by Martin Bolton
“Keep your distance, beggar, or he’ll turn on you,” the gnarled old crone rasped as she led a giant wolverine down the cobbled street, batting the beggar’s out-stretched hand aside at the same time. The beggar watched her pass along with the rest of the retinue of whatever wealthy adventurer had just arrived in Fargate. As usual the procession of hangers-on was endless – bards, jugglers, whores, exotic animals of all kinds, gaudily painted wagons and women – all drawn by the promise of wealth.
The beggar kept his filthy, louse-ridden head down and stayed silent, gazing down at his bare feet and his battered ceramic cup containing a few small coins tossed to him by the more compassionate passers by. Fargate rarely received new visitors but when it did, they came in their hundreds. He raised one hand to shield his eyes from the dust kicked up by the caravan.
The people of Fargate wore head scarves to protect themselves from the frequent sand storms and oppressive afternoon sun, but all he had was the rags that barely covered his back and his heavy thatch of matted hair to shield him from the elements. Fargate’s permanent population consisted of a few ragged inhabitants scratching a meagre living from the baked earth, a handful of knights of the realm posted there to enforce the emperor’s law, and of course, a few beggars. It was a poor town and a remote outpost. The last pocket of so-called civilisation before the vast desert stretched away into desolation.
But that desolation occasionally attracted visitors. Now and again, men and women made the long journey to Fargate and into the desert beyond, never to return. They were not attracted by the town itself, for it was a place devoid of hope, but to the very emptiness that lay beyond. What drew them there was a legend.
The legend varied depending on who recounted it. Some believed, out there hidden in the sands, was a gateway to the celestial sphere, others that it was a place where gods existed in the physical world. Monks made pilgrimages there, only to perish in the vast, boiling nothingness. Knights and Priests and holy men of many different orders travelled there seeking enlightenment, salvation, eternal life, knowledge, judgement, even the apocalypse. But religious visits were in the minority, most came because they thought they would find the ancient treasures of the gods.
It was written that there lay a great palace, out there in the desert beyond Fargate, which was the birth place of the gods. The legend said that they dwelled there at the beginning of time, creating the physical world around them. Then they created men and women before departing for the Celestial Sphere, leaving behind them divine treasures beyond value and, some believed, with divine powers.
Those who came for the treasure were always rich. Drunk on their own greed and arrogance, they would roll into town, proclaim that they were on an expedition to find the treasures of Fargate, then set off into the wilderness never to be seen again.
There was a lesser known part of the legend of the divine treasures of Fargate. People seemed either to choose to ignore it, think it was a bit far-fetched or simply stop listening after they’d heard the words “divine treasure”. Indeed, those scholars who had actually read written accounts of the legend noted that this second part of the legend was only recorded in the very earliest versions, getting increasingly brief references until finally disappearing from the later versions altogether.
The legend begins by describing the gods and their palace, their treasure, how they created the world and everything in it from that spot and how their final deed was to create man and to ascend to the heavens. The part of the legend which eventually disappeared said that creating men was not the final act of the gods.
After the gods created men they dwelled with them in the physical world. For a while they lived in harmony, but soon men grew jealous of the gods and demanded that they too should be divine. The gods refused, knowing that men would destroy themselves and their world if they possessed such power, but the men formed armies and threatened war, as futile as it was to make war on gods.
Saddened by men’s actions, the gods went back to the Celestial Sphere and left the physical world forever, leaving their palace behind. But not all of them left. Unwilling to leave their palace and its powerful contents to eventually be taken by men and used for destruction, some stayed in the physical world to ensure it was never found.
As the final stragglers wandered into Fargate and disappeared into the overflowing inns and taverns, leaving the street quiet, the beggar looked across the way to see a knight of the realm watching him. Eventually the knight approached, his boots crunching on the gravel as he walked. The knight halted before the beggar and looked down.
“It is time,” the knight said.
The beggar shielded his eyes from the sun and slowly stood, hunched and skinny next to the tall, broad-shouldered knight. They turned together and walked into the desert.
As they left Fargate behind them, the beggar grew taller and his rags turned to dust, drifting away on the breeze as he unfurled his wings.