How Doubt Left the Empire

The Book of Onei is an antinomian dream grimoire, providing deceptive yet true information about the art of Oneiromancy or dream magic in the form of poetry, fantasy, and intentionally ambiguous instructions.

Frederick Sandys (1829-1904), Harald Harfagr ~ Originally published in Once a Week, 1862

The Empire of the Adoration, also known as the Qalina, grew up out of the chaos left behind them by the Sons of the Crow. The Sons of the Crow destroyed the City of Wisdom and the City of the Gods, then disappeared into the Blue Desert for several years. They came out of the Blue Desert to destroy the City of the Sublime, where the worshipers of the Sublime had rebuilt their temples. They retreated for seven years into the Brokentooth Mountains, then came down again to burn several more cities.

 

The Flagbearer and his followers had stopped them, but the Flagbearer had been burned alive, because the priests of the Adoration did not trust his purity. Then the Temple of the Adoration became the ruler of the ruined lands, and imposed its teaching on every community. The Qalina was its High Priestess and its absolute ruler, and her followers believed in the legend of the Adoration: how it was he who brought the sun from the depths of outer space and installed it above the primal waters, how he pulled the ghosts of which people were made from out of the heart of a dying star in order to populate his new-made world, how he imprisoned the Chaos Worm beneath the same primeval ocean before calling up the islands and continents from beneath the waves, and how he saved his beloved people from being murdered by the vengeful stars, before imprisoning the stars in their cells in the firmament.

 

All believed, and no one questioned. But there was one who doubted, not the faith itself, but his own ability to live up to it. People called him the Doubtful, and they used to chase him through the streets and throw things at him. The priests would question him when he came to the temple, asking him why he doubted the faith. But he would deny that he doubted, saying only this:

 

Though he split the land from the water,

Though he put each star in its own true place

Though he spared us all from the slaughter

I fear his face.

 

“Fear and wisdom are closely connected,” said a kindly priestess, washing the offal from off of his face. “You have the makings of a priest.” But he shook his head, and the expression of fear on his face contained a tincture of a doubt, and so the priestess drove him out.

 

From the depths of his terrified heart, the Doubter bargained, holding his hands up to heaven in a pouring rain. He wanted to serve the Adoration, and he wanted to love him, but the possibility of the one seemed to render the other meaningless. No man can bargain with heaven, so his prayers were not answered. The priests of the Adoration demanded a goodness of which he knew he was not capable. This would not have hurt him, except that he knew his neighbors, and though all of them were pious, none of them were capable of true goodness either. This one was an adulterer and this other one a gossip, this one cheated at card games and still another was a drunk. And as for the Doubtful, he had killed a man, though it was a long time ago and in another city far away.

 

He knew his own crime was a heavy one, but the church demanded a facade of piety, and this was something of which he did not feel capable. And so he sank deeper into doubt and despair, wandering along the roads of the Qalina and sleeping wherever the night surprised him.

 

He awoke one morning on the side of the road, as the cold light of a white dawn drained the darkness from the sky. There was a black crow standing on top of him, perhaps considering if he was dead enough to make a meal.

 

“Don’t take my eyes,” he said. “I am not yet ready.”

 

The crow cawed once at him and flew away, but the Doubtful was disturbed by what he had seen in its eyes. For just a few seconds, before the crow flew away, weird images had flickered there like dim reflections: a blind old woman singing in a lifeless desert as vast as the world, a madman tracing the cracks in a human thighbone between the walls of a ruined city.

 

“What did I see?” he asked aloud, and he heard a laugh.

 

“You saw a bird,” said a man, “for there was nothing else to see.”

 

The man was walking along the roadway with a stick in his hand, and his eyes were bitter and mocking. “You are not a believer, I see,” the man said.

 

“I am not. But neither am I an unbeliever.” The Doubtful stood up, brushing the dust of the road off his clothes as well as he could.

 

“Allow me to guess,” said the man. “They cast you out, because you would not worship their ridiculous god.”

 

“I never found their god ridiculous,” said the Doubter. “I found him terrible beyond all hope. What god could be so ruthless as to demand goodness of men?”

 

The passerby laughed. “That is droll, I’ll admit. But this goodness they ask of you is as meaningless as their god. You need not cling to these shadows and dreams. Accept the reality of what is in front of you, and seek no other.”

 

“Yet I doubt that too. You ask me to trust my eyes and not their dreams. I know no cause for trusting either.”

 

“Then you are far more lost than I. One must know where to stop doubting.”

 

“I don’t think I believe that,” said the Doubter, and the other man shook his head and walked away.

 

“The trouble is not that you couldn’t see,” said another voice, “but that you couldn’t play with the things you saw. Don’t you have any dreams of your own?”

 

The Doubter looked in every direction, but all he saw was the crow, perching nearby on the branch of a silver birch tree.

 

“I must have dreams of my own,” he replied at last, “to be hearing you speak.”

 

Then the crow on the branch stepped out of his crow skin, and revealed himself as the magician called the Three Times Exiled. He grinned a grin from the branches of the tree, and the Doubter grinned back although he did not know why.

 

“Where are you from?” he asked. “For you are no mortal man.”

 

The magician bowed, and said these words:

 

I’ve lived here on the borders of the night,

Where dark divides from light.

I’ve walked the marches made of fire and snow.

 

“I am only a visitor from the Country of the King, where no one believes anything but everything is real. You may join me there if you like.” And then he sang this song:

 

There are palaces and temples

In the cities on the plain

Made of bone as smooth as marble

Where the windows run like rain.

 

There’s a grove of golden peaches,

There are apples, green and red,

There’s a hierophant who teaches

From the gospels of the dead.

 

There are kings and queens, created

To be gods before the Fall-

Though you wandered there for ages

You could never see it all.

 

And your anguished hope of heaven,

Once a parched and withered thing,

Will be branches red with berries

In the country of the king.

 

“Why should I believe that?” asked the Doubter.

 

“You should not.”

 

The Three Times Exiled jumped down from the branch, and the ground where he landed sprouted bells on stems, waving like flowers in a summer breeze. The sound of music filled the air

 

“Neither believers nor unbelievers will ever find it. I don’t ask you to trust what others see or claim to have seen. I don’t even ask you to trust what you see yourself. I ask you only to play.”

 

The Three Times Exiled waved his hand, and a light burst forth from the Doubter’s forehead and swept the world like a cloth washing paint away. The landscape around them became a world of wonder. But it was not exactly as the magician had described. Instead of a city made of bone there was a plain of windows, scattered here and there for hundreds of miles. Some of them were set into the ground and some rose up straight out of it; some of them floated in the sky and some moved from place to place. And every window looked out upon a different world, some of them fiery places and some of them snowy, some of them mountains and forests, others temples and palaces. The possibilities were so amazing that the Doubter merely gaped, and did not even notice that the magician had gone.

 

“This is different than what you sang of…” he began, but then he saw he was alone. For only a moment, he stood dismayed. Then he walked off into the World of Windows and was seen no more.

 

Image by Frederick Sandys

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