The wind that came to Pilgrin was sudden, mighty, and brief. The gale came not from the harbor, but from the grave sands of Sheol and its ocean of barren waste. In its wake came a man or, at least, something that was once a man. It walked on weary legs, saw with piercing eyes, and spoke with a voice unlike anything the souls and sailors of Pilgrin had ever heard.
Then, one by one, it began to take them. To where, no one was able to say. But he came, into markets, homes, and hiding places. When he departed, only echoes remained. There was no lock, no barrier that could dissuade him. He entered wherever wished, leaving each room empty save for the smell of human fear.
Few dispatches made it past the city gates. By the time word reached Rabinadat and other ports of call, the streets of Pilgrin had been retaken by the Sheol sand. The man was gone, stolen away with more than three hundred beating hearts.
They found the Sower in the practice yard, with the sweat of the morning’s exercise staining the rocks beneath his feet. As the students watched from the shade of the canopies, Lias lashed out at the sparring doll, sending it spinning away in alarm. His hands cut through the air, and the soles of his bare feet slapped against the ground. The ceramic figure was tall, willowy, made up of segments and held together by a sputter of static. It sensed Lias’ intentions and pivoted, swinging one of its legs up and around in a pirouette of defense. Undeterred, the Sower advanced.
The morning sun had burned the clouds from the sky, warming the damp earth of the yard. Waves of heat rose from the ground, buffeting the old man as he spun and stretched over the mud, grass, and broken stones that littered the practice ring. His lungs ached and his eyes stung, but the singing in his muscles drove him ever harder toward his target.
The doll had reached the edge of the ring, mere inches from a tattered wall. It flung its arms backward, crude hands carving a deep rut in the mud brick. It rebounded, bringing its many-jointed arms down in a hammer’s arc. Lias ducked away from the blow, rolling around his opponent and lashing out, his palm flattened like a knife. He struck the doll in the nape of its neck, registered the final strike. The construct crumpled to the ground, its limbs clacking into a pile of disjointed parts.
He let his hands fall, inhaling the scent of the dawning day. One breath, two, before Lias turned to study his audience. Three acolytes had been sent to fetch him. Jason, he thought. With Nefir and Tunis. Disciples of Sower Christopher, if he recalled correctly. These three, like their master, were notorious for their devotion to the rituals and forms of the Attuned. Perhaps that was why Lias despised them so.
“Sower,” said Jason, stepping forward and bending at the waist. He was the oldest of the boys, his self-importance perched atop his shoulder like an unruly pet. “Your presence is requested in the sanctrum. Something has… transpired.”
Beneath the veneer of the acolyte’s arrogance, Lias could sense something strange. The slump in his spine and voice was atypical of Christopher’s disciples. The boy was rattled, though he was trying not to appear so. His companions, too, looked similarly worse for wear. The shuffling of their sandaled feet betrayed their unease.
“Who has died?” said Lias, directing his questions toward the silent two. Or who lives.
After a moment of silence, it was Tunis, the youngest and most troubled, who raised a reply.
“They didn’t tell us,” he said, in a voice like an empty jar. Remembering himself, he quickly added the elder’s proper title. “S-sower. We were told to bring you. Right away.”
Lias nodded, placing both hands on his hips and stretching the knots in his back. He ignored the others, addressing Tunis with a wave of his hand. “Alright. Lead on.”
He followed them, through the low passages of the new temple and into the vaulted halls of the old. It was more than just their association with Christopher that troubled him. Lias and the other Sowers rarely saw eye to eye, but his distaste for these particular disciples ran deeper than that. Jason and Nefir came from highborn families, rich with the profits of their forefathers. Their time beneath the ground had been easy, soft. Their sires had seen to their every need, providing ample water and nourishment. They’d even been given special suits, designed to alleviate the earth’s pressure on their bodies. And drugs, of course, to ensure that most of their burial was spent in dreams.
Tunis, the young man with animal eyes, was a different story entirely. He’d earned his entrance into the Temple the hard way. His burial had lasted ten days, when the resurrection men confused his place beneath the earth. His water had run out on the sixth day, as was to be expected in the poorer candidates. Without drugs to calm him or water to slake his thirst, the young man had sunken into a panic. As his family made their halfhearted attempts to find his body, he’d taken to eating the worms and other insects that crawled through the soil near his teeth. Thought they finally pried him from the earth, Tunis had left the better part of his reason beneath the ground. His resurrection had been hailed as a miracle by the people of the backwater mining village where he’d been born. It was this legendary story that had propelled him all the way to Rabinadat, and into Christopher’s care.
Now dirty-faced Tunis, who spoke little and ate less, walked ahead of Lias as they made their way through the twisting hallways of the Attuned Temple.
Lias remembered everything about the day he’d gone beneath the ground. Try as they might, the ensuing decades had done little to soften the pain of recollection.
He’d woken abruptly, his father’s hand pressing between his shoulder blades. For a moment he didn’t move, remaining on his belly beneath the empty cloth sack he used as a blanket. Finally, another shove had prompted Lias to rise.
He recalled the expressions his parents had worn that day. The memory of candlelight against the cave wall forever muddled their features. But even an eight year old’s eyes could read the grief frozen about their brows and lips. When both his father and mother surrendered their meager shares of the morning’s meal to him, he’d been perplexed. His gaze moved over the three slabs of dried rice cake they placed in his lap, then up into his father’s eyes. The man loomed over him in the damp and dark, his tangled hair and beard thick with the soil of the fields. He pointed to the meal with one paw-like hand.
“Eat, Lias. For strength.”
They’d made him finish each of the thin, stale slabs. Between bites, his mother raised a small earthen flask to his lips. The water was cool, chilled by the night air that whistled outside the entrance of the drainage tunnel they’d taken for shelter. Again and again he swallowed, feeling the water as it softened the dried bits of rice that clung to his teeth. His father sat against the earthen wall as Lias ate. The man’s eyes were closed, his beard cocked toward the smoke and stains at top of the cave. In only a few days, they would be forced to find new shelter. The winter storms would seal this place as surely as if the entrance were covered with stones.
That must be what this was about, Lias thought. They were going somewhere new and didn’t want to carry the extra food. An inn, maybe? He’d eaten at one in the village once, just before his older brother had been put beneath the ground.
Kerry. In those days, his family still lived in a hut near the edge of Terrace, with a view of the city and its spans across the mirrored mountains. You could see all the way into the valley from their hovel’s single window. He and Kerry had loved to watch the sun as it sank behind the opposing slopes, calling to the flocks of cave birds whenever they were allowed to watch from the canyon’s edge. It was during one of these vigils that the older boy told Lias of his plan to go beneath.
The meal at the inn was one of celebration. They’d spent several days’ worth of wages on the affair, eating until they could hold no more. Kerry had been seated next to his father, his gray eyes aglow in the position of honor. He was so proud. They all were, really. He was the first member of their family to undergo the Ordeal. Six days beneath the ground, and his destiny would be fulfilled. Surely the bounty paid by the Attuned would repay whatever their celebration cost.
When he crammed the last bits of rice into his mouth, Lias thought of his brother’s laugh.
He never forgot the moons from the morning of his own Ordeal. They’d loomed above, first as he emerged from the tunnel, and then as the burial hid them from sight. The air had been cold, making callow swirls of his breath. He remembered the great torrents of steam flowing from his father’s mouth, so massive against the shallow ghosts trailing from the lips of his mother. They had begun their journey just as the sun crested the horizon. By the time they reached the temple stream, he could feel the rising warmth on his shoulders.
His father had halted, motioning to the rushing water. “Drink,” was all he’d said. His mother took him by the hand, stepping gingerly toward the bubbling edge. She knelt with him, dipping her hands into the flow and bringing them to his lips. Lias wasn’t fast enough. By the time he downed two sips, the rest of the water had flowed from the cracks in her fingers. Again, she filled her palms in the stream. Over and over, the child drank. All the while, his mother stared. After the third draught, he could no longer taste the salt from her skin. The water washed away all, filling the gaps in his distended belly.
After several minutes, Lias could take no more. His father, unsatisfied, had taken him by the shoulders and pushed his head toward the surface of the stream. But, when his mother cautioned that he might retch, the old man relented. Indeed, Lias’ stomach was churning. He rose, slowly, breathing as deeply as his body would allow.
It wasn’t until he saw the open hole that he truly realized what was about to happen. Then, from the moment the first shovel of dirt covered his eyes, there was almost nothing.
He wasn’t sure when the storm had come. The third, maybe the fourth day. He remembered the swelling around him, the pressure as the soil took on moisture. While he drifted in and out of consciousness, the waters above flooded the tunnel his mother and father had shared with him. Drunk on cheap wine and sorrow, they drowned in their sleep.
Tunis, at least, had had someone to dig him up. When Lias’ family failed to return, he’d clawed his way from beneath the earth.
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