Raim did his best to appear unassuming. This was not difficult – wearing plain robes, riding in a plain carriage, he was thoroughly congruous with his surroundings. Still, it was hard not to worry. There were parts of the city to which he was accustomed, and parts to which he was not. The day’s activities would be spent entirely in the latter. Still, it would all be his soon enough. His father ailing, his elder brother deemed unfit to rule, the crown would fall to him in some short months (or maybe weeks). Hence the need to expedite his studies. He had thus been cooped up, kept under house arrest by a procession of tutors, each bearing a marathon of tomes and practica for him to suffer. Statecraft, literature, philosophy (both natural and general), warfare, history, etc. etc. … Today marked the first venture beyond the palace walls in quite some time, and so it stood to reason (in his mind) that it would take him through some of the drabbest quarters his dominion had to offer. There was at least a certain newfound charm to be drawn from all this mundanity, knowing that he was soon to inherit it. The tawdry little trading stalls, the couriers rushing past with news of no importance, the paupers reaching out for alms or skulking in side-alleys. A year ago, they could have drawn no response from him. But as his subjects-to-be, well – it was hard not to feel a touch of sentiment.
With him in the carriage were two others. First, there was “the pilgrim” (as he had been introduced). A gaunt, unerringly taciturn young stranger who had kept his head down and his lips closed for the duration of the journey thus far. Secondly, there was his tutor and chaperone for the day. This was Shahn the Wise, an elder scholar from one of the temples on the city’s eastern fringe. The exposed skin on her hands and face was laced with the script of a secret language. Raim, literate only in modern and historical text, could not even guess as to its meaning, but he did at least know that it was exceptionally rare to meet somebody with tattooed hands. The hands, being the instruments of action, were deemed worthy of symbolic adornment only among the most dedicated and skilled of individuals. Shahn had also barely spoken. There was a sort of stoic patience to her expression that suggested that she would be entirely happy never to break that silence.
“Fine.” Sighed Raim. “What’s today’s lesson? Where are we going?”
“Today’s lesson is in humility.” She replied. “We are going to the Pit.”
“… the Pit?” He asked, attempting to conceal his genuine concern at this revelation.
“Yes. You have read of it, I’m sure.”
“Then tell me what you know.”
“The Pit, also known as the Maw, the Mouth, the Throat, or to the ancients as That-Which-Threatens or That-Which-Is-To-Be-Watched, or literarily as the City’s Vacant Heart, the Great and Open Wound…”
“Get on with it.”
“… is a pit. A big, nay vast, hole in the ground. Located in the very centre of this city, presumably owing to some atrocious civic planning on the behalf of our ancient predecessors, whom we are to believe it predates.”
“What is its purpose?”
“Anything evil or malevolent is cast into the Pit. Thrown into the unseen depths where it can’t trouble us anymore. This evil can be in the form of a cursed object, the vector of a particularly wretched illness, the purveyor of particularly despicable acts…”
“Who has the right to see it?”
“Proven wisemen and women such as yourself. Members of the order that guard it. People who are about to be sent into it. Sovereigns.”
“Correct, but you have forgotten one. Think of our companion.”
“Yes. You should find this strange.”
“Should I?” He asked, although of course he did. The ancient texts treated the Pit with an almost spiritual terror. Almost all interactions with it had to be conducted through a sect of dedicated guardians, such that exceedingly few would ever cast eyes on it, let alone set foot at its edge. Its location was surrounded by a wall of tremendous height, always manned, almost never spoken of. This reverence seemed entirely inappropriate for a glorified refuse depository.
“You will soon be taking the throne. It is now your right and responsibility to know more.”
“So, this isn’t a lesson in humility after all?” He smirked.
“It is. But humility is fed by knowledge.”
A tollgate marked their passage from one district to the next. Shahn dismissed the guards with a wave – not even the highest and most headstrong of officials would try to coerce money from somebody of her standing. Moving now into an area rich with metalworks, the wall that surrounded the Pit could be seen in the distance. It was indeed strange that such a visible landmark represented something so obscure to most.
“In your reading, have you heard of a figure called the First Sinner?”
“I have not.”
“That is because all known text concerning him – I shall refer to him as male, although we do not know this to be the case – has been secured in the easternmost quarters, just as all texts concerning the royal lineage are contained in the southernmost. Some knowledge is to be kept where it belongs. Still, we know that some arcana concerning the First Sinner and the nature of the Pit eludes us.”
At this, the pilgrim seemed to smile.
“Who is this Sinner, then?” Asked Raim, ignoring him.
“Somebody from the early ancient period. This much is certain, everything else is subject to much debate. But that does not concern you. As you will know, the Pit existed even at this time, and its function was not dissimilar to now. The ancients used it to dispose of objects or individuals too repugnant to warrant any other treatment. The First Sinner was one such individual. Now, the name is not to suggest that he was literally the first to sin – this would be absurd. Rather, it is to say that he was the first who was meaningful in what was to follow. So, the First Sinner was a truly repulsive individual. Many ancient writers devote whole volumes to his transgressions, and indeed all refuse to do him the honour of referring to him by any proper name – thus our identity woes. When finally captured by a gathering of famed heroes, most of whom will no doubt be known to you from your reading on their other exploits, he was summarily cast into the Pit. Do you follow so far?”
“And that is where the interesting part, the secret part, begins. The First Sinner was no ordinary wrongdoer. He was, we are told time and time again, preternaturally despicable, but also possessed of an inhuman force of will. So, being hurled into the darkness was not the end for him. Naturally, the details of what follows resemble myth more than history, and are not to be taken at the exact measure of their word. Nonetheless, we cannot doubt their fundamental veracity. Scorned by his peers but embraced by the Pit, the First Sinner ventured down, further down, and yet further still into the dark bowels of the world. The ancients describe in lurid and presumably wholly invented detail the various ordeals of this journey, the alien creatures that waylaid him, the unnavigable darkness that surrounded him, the weight of time, hunger, thirst and isolation that pressed down on him. The First Sinner, being a soul devoid both of human virtue and of human weakness, was undeterred. His descent could not be stopped. However many centuries later, he reached the bottom.”
“Of what? The world?”
“Correct. We can only theorise as to the nature of this ‘root of the world’. Certainly, it is a place where many natural laws cease to apply. Traditionally, it is believed to have been the primordial wellspring from which all life emerged. The First Sinner, by now even more impossibly evil and embittered than he had been before, reached this sacred place, lay down, and abandoned what twisted mockery of his body still remained. This false death released his essence, and the very base of the world was at once possessed by his all-conquering malignance. Since then, he and all his contamination have been growing, reaching upwards. He has shed mortality and become a cancer, a source of untold putrescence, a nucleus radiating insuperable disgust and concealed beneath stratum upon stratum of unthinkable filth, a force of and against nature whose slightest and most fleeting whim is akin to the horror and rot of every plague that has ever ravished our people, a…”
Shahn closed her eyes, performed a cryptic gesture with her hands, and was calm again.
“That is the true nature of the Pit.” She continued, gravely. “It is the passage between us and it. One day, the First Sinner’s tumorous progeny will reach us, and that will be the end of our world. This cannot be avoided. Until then, it is best that we conceal this knowledge. That is why so few are granted access to the area to which we now head.”
“Well, you’re right that it sounds like myth.” Said Raim. “But supposing it were true, why continue to throw things down there? Surely that would just be fuel to the fire?”
“A good question. Indeed, that vileness will consume anything it touches. The more spoilt the food, the better the meal. And yet still we feed it. Some say that is only right that sin be sent below and virtue stay above, that what exists down there is part of a dualistic balance, and we are to play our part in its custody. Anything evil tarnishes an ambiguous world, but it can make the absolute degeneration no worse than it already is – merely larger. But that is just one theory. What matters is that it is done, and always has been.”
“And we are to be content that our city rests on the eventual source of its destruction?”
“Content? Well, yes and no. In any case, there are many ideas on the matter. Some maintain that nothing will come of it. Below will stay below. Others say that the end will come when it comes, and that this would be the case no matter what. Still others search for miracles, for secret arts that will save us when the time comes. Again, it is not your concern.”
Raim knew that the sage could have spoken for hours, days, on these topics, but was instead choosing to offer him breadcrumbs. This frustrated him, but not enough to act on the grievance. Besides, they were fast approaching the gates that led to the Pit, and he was certainly more curious to see it now that he had been before. They were ‘greeted’ by a pair of tall, silent men in turquoise robes. Angular figures in interweaving arrangements decorated their faces. Shahn whispered something into one of their ears, and they were granted passage.
The area beyond the gate was a stark contrast to that before it. After some ordered rows of monastic dwellings, there was nothing. Gone was all the bustle, the inescapable urban trappings. Here, the city momentarily observed the natural state of the plains on which it sat – almost. Abstract geometric totems of towering height faced inwards, standing in seemingly arbitrary but no doubt precisely calculated formation. The grass was sere and the soil loose, both wanting for nourishment.
“We must alight.” Said Shahn. “The horses will not go much further, even under duress.”
And so they did. A sense of smallness nettled Raim in this place, aggravated only further by the indignity of having to walk. They were not five hundred metres from the gate, and yet it seemed that they had entered another world entirely – a world defined by an inexorable spiral towards the wound in its centre, which was out of sight but always in mind. For a short while they walked in silence.
“Pilgrim.” Said Shahn at last. “Tell the prince your story.”
“As you wish, learned one.” Said the Pilgrim. His voice was dolorous, with a lingering accent. “I was born to a clan of herders, on the plains. Life was hard, dull, and pointless. As the youngest and least able of the men, I was the first to be denied food when it was scarce, which was always. I took enough to live by, that being more than I was able to provide. I was beaten and shamed for my failings. Those days ended when we were massacred by a wayward expedition from Kedd. I survived, and was taken on as a menial servant and guide. I learned of the First Sinner from the cleric of this band, but it did not interest me much at the time. Further West, me and the other servants were bartered as slaves to a Felgo clan in exchange for safe passage. I was once again put to manual labour – although I was far better suited to being brutalised for amusement. This went on for many months, until I was able to escape. That is when my pilgrimage to this place began.”
“And why here?” Asked Raim.
“I wish to descend into the Pit. To join what rises from below. To become one with the First Sinner. There is no place for me on this world. I have no voice, no power. But I can echo the sentiment of that cleansing wave. I can lend what little I am, what minuscule worth I possess, to a force that rejects this cradle of my sufferings.”
“Thank you, pilgrim.” Said Shahn. “It is not an uncommon view, prince. It grows each day, just as does the entity it feeds.”
“And we are to allow this?” Raim was incredulous. “This man wishes to destroy us, even if his methods are foolish.”
“The choice is his alone. And he has long been starved for choice.”
“Thank you, scholar.” Whispered the pilgrim.
Raim did not respond. He was here only to learn and observe, not to pass judgements. That time would come soon enough. Anyway, they had arrived. He now stood before the Pit. It was every bit as vast as he had pictured it, a great lake of black, null space, yawning and thrumming with sheer absence. The winds seemed to swell and chill, whistling and shrieking their way down into the void, their impetus gently compelling the three visitors to follow. All thoughts of the city, his city, fled from his mind. There was only the immediate, the visceral, the Pit. No further thought could be conjured, no emotion raised but some odd relation of awe and despair. With a cry of exultation, the pilgrim sprinted forth and hurled himself into the dark. The flapping of cloth and the screaming of praise could be heard, until they were consumed by unforgiving, unmitigated depth.
“Step to the very precipice, Raim. Look down with your mind’s eye, and you will know that I have not misled you.”
Spellbound, Raim did as instructed. Standing with his toes to the edge of the world, there was not even dirt between him and the downwards passage. He closed his eyes, and observed little difference – each spectacle was just an eyeful of black. He meditated on Shahn’s frenzied descriptions for some time, tried to send his imagination and intuition down the path that the pilgrim had just taken, to picture what existed at the absolute nadir. Then, his heart stopped. In that skipped beat, he sensed it, and he knew it all to be true. He ran ten full steps in flight before fading, spinning downwards into the parched soil.
Shahn and her disciples tended to him in a temple antechamber. A swift recovery was needed, because there was one more thing to see.
That night, he sat atop the highest observation tower of the most esteemed astronomers of the easternmost districts. The starscape lunged panoramically, dizzyingly, in all directions. He had seen these constellations in his studies, he was sure, but would not be able to recall a single one if pressed.
“Behold, the nations and estates of heaven.” Said Shahn. “On each one, towers of uncertain construction stand, facing us. Eyes with indeterminate sight look upon our little dominion. Minds of unknown genius or idiocy contemplate us, devising plans of unknown scope or nature.”
“How do you know this?” He asked, exhausted but intrigued.
“It is not your concern. Know only that great intellects and esoteric methods have deemed it so, again and again. At the Pit, you witnessed the certain destroyer. The force that will end us, but we cannot know when. Now, witness the paragons of all uncertainty. Behold the unknown realms of unknown things. You may rejoice in our ignorance or tremble in it, but you must accept that it is so.”
Staring up, he found himself making contact not with a prescribed astrography, but with an infinite swirl of luminous oculi – and they with him. And though the eyes may be the windows to even an obfuscated soul, he could discern nothing in this embrace of gazes. Only one errant thought, perhaps a fiction, penetrated this unknowing fog. Here he saw another Pit, extending this time not downwards, but in inconceivable ascent. And just as the first, this second Pit harbours only one will, promises only one end.
So ended the day’s lesson.