Age of War (Part XIV)

There were worse things in the world than being assigned onerous and inappropriately junior duties, Jonis was horrified to discover. There were real punishments for disobedient Cyclops Keepers, even if it was a long time since they’d been meted out. Other new discoveries included this place: the deepest levels of the complex, the very foundations of Atlas. Here it was warm and moist and dark. Very, very dark. This was the great pit into which the filth of centuries sluiced and in these ancient tunnels and wells was volatile and reeking effluence: gasses that built up in the air, choked her lungs and could potentially explode if they made contact with an open flame. That was her first lesson upon arrival here. So she made her way through the darkness with a covered metal lantern, much battered and corroded, in which a stub of candle flickered uncertainly behind grubby glass. She could see only a few feet around herself at any time and all else was yawning black. She could tell, in a way she couldn’t really explain, when she entered one of the larger chambers. They were like vast halls below the ground, hollowed out through some unimaginable effort long, long ago. She had discovered, by careful circuits of some of them during her first days here (though days was a relative term…) that there were enormous pillars stretching from floor to ceiling, carved rather than natural, but with the details worn down to faded impressions on the surfaces. How could the city not be aware that this was beneath their feet? These pillars held aloft the homes and businesses of a million people. But then, they didn’t know much about the Cyclops stables either, and she hadn’t known about this. She reflected, for the thousandth time, on her newfound understanding of how little she could be certain of about her home and its history. That was what had landed her here, after all. But when was this built? It seemed older than a thousand years, certainly, so at least that meant that Atlantian history wasn’t a complete lie. And yet how much could she trust even the evidence of her senses now? She’d been told only a version of the truth all her life.

There was a great deal of time for Jonis to contemplate things now. Her duties were not burdensome. Here, at the bottom of the world, she had to ensure that the network of chambers, tunnels and pits continued to do their job. Somewhere, all the effluence of the stables filtered out into the sea, or perhaps was channelled even further below the earth, but in either case the workings must be maintained. There were blockages and even cave-ins, but they were rare. Her task was to walk a long route through the ancient excavations, looking for problems – walls that may need shoring up, rubble to be cleared, places when the dung and filth was starting to accumulate in some hollow or other. It was unpleasant, but it was also boring, and the darkness was incredibly oppressive. She was used to being underground, but this was different. Here, all was silent save for the sound of dripping water somewhere distant and she was becoming used to her world being only a stride or so of guttering candlelight. That scared her. She didn’t want to get used to this. She didn’t want to be here forever.

She was not alone. There was another Keeper, a very old man whom she’d never seen before. He was bent with age, and his skin was so pale it was almost translucent. Was that because of his advanced years or because he’d been trapped here in the dark for so long? His name was Malick, or so she thought. He was hard to understand through his toothless gums and he tended to ramble incoherently. How long had he been down here, alone? It was clear he was insane. He was almost as heavily tattooed as the Matriarch – what had he done to be sent down here? She tried to ask him, but only got gibberish in reply. Malick wandered through the tunnels with his own torch muttering to himself, never deviating from a set path, which was worn smooth on the floor. It made no difference to his routine when she arrived, and so she took a different route and every now and then they’d cross paths. She was used to the sight of his bobbing lamp somewhere across a great chamber, and had even begun to feel relief when it came into view. Another disturbing development, but at least Malick’s dubious company was better than none at all. He moved so slowly though – how could he possibly have patrolled these black passages without her? She suspected that no one had checked on him for many years, and was shying away from the knowledge that he was surely reaching the end of his life, and then who else but her would replace him?

This living death was not the end of it. Even if she was forgiven and brought back into the light, they had taken something from her that she knew she’d never get back, not without a lifetime of exemplary service. That was the worst thing about all the time she had to think, because now this one thing went round and round in her head, no matter how hard she tried to bury the memory. They took her Cyclops. She no longer had care of the beast she’d looked after and trained for most of her life. She didn’t know who had it now. Not Jonin. He shared this part of her punishment, and she felt indescribable shame that he would lose the prestige and joy of working with his own Cyclops because of her actions. He’d refused to speak to her after the judgment was done. She doubted he ever would again, even if he did get the chance. She was more alone than she’d ever imagined being, and Malick did nothing to assuage that bone-deep grief. It would well up when she was in the darkness, tramping across uneven rocky ground, and sometimes escape as a sob that echoed around whatever nameless pit she was currently traversing. At night, in the small cell down here that was now hers, she would weep for what she’d lost. At first she’d been determined to face her fate defiantly, refusing to give in to misery. That was what they wanted: to break her. She wouldn’t let them. If this was what she was forced to do, she was determined to be the best at it she could be, and then they’d see she was contrite and welcome her back… But no. No one checked on her. No one came looking. She could sit in her cell all day, and no one – not even Malick – would know the difference. This was just an exile, and she had no illusions that it would come to any end but her death, alone and forgotten in the dark.

Time went on, moving unknowably. She slept when she was tired, and ate the food rolled down a chute to them in a barrel each week when she was hungry. The exit from this forlorn realm was up a long, steep flight of stairs. There was no door or gate at the top, but she had no hope of escape – the passage from the stairs led right back to the Circle. She’d be caught, and then what? Death, perhaps, would have been a mercy, but she was still of Atlantis, even if she was reduced to grubbing around its roots, and it was not in her to simply give up. So she trudged onwards, stuck with her thoughts, contemplating a future that looked less and less likely to contain anything but stinking caves with each passing day. It was as she had this gloomy thought that she saw once again the faint glimmer of Malick’s lamp in the distance. She frowned at that. This was not normally one of the places she bumped into him. She raised her own lantern and waited patiently. Normally it took him an achingly long period of time to reach her from across this, one of the largest vaults in the network, but the light was moving surprisingly fast. She felt a moment’s hesitation. What if it wasn’t Malick? She’d fully explored the perimeter and knew there was no exit to any natural caves from here, so no creature besides them would find its way in. After a few minutes, she could make out the shape of the old Keeper though, his pale face nodding blankly in the orange light. He was capering towards her in an awkward run-cum-shuffle and she wondered what was going on.

“Malick?” she said into the darkness.

“Yes…yes…” he mumbled, audible in the titanic void. “Come…must come…”

He stopped a few strides from her and bobbed his head up and down. His eyes were unfocussed and she was never certain whether he was actually looking at her or not.

“Come? Come where? What’s happening?”

“Important…very…” His wrinkled brow creased even further and he looked puzzled and worried for a moment, but then he waddled towards her and took her hand. She was surprised and nearly shouted at him to get off her, but he was already tugging insistently, leading her back across the chamber.

“Malick? Tell me what’s going on, please…”

“See…come and see…important.”

He was always like this. Fragments of sentences. How long since he’d actually had a conversation with someone? He was truly broken. Would that be her eventually? “Slow down, Malick,” she said and pulled her hand free of him. He slowly came to a halt and then peered around in confusion. “I can keep up, Malick,” she said, adopting the same tone she’d have used to talk to a child, “just lead me to whatever it is.”

“This way.” He jerked his head without turning around, and off he went again, throwing his whole twisted body into his odd lurching gait. He was faster than he looked, she’d give him that.

They left the big chamber and walked on through a low tunnel that curved slightly to the left. Jonis tried to picture where they were. She’d tried to scribble a map on the wall of her cell with a chipped piece of stone, but since she could never see more than a few feet of any one place, it was difficult. She thought they were heading for the largest of the chambers, the one that she’d dubbed the Throne Room because its columns reminded her of the hall in which she’d met the Empress however long ago it was now. It seemed fitting. First though they arrived at a fork in the tunnel. One way led to the Throne Room, the other looped back to the lower drainage sumps, a place that already filled her with numb horror whenever she contemplated returning to it. Malick stumbled to a halt, swaying back and forth between the two dark entrances. “Two paths…” he murmured.

“Yes, two paths.” She tried to hurry him along, since it was apparently so important. “Which way are you going, Malick? Where did you see…whatever it was?”

He made no move. “Two paths…always two paths…you see all paths in the dark…all possible…possible paths…”

“Okay, but which one do we need?”

“In the dark…in the dark I see them…see the paths…one to glory…one to darkness…”

She moved her torch towards his face. His eyes were as empty as ever, but his mouth was working, opening and closing. A line of spittle ran down his wrinkled chin. “Malick? Are you all right?”

He lifted a crooked finger, pointing into thin air. “I see a path…doom and darkness…a great white death…cities burning…the ships! To the ships! The sea…the storm…an age of ruin…scattered by the winds…the people lost…their land forgotten…beneath the ice…beneath the waves…passing into myth and legend…lost…lost…”

She bent down towards him. This wasn’t much different from the usual nonsense he seemed to spout, and yet something about it gave her pause. “What does that mean, Malick? What are you trying to tell me?”

“I see a path,” he repeated softly, “the white death averted…the glory of their land…preserved…an age of wonder…a bright future…all are possible…that way grows dim…”

“Is this what you want to show me?” she asked. “Did you bring me here so you could show me what you meant by paths?” He said nothing, so she reached out and touched his arm. He jumped and turned his head towards her, but his gaze never focussed. “Malick?”

“Come…come…” And then he was off, taking the passage to the Throne Room, much to Jonis’s relief. She hurried after him, thinking about his strange words. Maybe they were just the ramblings of someone driven to madness by darkness and isolation. Maybe it was something he’d read long ago, something that coming to that fork had reminded him of. Or maybe there was something more to it…

She had no time to turn it over in her mind any longer though, because now they emerged from the passage and into the Throne Room. Immediately Jonis was aware of the change in their environment, even though she could still see nothing beyond the pool of orange light that surrounded her. The pressure of the walls and ceiling in the low passage was lifted, and now an immense gulf of nothingness surrounded them. It was disconcerting, for she had no idea how high or wide this hall really was. Always when she entered one of these spaces, she imagined herself tripping and falling, the lamp shattering and the candle being snuffed out. How would she find her way out if that happened? She could wander blindly for days and never fumble her way to the exit. Malick was heedless of the danger though, scampering off to the right. She followed doggedly behind, until she saw his light stop moving. From the reflection she could see that he stood at the base of the one of the mighty columns. It was twenty strides around, an enormous stone cylinder, and her torch could not even reach the edge where it curved out of sight from where she stood. She knew that more such columns marched off into the distance in two rows on either side of the Throne Room. The feat of engineering required to build this never ceased to stagger her.

“Here…” Malick whispered, placing a hand against the stone.

“What?” She looked at the part of the column he was almost caressing. There didn’t seem to be anything strange about it.

“Here,” he repeated, this time more firmly and now he traced one of his fingertips across the surface.

Jonis peered closer, and then saw what he was talking about. She lifted her lamp and squinted. Snaking up the column from the base was a hairline crack. She followed it up, and it carried on beyond the reach of her weak light. She looked at the base, and saw it continued onto the floor, and onwards. Slowly, she began to walk around the column. When she reached the side opposite Malick, she saw a similar crack on the other side, which again continued along the floor. That could only mean the whole column was shot through – indeed, perhaps the whole Throne Room. She returned to Malick, who jumped when she appeared on the other side of him. “What caused this?” she wondered aloud, not really expecting an answer.

“White death…white death…”

“What?” He’d said that before, at the fork. “What does that mean?”

Malick pressed the flats of his hands together. “White death…push…break…”

“White death…” She felt like she should understand what he meant.

“Cold,” Malick said.

“You’re cold?” It was never cold down here in the bowels of the earth.

“Cold…colder every day…white death…”

“Ice,” Jonis whispered, “you’re talking about ice.” She put her hand on the column and thought back to her childhood lessons. “Ice can break stone. Water expands when it freezes and over time it can cause fractures even in solid rock as it pushes outwards.” She looked around. “But Malick, there’s no ice here.”

“Ice…white death…far away…push…break…far away…”

“Right, there’s ice far away. Lots of ice. I’ve seen it. But how can that affect anything here?”

“Push…” He moved his hands together with more force.

“Push…” She thought back to Talos, to visiting the very northern tip of the peninsula and seeing an endless stretch of ice covering the sea. It never thawed now, not even in summer. She had imagined how it might grow colder and colder, with snow falling further south each winter, until it engulfed them all. But snow wasn’t the problem, was it? It was the cold and the ice. As it got colder, that shelf of ice would get thicker, and it wouldn’t just settle gently over the land; it would roll across it, grinding everything into dust. Ice could shatter stone. Get enough ice, and it could break mountains. That’s what this was, wasn’t it? She looked in wonder at the thin crack. She tried to picture Atlantis as it would look from far above, an irregular blob of stone and earth amidst the sea, but now with this sheet of ice bearing down on its northern extremity. She imagined it as a pane of glass, and saw the very edge being shattered and the cracks that would radiate outwards from it, unpredictably. If the mountains in Talos were being compressed – pushed – by the ice, that would reverberate through all the surrounding lands. The Titans themselves would feel that pressure, and that would echo through the bedrock of Atlas. And here it was: just the tiniest sliver of a crack, but one which would be felt above, she was certain of that.

“What will happen if this chamber collapses, Malick?” she asked him, looking up towards the distant ceiling, but of course seeing nothing.

“Doom…” he said. He clapped his hands together loudly, just once, but it echoed around the Throne Room, and in the silence it seemed thunderous. Doom indeed.

“I don’t know how you figured it out, Malick, but you’re right. Something’s happening to the world, and I think it’s going to destroy us all – sooner than we think.”

“See all paths…” he said, “paths…in darkness…see all…”

She looked at him again. Such an odd little fellow. His tattoos were faded on his papery skin, but there was perhaps a glimmer of the Keeper he must once have been. What had he done to be put down here? Or, was a better question: what had been done to him?

Since she’d been in this place, Jonis had shied away from the truth: that she’d destroyed her life to follow a vague rumour about the dim past. Just because a few dates didn’t add up didn’t mean there was something sinister going on. And what difference did it make now anyway? Now, seeing this crack, reminded her of why she’d been so foolhardy in the first place. The Talosi had known what would happen. They, somehow, had a glimpse of the future, and they’d written a very specific prophecy about it that connected to events from the founding of their realm. If those events were in doubt, if indeed they led them to discover that the whole history of the world as they knew it was a lie, what did that say about the future? Who was the One-Eyed God? Why was his mark on the thigh of an ancient Cyclops? Why had a Keeper once ruled Atlantis? None of it made sense, and yet she finally understood that discovering the answers was the key to saving everything she cared about.

“I have to get out of here,” she said.

“Out…” Malick chuckled. “No…doom…” his voice trailed off and he seemed to lose interest in the column, now wandering off into the darkness. His light bobbed away, and Jonis let it dwindle into the night. She looked up at the column and thought about the future. Whatever happened, she must not die here. Not when there was a chance she might be able to save Atlantis. But how could she escape this fate? No answer sprang to mind, so she stood looking at the hairline crack for a while longer, and then returned to where Malick had found her to resume her circuit. There really was nothing better to do.

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