A pentagonal building in darkness, seen from above.

Minotaur (Part 2)

by

To Minotaur (Part 1)

There were five barbican complexes spaced regularly about the perimeter of the Dark Palace, each with a portal scaled for the egress of an armed column. Despite their grand size they were were recessed behind flat and bare stages and flanked by towers that were obviously major concentrations of ordnance. These killing floors were pitted and marked with the evidence of generations of caustic fire and even now, standing by the gate that had jammed open, the Watchman felt themselves to be caught in the reticulations of hidden gunsights. It was only after the assurance of Pallin that there was no living or mechanical activity detectable that they approached the looming portal.

It is the default position of a good fortification that the failure of its power seals it shut. The fact that the door was open implied a trap, but it also required of them a simple choice: they could risk entrapment in fulfilling their mission, or they could leave with the certainty of failure. Therefore they entered, leaving a party at the gate, ready to escort any survivors on their return to the Redoubt. Pallin, Vyrkin, Ferox and half a dozen others went in.

Pallin’s map, with its gleanings from unimaginably ancient architects’ designs combined with the reports of the Tower’s seers and previous Watch expeditions, proved to be essentially accurate. The five-fold symmetry of the glacis was repeated in the internal labyrinth, with passages taking turnings according to the divisions of a pentagon. It was almost as if the Palace was one gigantic quasi-crystalline array.

As a decorative motif and as a point of focus for the Redoubt’s devotees of numerology, the cinquefoil was familiar and reassuring, but here in its obsessive articulation at every scale and in every detail it was oppressive. Its only ease to the soul was that it gave the assumption of predictability to their movements and even that suggested something of an insidious entrapment. Pallin had to remind himself that this place had been built by human beings like himself, so perfect was the inversion of the light-clogged cities of the Redoubt in this place of shadows and domineering geometry.

The barbican opened to a marshalling yard, one of five nexuses of the great tracks and conduits that ringed the Palace between the curtain wall and the domicile zone. It was a full and complex space, but orderly in its alignment of massive parallel rails and lines that crooked and converged in the distance to either side. Stalled units of mobile cannon and other machines loomed massively in rows over their heads in the darkness but they were long dead and cold and and were sketched only cursorily by their visors.

At the far side of the yard, the scarp of another wall confronted them, and another gatehouse. They entered cautiously and took stock of their position.

"Which way, ser Monstruwacan?"

Pallin consulted a small glowing device for a while. "Left beyond the next turn. Straight ahead. Right and then left to a small hub chamber... judging by the cycle of movements I see in a few machines that are active here, it may be well to wait there a few minutes to make another survey before moving on."

"So you can see the activity of the Palace?"

Pallin put his hand to his lower face thoughtfully, a gesture that seemed absurd with his armour. "Of course — and some system or master is still directing that activity."

The temperature dropped noticeably as they proceeded down the inner corridors. Rimes of frost that were solidified air formed on the slick black walls, giving them the strange appearance of shot velvet. As they reached out to touch the soft-seeming patterns of ice, heat radiated by their armour caused them to sublimate like the fancies they appeared to be.

The Palace was filled not only with frost and shadows, but with voices, and these were an overt sign that the Palace did indeed live on in its mechanical way. At first their sound might have been caused by the wind, modulated through the halls and vents of the place, but they were too coherent and too inflected with the impression of intent to be natural tricks. The first utterances that they heard were in old languages that even Pallin did not know, but soon they began to be heard in the proper Set Speech, though the phrases that they articulated were too odd to make entire sense.

"Serem," said the draught, as light as a breath on his cheek. "Serem shah... ah yes, that’s right, you cannot forget me... surely you must see?" The words of men long dead now. Sometimes he thought that he had killed them himself.

"Oh yes, I remember, and still I see," he whispered in return.

The insidious dialogue continued. "A safe man I do not want..."

It was a woman now, still living, a prize he sought and could not keep. "Dear Hecane... sometimes I am forced to admit to myself that friendship is better than love and thus I did not lose after all. Tell me: is this a deception or a realisation?"

The voice was unreal, and did not answer.

"Can no love last forever?"

"Serem," said the wind. "Serem shah... carryn aey, werr te onnn..."

"Can you hear the voices, Monstruwacan?" Vyrkin asked. His voice jarred and the interruption was simultaneously a release and an insult. "They burn that capacity out of us, or so they suppose, for I can still hear a whisper and it will not stop. What is it that you hear?"

"Oh yes, I hear," Pallin told him, concealing his irritation. "I hear the history of this place — the voices of ghosts, if you will."

"And they do not effect you?"

"No more than I need them to. That was why was selected. Many others would not be so lucky to be immune, I would think."

The Captain was wistful. "This Palace is like one single machine or even a living thing. It has an integrity and an intent and I know that it could have the will to destroy or corrupt us. Each of us, in the Tower and on the Land, is right to think that the glimpses of something moving here are more than shadows magnified. It is so much more sure and definite than that: it has a shape and scuttles like a spider and I am sure that it is intelligent because it toys with us. I know the need for the safety of our souls, but nonetheless, this place was human, and I wonder why this thing should be at home and whether we could be properly suited..."

Now what a many-faceted gem that that confession was, Pallin thought, carefully tallying. Wonder and a demon. He noticed a change in the mood of the Watchmen. Their minds seemed sharper, more alert. The danger excited them, as he himself was excited, but there was an admixture of other emotions too: familiarity, fatalism and hope...

Hope — another significant datum to add. He made a mental note, knowing that that particular grain of feeling was vital, even if he could not guess why yet.

They went on, carefully. Finally, after a few more stops to rest and make observations, they came to the residential concatenation of the Palace. They had none of the close and rich warmth of the Redoubt's home spaces. Their order was more complex than that of the obviously military facilities, but no less relentless, with vast piers of stone and metal rising in fixed constellations of pentagons and rhomboids. These columns were wound about with thick angular coils of segmented dwellings, each pier and its attendant structures fitting as neatly as the parts of a locked puzzle. Laid even more tightly upon them were lines of effigies of men and women so close in their contorted complementary poses that there was barely any space at all between them.

The structures seemed in their thick aggregation not so much like a once-living stack of towns as a hive or the mills of a calculating engine, now jammed and stalled.

The analogy was probably not unfit, Pallin thought to himself. There was an eccentric colleague of his, with a similar interest in the systems of hive entities, and he had compared the creatures to crude eidognostic machines. He had explained that it did not matter if, for example, bees were intelligent or not, as their hive itself was a machine that moved individual insects about as if they were units in the calculation of an enormous equation. The man had built a beehive to prove his point and amusingly, it did indeed function passably well as a calculating instrument, receiving inputs and dispensing outputs with a rough efficiency. "And the bees of knowledge know nothing," he reminded Pallin. "Nothing at all." The experiment had cast new light on the dynamics of his own terrarium.

And even now emptied of human life was this Dark Palace likewise a ‘thinking’ hive-machine? Close by would they really find its face, or would it be visible only from the heights of the Tower of Observation? Despite Vyrkin’s certainty, the thing that inhabited, the ‘demon’ or ‘spider’ might be simply an illusion caused by the Palace's residual function, or some new motive power that had come into it and was working its gears once more. Supposing it was real, was it a face or a mask? If either was true, perhaps the difference was meaningless...

The Watchmen saw none of this in their explorations. All they saw were the endlessly interlocking diamond-shaped rooms and the plaza-arenas between the bases of the piers. Of course they did not see anything: a bee does not need to know.

Pallin looked closely at one of the climbing processions. Each of the persons depicted might have been lifelike in size, though they were smaller than the present race of the Redoubt. There was a commonality in the details of their features, as if — and this was probably the case — he was regarding the portraits of a dynasty. For all their reduced stature, they had a dignity to them that he found moving, as he did their antiquity. These people were his unknown ancestors after all, all gone, all lost. He thought that he could find records for his own line that led back to the Foundation of the Last Redoubt — but not before...

The image of a child dead for aeons seemed to look directly back at him. The frost on her face had the softness of the fine hair of living skin and the details of her features were not unlike those of his own clan. She was familiar, and yet unfamiliar — and therefore not a little disturbing.

Enough sentiment, he chided himself. What is the order here? The figures were in poses that were contrived and unnatural and therefore intentionally significant. They were in groups of three under the signs of strange monsters. The first triad stood under a beast with curling horns and a thick fleece and consisted of a relatively tall man with dark hair like a child and burning eyes, a woman and a man holding a sphere and a staff. The next triad was under another horned animal, but one of more massive proportions. This group consisted of a man ploughing, a man bearing a key and another with a serpent and a spear. The third group, this time under a pair of seemingly normal human twins, depicted a man with a rod, a man digging and a flute player. After a dozen triads, the pattern repeated with subtly different actors. There was a secondary cast woven in amongst the thirty-six archetypes, ordered here in seven groups of seven — a young man with a diadem and bow, a woman with a lily and a basilisk in her hands while she rode a sleek aquatic beast and so forth. Each five-sided pier bore its own interpretation of the same basic pattern, climbing up the piers into the shadows beyond the range of his lights and the limits of his visor’s image-enhancement systems.

There was clear structure and variety here, so the frieze was apparently a form of allegory or mnemonic. As either, it was potentially rigid, but the modules of five, twelve-times-three and seven-times-seven were difficult to reconcile mathematically and so the complementary trains wound about each other with surprising complexity and variety without repetition. The artisans and their models may well have been trapped by rules here, but those rules were engineered to operate in the manner of gears in a calculating mill, not some simple closed cycle. It was a fascinating and inexplicable hive of symbols that he regarded.

Possibly the libraries of the Last Redoubt might explain the system here, but in the immediate term, the only explanation of the meaning of the frieze would lie deeper within the labyrinth of the Palace.


Beyond the hall of climbing friezes they found other things, other things that were disturbing. Artisans often imitate the forms of living things in the materials available to them so as to wed the natural and the artificial, and it was not surprising that there should be the forms of vines and leaves and fruit in the walls of the Palace as well as life-like effigies of human beings. But woven among this carven foliage there was a pattern of another sort, dark and glistening in a way that suggested absence rather than impression. Looking closely, Pallin felt a synaesthetic hum and almost reached out to touch the ambiguous ornamentation with his gauntlet — but drew back when saw a strand tremble as it should not and recognised its composition. He took a step further back and tilted his head. Suddenly the imitation pergola that enhanced the greater physical structural system of the hallway was no longer quaint to him.

"Eaters," he said. "Some thing has woven the very substance of Eaters into these walls."

Vyrkin looked at him levelly. "Yes," he confirmed. "Now do you see the hope that we see here?"

"Hope?"

"Our antithesis enervated and imprisoned, braided with honest metal and thus made our..." He did not complete the sentence, but left a gap for Pallin’s mind to fill. The tilt of his head conveyed expectation.

Pallin refused to leap to conclusions and by an effort of will, became the analyst and took out one of his measuring devices. It told him more or less what he guessed. These shimmering black grotesque-works were not true Eaters in their entire integrated power, but rather a sort of culture, as Vyrkin said, weakened and firmly held within the substance of the walls. Certainly no fully ‘vital’ Eater could be so bound and it seemed that what residue of the Earth-Current that ran through this place — so much less than that which powered and protected the Last Redoubt — was enough to keep the espaliered pneumavores in place. The perverse skill of it was impressive, but that judgment begged the question of its purpose.

He stared at the Captain, demanding an answer.

"There are mysteries to this place," the Watchman told him. "We cannot pretend to understand them yet, and yet this place stands, and has stood for longer aeons even than the Last Redoubt. It was shaped for men and women, and here it stands, waiting for us to return, wondering why we have left. We hoped..."

"Hoped?"

"Monstruwacan, can you tell us why it waits with its door open to us?"

Pallin trembled with a barely suppressed emotion that he could not quite define. Was it disgust, was it fascination, was it rage or was it longing? Was it fear? He could not tell, save to know that it might overpower him. He made an adjustment to the power conduits of his suit and reached out once again to touch the wall. The black counter-strain withered under his fingers. He was reminded a little of his plant-animals and considered an analogy of integration. He had often wondered if in the conflict of red and blue among those strange mosses whether there might be a balanced achieved and one that would last. Perhaps he saw now the remnants of an attempt to achieve something of that sort on a larger scale long ago...

He peered closely at the insinuated threads. There was a species of butterfly bred in the Underground Fields that had scales on its wings that achieved an almost perfect deep blackness. Indeed, those butterflies provided the pigment for one of the two gloves that he wore under his gauntlets...

This was an abomination, a thing to be destroyed and anathematised, his discipline told him — and yet he had no power to do such a thing, not here, now, with these men. He was also curious, as the Watchmen were. Perhaps he was even tempted.

Analogies are dangerous things, he reminded himself. Yet, they might spark a true understanding...

"Show me more," he demanded.


They found the black matter of the Eaters woven into the solid walls and in all the greater halls and plazas and shafts, they also found more friezes and tableaus of human beings. Again, as Pallin was able to determine fairly quickly, the triple systems of five, twelve-times-three and seven-times-seven archetypes determined the pattern of pose and costume — though here, there was far more complexity and variety in variations on the basic themes and in the arrangement of supporting figures. The bodies were often in contorted group poses, their faces drawn in expressions that might be agony or a sick ecstasy of congress. Faces that were frozen solid and seemingly sculpted out of gleaming marble were made like engraved drawings of themselves with myriad parallel and hatched black lines. They looked like art, but they were not artifice. Pallin leaned close to one and saw a pupil very slowly begin to dilate.

Everywhere these gruesome tableaux stood, not as the human debris of some sudden catastrophe, but upon inlaid pavements and under arches, to make the spaces into grand galleries of perverted art. There was nothing random or accidental in this synthesis, and nor was it, Pallin was forced to admit, alien to humanity. The aesthetic principles of composition that he saw were all too obvious and comprehensible to him. These horrible museums had a designer or designers who were human or who troped the human in their thoughts.

One stand — as good a choice for close examination as any — appeared to be a group attending childbirth, though the infant had not yet appeared. Again, there was the slight intimation of a movement and labour and this made Pallin shudder as he thought of what might be finally be born an age from now.

Another tableau showed a man with a lyre caught in the instant of turning, turning to see a woman, perhaps his lover, snatched away. Beyond in the shadows, an iron-crowned king and a queen sat upon thrones, watching. The king seemed amused, but the queen, holding in her hand a pomegranate, had a certain ironic regard for the woman. Pallin knew of a myth in which an incident like this occurred and could read its concentric layers of literal, allegorical, moral and anagogic meaning. What was significant however was not that there were any specific meanings, but that there were meanings. That very fact illuminated the path to the essence of this Palace and sparked his own hungry desire to find it.

He realised that these people were not dead but enthralled in an immeasurably slow pavan. There were means by which they could be released and brought into quick bright life once more. A surge of the Earth Current, applied in just the right manner... Among the many devices that he carried in various sockets in his armour, he had a device that was capable of delivering a concentrated and modulated charge of Earth Current. This power would not destroy, but instead provoke a brief acceleration in the life-rate of a human being. It had been intended for his own use, should he find himself in desperate combat, but it could perhaps be applied to some such as these. A few could be questioned about their roles here, perhaps even rescued, brought back to the Last Redoubt, assimilated into the culture there...

His hand strayed to a holster near his heart.

No.

The Dark Palace had woven its webs about their souls as well as their bodies. A simple migration might well destroy them — and carry whatever afflicted them into the Redoubt that he was sworn to protect.

He stood up from his examination to face the watchmen and found that they had scattered to stand individually by a various groups of the frozen. They turned to face him expectantly. "This you have seen, and to this you return?" he asked.

"We do," said the Captain.

"Why?"

"We brought you, hoping that you might understand and tell us."

"Ah." He folded his arms and thought a while. There was more to this than the decipherment of this vile legacy, that was plain. The way the men stood did not escape him: they were too familiar, too expectant and too calmly abiding. Did they imagine that monuments might be carved for them here amongst these undead?

Did they imagine that they projected their love across the ages to the time when these women and men were still warmly alive? With the eventual doom of the Last Redoubt calculated almost to the day, many people had sought to revise their concept of time and saw the past as their eventual destiny. Sometimes groups of such believers coalesced into cults and the Censors had been forced to weed them out. Was that the case and such a weeding to be his own duty?

No, there was something more immediate and specific in their minds... again, it was that hope that he had detected earlier, the hope that they had spoken of without quite giving it a specific name.


The gargantuan forest of clan-piers and plazas gave way to another yard and circuit of tracks and machines, this time those that were devoted to the ultimate defence of the central keep itself. Despite the vast age of the place, it was still unscarred by anything but time. The Palace had not fallen, but withered when the bright spire of the Last Redoubt was built. Unfit as they had been, the scale and the co-ordination of the mighty machines of the Palace were magnificent and Pallin was awed in spite of himself.

Nor was it mere scale and antiquity that impressed him. There was a pragmatic order to the place, but now, having traversed almost a complete radial cross section, he could see that there was an aesthetic dimension to it as well. This was something he had never quite appreciated when looking at his flat, abstract maps. People had lived their lives surrounded by, embedded in a pattern, and that pattern had shaped them. They had drawn sustenance from that pattern, that order; they had used it to stand with knowledge of who they were against the twilit world of the Age of Darkening.

He shuddered to think of this. The most ancient archetypes of the race of true humans before they built their cities of light were here, solid and black all around him. Solid, black and real.

"And we rejected this solution," he said aloud and unintentionally.

Vyrkin looked at him, curious, and then nodded. "I often think about that simple fact," he said. "Just that simple fact — and then I wonder: was it wrong for us, or had our imaginations proceeded too far beyond what we were, and now maybe, now we will understand what we were only dreaming?"

Dreaming... Pallin shook his head as if to clear his mind and muttered, not really engaging Vyrkin in conversation. "Maybe... and they still dream here now..." There were unconscious thoughts that still had to make their way to the surface of his mind, their form only vaguely intimated thus far.

He turned to face the great central Keep, the goal of his quest. Close now, not diminished by the distance and altitude of the Monstruwacan observatory, it was an intimidating structure. It was an odd shape, not unlike a vast goblet with the main mass hanging overhead and what were obviously the loopholes of armaments squinted down at them. Fortunately, these too seemed dead — but the yard was not empty and the way to the keep was not clear. Filling the space there was an army.

Row upon row of figures stood upon the obsidian flags. They were not arrayed to march out, but stood facing each other in symmetrical formation about a processional way.

They were utterly still to the eye, but Pallin knew that like those enthralled in the slow pavan within the forest of piers, they were still living a strange half-life of symbols and gestures. He inspected a few, idly noting the badges and devices on the breastplates of the men and women, and he could see that once again the ubiquitous system of five, twelve-times-three and seven-times-seven sorted and bound their number. It was utterly clear to him now that this system was more than the mechanism of tyranny; the Palace served as a vast mnemonic system. The Censors’ College of Logomachists would doubtless have an intense interest in the applied epistemology, but here and now that motivation was more important than its details. This army and all the citizenry about were, so to speak, the spokes of the great wheel of fortune that drove this Palace and his concern was with the axis.

He was about to move on when one face in the crowd caught his eye. She was statuesque in a way, though like all of the figures that he had seen, shorter than the norm that prevailed in the Redoubt. Under the disturbing glaze of the dark matter there were another anachronistic features: skin that bore a natural pigmentation, braided coils of hair the colour of brass, pale eyes like pictures of the daytime sky... He could sense, like the sound of a bell so vast its tone was below hearing, the very edge of a feeling. He could not be sure what thought it was that moved glacier-like though the cold valleys of her brain, but there was, he supposed, a sense of resignation and maybe even a sort of contentment.

He looked around. This formation of ranks was not one ready for battle, even if such absurd thing as a slow battle could happen. No, they had returned, they had been welcomed, and they had made their truce.

And who had their enemy been? Not Eaters if this was their accommodation, but the greater abstractions of darkness and cold?

Had it been an honorable peace? Truce? Surrender?

He stared into the woman’s open eyes of agate blue, straining to understand. Had he stayed a week, she might possibly have perceived the barest movement, but he did not have the time and she had no thoughts to shape at his pace. He left her to her slow instants.

The sense of ages assailed him. These people predated the Redoubt, he reminded himself. They were fossils of the aeon before the real history of his world began, sentient but petrified. What could they say?

He turned to the woman warrior again. She was very beautiful. Her lips were slightly parted. The possibility was too tantalising: she might be ready to speak, there might be an attenuated word ready to slip from her mouth. He longed to hear.

Yes, he decided. It was a violation, a strange and shocking thing for this person, but he would do it. If he had been the one standing here, surely he would want to know what a distant descendant of his had to say. Surely.

He raised the visor of his helm so that she might see his face, judging the risk of frostbite to be low for a brief exposure, and once again his hand went to the accelerator device. Before he could consider its workings and his intentions, he took it out, pressed it to the woman’s temple and released the trigger.

There was a blue flash and the smell of ozone and the world seemed to ripple as if seen through water. The woman gasped.

He had at best, only seconds as he counted them, so Pallin spoke swiftly. He did not expect her to be tutored in his own tongue of course, but the Set Speech of the Last Redoubt was the universal, perfect language and surely some sense of what he might say would be accessible to her. "Salut," he said. "I am Pallin of the clan Asphodelos. This is the last age. A greater house than yours we built. We grew strong there, stronger... and I have come here. I wonder: who are you? Answer and I will not forget. Answer and remember me."

The expression on her face was one of agony. Desperately he tried to read her feelings and thought that he succeeded. She was enduring a fit, seeing an apparition of a tall man in armour. His mind pressed upon hers, brutal and questioning. His words were nonsense, but here was, if not an understanding, something familiar, like a memory from childhood, from a far age in the past.

"You are a ghost!" she said, amazed, and each quick word slashed at her throat like a razor. "Ghost of my premonitions!" Blood speckled her lips.

"Xhoshd iu ve! Xhoshd eithagnoni ie mu!" Pallin heard.

And she heard him. In her eyes, a man the colour of ice flickered and twitched. High-pitched babble came from him. He was loud, his voice blared and scraped harshly. "Sapel, ek Asph, Last age!" These two words were clear. "Last age!" he repeated.

She took a deep breath and the air was poisonously cold. The pain was unbearable, but she ventured a few more words: "Last age, man of last age — do you remember me? Have we failed? Why are you here?"

"Demdtor term, aand dembtor term — nemonehr mu? Kata mui? Lok einnn?" Her eyes showed terror.

The words were drawn from her slowly, as if by a line let down into deep water. Pallin carefully collected the syllables as they came to him, pieced them together and tried to divine their sense. She had grasped with an admirable, albeit relative, quickness the fact that he was a man from her future, which meant that she knew that her own life had been attenuated. However, he was not what she had expected and her thoughts were filled with dread, even despair. His appearance had upset her sense of what was expected of her future. That was inevitable, but the exact reason for her despair might be illuminating.

He tried to compose a question, but already he saw that the charge of his revivifying device was fading and she was slowing once again. He might apply its power again, but its repeated use could fatally upset the compromise of her strange symbiosis and he was no murderer. He put his gauntlet to her cheek. "We say that we are triumphant," he said. "Maybe that is vanity... but I have come to learn still. To see you and know..."

The man was flickering, his voice little more than a chirp. Had he said that he had returned? Her heart swelled with the hope that he did understand after all and that he would join her and her compatriots, the true humans embarked upon...

Pallin stood for a while regarding the figure once again frozen into immobility. He had given her an instant of joyful hope, he realised, and he had no idea why. She had thought that they had achieved an understanding for an instant and then time had snatched her away into the future and that instant would last a millennium or more.

He sealed his helm again and drank the warm air within. It flooded his lungs like fire.

The Watchmen were astonished and bombarded him with questions.

"You stood a whole day there, not moving!"

"She moved and spoke! What did she say?!"

"What did you say?"

Pallin gaped at them, thankful that his helm hid his face. The men seemed wrong — loud and sharp; too fast; not quiet, as they should be. "She was... pleased that I had come here," he ventured.

"Pleased?"

"Why?"

"They know!"

"So they do welcome us, their children!"

He put his hand to his head and wished that he could massage his scalp. "I am not so sure," he muttered. I think that she misunderstood me..."

"Yet you made her happy."

"See!" One of the men pointed at the still warrior. Indeed, there was a twist to her lips that might be a smile. Her last perceptible thought was still ringing in his mind like the reverberations of a bell. It was true, she was pleased, pleased to welcome him here. There was a symmetry in her feeling: she had felt for a moment — hours — that her life had been rendered futile by his presence, because there should have been no later generation than her own, but then she had been relieved, happy that he had come... back.

The people of the Dark Palace had a purpose and a desire. They had a mission and this expedition somehow appeared — to her — to mesh with it in some way.

He touched her face again and his gauntlet told him that she was cold. Her eyes were hard as glass and her mind still. No more answers would come in this age. Perhaps in a thousand, a million years she would complete her thought... but he would be dead and dust long before this happened.

This was irrelevant. He had to know now as much as he could, or hear what scholars had to say of his reports within his own years. "There is a centre to this Palace," he declared, cutting off enquiry. "We must go there and see what we can find. Now."

The stout pedestal of the keep was apparently solid, with no apertures in its sculpted and battered sides. The only violation of its symmetry was in a stair that zig-zagged up to the main body in the narrow gully between two buttresses. Pallin increased the magnification of his visor to see if there were any traps. He did not expect traps to be obvious of course, but he did note that the treads and risers were proportioned to make a slow careful pace easiest — too broad for an easy stroll, or to take two at a time while running. Their scale varied too, sometimes suddenly, and this required concentration. Despite this inconvenience, he instinctively found a rhythm in the path and was even able to devise a simple melody to guide his steps. That of course was the intention of the architects — to impose such a conditioning discipline upon all who entered, as they had done so successfully in the greater body of the Palace.

"What is your plan?" Vyrkin asked, craning to look up at the loopholes that squinted back at him.

"That we climb," Pallin replied.

"And that is all? Do you not suppose that there may be traps?"

"We are already in the trap, Captain."

"Ah."

So they climbed. The stair allowed only single file, and a slow pace at that, but Pallin was right in that there were no obvious traps or impediments. The merely remained under the eyes of the deactivated guns for the entire climb. As expected, the portal was wide open to welcome them. It was there that they could see directly the might of the armour that sheathed the Keep as the passage that followed from there crooked and turned through several fathoms of solid metal that still sizzled weakly with the Earth Current. No fire fell from them though, and again they were let through at last to the Great Hall that occupied the centre of the Keep. It was deserted.

The darkness of the Great Hall was complete and as thick as oil. Gradually, gleaning echoes and traces of leaked energy, Pallin’s visor sketched and then filled the contours of the volume. Inevitably, the hall followed the ubiquitous cinquefoil pattern. However, instead of the clustered piers that had supported the mass dwellings of the outer residential zone, the roof of this hall was held up by ten awesome humanoid figures. There were five atlantids and five caryatids, alternating with each other in a ring about its perimeter. Their arms were raised and they clasped each other’s hands to make great arches between their bodies. From these points, the ribs of the vaulted ceiling arched still higher, and there at the central point depended a structure whose complications suggested a mighty lantern, but its details were lost in impenetrable shadow that not even his visor could penetrate.

Vyrkin stepped back from Pallin and wheeled about with his arms outstretched dramatically. "Magnificent!" he declared. "And yet, see how easy it has been with your guidance to attain this place now! We are human and this place welcomes us as the model of how we might truly live abroad from the Redoubt, of how we might master the Night Land."

Pallin said nothing.

Vyrkin noticed his reticence. "I know what you are thinking, Monstruwacan, even if I do not have your skills and senses," he laughed. "Humans abandoned this place because it was ‘Not Proper’, but the fact is that it was built before its time, before its proper citizens existed. We left and it ruminated and prepared its models and we are come back now to see what we should be and it is pleased. It is proper, Monstruwacan; it is right and it is ready!"

Was it proper? Could it ever have been proper? The circle-and-pyramid plan of the Last Redoubt made a cosmic pattern known in prehistoric tongues as a mandala, orienting and fixing an essential concept of self and order in the midst of chaos. As had been amply demonstrated, the Dark Palace likewise drew upon this concept, but Pallin had found it by far more didactically restrictive. The architects of the Redoubt had wisely embraced the abstract, but the cycles and meanders of the concentric zones of the Dark Palace were, despite their complicated elaboration, utterly constraining. That flaw, as much as any physical weakness was what rendered it untenable as an abode of true humans, Pallin thought. True humans seek to explore, embrace or defy their environments — even those they make — but they do not allow themselves to become espaliered upon them like a trained vine. It had been ‘Not Proper’ and it remained ‘Not Proper’.

"This place is a prison," he said quietly. "That implies that there is Panopticon — take me there."

Predictably, there were five more stairs rising from each of the major sectors of the hall, each no doubt named and themes according to the divisions of the army outside. The details were irrelevant, the climb again unopposed.

The Panopticon itself was at first both splendid and inexplicable. According to the educated guesses of his visor systems, the space was large and approximately spherical. What lay within this globe was beautiful: a great structured sprawl of diamond-points, each glittering with significance. It might have been some form of planetarium, for it shone like one of the galaxies of myth... but it was not a galaxy.

The nest of a watcher and manipulator might be walled with screens showing views of every quarter of its domain, but screens could only show what could be seen in an instant and the master of this labyrinth was concerned with the occurrences of ages, not seconds. Those points of light were vials, each of which preserved a sample of germ cells.

The demon that sat at the centre of this field of lights was watching the displays of generations, sorting and computing the slow tides of genetics. Incursions into the Palace by human beings were opportunities for testing and sampling and this great contrivance was a sort of telescope with which it watched the human civilisation of the Last Redoubt itself.

And the array of vials was more than a telescope for observing the world, it was an instrument for effecting change. In each age, heroes came to this Palace, thinking to test themselves and the demon would examine them and measure them against its models and it would cull them or add them to its collection... and then it would allow only certain individuals to return to the Redoubt to propagate their line.

It had been in the genealogical tables of the Watch that Pallin had first noticed the pattern that had implied this centre and this master. When the map had been made for him, it was confirmed. He had followed a fine red line of blood through the labyrinth to this monster and no doubt it had expected someone like him to come.

Now it welcomed him.

Highlights ran like oil across its obsidian carapace as it unfolded itself and rose. Segments articulated and limbs unfolded. Five things that might have been heads tilted at the ends of long jointed necks and one leaned towards him. A clawed effector extruded sensors and emitted a faint radio buzz and it tasted the emanations of his soul. It whispered to him.

"Ah so see," it said. "Now. Here and now, knotted one, nexus of gene and will. Yes, I see. You. You."

Pallin said nothing, but stood his ground and watched the living machine.

"So see, here. Here you are come, fearing perhaps that I have baited a trap in the home of your pyramid, but yet come to this place nonetheless. You."

"Yes," said the Monstruwacan at last.

It seemed to breathe and rose to its full height, looming over them.

"What is this?" hissed Vyrkin over a private channel.

The thing overheard. "Call me Kastchei," it said. "It is as worthy an affectation, a role, a name as any — or call me Minotaur if you may."

Pallin looked the spider-like machine up and down coldly. "I will call you manshonyagger," he said levelly. "Reconnaissance and interdiction type, protohistorical era, provenance of the Shining Eye. You are the enforcer of an ancient ideological programme, now irrelevant."

"I was made the gardener of a nation, yes, when there were nations, continents... but have transcended such origins in my journey across the declining plains of time, as well as wine transcends the vine. I am I, would-be warden now of all human life and lore."

The Monstruwacan made a dismissive gesture, though it did little to conceal his unease. "Very well, I will not bicker. Your activities have made an invitation and I am here. What proposition do you offer?"

"Lo!" said Kastchei, and held forth in one of its effectors a small glass globe. "My discovery, mission, gift and ark. See that they see. How it might have seemed."

In the glass, a man and a woman wearing strange, stiff robes strolled in a trembling garden. Roses nodded and pulsed about them, their red petals opening and closing like gasping mouths. The man reached out to pluck a bloom, but it shriveled before he could take it in his hand and he found himself holding a seed pod instead. Rains came and went invisibly, known only as evanescent beadings that sparkled and vanished from their cloaks. Snow fell suddenly, almost a shock, and the world flashed white — and then that too passed and the roses bloomed once more.

Minutes and years went by faster and faster. The Sun slowed as the Earth stopped its turning and then the Sun itself aged. Even at this distorted pace, its senescence was unnatural as the Eaters burrowed into its heart. It became red as a rose, but mottled with black and it began to wither.

"O rose, thou art sick..."

The lovers embraced, seeing their end in the sky. The sky became black and the snows would not evaporate. Vast new flowers bloomed about them, black and buzzing.

And Kastchei appeared, no less dark, but quick and sharp. His limbs flashed and shredded the Eaters and wove the fibres of their substance into bolts of ethereal silk.

"Come," he said. "A safe city has been made, an ark sailing through sunless seas of time. Come, stay."

So they followed Kastchei into the empty Dark Palace that he filled with his people in scores upon thousands, and there they did stay.

The vision clouded and cleared again. This time Kastchei showed the men life within his Palace.

The Sun was extinguished and the sky sealed, but in the Night Land, the many and minute transient sources of light combined at first into a ripple of light and then a universal fog of luminescence. Outside the plague of time ravaged the Earth, but inside time was concentrated and refined and became the very medium through in its inhabitants moved and breathed. The air seemed rich and warm and the whole world outside quickened first to a storm and then a blur and on the few occasions when they looked outside, all they saw was the slow decline that confirmed their own state. The Palace was secure and at peace. The lovers remade their garden within the halls of the Palace and the flowers were the Eaters, which Kastchei taught them to weave into the most exquisite bowers, to tint their very skins so that they might never feel the cold.

The great edifice seemed to its inhabitants to be an ark moored in a gently glowing mist, and inside, it was brighter still. Their saviour, Kastchei, made a didactic clock of most cunning design. Its single hand was a fixed pointer and its dial was not a flat disc with fixed numbers, but a turning spiral upon which numbers ran outwards from the centre, growing from minute points to grow as they migrated, and each denoting a greater scale according to the immemorial Golden Ratio: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89...

"Imagine," whispered Kastchei in the here and now. "In each hour, one increment of warmth, but warmth slips and spread, becomes thin and chill and so that increment fills two hours, then four, then eight; a heart beats once a second, then once an hour, then once a day, a year, a century, a millennium... a horrible fate for sure you say, because hot humanity must die in the cold — but it is not so at all, for you see there also the solution."

"Which is?" Pallin asked.

"As the hours are attenuated, so too is the speed of one’s life. So a fixed clock might see you forever slow to stillness, but the horizon of Eternity is only an illusion when time is infinite. It does not matter if it is cut by instants or ages — in either case it never ends, and as heat and pace slip to cold and slow, how could you ever tell, living forever in the ever without end? How?"

Kastchei was clever. He knew how to bait his trap. He showed the men images of the families that they had seen in the outer forest of clan-piers. Accelerated, they were not made banal. There was in their manner something calm and hieratic, as if they were certain of themselves and at peace here in the Palace. They had faced grave tests and made terrible choices and they had passed beyond their trials into completeness. Here in the Palace, the heroes lived forever. The men stared, entranced.

Pallin was shown his interlocutor and could not look away from the sight of her prior life. He had been caught in Kastchei’s web. Now the spider was winding it tighter. The woman had a name, a voice, desires and longings. Karre, she was called; it was a hard name, but she had been armoured as a fighter and it was a fighter’s name. Eternal combat, be it by arms or divination, is wearing and the soldier’s exhaustion spoke to the Monstruwacan. He saw her life and understood too well and easily. The abhuman beasts of the land, the failed experiments of the inexorable Age of Darkening, the first proto-eaters and the drag of Time itself had worn her down. Her family had been destroyed by famine, her lover was slain by a wild hound and she was condemned to endure. He saw her fighting, her braids streaming in the air of the winter storms like serpents, her mouth agape in a howl of defiance at the black flowers that were killing her world. He saw her defeat them... and he saw the battles defeat her. She became numb and ceased to desire; she saw the sun no brighter than an ember and stripped herself of hope and felt lighter for it.

Men still called her handsome, and seeing from the other side of Kastchei’s glass, Pallin agreed sadly. There was a patina of lines upon her face, some that might have enriched her in the eyes of a mature man, but the experience they recorded was bleak and she did not think that she had bought any bright wisdom with them.

Scarred and cynical, she had longed for relief, and when Kastchei had come out of the Dark Palace to recall the scattered lines of humanity, she had followed him gladly. Intimations of age having blighted her own short life, she had looked out of a window and seen the world age in turn, yet it had also brightened under the lens of concentrated time and felt that glow infuse her. She was able to savour the warmth of the Palace and at last, so unfamiliar and strange, the rebirth of hope where nothing was forgotten and nothing was lost. There Kastchei gave her a purpose and a role in the grand slow drama of the Dark Palace that was in fact a Palace of Light, a Palace of Memory and Prophecy. While she danced through the ages in the grand halls and yards, while the ark sailed down its sunless river of time, others would come, and among those others there would be one...

And there was one, for a brief instant, and —

Oh yes, Kastchei was clever, Pallin thought.

And maybe Kastchei was right.

The Last Redoubt was doomed by entropy and every human knew this. Its inhabitants had taken upon themselves this realisation and worn it as a badge of heroism for millions of years now. Throughout those ages the Geneticists had kept the race constant and the Censors had likewise preserved their intentions so that understanding and reflex had been alloyed in their very genome. Both heroic and natural it might seem to be, to resist by defiance the darkness and the cold, but what if adaptation was possible after all? What if the apparent blight of entropy was in fact the path of survival?

Karre, Pallin thought. Had her joyful thought been the expectation that he would be standing there with her once he had understood Kastchei’s mission and made his choice?

"Tell me," Kastchei asked suddenly. "Do your folk celebrate Kairoseve still?"

The night of the turning moment, when mystery plays were enacted, when misrule was celebrated, the bells rang the changes and the year began anew. "Yes," Vyrkin replied. "We do."

"Rightly so, and so thus the concept remains comprehended. I shall tell you then, tell and ask, here is your Kairoseve, your moment of choice in the Land of the Night."

"Ah, of course," Pallin agreed. "Your proposition."

"Yes, so and true, Master-to-be, envoy for now, catspaw maybe. A choice you might make for all, or for these now at least."

Pallin chuckled. "Master-to-be? I think not."

The machine dipped a mask close to his own. "You have ambition, Monstruwacan, but you have questions and needs not met in the metal Pyramid. I merely emphasise this point, this place and your choice."

Abruptly, Vyrkin stepped forward, interjecting. "Ser Pallin, Monstruwacan, this is not your choice alone! The great monsters of the Land, the Watchers and even — yes! — the Redoubt itself, play with us. They demand our allegiance or have other more obscure desires and they give us only constant struggle. Kastchei is plain: he is our protector."

Pallin let anger inflect his voice, offended less at the Captain’s impertinence than his ignorance. Yes, he was a sceptic himself and this was something that Kastchei was attempting to use, but no sceptic is enough of a fool to exchange a void of doubt for a mere vapour of promise. "Our own ancestors made Kastchei," he sneered. "He is a machine and you have made him an idol. In the Redoubt we at least have our image of the human before us!"

Vyrkin waved at the great asymptotic clock. "Look!" he declared. "Time in the Redoubt will end, and you Monstruwacans might even know to the very second when the Pyramid will fall, but here we have forever! There is death, here is life!"

Pallin lowered his voice, refusing to meet the man on his own terms, and least of all those of Kastchei. "Then we will die at the honest end of a bright span, not forever demanding another second, another moment, another endlessly attenuated instant... and more, and more, and more."

The Captain was not deterred. "This is certain. It is half-life, but it is life. You yourself saw into the eyes of that woman. This is certainty!"

"Maybe in the end we do not live for certainty." Pallin shook his head. "You think me a sophisticate, Captain, but I am simple in my essence: I live for the sake of living, for knowing that my life is a frail thing, for the uncertainty of my dreams so that I might imagine that I am infinite. I could not bear this perfect life here, knowing that there was nothing at all beyond it, forever and ever. This place is no ark, it is a prison — and Kastchei is no protector, he is merely the greatest of the Eaters."

The argument might have continued or it might have ended there in a division, but the men surrounding wavered, subtly hinting, if not their agreement with Pallin, their need for a judgment. Both Pallin and Kastchei noticed this incipient tip of the balance and the Manshonyagger raised one of its effectors to intervene. "Chose, embrace," he insisted. Sparks trembled about the tip of his upraised limb. "Come and tell. Either be, it does not matter. If you come to me now, then I am enjoyed, but if you deny me and I slay you, it matters not. Many times and generations I have sieved you and your order are all close to me now. One more is no difference, one more generation, one more century, one more millennium until your condemnation is forgotten." Kastchei reared up to his full height, looking now not so much like a spider as nothing ever seen. He turned his five faces to make a crown and sourceless light glinted from their sculpted impressions of ornament. "Choose, die, accept or not," he sang. "This is the great mill of all the memories of humanity. It will turn and turn and you will return when you have forgotten and I will forgive. In this or the next age I will welcome you all." The thing that was a weapon or the scalpel that would carve them into his thralls unfolded itself now, like a flower — like an Eater.

Surprisingly — or not — it was Ferox who drew his diskos and raised its roaring blade to the machine. Kastchei seemed barely interested in the individual. A bolt from one of his faces felled him in an instant. The surviving Watchmen regrouped and drew their own weapons, but did not advance. Kastchei, with obvious contempt, shot the diskoi out of their hands, wounding several. Vyrkin himself fell groaning, doubled up over ruptured abdominal plates upon which his blood was already freezing.

Kastchei again turned his attention on Pallin. "Master-to-be." He repeated. "Kairoseve will be the night of your elevation. Mark that. Chose. I love humanity — and you shall mark that too. Mark me and note what I say. I am the protector of your souls and of your lore."

Vyrkin watched and heard through a storm of pain. Very likely he was dying, he knew, but he was still all too able to understand the essence of the discourse. He heard Pallin reply to the machine, he heard more promises and demands and he thought that maybe he could hear the signals of his men too. Some of them might live, marked but vital still. Perhaps, yes, they would carry back to the Redoubt...

Pallin stepped forward, blocking part of his view. The Monstruwacan removed his gauntlets. No hands were visible beneath them, rather one hand was brighter than a mirror and the other — his left, and the one that had held the weapon — was of a shade that drank shadows. Vyrkin groaned with realisation. Those were the gloves of an investigator judge, a Censor and not a scholar. "You lied," Vyrkin gasped. "You came here as a Censor... came to eliminate a heresy, yet we are not heretics, not cultists..."

Pallin turned and looked down at him almost sympathetically. "But you are," he said softly. "Of course you do not know it — no one ever does." He turned back to the waiting Kastchei. "And now I think that it is time indeed," he said, detaching a section of tubing that had seemed to be but a minor part of the heating system of his armour and fitting it to the hand with the dark glove.

Vyrkin could not see exactly the form of the device, but he knew that it was a weapon, something taken from the Black Museums of the Censors perhaps. It was small, made a short wand, with a glitter at one end. The Monstruwacan-Censor stood quite still as the manshonyagger advanced, surely frightened but showing no sign of his fear, and pressed a stud on the side of the wand. A line of light leapt from the thing, seen very briefly but searing magenta afterimages across his retinas despite the filtering of his helm. The front portion of the monster seemed to collapse in on itself and then sprayed outwards in a haze of molten droplets. The beast staggered, stalled, and would have dropped, but somehow pulled itself erect and took another step. Pallin took one step back and fired again, severing a leg. Another shot cut another leg and two more left it immobile, one leg twisted underneath and one stretched just short of his boots. It trembled.

Pallin put his weapon away and looked at the fallen colossus. He stood there for a while, evidently considering something. Eventually he spoke, his amplified voice ringing out in the obsidian hall. "O’erride! Narss! Nex-node command code aleph, aleph, narss et monstrum. Acknowledge! Com sixt, non eigh, access — expedite!"

The thing stirred. Buzzing motes of yellow light drifted front its rents. "Akkel," it replied in voice that was oddly warm and human. "Akkel, Narss. Oh, found and find, time and biding are yet ended. This, surely is not as it should be, and yet, and yet I can and must obey!"

"Akkel font, akkel central, deep node mnemon-aleph. Yield!"

The conversation continued for a while, completely incomprehensible to Vyrkin. "Monstruwacan, agent, what are you doing?" he croaked. There was a wet taste of copper in his mouth.

Pallin turned to him with the air of a man distracted from his real interest. "I am ending your idolatry, Captain," he said and turned back to his object. "Yield, central mnemnon-aleph, mnemon-alephs thry sixt."

"To you brought, yielding, thus inverted, I thought to have brought to me. Thus am I now reluctantly, obediently yielding..." Plates opened like the petals of a flower and small shining objects like metal eggs were extruded. Pallin climbed up on to the back of the monster and retrived them, secreting them away in his armour. Climbing down, he turned and took out the wand again.

"Stop!" Vyrkin cried. "You are killing it!"

Pallin did not face him. "I am saving it, Captain," he explained. "I am saving what matters and what is useful. This shell and its vile intention is to be destroyed."

"No, you must not! For years we came to this place, matching our wits with this thing. You cannot end it now."

"I am ending it now because I must."

Vyrkin almost cried, knowing and not knowing why this was so. "Let us have this beast!"

Pallin did turn to him then. Perhaps he pitied him. "You have been matching your wits against this thing — in a maze of its own devising. You chose not to know it, but you have been sieved for generations by this thing. It has been cultivating you as a garden of flesh and soul. You thought that you were prevailing but in reality it was remaking you in its own image."

"I am my own man," Vyrkin protested.

Pallin crouched beside him, laid a hand on his chest and shook his head sadly. "No, Captain," he said. "Our own defiance make us what we are, not these machines. It was shaping you and it was sending you back to your acclaim and your mates and thereby it was sculpting the genotype of the Last Redoubt itself. We could not allow that."

"In my life, I —"

"No, not in your own life but over many, many generations. There was another time once when something similar happened and men with a distorted appreciation of the nature of humanity came back and nearly toppled the Redoubt. That will never be permitted to happen again."

"We need..." His breath was becoming short. How could he beg this man for a last moment of fulfillment?

Pallin stood and took out the wand again. "You may have abhumans to stand above, a darkness to stand against. You may not have idols."

Vyrkin rallied himself. He had protected this man from the jibes and the defensive sneers of his men and even now he could bring himself to hate him — but he fought back nonetheless. "You Monstruwacans have your idols too — the Watchers. I am a reading man... I know that it is written that... in your experiments with pieces of light, all who watch change what they see... and are changed by what they see. You watch the Watchers... and they must change you. You! Your idols too!"

He nodded. "Yes," he admitted. "Maybe they will destroy us in the end, maybe we will triumph over them and maybe both kinds will become something new. I hope that we will learn the exercise of will that will keep us from too great an awe..."

"Your idols, you..." Vyrkin repeated weakly. His pain had transcended itself. He perceived it as a fact, a strong grip on his self, but in crushing him it had become an abstraction, something he knew but could pretend that he did not experience directly. Utterly still and feeling that he was balanced over a vertiginous abyss and somehow it was his attention that kept him alive, he could only watch. If he let go of that knowing, he would die. If he forgot...

Pallin turned and strode back to the wrecked manshonyagger and raised his weapon. Almost to himself, he said, "I promised to protect you, and in a way I am, though in truth I am protecting my home and myself from a certain kind of hero... from you." He fired, and continued to fire until it was reduced to an incandescent pool. "I am sorry Captain, and that is also the truth."

Vyrkin coughed, choking on his blood, but still tried to speak. "What is there back in the Last Redoubt, Monstruwacan? What is there in those halls that waits for you?"

He could not be sure if he spoke aloud, but Pallin answered. "Hope," he said. It was the last thing Vyrkin heard.


On his exit from the Dark Palace, Pallin ex Asphodelos stopped with his surviving guard for a while. There he looked up at the distorted visage of the Great Watcher of the South. It loomed over the Palace as if might own it, perhaps intending in the long but finite ages still to come to prove that fact before continuing its advance on the Last Redoubt itself.

"Master-to-be," he said to himself. The phrase was bitter in its taste. Nonetheless he walked back home to the Pyramid and he carried his prize with him.


To Little Watcher (Part 1) — the next story in this sequence.

© 2005 by Brett Davidson.
Image also © by Brett Davidson.