From the moment the Circle of Light arrived at the docks, Gustaf Asgermist knew that he had to speak to them. He saw them at first, from his balcony that overlooked the dock, unloading themselves wearily down the gangplank, carefully bringing their fire to Buentoille. He knew then, seeing them standing around without a place in the world to be, being greeted by the ambassadors, he knew then that they were important in some way, to him, to his life. ‘He looked up at me,’ Asgermist recalled, later, ‘M’ukthan, that is. He looked up at me and our eyes met for a minute and he looked very sad, and I would have gone to him then, but they were being led away.’
It was two days later when Asgermist decided to make a visit to these new refugees. He had been out on the water in his little boat, checking his crab pots, and he found, in amongst the nets and ropes in the hull, his ring. It was an engagement ring, three strands of gold wire intertwined together in a braided band, and had been with him ever since he was a baby, found in a basket outside an upmarket fishmongers in Twille street. Everyone had always assumed it was his mother’s, and sure enough, when he picked it up on this day in 1589, Asgermist remembered that it was his mother’s, but that she had given it to him only a week or two ago. His father had recently died and she didn’t want to keep remembering him. Asgermist was angry at her for this, but he didn’t take it out on her; instead he stole a boat and rowed out into the bay and sat quietly on the still waters. Quite how Asgermist remembered this was a mystery, because he’d never known his mother, he knew this: she’d abandoned him as a baby. It was undoubtedly confusing, trying to hold these two stories, which at once seemed true, in his head at once, but somehow he knew M’ukthan could help.
He’d felt out of sorts since that day, a week or so ago, when he remembered stealing the boat. There had been a swell in the water that disturbed his meditation and then, all of a sudden, he came back to himself, and realised he didn’t know his mother, he never had. Yet there was her face, it’s memory fading in the back of his mind. They had spoken so recently! He began to row back to shore, and by the time he had, he had convinced himself it was all a moment of madness, like some strange version of deja vu. But back in the boat, finding the ring, after he’d seen the refugees arrive, he knew that something greater was at work. He rowed back to shore, gripping the ring, and there, standing on the dockside waiting for him, was Tevvik M’ukthan, the leader of the Circle of Light, the great prophet who had led them across the inner ocean to their new home, Buentoille.
This, at least, is how Gustaf Asgermist said it happened ten years later in his book The Aftershock, but it is a narrative that has many critics, to say the least. According to Asgermist, it was there, by the waterside, that he had his revelatory conversation with M’ukthan, where he learned of the Great Hollowing, that event across the water in Waegstalla where in one moment almost the entire population disappeared, as if they had never existed. Only a few thousand survived, doomed to remake their lives in a vast, empty city, a city which once was the largest in all the Seven Cities, sprawling over the countryside that surrounded it in a manner not even modern Buentoille or Litancha have surpassed. Asgermist’s mother, he was told, was the victim of an aftershock of this terrible event, a quake which spread to Buentoille, only powerful enough at this distance to take less than a hundred lives from history. Somehow, being on the water whilst the Hollowing happened saved the Circle of Light from being extinguished, and from losing their memories of the Waegstalla from before. ‘This,’ said M’ukthan, a hand on the other man’s shoulder, ‘is what happened to you, too. Only we remember the World that Never Was.’
Outside of this central story, The Aftershock reads like fairly standard religious propaganda; Asgermist converted from the Chastise Church to the Circle shortly after the arrival of the refugees, and was looking to prove their cause to the average Buentoillitant. The book was published as part of the Festival of the Bond Across the Sea, a small celebration designed to strengthen the ties between the Circle and their new converts, of which Asgermist was the first. Over time, this has developed into today’s festival, which essentially functions as an initiation ceremony. In the central chamber of the Grand Temple, where the main body of the Holy Flame is kept, the new recruits will today hold hands and stare deep into the flame, all whilst floating on little raft-chairs in the trench of water that surrounds the pyre. They are locked in this room until they see something of the World that Never Was within the fire.
Asgermist was, of course, not the only person that the famously charismatic M’ukthan convinced to join the Circle, after revealing to them that they remembered the World that Never Was, that there was a reason for the feelings of wrongness they’d been feeling about the world, a reason that they felt there was someone missing from their lives, a reason they felt so alone. It is discrepancies in the stories that M’ukthan told these new recruits that sceptics often point to as evidence that he was simply preying on vulnerable, lonely Buentoillitants: whilst he told Asgermist that the reason he remembered his mother was that he was on the water at the time that the Aftershock passed over the City, he told many others who were not that it was because they were in the bath, or on a cart, or that they had a natural resistance. Asgermist’s story certainly seems convincing as it is written, but these sceptics point out that he wrote it long after the fact, and that it is a clearly evangelical text. Others have gone so far as to medicalise Asgermist, saying that he had a form of mental illness that caused the delusion that he had a living mother, but this is little more than a theory.
Indeed, the very concept of the Great Hollowing has been questioned by historians and scientists many times. Whilst it is tempting to believe the Circle’s narrative that it was some kind of magical event, possibly caused (as many suggest) by the Strigaxians, it is far more likely to have been some kind of pogrom, civil war, plague or even a disastrous accident of chemical weaponry, which the Circle managed to flee in time. According to this theory, the survivors, so scarred by their experiences, may have sought to deny that it ever happened, perhaps out of shame for their actions. The records of the Office of External Correspondences, which never held an embassy in Waegstalla due to ‘political tensions’, show that after 1588 there was no contact with that city for around fifteen years. When at last a contingent was sent out, they found the city empty, a tiny population living amongst the Hollowed homes, denying any memory of the people who once lived all around them. Perhaps it is the memory of those who existed and died, rather than those who Never Were, that the new recruits will unwittingly search the depths of Holy Flame for today.
Other festivals happening today:
- The Festival of the Trail’s End
- The Festival of the Ordinary Oboe
- The Day of the Ocean Dweller