By E.E. Knight
This is a complete work of fiction presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of E.E. Knight and New Epoch Press, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2004 by Pitch-Black LLC.
Have you heard the tale, O Exalted One, of how the
old Myrhyran Spire in Dinhun came to be called the
“Tower of Screams” and, even down to this modern and
skeptical day, thought accursed ground?
The Blue Pilgrim?
Yes, your Magnificence. As usual,
Skiar the Last Discern had a part in the legend…
The Blue Pilgrim disliked crowds.
Were he capable of hate, he would have hated them, so irritating was the dirt and wasted effort of shouldering his way through the massed flesh, darkening his already tense visage. Never mind that each additional person who glanced in his direction increased the risk of being recognized.
Dynnenhann, though just a rainwashed capital of a provincial Sayhroed, swelled on Summer Festival week until its river-stone-paved streets were as crowded as those of Fourfalls, the beating heart of the Myrhyran Empire, or even Myrhe itself.
Under the brassy sun of the summer solstice, every mud-sandaled farmer and wool-coated herdsman hauled wife and squalling brood through the red-and-black pennants of Dynnenhann’s gates. The masses crowded the squares and fountains in the day, sang and shouted drunken mirth from the rooftops at night, and then slept the morning away in alleys and stables, doorsteps and archways, as the overflowing gutters reeked with their excrete.
The murdered Selectmen of Old Hanus, as the city had been known in the generation of the Blue Pilgrim’s grandfather, would never have allowed so many people within the city’s walls. The Selectmen listed to the Great Discerns, whose Method deduced that overcrowding abetted disease. But the first Sayhrae had done away with the Discerns of the Blue Pilgrim’s Faith, Great and Small, as his father cried in his crib.
Though he was tall enough to look out over the sea of heads filling the Sayhrae’s stone-paved Plaza (in the days of the Selectmen it had been a garden, or so he’d been told), and strong enough to force his way through the bodies like a buffalo breaking a snowdrift, the Blue Pilgrim still felt trapped by the noise and stink of a crowd.
Also, there was the chance of a passerby feeling, as they pressed flesh, the weapons under his summer-weight cloak and calling for the Kyrhoe, the Sayhrae’s city guard. Under the Sayhrae’s law the Blue Pilgrim was Dhymma, an unassimilated provincial, and arms were forbidden to him within the city walls.
He turned his clean-shaven face and head, covered by the thin, butter-colored si-fiber hood, this way and that as he circled the plaza. His circles grew ever smaller as a hawk’s might as it waited for its prey to make a move from cover. At the outer rim of the plaza he had passed food barrows and wine-carts, smelled the skewered lamb cooking over tiny pots of coals, listened to the kunk as wives thumped fat melons before purchase, shrugged as though uncomprehending the Myr-tongue offers of the tobacco vendors. Nearer the platform, magicians made parrots appear and vanish in orange smoke as they pocketed copper coins; unlike the parrots, the copper currency of the Empire wouldn’t appear again until a visit to a dice-den or a brothel. Poets shouted their delicately chosen words to sprawling, smoking audiences. Dancing girls, creamy breasts bobbing under the summer sun — or half-covered by a wisp of silk, so transparent nudity seemed less shocking — shook their hips jingling the coin-belts about their waists in time to the beat of their drummer. Tiny zills on finger and thumb chimed as graceful arms waved back and forth like dueling cobras.
“I dance for you alone at the top floor of Staghorn House, blue-eyes,” one dancer said as the Blue Pilgrim paused before her to look at the little procession gathering atop the platform dominating the plaza. He had to lift his chin; the platform stood a full spear-length above even his shaven crown. She dropped the purple veil that she had been dancing about, as though it were a partner, and twirled, whipping her head about so her long auburn hair struck him across the chest. “Six Imperials, only six, for a night of pleasure you’ll remember to your final breath.”
He slid sideways through the crowd, counting the scimitar-bearing Kyrhoe going to each corner of the hexagonal platform and grouping at the twin wooden pillars rising from the center — new additions since the arrival of the Third Sayhrae.
“For such a man, only thr — Oww!” the dancer cried, the last brought out by a strike across the buttocks from her drummer.
The Blue Pilgrim ignored the byplay. Yes, he’d heard true, the boy Lar stood trembling in shackles, wearing only a rag wrapped about his waist. Gangly, a little taller than the broad Kyrhoeto either side, pale and dirty with the filth of the Sayhrae’s gaol, the youth fought his tears like a man.
Clean as the boy was dirty, dressed in the black robes of the Empire, the Sayhrae nodded at his trumpeter, who put his mouth to the great instrument wrapped about his body like a coiling serpent. Ta-Waaaaaaaaaa wailed the horn.
The crowd hushed with admirable speed. By the time the echo faded from the dome of Myrric Temple and Imperial Spire at the end of the Plaza — higher even than the city walls, which were the work of old Uluthans — the Blue Pilgrim could only hear the odd mutter here and there in the crowd.
“The Sayhrae will speak,” the leather-lunged trumpeter shouted across the plaza.
From the oldest great-grandfather to toddlers, the crowd went to its knees. He heard a child cry out, instantly smothered by a parental hand. Those — and there were many — who’d also taken up the Myrric faith also bowed their heads.
Now the Blue Pilgrim could have heard a wooden spoon dropped to the paving-stones of the plaza. Only the summer wind defied the silence.
The Sayhrae, his great black beard bound in gold and elaborately knotted, stepped forward as the Kyrhoe attached the boy, ankle and wrist, between the twin wooden pillars.
“Amidst Myrhyran plenty,” the Sayhrae began, in his oddly-cadenced Ulantic, “and the pleasures of this, our Summer Festival, we have found troublemakers endangering our beloved peace. Not ordinary criminals, to be tried and sentenced, but evildoers threatening the highest order. An assassin has been found, bearing weapons within our good city, with designs against our good order. He did injury to one of the Kyrhoe. While being questioned he admitted membership to the Blasphemies, congress with enemies of the Myrhyran Splendor, and past crimes including theft, arson, spoilage, trespass, passing disease of thought, and written heresy.”
The Blue Pilgrim thought it quite a list of offences for such a down-cheeked boy.
“Because he admitted to such he has been granted a Death of Seconds instead of the more usual Death of Minutes, though such are his affiliations that I needed to sign a clemency to save him from a Death of Hours.”
Many of the heads in the crowd began bobbing. The Sayhrae smiled at the silent accolades. “Yes, you are welcome. I am not called the Gentle Hand for nothing.”
Amidst the bobbing the Blue Pilgrim managed to creep a little closer to the platform.
“For crimes against the public, punishment shall be public,” the Sayhrae said, stepping aside so that all might see the youth. “The evildoer Lar will be quartered.”
A Punisher, wearing only a genital box so as not to have to burn clothes touched by tainted blood, stepped behind the pinioned youth, a great, whale-shaped rending scimitar in his cable-like arms. The boy, Lar, whose head had been drooping in his bonds to hide his face, raised his eyes to the all-giving sun one last time —
— and met the gaze of the Blue Pilgrim. A smile broke the boy’s face.
“Hold!” the Sayhrae shouted, raising his hand, following the boy’s gaze out and into the crowd.
The Blue Pilgrim lost enough self-control to wince. Not close enough for a throw —
“Sky-eyes,” the Sayhrae said in Myrhric, pointing. Then shouted:
“Guard! Call the Imperial Guard!”
As always, he overdoes it, the Blue Pilgrim thought. Six men would do the job better.
The trumpeter sounded the wailing alarm and horsemen exploded from the gates beneath the Imperial Spire, from the streets leading off of the Plaza, from the Sayhrae’s plaza tent. But the horses caused a panic in the crowd, which spread and ran like water poured onto a bath-tile floor.
Dodging through the chaos, the Blue Pilgrim lashed out sideways with his foot in the manner of a kicking ostrich and struck at a magician’s belt-pouch. Orange smoke billowed into the air. He sent a fire-eater’s pot of burning oil spilling. He dived and tumbled, casting off his cloak and taking up one of the dancing girl’s dropped purple veils as he did so. When he rolled to his feet, already running, he had it about his head – and so escaped the Plaza and the Sayhrae’s guard.
“Have some beef-loin?” Dal Aptedese said. The potbellied smuggler waved at a skewer sitting amongst the leavings of a rug-spanning meal. Tobacco-smoke clung to the ceiling of his penthouse like cobwebs, tainting the sunset.
The Blue Pilgrim didn’t even glance at the kebab.
Aptedese grimaced, clapped a hand over his ear in apology. “I’m sorry, my dear Skiar, I forget you do not partake of flesh.”
Not of flesh killed for its meat or hide, the Blue Pilgrim silently corrected. So few even understood the rudiments of the Discern Faith in these times, a testament to the efficiency of the Myrhyrans in enforcing their edicts. Then said: “No offense to your generosity, I hope.”
“None taken. Perhaps some chickpea stew, then.”
“With pleasure and gratitude.” Dal Aptedese’s slave reached for a ladle, filled a bowl, then opened a spice box.
Aptedese snorted, looked over to his eye-painted concubine at the window, who smoked and dreamed as she watched the sunset. “He says ‘please’ to a bondsman!”
She laughed, but it was the weary laugh of sense-stupor.
“It is a strange asceticism you follow, Skiar. I could not hold it for a day and a night. In a few years we’ll both be dust, and not a scrap of difference between us. Why deny yourself even harmless delicacies?”
“It is the Way.” The Way also helped one detect poisons or drugs. Dal Aptedese was well-versed in both. He knew he was safe; after a quick welcome at the elegant house he’d closeted himself and meditated, using the Way of the Discerns to release his kra from confining flesh and explore the surrounding rooftops and alleys. The house was unwatched, but he could never be sure of Aptedese, despite their unusual bond. He tasted the chickpea stew, feeling it first on his lips, then his tongue. No numbness, no burning. He gave it another moment, then ate.
“Show me some. I love the trick where you fellows wrap your leg over your shoulders.”
“I’m not some parlor entertainer, moneyman.”
“No need for anger. Asking hurts none.” Aptedese puffed on his own pipe, tipped his head back and sent waves of fragrant tobacco billowing up like a fleshy volcano. “The hunt is on, you know. The rewards are being shouted from the rooftops by every proselyte.”
“That is why I am here. I saved your life once. I thought you might care to return the favor and get me outside the walls by one of your secret ways. You once said you were in my debt. A trader such as yourself would wish to be out of debenture, I posit.”
“Better to be in debt than missing a hand, or a foot, or a more precious appendage. Just having you within my walls, eating my food, could cost me my ears.”
The Blue Pilgrim put down his bowl. “Thank you for the meal. I’ll endanger your house no — ”
“No, no, let’s not be hasty. I’m not so ungrateful. I have a small price for the risk of seeing you outside the walls, horsed, and supplied for a week’s travel. Your weapons. Artifacts such as those… they bring a princely sum in the markets of Fourfalls.”
The Blue Pilgrim put his hands on the axe-haft and dagger-hilt. “Not both. One, and I’ll call the bargain fair and your debt paid.”
“You would pick the less useful of the two. It is good only for killing.”
“Of course. What nobleman wishes a pick-axe at his waist? Whereas a dagger of the lost craft… that is an item worth putting in a jeweled sheath — which I can also sell him.” Aptedese reached out across his tobacco-bowl and touched two fingers to the plain leather strap across The Blue Pilgrim’s waist. “To bear those weapons in such common harness — it splits my heart.” Aptedese clucked his tongue against his teeth.
“Might we leave tonight?”
The concubine slumped into a cushion as the sun disappeared, and the slave extinguished her knocked-over pipe before it could set the curtains aflame.
“Of course,” Dal Aptedese agreed, “as it appears little else will be going on tonight. A bit of excitement will do me good.”
“A bit of excrement will do you no harm,” the Blue Pilgrim laughed. It felt good to laugh, it was the first moment of humor since hearing about the reckless boy’s capture.
Dal Aptedese grimaced at the river of sewage beside them. “It’s been long since I’ve been in the sewers, especially on Summer Festival. Oh, what was I thinking?”
“Your stall at Fourfalls, and the weight of your purse on the trip back?”
“That’s it precisely.” Apdedese finished tying his loose-fitting leggings above his knees, pulled off his sandals and tied them across his neck.
“Follow,” he said, his voice altered as he pinched his nose shut. He walked into the circular tunnel, bent a little, keeping close to the wall and wavering as he maintained his balance on the slippery stones.
The Blue Pilgrim remembered a field of sunflowers he’d run through on
his way to the city and summoned their healthier aroma in his mind, overlaying it upon the current unpleasantness. Only their splashing footfalls sounded over their breath. Echoes of street noises and a little light came down the sluices.
They turned a corner, then another, and came to a set of bars — recent additions, judging from the outrages done to the old Uluthan masonry through their installation.
“Have no fear, I hired an outlaw craftsman to modify it,” Aptadese droned, his voice buzzing like an insect thanks to his pinched-off nostrils. He waded into the main channel felt around the base of the bars with his toes, gagging. “There… turn it now, as a wheel turns… I’m spent.”
The Blue Pilgrim gripped one of the reinforcing cross-sections and shoved. The bars rotated with a groan, and the flat part at the bottom rose out of the muck.
Now they had a gap. They squeezed through, Aptadese sighing with regret at the smears upon his clothing. “No good deed goes unpunished.” The smuggler moved once more to the front.
The passage darkened ahead. “We’re coming under the city walls,” Aptadese said as the shadows grew close. “Oh, for a stick of cinnamon to break in two — and shove up each nostril.”
The Blue Pilgrim heard a pop in the deeper darkness. His hands went to the hilts of his weapons.
“Rats, probably.” Aptedese squeezed back past him, searching the shadows. “Filthy creatures! Go ahead, my friend, and drive them away. They give me the looseies.”
The Blue Pilgrim heard no squeaks or claws… though he caught a gleam of something that might have been —
He bent, scooped a handful of sewage into his palm, and flung it into the darkness, scattering the spray.
“Ach!” a voice said from the shadow — and he heard another splash.
“Now you fools!” Aptedese shouted, running back for the grate. The Blue Pilgrim saw the shadowy forms of Kyrhoe there.
You forgot our bargain, the Blue Pilgrim thought, drawing his small pick-axe. A favor for a weapon! He hurled it spinning after the fleeing figure, so that the smuggler might be paid in full with Uluthan steel. The axe buried itself in his upper back and the merchant’s arms went up as though he were choking himself. The part of the Blue Pilgrim that floated above himself, calmly observing any crisis noted that from the position of the smugglers nerve-locked arms the flung axe must have smashed the sixth vertebrae. Dal Aptedese pitched face-forward into the sewage channel, where he writhed weakly, unable to raise his mouth from the muck to take air —
No time to admire his handiwork. He turned, drawing the long, straight double-edged killing knife from its plain oil-leather sheath. The Blue Pilgrim went into a fighting crouch, free-hand forward, knife-hand tucked behind his body so his opponent could not see which way he held the blade.
“Take him, or you’re cowards all,” a voice shouted in Myrhric.
The Kyrhoein their scaled armor coats charged, their officer in the center wearing the traditional Myrhyran masked helm with its single, horizontal vision slit and red-feathered point. To the front, at either side of the sewer, javeliniers ran with a great weighted-and-hooked net stretched between them. Others sloshed through the muck carrying clubs and mancatchers.
If the Sayhrae expected to dismember him atop the plaza platform he’d need more men.
He bent as the net approached. The men lowered it to throw it over him, giving him the gap he needed. The javeliniers threw a second too late — he sprang up and over it, spinning horizontally so he just brushed the sewer top — and landed among the clubs and mancatchers.
Within a few score years, few could even imitate the fluid fighting style of the Discerns. None remembered how they accomplished such motions. Some attributed it to careful breeding and selection, others to witchcraft, and not a few suggested the Discerns were demigods. Battle against one has been described as dueling with fog or wrestling water. Though the Blue Pilgrim’s skills were poor when compared to the Great Discerns, against him even the handpicked Kyrhoe, the undisputed war-masters of their age, fought like a team jesters staging combat as comic pantomime.
The Blue Pilgrim passed through the Kyrhoe like a swift breeze. He twisted, causing a Kyrhods club to strike a comrade. Another thrust with the twin tines of his mancatcher and he bent under it like a blade of grass succumbing to a gust of wind — the Blue Pilgrim added to the momentum of the forward thrust by grasping the weapon’s haft and the guardsman flew into the sewer channel.
He pivoted on his free hand, replanted his feet, and was behind the line of soldiers, knife flashing. He opened a knee on one, severed a triceps tendon at the elbow of another, then dropped into a split-legged stance to avoid a head-crushing swing. Striking nothing but air, the warrior fell out of balance and the razor-edged Uluthan blade passed through the back of the man’s ankle, taking the Kyrhoe guardsman off his feet with the surprised look of a man whose body is no longer working as it should.
Up again and facing the officer, the Blue Pilgrim sidestepped a sword thrust and whipped his knife-point through the visor-slit on the plumed helm.
The blade came back smeared with blood and clear vitreous fluid intermingled. The officer wailed out his pain and the Blue Pilgrim spun away from another mancatcher and fled up black tunnel —
And into a net.
The mass of hooks and weights clung to him as he opened the meshing strands with the knife, only to find another tossed across the first. More Kyrhoeappeared, hooting with delight. One smashed the knife from his hand with a wrist-breaking blow of his club, strong hands seized him at the forearms and legs, and the Blue Pilgrim gave up the struggle. He consoled himself with a quick count of the cripples — four men would be drawing Myrhyran maim-pensions for the rest of their days.
A Kyrhoe with red-and-black neck-cloth, its end bloused into a flower-like bloom on his shoulder, knelt next to the netting. “Message to the Sayhrae,” the under-officer grunted, grabbing him under the chin and looking into the Blue Pilgrim’s filth-smeared face. “Tell him that Sky-Eyes is taken. Tell him Porol of the Second Guard has done this.”
“Ha! He is a man after all,” the under-officer added to a javelinier at the net as they bound him.
“Fixed, your Preeminence,” a voice said from the other side of the wall of dark.
The Kyrhoe took off the black hood.
By the smallness of the masoned room, the freshness of the night air, and the muted sounds of the city, the Blue Pilgrim concluded he lay in the Imperial Spire, high above Dynnenhann. Outside he could hear pennants fluttering, probably against the golden paint adorning the spire’s onion-shaped roof. But inside the spire was a bare cupola, lit by a few tapes in oil. He rested on a bed of saltwood, or so he guessed from its neutral color and rough graining. He tried each limb, each joint, even the purple-and-yellow ruin that was his right wrist, and found himself unable to move anything apart from some flexing at the knee. A broad, tight leather belt at his waist disappeared into the table; he guessed it to be fixed somewhere on the underside.
“The long hunt is over,” the Sayhrae said in cultured Myrhric. It occurred to the Blue Pilgrim that this was the first time he heard the Sayhrae’s normal speaking voice, as pleasant as a caress. “A pity that his shorn head is so ugly, or I should have it mounted. Why do you not show a man’s beard, instead of a newborn’s skin?”
The Blue Pilgrim could move his head freely, and by lifting it he could look down his filthy body at the Myrhyran provincial governor. The Sayhrae wore alternating layers of red and black: black undershirt, red vest, black jacket, and long read scarf of state hanging down to his feet. The Sayhrae’s beard had been hurriedly tied together by a knot of gold cording, probably the governor’s own work – the Sayhrae would flog any groomer who allowed his master to go out so disheveled.
“I’m surprised you visited my good city again. I would have thought after the last time —”
“The boy —”
CRACK! The Blue Pilgrim’s vision filled with glittering stars and exploding rainbows.
“Keep that tongue still,” a Punisher said. “While the Sayhrae speaks.”
” — is a friend of mine,” he finished, tasting blood from a split lip.
“Was a friend,” the Sayhrae corrected. “As soon as I found that you were taken, his usefulness as bait ended.” The Sayhrae reached down below the Blue Pilgrim’s field of vision, holding back his loose right sleeve, and he heard fluid dripping.
The Sayhrae lifted the boy’s sodden severed head. The Blue Pilgrim smelled the brine that ran down the face like tears. The Sayhrae placed the head between his fixed legs so the boy looked up at him.
“I expected nothing more from a Myrhyran,” the Blue Pilgrim said, after a moment to rechannel the anger flowing in him.
“We are a cultured people,” the Sayhrae said. “It’s you dough-faces in this foggy land that drive us to such measures with your everlasting obstinacy. Cannot you see what must be, and just bend to the strong wind like the people of Nang or Iapatia? They know peace and plenty. You’ve driven me to become that which I abhor — a tyrant.”
The Blue Pilgrim tried to avoid the milky eyes of his dead disciple. “We would rather rule ourselves. Two generations of warfare haven’t taught you that?”
“But to what end? Where did your precious independence ever win you? The ability to bicker in your lodges over whose sheep get to graze on which meadow. Bah! People must be ruled by those with the vision to direct their efforts to matters greater than a generation’s vision.”
“Myrhyran greatness. Here it means burned villages and slaughtered live-stock, the edict and the lash.”
The Sayhrae ran both hands down his knotted beard, smoothing it. “Discipline is a Myrhyran virtue. Once in place, the lash is no longer needed.”
“If I am to debate, I would rather do so from a standing position, as is our Way.”
“Anything is possible, if I but give the word.” The Sayhrae twirled his finger at the bulky figure looming behind. The Blue Pilgrim felt the table pivot, and Lar’s head thumped to the floor and rolled up against the brine-barrel.
The Sayhrae said: “Put that thing back in storage.” A Punisher moved to comply, but the Blue Pilgrim had eyes only for two gleaming objects on a table across the room. His weapons teased him from a distance that, restricted as he was, might as well have been the length of the Runic River that spanned the Recorded World.
“But I did not come to exchange accusations,” the Sayhrae continued. “I have an offer for you, Sky-Eyes –”
“I’ve never accepted that name,” the Blue Pilgrim said. The Myrhyran slave-name had been given to him in his youth by a pederast who’d bought him to work in a turpentine camp.
The Punisher whirled, sloshing brine from the barrel, but the Sayhrae held up a hand. “Beating a Discern is a waste of sweat.”
He returned his gaze to his old enemy. “I offer a trade better than the one you tried to make with my late friend Dal Aptedese.”
“Neither of us profited from it.”
“Ah, but this one will turn out better. A trifling favor to me, really. I’ve seen you eyeing your weapons. Would you like them back, along with your precious freedom?”
“More folly, Sayhrae. My freedom is not the Empire’s to steal, like a herd of sheep. All you’ve captured is my body.”
“Discerns! Listen, then. I offer you an Imperial Pardon under my seal. All I need from you is the secret of your blades. A steel that never needs sharpening. No matter how we try, our metal-smiths have been unable to unravel its making. We’ve never even succeeded in melting it; the steel shatters under heat like a rock. One way or another, I’ll have the making out of you.”
“What makes you think I know?”
“You lost your knife to my predecessor, years ago.”
“In your predecessor,” the Blue Pilgrim corrected.
The Sayhrae pretended not to hear. “Yet here you are with a new one, of identical design. You either know how to forge a replacement yourself, or you know someone who does.”
“And where is my elephant, to haul around my Uluthan forge? I robbed that knife from a barrow of another Discern.”
“No! Each of the old weapons were unique, and I’ve compared them. They are identical.”
How little he knows, The Blue Pilgrim thought. It will not be me to enlighten him, or to describe the matching blades of three generations, handed down since the Wisdom of the Uiuthan Age.
“You should also know that we don’t lie. I’ve told you I took it from a barrow. But even if I had made it myself, I would not pass secrets to a tribe of killers like the Myrhyrans.”
“Your precious secrets. You Discerns spent too much time peering at blood-smears under a glass, or counting peas in their pods, or playing healer with swamp-moss. What did your eccentricities gain you?”
“You speak too lightly of the Method, symbiot to our Way. It gains us Knowledge.” He remembered the first words his grandfather had taught him:
See within the workings of the world the majesty of the Grand Design
God is as constant as his laws,
Discernabie through the Method,
in the tilt of the balance, in the fall of a feather,
in the alliance of moon and tide,
in the unchanging course of the stars,
there are the proofs of the Design.
To follow it is the Way of Wisdom.
“Useless, unless it brings you power,” the Sayhrae said, his nostrils flaring. “Real power, as can be found in the crafting of our scaled armor, or the Arts of the Pit.”
“I’ve never found the first to be of any use,” the Blue Pilgrim said. “Apart from the noise and the heat, armor keeps the body from moving properly. As to the second, frightening the gullible has never been a goal of the Discerns.”
“You’ll have your proofs. And then you’ll wish you had struck a bargain.”
The Sayhrae disappeared down the stairway descending the supporting column of the Imperial Spire. The Blue Pilgrim heard a gong and the Sayhrae reappeared.
“I’m sorry for what you force me to do. I feel an respect for you, in a way. Even affinity. Since taking my post I’ve outmustered dozens — alas! hundreds — of men you’ve wounded each year. Gimped, missing fingers, sometimes blinded like poor Morwe who tried to take you in the sewers. You could have easily killed each, yet you chose to spare them.”
Dead heroes get an inspiring burial. The crippled evoke only pity and sorrow.
A wizened figure clad all in black carried a silk-covered tray up the stairs and into the room. At a gesture from the Sayhrae, he placed the tray in the center of the cupola on a wooden stand the other Punisher brought forth, a staff-length from the Blue Pilgrim. He lifted off the covering, and the Blue Pilgrim could see a long-necked Myrhyran vase and a silver-white rod, placed to either side of —
It was like a die such as men cast in the gambling dens, only the size of a cat’s skull. It was utterly black, its edges and corners so sharp against the tray that it hurt the Blue Pilgrim’s eyes to look at it. He’d never seen anything, not even polished glass or onyx, that gleamed so.
Curiosity overrode his careful tongue.
“What is that?”
“That is of the Pit,” the Sayhrae said, as the wizened figure whispered in the governor’s ear. “Yes, yes, just as we’ve practiced. You forget, Darroie, I have access to scrolls even you may not open.” The Sayhrae picked up the rod and the vase, and the black-robed one backed away toward the stairs, bobbing.
The Sayhrae walked next to the rotating table which held the Blue Pil¬grim. He tapped on the vase with the rod, and poured a little fluid on the floor, speaking words the Blue Pilgrim could not understand. The fluid smelled like blood. He paced about the room, tapping and pouring, tapping and pouring.
“Am I to see a char magically appear to mop up your mess?”
“Our fishermen who hunt the great behemoths of the Runic-bottom will sometimes spill blood upon the surface to draw the beasts up. Of course, com-mon fishermen cannot afford a newborn’s blood. This is much the same, in principal, though it binds as much as it summons.”
One side of the black cube bulged, as though some force pushed it from within.
AH — an elaborate masquerade, to frighten me. The Sorceries of the Pit are rubbish…
The Sayhrae completed his tapping circle of blood-drops behind the Blue Pilgrim. Another side of the cube bulged, this time with enough force to tip it over. The remaining Punisher backed away from the blood-line.
It is working. He tried to calm his heart, saw the pulse in his unwounded wrist, concentrated on the beating vessel until it slowed.
“Even your own priests say that those who dabble in the Arts of the Pit come away with stains none can see. Am I worth your soul, Sayhrae?”
“No. But the wealth your secret will bring me is. Last chance, Sky-Eyes.”
“After such an effort, I must see the result.”
“So be it:
That of the Pit bulged again, this time from the top.
That of the Pit swelled, then shrank, then swelled again. The Blue Pilgrim thought he saw the form of some great, heavy-lidded eye pressing against the shiny nothingness that made up the cube’s surface.
The cube crackled with red and burst asunder, vanishing like a sail eaten by fire. In its place a whirlwind of flame appeared, spinning mixture of deformed tooth and eye and hand and ear and breast and elbow and buttock and chin and hip and tongue and penis and leg, but all out of proportion to the other, each emerging briefly but then sinking back into fire chaos.
“Careful, Discern, for the Fire-Mog burns. Not your flesh, oh no. Burned flesh hurts only the corpus. When the Fire-Mog touches you, it burns your soul, and from such injuries you will never heal nor die.”
The Sayhrae tapped the Blue Pilgrim on the shoulder with his rod and drew back outside the circle of blood.
“Give him a taste.”
An eye flashed from the maelstrom and it drifted, still spinning, toward the Blue Pilgrim.
I’m not here, this is but a dream.
He felt a hot lick —
The blinding pain brought possibility with it… he’d meant what he said to the Sayhrae about his freedom. His body lay in bondage, but what did that mean to his kra? He thought back to his grandfather’s words.
You’re not just flesh, but everything you touch, Skiar.
The wind, the dust, the birdsnest you see in that yew.
You and that yew are connected by numberless tiny particles
Spread yourself, run along paths your feet are too big to follow
Flow with the air…
He’d managed it back then, with his grandfather’s help, saw for a few seconds the view from the bird’s nest. Now his mind was stronger, perhaps strong enough to ignore the bonds, the pain, the distractions…
The Blue Pilgrim felt himself drift down the table, out along the floor, to the walls of the cupola, through the narrow windows. He hovered above the crowded city, watching the end of the summer revelries under lamplight and around bonfire. Too bad he was not in his body among them. While he still disliked crowds, as the city emptied tomorrow he might be able to pass — then he drifted back into the cupola to observe events.
Where his body lay in its bonds, a gentle smile on its face. A trifling thing, really, though elegantly formed. It would be a shame to part with so well-made-and-maintained a tool.
The Fire-Mog’s eye appeared again, looking up at him. He heard an exasperated, otherworldly growl.
“Here!” the Sayrae said, tapping his corporeal form again.
The Fire-Mog searched the air above, reached with an impossibly long arm that stretched and flickered out.
“No, idiot, HERE!” the Sayhrae shouted, pressing the rod hard against his body’s neck.
The Sayhrae always overdoes it…
He had his head turn, reach down, and bite the Sayhrae’s hand with hard white teeth.
“Ia —” the Sayhrae cried, as the rod fell to the floor
Within the circle of blood!
The Fire-Mog danced across the floor with delight
“It’s loose,” the Punisher screamed, running along the rim of the wall for the stairs.
The Fire-Mog reached, pulled what looked like a twisting white sheet from the Punisher with extended fingers and teeth. The Blue Pilgrim heard a scream which flickered the flaming tapes in their oil. The body continued to run, blindly bumping along the wall as a chicken’s body will still run with the head removed. It passed the stairs and crashed into the table holding the Blue Pilgrim’s weapons.
“We’re doomed!” the Sayhrae said, looking to the hand-wide windows in despair.
“Loose me. I will retrieve the rod,” the Blue Pilgrim’s body said to the Sayhrae, who hid behind the elevated table.
Now there was a new face in the flaming whirlwind, horribly tortured.
The Sayhrae nodded, quivering from head to toe. The Blue Pilgrim’s ears heard a series of clicks and he felt the bonds loosen. He drew his arms, his legs, and finally his torso from the table. With slow, unsteady steps his body walked across the blood-circle.
Right through the Fire-Mog.
He bent to pick up his weapons, slowly, as a sleepwalker might. No, he fumbled it. He sent out a fresh tendril to his body, running it down the wall and across the floor. Surely now, he picked up the weapons and had his body set foot on the first of the thousand stairs down.
The Fire-Mog began to whirl around the great punishment table. The Sayhrae raced around, reached for the rod, and the Fire-Mog lashed out with a foot. The Sayhrae and drew back an unburned hand, wailing.
“The rod! You said you’d retrieve it!”
“I will,” the Blue Pilgrim’s voice said. “Perhaps next Summer Festival, after my face fades from memory, and the new Sayhrae is distracted by his duties. I’ll leave it on his desk some night.”
The Blue Pilgrim rejoined krawith body and stepped down the stairs with a new sureness. Overcoming the ache in his wrist, the Blue Pilgrim found his fingers could still grip the small pickaxe.
From the cupola behind he heard a terrible cry:
Some say that when the summer stars roll around right, and the mys¬terious light flickers in the Forbidden Imperial Spire, you can still hear that last, wailing word. But perhaps it is nothing but a trick of imagination and the warm evening air.
“That of the Pit” originally appeared in Lords of Swords, edited by Daniel E. Blackston (Pitch-Black Books, 2004).
E.E. Knight’s first Blue Pilgrim tale for us was “The Terror in the Vale,” published here on January 13. Cyd Athens at Tangent Online described it as follows:
The Evil Overlord in E.E. Knight’s “The Terror in the Vale” is the Scripton, who is angered when the peaceful vale folk take offense that his soldiers are lifting the skirts of females to determine whether they are girls or women. He alleges that this is necessary because some adults are weaseling their way out of paying taxes by impersonating children…
As is the way of these things, the people resist and fight. This, of course, ups the stakes…
The Scripton decides to change tactics and does this story’s equivalent of releasing the Kraken — he creates a monster.
Read “The Terror in the Vale,” a complete 9,400-word novelette of heroic fantasy featuring the Blue Pilgrim, here.
E.E. Knight is a scifi/fantasy author. He lives with his wife and three kids in Oak Park, IL. He may be contacted through his website at eeknight.com