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The Dead Letter

Musings on the Xenology of Nations
(Part Six)

Zaduth-Jar, Keeper of the Dead


I will press on, and finish my reply to your bible, old friend, that Theralda may leave. I am fairly certain that the department plans to act with regard to my case, and I am also fairly sure that they are waiting for my guest to depart. I have not told her what will happen to me; when she delivers this manuscript, I hope you will explain it to her, and tell her that my relations with the two of you have been an error, perhaps, but a sweet and wonderful one. Ah, I am a melodramatic old cur. Perhaps there was no error, but only my Fate; perhaps I will win the contest with my Shadow Friend, and my errors were in the end a path to glory. I should be clear: even in that case, you will not know me anymore; the Zaduth-Jar you know will be gone, replaced by someone better, in my terms, but probably not nearly as interesting, in yours. Ah well.

I am afraid my reaction on your Visions chapter is somewhat like that with the Elves; clever as you are, great Al-Fath-Hunda'ath-Banezub-Hazraa, I hope I will not offend if I submit that you are easily taken in by the propaganda of the Clarity Nations. Visions may have very little weight, but they clearly have inertia; all that is required is to strike one on the battlefield to discover that. Though I know of no Keeper who has had the pleasure of dissecting a Vision, as they tend to spontaneously combust at death, I am sure that it could be accomplished in principle, and that the Vision's body would contain organs and tissues: strange ones indeed, but there nonetheless. For beings "able to exist across all time", they are remarkably bad at dodging blows from an accomplished Keeper swordsman. One would think this transtemporality would make them somewhat better at strategy and tactics, or perhaps at moving; but other than their ability to walk on water, it seems to take a Vision battalion as long as anyone else to travel!

They do seem strangely composed; when struck, they seem to bleed light. It is not clear to me whether Visions eat; they have extremely protean features, and their mouths may be present merely as cosmetic features, as a kind of protective mimicry of the other Nations. I am tempted to follow the opinion of Fanar-Chahr in this matter, who holds that Visions are essentially solar creatures, deriving energy from sunlight, as Dwarven experiments have shown that plants do as well. However, Dwarven mechanical calculations also lead one to believe that the motive energy Visions display is much more than that which plants derive from sunlight, leading one to the conclusion that this is not their only energy source. It may of course be the case that Visions are able to convert Hope into motive force, in a manner similar to Mages' spellcasting; I am certainly no thaumaturge, but I find this somewhat suspect. Mages are chary with Mana: if every Vision archer or messenger tapped this power, I would expect them to use Visions reluctantly. Perhaps Visions are connected in a limited fashion to a brighter plane, and draw energy from there as well as from the sun.

As for the various descriptions of the Visions' Eternal Home, they are charming, and I am not one to scorn anyone's religious ecstasies, but after all, that is just what they are: visions. It is not surprising that Visions do not speak clearly of their Home, since as I have remarked, they never give a straight answer to anything. (I am amused to remember that as a pup, I believed Clarity must have something to do with factualness, and that the denizens of the Clarity Houses must be straightforward types. How far from the truth!)

Visions are at least brave on the battlefield, or rather they seem relatively indifferent to death.

One of the intriguing aspects of the house of Hope is its ability to attract converts from the other Nations, although unlike with Shadows and Misfits, the defectors do not become Visions, but simply follow them. In a sense this is not much different from our taking of slaves, though those involved are enslaved by Hope itself, rather than by force. Of the two, Hope is by far the sterner taskmaster. Zanaa herself, of course, was no Vision, although it is not clear just what she was (my guess is Human, given her apparently mercantile knowledge of the Vast Desert.)

Though I am somewhat skeptical, I basically credit the idea you advance about Vision's infancy as immaterial essences influencing the emotions of sentients. Partly, because this makes sense of Hope's ability to attract defectors. However, there is another well-known theory, which I find appealing because of its parallelism to the Lesser Summoning of Imps; that Visions are born on another plane and summoned by sentient beings who, in desperation, turn to Hope; summoned indirectly, in that the Visions either first appear incorporeally, and then gain solidity, or appear only later or elsewhere; or in very extreme cases, summoned directly. In any event, as with Imps, there are also communities of visible Visions living in the world, usually in the presence of Mages of Hope, but not always. They engage in little commerce, but they do evangelize among the other Nations. In addition to those who explicitly defect to Hope and become the servants of the Visions, groups of many nations that build walled sanctuaries in inaccessible areas (many are to be found in the Vast Desert, others in mountain fastnesses, others in the jungles of Utabo, others in lakes among the Nereids), Visions send emissaries to spread their message -- which frankly, if you ask me, is hardly a message at all, but more of a mood -- particularly among Elves and Satyrs, who almost always receive them; Djinn -- particularly the Ch'tai Academy; and Dwarves, who I think put up with them more out of courtesy than anything else. These groups one would predict, as they are naturally allied with Hope; but Vision emissaries are also found not only among Humans and Gargolyes, but even among Cyclopes and Misfits (though I think the mutual incomprehension and bafflement is quite high in those cases.)

There is a natural tension between these emissaries' purported role to advise, rouse, and give solace, and their missionary activities. The former is not insubstantial: in the presence of Visions, I myself have felt that sense of endless possibilities, that lightness of the internal organs, that restless yet serene yearning which their presence inspires in all sentients. I found it quite disturbing. The dogged, childish belief of the Humans that everything is going to turn out physically -- that the cavalry will arrive -- is simply absurd; but this Vision spell, the feeling that everything will turn out *cosmically* all right, is wrong but seductive. They are dangerous creatures, make no mistake. If they are carefully controlled, another Nation can indeed use these emissaries to inspire their troops with (false) courage, to rouse a monarch struck with listlessness, and so forth. But like the embalmer who begins to sip motive ichor to work longer hours, they are playing with fire.

Many Nations have found this out; the obvious case is that of the Dwarves of Vandesford, in the far cold South. There a dwarven fastness, which was imperilled by repeated attacks from semi-civilized Snow Trolls (by the way, it has been conclusively proved by dissection that Trolls are not related by blood to Cyclopes, though the supposition is that their provenance is also of the House of Body) and by hunger, accepted Vision emissaries to boost morale. These then offered to send a garrison of Vision troops as reinforcements. In the end, the Snow Trolls were decisively beaten, but by this time the entire community had converted to the House of Hope, abandoned the Dwarven arts altogether, and become a huge sanctuary, which was attracting more converts continually. The other Dwarves of the area, led by the Mage of Making Jandar, were compelled to make war upon their own people out of duty to their House, and to stop the flow of defectors draining their reserves. After this, Vision emissaries in the South were forced to agree to certain limits on their activities, but you can never really reason with fanatics. (Of course, the blame can be laid at the feet of the other Dwarven communities for relying on the Visions to reinforce their brethren in the first place, probably the fault of a corrupt or naive administration, or these endless Dwarven political intrigues).

So ends my review of your bible. Publish it, my friend; in these times, it is vital that the Nations understand one another. Immoderate warmaking, driven by ideological rigidity, threatens to litter our world with corpses which will go unburied and unremembered, swelling the ranks of the Tasaral, and that is a fate I wish on no creature, not even an Elf. Not only that, but as these tides rage, we will be driven more and more into the hands of Mages; pitted against one another, the tribes and cities of the Twelve Nations will cede their independence to the spell-lords, to serve them on the battlefields and in their mighty Sancta. I do not trust Visions, I do not trust Seelies; but even less do I trust Mages, even (or especially!) our own. They are not of our world, my friend. They may claim to be our protectors, our champions, but we are playthings to them.

Soon, one way or another, the Zaduth-Jar you knew is no more. Be well, be clear of Mind, and I hope you will allow me to express my earnest wish that at the end of your days (which I suppose you prefer to be many), you truly grasp the Night. It is not our way to prosyletize like Visions; we bury with the proper ceremony, and let the soul take care of itself. But you are an exceptional Djinn, for your willingness to ask questions for which Reason may not be sufficient, for which one must seek unknown answers in the World; so I am moved to pray that that same courage of Will lead you in the end to realize the Mystery, the unanswered question, in which all sentience ends.

Your friend,

Zaduth-Jar, Keeper of the Dead

Go back to Part 5




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