Journey to Illuminatis
By Darryl Riser
The hammer slewed sideways, smashing into Tarquin's leg just above the knee. Agony sickened him as he dropped to snow, rolling away from the beast.
The war hammer whistled through the air and exploded into the snowbank. For a moment, the world vanished in the white glare reflected sunlight. As the crystalline spray settled, the yeti came back into view.
Eyes darting back and forth, the beast sought Tarquin amidst the cloud of wind-driven ice. The search took a second too long.
Heaving himself forward, Tarquin lunged, driving the three- foot length of his sword into the creature's midriff. Twisting the blade as he fell, the warrior screamed his own agony as his ruined leg tried to help him catch his balance.
When the haze of pain left his mind, the warrior learned he'd won his battle. Pausing only long enough to make a holy sign and murmur a benediction, Tarquin began crawling toward an opening in the mountain's side. Death might lurk inside the cave, he reasoned, but it rained down openly while he lingered outside.
Dragging himself through the snow, Tarquin inched through the opening. It was simply a hole in the mountain, little larger than his cell at the priory. Still, it was dry and there was a fire burning.
The pain of his broken leg was so terrible, he didn't even question that as he drifted away from consciousness.
In his dreams, a houri of the Moslem after life inexplicably cared for Tarquin. He found it strange such a being would offer comfort to a crusader such as himself, but it mattered little.
The important thing was that the warmth of her breath and body caressing his skin took away the pain. As her tongue circled the torn flesh of his thigh, the bones knitted beneath her kiss.
A growing sense of well-being and warmth filled the warrior's spirit and he began drifting more deeply into the darkness of his dreams, ready to surrender his will to the pleasures the creature offered.
"No," Tarquin screamed, starting from his dream to find the creature hovering over him. Blood dripped from her fangs as she softly beat leathery wings to say aloft. Hissing, the creature lunged at Tarquin, her gaping maw revealing more razor-sharp teeth.
Thrusting a gloved hand into the flames, Tarquin gritted his teeth against the searing pain as he sought a weapon. The scent of burning flesh filled his nostrils and Tarquin's hand sizzled as he whipped the brand from the fire across the creature's face. The shock of impact caused him to fumble the weapon, but his attacker was already being consumed by flames.
With a shriek, the houri exploded, showering the small cavern with sparks of red and gold light. Tarquin almost forgot the pain in his hand as the glimmers of light sought each other, dogfighting in the darkness. The battle raged until only a handful of gold sparks remained. These then melded, forming a softly pulsing ball of light above the crusader.
Transfixed, Tarquin remained passive as the light penetrated him, filling each pore of his body until he had absorbed it all, his own pain easing a bit more each second.
As darkness returned to the cavern, the knight slipped away into a deep and dreamless sleep.
Tarquin half-expected to find himself healed when he awoke, but life is not a fairy tale and all magic has its price. His broken leg had mended somewhat and though it was still stiff, he could walk on it with only a moderate amount of pain. His sword hand had also grown stiff and painful in the night.
The golden light apparently had returned only the portion of his life force that survived its battle with that of the demon. Still, it was enough to allow the crusader to continue his quest.
Giving thanks for his blessings, Tarquin gathered his strength and began the final leg of his pilgrimage.
That night, the crusader got his first glimpse of the fabled city of Illuminatis. Shimmering with an unearthly golden glow, the city hovered above the clouds on the other side of a broad valley. Light poured from windows and reflected off pale walls of alabaster and marble.
Straining his ears, Tarquin heard a quiet murmur of conversation crossing the valley, cultured voices discussing the secrets of the universe in a multitude of tongues and accents.
Illuminatis wasn't a myth.
It was real ... and less than a day's journey away.
Refusing to make camp, the injured knight rushed onward through the darkness, sliding and half-falling down ravines he'd have dared not scale in the daylight. Spurred by desire and impatience, Tarquin wended his way through serpentine passes and thickets of timber, guided always by the light of the city glowing above him.
The quest of a lifetime was coming to a close.
The sun was rising as Tarquin approached the city. Dazzled by its light reflecting from its marble spires, the knight averted his eyes ... only to find Illuminatis gone when his gaze returned to the mountain.
Dumbstruck, he stared deep into the snow-choked hills where the city had shone throughout the night to find only emptiness in its place. Slumping to the ground, the crusader let the tears come. With Illuminatis finally in his grasp, had he been judged unworthy and the goal of his decade-long quest snatched away?
How many more years might he wander alone in these mountains before the elusive city chose to reveal itself again?
"Illuminatis exists only in the heart of the true seeker," the priest hinted long ago in another holy city. The Moslem had hoped to bargain for his life with fables when Tarquin caught him hiding in the catacombs beneath the ruins of Solomon's temple.
Tarquin turned his back and allowed the priest to disappear, more because he was sick of killing than for any promises of treasure and secret knowledge. The knight simply discovered there wasn't enough difference between God and Allah to warrant shedding more blood.
In exchange, his good deed had earned him this ... 10 years of frustration and seeking, only to end his life crippled and alone in the middle of nowhere. He couldn't even comfort himself that it had been a fool's errand. The city did exist. He had seen it, approached its pillars ... and judged unworthy to pass through them.
Tears still stained his cheeks when Tarquin heard a hinge squeak. Snapping back to attention, the knight cocked his head and listened.
"Yes," he thought, "there can be no mistake. That is the sound of a hinge squeaking ... as if a shutter were swinging back and forth in the breeze."
Peering more intently into the mountains, the knight still failed to see the city ... but he could hear it. Now that the hinge had alerted him, Tarquin heard other sounds as well. Voices, soft and melancholy, drifted on the wind.
Like a sleepwalker, he stumbled toward them, mechanically moving up the slope until the wall appeared two feet in front of his face.
Tarquin's laughter rang down the valley and up to the heavens as he realized why Illuminatis had remained hidden for so long. The snow white marble walls of the city blended perfectly into the background. Anyone trying to find the city in the daylight might walk right by it without realizing what he'd done.
If Tarquin had waited until morning to seek the city instead of plunging toward it through the darkness, he'd have awaked the next morning to find it gone.
"And I wouldn't have crossed the valley," he realized. "I would have decided I'd missed my chance by waiting too long and then gone home in despair."
Laughing again, Tarquin approached the city gates and pressed his hand against them. To his surprise, they swung open easily on well-oiled hinges.
A lone figure stood framed beneath their arch.
"Welcome to Illuminatis," the white-robed monk said. "It is a joyous occasion when a traveler visits here. How may this humble servant of the light aid you?"
"I seek enlightenment," the knight said simply.
With a broad smile, the monk answered, "Then you must see our library. Its volumes contain all the wisdom and truth of the universe."
"I would like that," Tarquin replied.
The library of Illuminatis was immense, easily the second largest building in the city. Only the palace was larger. Dozens of scholars littered its cavernous main room, each hungrily devouring page after page of the books.
"They are eager to learn," the knight murmured.
"They are new here," the monk answered. "Serenity soon replaces hunger."
On the next floor, the scholars did indeed appear more contemplative as they read the sacred texts. An aura of understanding suffused the room.
"They have found peace," the knight noted.
"It is on the next floor that true scholars study," the monk said. "There they read from the cosmic record itself."
Leaving the stairs, the two men entered the smallest of the library's divisions. A trio of ancient monks sat comfortably on cushions and studied their books. As one turned a page, Tarquin noticed the last few lines of the next page were still forming in a spidery scrawl.
"The books write themselves," he gasped.
"The cosmic record is written by those in the world of men," the monk explained. "As long as men seek the light of perfection, they will continue to add to these volumes."
"So the study of truth can never be completed," Tarquin sighed. "There is no illumination."
"Shhh ..." the monk whispered, placing a finger to his lips. "There is no need to discourage these able and sincere students."
"Im sorry," Tarquin said as they returned to the main floor. "It's just that I didn't come here to read books. I have spent too much of my life studying books. I want ... something else."
"You seek instant enlightenment," the monk nodded sadly. "You hoped there would be a great flash of light or the Ascended Master would lay hands on you and you would know all."
"No," Tarquin argued, shaking his head ferociously. "I enjoy the process of learning, of gaining wisdom. It is a rule of my order that the journey is more important than the destination. But I hoped for some small revelation as to what that destination might be."
"Ah," the monk chuckled, "that is easy. With diligent study and application, you may perfect yourself and move on to the next phase."
"And what is that phase?" Tarquin asked.
"Only the ascended master who rules this city would know that," the monk said. "I am bit a humble guide."
"May I meet this master?"
"Of course," the monk laughed. "Just follow the avenue to the east until it reaches the palace gates. Keep going straight until you reach the throne room. You will recognize it by two large arched golden doors marked with the letters J and B. Open these doors and you will see your ascended master."
"That is quite informal for an audience of this magnitude," Tarquin said.
"We do not stand on ceremony," the monk replied. "The master is not here to be honored. He is here to serve."
Thus, the last leg of Tarquin's trip was the most painless, a leisurely jaunt down a tree-lined avenue and through the palace gates. No one questioned or hinder him and the palace itself seemed unguarded.
At last, the throne room loomed before Tarquin, its massive golden doors glowing softly in the torchlight. Each door was easily three time's Tarquin's height and twice his width. For a moment, he considered the foolhardiness of demanding an audience with a holy man wise enough to rule the fabled city of light.
Then he remembered the monk's words. The master was here to serve. That was one of the first principles Templar initiates were taught as well. The greater the rank and the more power a knight is entrusted with, the greater is his obligation to serve others. Thus, the most powerful become the most humble.
Taking a deep breath, Tarquin cast open the doors and peered into the throne room.
It was an alcove, no more than three feet wide and a little over six feet high set in the center of the wall behind the doors. An unadorned altar lit by two white candles spanned the alcove.
There, behind the altar, was the ascended master staring back at Tarquin in stunned amazement from the depths of a mirror.
"The Holy City of Illuminatis exists in the heart of the true seeker," the old priest has said.
"The only master who matters is the one within," the crusader sighed, remembering his first lessons in esoterica. "And the greatest secrets are the simplest to speak and the most difficult to grasp."
Tarquin's laughter still echoed off the polished walls of Illuminatis as the city gates swung closed behind him.
It would be a long and perilous journey back to the world of men, but Tarquin had many pages left to write in the cosmic record.
This story was originally published in January 1999 in the premier print issue of Dragon Soup Magazine.
Copyright 1998 by Darryl Riser. All rights reserved.
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