io9 is proud to current fiction from LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE. As soon as a month, we characteristic a narrative from LIGHTSPEED’s present subject. This month’s choice is “A Sojourn within the Fifth Metropolis” by P H Lee. You’ll be able to learn the story under or listen to the podcast on LIGHTSPEED’s web site. Get pleasure from!
A Sojourn within the Fifth Metropolis
The coffin she carried had felt like an imposition at first—a holy imposition! a welcome imposition! however an imposition nonetheless. However by now she had carried it on her shoulders out from the Tenth College, carried it throughout plains, up and down canyons, via forests of steel and wire, previous what remained of the opposite colleges of the Dying, throughout the whole width the world, additional than she had ever thought potential, all the way in which into the holy gentle of useless solar Thion. By now, nearing the crest of yet one more limitless slope of tough white scree, her legs burning with the hassle of the climb, her white cloak tattered, her apprentice’s masks chipped and worn away, the coffin’s strong weight was a consolation, virtually as a lot of a sacrament because the useless man inside it.
She didn’t know the useless man within the coffin. He had not been one of many Dying, not from the Tenth College nor from another. He had lived and he had died far past this world, these stars. However he was useless nonetheless, and thus sacred and owed this sacred obligation of pilgrimage, that he may lie eventually within the Fifth Metropolis, given over to all of the useless of conflict.
This ridge was not specific, only a slope of trackless scree just like the hundreds of others the apprentice had climbed, slowly, fastidiously, sliding again half a step for each step she took. However when eventually she crested it, she noticed not one other slope in limitless procession however a complete valley unfolding via the mountains, and in that valley noticed the Fifth Metropolis, carved of bleached white stone however shining violet-bright within the regular thionlight.
She fell to her knees and stared, trying over the spires and the avenues, the grand halls and nice chambers, the poles the place as soon as flew flags of the victorious useless. She might need wept, regardless that it was a blasphemy. However she didn’t have the water to spare for it.
Reflexively, she started to mutter a prayer beneath her masks, however reduce herself off. No prayers right here, no sacraments. Prayers and sacraments had been for the dying, and this was the land given over to the useless. And, regardless, there was no Grasp right here to listen to them.
As an alternative, she fastidiously pulled her knees and toes freed from the scree and stood—left foot first, then proper, nonetheless smarting from her wound—and shouldered the coffin that she carried. Her burden settled, she recalled the phrases of the Fourth Prophet:
Each step a prayer, in that useless land
Each breath a sacrament, beneath that useless solar—
and commenced to choose her method down the slope in direction of town and all its useless.
The draw back of the slope was shaded and consequentially overgrown with unfastened crystals of hoarfrost, reaching up almost twice the apprentice’s peak. Her first footfall, although, despatched cascades of scree—black on this facet of the rise, unbleached by thionlight—into the hoarfrost, collapsing it and sending it tumbling down in flip. Unsure, she took one other step into the scree, sending one other cascade. The unfastened rocks slipped somewhat, however didn’t ship her tumbling, so she took one other step, after which one other, down the trail that the slide had cleared earlier than her, with fragile hoarfrost nonetheless towering on either side.
Although it was a sin, on this place and beneath the sunshine of the useless solar, she lifted her masks and stuffed handfuls of the fragile hoarfrost into her mouth, feeling the shock of the ice after which the aid of the water, in the end water. She shouldn’t have, after all. Even again within the Tenth College, again earlier than her pilgrimage, stealing water—life wishes life! and water was the foundation of life! Even there, it was a sin. However right here, on this sacred land, it was doubly so.
(She had snuck water, after all, when the academics weren’t trying. All of them had. However she had realized the habits of secrecy.)
Ashamed, she pushed the masks down over her face, and appeared a method, then one other, as if somebody might need seen her, as if there was anybody right here however the useless.
She began to mutter a prayer for forgiveness, however stopped herself once more. Each step a prayer and so she took a step, after which one other, earlier than swallowing the sinful water.
“Life is a sport, demise is the prize,” she mentioned to herself—absolutely that reminder didn’t rely as prayer—however took one other handful of the ice regardless.
She swallowed the final of the water earlier than she reached the underside, although. To drink some water on a primary pilgrimage, maybe that might be forgiven. On the very least, understood. The furtive flask her trainer had slipped to her had run out way back. However within the Metropolis, no. The Fifth Metropolis was for the useless, and she or he wouldn’t profane it.
Down within the valley, town was immense, and it appeared to her a single strong factor, a wall of carved stone, bleached white by Thion, with not one of the options and avenues that she had seen from the ridge above. She stepped in direction of it, out of the shadow of the mountain, into the obvious and white-purple thionlight. Although it was nonetheless chilly, she might really feel the thionlight in opposition to her. Her pores and skin, already burnt and blistered by lengthy publicity, screamed on the contact, even beneath her cloak. She needed to will herself to not flinch away from it.
“Not one step backwards,” she mentioned to herself, the identical phrases that she had promised her trainer way back. Sooner or later, maybe, the thionlight’s burning would develop into tumors. It had occurred earlier than. She had seen them rising on the journeymen, again on the Tenth College, as a lot as they’d tried to cover them of their disgrace. However there could be time sufficient for that disgrace later. Proper now, this second: Not one step backwards.
So as a substitute, she stood on the spot, the ache too intense to maneuver ahead, letting the sunshine burn her via her cloak and masks, till eventually her nerves surrendered and the burning subsided to an ignorable roar. Then, eventually, a step, after which one other.
On the outskirts of town correct, there have been tall mounds of irregular stones. Coming nearer, she realized that they weren’t stones in any respect, however coffins, after which, when she drew nearer nonetheless, she noticed that between them there have been bones: The bones of the useless! She had by no means seen bones earlier than, besides that after, and within the presence of the Grasp. However right here: the bones of the useless themselves, left past town and unburied. She felt her anger rising with bitter nauseous acid, however she swallowed it down. Desecration! Little doubt these had been left by feckless apprentices of ages previous, too afraid to enter the Metropolis itself, from these ages when there would have been numerous a whole bunch of apprentices and journeymen, streaming out and in of the Metropolis, taking all of each worlds’ useless to their closing resting locations.
She couldn’t handle a run, however nonetheless loped over to the uneven pile. She needed to raise them up, every coffin, every bone, every one of many Useless mendacity there piled and unburied, to hold all of them into the Metropolis. However she felt the coffin on her again and remembered the phrases that her trainer had mentioned, earlier than she had left. “This burden is all which you could handle. Take care you don’t add to it, and fail the Useless therefrom.” He will need to have come right here, when he was an apprentice on his pilgrimage right into a journeyman. He will need to have seen this. He will need to have identified what she would face, for he had confronted the identical himself.
She turned away from the pile. “Later,” she instructed herself. “If I’ve the energy.”
No nice doorways of the Fifth Metropolis, not from this method, and never for this useless man. The apprentice would have honored him so—one of many Useless, in her arms! on her again!—however he had misplaced his conflict, and with it the privilege of the nice doorways. Such had been the customs of the Fifth Metropolis. So as a substitute she took one step, then one other, and the unfastened scree gave method to paving stones, and she or he had handed on her proper a cluster of intricate mausolea, and she or he realized that she was already inside the Metropolis and now not an apprentice.
It was laborious for her to grasp her transformation—that it had already occurred. She was—had been—an apprentice of the Tenth College. She had all the time been an apprentice of the Tenth College. (Sooner or later, she will need to have been an provoke. Sooner or later, she will need to have joined the Dying. However she couldn’t keep in mind even the barest trace of that.) She had all the time been an apprentice, and now she was a journeyman. She had all the time been an apprentice, and now she was not.
She squeezed her eyes closed, and felt the burden of the coffin on her again. “Time for that later,” she instructed herself, after which, quoting the Grasp, “the concerns of the dying are usually not for the Useless.” This was the Fifth Metropolis. Let her time right here be for the Useless, let her ideas right here be for the Useless as nicely, and let her fear about the remaining when she had returned along with her service full.
So as a substitute, down this avenue, into the shade of a nook, out of the burning thionlight for only a second. Absolutely, she will take that small indulgence in her service to the Useless. There was hoarfrost gathered right here as nicely, on this nook away from the sunshine of Thion, nice filigrees of it, even finer than the carvings on town’s stone. It felt improper, to her, to see ice rising in a Metropolis. The Metropolis was for the useless and but, even right here, there was the sin of water, the foundation of life. Even right here, there have been her small indulgences.
“Grasp,” she mentioned aloud, starting a prayer, however she stopped herself.
Earlier than, on her journey, she had stopped herself from praying out of customized, out of courtesy. She wouldn’t pray on a pilgrimage; she wouldn’t pray beneath the sunshine of the useless solar Thion; that was the order of her College and the methods of the Dying. It had felt to her a deprivation after her complete life praying for each second. It was one other struggling to be borne, one other sacrifice in service to the useless.
However now, right here, on this metropolis of white stone, the useless round her in each course, she understood it in a brand new method. There was no Grasp right here, no college, no orders. These had been for the dying, which was to say, they had been for the dwelling, that they might discover their deaths. This Metropolis, although, was not for the dwelling. It was for the useless. She was a trespasser right here, even in her service. There was no regulation to information her, no Grasp to supervise her. The useless didn’t want such issues, absolutely. So she should resolve for herself.
Was this what it meant to be a journeyman? That she should resolve for herself?
“Then I need to resolve,” she mentioned, aloud. Her phrases, her breath, so sizzling and dwelling, appeared all of the extra extraordinary within the silence of the Metropolis: an intrusion, a blasphemy, however not unwelcome. Not a blasphemy, then, she corrected herself. “Blasphemy” was a phrase for the Faculties. It was a phrase for the Dying. The useless had been past any such offense.
She reached, impulsively, in direction of the frost beside her, however stopped herself. No.
She should resolve for herself. She would resolve to not. She would resolve to maneuver on.
Nonetheless, as she made her method via town—previous the carven skulls and the nice mausolea and tiny, singular graves, every representing a conflict, so many wars, wars as massive as all of the galaxy and as small as a single life—she would see tucked right here and there a shadow, and inside every shadow was constructed generations of frost, and she or he yearned.
She shouldn’t yearn. However beneath the cloak, beneath the masks, beneath her pores and skin and all of the prayers and each phrase she had ever realized, beneath all the teachings of her academics and the labors of her journeymen, there was an animal, a dwelling factor that feared demise. Life that yearned for water, for meals, for youngsters, above all for itself.
Water. Water. Water.
With out pondering, she reached for her knife that wasn’t there. She needed to chop out her personal tongue, to chop out her personal coronary heart, to chop herself to nothing, to chop away each a part of her that yearned to stay.
However she had no knife, not on a pilgrimage. No blood might be shed on this useless land.
She considered the cancers that Thion was absolutely carving into her pores and skin this very second. They, too, yearned for all times and yearned for water. She remembered the phrases of the Seventh Prophet:
Life calls itself to life
there shall be no finish to it
save for that the dying make
She stopped, and let down her coffin gently.
She thought that she may abandon them: the coffin and the useless man inside. She may run off into the avenues to rub her burning shoulders with frost, her dry tongue with water. She was already within the Metropolis. Absolutely, it could not be abandoning the useless man if she didn’t ship him to his specific area of interest in his specific conflict’s specific mausoleum.
As an alternative, although, she knelt beside it. She needed to kiss the coffin, however even the scant waters of her lips—no. As an alternative, she set her brow in opposition to it. She didn’t pray—The useless are useless and can’t reply prayers—however she thought, and if she was so accustomed to prayers that her ideas took the type of a prayer, then absolutely that might be forgiven.
You might be silent.
You might be nonetheless.
You might be unwanting.
No thirst, no starvation, no ache in demise.
Solely the top of doing.
Lend me, for a second, your uncaring demise.
Lend me, for a second, your never-ending peace.
Your demise is infinite; no mortgage shall diminish it.
It’s not for myself I ask for this.
It is just for my service to you and all of the myriad useless.
She almost ended her silent prayer with “That the Grasp grant me demise,” as all her prayers had all the time ended, however stopped herself. The useless man was not a Grasp. He was useless.
She paused for a second, ready for some response. When she had prayed again on the Tenth College, she might really feel the Grasp’s will, responding to her prayer, working its imperatives on her thoughts and coronary heart and the varsity itself round her.
Right here, although, there was nothing. Not even the acquainted chilly shudder of some distant will.
It was her fault. She knew no prayers had been answered right here—she by no means actually thought—he was useless, which was to say is, she had been a idiot to hope that her prayer may give her some aid.
It was unimaginable for him to grant her prayer and even to listen to it.
Not one step backward however there have been no prophets right here, no Masters, no academics. She was the one dwelling factor on this half of the world, until by likelihood there was another apprentice on another pilgrimage.
“I ought to keep,” she blasphemed to herself, even because the thionlight burned into her pores and skin. “I ought to run feral and fallen. I ought to resign each doctrine of the Dying, I ought to cover within the shadows and drink the hoarfrost and crack open the coffins and eat the useless. There may be sufficient right here on this metropolis—each corpse of each conflict—that I’d not thirst nor starvation for all of the size of time, and in any case that I must be at least ravenous and thirsting, no worse off than now.”
She stood, however she didn’t take a step.
She breathed—out and in, thrice—and hated the factor inside her that demanded breath. Then she knelt, shouldered the coffin once more, and made her method in direction of the middle of town.
It was a while earlier than she reached the mausoleum of the crystal conflict, a grand advanced that lined the entire heart of the Fifth Metropolis, wings upon wings, corridors upon corridors. Not like the opposite mausolea and crypts of town, it was undecorated, completely with out phrases or carven skulls and even the subtlest of filigree, as if those that constructed this metropolis in the beginning of time knew full nicely the enormity of grief it could ultimately include. So there was no ornament, solely plain stairs into hallways, solely nice blocks of historic stone.
Befitting the useless, its flat stone was black, however the facet that confronted Thion had been bleached white. Impulsively, she reached out to the touch a pillar as she completed her ascent of a facet stairway. The layer of white, rotten stone crumbled to powder even at her lightest contact, revealing the pure black beneath.
She shook in worry and embarrassment, to have left the mark of her passing on this sacred place. “However what of it?” she thought. “I’ve been right here. That’s at least the reality. So let that be the mark of my passage. It’s nearly as good a document as any historical past.” Nonetheless, she didn’t contact one other wall.
Contained in the mausoleum, it was darkish, aside from the occasional shafts of painful thionlight from some entrance or one other. When it was darkish, she might virtually persuade herself that she was again within the cool, winding corridors of the Tenth College. It was solely the silence that divulged her true location. However when there was gentle, she might see the partitions—lined with limitless coffins, stacked neatly upon one another in ordered rows, every as a replacement—and she or he knew that she was in fact as far-off from her college because it was potential to stroll, among the many useless and beneath a useless star.
“I really like you,” she mentioned as soon as to the useless, quietly, as a result of she did. It was not a sin, and but she felt ashamed.
Finally, she reached the shadowed facet of the mausoleum, and after that there was no gentle in any respect. Nonetheless, she knew the way in which as she had realized it by coronary heart within the Tenth College, remembering the phrases of her trainer, every step, every flip, till she got here eventually to the useless man’s particular area of interest, his particular planet that he had died failing to defend, his particular battalion, squadron, unit, place. Not trusting her reminiscence, she felt along with her fingers and located the place, a gap within the wall—two openings, she felt now, one subsequent to a different.
She questioned if these had been the final two unhallowed useless of all of the crystal conflict.
Hefting her coffin as soon as once more, with the energy of the final moments of her process, crucial process she had ever carried out, she lifted the coffin up into its place—his place—after which pushed it till it slid satisfyingly into place.
Till she did it, she didn’t understand how drained she was. It was no sin, to sleep upon a pilgrimage, solely to dream, and she or he was sure that she was too drained for dreaming. She closed her eyes, breathed in once more, and leaned in opposition to the wall of coffins. Slowly, inconsistently, she slid down till she sat on the base of the wall, eyes closed, surrounded in all instructions by the embrace of the hallowed useless, and let herself fall eventually right into a deep and untroubled sleep.
Someday later, she is going to wake. She is going to stand. She is going to stroll out of the mausoleum, out of this timeless metropolis, away from the useless, again up the slopes of scree and throughout the gravel plains and again to her college, the Tenth College, arriving eventually as a journeyman. She is going to take her new place among the many dying, along with her personal academics to serve, her personal apprentices to foster.
Someday later, she is going to wake. However for now, she remains to be. For now, she sleeps. For now, she is indistinguishable from all the opposite useless on this pure and historic metropolis.
In regards to the Writer
P H Lee lives on high of an outdated walnut tree, previous a thicket of roses, down a useless finish road on the fringe of city. Their work has appeared in lots of venues together with Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Uncanny Journal. Once in a while, they microwave and eat a frozen burrito at two within the morning, for no cause aside from that they wish to.
Please go to LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to learn extra nice science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared within the February 2024 subject, which additionally options work by Stewart C Baker, Mari Ness, Everdeen Mason, Wen-yi Lee, Christopher Rowe, KT Bryski, Phoebe Barton, and extra. You’ll be able to watch for this month’s contents to be serialized on-line, or you should purchase the entire subject proper now in handy e book format for simply $3.99, or subscribe to the e book version here.
Need extra io9 information? Take a look at when to count on the most recent Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s subsequent for the DC Universe on movie and TV, and every part it’s essential learn about the way forward for Physician Who.