The labor pain comes to Via before the fullness of its time. The last priestess of the poison mountain wakes in the darkness of the priory, the tons of stone overhead crushing the air from her lungs. But it is no outside force that has stolen her breath; it is her own body, turning against itself. Before she fully understands, she is halfway upright, staggering out into the wider part of the cavern.
She lights her own way, skin glowing softly, hemming up the ragged edges of the shadows as she passes.
Her gasps echo against the stone walls, making a choir of her lonely suffering. The apse of the bunker is more than high enough to permit her full height, but the cinch-tight pull in her belly does not. Fresh hurt paints bright, angry colors over the old daily pains in her leg bones, in her rattling lungs.
The cloth between her legs is soaked with womb water.
Tears threaten, but she sends sorrow away. There will be time to mourn this never-was life later. She gropes along the cool steel of the bunker walls and fumbles her way onto the centuries-deep handholds carved into the rock. Her thumb catches for a moment in one of the old bolt holes, where ladder rungs have long since fallen away. She hauls herself upward, pulling away from the pain even as she carries it with her, toward the light of the world above.
The sun meets Via as she drags herself up the shaft. Its light coaxes her to the low plateau, the birthing place. The valley below is misty. None of the village people and farm folk who live down there will see Via’s ascent.
When she reaches the plateau, she stands for a moment, trembling and blinking, in great Bradderslee’s shadow.
The mountain cuts high and sharp into Via’s first memories. She goes back there often, in her mind, and now the pain slashing through her belly takes her body there too, to stand before Bradderslee in reality and in her imagination at the same time. Though she has long since grown into her full size, still she feels like a tremulous child at its foot.
A wisecrow circles overhead, its wings reaching toward the horizons. She has not seen a wisecrow in months. The village folk hate the crows, resent their voracious appetites and uncanny cleverness. In the fall, the farmers purged the local flock with poisoned grain.
Via’s mother often said that the wisecrows portended good omens, but there is no goodness to be had on the plateau today. Then again, a wisecrow tried to eat Via’s mother’s eyes when Via was too ill to finish burying her. Perhaps the portent was less significant than she had believed.
Though the rest of her priesthood survives only in the realm of memory, Via feels them at her back. Waiting, hoping. “I will try again,” she promises her family of memory-ghosts. They do not answer her with affirmation or reproof; her memory-patterns of them have been too weak for years now.
When she was a child, she could give the priesthood what they needed. On her age-day, they urged her into the sacred deepshaft below the bunker, told her to climb down as far as the blood-red prayer painted on the stone. When she climbed back up into the darkened apse, she shone from within like a new-made sun, while they wept and sang around her. The gift had passed on, for one more generation.
This thing, now, she cannot give, though she has tried. Oh, she has tried. Pain’s gravity throws her to her knees. She presses back into a stable squat, accepting the invisible knife that slides up behind her navel.
The wisecrow drifts once more between her and the stone-stubbled face of the mountain. Then it alights on the ground beside her in a whisper of grass. The faint glow of Via’s gift shines through her: like their unburdened brethren, wisecrows are drawn to anything that gleams or glitters. “Are you dying?” it says. It pecks idly at Via’s hand. Its beak is sharp; it draws a bright bead of blood.
Via swats it away, but it hops out of reach with a screech and a flutter of its wings. It is senseless to argue with a bird, but pain has pulled soft slack entrails out from behind Via’s bone-firm resolve. “I have a duty,” she says, when the tightness lets go of her belly and the breath loosens in her chest. “The gift must be given.”
A priest without a family is no priest at all.
Listen, daughter-mine; listen, all you children of the priestblood.
The past is a tangle, an unknowable knot. We choose a single thread to sew into your heart, setting the warp for the rest to come, and here is the simplest and least frayed: a people walked this earth, but not a people like you or I. They were a godfolk, who broke open the paths between life and death, who bore lightning in their hands and poison in their wake.
You know the names of the things they left us. The poison mountain. The priestblood gift. The wisecrows, the memory-patterns, the clouds of Metal Eaters that roll through the valley and leave behind knives with no blade, oxen freed of their plow-burden.
These are the creations of the godfolk who built the Before World, destroyed it, and built something new from the bones of the old. In many places, in many ways, the scars still show where the broken pieces were knitted back together.
We are one such scar. It is our duty to hold fast against the rot and ichor of the old world that cannot heal inside the new one.
Remember that—remember what you are—when the pain seems too much to understand.
The wreckage that Via’s body brings forth is something more than a fetus and something less than a person. It is so small. Too small to breathe on its own. Too small to bear the burden of the gift. Another unbirth—her fifth? Sixth? Counting her wounds does not make them ache less, so she does not try.
There’s no way to be sure, but Via thinks this is a self-daughter, as Via’s own mother was to her grandam. She looks little like the few men Via lay with during her last seeking-journey. Perhaps this is for the best, then. The priesthood’s tree grows weak when it goes too long without being watered with outside blood.
Yet that tree has withered to one small and sickly branch. At least a self-daughter would have meant new green growth.
Via lowers herself to her back. One hand drives hard into her belly’s soft yielding flesh; the other draws the umbilicus free of her body. The placenta lands softly in the dirt; Via crouches over it, pressing it flat. It is whole. The blood inside her thighs is half dry, sticky; perhaps the bleeding has already stopped.
The wisecrow is in the air again, wheeling overhead. Via leaves the placenta marked by a circle of offering stones. The wisecrows, though gifted in their own way with human speech, can be small-minded and petty. It is better to appease them than to make an enemy of them. The wisecrows are not a warlike people, but humans are, and from them, the wisecrows have learned to answer aggression in kind.
Here is a story handed down from before my days, a story told by the villagers of Chee Akmo, gifted to me by the memory-pattern of a great-uncle of the blood, an itinerant of our order. He speaks faintly through me now, but perhaps he will speak again through you, when you reach the ripeness of your age. Listen now, through him, through me:
O my children, do not go up to the poison mountain.
Once every generation or so, a few dream-scratched souls are infected with the desire to flout the rules that keep us safe. They think they will enjoy the spoils of the Before World, spoils that their foolish grandsires denied themselves. Do these words walk a familiar path in your heart, daughter-mine? Or yours, my sister-son? Hah.
No one has ventured to the peak in a lifetime now, not since the year after the bloodwater fever. My mother, may her bones sleep long and quiet, she was a young woman then, half child still. But she remembered climbing up to the mountain peak, her and her brother and cousins, one summer when the rains did not come and the treasures of the Before World called louder than ever in the long, still nights—when hunger and desire roared louder inside a young soul than the warnings of those who had come before her. Temma, are you listening? Hmm.
So yes, my mother would tell the story sometimes, if she’d had a few cups of the grain mash, on midsummer evenings when the sun held onto the sky. How they bloodied their fingers and knees fighting their way up the mountain’s hateful face. How they found the entrance that the godfolk carved into the living rock, and made their way in, feeling their way downward. And how, when the tunnel leveled out, ten demons rose up screaming from the very stone.
Their whole bodies burned from within, so bright my mother felt she was staring into the sun, and their bodies were misshapen, flesh lumpy like badly mixed dough. They wailed and writhed and crawled toward my mother and the rest, cursing them that they, too, should be so imprisoned in those endless caves, to burn forever in the name of the godfolk.
My mother and her cousins came screaming down from the mountain to throw themselves down at the family shrine—yes, the same one, in the wheat fields. They left the iron offering in penance for their doubt and they never raised their gaze to the mountain’s peak again.
Leave the poison mountain untouched. The World Before should stay buried.
Via sits on her haunches as the wisecrow tears her placenta into ragged strips and throws back its head to swallow. The unbirth is still cradled in the bend of her arm. It has long since ceased to struggle against its half-made life.
When the wisecrow finishes eating, it regards her with one bead-bright eye, then the other. “Why do you cling to that meat?” it asks. Its beak does not move. When the godfolk put the gift of speech into the crows, they hid it deep inside. “You should eat it. Or I will eat it if you do not.”
“No. It’s not meat.”
“It is. So are you.” The wisecrow hopped closer. “So am I.”
Via clenches a fist around half a dozen pebbles. “No.” The wisecrow stills, and Via forces an exhalation. Seeking peace. Seeking understanding. Her fingers loosen—they have grown so cold—and pebbles rain down between her feet. “It has meaning to me. Beyond its nutritive value.”
“It smells like you.”
“It should have been my—my hatchling.” She is so tired. Weariness is the mantle of her priesthood, and loneliness is her sacred rite. “I must have a child. It is my duty to pass the warning-gift. Without me—”
A fragment of a memory-pattern flickers to life inside her. The burden belongs to the priesthood alone, says her mother’s voice—her own voice. The chain of inherited memories groans, straining against the weight of the past. The avarice and suspicion of the priesthood’s flock, priests slain and the still-glowing bones of their children splintered through the ruined flesh.
The gift shows the mark of the godfolk’s fingerprints, and the works of the godfolk are feared as much as they are coveted.
“The poison mountain,” Via says, “unmakes living things.” She sounds more like the wisecrow’s quark than her own voice, or her mother’s. Her thumb strokes the careless indentations where the unbirth’s eyes should have been. “It sings a song that we cannot hear, and it makes our bodies forget who we are.”
These are the oldest stories that the priesthood tells, and if they have ever been told outside the family, it has been many ages since. More memory-patterns spark briefly and die in their panic.
“We tried to tell the other people of our flock, once.” Via’s eyes have closed. The wisecrow is reduced to a shallow scritching in the dirt beside her. “When the World Remade was new.”
“They thought you hoarded the godfolk treasure for your own.” The crow nudges her arm. “They did not believe.”
Via’s body is so heavy. The gravity of exhaustion pulls her to a low slouch against the rock where she leans. The same force pulls the roll call of devastation out of her: the knobby growths which, when cut away, leave hidden roots to grow back and choke out the healthy flesh beneath. The bloody bowels, the chain-rattle cough, the womb that produces nothing but garbled bone and bile. These are the only treasures of the poison mountain, and the poison mountain is where they must stay. “Yes.”
“I believe,” the wisecrow says. “My flock know what the godfolk’s gifts mean. I will tell you, and you will believe, too.”
“I don’t need—”
“Shh! There is not much time, now.”
Listen, priest-woman. Listen to the true way, which my flock has shared since the sun rose on our wisdom.
The Before World was a garden that stretched from sky to sky and in it were many good things to eat, flowers and fruits and sweet tender creatures, and there were good sturdy trees that hid fragile eggs and naked crying hatchlings from the cruel sun.
But the godfolk masters were not content with the trees of their world and they made a new tree, of steel-metal and stone, and they tore apart a corner of their garden to raise it so high that it made a hole in the sky and the sunfire of outside-the-world poured through.
Then the other trees burned and wilted, but the steel-stone tree grew until it made a new sky of its branches, and it bore fruit of glass, and before the fruit grew soft and ripe the masters commanded the birds of the sky to eat of it and bear its seeds farther even than the sky-scraped corners of the garden.
The sparrow was too frightened and the eagle too proud to feed at the godfolk’s hand. But the crow was curious, and she ate until she grew Wise, and the masters praised the sweetness of the gift she had been given.
She bore the seeds out past the edges of the world and new trees grew there, and when her flock ate of their fruit, they too found Wisdom and they called it poison.
But the First Wise One saw that it was both.
“The mountain’s poison,” says the part of the priestwoman who lays on her back in the fog of her own iron-stink. “The Wisdom …” She has no strength to finish. Her legs are scarlet soaked and she has not struck He Who Wanders away while he pecks at her hand, at the same wound that he opened before. She does not strike him away.
He hops onto the priestwoman’s chest, feeling the ebb of her breath. Her mouth moves and he knows this shape of this word: yes. So he tears into her lip, for it is with their mouths that humans bind themselves to vows, and swallows the still-hot salt of her blood.
“I understand,” she whispers, her lip twitching in the grasp of his beak, and the life shudders out of her.
To understand is not enough. But the priestwoman in He Who Wanders’ breast, the one who is part crow now, the crow who is part priest, says, “I believe,” and that is better, though he still feels her scratching behind his ribs for understanding.
She will learn; all fledglings do. There is nothing to be understood about the World Before: it was a madness to create it and to destroy it and a madness again to pick at the unhealing sore of its existence. The World Before can never really be understood, not even by the Wise. The World Remade has to be enough.
He Who Wanders’ wings ache to stretch, to lift him skyward, but his priest-self holds him here a bit longer. Beak and talons scratch deep into the earth, moving pebbles aside, to bury the meat-thing that the priestwoman carried. This not-creature had no breath to bind itself to promise, but it was an object of sentiment to the one who did. It is an ugly thing to go into death so far away from the light of the sky, but this is the human way, to give their heavy bones back to the earth from which the godfolk long ago carved them, and the priestwoman was human before she was his. Finally, when this wearisome and confusing task is done, he takes to the air.
Wings blacken the sky when he returns with his flock. “This is She Who Gives and Asks in Turn,” he tells them. “If you partake, you are bound into her priesthood, you and your children and your children’s children.”
A few choose to fly: the very old, who are accustomed to risking the fragile, beautiful world, and the very young, who hold a hollow hope of something better yet to be found.
The rest feed. The priestwoman is theirs, now, and they are hers, and in their ancient custom they will carry her ever forward with them. They gorge on her flesh and their bodies work to understand what it is they have been given. This is their poison-gift. This is how the wisecrow has learned, ever since the First Wise One.
In this digestion, they will add the priestwoman’s gift to their own. They will grow a shade more human, too, and that is a poison-gift of its own.
They leave the bones to bake their marrow in the mounting sun. He Who Wanders leads them down into the shaft from which the priestwoman came.
He will need a renaming soon. All things in their perfect time.
Below-mountain, there is a wrongness to the air. Superstition and certainty are two birds hatched from the same egg, and most of the flock stop as soon as they are under cover. They find resting places in the heavy grooves in the stone, where the oil of human hands stains the living rock.
He Who Wanders and a few others fly deeper. Rust-metal consoles cave in on themselves; deeper yet, rows upon rows of ugly drums stand stubborn, timeless guard in the mountain’s bowels. He Who Wanders tries to number them, and even with the priestwoman in his head, in his belly, he cannot. He is not human enough for that; perhaps it would take the godfolk to assign such measure.
It is not a good place, but it is a place for them, and that is a thing they have never had before. The mountain’s poison is sweetness, too. He Who Wanders will throw his body onto the claws of the poison-beast that lives deep within here, if it means safety for his children’s children’s children. He will beat his wings and scream and turn back the foolish, doubting humanfolk who set their covetous gaze on these peaks.
He caws victory and defiance. And when he flaps a rebuke to the poison-drums, a faint glow rises from deep within him: a cloak of stars to illuminate the night-sky of his feathers.