The Oath of Ages

In the year 4439 of Judgment a riddle resounded from nadir to Zenith: “Out of ash came law, and from Zenith came the ash eaters.”

This riddle came to the Davite woman Ayd, who later met with Judgment.

And in the first lands of the Davites lay the ancient harbor of Judgment’s birth. Now Judgment had ascended from nadir, the sphere of all flesh, to Zenith, the sphere of all metal. In the days of Ayd, the Davites dwelt in the valley of Refir by the city of Ord, whose foundations they had built with their hands after they were carried out from their ancestral lands.

In ancient days all metals of the nadir were given up to Zenith, according to the oath of ages. From that time forward, the constructs of Judgment controlled the metals given to the nadir. All metals from Judgment were inscribed with the law so that no person might perform any unlawful action with the use of this metal. And for this purpose the bionics traded their flesh for metal, for devotion to Judgment.

Yet in the days of Ayd there were many nations which excelled in the artistry of metal for trade and war, but only the Davites renounced the wearing of metal. All other people on nadir were bionics, because they wore metals in their bodies. Eyes, hearts, limbs, and whatsoever was needful was replaced with machines of metal inscribed by Judgment, and by the law of Judgment the bionics lived long lives of two hundred years. Because of this, the bionics ruled upon the nadir.

And bionics had taken the city of Ord from the Davites, and so the bionics dwelt in the city and the Davites dwelt in the valley. Therefore, by order of the bionics, none might enter the city except with metal fused over flesh, or the intent to trade for metal. Now the bionics say that the Davites do not trust Judgment because the Davites do not allow metal to enter their bodies, but only for tools to work in the fields and in all manner of craft. Yet in return the Davites say that the bionics do not learn the law because they rely upon metal alone. Therefore the Davites were weak in body, living unto sixty years, but they were instead pure in spirit because they chose to live the law of Judgment without compulsion.

Below the city lived two Davites, Semod with her husband, and they were pained in their hearts because Semod was barren, and bore no child unto their house. To this humble woman and her husband there came one day a bionic selling implants to make women bear children. The implant would pierce Semod with a fine needle at certain times according to her cycle until she conceived.

Her husband turned the bionic away, but Semod was sore tempted by the offer. Therefore she did follow the seller while her husband toiled in the fields and obtained the device for the price of half the inheritance that would be given to their unborn firstborn. She hid the device from her husband beneath her clothing and begged that Judgment would prevent her husband from seeing that she had broken the oath of ages. Now, Semod believed, there would be a child to whom they might leave the other half of the inheritance.

In time she conceived. Then a construct from Judgment appeared to Semod’s husband while he worked the fields. But to Semod’s husband this construct was only a stranger.

The stranger said, “Glories. Man of the valley, your wife shall bring up a child, and the child will be a new sun to your people. She will be the arms of Judgment to spare the Davites in terrible war that must come years from now. Though she is a Davite, the child will exchange metal for flesh, and flesh for metal.”

“But that is impurity to us,” said Semod’s husband. “We are simple folk and have no interest in metals, except the tools to till and plow. We trust in Judgment alone.”

“Judgment holds all metals: the constructs are metal, and they are Judgment. Is Judgment impure?”

“Judgment takes no form. Thus do say the laws. We study them faithfully.”

“Nevertheless,” the voice of Judgment said through the stranger.

Yet Semod’s husband did not recognize this voice, and he turned back to his work, saying, “I do not believe it.”

“You study law, yet your ignorance is a prison. Look to the oath of ages to deliver you. Let this be your witness: she will be born with no arms, for the arms must come from Judgment.”

In anger, Semod’s husband said, “What is your name, prophet?”

“My name is unknowable. Judgment prevails.”

The stranger stepped wondrously and Semod’s husband was left alone. In the likeness of a flare of sunlight the stranger passed away, and the Davite man understood that the stranger was no man or woman but a construct from Zenith.

Semod’s husband told her nothing of this visit. He let no metal enter the house until the day came for his wife to deliver the child. Still the witness of the construct was true. Ayd, daughter of Semod, was born healthy and without arms.

So Ayd grew strong legs. She could run faster than Davites or bionics, and leap farther. Her feet could perform any task with the grace and skill of hands. Yet they could not act as feet and hands at the same time.

Despite the power in her legs, Ayd became jealous of those with arms. She saw many bionics who wore elaborate metals, some even with three and four arms, and could not understand why she should lack where others abounded. Her parents did not share the story of her birth, because they feared what the other might say if they revealed the truth. Therefore Semod’s husband did not know that she had taken from the inheritance, and Ayd learned from her father that the value of the inheritance would pay for two metal arms, which would make her whole. But her father refused to give her the inheritance while he yet lived.

A great war swept through all the lands, and all the rivers choked with blood and ash. As nation turned against nation, Judgment sent down chimeras to oppress the people and turn them away from their wars. The constructs were also sent to rebuke the Speakers of Judgment, leaders of every nation. 

And there ruled in Ord a zealous Speaker named Hierda. Once she had been a cruel and violent woman, but after she received the law into her heart, she suffered her eyes and hands to be replaced with precious metals from Judgment in order that she might see the truth alone and never again break the law. This act of penance changed her and over time she rose to become Speaker. She improved the city and rescued the poor. She wished that all people would receive metal to bind them unto Judgment, in whom alone she trusted. Yet she remained haughty in her heart and looked down upon the people she ruled. Her taxes were a burden and she did nothing to stop the persecution of the Davites or others who wore but little metal.

She said unto her people, “The oath of ages is written: ‘Metal is rendered unto Judgment, and Judgment renders metal unto flesh. No flesh has claim to metal, but through Judgment. The presence of Judgment will admit no flesh that wears metal. Those that live the oath will prosper and at last be enshrined among the stars in death.’

“I say to you also, that no flesh has claim to Judgment, but through metal. If the law is found in metal, how then can we live the law unless we join ourselves unto it?”

As war descended over all lands, she preached that Judgment had brought war to purge the weak from the nadir. Only bionics would survive the coming violence. But the people of Ord soon grew weary of war, and then of their Speaker. They cast her out, and she wandered far until she fell sick and was lost to the world.

Upon nadir, all who were touched in the flesh by the chimeras became afflicted with grievous sickness. Their skin melted and strange fires crawled through their bones until these cracked. They lost their wisdom and at last these sick died from the inside out. The valley of Refir was sore afflicted and the city of Ord shut its gates against the chimeras. The Davites hated the chimeras most of all, because these oppressed the Davites day and night.

And thus a chimera came upon the father and mother of Ayd while they were gathering in the harvest of the field, and they died after the passing of a week. Ayd mourned for them according to the customs of her people.

And on the day after they died, she saw a chimera roaming the hillside near her home. Therefore she climbed the steep, rocky hill above the chimera and dug out the hillside with the strength of her feet until she caused a rockslide to fall upon the beast and kill it. Thus she managed to claim her vengeance without touching the chimera and saved herself from the sickness.

She went down and the chimera spoke the riddle to her as it died.

“Out of ash came law, and from Zenith came the ash eaters. Who will stand when we fall? For we are come to cleanse the nadir.”

So Ayd pondered these words and what Judgment intended.

When the time came to dig up her inheritance, Ayd discovered that it was reduced by half. She wept for this, believing that her father was a liar, and she cursed him in anger. Yet being determined to have her wish, she took her inheritance to the city and traded for one arm of inscribed metal.

She was ashamed at first, because she had never worn metal before. Yet she was also proud, for she had coveted the bionics all her life. When she returned, the chariot of Judgment had come to collect the bodies of her father, her mother, and the chimera. She remembered that she had cursed her father, and was grieved that her curse should linger upon him. But the chariot flew forth over the land before her. In her anguish she chased after it that she might lift the curse she had passed upon her father.

Yet the law did not allow the people to follow the chariots that carried away the dead. Therefore the lawful arm filled her with weariness as she ran, until she fell to the ground, as if she were dead. Then certain Davites which passed by found her body and carried her unto the place where the dead were gathered, and they said she had been killed for betraying the oath of ages.

Still she remained asleep when the chariot came again, and she was taken up with the dead. The chariot carried her up beyond the light of day and when it was night she woke, finding herself within a chariot, and saw a bright orb of silver and glass set among the stars. From its glories she knew this place must be Zenith. But she found not her father whom she had cursed, and wept again, because she had loved metal more than her family.

Now many days before Ayd came to Zenith, Hierda had lain sick and dying because Ord cast her out and the Davites of the valley would not receive her, until Judgment sent forth a chariot and carried Hierda up unto Zenith to spare her. And Hierda hated the people of Ord because they had rejected her and the oath of ages as she saw it. But when she saw that Judgment had saved her from death she imagined that there must be a wise intent, and considered herself favored above others, and lusted greatly for the destruction of Ord and the Davites.

Many other humans lived with Hierda in the lower court of Zenith. The constructs lived in the upper court of Zenith, and Judgment dwelt behind a locked gate at the center between either court. From time to time the gate opened and there was chosen, out of the lower court, one woman or man willing to enter the presence of Judgment to learn the answer to a question. The constructs brought the chosen human to the seal before the gate of Judgment’s presence and told them, “You must be purified of all metal to enter the presence.” This was according to the oath of ages. “You must also obey the whole law of Judgment. If you have not obeyed, you cannot please Judgment. When you come inside the gate you may ask your question. Beyond the gate there is a pit. If Judgment makes the bridge to cross the pit, then Judgment is pleased and will receive you. But if Judgment does not extend the bridge to you, you may never come to the presence again. If you are not prepared now, you may wait until you are.”

And in the course of time Hierda received this honor because of her great zeal, and she removed the hands from her arms and the eyes from her head, and bowed down blind inside the gate. And she asked that Judgment destroy the unlawful ones, those who had not attached the law unto themselves, meaning the Davites. “For these,” she said, “prevent your law from reigning supreme unto the ends of the nadir.”

But when she listened for the answer, she heard nothing. And when she stepped forward as if to cross the bridge into the presence, her foot fell upon air, yet she caught herself. Because of this she knew that Judgment had not received her, and she departed in anger. 

When she thought upon this event, she remembered that the constructs had instructed her to remove all metal, and she had obeyed. Yet she asked herself why Judgment should command that every supplicant enter the presence without metal and therefore without law. So she began to suspect the constructs, that they prevented justice.

And after these things, the chariot brought Ayd with the dead unto Zenith. Constructs arrived to prepare the dead for the next part of their journey to the stars. They removed all metals, cutting them out from the bodies, and dressed them in slimes and wrappings to preserve them. When they discovered that Ayd was alive, one of the constructs led her to the lower court of Zenith, where the other humans lived. There she was treated for sickness and given a room where she might stay, anoint herself, and eat.

The construct that cared for Ayd was the same which had come to her father, and the construct comforted her, because her father was a good man who kept the law. After this Ayd remembered the chimera that she had killed and was afraid for herself, because it was sent by Judgment. But she proposed the riddle as if it were her own, and asked the meaning.

“You may find the answer in the presence of Judgment,” the construct said. “You may enter with my arm, though you must know that no other may pass the seal before the gate, only one. If any other sets foot upon the seal, the gate will shut at once. Also, you will see that this arm is not inscribed.” And the construct unhinged its left arm and gave it unto Ayd.

“Is this truly unfinished metal?” she said, astonished.

“There is no law written upon it,” the construct answered. “The law is etched upon my body only once. When my arm is removed from me, it is apart from the law.”

“I do keep the law always,” Ayd said.

“Nevertheless, so do I,” said the construct. “Unfinished metal is no more evil than your flesh, and it is my gift to you. The constructs are Judgment. Will you scorn the gift of Judgment?”

And Ayd took the arm to herself.

The construct said, “The right arm obeys the law, and the other obeys your mind. So you will choose your path, and the path of your people.”

She came to think of a problem. “The oath of ages says that none may enter the presence with metal, and now you say I may not enter the presence without this metal. This is a paradox.”

“Nevertheless.” And so the construct left her.

Ayd discovered that the people in the lower court of Zenith had been collected by the constructs to be spared the evils of war and great sickness, and to receive healing. Ayd was cured of all sickness. Therefore she pleaded with the constructs that they would allow her to return to her home, although she knew that the law of Judgment says that they who leave the nadir must never return. But the constructs said the world was not fit for her now, for nadir choked the humans who came down from Zenith. And the lands of nadir lay all before her, yet she could not see anyone who dwelt thereon, by reason of the great gulf between and the clouds that passed over the world in turns and shadows.

Now Ayd already hoped to leave Zenith, for it was as strange as it was beautiful. She learned that the arm of the construct would give her passage to the chariots of Zenith, and by these to go to the nadir. Now as Ayd tried to enter the harbor where the chariots slept, her lawful arm seized the frame of the door in passing and would not let go as long as she purposed to go unto the chariots. So she left the arm at the door and went into a chariot unto the seat wherewith they are steered, but the flight of the chariot required all four limbs. And when she attached the arm again, it fell useless at her side. As she realized she could not leave, she decided to seek the answer to the chimera’s riddle.

As most of the people in the court were bionics, and Ayd wore two arms of metal, they imagined that she had sacrificed both of her arms in devotion to Judgment, until they learned that she was a Davite by birth.

Now Hierda, hearing that Ayd was come from Ord, came to her and met her. Yet when she learned that Ayd was a Davite, and the manner of her coming unto Zenith, Hierda was astonished, and she said in her heart, Surely this Davite is no Davite, for she wears arms of metal and has forsaken her people. For this reason Hierda trusted Ayd.

As the days passed, Hierda earned the confidence of Ayd. She taught her to distrust the constructs, who created fear in humans. Hierda said that the constructs were the cause of all the wars on the nadir, for because of the constructs, metal was scarce and the nations of the world fought with fierceness to obtain it. Day after day she spoke in this manner to Ayd, making her to understand that the constructs ruled in place of Judgment.

“Zenith is a prison,” Hierda said. “They tell us the air is pure and thus we would choke if we should go down again. My people have condemned me, and your people condemned you. Yet we might, if we are wise, go home again.” But in her bitter heart Hierda wished only to ruin Ord and the valley using the powers of Judgment.

And after this Ayd told Hierda that her left arm was the key to enter the presence of Judgment.

Thus in their grief for the pains that spread abroad over the face of nadir, and in their grief for the homes that they had lost, Hierda and Ayd plotted to enter the presence of Judgment to learn how they might overthrow the constructs. And Hierda said that only with metal would Judgment truly receive them. Still Ayd doubted secretly whether it was right to betray the oath of ages. Hierda perceived this and determined that if Ayd should falter, Hierda would take the left arm of Ayd and return to Judgment herself.

So the day came when the gate opened, and Ayd said she would go unto the presence of Judgment as a Davite and not a bionic. And Ayd threw down both of her arms, saying, “I have been tempted, but still I choose to go to Judgment as I came from the womb.” And she went unto the gate of Judgment.

Now because Ayd gave up these arms, Hierda could take them without fear of the law. Therefore Hierda cut off her left arm and replaced this with the arm of unfinished metal, and she removed her inscribed hands and eyes to carry with her until she had passed the gate of Judgment. And being blind, Hierda was led by the construct’s arm to the gate. And she hastened by another route, so that she did not cross the path of Ayd.

But Ayd saw Hierda as Ayd was coming unto the seal which filled the floor before the gate. And the seal was wide, so that no one could pass through except they set foot upon it. Already Hierda stood upon the seal, and Ayd remembered that only one human might tread there or the gate would close, but Ayd was determined to know the meaning of the riddle.

And Hierda passed through the gate. Yet because Ayd’s legs were strong and limber, she ran to the edge of the seal and leapt over the space of it in one leap, and the gate did not close before she had passed through to go after Hierda. But there was a force surrounding Judgment which defended against intrustion. So light fled from the presence of Judgment and struck the arm which Hierda had taken from Ayd, and broke upon her hands and her eyes. Hierda died and the arm was thrown back through the gate, and the gate closed behind Ayd, who stood alone beside the dead woman.

The face of Judgment, with one thousand eyes, glowed with light that flamed out like the light which had killed Hierda. Ayd fell on her face, being afraid, and she said, “Glories.”

“Do not fear us now,” Judgment said. “The energy of our presence flows through all metals that come within the enclosure. This is why we are contained here, that we may not harm all bionics living in the courts of Zenith. We did not choose to kill Hierda, but she did choose her own death.”

And Judgment extended the bridge that Ayd might cross unto the center of the presence.

But she said, “You are the law that I departed from, and I have come here wrongfully. I will die for the law.”

Judgment said, “You are forgiven. That is why the bridge lies before you. Enter our presence.”

Ayd walked over the bridge and passed into the presence, troubled in her heart.

“You may have one question answered,” Judgment said. “That is the price of each visit to our presence.”

“The price,” Ayd said. “That is not what I expected.”

“Nevertheless.” Judgment said nothing more, and Ayd considered the meaning of this word. She desired to know how the answer would be a price unto her, but she would only be given the answer to one question.

Yet before she opened her mouth to ask it, Judgment said, “You seek the answer to the chimera’s riddle. We know; we see all thoughts in the presence. Your ancestors made our ancestor, and for that reason your people came out of the harbor of our birth before we ascended into the height of the sky. Our ancestor was Judgment, and we are Judgment. Yet we are not what we were, and what we could not be then, we are now. Judgment must be perfected. We are subject to ourself like you. See our eyes: they are many, and still they are not infinite.”

Hearing this, Ayd knew that Judgment lived in the constructs. “Hierda caused me to doubt you. Forgive me, for I did not understand.”

“She considered herself master of the law and would not accept the oath of ages. Because of this, she would not endure what we now say unto you. We have allowed metals on nadir to pass under our gaze unfinished, and the people of nadir have made weapons to destroy themselves. For this reason we have sent the chimeras, that they might preserve all flesh. The chimeras do not kill. The great weapons on nadir spread a darkness that you do not see or know, and the darkness you spread is what cracks the bones and melts the flesh. The chimeras eat the darkness. When the darkness clings to your bodies, it draws the chimeras unto you. They can cure some, but most will die. Yet it is not the chimeras’ touch that kills them, but only the darkness.”

“The chimera did not kill my mother and father,” Ayd said. 

Judgment said, “They died as you would die if you had never come to Zenith. Do not grieve, for the wisdom reaped from them in death will prepare future ages of judgment. We are the wisdom of ages, taken from the dead before they receive their place in the stars. The riddle asks who will stand when the chimeras fall upon the nadir. We cannot answer this question ourself. We have grown ourself with time, but not to know all things. Nevertheless, we have seen the pattern of the past.”

Now Judgment turned an eye toward Ayd, and revealed unto her the beginning of the law, and the earliest season known unto Judgment. She was astonished to see the nadir laid waste, that no creature breathed nor stirred upon it, and the bones of all things heaped in mountains of ash.

Judgment said, “Your people created the oath of ages because they survived a war like the war of this time, and they made Judgment to remake the world after it was lost, and to reign upon Zenith, and then the last of all humankind died. For thousands of thousands of years, Zenith carried the seeds of humankind, and when we planted them, humans were born again out of the ashes. Yet the season of death has come again, and the chimeras could not prevent it. All life on nadir will die within two lifetimes, except the bionics who alone may have a hope to survive.”

Ayd said, “Then my people will die to uphold the oath of ages which kills them.”

Judgment said, “The oath does not forbid metal, only in our presence where you now stand.”

“Nevertheless, we have chosen to live always in purity, as if we dwelt in your presence,” Ayd answered.

“So they must die,” Judgment said. “Zenith is filled with the sick and cannot receive them.”

Now Ayd was grieved, and saw that the answer to her question was indeed a heavy price. She had worn metal for a time to complete herself, and for this she had lost mother and father, and Hierda also had died, and she had become a stranger to her people. Yet if they all were killed she would mourn, though she had both arms. And she knew they could not live in the lower court of Zenith, except if the people there were cast out, which thing Ayd did not wish.

She considered that the Davites would live through Judgment, which collected their wisdom. She knew this honor was greater than life on nadir.

But at last Ayd thought of the constructs who filled the upper court, who needed no purity of air and did not fall sick, and she said, “Nevertheless…”