The Pyramids of Ungwë

Simon Whitechapel

Then the thief creeps from Ictammathaë’s treasury, his bottomless sack taut with the number-gems he hath reft. Yet as he sets foot to the sand, he snags the sack upon the claw of a hippogriff carved upon the portal — and lo! the Goddess wakes from Her enchanted sleep. She sets one of Her Lions roaring in pursuit as he flees. In the first ten paces, see what he drops and Her maidens will soon recover, counting his blasphemous tracks in the sand: the gems of one, two, three, five and seven, stuffed last of all into the sack; and in the further paces to twenty: the gems of eleven, thirteen, seventeen and nineteen, nestling beneath; but the gems are ever larger and bounce less easily forth: in paces one to fifty, he lets fall fifteen gems, but in paces fifty-one to a hundred only ten, and were it not that the Lion press him ever harder and his flight grow ever more frantic, the gems would cease to fall from the hippogriff’d rent in his sack. But he flees ever and the gems fall ever in his tracks, trembling to the roars of pursuit.
      “The Thief of Primes”, from The Heptagonal Books of Ictammathaë.

Tileä’ kuph’ hanazâm yiumgê, na-tileäk!” — “When the Lion escape!” — was the formula of incredulity or dismissal among the priests of Tsammogwer, for was It not fettered atop Earth’s pyramid in gold and guarded closer than the last water-gourd of a sand-storm-wildered caravan? Yet the deed was done: a securifer of the pyramid’s staff, lifting his ax to split the skull of an oryx for the Lion’s sole and noonday meal, had cried aloud through the prayers of purification and swung to crash the ax down on the first of the Lion’s golden fetters. In the three moments of incredulous horror that succeeded, he leapt and crashed the ax down thrice more; and the Lion was free.

As though It had long awaited the day, It sprang from Its dais and bounded down the pyramid steps, striking left and right at Its erstwhile worshippers with paws whereon, so it was later whispered, sam-fetters of one, two, three and five links still hung; and Its first tracks on the desert sand of the plain, arrowing north to the wilderness wherefrom Its primaeval sire and maternal ancestors were brought, were rusty with priestly blood. The motive for the nefandous liberation, little though it availed the stunned hierophants brought the initial news by weeping and bloody-handed underlings, was soon forthcoming, for although the securifer was torn asunder by knives and saws of the waiting oryx-butchers, maddened witnesses of his more-than-blasphemy, the disjecta membra were gathered for examination; and a brand was discovered upon the skin attached to a collop of shoulder-meat. ’Twas the hieroglyph of the moon-goddess Yrrîmdhel, seared there with glowing silver, and it was evident that the espionage and subversion of her persecuted votaries, hitherto nihilated by the rack and screws of the Solar Inquisition, had borne a single verrucose fruit, as century-swollen as it was poison.

For had not the fettered Lion of Earth’s pyramid, symbol of sun-god Tsammogwer, been a guarantee that the clime of Ungwë should remain searing as that silver brand, preserving the fragile architecture and natron’d mummies of her necropoles from the damp and rot of more northerly climes? And was not the Lion’s escape, however ’twere contrived, an equal guarantee that Tsammogwer’s golden smiles and laughter would turn to chilly sneers and disdain? Aye, aye, so the hierophants thought and all their underlings with them; nor was confirmation long in arriving. Fishermen along the balmy coast to the east reported that their catches were failing, and the failing warmth of the ocean currents was signaled in morning mists of a thickness and duration hitherto unknown, which crept further inland with every passing day.

Next, the river Odgdo, whose breadth scarcely varied during the year-course, swole to double, nay, triple, nay quadruple and quintuple strength, swirling brown and beery-foam’d from its rain-pelted headwaters to the north, and overspilling its banks again and again through Sisûza, the pyramid-city capital of Ungwë. The foundations of eight major, and thirty-seven minor, pyramids were flooded, with loss of much hieratic impedimenta and several scrolleries; eighteen pylons acquired a steepening tilt as the earth absorbed the flood around their bases, to topple one by one over the course of two days with giant splashes and thuds, as though of a giant striding leisurely about the city; mudflats and marshes stretched where plazas and ceremonial squares had once swirled with sun-parched dust; and the price of woolens and furs in the market of Sisûza rose beneath the purchase of all but the wealthiest.

Then the rain-clouds that had couched a week above the headwaters of the Odgdo sealed their cisterns and rode an unseasonal wind south to Sisûza, where their cisterns were unsealed again. The city woke around midnight to hear the heavens weeping, and soon every flat-roofed house echoed and re-echoed with a hundred leaks, whose rhythms were taken up by the feet of morning pedestrians, plashing through the mud of her inundated streets. A day later, with rain still falling and the street-mud deep enough to trap and drown the fleeing rats of the flooded granaries, two additional exotic sounds rose to uncaring heaven, for the sneezes and coughs of swift-blooming phthitic complaints could be heard everywhere, nor departed with the rains on the third day.

Now the city steamed in the returned sun, but Tsammogwer’s face was paled from previous days and a chilly damp seemed to have settled into the bones of the city’s inhabitants; and already many were seeking to emigrate to a kindlier clime. As swiftly as the price of woollens and furs had risen, the price of homes and furnishings fell, for it seemed apparent that the Lion-deserted city was sliding into its final doom and sellers outnumbered buyers as the stars of heaven outnumber the planets and moons. In a week, when news spread of the fungi and mildews now sprouting fast in the necropoles, nourished on the soaked mummies of the innumerable dead, the exodus became general and even the most devout priests faltered in mid-prayer atop their pyramids, where they burned flaring spices and balsams in invocation of Ungwë’s vanished heat. In a month, Sisûza was nine-tenths flooded and ninety-nine-hundredths deserted, and few indeed were the eyes that watched the mosses and algae beginning to soften and viridesce the sharp-cut faces and edges of her stone-work, or the young lichens that specked the lithoglyphic walls of her temples and the steps of her pyramids.

Among the few remaining inhabitants was a solitary votary of the goddess Ictammathaë, Tilimesh-Nak by name, who had watched his slender co-votaries, each carrying the simple styli and wax-tablets of his worship, desert the temple en masse for the cult-center of the goddess at Pek-Ictammathaër, whence they would be dispatched to fresh temples. He, selected by lot, had remained to preserve the cult’s claim to the temple and its site, and had thrown himself anew into the discipline of primal venation, wherein certain esoteric techniques of the undermind are employed in the search for greater and greater primes. Tilimesh-Nak’s favorite was the gem-hammer, whereby the venator mentally constructs a gem-mine and sieve-equipped sluice down which the diggings of the mine, representing the integers, are passed until the gem of a number, deemed somehow primal by the undermind of the venator, is caught in the sieve.

Hereupon the venator strikes the gem with known primes in the form of hammers. If it is divisible thereby, it will split, for the undermind will perform the brute operations of necessary arithmetic beneath the visualization; yet if it survive all the striking prime-hammers, it too may be pronounced prime and transformed in its turn for use upon a further sluiced gem. In this fashion Tilimesh-Nak passed five or six hours of every day; and perhaps once a week, among all the thousands of gems he had tested, he would be rewarded with a new prime to commit to his list. Other priests of Ictammathaë were engaged on the search, he well knew, but this was an expected precaution against error and he felt he might have pushed further ahead now, so free was his life in deserted Sisûza of distraction and disturbance.

When relaxing from his mental exertions, which might bring him to heavy sweat on the mildest day, motionless and close-lidded though he sat, he would paddle out over the marshes and meres of Sisûza in an improvised raft of flood-wood, visiting the transformed sites of familiar memory, checking his bird-traps and fishing-lines, and searching the flotsam desposited by the vagaries of the river Odgdo, which rose and fell capriciously and carved itself new courses almost daily through the city. Then one day he found the river flowing almost on the doorstep of his temple, turbid with the sand it was sweeping seaward; and when next it shifted course, it left a mere wherein Tilimek-Nak distinguished the shimmering outlines of an earlier temple of Ictammathaë, dug partly free from centuries of sand.

Steeling himself to the task with prayer and a handful of duck-fat, wherewith he rubbed his limbs and torso against the chilly water, he dove into the mere to investigate the temple, whose reappearance was surely no mere caprice of the river; and though it was a week before he were sufficiently practised to work at depth, thereafter he was retrieving the temple’s treasures in droves. Carved polyhedra he carried to the surface with baked tablets of cuneiform algebra and basalt astrometries of startling antiquity, and he grew increasingly convinced that he plundered, with Ictammathaë’s blessing, that lost temple immemorially mourned among Her priesthood, by whose sand-whelmed passing a millennium of wisdom had fallen into oblivion. Much of it had been re-discovered since then, it was true, but the modern priesthood lagged two or three centuries still and how Tilimesh-Nak longed to convey the news of the uncovered treasure to his fellows!

But he dared not set forth from Sisûza for Pek-Ictammathaër, guessing rightly that the journey was now burdened with recrudescent perils, and contented himself with carving the news into scraps of wood or pumice in a script unknown to the profane, before throwing them into the Odgdo below Sisûza, in hope that they would somehow be carried to gnorant eyes. And it was as he returned from such an expedition that, paddling by the algae-streaked and moss-softened bulk of the abandoned Pyramid of the Earth, he saw a gleam of sodden gold at its foot. He turned his raft aside to investigate and discovered, lying in the water lapping at the pyramid’s third or fourth step, the starveling carcass of a giant lion, which had either swum here to die or been deposited by the Odgdo after drowning therein.

He might have thought no more of the discovery and left the carcass to rot or be swept away by a further whim of the Odgdo, which frequently washed around the pyramid, but a fat black river-fly crawling on the lion’s forelimb held his eye a moment longer and he noted that a golden fetter clung around the ankle, whence hung still a single link. Aye, ’twas the Lion of the Sun, returned to the pyramid by some instinct or providence in the final days of its life. Tilimesh-Nak’s was a syncretic creed and though he had never specially favored the priests of Tsammogwer, he shared the general conviction of the city that the Lion’s unfettering from the pyramid had likewise unfettered the sun from Ungwë’s heaven. Accordingly he took up an axe from his raft, wherewith he was wont to splinter flood-wood for easier transport, and set to work decapitating the lion’s carcass in the pale sunlight.

And did the sunlight brighten as he worked? He could not decide, but surely the now-habitual mist of Sisûza’s day began to lift as, cautious on its mossy treads, he carried the severed head up the pyramid’s slope, to set it upon the dais of its summit. The severed golden fetters left by the departing priests had long since been looted therefrom, but Tilimesh-Nak tore strips from his robe and braided a rope wherewith he bound the head into place. Then, with a mumbled prayer to Tsammogwer, he bowed himself off the dais’d summit and returned to his raft. In a week the success of his loaned piety was apparent: though Ungwë never within his lifetime recovered its fiery sun of former days, the clime improved sufficiently for her temples and homes to be partly re-occupied.

The returning priests of Tsammogwer took and gilded the lion’s skull that greeted them atop the Pyramid of Earth, before fettering it anew with pure gold through an eyesocket; and they thanked Tilimesh-Nak with a lion-amulet fashioned from the gold of the foot-fetter recovered from the skeleton at the pyramid’s foot. He received it with thanks and wore it thereafter when he traveled outside the re-staffed temple of Ictammathaë, lest he seem to disrespect the gift; but he was always glad to lay it aside when he returned to his fresh-swept and scented cell and the visualizations of the prime-hunt.

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