bes-Kandra, the greatest partisan of the Orderites ever among our monarchs. In those days, however, it was a sort of duel, an honor match between our two peoples. Now it is more a test, penance, punishment and therapy for the Keeper; the Shadow chosen is a kind of professional in the matter.
The Keeper is assigned a Shadow. The Shadow stays with him always, sings to him, gives him tasks, touches him. The Shadow may take him away, into the desert, or stay with him in a little room, or follow him about his daily routine, where no one will look his way or acknowledge the Shadow's bleak existence.
The Shadow is expert in being horrible, expert in conjuring Despair, in finding the fond memories, self-indulgent whimsies, little boasts and longings that accrue to the brains of Keepers in this imperfect, restless, too-bright life, and crushing them to ash and silence; in finding the idiosyncratic, unconfessed, secret fears, frustrations, and bitternesses we each harbor, and making of them huge chambers in which the two of them dwell. In the first stage, the Keeper is stripped bare, breaks down, confesses his sins, and, no matter how well he knows the system, expects to be forgiven and freed. In the second stage, he loses all dignity, cries and pleads, howls madly, tries violence, tries patience, tries escape, and always fails. In the third stage, the Keeper becomes numb, loses all sensation, sits dully rocking back and forth. Some of the most inexperienced Shadow amateurs fail to move beyond this point, but as I mentioned, they are no longer employed. In the fourth stage the wounds are ripped open again, and in a final searing clash the Keeper's personality is destroyed. In the fifth stage the husk of the Keeper is exposed to deeper pain, guilt, horror, desperation, and remorse. And in the sixth stage, the Keeper starts to become a Shadow.
Only in this stage does the ancient duel begin, between the old Keeper-nature and the new Shadow-nature of the his being. It is a sacred contest for us, articulating as it does the sacred balance between Mystery and Will. Up until now the Keeper's struggles have all been to save his identity, or to not see the true pain and horror before him; and as he is at bottom a creature of Mystery, one who must confront the white bones in the darkness, he will always fail. But now his Keeper-nature rebels, now that the Shadow lure has already taken hold; and now not to save himself, now without any more idea of who or what he is, with no reasons, no excuses, no ideas, his Will emerges, to dominate the Strife boiling within him and drive it out.
Or to try to, anyway.
If his will is strong enough, if he deserves the name Keeper of the Dead, he vanquishes the Shadow-spirit and emerges purged of all flaws, owning Mystery, a true servant of the Will, clean, eager to embrace the Bone-white Fathers, or, if he must, to remain in this world, to dominate it, to show it Mystery. Depending on the contract, sometimes he is permitted to execute the Shadow Friend and bury him with honor; sometimes the Shadow simply leaves. He is never the same being again, but he is redeemed, revered, even heroic.
If his will fails, he becomes a Shadow, and the Shadows leave together for their own country. He was not fit to be a Keeper, and the Shadows are glad to have him. I am speaking metaphorically: I do not think Shadows are really ever glad. They have a kind of contentment-in-horror, a satisfaction of being given over entirely to Despair. Though they never cooperate or speak unless pressed into joint service by a Mage, they have a kind of bleak fellowship; unlike Keepers and Djinni, Shadows do not judge each other.
I do not think my will is strong enough. I think I will be slipping through the mountains soon.
There are other choices. I could leave Bes-Tharal. I could travel to other Keeper cities, though I doubt it would be much different there: the mood of the times is everywhere. I could perhaps find a place in some human warlord's court, although I despise humans; there are humans who employ renegade Keepers as executioners and torturers; though we do not relish the latter work as Imps do, we are more reliable, and our knowledge of anatomy makes us skillful at it. And of course, the other transformation is always open; I could find the nearest encampment of the Misfit fotoau, embrace their ways, choose Unmaking, and become one of them, as purely and completely as with the Shadows. Actually that would be the safest route in a way: anywhere else, in a human court or a satyr glen or a dwarven stronghold, if the Sar-nanardu-chal decided to make an example of me, they could send a Keeper legion to escort my Shadow Friend, and in these times, what other Nation would be sure to defend an outsider from his own people? But the Misfits make no such distinctions; the rawest newcomer who chooses them is one of their own.
But this is all idle foolishness. I will not run. I am a mad heretic traitor, but I am a Keeper, and I follow my people's way. In the end, I believe it is the right way; this identity, with its addictions, quirks, and preoccupations, is a burden. I may not adhere with perfect orthodoxy to the belief in the sixteen levels of existence; I may not even be entirely convinced that the vast elaborate ceremony of a King's embalming confers all that much advantage over a pauper's grave; but I believe in the core of the Keeper Way, that in the end we are alone, confronting the Mystery, the lonely question to which there is no answer; in the end, the self and all its baggage are stripped away, and we stand before the Dark Fathers; we go into the night and are forgotten, and this conscious instant is our brief chance to know the Night, to embrace it with whole and holy fear, that we may be loved and nourished by the final peace.
Shadows are not all dark, by the way; the most terrible, those most often chosen for Keeper's Friends, are bone-white and ash-gray; and there are rumors that the oldest and most horrific shadows of all are transparent, so that they could be anywhere, they could be with you this moment, and that they pass through walls (the three types are respectively known as Shades, Shrouds and Specters).
~ Zaduth-Jar, Keeper of the Dead
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