A pentagonal building in darkness, seen from above.

Minotaur (Part 1)

by

To The Astronomer — the first story in this sequence

In the blazing hall there were hanging banners darker than black and brighter than white. Beneath them, there were people in robes that flickered in stark moiré patterns between these two extremes with each movement and rustle. Standing out in the embroidered purple of his own order, the Monstruwacan Expediter Pallin ex Asphodelos found the effect trying on his eyes, but endured it for the sake of the ceremony.

As he should, with himself being its subject. The Master Logomachist of the order that was inducting him to brevet-adjunct rank stood forth.

"What good is principle if it is not virtue?" he asked rhetorically, making the fine distinction in the last word between jagged abstraction and the practical contribution to the strength of the Last Redoubt. "What worth is virtue if it is not strength? What worth is strength if it is solitary?"

The assembly answered with silence, as every one knew the answers already.

The litany continued. "What is one without its other? What are their numbers, where are their centres? Where lies the line between them? How stark the division, be it a gulf or a plain, be it wide or narrow?"

Again, silent agreement.

"Do we know or do we decide?

"Where lies the line?

"Do we make a cut?"

Pallin stepped forward.

The Master Logomachist held out a pair of gloves. One was fuligin and one was argent. Custom held that neither was to be worn without the other: away from the warmth of living human flesh, they would eventually disintegrate. It was fortunate then that he had lost a leg and not an arm Out in the Land all those years ago, Pallin thought sardonically. Strangely, the prosthesis ached, perhaps in anticipation of his coming expedition.


It was some time after the ceremony that Pallin was able to retire to his apartments in Augyre Siege. As was his preference, he lived alone with only mechanical servants, and as was also his preference he had a filtered window that looked out across the black Night Land. He stood before it now, his hands clasped inside their contrasting gloves behind his back. The view before him might have been a great circular mirror of polished obsidian, with only his own reflection clear, save for a few dim lights at the edges of the visible spectrum glimmering here and there.

His friend Hecane, intimate, confidant, and never quite lover, often joked that he could not pass a mirror without looking into it, especially not a dark one. He smiled, and observed himself. His features were angular and supposedly aristocratic, his face was white, his hair whiter still, his eyes as black as the glass that reflected them.

All said that he had ambition, ideals and ability, that he was destined to rule one day. This expedition would surely prove it and advance him one more step nearer the centre of the Monstruwacan hegemony. Ah, but should he? Tyrants became tyrants by confusing themselves with their offices. What he desired was elsewhere... and yet he would climb those offices as he would a staircase to his goal... whatever that might be.

The man who looked back at him seemed to emerge out of the darkness itself, not this glass, not the metal of this great pyramid that was the Last Redoubt of Humanity.

He turned to the examination of the map that was laid across his desk. A couple of taps at its corner and pressure by a fingertip at the centre brought it into magnified focus while a quick sweep of his hand deleted extraneous features. Left behind were two structures: the Last Redoubt and the older human-made but supposedly long-abandoned fastness of the Dark Palace. They were stark and artificial things amidst the fields of chaos.

A map was hardly necessary for navigation when both structures were within direct sight of one another, but it was the ancient traces of the connections between the two that concerned Pallin. The map compiled the reports of human expeditions into the Land over the recent era — recent in this case being within the last three hundred thousand years. Back and forth across the dunes and ravines and around the volcanic vents and spatial flaws, thin lines of jale meandered out and in from the square-and-circle of the Redoubt, a delicate spider’s web of exploration and venture. Here and there the paths thickened and knotted about some curiosity or other: the ruins of a city, an upwelling of the Earth-Current, the bones of a slain Titan. It was hard not to see the Redoubt as a spider at the centre of a web of trails, snaring and the many threats and challenges of the Land, wrapping them with strands of inquiry and sucking sustenance from them.

But as the map made clear to his trained eye, the Last Redoubt was not the sole master of the web. The greatest mass creates the greatest tension in a web and therefore the effect of the mass of cognition in the Redoubt should be plain and simple — but the pattern of the web was not simple and the Dark Palace had created its own counter-tension. It was tugging, ever so subtly, at the Redoubt’s web.

How? he asked himself. How... and who? The analysts who had compiled the map had asked the wrong questions and no {such} answers could be seen. The solution lay out in the Land, within the Palace itself.

With one more tap the map deactivated and furled itself for storage. It was time to feed and water his pets.

The terrarium was pentagonal and lit with a light that was the colour of embers. On a bed of stony black soil, there rose several mounds rather like clumps of moss. Each bore what looked like tiny luminescent flowers, which were of distinct colours which were generally specific to each mound. On one, the flowers were mostly — but not exclusively — red; on another, most — and again not all — were blue. Sometimes the flowers sprouted legs and would creep from one moss to another in concerted formations to lay siege about an opposing moss-mound.

Sometimes the miniature armies of flowers would triumph over the defenses of a besieged moss, and install themselves in their new base, proliferating and converting their new home. Complicating these sieges and takeovers there were more subtle infiltrations by solitary flowers, and sometimes they would attempt to take over a mound piecemeal... and sometimes their own colour would change to match that of their new host’s. Oddly, after prolonged infiltrations in which the newcomers seemed to adapt, the entire complement of flowers would sometimes change colour — and not always to the hue of the infiltrators. Was this adaptation, war or mating? It was hard to say.

What was certain that while each moss-heap and its retinue attempted constantly to conquer absolute any competitor, no moss-heap and its dependent flowers could live for long without another.

So many details were known and yet so much actual understanding depended upon paradigms that might be utterly inappropriate. Still, the very fact that such variant interpretations were possible fascinated Pallin, and he believed that an analysis of his own attitudes at one remove would reveal much about his own unconscious biases in human affairs.

It might reveal something of his own interpretation of the relationship between the Night Land and the Last Redoubt too.

Their webs, its webs, our webs...

He directed a delicate spray of honeyed water over each of the mosses in turn and watched the flowers tremble and gape in apparent appreciation. It was too easy to confuse the reflection of one’s own mind upon a surface with the true substance within, he reminded himself — and yet in human beings, so lovers said, that reflection became in the end utterly real.

So do we love the Night Land in our way? He asked himself. Do the Great Watchers love us and will there in the end be not a fall of the Last Redoubt, but a consummation?

He smiled, because he preferred to think that this might be a joke and returned to a drier strategic contemplation of the terrarium. It seemed this month that red had the upper hand over blue, though yellow was making inroads into red territory and the once seriously diminished violet colony was rapidly resurging. That in itself was most interesting.

#

Watch Captain Vyrkin was possessive of his men. There was a certain intimacy and trust that had grown with them. This was a necessity in the Land where each had to function as smoothly as a cog in a machine, meshing with the expectations of a comrade and the anticipated needs of the next instant without a word or even a glance needing to be shared. But that pragmatic interaction inevitably became emotional, and the imminent accommodation of a Monstruwacan observer within their party threatened to disrupt the more subtle but equally crucial moral bond of his men. Vyrkin was not happy.

The Monstruwacan entered the Watch compound in his own good time, the shadow of his accumulated fame falling before him. "So say, he was one of us, so say none can read his mind, so say he was Out before, so say he slew monsters — and men..."

"And all these rumours are true."

Pallin ex Asphodelos was a lean man, only in his middle years of a century or more, but he was not aging well. There was a bitter tang in his studied elegance and an air of disappointment about him, which seemed incongruous in light of exalted rank and fame.

One does not become a Monstruwacan Expediter without ambition, and ambition by its nature, is never satisfied, Vyrkin thought to himself.

Pallin presented the baton containing the petition countersigned by the Seneschal of the Barbican. "You will be assured that all forms have been observed," he said.

Vyrkin bowed and took the baton, examined it and handed it back. "I accept your commission, exalted ser."

Pallin gave his wry smile. "I am honoured by your indulgence," he replied.

Business proceeded swiftly thereafter, as it must. Curiosity overcame uncertainty and Pallin was probed with questions. "The Dark Palace, ser. What do you know of it?" The men were eager in a way that made fearful anticipation a kind of drunken joy. "They say it was the Great House, built before the Last Redoubt, that it is a human place gone strange. We have seen things in there that seem too at home not to be originally human. You have watched for aeons from your high tower; what do you see in all your ages and altitude?"

Pallin appeared to ignore the immediate enquiries, unfurling the map that he carried and tapping a corner to make it lie flat and rigid. "Here we are, of course," he said, indicating the circle-and-square of the Last Redoubt. "Here, the Grey Dunes; here, the Ruined Titan; here, the Quiet City... and here, here, here, here and here are..."

"The Watchers."

The Monstruwacan nodded. "Yes, the Watchers." Twenty million years had passed since the first appearance of these monsters, five vast things greater than mountains that closed slowly but inexorably on the Last Redoubt. They were the only things that came near rivaling the Last Redoubt in scale and strength... and every age the vital Earth Current that powered the Redoubt ran lower and the cordon of the Electric Circle dimmed by a minute measure. One day those five would meet over the cold ruins of the Last Redoubt and the long history of humanity would be ended. In the meantime the heroes of the Watch made their proud gestures and they would continue to do so until that final moment.

If anyone knew otherwise, it was the Monstruwacan, but that was not his concern now. He laid his finger on a specific mark indicating the Dark Palace and the image bloomed as the map magnified its scale. "Fifty miles to the South South East, and not far therefore from the Great Watcher of the South," he said. The Palace was revealed in all its complexity and ambiguity in a basic diagram of black and white and in overlays of ulfire and jale. As they watched, some details flicked back and forth between dual states, never quite settling on a fixed geometry. Nonetheless, the detail was astonishing.

"We’ve seen this, we know this place," one whispered. "We never knew that you knew so well..."

Pallin nodded. "Nor I, until my seers spoke to my librarians. The map is a composite of observation, record and supposition."

The Dark Palace was clear in its concept, essentially a complicated pentagon surrounded by an aureole of earthworks. Within its jagged wall, as Pallin increased the scale of the map further, distinct internal zoning could be seen, again organised according to the basic five-fold symmetry into rhomboids and pentagons.

Pallin continued his exposition. "If your reports are correct on this point — and I have no reason to think that they are not — the glacis surrounding the city is much eroded now and any systems associated with its maintenance and defence are dead. In that case, we are safe from any automated defenses there; though not of course any creatures that may have colonised the ruins. The curtain wall has five gates, four of which are sealed by design or by breakdown — though one remains fixed open and we will be entering the Palace there, as you have done often in your forays. Beyond that..." He raised his gaze to confront the Captain.

"We have been deeper into the Palace a few times," the man admitted. "We have found a few things, a few traces — and I presume that it was our most recent reports that brought you here?"

"You reports, a few much older records, the occasional emanation, suggestions by our eidognostic spieltier-engines. They have all combined and made a pattern."

"What kind of pattern?"

"A pattern with obscure portions and an implied centre."

"Ah, I see."

The Monstruwacan gave a chilly smile. He could read the tension, even if he could not read the thoughts, of the assembled men — and he might well be capable of reading thoughts too. "I understand that I am an intruder in a de facto society, a distinct guild... a brotherhood," he told them carefully. "Let me assure you that I will do my best to protect you nonetheless." He said this last without irony, and in a tone of knowing seriousness that would allow no mockery. He bent his head to the map again, compelling further magnification and pointed at the very centre of the Dark Palace. "Even and especially here."

#

The party went Out into the Night Land after one of the devastating katabatic storms that spawned in the frigid highlands and scoured the deep valley in which the Redoubt had been built. Pallin explained that it would cull some of the more ‘distracting’ fauna that might otherwise make their expedition ‘unnecessarily strenuous.’

The landscape that they found beyond the great gate of the pyramid was stripped and gaunt. What life could endure there drew is sustenance from residual volcanism and more obscure sources that had become known after the death of the sun, and the soil and stone had been sculpted by the blind winds into low banks and protrusion that resembled the lines of a desiccated corpse. Here and there a ridge of stone was revealed to the artificial senses of their visors like a flange of polished bone.

They gathered themselves by the Electric Circle that marked the true division of the Redoubt from the Land. Drifts of black dust lay about the outer perimeter of the Circle, mixed with the incinerated remnants of the milliards of generations of creatures that had tried to breach the cordon. The line glimmered, spitting and flaring if an air current carried a single mote too near. Far above, the green beacon of the Final Light shone from atop the Tower of Observation, bright and steady as it had been and had been for the entire life of the Redoubt.

Pallin craned his neck and looked up towards the light. The pyramid that was the portion of the Redoubt visible above ground was a great metal cliff, too huge, too smoothly impenetrable and too well shrouded in the darkness of the Night Land to be understood with mere eyes. His helm compensated for him, sketching and annotating otherwise invisible details: twelve hundred and thirty levels, it told him in its language of runes and grids. Eight miles high, five and a quarter square — and atop, the city of Augyre Siege and the Tower of Observation that had been his home for almost a century now. Luck allowing, he might live another century there, steadily accruing age and honour and power and perhaps at last a little wisdom, but luck was harsh here in the Night Land, as he knew very well. On an expedition in his youth he had nearly been killed, and he was not so strong or quick now.

Strange to think, he mused, that he would not leave the line of sight of that Tower and that light until he actually entered the Dark Palace itself, and even there the emerald light would still be glimmering faintly on the black walls.

Vyrkin approached him. "Missing your high home?" he asked in a joking tone.

"No," Pallin replied quietly. "I was thinking that perhaps I am more alive here in the land of death."

"Ah, spoken like a Watchman!"

"I was one once. The Land touched me and here again, I realise that the touch never left me."

"Ah." Vyrkin was a little uncomfortable at this intimacy, though the sentiment was a common one.

They surveyed the horizon constructed for them by their helm systems. Glowing symbols marked significant points — the House of Silence, the Headland, the Thing that Nods. Spaced unevenly about there were five areas of indistinctness, lacunae where the five great Watchers sat. Their sight was so terrible, so affecting that no one could be trusted to see one without their mind and soma being penetrated and driven mad or twisted out of all definition of human. Pallin was one of the rare souls who could survive such an experience, but when he increased the enhancement of his vision systems the effects that the Watchers had on the geometry of space about them defeated him and all he could see was an odd, dark twisting.

"They say that you have seen many strange things," Vyrkin said, breaking his reverie.

"Such as?"

"They say that in your high tower, you have astronomers... people who have seen... stars. They say that you have seen the Sun."

"The Sun is dead."

Vyrkin was not put off. "They say that the sky is a cloud and that you have climbed past it. Surely that is true? I am a reading man."

Pallin nodded reluctantly. "An expedition scaled the high cliffs surrounding this land," he admitted. "We saw the stars, that is true... in a manner of speaking."

" ‘A manner of speaking’?"

"The Eaters that consumed the sun have consumed the stars too. What I saw was a brief glimpse from a time that might have been long ago, facilitated by a machine not used for an age and not used since. There are no stars now, Captain. Our Sun is dead. We however are not."

Vyrkin nodded, probably grinning behind his helm. "Ah indeed, you do understand us: here we are, here we are now and thus we live."

"So I tell myself."


The Watcher of the South did become clearer in Pallin’s sight as they trekked across the Land. Like its companions, it was vast, and rooted in foothills of the black dusty soil of the Night Land like a living mountain. It was still not entirely clear, and he was not sure if such concepts as shape or form could ever be applied to the species. Broadly, he could see that it had something like a body, something like shoulders and haunches, something like a visage. The light that still glimmered from the fragments of the shattered dome that had stood for an age in its path washed up over it, giving a deep bronze sheen to its surface, but that may have been a trick. Measuring the shadows cast, he could see that the light followed curving paths as it never did in the clear air farther from the thing. Its whole appearance may have been an illusion.

And all the while, despite his talent, he felt the pressure of its gaze. Sometimes it was a synaesthetic hum, sometimes it was a sense of fascination and doubt. A man without his training would not have known that it came from outside and would have thought that it was real fear.

But then Pallin did feel fear. He would have been a fool if he did not. The trick, as he and the Watchmen knew, was to use fear as a sense in itself and not be mastered by it.

They made camp midway between their origin and destination. A hot field-lamp was set up, keeping the ordinary threats of the Land at bay and allowing the men to open their helms without risking frostbite. Five stood guard and talk ran around the ring of the seated as they shared their legends and their hopes. There was in olden times mighty Andros, they said. He went Out across the Night Land and took back from the ruins of a fallen fortress the last survivor and his destined beloved. There were no living Redoubts now, save the very Last and Greatest Redoubt and they could only ever come and return... Some confided that they only ever felt alive here in the Night Land.

Then there were the beloveds at home, if it was home. A face seen in part through a gap in a veil lifted just momentarily in a draught, a silhouette in a surreptitiously donated cameo, whispered promises of assignations, hopes, fantasies and boasts. Women, they said, meaning ravishment, their great prize. They would receive love and admiration from ones they would devote their lives to loving and admiring after they returned and until they went out again. A few passed around cameos of their lovers, or those they hoped to be their lovers.

And the Monstruwacan watched and listened, volunteering nothing.

"And you, and you?!" challenged one, Ferox, who could not stand this damned arrogant impassivity and ignored his Captain’s angry cutting gesture.

"I attained my prize and found that I could not keep it," Pallin replied quietly, seeming not at all disturbed by the presumption.

Ferox took his apparent mildness as license and thought to play a game with the older man. "A few of us risk suppressing the filters on our helms and look into the lacunae," he boasted. "We think that we, like your seers, can just perceive the outline of the Watcher. It looms over the Palace like a gameplayer over a board. Do you think it plays with us?"

"You forget that the Last Redoubt stands over the Land in the same way," Pallin reminded him.

"Still we are pieces. You sit highest — I think that you play with us, Monstruwacan."

Pallin said nothing, but a tightening at the corner of his mouth indicated that he was suppressing a smile. Vyrkin, who was sitting nearby, might have noticed and in any case he became noticeably tense and leaned closer to listen.

Ferox pressed his advantage. "Maybe you are interested in the Watchers because you think that they are rivals — not of the Redoubt, but of you," he said. "Maybe you are curious about the Dark Palace because you see another shadow of yourself there too. Another would-be master, another game player."

He might have been struck down at this point, his career permanently blighted, and no man would have blamed the Monstruwacan. Pallin did nothing. "Maybe you are right," he said softly. "Maybe as you test yourselves in the Land, I come to test my own soul and my own vanity too."

Vyrkin laughed loudly, silencing Ferox more effectively than any rebuke. Pallin dreaded the thought that he might slap him on the back. He did not like to be touched.


The Dark Palace could not match a quarter of the height of the Last Redoubt, but even then it was vast, intimidating structure that sprawled massively upon the Night Land. The scarps of its walls seemed to threaten even the men whose forbears had made it as their home.

The defences of the Palace lacked the neat, powered elegance of the Last Redoubt, dating from an age when pneumatechne was an inexact science and the Earth Current was only crudely applied. As a consequence, it confronted the Land as a fort would confront an army, with a sprawling and intricate glacis of trenches and mounds before its walls. In the Palace’s brief prime it had been impossible to enter this zone without being herded by the sculpted land into narrow channels and fields where one would be exposed to overlapping arcs of fire from ports that themselves remained largely concealed behind peaked bastions. This was no longer the case; the sculpting of the glacis had been long eroded and the power of the Palace itself had declined to a low ebb and no weapons had been seen to operate for many ages.

However, the other, less orderly threats of the Night Land were still extant.

The company then felt no substantial fear of the worn outer labyrinth, but they were very much on their guard otherwise. There might be no guns to fire, but many beasts could hide behind its corners and pneumavores might appear out of any shadow or out of the contaminated air itself.

Pallin raised his hand before they could approach. "Hold," he ordered, and consulted one of the many small devices that he carried secreted in various pockets and slots in his armour. The men were curious, perhaps amused, but used to these episodes. Usually there would be a reassuring blink of green and he would nod to himself and return the device to its place, but at other times he would stop, as if sensing something the other men did not feel. Then he would produce one of his instruments and examine it closely this time, probably frowning behind his visor as he adjusted a dial and waved it about slowly and carefully. The others would automatically take up defensive positions about him, each alternately cursing him for the exposure and daring on second thought to be grateful for his obscure skill in detecting unknown dangers. Every time he would finally stop his scans and indicate a new path, away from that which had seemed easiest.

In truth, he was not so sure of his instruments as the men might think him to be. In the first age of human inhabitation of the Great Valley, before the Sun was quite dead, the major threats had been volcanoes and the abhuman and inhuman predators spawned in the Darkening, but as the Sun waned, biological life fell into decline. The survivors had prolonged their existence with a desperate viciousness, but most, no matter how fitted to the dark and the cold, had followed the last sources of light and heat into final and utter extinction. Now, in the last sleep of the Earth, its nightmares were alive and awake and hungered according to their own appetites. All about, just at the edge of the perception of his own senses and his various devices, Pallin could hear them whispering: signals and signs, entreatments and deceptions, barely audible to him yet, but becoming gradually clearer. The men supporting him had had all such sensitivity burned out of them to enable their regular survival in this place, but he had proved immune to such a cure, and it was only by other abilities that he had had his own career as an adventurer... and as he aged, maybe those skills were not sufficient.

Still, his doubt refined itself into a perverse thrill and the cold air felt cleaner and sharper in his lungs than the light-fogged atmosphere of so many Monstruwacan councils.


The first man to die met an ordinary death, due to a moment’s inattention. He turned to report that a way was clear when he should not have turned at all, and something like a whip lashed out from a cove and took him. As one, his comrades raised their flashing diskoi and lashed at the retreating beast, but it was too late. The giant cephalopod was slow to move the greater bulk of its body, but its burrow was well prepared and quickly sealed. Only Pallin heard its victim’s screams with his night-hearing, and they did not last long.

"Damn you, could you not have plotted the lair of that thing from the Tower?" demanded the Captain when they had regrouped.

"No, those beasts are so rare as to be near extinction and can sleep for a century under the dust away from the storms and the cold before being woken by a footstep. We might have seen it a generation ago when last it sought prey, but no seer and no record is perfect."

The Captain stamped away, cursing. "And that is hardly the least, nor the strangest here..."

More fell at the gate of the Palace itself, and this time it was not carelessness but malice that killed them.

Pallin sensed the presence of the thing first, but the Watchmen were barely slower than him, and instantly drew their diskoi and took up a defensive formation. In the uncertain light of shadow upon blackness, sight was more of a disadvantage than a guide; and the Eater seemed almost to exploit this intentionally, not so much moving as infiltrating itself through space, like a drop of ink spreading through water. Standing shoulder to shoulder and with their diskoi extended and {now} blazing with energy, the Watchmen squinted into the stark radiating shadows they cast and saw the black on black stain creep closer.

The Eater was a little like a snowflake, a little like a crinoid and most of all like a tree of black lightning. It seemed to buzz and hum and whine, though these sounds were more felt than heard and seemed to be an effect of some interference with human senses rather than any direct emission. A few tendrils lashed out teasingly, only to be disintegrated and cauterised.

Pallin saw the shifting form of the Eater half-clearly through the mediation of his visor and he was more sure of its appearance in his mind. He could hear it attempt to speak to him, as if it could tell that one among the men was susceptible to its insinuations. Another Monstruwacan adept might have been overcome here, without the sophisticated baffles installed in the Tower of Observation, but Pallin was a unusual man even among that order and while the thing spun its webs of thought he regarded it with a cold detachment. It was only form — hypnotic form, entrancing form, but he saw in his mind’s eye as fascinating and as unaffecting as the workings of a clock or a colony of his moss-creatures.

Unaffecting it might be, but it was still able to distract, and before he knew it the Eater had circumvented perspective to bloom in a space disconcertingly near him and he had to leap backwards gracelessly and almost collided with one of the other men. His artificial leg sent a painful twinge to his nervous system, signaling overload.

The initial probings by the single Eater were no more than probings and soon a greater host appeared, individual elements seeming to crystallise out of the darkness itself. The strategy or instinct of the Eaters seemed plain: the greater crowd of them made a thicket and then that thicket began to weave itself into a wall and close upon them as a crescent, soon to make a circle. Pallin could see that the men might hack away at the cage that was forming about them, but the action would only attract more Eaters, which seemed to have no concept of individual preservation — if indeed they were individuals at all and not some generalised incursion that only manifested as detached extremities in a common space with human beings. It was obvious that a simple stand would be doomed and Vyrkin ordered his company to fall back to the wall of the Palace.

Retreat against the walls may have seemed like a foolish strategy, but the residual Earth-Current that coursed through the metal weakened and confused the Eaters and the geometry of the design was exploited by the Watchmen. The ensuing battle looked like a dance, its visible aspect constrained by the demand for speed and co-ordination and the gyroscopic whirling of the diskoi, but the engagements were thin lines in time and space drawn close to points of advantage that were also points of failure. Now and again a man’s steps and leaps brought him to a place where he could strike and succeed, and now and again, a subtle misstep placed him a hair’s breath away from where he should have been, and there in his mistake he died.

An Eater lacked claws and venom and what it did to a victim was not quite killing. In preserving its victim in its own matter, the destruction it wrought was more subtle, more extravagant and more thorough than death. In one instant its arm was a wisp and in the next it was a superfluid that ran over and through the body of its victim as it were another variety of space. The man staggered and twitched and then his movements took on an awful steadiness and surety. The Eater knew what he was and it poured itself into him to fit as fully as wine in a bottle. He stood upright, strained and arched, he flung his arms out, he danced. Coronae of light at the extremes of the spectrum flickered about his limbs and he began to sing in verses that sounded as if they were being torn physically from his bleeding throat. Pallin felt the echo of whatever was left of his mind diminish and be absorbed into the darkness of the pneumavore and the stray sensation that it left to him before it disappeared passed beyond terror into a strange, sick realm of drunken ecstasy.

Before he could be stopped, another Watchman cried out the victim's name and leapt to end his torment with his diskos blazing, but it was too late, and he was caught too. Again the Eater proliferated in his flesh, corrupting him and remaking him in its own inhuman image.

It was Ferox who killed them both before they could release the hungry spores of still more Eaters.

Vyrkin signaled a division of the company into two groups and a furthur retreat to the shelter of the angled earthworks about the gate of the Palace. This seemed counter to sense, but the Captain knew the instincts of his adversaries. The Eaters flocked to one group, but against the wall of the Dark Palace they could only scatter into the dividing channels of its enfiladed fortification, and at the apexes of these channels{,} they met the other Watchmen. The architects of the Palace had not been sophisticated in their use of the Earth Current, but they knew of its enervating effect on the pneumavores and the residues of the power that they had let flow through its walls and glacis sickened the Eaters who were finally dispatched almost without further casualties.

Eight men had been unlucky. Five had been intersected by black strands and their bodies still twitched like unco-ordinated puppets and had to be incinerated before they became the beds for new enemies. Three more had had time to take their own lives before they suffered such a fate.

"A light toll," Vyrkin said to Pallin after he took the memorial oaths of his surviving company. "Four were new to the Land, the rest had been here only once before. You see: we learn."

Pallin nodded.

"I saw you dispatch a few of the things."

Another nod.

"It surprises me that you, an older man already wounded, survived and was even able to destroy a few Eaters," Vyrkin added.

"In our Tower, we watch daily. We become skilled in seeing patterns at least and I know where and when to place myself in a fray... and you might have read that in my youth I was once a man of your kind."

The Captain probably smiled behind his visor. "Ah, then your skills might make a fit synthesis here so if you taught us..."

"Possibly."

"Yes, possibly." He walked away to inspect the Palace’s gate.


To Minotaur (Part 2)

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