Check out The Pilgrims, the first volume in Will Elliott’s Pendulum Trilogy, available March 18th from Tor Books!
Eric Albright is a twenty-six-year-old journalist living in London. That is to say he would be a journalist if he got off his backside. But this luckless slacker isn’t all bad—he has a soft spot for his sometimes friend Stuart Casey, the homeless old drunk who mostly lives under the railway bridge near his flat.
Eric is willing to let his life just drift by…until the day a small red door appears on the graffiti-covered wall of the bridge, and a gang of strange-looking people—Eric’s pretty sure one of them is a giant—dash out of the door and rob the nearby newsagent. From that day on Eric and Case haunt the arch, waiting for the door to reappear.
When it does, both Eric and Case choose to go through, and enter the land of Levaal…
The Arch Mage and four Strategists stand grim-faced and silent in the dark hall, watching. The most powerful men in the world, they are here, in the vast castle’s innermost chambers, reduced to spectators. It is an ugly feeling. Vous, their Friend and Lord, stands on a small balcony with his back to them. Light shines from his rigid body in thin, shifting beams, which run over the walls like small searchlights, and over the watchers’ skin with a touch that is icy cold.
The balcony is carved from blood-red stone and Vous’s hands, tensely gripping its rail, look white as bone. Below him is a deep square room once used for lecturing apprentice magicians, though it is now for all intents and purposes a pit. In it a few hundred people crowd and jostle, peering up, trying to stay on their feet in the press of bodies. They are packed in tight. The stuffy ozone-scented air here is rife with strange magic, so most of them hardly remember being marched in by guards from the castle gates, where they’d trekked from starving cities to seek work. They were fed, ordered to bathe, then brought naked to this room where it was too dark to see the person next to them. The lights playing about the room’s walls did nothing to relieve the darkness, and looked as though they shimmered on the surface of water, rather than on slabs of polished tile.
Now these lights fall on the people below, and a strange feeling comes over them, as though their being here, their jostling and shoving and trying to stay upright, are thrusts and heaves in a slightly sickening, yet potently sexual act between them and their Lord. Minutes ago, the door they had come through clanged noisily and inescapably shut.
It’s a surprise, of course, to find Vous himself here above them, a figure almost of myth, seeming to have stepped out from the history books. Many gaze up at him with awe. Here is a being they are instructed to swear to, to pray to, as though he is a god. Some of them have heard old men in taverns curse his name with hot, angry tears, seldom daring to explain their grievances aloud. And now, well within a stone’s throw, there he stands: someone who changed the world with the very same bone-white hands now resting on the balcony rail. With the very same voice soon to speak to them.
Though it’s dark, Vous himself is well lit, his silk gown exposing one flank from hip to shoulder, his young-looking face frozen in glaring intensity. So slight and slender he seems to the Strategists standing behind his glowing body; but his short stature is totally warped now in the eyes of those below. They can see no higher than his balcony, for the chamber’s tall ceiling is concealed in the gloom; but an occasional beam of light, sweeping high on the tile walls, hints at hidden shapes up there.
This ‘speech’ has the Arch Mage curious, the Strategists uneasy. They have acquiesced, of course; even though, while he is their Lord, Vous is not so much obeyed these days as handled. The Arch Mage alone does not look at him — he cannot. The many wards and charms about Vous’s neck and on his fingers reduce him to a painful red blur in the Arch Mage’s sight. Vous insists on wearing them, fearful of a magical attack which has never, in reality, been contemplated. But the Arch Mage can see the light playing about the hall, and feel its cold touch. He knows Vous is not a user of magic; he is rather a force of magic. Nor is he any longer wholly human, though he still looks it. It is a century’s progress on display. When he will actually become a Great Spirit, no one knows. Years, another century, or days? Or — and the Arch Mage’s heart quickens — this very hour?
“Friend and Lord,” Vous murmurs at last, seemingly to himself. “Their Friend and Lord. I am their Friend and Lord.” His eyes clench shut. Some below are surprised to see tears run down his face. “You have come,” he says to them, and says no more for nine long minutes. From above, the jostling hundreds are little more than the gleam of their eyes peering up.
At last Vous continues: “You have come. You are here, as I willed. I, who brought you here, with but a few muttered instructions. You are here.”
Someone beneath coughs.
“You will think, perhaps, that you have angered me somehow.” Tears still flow down his cheeks, and his voice chokes up. “You will perhaps think… it is some quirk of the Project, some mistake. But you should know the truth. I do this to you… knowingly. I do this to you with foreknowledge. I do this to you with, even this passing second, the power in my hand, easily, to stop it being done. And choosing, instead, to do it. Further, I do this to you, gaining no pleasure, but also with no real purpose, with nothing at all accomplished from the… the deed. The deed to be done. To you.”
A murmur ripples through the room like a breeze, then others say, “Shh, shh,” and the breeze is gone.
Their Friend and Lord’s body shakes with grief and he clutches the rail like someone about to collapse. “When I was a younger man,” he says, “I had dreams filled with beautiful things, beautiful places. I had meant, one day, to capture this beauty, freeze it in time, so it could not die, so it lived forever against the natural pull of rot. Before that could be done, I had to wade through much pain, blood, war and murder, of which a sea still lies before me. And now, though I need not venture sideways, or backwards, or even pause in the drowning depths… and though jewels and flowers are at last in reach like flotsam on the waves… I still look onwards, bravely, towards that time of which I dreamed. Yet here, in this moment, I choose to craft something else. Something that is not beauty.”
More tears stream down his face and fall on those directly below the balcony, catching light which makes them look like gleaming gems. Above Vous’s head a shape in the darkness moves, and another anxious murmur sweeps through those below. Their Friend and Lord raises a hand for quiet, and receives it. He begins to sing: “Last sight, last sight. Last sound, last sound. My face, my voice. My face, my voice. Shadow, Shadow. You are, Shadow.”
A scream erupts and is chorused by all those below as light suddenly blooms upwards and reveals the shapes on the ceiling. Malformed beastly faces are lined all across it: large, rust-coloured and reptilian, wide jaws open, with long sharp teeth. They seem at first little more than horrid decorations, sculptures perhaps or painted statues, too hideous to be real. Then the wide, flat eyes all open at once, and the mouths all gnash with a furious sound of clashing teeth: clack, clicketyclack, clickety-clack…
Though he sings quietly, Vous’s voice can somehow still be heard through all this, and through the panicking screams. “Shadow, Shadow. Watch me, Shadow. Shadow, Shadow…”
One of the heads suddenly descends on a long, rubbery stretch of flesh, falling clumsily amongst the group. Whether it is a machine or actually alive is hard to tell. Its jaws slam shut. It pulls quickly back up to the ceiling with the others. A spray of blood flies in an arc from the lump dropping out of its mindlessly snapping jaws.
Closer to the balcony, another of the snapping heads descends and bites, and the crowd tries to push away. Another drops heavily from the ceiling’s middle. Then two at the sides fall at once. Steadily as thrown punches, the lethal jaws fall into the cringing, screaming mob; arms, heads, sometimes whole torsos drop from the retracting mouths and fall back into it. There is an impotent push for the door. Soon they are all wet with showering blood, slipping and stumbling over each other for a few more seconds of life.
The Arch Mage alone can see with clarity the strange ripples spiralling and building in the room from all the death in these unstable magic airs. It is not structured enough to be a practised, deliberately created spell, as such, and that is truly alarming, for there yet seems a deliberate intent in the patterns at work. He also senses the direction towards which these ripples are already being drawn: back behind the castle, to the long high valley near the entry point to Otherworld. What this may imply fills him with terror, but he keeps it well cloaked and his voice calm. “Some measure of instability is a good thing, don’t forget,” he says quietly. “It means the Project is succeeding.” The Strategists do not reply.
It goes on for a long time. Vous sings, and weeps.
Eric did not believe in ghosts, and was therefore quite surprised to wake from a vivid nightmare — people were in a pit, being killed by he wasn’t sure what — to find one standing in the middle of his bedroom. It seemed to be a man draped in white silk, to Eric’s eye not unlike a Roman emperor. It flickered like an image cast by an old projector. A white glow filled the room about it.
For a few long seconds Eric and this stranger eyed each other. Then the ghost’s arms rose as though to embrace him, its mouth opened, and words came out despite the lips not moving to form them. “Last sight, last sound, last sight, last sound…” it sang in a voice thin and high-pitched: just about the most frightening sound Eric had ever heard.
He sat up, part of him as fascinated as the other part was afraid. “What does that mean?” he said. “Who are you?”
“Shadow, you are called,” the ghost said.
Eric rubbed his eyes and then the ghost wasn’t there. There was only the shard of street light spearing through the window to fall on the Captain America comic book he’d spent three-quarters of an hour desperately trying to find earlier that night.
He flipped on the bedside lamp, grabbed the comic and had trouble reading it at first for the shaking of his hands. By morning, he’d actually managed to convince himself it was a dream. And just maybe it was.
Though it goes by another name there, the game of chess came into Levaal with one early group of human Pilgrims from Otherworld. They brought other things with them too — the way days and hours are measured, systems of numbers, measurements and more, all gladly adopted (for some reason) by the cities and temples. They brought seeds of plant and vegetable, which have grown here and thrived. Also species of bird and beast, including the very useful horses and dogs. Weapons too: bows and arrows, plate and chain mail, kinds of blades until then unknown here. And chess, chequers and backgammon, as well as other fine games.
The Arch Mage sits in his tower; light comes thinly through the high window and falls upon his half-melted face. Magic is not kind to those who use it, and it is hard to tell, looking at the Arch Mage, how gently he has been treated considering the vast amount of power that has gone through his ancient, ruined body. About his study are parchments on stands, with ink scrawled across them in writings nearly incomprehensible, even to him. These are composed spells in progress. Most are far too ambitious to ever be cast or attempted: a mere hobby, the way an alchemist might play with poisons. A homesick drake scratches about at the floor of its cage, the deep red shine completely gone from its scales, the flame dead in its throat as it waits to see what use its captor has for it, other than the pleasure of possessing such a rare creature — and the occasional extraction of its blood. There are jars filled with what appear to be smoky curls of coloured mist, which are rare power types found only here, in the castle’s inner airs: purified and concentrated thus, they are priceless. If destruction were to come to this room, it would be these jars the Arch Mage would run to, out of all his charms and treasures, to clutch to his chest as he fled.
Not that he wouldn’t mourn the loss of the old tomes lining the shelves in their hundreds. Possession of these books was once the cause of feuds and almost outright wars between the old schools of magic. Even the Arch Mage battles to comprehend some of the grave secrets written therein. He is occasionally saddened it was necessary to kill off the world’s major magicians… it would be nice to ask their thoughts. Then again, it was nice to pluck each tome from the smashed safe or chest of its ruined temple.
The Arch Mage views through the window glass the world he knows: Levaal, which is his chess board. He beholds its pieces, many of which are still stubbornly arrayed against him. Other pieces move indifferently, ignoring the human opponents facing off, trampling as they like across the squares while all others duck aside, waiting for them to pass.
Many old, mighty pieces — the five schools of magic, the halfgiants, and more — have long been knocked off the board, for they were great threats to the Project. Their removal was difficult, perhaps the Arch Mage’s greatest accomplishment.
The Great Spirits are a different matter. They simply have limited interest in the games and affairs of humans, or so history claims. Which is not to say their presence doesn’t make the Arch Mage nervous, and take up large portions of his thought; the Project after all is about creating a Great Spirit from a man and perhaps, one day, facing off against the others. That will be a new game altogether.
Still, the Arch Mage has almost won the game in progress, the game of human rule and control. The six remaining Free Cities are his opponents, and they are in a very bad position — worse, it seems, than they themselves know. They do not yet know of Tormentors from beyond World’s End, but they soon shall. In months, another of the Free Cities may well fall and become Aligned with the castle. The rest will follow. To speed the process up would be pleasing.
The drake gives up its scratching on the cage floor and falls asleep. With a sigh, the Arch Mage reflects on the day’s events, and realises Vous no longer plays the same game as he does. No longer pondering moves by his side, now Vous is a piece on the board, a piece moving in its own directions, with no care where he, the Arch Mage, wishes to place it.
The Strategists, after today, have realised it too. What distresses them is not what happened to the peasants, of course; they themselves, like the Arch Mage, have given orders resulting in far more deaths than today’s, and they shed no more tears for peasants than they would for culled livestock or felled trees. Rather, what disquiets is the fire of their Lord’s personality spreading too wide, too quickly. Being close to it, they are perhaps right to worry.
The Arch Mage wonders how a more gentle, timid man would have fared in Vous’s place at this stage of the Project. And he begins to wish he had such a man on the throne now.
In the far distance, he sees the spiralling, winding thread of disturbed magic going skywards like a wavy line drawn in pencil across the white sky, indicating a powerful spell has been cast that way. A war mage, most likely; he does not concern himself with it. More troubling to him is the speck flying towards the clouds, then gone. It is an Invia, surely off to visit the dragon-youth in their sky prisons. They are pieces on the board he doesn’t know well.
Other Invia have lingered in the air behind the castle for some days now. What interests them here? A possibility disturbs his thoughts and demands to be examined, however unlikely: when people come through into Levaal from Otherworld, the entry point is behind the castle.
The thought is new, and troubling, and connects immediately with another: one of the Strategists claims that Vous was in that valley himself some days ago, walking with his head bowed, hands clasped behind his back. That Vous has left the upper floors at all, much less the castle, is very strange. And the Arch Mage has felt himself the pull from those strange rippling effects, like blind groping tentacles reaching for that spot, for the entry point…
Otherworld. People from that mysterious place are not wanted on the Arch Mage’s board, where already there are too many free and mighty pieces beyond his hand. From the Hall of Windows he has glimpsed their world and what he has seen disturbs him. They command no traditional magic, it appears, but much machinery that looks magical. He has seen weaponry that left him sleepless for days with fear and desire. He has seen pillars of flame beneath enormous clouds shaped like mushrooms, and wondered if he were dreaming.
To open the gap between worlds is high, high magic; a human would not survive even a failed attempt at it. But Vous is not human any more. The Arch Mage pictures him lurking near the entry point in that high green valley. It is likely that Vous doesn’t even have a reason for being there; he is under the influence of much more than his scattered human brain. The Arch Mage thinks: Not a user of magic, a force of magic, and his worry grows.
In chess, you cannot take your own pieces off the board, only invite your opponent to do so. His opponents — the Free Cities — have not wits or will left among them to take Vous away, and leave room for a new, more suitable replacement. The Arch Mage himself dares not try it. The only way it can be done is by Vous’s own choosing.
The sky’s lightstones begin to fade. The Arch Mage thinks long into the night, but just two things keep seizing his thoughts. He summons a war mage, sends it to guard the high valley behind the castle and orders it to kill everything that comes through, for the entry point is one thing his thoughts linger on. The other, about which he has less certainty, is the word ‘shadow’.
The Pilgrims © Will Elliott, 2014