F I F T Y - S I X


8 0 3 3

Iskander’s Secret

Poor Wally the glorified pedometer was mistaken! The cruel, wanton, slinking, money-grubbing Queen Harlot of cities and nations did rise again--though the temples were left in ruins because they cost too much to rebuild. And the Chrysolithos, though tracked by Wally, did not vacate Babelen for very long. Off in a distant, semi-civilized kingdom, it got what it wanted: starting up a world empire where it could burn in men’s hearts everywhere. Formerly the star-jewel of Paradise and Eternal Happiness, it could create a Babelen anywhere it chose, apparently, a Babelen driven by gold lust and pleasure-seeking--a world metropolis and kingdom magnificent on the surface but swelling like a giant cyst from within with fraud, murder, injustice, and carnality--but a true Paradise? Never. Perverted in the fall of its master in distant ages, the star-stone left Babelen to repeat its grand mistake elsewhere, anyplace where it found fertile soil in men’s hearts. Such a place was Macedonia, a backwater of civilization far on the fringe of the sophisticated kingdom of Babelen. Having watched the success of the Medes and Persians, Macedonia hankered for a favored place in the world too. To gain it, it had to train and equip the world’s best fighting force. Phillip was the man of the hour. Rising from petty chieftain to king of a new nation he whipped together from all sorts of half-baked principalities and warring tribes, Phillip set out to conquer the world. Gold! Persia had mountains of gold! Stored conveniently in royal treasure-cities--Persepolis, Ectbatana, and Susa. Once he seized them, gold would flow like the four rivers of Paradise! And all mankind would acknowledge him God and Savior! Just then as he was setting out to realize his golden dream his chief wife, jealous of one of his younger, prettier wives, poisoned him at a state banquet held in his honor at the start of the Olympic Games, just when he had been declared a god and his image set up with Olympic deities in a new temple. Divine or not, regicide was the usual thing in those days, and so his son--her son, it might be said--stepped up to his father’s throne and post as commander-in-chief of an army nobody would be able to defeat. In just thirteen years the young king led his magnificent fighting machine and swept the Persian monarchy out of existence, while adding Mizraim and Tyre to the conquered empire of the defeated Darius. Undisputed world ruler, he placed his royal residence in Babelen, which was in sad repair but which he rapidly built back to a semblance of former glory. He wasn’t satisfied with that. He hankered for a world capital worthy of his name, reputation, and achievements--a capital even the gods in heaven would envy! “I will build a Tower to Heaven, and this time it will reach the gods seated at the banquet table!” he declared to his nobles and generals at a banquet. “Then I’ll--” Everyone hung on his words. Would he take his sword and conquer heaven too? With a man like this anything was possibility, they thought. “I’ll--” He seemed at a loss for words, a rare occurrence with this man, who always seemed to know what to say and do. Noticeably, beads of moisture broke on his laboring brow. “--why, I’ll invite them to a toast in my honor!” he finally said. “--a toast to the new god, Iskander the Two-Horned!” The tension snapped. “Iskander the Two-Horned, a new god, how clever!” they thought. Everyone roared with approval of the world-conqueror’s fine speech referring to his horned diadem. Calling his Cupbearer, he ordered all the best stores of wine to be brought and poured out on the palace steps, as a foretaste of what was in store for the gods when he joined their select company! No one could argue with him, that he would do what he said. He had the world’s gold in his possession and enough manpower to pile bricks as high as the sky. Unfortunately for him, after the banquet, too excited to sleep, the world-king strode about looking for amusement. In the late hours of the morning he was walking on his palace roof, admiring the many new projects rising everywhere in the city when a mosquito rose up from one of the decorative marble fountained pools and flew and stabbed him on the cheek. He slapped it, then continued on with his promenade, his chief architect explaining fine points of architectural drawings he held in his hand. That night the world ruler staged yet another state banquet. He felt even more out of sorts and drank more than usual. In the morning he lay feverish and could not rise from his bed. Rumors raced from the palace and created confusion and turmoil--the king is dead! No, he’s still breathing! Iskander has been assassinated by palace women! No, he’s recovering! A god had come to lift him to heaven! No, he had grown wings and will fly himself into the halls of Olympus! No one outside a closed circle gathered at his bedside knew what to think about a man who appeared more god than a common mortal of flesh and blood.

“Take it, fools!” Iskander gasped to his court doctor immediately after signing and setting his seal to the official Last Will and Testament. “It’s burning me. Take it off! Off!” The doctor, conferring hastily with Iskander’s close friend, Perdiccas, while courtiers, magicians and herbalists waiting outside the royal bedchamber with some very disgruntled generals, decided the emperor was not delirious. Iskander, apparently, was feeling too hot with his diadem. With all eyes upon him, he reached over the parched, sheet-white countenance of the world ruler and carefully removed the gold diadem--a band of gold fashioned with two ram’s horns between which was set a large, unique gem that appeared to be transparent gold. A jeweled casket was brought in and the diadem was placed inside, then sent to another chamber under watch of two captains of the guard. “That’s better,” the patient sighed. “Ah!”

He seemed to grow a little in strength too, though all the signs pointed to his soon demise. His eyes cleared and his jaw relaxed. Maidservants moistened his lips with cool cloth soaked in wine and water. He even sipped a little iced wine. Disobeying the royal order that Perdiccas had manufactured in Iskander’s name, the generals--Antiochus, Ptolemy, Seleukas, and Kraterus, to name the greatest of them--strode into the room, expecting a dying man to put up no further resistance to their plans for the empire. They glared at Perdiccas, seeing him as the one most likely to be chosen Regent, with Iskander’s yet-unborn son as world-ruler. At that point, Iskander seemed to see his generals, and he called for them to come hear his last testament. The Last Testament! The very thing they had been waiting to hear! It was all they could do not to spring forward upon the royal couch, each trying to get to him before the other, for they were all mighty men of great ambition, all of them well capable of seizing and ruling a mighty kingdom.

“I do not need to write anything down on paper that perishes. My words are immortal. With your own ears you will hear my testament. Your hearts will set the seal on it, even as my heart has set my royal seal on it in the sight of all heaven and earth. Now I, lord of all the wide Earth, have decreed--I have decreed that all should go to the most worthy,” he told them, an enigmatic smile settling on his pale, trembling lips. As he spoke he had summoned all his strength and pulled his signet ring from his finger--the jetstone ringed with gold. The effort cost him his last ounce of vigor as he flung it at his generals, who scrambled for it like street children, all dignity forgotten.

The room was thrown into turmoil. Whoever succeeding in getting the jetstone quickly slipped it out of sight of the others--lest he be assassinated before he left the royal palace. Some generals’ countenances looked very startled, then quickly just as much pleased--they were the ones who thought themselves the ones or one meant. Even if they may not have seized the signet ring, it meant little, they reasoned to themselves, for what was an entire world-empire to one small black-stoned ring?

Others, especially the elegant statesman Perdiccas whose position was already assured by his close ties to Iskander (he even affected Persian ways, going so far as gilded finger and toenails and perfuming his beard), were more sober in judgment. They knew very well what was intended by this royal fox of a leader--he meant to discredit the generals in this way, not create a free-for-all fight over the empire, the best winning by arms whatever he could manage to seize. Iskander liked his little joke, apparently! Even on his death-bed, he had to throw his signet and see what fools his generals were! It was the last feint of a master gamesman at war games! After all, the same ability had won him many a powerful fortress and city without having fire a single shot of a war bow.

The news of the Last Testament of the emperor spread like fire through the palace and out into the city and army camps. Phrased in popular terms, the god-king was, indeed, embarking on his journey to the celestial regions, and he had just bequeath his glory and kingdom to his noble heirs--the “most worthy.” But what did that mean? The hoi polloi was not so educated as Perdiccas and assured everything would go as he had planned. Who were these “most worthy”? Who? Everyone knew his generals were the most grasping and blood-thirsty of northern barbarians--not one genuine noble among them. Such men would stop at nothing to satisfy lust for power and pleasure. They would rob everyone to gain more riches that they could spend, and kill the citizens for sport when other amusements paled. At least Iskander made a pretence of good will toward all men, ruling in some measure like the former kings, who lavished monies on the capital, to increase its splendor and might. So, with some reason, the capital rocked with consternation and confusion--while the truly knowing and wise in the affairs of powerful men covered their heads with dismay.

Wally was not surprised. “The most worthy? It certainly isn’t these “Algol”!” He had flown the unscrolled document as it lay unattended momentarily on a stand, the wax of the seal solidifying, and snapped a mental picture of its provisions. Though only the grasping, smug Perdiccas, one very tall and arrogant ambassador by the name Lord Polydeuces, and a doctor in attendance at the signing of the Last Testament, the document was closely watched. It was only because silence was mandatory around the emperor that someone did not cry out when he flew reconaissance over the document. Fortunately, he was taken for one of the garden butterflies, and he had gotten away out a window, though not before bumping into some statues and vases! Circling the palace courts, Wally pondered his rather slim options. He couldn’t fly through walls, materialize anywhere he pleased, employ once great powers, then pat himself on the back about what he had accomplished. Now even simple flight was an effort! He could scarcely keep airborne. And his navigational skills were terrible. He was always running into things. His situation was not good, not good at all! he saw. And what could he do to keep the document from reaching the despicable, sneaking Algol that were the beneficiaries of the emperor’s estate? Earth turned over to aliens! Horrible! It must not be allowed! The emperor was mad--completely mad! His fever had derranged his sense, obviously! But what was a jogger’s butterfly to do about it? What? Passing by a certain window, he paused to look in and saw the Stone of Gold, where it resided on the royal diadem under close guard. Managing a hiss, Wally “fluttered” away a few feet, circled, and about to return stopped in mid-air, thinking hard.

“This wicked thing will be growing bored by this time, I imagine! It will want to be center of attention, right on the seat of power. Now that it is set out of the limelight in a side room, it will probably fly off to some place where it can stir up yet more deviltry. I have no power to destroy it. Can it be destroyed, however? Perhaps, not. But if I can--” It felt to Wally as if a wind heavy as incalculable volumes of stone pressed suddenly down. The pressure was so great contents of the palace began spewing out the windows. Among the ejected materials was the Stone of Gold. In mid-air it began to jet flames as it began to fly, but the mighty invisible Hand that had swept it out of the palace kept it contained in a kind of pressurized box of air while it caught the star-stone with a blast of wind that sent it tumbling out of control. It soon was carried out of sight. Wally, recovering from surprise, followed. In the distance, he saw it still tumbling out of control, pushed along by each successive gust of tremendous wind as if Almighty God Himself were blowing upon the Goldstone. Wally’s last glimpse of the hapless star-stone was as it was blown right over the horizon at a terrible speed--where he could only guess it fell to earth somewhere in the mountains dividing the continent. Still following, it was days before he reached a region of spouting volcanoes, the Mountains of the Moon that etched the sky with fire and smoke in a gigantic chain north to south across the main continent. No longer a speeding apex of electronic light, it took him some time to make the journey and then, hanging about, he learned from excited talk of the native people that a golden godlike object, like a star of gold, had been seen to fly into the mouth of a fire-mountain. The fire-mountain then spewed forth with great fury. Strangely, the vomited fire gathered itself in a giant ball and then hurled itself off into the heavens, vanishing out of sight in the space of a few blinks of the eye. What could be made of that? Wally wondered. Was the Stone of Gold gone from the gameboard? Hallelujah! It appeared so. And he had done nothing to make it happen. Nothing! Some other player, FC, no doubt, had stepped in. That seemed to be the pattern, nowadays, he reflected. Some lines came to mind:

You are the God who does wonders; You have declared Your strength among the peoples. You have with Your arm redeemed Your people, the sons of Jacob and Joseph...

Wally, shaking his tiny head, made his long trip back to civilization. He knew that his days of mighty deeds were over! Completely over! He was just a spectator. Resigning himself, he decided that, for his retirement, he might as well return to being just an arm-band, blinking on and off the same old thing. That was better than nothing at all, he decided. As Wally was making his dejected way home to Daniyel, events were transpiring in the heavens. A terrific explosion occcurred. That night the First Moon wore a golden nimbus. The following day the Second Moon wore a similar golden collar, making the third in the heavens, counting the Constellation of stars known as “Slave’s Collar” after Joseph since ancient times. People over the wide Earth marveled at the beauty of the two new collars, but soon grew used to it. Wally, however, knew the true meaning. His heart was much encouraged as he chalked off one more gameplayer and looked forward to future moves--whether by himself or Almighty El Elyon, it no longer mattered. The Game was not over. They might win it yet! If only this Star of Gold were the last! But what if it weren’t? Was something worse, even more sinister and insidious, on the wing? Wally scanned the heavens, hoping to be the one to spot the next gameplayer. He was still on duty, keeping close to the venerable Daniyel (who grew older, older, older, but continued living decade after decade, century after century, as if he were Antedeluvian, like Enos, Cainan, Mahalaleel, Jared, and Methusleh rolled into one!). It was then his hopes for the future were utterly dashed and his worst fears were realized in the shape of yet another “falling star”--this one certain to set everything back to the point of utter ruin. “God of Pikkard, Jacob , Joseph, Daniyel, help us!” Wally cried out, in his distress again completely forgetting the old file category name, “FC”. “Deliver us!”

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