Guest Post by Harini Chackrapani

Excerpt from the prequel to The Secret of The Mantle

A rebel is born

By Harini Chakrapani

The snow lay thick upon the ground, the high trees, the hills and homes. All was white. White was all— the color of his robes, his boots, his disheveled mane. Even his eyes, were lacklustre, pale, just a shade darker than his cloudy, rice water colored skin.

His parents were so happy. They had borne the perfect specimen, an obscure little thing that blended with the snow. Unremarkable. He was the apple of their eye. The rest of the 14 that made their brood wasn’t given as much as a second glance. They were so proud, even though they would never admit it, as it was against the law, the signs were clear.

Every birthday, he was given new robes while the rest of his brothers and sisters wore old, ragged ones with mice chewed holes, just like all the other children in Utopia. Of course, his parents would never let him parade around in his fine, silkware, for the fear that their brood would find out it was less loved and harbor blasphemous dark feelings of jealousy and hate. So, they would beckon him to a special room downstairs on his birthday. They called it the Witch’s lair, for it was black evil, had a mirror inside (mirrors were forbidden), with which he could stare at his reflection and find out how different he was from the others.

They would make him stand in front of the mirror, and coo over how his whitewashed appearance had made them a respectable family in town, privileged them to deliver sermons, moral rectitude, granted them access to the temple’s treasury and residence in a palatial house within the temple complex. His great grandfather was the only one who despised him. Whenever his parents left him at his house to babysit, he would call him by a blasphemous word. ALBINO.

When Avon Etcetera was eight-years old, and saw it the first time, etched across the whiteboard he had cried till his throat was sore. Back then, he didn’t know what it meant, but his great grandfather seemed to be filled with such hate, revulsion as he wrote the letters on the whiteboard and show them to him. Something within him told him the word was a reference to his existence and that his great grandfather wanted to rip him apart for it. His great grandfather kept flashing the word at him, taunting him, until he learnt to run away from his room and hide in the closet out of fear that his great grandfather would kill him.

Of course, that had been six years ago. Now, the word didn’t hurt him anymore. In fact, it had made him curious to find out what it meant. He was certain it bore some significance, that it could provide a glimpse to Utopia’s past and empower him. This overwhelming curiosity had made him sneak out of his haveli and brought him here to his great grandfather’s house, a thousand kilometers away from his home.

It was an igloo. Four fifths of Utopia’s population lived in these ice houses. His great grandfather, Avon Geld, didn’t call it that. He said his house was a morgue, a place where the dead lay frozen, devoid of thoughts, feelings, life. Exactly, what Utopia’s ruling class, the Enlightened wanted. They would never publicly admit there were the rulers, but that was the truth. They controlled everything. Avon Geld was in front of him, slouched in his polar bear pelt wrapped chair. He looked different today. Well, he was older by six years since he had met him last. But it wasn’t that. It wasn’t even the black woolen robes he wore that brought out the violet in his eyes, for he always wore these robes. There was something else. A twinkle, a spark in his eyes, a wisp of a smile. He had never seen that. His face was always hard, tensed up, contorted by years of bitterness. Many, many years. For he was 120 years-old. Did he sense something, perhaps his rebellion. And was that why he was happy? He could ask.

“Where do you keep…the?”

Avon Geld smiled wider. The lines of his mouth reached his sunken, withered cheeks. It seemed he didn’t even have to say the word. He knew. He pointed to an inner chamber, the sanctum. Avon Etcetera wanted to know how his great grandfather sensed his vice—the pursuit of knowledge. But he didn’t ask this time around. The purpose of his visit was more important. He turned around and with quick, nervous steps walked into the sacred space. And…it lay in ruin.

The pictures of the Holy Hundred were either torn or scribbled upon. The hand carved gilded oak frames they were kept in lay chipped and broken upon the floor. Violence was meted out to the Vespian ivory statuettes as well. They were either beheaded or belegged. The holiest book of the Utopians, the Ignorantia had been profaned. There was writing in its blank, white pages now. The word was everywhere. ALBINO. Not just in the book, but the walls, the photos, the floor. All dripping with the black paint that had been used to write. An outrage! Avon Etcetera froze. He couldn’t breathe. Moments later, he looked around for the Corestone. It was a white stone that every Utopian was expected to keep in the sanctum. It was imbued with white magic, used by the Enlightened to tap into the minds of Utopians and perceive their thoughts and actions. If ever a thought of rebellion popped up in a Utopian’s mind, the Enlightened began to surveil the dissident. If the thought converted to action, the dissident was buried alive. The Corestone was nowhere to be found. Had his great grandfather disposed of it? That was a crime, punishable by live burying at the hands of the Carcerem.

 His bowels turned to water. With trembling hands, he unrolled the raw, rubbery seal skin door flap*, shutting him out from the rest of the world, leaving him in complete darkness. That’s when he found it. The Encyclopedia. It was called the Black Book in Utopia.

He gasped in horror. Black Books were forbidden. There were only 8 known copies, that the Enlightened was trying to track down and burn. The knowledge it contained was evil. It explained what words meant and provided historical information. It stirred the mind, made it think, question, reason, challenge the way of life in Utopia compared to the pre Utopia period, when the planet was called Sprabodh.

To think that Avon Geld had one, marked, not only him as a rebel, an insurgent, a threat to Utopia, but also his great grandson, Avon Etcetera, his parents, his siblings, by virtue of kinship. It was just outrageous. He was drawn to the book. It glowed with a blue light. On the cover was the image of a hollow brain filled with gears, their teeth cutting into each other. Surrounding the brain were balls of different shapes and colors. Planets.

A word was embossed. Bodhbal. Knowledge is power. Avon Etcetera felt something within him. The feeling was old, familiar — a hole, an emptiness swirling within him, that made him lightheaded, weak, everyday of his life in Utopia. There was only one thing that could fill this emptiness and it was right in front of him. With that he opened the book. The light shone in his eyes.

At length, he saw them — the Lūx, the founders of Utopia. There were seven of them seated in a row on wooden benches, clothed in white robes. They had white faces, white hair. The book named them as the Albinos. One of them had dry, coarse strands poking out of his head just like him. He could see the resemblance. They were namesakes. That he had known. But he had never before seen this picture. A picture in motion. The Enlightened distributed very different pictures across Utopia. The representations showcased brawny, barrel-chested bodies with square jaws and narrow tipped noses. Symbols of strength.

Here, the Lūx looked weak and emaciated, with bones poking out of flesh, sunken cheeks, bulbous noses, fragile skulls. The eyes were horrid. Phenol colored pupils empty of any expression. They simply stared. Shortly, a bearded figure wearing a long pointed cap and worn out black robes came upon the scene. He made symbols with his hands and called upon strange verses. They had a hint of music with its ebb and flow. At once, his hands transformed into black, vaporous masses that began scratching the air and the ground. The demonstration required sizeable effort, for the figure gave out deep, guttural sounds as if his abdomen were being squeezed. At length, a golden tower with its polished gleaming surface carrying the reflections of the sky, clouds, and other buildings began to materialize, spiralling all the way up to the clouds. It was a spectacle! Avon Etcetera hadn’t seen anything like it before. Text flashed underneath the picture. “This is CREATION, making something out of nothing.” The words jolted the fibre of his being. He kept repeating them over and over again, savoring them, drawing their essence. Next, he learned that the robed figure was apparently a builder named Ojman Pratap. The Lūx simply stared. Their eyebrows were flat against their foreheads. They stared as though, they could see right through the tower, as if it didn’t exist at all. That became clear, when his namesake mouthed, “sisa raghlone,” and the text flashed underneath the picture. The language was Lapitis. Avon Etcetera knew the words. It was the tongue used by his forebears. Of course, the Enlightened forbade it in schools or anywhere in public. They believed it was full-fledged. Every thought, every emotion, every signal in the brain could be expressed with just the right words. It didn’t just stop there. The words had the power to draw other minds, make empathic connections. That’s what encouraged rebellion and led to the fall of Sprabodh according to the Enlightened. They didn’t want history to repeat itself and lead to the downfall of Utopia. Still, his parents had books in the house and wanted their children to learn Lapitis. It was a part of their lineage, who they were. More than that, it was the language of the Lūx, helped them see right from wrong in building the perfect society for Utopians. It could not be forgotten. Avon Etcetera loathed the expression on his namesake’s face. He, then studied the face of the builder, Ojman Pratap only to realize they both shared a look of pain, anguish. His mind felt heavy. There was an upswell of thoughts….thoughts that needed to pour out of him with a great roar and crash…like a storm. So everyone around him could hear, feel the words…be touched…overwhelmed by them. Avon Etcetera was desperate. He groped for the right words in Utopian to acknowledge his thought. But there were none. The only other language he knew was Lapitis…but he hadn’t practiced in so long because of school work and other house chores. Still, he knew he had to try with the limited knowledge he had of Lapitis. The thought had to be shared. Thus, he began aloud a haphazard speech lacking verbs sometimes, or jumbled up verbs and nouns. But every word he uttered was pregnant with emotion.

Midway, he stopped. He couldn’t go on. The thought was still there, but he didn’t know the right words. He could still get it out but what was the point, if no one could understand what he was saying. The right words would move people, impel them to action.

Perhaps, that was the builder’s intent. No effort should go in vain. His anger fomented. His face burned, showing color. It wasn’t the first time he was angry. But then again, he hadn’t ever been angry this way out of frustration…feeling helpless, constrained, shackled. He gave a start. There was someone creeping up on him. His great grandfather. There was a smile on his face. This was the second time. It was a wide, gaping smile. He noticed gold teeth and a tongue cut in half that made him a mute. Avon Geld hadn’t a reason to be happy in six decades. All those years of hiding, leading a double life, knowing the truth, but still denying knowledge of it, living in fear of losing his life….like a coward. No more. He had the strength to unveil that disguise. The cost would be death, but he was willing to pay it. This was the moment he had been waiting for. Of course, he had never thought his great grandson could be a part of it. It seemed so unlikely given his remarkable resemblance to one of the Lūx… the one who had cut his tongue in half and robbed him of speech. Avon Etcetera. No more. He would speak now. He would give his great grandson, the words. Words that would nourish his anger, set him on the path to find the truth and redeem Utopians. That was all that mattered. Many had undertaken to lead this journey before, but returned halfway. Perhaps, his great grandson was just like them. A quitter. Perhaps he was not. But Avon Geld knew he had to try, when there was a flicker of hope. He could taste his great grandson’s anger. It was what made him confront the Lūx sixty years ago. He closed his eyes, watched a few breaths, made a cross with his index fingers, touched his lips, feeling a soothing comfort as if he had been taking a warm shower, and chanted. “Rohati.” He waited, breathing in and out for several minutes until he felt a sting in his tongue as though somebody had pinched it.

The wet moist thing began to grow, hitting the roof of his mouth and then his teeth. He had healed. He had been afraid to try this for sixty years and for good reason. As soon as the flesh had materialised, he felt a searing pain in his heart. As though a knife had cleaved out a fragment and his life energy or udarat were leaking out. The punishment didn’t stop just there. He could feel a hail of stabs, rending several holes through vein and tissue and the udarat bleeding out. That was the price for channeling Dark Magic as designed by the Lūx. The fuel for Dark Magic was one’s own life energy. Every time a dark spell was chanted, one had to be prepared to expend his own life energy. Building especially was fatally draining. Do and die trying. His face contorted, teeth bit into his lip, making it bleed. If he wanted, he could dwell in the pain, cry and feel weak. But his practice taught him otherwise. He breathed in and out. It didn’t help as much as he had hoped. His mind was distracted. He was yet to learn the Dark Way. Of course, there was the easy way out, designed for the more distracted monkey minds like his. So, he parted his mouth and sucked in the cold air, calming down his mind.

He had to give his great grandson the words to spark his mind, spark a rebellion in Utopia. “You hate to see Avon Etcetera’s face don’t you? It’s just as how I had felt that day. Look at his eyes, they are blank. The lips are pressed against each other and the facial muscles are taut as if all the blood had congealed. There is no acknowledgement of the builder…no acknowledgement of what he has built…no acknowledgment of the blood, sweat and tears that had gone into his creation…no acknowledgement of that ambition that had driven the creation…as if all life was futile…as if life had no purpose…as if living was death,” he said in a mix of Lapitis and Utopian, certain that his great grandson couldn’t figure out the message otherwise. Avon Etcetera looked flabbergasted. Clearly, he had processed most of the message. “How can you speak Avon Geld?” he asked. But as his great grandfather began to reply, he interrupted. “It doesn’t matter…what you said…is exactly what was on my mind. The thought was there but I just couldn’t put it in words. I feel so relieved now. It’s as if I have wanted to say these words ever since I learned how to speak. Is this what the Lūx thought of creation…that it was a wasted effort?” His great grandfather nodded. His skin prickled with excitement. Avon Etcetera felt his anger return, and with it the thought of strangling his namesake. “Easy my child. And now I want you to remember this for the rest of your life.”

The words struck Avon Etcetera. His great grandfather had never before called him his own blood. And how had he been able to read his mind today? Avon Geld lay down photo frames of the Enlightened wearing their neon white robes and masks with one roving pupiless eye. He then tried to summon Dark Magic, watching his breath, rapidly making strange symbols with his hands and calling upon musical verses. The scene was new yet seemed so very familiar. Moments later, a struggle followed. His great grandfather was in pain, yelling and crying. The golden tower that he had seen in the Black Book began to shape up right in front of his eyes, breaking through the photo frames of the Enlightened and moments later, the roof of the house and bringing in a blast of cold air. Could it be that his great grandfather was the builder Ojman Pratap himself? The revelation was astonishing. Something told him Avon Geld was dying. His breathing was growing more laborious with every passing second. And then blood began to seep from his chest, coloring his clothes and then the ice.

Despite, his struggles, Avon Geld held his calm for one final demonstration. He would take a bow only after that. He would not go easily. In dying too there would be purpose. He wanted the Enlightened to realize that and reel in their graves remembering him when the time came. The blood pooled around him. He could feel his nearly severed heart hanging by a limp vein. He kept trying to heal it with the aura of the Dark Magic, while feeling more of his life slip away in the process. He could envision the Enlightened rejoicing this travesty of Dark Magic that they had helped perpetuate. But, he wouldn’t let them have the last laugh. He staggered to his feet, defiantely pulled out the Corestone that he had been wearing around his neck, rubbed it against the golden tower and pressed his palms together.

Then, he turned toward Avon Etcetera and said, “Find Yayavar Gen Vatra and tell him, “Cinotiham tarhi aham.” He will teach you the Dark Way.” Before taking the final fall to his death, he stuck out the Corestone against his great grandson’s face making sure the Enlightened who monitored the Corestone knew what was coming their way. If his great grandson were indeed the prophesied hero destined to bring down the regime, then he would survive all the odds and pursue the darkness. Avon Etcetera felt his heart throbbing in his chest. The Corestone had perceived it all. Now, it was buzzing with strange voices. Voices that sounded heavy and breathy. They were coming for him. Coming for the rebel. He ran for his life.

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