Here, too, I found the reality far removed from that which I had imagined. Whenever I had heard of “sacrifices,” I had pictured a captive bound and struggling upon a raised altar, while some unholy priest recited incantations in a strange tongue, then plunged a curved blade into the victim’s heart.
But this was not so.
The officiators of the sacrifices were called priests, and they did wear ceremonial black clothing, but here the similarities to my fantasy ended. There were three of these priests overseeing the work, and they calmly stood upon the center of the Slab Altar, while a communion of Coventry citizens waited patiently to the side.
When the priests were ready for their next subject, a single individual would emerge from the ranks of the communion, softly step onto the stone, and glide across it to the priests waiting at the center. There were no words spoken in this process, and I wondered how each next individual knew that it was there time to be offered up. No director called out names, no lots were drawn, there was no discussion of any sort. But also there was never a time where two started forward at the same time moment and then had to decide which of them was actually to go, nor was there ever a moment’s pause from when the priests finished with one subject and the next began his or her march forward. Somehow each person just knew that it was their turn, and went forward to fill that station, without the slightest sign of hesitation or doubt.
The Slab Altar was such a wide piece of stone, that standing off of its edge I could not hear the words that transpired in the middle, where all the business was carried out quietly and calmly. But it was clear that one of the priests was some sort of greeter, and he was always the one that first hailed the subject when he or she arrived, and the two would then exchange a few short words.
I gathered he must have been asking them their name, for then he would turn to the second priest, who inscribed upon a long scroll that rolled out of a large box at its bottom, and then rolled back into the box at its top. It was belted around his waist, and had knobs on the side for scrolling his parchment when the current portion of it was filled. A few more words were exchanged, perhaps to verify the subject’s commitment, perhaps to recite some special words, I do not know.
But after those words the subject proceeded five yards farther to the third and final priest, who was the executioner. This priest did not wear the same frightful hood as executioners in our own corner of the world, but he was blindfolded by a long and thick length of black cloth. There was also a half-band around the back of his head, covering his ears, so that he was deaf as well as blind.
Clearly the priest was not to know the person to whom he would perform his office. I wondered whether that was meant as a statement on fate, and how it falls upon us all without care for name or station, or whether it was simply to protect the executioner from the grief of knowing whenever he slew a loved one.
In any case, the only way that the executioner could know that it was time to perform his duty was when the sacrificial subject took a small hammer off of the ground and lightly tapped the priest with it upon the left shoulder. Thus he was not even permitted to feel the touch of the soul he was to sunder.
And then, when the hammer had barely so much as breathed upon the outer folds of his shoulder lapels, the executioner spun suddenly on the spot, snapped his wrists, and whirled his blade through the space where the subject stood.
A few words of that blade. It was of an enormous length, at least seven feet long, yet so narrow that from my distance it appeared little more than a wire. It held its gently curved shape with a strength that belied its thin frame, and proved time and again that it could cleanly and completely cut through anything it encountered without any loss of inertia. The priest held it at an angle, so that the blade would strike true, regardless if the subject was quite short, or quite tall.
It is not my intention to sensationalize the account of what I saw, so I shall not linger on the image of the sundered subject, but know that the blade was perfectly effective. As to what happened to the body after its halves fell upon the surface of the altar…I do not know how to describe it properly. As my companions and I had intuited the night prior, human blood was the only essence that was permitted entry into that stone, and I saw with my own eyes that this was very much the case. Indeed, it was true to such a degree that in less than a half-minute, all that remained of the body was black dust that blew away in the wind, leaving no mess to be cleaned.
I saw that fine powder blow away, the only sign of what had once been a soul, and I was reminded of the Scrayer and his strange weapon, and I wondered at that for a moment.
But then I shook my head and turned back to the executioner. As soon as he had swung his sword, he turned back to his repose, wiped a cloth down the blade, then steadily waited for the signal to swing again. His every movement was regular as clockwork, he always swung at exactly the same angle, he never hesitated even a fraction of a second after the hammer touched his shoulder.
There was never a tear, never a cry, never a shout. It was the calmest of things I have ever witnessed, nothing more than the procedural filling of a quota.
I stayed there, transfixed, through the entire afternoon. When at last the sun lowered in the sky, the crowd of potential victims dispersed, all at the same moment, as if with a shared understanding of the exact second that they were not needed. The priest with the box and the scroll tucked his pen away. The priest that had greeted the subjects took the small hammer off the ground and tapped the executioner’s right shoulder, the opposite side from what was used to signal that the executioner needed to swing his sword.
I thought that a very daring thing to do, for what if the executioner’s reflexes confused the meaning? But they did not. He felt the tap and immediately sheathed his blade, then removed blindfold and ear-guards. The three priests left, and I and my companions were left there all alone.
We turned and made our way down the streets, coming to a place where the citizens were coming out to sell their wares. I say “sell,” but there was no exchange of currency whatsoever. Indeed, I suppose the only time these people had anything to do with money was when they interacted with foreigners, such as when they had hired our caravan to bring them their bracken.
Or perhaps they had not hired it with money? Did not our masters say this was a matter that had exceeded payment? Perhaps we had been sent here simply because we were called for, nothing more than cogs within the wheel.
In any case, the citizens of this town still put out little shops, but then they abandoned them for anyone to come and take what they had need of. No one peered at wares, or weighed whether they wanted it, or haggled over prices. They strode purposefully for the things they intended and picked them up without a second glance. Everyone received exactly what they needed, and thus were not any worse for the loss of all that had been in their carts. As one might imagine, it was quite an efficient process, and the the entire township was satisfied before even an hour had passed.
“We cannot gather our carts up until you have taken your own,” a voice said beside us, and we turned to see one of the vendors there, a tall woman in gray.
“Take? But we–we haven’t brought anything of our own,” Nanth pointed out.
“It does not matter, the Mind of the Wheel moved you here, just as it moved us to make enough for your needs, as well as for our own.” She gestured, and we could see that each cart still held a small portion of its wares: food and soap and coal and everything else we might possibly need back at our room, all in just the right quantity for our number.
“The Mind of the Wheel?” Moal repeated. “It is a benevolent force, then? To take such precise care for you?”
She smiled at the thought. “Benevolence is indulgent, rewarding even beyond what has been earned. The Wheel is…far more efficient. It is a well-calibrated machine.”
“So…it is not really good.”
“But also not bad.”
Thus we went and took our wares, and as soon as we had, every townsperson packed up their cart and rolled it back to their home. Now the space was clear, and the community socialized with one another throughout the rest of the evening.
It was an evening in the streets such as I had never seen before. No rowdy taverns with drunks stumbling off of the curb, no shrill voices of a lover’s spat, no street urchins gathering in the alley to compare their pickpocketed loot.
To be sure, there was food and music, but each was reserved and careful not to intrude upon the activities of others. Many people collected around the various minstrels and lute-players and whistlers, near enough to enjoy the ambient noise, but far enough that they could carry gentle conversations with one another.
I overheard many of those conversations, but never heard a word of idle gossip. Rather they spoke mainly of their work and their ideas. In several cases one member of the party seemed to be leading all the others in a sort of logical deductive game that I did not understand.
There were other activities, too. Many tables were placed lazily all about the street, so that as I walked down it I was required to weave around games of stick-rolling, pattern sequencing, and card-based strategy. All were played out gently and calmly, without cheating or passionate competition.
And as my companions and I made our way through their fun, a fair number of the tables called out to us and gestured to their empty chairs. Several of my companions joined in the games, I did not.
For after having ambled about all the day long, I felt a strong desire for repose. I was not tired, I had been accustomed to strenuous work over the last several months after all, yet part of me urged that it was time to head back to our room.
“Did you want to go see what they are building over there?” Ro’Kano suddenly said. He was still at my side, and was pointing to a group of young adults who were assembling a tall machination from boxes, gears, and rope just a little farther down the road.
“No,” I said. “You go along, I’m going to retire for the night.”
Ro’Kano had a strange look, like he had known that I was going to say something like that. I thought I saw a small smile cross his lips.
“I’ll come with you,” he said, and so together we went back to our room. I had intended only to relax there, but no sooner had I removed my boots and washed my face than I felt the most sudden fatigue come all over me.
“I hope you don’t mind,” I said to Ro’Kano. “But I was going to turn to bed a little early tonight, you may do as you please.”
Again he smiled, and again it was a knowing grin, but did not say a word. He only watched me intently as I crossed the room to my bunk, sat on the cot, and swung my legs up onto it. As soon as I did he nodded in satisfaction.
“Eight-thousand and four-hundred steps,” he pronounced. “Exactly.”
On Monday I spoke about the character of a story, and how it not only has a personality, but individual wants and tendencies as well. Raise the Black Sun has had a particularly steady and ponderous personality to it. It takes its time, it dwells on somber topics, and it balances them out with periods of long repose. Previously the story wanted to dwell on the hopelessness of a broken caravan and I let it. Then it wanted to dwell on the idea of a machine baked into the world’s system and I let it.
For today it wanted to take a long and idle walk, one that observed the world with calm contentment. It wanted to do so, whether during the observation of quiet villagers at play, or during the observation of the masses being slaughtered. The story wanted to explore each in the same steady, measured pace and I let it.
It is an interesting character that this story has, to be sure. I am nearing its end now, and I suspect that there will only be two more sections to it.
In the next of those sections I am going to introduce an entirely new character, though. Obviously she won’t remain in the story for very long, given that she is only appearing at the very end, but I still mean for her to have quite a meaningful impact on the story. This is a bit of a challenge, as usually all the important characters are introduced early in the story, so that they have time to integrate with the deeper dramas. However, this isn’t the first time that a story has ever introduced a crucial character at the very end. Come back on Monday where we consider how other tales have dealt with this task, and then on Thursday we’ll see my own attempt at doing the same.