Where he came from or where he went, none knew, and no one could guess. On Arkady, he was simply known as the Traveler. Still in a rural, pre-industrial age, the Traveler was considered a magician here. No mere conjuror, not a trickster at some country fair, but a weaver of real alchemy. The creation and unravelling of reality itself seemed arts well within his grasp.
In other dimensions, in other times and universes he travelled in different guises and was known by different names.
But in the little world of Arkady, a small and backward planet in the goldilocks zone of a yellow sun, in an obscure galaxy in a middle-aged universe, he was simply the Traveler.
That he was a mage wielding great power was obvious to all, on the occasions he found himself in this quiet little outpost. His garb was black, as befits any half serious wizard . A wide rimmed black leather hat sat on his head, his tall frame wrapped in a voluminous black woollen cloak to keep the incessant winter rain at bay. He rode a horse as magnificent as any bred on Arkady, though none could claim to have provided him with the noble beast.
Beautiful as was the planet, the same could not be said of most of its people. And certainly not of the rulers of those people.
As the Traveler approached Alomkik, capital city of the small kingdom of Opona, bodies swung from the ramparts near the drawbridge over a dark moat. Hung by the neck until you shall die was a lighter sentence than hung drawn and quartered – the latter delight reserved for those guilty of high treason.
It wasn’t so much that Hellion, the tyrant at the top, was an evil man. More that he lived in a dark age, and had climbed to the peak of his particular dunghill using the time honoured techniques of his age – slash and burn. Call it ignorance then. He had taken the city and the country by force of arms and sheer effort of will, and any who dared to displease would be readily dispatched. Usually by barbarous means. Torture was an instrument of state, and readily used by the ruling elite. Some said it even gave them pleasure.
A beautiful planet containing every mineral and life form man could reasonably require. Spoilt by a primitive and unenlightened species, whose default behaviour had ever been bestial and self-serving.
Like so many wretched planets in this godforsaken corner of reality, a place of beauty and tranquillity was befouled by the dominant animal, intent only on conquest and acquisition.
Did the ruling elite question their own actions or motives? Can a goldfish appreciate the greater world outside its bowl?
As in most times and most places, there was good as well as bad. Most tried to go about their daily lives in a peaceable fashion. Struggling to survive and to prolong lives which were almost inevitably brutal and short.
Leaving aside the politics of the place, even if you failed in the all too easy task of falling foul of authority, disease, famine or lack of shelter would do for you with an efficiency every bit the equal of the hangman’s noose.
The Traveler sighed as he and his horse crossed the drawbridge and headed to the Blue Boar, where he would find stabling for his mount and a passable bed for the night. A few fleas and less than white sheets were to be expected, in a world which had not yet discovered the role of cleanliness in preventing disease. At least the food was well cooked, even if the Traveler found meat eating to be little better than cannibalism.
But vat grown protein was a long way off on this rocky outcrop and a visitor had to make do. Eat or be eaten was, after all, the local leitmotiv.
If the Traveler wearied of his duty to battle ignorance and superstition in this benighted quadrant, he hid it well. If he sometimes privately despaired at the cruelties and brutality he found here, he reconciled himself to the long haul. Barely sentient as these people were, when measured against his own species, all life had to start somewhere.
As he sat in the tallow lit bar, he glanced around him in the flickering half light. A straw laid floor to mop up the slops housed a few pattering rodents and many insects. Rouged serving girls, some deserving of the title, some whose lined faces gave lie to the moniker “girl”, padded here and there. Sometimes serving ale, sometimes offering other wares when stupor had overcome an unwary customer.
Picking at his mutton chops and over-cooked vegetables, he was glad he had other ways to absorb the energy he needed, although posing as human served his needs in places such as this.
Post human might describe him best. Well, post everything really. A being of pure energy, dependent on forces outside the ken of newer species. Preferring to live outside the physical world, his species had long ago ascended to purer realms than base reality. Matter, he was not.
Able to take on shape and material form when necessary, he preferred not to. Pure mind, pure spirit. Skipping through time, space and dimensions at will, he was what these lesser species on Arkady would term a god. If he were to reveal himself in all his complexity, they would bow low; or more probably, run in terror.
Instead, the locals worshipped more savage deities and invoked their powers in support of endless conquest and battle. Hereabouts, Dybbuk was the imaginary big man in the sky, whose aid was sought to crush neighbouring lands and seize women, gold and real estate.
A gentle shimmering, and by his side a tall, beautiful and slender young woman appeared. Appeared being the operative word, since she too was a Guardian and had no need to travel in any conventional sense. She appeared, materialized. A slice of ultimate realty, kin of the Traveler. Returning from time to time to see if the savages of the various universes under their stewardship had inched forward to any degree. Whether they were yet able to be encouraged, inched forward into better ways. Bribed occasionally with snippets of advanced technology or scientific knowledge to mend their regressive mien.
She too took human form on primeval worlds. Neither male nor female, she nonetheless took pleasure, artistically speaking, in assuming the shape of a beautiful female member of this race when she appeared amongst them.
“Well met Hestia”, ventured the Traveler. She smiled at Aeolus, as the Traveler was known to some. Names meant little to the ascended races, but needs must among people such as the Arkadians and occasionally a name had to be given. On such rare occasions, “Aeolus” seemed to fit the bill as well as any other.
“What progress?” he ventured. “Civilization is a little way off”, she responded with a resigned smile.
Her avatar (or one of them) remained in the reeking dungeons of Lord Hellion, apparently manacled to the walls, as the tyrant’s guards had left her. It was no more possible to manacle one of her race with chains than to bind quicksilver, but that was information best withheld from the locals.
“Our gracious Lord seems unconvinced of the need for moderation. The war against the Irkallans runs too well in his favour and the great god Dybbuk cries for yet more blood. Always the same with these archaic societies with their slaughterous warlords. Pity we can’t exercise the instant conversion option.”
“I sympathize Hestia. Why play the long game when we could bring them up to speed instantly? Reconfigure their DNA, rewire their brains. Make them play nicely. From savage to deity overnight.”
“Well I guess the Council of Guardians have a point” she responded. “All in the fullness of time. But tomorrow should be provide some boisterous entertainment and may even advance our cause. “
The next day, a service of thanksgiving was to take place in the great Cathedral of Alomkik. Dybbuk was to be worshipped. Thanked for supplying victory in the latest campaign and petitioned for more. Slaves from the recent battle would be dragged in chains through the streets and slaughtered in ritual sacrifice outside the great oak doors at the western end of the Cathedral.
God was on their side. Dybbuk, great god of Opona, had smitten their enemies and his children rooted for more. That a similarly nasty little deity was being petitioned a few miles away for equal savagery against Opona didn’t seem to register.
And so it went on. And so it had gone on. Since the beginning of time on this and countless other worlds.
“Tomorrow shall be my dancing day. A sobering occasion when a people see the face of their god.” And with a grin and less than a ripple in the air, Hestia dematerialized to see what, if anything was going on in her dungeon.
It was not that the Guardians were devoid of emotion. Post-humans still allowed themselves a sense of humour. Joy too was theirs and even some of the baser feelings were achievable at a pinch. It was a matter of choice. They could feel as they wished – even sport a show of anger on occasion. But they were aware of their moods and in control.
Unlike less enlightened members of their former race, the highly (self) engineered Guardians and their peers in post physical society could control their environment; and above all themselves. Enlightened and supremely self-aware best described the post physical races. Near omnipotence and a just a hair’s breadth short of omniscience were qualities which served them well.
What they wanted was The Good. Not in terms of physical possessions of course, nor the power that mere animals craved. What they earnestly desired was that no-one should have to feel the less desirable qualia. What they strove for was the abolition of suffering. Their somewhat ambitious goal was “bliss for all”.
And tomorrow? Well, a small nudge along the path for one degenerate despot, on a small and not very significant planet in the middle of nowhere. But as the Guardians were fond of saying, you had to start somewhere.