Old Peavey stoked the morning cookfire with the last of his cord of tanglewood, already dreading the momentous day ahead. Moot would be waking soon; if only the poor boy would choose to stay abed just this once...
“Granddad! Good morning, Granddad!”
Blast. Well. Best get to it, then.
Moot hobbled down the warped wooden stairs from his sleeping place in the loft. His crutch tapped with each labored step, a sound that saddened Peavey to the soul. The boy was thin and sunken-eyed, as were all of the faithful after years of paltry nutrition, and burdened since birth with a leg that would never support his weight.
Stairs conquered, Moot tossed aside his nightshirt and crutch and cranked open the window. Steam-bells from the great Minster rolled in, tolling the morning angelus and announcing the revels of the day—a joyful noise incongruent with the sullen place.
“Good morning to you as well,” Old Peavey said. “And what there do you see?”
“I see angels, Granddad.”
Peavey looked over the boy’s shoulder. The view from their only window offered up nothing but chimney pots, rooftops, and the roughly hewn wall of the house next door.
Peavey sighed. There were so many garish affectations of this day that Moot could have envisioned through the eye of his artistically gifted mind: the bedizenments and banners; the revels of the crowds; the foppery of the Archbishop and her entourage as they paraded through the more seemly districts of the parish; the tourney and games; the Offering of the Ascendant. The boy could have instead imagined any of these things. But no.
He saw the dratted angels.
Old Peavey did not spoil his grandson’s excitement. Moot held as truth the blessing that had sustained their fragile community since Peavey had been no more than a boy himself. Peavey may have actually believed it once or twice as well, and had that not in and of itself served his people’s greater purpose? Peavey would leave that to minds much less weary than his own. Too many good souls had come and been lost in the hard years since. If not for Moot, the annual coming of the angels would have no meaning for Peavey at all.
“Can you hear them, Granddad?” Moot asked. “Can you hear the bells? Can you smell the bonfires and cakes?”
After so many decades, all Peavey smelled was brimstone from the crater lake, but he humored the boy as best he could. He set their meager breakfast—fried bread, taproots, and a dour approximation of cheese—on a table once used for the study of maps but now strewn with Moot’s chisels and paintbrushes.
In title and rank, Peavey was curate of the Cartographers Guild. In practice, the guild consisted of no more than Peavey himself and two young postulants, who performed odd jobs for the other guilds and quizzed one another on the names of places they would never see. The parish had no need of maps—nor of map makers, for that matter—when no one had ventured beyond the perilous abyssal walls in generations.
But the day at hand beckoned; he’d best get to it. As the eldest among the faithful, and the last to have beheld fabled Albion with his own weakening eyes, Old Peavey had a responsibility to be present—though the burden was ever harder to bear. For that which he and his fellows had done to survive, Peavey knew that they would surely meet their ends in damnation.
If they had not been damned already.
Something was wrong.
Apprentice Cartographer Elsdon Peavey III awoke with a start, dazed with pain, deafened by the screams of the animals, lacerations cut into every inch of his exposed skin. A quick glance confirmed that his fellow scholars had fared no better. Supply crates and provisions were upended and burning; heavy conveyances both horse-drawn and motorized were damaged beyond repair.
Young Peavey had felt the explosion the moment he’d stepped through the Mirror, yet such a calamity in and of itself should not have been possible at all. The cadre of academicians from each of the Natural Sciences, commissioned by the university of which he was proudly a part, had set out to catalogue this newly opened and as yet unnamed orb at the very edge of the Aetherial Deep. Or so was the intention.
The Great Mirrors were not mundane mechanisms of clockwork or gears. They were alchemic doorways of commerce and empire, bridges that spanned the length and breadth of Greater Albion and the entirety of Her Eternal Majesty’s Dominions Upon the Earth and Beyond the Skies. A Mirror could not simply burst apart like an overheated boiler or common kettle.
And yet one had.
All that remained of their point of ingress was a field of shattered glass one hundred yards in width. And no way home, unless Albion reassembled the door.
Prior expeditionists had reported this Aspect to be lush and temperate. The ghastly realm was anything but; a millstone for which these student scientists were not prepared.
Hastily mounted surveys determined that they had landed upon the inner slope of a vast flooded abyss—a volcanic pit measuring some 3,500 square miles, the largest to be catalogued in all of known Creation. One of six abyssal pits, in point of fact, overlapping within one another, four-fifths of which were submerged beneath the cold black waters of a crater lake.
Spotters utilizing weather balloons reported nothing beyond the abyssal walls but mountain upon mountain in a wilderness of gunmetal gray—some venting steam from their gaping summits, others silent and cold, all of them looming and sheathed in ice, stretching to the ends of the earth in every direction.
The scientists were alone, trapped in a hole at the top of the World. No known Aspect, this, but a near-vertical mélange of fire and ice, lost in the uncharted immensity of the Deep.
They named it Perdition.
Bathed, dressed, and their matins completed, Peavey and Moot left their small apartment in the Geographers District, now defunct, and made their way through town to the tourney fields, Peavey taking care to match pace with his grandson’s steady limp. Metal pipes and conduits buttressed the stone houses and workshops; the faithful had long used water from Perdition’s volcanic hot springs to heat their homes and public baths. Gas jets housed in angel-shaped sconces burned merrily to ward off the morning fog and shadows. The Sun barely reached the lanes’ lichen-stained pavers, this abyss was so deep.
Of the parish as a whole, angels adorned every inch. They were tooled into woodwork and window casements, lintels and pilasters; painted onto stone. Moot never tired of pointing out the artistry of the winged sculptures—many of which he himself had assisted in carving—that perched atop columns and loomed above the warrens and alleyways, while a veritable host stood watch over the charterhouses of the holy scientific orders and the Guildhall Great Minster, seat of the Archbishop herself.
Peavey could not fault Moot’s skill nor the beauty of the boy’s work. No, it was the subject matter that cut into his heart, even now. Moot cherished his beliefs so deeply; if his faith were ever shaken, it would surely devastate him. He was so very much like his grandmother in that regard.
Once again Peavey found himself reminiscing of Bess, though perhaps it was just the wanderings of an old man’s mind: whether or not she would have approved of the way he had raised her daughter alone, or how he had taken in Moot after the boy had been orphaned as well. The lie had cost them all so much.
Death had become his long-time companion.
He and Moot exchanged pleasantries with the bishops and clerics of other guilds as they passed. The courts were thick with passersby shooing away the tiny armored ash-hoppers from underfoot while weaving through carts heavily laden for the revels, drawn by traction engines and great hunchbacked crabs. Peavey was addressed as “Curate” or “Guildmaster” in middling respect for his age, while those who’d never troubled to learn Moot’s name simply called out to him with “Ha there, boy.”
In the center of town, Harper’s Common had been remade once again to host the festal grounds in traditional ostentation. Confessionals sat upon every corner. The faithful were lousy with meaningless ecclesiastical titles, which extended to the parish bawdyhouse and its Abbess of Ministrant Sisters. Vendors bartered wares from open-air stalls and pushcarts: the self-appointed Parsons of Piss Pots, Vicars of Soap and Candlewax, Rectors of Merkins and Rags; while cookhouses offered toasted seeds and legumes, sweetroots, and fried batters.
The tourney would feature jousts, the melee, and various other displays of skill by champions selected from each of the great houses. Their preparatory ablutions were performed in the open and bolstered by supportive hurrahs from the crowd; naked, bathed, anointed with oils and chrism, and shaved of all hair from the body. Some were clearly still in adolescence. Moot knew and cheered them all.
“Who do you imagine will win the rations today?” he asked of Peavey.
The rations, yes, when the Ascendant’s guild would be awarded its windfall of provisions, enough to last the season. It was a question that Moot keenly pondered every year, before every tourney, but there was a difference in his voice this year. Purposeful, as if the query held a deeper meaning that Peavey could not discern.
“Well now,” Peavey answered, humoring the boy between mouthfuls of toasted seeds. “The Geologists have been quite impressive this year, and are favored. But do not overlook the Physicians or Alchemy. An upset would not surprise me in the least,” he added with a wink.
Moot’s smile was radiant as he weighed the possibilities.
Platforms raised above the broken landscape hosted lesser contests, feats of swordplay, archery, and academics. The principle events were staged within the bulwarks that had enclosed the original camp, still called the Horse Guards, even though the last horse on Perdition had died long before Moot’s mother had been born. Bright music and pageantry lacked for nothing, and cookfires were set up in preparation for the end of the day. Bone-thin children darted about and squealed, bashing one another with toy weapons and lion-hearted bravado.
Scientists, not settlers, was what they were.
High-minded children of the Great Machines. Theirs was a realm of gears and inquiry and scholarly argumentations. None were equipped for long-term occupation on this most dratted of Worlds. The very idea of survival seemed doomed from the start.
Men and women alike died one after the next in treks to secure resources from beyond the abyssal rim: crushed by falling rocks; frostbitten in the high passes; swept away in rivers, storms, and snow; eviscerated by clawed monstrosities that scuttled from dark-watered pools. All the while anticipating a rescue by Queen and Country that would never come.
Provisions and foodstuffs became scarce, their meat animals too quickly gone. The principal forms of life on the Aspect were great sightless crustaceans, sixty-seven species classified thus far, all of them inedible.
The bed of the vast Hadean Sea, as the crater lake had come to be called (an appellation that irked the mapmaker Peavey to no end for its blatant inexactitude) was tectonically active. Its befouled waters were saturated with heavy gases and elements roiling up from the chthonic depths below. A primordial soup to which the beasts of Perdition were starkly adapted but noxious to Men born of Earth.
Consuming the native crustaceans had given rise to bone cancers and rotting ulcers of the skin, from which death was a cruel relief. The scientists would learn to survive on a nutritionally barren diet of earthborn grains, supplemented in caution with native plants.
In time the tolls for the dead lessened and a facsimile of balance was sustained. The survivors formed guilds from their respective fields to better structure the camp. Bartering for food and services followed shortly thereafter, and order at last prevailed, as long as they focused their disciplines on the immediate needs at hand.
So they turned their backs to the World that beckoned beyond the abyssal rim, cut off from Albion’s saving grace and the Mechanized Gods who’d forsaken them.
Old Peavey and Moot took to their seats among the tiers of galleries and viewing boxes that rose along either side of the arena, which presented commanding vistas of the mountains Dis and Abaddon to the west, the smoldering Isles of Cerberus off the lakeshore, and the towering Golgothas behind them. They had arrived just in time to make use of the kneeling bench as the Archbishop’s second, currently the High Deacon of Botany, led the call to worship. Unison lauds and litanies, read from the small breviaries Peavey and Moot had pulled from their pockets, followed by the Roll of Arms.
Heralds and drummers entered the arena through Saint Elsabeth’s Gate, bedecked in the colors of the competing guilds, and were soon succeeded by the champions themselves, armored in plates of native bone and crustacean shell.
From gatehouse walls heavy with moss hung the heraldic devices of past tourneys’ winning guilds, one for every year since the games’ inception, captured forever in native stone—material that Moot knew so well. But the arms of the Cartographers Guild were not among them.
“One day, Granddad, yours shall be there for all the World to see,” said Moot with a certainty that only underscored his innocence. He never took his eyes from the field. “I will make you proud.”
“You do every day,” said Peavey. Moot would never compete, of course; his crippled leg had negated that possibility the moment he had come into this World, and for that Old Peavey was selfishly grateful.
It was all so pretentious, the tourney and subsequent Offering. Not at all reflective of the logic and order that had been established by the Great Machines in Peavey’s youth. Bread and circuses, it had been called in the Before Time, long prior the coming of Instrumental Enlightenment. Bestow upon the poor masses enough diversion and spectacle, and they won’t realize how wretched their lives have actually become.
Bess would have hated this.
Then in came the coursers, and the jousting began. Riders astride native night-terrors were knocked from their mounts at each pass and fell prey to opposing claws sheathed in steel. Some merely lost an arm or leg while others were cut clean in two, as the faithful in the galleries roared their righteous approval. Peavey noted that Geology was faring as handsomely as expected, and wagers to be paid in grain and meat flew back and forth with lightening speed. Hospitallers removed the severed limbs and the dying from the gore-strewn field of volcanic sand, wranglers distracting the wickedly swift terrors as the next bout was made ready.
Moot watched the proceedings with an intensity that Peavey had not witnessed in previous years. His eyes glistened with reverent pride, but Peavey could not mistake the longing there as well, so desperately did his grandson pray for an opportunity that might someday prove his worth in the champions’ ranks.
The jousting continued until the last of the riders was spent. All of which was but a prelude to the melee and Offering. In came the ironclads, the hunter-prawns, and gargantuan siege-crabs mounted with three men apiece atop their carapaces. The able-bodied who had survived the jousts reassembled with their guilds and launched into combat anew, enclosed there within the hallowed confines of the arena. Hand-to-hand, mount-to-mount, until all would be disabled but one.
The Ascendant, the best and brightest of their lot. A sacrifice truly deserving of angels.
Worthy is the lamb, as the parish doctrine proclaimed.
Peavey snorted aloud at the folly of it. With a start, he realized that his mind had meandered away again; an altercation on the field summoned his notice, something unplanned. Two combatants were shoving one another alongside the list; one from the Geologists Guild, the other representing Alchemy. The scuffle erupted into a brawl a heartbeat later, with all guilds and champions quickly weighing into the mix. The hunter-prawns broke free, snapping their chains as if twine, some attacking the siege-crabs and terrors, others skittering over the walls into the crowd.
Panic swept the galleries, and the faithful ran. Calls for order from the bishops were ignored. Peavey craned his neck for a better view as he felt Moot seize his hand. It was small but callused and strong; a sculptor’s hand. Moot said something, but Peavey could not hear above the crowd’s incessant caterwauling. Someone slammed into Peavey’s back; he awkwardly caught himself from toppling but lost hold of Moot in the process. He reached out, but his hand groped through empty air.
His grandson was gone.
“Moot!” Peavey cried, panic-stricken that the crippled boy would be trampled in the crowd. “Moot!” The melee—as it now had truly become—shoved Peavey along like a twig caught in a torrent. “Move! Please! Let me pass!” he shouted to any who would hear. “Get out of my way!” But the crowd continued to press him along.
One of the hunter-prawns climbed into the gallery. Someone caught the hem of Peavey’s robes and held fast against the tide of the crowd—a woman in the row below him, clad in the cumbersome garb of the Metallurgists Guild. “Let go, you fool! Moot!”
It mattered not whether she was pulling herself up or dragging Peavey down. The hunter-prawn was upon them. The sightless beast skittered above and away, close enough for Peavey to blanch from its acidic stink, while the woman shrieked to her death in its claws.
And then Peavey spotted him at the base of the gatehouse, alone in the pandemonium. How had he gotten there so quickly with his hobbled leg and crutch? No matter. Peavey fought against the crush in the gallery, choking back sobs of frustration and the sudden memory once again of Bess.
And then Moot saw Peavey as well. The boy shouted something; Peavey was unable to hear in the distance, but he could see what had been said.
I will make you proud.
Moot began to climb the gatehouse, one labored step at a time, strain and determination clearly etched into his beautiful face.
“Moot! Stop, Moot! Please stop!” Old Peavey clawed his way through the faithful, trying to reestablish a bearing on Moot’s position every time his view was blocked. He spotted him, higher upon the gatehouse now; then lost sight again.
At the top of the gatehouse, a simple altar had been built of stone carried down from the mountains decades before. It was upon that cursed place that the angels had first appeared. Old Peavey remembered it well; he’d long been witness to the altar’s dark history. The thought of Moot willfully putting himself in danger filled him with terror. It was there that the faithful came to offer their yearly sacrifice, and it was there that the men and women condemned to Perdition had given voice to the greatest lie of all.
Then came the most fateful year.
Blight had nearly destroyed the earthborn crops, and the desperate souls who’d resorted to native meat were dying.
Only one-fifth of the pit’s surface area—a modest 700 square miles—rose above the level of the great noxious lake, of which a quarter of the already confined space was claimed by snow-fed ponds and meres. Crops had been planted as closely to fresh water as logistically possible, but clear-cutting brambles, scrub tanglewood, and deadly night-thorn for every precious acre was laborious, and the shallow volcanic soils were prone to blight. And now the crops and people lay dying, while the Engines of Heaven did nothing but propel the World impassively and in silence along the great arc of its rails.
Heated prayers and entreaties to the Lords-Mechanical went unanswered, acerbating the scientists’ crisis of faith. And so at last, one Elsabeth Harper-Smythe climbed the camp’s wall to split the air in anger. The Sun was a ghostly disc behind her, blotted out by volcanic ash and steam.
“Why have you abandoned us?” she cried from atop the wall’s gatehouse. “Are we worthless to you? Is human life of no value? We reject you! The lot of you!”
She was a senior fellow in the Alchemists Guild, considered the best and brightest of their lot. She’d given birth to a critically undernourished daughter some months before. Young Peavey strongly suspected the little girl to be his own, but he would never know for certain. Comfort was offered freely in the camp and, times being as harsh as they were, was rarely refused.
And then, for the briefest of stays, the tenebrous sky opened and the great lamp of the Sun shone free.
The angels appeared amidst that supernal light, first one and then the next in quick succession, backlit by the sudden brilliance round about them, wings burnished like Pentecostal flame. The scientists had never seen their like.
The angels fell upon the woman without warning, latched onto her, one at either shoulder, and ascended with her back into the sky.
“Bess! Stop, Bess! Please stop!” Young Peavey had called after her and ran as a man possessed.
In a trice nothing could be seen but the great soaring wings, and then they too were gone, lost in a halo of light.
The blight expired soon thereafter, and the crops, while greatly depleted, were no longer in peril. The scientists (Peavey excluded; still deeply in the throes of shock) maintained that the blight had simply run its course, though assays and examinations into what had killed it proved inconclusive at best.
But a groundswell among their number (too many; zealous and reeling from their betrayal by the Queen’s Instrumentality) proclaimed the cleansing of the crops to be a miracle. A gift handed down by the Elder Gods of this World—a blessing, in return for the now-sainted Elsabeth’s execration that the Lords-Mechanical were dead to them forever. Through her they’d been washed in the blood of the lamb. Through her sacrifice, and the manner thereof, the angels had shown them how to survive. And, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, the scientists were nothing if not logically pragmatic. The culture within the camp changed overnight.
There were no guards posted on the gatehouse. Why would there be, when all eyes were focused on the field? Peavey watched, horrified, as Moot climbed upon the altar and dropped his crutch over the side, on his good leg, standing upright and strong.
Then Peavey saw the angels, and the faithful saw the boy, and a hush fell over them all.
They descended in ever quickening spirals, sightless but unerring, their preternatural beauty striking awe into all who beheld them.
Moot closed his eyes.
The angels fell upon him, their claws digging deep, and lifted him into the pall of the sky. The faithful cried aloud their hosannas, and Peavey collapsed to his knees, croaking “It’s a lie, Moot, it’s a lie. The blessing is a lie...” until he could speak no more.
They were dark and without ocular capacity, these angels of the abyss, guided by unknown senses, with scabrous black wings that cast back the light. Each was a figure of mephitic darkness, of talons and spines and misshapen crests of bone, beneath which their young were affixed and suckled from barbed fetid teats.
Then the angels tore Moot to pieces, high in the firmament above one and all. They ripped open his torso, wrenched his limbs from their sockets, their young tugging at his remains with their mandibles, learning how to feed. Moot’s blood rained over the faithful, as Elsabeth’s had before him, and every offering since; water to their parched lips and tongues.
A mindless frenzy descended upon the arena as the people leapt and danced in the boy’s spent vitality, scrambling over one another to catch the falling scraps. This unholy blessing received; their survival assured for another year, washed in the blood of the lamb. They howled and shrieked in monstrous inhuman noise, taking one another then and there in wild abandon as Peavey lay mute and unmoving, and the gods of the abyss flew free.
The tourney’s coveted store of meat, smoked and salted and cured for the season, was presented to Old Peavey as Curate of the Cartographers Guild; awarded to the Ascendant’s household by the Archbishop and all of her assembled Orders of Science. Peavey accepted on his grandson’s behalf, because Moot hadn’t been securing the angels’ favor for himself. He’d done it for Peavey. Of that, Peavey had no doubt.
I will make you proud.
What had been born atop the gatehouse so long before was a travesty perpetrated by a dying people, Peavey knew, had always known, who believed that the Great Machines had abandoned their lost children. All that mattered was survival in the never-ending Now.
He understood now that Moot and the faithful accepted Perdition for what it was. The boy was of Perdition, in a way that Peavey could never be. The lie was not a lie to him; his sacrifice had revealed the truth of it. His ascendancy would indeed ensure Peavey’s survival, even if only for a while.
The faithful shared no memory of the Before Time; Old Peavey was the last to have known any place but this dark and cursed orb, where the holy orders were as false as their piety. Peavey understood that, yet he’d condoned it just the same. All those lives lost. All that time, slowly suffocating to death with guilt.
He wept for his illusory blessings and the boy he’d failed to save, and gave thanks to the angels whom he would forever despise, accepting full well that he’d go to his grave despising himself more. Then he jabbed his fork into the plate of flesh filled to overflowing—human flesh, the flesh of the faithful, retrieved from the arena—his gut heaving, his hand trembling, and ravenously tucked away.
He was so very hungry.