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 “When Sri Left the Ruined City” by Donyae Coles. You can read the story below or listen to the podcast on our website. Enjoy!
Listen, listen, hush, listen. You’re wrong about the war. You’re wrong about why the world is changing. Why it is dying all around us.
That the Gods, many and unknowable be they, wanted this: That’s what you were taught, that’s what you believe. That’s why they gave the Memra their fire beasts and the drawing light that they wield so wildly. That’s why the Reach sings those great stone men into being to crush that flaming war machine and all the little magics that fall underneath it.
But why? Ask yourself why your mama could make thread dance or a cook fire that never burned the stew. Ask, ask, why your cousin can find whatever small thing is lost. Why some slum-born nobody should be able to breathe a light so bright it burns your sin away. Gods’ gifts. That’s what you were taught. That’s what you believe. And that part is right, but it’s got no doing with the war. Forget what you believe, listen to what I know.
This is how it began.
Sri never ran to the Tower. Work was long and would be there when she got there but she ran that day. Ran right from her pallet on the floor in the little room she kept nestled in what used to be called the Dusts, all through the City and right up to the Tower. She wasn’t alone, of course, everyone ran that day but only Sri went up.
What City? The City with the Tower. You know it. Hush, listen and you’ll know more. Already you are knowing more. I can see it in your eyes, sweetlings, now hush.
Her breath dragged from her lungs and out of her open mouth in a panting rhythm like a dog but her mouth was dry, her spit stolen by her desperate dash through all of those other desperate bodies that day. She took the first of the great stone steps to the Unspoken One’s Head as undignified as the dying dog she sounded like. But then, to a God, what is a mortal?
Her body burned around her from the effort, her form, mortal and weak was unfit by the Priest’s measure for the job she had set out to do when she heard the clang of the alarm bells that morning, but she hadn’t asked the Priests and they hadn’t stopped her when she bolted past them and took to the stairs. So dog or not, she went.
Just as well, she hadn’t the time to stop.
The taste-scent of them, the Unspoken, hit her tongue. Rich and warm, a spice that couldn’t exist anywhere on the planet and certainly not in the dark pit of the God Tower.
The pit, the stairs, you must be confused. Of course. You little sweetlings, your mamas and the mamas before her and the mamas even before that wouldn’t remember what that place, this place, looked like before. But listen well, I know, I remember.
What? I told you, you know the City. Don’t call it by that name, not with me, sweetlings. It is the City. It has always been the City. It will always be the City.
Here, listen. The tower was built by Irx long ago, long before Sri and she was long ago from us. You follow that thread at least? It’s not like the towers built by men. This one didn’t spiral up to the heavens, no. To look at it from outside you wouldn’t have called it a tower at all. It was short and squat like a frog, but inside, even so, inside you had to travel around winding, wide stairs, more stairs than you would think if you were standing outside. Because it was God-built and when you’re inside a space built by Gods you are not in space for human understanding. This you will understand, the most important lesson but not yet, not yet.
So you follow now, sweetlings, you can tie that image and let me tell you what he done did. It’s not part of Sri’s story, that’s the important thing you know, but to understand the lay of it, you have to know this old tale. Forgotten by everyone but me and the Gods, I suppose. So now you’ll remember it too, keep it alive for what it is.
The why of it is lost. Whatever came between the Unspoken and Irx isn’t important. Only that when they battled, it was Irx that won. Mayhap the Unspoken was too soft but it didn’t matter then, doesn’t matter now. Irx tore them to pieces. He built his tower, dug out a hole in the ground so deep it went down to where there was another, older city that everyone had forgotten. Irx cast the Unspoken’s body down and strung his head up over it. And that was where Sri ran, up those wide steps while everyone else went down to that deep, dark forgotten place.
She passed the Altar of Irx but did not pause to pay reverence as she should. It would not have mattered, it was clear that Irx was not listening. That whatever favor he had paid humanity before, the long years of worship since had not bartered any further light from him.
We are just wardens, Sri thought in that long ago, clearly seeing the role of her people in the great Gods’ wars. They were meant to hold the Head and so long as that happened, Irx did not care for them. She slowed, the steps slippery from the mist caused by the Unspoken’s tears. The air turned from dry to wet as she passed the altar, thick with the scent of them, but such was the power of Irx that not even the Unspoken’s tears could pass his altar.
Will he come for me, for what I mean to do? The thought came, pressing at the back of her head, the base of her skull like a dull throb, an ache, but she did not stop, she forced one careful step in front of the other.
What? What? Am I Sri? Oh no! You’ll make me choke on my tea, you make me laugh so hard! No sweetlings, not I. These old bones are just for the tales, the telling, and you, young ones, are interrupting with silly questions. Now hush, listen, before I take your sweet bones, add them to my collection.
She moved around wide puddles that had collected where the floor sank, damaged from the Unspoken’s rage when they still raged, long before Sri. The tower did not fall; it had cracked and buckled but it would never fall. That’s what Sri had been taught, that is what Sri believed.
Her eyes caught the dancing lights that moved in the watery depths of the puddles, far deeper than they should have been. They beckoned her to drink, to dive in. Such was the way of the Unspoken’s sorrow. She ignored them, as she had been taught. To gaze into the depths was to invite the displeasure of Irx.
She wondered if the old priests had lied. If they had seen what wonders waited in the tears of the Unspoken. She wondered if that was why their borders had been breached, why murder had come to their land. Why the Far Kingdom had attacked them. She didn’t know, and it didn’t matter.
What sweetlings? What was the name of the Far Kingdom? I do not know and it does not matter. They were some other from somewhere other and now would be someone other all again. It is not important. Hush. Listen.
She knew that Irx protected the land. She knew their borders were sovereign and God-touched. She knew no harm was able to cross it. It was what she had been taught, what she believed.
But harm had come. Their borders had been crossed. The army had made its way to the City, they would be in the Tower soon. The priests and the last of the people who sought refuge had gone down into the nameless old city. They would pray that the beasts that had sprouted from the decaying body of the Unspoken and roamed there would not eat them, that Irx’s light would protect and guide them. But Irx’s light had already left them.
Her lot, she had decided as soon as she heard the brash clang of the bells tolling the fall of the City, would be thrown with the Unspoken. They were a God, a captive one, but surely they had some power, some remaining essence that could save her, save her people she reasoned. The pools and their secret wonders were proof.
So it was that she took the stairs, as she did four times in every eight days to clean floors before the God (though they be cast out, they be divine and deserved some consideration but never more than we give Irx, so she had been taught, so she believed).
The light changed as the glow of Irx was replaced. The Unspoken’s light shone differently than Irx’s. Softer, more green than the white of Irx. When they slept, the stairs fell dark and the trail of their tears shone, lighting the way. Sri saw it from time to time and she stared in wonder at the glowing path their pain created for the priests did not condemn this act of looking.
The steps ended and she found herself bathed in that light as she stepped into the great hall of the Unspoken.
There, above the pit that led all the way down into the forgotten place the Priests and the City went to, hung the Head of the Unspoken One.
Huge, it took up enough space to fit a hundred worshipers, that did fit so many when it came time for the Great Punishment. When men and women from the City came to spit on and throw refuse at the piece of divinity that hung in their midst. It was as Irx wanted, she had been taught. On those days the Unspoken kept their eyes closed and when all the others had left, she used her long brush to wipe away the refuse from their face. When they smiled in return, it felt like a tiny sun had erupted in her chest. By morning the garbage from the City would be cleaned and she would sleep soundly all the next day and night, her dreams filled with strange things.
They looked human, like Sri, like us, in many ways. The head had a familiar shape but there were too many eyes, all mismatched. They dotted their forehead and chin, blinking in some rhythm only the Gods knew and flashing strange colors that eyes could not be. They dripped near constant tears that ran in a channel past their wide nose and down their chin. Their ears were long, animal-like, and pointed toward the sky. She had seen their teeth, too many for a mouth but their lips smiled sweetly at her and she had seen the eyes stop crying. Their skin was purple, blue, green depending on the light.
Their neck was a pulpy mess of flesh and bone where it had been taken from their body. Even after eons it still looked painful, but no blood dripped from it. And pierced throughout their face, the chains. Metal that was not gold hung in thick links attached to brow and lip and nose and ear holding the head up. The chains strung all the way up to the ceiling that no man could reach and back down to some strange crank that Irx had left there.
Maybe Irx meant to release the Unspoken someday but Sri had never been told if he did and she did not think on it.
They heard her when she entered. Their many eyes focused on her and she felt, as she always felt, small in their gaze.
“The Far Kingdom has attacked us,” she said, blurting out the words like a child. She had never spoken to them before. Four days in every eight she came and cleaned. She sang songs while she worked, not to them - it was forbidden, but she sang and they could hear. But she never spoke to them. It was forbidden to be so direct, so she had been taught.
Their many brows twisted, glittering with the hoops that snared them as their lips pulled into a small frown.
Bold merely for making it so far, she walked to the edge of the floor, as close as she could be before the gaping hole that led to the far below. Close enough to reach the God that hung suspended on divine chains that hadn’t moved since Irx had left their plane and returned to the Godlands. “They are overtaking the City. They’ve taken it. They will kill everyone. I need,” she paused here, unsure how to go on, her voice faltering. “I would like your help,” she tried again, more humble, she was only human.
Their brows rose this time, eyes wide, their tears stopping in their surprise. It had been an eon since any mortal had asked them for anything.
“I’ll give you whatever you require. You’re a God. I have to pay the proper tributes. I don’t know what they are, no one knows anymore but tell me, I’ll give you anything,” she promised without thinking. Without really threading that she hadn’t really asked for anything. But she made her pledge even so.
Their frown lifted and a soft expression came over them, a small, gentle smile. Why had Irx battled them? Why do we punish them, she thought, charmed, for the Unspoken was charming. Is charming, to be true about it. She reached out then and did something else she had never done. Something that was likely forbidden, but the priests had never spoken against it because no one would dare.
She touched them.
She placed the flat of her hand on the Unspoken’s chin, just so. Their skin felt soft, like the finest of fabrics. A warmth like the spring’s sun filled her body, starting with her hand and running a path through her, and she knew that the priests had been wrong to side with Irx, to warn her away from gazing into their collected tears. The priests had been wrong about many things. The Unspoken sighed, a sad, content brush of strange scented air.
“Please,” she whispered wishing she had spoken to them before, that she had touched them before. She looked into their eye, the one closest to her, felt their heavy gaze, wondering if it would crush her if they held their full power and not just a fraction locked in their many weeping eyes.
They blinked slowly, just once with every eye and she relaxed, felt tears bubble up in her. They smiled softly; the flesh moving under her hand, as they looked to the wall where their chains led.
The God Machine, the great machination of Irx.
She nodded, she understood. Of course, what could they do chained as they were?
She crossed the room as she had every day that she cleaned. The light of the Unspoken shown into the corners of the space, illuminating the gears that lined the wall, spiraling up and outwards. Even their light could not reach the ceiling.
Their tears had rusted the machine. What had once been dark metal now flaked orange-red. She swallowed the fear that it wouldn’t move and found the lever, human-sized, as if it had always been meant for her hand. Strange, she thought, that a god would leave something for a lowly man to use.
The rust flaked off under her palms and gritting her teeth, she threw her weight, such as it was, against it. Sri was a small thing, truth be told. Insignificant but enough for what was needed then. The machine groaned and then gave. The lever pulled out of her hand and she fell back as it spun, the ancient chains clanking and groaning. She turned in time to see the Unspoken drop, loosed from their prison and swallowed by the darkness. The chains that had held them swayed long and slack into the shadow.
Did I make a mistake, she thought, dropping to her hands and knees before the pit.
The Tower shook. The scent of her fear spilled from her.
The Tower shook again, the great chains that held the Unspoken rattled, pulled taut, and with a great crash something came free from the great machine and the chains, fully loose, rushed through the gears, breaking and crashing as they flew up the wall to the ceiling and then before Sri’s wide eyes, down into the pit. Again the world fell still and silent.
She sat, her body growing stiff and cold in the tear-damp room but she couldn’t bring herself to move. She waited, staring into the dark pit, the hairs on the back of her neck pricking up in fear. “Please,” she whispered, praying in the desperate way of mortals in hopes that they would hear, would answer. “I’m sorry. I should have freed you sooner. I should have noticed before.” The words fell from her mouth into the darkness and she hoped that they could hear her, understand her regret.
The tower shuddered and she held her breath. Again the floor vibrated as something large hit the walls far below her.
“Please,” she whispered again into the darkness and it answered, the tower rumbling as a massive hand reached from it, gripping the side of the pit.
The skin of the hand was purple, blue, green. Seven fingers attached to a palm. Another joined it on the opposite side, framing Sri inside of them. Hands ringed the hole the Unspoken had fallen into for a moment before the god lifted themself from the darkness and for the first time Sri saw their full form. The first mortal or immortal in an eon to have done so.
Many arms sprouted from a long torso topped with a slim throat and there the face that she had grown so used to, had touched so recently. On every wrist they wore a manacle that shimmered like gold but was not gold, was not any metal that Sri would know. The manacles led to heavy chains, familiar in their make if not their color. The chains lead back to the Unspoken’s head clipped as they had been through flesh and bone, running from brows to ears, nose and lips and she understood then what Irx had done to hold them. Through some trick that only gods could pull, Irx had wrapped the Unspoken’s chains around their machine, had used what they adorned themselves with to hold their body and their head separate from each other. A fury she did not understand ripped through her as the Unspoken came further into view.
They pulled their body from the darkness, their head reaching the ceiling, and in their divine glow she could finally see it, so far above it may as well have been the sky itself.
Massive claws tipped with talons balanced on either side of the hole as the Unspoken pushed against the ceiling. Stones fell, large, impossible stones and Sri knew that the Priests had been right at least about the Tower. Irx had built it but they were wrong about how long it would stand. The Unspoken would topple it. Sri screamed, all that bravery that had led her feet and hands there gone as the stones smashed around her, tumbling through the floor leaving large holes.
The Unspoken paused, glancing down. She felt it, the same pressure, as if their focus were a weight on her.
They reached down, one strange hand wrapping around her form and she squeaked in surprise as they lifted her, holding her close to their chest, buried in a forest of arms. The strange spice scent filled her nostrils, a warmth that felt like summer, winter’s fire, and something else low in her belly filled her.
She heard the ceiling shudder, more stones crashing until the great Tower gave one last sigh and the facade fell. She watched, safe, from the cover of the Unspoken’s many hands for a moment as below them, the floor broke away. A fleeting thought for the people who were trapped underneath before they lifted her with them and Sri, the poor cleaner laid eyes on the Godlands.
What she saw, I cannot say. It is not known by anyone but Sri and the gods above what wonders she saw on that day. Whatever the Unspoken showed her, she never spoke of it, not in all the years since. What is known to us poor mortals, to me and now to you sweetlings, is that she went. And even if I don’t have all the pretty bits of the story, I know what happened, what Sri learned, the parts that matter. Listen well, my sweetlings, I’m going to tell you now.
The Great and Holy Irx (a god still no matter of what happens next, we honor the divine, sweetlings) sat quivering before the Whole and Angry Unspoken and Sri understood all she had to.
She understood why they had not come to save her people, that their worship had never mattered to him because before his greatness, they were all nothing. Nothing at all. To him, all that mattered was that the Unspoken stay locked and held down by the press of their own body in the snare of their own chains as revenge for whatever it was that Gods took revenge for.
And because Sri understood that, she understood that all the prayers and tears would not bring Irx to help her people. That they were doomed, doomed below. But sweetlings, what happened to them is another story. Another tale. Let’s get through this one. Irx would never help them and the divine they had been so close to, the being they could touch, they had thrown garbage at and kept chained.
In any case, the Unspoken destroyed Irx and became a single God in an empty universe that should not be empty and this next part, we know. I know and now you will know. But they had felled the usurper and the others, down below, trapped as they had been trapped, would begin to struggle to break their own chains. Sri could hear them faintly, calling in all the ways that gods call.
The Unspoken lifted Sri’s poor form. The chains that had imprisoned them hung delicately about their face. They reached one finger over her and touched her head. Her eyes fluttered closed, a warmth spun in her, reaching out from her core and spilling into her body. The air shifted and it felt like someone had wrapped their arms about her before the softest of kisses covered her. Just as quickly as the feelings had come they faded, leaving only a murmur of warmth along her skin.
Her eyes opened slowly to the Unspoken’s smiling face. A new weight sat on her shoulder and she looked down to find a chain over it. She followed it with her fingers until it disappeared into the base of her skull. She looked up at the god again, tracing the chain with her eyes back to their throat.
My acolyte, my voice, she heard in a way that felt more like a memory. Like something she knew to be true. Blessed with their chain, she had become something more than human but less than god.
They smiled again before passing her form down through their hands. Lower and lower she traveled until the last hand opened up and she stepped off their palm back into the tower. The hand pulled up and away and above her the normal sky filled the air.
Alone and cold she picked her way down the ruined Tower. The pools of water were empty, dried up. The god gone, they held no more delights. She wished she had looked when they were still alive and full of magic. She wished she hadn’t listened to the Priests.
Slowly she traveled to the main floor where the heavy doors made from thick steel that could only be opened by the arms of a thousand men stood broken from their hinges on the floor. If the Far army had been there, there was no sign of them now. There was no sign of anyone. No soldiers or her people who had chosen the depths.
She climbed over the doors and walked out into the City, traveling away from the Tower. Buildings lay broken and ransacked but dirt and weeds had grown over it all as if the war had been long ago. They didn’t lay in ruin, it had become ruins and Sri realized that she had been gone a very, very long time.
She heard laughter. People, she thought, excited, turning her body to the sound, her walk becoming a run as she followed the laughter and shouts through the remains of winding streets that were familiar in the way that bones are familiar. The shape known but the parts that made them something you loved gone.
She came to a group of children playing in an open lot, their mothers standing and sitting against the far wall, engrossed in their own conversations. Their clothes were different from hers. Simple dresses where her people had worn robes and leggings. Their hair was twisted into thick braids, not the thin ropes that adorned her head.
They must have seen it too. One woman stepped away from the wall, wary. “Where ya from, girl?”
Sri meant to say here. To explain she lived in the City. To ask what had happened to the Far army, to her people. “The Tower,” came out.
“That ruin?” the woman snorted. “Girl must be touched.” The woman shook her head and then motioned for her to come closer. “Come on then, we’ll get you fed and cleaned up. Keep you until we can find your people.”
Sri heard a soft jingle, the click of link against link and did as the woman asked.
Her name was Vosgi. She explained Sri to her husband while she sat in a chair like a child. Vosgi’s own children watched wide-eyed as the woman sat a bowl in front of her and she ate like an animal, slurping the stew up, her body only remembering all at once that it needed food, water, a pot. That it was not something divine but human, so human.
Sri let herself be led to a bath where the woman sang soft songs and undid her hair. Out of the braids it fell much longer than she remembered it. The water turned murky.
“What happened to the people that used to live here,” she asked quietly, her reflection wavering in dirty water.
Vosgi laughed. “No one’s lived here for centuries before we came here and settled. It’s good land. The stone’s worth something. Honest work to be had.”
“And your gods?” she whispered.
The woman snorted, squeezing water out of her longer than she remembered it hair. “Gods, what about them? We pray, that’s it.”
Sri felt the chain tug on her, pulling at the back of her mind. When she slept, clean and fed by a stranger, she dreamed soft, warm dreams of living stars.
She woke when the night was still and dark, a soft ringing, a gentle push. She slipped out of the bed and padded with her quietest steps to where Vosgi’s children slept. Gently she woke the boy and shushing him led him from the house.
You may think, sweetlings, that you wouldn’t have gone. You world-weary young, just out of your training pants, but you would have as surely as anyone would have. The Sri that came back from the God Lands was a Sri that gives no man a choice but to follow. Or boy as the story goes.
She took him out into the ruins that used to be her city before her world ended, following old paths buried under rubble, waiting, waiting for some sign. She stopped, her neck bending, the sound of chains jingling and clinking in the air and she turned, expecting to see the Unspoken’s smiling face but finding only empty air. Something in the rubble of a building sparkled.
Curious, she moved toward it, the sound of the chain following her every step as she lifted her legs and body over a half-crumbled wall into a kitchen where the stove had fallen in. An idol to Irx sat broken beside it. She moved a few bricks while the boy followed her path.
The space looked different. In the light of the stars she could see from what should have been just stone with nothing growing, something strange and twisted had sprouted. The new plant seemed to glow in the starlight as whatever had waited in the pools of tears that once trailed down the tower steps had glowed.
“What is it?”
She could hear the wonder in his voice, the sound of a child who had never been told that such beauty was evil, that such light was wrong. She kept digging until she couldn’t. She had gone as far as she could. There, in a crack she saw something shine. Frowning, she reached forward but she couldn’t get more than her fingers past. Whatever waited inside slipped through them like sand.
“What are you doing? Let me help!” the boy said, eager in the way that children are to be involved, his hand slipped through the crack, lizard quick, and pulled back, grasping something in his fist.
She caught a flash of it as he opened his hand. A small thing, a bit of tangled string around a stone, maybe? But at the sight of it she sighed.
In front of her the boy went still, staring at his palm, his eyes wide, the pupils grown to their fullest before his eyes closed and he smiled. When he blinked, he looked around, confused. Whatever it was, it had left them.
Or at least left her. The boy ran back to his home, feet sure over the stone. She wondered what he would dream now, what he would be able to do. What gift he had been given for freeing a God.
She turned away from the City. There was nothing there for her now. Her purpose was forward. To free the Gods. To find their acolytes.
To help the world remember. To end the age that Irx had begun.
As she walked through the remains of the City, she thought about the Unspoken, she thought about her people that they hadn’t saved. She thought of denying them. But then she remembered the smile of the boy and the warmth in her and she couldn’t.
The priest had been wrong. Her people hadn’t understood. The gods were varied and many. Her god was singular. Irx had wanted it all for himself. He had emptied the heavens for that taste of a connection. But Irx had been wrong too. As wrong as the Priests. As wrong as she had been for so long before the Unspoken blessed her with the gift of Vision.
The world no longer remembered the gods when Sri left the ruined City. And Sri, the last mortal who knew them, found them wherever she went. And the more people she helped, the more people learned to look. And the more they learned to look, the more the Gods called to them. And the more they called, the more things changed. Like the tide pools full of tears, the gods spill power so that we will notice them, and we do. And the more men found them, found that power, the more they forgot what it was to be with other men. It’s easy to forget to be a person when you’ve been held by a God, sweetlings. Remember that, thread it, tie it to you.
And that, my sweetlings, is how the world began to die, why it is dying even while we live in it and breathe. But, now you know the truth, you know the tale and perhaps there are gods left to bestow their gifts on you too. Maybe you’ll find one to help you survive all this. Maybe I’ll replace this old story with one of yours. Only the Gods know, my sweetlings, and we may thread them but we will never know them.
Now off with ya, these old bones are tired. Let me go to my dreams. And I leave you with yours.
Donyae Coles has had a number of works appear in various podcasts, magazines, and anthologies. She has recently sold her debut novel, Midnight Rooms, but a list of her short works can be found on her website, donyaecoles.com. You can follow her on Twitter @okokno.
Please visit LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the May 2021 issue, which also features work by Adam-Troy Castro, Carrie Vaughn, Sofia Samatar, E. Lily Yu, Filip Hajdar Drnovšek Zorko, Sharang Biswas, Aimee Ogden, 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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