Choose the Fate is a serialised novel that I'm writing in conjunction with my Patrons, who get to vote on the outcome at critical moments in the story. I put up a poll for a week on my Patreon, and at the end of the week, whichever option has the most votes will be the direction in which I steer the story. I'll be posting the updated story here in a single place as I add chapters to it. A link to the latest vote can be found right at the bottom of the page.
Hope you enjoy it!
Deochan, 4006 RM
Andrinius leant on the lacquered countertop, eyes flitting from shelf to shelf. Tinned food, glass bottles, tightly wrapped bundles of biscuits and trail mix. Packs of bullets and shells. Behind him - kegs of alcohol, barrels of water, waterskins. coils of rope, whetstones, lanterns, torches. Canisters of paraffin, batteries. Racks of clothes.
He sucked air through his teeth as he waited for the telegram officer to transcribe the message.
Finally, it was done.
He took the paper in ink-stained fingers and read it:
4006 edition of Encyclopaedia being drafted -STOP- Society soliciting members to submit tenders for expeditions -STOP- Meet me at Society HQ in 1 week -STOP- Looking forward to your suggestions -STOP- E -STOP-
Interesting, thought Andrinius. He pocketed the paper, thanked the officer, and left.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. The scent of Salt, oil, and grease mingled in his nostrils. He could hear the gentle lapping of water against the quay as porters hauled crates up and down gangplanks. The whirring of engines and mechanical cranes and idling engines of ships.
Memories of past expeditions came rushing back to him. His sojourn in the diplomats' village on the grounds of Queen Hetepheres' palace compound. The city-sized manufactory complexes of Zephanichan. The scrub plains of southern Mharokk and their giant fauna.
Good times. Hard times, he grinned, but good. He'd met some good, honest people in those days on the road. He looked at his hands, old callouses hidden by ink stains. He'd spent the past few years behind a desk, delegating work, planning and… he hated to think of the word… bookkeeping. It was good work, as far as life in the empire went. He had no complaints. But it had become a sedentary life, and it had slowly sapped any memory of past expeditions and adventures.
I need this, he thought. It had been years since he'd done any fieldwork of note. And though he hadn’t realised it until now, he was itching to get back out into the world.
The library loomed ahead, a centuries-old structure flanked by an even older chapel and a boarded-up storehouse that hadn’t been entered since before he started working there, years ago. Rusted statues of saints and the Archpotentate glowered down at him from the chapel. It had been weeks since his last confession, and he hadn’t stepped foot inside the place of worship in days.
I’m a busy man, he thought, trying to justify his amorality to himself.
He turned away as he walked into the library, chastised by the idols’ stares. Behind him, the sky was beginning to turn red as the sun dipped behind a picturesque blanket of clouds. The sounds of the city were dying down, replaced by the chiming of bells both near and far.
He nodded to the guards, his eyes taking in the design of their uniforms, the way they hung unevenly from their slightly hunched shoulders; the scuffs on the sleeves, elbows and knees; the mismatched colour of their pauldrons; the way they leant on, rather than held, their poleguns.
His footfalls echoed across the wide staircase as he went down into his lair. Surrounded by statues, stucco designs and faded frescoes, it was easy to stop and marvel at the artistry of the building. Still, after all those years of going up and down those stairs, stopping to look at every statue and design, reading every plaque and marker, the wonder had diminished. What had once been a bright memory of the wealth and pride of Korachan had become simply a place of work.
He rushed down a corridor, narrow than the stairs, the air possessed of less light, the walls less decorated than higher up. It was late in the day and the building was largely empty. Most of the workers had returned to their dorms, and those who remained at work were likely busy in the repositories, sorting through decrepit records or cleaning old books and artefacts.
Down another staircase - spiralled, narrow - and down one last corridor before he reached a metal door, its green paint peeling at the hinges, revealing browned metal beneath. A faded name sign heralded his arrival - Andrinius Ochan, Curator, 2nd St Nanael Collection - Antiquities.
He flipped a switch and light hummed to life, flickering in a false orange halo that emanated from a handful of filament bulbs around the cramped windowless room. A small bed in the far corner, a metal desk on the opposite side, a small corner sink, and surrounding everything else, shelves filled with books, artefacts, boxes, and tools, stacked on top of one another from floor to ceiling.
He pushed through the intervening barriers towards his desk, his eyes drawn inexorably to the workload that awaited him there.
He slumped into the hard chair with an audible exhalation and sat there with his eyes closed, breathing for a moment. The ticking of his crude clock brought him back to the now. 6:32
Visible strata of papers - primarily dockets and work orders for the various ongoing restoration projects, but also consignment papers, catalogue records, and invoices of all the works and services. Just the look of it all, pregnant with the threat of countless hours of work, made his shoulders slump farther down.
He leaned back, ran his fingers through his hair and sighed again.
“It’s late Andrinius. In the name of the Throne, you can stop working.”
Then he remembered the telegraph. He took the crumpled paper from his pocket and looked at it again.
Without a thought, he pushed the stacks of paper aside, put a fresh sheet in front of him and began thinking of proposals for the Editor-in-chief of the Encyclopaedia.
He’d done assignments for the venerable institution before and knew that the trustees were open to most suggestions - after all, the purpose of the Encyclopaedia Elyden was to collect as much information about the world and present it in an unbiased nature, to educate and illuminate. Of course, the Council of Seven had its own interpretation of the word unbiased, often confusing it with propaganda. But that, like so many other things in his life, was just something out of his control. He’d learnt to present his findings to the editors in an impartial manner and forget about it. Once his articles were out of his hands, it was, well… out of his hands, so to speak.
He looked up at the shelves in front of him. His gaze lingered on a scrimshawed skull that sat in a small glass case, before turning to a small framed map of the empire, its territories highlighted unevenly in purple and settled on the spiderweb of roads that linked the myriad of cities and provinces with each other. Perhaps he could travel the Great Road - the expansive Korachani trade route that circumvented the Inner Sea, writing about what life was like in the various cities he encountered, profiling its people, their struggles and passions. On a more pragmatic note, he could consult the Encyclopaedia for any inaccuracies or outdated information and present suggested amendments to the editors to look into.
He made a note of that possibility and began thinking of something else.
His gaze fell upon a paperweight on the desk. It was an old amulet that bore an ancient Thymi design on it. He’d heard scattered mumblings around the offices that a new expedition was being organised into Sammaea to explore old Thymi ruins. Perhaps he could convince the Society to fund his passage to accompany the expedition, where he could catalogue any findings, and interview the archaeologists and mythologists as they worked. The prospect was intriguing, and there was always the possibility, narrow as it was, that he might be involved in some great discovery. If only, he thought, smiling.
He jotted down a note and continued thinking.
As he stopped to think of something else, he looked off to the side, eyes staring into nothingness. They focused on what lay directly ahead - the symbol of Tartaruch, the sword the Archpotentate carried during his conquest of the Inner Sea, and now-symbol of the Church of the Undying Machine. Andrinius;’ relationship with the church had never been close. He’d always been too busy with his academic pursuits to care much for it. Indeed, he’d always thought the church was little more than a spiritual refuge to the slaves and helots of the empire. He’d been fortunate enough to have been born free and had never needed to seek the succour of the church.
Perhaps it’s time I paid my dues, he thought.
No, he thought. Pushing the thought away.
He stalled, trying to conjure some other idea, but found his thoughts returning to religion, and his irreligious ways. He was not a bad man. He paid his taxes, obeyed the laws of his empire, and respected others. He might not spend his nights uttering litanies and flagellating himself, but… was that really what the Undying Machine was looking for?
It might do him good to do something that would bring him closer to the Church and its people. Then he found himself thinking of what he’d been avoiding. The Shadow March.
The great pilgrimage south into polluted lands tested the resolve of the faithful in ways that they could not be tested at home. It was notoriously difficult, and most died on the road before even reaching the Holy Lands of Kharkhardaontis. But those who did were said to experience such rapture and elation as to draw others into the experience. Men and women saved their meagre earnings to buy their freedom only to spend the remaining years of their lives as part of the great March, in the hopes of catching a mere glimpse of their rotting god. Most saw that as a fitting end to a miserable life.
Andrinius didn’t see the appeal, but to each their own, he shrugged. It might be cathartic to document the struggles and reasons why people decided to go on the March.
“Shit.” he noticed he’d been holding the nib of his pen down on the paper, letting the ink collect in a big spot that ruined the notes he’d taken.
He discarded the paper, and copied the previous notes from memory onto a new sheet, but found his hand hesitant when he came to add the third note, of accompanying the Shadow March south.
“Come on Andrinius, if a half-starved helot can do it, why not you?”
He nodded and put down the third note.
Now, which to choose?
He was in the offices of the Encyclopaedia Elyden, a foreboding concrete building crowned in a green dome within which dozens of separate institutions made their home. The Encyclopaedia had been there for 120-years, probably one of the longest occupants since the structure was converted into offices following the disbanding of the militant order that had once called it home.
Andrinius had been there a few times before on similar work. It had changed during his absence - a large foyer boasted treasures such as stuffed Sammaean animals, mounted skeletons, geological samples, and traditional outfits, tools, and instruments from ancient Korachani peoples on whose lands the empire had been built. There were a few new additions since his last visit - a primitive hardsuit, its engine and pistons too bulky to be of any practical use, stood in a cabinet, surrounded by ancient handguns and halberds that had been used in the Parthisan wars centuries ago.
He was in a corridor off to the side of the foyer, waiting outside a door that was labelled Sir Agaliar Hashmaim, Editor-in-Chief.
The door opened after a while, and the light from beyond was soon obscured by a large bearded figure. “Come, come And, it’s been an age,” he said, beckoning the man to enter.
Andrinius smiled, nodded, and followed the behemoth into the office. Three large arched windows looked out to harbour beyond, allowing a not inconsiderate amount of light into the room through dark green curtains that were drawn open. The walls were obscured by hardwood shelves and cabinets that contained all manner of objects. It reminded him of his own quarters beneath the museum, only far larger, their contents more impressive.
The room was warm. Warmer than he’d have liked, but he remained silent.
“Sit.” Agaliar gestured to a grand desk that sat like an altar before the windows. Two old chairs faced it and a third, more ornate one, stood on the other side, facing the room. Agaliar lumbered towards the chair and seated himself down. The leather wheezed as his mass forced the air out of it. He shifted for a moment, distributing his weight more evenly, and stroked his black and white beard as he regarded Andrinius, who’d already taken one of the other seats.
“So, how’ve you been, my son?”
Andrinius nodded again, “Well.” The Editor-in-Chief looked older than the span of time that had passed since their last meeting might otherwise indicate. Still, he must have been what, sixty? A venerable age that most of the helots and slaves of the empire would never see.
Agaliar nodded, smiling. “Good. Keeping busy I hope?”
Andrinius thought of the museum. The bookkeeping. The cataloguing. “It’s hardly expedition work, sir, But I do keep busy.”
Andrinius stiffened. His jaw clenched tight, and his eyes broke the gaze of Agaliar.
The editor exhaled, his expression sinking. “I’m so sorry. She was a good woman. A good woman.
“Kept you in check,” he added, smiling.
“That she did.”
“How was it, in the end?”
“Slow. You wouldn’t have recognised her.”
Agaliar sighed. “I honestly thought she would have beaten it.”
“Oh, she fought it. Every day. I doubt I would have lasted a year. She made it through six.”
“I’m sorry. I should have kept in touch, I should not have left it so long.”
Andrinius shrugged. “Life gets in the way.”
“It shouldn’t. And I shouldn’t have just sent you a wire. I should have spoken to you directly. I’ll be more mindful in the future. We shared many good years together fighting the world wherever our travels took us. It’s a shame to let it all be forgotten.”
“Don’t you worry, none of it’s been forgotten. Not even that weekend in Ketesh.”
Agaliar regarded the man for a moment, his expression neutral, then he burst out laughing, his monstrous hands slamming down onto the table. “I still have the bells from that performance.”
“I hope you’ve washed them.”
“I wouldn’t dare touch them. What about that karkadanni strongman? Deadlifted the five of us on a tractor.”
“Yes, he was great! I wonder what came of him?”
“We kept in touch for a while. He left Ketesh in ‘99 and travelled with a carnie crew for a while travelling through the Low Empire. Last I‘d heard he went back to Ethistonith, trying to get back in touch with his clan.”
“Good for him.”
Agaliar nodded. “Perhaps you’ll come across more of his kind on the road south.”
Andrinius’ eyes widened. “So you’ve up your mind already?”
“We already have a handful of correspondents scattered across the empire. Ferme is already months into his circuit of the Red Route. I think he might end up on the Salt Road in a few months if he carries on at the rate he’s going.”
Andrinius smiled. Saul Ferme was one of the more notorious contributors of the Encyclopaedia. He’d spent years in Paraiya, living amongst the people as one of their own, and had returned to Korachan with enough material to write a dozen books, complete with heliography, artefacts and first hand accounts that had turned him into a celebrity in various scholarly circles. Before that, he’d accompanied a Cychlagharri slave ship on raids along the southern imperial coast. Against his own people.
The two had worked together in their early years on staff for the Encyclopaedia, cataloguing the coastal cities of Skaros nearly 20-years ago. Andrinius didn’t like him, and he was sure the feeling was mutual. But he had no ill-feelings towards the man. They were just different people.
“What about the Thymi ruins?”
“Too late, old boy. We’ve got people from our Mharokkin offices on that one already. It’s shaping up to be quite the find.”
“So,” said Andrinius, “the Shadow March.”
Agaliar nodded. “It’s a big one. Haven’t had a first hand account for the society magazine since before you were born. A lot’s probably changed since then, though it’s mostly anecdotal. So it’ll be good to get some society feet on the ground.”
“What’s the matter? You submitted the request, after all.”
“No, no. It’s just.”
“You know me, And. I’ll never force anyone to do anything they don’t want to. Throne, especially doing something like the March. Like I said, it’s a big commitment. You’ll be on the road for years. It’ll be dangerous. And that’s just the drinking water,” he chuckled, “but seriously. Take the time you need to get your head in the right space. We were already organising a documentation of the pilgrimage south, so most of the prep work is already done.”
“Really? Who did you have in mind to lead?”
Agaliar raised a bush eyebrow. “What’s it to you?”
“Well, I want to know if you made the right choice.”
Agaliar smiled. “The brothers Vezrani.”
Andrinius considered the choice. Twins. They’d been born into privilege and had taken an interest in history after going on the Grand Tour of the Inner Sea for their sixteenth birthday. Capable of self-financing any expedition, they had become popular amongst many of the scholarly circles in Deochan, where they attracted sycophants hoping to secure funding for their own projects. They were as likely to steal someone’s proposed expedition as they were to finance it as backers. They were entitled brats, used to getting their way, with little respect for local customs or utilising the scientific method in their research.
Andrinius had never interacted with them personally, but had seen them speak at society gatherings, hence the lack of interest in meeting them.
“A good choice.”
“Please, you know you were never any good at lying. For what it’s worth, I’d much rather have you as lead on this one.”
“Won’t you lose funding if the brothers are booted out?”
“I’m fronting the bits for this one, old boy. Or the society is, at least. So I can do what I want,” said the Editor-in-Chief. He took a breath before carrying on. “Just give me the word and I’ll have the twins chucked out and a new charter drawn up with your name on it.”
“I wouldn’t presume to know your reasons for wanting to do this. Everyone knows how difficult the Pilgrims’ Road is, and only the desperate tend to disillusion themselves with stories of redemption and martyrdom. You’ll be supported every step of the way, And. Society guards, White Legionnaires, and local guides. Softsuits for the more corrupted parts of the road. Throne, we even a cenobite whose done the road before. A few months of chatting with him alone will get you a first draft of a book on the March and its people. We have all the provisions you’ll need, with Society stations ready to reapply the expedition at a dozen different places. Everything”
Andrinius raised a hand. “I see what you’re trying to do. And it’s working. Like you said, I suggested it myself, and am well-aware of what I’m in for should I go ahead. When do you plan on leaving?”
“If all goes according to schedule, just over a week.”
“So soon. But we’re barely out of winter.”
“Yes. We have a lot of ground to cover in more familiar lands before we even get anywhere near the true Pilgrims’ Road, so we need to get a head start before expedition season truly starts. The true expedition starts in Khuraur, and any additional provisions or crew can rendezvous with you in our offices there. So we really don’t have much time to waste.”
“Yes, yes. I’ll do it. Of course.”
Agaliar stood, holding out a hand. “Good man.”
Andrinius stood less enthusiastically and put his own hand out. The Editor-in-Chief took the hand into both his own and shook it at length. “Perhaps you can bring in some outside help. Is there anyone who might be an asset to the trip?”
Andrinius released his hand from the shake. He’d made various friends and acquaintances during his years freelancing for the Encyclopaedia, and again while working at the museum. Scholars, specialists, heliographers. Explorers, tomb robbers, mercenaries. Thieves and shapers. He’d lost contact with most, but had continued corresponding with others, and he still met some through work.
There was a heliographer who’d accompanied him on his last assignment in Zephanichan. Her mastery of lighting was sublime and the way she was able to capture candid moments as though they were epic events never ceased to amaze him. Having her with him would surely bring some more prestige to his documenting of the pilgrimage.
But, he couldn’t help but think of the dangers that awaited him. Not only rogue states or slavers or bandits, but the land itself. The Pilgrims’ Road was notorious for its Atramental corruption. Mortals would grow sickly the farther south they went, contracting aepathy and worse diseases of the Atramenta. Flora and fauna, where they even survived, became grotesque, adapted to the wretched depravations of the magickal corruption that reigned in the wastes of Kharkharadontis.
There were those who could help allay his fears, whose magickal prowess over the Materia Omna would be an asset in the road south. He knew someone who he might be able to coerce into joining him. Sethria had accompanied him on a short expedition into a tainted landscape, and her skills had been invaluable in keeping the small party safe from the ambient effects of the Atramenta as well as the region’s denizens. She’d become a hermit in recent years, but replied to his letters and queries with competent and in-depth answers, indicating that she still had an interest in the work.
“Yes. There’s a few people I can think of whom I might be able to convince. Mahya you already know, so I need not vouch for her skills at capturing images, but there is a Penumnbrist also, whose abilities would be most welcome.” and then he remembered someone else. “And I know of an etheri guide whose bushcraft would be invaluable as we get into the deserts of Kharkahradontis”.
“An etheri. How exotic of you. Where did you come across him?”
“Her. Like most of her kind who are encountered outside the city of Kharakhara, she is an outcast. Don’t ask me why as even I don’t know, but she can probably track a man across glass and find water from bare rock.
“Well, if you can convince her, please go ahead. We have esotericists and heliographers and guides already joining us, but there’s certainly room for another capable body if you can find one. But do not tarry for we must finalise the roster soon, before setting off.”
Andrinius edged backwards, “Yes, seems as though I have some digging to do.”
“Throne be with you, old boy. And send me a wire as soon as you know who will be accompanying you.”
“Will do, Agaliar. It was nice to talk again.”
Andrinius nodded and offered his farewell before leaving. He had a busy few days ahead looking up old contacts.
Andrinius began with Sethria, knowing that she was the least likely to abandon her lair. Indeed, he wasted a day trying to track her down to no avail. He abandoned the search, knowing that he had little time to dedicate to his endeavour.
Instead, he turned to Mahya, whose studio was in an old warehouse district close to the docks. It had become gentrified over the past decade, with newly-manumitted families moving there to set up businesses and workshops downstairs while they lived in the old lofts. Mahya had moved there a few years ago, setting up a darkroom and a studio that she shared with other heliographers and some artists. He’d been there once before, though had found most of them to be somewhat iconoclastic for his tastes.
He pulled his high-collared coat tight about him as he walked. It was early, and a film of mist still lay over the sea. Chains clinked in the and ropes strained as ships swayed gently to and fro with the undulation of the water. Workers were already busy, rushing around, some working on ships, others rushing about the quay. Some jockeyed tractors, their black fumes filling the air as they hauled trains of crates, barrels and food.
Andrinius rubbed his hands together and noticed his breath streaming. Away from the water businesses were opening. Some made food, the smell of food and smoke mingling in the air. Others were moving wares to the sidewalk, where people could see them better - leather goods sourced from livestock most people would never see; everyday tools and more specialised nautical equipment; ropers and sailmakers; mechanics; and a plethora of other businesses.
As he walked he could see the city slowly change. More and more empty storefronts and warehouses. More shuttered windows. Busy quayside giving way to narrower streets, gloomy, with people loitering in doorways. The work day in most manufactories and workshouses had started hours ago, but there were still those who, somehow, managed to evade factory and church press gangers, choosing instead to live in the grey area below what law and societal norms expected.
He hurried his pace until the streets gave way to a more open plan in which stood a sparse market. Behind the stalls large arched doors had been painted bright greens, blues and yellows. He spied a few food merchants and vendors, a pigment merchant, canvas vendor, and a handful of tinkerers, cutlers and menders.
Andrinius gravitated to the food stalls and bought some dukhukh - flatbread topped with boiled barley mixed with mince and spices. It was hot, but tasted nice and was just what he needed to wake him up.
He finished the food and walked behind the stalls to one of the painted doors and raped on it. The sound of his knuckles on the sheet metal echoed.
There were no marks on the door or anything to indicate that this was a home or store or business. Just the yellow paint on the door and the discoloured limestone walls and rusted metal reinforcements.
He knocked again, thinking to himself maybe he’d come too early, but he heard shuffling from behind the door and someone mumbling. It was a man. He heard locks being slid aside, and a small door within the larger metal door opened inside, revealing gloom and a thin man standing there. Eyes half open regarded Andrinius. “What.”
“I’m here to see Mahya,” said Andrinius.
“She know you’re coming?”
Andrinuis sighed. “No. She knows me. I’m an old friend, we used to work together.”
“That so. Well I’m a new friend.” The man wasn’t just thin. He was looked malnourished. His face was twisted into a skull-like rictus, and his darkened eyes lay deep in their sockets, obscured beneath the shadow of their brow. Matted dark hair fell over his face in clumps that he was repeatedly flicking aside, only for them to fall back down moments later.
“Could you tell her Andrinius is her?”
The man turned without acknowledging the comment, leaving the small door open.
Andrinius took it as an invitation to follow him.
Inside, the old warehouse was separated into vague partitions with curtains and walls of corrugated iron and old wood. A second level had been added, forming a large meaning taking up the far half of the room, overlooking the larger space below. A woman was leaning on the railing, perhaps putting too much faith in its ramshackle construction to support her. A wry grin was painted on her ageing face and she gave a laconic wave, “Hello And.”
Andrinius smiled, forgetting all about the man that had greeted him, and gave a curt wave.
She beckoned him to climb a set of metal stairs that looked like they had been pilfered from an old ship.
He met her at the top of the stairs and nodded. “It’s been a while.”
“That it has, that it has,” she grinned. “Where’ve you been?”
“That what brings you here?” She began walking to one of the makeshift rooms on the mezzanine.
Andrinius followed her. “So to speak. I have an assignment for you, if you want it.”
She lifted a curtain and nodded towards the room, “colour me intrigued.”
Andrinius looked inside. It was a rickety version of his quarters under the museum. A bed, desk, shelves. Strings crossed the room with heliographs hanging from them. A metal door stood on the far wall, with a large paper glued to it. On the paper were clear large words ‘OPEN ON PAIN OF DEATH’
“A bit of darkroom humour,” said Mahya.
Andrinius found himself walking towards the heliographs. He cocked his head to see the pictures.
A photo of a child, skin marred by aepathy, sitting in a doorway. The look on its face spoke of hardship and pain with which Andrinius was all too familiar.
A woman standing in shadow beneath a bridge, with a shaft of light crossing her face as her piercing pale eyes looking straight at him,
An old man, half his teeth missing, his face a labyrinth of deep wrinkles, smiling as he sits in front of a small table, surrounded by tinkers’ tools.
He couldn’t pretend to understand what made a good image. Composition. The candidness of the subjects. An eye that saw what other people simply did not. Whatever it was, he knew he’d neve rbe able to capture anything quite like them with a dozen years. Throne, even with a hundred years.
“These are good.”
Mahya nodded, “That’s kind of you.”
He turned around to observe her once more. Long greying hair that defied societal mores framed a face with skin darker than most who called Korachan their home.
She regarded him with dark eyes. “Well?”
“The Encyclopaedia is looking for heliographers to accompany me on a trip south.”
“South is a big place. South is three-quarters of Elyden right now. South could be very dangerous.”
“South is the Shadow March.”
“You must be out of your fucking mind. Let the brainwashed desperate helots and workslaves do what they want, but I am not wasting my time and risking my life on a fool’s errand.”
“There’ll be a lot of sad grizzled faces on that road.”
She laughed. “There’s a lot of sad grizzled faces right here. Far more than I can document in one life. Why would I need to put my life on the line?”
“It’s been decades since any notable scholarly documentation of the March and its pilgrims - ”
“Don’t give me that crap. The Society might think that, but I know you don’t care about that. Why are you doing this?”
“I don’t care about the Shadow March, but I know that many people find it deeply important. To the point that they give their life savings to the church and abandon everything - their families, their jobs, their entire lives - to set out on the arduous road to the holy land. And making it there isn’t even a certainty. It’s just for the possibility of looking at the Undying Machine. That single moment of ecstasy where their god looks into their soul. Don’t you want to see first-hand what makes someone do that? What - ”
“I know full well what makes people do that And. The hopelessness of a life in chains. The despair of being born indentured and having to spend decades just to buy yourself out. And for what? To find yourself alone in a wretched uncaring world without a clue of what to do with yourself. Did you know that more bodies who buy their freedom kill themselves than slaves or helots?”
“And where did you get that nugget?”
“Some underground rally somewhere. It’s probably false, but it means something. This world feeds on despair. The Undying Machine certainly does. We may have been born on the right side of luck, but most people were not. I don’t need to revel in their suffering. And they don’t need to be reminded of their misfortunes by seeing us running around.”
“No, but you can document their suffering.”
“Thanks And, but I’m not really interested.”
“Fine, let’s put it another way. Do you think you are a good heliographer?”
“I’m a modest woman but my modesty fails me when it comes to my work. I’m probably the best heliographer working in Deochan today, and I doubt there’s been anyone working for the Society within my lifetime whose knows their way around a camera the way I do.”
“At least there’s something we agree on,” said Andrinius. “So, given that, what would you rather - do the pilgrims justice or let someone else ruin their story?”
Mahya exhaled. “And, I’ve done fieldwork. I’ve been to Ahka, following soldiers in the trenches. I got my arse beaten up by blood cultists in Karakhas. I’ve been a prisoner in Hetepheropolis. I’ve been through worse,” she walked over to the pictures and picked one of them off the peg. “I’m not scared of putting myself on the line if I think I can capture something worth saving, but I don’t need to put myself in this level of danger. I like my life. I like this shithole, how I turned it into a home. I like that I don’t have to spend twelve hours a day slaving on an assembly line or working in a quarry. There’s nothing for me in Kharkharadontis. I don’t need to escape my life.”
“I do.” The words came suddenly, almost unbidden and Andrinius was as shocked by them as he could tell Mahya was.
She sat on the edge of her bed. “What is it?”
Andrinius grimaced, tried to speak, but hesitated. Then after drawing a breath, “I need to do this. In her last days, Vela turned to the Undying Machine for solace. You knew her. She was always more spiritual than we ever were, but her sickness made her search further. She became like those pilgrims, looking for answers, though she couldn’t in her condition. I need to do this for her, but I cannot do it alone. I need to see her, and I know I will in your pictures.”
“Throne.” Her face was a statue, her eyes trembling faintly. “I can’t believe you’d say that. Is it true?”
“You know what I think about the Church.”
Another nod. “I take it from the libertine nature of your present accommodation that little has changed. If anything,” said Andrinius, his eyes turning to another heliograph, this one showing a rusted idol of the Undying Machine beneath which sat a woman, her face obscured beneath a black shawl, “I daresay it’s more pronounced now than ever.”
“Can you imagine what it will be like for me marching with priests and fanatics and exocrines and Throne knows what else?”
“I’ll keep you on a tight leash.”
“You’ll need to keep me muzzled.”
“I’m sure that can be arranged.”
She gave him a sardonic smile.
“Please. I need to do this. I need to get down on paper what it is that compels people to do this.”
“What do you think I’ve been talking about all this time?”
“You know what I mean.”
She nodded. “I do.”
Andrinius’ eyes widened
* * *
The Shadow March. Nothing can be said to embody the disparate peoples, nations and religions of the Inner Sea quite like this monumental pilgrimage.
I am in Korachans’ Theatre District, seated in the shade of a 300-year-old auditorium where works such as Ethanasius’ ‘Passion of St. Malichar’, Cae Vedti’s ‘Dirge of the Martys in D Minor’, and, perhaps fittingly, Satyrions’ ‘March of a million Pilgrims’ have been performed. It is that odd time when the district slumbers under the waxing sun, when helots and work slaves still work, keeping the empire’s industries turning.
Despite the name, this area is one of religious importance to Korachan. For all its accolades in the sciences and arts, this city, like so many others in this sprawling empire we call home, is one inextricably tied to religion. Home to no less than three saints of the Three Churches of the Machine, it boasts amongst many other architectural marvels, seven churches (including a basilica and cathedral), sixteen chapels, and dozens of shrines. It is an important part of the Shadow March, where so many pilgrims and ardent followers of the Undying Machine begin their journey south, across the Inner Sea, into the bosom of the Reformed empire and, eventually, into the great inland desert of Kharkharodntis where the Sepulchral Palace of the Undying Machine lies awaiting them.
I am facing the Basilica of St. Rachanael Restored, its great green dome and once brilliant white walls towering above all else. The cold caress of winter yet lingers, threatening to dull the warm embrace of my Harappan tea. I finish it and look at my timepiece. 11:58. The entire scene will change in a few minutes.
I take what few moments of calm remain to look at the square, the people moving about their business in earnest.
And then it strikes. A bell in the church opposite me. I see gutterbirds scatter as the sound echoes across the square. I take my cue to stand as the shops and cafes around me begin taking tables and chairs inside and shuttering their doors. In the distance, a multitude of other bells, belonging to the other churches and chapels in Korachan, begin striking noon.
Within a few more chimes the scene around me has changed completely. The shops are all closed and what people I see are heading in just one direction - the basilica. By the final strike of noon the square is filled with people, some chatting, catching up, others moving single-mindedly into the church.
And then, just as soon as it began, it is over. I am alone, a straggler amid this exodus of bodies. A macrocosm of what awaits on the March. Only instead of the call-to-arms of church bells, the followers of that great pilgrimage are lured across the span of thousands of miles by the sirens’ call of the Sepulchral Palace and the God that dwells within.
Andrinius put the pen down and closed his eyes. He stood and took a step towards the church. His first step of what would be thousands more over the coming months.
He looked up, saw the statues of saints and holy men whose names he knew not. A bit of research on them and a few heliographs, and he could write it up as an article. Something for another time, he thought absently as he passed beneath the portico into the structure. Bile rose in his throat and he felt his jaw clench tightly. The smell of incense, the stench of a hundred malnourished unwashed bodies assaulted him. Then fainter - the smell of rust and damp stone. Decay. Always decay.
He let his gaze fall down the nave, ignoring the bodies still settling down on the flanking pews, settling instead on the gigantic brushed metal sword that hung over the altar.
He found himself making the sign of the sword on his chest. A carryover from years of indoctrination. The motion barely even registered in his mind.
“Name?” came a voice from beside him.
Andrinius stirred and turned. A man, scrawny, the topography of his face marked in deep pocks. Wet grey eyes staring intently at him from beneath a furrowed brow.
“This isn’t my parish. I’m here on work.” Andrinus handed over a piece of vellum and a small steel-backed booklet to the man. The vellum bore the seals of the Offices of the Encyclopaedia Elyden, and the Offices of the Church of the Undying Machine, not to mention the administrative seals of various patrician houses, and the signatures of a half dozen individuals, including his own. The small book was his passport - literally his freedom in physical form. The single most important possession of any freeman.
The man looked at the acid-etched writing on the metal-backed passport, eyes flitting from a small heliograph to Andrinius and back. Seemingly content, he handed them back. “What you doing here?”
Andrinus shook his head. “Oh nothing, just looking how other parishes celebrate the Undying Machine.”
“Much the same as any other, would be my wager.”
“You’d be surprised. Even in the same city, different parishes might have their own customs or idiosyncrasies.” The mans’ brow furrowed at the last word. “Differences. It’s fascinating to see how different people worship the same god.”
“D’you think He prefers one way to another?”
Andrinius paused for a moment, wondering who the man was talking about, then realised. “Who knows? What mortal could dare the pretence of assuming what the Machine Undying thinks or knows.”
Andrinus made a gesture of farewell and walked off.
“Be quiet during the mass.”
He secreted himself towards the back of the church, on the last row of pews and observed the long ritual. The gestures of obeisance, the prayers of chastisement and penitence and awe. The reciting of litanies and prayers. Most he remembered. Others he had difficulty with. It had been a while since he’d gone to church. Even longer since doing so by choice.
Where helots were forced to attend church every day under pain of higher tithes, forced ‘ganging into the Shadow March, or worse, Andrinius’ societal rank granted him certain latitude when it came to the strictness of adherence to certain dictates and laws.
He remembered Vela. Her family mourning. The funereal wailers. Him signing away her body to the Mortuary Cult. Receiving her skull back, etched with her details, her cause of death. Looking at it every day on his desk. Holding it when he felt alone. Crying when he missed her.
He shook the thought away and returned to the church.
Hundreds of people engrossed by the words of the preacher. Mostly helots. A scattering of freemen, both low and trueborn. Even one or two patricians, by the looks of it, in the front pews. All hanging on the priests’ every word. He spoke with a confidence that could have beguiled anyone.
The man could have told them to march to their deaths and they would have followed.
Andrinius grinned, though there was little humour behind the motion.
He wondered how many of them could be persuaded to hand over their life savings and possessions to the Church in return for a life of struggle and servitude southbound on the Long Road to the Sepulchral Palace. To become a Petitioner of the Machine took an arcane mix of determination and despair, and was no small feat. Even discounting the physical and mental dangers inherent in travelling in Kharkharadontis, Andrinus had to consider their lives. Their families, their businesses, everything, forever put on hold and laid prostrate before the whims of the Church and its officials, who, for the duration of the March would be akin to kings to the pilgrims - lords of all bodies marching alongside them.
He exhaled, realising that he, too, would be beholden to the whims of whatever predicant or cenobite he found himself assigned to. The autonomy his charter gave him within the territories the March would be passing through would not be shared by the predicants, cenobites and other high-ranking members of the Church that were travelling with him, and he would be little different from the fanatics and petitioners conscripted to the pilgrimage. At least in the eyes of the Church.
He looked at the sword-like icon that hung above the altar one last time before leaving. He noticed now a faint bass carving of a figure - Lord Rachanael, the Undying Machine - carved upon its surface, arms and legs hanging limp, giving the appearance of being suspended. From its head and back emerged what might have been dreadlocks or wings. Years of hearing the story made Andrinius aware right away that they were the umbilicals that married His body to the Leaden Throne - the archaic technarcane engine that the Archpatrician Malichar had constructed to keep the ancient deity alive.
Staring at the cross, he felt old lessons and parables flooding back to him. Tales of the Archpotentate’s Itinerary - his near-mythical voyage across the wastes of Sammaea in which he was killed, was reborn, found the imprisoned body of Rachanael, released Him and constructed the Leaden Throne. It all formed a large part of the scripture that the laity of Korachan and half of the known world so blindly followed.
He’d had enough.
He left the church, returning to the sunlight that his time indoors had made blinding. He’d see far more of the worshippers and shepherds of the Undying Machine over the coming months, and already he was tired of it all.
“Throne give me strength,” he said.