My companions and I could tell that we had finally come to the heart of the matter and we leaned in close as our host continued to unveil the secrets of his order.
“It was years before our ancestors discovered the value of the sacrifices,” the man said. “As with everything else, the births and deaths of our people were already regulated by the turning of the wheel. That much was known.
“But about this time they began to branch their experiments into geology, and it did not take them long to unearth the Slab Altar. Of course, back then that was not its name. To them it appeared to be nothing more than a sheet of unnaturally black rock, upon which nothing ever grew. This was curious enough, though, and the more they explored its qualities, the more they found to pique their curiosity.
“For example, the tool has not been made that can so much as scratch its surface. Not even the great powers of time and erosion seem to have any effect upon it, it remains forever unchanged. For another, animals avoid it at every cost. Even ants will laboriously crawl around its perimeter rather than set foot upon it. And an ant, or any other creature, that is dropped upon its surface will instantly die and shrivel into literal nothingness. For a third, the Mind of the Wheel manifests most powerfully when standing near to or upon the surface. And finally, it is actually not a ‘slab.’ It was partially unearthed, and what we see of it now is the head of a very long and shaft of rock, thrust down through the earth at an angle, extending an estimated three thousand feet before it break out the cliff wall and come into the presence of the Void. Of course we have never dug that full distance, but it so unique of a stone that we are convinced it runs the full depth.
“As I have mentioned before, you have already felt the Mind before, when you all perceived in unison that your companions had perished under a purpose, but not necessarily for something. Go and stand upon the Slab Altar and your feelings will become all the more unified. Stay there long enough and your very actions will cease to be your own. You will start to move in trances, tracing intricate footpaths around its edges, making strange hand signs in the air.”
“We know something of this,” Bayhu spoke up, then proceeded to explain the Job Mind which steered every Treksman through their deliveries.
“Is that so?!” our host’s eyes went wide. “Thank you for telling me this. I was unaware of such things. I am convinced in some way this ‘Job Mind’ is itself a manifestation of the Wheel. If we were not already at The End, I would request my order to analyze the matter further.”
“At the end of what?” I asked.
“The End,” he said solemnly. “The End of all sacrifices. And tell me, were you aware that the first of all sacrifices began after a caravan, such as yours, delivered scrying sticks to the Coventry, just as you have done now? Many generations ago.”
“Scrying sticks?” Nanth wrinkled his brow. “No one has called them that for years, it’sjust an old superstition! They are but dried bracken, a simple fuel for burning.”
“But of course,” the man smiled. “For the populations have long since moved away from their old homes here at the Outer Reach. Oh yes, did you not know? Once this entire field was dotted with villages. Here, at the only place that scrying sticks can truly function. As the settlements left this place, the sticks would have lost their animation, being too far removed from the Wheel’s Mind. You have assumed myth of the truths that you moved from.”
“You mean…they really can show you the future out here?” Nanth asked in awe.
“What? No! Is that what your legends say? Ha, you’ve adulterated the truth as well as forgotten it! No, nothing so dramatic as that. Scrying sticks do not tell you anything…but they suggest very much. The forms that they take are an enigma, a puzzle that still has to be worked out before anything of meaning can be divined. They merely point you in the right direction.”
“And they…pointed towards sacrifices on the Slab Altar?” Ro’Kano guessed.
“They pointed towards cycles and patterns, some figures that our ancestors had already seen replicated in their experiments of the Void, some which were new to them, and answered to phenomena that would not be identified until centuries later. But the greatest truth shown by the scrying sticks was that all of these patterns directly followed upon one another. For each figure they wrote was inscribed within the others, and all in an interlaced pattern. It all combined in one great, round shape, from which our ancestors invented the name of “the Wheel.” It was clear the meaning of those figures and the picture: each cog is related. Our lives, our deaths…all of it…all are cogs bringing about one final revolution. Our coming and going, our working and sleeping, our children being born, our dying, it was all for something. The scrying sticks indicated a point at the head of the Wheel where every cycle strikes at the same moment. A point where everything comes into perfect alignment. Or rather…it showed it almost.”
Our host paused, for he had been speaking very quickly and had to regain his breath. As soon as possible he continued.
“There was a gap in the picture made by the sticks, a great chasm down the center, a tall shaft where nothing sat. And its shape was not random, our ancestors recognized the very top of it: it answered perfectly to the ratios of that mysterious slab of black rock that penetrated down into the Void. All the other cycles worked around it, but that shaft had to be filled for all their revolutions to be made complete.”
“Filled?” I asked, already sensing dread for the answer.
“The ancestors had already learned before…by a grave misfortune…that though the slab could not be cut by any tool, there was one essence that could permeate into it.”
“Human blood,” we all said in unison and he nodded.
“The shaft must be filled. The world depends on it. Our world is one of systems, those systems must emanate from the Void, for they are strongest around it. The purpose of those systems is to reach the great culmination where all come into perfect harmony. But that harmony cannot actually resonate unless the one gap in the system is filled. If the harmony does not occur, then the systems will break. They cannot restart unless they complete. And if the systems break, then surely everything that is a part of them will be destroyed…and that includes all of humanity. And so you see…the gap must be filled. And it must be filled by willing souls. The one place where the Mind of the Wheel does not compel us, we must compel ourselves. It is poetic, is it not, that in the one shaft where the system provides freedom, we must chain ourselves so to the work?”
It was a long while before any of us spoke, but at last I ventured the thought that I believe was in all of our minds then.
“But…what if not? Forgive me, but I see a great deal of conjecture, not conclusion. It could be that your ancestors saw the patterns that they wanted to see, interpreted the things that they were already looking for.”
Our host smiled, but it was pained. “As outsiders, you are not under our stricter laws, and it is well for you. For were you a citizen, you would now be executed for heresy. I am sure you did not consider it, but you sow the seeds that would break the cycle and doom us all, the greatest offense that any man can do. No, no, you needn’t apologize, as I said, you are new to our ways, and so leniency is to be expected. And…of course what you say is a natural thought to have. Of course it is. I do not blame you for it. Just as there is a gap in the cycles, there is a gap in the knowledge. It is not written out in black and white. Some of these things are technically only supposed. There are unknowns.
“But, my dear boy, this is not faith, this is science. We have the numbers, we follow the patterns and they work. We make our sacrifices without fail. Every hundred there is a tremor from the heart of the Void. Every ten thousand there is a tremor and a flash of light. Every hundred thousand is tremor, flash, and the inkling of something coming into view. Every million…and the Black Sun starts to emerge, only for a moment, but you can feel its gravity crackling. Any uncertainty of our course is answered by the effectiveness of it. And if you do not believe me now, ask yourself again tomorrow, and then the next, for already you are starting to think as we are. You will find yourself more and more convinced, just as all the rest of us, that this is the only way forward. You will feel the spirit of this place and know that this is the only right thing to do. You will share the mind of us all.”
And, of a truth, when I had suggested that the conclusions drawn by these people might be amiss, I had already felt a twinge in myself for doing so. For when he had first explained those conclusions, there was a part in me that resonated to his chorus. It was that same part that had felt a doomed fate ever since we first set out on this journey. It was a sense that this work must be done. Yes it was dire, yes it was dark, yes it was sure to culminate in something terrible…yet even so it must be. The machine could not be stopped. I could recognize that plain as day. It had to go on.
Even if for evil.
Our visit soon drew to a close. Our host concluded by explaining to us what we had already supposed: over all these generations the people of this covnetry had nearly filled the tally of the Slab Altar, nearly performed the requisite number of sacrifices to make every other set of numbers and cycles work out properly, and had done so on schedule, so as to coincide the final sacrifice with the great point of culmination.
Our dried bracken (or scrying sticks) had been sent for to make confirmation of this fact. And then, when everything was verified, the great completion of the cycles would occur three days from now, and the Black Sun would be raised from its depths to usher in the new era.
And with that he bid us farewell and sent us to retire for the day. Of course, one might wonder how our minds could rest after all these thoughts and revelations that had been awoken in them? The end of the world was upon us, what had we to do with sleep?
Yet somehow sleep we did. Fatigue injected into our veins and brought us into the same cadence of sleep which was our regular enjoyment every night that we remained at the Coventry. No doubt, this was also one of the regulated systems that our host had told us about.
The next day we had no discussion of leaving from that place. If the locals were right, then three day’s journey would hardly remove us from the cosmic events about to transpire. And if they were wrong–but, well, we had little suspicion that they were.
So there was nothing for it but to remain and bear witness to all that followed. We ambled across the streets for a time, having no clear intention for where we would go or what we would see. We parted company without a word, trailing down our own private alleys and corridors.
Except for that where I went, Ro’Kano never left my side. No matter which path I took, he followed, and whenever I asked what way he would like us to go he simply responded “oh, I don’t mind. Whichever way you’re headed.”
Well, of course I presently found myself headed to the back courtyard, where the Slab Altar rested, ready to receive its daily fill of life. And as Ro’Kano and I approached the place, we made note of each of my companions also hidden about in various nooks and alcoves.
The altar truly was a geological marvel. Pure black all across, without the slightest variation in color or shade over the whole surface. Indeed, if not for the light reflecting upon it, I would have thought it was as empty as the Void that lurked just beyond the wall.
That reflecting light presented an interesting phenomenon of its own. For at most times the Altar reflected almost no light at all, it had only two faint glimmers slowly crawling its perimeter edge on opposite sides. It took them about three minutes to each travel the half of the circle to where the other glimmer had originated, and then they expanded suddenly, swooping across the entire surface in a single, blinding glare. Then the light retracted back into those two faint points, and they began crawling around the perimeter once more.
But enough of that. No doubt you would rather hear what I have to say of the sacrifices themselves.
I spoke on Monday about how I was letting this story run pretty loose with where it wanted to go and for how long it wanted to be there. Surely that couldn’t be any more evident than in this conversation continued from the last section, where the Treksmen learn the history of the Coventry, and did so for over three thousand words!
It is funny to remember the stories I wrote as a teenager, where I could not make a moment last for even a paragraph. Events that were meant to be grand and sweeping would expire within a single page, simply because I couldn’t think of anything more to say. I certainly don’t have that problem now!
I know that this last conversation has run on for quite a long while, but it was a very important discussion, a hinge point that answers so many of the questions from before, and also raises all the new questions to be addressed by the rest of the story. I honestly felt that I could not force it through any more quickly, for to do so would have been to break the tension of the entire work.
That is an interesting idea right there: the tension of the entire work. We often speak of the “style” of a story, or its themes, or its voice, or its perspective…but I believe that all of these words are trying to get at the same thing, which none of them capture it in its entirety. On Monday I spoke about a story having “wants,” and that too hints at this “tension of the work.”
Another way to express it might be that a story has a character. Not the main character, or any other individual within the tale, but that the story itself has a personality. And the best stories have a strong one, and they remain consistent to it until the end.
Perhaps this is all a bit much, so let’s pause for now, and we’ll return next Monday to hash it out more fully. Come back after the weekend for that, and then on Thursday we’ll continue the plot of Raise the Black Sun.