io9 is proud to present fiction from LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE. Once a month, we feature a story from LIGHTSPEED’s current issue. This month’s selection is “A Sojourn in the Fifth City” by P H Lee. You can read the story below or listen to the podcast on LIGHTSPEED’s website. Enjoy!
A Sojourn in the Fifth City
The coffin she carried had felt like an imposition at first—a holy imposition! a welcome imposition! but an imposition nonetheless. But by now she had carried it on her shoulders out from the Tenth School, carried it across plains, up and down canyons, through forests of metal and wire, past what remained of the other schools of the Dying, across the entire width the world, further than she had ever thought possible, all the way into the holy light of dead sun Thion. By now, nearing the crest of yet another endless slope of rough white scree, her legs burning with the effort of the climb, her white cloak tattered, her apprentice’s mask chipped and worn away, the coffin’s solid weight was a comfort, almost as much of a sacrament as the dead man within it.
She did not know the dead man in the coffin. He had not been one of the Dying, not from the Tenth School nor from any other. He had lived and he had died far beyond this world, these stars. But he was dead nonetheless, and thus sacred and owed this sacred duty of pilgrimage, that he might lie at last in the Fifth City, given over to all the dead of war.
This ridge was not particular, just a slope of trackless scree like the thousands of others the apprentice had climbed, slowly, carefully, sliding back half a step for every step she took. But when at last she crested it, she saw not another slope in endless procession but an entire valley unfolding through the mountains, and in that valley saw the Fifth City, carved of bleached white stone but shining violet-bright in the steady thionlight.
She fell to her knees and stared, looking over the spires and the avenues, the grand halls and great chambers, the poles where once flew flags of the victorious dead. She might have wept, even though it was a blasphemy. But she did not have the water to spare for it.
Reflexively, she began to mutter a prayer beneath her mask, but cut herself off. No prayers here, no sacraments. Prayers and sacraments were for the dying, and this was the land given over to the dead. And, regardless, there was no Master here to hear them.
Instead, she carefully pulled her knees and feet free of the scree and stood—left foot first, then right, still smarting from her wound—and shouldered the coffin that she carried. Her burden settled, she recalled the words of the Fourth Prophet:
Every step a prayer, in that dead land
Every breath a sacrament, beneath that dead sun—
and began to pick her way down the slope towards the city and all its dead.
The downside of the slope was shaded and consequentially overgrown with loose crystals of hoarfrost, reaching up nearly twice the apprentice’s height. Her first footfall, though, sent cascades of scree—black on this side of the rise, unbleached by thionlight—into the hoarfrost, collapsing it and sending it tumbling down in turn. Uncertain, she took another step into the scree, sending another cascade. The loose rocks slipped a little, but did not send her tumbling, so she took another step, and then another, down the path that the slide had cleared before her, with fragile hoarfrost still towering on both sides.
Though it was a sin, in this place and beneath the light of the dead sun, she lifted her mask and stuffed handfuls of the delicate hoarfrost into her mouth, feeling the shock of the ice and then the relief of the water, at long last water. She shouldn’t have, of course. Even back in the Tenth School, back before her pilgrimage, stealing water—life desires life! and water was the root of life! Even there, it was a sin. But here, in this sacred land, it was doubly so.
(She had snuck water, of course, when the teachers weren’t looking. They all had. But she had learned the habits of secrecy.)
Ashamed, she pushed the mask down over her face, and looked one way, then another, as if someone might have noticed her, as if there was anyone here but the dead.
She started to mutter a prayer for forgiveness, but stopped herself again. Every step a prayer and so she took a step, and then another, before swallowing the sinful water.
“Life is a game, death is the prize,” she said to herself—surely that reminder did not count as prayer—but took another handful of the ice regardless.
She swallowed the last of the water before she reached the bottom, though. To drink some water on a first pilgrimage, perhaps that could be forgiven. At the very least, understood. The furtive flask her teacher had slipped to her had run out long ago. But in the City, no. The Fifth City was for the dead, and she would not profane it.
Down in the valley, the city was immense, and it seemed to her a single solid thing, a wall of carved stone, bleached white by Thion, with none of the features and avenues that she had seen from the ridge above. She stepped towards it, out of the shadow of the mountain, into the glaring and white-purple thionlight. Though it was still cold, she could feel the thionlight against her. Her skin, already burnt and blistered by long exposure, screamed at the touch, even beneath her cloak. She had to will herself not to flinch away from it.
“Not one step backwards,” she said to herself, the same words that she had promised her teacher long ago. In the future, perhaps, the thionlight’s burning would grow into tumors. It had happened before. She had seen them growing on the journeymen, back at the Tenth School, as much as they’d tried to hide them in their shame. But there would be time enough for that shame later. Right now, this moment: Not one step backwards.
So instead, she stood on the spot, the pain too intense to move forward, letting the light burn her through her cloak and mask, until at last her nerves surrendered and the burning subsided to an ignorable roar. Then, at last, a step, and then another.
On the outskirts of the city proper, there were tall mounds of irregular stones. Coming closer, she realized that they were not stones at all, but coffins, and then, when she drew closer still, she saw that between them there were bones: The bones of the dead! She had never seen bones before, except that once, and in the presence of the Master. But here: the bones of the dead themselves, left beyond the city and unburied. She felt her anger rising with bitter nauseous acid, but she swallowed it down. Desecration! No doubt these had been left by feckless apprentices of ages past, too afraid to enter the City itself, from those ages when there would have been countless hundreds of apprentices and journeymen, streaming in and out of the City, taking all of every worlds’ dead to their final resting places.
She could not manage a run, but still loped over to the uneven pile. She wanted to lift them up, each coffin, each bone, each one of the Dead lying there piled and unburied, to carry them all into the City. But she felt the coffin on her back and remembered the words that her teacher had said, before she had left. “This burden is all that you can manage. Take care you do not add to it, and fail the Dead therefrom.” He must have come here, when he was an apprentice on his pilgrimage into a journeyman. He must have seen this. He must have known what she would face, for he had faced the same himself.
She turned away from the pile. “Later,” she told herself. “If I have the strength.”
No great doors of the Fifth City, not from this approach, and not for this dead man. The apprentice would have honored him so—one of the Dead, in her arms! on her back!—but he had lost his war, and with it the privilege of the great doors. Such were the customs of the Fifth City. So instead she took one step, then another, and the loose scree gave way to paving stones, and she had passed on her right a cluster of intricate mausolea, and she realized that she was already within the City and no longer an apprentice.
It was hard for her to understand her transformation—that it had already happened. She was—had been—an apprentice of the Tenth School. She had always been an apprentice of the Tenth School. (At some point, she must have been an initiate. At some point, she must have joined the Dying. But she could not remember even the barest hint of that.) She had always been an apprentice, and now she was a journeyman. She had always been an apprentice, and now she was not.
She squeezed her eyes closed, and felt the weight of the coffin on her back. “Time for that later,” she told herself, and then, quoting the Master, “the worries of the dying are not for the Dead.” This was the Fifth City. Let her time here be for the Dead, let her thoughts here be for the Dead as well, and let her worry about the rest when she had returned with her service complete.
So instead, down this avenue, into the shade of a corner, out of the burning thionlight for just a moment. Surely, she can take that small indulgence in her service to the Dead. There was hoarfrost gathered here as well, in this corner away from the light of Thion, great filigrees of it, even finer than the carvings on the city’s stone. It felt wrong, to her, to see ice growing in a City. The City was for the dead and yet, even here, there was the sin of water, the root of life. Even here, there were her small indulgences.
“Master,” she said aloud, beginning a prayer, but she stopped herself.
Before, on her journey, she had stopped herself from praying out of custom, out of courtesy. She would not pray on a pilgrimage; she would not pray beneath the light of the dead sun Thion; that was the order of her School and the ways of the Dying. It had felt to her a deprivation after her whole life praying for every moment. It was another suffering to be borne, another sacrifice in service to the dead.
But now, here, in this city of white stone, the dead around her in every direction, she understood it in a new way. There was no Master here, no school, no orders. Those were for the dying, which was to say, they were for the living, that they may find their deaths. This City, though, was not for the living. It was for the dead. She was a trespasser here, even in her service. There was no law to guide her, no Master to oversee her. The dead did not need such things, surely. So she must decide for herself.
Was this what it meant to be a journeyman? That she must decide for herself?
“Then I must decide,” she said, aloud. Her words, her breath, so hot and living, seemed all the more extraordinary in the silence of the City: an intrusion, a blasphemy, but not unwelcome. Not a blasphemy, then, she corrected herself. “Blasphemy” was a word for the Schools. It was a word for the Dying. The dead were beyond any such offense.
She reached, impulsively, towards the frost beside her, but stopped herself. No.
She must decide for herself. She would decide not to. She would decide to move on.
Still, as she made her way through the city—past the carven skulls and the great mausolea and tiny, singular graves, each representing a war, so many wars, wars as large as all the galaxy and as small as a single life—she would see tucked here and there a shadow, and within each shadow was built generations of frost, and she yearned.
She should not yearn. But beneath the cloak, beneath the mask, beneath her skin and all the prayers and every word she had ever learned, beneath all the lessons of her teachers and the labors of her journeymen, there was an animal, a living thing that feared death. Life that yearned for water, for food, for children, above all for itself.
Water. Water. Water.
Without thinking, she reached for her knife that wasn’t there. She wanted to cut out her own tongue, to cut out her own heart, to cut herself to nothing, to cut away every part of her that yearned to live.
But she had no knife, not on a pilgrimage. No blood could be shed on this dead land.
She thought of the cancers that Thion was surely carving into her skin this very moment. They, too, yearned for life and yearned for water. She remembered the words of the Seventh Prophet:
Life calls itself to life
there will be no end to it
save for that the dying make
She stopped, and let down her coffin gently.
She thought that she might abandon them: the coffin and the dead man within. She might run off into the avenues to rub her burning shoulders with frost, her dry tongue with water. She was already in the City. Surely, it would not be abandoning the dead man if she failed to deliver him to his particular niche in his particular war’s particular mausoleum.
Instead, though, she knelt beside it. She wanted to kiss the coffin, but even the scant waters of her lips—no. Instead, she set her forehead against it. She did not pray—The dead are dead and cannot answer prayers—but she thought, and if she was so accustomed to prayers that her thoughts took the form of a prayer, then surely that could be forgiven.
You are silent.
You are still.
You are unwanting.
No thirst, no hunger, no pain in death.
Only the end of doing.
Lend me, for a moment, your uncaring death.
Lend me, for a moment, your unending peace.
Your death is infinite; no loan shall diminish it.
It is not for myself I ask for this.
It is only for my service to you and all the myriad dead.
She nearly ended her silent prayer with “That the Master grant me death,” as all her prayers had always ended, but stopped herself. The dead man was not a Master. He was dead.
She paused for a moment, waiting for some response. When she had prayed back at the Tenth School, she could feel the Master’s will, responding to her prayer, working its imperatives on her mind and heart and the school itself around her.
Here, though, there was nothing. Not even the familiar cold shudder of some distant will.
It was her fault. She knew no prayers were answered here—she never really thought—he was dead, which was to say is, she had been a fool to hope that her prayer might give her some relief.
It was impossible for him to grant her prayer or even to hear it.
Not one step backward but there were no prophets here, no Masters, no teachers. She was the only living thing on this half of the world, unless by chance there was some other apprentice on some other pilgrimage.
“I should stay,” she blasphemed to herself, even as the thionlight burned into her skin. “I should run feral and fallen. I should renounce every doctrine of the Dying, I should hide in the shadows and drink the hoarfrost and crack open the coffins and eat the dead. There is enough here in this city—every corpse of every war—that I would not thirst nor hunger for all the length of time, and after all that I should be no less than starving and thirsting, no worse off than now.”
She stood, but she did not take a step.
She breathed—in and out, three times—and hated the thing within her that demanded breath. Then she knelt, shouldered the coffin again, and made her way towards the center of the city.
It was some time before she reached the mausoleum of the crystal war, a grand complex that covered the whole center of the Fifth City, wings upon wings, corridors upon corridors. Unlike the other mausolea and crypts of the city, it was undecorated, entirely without words or carven skulls or even the subtlest of filigree, as if those who built this city at the beginning of time knew full well the enormity of grief it would eventually contain. So there was no decoration, only plain stairs into hallways, only great blocks of ancient stone.
Befitting the dead, its flat stone was black, but the side that faced Thion had been bleached white. Impulsively, she reached out to touch a pillar as she finished her ascent of a side stairway. The layer of white, rotten stone crumbled to powder even at her lightest touch, revealing the pure black beneath.
She shook in fear and embarrassment, to have left the mark of her passing on this sacred place. “But what of it?” she thought. “I have been here. That is no less than the truth. So let that be the mark of my passage. It is as good a record as any history.” Still, she did not touch another wall.
Inside the mausoleum, it was dark, except for the occasional shafts of painful thionlight from some entrance or another. When it was dark, she could almost convince herself that she was back in the cool, winding corridors of the Tenth School. It was only the silence that divulged her true location. But when there was light, she could see the walls—lined with endless coffins, stacked neatly upon each other in ordered rows, each in its place—and she knew that she was in truth as far away from her school as it was possible to walk, among the dead and beneath a dead star.
“I love you,” she said once to the dead, quietly, because she did. It was not a sin, and yet she felt ashamed.
Eventually, she reached the shadowed side of the mausoleum, and after that there was no light at all. Still, she knew the way as she had learned it by heart in the Tenth School, remembering the words of her teacher, each step, each turn, until she came at last to the dead man’s specific niche, his specific planet that he had died failing to defend, his specific battalion, squadron, unit, place. Not trusting her memory, she felt with her hands and found the place, an opening in the wall—two openings, she felt now, one next to another.
She wondered if these were the last two unhallowed dead of all the crystal war.
Hefting her coffin once again, with the strength of the last moments of her task, the most important task she had ever performed, she lifted the coffin up into its place—his place—and then pushed it until it slid satisfyingly into position.
Until she did it, she did not realize how tired she was. It was no sin, to sleep upon a pilgrimage, only to dream, and she was certain that she was too tired for dreaming. She closed her eyes, breathed in again, and leaned against the wall of coffins. Slowly, unevenly, she slid down until she sat at the base of the wall, eyes closed, surrounded in all directions by the embrace of the hallowed dead, and let herself fall at last into a deep and untroubled sleep.
Sometime later, she will wake. She will stand. She will walk out of the mausoleum, out of this timeless city, away from the dead, back up the slopes of scree and across the gravel plains and back to her school, the Tenth School, arriving at last as a journeyman. She will take her new place among the dying, with her own teachers to serve, her own apprentices to foster.
Sometime later, she will wake. But for now, she is still. For now, she sleeps. For now, she is indistinguishable from all the other dead in this pure and ancient city.
About the Author
P H Lee lives on top of an old walnut tree, past a thicket of roses, down a dead end street at the edge of town. Their work has appeared in many venues including Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Uncanny Magazine. From time to time, they microwave and eat a frozen burrito at two in the morning, for no reason other than that they want to.
Please visit LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the February 2024 issue, which also features work by Stewart C Baker, Mari Ness, Everdeen Mason, Wen-yi Lee, Christopher Rowe, KT Bryski, Phoebe Barton, and more. You can wait for this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition here.
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