Raise the Black Sun: Part Two

closed up photography of flame
Photo by Tom Swinnen on Pexels.com

 

Part One

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.

Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven

 

On Monday I discussed a couple ways that a story can balance complexity and scale to avoid introducing plot-holes. I suggested that a story needed to have a world big enough to support its ideas, so that different systems didn’t run into one another and cause inadvertent contradictions.

At the end of my last entry in this story I introduced the idea that these Treksmen were bound by an oath, such that they could not quit their delivery without dying as a result. That mechanic further led to the idea of them being able to function as automatons, performing their labors on a literal auto-pilot. It also became involved with the Scrayer coming and trying to kill them, as he knew their job could only be halted by their dying, either one way or the other. Now that’s as involved as I want this mechanic of oath-binding to be. The more I combine it with other systems, the more chance I have to make a connection that is incompatible.

Most of the new ideas that I introduce are meant to stand alone, entering for only one scene, and then never resurfacing with other connections. An example of this is our Scrayer, whose weapon, creed, and other details will never be seen in the story again. I only had to make his behavior compatible with the behavior of the Treksmen in this one instance, and now will not try to connect him to anything else.

The other technique I described was that of developing a story’s world and systems first. Even before I came up with the arc of our protagonist, one of my very first ideas was that of a massive, armed assailant ravaging a caravan, flinging men into the air where they dissipated into dust. By using this world-building-first approach, I already had suggested to me a plot involving a caravan, and a protagonist who is a member of it. I wrote such things, and now the story flows naturally through the scenes I first envisioned. One can of course overdo this world-building-first approach, and end up with a series of disjointed scenes that don’t really gel together. Hopefully I’m finding the correct balance with this experiment.

Before we continue with the story, though, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the stylistic theme of my past few stories, and how a body of work mirrors the mental state of the author. Come back on Monday to hear about that, and then on Thursday we’ll continue the adventures of our Treksman.

Raise the Black Sun: Part One

astronomy circle dark eclipse
Photo by Drew Rae on Pexels.com

 

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.

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven

 

On Monday I talked about how to bring a fitting end to a story. At this point we are still a ways off from the end of our tale, but we can discuss how I am setting up for it in the beginning. As I suggested in my previous post, I am tipping my hand right from the outset in this tale. Though the terms “Black Sun” and “Priests of Oolant” mean nothing to the reader, they should immediately understand that this story is going to end with the raising of some terrible, cataclysmic event, wherein a great many people are going to die.

This might seem to be contrary to my stated intent with this latest series: to focus on stories where the ending has some sort of “turning” element, one that goes beyond all that has been alluded to before, and gives new definition to all of the story’s themes and arcs. But I believe that I will be able to write the ending of this story in a way that is still surprising and satisfying, no matter how much of it I have already revealed.

To do this I am relying on two things. The first having a journey that redefines what the ending means. At the outset the reader is promised a cataclysmic event, but what that really means remains a mystery. I hope that by exploring the context of this world, the eventual destruction at the end will be cast in a light that the reader had not anticipated from the beginning.

The other strategy I am depending on is being able to still surprise the reader with how this destruction takes place. Saying that the region is subjected to a terrible catastrophe is pretty vague, and leaves a great deal open to the imagination. My hope is that when I finally get to laying out all the details that the reality of the moment will pack a few surprises for even the most imaginative of readers.

Before we get to that end, though, I want to take a moment to consider world building in stories, and how we create the systems within them. If rules are constantly changing, then they mean nothing; and if they are set in stone, but disinteresting, then–well–they’re disinteresting.

How can an author bridge the gap of providing constant new inventions in their world, but also avoid introducing elements that make loopholes in what came before? We’ll take a look at some ideas on Monday, and how I have composed the world-systems in this current story. Come back next week to check it out.