It is the morning of Zenith Day, when our God the Lord will proclaim His annual Message, and He and His Prophet will accept me as their sacrifice in exchange. I am really excited, and didn’t sleep the previous night. I am going through all the ancient ritual prostrations, donning the sacred sacrificial robes made by the priests, and reciting divine scripture as our ancestors have done for generations. I can’t wait to do my part for my empire.
I am joined by the parade that passes out of the church-museum, where artifacts of our culture are stored. Art motifs, scripts in varying languages, and works of literature center around the Sky Spire, recurrent in every era of history into the past. Not just the church I serve, but of religions and empires that were my capital’s predecessors’. Centuries of artifacts, bronzes of the Prophet, paintings of the Lord, and architectural models designed around the Spire’s shapes, fill the church where city-dwellers visit to marvel at the history of our great centuries-old civilization.
I was trained in the Messages and the skill of divine interpretation since age five. “Lucius, you’ve got a great intuition about this; your interpretations almost match the historical records exactly,” my headmaster told me last year. My church keeps records of the Messages that have been given since the founding of our nation, as well as those found in archaeological discoveries. Each year, the Message is delivered on the day of the sun’s zenith, Zenith Day, when the sun is exactly directly overhead, and the only object to cast a shadow is the Sky Spire. I can see it now as I parade through the streets of cheering and hopeful people – a godly monolith thousands of feet tall, hovering motionless hundreds of feet above the ground, so black it reflects no light even in this morning sun, pointed at the top and bottom, and its hollow center glowing with an orb of red light. The Message shall ring clear from it soon, into the minds of every person in the wide borders of our Nu’un Empire instantly, its literal meaning known regardless of language.
Among the jubilant faces of the crowd, dark skin glistening with sweat under white clothes in the summer heat, I see plenty of worry. People have been talking about the “decline of our civilization” for many years now, and they look to my priesthood, not our decadent courts, for guidance. In previous years, Messages like, “Stay,” and, “Wait,” and “The Time Is Almost Here,” have been interpreted by the priests as positively as possible. With the crusades going on with the people at our borders, it’s only natural to want to spur people to support it. But the immortal Prophet, that mute levitating demigod-of-a-being seems to nod or shake his head at the priests’ suggested interpretations in ways that deny hope and encourage fear.
The Prophet is there at the sacred circle, already hovering there in the outline in town square. He never walks but like the Sky Spire hovers over the ground, unfettered by the earth. His impressive strong body is pure black, but unlike the Sky Spire is reflecting some of the midday light. He looks like a classical statue of perfect human form, but there is no expression on his face devoid of all features.
As the sun tracks across the sky, the Sky Spire’s shadow moves into the sacred circle, where I stand and the Prophet hovers, other priests off to the sides. We wait until the moment when it will take both of us into its embrace, when I will rise up and pass into its black body, as my good friend and colleague did the year before. I am reciting ritual verses, which both informs and primes the throngs of people gathered around that the Message will be forthcoming. The shadow moves, and matches the outline in the town center exactly.
“I, Lucius of the City of Lahaina, humbly offer myself to you, my Lord – my life for your words,” I recite, meaning every word, my body racked with euphoric zeal. The Prophet is behind me as I kneel, hands on my shoulders, looking down.
We begin to rise into the air. I am weightless, basking in the shadow of the Spire, my God. I can see the bottom point of it as we approach, lifting effortlessly towards the divine tower that has forever levitated above the city.
I feel nothing as I pass through its outer surface, as easily as through wind, and then: blackness.
The blackness fades away into an infinite expanse, illuminated by red light. I must be inside the Spire, but it seems to hold a whole cosmos within it. I have no sensation of movement upwards anymore, just a weightlessness of being within red, dark space.
I see the Prophet swing around in front of me, that muscular, perfect image of a human. He reaches his hands out, and nods. I admit, I’m a little confused; I’m past the point where years of learning scripture and ritual could prepared me, and I assumed I might be dead by now.
Perhaps this is death.
“Do … do you want me to take your hands?” I ask the Prophet, looking for some answer in his blank face. He only nods.
Very well, then. “As you command, Prophet.”
I place my hands in his upturned palms, which he holds fast, and we both float with the dark red light above us as we hover in the infinite void. Suddenly, the Prophet’s purely black skin begins to ripple and stretch onto my hands! To my shock, the blackness is receding off of him and onto me … there is a man underneath!
“What is this?!” I cry, and the Lord answers.
“YOU, LUCIUS, ARE THE REPLACEMENT FOR MY ‘PROPHET’. ACCEPT THIS.”
I can feel His voice reverberating inside my body, a Message, but to me only! It is terrifying and beyond loudness.
But I am confused. “But Lord, is not the Prophet immortal, with us since ancient times?”
“YOU ARE THE ‘PROPHET’ NOW, LUCIUS. DO NOT QUESTION YOUR GOD.”
I bow my head instantly in reverence. The blackness is flowing over me, at once destroying my clothes and also clothing me in the form of the Prophet. I am becoming the Prophet, to serve as silent arbiter to the Church’s interpretations of his Messages, an honor I could never dream of …
I hear a brief moan, and looking up, I see the face of Lason, my friend, who was the sacrifice last year! His expression is pained, weary, and sorrowful.
“… I’m … sorry,” he says, weakly. The last bits of blackness are flowing off of his arms and hands as I can feel its spread reaching up my neck and coming around my face.
“NOW, LUCIUS, MY ‘PROPHET’. KILL HIM.”
My mind reels from shock. “My Lord, I cannot kill my friend! He was my senior, like a brother, and …”
“YOU CANNOT QUESTION YOUR GOD. AS WITH HIM, YOU WILL OBEY.”
The blackness completely leaves Lason, and he hangs there in the air, slumped, limp, and exhausted. He has one hand raised, and a facial expression I can’t quite place.
“… Please …” he says sadly.
Blackness engulfs my face, and I feel it now encroach on my mind. I see images, tens of thousands of images, flash by, of civilizations. I hear words, tens of thousands of the annual Messages, interpreted in different ways by different peoples. Some are meager tribesmen, barely having any huts made of sticks and mud to live in, as some heathens still do; others are statesmen with structures of mighty stone, with high towers and glorious flags; then amid burning ruins; then new societies with different architecture and dress, with their own succession of years and Messages and ascensions and zeniths and collapses. I see these over, and over, and over; hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands of images of people living, year to year, century to century, civilization to civilization, peace to war, rise to fall, across an impossible span of time, with one constant:
The Sky Spire hangs above them. My God was their God, back a hundred thousand years.
My body becomes stiff, like taught muscle, and I panic, wrestling with it, but it has me held with incredible strength. I struggle to try to tear it off my skin, but my body moves on its own, and now I am floating, arms outstretched, palms upturned, and my face craned upwards to stare, against my will, into the blazing red light.
“THE TRANSFER IS COMPLETE. KILL HIM.”
I don’t want to. My body moves on its own will … no, on the will of God. My body looks at Lason, and my hand moves to point at him. Then, my arm breaks apart into a thousand tiny pieces, and it is like a swarm of biting insects descending on my friend, ripping him to bloody shreds until the flesh and bones and even the blood is divided into fine dust. He is gone, my arm reforms as if nothing strange or terrible had happened, and I am alone with God.
“DESCEND,” He tells my black body, and my body obeys. I rage and try to scream and cry against the cruelty of it, but my body doesn’t listen to me anymore.
As I ride my body gently back down to the ground from outside the Spire, I see the people become excited, hushed. I want to tell them what their God has made me do, but I can’t. The Lord speaks His Message, and like many times before, I hear it reverberate through my being. I know everyone out to the edges of the Nu’un Empire can hear it, feel it, as He wordlessly speaks into our mortal minds.
“ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND YEAR TIME PERIOD COMPLETED. CIVILIZATION LIMIT REACHED.
The priests gathered among the people are puzzled. In the recorded history of Messages (which I now know is woefully incomplete at only a few hundred years), no Message had ever been like this. There will be no positive spin, no hopeful interpretation.
I can feel my whole body, not just my arm this time, break apart again into the killing swarm. It rushes down upon all the priests and nearby people, who are viscerally ripped to dust. I plead with God to stop, I fight against him, but I have no solid shape to hold still or voice to cry out with. I feel what was my body command the broken dust of my fellow church-members, and I am becoming a bigger swarm. With each death – no, murder, murders that the Lord makes me commit – my body grows larger, spreads wider, and soon I’ve killed the whole congregation gathered at the holiday.
My body is slaughtering what remains of my city, commanded by the Sky Spire, long into the dark of night. By dawn of the next morning, the entire capital has become the killing swarm and there is no one left. Even the buildings are destroyed, leaving no ruins behind. This body drifts on the air across the river and over the hills, to other villages and towns, cities and boroughs. My body kills everyone, destroys everything, and beyond fatigue and rage and fear and sorrow my mind begs, prays, and pleads with the Lord to make it stop.
After ten days of slaughter, my body, stretched across the whole of the Nu’un territory from north to south, horizon to shore, is roaming for the last few survivors. I am pulled towards them, as objects fall to the earth, and I am forced to see them die, unable to sleep, unable to look away.
I have lost track of time. It has probably been a month, but it may be longer; I don’t care. I just wish for the nightmare to end. My body has grown to block out the sun.
I have just killed someone; it had been days since I saw someone last, and here at the edge of the old Nu’un’s frontier, I feel a sense of completion. Is it over? Have I killed enough? Is the Lord through with me? Have I killed the last of my countrymen?
My body is pulled, like a sideways fall, back to the coast. As the killing swarm that I have become flies over the land, I feel it grow lesser and lesser, dust that had been taken in with each death dropping off. My body is not killing anymore.
It is night, and I see the light of the moon. In the distance I can see the Sky Spire, my Lord. I hate Him so much. The city looks unrecognizable; it is a city no more. No more people, no more buildings, no more civilization.
My body reforms into the humanoid shape of the Prophet within the sacred circle, one of the few things left in the city from the destruction. As I descend, I feel the blackness ripple and stretching across my body, upwards and away from my feet near the ground and towards the Sky Spire overhead. Streams of it are rising up and disappearing fast into the Spire. When at last my face is uncovered, I want to scream, but my body does not respond – I can move again, but I am exhausted.
I am kneeling in the sacred circle, a taboo space I wished to be in my whole life. I wanted to be a sacrifice for my God so I could ensure His words of guidance would continue to provide direction for my people. I still remember now that, for a hundred thousand years, those words were to shape and maintain and perpetuate something like civilization. I am looking up at the looming presence of the Lord.
“YOUR TASK IS ALMOST COMPLETE, MY ‘PROPHET’. YOU ARE THE LAST. NOW, KILL YOURSELF.”
“… Why …” I whisper. It is barely a breath, labored and grieving.
The Lord does not answer.
“Why … d-did you do this?”
Still the Lord says nothing. No Message.
“Why go through all the trouble? Why spend a hundred thousand years to build up civilization, guide us, give us Messages, give us a Prophet, collapse us, keep us humans going after we collapse, and then, at some round number of years, kill us all off? What the Hell’s the Goddamn point?!” I am screaming at the monster I once called God. It takes all of my strength, and I collapse in the dust on the hard stone. I wince at the pain of shock, and glance up to the dark sky.
The Sky Spire is silent.
Then, the Sky Spire is gone, without a sound. Open sky replaces what was once filled with an impossible floating tower. The moon shines pale light beside faint stars.
I am alone in the night, in the non-ruins of what was once the longest-lived civilization in the world. I was its Last Prophet. Through me, my God was its killer. I am the last survivor.
As I lay in the dark, alone, exhausted, starving, a broken soul, I wonder …
Do I survive, or do I end it here?