The Eyes of D'aar

by Cubist

They were the first thing you noticed when you entered the cave -- the first thing everyone noticed -- the most important features of the Face of D'aar. The Face had been carved into the living rock D'aar-only-knew how many years ago, and its Eyes were still the focus of all attention: Glittering crystal pools that caught whatever light there was, and threw it right back to pierce the eyes of anyone who dared to gaze into them. Maariil was glad she wouldn't have to actually face the Eyes; the ceremony was going to be difficult enough anyway, without a constant and forcible reminder of --

Think of the music. The performer, Zaarden, had definitely outdone himself this time; Maariil would have to find him a suitable reward. But what... No. That could wait, the ceremony was what she had to focus on at the moment. The Ceremony of Transition, in which a new High Priestess of the Followers of D'aar assumes the mantle after the death of the old one. Try as she might, Maariil couldn't keep the tears locked in her eyes; it was a good thing that she wasn't out there, where everyone could see her crying.

She wished the old High Priestess, Laaraa, could be here. But of course that wasn't possible; had Laaraa yet lived, there would be no Ceremony. She was dead, and Maariil had only memories for company...

- = - = - = - = -

With her insatiable curiosity, it was inevitable that Maariil would become one of the Followers of D'aar, the one god most closely associated with Knowledge and Wisdom. After all, it was said that D'aar knew the answers to all questions, and could grant insight on any topic. But now, as so often in the past, she was beginning to think that her curiosity might have led her into a situation she would regret.

The other acolytes had spoken of a secret library, forbidden to all Followers of the lower ranks; Maariil hadn't been able to resist the temptation, and so she spent much of her free time (what little free time she had, in between tutorials and devotions) exploring the D'aarian catacombs. And finally she found something: A simple door, unmarked and unremarkable. It wasn't even locked! But when she opened that door and looked inside, she found -- wonders.

Shelf after shelf, arrayed in tiers eight-high. And on the shelves, an uncountable number of... things. In boxes. Strange and wonderful things that weren't quite like anything else in Maariil's experience. They were flatter and smoother than polished stone, and not quite as stiff; their edges, as straight as the taut string of a bow; and they were covered with tiny markings, not quite from edge to edge, on either side. By straining her eyes, she could almost make sense of the marks. Something about them reminded her of --

"This chamber is forbidden, you know."

"Aack!" That voice -- Laaraa! The High Priestess! She was caught! "I'm sorry I know I shouldn't be here I beg your forgiveness!"

"Calm down, Maariil. You need no forgiveness of mine." She must be imagining things; the High Priestess' voice couldn't possibly hold a note of amusement, not in a situation like this!

"You also needn't lie on your belly like a snake. Why don't you clean up the mess you made?"

The mess..? Only then did Maariil realize that in her shock at being discovered, she'd dropped a boxful of the things to scatter all over the floor. Obvious artifacts, obviously holy, and she'd strewn them about like common pebbles -- "I'm sorry priestess I'll pick them all up I'll accept any punishment and be glad of it!"

The High Priestess smiled at those words. "Yes, you will accept it. As for gladness... we'll see. Come."

With those words, Laaraa led the way through a seeming maze of unfamiliar passages. She stopped at an odd assemblage of glass and enameled metal -- or was it metal? might it have been made from the same mysterious substance the holy records were? -- and inserted one of those selfsame records into the thing. Then the High Priestess carefully nudged a small lever... and a sheet of glass lit up with cloud-like shapes, as fuzzy as if seen through fog! Laaraa did something else, and the fog lifted, revealing that the shapes were written letters.

"There we are. Read that."

She did, in a fine, clear voice. As she read, it gradually dawned on her that this text was very like the Tale of Apollo and They Who Count Small Things, differing only in unimportant details. And when she was done, the High Priestess had more texts for her to read; each was a parable from the Books of D'aar, or nearly so. But the differences...

The recitation ended when Maariil asked one fatal question:

"But... where are the gods in all this?"

"What gods?"

Maariil's blood froze in her veins. The High Priestess went on: "Everything you've read in the Books of D'aar really happened. All of those wonders and miracles are real, or at least they were real -- but none of them were performed by gods! Instead, they were the works of men. Real men of flesh and blood, gifted with knowledge far beyond anything we have now... but with no more wisdom than us.

"The ancients were very like modern man; some wanted to build, and others, to destroy. Unfortunately, all of them, builders and destroyers alike, had that knowledge. What do you think would happen if we knew what they knew?"

The question caught Maariil by surprise. "What would... I suppose..." Then she stopped to think. The High Priestess remained silent until Maariil said, "It depends who is included in 'we', doesn't it? It makes a difference whether the knowledge is held by someone like Savant Ephaar, or someone like the usurper Lord Aaremenn."

Laaraa nodded. "Yes. Unfortunately, keeping knowledge away from the destroyers is like trying to cage the wind -- and that's a trick the ancients didn't know, for all the knowledge they did have. But at least some of the ancient builders must have had an idea of what was to come. They recorded everything they could, built a hidden library to store it all in, and they set up an organization to stand watch over --"

"You're talking about us! The Followers of D'aar! But it can't be true -- what you're saying -- there is no D'aar, so we're following a lie! We have no purpose!"

"Yes -- We -- Do!" the High Priestess stated, her sheer presence somehow forcing Maariil to silence without so much as raising her voice. "There's one thing more the ancient builders knew: That there would come a time of true wisdom. A time when there will be no destroyers, no one to abuse knowledge. It won't be soon, but that time will come to pass. And when it does..."

Then Maariil finally understood. And the shock of comprehension nearly took her breath away.

This was the burden carried by the High Priestess of D'aar: To know that all injuries could be healed -- and to know the ultimate cost of that healing. To keep mankind out of Heaven, until they could be trusted to not render it a fresh Hell of their own making.

Laaraa had borne that burden for all the years of her adult life.

And someday it would be Maariil's turn...

- = - = - = - = -

'Someday' had arrived far too soon for Maariil's taste. She wasn't at all certain if she was ready to carry the burden. But then, was any new High Priestess-to-be? No. So it was written in the Books of D'aar, anyway. She found a certain comfort in knowing that others had been in her position, and survived the experience.

It was time. In accordance with the prescribed steps of the Ceremony of Transition, Maariil stepped out from behind the giant, carven Face of D'aar; took measured strides to the altar on which a blue-green flame burned; and placed her right hand in the middle of that eldritch fire...



Final Score: 44 out of 50

Raven's Comments:

A neat story, Cubist, and superbly executed -- Spelling and Technical
scores were flawless, and Artistry nearly so. We definitely get a good
feel for what Maariil is going through, and the heavy responsibility that
awaits her. The story, however -- the secret order hiding the wisdom of
the Ancients until it can be used responsibly by a more enlightened
Mankind -- is a very old, very familiar one, and has been done countless
times in fantasy, sci-fi and historical fiction. One could even say, in
fact, that it borders on cliche at this point. Because of this, and
because the plot and story-world do not have the depth, complexity and
texture found in some of the higher-scoring stories, it loses a handful
of points -- and with the competition this tight, that's enough to set it
back to 6th place. I still really enjoyed it, though, and will be proud
to continue hosting it at Raven's Lair even after these contest results
have been relegated to the history books.


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