Raise the Black Sun: Part Eight

black and white black and white branches cloudy
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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven

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 envies the Scribes for being the the voice of information. The Populaters…well I’m sure you can imagine what for them.”

I wasn’t sure, and I cocked my eyebrow in confusion. Then I saw how she blushed and I didn’t need a shared-mind to understand why.

“Oh!” I exclaimed. “The artificially inflated populations, yes I see! Back home they–well they tell stories about that.” Privately I thought to myself that I was quite glad Mira did not belong to the House of Populaters. 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.

“Why?”

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.”

“Including you?”

“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?”

“Daydreaming.”

“Yes, but what of?”

“Of tomorrow.”

“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.”

“That’s right.”

“And when you entered our village you were one of seven of forty, and yet just as alone.”

“Forty?”

“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.

Part Nine

 

On Monday I spoke about introducing a character at the end of a tale, and how they can still feel significant to the story by making them an extension of arcs that are already in play. That was the approach I took with Mira, allowing her to be the voice of the themes that have permeated the story ever since it began. The hope is that even though her name is new, she will feel like someone we have already known for a long while.

But this was not the only trick I tried to utilize to make her stick in the reader’s mind. I made a special effort to write her in a flirtatious, fun, and dreamy manner. Romance has not been an element of the story thus far, and hopefully this unique conversation will make the moment all the more impactful on the reader.

I’d like to examine this more with my next post. On Monday we will review the idea of creating a memorable character, and then we will continue with our story on Thursday.

 

Raise the Black Sun: Part Six

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

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.

Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine

 

I spoke on Monday about how I was letting this story run pretty loose with where it wanted to go and for how long it wanted to be there. Surely that couldn’t be any more evident than in this conversation continued from the last section, where the Treksmen learn the history of the Coventry, and did so for over three thousand words!

It is funny to remember the stories I wrote as a teenager, where I could not make a moment last for even a paragraph. Events that were meant to be grand and sweeping would expire within a single page, simply because I couldn’t think of anything more to say. I certainly don’t have that problem now!

I know that this last conversation has run on for quite a long while, but it was a very important discussion, a hinge point that answers so many of the questions from before, and also raises all the new questions to be addressed by the rest of the story. I honestly felt that I could not force it through any more quickly, for to do so would have been to break the tension of the entire work.

That is an interesting idea right there: the tension of the entire work. We often speak of the “style” of a story, or its themes, or its voice, or its perspective…but I believe that all of these words are trying to get at the same thing, which none of them capture it in its entirety. On Monday I spoke about a story having “wants,” and that too hints at this “tension of the work.”

Another way to express it might be that a story has a character. Not the main character, or any other individual within the tale, but that the story itself has a personality. And the best stories have a strong one, and they remain consistent to it until the end.

Perhaps this is all a bit much, so let’s pause for now, and we’ll return next Monday to hash it out more fully. Come back after the weekend for that, and then on Thursday we’ll continue the plot of Raise the Black Sun.