THE ARCHON’S STRUGGLE
As the friends from the Greater Forest advanced to meet the Marquis in the space at the centre of the square at the southern end of the Victory Parade, the man become monster spat out shades and spectres to deflect its opponents and their newly-restored resolve.
The lights around became as pinpricks wired directly into the destructive order of the City’s fabric, holding their entire glare in one intense sun-dwarf, before blazing out with glaring harshness to cause the forest interlopers to bend their necks and close and then further cover their eyes with their improvised shields.
The explosion was not for long, but even its afterglow was too sharp for the questers to be sure when and from what precise direction the Marquis was approaching. Yet still they remained firm, even when a fence of light, now sun-born yellow and wholesome, swept across the debris-strewn paving; and where it passed the upwardly thrust light-sticks it flickered across the spectrum before mellowing and settling back on living light. And the flags above the concourse, that blackened for a moment before bowing down under rods of water, were then gleaming as if washed by the first fall of clean rain in however-many years, their prayers now showing clear. For hope or ill.
Then the Marquis tried again, pushing with another bloat of what may have passed for truth in its domain. The frith children slowed, their legs heavy; the buildings around them grew, the block-lumped slab-monopolies looming higher and higher. It took the friends a few moments to realise that it was not the City that was changing, but themselves: they were shrinking, their arms growing heavier and more leaden. They were also ageing rapidly, their death accelerating towards them while the City and its denizens were being forcefully held, preserved in amber, putting a break on the turning of the world.
Yet the force required to push this, to maintain a piece of the world – however small – against the rest’s turning, was beyond even something as enormously sprawling as the Marquis. The mirage fractured, jolting the friends back into a more objective reality. The Marquis stumbled – it had expended a huge amount of energy: fruitlessly.
A gleam of genuine sunlight pierced, momentarily, the thick clouds overhead, and a brief gust refreshed Ghee and Thaw, despite the Marquis being not far from them now. The atmosphere became somewhat less oppressive, the gloom lifting further. And this was enough to reinforce the feeling in the friends that the precise moment when change could be made was approaching. It was almost here: they were almost there.
Ni-Ghee and Hi-Thaw waited now as the Marquis came to within a few dozen yards. And stopped. But the Marquis did not raise its arms, nor seek to strike, just stood and swayed slightly; a hole of rankness that stood out even in that stinking City. It had the shape of a man, yellow-eyed, but swelled to a monster with an ever-gnawing greed not sated. The two friends stood before it, scarcely darker in attire, but not subject to the same noisome bloating. They waited, unsure of what next step to take. For an age
Then the monster called out, its voice fain:
“Companions, please, let me speak: hear my side. I want no strife: I have no wish to fight. As a token of my desire to avoid conflict, I will submit myself to you utterly. I will pledge myself to your service. I will submit to your orders; but just let me retain a parcel – a small portion – of my freedom so that I can serve you all the better. I give all I have. The entire City with its dynamism and might shall be yours. I will submit and call you Master.”
“Your words are beguiling: no more.”
“What I offer is hardly insubstantial: I pledge to work towards a brighter future.”
“Your word is not a byword for trust.”
“I have erred in the past, we all have; but the freshness you bring with you shows me the poverty of my old ways. For we both serve the same cause, ultimately, higher and greater by far than any ordinary mortal man, seeking to brush our vision of a settled existence over as wide an area as possible. In self-preservation. We all want what is best, to create and sustain an ordered world, acknowledging the same discord-hating Lord of the Winds who …”
“That is a name I know,” said Ghee. “Our teachings include an avatar who goes by that name. Or such I think I remember?” Ni-Ghee’s speech had slowed, his brow had furrowed. “The Lord of the Winds has the power to wreak havoc, doubtless: he is a being of power. But he only unleashes his at utmost need, and never just to destroy. There is always a deeper reason, a positive aspect, and he excises restrain. Always. There is the power that matters, that gives satisfaction to …”
“He has power restrained, but knows how and when to use it: as do many of us who rule. He can cause to be what he wishes: what he knows to be for the best.”
“O your selective forgetfulness.”
“Power always exists; we can choose to use it, or let it be used by others against us. Like the Lord of the …”
“He has that power, yes; but he only uses his power to forestall evil overwhelming, bringing hope and release, flying in the upper airs.”
“Then he would not be wise, waiting too long, doing nothing so evil overrides.”
“That is not what I remember from our teachings. He understands balance.”
“But listen: here we stand together, in service to the same cause. You have opened my eyes. But I do not in myself have enough wisdom or vision to see the way beyond that which your coming has suggested.”
“What would you have me do?”
“I would have you accept me as your servant: your follower: your student. I would have you teach me all that you know so that I may reform.”
“Yes.” Ni-Ghee’s thoughts faltered; and he wondered if he had misjudged the Marquis.
“I would learn from the vast amount of knowledge that you have to give, but would also teach you what I know. We come from very different worlds, yet I have glimpsed the clarity that you have, the overview that you have. I would learn from and participate in that whole.
“But there are also the details. There are the compromises that have to be made so that we may live. All of us here. Continuing our economic growth. We all have to fit in. I can learn from you about the sustaining of all things, in the long run, and I can teach you how to remember your own requirements. You have the bigger picture: I have the details. We can meet and grow stronger than ever together.”
Ghee was now assailed by more doubt than he had ever been before. He felt that previously he had only ever heard one side of the argument, one that ignored so many practicalities. But he also felt that the Marquis was withholding the full truth: that it was – crucially – failing to explain when its expansion would stop.
He asked: “Aren’t you being disingenuous?”
“There is a balance. I see that now. Between us we can find that. We all have the right to live. I can see that your way of life must be allowed to continue. As must ours.”
“But yours will encroach into ours?”
“No, it needn’t be. Now I understand more, it needn’t be. We’ll find a way. Change under me is more certain than replacing me with you know-not-what.”
“If you think so …”
“I do. Come with me, come in to the Palace of the United People and we can start the discussions immediately. We will find the way that suits us both.”
But as Ni-Ghee started to move as if to walk away with the Marquis, Thaw called out: “Ni-Ghee, my friend. Stay. Hear me. Ni-Ghee, the strongest will fail if his judgement is impaired. There are truths that are true which we have both heard … but this spew from the Marquis is not true by any gauge that is not corrupt. There are deep truths of power and might, which yet are flawed by imperfect reflection. And then there are the deepest truths that underpin all that is whole and incorrupt in creation. Which most cultures have: against murder, abuse of power, ignorance of the worth of others. For belief in a future of worth. Listen and you will be ensnared. You will fail. Then you will be devoured.
“You will not be able to pass out through the nauseous gate and return to your forest home. You shall remain trapped forever.”
Ghee stood frozen.
“You speak of corruption, not I, “countered the Marquis; “you are but a hireling while I am a free servant. You try and spread evil as a rival who sees his position threatened.”
“I don’t lie,” said Thaw. “I don’t need to. Listen to me, Ni-Ghee, not to this monster from its pit, who is darkness, not light. You will be lost if you go in.
“And remember Ni-Ghee, the truth about the Lord of the Winds: he sought to destroy the capacities of the peoples of the Earth when the noise from their over-populated cities became too much for him to bear – leaching across to the pristine airs above the Great Sea, as from a selfish and disruptive neighbour. But not out of lust for power or destruction.
“Sometimes an organisation or society needs to be destroyed, removed or reformed for the deeper good. So that the underlying fundamentals are re-adhered to. That was all the Lord of the Winds threatened here: and he will let forth the tempest again if he needs to. But the Marquis and he are no allies.”
Thaw was right to continue to remind Ghee of what he had believed in, for though it seemed his friend had fallen wholly under the spell of the Marquis, he was but dithering and continuing his struggle to resist. Yet though he had not given in completely, he was however on the cusp where the impulses to give in and fight on warred, but he was still – crucially – in touch with the memory of the world outwith the Marquis. And Thaw’s plea to clarity was enough to enable him to decide.
Ghee raised his spear and thrust it at the Marquis. It did not cause harm, but startled the monster and put it off-guard for a moment. That moment was sufficient for Hi-Thaw to strike the second blow. This did hit home, and the Marquis stumbled, its limbs uncoordinated. Ni-Ghee thrust again and cast the Marquis down with a mortal strike.
All the City of the Plain shuddered and swayed on its foundations of sand. Its denizens stirred and opened wide their eyes, and then cast about in horror and confusion at the stench and delusion of their home.
Ni-Ghee and Hi-Thaw fell to the ground as the Earth jolted. The hulk of the Marquis fell into dust. The last of the sable casts fell from the friends’ heads, the shadows and wisps slinking away to lurk in crevices till they could flutter out and lure the instant-satisfaction-seekers back into the garish banality of a simplified world.
Yet the friends felt no delight, no ecstasy, just a relief at being alive and a desire to return to their unsullied home. Before there was an opportunity for them to become sullied again.