It was the longest night of my life, and when at last I did fall asleep, my dreams were unlike anything I had ever experienced before. There was no narrative to them, no sequence of events that my dream-self walked through. There was only a single image, a single presence: that of a massive black orb covering the entire lower third of my vision, with a golden haze around its perimeter, and an empty grayness above.
And that orb was pulsating. It wasn’t a sound or a tremor, but every so often I felt a slight anxiety, which escalated into an undeniable foreboding, and then peaked as an all-consuming dread. And then it was gone, and I felt nothing, until the entire sequence returned a minute later.
And so it continued through the entire night, until all at once my eyes flew open, and I could not say whether it had been only a few moments that had passed, or entire weeks.
Mira was staring back at me, each of us bathed in the cool gray of morning. Both of us knew that it was time for us to go. We raised to our feet and made for the Slab Altar at the back of the Coventry. As we wove through the streets we were joined on all sides by the rest of the citizens, each being pulled by the same thread as us, each answering the same call. In the years since I have been made aware that throughout the entire Damocile Region, all citizens were drawing their eyes to the western horizon at this time, watching that line with intense fervor, not even knowing what it was they waited for.
By the time Mira and I came into the square the Priests were already making preparations before the altar. They had procured a massive metal table, which rested upon a pin that ran down its middle, so that the sheet could be either rotated up vertically or laid flat horizontally. Upon this table they had deposited the dried bracken that I and my compatriots had delivered, and four of them were crouched over the wood, moving the pieces about in a very deliberate, staccato fashion, as if in a trance. On occasion they would lift their hands off the table entirely, and flex their fingers in strange ways, as though there was an electricity crackling between their digits and the pieces of bracken.
I was not sure what the point of this was, but after fifteen minutes of them repeating the pattern I noticed that the ends of the dried bracken began to lift up towards their fingers when they lifted them from the table. Then, they touched the pieces again, moved them about, lifted their hands, and the wood raised still higher and began to sway. Over and over they repeated this process, and as they did so the bracken became more and more animated. Individual pieces of wood started to slowly fracture into splinters, then reassemble back into the whole when the Priests lowered their hands back down to the table.
I was so caught up with the process that I had not even realized that three more Priests had taken their old stance on the middle of the Slab Altar, and had begun the grim working of filling the last of the blood-quota. How many souls could be left, I wondered. Given how precise everything was in this place, I did not doubt that the number would be exact. One moment the Slab would lack a single drop of blood, the next it would be perfectly filled and no more.
“How much longer do you think this will go for?” I whispered down to fair Mira at my side.
“Not long,” she said distractedly. “No, not long at all left now.” Suddenly her eyes flashed and she came back fully to the moment. “Graye! Hold my hand!”
She spoke with such earnestness that I immediately took her palm in mine. She squeezed her fingers tightly around mine, as if terrified that I might slip away.
“It’ll be alright,” I said.
“It will be what it will be,” came her response.
“I–” before I could finish my words there came a loud crackling sound from up ahead, and looking forward I saw the Priests at the table now had an entire ball of splintered bracken trembling between their outstretched hands. The trembling was so severe that I thought for a moment that the wood was turning fluid. But it was only perfectly pulverized dust. The particles of bracken now flowed freely over one another, began spinning round in a tight circle, appearing more and more silver as they streamed faster and faster.
The Priests withdrew their hands and stepped back, but still the powdered bracken continued to twist and contort. It was moving entirely under its own power now. And all the while the methodical slice of the executioner’s blade hummed through the air behind it.
“It’ll be alright,” I said more earnestly to Mira.
“It doesn’t have to be,” she whispered.
“Yes, it does. Whatever follows, I will come for you. I will stay with you. It’ll be alright, we’ll be together. I promise.”
“Graye,” she shook her head sadly, “you have to–“
It was a high-pitched whine that distracted us this time. The bracken churned violently, oscillating at tremendous speeds until molten globs of it flung outwards, then slowed and flung back to the center mass. The Priests at the center of the Altar were repeating their movements at an exaggerated speed. The first one rambled exchanged words with the victim in a rush, the second scribbled the name furiously into his ledger, the third instinctively swung his blade even before the hammer touched his shoulder. And then, even before the victim had been fully consumed by the stone, the next subject began their approach.
And though it was morning, it seemed that the sun was setting. I looked up and saw that it still stood in the sky, but the light was draining from it. Strangely it was the portions of the sky that were furthest from it that still retained the memory of its illumination. Long shadows began to stretch over our congregation, dancing wildly as the light that cast them waned for the last time.
A dull throbbing resounded now from the molten bracken, and I realized that it was slowing. The mass came apart in a million fluid strands, each weaving one direction or the other, splitting and converging as they began to draw out a tapestry. It was a great circle, just as had been described to us by our host, when he recounted the first time my ancestors had brought bracken to these people’s ancestors. That circle was composed of so many parts, but each fitted together perfectly, so that they congealed into a single whole.
And down the center of that circle was the shaft. Not empty as it had appeared all those generations ago, but full and complete, with the last fibers flowing into place even now at the very center of the whole, doing so in perfect time with the last subjects making their way to the center of the Altar.
“I promise,” I clutched more firmly at Mira’s hand, though every I spoke word tasted false. “I promise we’ll be together. I’ll never let you go.”
“Graye.” She said it with such a tone of finality. “I said to you yesterday that you should take what gifts we transient souls can offer.” She stared firmly into my eyes. “But also, do not tear yourself by trying to hold onto that which can never stay.”
And then she drew her hand away from mine. I do not know how she managed it, for I had been gripping it in a fearful vise. Yet somehow, seemingly effortlessly, she pulled back. Then gave a sad sort of smile, said “goodbye,” and turned to walk away.
I remained dumbstruck, watched as she wove through the crowd, made her way with purpose towards the Slab Altar. Even then I did not understand, I suppose the reality of what was happening was too awful for my mind to accept. I did not comprehend what she was doing until she was but five paces from the Priests at the center, who were waiting for the next and final victim to come.
I mouthed the word “no” but no sound came out. Indeed, it seemed that all the air had been forcefully removed from my lungs. You might wonder that I did not fight to reach her and drag her back, but I could not. There were forces at play which I was powerless to resist. Somehow, I had always known that she was the one to fill the quota.
Mira did not speak to the first Priest, though, she did not have her name transcribed by the second, and she did not approach the third for the killing blow. As she had said the day prior, she was not like the rest of the Coventry. She was the keystone at the top, not subject to the rites and rituals of all those below.
Every eye fixed on her as she spread her hands out wide, giving a broad salute to the dread horizon. She turned to look at us and the last embers of light flit across her pale skin, making it seem as though her face was contorting between a thousand expressions every second, like she was mad, or possessed by innumerable demons.
Then, everything stopped. All the light rushed to one point, the one where she stood, and it illuminated her in perfect clarity. She appeared divine. And the rest of us were plunged into total black and ceased all movement and all noise. We were the vacuum now, and she was the only spot that existed in all the universe.
And though I was lost in the void, still her eyes were able to feel through the emptiness until they met mine. She stared straight at me, and gave that sad sort of smile again.
Then her body slammed to the ground in a single instant and pounded into nothingness! All that made her was expelled and consumed faster than I could even see. The entire surface of the Slab Altar flashed, and every Priest that stood upon it disintegrated into dust.
A dull roar emanated beneath our feet, pounded up through the earth and quaked us where we stood. There was a rushing feeling, as though we had all dropped into a free-fall. And to that “great beneath” to which we fell there came once more the rhythmic pulsation of doom. It grew in intensity and frequency, each new cycle overrunning the tail of the last. Though it made no noise, it became deafening. Though it made no pressure, it became crushing. My hands quaked over my face, trying to protect me from it, but it pulsated from within me as much as without.
And then, at last…the Black Sun rose.
On Monday I wrote about how stories introduce themes and remain consistent to them, providing a pleasant sense of closure and catharsis to the reader. But sometimes I feel you need to pull away from those themes, so that you can then return to them with real momentum. One of the reasons why I created the character of Mira was that the story had been so relentlessly bleak that I felt the ending might land to little effect. For a moment I needed to introduce a single bright spot, something to breathe hope back into Graye, all so that the ending could have its dour impact again.
Thus introducing her might have felt like it contradicted many of the themes that had preceded, but hopefully here at the end of her arc it all seems to fit once more. Perhaps a part of us wants the story to have a happy ending, but clearly it was never going to. Given what this story has been, this is the right way for it to finish.
Speaking of the ending, I want to circle back to the original intention I gave before starting this work, which was to strongly signal the ending before it came, and still have it land in a way that was novel and satisfying. I’d like to bring that focus back to the forefront as we prepare to see exactly how that ends plays out.
Because, though I have been anticipating an end to this story for a long while, really and truly I promise that the next entry in it will be the very last one. Raise the Black Sun is the longest piece that I have published on this blog by a considerable margin. Looking back, there are things that I am quite proud of in it, and there are things that I think are a bit off. Given how extensive a work it has been, I would like to dedicate the next post simply to examining it, as well as considering how I would approach it if I were ever to make it into a full-sized work.
Come back on Monday for that review, and then again in a week to finally see the conclusion to Raise the Black Sun!