This, of course, is my account of the Priests of Oolant and the sacrifices they made to summon the dread eclipse. The final night. The burning horizon. The Black Sun.
Many names. Each trying to express the same idea, yet each only able to give definition to the smallest part of it. I shall attempt to discuss around the matter with my own words, though I too will fail to properly account for what transpired that day. I know as much, and I happily accept that failing, for there is no shame in not being able to explain that which is inexplicable.
I have, of course, read the many partial and second-hand accounts of that day, which to my utter disdain have tried to gloss over the void truth with fanciful allegories and symbolism. These things are an affront and a blaspheme to the true gravity of that moment. You cannot make an image of so unholy a scene, you cannot make a fantasy of that which is most terribly real, and you cannot write a drama around pure, unfeeling destruction.
Rather than try to explain things, we should be content to leave them unknowable. Thus I am not here to satiate your curiosity. If you desire fables look elsewhere. I have come only to help you resolve your mind to the fact that you will never know. How could you? I myself know, yet do not know what that knowing is. It is like a worm lodged in my brain, which churns through the folds of that tissue unceasingly. I cannot see the worm, I cannot hear the worm, I cannot feel the worm…for my brain has uselessly placed all its sensors without itself. All that I am able to perceive the worm by is how it weighs and pressures upon every other cranial activity. It squeezes against the synapses and makes them fire differently, makes them all tainted by the shadow of the Black Sun.
I was there.
I wish for this to be made very clear. This is not another second-hand account. I was present my own self that day. How did I escape then, you wonder? I do not know. Perhaps I did not. So frail has my connection to this world felt ever since, so ignored by my fellow man have I been, that it would not surprise me at all if I am nothing but a specter anymore, a ghost whose record must go unheard by the world. But perhaps if I write it now with all my soul, if I strain myself with all my strength against the shroud, then I will leave an echo that some may bear witness to on the other side. I have heard of such things before. But enough now, I have digressed from my matter.
As I said, I was there.
I was not one of the Priests of Oolant, I frankly had no business with them whatsoever. I was not even raised in the Damocile Region. I called my home Omayo, a small hamlet two levels and fourteen strata beneath groundscape. Though of course not true groundscape. We thought it was, but back in those days we did not know that that which we called the entire world was but only a single arm of the greater Kolv Mass.
In any case, the hamlet of Omayo rested on the fringe of the Peyrock plantation. Like most of the boys that grew up in my small village, when I came of age I sought employment from that plantation. Some of us went to work in the fields, some of us to transport the goods in far-traveling caravans, the greatest of which were many miles long.
It was the caravan work that fell to me, and I made many sojourns with our dried bracken, all through the Eastern quadrant of the groundscape (or what we then thought was groundscape). When we received a special order we would carry it directly down to the specific level-and-strata, otherwise we left our goods with the surface depot, to then be disseminated by great lifts to the masses below.
It was not often that our circuit included the Damocile Region, and absolutely never to the Coventry of Graymore. Of course I was aware of the place and the work performed within its blackened halls, for its fame was common knowledge to us all. But never had I seen the Slab Altar, nor the masses of their artificially inflated population, nor contemplated how one could so freely choose such a fate as the Consigning.
But all this was to change, and I confess I felt a thrill of boyish curiosity when I read the destination listed for our next circuit. It was Torrin who saw it first as we caravan-boys crowded around the notice board.
“Graymore Coventry?!” he exclaimed. “Foreman, is that a joke?”
Our foreman, Ayeseus Blott, had remained waiting behind while we looked over the posting, no doubt anticipating our reaction when we came to that particular listing.
“No jokes in the employ,” he frowned seriously. “You know better than to ask a question like that.”
“But…why are we going there?” I ventured.
“Because we have been summoned. What other reason is there.”
Though we peppered him with questions for a while, there was nothing else that we could glean from him. For he was hardly of any higher station than us, and thus not privy to anything whatsoever. All that mattered was that an order had been made, a purchase given, and that now we must make our delivery.
And so we prepared for our journey, and the closer we came to it the more our initial excitement mingled with a growing sense of dread. By the time we reached the week of our expedition, we were equal parts enthusiastic and horrified for the sights we might see when we came to the Coventry.
To be clear, we were not so foolish as to fear that we, ourselves, might be made sacrifices by those strange priests, for we knew that the Slab Altar was considered one of the most holy relics in all of Gaverenth, and that only those who had been kept pure by a strict life-regimen were worthy to be offered thereon. But there is, of course, a natural dread to know that one might witness the taking of another’s life. Of course it would theoretically be possible to not walk into the square when such events were happening, but when you are a young man of ravenous curiosity, you know that you must see.
Thus we were preparing for our excursion against our own better natures. Pushed by marvel past our reason. If this were all, already I would say that we set out on our journey with a black sign over us. But in truth, even before we set forth on our circuit, we encountered not one, but three more dark omens.
First was the matter of our foreman, Ayeseus Blott, who grew deathly ill three days before we were supposed to leave the Plantation. Now everyone knows that it is terrible bad luck to set out under a sudden change in leadership. So much so, that though we were anxious to see the Coventry, we had to approach the management and request the trip be cancelled. They told us that they could not satisfy this request. They apologized that such was the case, stated that under normal circumstances they would have, but proclaimed that this journey was too essential to cancel. They could not say why, it was a great secret apparently, but they did assure us that it was not simply a matter of business, not something so simple as supply and demand, nothing as crude as a matter of money. No. There were deep matters at play, ones so great that the worse luck would be in us not seeing this campaign through. And so, though it meant we would ride out under a cursed sign, still we must go.
Of course this all only served to deepen our two-mindedness. Apprehension and fascination ratcheted higher than we knew was even possible. Our previous dread anticipation had now been touched by a sense of destiny. We were being driven, compelled even, towards some great fate. The call had been made, and whether to good or evil we had to answer.
Of the two, evil seemed the most likely, what with the unholy nature of our destination. And though it might seem strange to set out to what seems to be an evil fate, if it is your fate, then it cannot be resisted. We were like young Avalow, moving step-by-step towards the fire, eyes staring unflinchingly forward to his own destruction, unable to turn, because it was the one purpose for which he had been made. So, too, we must go and see for what we had been made.
The second sign of ill things came on the day of the Pledge. In all the seventy-one voyages I had made previously, I had not given a second thought to the solemn words that bound me to my mission. They had been meaningless mutterings every time, for I never had had any reason to not obey them. Indeed the process had always been so routine, that after the first six times I hardly even noticed the heartdrag of it anymore.
But this time I did notice it. Not only noticed it, but was shaken by it. So much so that I thought I might collapse right there, halfway through the second stanza. And this time, for the first time, I understood why the ritual of the Pledge affects our hearts so, why it makes our life-organ slow its beats, and thump them out heavily, even painfully. For the heart knows that it is being taken from you and submitted to another, and by its nature this is a death to it. And that is what the heartdrag truly is, the slow death-agonies of the heart.
Thus you must not pause in the ritual. You must hurry through the words and rush out your final “Amen,” which finally releases the heart back to its regular, though somewhat sadder, cadence. If you do not get through the whole Pledge quickly enough, then the heart will grow silent for too long…as we all bore witness to that day.
For no sooner did I finish my pledge, and my heart burst back into rapid life, then young Yalli came behind me for his turn. And as I was catching my breath I noticed that he was already quite pale, and that his words were very shaky. Right from the first sentence he was speaking too slowly, which meant his momentum would never be able to carry him on to the end. I wanted to shout out to him to stop, to turn back…but it was too late. He had just cleared the first stanza, and so that escape was forever closed off to him.
I could see the panic set in his face, see how he came to the same realization that I just had. His lips fluttered wildly and turned blue, but already the words were drying up. Three staccato whispers and then no more sounds came out of his mouth.
“Yalli!” I cried. “Breathe in!”
But it was not a lack of air, it was a lack of strength to expel it. He jerked horribly, trying to force out a single syllable, then we all heard a muffled bursting and he collapsed to the floor, never to rise again.
There were only three Treksmen left to make their oath after Yalli, but of course not a one of them would dare utter a word after what they had just seen. Though they knew it meant banishment from our order, there was simply no way that they could make the Pledge without hesitating in the words. And as we had all seen, to hesitate before your fate was to die by its wrath.
It was inevitable that the story of what had happened spread through the entire body of Treksmen, such that no others would agree to complete our partial company, no matter how great a bonus they were promised for it. And so we came by the second and third dark omens of our quest: the premature death of a Treksman, and the necessity to set out with an incomplete crew.
It was a black morning when at last we set out on our way.
We numbered 37 in all. 36 Treksmen, plus our new foreman, a man we had never met called Boosh Fyyan. To this day I cannot tell you the first thing about him. Not what he looked like, not what he sounded like, I’m not sure why I even remember his name. I cannot recall any of his details, of course, because I was unconscious through the first part of our expedition. Unconscious was the only reasonable way to keep our wits on a journey as black as this, and so every one of us Treksmen gave ourselves up to the automation of our work.
As is always the case when you pledge your heart by a solemn oath, you become somewhat machine like by the process. Given the nature of your surrender, you do not have to consciously think about the work that you do now, you can simply relax the mind and your body will do the functions on its own, driven by the Job’s mind until the last labor is fulfilled.
Normally we have a good deal of fun with this autonomy, letting the body go on its own, while we exert all our mental energy to coming up with jokes and songs. Sometimes we play tricks on one another, leaving a tack upright on a handhold and seeing if the other Treksman was alert enough to stop the automation from making him grab it.
But there were no jokes and no fun for this journey. This time we let our conscious minds shut off entirely. Better to ignore the bad omens and the grim nature of our labor, and sink into a blissful stupor instead.
Indeed, I was unconscious for weeks at a time, only being roused when a word or a sound would trigger something in my mind, such as when a mother in a village we visited called to her son with the same name as my own. It made me sad to think that once I had been so carefree as that little boy, and now I walked with a curse about my neck.
It was, as I say, a bitter thought, and I immediately rolled my eyes back and gave my mind again to its hibernation. I closed out the world so tightly that I could not be roused again, not even by my companion’s cries, until a full two of them had already been killed by the Scrayer.
“TO ME! TO ME!” A voice was shouting, pulling my groggy eyes back into focus. It took me a moment to make sense of what lay before me, so unexpected the scene of destruction was. Three of our wagons were on fire and another one had been hewn to pieces. The two companions that usually marched nearest to me lay dead not eight feet ahead of where I stood. They were collapsed to the ground in such a peaceful and carefree manner that I am sure they had been slain while still unconscious. Another Treksman to my left was just coming out of his stupor, having been awakened by the fact that his clothes were catching flame from the burning wagons. He screamed in shock and tried to beat the embers down.
But I ignored him, for all my attention was wrapped up in the solitary figure that walked fifteen feet ahead of me, the obvious cause of all the chaos. It was the largest man I’ve ever seen. He stood nearly a full eight feet tall, bursting with muscle, and, completely covered in a black, voluminous cloak. As I have said, he was a Scrayer, and the tell-tale weapon of that order was entwined up along his arm.
Of course, for a Scrayer to utilize his Scrayth requires that he possess immense strength, and this man most certainly did. For no sooner did my eyes settle upon him than he seized the burning Treksman with his weaponized hand and thrust that man into the air, flinging him with such force that the Treksman instantly dissipated into a fine, black powder.
The Scrayer looked at me now and I was struck by the realization that there were no more Treksmen between he and I! I flung myself backwards, turned upon the ground, and clawed around the corner of my wagon for any cover I might find. At every moment I expected to feel his great fingers gripping me and piercing into my side…but the death-grip did not come.
For right at that moment Boosh Fyyan (I now recall that the man wore a bright red turban) came charging forward, a light-sickle burning brightly in his hand. “TO ME!” he shouted once more, still trying to rouse us Treksmen from our stupor, then thrust his weapon at the towering foe.
The Scrayer slapped the weapon to the side with his unarmed hand, then grabbed Boosh around the throat with his other, and made to thrust him also out into dust. But Boosh clawed desperately at the foe’s arm, and so was not thrown out as firmly as the Scrayer had intended. For a moment Boosh stood suspended in the air, his features grainy and his body stretched out into long strands that flared out at the ends. He was suspended in that limbo for only a moment, but then his eyes flashed and he came rushing back into a fully corporeal form He descended back down, arm thrusting, light-sickle plunging, piercing into the chest of the Scrayer. He was like an angel descending from above to slay the dragon.
“Nnnarrgh!” the giant bellowed, and in a rage he grabbed Boosh again (I now recall that Boosh had deep, amber eyes), and flung him so savagely that the man was turned to powder before the brute had even let him go. The Scrayer turned, as if he would make towards me once more, but then his face contorted in pain and a few tendrils of blue smoke began to emanate from the wound where Boosh had skewered him with the light-sickle.
The Scrayer clenched his teeth and tried to grit his way forward, but immediately he halted again as the tendrils of blue smoke pouring from his heart started to solidify and take form. It was a vague shape in three parts. Two were long and thin, and the third in the middle was bulky and short…like a head and shoulders between two arms. The whole thing was flailing and writhing, twisting itself further and further out of the Scrayer’s chest, inch-by-inch. The part that seemed like a head began to tremble rapidly, and two lines stretched apart in it, like the opening of a mouth strained against a shroud. A haunting shriek sounded out, and rang within our hearts.
“No!” The Scrayer bellowed, grabbing at the blue form and trying to tear it into pieces. But it was still only half-physical, and whatever puffs he managed to pull free simply flowed back into the main body immediately after.
In awe I slowly stepped forward. It was a very foolish thing to do, I suppose, but I could not help but bear witness to such a horror as this. My foot kicked a pebble and the Scrayer’s terrified eyes rounded back on me.
“Please! Help me!” he cried. His fingers clawing at his chest, as if desiring to rip his very heart out. “Please! Yes, I meant you harm, but only for your own good.”
Now the blue, arm-like streams thrust into the Scrayer’s dark beard, and the ends bended backwards, like two hands clenching into fists. With that grip the blue form forcibly pulled itself still farther out of its host’s chest.
“Arrrgh!” the Scrayer screamed. His legs kicked wildly and he fell onto his back.
“I’ll finish him!” Vallon, my fellow Treksman, said at my elbow as he drew a sword from his side.
“I–I am already dead” the Scrayer gasped out, barely able to speak at all. The blue form had raised itself up towards the sky, clawing at empty air as its lower body now emerged. “P-p-please. Break your oaths….” the Scrayer winced. “Break them!” His eyes fluttered and lost focus, but by sheer force of will he brought himself back from the brink and stared at us with fervent intent. “I know–I know. You’ll die. But–” His whole body shook. “But–” The blue form’s feet were a foot above the Scrayer’s chest now, connected to that body only by a single thread. The Scrayer clutched at life one last time, his final words came out as naught but a sigh. “But there are worse things.”
Then the thread snapped and the great giant instantly relaxed into his death. The blue form turned round, lifted its arms heavenward, and flew off into the clouds.
It was gone.
Things were worse now. We were down to thirty-four Treksmen, and no foreman among us. Because all of us had been unconscious, not a one of us knew where we even were or what our next destination was. We had no choice but to let the automation do the work, moving our bodies further down the trail, minus the carts that had been destroyed.
We did not sink back into our unconscious stupor this time. Our bodies were automated, but our eyes and our ears we kept alert at all times, watching for any other assailant that might come our way.
We spoke only a little of the ordeal that had just passed. It was, of course, a very remarkable thing that a Scrayer would have anything to do with us at all. Such a unit properly belongs among a royal guard, not harassing lowly caravans. This only lent all the more weight to his ominous plea: that we forsake our contract, suffer the same death as Yalli as our penalty, and leave our wares undelivered. Clearly he had felt it a matter of great importance to have debased himself to the murder of us all. He must have known that we would never sacrifice ourselves for a cause we did not understand.
Which, of course, we did not and would not. The sense of anxiousness in us grew more profound, but it was not nearly enough for us to surrender our own lives. Not only because we did not understand what good would come from such a sacrifice, but also because we felt that we were destined to do what we had been hired to do. If it was a sin that lay before us, we must perform it even so. If we were unknowingly bringing about the very end of the world (which, as it turned out, we were), yet it had to be done.
We were commissioned to darkness, and it did not matter whether we approved of it or not.
Six days later and our feet guided us into our next destination. After entering the city we asked around and learned that we had come to Bowria. A quick consultation with the foreman’s maps and we understood that we were much more than halfway through our journey already. There only remained three stops, and last of all the delivery to Graymore Coventry. We would be there in about four week’s time.
This news pierced our hearts like an icy dagger. We were so close to our wretched end, that each step further felt like a personal betrayal of all that was holy. We were taken by a deeper melancholy still, totally unready to face the fruit of darkness so soon. All of us wished to escape back to the blissful ignorance of the automation, but that would leave us helpless to whatever bandits or disasters may yet be waiting along our way.
Thus we decided to take it in turns. A fourth of us would keep watch while the rest remained comatose. A week of wakefulness and three of sleep for us all. We drew lots and it was my unhappy chance to be in the first watch.
What a foolish arrangement this seemed to be now, walking with only seven other alert companions, watching the mass of our companions shuffling forward listlessly like the immortal dead. We were alone to our fears, and it seemed to us that mischief was bound to spring out from every rock and shadow. We did not speak to one another, for our hearts were filled with dread, and it would spill out in a torrent if we opened our lips.
So we pressed on silently, teeth clenched, nerves firing, a silent panic in every footstep. Our heads hung down, our eyes stared into the earth, and at times we would fain bury ourselves in it and have the misery over with. It would have seemed a blessing if some highway robbers would come and give us the relief of a cut throat.
But though we might have prayed for such a relief with one half of our heart, the other stubbornly refused to let go of its need for life. We would go on, because even a cursed life is still the greatest of blessings.
Thus there were only eight of us who were awake. Only eight when our party came across the witch.
It occurred on a day when I was deep in thought about those three Treksmen who had been in line behind Yanni. Bil-Lyew, Zafrast, and Obasi. Why had they had been able to witness Yanni’s death and quit this dread journey before it was too late while I had not? Why had I stood immediately before Yanni and not immediately after? I had been the very last Treksman to get through the Pledge and be chained to this doomed venture.
“This was always to be your fate,” I whispered to yourself. “Perhaps all of us walking here were chosen. But you, Graye, you were chosen especially.”
Why, though? I was of absolutely no consequence. Did I have a special part to play? That seemed unlikely. There was nothing that I was likely to do which my companions were any less likely to do themselves. Perhaps I was guilty of some special sin that I had forgotten and had to be punished for?
Of course, I had sinned, I do not deny as much, but more than Bil-Lyew? More than Zafrast? Certainly I couldn’t have sinned more than Obasi had!
“It doesn’t matter,” I sighed to myself. “Who are you to question the turning of the wheel? Your fate awaits you at Graymore and that’s all there is to it.”
“No, your fate is with me,” a silky voice called out. I looked up and looked about, unable to see any who it was that had spoken.
“Who’s there?” I asked.
“See me,” the voice came back, soft but earnest, and definitely female.
My mind imagined a person to which such a voice might belong, and all at once I saw the very likeness before me, standing just off the side of the road. She was incredibly pale, with a tall and thin face, perhaps the most beautiful and enchanting I had ever seen. Her hair was deepest black, and I could not tell how long it was, for its color perfectly blended in with her clothing, which swathed around her tightly, all the way to the top of her neck.
“What are you?” I asked the phantom. I felt an intense desire to understand her, for everything about her was a complete enigma to me. The more I stared upon her, the more unsure of anything else I seemed to be. All the world slipped out of my periphery and there was only her, but even she was still somewhat out of my focus.
“I am the fate that has been chosen for you.”
“To love you?”
“Or to fall to me. Whichever you would choose.”
Both sounded rapturous to me.
“But what of Graymore Coventry?” I asked. “It has already claimed me. I cannot turn away from it or I will die like Yanni.”
“Die to me. I may yet rennervate you. Thus you will give full due to your pledge, and yet achieve a second fate.”
“Die to you?”
“Yes, give yourself over.” Her eyes flashed brightly and she seemed to draw nearer, though she didn’t walk a single step towards me. She did raise her hands, though, and as she did the wide sleeves fell back and laid bare her ivory arms. Carved marble they seemed to me, and one of them was raised to caress, the other to strike. All my heart thumped with desire to drop to my knees, lean against her bosom, and feel which one she would lay upon me.
The more I spoke with more, the more I focused on her, the more she seemed to take definition, the more real she seemed to be. I felt like she could be entirely real if I wanted. I just had to believe wholly in her and she would be.
One of my last fingertips left the handle of the wagon, and my heart thumped painfully.
I looked down to my side. Now only the two small fingers on my right hand remained touching the wood. I had been letting go without even realizing it. Of course a Treksman can let go of his handle as the need permits, but the Job knew our hearts, knew that I was not just letting go as a matter of course. I was letting go to abandon my station, and it was about to claim my life for that betrayal.
“See me!” the woman exhaled sharply. My eyes snapped to her and I saw the utmost ferocity in her eyes. But what was that ferocity? Was it anger for my hesitation, or desperation that I give my love to her? The uncertainty of her seared my heart with greatest desire.
My eyes shot back to my hand, where now only the smallest finger remaining to task.
“What are you?” I interrupted her.
“All that you desire, all that you fear.” I mouthed the words with her even as she said them.
“The two are one and the same” the voice continued, but now I became aware that it was my voice speaking. My voice and someone else’s. But not the woman’s. Another woman’s. Another woman that was yet unseen.
I was just as confused at this realization as you might imagine, but strange as those words are to write and strange as they were to feel, somehow I knew they were true. I realized that there had been some sort of trance, one that had linked me with another person that I could not see, and by our unison this phantom woman that I did perceive was given voice and thought.
I felt a sensation like waking up, the gray of my periphery began to be washed again in color, and I saw anew my caravan and my companions. All the seven who had been conscious with me had all come to a halt. Four of them were staring off in their own trances and muttering their own nonsenses. The other three lay dead.
There wasn’t a single mark upon them, each had fallen just outside the reach of their wagon handles, no doubt having forsaken them in just the same manner that I had been about to.
Out of the corner of my eye I could still see the strange woman, but she was far less defined than before. Indeed with every passing moment where I did not believe in her, she seemed to be become more and more unmade.
“What do you mean?” Boril’s voice rang out, and my eyes snapped to him, three wagons ahead of me. He, too, was staring off into nothingness, and his tone was shrill and vehement, like he was trying to hide his fear. “If my own hand is not my own, then what would it be?!” He mouthed an answer to that, I did not hear what, but his eyes went wide at the message that it conveyed.
“No!” Boril said disbelievingly, and looked down at his hand, which appeared absolutely ordinary to me. But his face contorted in horror and he flexed his fingers in an erratic, painful-looking way. “Get it off! Get it off!” he shrieked, fumbling with his other hand for the cutlass at his side. And as he did so I saw that his hand was beginning to shift. It was starting to turn black, with the hairs on its back standing on end and elongating, and the fingers starting to move with the scuttling rhythm of spider-legs.
“Boril! No!” I shouted, rushing forward and catching the arm that held the cutlass, just as he raised it to to chop off his own limb…or whatever he had been bewitched into thinking it had become.
Bewitched! I thought. That’s it.
Boril struggled against my grip and I heaved backwards, pulling him to the ground with me, continuing to wrestle his arm and shouting at him that his hand was perfectly fine. It took a great deal of shouting for him to hear me over whatever voice echoed in his head, but at last he seemed to see that what I told him was so. For the more I told him that his arm was fine, the more he seemed to doubt whatever he had seen previously, and the more his hand truly came back to its ordinary form. Once he stilled himself I let go, and sprang to my feet, eyes glancing about madly for our foe.
“Where are you witch!” I demanded. “I do not believe in your spells anymore!”
Two arms, thin and bony, wrapped themselves around my neck from behind. There was a surprising strength to them, and they pulled me firmly against the shoulders of a lithe and wiry woman.
“To live without belief is to live without air,” she hissed as her forearms contracted against my throat and began to choke the life out of me.
“Boril–” I gasped, reaching my fingers out to him. But to my dismay he was once again staring at some unseen phantom, once more caught up in his delusions.
The witch tightened her grip further, and the blood was cut off from my head. I was getting dizzy, and starting to lose my focus.
“Fool,” she simpered sweetly. “You do not have to believe me to still be under my power. You might have had anything you wanted in your final moments, your ignorance gave you every possibility. But now you know, and so you die, powerless. You ought to have believed.”
Darkness was crowding around my eyes, and I was about to concede to my fate…but then, I realized that this was most certainly not my fate. My fate was to go to Graymore Coventry and there lose my soul.
The witch was wrong. I believed all too strongly.
With the last of my strength I flung my fist backwards. With my fingers having grown numb it was not difficult to convince myself that they held steel. And having convinced myself of that, it became true.
I heard a terrible shriek. It seemed distant and faint, and then rushed forward at tremendous speed until it echoed right beside me. At the same time the pressure on my neck laxed and I gulped down cold air.
Behind me the witch writhed in her death agonies. Only a few moments more and her last grip on life broke, and with it all traces of her bewitchments dispersed. Even the knife I had conjured by her own magicks to stab her.
“Get up, Boril,” I wheezed out. He was still kneeling on the ground, snapping his neck about in every direction, faced painted with utter confusion.
Of the eight of us who had been keeping watch, three had died before I came to my senses, and another one during my fight with the witch. Only four of us remained, and we of course had to wake all the others. This path was too treacherous, and though it was an agony to remain awake, we could not dare proceed with partial strength. We must all press forward together, dejected as we were.
We were thirty then.
It seemed a wise choice at the time, but it brought us to the worst adversary we had faced yet: our own broken hearts. For though I had felt dejected during all the time I had kept watch with the seven others, we had been few enough that I scarcely caught sight of their faces. Now, though, at every turn of the road, at every lifting of a wagon wheel out of a rut, at every stop to setup camp…at each of these moments I was required to stare into their gaunt and hopeless visages. And then what despair I had started to feel in myself was only pressed deeper.
For when one is full of sorrow alone, one might yet take comfort in the thought that there is still light and good elsewhere in the world. But when all one sees is the same bleakness in others, it becomes easy to believe that this is how it is everywhere, and forever will be.
If I could have believed that my memories of laughing children and playful men and charming women were true, that they were not but dreams, then I would have been encouraged in the burden I had to bear. Then I might have told myself that the innocent parts of the world were still able to live and laugh and love because I bore the trial for them. I would have thought to myself that there was a certain taxing of darkness that had to weigh on the world, and if enough martyrs took it on them then the rest of the world would still be free to feel the joy, and I would feel a quiet pride in facilitating that.
Instead, these encouraging theories were squashed out by the darkness that crammed in from my fellows. Our bleakness seemed too infinite to believe that it did not reach into every corner of the universe. Each one of us silently took our heartache and heaped it upon each other, multiplying our woes again and again, until it became exponential, and each new day was a hundredfold more painful to bear than the last.
I would rather be consigned to my doom alone than to have been put in this company of the damned.
Bahnu was the first to give in to the despair totally. One day he simply let go of his handle, took four steps off of the road, and then died for abandoning his contract. He didn’t say a word through the whole process. He just left.
The next day Ra-Toew and Sinfarro walked away. Not together, each at different hours and in different directions.
The next day was three more. The next it was four.
We were twenty then.
Regular practice is for the caravan to return with all of their empty wagons at the end of their journey. But we now lacked enough hands to push them all, and so the unpacked vehicles were left behind, a pile of empty vessels, laid out haphazardly beneath the cold sun.
I do not know why I did not abandon my post then. I cannot say that I held some glimmer of hope that was absent in the others. I suppose that men simply take despair down different roads. I saw no relief in abandoning this world, I suppose I assumed that our misery was of a more eternal nature, and thus could not be escaped so cheaply.
The next day six more left their post.
Things started to become very difficult now. At this point we had only been one week from the end of our circuit, but that had been assuming we could carry the wagons in one trip. Now our hands were so few that we would have to carry half of our wares a day’s journey, leave them, travel a day back to the second half, and then spend a third day dragging them up to the first half. One week had just become three.
Not only that, but we would have to leave some of our number to guard each part of the caravan when it was split up. At one point there would be a group waiting guard over the front-half of the wagon, a group waiting guard over the back-half, and a third group walking the space in between. And given the straits we found ourselves in, there was no telling but whether one of those groups would entirely abandon their post and the other two would not know it.
And that, of course, is exactly what happened. It occurred one time when I was in the party guarding the back-half. Taft, Kintil, Po’Lago, and Birrits were supposed to come back and help us carry our load up to the front-half. We were only supposed to wait for them two days. After four we finally concluded that they wouldn’t ever be coming.
It takes a minimum of three men to push a single wagon, and there were only five of us present now. Thus we could only push one wagon on our own, and we had three of them to move. We didn’t dare split our group once more, so all five of us set out with one wagon, entrusting the other two carriages to the fates. That was simply how things had to work out now.
Halfway through our journey we passed the bodies of Taft, Kintil, Po’Lago, and Birrits, sprawled out unceremoniously five paces off of the main road, each in their own direction. Shortly after that we met two of the members of the front-party coming back to see if we still lived. Obviously everyone else of their group had also surrendered to the bleakness.
At first we just stared at each other. They at us and we at they. Without words we all understood. Seven survivors meant two wagons at a time. Six wagons in all. A day’s journey, a day’s back, a day’s journey, a day’s back, a day’s journey…all to make one day forward overall. Now we had more than a month remaining in our journey. It wasn’t as if the Job knew or cared about the change in capacity, we still had to fulfill our orders or perish for our betrayal.
And right then, every one of us was wondering if it wasn’t better to perish now. Surely with five weeks we were doomed to fail already, so why prolong the inevitable? Why not die with as little suffering as we could and see if things were any better in the afterlife? Perhaps we had been the fools to not quit earlier when our companions did.
And then Ro’Kano looked me right in the eye and let himself break. His eyes filled with months of unshed tears. We were of the age that to show our fears and brokenness was a great shame, but finally he couldn’t care about that anymore, and so spilled all his shame right down his cheeks and onto his boots.
And seeing that, I could not help but weep myself. And then all the other joined as well. All seven of us heaved out our agonies, exhaled our pain, baptized each other in our rivers of sadness.
It was the only thing that could have saved us. We could not have lived a moment longer with our hearts so locked.
Without another word we all took our place alongside the wagon and began to push it forward. We remained sad as ever, but we were not sad alone anymore.
We moved our wagons forward day-by-day. Every so often one of us would break down and weep once more, then all of us would weep, then we would dry our eyes and continue forward. We took the wagons two-at-a-time and proceeded together. We did not dare dividing our numbers anymore, we needed each other. We just had to take two wagons alone and leave all the others unprotected on the side of the road. It wasn’t as if these roads were very populated anyway. Surface roads never are as a general rule, and all the more so in regions such as these.
Though it took an age, we made our next two deliveries without incident. They were to mean villages, filled with gaunt souls that had been flung out from ordinary society and left to unify over their peculiarities. In fact, they were so destitute that they lived upon the surface level, with all their homes naked under the sun, right where we could see. But they did not crawl out of those holes to see what wares we brought to them, they just peeked out from half-closed doors and half-drawn curtains while their nervous magistrate concluded the business as quickly as possible and sent us back on our way.
“We’re coming to the end of the world,” Nanth said after we left the second of these outposts. It was the perfect summation for what we all were feeling. These were barren wastelands on the surface level, and forsaken societies down below. Both space and humanity seemed to be growing thinner and thinner, signaling the end of all the world.
We did not know how literal the truth of this was. What we did know was that we were down to our last delivery: Graymore Coventry. This meant we had only two wagons remaining, and once again were able to push forward without doubling back for the rest of our load.
Knowing this, we kept our eyes ever fixed on the horizon, scraping its line for any sign of our final destination. In this region all the landscape was perfectly flat and gray, so any promontory would be immediately noticed. There was hardly even any loose gravel upon the rock. It was so pristine and flat that it seemed almost to be made of metal. We could see for miles, and thus we expected to see our destination at every moment.
It was Bayhu who did at first. He pointed out the place where he saw a single, solitary bump along the line where sky met ground. None of the rest of us could make anything out, but as we continued pressing forward we were able to verify his claim one-by-one.
Then a must peculiar sensation occurred. For not ten minutes later the bump had grown twelvefold in size and we were able to start making out individual towers and spires. And though it had grown so much within our view, still it seemed perched upon the very farthest extent of the horizon. It gave us the dizzying impression that it was yet a very great way off, yet at the same time rushing up to meet us.
“Why it must be massive,” Zolar breathed. “To already appear this large, yet still be so many miles away.”
And still the illusion continued. Five minutes later and we were counting individual windows along the tower walls, and guard posts along the bulwarks.
“But I can hear voices,” Moal scratched his head, “the voices of a city close by. It truly must be right before us…then why can we not see anything past it?”
Though we saw the road winding up to the Coventry’s gates, we took a diversion, and proceeded around the edge of the city walls. We simply had to see what defined the horizon beyond this last element of the skyline.
“Going round for a look?” an amused voice called down to us, and peering up we met the face of a guard looking over the edge of the ramparts. It was a very strange experience, looking up at a city. Evidently the entire Coventry was also built upon the surface level, just as the lowly villages preceding it had been. This was very odd, given that the size and quality of it suggested that it was not a lack of resources that had kept them from burrowing down to safer ground.
But I digress. As mentioned before, the man had said “Going round for a look?”
“Yes,” I replied. “It’s just–we don’t know–”
“Not to worry,” he said. “We don’t have many visitors here at the Coventry, but whenever we do they are just as puzzled as you. You aren’t the first to go around to settle your senses.”
“But what is it that’s going on?”
“Better for you to see. You won’t believe me if I just tell you.”
“You see over there where the walls recede? Just past the old, crumbling tower?… Yes, just around that corner you should find a little footpath to follow. Just keep to that and be sure you stop when it stops! You don’t want to be falling in.”
“Falling into what?”
“Alright, off you go, then. I’ll still be here when you return.”
He was clearly done speaking with us, so there wasn’t anything for it but to follow his instructions and continue on ahead. We pushed our wagons along the city’s edge, just far enough from the walls to keep our wheels clear of any skirting rubble. Upon rounding the corner in the wall, we found the footpath, exactly as the man had described, no doubt formed by the feet of all the passerby who had sought to satiate the same curiosity that we now held.
It was another three-quarters of an hour before we finally cleared the last of the city walls. It became apparent that the Coventry was generally triangular in shape, the outer point of it facing in the direction we had approached, and the base facing in the way of our mystery. This meant that the sloping wall beside us obstructed most of what lay behind. What degrees we could see of the horizon still seemed a paradox, though. We could only make out the landscape that ran level with the back wall of the Coventry, and then nothing beyond. We stopped trying to make sense of it, we just kept pressing on, convinced that answers would only be found at the edge of the walls.
And so it was. Just as we passed the last section of the city, so too the footpath came to its sudden stop, and so too all the ground ceased before us. It was like when one comes over the summit of a hill, and only upon cresting the very top being is able to perceive the backside of the slope running beyond. Only the difference was that there was no backside, and no sloping beyond. We had reached the summit, the edge, the very horizon…and only pure blackness stretched before us.
“What is it?” I furrowed by brow as I craned my neck over the lip and tried to focus my eyes on the blackness, tried to tell what it was all made of. And as I looked downwards, and puzzled as to what I saw, I sharply realized that what I saw was empty infinity. There was no great, black object, no other side to a chasm, no floor far down below…there was nothing.
I flung myself backwards with a cry and fell to the earth. My heart raced, and I gasped for breath. There, as I lay on my back, I saw how the fringe of the Coventry descended right over the edge of the horizon, and into that abyss. It truly was the very edge of humanity.
We had come to the end of the universe.
Well…I suppose at this time I should pause and admit what has surely already occurred to you. It was not the end of the universe that we had discovered, merely the furthest limit of our arm in the Kolv Mass. But, of course, this was long before we had discovered True Groundscape or even the Outer Networks. At that time, to us as we were then, this was the edge of all eternity. And who knows…perhaps it truly was. For who can tell if anything unseen ever existed before it was found. Perhaps we make things in the looking for them.
In any case, after we had all gathered our wits, we shook our heads in mutual awe and made our way back to the main entrance to the Coventry. As we neared it we heard the salutation of our friend, the guard.
“Quite a shock, isn’t it?” he smiled.
“Yes,” Moal nodded. “I did not know that man had discovered the world’s end. Have you lowered anything down the side?”
The man scratched his thin, for surely he knew far more than we had capacity to receive, and had to consider how to explain things in a way that we could understand.
“There have been…many experiments,” he said, “and we have gleaned many secrets of the void since far-flung antiquity. I dare say you are already acquainted with the sacrifices that are performed here at our Coventry?”
“Yes, for some reason that aspect of our work is storied abroad, but never the nature of the Void. And we know that all the world looks askance at our sacrifices, because they simply cannot be understood without the knowledge of the Void. The science of the two is one and the same, and neither can be properly contemplated alone. But come in through the gate now and you will find answers…. Or at the very least more questions.”
As strange as it had been to discover the end of the world, I do believe the greater surprise was that we had met our first citizen of Graymore Coventry, and that the man seemed absolutely normal! The guard’s communication with us had been intelligent and understanding, not unlike a good-natured tavern-mate that one might meet back in our own home of Omayo.
Of course, when all one has heard of a place is its greatest peculiarities, one assumes that everything about it must also be so strange. I suppose my imagination was that we would find the Coventry populated by a coven of witches, muttering unintelligibly and eating repulsive things.
I know, of course, that the legends of Graymore have since depicted those people in exactly that way, and I wish to put those falsehoods to rest. They were not a backwards or perverse people, and they were not half-demons. Those descriptions would not be entirely amiss for the other outposts that I mentioned we stopped at along the way to Graymore. There the forsaken souls were losing their grip on civilization, and even their own humanity. But here in Graymore they had managed to hold onto it somehow. My theory is that it was because they driven by such a great sense of purpose. Those villagers at the smaller outposts had had no such purpose, and therefore no reason to retain themselves.
Now the people of Graymore did, of course, have their own culture and customs. They did, of course, have little nuances and peculiarities that were unique to them. Being isolated from the rest of the world it was inevitable that they would have rutted into their own particular way of doing things.
As one might imagine, the first realization of this was in how they dressed. The people of the Coventry eschewed color in almost all of its varieties. Once or twice I saw a shade of tan or light brown, and black was reserved for only the most holy of offices. Otherwise, every citizen I saw was in shades of white or gray. Those clothes were all very conservative and modest, wrapped snugly, yet comfortably from the neck to the wrists and to the ankles. I spied neither a man’s bare chest, nor a woman’s knee in all my time there.
Such a manner of clothing would seem to be restricting, yet they had such a deliberate and graceful way of carrying themselves, that their garments seemed hardly an inconvenience at all. Indeed, I must say that the people of the Coventry had perfected the art of moving through a space, in such a way as I had never seen before, nor have ever again seen since. Where we Treksmen would stump about without a second thought to how we walked, the Coventry members would glide forward with a perfect, unbroken momentum.
That might seem a small thing, but just try to lift a foot, carry it forward, plant it, and move the next without a single variation in speed or direction. As they transcended over the earth in this manner their arms would billow around them, and I think it was to transfer all of the body’s natural jitteriness out into the air, leaving the rest of their form in a state of totally controlled poise.
Such an emphasis on dress and movement made clear to us Treksmen that these were a people who were very disciplined and solemn. It was clear that they were willing to take the governance of self as their chief concern in life. They took the energy that the rest of the world so regularly dedicates to the pursuit of wealth and enjoyment, and instead funneled it into the task of self-refinement.
They were not punitive or strict, but they were calm and grave. They were more than willing to smile at us and find amusement in our foreign ways, but I never heard anything remotely like an outburst of laughter or rowdiness. They were willing to lay a firm hand and speak with intensity, but I never saw anything remotely like violence or insult.
As I said, they were perhaps a peculiar people, but not evil, and certainly not barbaric. Rather they were the most civilized people I knew, and well honed to the work that they had selected for themselves.
We hoped to understand the basis of that work shortly, but first we had to deal with the our wares. Usually upon making a delivery there is a great deal of fuss finding an official to sign for the wagons and take them off our hands. But here we were immediately met by an escort, who rushed us straight to the city center where a Councilman stood ready to receive our papers and give us his own. Two signatures later and the last of the labor that had so strained us was borne away. Just like that, the Job’s mind retracted from our minds, making us our own persons once more.
We were free men. We could have gone home right then if we had liked.
“You will stay to learn why we have summoned you, and what sacred tragedy you are about to witness here in our halls,” the Councilman said. It was not a question, but neither was it an order. It was an intuition of our own desires.
“If we may,” I said.
He nodded deeply. “It is why you are here. Not by your own choice, nor my by mine. Who are we to intervene in what must be?”
Arrangements were made and we were brought to rooms to bathe, change our clothing, and rest until summoned for. Though nothing of offense was said, we were sure that our weathered and dirty state was an affront to everything that these people stood for. Thus we felt greatly relieved to wash and put on clean clothes. When we had ground down as many of our callouses we could we rested on half-reclined sofas until there came a gentle knock at the door and we were to be brought to an evening refreshment.
We were given seating in a large chamber with a massive table and exquisite eating utensils. It seemed that it must have been reserved for royalty, and we were ashamed to be the ones to grace that place. We never asked who the man that sat to eat with us was, and he never offered that information himself. The food given to us was as plain and unvarnished to look at as the clothing on the people, but for all the simplicity of presentation it was actually quite delicious and nourishing.
All through the meal our host spoke to us pleasantly and curiously, asking us all about our journey and expressing the sincerest of condolences for our losses along the way. Indeed, even though he knew nothing of us, he shed a few tears when he heard how tragically we had lost so many of our companions.
“It is always difficult to hear of the lives that are lost to the wheel,” he said soberly. “We have learned here at the Coventry to not let the cost weigh on us where we can help it, but that does not mean we do not mourn the sacrifices that forever surround us. We are able to both understand that their loss was necessary, and still be sad that such was so.”
“There are…many sacrifices here, are there not?” Bayhu asked.
The man smiled at Bayhu’s coyness. “Yes. I would say too many to count…but then, that is the one cost that we do count. And…it is many.”
“And there has never been one of the Coventry that has questioned this burden?” It was a very bold question, but our host’s demeanor was so genial that we felt we might be bold.
“No,” he said softly. “I’m sure part of that has to do with the fact that all who are here have been taught their purpose since they were sucklings. Where you might hesitate to give a sacrifice that you never intended, we do not even know what it is like to live without that expectation held out for us. But even more with this, there is something in the air of this place–perhaps you have sensed it already?–and it steels us to this work.”
“Do you consider our companions to have died in the service of your cause?” Moal ventured.
“Yes, absolutely. The delivery that they helped bring to us is of greatest importance in our work here. Though to be clear, they are not Altar Sacrifices, and their numbers do not count to our ledger, but anyone that dies in the service of the Black Sun, even unknowing that they do die in its service, is revered by our order. Give us their names and we shall never forget them.”
“But you did not know them.”
“It does not matter. We take this matter very seriously. If you wish to see as much, take a walk through the Halls of Weeping after we retire from this place. There we have great walls of glass, carved over with the names of all that have died in our service, Altar Sacrifices and otherwise. And before each section there ever kneels one of our acolytes reciting and memorizing their names. Thus it is that every name spent in this cause can be recalled at any moment by one member of our order or another.”
A silence prevailed, one where we were both touched that our friends could be so remembered, but also embittered that it was necessary for them to be so.
Our host seemed to know our minds even without us speaking. “Tell me, do you view your lost companions as having fallen to misfortune? To chance? Or do you have a sense that they died under a purpose?”
“Under a purpose,” I said. “But not necessarily for something.” and all the rest of the Treksmen immediately voiced their agreement.
“Yes. Even you, who are strangers to our ways, could feel it out on the road. And you expressed it very well. Their deaths, as I have said, were not Altar Sacrifices, and therefore did not tip any scales, and did not directly summon anything. But they had been marked, all of them, claimed by the Cause of the Black Sun, and so their deaths are registered in its index.”
There was a very heavy pause. All of us Treksmen thinking the same question at once, yet not daring to break that threshold. The man squinted, then smiled as he once more understood.
“And what is the Black Sun?” he echoed our thoughts. “Well, I am sorry to disappoint you…but I do not know. None of us do, not in any way that is truly meaningful. I shall tell you what little we do know of it, but I warn you now that you will only learn the periphery things, the edges of understanding, for I cannot lay before you the thing itself.”
He gestured with his hand towards a parlor, suggesting that we might be more comfortable there for the following discussion. We followed him there, and then he proceeded to give us the people’s history.
“I am sure that when you arrived you bore witness to the great void that stretches for eternity beyond our Southern wall. It has always been there, ever since our first ancestors came to this place. Without understanding what the significance of this place was, still they knew it was significant. Though they were not a studious people up to that point, yet they felt driven to seek the mysteries of this place. And so they made camp, began taking measurements, recorded everything that they found, and they did so most meticulously.
“The record we have of them is unclear whether they knew right away that they would devote the rest of their lives to this work, or if that realization came upon them only after several years of the labor. In either case, eventually they laid the foundations for this Coventry, and committed them and their descendants to the study of this ancient chasm.
“I shall not bore you with the details, but from all of their studies they found many truths. The first of which is that there are cycles and patterns to everything here. A clockwork system permeates absolutely everything. Even you are all under the influence of its regime, though you are not even consciously aware of it.”
We raised our eyebrows.
“Count your steps from when you awaken in the morning to when you lay down at night. I will tell you now, each of you will have gone eight-thousand and four-hundred. It does not matter how much you intended to accomplish that day, your feet will go that many and not a step farther or shorter.”
“And what if we tried to make ourselves go one extra step?” Ro’Kano asked.
“It has been tested. You will forget before the day expires, and fail to count out your steps at all. And any reminders you try to make for yourself will fail. But again, don’t take my word for it. Try it for yourself tomorrow. Count your steps. Better yet, each of you count the steps of the other. You will all come out the same. Just as how if you pour your water or stir your tea here, the liquid will circle exactly four-and-a-half times before coming to a complete stop. Every single time. Just as how a member of our community dies of natural causes every thirty-second day. Every single time. Just as how every rainstorm falls three weeks after a goat is sacrificed. Every. Single. Time.”
He nodded to emphasize the sincerity of his claims.
“And perhaps you see in that last statement the beginning of the answers to your deepest question: what have the sacrifices of the Coventry to do with this Void? You see, this place runs like a clock, it turns us all. But we are free beings, and so when we act, then the rest of the gears must rotate in response to us. We are not the masters of this place, but we are influencers of it. And the greatest work that we must do is to perform our sacrifices and raise the dread horizon.”
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.
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.”
The next day, when we awoke, we briefly discussed how if the theories of these people were correct, then this was to be the last normal day of our lives. One full, ordinary day, and then, on the next, everything would change.
And as I have suggested before, it wasn’t as though we us doubted the theories of these people. Even before they had disclosed their plot, we had already felt the gist of it. Felt it when we were still back at Peyrock plantation and read our charter. Felt it every step of our journey. Felt it when we saw the void and stepped within these strange walls.
If the locals here had tried to keep the purpose for summoning us a secret, still we would have requested to stay in the Coventry for a few days. And if they had denied that, we would have taken camp just without the walls. For we would have felt the electricity in the air, would have sensed the cloud of doom, would have felt our lives rushing to meet their apex. It would have been like when a great beast stalks you, and you do not perceive it by your eyes or ears, yet you can feel that it is there.
So what were we to do with one final day in the world as we knew it? Each of us felt it was only right to spend the moment apart from one other. Let each man go and find his own private shrine, his own method of solace, his own way to connect to life and bid it farewell. We had never truly parted ways the day prior, after diverging we had then converged right back together at the Slab Altar. This time each path would truly be our own.
When I left I did not know what I was looking for. I wandered the streets aimlessly, trying to find something that would call to me, something that would feel right in my soul. I say I wandered aimlessly, but there was one intentionality: I tried to follow the most barren streets that I could. Each road was more desolate than the prior, and so I meant to slip further and further into my solitude.
Presently I wasn’t walking across roads at all, for I was beyond any structure that required them. My way opened into an open field, dotted here and there by clumps of fine, gray grass. I was coming quite near to the walls, at a section that I had not seen previously. To my surprise, the walls on either side of me sloped steeply down into nothing, leaving a wide and intentional opening in the place’s fortifications. Perhaps these walls were not for protection? But for what, then?
Mulling that over I passed through the portal and continue with the field as it gently sloped up to a small crest, upon which stood a solitary tree. I had seen a few of these trees as we journeyed here. They were very sparse, interrupting the otherwise unbroken landscape perhaps once every square mile. Each of them appeared to be dead, entirely blackened in their branches and featuring absolutely no leaves whatsoever. Their limbs stood out naked and at irregular angles, giving the illusion of a creature frozen in pain.
Slowly I crept up to it. It seemed so delicate that I felt if I made too much noise it might just wither into dust and blow away. Presently I stepped into its shadow, and as I did so I discovered a most strange phenomenon. Most prominent in that shadow was the outline of the tree and its branches, just as one would expect, but then there was also a sort of soft haze–a partial shadow–in between the sections cast by the branches, and this half-shadow answered to no form of the tree that I could see. Nor was it stationary, rather it sort of shimmered and overlapped, growing thicker at some places and thinner at others, like smoke that billows into itself and apart again.
With a frown I stared up at the spaces between the branches of the tree, and presently came to see that there was a haze between them as well. Was it a heat haze? Perhaps the branches of this tree focused the sun’s radiation in some way?
I extended my hand, reached into the haze, and felt something so slight that I almost missed it entirely. It felt as if I was pressing my fingers through a curtain that only half-existed. I pinched my fingers together and it was like holding the finest paper imaginable, one so frail that it remained in my grasp for only a moment, then disintegrated into nothingness.
“It is leaves,” I said. “Leaves that are thinner than anything I know…. So the tree is alive.”
I smiled and scanned over it with my eyes. I gazed over tortured limbs, knobbly joints, bark as black as onyx, and a woman’s face right beneath my outstretched arm: youthful, beautiful, and staring back at me in utter amusement.
“Oh!” I cried in surprise.
“I’m sorry,” she said quickly, but was unable to suppress her laugh. “I didn’t mean to frighten you, I really thought you would have noticed me before!”
“You–you’ve been standing there this whole time?” I asked in disbelief, clutching at my heart.
“The whole time,” she nodded. “To tell you the truth, you were so enraptured in this tree, and so oblivious to me, that I was half wondering if I hadn’t turned invisible, or become a ghost!”
“You thought you had become a ghost?”
“Well…of course not really. But you must know how it is, when you get so lost in your fancies that they almost seem to be real?”
“But why didn’t you say something?”
“I wanted to see what would happen,” she shrugged playfully. “I half expected you were going to turn and walk away without seeing me at all. Then I would have known for sure that I was a ghost!”
My heart was still racing, but the more she spoke, the more I couldn’t help but be soothed by her soft and fervent voice. Her eyes had a tremendous earnestness to them, and I could tell she was never far from seeing hidden wonders in the world, beauty in things that others would consider mundane. Thus I couldn’t help but release my frustration, and instead felt an intense desire to know this young woman better.
“Who are you?” I finally asked.
“Mira. And who are you?”
“My name is Graye. I’m one of–”
“You’re one of those boys from so far away. You came in the caravan that delivered the scrying sticks to us. Of course, I know.”
“And you’re–you’re a member of the Coventry.”
“Naturally. Specifically I am of the seventh house, given the charge of caretaking for all the other houses.”
“Oh, I don’t know anything about that.”
“The Coventry is composed of seven great houses, and each one has a different responsibility. The first house is the Priests of Oolant, who actually perform all of our ceremonies. The second house is the Scribes, who keep careful ledgers of every action and cycle-fulfillment. The third is the Researchers. The fourth is the Rememberers. The fifth is the Populaters. The sixth is the Growers. And we, of the seventh, are the Caretakers.”
“I see,” and inwardly I thought that surely each house was numbered according to its importance, hence why the first house was reserved for the priests. What a pity it must be for her to be of the seventh.
“No, that isn’t true at all!” Mira piped up. “I know the greater world can be petty and rank one group of people over another, but really things are not like that here. We Caretakers are considered just as essential in our role as the priests.”
“What?” I said defensively. “I didn’t say otherwise!”
Her eyes narrowed. I tried to hold the gaze, but finally my eyes turned down to my feet. “Do you know everything of my mind?” I asked bashfully.
“Only what you wear on the surface….
“Like clothing,” I said at the exact same moment as her. I smiled at that, but of course she was very familiar with such things, being a native of this place.
“Is anyone ever able to know another’s mind any deeper?” I asked.
“Yes, individuals can grow quite intimate with one another’s mind.”
“And…have you ever?”
“That is considered a rude question,” she said, but smirked playfully as she did so.
I looked away bashfully, and then felt all the more bashful for knowing that she could still sense my mind. She didn’t appear offended in the least.
“So…do you enjoy being a caretaker?” I asked, trying to change the subject.
“I do. I find it very satisfying. Obviously there are pleasantries to some of the other houses that we do not enjoy. But if one enjoys the work of caring for the old and sick, for keeping things clean and orderly, for fixing and building anew, then one can be happy. And I do. I find it very satisfying.”
“What pleasantries are afforded to the other houses?”
“Well, the Researchers get to explore and discover, of course. And everyone respects the Scribes for being the the voice of information. The Growers have the satisfaction of filling the cupboards of every home….And so on. Each of us genuinely feels that we are contributing to a greater whole.”
As I considered the attitude I had seen in the city I found that I believed her, they truly all seemed perfectly content in their own sphere. I felt a private shame for having ever assumed that her house was lesser. But of course it was not a private thought, and before I could hide it Mira smiled coyly.
It was a very awkward, very vulnerable place to be. I had the sense that Mira was more attuned to understanding the mind than any of the others I had met in this land, and that meant feeling perpetually exposed in ways that I was naturally uncomfortable with. Yet in spite of all that, I didn’t want to go. I was enjoying her presence, and I hoped that she did not regret being in mine.
“It’s alright. I like talking to you,” she offered sweetly.
She shrugged. “I just do. Why do you like being with me?”
“You’re very sincere…and beautiful.”
“Well, you seem to know yourself quite well, don’t you? Most people are not so aware of themselves, and why they want what they do.”
“I suppose I’m too much in wonder of other things to properly understand myself. They tell me I’m a daydreamer.”
“What were you doing here under the tree before I came?”
“Yes, but what of?”
“The completing of the cycle, and all that happens next?”
“No, I care very little about that.”
“You what?! But what could matter more?”
She shrugged. “Nothing. Yet I just don’t care. It has everything to do with the world, but nothing to do with me.”
I furrowed my brow and she glanced away.
“I know that’s a strange thing to say, but it just doesn’t. I far prefer, for example, talking with you than thinking about that. That has to do with me.”
“Then what were you thinking about of tomorrow, if not of the cycle?”
“Oh, just of my day, my comings and goings, the little things that I must do.”
For the first time she sounded just like everyone else, talking about things that were only surface-deep, and clearly concealing something else.
“Please,” she said softly. “Could we speak about us?”
I nodded slowly, and let my unsaid questions dissipate.
“Tell me, then, what does it mean to be a Graye?”
“Well,” I said, “I am from a small hamlet called Omayo. I was born in the third year of the worst famine that region has ever known. I was the seventh child, but I never knew of my brothers and sisters. All of them died before I was aware of anything.”
“Was there an eighth?”
“No. I was alone.”
“So…you were one of seven, and alone.”
“And when you entered our village you were one of seven of forty, and yet just as alone.”
“There were forty Treksmen assigned to this campaign, were there not?”
“Yes, but one of them died before we left, and three more refused to accompany us.”
“Perhaps they were not with you on the road, but I assure you that they have each wandered this quest in their own ways. We are all called, and even if we try to run from the calling, we inadvertently fulfill it. The one who died before the journey even began, that was what he was called to do.”
“You know him?”
“I sense him through you.”
“So I and my companions who survived? We did so because that was our fate?”
“At that point, yes. But your fates do diverge. I knew it from when I first watched you arrive. As I said, you entered with seven, but already you were marked alone.”
“Marked for what?”
“The same for which you were marked among your seven siblings: to be the only one to survive.”
“My companions…are going to die?”
“A great many of us are about to die. Almost all. Surely you have felt that? Everyone here can feel that. It is so sure that it may as well have already occurred.”
“But not me,” I breathed.
“You know it. I can tell. You have always known that you were marked to be a survivor. Though you did not know what lay before you on the road, you always knew that your fate was beyond it. To what, you do not know. There is a saying here, that one is not known until they are all known. Meaning you have told me where you came from, and normally I would say that is insufficient until you can also tell me where you are going. But in your case, matters are different, aren’t they? For you are endless.”
“And, if endless…” I began slowly.
“Then there is nowhere to which I can belong.” We said it in unison.
I shivered and Mira looked downwards.
“What am I?” I asked softly.
Mira shrugged. “What can you be? You have no ultimate fate, no place of belonging…what is there to define you?”
“I suppose…having no fate is itself a fate. No place could itself be considered a place.”
She nodded. “I suppose so. But the population there must be very small indeed.”
“It must be only one.”
“Yes. Otherwise it would not be ‘no fate’ or ‘no place.’ Tell me, do you know how you were born?”
“How I was–? What? No. I know nothing of the matter.”
“Perhaps you weren’t!” she breathed
“What are you saying?! I must have been born!”
“Yes, of course,” she shook her head. “Please, you should pay no mind to half the things that I say. As I told you, I am a dreamer, and my fancies come over me so that sometimes they seem real enough to speak of them. I’m sorry.”
“That’s alright. They are…interesting to me. They sound of nonsense, yet ring of truth…Oh look at me, I’m sounding just like you now.”
She smiled. “We all start sounding alike once we get talking to one another. Haven’t you noticed? It is unavoidable here.”
“But who was the first to sound this way, then?”
She grinned broadly at the question. “Now that I have never wondered about. Was it one of our ancestors that spoke so? Or is it dictated by the Mind of the Wheel?” Her eyebrow raised. “Perhaps it was me who dictated it all along, reaching through the past for generations to set my people in harmony for when I came!”
I smiled. “It’s a lovely thought, but I don’t think so. Just listen to yourself speaking right now, it’s an entirely different voice! You fall back into that weightless, refined way of talking that everyone else has from time-to-time, but then you have these moments of eyes flashing and expressions of wonder! And I think that that is the genuine you. It the moments where you scrape your identity back from the pull of the masses.”
She laughed. “You truly do know yourself so well, and me even better than I know myself! You are so grounded, which is strange for one who has no fate. And I float so freely, when my fate is the most grounded of them all. But perhaps that is how these things work. You stand apart from the spinning of our world upon its axis, and thus can see so clearly what is only a blur to us pinned upon it. I know what you are now. You are a phantom, a ghost that momentarily lays at a tangent to our world. Would you…would you hold my hand?”
She held out her palm and I gladly took it.
“Oh, it’s so cold!” she exclaimed.
“Sorry,” I said and tried to pull my hand back, but she seized upon it all the more earnestly.
“No, it’s alright. Just let me hold it, and I’ll have you warmed up in no time!”
“But your hands are so small,” I smiled.
“So? Don’t you be underestimating me now!” She eagerly rubbed her thumbs over the back of my hand, and indeed I felt a refreshing heat starting to spread throughout my fingers. “There, you see? You thought unfairly of me. Though I suppose it’s only natural when you have been marked separately from the rest of us. That must make you assume that there is nothing we transient folk can offer you?”
“Hmm…I suppose that I have always had a sense of not being able to rely upon another.”
“And you are right. None of us will be able to follow you on your journey for very long. We can only walk a short distance with you, and you must do very much alone. But that doesn’t mean we cannot help you in the moment. You do not have to deny what simple things we can and do offer. Never forget that, Graye.”
“Thank you.” We were silent for a moment. “My hands are very rough, as well, aren’t they?”
“Yes, very,” she laughed. “You are accustomed to hard labor? Of course you are. Tell me, what is your work like?”
“Nothing of note. It is a menial labor, and with no purpose such as your people have here. I carry things that people need from one place to another, that is all. We travel far, we see many things, we lift and pull and sweat all day.”
“But you chose this work? That is correct, isn’t it, that people choose their work out in the greater world?”
“Some of them do. Some of them have it chosen for them. Some, like me, made their own choice, but from very few options. It was either this or work the fields.”
“Ah, so a very isolated choice, but still a choice! And why did you not work the fields?”
“I don’t know. It wasn’t right for me.”
“Working a field feels too much like belonging,” she suggested and I nodded. “You weren’t born to make deliveries either, but you were born to wander, and the vocation you chose brought you nearer to that.”
“And you were born to belong?”
“Yes. I belong here more than any other.”
“You keep saying things like that, but then why are you so different from anyone else that I’ve met here? You hardly seem a part of them at all.”
“I belong here, but not to them. These people–they are surveyors, they are measurers, they are outsiders come to delve into the Void. But I? I belong to the Void!”
I gasped, though I knew not why. I could not even fathom what such a statement like that even meant.
“Yes,” she continued. “They are the strangers and I am the native. They are stewards, but mine is the crown.”
“What does–? How does–? In what way–?” I wondered to myself how she could claim to belong to the Void, an entity so empty and blank, yet she was so full of life that it seemed to burst from every tip of her hair.
“But that is the evidence that I am of the Void,” her eyes flashed as she read my mind. “It is like a magnet, all negative on one side, but all positive on the other. The very fact that the Void is so empty and hollow within requires it me to be so vivacious and exuberant without. I am all life, Graye! I am all passion!”
Her voice was raising almost to a shout and her fingers were frantically clutching at and releasing my own hand. A deep flush was rising from the base of her neck and into her cheeks, and her eyes opened wide and refused to blink.
“I feel so much!” she exclaimed. “I am overcome by wonder and amazement everywhere! I find all this world so fascinating, but I find you even more. You and I, Graye, we are each one of a kind, but in such opposite ways. I am the Void, and thus the foundation beneath this entire world. I am the single, null dimension upon which all has been established, and through which all new reality is about to burst. But you, you are a drifter and a shadow, phasing past this world, having little to do with these people, and nothing to do with me. You have paused here very briefly, to make contact, but now I shall retract into infinite nothingness, while you expand to fill infinite everything. And then, when we are perfectly nothing and perfectly everything, then at last we might be together.”
Her voice was so shrill, her face so manic, that I felt a genuine fear of her. A strange thing for one so small and slight as she. No sooner did the unease enter my mind, though, then she blinked rapidly, and slowly the trance pulled away from her eyes, and once more I felt that I looked into the eyes of Mira. She looked away, then back to me sadly.
“I’m sorry, Graye. Please forgive me. These things are in me…I don’t understand them…”
I gave half a smile. “These are strange times we live in. Only promise me one thing. Whatever other voices that clamor within you, promise me that there will always remain something of Mira. Something of Mira forever?”
She grimaced. “Oh you poor boy.” She said it kindly, and with sincere sorrow. “Don’t you know that it is the sweetest things that are the most transitory? The quickest to bloom are the first to fade away forever. The brighter I burn, the sooner I expire.”
“No,” I blinked back tears. “Don’t say that!”
“Don’t weep for what must be temporary,” she sighed, touching her hand to my face. “This is why you are remiss to accept kindness from us fleeting souls, isn’t it? It is a hard thing for the unending to accept ends. The sweetness of my moment will fill me to the end, but never can fill you.”
“Never,” I wept.
She wrapped her arms around my head and pulled it down to rest in the crook of her neck. “But a moment is infinite in its own way, Graye. In its time it never expires.”
“That…doesn’t make sense.”
“If you stretch yourself to infinity then all moments become literally nothing, occupying no space whatsoever. But if you shrink yourself down into a moment, slow down time until you possess nothing more than a single tick, then that moment is everything, it is the entire infinite. There is no difference between living in a moment and living forever. They are two paths to the same.”
“Then…when I am infinite moments…will I be able to enter your single infinite moment?”
She drew back and looked me in my tear-stained eyes. “I hope so, Graye. How I hope so. But come now. I have something to show you.”
Of course I required no persuading. She turned and began to walk off towards the hole in the wall that led back to the city and I followed. But no sooner did we set out than we realized how we had whiled away the hours during our conversation. It seemed impossible for a whole day to have passed, but somehow it had. The sun was already lowering to the horizon, and night would soon be upon us.
And we, unwittingly, had spent much of our conversations idly pacing around in a circle, no doubt moved by the wheel to expire our quota of steps before the day came to its close. And so it was, while we were yet twenty paces from the wall, our feet grew so heavy that it seemed impossible to take another step. There simply was no other option but to set down right where we were, and make our night upon the cool stones.
And so I lay down there, and Mira lay down six steps ahead of me. We turned to look at one another, longing and sorrow in our eyes. I extended my hand out to touch her and she held out hers for me. But we were out of reach.
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.
I never did see the sun with my actual eyes. How could I? There was no light in that place at all, the sun emanated darkness. And yet, I was intensely aware of everything about it. I could easily tell you how it appeared, what its volume was, and how many tons filled it. It pervaded every empty nodule of my mind, and then pressed forcefully through the fibers into my every thought and memory. And so it was that I seemed to see and know the Black Sun everywhere. It had scorched the backs of us Treksmen all the journey here. It had pulled me with its gravity all through my youth. It had darkened my face as it stood over my infant cradle.
It was a perfect sphere, cracked and broken all about its surface, pitch black, and emanating a dark heat such as I had never felt from our old, gray sun. That old sun was no more. I could feel the surety of that fact without the slightest doubt. It was not merely hidden, it had been consumed in an instant, just like the rest of us.
Only now does a slight understanding come over me. That pulsing that pervaded everything, it was a resonance. And the wavelength of that resonance was attuned to all the universe. When the Black Sun vibrated all nearby matter was shaken loose, all color was disassembled, all light was disconnected. My atoms were no longer my own. They floated, near to each other, but no longer able to associate together. I hovered, sensing my own thoughts slowing towards nothing. My synapses still fired, but their neighbors could no longer receive the signal. I had a sense of having a million separate thoughts all at once.
And then a new rhythm began.
The Black Sun’s first wave had liberated us from all our ties, but now it would establish new ones. A massive crack, a single blade of light, vertical and extending to eternity. It barreled into our place and in an instant every person and every thing was blasted into the finest of grains, exploded out into a perfectly distributed cloud of matter.
Except for me. Where the Black Sun began reordering things, I was left as a phantom in the midst. I was not aware of body, I was not aware of my senses, I was only aware of self, and the streaming flow of matter and light all about. My conscience was an island in the midst of coursing chaos, watching as that chaos began to funnel and divide, reform, and give new inventions that had never been conceived of before.
There were great beasts in that moment. Massive titans with many heads and many arms, able to redistribute their mass as they saw fit. They congealed into corporeal form for a moment, and then burst outwards, scaling themselves out so far that entire nations lie between each of their atoms. And today no one knows of them, no one believes in them, but if you could scale yourself out to the cosmos you would see that they do exist, and that you have lived within them forever.
After the beasts came the forces. And I had a sense that the forces were the descendants of the beasts, come to fill the vacuum left by those progenitors. There were forces to draw together, forces to pull apart, forces to spin, and forces to arrest all motion whatsoever. Around each force spun the matter that had been turned to powder by the blade of light. Whirlpools of the elements, that spun at great speed until they became molten. And these whirlpools expanded and expanded until they intersected with each other. And where two whirlpools’ molten matter intersected there flew out sharp sparks and flashes of light as large as mountains. And in those sparks came torrents of black soil, fine as sand, rushing forth as a new landscape which slid under my feet and sprung up on every side. Black sand became all the ground, mounds of it became like hills and mountains, tumbling streams of it became like rivers.
And as those whirling cyclones continued to spit out more and more of that black powder they began to be buried beneath the mass, becoming hidden away, until they were sunk deep down to the world’s core. But though they are out of sight, still they spin, still they reach tendrils of new creation through the crust and onto the surface, but we see the evidence of it much more slowly now. And so it is today that the black powder will on occasion burst out of the ground without warning, spilling about in every direction as if it were flowing water, an incredible, pent-up mass that overruns an entire city and its countryside in a single moment. And where it covers, that which had once been is found no more. If you dig through the black powder you do not find the old creation beneath, for it has been dissolved in the new resonance. Many the explorer has searched that sand, only to disintegrate themselves in it.
These outbursts happen now about once every decade, but they do still happen. Each comes more slowly than the last, each comes with a greater rush of pent up matter. And so these upheavals will continue until the entire world has been remade in this new creation’s fashion. It may take millennia, but I have absolutely no doubt that it will be. For these forces, though slowed by their thick surroundings, are unending.
At the moment I have been discussing, though, that of the Black Sun’s first rising, the entire landscape surrounding me had already been changed in a single instant. Looking to the East I could make out the tidal wave of black sand rushing outwards, until it had consumed everything as far as the eye could see.
And then I looked back to my more immediate surroundings. I say I looked, but of course, there was no light anymore, nor did I possess eyes anymore. But all this new matter was interconnected, a shared consciousness, and so I saw them in my mind in just the same way as I saw the Black Sun. And all about me nothing appeared like how it had when my companions and I had first arrived. There were no people, indeed no form of life at all. There was no Coventry. There were no blackened trees with invisibly thin leaves. There were no caravan wagons or scrying sticks or roads. There was not even a void anymore. There was no Mira.
Or was she everywhere?
There was the Black Sun hanging over me, massive and very, very low in the sky, like a great weight about to fall upon my head at any moment. And an ocean of sand about my feet…or at least what would have been my feet if I yet had had a body. No doubt the material of what had once been my body was now a part of these black grains blasted all about.
Then the Black Sun acknowledged me. It flexed and the black soil in my area began to snake up over my space. It covered over me and rippled through many forms before settling on something that resembled a tall-legged man with no face.
Then all the ocean of granules began to raise and lower in waves. Everywhere they were trying to congeal together in strange shapes and mounds, then collapsed back into flatness. Then tried to congeal together again. Pulling together, releasing, over and over, like a pot being stirred until the batter grows thick.
And it did grow thick. Over the years the bonds between the grains became stronger. They slowly became more reluctant to falling apart, and they held their forms with more intricate detail. They were many layered, interwoven, creating a tumbling landscape that defied any I had seen before for intricacy.
And across these landforms other compacted soil-mounds crawled, meandering and climbing and falling and splitting and merging like some sort of artificial life. Or perhaps authentic life, but in the basest of forms.
And this was when I wondered if Mira was all about me. For just as she had spoken of the nothingness of the Void, and how it compensated for that non-existence by projecting life and exuberance through her, now I saw how this black sand of nothingness was actually the atomic material for everything. And given enough time I was sure it would become all possible forms. And as that thought occurred to me, I realized that I was witnessing a great chaos of life that was just starting to burst forth from this place in slow motion.
And with that thought my consciousness slipped into the future and I had a vision of a world where living beings and the elements of nature were one and the same. They resonated at different frequencies for a moment, projected different colors for a moment, appeared as disparate beings for a moment…but then always collapsed back into each other, back into the black dust, and from that formed new individualities.
But while they stood as individual, they appeared as all imaginable things. Yes, mountains and grass and water and fire and creatures and a form of people…but also sentient geometric patterns, volumes of light and color, masses in constant fluctuation, forces of gravity that possessed consciousness, veils that defined entirely new realities when passed through, adjacent regions of land that flowed in different directions of time, entities that had slowed in time until they only existed one moment every hundred years, galaxies in miniature scale upon a speck of dust, which galaxies held within them the entire world that the speck of dust resided in. These things and many more, existing and unexisting in turn.
I beheld them only for a moment, then the vision ended and I found myself back at the present. I knew that the future of chaos I had witnessed was still many eternities off, but the rumbling mass of sand I saw now was the foundation of it. It will come, and I will be there when it does.
For I am a consciousness apart of this world now. I am enclothed in black dust, but I am not that dust. When the dust loses its bond and falls away from me, I simply take on a new shroud, and continue wandering this world forever.
I can take the form of anything that I wish. I now take the form of you, my once-fellow mortals. I hear you speak of the destruction that happened eons ago in the Damocile Region. I hear you proclaim that the place has been covered in dead sand for its sins. You think of that event as past and done.
Fools. It was not a limited cataclysm that rang out once and then went cold. That first explosion is still churning, still rippling through the earth, and soon it will consume you as well.
This is not your world anymore. Indeed, it never was.