ONE: THE ORDER OF THE OUROBOROS
The Nine served the One, and the One filled the Nine. It had to be. Otherwise, life was all for naught.
What were goats without a goat-herd, or sheep without a shepherd? Aimless wanderers, and easy prey.
Thus, the Order of the Ouroboros was born. Five men and four women gathered on each moonless evening.
Enveloped by the shadows, they joined hands and formed a tight-knit circle, all chanting a single word.
"U'um. U'um. U'um. U'um…"
"We worship you," said the Vocent, Holy Prophet of the One, and the First of the Nine.
"We bow down before you," said the Second.
"We come to serve you," said the Third.
"We praise your name, which we speak not." The Fourth was also known as the Vulei, or Lawgiver.
"We seek your face, which we behold not," said the Fifth, "unless our Seer's eyes peek past the mortal veil."
"We hearken to your voice, which we hear not," said the Sixth, "unless you speak through our Holy Prophet."
"We search your thoughts, which we know not," said the Seventh, "unless our Lawgiver translates them."
"We implore your blessings, which we deserve not," said the Eighth.
"We yearn to comprehend you, whom we understand not," said the Ninth: the Seer, or Visiera.
"These things we pray," intoned the Nine. "If we fail, may the Serpent eat its tail, and the world crumble."
They opened their eyes to encroaching darkness, with no help from the stars.
The Holy Prophet said: "We commune on this eve beneath the sky, yet in the light of the tomb."
"It is the state of this fallen world," said the Lawgiver. "Without the One's everlasting laws, we are damned."
The Seer said nothing. She was forbidden to speak until the First of the Nine addressed her.
The Prophet did so: "Visiera, what do you see?"
She raised her hands high above her head and interlocked her fingers. "U'um, show me."
As the Seer meditated in the silence, her eyes began to glow.
"The greatest of all cities shines upon a mountaintop," she said after a long moment, "where there is neither evil nor sin. It blazes like a sentry's torch, on the fourth watch of the night, a beacon to those who are lost."
"Where is it?" asked the Holy Prophet. "Upon which summit does it stand guard?"
"Does it lie above the heavens, or on earth?" asked the Lawgiver. "Is it built out of rock, or revelation?"
"It is built upon the One. This haven, and all who live within it, are wholly consecrated. Not only is it a sacred city, set apart for divine aims and purposes, but one with no laws save those of our god U'um. Mortal kings may give their own decrees, and fill their dungeons, but here two instruments of discipline are prescribed: the iron rod and the lash. These I see within its walls, applied to those who dare defy the omnipotent One."
The Eighth of the Nine, a gentle soul, spoke. "Noble Visiera, why is there such bloodshed in a holy place?"
"Silence," the Vocent hissed through clenched teeth. "Seer, you may answer, or you may decline."
"The iron rod and the lash are necessary to keep order," she replied. "Men are men, and prone to transgression. In order to keep them free from it, the leaders of this city punish them – with care."
"Why?" interjected the Sixth of the Nine. "If such a stronghold is perfect, there should be no need to do so."
Eerie silence fell. Then: "Perfection comes at a price," said the Seer. "Thank the One that few will pay it."
"I still don't understand," said the Fifth. "Where is this city? Is it purely a vision?" He gave a start, and stifled a scream, when he saw the Lawgiver's thick tome start to glow – in the same color as the Seer's eyes.
The rest of the Order turned to glance at the book, but only the Lawgiver himself could translate it. It was written in the native language of the One. Therefore, the Vulei had been ordained to decipher its words.
"In the nine final prophecies of our scriptures," he read, his voice slowed by fierce concentration, "the eighth one states: In the last days of the earth, which the One has created, a holy city shall stand so that men may not fall. It shall be the final temple of our god, before It indwells all who follow the commandments. This city is neither a fable nor a parable, but as real as the rocky height upon which it shall be built."
The Second of the Nine asked: "Even so, Lawgiver, who shall build it?"
The Seer smiled. "I see countless throngs, unwitting slaves, who bend to the will of their unseen Master."
"The common people, then," replied the Second, whose intuition was keenest. "When will they start?"
"The One is displeased with Its creations," said the Holy Prophet, "and will send a reckoning nigh." In the most horrifying illumination of all, the Prophet's mouth shone with an ethereal light, exposing the crevices within it – the cracks between his teeth, the shady bumps upon his tongue, and the opening into his throat.
Mouth and teeth, teeth and Eighth squinted her eyes shut, unable to bear these hideous sights.
The Prophet uttered a command, not with his own voice, but with the thunderous peal of the One: "COME."
He repeated it nine times, as the Order had repeated U'um. Vast crowds soon flocked to the mountain peak: first tens, then hundreds, thousands, and by the end of the week, tens of thousands of people.
Not a single one of them knew why they came. They knew only two things: that they must come, and obey.
They built the One's consecrated city, U'umnith, from start to finish, in seventy-two days.