‘A Sojourn within the Fifth Metropolis’ by P H Lee

io9 is proud to current fiction from LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE. As soon as a month, we function a narrative from LIGHTSPEED’s present challenge. 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, by way of forests of steel and wire, previous what remained of the opposite faculties of the Dying, throughout your complete width the world, additional than she had ever thought potential, all the best way into the holy mild of lifeless solar Thion. By now, nearing the crest of one more infinite slope of tough white scree, her legs burning with the trouble of the climb, her white cloak tattered, her apprentice’s masks chipped and worn away, the coffin’s stable weight was a consolation, virtually as a lot of a sacrament because the lifeless man inside it.

She didn’t know the lifeless 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 lifeless nonetheless, and thus sacred and owed this sacred obligation of pilgrimage, that he may lie finally within the Fifth Metropolis, given over to all of the lifeless of conflict.

This ridge was not specific, only a slope of trackless scree just like the 1000’s of others the apprentice had climbed, slowly, fastidiously, sliding again half a step for each step she took. However when finally she crested it, she noticed not one other slope in infinite procession however a whole valley unfolding by way of 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, wanting over the spires and the avenues, the grand halls and nice chambers, the poles the place as soon as flew flags of the victorious lifeless. She may 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 minimize 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 lifeless. And, regardless, there was no Grasp right here to listen to them.

As a substitute, 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 lifeless land
Each breath a sacrament, beneath that lifeless solar—

and commenced to select her manner down the slope in direction of town and all its lifeless.

The draw back of the slope was shaded and consequentially overgrown with free crystals of hoarfrost, reaching up practically 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 free 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 each side.

Although it was a sin, on this place and beneath the sunshine of the lifeless 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 lecturers weren’t wanting. All of them had. However she had realized the habits of secrecy.)

Ashamed, she pushed the masks down over her face, and seemed a method, then one other, as if somebody may need observed her, as if there was anybody right here however the lifeless.

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 recreation, loss of life is the prize,” she stated to herself—absolutely that reminder didn’t depend 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 may very well be forgiven. On the very least, understood. The furtive flask her instructor had slipped to her had run out way back. However within the Metropolis, no. The Fifth Metropolis was for the lifeless, and he or she wouldn’t profane it.

Down within the valley, town was immense, and it appeared to her a single stable 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 towards 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 stated to herself, the identical phrases that she had promised her instructor 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 can 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 by way of her cloak and masks, till finally her nerves surrendered and the burning subsided to an ignorable roar. Then, finally, 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 lifeless! She had by no means seen bones earlier than, besides that when, and within the presence of the Grasp. However right here: the bones of the lifeless 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’ lifeless to their remaining resting locations.

She couldn’t handle a run, however nonetheless loped over to the uneven pile. She needed to carry 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 instructor had stated, earlier than she had left. “This burden is all that you may 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 recognized what she would face, for he had confronted the identical himself.

She turned away from the pile. “Later,” she advised herself. “If I’ve the energy.”

No nice doorways of the Fifth Metropolis, not from this strategy, and never for this lifeless 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 free scree gave option to paving stones, and he or she had handed on her proper a cluster of intricate mausolea, and he or she realized that she was already throughout the Metropolis and 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. (In some unspecified time in the future, she will need to have been an provoke. In some unspecified time in the future, she will need to have joined the Dying. However she couldn’t bear 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 advised herself, after which, quoting the Grasp, “the troubles 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 effectively, and let her fear about the remainder 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 be able to take that small indulgence in her service to the Useless. There was hoarfrost gathered right here as effectively, on this nook away from the sunshine of Thion, nice filigrees of it, even finer than the carvings on town’s stone. It felt fallacious, to her, to see ice rising in a Metropolis. The Metropolis was for the lifeless 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 stated 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 lifeless solar Thion; that was the order of her College and the methods of the Dying. It had felt to her a deprivation after her entire life praying for each second. It was one other struggling to be borne, one other sacrifice in service to the lifeless.

However now, right here, on this metropolis of white stone, the lifeless round her in each course, she understood it in a brand new manner. There was no Grasp right here, no faculty, 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 lifeless. She was a trespasser right here, even in her service. There was no regulation to information her, no Grasp to supervise her. The lifeless didn’t want such issues, absolutely. So she should determine for herself.

Was this what it meant to be a journeyman? That she should determine for herself?

“Then I have to determine,” she stated, 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 Colleges. It was a phrase for the Dying. The lifeless had been past any such offense.

She reached, impulsively, in direction of the frost beside her, however stopped herself. No.

She should determine for herself. She would determine to not. She would determine to maneuver on.

Nonetheless, as she made her manner by way of 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 he or she 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 lecturers and the labors of her journeymen, there was an animal, a dwelling factor that feared loss of life. Life that yearned for water, for meals, for kids, 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 reside.

However she had no knife, not on a pilgrimage. No blood may very well be shed on this lifeless 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 lifeless 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 lifeless man if she did not ship him to his specific area of interest in his specific conflict’s specific mausoleum.

As a substitute, although, she knelt beside it. She needed to kiss the coffin, however even the scant waters of her lips—no. As a substitute, she set her brow towards it. She didn’t pray—The lifeless are lifeless 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 may very well be forgiven.

Grasp—no.

Useless man.

You might be silent.

You might be nonetheless.

You might be unwanting.

No thirst, no starvation, no ache in loss of life.

Solely the top of doing.

Lend me, for a second, your uncaring loss of life.

Lend me, for a second, your endless peace.

Your loss of life 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 lifeless.

She practically ended her silent prayer with “That the Grasp grant me loss of life,” as all her prayers had all the time ended, however stopped herself. The lifeless man was not a Grasp. He was lifeless.

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 college 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 lifeless, which was to say is, she had been a idiot to hope that her prayer may give her some aid.

It was unattainable 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 lecturers. She was the one dwelling factor on this half of the world, except by probability 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 disguise within the shadows and drink the hoarfrost and crack open the coffins and eat the lifeless. There’s sufficient right here on this metropolis—each corpse of each conflict—that I might 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 manner in direction of the middle of town.

It was a while earlier than she reached the mausoleum of the crystal conflict, a grand complicated that coated 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, fully with out phrases or carven skulls and even the subtlest of filigree, as if those that constructed this metropolis firstly of time knew full effectively the enormity of grief it could ultimately comprise. So there was no ornament, solely plain stairs into hallways, solely nice blocks of historical stone.

Befitting the lifeless, 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 concern 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 file as any historical past.” Nonetheless, she didn’t contact one other wall.

Contained in the mausoleum, it was darkish, apart 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 mild, she might see the partitions—lined with infinite coffins, stacked neatly upon one another in ordered rows, every as an alternative—and he or she knew that she was in fact as distant from her faculty because it was potential to stroll, among the many lifeless and beneath a lifeless star.

“I like you,” she stated as soon as to the lifeless, quietly, as a result of she did. It was not a sin, and but she felt ashamed.

Ultimately, she reached the shadowed facet of the mausoleum, and after that there was no mild in any respect. Nonetheless, she knew the best way as she had realized it by coronary heart within the Tenth College, remembering the phrases of her instructor, every step, every flip, till she got here finally to the lifeless 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 arms 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 lifeless of all of the crystal conflict.

Hefting her coffin as soon as once more, with the energy of the final moments of her job, crucial job 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 he or she was sure that she was too drained for dreaming. She closed her eyes, breathed in once more, and leaned towards the wall of coffins. Slowly, erratically, she slid down till she sat on the base of the wall, eyes closed, surrounded in all instructions by the embrace of the hallowed lifeless, and let herself fall finally right into a deep and untroubled sleep.


Someday later, she’s going to wake. She’s going to stand. She’s going to stroll out of the mausoleum, out of this timeless metropolis, away from the lifeless, again up the slopes of scree and throughout the gravel plains and again to her faculty, the Tenth College, arriving finally as a journeyman. She’s going to take her new place among the many dying, along with her personal lecturers to serve, her personal apprentices to foster.

Someday later, she’s going to wake. However for now, she continues to be. For now, she sleeps. For now, she is indistinguishable from all the opposite lifeless on this pure and historical metropolis.


In regards to the Creator

P H Lee lives on prime of an outdated walnut tree, previous a thicket of roses, down a lifeless finish road on the fringe of city. Their work has appeared in lots of venues together with Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Uncanny Journal. Infrequently, they microwave and eat a frozen burrito at two within the morning, for no purpose apart from that they wish to.

Image for article titled LIGHTSPEED Presents: 'A Sojourn in the Fifth City' by P H Lee

Graphic: Adamant Press

Please go to LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to learn extra nice science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared within the February 2024 challenge, 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 await this month’s contents to be serialized on-line, or you should buy the entire challenge 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 film and TV, and all the things you have to find out about the way forward for Doctor Who.

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