The Apostasy of Quullaleloth

Sam Guisbourne

"Even here my enemy pursues me," the priest Quullaleloth murmured to himself, watching the black sand stir as a fortuitous conjunction of opened doors allowed a fugitive breath of wind into his cell. Then a door clanged shut above and the sand lay still again in the exiguous torch-light filtering beneath his own door. The priest, who had propped himself up on one scarred elbow when he felt the wind brush his cheek, was about to slump back to his pallet when a thought struck him and he crawled to the corner where the sand lay. It must have blown into the dungeons grain by grain over the weeks of the windy season, slowly gathering in a corner of this deepest cell of all, where it now formed, he had realized, the only writing material he would ever again possess.

He brushed it flat with his foot and traced a circle in it with his big toe, then bisected the circle with a vertical line. Such a small thing, and yet for this he would soon lose his life. The brand between his brows, a circle bisected by a vertical line, was distorted by a frown of concentration as he used his big toe to write the ideograms of the sacred formula of Rhammpenthul beneath the circle he had traced in the sand. Ngha vela, mha qedu — where one, there three. In other words, where the breadth of the circle is one, the girth of the same is three. This was the truth upon which the whole worship of Rhammpenthul was founded; and yet the truth… the truth was a falsehood.

His heart began to pound as he admitted this to himself for the first time since he had left the torture-chambers beneath the Temple of Rhammpenthul. The formula was incomplete, and they, the Hierarch and the mathemagos, knew it as well as he did. He worked with his big toe again in the sand, painstakingly adding two ideograms to the formula, and stared down at his blasphemy for a moment. Then he smoothed it away with his foot and crawled back to his pallet, rebellion glowing futilely in his breast. Ngha vela, mha qedu uhi isuqqan — where one, there three and seventh. In other words, where the breadth of the circle is one, the girth of the same is not exactly three, but three and a seventh. Not one and three, not one and three, but one and three-and-a-seventh. And thereby the whole worship of Rhammpenthul crashed to ruin.

He lay on his pallet and reviewed his life, the long succession of moments that had laid him to this point, where he lay in the deepest cell of the dungeons of the puppet-king of Harrembol without tongue and without hands, waiting to be sacrificed to a god in whose existence he no longer believed. He had been a ready pupil in the scribal school attached to the great Temple of Rhammpenthul at Phornumaggon, long since lost to the followers of the Tritheos, and had soon been marked for advance to the ranks of the priesthood. In his noviciate, with the brand of the Bisected Circle still livid between his brows, the cunning of his hands had brought him to the attention of the architecton, and he had trained in the most recondite specialty among those the architecton oversaw: the fashioning of sacred vessels for the worship of Rhammpenthul.

The vessels had to be of fixed dimension and volume, deviating by no more than the width of a krammum-seed from those laid down in the scriptures of Rhammpenthul, lest calamity befall the realm when they were used during the sacrifices and the blood-laving of His sacred flower, the sun-faced helianthus. Quullaleloth had been congratulated by the Hierarch himself on his triumphant refashioning of the great silver Jug of Heartsblood when its year of renewal had come; and perhaps the first stirrings of doubt had occurred in his mind that same year, when, despite the repeated use of the refashioned Jug, the heretical followers of the Tritheos had won their first victory at the Battle of Yathendwë, in which their chariots, equipped with perfectly circular wheels, had smashed the Hierarch’s army, whose chariots were equipped, by hitherto inviolable tradition, with hexagonal wheels.

For was not the Circle sacred to Rhammpenthul, and reserved for strictly hieratical use under threat of the severest and most lingering penalties? Yes, this was so. The Circle was a symbol of the true nature of Rhammpenthul: that Shehe was Three Persons in One Being, combining Father, Mother, and, born on the vernal equinox, Hermaphroditic Infant, Who, on the death of Its Father and Mother at the hibernal solstice, would bifurcate and wed Itself as Father and Mother to give birth, on the vernal equinox, to the Hermaphroditic Infant again. As the year turned, so the great sun-wheel of Rhammpenthul; and as the sun-wheel of Rhammpenthul was three in girth and one in breadth, so Rhammpenthul Themself was Three Persons in One Being.

Such was the teaching of the priests of Rhammpenthul and the foundation of the realm of the Hierarch, and such was what the followers of the Tritheos had come to deny. Quullaleloth could still recall the righteous horror with which he had received first news of the heresy: that the mathemagos of a minor temple in the little-regarded northern province of Qerminga had begun to teach that one in breadth did not mean three in girth, but three and a seventh. The fulgurating strokes of the Hierarch’s wrath had been swift to fall, and autos-da-fé had flared over the province for weeks; but the heresiarch mathemagos himself, with the connivance, so it was whispered, of the governor of the province, had fled south to the jungles of Gnerrultan, whence the poison of his doctrines began to flow increasingly in subsequent years.

His followers, as though bent on proving the diabolic nature of the new creed, had adopted as their sacred symbol the triangle, which of all regular polygons is the furthest removed from the circle; and niveous triangles, set with an unblinking sanguinous eye, had soon flaunted themselves on the cærulean gonfalons of their armies as they laid siege to the capital first of Gnerrultan, then of Qerminga. That first victory of theirs, at the Battle of Yathendwë, had been the forerunner of many, for not only were their circle-wheeled chariots superior in manoeuvrability and speed to those of the followers of Rhammpenthul, but so were the circle-wheeled wagons with which they supplied their armies. The Hierarch’s generals had pleaded with the Hierarch, then Ngwaalan XIX, to be allowed to offset the advantage by fitting octagonal or even decagonal wheels to their chariots and wagons, but in vain: the closer the approach to a perfect circle beyond the permitted hexagon, the greater the blasphemy, and the surer and swifter the doom that would befall the blasphemer.

Ngwaalan XIX had died a puzzled and disappointed man, for the doom he foresaw had not fallen on the circle-profaning followers of the Tritheos. On the contrary, their fortunes had waxed as his had waned, for his entire realm had fallen to them within his lifetime, save for the desert province of Harrenniqqra in the far south-west, whose shifting and capricious black sands of æon-ground meteoric iron finally halted the chariots and wagons of the Tritheos. The Hierarch, his priests, his remaining warriors, and his somewhat more numerous slaves had translated there by camel-train when the final victory of the heretics was in sight, and with them had gone the puppet-king and his court. The long-deserted capital of the province, sand-whelmed Harrembol, had been dug clean and rebuilt in granite, porphyry, and gneiss on a scale commensurate with its new status; and the court of the puppet-king had settled back to its customary intrigues and debaucheries. But the priests of Rhammpenthul, eschewing such secular carnalities and dissipations, had redoubled the extravagances and austerities of their worship, believing that it would be by their efforts alone that the realm was restored.

Indeed, the priests had torn down and rebuilt the city’s great circular Temple of Rhammpenthul thrice, each time on a grander scale, with greater expense of ivory and white marbles, and with a greater exactness of circularity, reasoning that they stored up much heavenly merit by the prodigiousness of their efforts; and Quullaleloth, by then risen himself to the rank of architecton, might have hoped for high praise not only from the Hierarch Ngwaalan XIX, but also, after his death, from his successor, Qorphegg XXIII. But he received it from neither, for in one way Quullaleloth failed most miserably: however carefully he supervised the building of each new Temple, there always seemed to remain some chink or cranny through which the black meteoric sand of the province could enter its precincts, drifting and eddying underfoot during the performance of the daily rituals. He kept a number of slaves on permanent sweeping duty, and ordered their supervisors to be unsparing of the rod and bastinado should they slacken in their diligence; but despite the best efforts of the slaves, and of the supervisors, the sand always returned.

As might have been expected, it was at its worst in the season of winds that preceded the brief autumn and winter of the province; and in the fifth year after the establishment of the third Temple, Quullaleloth decided on a scheme to outwit the malicious elementals responsible for this sullying not only of the Temple’s marble and ivory floors but also of his own reputation. He erected around the Temple screens of triplex silk, vast as the sails of the Hierarch’s long-defeated navy, whereby he intended that the sand-laden winds would be diverted and dissipated; and for the first week of the windy season his scheme seemed to have achieved near perfect success: barely a grain of sand was reported within the Temple, and a deputation of sweeper slaves had complained to him that they were being unjustly beaten for failing to achieve their fixed daily quota.

At the end of the week, however, disaster had struck: he had been working in his chamber on plans for a new aqueduct when the Temple bell began to chime. A glance at his clepsydra told him that this was no hour appointed for worship, and he hurriedly donned his sandals and ran to investigate the prodigy. In the central Chamber of Sacrifice he found a kneeling line of frantically sweeping slaves and a standing circle of priests, necks craned to the sliding panels of the ceiling many feet above, whence, he saw with a start of dismay, a steady rain of black sand was falling through widening cracks. It had already half-covered the mosaic of Rhammpenthul’s Hibernal Bifurcation laid at the center of the Chamber, despite the frantic sweeping of the slaves; and the looks of reproach cast upon him by the priests as he entered told him that blame had already attached to him for this unseemly event.

That, however, was the lesser of his present worries, for he had already deduced the source of the sand; and he began to call for the Chamber to be evacuated. His warning came not a moment too soon, for barely had the slaves scuttled from the Chamber on the heels of the priests than the ceiling panels entirely gave way and the floor of the Chamber was submerged beneath a great mass of sand. As he had deduced, it had accumulated on the flat, circular roof of the Temple, diverted there by the screens he had erected. The Hierarch had been granting a hebdomadal audience to the puppet-king at the time of the arenaceous inundation; but when he heard of it his judgment was swift and indefeasible: the entire Chamber had been defiled and had to be ritually cleansed and refurbished, with the walls stripped of their tapestries and the great circular mosaic of Rhammpenthul’s Hibernal Bifurcation entirely uprooted and re-laid. Quullaleloth, realizing that he had come nigh to being stripped of his post over the affair, was unsparing of both himself and his underlings in the refurbishment, and kept them at work from earliest morning to far into the night, overseeing the smallest details, even down to the preparation of chips of stone for the new mosaic.

Herein lay his unsuspected doom. The mosaic incorporated the great formula of Rhammpenthul in symbolic form: the staff of the Hermaphroditic Infant, with which It struck Itself in two, stretched from top to bottom and was composed, by immemorial tradition, of exactly three hundred squares of porphyry laid three across and a hundred high. When Quullaleloth came to examine the squares for himself after they had been cut by a skilled slave-artisan, he found that all was as it should have been: the porphyry chips for the staff lay in thirty piles of ten amid piles of lapis lazuli, jade, and chalcedony squares for other parts of the mosaic. But then, as he completed his count, his eye fell upon a corner of papyrus protruding from beneath a pile of lapis lazuli squares. He might have thought no more of it, but he recalled that the slave-artisan had shown surprise and even consternation on his unexpected visit to the cutting-room and had busied himself among the squares for a moment with back turned. Consequently, the architecton investigated further, tugging at the corner and drawing forth a sheet of papyrus covered in mathematical calculations evidently connected with the dimensions of the mosaic and the quantity of stone squares required in its construction.

Once he held the sheet in his hand, one look at the face of the artisan told him that he had indeed uncovered some malfeasance; and he smiled grimly and began to examine the sheet line by line, searching for a miscalculation by which the artisan was enabled, as he suspected, to defraud the Temple in some way. His mathematics was not good, for he, like all those involved in building work for the temples of Rhammpenthos, relied on the mathemagos and his famuli to perform calculations for him, but he slowly puzzled the sheet out, frowning more and more deeply as he did so. It was written in the clear and distinctive fist of the mathemagos himself, without any additions or deletions that he could see, but there was nevertheless a glaring miscalculation thereon: the perimeter of the mosaic was derived by a multiplication not of three times its height, but of three-and-one-seventh times its height. Nor was that all: its area, calculated further down the sheet, was derived by a similar miscalculation; and both results were clearly marked on sketches of the mosaic found on the sheet.

He turned to the artisan and questioned him anent the miscalculations; but the artisan, stuttering with unfeigned fright, would only refer him to the mathemagos. Quullaleloth called Temple guards and had the artisan placed under guard, pending a closer inquisition, then sought out the mathemagos without further delay, finding him poring over a mathemagical codex in his austerely furnished chambers. The mathemagos, an old friend who had entered the service of Rhammpenthul in the same year as Quullaleloth himself, heard him out in silence, then nodded, craved indulgence for a moment on business of his own, and summoned a slave, to whom he had handed a scribbled note on a wax tablet. He had then invited Quullaleloth to join him in a glass of pomegranate wine while they discussed his concerns, but Quullaleloth had barely raised his glass to his lips when the door of the chamber rang under the blows of a heavy fist. A minute later, the bewildered architecton was himself being hustled away by Temple guards; and five minutes after that he was measuring his full length on the floor of a storage cell in the Temple kitchens, and hearing the oaken door slammed and triple-bolted behind him.

In the day before he was summoned to the torture, he had time to test his suspicions against the bisected circle carved, as on every door in the Temple, on both sides of the door of his prison. He used the upper joint of his thumb to obtain a rough measure of its breadth and girth; and no matter how often he repeated the measurement, the answer came out against the great formula of Rhammpenthul. The circle was eight-and-a-little thumb-joints wide and twenty-six-less-a-little thumb-joints round. Next he tested the circle woven into the breast of his priestly robe, stripping the garment from him and laying it flat to the floor of the cell; and the answer, mutatis mutandis, was the same.

The torture to which he was subjected after the sleepless night that followed was brief but comprehensive, designed excruciatingly to the simple and single end of discovering whom else he had exposed to the infection of his heretical notions. On learning that he had spoken to no-one but the mathemagos and the now dead slave-artisan, the Hierarch, who had supervised the torture in person, nodded grimly and ordered that he be deprived of his hands and his tongue before being despatched to the dungeons of the puppet-king, where he would wait for execution at the aestival equinox. The pain of the succeeding tongue-extraction, amputations, and cauterizing had been great even by comparison with the tortures that had gone before, but the priests of Rhammpenthul were skilled in medicine and Quullaleloth’s wounds had healed swiftly, leaving only his spirit to smart with fear of his coming execution.

This would take place in the Chamber of Sacrifice at the aestival equinox, at the moment when the igniferous circle of the sun, visible through the opened panels of the ceiling, stood exactly overhead, as determined by the Hierarch where he knelt at the exact center of the mosaic of Hibernal Bifurcation. When the sun stood exactly overhead and the Hierarch cast no shadow, a signal would be given by one of his deputies and a lever would be thrown on the treadmill being powered by the heavy feet of three specially fattened slaves. A pump would begin to work and the silver beak already inserted into the epigastrium of the drugged sacrifice would begin to suck out his blood, so that his last sight would be of the spurting, sun-sparkling jets of the blood-fountain that laved nine pots of Rhammpenthul’s sacred plant, the sun-faced helianthus. Later, the drained cadaver would be buried in unconsecrated ground without so much as a copper hlili in its mouth, ensuring that the unfortunate spirit of the malefactor wandered interminably on the chill near bank of the stinging-brined underworld river Nglamaakh, unable to pay its fare even for a passage on the crowded, half-submerged bark of lowliest Hriomhwë, the blind idiot ferryman of slaves, suicides, beggars, and women.

Quullaleloth, despite the loss of his faith, had dreamed nightly of the sacrifice and the riparian wandering of his impecunious spirit, for he could not persuade himself that the existence of the underworld and its river depended on the existence of Rhammpenthul, or bring himself to subscribe to the ultimate atheistic abomination: that the spirit dies with the body it animates, and that oblivion is our highest boon or bane beyond the iron gates of death. No, if Rhammpenthul was overthrown, then doubtless, symbolically speaking, the immortal backside of some other god now warmed the Throne of Heaven; and the only other god of whom he knew was the Tritheos. So it was, on the evening before the aestival equinox, Quullaleloth, once high in the service of Rhammpenthul, found himself praying silently for deliverance to an alien god.

That night, having retired after his prayer, he dreamed that the sand in the corner of his cell glowed with the light of witch-summoning stars and formed itself into a triangle, in which an eye opened and gazed upon him, reading the scroll of his heart. The eye then closed and resolved itself into a mouth, which whispered to him like a far-off wind, asking that he solve certain elementary problems of forbidden trigonometry; and Quullaleloth, biting off the tip of the forefinger of his miraculously restored hand, traced their solution one by one on the floor in his own luminous blood. He woke after the dream handless again, hearing the clang of cell-doors above him as prisoners were served their meagre breakfast of beans and cheese; but his heart was strangely light, as though the Tritheos had indeed laid a vertex of protection over him.

Then, as he lay on his pallet waiting for a guard to descend to this lowest cell with a skillet and the roughly contrived wooden spoon that fastened to the stump of his hand with a strap of soiled camel-leather, he became aware that the clanging of doors above him had a note unlike that he had heard on any other day; nor were the guards venting on the prisoners their customary objurgations and maledictions. Instead, there seemed an accent of panic and haste in the sounds and voices he heard, though he could not distinguish what the voices were saying until sandals scraped and two panting guards conversed briefly at the top of the stair at whose foot his own cell lay. Their dialog might have been cryptic on any previous day; today, with his final apostasy fresh in his heart, it flamed with portent.

"What of the heretic?"

"Nay, nay, leave him. He will be coinless here too."

After that, there was a scrape of hastily departing sandals and silence for many minutes, until, with a serpentine susurration, sand began to slide in a steady stream beneath the door of his cell. He lay in darkness and for a moment he had not known what the sound was; then he had crawled to the door and felt what was pouring beneath it. Soon the sand had ceased to pour into his cell, but from the manner in which his door began to creak he realized that it was piling up without, slowly exerting a greater and greater pressure. He crawled to the furthest corner of his cell and waited; and after an hour his patience was rewarded: the door burst open and a mass of pent sand flooded in, rising swiftly towards the roof and leaving him momentarily in fear of a paradoxical drowning.

But the sand quickly ceased to flow, and when he moved forward he found that he could crawl up its slope, squeeze through his three-quarters-blocked door, and make his way up the sand-choked treads of the stair to the next level of the dungeons. It was as he climbed the stair that he began to hear a distant howling, as of esurient wolves or minatory dæmons; and his shaved scalp prickled with superstitious dread. When he reached the top of the stair, he found that he could stand and walk forward over a sand-paved corridor, finding and ascending the next stair, and then the next, and the next, hearing all the while the howling grow in volume and threat. By now, however, he had guessed its source, and confirmed the guess by the increasing strength of the winds that were blowing through the deserted dungeons: a sandstorm of præternatural violence was raging outside, and the city of Harembol had been reclaimed by the desert.

Soon the strength of the winds was such that he was forced back to his knees and the stumps of his hands; and it was in this wise, crawling with eyes tight-shut against flying sand and ears aching from the shriek of edge-tormented air, that he emerged at last from the dungeons of the puppet-king. Within an hour, however, as Quullaleloth crouched in the lee of the puppet-king’s palace, the wind had died to zephyrs; and the dazed apostate shook off the miniature black tumulus that had formed above him to wander the sand-whelmed streets of Harrembol beneath the sardonic gaze of a vast blood-red sun-orb, rising through the murk of the storm as it departed into the east. The Temple of Rhammpenthul, built on the hill overlooking the city, had borne the brunt of the storm’s fury, it seemed; and when Quullaleloth stumbled there, already feeling his throat tightening with the thirst that must shortly kill him, he found that the triple statue of Rhammpenthul standing before the Temple doors had been abraded almost to nothing.

He knelt before the feet and ankles that remained, acknowledging the puissance of his new master in silent prayer, with the stumps of his hands held in an inverted V; and then entered the Temple to see the havoc that had been wreaked within. The great doors had been half-torn off their hinges by the force of the wind and sagged loose as Quullaleloth passed between them; and so high was the sand piled within the Temple that often he had to stoop his head beneath ceilings that had formerly stood nine cubits high; and twice he even had to go down on his knees and stumps again and crawl. Finally, he  made his way to the heart of the Temple: the Chamber of Sacrifices.

He had to dig his way through the door, through which nine high-mitred priests had once been able to pass abreast, and found the Chamber beyond piled with black sand beyond the height of the tallest man, with red shoots sprouting through its wind-furrowed surface that puzzled him for a moment, till he realized that they were the bloodied fingertips of buried priests: as he might have guessed, the Hierarch had gathered his priests around him in the Chamber to pray back the storm, and all had been trapped when the restored ceiling collapsed beneath a renewed mass of sand. Somewhere beneath him, he knew, would also lie the pots of sacred helianthi, and for a few minutes he tried to dig down to them, hoping to buy a day or two of extra life by chewing water from their pulpy stems.

But the black sand was too fine and dry, and trickled back into the hole he delved as quickly as he dug it out; and soon he was digging his way back through the Chamber door instead and finding his way out of the Temple. The sun had risen clear of the eastern murk by the time he emerged, and glared down golden as ever, sucking the sweat of his exertions from his tattered convict’s robe. For a moment he pondered whether to lie himself flat and cruciform on the sand in full sight of the sun, allowing it to claim its foredoomed victim before nightfall; but suicide was frowned upon by the embraced Tritheos equally with repudiated Rhammpenthul, and he set off back down the hill, hoping to find some surviving amphora of water or camel’s milk.

Thus it was that he encountered the vanguard of the first caravan of desert nomads moving in to loot the deserted city. If he had come armed, or in company, he might swiftly have had his throat slit; but the stumps of his hands and his soon-evident tonguelessness excited the pity of the men who sprang from their camels to confront him. When he saw the softening of their ritually scarred faces and the silver triangles of the Tritheos that swung around their necks, his joy overwhelmed him and he fell to his knees, offering up an inarticulate prayer of thanksgiving, stumps held as before in an inverted V. The nomads greeted the gesture with nods of approval and recognition, and when he had told his story, tracing it in the sand with his big toe in a lingua franca of the province, they were eager to welcome him into the ranks of the caravan, vowing to take him with them when they sold the city’s abandoned treasures to the merchants of the north.

In this wise Quullaleloth came again to the former realm of Rhammpenthul and walked the cities of his youth; and when he was made wealthy by the story of his sufferings in the service of the Tritheos, written with a silver hand made to his own design, he hired his own caravan and travelled again to the city of Harembol. Here, as he had hoped, he found the Temple of Rhammpenthul untouched by the superstitious nomads; and he was able to delve again in the Chamber of Sacrifice and retrieve the bones of the Hierarch and the mathemagos, which he burnt to release the two and their fellow priests from their coinless wandering on the near bank of the river Nglamaakh.

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