The end of a Walk to the top of Fraglbar's Ziggurat, May 5487 A.D.
A full size version of this picture can be found here.
Fraglbar is quite far from Sassa, but still in our continent. Once upon a time, a ship travel would have been the fastest way to go there, as Fraglbar is one of the old ports that connected the world, but today going there by train is faster and cheaper.
Its Ziggurat is an island on its own, now, but three thousands years ago - when its first layer was built - it was on a strip of land that projected half a km inside the sea. It was the famous earthquake of 3517 a.c. that lowered it fifteen metres, while raising other zones, and changed the shoreline in the whole region.
It is a testament to the ingenuity of the ancient Fraglbarians that the ziggurat survived both the earthquake and the two millennia that it has spent flooded by the waters of the Mainsea ocean.
As a minor consequence of the Earthquake, Fraglbar was the first place where the travel of the officiants to the pyramid was done with a convoy of small boats. It was a change forced by necessity that was found to be very poetic by most of its foreign visitors, who reported the novelty to their homes and how better it was, seeing the girls gently waving on their boats, instead of seeing them rocking inside some ugly carriage.
It soon spread to the other great cities and became a tradition, for The Church, to have a small channel and a a lake at the front of its pyramid, so that the cortège of the officiants may reach the great staircase with more dignity.
This city was, also, going to become my home for fifteen years.
While the ziggurat is one of the most ancient structures on the planet, the local House of Noxon is a much newer building, a squared block with wide windows opening only to the internal garden, and just little lights points toward the outside. The history of the area justifies these architectural choices - in the past, during a twenty years surge of extreme agnosticism, powerful dwellers of the city had taken a habit to have kidnappers abduct their favoured officiants, to use them in private festivals. This finally forced the local chapter of the Church to scrape the money for the twelve years long renovation that had converted the original, Palladian style Villa into the modern prison look-alike.
The agnostic insurgence had ended only thirty years before, so the black guards of Fraglbar were - and still are, I am sure - far less easy going than the ones in most other cities, and far more tightly watching over their officiants.
We didn't know any of this, of course, when we stood in front of its gate - fraglbar was only The Great Gulf city, an exciting place full of new energies, for us that arrived from the provinces.
We were me, Cezanne, Rika Loewe - a tiny girl from Kirghiz, pale with black hair, a great smile and an inexhaustible repertoire of "true stories" - and Cameron Chow - a Protasian from Fikm that had hardly said a whole world in the three days of train that it took us to get there - looked at the huge walls with sparse openings, a hundred meters long, and imagined a prison. Or a Cathlic convent, that is the same.
Let's say that we all expected something more fun- "the service asks much but gives more" sounded more like propaganda than usual - and the registration process didn't really improve things.
They took our fingerprints, photos, and samples of blood (I thought I lost a pint of that) and saliva, before letting us go inside. In reality, the service needs as much medical data as it is possible to collect, so expect your asses to be prodded at length, if you ever enter it..
Then we entered the place, we saw its marvellous garden, and the pool with all the off-duty officiants sunbathing around it, or swimming inside, and we cheered-up. The place was also full of kids - "Daughters of the 'god'", mostly - that were playing in the water.
Some of them were incredibly gorgeous, some were almost painful to look at - lean bodies on which you could easily enumerate muscles one by one, by pointing at each subtle bulges that these made.
Those were the kids born from black guards' wombs, I would later discover.
Their muscular masses were not only the product of their vigorous physical life, but also of generation upon generation of epigenetic adaptation to the Black Guards lifestyle. Great granddaughters of women who already ate more proteins than anybody else and worked out four hours a day. It was then that I realized that the Black Guards are, indeed, almost a subspecies of Mulier Sapiens Ludens.
Not all Church's Great Chapters have black guards and officiants sharing the same housings - because it can lead to them sharing also the same mindset, which is not ideal when one of the two groups is supposed to guard and protect the other with its own life - but Fraglbar had, which brought us all much closer.
Among the other things, the daughters of the Black Guards were evaluated and routinely offered the possibility of entering the service, the same way as a Guard commission was offered to some of the "Daughters of the 'god'" - those few that could pass the guards' physical, that relied on some fixed levels of physical strength that is hardly achievable, at least by someone without a multi-generational history of elevated metabolism.
The priestess that supervised our registration was acting as our chaperone, too, and presented us to the other members of what she called "our family". These were, well, as impressive in real life as they were in photo. That day, for sure... then, we'd discover their human faults and their real strengths, and we'll grow to see them just as friends, colleagues in a hard work..
The adults were, of course, not very impressed by us - as far as officiants go, we were fairly normal - but the kids were curious, mostly about our little towns, so different from the big city that extended out of the walls of the cloister. Me and Cezanne were assigned two adjacent bunks in the first young officiants room, while Rika and Cameron were separated in the second and third.
The moment we were selected for breeding, we would receive more private lodgings - though it would be some years more, before Cezanne and I would be allowed to go separate ways - and convalescence after the worst celebrations usually is attended in specialized rooms, but the general idea was that young officiants spent as much time together as possible, to build their feeling that the service was a great, extended family. The family of the 'god' , in which could also exist actual families, like me and Cezanne - it had been inferred, from the dice room proceedings, that I and her had been chosen by the 'god' to be a couple.
In the service of Noxon, that is more binding than a formal marriage in civilian life.
Anyway, if we had any hope of climbing the stairs to be consecrated at the next celebration day, we were soon disabused.
The priestesses prodded us, in a lot of ways - some quite pleasing, to be honest - and gave us pretty detailed training exercise schedules.
Cezanne, that seemed magnificently fit to me, had to train for a month, before being allowed to climb to the top of the ziggurat.
Rika was in a comparable shape, and had to train only a week more, but me and Cameron would have needed a lot more.
For us it was at least three month of Yoga and running, and stretching and yoga. And running. And some weight training tossed in, to stop looking like a walking corpse.
In reality, the officiants are always training and preparing for the next rites, when they are not recuperating from the last - in many way, it is the same life of an active boxer.
If one thinks about it, it is only natural - both careers are built around pushing one's body to its limits, in self-destructive endeavours, for the sake of someone's entertainment.
The greatest difference is that boxers are actually trying to kill each other, while officiants are not supposed to die but for some unfortunate accidents - that, alas, do happen.>>
After a month, Cezanne climbed the pyramid on the trail of the First officiant, a chain to her neck that continued to a Daughter of the 'god' and a young Black Guard that had, both, received The Call.
- Yes, Emily?
- With "The Call", you mean that they had a mystical crisis and went bonkers, Granny A?
The old woman sighed loudly - ah, the new generations - and pinched her nose root, trying to squeeze an in-existent grain of sand out of her eyes, while she focused on redressing the derailed train of her thought.
- A difference between The Church and most other congregations is that there are a lot of proofs of the 'god' existence, and of his direct meddling with the affairs of the officiants. Among the others, "The Call" is one of the less subtle. It begins with a vivid dream , where one sees the cohort of Noxon, and the damn bastard tells you "I'd like to see you in six months. Please, provide that you will be on the top of a Ziggurat by then", than you must tell it to the priestesses who draw the dice in the 'god's room, and if the first four letters of your name come out in her first draws, you are in.
- So, one has to go bonkers and be unlucky, to be "Called" ?
- The thorough violation of all rules of statistics, in dice throws conducted at the presence of the 'god', is so consistent that betting on those is no fun at all. The 'god' does exist - it is a verifiable fact and not a belief - and speaks its fragging mind a lot. Only one in ten, of the "Called" that I saw during my career, had a sense of mystical connection with the 'god' before or even after receiving their dreams. The rest simply acknowledged a fact - before the 'god' sent a dream to their priestess, or smites them on the spot.
- So, they did not go all mystic? Like Xhristians?
- It is difficult to go mystical, when you can call your 'god' by name and say ro his face that it is an ass.
-Excuse me, Granny, but... why exactly do you want any of us to enter that life? - it was Emily's first twin sister, Millie, that asked it - it is physically demanding, potentially mortal, and we would simply be the glorified sex slaves of some demented alien pervert. Not exactly what I'd want for my children.
- Wading through life without any faith is hard - most people find some religion to shore up the holes that day to day life rips in their souls. Noxon asks to a limited number of its followers extreme level of physical commitment, but does not bother with proselytism nor requires constant worship from the rest of its believers, beyond a quite little tithe that covers the necessities of its officiants. It is also obsessed with equilibrium, so that for everything you may lose in its service, something is given back.
The old woman then got up from her chair, reached the heavy chandelier that stood in the nearest corner of the great hall and lifted it - with one hand.
All the kids gasped - the butt-ugly piece of bronze required two of them, to be dragged out of the carpet when they had to clean the place.
Granny A could waggle it around with one hand, in her hundred-tens! Then, she placed her other hand a foot below the first, and twisted the bronze column, effortlessly.
- In this very moment, some Xhristians are fastening to atone the sins of their mothers, then they will celebrate the martyrs, women that died to spread their faith to those that had other ideas, occasionally killing the heretics that did not want to listen. All of this, to please a likely imaginary entity that never gave back anything at all, when it received something. And, note, Xhristianism is not even the worse of the "true religions". If one needs to believe in god, the black bastard is a far better choice than the rest.
- Black bastard? Black? - Emily was puzzled... she thought that Noxon was a disembodied concept, not something that could have a colour.
- If you climb the Great Stair earnestly enough, if pain for you sublimates into pleasure intensely enough, if you delve deep enough into what practitioners of the SM Arts call the sub-space, in that place deep inside you may find the door to the cohort of Noxon. Meet it, talk with it and - if it likes you - you may physically enter it's realm.
- Physically? - The incredulity in Emily's voice was palpable.
- Once or twice a year, an officiant disappear from the top of a Ziggurat. They are gone for periods between six months and two years, with the occasional forever. When they come back...
With a vague gesture, Granny A indicated the tormented metal, and continued
- ...I was gone six months, when I was back, I was pregnant with two marvellous little girls and then, little by little, I realized that my strength was improving, my small aches disappeared over time, and it still is true even now that I am forty years above the life expectancy of a woman of my generation. When I retired, I also had the money to build this house, and to restore the fortunes of our family.
Her smile grew ironic, yet brightened by an inner light, as she finished her tirade
- Physical strength, an extended youth and a very long and healthy life, wealth and other small things, as compensation for twenty years of life in an extended family that I loved dearly, at the service of a 'god' that has been virtually proven to be a force actively keeping our world alive.
-A service that you can only do if it intimately satisfies you, I must add, for a 'god' that cares enough to directly talk to the most engaged of its servants.
She took her chin in her right hand, and suddenly put on a mischievous grin
- Why should I ever find appealing, that one of my great-granddaughters may have a chance to have the same?