“Let me make sure I’m understanding all this right,” Calad said slowly, “because, you know, on first blush, it does kind of sound like you might have gone away to Talos and come back a crazy person.”
Jonis rolled her eyes. She, Calad and Calam were all crowded into the tiny cell she shared with her brother who was, for now, mercifully absent. Calad was leaning against the wall opposite the door, sprawling in such a way that he dominated the space, while she and Calam were squashed up on her narrow bed, legs folded underneath them. “Is it so hard to believe?”
“When a theory starts with a bunch of savages praying to imaginary people in the sky, yes, it is hard to believe.”
“You don’t have to take it at face value, Calad,” his sister said, “obviously the Talosi’s beliefs aren’t literally true. The point is that there are some coincidences.”
“Yes, and that’s all they are. I guarantee it. Look, you could go to every Province in Atlantis and find some backwater village where they believe just about anything. You’d find all sorts of strange parallels between some silly fairy story and real history. It doesn’t mean there’s some…I don’t know…some conspiracy…”
“You really think nothing’s going on here?” Jonis asked him.
He looked conflicted. “I’m just struggling to see the significance. Go through it again.”
Jonis sighed. How many more times would she have to repeat herself? The Matriarch had been just as sceptical. So sceptical, she’d ended up mucking out the pits like a novice. “All right,” she counted off on her fingers, “first there’s their religion. They worship a deity called the One-Eyed God, a vicious bully by all accounts from whom they had to wrest control of their homeland.”
“Sounds like every other god I’ve heard of…”
“Right, but the symbol they use on their temples? It’s branded into the thigh of your Cyclops.”
“You’re sure it’s the same symbol?”
Jonis traced her finger across her sheets, leaving a slight indent. “This one?”
“She only saw it for a second when he turned around, Calad,” Calam said.
“It’s a simple enough design…”
“Okay, well then second of all, you have their myths and the prophecy that goes with it. A woman, with one of our tattoos, bargains with them a thousand years ago. They call her a sorceress.”
“But we’re not sorceresses…or even sorcerers…”
“No,” Calam agreed, “but to uneducated savages, our ability to control Cyclopes would seem like magic.”
“Then there’s the other things. The way their runes look like our tattoos. The fact that the castle in their capital is built on Atlantian foundations that look just like this.” She gestured around herself. “I swear, that was a Cyclops pit.”
“Well then,” Calad folded his arms. “Maybe there were Cyclopes there a thousand years ago. What of it?”
“No history of Atlantis mentions anything like that happening. The Talosi arriving is a footnote in the tale of a generation-long war of succession. Cyclopes aren’t deployed idly. If the Empress was fighting a war against her rivals, why did she send her greatest weapons to a frozen peninsula to hurl a few mainlands barbarians back into the sea? And the Talosi aren’t stupid – they know their own history. And a Cyclops attack tends to stick in the mind, right? But all they seem to remember is a sorceress with my tattoos…”
“You have to admit there’s something strange about all this,” Calam said.
“A thousand years is a long time, sister. A lot of things can get forgotten.”
“The history of Atlantis goes back ten-thousand years,” Jonis said, gesturing with the edge of her hand for emphasis, “but things get vague just around the time Talos was settled by mainlanders. Isn’t that strange? Either they forgot what happened, or we did.”
“Forgot,” Calad mused, “or the knowledge was deliberately suppressed…”
Calam shot Jonis a small look of amusement. Both women knew that Calad was someone who’d never get behind an idea unless he thought it was his own. You had to lead him to conclusions very gently so the concepts had time to take root in his thick skull. “So we’re agreed?” Jonis asked.
Calad looked up. “What? Oh…yes, I suppose…”
“I need to get into the Archive,” she continued, sounding out the words carefully, as if their agreement was so fragile it might break if they went too fast, “I need to find some text that talks about that period of time in our history.”
He frowned. “This is a big risk just to satisfy your curiosity, Joni.”
“It’s about more than that. The Talosi had a prophecy. They believed the sorceress would return and lay waste to their lands.”
“Do you think that could come true somehow unless you look into this?” Calam asked.
“No. I think it already came true. Talos is in ruins, overrun by brutes and dogmen. Their city burned, just like their prophecy predicted, and now the ice is coming from the north. I’ve been there, to the tip of Atlantis. This winter isn’t going to end in our lifetimes.”
“And what does any of that have to do with us?” Calad grinned ruefully. “I mean, apart from killing us all…”
“I don’t know,” Jonis admitted, “but there must be a connection. The Talosi saw this coming before anyone, albeit couched in legend, and at least in their eyes it was all linked to Cyclopes and their Keepers. A thousand years ago, something happened in that rocky backwater that scared a people so much they built a religion around it, and now the tenets of their faith turn out to have a grain of truth. The land is being reclaimed – they said their god was the master of wolves, winter and war. How else would you define this age that seems to be upon us?”
“There’s something else,” Calam said softly.
“Let’s suppose for a moment that, for whatever reason, all that time ago there were Cyclopes in Talos. It’s not so hard to believe, if you put aside the succession war. The Empress sends Cyclopes to fight what she perceives as invaders. They’re there for long enough that they have to build a stable there – which would be the only recorded housing for Cyclopes outside of Atlas, remember – and then…”
“And then?” Jonis prompted.
“And then…somehow…they aren’t all dead. The Talosi survived.”
Jonis blinked a few times and then looked up at Calad, who was now nodding grimly. “No one survives an assault by more than one Cyclops and lives to tell their children what happened. If any of what you just described was true, they should’ve been eradicated.”
Jonis felt confused. “Well…what does that mean then?”
“I don’t know,” Calam said with a smile as she patted her leg affectionately, “I guess that’s what you’ll be finding out in the Archive.”
She looked from sister to brother and back again. “You’ll help me then?”
“It won’t be easy,” Calad said, a warning tone in his voice, “we’ll need to use all our cunning.”
“Right…what do you have in mind?”
“Just wait and see. We need to do this tonight though.”
“Because tomorrow I want to be very far away from the city.”
“What about your Cyclops? They think he’s in musth…”
“I’m counting on it. They can’t breed him without us. He’s our ticket to forgiveness.”
“Forgiveness for what?”
“You’ll see.” She patted her leg again.
Night and day were abstract concepts in the Cyclops stables. The great labyrinth of underground passages had no access to natural light, but to keep them sane – Cyclops Keepers, despite their strange abilities, were still human after all – there was a routine of torches being dimmed as the hour grew late so that when it was dark above ground, the shadows reigned down here too. Jonis, Calam and Calad all crept through the gloomy corridors. There was no sound except for the comforting vibrations as their massive charges moved and growled and pounded the floor with their calloused knuckles in the pits beneath them. Cyclopes kept to their own unknowable schedules. The Archive was a place Jonis knew only by reputation; it was the great repository of the texts which had guided the Keepers in their task since time immemorial. Much of the contents consisted of manuals on training, care, proper use in combat and all manner of other day-to-day trivialities that even Jonis found dry. These were the texts that formed the core of the teaching all Keepers received more or less from the day they were born. Extracts were used to populate various books that were revised and edited over and over, until they became texts in their own right after the contributions of several generations of master Keepers. The original thoughts though, those transcribed millennia ago by forebears whose names were now legend, those were much too precious to just hand out to novices in classrooms. These were the source of the wisdom of a people, and had to be kept safe. That was what the Archive was for.
The entrance was far from the Circle, through stretches of uninhabited tunnels, as if what that ancient vault contained was somehow cursed and had to be kept away from living men and women. Maybe it was. There were only occasional torches along their route, and they moved from one pool of wavering orange light to another. If Jonis had ever been in this part of the complex before, it must have been years ago. Although the arched passages looked much the same as the ones in the more familiar part of her subterranean home, there was a subtle difference she couldn’t really have pinpointed. She just knew this was uncharted territory, at least for her.
Calam and Calad, by contrast, seemed in no doubt about where they were going, or of the justness of their cause. They exchanged occasional smiles or squeezed one another’s hands. As annoying as she found Calad, she was jealous of the relationship the two shared. She and Jonin got along fine but, quite apart from his sexual preferences, theirs would never be a marriage based on anything but duty. She felt no desire for him, and barely any affection. But Calam and Calad were clearly made for each other, and it was obvious they were never happier than when on some sort of escapade like this one. For them, the fate of the world was most likely incidental – they just wanted an answer to the mystery.
They rounded a corner and Calad held up a hand. Jonis shrank back, pressing herself against the wall. It was dark here, far from any of the wall sconces. She chanced a look around the corner and saw a short flight of steps, at the top of which was a forbidding black door made of braced iron. The shape of the metalwork reminded her of the helmets the Cyclopes wore. A broad male Keeper stood before it, leaning nonchalantly on a tall glaive. He looked bored and a little tired. “Only one guard?” she whispered at Calam.
“What were you expecting?”
“I don’t know…”
“Stay here,” Calam told her. “Leave this to us.”
Jonis nodded and crouched down. She was confident she was safe here in the shadows, but her heart had still begun to beat faster. She didn’t remember being scared in Talos. A horde of thousands of barbarians bearing down on them, threatening to kill them all, and she’d been cool as greenleaf sorbet, but back here, in what was supposedly her native environment and it was like being a misbehaving novice again. No wonder her companions spent so much time away from home. She watched as they swaggered forward as if they had every right to be there.
The guard straightened and his fingers closed around the haft of his weapon. The blade was curved and sported vicious barbs. They glinted in the torchlight from the sconces on either side of him. “Hey,” he said, a little more timidly than she’d expected, “what’s your business here?”
Calad laughed. “What do you think our business is?”
“We’re here to get something from the Archive.”
“Well…on whose authority?”
The situation would have been funny if Jonis hadn’t been covered in cold sweat. The guard seemed completely unbalanced by the confidence of the handsome twins. Of course he’d know who they were. Everyone knew Calam and Calad.
“We just need to see one text,” Calam said as she climbed up the steps, “it’s not a big deal.”
“You can’t just come in here. It’s the Archive.” He was frowning at them now. As heavily muscled as he was, Calad was just as large, and Calam had the lean strength and dangerous saunter of a born warrior. He was weighing up his chances as he glanced from one to the other. He took a grip on his glaive. “You need permission from the Matriarch or another Elder to come in. You two know that.”
“There isn’t time,” Calam explained. She put a hand on his shoulder. “Our Cyclops is in musth. We think he’s about to mate.”
The guard looked surprised. “Really?” He was still a Keeper, and his excitement was obvious.
“Really,” Calad said with a nod, taking up a position on the other side of him. “We put him in with one of the females. They’re sniffing each other out. We need to remove their helms, but we want to check with the texts before we do it. This has never happened in living memory.”
“Wow.” The guard looked torn now, divided between his two competing duties. He had to keep trespassers out of the Archive, but he was also obligated to the preservation and furtherance of the Cyclops race. He didn’t want to be the man who caused a breeding to fail. Another chance like this might not come for centuries. Jonis felt sorry for him.
“Just let us in. The Matriarch will thank you. And if there’s viable offspring, you know we’d recommend you as the Keeper. You scratch our back…” Calam still had her hand on his shoulder.
His eyes lit up. “Really?” But then his face hardened. “No, hold up, there’s plenty of manuals about mating. Why do you need to see one of the texts?”
“We need the original version.” Calad said quickly. “We’d really feel better if we could refer to that. You can’t be too careful, can you?”
He glanced at him and then back to Calam. They were losing him. “No…no, I can’t just let anyone in…even for this…”
“Look,” Calam sighed, “this doesn’t have to be complicated.” She shifted her position just slightly, leaning into him, and her hand moved down to his biceps. Jonis could just see the smile she gave him from her vantage point. He stared at her. “We remember favours. You know who we are, don’t you?”
“I…yes…yes, of course…”
“And you know what we enjoy. Strong, handsome boy like you, I’m sure we’d all have a great time…”
Jonis grinned and had to stifle a laugh. If in doubt, appeal to the basest instincts of all. There were no thoughts of duty in the hapless guard’s brain as he let his grip on the glaive go slack and took a step towards Calam. His mistake was turning his back on Calad, who grabbed his weapon from his hand and, as he turned in shock, brought it up and caught him on the side of the head with the butt. He staggered sideways and then fell to his knees. Calad gave him another whack and he slumped down onto the flagstones.
“That was easy,” Calad said.
“I almost feel bad,” his sister smiled.
Jonis stood up and, after checking behind her, she came out of the shadows. “That was your plan? Just knock the poor bastard out?”
Calam shrugged. “What did you think it was?”
“I don’t know…just something more…cunning…”
“I thought it was cunning enough.” Calad rested the glaive against the wall, then looked down at the unconscious guard critically. “Sorry, friend. I’ll make it up to you someday.”
“He’ll be fine.” Calam turned to Jonis. “Look, he’ll remember us, but he didn’t see you. You’re in the clear. He won’t wake up for a good long while.”
“Okay.” She fished the keys to the heavy door from his belt and tossed them to Calam. “What if someone else comes along?”
“Who’s going to come along?” Calam put the key in the lock and turned it slowly. There was an ominous creak as the multiple mechanised latches and bolts hidden somewhere in the door opened. “No one knows you’re here. The only person who even knows you aren’t sleeping soundly in your bed is your brother, and what does he care?”
That made Jonis feel a pang of sadness again. He really wouldn’t care; he’d just see it as another opportunity to invite Ronnick or another of his friends round for some fun. Well, nothing to be done about that and, for once, it was for the best.
“So relax,” Calad said, clapping her on the shoulder, “unless someone’s looking for you, we’re safe.”
“Fine. Thank you. I mean it.”
“Let’s just see what we can find in here.” Calam took one of the torches from the sconces. She pushed open the door and, despite the obvious weight of it, it swung open soundlessly. Beyond, all was darkness. “Let’s go,” she grinned.
Jonis didn’t know what she’d expected. She stepped through the doorway, followed closely by Calad and found herself standing on a narrow stone landing. A set of shallow steps curved away from them, hugging the interior wall of what seemed to be a large, circular room. She stepped towards the edge of the landing – there was no balustrade – trying to see further into the pitch-black space before her.
“Careful,” Calam said quietly, placing a gentle hand on her arm.
The other woman smiled and held her torch out so Jonis could see what was beneath her. It wasn’t a round room as she’d imagined: it was an enormous pit, delving deep into the earth. The steps spiralled down and down, further than the light could penetrate and echoing far below was the sound of fluttering leathery wings.
“Bats,” Calad said.
“How far down does this go?”
“Far,” he said with a shrug.
Jonis looked along the stairway. Built into the walls were stacks of recessed stone shelves. They were level, but they dropped down slightly intermittently, so that they were always within easy reach of someone standing on the steps. Each shelf was filled with leather-bound books. There was a strong smell of vellum and rot, even in such a vast open space. The flagstones on which she stood were covered in a layer of dust. “How long since anyone’s been in here?”
“A good while.” Calam cast the torch ahead of her as she headed for the steps. Jonis felt a jolt of vertigo as she saw her friend begin the descent. The staircase was narrow, only wide enough for them to walk single file, and there was no rail at all, just a long drop into darkness.
“Where do we start?” she asked, and her voice sounded muffled.
Calam ran a finger down the spine of the nearest row of books. “They’re in date order, roughly. Gornin’s Treatise…The Musings of Jaleb…two generations ago, or thereabouts.”
Jonis followed close so as to stay within range of the torch. She peered at the titles of the books, picked out in gilt for the most part. She knew these books, but only from quotes she’d read in newer volumes, and an academic instinct stirred in her. She’d have loved to have the time to work her way through this library, absorbing the precious wisdom of her ancestors. “Holin’s Biography,” she said, awed. “I always wanted to read this. Did you know she was the first Keeper to visit the mainlands in three centuries?”
“Who cares about the mainlands?” Calad snorted.
“We shouldn’t linger too long,” Calam said.
“I know, sorry.”
They went on, descending slowly and at the same time moving back through history. The names became less familiar, and the books more obscure. How much could be written about Cyclops Keeping anyway? But of course, they were about much more than that. Their institution was one that had been constant since the founding of Atlantis. In some ways, they were the only constant – even the imperial family had been through countless dynasties. But the Keepers had always been here, observing, both within the empire and outside it, able to examine it critically even as they fought for its preservation. The texts told of events in the wider world, observations about peoples and places, philosophy and science. The authors had been Keepers first and foremost, but many had had time to pursue other interests. Here was a hefty tome by Kolim, a legendary Patriarch, but this wasn’t about his long years leading his people – it was a cookbook. The only thing he’d handled better than his Cyclops was a frying pan, or so it was said. Kolim’s recipes had been copied over and over, and perhaps formed the cornerstone of modern Atlasian cuisine, though most people probably didn’t know how much of the contents of their dining table they owned to a mostly forgotten leader of the Cyclops Keepers.
“How far back do you figure we are?” Calad asked from behind her.
Calam considered the question. “This is a book about the river fishing in Hades.”
“Quite. But I don’t think there’s been a fishing industry in Hades for at least two-hundred years, since Lake Persephone dried up.”
Jonis looked up. The landing was now invisible. They’d already walked quite a way down. If the Archive stretched right back to the dawn of their order, they’d only scratched the surface. How much more could have been written down these long ages? “We only need to go back a thousand years. We’re a quarter of the way there.”
“Then let’s keep going.”
The titles of the books began to blur for Jonis, and she no longer paid much attention, just stopped every now and then to examine a spine or two and take a guess at how old they might be. It was an inexact science, but she could pick out various historical events. The Fulton Rebellion was reflected in a number of volumes about the noble houses of Hyperion, which appeared abruptly from their perspective – the rebellion had ended with the extinction of dozens of aristocratic lines in the Battle of Creon, but prior to that they’d had a great deal of support from other Provinces and their intermarried houses were apparently of great interest, even to Cyclops Keepers. So it continued, through decades of numbing history. Here was the Long Peace, remembered as a golden age of plenty in which Atlantis had known only a handful of wars for a century or more. The books here were the most inane of all, concerning the most seemingly frivolous topics imaginable. Three weighty grimoires devoted entirely to the dubious art of topiary, apparently written by a single prolific hedge-trimmer. Butterflies and moths, bird calls, wines of the Provinces. It made Jonis smile to imagine a time when the Cyclops Keepers had had so little call to drive their beasts into battle that they spent their days sampling wine and listening to birds.
The deeper they went, the worse the condition of the texts became. The floor was dustier too and every now and then they heard the flap of bat wings close by, just beyond the light. All around them was darkness and it was like they were suspended in an unending void. When Jonis looked upwards, she could just make out a point of dim light far above them – the way out. Below: nothing.
“Eight-hundred years now,” she mused aloud, but instinctively adopting a whisper. “Look – the Bloody Dynasties.” In contrast to the previous epoch, now the books were singularly focused on battle and tactics. For two centuries, Atlantis had known nothing but terrible war, and it showed. Jonis was almost gratified to see how undisturbed the dust was here. This era was one better forgotten, she felt.
“Not much further,” Calam said, “no one’s been here for a very long time.”
The titles of the books were barely legible, and some had fallen to pieces, leaving debris on the steps. They had to tread carefully now, and for the first time she wondered how safe it was down here. This staircase wasn’t maintained – she could well imagine that the stones could have crumbled, leaving yawning chasms they might not see until it was too late, or were balancing precariously, the mortar eaten away by long centuries of decay, doomed to give way the moment one of them put their weight on it. “Maybe we should…” she heard herself say, but as she spoke she placed a hand on a gap in the shelf beside her and then felt something brush against her skin. She let out a startled yelp and instinctively drew away. A bat burst from between two mouldering books, flying straight at her face. It was small, but in that moment it looked huge and predatory. She threw her hands out to protect herself and in doing so lost her balance.
“Jonis!” Calam screamed. Calad reached out a hand to grab her, but she was already falling. His fingertips brushed hers. She watched the bat circle upwards, harmless little thing, disappearing into the darkness. She felt like laughing at the absurdity of it. She could see Calam’s face, wide-eyed, open-mouthed, reaching desperately for her, but it would do no good. They were less than a thousand years down, a tenth of the way to the bottom; it was a long, dark fall to the floor. She saw, in a brief flash of prophecy, the light dwindling above her, until it was just an orange speck like the door at the top of the stairs, and then even that would be gone and she’d been alone, in the black, waiting for the ground and never knowing when it would be coming…
She landed with a thump and cried out again. She could still see Calam and Calad on the steps, only a few strides above her head.
“I…I’m at the bottom…I think…” It made no sense, but she was too relived to give it any more thought. She rolled onto her belly and slowly picked herself up. She felt a little bruised, but nothing hurt too badly. She heard footsteps above her and, a moment later, her companions joined her, bounding down to the floor. They looked around in confusion. They were at the base of the pit, standing on a smooth floor covered in thick dust. There were cobwebs everywhere and the rustle of rodents or insects in the cracks. “This doesn’t make sense,” she said.
Calam walked around, waving the torch into the corners. There were more shelves down here, but the contents was little more than musty pulp, eaten away by the ages. “This is the oldest part of the Archive. But we’re no more than a thousand years back! I’m sure of it!”
Calad was frowning. “It’s hard to imagine there’d be much left of any older books anyway.” He stepped up to a shelf and picked up a mouldering chunk of paper. It crumbled in his hand. “Perhaps they just kept moving the texts down as the old ones rotted away. How much use is something older than a millennium anyway?”
“But this is our history,” Jonis protested, “the record of our people. If we don’t have anything from older than a thousand years, how can we be sure of…of anything?” She was staring around helplessly at the ruinous scene.
“That’s a question for another day,” Calam said calmly, “this is what you came to find, isn’t it? Records from this time?”
“Yes, but…” Like Calad, she pawed at the remnants of the texts. One page still clung to a chunk of leather spine. She took it towards the light. The ink had faded into illegibility. “This was a waste of time,” she said, dropping it to the floor where it made a flat sound as it hit the layer of dust. She became aware that she too had landed in that dust and wrinkled her nose as she brushed her back and buttocks down. She glanced at where she’d fallen – there was a clear space in the rough shape of a person where she’d scrabbled around on the floor. Again, she felt like laughing. This whole business was so absurd. From the ridiculous books to the unexpectedly abrupt end of their journey into the past and now her covered in dust, leaving marks in centuries-old filth. What a contribution to the world. And to think Calam and Calad might get into serious trouble for this! She walked over to the area she’d unwittingly swept clean and then frowned at something. “Hey, Calam, come here…”
“Bring the torch.”
“What is it?”
“Come here and I’ll show you!” Calam arrived, holding the flaming torch above her head. The floor here wasn’t flagstones, but smooth marble, and recessed into it, picked out in gilt, was a symbol of some kind. She turned her head this way and that. It looked Talosi. “You recognise that?”
“That’s the brand Grenden and Grendev’s Cyclops has,” Calad said, appearing at Jonis’s elbow suddenly.
“Why is it here?”
“This is the Archive. Their Cyclops is one of the oldest. It’s not that hard to believe.”
Jonis looked around. The symbol was seemingly placed at random, near the foot of the stairs. Its position didn’t seem very significant, and yet for some reason she had the feeling it must be. “Help me clear this dust…”
“What?” Calad glanced at the floor with distaste. He dragged the tip of his boot through it, leaving a deep hollow.
“Come on!” Jonis got on her knees and started sweeping at the floor with the flat of her hands, uncovering more smooth marble. Calam joined her, working with one hand as she held the torch aloft. Calad watched them for a moment and then, with a theatrical sigh, bent to help. They scrambled around for a bit until Jonis felt another glyph carved into the ground. She worked faster, clearing away the space behind her, and then Calam brought the torch over a second time. “Another one! Know it?”
She nodded. “The Matriarch’s Cyclops, no less.”
They kept working, uncovering more of the etched runes, thirteen in all, and then they stepped back to contemplate their handiwork. Jonis tried to figure out any kind of pattern to their placement. The symbol that had started it all, the one she still thought of as representing the One-Eyed God of Talos, was roughly in the middle, but the others were arrayed around it with no obvious relationship. Some were far-flung, others close at hand. Thirteen runes in a forgotten language, spaced without rhyme or reason on the floor of the Archive, where no one had been for centuries. “What is this all about?” she asked no one in particular. Her voice seemed to echo more here in the depths, but there was something else, even after the low reverberations had faded. A distant sound, just on the edge of hearing. At first she thought it was a bat, or something closer to hand, crawling in some hidden corner. But no.
“Do you hear that?” Calad asked.
“Hear what?” Calam was looking around.
“Up there.” He pointed.
They all stared upwards, into the blackness that enveloped them, here at the bottom of the world, and saw two tiny specks of light. One was still: the door. The other was moving very, very slightly, like it was bobbing up and down. Jonis knew what it was: a torch. Someone was coming down the stairs. Someone knew they were here. Her cold sweat returned.