Call me Omar, although I am more of an Ishmael. Like the first son of Abraham, I have lived the life of a wanderer, an outcast from the world, in the desert and wilderness of the Earth. However, my tale is not about me. It is about someone I met in my aimless, roving existence as a drifter. I never knew his name, but I imagine him to be an Omar. Eloquent and flourishing, he was all-knowing and deathless as the everlasting sky. Now, after so many years, when I recall him, a black void fills my soul. And I see him floating between the stars in the perpetual darkness of this endless universe.
Years ago, my bile having overcome my heart, I walked out from the world of men into the wastelands they had left behind in their lust for dominion over all. After days of living on prickly pears and pinyon pine, drinking nothing except dew-drops; I stumbled on the fabled ruins of Atlantis. The lost city, rumored to have sunk into the sea centuries ago, rose before my eyes. It lay crumbling in the desert like the giant bones of some mythical beast from antediluvian times. Numerous lush green invaders overran the legendary metropolis, embosoming it. They shielded the remains from the maws of the insatiable sands. To my hungry gaze, it was the feast of an oasis.
I took shelter in the ruins, sleeping under the stars, in the arms of wild creepers, on stones where no man had trodden for over ten thousand years. That night, the most placid and profoundest slumber ever to grace my lids deluged my eyes. It must have been because of the cloistered isolation of that place. Or perchance, it was the immense distance separating my misanthropic soul from the rest of mankind.
A resounding clamor woke me up from the drugged depths of my sleep. High above the desolate remains of Atlantis blazed the sun, a xanthic orb of conflagration in the cerulean canopy of an interminable sky. The clangor sounded twelve times before the primeval silence of that time-worn place drowned my ears again. I rose to my feet, stretched myself and with wide-open eyes proceeded to investigate the source of the peculiar disturbance. Before long, I stood by a mighty tower projecting to the very heavens. It loomed forth, a lone colossus still standing amidst the battlefield after a devastating war. At the top of that imposing structure was a belfry. It was from there that the banging, which brought me back from the land of Nod, sprung forth. Below the belfry was a large open room like a gazebo in the air. The whole city of Atlantis must have been once visible from there in all its stupendous power and glory.
I decided to climb the tower and look upon the decaying remnants of a bygone age from the top. At the door, my gaze fell on a dust-covered slab of the blackest granite, with some words inscribed on it.
Here lies one who dies not; yet whom the most majestic of the almighty monarchs, the sacred sovereign of Atlantis, King Azathoth, holds in the palm of his hands, a puppet slave swaying to his whims and fancies.
I, the almighty Azathoth, decree that the Immortal shall henceforth be reminded of his tedious existence every noon by twelve strikes of the Gindoran gong, the timekeeper of the universe.
Azathoth commands it shall be twelve lashes of eternity slicing through his everlastingness.
I was no doubt consternated by the inscription, but went ahead and began to ascend the tower. The staircase was like a sinuous serpent spiraling upwards; it was so narrow I fancied myself a snake creeping up the steps. The soundless darkness inside was utterly cosmic. I felt I was drifting in space across that vacuous emptiness which stretches itself out like a demon between the stars. After what seemed a journey without end, I emerged into the open. I was in the gazebo beside the parapet with the surreal vista of the dead city all around me. But what almost toppled me from that precipitous height was the glimpse of the very Immortal of whom the inscription spoke. In the middle stood the captive of King Azathoth, surrounded by shimmering bars of tungsten, the hardest of all known metals.
At first, I thought he was a statue, a man-like sculpture made of the brownest baked clay fresh out of the kiln. It was only when he moved his hands to grip the bars that I realized he was animate. His left leg was shorter than the right. Clutching the bars, he leaned forward and looked me straight in the eye. There were fire and water in them, and his eyes were a curious concoction of cobalt and chrome. He broke the silence hanging heavy in the air between us and said, “Welcome, friend.”
I stared at him, open-mouthed and tongue-tied, unable to say a word. He spoke again; his voice akin to the crisp cool air coming out of cold caverns.
“I apologize for my inability to extend my hand in greetings. The cramped nearness of the bars forbids me from doing so. Please forgive me.”
His unpresuming words released me from my paralytic spell. “That’s all right. But the epigraph! Is it true?”
“Yes, my friend. It is true, unfortunately.”
“I’ve seen many strange things in the world of men and without. Still what you say confounds me beyond belief!” I said, with my eyes on stalks as I continued staring at him.
“You’re an outsider like myself. A castaway drifting in the ruthless immensity of the world, fleeing from the madness of men and their mores. Why don’t you settle down, make yourself comfortable, while I tell you my story from the very beginning? After all, both of us have nothing, save time on our hands.”
He smiled. His eyes of flood and flame twinkled with a friendly glow. I succumbed to his blithe geniality and plopped on the floor facing him, propping myself up against the parapet.
“Isn’t it funny even immortals have a genesis? A birth before which they never existed? How odd I who have infinite time now, once had naught!” He lowered his eyes, sighing. Evidently, it pained him to remember. I was about to offer my sympathy when he raised his head and proceeded with his tale.
“It began a long time ago. I don’t recollect how long. There lived a reclusive alchemist by the name of Abiathar. A master in his chosen field, he toiled night and day in quest of the elixir of immortality. Instead, he stumbled on the secret of creation itself. After many years of searching, he came to the mythical Mount Maru to gather the elements of the universe in their purest form. There in its pristine crags, he found the clear unalloyed elements of Air, Water, Fire, and Earth. Out of them, he made a man-like image, giving it the strength of Earth, the light of Fire, the force of Water, and the clarity of Air. But to breathe life into his creation, to imbue the body with the spirit, he needed the fifth and the most powerful element of all, Ether. This element sub rosa was the pylon between the world of life and death. Ether was the portal through which life permeated the lifeless. It was the invisible gateway separating the living and the dead. Deep in the perilous heights of Maru, in the bottomless bowels of a cavernous chasm, Ether lay hidden since times immemorial. A small amount of this creator and destroyer of space-time must have become entrapped in the pits of the earth during the primordial dawn of the universe. I don’t know how Abiathar acquired it from that bottomless Abyss. All I know is he did, for otherwise I would have stayed a mere effigy of mud and flame, rain and wind.”
He paused and gazed into the distance. His face twitched; his body shaking as though an earthquake had plowed through him. I sat in silence, numb from the bewildering force of his narration.
“Ah, life! To be alive and feel the elements coursing within you! Who can say if it’s worth the effort of such toil and travail?”
I did not know the answer to his question. My experience among men had given me a bleak view of existence.
“I don’t know for certain. Indeed, life seems a worthless enterprise,” I replied.
“Yes, you’re right, my friend. Life is a gimmick Nature plays on the hapless creatures it creates out of nothing. Better to have been nothing, a nix in the void, a goose egg in the cosmic scheme of things, than suffer the privations of being born. To exist is a burden; my immortality is a curse, a torment infinitely worse than the damnation of Tantalus.”
I drew my legs close, hugged them and nodded. He continued. “I long to die, to cease to exist.” A tear fell and rested on his cheek, glittering in the afternoon sunshine, the purest pearl of woe.
“Why?” I asked. I could not think of anything else to say.
Instead of answering, he carried on with his story.
“My immortality gave me knowledge of everything in the universe. I helped Abiathar in his studies. Together, we plumbed the mysteries of alchemy. But his health deteriorated day by day until he was a skeleton. His descent into the Abyss of Ether had weakened him to such an extent that he soon died. Left by myself, I became a wanderer in the world of men. When I first came to Atlantis, the Canib tribe dwelt there. They were a long-lived civilization practicing direct democracy. They managed the danger of their resources running out most peculiarly. Whenever their population threatened to override their means, they drew lots among themselves. Whoever was chosen went smiling into a special chamber that chopped and cooked them. Later, the whole tribe partook in the meal as a celebration of their comrade’s sacrifice for the tribe’s survival. I tell you this because the downfall of Atlantis came in circumstances in exact opposition to this ritual oblation of the self for the larger good. When Azathoth marched into Atlantis, he left not a single man, women or child of Canib standing. Having no understanding of warfare, they were slaughtered in an hour by the advancing army of Azathoth. How strange are the ways of men! The Canib gave up their lives for the welfare of everyone, but Azathoth massacred others for his personal pomp, while the soldiers killed and died for a mere illusion!” He wrung his hands and sighed.
I nodded in agreement. We were silent for a while. Then I asked him, “What is the tale behind the tower?”
“When they found me untouched by their weapons, they took me captive. Azathoth summoned all the best scholars in his kingdom to solve the riddle of my invincibility. The discovery of my immortality crushed the King. He ordered this tower to be built and imprisoned me in it. Above my enclosure, he placed the Gindoran gong to remind me of the ponderous passage of Eternity.”
He raised his hand overhead, pointing to a wide opening on the roof through which the enormous hammer of the gong projected inside.
“Isn’t this what drew you to the tower?”
“Yes. The incessant ringing of the bell roused me from my dreams, bringing me back to reality,” I said. “I see you are lame. What happened to your leg?”
“Oh, this was Azathoth’s idea of insurance against my escaping. The tungsten bars were not enough to satisfy him. It gave him sleepless nights imagining me breaking free. If there was one thing in life that he couldn’t conquer, it was death. My incarceration was symbolic of victory for him over what he could never attain.”
“That still doesn’t explain your handicap.”
“Yes, it does. In his fear and insecurity, he devised a plan to aid him in my capture if the bars ever failed. In the royal workshop, he fashioned a razor-sharp saw from the choicest of diamonds. It took one thousand men working around the clock, without break, to dissever my leg at the ankle. After one thousand days, when they finished the job, Azathoth clambered up the towers. Gawping at me, he laughed long and hard at my new disability.”
“Fiend! Barbarian! What dastardly act, you coward king!” I jumped up enraged, pounding my fists in the air. My voice resounded through the sepulchral silence shrouding the ruins.
He smiled. “I minded not his actions, for I foresaw a brutal culmination to his imperiousness. Azathoth met as vile an end as his atrocities. With my assistance, the bounds of his kingdom expanded until it spiraled out of control. And similar to an overstretched spring that recoils with vengeance, his crimes came back to haunt him right at his palace door. He met a bloody doom at the hands of mercenaries who overran his realms as he once did other lands. Chaos swallowed Atlantis, as the thick-skulled citizens went berserk without a leader. Within a span of twenty-one days, they had butchered each other to extinction. Atlantis remained, only to disintegrate in the sands of time.”
I slumped on the floor, shell-shocked. For a long time, neither of us spoke. Then he said, “Will you help me escape?”
Though I would have never hesitated to help him, such was his aura; his sudden question caught me off-guard. Maybe it was the timing, I cannot say for certain. It took me a moment to answer. “How?”
“Right behind you is a safe hidden in the wall, which holds the key to my prison. It was Azathoth’s idea of mocking my freedom. So near, yet so far!”
I turned around squinting my eyes, feeling the walls. Next, my hand was in a recess clasping a metallic object. I pulled out my hand and was stumped to see the key. I rushed to the enclosure and opened it. With my arms around his waist, I helped him out of the cage.
“Thank you, my friend,” he said. “Now we must hurry down. Azathoth would have built a back up in case this happened.”
We made haste and scampered down the staircase. An unnatural din had already begun to emerge out of the hollows of the tower. A nameless fear pushed me on as I dragged the Immortal downward. Together we hurtled down, two bats out of hell. As soon as we reached the door, we plunged through it. Once outside, we bolted like the wind away from the tower, staggering on our feet, as far as we could make it. The clatter and tumult rose to a roaring crescendo of pandemonium. Then a thunderous cacophony of crashing bricks and bells surged forth as the tower collapsed. We sank on the wild creepers and stared in mute terror at the mighty structure falling apart. The treacherous contrivances of an evil king had survived his death. And all that remained now were fumes of rising dust and debris.
My story is drawing to a close. I cannot speak much of the events that happened later, for it hurts me to remember them. Suffice it to say the Immortal was grateful to me for releasing him but asked for one last favor before we parted ways. His imprisonment in the tower had made him nostalgic for Mount Maru, the realm of the five elements, where Abiathar the Alchemist had first breathed the spark of life into him. Needless to say, I had grown fond of him; I consented. Together, with my arms bracing him from tripping, we marched the long road to the mystic mountain. I remember every single moment of that magical journey, but my heart is too heavy to put them down into words. When we came to Mount Maru, he told me of his desire to see the Abyss of Ether hidden in its precipitous heights. So we made our way uphill like pilgrims to the lofty crags. Clambering up countless snow-covered slopes, we came to a lake of crystal waters, on whose banks was the Abyss of Ether.
There on the shores of that pristine lake, beside the fathomless gulf, his eyes of cobalt and chrome peered into mine. And with a sad smoldering smile, he embraced me as old friends do.
“The time has come, my friend. I hear the Ether calling. The hour of the Great Returning is here. To be an Immortal is no blessing. Life is a curse to one such as I. In my centuries of solitude in the tower, I heard the daily ringing of the Gindoran gong. There I pondered long on the mysteries of existence. And though I am omniscient, it is no compensation for the burden of eternity. There, high in the loneliness of the tower, I came to my conclusion. It is good to be. Better still is to cease to be. But the best is to have never been at all. Oblivion is the ultimate bliss; it is the peace that passes understanding. The few moments you have been with me have brightened the barrenness of my being. For that, I’m forever indebted to you.”
My eyes were wet; my tongue was frozen. He let me go and walked to the edge of the Abyss.
“Now you know why I long for death. But you’re a man, not an Immortal like me. You won’t need to worry about these matters. If you can, forget me, my friend. Even so, if you remember, think of me as the invisible Ether that fills the emptiness between the stars. And you’ll realize though in my anguish I leave you, I am always with you.”
I stood there helpless and alone, with tears gushing forth, as he turned away. Then he hurled himself into the Abyss and disappeared into its bottomless depths forever.
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