John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

Reacting to the concentration of his gaze, the woman ventured, “Sir, you’re not by any chance skilled in the repair of lamps, are you… ?”

Then, registering the fierceness of his expression, she fell into a puzzled silence.

Some of the old laws, it appeared, still stood, but the understructure of them must have cracked, as a building may retain its general shape yet lack huge plates of stucco from its facade and be unsafe to walk the stairways of. For this lamp was showing three truths in the ancient manner, without the ancient and obligatory rites….

Of three, the first incomprehensible, in a variety of writing that creatures not quite man-like had employed to record dealings in imponderables. It had been hazarded that the records concerned a trade in souls, but that was barely an approximation. In any case, being an invention of chaos, the symbols had any value anyone cared to assign them.

And it was fading, and it was time to ask again.

“How come you to this pass?” the traveler thought.

Now, the one debatable, in a single hieroglyph such as might have been seen on the high pillars of EtnumYuzup before that metropolis dissolved into dust with thunderclaps. The Grand Five Weavers had grown self-indulgent, and no longer observed the instructions they had issued to themselves in the days of the foundation of their city. This might be read plainly; the traveler read it.

One would cease.

Now for the final truth, the ineluctable… but the question must be aptly posed. Indeed, the traveler realized, it had better not be a question but a statement, a truth of comparable import. Within his head he framed it: “I have many names, but a single nature.”

The weakening elemental understood, and on the glass appeared the characters of a poem by Shen-i-ya Eng-t’an Zwu, who sat for a thousand years beneath an elm while none could tell whether he lived or died, so wholly was he attuned to the world around.


fades into the air

is no more seen

The candle-dousing winds of ages seemed to sough in the chimney of the cottage.

“Sir,” the woman said anxiously, “I wish you’d not bother so much with our trifling problem!”

“Is it not in fact a great matter for you, lacking a lamp?” The traveler didn’t raise his head.

The woman sighed. “Well, I must confess it is, sir. For eating close by the fire, and breathing smoke, is hard on my little one, and my man Yarn above all, what with his chest-trouble…. I’d set my heart on having a good bright clear new lamp!”

“As you wish,” said the traveler, not without sorrow, “so be it.”

He blew out the flame. When he cleaned the glass and lit it anew, it shed a grateful pure yellow light.

Wolpec was little, though wise; candles had sufficed in which to pen him. Fegrim was vast, and underlay a mountain. But he had seen among the snag-toothed peaks of Kanish-Kulya how his volcano slumbered now beneath a cap of white, where once it had spouted smoke a mile high. No ripples stirred the pool of Horimos, and after untold eons the river Metamorphia had changed that nature it once had of changing things.

Wives rinsed their laundry in the spring at Geirion, and the eldritch song Jorkas had been used to sing was turned a lullaby with nonsense words to soothe asleep happy babes in wicker cradles. Even the names of the greatest ones: Tuprid and Iaschalanva, Juorril and Lry-were one to speak them, folk would answer, “Who?”

They had departed, to fret powerless among the stars, and sometimes hurl futile spears of flame across the night… at which sight lovers, hand in hand, would cry merrily, “Look, there’s a star to wish on! Wish for early marriage and long happiness!” And kiss, and forget it in a moment.

Except here, and that was very strange. Disquieting! It was indeed in Cleftor country as had been described to him: as though the black of night could filter through the walls and dull the fire. Flames here were sullen red, and their heat was muted. This was not true of the new lamp, but there were reasons for that.

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