The Greatest City That Was

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic

A restored excerpt from the work of an unnamed professor of Cuneiform Studies.

Submitted: April 23, 2018

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Submitted: April 23, 2018



We should have left with the birds.

These are the words engraved on the stone arches of a once-great city, so vast and grand that it, at its time, was without equal. I shall not recall here its true name, for the very thing itself is cursed and drips poisonous misfortune into the mouth of those who speak it. Know it simply as the greatest city that was, for once that was true. At its apex, it was home to men from countless nations, bringing with them their gods, both young and old, and planting their banners into the rich soil of the city’s heart. From these strips of cloth arose great spiraling towers, some twisted, others smooth as sea-stones, all impressive in their own right. Homesick traders that had sailed from the far reaches of the world would lose all desire to return home, once they had laid their ships and their eyes on its shores. A visiting foreign king had once said of it, that the city looked as if it were attempting to mimic the beauty of the stars. Who would have thought that the old king’s words would ring true… For when is a star more beautiful than upon its death?

The birds were the first sign.

It had happened on a warm summer day, efficient and boring, as the many summers before it. The stone-shapers were arranging the roofless hall for the coronation: the king was to take a second wife, when the sun slipped away. The men gazed towards the skies, expecting an eclipse, but instead saw a motley array of feathers, bonded together in soundless unity. No one knew their cause, though some argued that an early migration was not unheard of. Whatever the case, the birds had flown without hesitation, past the city and over the waters, far into the lands that men’s eyes cannot see. The elders saw the event as an omen and postponed the preparations, but that is where their concern ended. Perhaps they, like the elusive nightjars, knew of what was to come, and sought to winter the coming events in secret, secluded torpor. None can say for sure.

The following week breathed fresh life into the city and banished all ill thoughts from its inhabitants. The wardens had come back from one of their hunts, carrying several massive boars - the sort that dwell within the deepest recesses of the forests. Normally a match for any man, the wardens returned unharmed, not a single wound among them. For this, the king gave them praise, and as a show of approval had one of the boars be shared amongst the poor of the Dust District. All rejoiced and revelled in the feast, and preparations resumed the following day.

It would be another month before the preparations would once again be halted, this time due to an eclipse that lasted for almost an entire day. The wealthy and the less-so alike spent their time indoors, and although the learned men assured everyone that the phenomenon was benign, none ventured outside for very long, save for the sailors. When man had awoken the following day, he found the rivers unnaturally calm and the forests eerily quiet. Yet, with time, men do as they always do - and soon enough adjusted to their newfound predicament. The great coronation was now mere days away.

I should note now, that not all in the greatest city that was ignored these signs. Many priests sought answers from their patrons, making whatever sacrifices and offerings they saw fit. The cloistered brothers of the house of Enki, in particular, consulted their god in the great river upon which the city was built, and whereas many began doing so with the coming of the eclipse - the house of Enki began its efforts after the migration. The gods, characteristically, were silent.

The coronation was indeed grand, and the delays only succeeded in sharpening its splendor. The wardens watched from the outer walls, the poor from the inner, while those of the higher casts elbowed and snaked their way as close to the hall as possible. The hierophant crowned the second queen (to the chagrin of the first), which delighted the king - and to some extent the people, for they now had a new set of ears which were not yet exhausted by their silver-tongued pleas. Another feast was had, though most of it had come from the reserves, as the wardens were having a harder time finding game that grew more elusive with each passing day.

It is called the night of ash by those who survived it, but in truth it had occurred in the early hours of the morning. As the markets rang and the men bustled about, dark flakes began to descend upon the city all around them. It was slow at first, yet steady and consistent, and all the while none - not even the learned men - could discover the source of it. Once more the cloistered acolytes beseeched their gods, and once more were left wanting. The brothers of the house of Enki had decided that their god had fled with the birds, or worse - had perished altogether.

The city astromancers looked to the stars for the answer, but they too had cast their eyes someplace else. The oneiromancers, strangest of all diviners, had equally little luck; most could not sleep, and of the ones that could - most did not dream. A rare few succeeded in both, and all awoke in tears - not because they had dreamt of horrible images, of death or destruction, but of a sorrowful berceuse in a field of nothingness. Worst of all, the song followed them into the waking world… and lingered.

When the true night arrived, the ash remained, falling like winter snow. Those who could, locked themselves away in their homes. The poor and homeless found shelter in stables or not at all, while the sailors made no distinction between fools and cowards and fled towards the seas with the lucky few they took on - willingly or otherwise. The king made no decrees, yet he did not retire to the relative safety of his stone palace, despite the clamor of his advisers. Instead, he sat at the top of the stone steps, overlooking the city - a view even the wardens were not blessed with. He sat looking out towards the vast forest, which had by now been coated in unnatural shades of black and grey, but none can say what he had hoped to see.

The events that followed are best left to forgotten history, but as with a secret or a jest, once a speaker has begun a tale it would be remiss of them not to conclude it. As such, I shall swallow my discomfort and press on.

The calamity that had sent its harbingers so many months before had finally arrived. It did not come in fire, or flood, nor by drought nor frost - nor did it come by way of volcanic eruption, as might be suggested by the sudden ash-fall. It came in the form of a legion, but comprised of neither men nor beasts. They arose out of the forests from which all things fled; dark, shadowy entities that seemed to mingle with the very ash that danced around them. They had no natural form, and underneath the pale light of the moon - when it was given a chance to shine - they twisted, back and forth, as if they were stuck in an ever-lasting stage of metamorphosis. They skulked absentmindedly towards the high walls, making no sounds as they moved.

The wardens had never left their watch, and they wasted no time engaging the ash-spawn. They had sent and delivered three volleys of arrows before realizing the futility of their actions. When the legion had neared the gates, the wardens sprang from the walls to engage them in single combat; they were not seen again. The crepuscular horrors flooded the outer walls shortly after, and the inner shortly after that. They did not force their way into any buildings, instead they stood - grotesquely upright - at the entrances. Those whose curiosity betrayed them unwittingly invited the horrors into their home, where screams died as quickly as candle lights. Some abandoned their shelters and attempted to flee towards the docks, but the ash clung heavily to their lungs; most were caught, almost embraced, and their skin took on a cool white as their bodies became one with the ground.

The king, too, met an ill-fate, though not in the same manner. The creatures, for reasons unknown, had either avoided or had not seen the high entrance to the palace, and left the king unharmed. Yet whether from grief, fear, or madness - the king threw himself from his high seat, and though he fell amongst the wretches none of them had taken any notice.

When the fiends had departed, those that remained were hollow, slinking into the dark and cold tombs that bore the weight of the city. It is said they still dwell there, writing puzzling messages in an unrecognizable tongue, using their nails until their fingers have been chiseled to the bone, where blood takes the place of ink.

With that we are left to wonder: what had brought on such a calamity? Had the greatest city that was angered one or many of the gods housed within it? Were these… entities simply the mad ramblings of men afflicted with an unknown disease? Perhaps it was mere men, dressed as monstrosities. I know what you will ask: why offer such alternatives when I have clearly pushed one theory so fiercely? Perhaps it is because this tale was more for me, than for anyone else. Understand, dear reader, that I am not confident in my words; even now, as I attempt to conclude the retelling of this event, I question myself and my efforts, as well as the purpose of my words. Know that this is not merely the fancy of a madman, nor am I a renown-greedy academic, hungry for my name among the scholarly works of better men. I did not need to scour ancient texts for research, nor did I risk losing my sight by attempting to translate moth-eaten scrolls - only to have the newly rediscovered words haunt me through my days… For the words that haunt me are mine own, and they are etched in stone.

© Copyright 2018 Opheleus. All rights reserved.

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