Thursday, August 16, 2018

Going Downhill: The Pem-Pah, Part 4.

"To us inlanders (the name they pin to outsiders regardless of their geographic origin), celebrity is a strange and alluring, but often vapid thing. But to the Pem-Pah and their performer-priests, it is a matter of life and death."
- Utlush of Tal, Nambarish traveler.

''They brought me out of my cage under the temple and told me I could either lose my hand, or wear the mask for an hour. I picked the hand."
- Yapun, former swine-duffing mastermind.

Anqoh, whatever else it might be, is an architectural wonder. Though only about one eighth the size of Deneroth according to the estimates of firsthand witnesses to the place, it is an imposing and impressive place in its own right. The city is built in stone tiers a bit like Deneroth, but inverted. Rather than concentric circles growing smaller the higher up one goes, the tiers are at their widest at the city's height, gradually narrowing into the center which is positioned relatively close to sea level.

Further separating it from Deneroth visually is that the symmetrical rings are cut into on one side, opening the city up to an uninterrupted view of the bay to its west. Because of this it might be more appropriate for me to compare it to an amphitheater on a gargantuan scale, which is in fact not far off from one of the principal uses of the city's sacred space. Most amazing of all in my opinion, though least relevant to this piece in particular, is the fact that the entire city is made without the use of mortar. Every stone is cut to fit together with interlocking tabs and sockets, like pieces of a half-finished puzzle thrusting up into the off-colored sky.

The city possesses a wharf with a very high embankment, protecting those working at the water from any Killing Tides which creep into the easternmost reaches of the estuary. Gates also bore through the thickest areas of wall on the flank of the city facing the land, allowing for traffic by road as well as by platform-boat. Individual homes are rarely built out of stone, further separating it from the static and limited living space of Deneroth's tiers. Instead, they are built from clay brick, wood, thatching, and other more perishable materials which allow for the city population to fluidly shrink or expand throughout the years.

The level of importance ascribed to each semicircular ring is also somewhat of an inversion, if I may use the clumsy comparison to Deneroth one final time. While the top tier (or top two tiers) of Deneroth are held as the most politically, socially, and religiously important within the city, the central "floor" of Anqoh is its administrative and religious center. Here, the tallest freestanding structure in the city rises up tall enough to be pronounced in the skyline from two or three levels up and behind. This structure is regarded in popular legend as the oldest in the city, preceding the walls and rings themselves. It functions as the seat of the curiously minimalist secular authority charged with maintaining the city, as well as the home of the city's priesthood.

Here they are recruited, trained, and then distributed across the region for the purpose of officiating rituals and concecrating the endeavors of others. In addition to learning rites and how to blind or dissuade the gods, each acolyte must be accomplished in dance, song, and at least two or three instruments of traditional Pem-Mih make. Thus it is much like a school, with several avenues of opportunity made available to those who are initiated into the priesthood. Yet again unlike in Deneroth, this system works remarkably well. This bureaucracy works year-round to meet the demands put upon them by the very real population of its adherents, as well as to house and care for the large numbers of pilgrims who circulate throughout Khaitam-Po, culminating in the massive festival centered on Anqoh at the end of every lunar year.

Here, the amphitheater shape of the city is put to good use, as every performer-priest available is made to engage in the most serious of rituals to the Pem-Pah: The Maintaining.¹ This nights-long performance involves multiple interconnected cycles of plays. Each play is supposedly a reenactment of a much older historical event, and each plot deals with the sealing away of an evil at great personal cost to the protagonists. These tragedies begin to pile up and develop into an overarching, all-consuming threat which is at last battled in real time by the high priests of Anqoh on the final night of the hectic, fatalistic festival.

Not only trained professionals engage in these rituals, however. Audience participation is all but required, and it is not unusual either to find civilians donning the ritual masks and costumes needed to act out a part on stage. The more taxing and dangerous plays are reserved for professionals and criminals, however. For every year, those who have been condemned for some crime by the courts of the Pem-Pah have the opportunity to commute their sentences by giving themselves over to the priests for their play. Or, in the case of especially heinous crimes committed, they are handed over regardless of consent.

It is a testament to the severity of these performances, then, that willingness to participate is exceedingly low among the punished, even in the case of those whose justice requires death. Incidentally, those crimes which require that one be handed over to The Maintaining are committed exceedingly rarely, especially certain forms of blasphemy which would normally place you on a fast track to the final night.

¹ Regrettably, I do not have access to the proper name of the ceremony- only its translation into Denerothi Standard Ersuut. It appears that the Pem-Pah language name is censored from all chronicles written by outsiders, which is the great bulk of the sources available to me. Allegedly this is because the ceremony is too sacred and powerful to be dirtied or detained by human speech and writing except during the time of its invocation.

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