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Stephen Goldin

Shrine of the Desert Mage
Prolog: The Holy City


Shrine of the Desert Mage

The tale is told of a time when all Parsina was shaken with war; when the oceans bubbled and the very sky caught fire; when a legion of demons fought the army of men; when the Peris took up arms and the King of the Winds bent himself to human purposes; when the earth split open and swallowed a city at a single greedy gulp; when strength and courage vied against treachery and corruption; when love battled hate and creation warred with destruction; when kings and princes fought for the honor of humanity against a swelling tide of demonkind; when the forces of Oromasd and Rimahn themselves contended for control of the world and the universe hung in the balance scale, half a feather's weight from chaos.

Such a time there was, and if you're patient you will hear of it.

But before that time, there was Ravan.

Ravan the Golden; Ravan the Beautiful; Ravan, the City of the Gilded Domes; Ravan, the Mother of Cities; Ravan, the Fountain of Goodness; Ravan, the Jewel of Mankind; Ravan, Bane of Djinni; Ravan, Blessed of Oromasd and Cursed of Rimahn; Ravan, City of a Hundred Temples; Ravan, Center of the World.

Ravan, City of a Thousand Names, City of a Thousand Thousand Blessings.

Ravan, the Holy City.

The builders of Ravan had sought to make it perfect, for no site more deserved perfection. In that crack of time between the Fourth and Fifth Cycles, between the Age of Heroes and the Age of Ravan, it was this spot that stood as fulcrum in the balance between good and evil. In the Kholaj Desert to the east the battle was waged, and heroes died so men might live free of Rimahn's evil influence. In the heart of what came to be Ravan, King Shahriyan himself declared the victory of Oromasd and mankind over the forces of darkness and dissolution. Likewise in that spot did the wizard Ali Maimun, greatest mage of a wondrous age, shatter the Crystal of Oromasd in twain, and then in twain again, so no man could profane its holy powers.

No heroes of that stature were left; their Age had gone, and them with it. But their legacy of peace was enjoyed by men for so many generations that even the oldest villagers could not count them.

To celebrate and commemorate this triumph, King Shahriyan ordered built the finest city in the world. Tribute poured in from all lands, from Indi and Sinjin, from Tatarry and Sudarr, even from Norgeland and the far Islands of Fauk; no kingdom was so far it had not heard of the marvels, and none was so untouched that it would not contribute to the greatness.

Materials arrived in train after train, and the land around Ravan was so cluttered with caravans they could scarcely move for their crowding. Marble and alabaster, cedar and teak, turquoise and diamonds, rubies and emeralds, lapis and jade, silver and ivory, all arrived in quantities beyond reckoning. But most of all there was gold--gold in wicker baskets, gold in bricks, gold in jewelry, gold in dust, enough gold to burden ten thousand camels for a year and still have enough left over to please a sultan's harem.

But it was not just materials that made the city. Each king, in grateful tribute, sent his finest artisans and craftsmen to aid the construction. From all corners of the world came architects, engineers and builders, stonemasons and carpenters, sculptors, plasterers, bricklayers, and woodcarvers, all vying to outdo one another and make Ravan the most beautiful city the world has ever known. An army of artisans, working day and night; an army, some say, that was larger even than the army King Shahriyan used in his triumphant battle. The sounds of their hammers and chisels and saws echoed through the surrounding countryside for many years as the city of Ravan rose from the plain of mankind's most tremendous battlefield.

King Shahriyan was an old man by the time the city was completed, and he had vowed never to set foot inside the walls until Ravan was finished. Now at last he came with his procession, an old warrior mounted on his white horse with the gold trappings. By all accounts there were tears in his eyes as he and his retinue marched through the Palace Gate and down the magnificent streets of Ravan; some say he was struck dumb by its beauty and grandeur, and could not speak again for upwards of a month. A few even say he never spoke again save in a whisper, so awed was he at the marvel he'd caused to be created.

This, then, was the Ravan of King Shahriyan: A city built on a mound more than two stories tall, a mound surrounded entirely by a deep ditch except in those places where the roads approached. To the west of the city flowed the Zaind River in its southerly course, far enough away so that even at its highest flood the waters would not threaten the city's walls, close enough to allow the river commerce that brought wealth into the city. To the north, the Tirghiz Mountains rose as majestic backdrop to this jewel of all cities, their streams and creeks feeding the underground aqueducts that brought life to Ravan. To the south were the fertile plains of Leewahr, whose crops and whose livestock fed the hungry population of the Holy City. And to the east lay the burning sands of the Kholaj Desert, ever a reminder of the desolation Rimahn brought into the world.

Atop its peaceful mound, surveying its surroundings, was Ravan itself, a city built in a circle. The outer walls, four stories tall and built of massive stone blocks, enclosed the circular city with a diameter of more than a parasang. Inside the outer wall ran a second ditch and then the inner wall, five stories tall, of brick and plaster. Safe within these formidable defenses, the city of Ravan reposed.

Four gates only breached these walls in the time of King Shahriyan. To the north, the Palace Gate shone out its hues of burnished gold with bas relief birds and animals, real and mythical. To the west was the silver River Gate, inscribed with calligraphic motifs. To the east, the massive bronze Merchant's Gate with floral designs welcomed travelers who'd journeyed across the desert from the far and mystical lands of the east. To the south was Peasant's Gate, carved in geometric patterns from rare teak.

Four roads ran through the city from these gates, intersecting in a maidan at the very center, and along the roads were the major bazaars that served the city. The bazaar running north and south from Palace Gate to Peasant's Gate was called the King's Bazaar because it passed the palace. The bazaar was wide enough for four oxcarts to pass abreast. The entire length was enclosed with a vaulted arch of wood. In the northern half the wood had been gilded, but the southern half was scarcely less impressive, lacquered in floral designs of blues and reds and greens and golds; because of this design, the southern half was sometimes also known as the Flower Bazaar.

The road across the east and west sides of the city was narrower, just two oxcarts wide. From the central maidan to River Gate the bazaar was overhung with fabric of a hue that gave the street its name--the Saffron Bazaar; while the eastern half of the street was shaded by brocade canopies and thus named the Silk Bazaar.

In the maidan at the very center of town, on the precise spot where King Shahriyan declared his victory, stood a public fountain issuing forth its sweet water for all who needed it. From the center of the fountain rose a memorial obelisk on which was inscribed the story of King Shahriyan and his knights, and of Ali Maimun the wizard, and their triumph over the forces of Rimahn. Each year thousands of pilgrims journeyed to Ravan from all parts of the world to read the story for themselves and drink the water from the sacred fountain.

The palace Shahriyan had built for himself lay in the north of the city, against the inner wall and just to the west of the King's Bazaar. Built of stone and marble and purest white alabaster, it was every bit as impressive as should befit the monarch who had saved the world. The domes of its roof were all gilded, and so numerous that any man who tried to count them rapidly lost track and gave up the task in hopeless frustration. There were fountains and shady gardens within the many palace courtyards, but the great wonder were the gardens that adjoined the palace on the south side. The royal gardens, so it was said, contained every flower and tree known to man, and were so extensive they required an army of gardeners to tend them. Lucky visitors to the gardens could wander for hours without repeating their path, and it was widely agreed that the royal gardens of Ravan were numbered among the wonders of the world.

But for all his worldly wisdom, for all the fact that he was a strong and noble monarch, King Shahriyan did not forget that the true victory belonged to Oromasd, and that he and his armies had merely been acting as the appointed instrument of Oromasd's divine will. From his first commission, good King Shahriyan had insisted that the builders of Ravan make it a city devoted to Oromasd, a city of light and virtue--as much a city of spiritual good as of worldly goods. Ravan was to be a beacon to people everywhere, proclaiming the glory and power of Oromasd throughout the world.

True to their orders, the architects and builders of Ravan set out to make the new city the holiest spot on earth. In collaboration with the priests and the mages they installed relics and talismans every few cubits within both the inner and outer walls around the city, so no forces of evil could ever breach those barricades. They designed and built shrines throughout the city, so Ravan acquired its name of the City of a Hundred Temples. Each was a work of art, each a tribute to the glorious creator of the universe. Theologians and priests came from all over Parsina to study in the madrasas of Ravan. While it was universally known that Oromasd saw all that transpired on earth, the citizens of Ravan contended with justifiable pride that he paid a little more attention to Ravan than elsewhere.

Jewel of all the temples was the Temple of the Faith, also called the Royal Temple because it abutted the southwest wall of the palace. This was a building to rival the palace itself, its gold dome the largest ever built by man. The minaret at the south side of the temple was the highest point within Ravan, and atop it burned the everlasting flame, symbol of Oromasd's power. The flame could be seen from any point in Ravan and in the countryside for parasangs around, so the populace would know that the power of Oromasd never diminished in its sustenance of Ravan.

In addition to the palace and the temples, there were other buildings in Ravan as well. Spacious and comfortable caravanserais were spread among the bazaars for visiting merchants, pilgrims, or scholars. A myriad of flat-roofed houses bordered on the twisting lanes of each quarter. None of the houses was less than a mansion, and each had a central court with a sumptuous garden, a tribute to Oromasd's blessings and the fecundity of the Holy City.

Such, then, was the Ravan built by King Shahriyan: a city of dreams, a metropolis unparalleled in the history of Parsina, a center of both worldly and spiritual wealth. It was a city without cares, where any man could enter and be happy and at peace.

King Shahriyan lived for only a year in the palace of Ravan, growing weaker and older with each passing day. It was as though, with the completion of the city, his appointed task on earth was done and he could look forward to nothing else life had to offer. The priests of the Royal Temple comforted him, and at last his soul slipped off to meet its destiny on the Bridge of Shinvar.

Other kings followed King Shahriyan to reign in Ravan. Some were as good as he, some were less good, some few even were bad. Some were loved by their subjects, others tolerated, and some were vilely hated. Some extended their influence throughout most of Parsina, while others were content merely to run the affairs of the city itself. Kings of other nations made war and sued for peace  one with the other; armies invaded, armies defended, armies conquered. But Ravan remained untouched, a pearl inviolate in the bed of earth. War, dissension, famine, and even plague passed it by, as though unwilling to blemish Ravan's sanctity. Whatever happened to the rest of the world, the people of the Blessed City remained secure in the knowledge that their place in the scheme of life was settled and stable.

Thus it was for generation after generation. Sons grew old and daughters got married, and life succeeded itself in its eternal revolution. Men and women came and went, and the wheels of Time would spin and grind.

The Holy City changed but slowly. After more than a thousand years a fifth gate was added in the southeastern portion of the wall, Beggar's Gate, and the road leading northward from it to intersect the Silk Bazaar was called the Winding Bazaar because of its twisting route among the streets of Ravan. The shops here were poorer and there was no canopy to shade passersby from the heat of the sun. Some of the merchants put small awnings over the doors to their stalls, but many didn't even bother.

Many grew rich in Ravan, and even more grew poor. The adage "Better a beggar in Ravan than a king in Kandestan" was of more consolation to the kings than the beggars. The rich merchants, the fat landlords, the snobbish moneylenders expanded and consolidated some of the original houses; a single household could incorporate three of the old buildings, and some of the elite mansions began to rival the palace itself. The nobility gathered in the northern half of the city; the closer the home was to the palace, the more honored and privileged the noble.

The southern half of the city was left mostly to the middle-class merchants, the pilgrims, and the poor. Houses here were often divided among many families. As the buildings grew older they were often razed instead of repaired and newer, meaner dwellings took their place. While poverty never took root as deeply as it did elsewhere, not even Ravan was immune from the decay of time. The city's original luster wore thin, revealing the common clay beneath the glazed facade.

Still, life proceeded on its daily pace and the people accepted their lot with grace.

The Cycles turned, the universe revolved, and the threads of Fate were woven into their ever-new tapestry. The Age of Ravan, like some ancient clock, was winding down. The new Cycle, when it came, would depend not on the vagaries of heroes, but those, instead, of men.

Chapter 1

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