Excerpt from the transcribed journals, manuscripts, and letters of Lady Juanita Del Rio
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3rd June 3004 (or thereabouts, keeping time while traveling is difficult)


Darling Mira,

You've asked for more stories from my other journeys, so that's what I've decided to write about this morning. Here I'll tell you of a most curious cult I've come across in my travels.

From what I can tell, the Immortal Monks of the Great Plateau worship no deity. The entire focus of their cult is on study of the self. They need not rely on great numbers of converts because they possess a curious technology with which they replenish their numbers. When a convert spends a year within a monastery or Slow Caravan (a concept I shall further describe below), having proved their devotion to the strict rules of the cult, they are asked if they would like to remain with the priesthood for the remainder of their days. If a convert answers in the affirmative, a surgeon (every monastery or Caravan typically has at least two, alongside two physicians) will take samples from the convert and then medically sterilize them; it's much easier to remain celibate if one does not possess means of intercourse. Here, I will also mention that persons of both sexes are admitted into every sect; the Immortal Monks do not recognize gender and address each other by a word best translated as "sibling."

The bodily samples of the new monk will then be taken to a refrigerated section of the monastery or to a special, electromotively-cooled motor-cart of the Caravan, where it shall be preserved for purposes that I will eventually make clear. The new monk is then tasked with writing an autobiography, describing their life in as much detail as possible up to the moment of initiating the autobiography. From there, the monk's primary tasks, outside maintenance of the monastery, entail studying the history of the cult and authorship of a daily diary. Each monastery or Caravan has many schools wherein monks are taught the necessary tasks for upkeep of their own sect.

So the typical day of an Immortal Monk proceeds thusly: at sunrise, an alarm sounds, waking all within the sect. Every monk is asked to spend a few moments writing about their dreams or passing thoughts from the night prior. Then the monks convene in whatever dining area they possess, where a short mantra is uttered. There, they all help in preparation of the day's breakfast, usually a hearty sort of porridge that has fruits within it when such are available. They eat quickly and quietly, help each other with the washing, then set about their individual tasks.

If a sect cares for livestock, those will be tended to first, usually by the entire membership of the sect. The craftsmen and mechanics and carpenters will then set about repairing furnishings within the campus, the technicians will set about their secretive tasks, the tailors and weavers will go to their workshop, the archivists will go to their library, the missionaries shall scout the path ahead of the Caravan or set out towards the nearest village or city for trade, motor-cart drivers will set the Caravan into motion, and the elders of the sect shall discuss various decisions that must be made within the sect. I will mention here that every sect of Immortal Monks will always have some children with them, who are cared for by a caste of monks referred to as Educators. When the Sun is highest in the sky, an alarm sounds and all monks make their way back to the dining area, where they all speak a short mantra and work again to make their porridge, this time served with bread, cheese, meat, or some other source of protein.

Upon completing their luncheon, whatever monks still have tasks to complete set about them. Usually these are few and far between. The monks with no specialized tasks to complete help with the livestock and crops, then all convene in the library, where special electric tomes are studied; I shall detail the contents of these tomes soon. Approximately an hour before sunset (sometimes later in more northern climes and earlier in late summer), the sect's elders will call all monks within the library to the dining hall where reflections on the events of the day are shared and decisions for the sect are announced. Upon conclusion of this meeting, a third mantra is uttered (no monks I asked were willing to translate these mantras for me) and supper is prepared, usually consisting of cheese, bread sweetened with honey or fruit preserves, and wine though sometimes there is beer or meat. All monks will then return to the library and resume their studies until approximately two hours after sunset, when a fourth and final alarm sounds and the monks retire to their quarters. The monks usually write about the events of the day in their journals before finally laying down to sleep.

The Slow Caravans of the Immortal Monks are a curious thing. Each is a monastery in itself. Upon the roofs of the dozens of motor-carts are black tiles I am told can take the very power of the Sun and turn it into electricity. I was skeptical at first but every motor-cart within the Slow Caravans has electric lamps and all manner of power appliances. The Slow Caravans are called such because the Caravans forgo established paths and only move a mile or less a day. Each motor-cart within a Caravan serves a purpose; the forwardmost motor-cart houses the sect's missionaries, who act as scouts and surveyors in addition to their role of communicating with the outside world. The following cart normally houses the oldest monks within the sect, as well as a small meeting hall within which important matters are discussed.

Following the elders' cart are the general housing carts, containing bunk-rooms for every member of the sect and usually some room to spare for guests. These are followed by the library cart, which can seat every member of the sect with room to spare for texts. Next is the dining cart, which is typically quite large and can easily seat every monk in addition to holding a kitchen large enough to cook food for the entire sect. Then there are food stores and then usually several farm carts with open roofs to let in sunlight for the crops, followed by livestock carts and motor-carts for every other conceivable need the Slow Caravan might have.

Special occasions within a sect are common. If a guest (such as myself) is in the midst of Immortal Monks, they'll be cared for and shown much of the sect's (and indeed much of the cult's) inner workings. If you have items or currency to trade for their hospitality, they'll accept it but will not demand it. If you are knowledgeable in some skill or other that's of use to the monastery and offer your labor or wisdom, they'll treat it much as a physical item for trade and gladly accept it but again do not demand such. They often have ample quarters; many monasteries and Slow Caravans seem to operate on a skeleton crew. Many people go to the Immortal Monks as guests and become converts; I nearly befell this fate but I have a mission and must complete it. I cannot do so within the halls of the Immortal Monks.

Final initiation of a monk (typically signified by a bodily sample being taken and their bodies being surgically sterilized) is a cause for celebration where all but the most vital of tasks will be ceased and the higher quality wines or liquors will flow freely. The death of a monk (whether natural or through happenstance) is a somber occasion; at a monastery, the monks will exhume the oldest corpse in the graveyard (usually quite thoroughly skeletonized), move it to the monastery's catacombs, then bury their fallen sibling in the newly-opened grave in silence. These graves have stones but the gravestones bear no name, merely a plot number. In a Slow Caravan, the body will be taken to the cooled motor-cart for temporary storage while the sect waits for missionaries to return. When the missionaries return, they will be tasked with learning the local funerary customs; if the deceased can easily be honored as locals, they are. If they cannot, the medical motor-cart has a crematorium where the deceased is cremated, again watched on by the monks in silence; the ashes will then be stored until a locale is found where the urn can be interred without disrupting local culture.

Here is where I must state the purpose of bodily samples of every Immortal Monk being stored indefinitely, and thereby where the name comes from; this shall also explain the presence of children within every sect: every sect of the cult possesses means of growing a human fetus from a small cell sample. I was told of these electric wombs but not permitted to know their actual location within any monasteries or Slow Caravans. This is why the sample is taken upon final initiation to the cult; to create an "immortal" life without permission of the first to possess the cell line is considered a great heresy by all Immortal Monks. But upon death, an Immortal Monk is guaranteed to be revived in this way. After ten months of gestation within these electric wombs, infants are born, identical in every way to their predecessor. They'll be raised within the monastery until they're 15 years old or thereabouts (some sects wait until the person is 21 or only 13), whereupon they will be offered to "resume" their old position within the monastery.

Most guests of the Immortal Monks who learn of this path to immortality become monks to achieve it. And most persons born within a sect accept the offer as they know no other life. The electric tomes studied by every Immortal Monk contains their first autobiography as well as every journal they've kept throughout their many lives. However, an occurrence I've witnessed on some occasions while visiting various monasteries or traveling with Slow Caravans is what some Immortal Monks call the "final life." The average "life" of an Immortal Monk is approximately a century; if, in all of that time, an Immortal Monk cannot read all of their many autobiographies, their next incarnation will not be offered a permanent place within the sect, instead being given the best education the sect can offer and being sent out with a copy of their electric tome and whatever possessions they can carry with the next batch of missionaries.

This event is by far a more important event than any funeral held by the Immortal Monks. The Final Life of an Immortal Monk is when the fantasy of immortality the monks anchor themselves to is shattered. A monk leaving the cult, especially one who did not complete their study of self in the most recent "past life" is cause for a bittersweet celebration within a sect. Speeches and documents detailing the monk's contributions to the monastery over their many lives will be shared, wine and tears will flow, gifts will be bestowed upon the former monk, and a great many embraces will be held on their final night within the cult. It's strange to think these people are both centuries old and mere younglings; they are cast from the only home they know to a strange world that will not understand the true weight of the former immortal in their presence.

I saw this ceremony once on the northern ridge of the Great Plateau; the "monk" was a woman of unclear ancestry named Wilhelmina Michaels. This particular Slow Caravan had allowed her to stay as a student of their mobile university until she was 21; she was quite the mechanic and had a way with the bees kept aboard the Caravan. She was nervous about her departure but the elders of the monastery — and her educators — seemed quite confident she would do well outside their halls.

As it happens, on another trip that took me through the same region some years later, I ran into Wilhelmina, no longer a resident of the Great Plateau but of a small village west of the northern ridge. She was very valued in her community, having helped rebuild the powerplant and devise an alternative fuel scheme far cheaper than imported diesel or kerosene. She said she sold her tome — undoubtedly countless centuries of journals, invaluable wisdom from bygone ages — to a university student studying the history of the Immortal Monks. I highly doubt it holds as much value to them as it did to Wilhelmina's — she goes by "Billy" now, she told me — previous incarnations in their desperate ploy for both immortality and deep self-understanding.

Definitely an odd bunch, but I'm no longer young. As my mission draws to a close, I am tempted to travel back to the Northern Plateau and offer myself up to a passing Slow Caravan. "Take me, o Immortal Monks, for I fear death and would offer my twilight years for a passing chance at your mechanized reincarnation!" Ha! Wouldn't that be a curious end to my travels?

Dearest Mira, I wish you could join me in my seemingly neverending mission. Perhaps someday you will. Until then, I will update you on my travels.

Never forget that I love you,

J

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