The Vermilion Fastness

There is so much from the history of civilisation which we have lost and forgotten, squandered and spoiled, that the hope for a hidden, protected library is intoxicating.

Subterranean settlements, even whole cities carved carefully and deliberately into the firmament, have been a fixture of stories and conspiracies for thousands of years, with the real-world counterparts that have been built or rediscovered differing mainly in their scale and the grandiosity of the functions that they have been built to serve and service. At least one example, the Vermilion Fastness, exists somewhere in between the fact and the fiction; a genuine undertaking which has become quasi-mythical through the corruption of historical truths and the spreading of deliberate misinformation intended to guard against pernicious influences and infiltration.

With mentions both oblique and overt scattered and salted throughout the oral and written histories of arcana from across the world, the Fastness was the sole and consuming project of a group whose various names were all attributed - ex post facto - by those looking to trace their history and find irrefutable evidence of its existence and location. From what can be pieced together, the Vermilion Fastness was designed to be the second cradle of civilisation, a base in which a self-selected society of the world’s greatest minds could advance their scientific and artistic endeavours unfettered by the constant strife and conflict they saw in the world above.

Sometimes known as the Deep Keep, both a reference to what can be gleaned of its intended configuration and the loftier ambitions to which it aspired, we only have the vaguest of clues as to where the construction of the Fastness took place. Any of a number of the oldest continuous human settlements have been suggested and investigated as the true location of the Fastness, with Luoyang, Damascus, Argos and Varanasi among those commonly claimed. Nonetheless it is Byblos, Lebanon (known locally and in the Arabic as Jbeil) which is most often believed to hide and house the real, albeit long forgotten and buried, entrance to the Vermilion Fastness.

Part of this tendency can be laid at the feet of Byblos’ tangible and demonstrable position as a hub through which the Phoenician alphabet - a precursor to the Latin alphabet via Greek and Etruscan - was spread. This connection to the written word (plus the adoption and adaptation of the name Byblos into the word ‘Bible’) has a pleasing symmetry, significance and synchronicity with the search for the Vermilion Fastness, alleged to be the largest and most complete library of historical scrolls, texts, tomes and manuscripts in history, and has convinced many who are led as much by the poetic as the provable.

The Vermilion Fastness was, in essence and as far as can be reliably ascertained, the eighth century forerunner to archives like The British Library or the Library of Congress, except that its existence comfortably predated such seemingly necessary conveniences as even a rudimentary version of the printing press. Instead, and with the entire undertaking still cloaked in mystery, the group sent people all over the world to acquire or manually copy whatever written texts they could find and, in some cases, recruit the authors or scholars of the works in question; much of the proof of this group’s existence comes in the form of records of these strange missionaries appearing at royal courts and in religious communities.

All the while, and even the initial sallies seem to have taken decades, the work was being done on creating a home for all this knowledge and the people who would build upon it. The Vermilion Fastness was never planned as merely a library, instead it would be a generational endeavour, a self-contained and self-sustaining home where the children of the founders would eventually replace their forebears and so on and so on. Beyond the architecture and the engineering required to create the space itself, the practicalities of making a closed environment that would function indefinitely should have been beyond them; but if this was a concern, it is one they left no record of.

Evidence of their continued work and existence stops almost all at once in the mid-tenth century; the last missives to have been tracked down mentioning an event they called the Investiture (emphasis implied) which, from context, we can assume to be the final migration to the Vermilion Fastness. Given the absence of reliable communication at the time, even over relatively short distances, it seems likely that there would have been missionaries from the group who did not receive, or did not receive in time, their instructions to return. In fact, there were very occasional and decreasingly frequent mentions of such literary missionaries - as were empowered by the Vermilion Fastness - well into the nineteenth century.

Their interests and actions focused around procuring examples of unique writings, or buying whole stockpiles of books which were collected by politely incurious proxies and delivered to non-descript and innocuous addresses. They, like those before them, paid their debts, fees and bribes in precious metals and gems - never coin - valuables wrapped in soft leather pouches, vermilion in colour, of course. There is nothing that conclusively determines whether they were agents of the Fastness, and none of the signs of a grander plan behind their actions, but many have suggested that they were the descendants of the stragglers; left to create a facsimile of the life the Investiture had shut them out of.

Regardless of their state and apparent statelessness, they too disappeared, reabsorbed into the wider world and leaving all mention of the Fastness to fade away. But their most recent appearances overlapped with the beginnings of the modern search for the Vermilion Fastness, and some have suggested that they were specially tasked with continuing the acquisition of new information, agents of a group that had kept itself hidden, at arm’s length and at several removes from the world above. Indeed, who can say for certain that they did not survive? That there is not a small society operating and evolving, culturally and technologically at least, along a parallel but markedly different path than any we might recognise?

Perhaps one day they will break their exile and return to us with sciences and philosophy forged in the unique crucible that is the Vermilion Fastness, or intact records of histories lost otherwise lost to the world? Other theories are less optimistic, and posit that the only trace we could ever hope to find would be a crypt; dusty writings surrounded by the dry bones of progressively sicker generations ill-adapted for the conditions in which they confined themselves. Morlocks in all but name, damned by isolationist hubris, whose advancements will have been outstripped by the communal progress of a deeper and broader intellectual pool.

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