In the latter aeons of the world, the sun drew nearer the earth. The old sun had been an object of adoration and worship since time immemorial; but the New Sun of the Dying Ages, swollen in circumference and a deeper crimson in hue, was regarded immediately with superstitious detestation. Cataclysmic changes were visited upon the earth in the advent of the New Sun. The oceans shrank to a half their size, and the landmasses became vast deserts, broken up by small pockets of tropical jungle.
In the ensuing struggle to adapt and survive, the earth’s population was decimated, and the fruits of a millennia of civilisation were lost in a handful of generations. Ideas were forgotten, and the outward, physical forms of those ideas buried deep beneath the sand. Over the centuries, however, a hardened and resourceful humanity slowly regained its sense of equilibrium, and the old habits of complex social organisation reasserted themselves. Small cities grew up in their hundreds and thousands. So abhorrent was the open desert to humanity that these cities grew and grew, and began to flow into one another until they formed ever larger cities, and finally there was only five great metropoleis, each the size of the older continents: Elithator, Anetheistimus, Anacantor, and Ah-Pook Nar.
The bulk of humanity flocked to the cities, but some smaller tribes chose to live in the vastness of the open desert, and over the centuries these outlying tribes evolved into a separate branch of humanity which were known as the reptiles or snake people, owing to their scaly, jewelled skin and darting, expressionless black eyes. Small groups of snake people migrated into the cities from time to time, where they were generally treated with extreme suspicion, but often found employment as political advisors, owing to a clinical and patient intelligence which was peculiar to their species. And as the centuries passed, knowledge of the world of the old sun grew dimmer and dimmer, and the majority believed that the world had always been as it was in their lifetimes: an arid desert scorched by a baleful, blood-red sun, which they called the Destroyer or Adversary. The human race slowly became a nocturnal species, sleeping during the punishing heat of the daylight hours, and emerging in the late evening to live out their time in twilight and darkness, in the warm, temperate, moon-bejewelled nights of the Dying Aeons. People worked and revelled by night, and thieves plied their ancient trade by day.
Greatest of all cities, however, was Ah-Pook Nar, which was bordered at its westward edge by Okeanos, the largest of the earth’s remaining oceans. Ah-Pook Nar was so vast and sprawling that it was called the cartographer’s despair; no accurate map of the entire city has ever been successfully drawn up, and those who attempted it were driven to nervous collapse, and the extravagant delusion that the topography of the city rearranged itself each day in order to persecute the would-be map maker. No mind but that of a god could comprehend Ah-Pook Nar, the city of all cities, in its totality. There are buildings in Ah-Pook Nar which are as old the city itself, and buildings the sweet of whose labour has yet to dry in the moonlight. There are districts in Ah-Pook Nar where the locals would populate every litter-strewn fountain with whole commonwealths of nymphs and dryads; and there are places a short amble away where scepticism is practised to such an extreme degree that men regard their own thoughts as no more than sand and grit blowing against a rock in the desert. In this sense, to move through Ah-Pook Nar is to move through both time and space, the city being a spatial realization of many aeons of history coexisting simultaneously, like the pattern forming in a kaleidoscope.
Only a few, however, move through the great cities. In the desperate and nomadic early centuries of the Dying Aeons, very powerful tribal allegiances developed among the small survivor groups. The endless expanse of the open desert made man a communal creature once again, and over the centuries his close participation in a tribal group became an essential part of his nature. The first cities enlarged these tribal groups, but maintained their cohesiveness. Hence, when the great cities were born, they were characterized by a paradoxical kind of parochialism; people rarely travelled far from the district of their birthplace, and subscribed wholly to the forms of worship and social custom indigenous to their locality, many of which stretched back to the original isolated city states, and even as far back as the nomadic period, though this era was largely forgotten. Hence, although Ah-Pook Nar was technically ruled by the Autarch from his palace in the Central Jungles, in reality his role had atrophied to that of a merely ceremonial or symbolic nature; each of the city’s districts exorcized its own form of governance and enjoyed sovereignty over its own affairs.
In practise, if the Autarch wished to issue a decree, this required that he sent one of his messengers to the relevant district. No journey from any one point to another in Ah-Pook Nar ever ran smoothly, or without its share of false starts, misdirection, and misadventure. Assuming, however, that the messenger reached the relevant district, the local authorities then had the right to appeal the decree, which required that the messenger start immediately back towards the palace to relay the appeal to the Autarch. This, effectively, was the death of the decree, since the time required for the journeying to and fro would often exceed the lifetime of the messenger, and more crucially, the statute of limitations on Autarchial decrees. The Autarch was forced to accept these limitations on his powers, having used the same stratagem himself to stall for many generations a decree from the Congress of Districts for the abolishment of the office of Autarch. Nevertheless, he persisted with the issue of his decrees, and hence his messengers acquired a peculiar kind of fatalism, knowing themselves to be embroiled in intrinsically pointless bureaucratic stratagems which might take generations to exhaust themselves.
The people of Ah-Pook Nar knew only of the affairs of their own districts, and of those immediately adjacent to them, and were thus reliant on the migrant classes to provide them with news from the rest of the city, and a picture of what life was like in the remoter parts of Ah-Pook Nar. These migrants constituted a specific social class in the city, defined by their lack of allegiance to any specific tradition or ruling polity. They included the messengers and servitors of the Autarch’s Palace, and those of the mercantile class, most of whose operations were based in the West along the rim of Okeanos; the class of minstrels, poets, sages, and magicians; and the fraternity of undesirables, at whose lowest ebb were beggars and exiles, and at whose apex were the ancient Sodality of Thieves. It was this drifting class that the general population of Ah-Pook Nar relied for their sense of what customs, practises, and wonders existed outside of their own narrow geographical horizons, and hence much real knowledge of the world was inextricably mixed with traveller’s tales and the sheer inventions of the poets and minstrels. In some parts of Ah-Pook Nar, the desert was regarded as an old-wife’s tale; in others, Okeanos must have appeared little more than a feverish dream engendered by the glare of the Destroyer. Nevertheless, despite the uncertainty of their narratives, the migrant classes provided an invaluable service to the peoples of Ah-Pook Nar. The parochial and rooted individual knows what he knows with a dulling certainty; there is thus for him a particular appeal in ambiguous tales which might or might not be true. These tales are like the magical time of dusk, wherein things are half visible and half obscure, and a kind of great suggestive power arises in the space between obscurity and brightness.
The following is a tale which is told of the thief Kadmon, of whom so many stories are told that it would surely exhaust human invention were all of them to be false.
As he approached the middle of his third decade, the thief Kadmon became less light and easy on his feet for the first time in his life. A change had come over his mind which he did not at first comprehend. He had enjoyed the rootless and free existence of migrant thievery since he was twelve years old, taking an abundant pleasure in the rich variety of sights, sounds, and experiences which Ah-Pook Nar afforded him. He loved casing the lavish home of a merchant or councillor, calculating the risks, planning every step of the robbery as though it were a rarefied dance or a play. He loved when the Destroyer rose in the morning, and the city became as quiet as a sleeping baby. As the blood-red glow of the Destroyer deepened, the only sound was that of curtains, drying cloths, and the tiny peal of wind-chimes, all stirring softly in the breeze like the pinions of a million birds fluttering at once. This was the time that the thief, clad and masked all in white, claimed for his own the sleeping, dream-enveloped world. Kadmon had loved all these things. He loved the freedom of drifting from place to place as the mood took him, enjoying a passion when it burned white-hot, and then stealing off, a thief again, when the lustre of its novelty began to dim. All these things he had loved. And yet, suddenly, some change had come which stole away all the piquancy of his enjoyment of life; it was still there and yet it lessened, and lessened more with each passing day. Even the endless variety of Ah-Pook Nar had become routine and stale.
He thought of his childhood in the mountainous districts in the north-east of the city, where old streets climb to the very peaks of the mountains, and houses perch on the slopes like nimble goats. From these vertiginous streets came all the greatest thieves of Ah-Poor Nar, since the locals perfected a special agility and feline grace from very early childhood. Thinking of those times, Kadmon remembered the annual Festival of the Full Moon, a time of great religious significance to the mountain dwellers. With the advent of the full moon, the White Goddess was deemed to be at the apex of her strength in her endless struggle against the Destroyer. The religion of the hills and mountains was not a pious one, however, and the Festival of the Full Moon was a week-long revel in which people exchanged gifts, and donned lavish and weird costumes which they had been working on throughout the year. Kadmon remembered the giddy, intoxicating magic of the Festival in the early years of his adolescence, when he began to make his first tentative explorations of the adult world. The seven days of the Festival seemed to exist outside of ordinary time; they seemed to last an eternity, such were his feelings and apprehensions of the world heightened by a welter of fear and bliss and disappointment and desire. Then, abruptly, when he turned seventeen, something of its magic departed from the Festival; it became predictable, and went by in a flash. Kadmon left the mountains that year, and began his apprenticeship as a thief and his long odyssey through the city of all cities.
Thinking on these things, he knew instantly that when he had fled from his home, he had fled from the passage of time. Moving through the great, inexhaustible city, encountering new smells, sights, and sounds at every turn, he had hitherto been free from it. The migrant is not aware of the passage of time in the same way as the average city-dweller. The permanent resident of a district has their local calendar and round of festivals to mark time’s passing; they have the routine of their nightly occupation, and eventually the growth of their children, to turn about the face of their lives like the shadow of the gnomon or the swing of the pendulum. The migrant, however, was divorced from these steady rhythms, and he could act – for a time – as though they did not exist. But Time had caught up with Kadmon. Unconsciously, he had become aware of its remorseless passage; and now it moved faster and faster and faster. It stole everything. Kadmon understood for the first time why the Sodality of Thieves, alone among all the peoples of the world, revered the detested god of Time – for his thread was the quietest, and his grasp the surest, of all things.
As he brooded over these things, Kadmon found that his wanderings had brought him to a derelict stretch of the city. The people of Ah-Pook Nar were deeply attached to their districts, but it sometimes came to pass that the vitality of a certain region ebbed away over time. With considerable reluctance, and sometimes in the face of bitter opposition from their parents, the young people began to drift away to more economically vigorous districts. The old people, however, were possessed by a great stubborn pride, mixed with fear of Ah-Pook Nar’s daunting immensities and alien manners. They remained behind, continuing their familiar rituals and patterns of behaviour as the local businesses closed down, and the great stone towers became derelict and boarded-up. In time, a derelict district would witness an influx of undesirables, including severe addicts of snake and scorpion venom, and with them would come the scurrilous vendors of such poisons, and yet the melancholy older residents still remained, their eyes glazed over and almost drunk with nostalgic visions of their home in its better, happier days.
In was in such a district that Kadmon now found himself, a place which had once been ideally positioned to receive an influx of traders, agents, and spies travelling between the Autarch’s Palace and the Walled District of Nimrudea, where the ancient Sodality of Bankers had lived in unspeakable opulence for a time. The areas along an established traveller’s route such as this invariably tailored their commerce around the reliable gluttony of the wealthy migrants, and Kadmon picked his way through the ghostly remains of abandoned inns, hostelries, restaurants, and brothels. A decade ago, the Autarch had scored a minor strategic victory over the Sodality of Bankers, using his spies to foment a popular unrest against them in the districts surrounding Nimrudea. The Bankers were thus driven away, and once again the skeins that knitted Ah-Pook Nar together re-orientated themselves into a new pattern. The route dried up, leaving the restaurant terraces fallow, and the ladies of the day in the Houses of the Red Lantern bereft of their chores. The Walled District of Nimrudea came to be occupied by a peculiar sect of ascetics who proclaimed that a doom would fall on Ah-Pook Nar “in less time than it took a man’s nails, untended, to grow to an unsightly length.” (At any given time in Ah-Pook Nar, there were literally innumerable sects proclaiming an imminent doom on the city; they were often distinguished one from the other by virtue of whatever vague time-line was employed to designate the certain onset of ultimate catastrophe.) Thus the lavish gardens and vestibules of Nimrudea which had once been the scene of the Banker’s sybaritic orgies and feasts now bore witness to the weird asceticisms and physical mortifications of the doomsday sect, and so it was in Ah-Pook Nar that everything was turned on its head, and nothing persisted save only the great city herself.
At evening-rise, Kadmon stole nimbly into a large square. The square was melancholy and eerie. At its centre was a dry, sand-clogged fountain, and all about it remained the tables and chairs of long abandoned terraces. Rising up to an immense height at each side of the square were stone apartment towers, with all their windows and balconies in darkness, so that the entire square was shrouded in an immense gloom. In the older times, the square would have been a scene of considerable gaiety and boisterousness, with musicians playing by the fountain, youths dancing, and the migrants seated at the terraces, eating and drinking as was their want. The great faces of the stone towers would have danced with firelight from candles and lamps, and mysterious, indistinct figures would have lounged on the balconies that reached up into the evening colours of the firmament. Now the walls of the towers were densely twinned with the thick, flowerless roots of that strange plant that grew out of the desert floor, and wrapped its limbs around untended places as though to strangle them, or pull them back beneath the sand. A group of five elders sat by a fire at one of the terraces; their eyes were fixed either on the fire or the old fountain, and they barely spoke to one-another. Kadmon resolved to move swiftly away from this dreary scene, but his eyes lighted on something peculiar as he passed through the square. In a window about half way up the eastern tower, the reddish glow of a single lantern was visible. This was a peculiar thing, for it was the city ordinance that while a tower was abandoned, every floor beyond its third must be rendered inaccessible by a stone barricade, so as to prevent infestation by undesirables and criminals. Kadmon observed two shadows in the gleam of the lantern: one appeared to be an emaciated man seated on a couch, and the other a child that capered and danced around the room. Something as vague and phantasmal as those shadows registered in Kadmon’s memory, for thieves never wholly forget a tale they have heard of some treasure worth stealing, or weird adventure worth risking.
He sauntered over to where the elders were seated to inquire into the mystery of the single occupied apartment, and was greeted with a typical coldness and suspicion. “Good Eveningrise, friends”, he began, “and please excuse my interruption of your leisure in this palatial square, but I must own that my curiosity, much exercised and keen through a lifetime of honest travel through our city, has been considerably sparked by the mystery of that light that burns in yonder tower. What kind of man or fiend, I wonder, would live so high up in an empty tower, and how does such a creature even accrue to himself the means of subsistence, marooned up there at such a height?” There was a long pause in which the elders laboriously fixed their eyes everyway but in Kadmon’s direction. Finally, the women who sat nearest him spat vehemently on the ground, and began to speak. “That apartment has been occupied by a hateful old wizard since I was a child”, she said, “and in those very old times, he was often seen going about the district. He carried himself with great haughtiness, as wizards do, and insulted and abused people as was his wont. But then there came into his possession a certain magical hourglass, and turning that hourglass and gazing into it became all his pleasure, and no more did he leave his apartment high up in the eastern tower. He has a little trained monkey, a creature of abysmal cunning and malice like its master, and each day that monkey climbs down from the tower and steals what little food the wizard requires to sustain his worthless and sedentary existence. He is a pest, stranger, and there is no doubt that the nightly turning of that unholy hourglass has brought no luck to this district!”
The stirring of Kadmon’s memory had been correct: he had heard in the past of a decrepit wizard who possessed a powerful talisman of the lizard people which was called the Hourglass of Aeons. “Friends, I am the thief called Kadmon. If you have heard the tale of how the Elephant God’s Nimbus was clutched from the yellow-robed priests of Yanni, then you know of my renown. Tonight I will pay a visit to your wizard, and perhaps earn some readdress for the prolonged nuisance he has brought to your district.” There was another pause, until again the woman spoke: “The tale of the Elephant God’s Nimbus is a good one, stranger, but is it true?” Kadmon, however, was already striding in the direction of the eastern tower.