Jonis’s dreams were a confused jumble of people, places and things, all warring for her attention, disappearing and reappearing at random with no rhyme or reason. The one constant was the fear and disorientation, as well as a noise always just on the edge of hearing: the distant roar of wind. She was running down a snowy hill now, pursued by an avalanche that was gaining on her with every heartbeat. She was bitterly cold and her legs felt like they were weighed down with stones. She turned to confront it at last, resigning herself to her fate, and then she was with Rayke, back in the room they’d shared in Talos. They were lying in each other’s arms. He held her closely and she could feel the warmth of his body, and yet she was still shivering. He didn’t seem to notice. She tried to snuggle closer to him, but he didn’t respond, and when she looked up into his eyes, she saw that they stared sightlessly through her. Blood covered his face. She sat up and looked down at him in horror. His throat had been slashed. In his hand was the Imperial Seal he’d taken with him, clutched against his chest. It was just as bloody as him. She screamed, and the wind rose outside the window, causing the shutters to clatter and bang noisily. She couldn’t stop screaming, but suddenly she was back on the mountain. Her scream echoed around the hills. The avalanche started. The storm rose above her, dark clouds gathering with unnatural speed. She turned and ran, and saw that Atlas was laid out before her, the city inexplicably huddling at the base of the mountain. The wind was lashing at it, tearing its buildings to pieces. Rubble was thrown into the sea, and then there was an almighty cracking noise from somewhere far below: a fissure snaked its way across the city and it began to collapse into the gap, folding like the pages of a book. The sea washed over the harbour, swallowed up streets and houses, laying everything to waste. And still the avalanche came, now gathering her up with it and hurling her down towards the dying city. Black light poured from the pit forming where the Imperial Enclave once was: it looked like a huge, baleful eye, staring into her…
She opened her eyes. She was awake. She expected to be breathless, sweating, fearful. She was none of these things. The chamber was filled with sleeping militia. No one stirred as she sat up. There was no guard on watch. That wasn’t right, but she didn’t give it another thought. She could still hear the wind, but now it was faint – the sound of ordinary weather somewhere beyond the walls of this strange version of her home. She got up, compelled by a force she couldn’t have put a name to, and stepped over the slumbering bodies. There were soft snores and heavy breathing and not so much as a shuffle as she crossed the room. She walked up the short flight of steps and into The Circle. The night was clear, and bright moonlight poured through the hole in the great dome of the ceiling. It was snowing too, only gently, and flakes drifted down in a steady, languid curtain. As they passed through the shafts of pale light, she could see them pirouetting in the frigid breeze, a million tiny sparkling points in the darkness. Curiously, she didn’t feel cold at all. She stood there for she didn’t know how long, just watching the snow fall and listening to her own heartbeat and breathing, until she gradually became aware of something strange happening. She thought that nothing in this place could surprise her now, but as the shadows she had taken for the work of the ghostly moonlight flitted here and there, she saw they were more substantial than she’d first realised. In the spectral glow, the shapes of men and women moved backwards and forwards, indistinct, always just out of view somehow, but nonetheless real. Jonis still felt no fear. She watched the ethereal crowds gather, as if to watch a play in the central amphitheatre, until the whole chamber seemed to be full to bursting with the apparitions. She saw snatches of faces and other details now and then: they looked like her, with the same pale skin, black hair and almond-shaped eyes that were otherwise unknown in Atlantis. None of them bore Keeper tattoos though. She walked forward, pushing through the throng as if they were nothing more than insubstantial mist until she came to the front. There, arrayed around the pit, were eight more people, each standing alone, being given room by the others. These had tattoos like hers on their faces. They each raised a hand, palm facing outwards – four the left, four the right – and the wind’s volume increased again. She felt a ghost of the same fear from her dreams pass through her. She could see threads of dark power rising all around, being drawn to the eight men and women, being somehow channelled into their bodies and directed from their palms. They held them so they pointed downwards, and a snaking thread of black lightning emanated from each to converge in the centre like the spokes of a wheel. She looked down into the pit, not stopping to wonder that she hadn’t done so before. When she saw what was there, she did feel true fear again.
Kneeling there was a giant of a man. His bald head was bowed and his massive fists clenched against the flagstones. The snow had disappeared and Jonis could see the symbols carved on the floor around him. The energy flowed into him, directed by the eight humans, and slowly he began to rise to his feet. He lifted his head and she saw the single eye glowering beneath his heavy brow. He stood tall now, his head reaching over the edge of the pit. The wind was deafeningly loud. He looked upwards, raised his mighty arms, and a bolt of pure shadow came blasting from his eye. It hit the domed ceiling, with its intricate stone lattice now restored, and was reflected and bounced around it, directed by some unknown means through the architecture of this version of The Circle. Black fire like liquid darkness danced along the walls, the ceiling, the floor, and reverberated upwards, echoing through the thick glass and up into the air beyond. She heard the cataclysmic crack again.
The Cyclops spoke, and his voice was like a rumble of thunder. His words were in a language she could not understand, but the sound seemed to bypass her ears and drill straight into her mind, where some ancient memory lingered. “It is done,” she knew he said, “let none raise their hands against us again.”
“Thank you, Lord,” one of the women said, “I pray that the peace won here today will last.”
“And I pray that we understand the consequences of what we have done,” a man added.
The black lightning didn’t dissipate, it just continued to echo around the enormous space, but none of the shadowy people seemed to notice it now. It sank into them – all of them – and one by one they faded into nothing. Only the Cyclops remained, and he looked directly at her. The blackness had not faded in his eye, so it was as if she confronted a gaping hole in creation that stared into her, stripping her naked before the horror of the abyss. She had no voice to scream.
“Remember what we wrought, Daughter of Queens,” he said in his booming voice, “remember how we died, though it took a thousand years.”
She didn’t understand, and she couldn’t begin to formulate a reply. The terrible wind now buffeted through The Circle and it finally blew away the indistinct form of the giant, scattering him like dust. She was cold; so very, very cold. The ice and snow returned, and the chamber fell into decay. The ceiling collapsed, the walls crumbled, the statuary crashed to earth. She heard wolves howling. No, not wolves, not exactly…
She turned to see who called her name and tried to open her mouth to call back, but she couldn’t move. She was frozen, motionless, unable to even do so much as blink. She could only gurgle helplessly.
“Jonis! Wake up!”
She blinked. Someone was shaking her. Gradually everything swam into focus. A blurred pink shape became Tayne’s concerned face. She had her hands on her shoulders, trying to wake her up. Jonis flailed at her pathetically. Her arms felt sluggish. “I’m awake,” she slurred. Her tongue was dry and felt too big for her mouth.
“You were making strange noises…”
“What?” She pulled herself up. She was lying against the wall of the small room they’d appropriated for their camp, exactly where she vaguely remembered collapsing what felt like an age ago. Someone had thoughtfully placed her pack under her head for a pillow and tossed her cloak over her. Tayne rested back on her haunches. The other soldiers looked on from their pallets, all with the same expression of mixed confusion and concern on their faces. Jonis rubbed her head. “Noises?”
Huldane was just behind Tayne, and he passed his waterskin to her. Jonis took it and drank greedily. She was parched. “You sounded like you were having a nightmare,” Tayne told her.
“I suppose I was. A few of them actually.” She kept hold of the waterskin and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “What happened?”
Huldane smiled tightly. “You just fell asleep. We tried to wake you up, but we could not.”
“You were sleeping peacefully enough,” Tayne said with a shrug, “we made you comfortable and left you to it.”
“Thank you.” Jonis looked around. Light was filtering down the stairway. It looked different from her – what? Dream? Vision? Ancestral memory? – and she frowned at it. “Is it morning?”
Tayne nodded. “Sunrise was about an hour ago. Are you feeling all right? You fainted back there last night.”
“I feel…” She thought about it. “Yes. I feel all right, I think. Still a bit…I don’t know…delicate…”
“You need some food,” Huldane suggested.
“Probably.” She couldn’t shake the lingering effects of the strange events she’d witnessed in her dream. She’d been certain it was real: that she’d woken up and walked out there. The ghosts of those people were obviously some phantasm of her overworked mind, that much was clear, but it was all so detailed, so real. She opened her pack as she leant against the wall and took out a parcel of hardtack which she munched thoughtfully. “Huldane,” she said through a mouthful, “was it a full moon last night?”
He gave it some thought as he pulled apart some slices of goat meat. “I do not think so, Keeper Jonis. It was a new moon four nights ago, though it seems it is easy to lose track of time in these mountains. Why do you ask?”
“Nothing. It’s nothing.” She shook her head. A dream. Just a very odd dream. There was no truth to it; it was just the lingering memories of yesterday’s bizarre discoveries. Her imagination had pieced together a scenario that fitted some of the facts they’d uncovered and given it some fanciful symbolism. Those Keepers or whatever they were seemed to have been performing a kind of magical ritual, like something from an old story, and she knew that couldn’t have been real. The words of the mighty Cyclops – if that’s what he was – still seemed to echo around her mind though. ‘Remember what we wrought…’ was what he’d told her. What could that mean? Why had her sleeping brain created that vivid idea? She couldn’t even think about what it could signify, if it was not merely another jumble of half-forgotten memories. No, best to concentrate on the waking world and its troubles. Dreams should be left in the world of sleep.
Calas bit into her hardtack. “What do we do now, Keeper?” she said through a spray of crumbs.
Jonis didn’t know how to answer that. Now they were in this place, where were they supposed to go? What were they looking for? “In Atlas,” she said, “there’s a repository of information called The Archive. It’s a sort of library, I suppose.”
“You think they have one here?” Tayne asked.
“I think I saw it yesterday.”
“Do you know how to reach it?”
She frowned. Did she? She’d only been to The Archive in Atlas that one time, led by her friends. She wasn’t certain she could find her way again, not with the slightly altered layout necessitated by the mountainous terrain. They’d started from her chamber though, and she had to admit she was curious to see whether the little room she shared with her brother was the same here. After all, the Matriarch was apparently living in a closet…
“I know where to start,” she said evasively.
“Are you up to it?”
She shrugged. “We didn’t come all this way to sit here doing nothing.”
“All right.” Tayne dusted crumbs from her hands and stood up. “We’ll go.”
“We?” Jonis supported herself using the wall and she climbed to her feet.
“Me and you. Or will it take all of us?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen.” Twenty soldiers crowded into the narrow corridors of the quarters probably wasn’t the best way to explore.
“Me and you,” she said again. “The rest of you, split into squads and scout out this Circle or whatever it is. I want to know if there’s an exit we can use.”
Jonis knew what she meant by that. If something happened to her, they might not be able to get out by the way they came in. These were soldiers, and that meant securing an escape route if something were to go awry was the first priority. Everyone started moving at once, gathering up gear, breaking camp as if they were moving on. How long did they expect to have to stay here? How long did she? There were no answers yet. All her energy had been expended just getting here. She’d thought the secret she sought would be obvious somehow, but all she’d found so far were more confusing questions.
“What would you have of me, Keeper?” Huldane asked her.
She thought about it. “You’re a jarl, aren’t you?”
“What’s a jarl?” Tayne asked.
“A Talosi captain.”
“Oh…” Odd that that hadn’t come up before, but then up till now they’d just been going in a straight line to their destination. There hadn’t been much call for the soldiers to do their soldiering. “You’ve got experience commanding?”
Huldane almost looked bemused. “I was the commander of the Lady Aethlan’s housecarls.”
“A bodyguard,” Jonis explained.
Huldane shook his head. “Not exactly. The housecarls are a part of the lord’s household, traditionally his closest companions who…”
“I get it,” Tayne said, waving a hand. “You know what you’re doing. Think you know my company?”
“Could you pick a squad to lead?”
He eyed the men and women around him. “I believe so.”
“Well do it then. You should make yourself useful.”
“I would be glad to, captain.”
There was an awkward moment as the two soldiers both stood there, watching each other, and then Jonis felt her stomach lurch and steadied herself against the stonework behind her. “I think I need a bit of air,” she said.
She and Tayne left the chambers, walking up the steps back to The Circle. Jonis half expected it to still be cast in the harsh contrasts of the moonlight, but of course it wasn’t. The sky through the huge rent in the ceiling was flat and grey, and sleet dribbled down from it listlessly. The huge space didn’t look grand at all in this light – it was dirty and muddy and old. She felt thoroughly dispirited. If her ancestors did work magic here, those days were long gone.
“Which way, Keeper?”
She pointed. “That way.”
They went on in silence, both perhaps a little too aware of what had passed between them yesterday. Why had Tayne volunteered to come with her alone like this? Surely one or two others wouldn’t hurt. Or then again, maybe Tayne thought that Jonis wouldn’t trust so many, not after they’d threatened to kill her and Huldane. The quarters weren’t far from The Circle, and thankfully there were no more of those strange stone doors blocking the way. Her hand itched from her encounters with those, and red blisters had already risen on her skin. She’d hastily wrapped it in a bandage before leaving. They turned a corner and the reassuring daylight disappeared. Tayne bore a guttering torch that filled the air with the smell of smoke. It should have given her a headache the way she was feeling, but it seemed the further she went from The Circle, the better she felt. Her stomach stopped churning and her head cleared. She almost felt like skipping. It didn’t last long: they descended another narrow flight of stairs and then she was in hauntingly familiar territory. The corridor branched haphazardly here, leading into a warren of intersecting tunnels. Back home, wooden doors on either side of each hallway opened into the small rooms shared by Keepers who were moved in once they’d outgrown the family quarters. Groups of siblings, all closely related, all sharing the hopes and fears of their strange, isolated lives. In Atlas, some of the doors would be open and conversations held across the corridors. Keepers would be going back and forth, in and out of each other’s rooms. Some doors were decorated, either by their current occupants or by one of a long chain of siblings going back centuries and millennia. It was her home.
“This is a prison,” Tayne said. Her voice was flat. Something about the walls here seemed to absorb echoes.
Jonis walked slowly down the corridor that ran between the first set of rooms seeing their Atlasian counterparts in place of these empty chambers. This was where Golaj and Golak lived. And here cheery Tasim and his shy sister Tasil. The next room belonged to a pair of boys called Avis and Avit who had only just moved in. They both kept to themselves at the moment, but there was great interest in them because most Keeper twins were mixed gender – both being male, they would grow up to have a much freer choice of mate than the majority of her kind. But this was not a home. This was, as Tayne had guessed, a prison. The wooden doors were gone, or rather had never been: in their place, twisted iron bars, like the ones in the Cyclops pens. She looked through one set into the dismal cell, seeing it with new eyes. Two slabs of stone for beds, bare walls, no window. It was tiny. Somehow it looked smaller without furniture than with it. She wouldn’t have put any criminal in a space that small.
Tayne was at her shoulder, holding the torch up to cast feeble light into the grim room. “I don’t understand what we’re doing here.”
“In Atlas, this is where we live.”
“No…no they aren’t gaol cells there…” Just like the Matriarch’s chambers weren’t a storeroom. She felt an odd sense of embarrassment. As if her people were squatting in the ruins of a place they didn’t really understand, like the Talosi and their unlovely castle heaped up atop grand Atlantian foundations. They thought themselves so refined, but how must it have been for Huldane and Aethlan to come to Atlas and see the Great City by the Sea with its wondrous buildings and the white perfection of the Imperial Enclave? Probably a bit like this, she thought ruefully. She wrapped her hands around the bars and rested her head against them.
“Jonis? Are you all right?”
She laughed harshly. “Yes. Yes I suppose I am. I just…what are we even doing here, Tayne?”
“I threw away everything for this. My whole life down the privy to learn things I can’t begin to understand, to see how pathetic and small we really are, we who thought ourselves so mighty.”
“I’m not sure I see…”
“My whole existence is a lie,” Jonis spat, her voice suddenly full of venom, “I knew my place in the world with total surety until a few months ago.”
“Things can change quicker than you realise,” Tayne told her. Her voice was soft.
“I guess they can…”
“I’m sorry about yesterday.”
Jonis turned her head. “What?”
“About…well, you know…”
She looked at the captain. “Is that why you wanted to come here with me alone?”
“Right, well, apology accepted I guess. You had your orders.”
“They were bad orders.”
“Most of them are, it seems.” She turned back to the cell, regarding it with a mixture of fascination and loathing. To see something so familiar so utterly subverted…well, it was this ruinous place all over. She thought of something suddenly. “Tayne, what’s going to happen to you when we get back to Atlas?”
“I don’t know.”
“Will there be a tribunal?”
“Maybe. I disobeyed orders. I might get off with a demotion.”
“They can’t afford to lose soldiers at the moment I guess.”
Tayne grimaced. “That’s what I’m hoping. And that when we come back, things will change.”
“I mean, when we tell them what we found.”
Jonis considered that. She’d been concentrating so hard on trying to figure out what all of this meant that the ramifications for Atlantis as a whole hadn’t occurred to her. Here was a city that was supposed to be nothing more than a legend, and it had once been ruled by Keepers, something that was supposed to be anathema to how society was organised. Keepers were a people apart. Keepers kept to their own kind. Keepers did not seek power. And then there was the matter of the Cyclopes.
“The world’s never going to be the same again,” she said.
“I gave up everything for this.”
“You keep saying that,” Tayne said, “but why?”
Jonis finally stepped away from the bars. She crouched down against the wall and Tayne did likewise on the opposite side of the corridor. There wasn’t a lot of room, but after days of travelling through the icy mountains they were past notions of embarrassment over infringing on one another’s personal space. “When I went to Talos with Rayke, all I wanted was adventure and to spend a little time with him. It was reckless, and I think the Elders probably disapproved, but they had no cause to stop me. So I went there, and I had an adventure all right, but I also saw a lot of terrible things and met a lot of horrible people. I made some friends too,” she smiled faintly, “but the cost was pretty damn high.”
“Talos was where you found out about…all this?” She waved her free hand at the surrounding corridor.
“In a way. It’s when I learned that what I’d been taught all my life didn’t quite add up. But I had no idea that every single thing I’d been told was distorted or an outright lie. I asked a few questions, I got punished, I abused the trust of my closest friends to gain access to somewhere I shouldn’t have, and I ended up in a hole so deep and dark I didn’t even know it existed.”
“So what happens when you go back?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “They took the one thing I cared about away from me.”
“That’s the only thing you care about?”
“Well…” She’d never even thought to question that before. She was a Keeper. Cyclopes were a part of her identity. “No…not any more. Now I care about…well…Atlantis, the world, the future…” She took a deep breath, as if her body was preparing for a plunge into icy water. “And Rayke. I care about him.”
“I could tell.” Tayne smiled in the wavering torchlight.
“But it can never be. He has his Empress, I have my brother. Not that he’ll want much to do with me now. It was never going to be much of a happy marriage, but I don’t think he’ll forgive me for what I’ve done.”
“What do you mean?”
“Cyclopes are tended to by a pair of twins,” she shrugged, “I lose my Cyclops, he loses it too.”
“So I suppose I don’t have much to go back to. Funny, nothing much has changed when I think about it, but now I’ve tasted the possibility of something else it just seems…worse…you know?” She wasn’t sure why she was telling this woman all this. They weren’t friends. They hadn’t spoken much during their journey. She knew her from that first mission to Priam back before all this began, but they had little else in common besides some mutual acquaintances.
“I do know,” Tayne said.
Jonis narrowed her eyes at her. There was something going on here. “You’re free,” she said.
“Of course. You can have whatever life you want. Go where you want, marry who you want.”
“No I can’t.”
“Sure you can.”
“No one’s free,” Tayne said. Her melancholy tone suited their surroundings, but it still made Jonis’s heart sink. “We all think we are, but every single one of us is bound by honour and obligation, by the whims of other people. We only have the choice others let us have.” She rubbed at one eye with the palm of her hand. They were shining with tears, but that could just be the smoke from the torch. It wasn’t though. Jonis knew that.
“What’s going on, Tayne?”
“It’s nothing. It’s silly.”
“Are you worried about your career after what’s happened?”
“Fuck my career,” she snarled with uncharacteristic rage. Tayne was probably the least foul-mouthed soldier Jonis had met, and she was shocked to hear her swear like that.
“So what is it?” It dawned on her suddenly. “Is it Morrow?”
Tayne gave her a sharp look. “You don’t have to sound so surprised…”
“No, I don’t mean…I mean, l like Morrow. She’s…well…she’s my friend. I miss her.” She did too, she realised. She wasn’t scared for Rayke – somehow she knew he’d survive whatever maelstrom of battle he was thrown into – but the idea of Morrow being caught up in this senseless civil war was an unpleasant thought. She was a soldier, yes, and a skilled warrior, a fine leader and the best shot she’d ever seen, but war was a dark and brutal business, and civil war especially so. She’d lost a part of herself in Talos already. The worst thing would be if the tough little woman came back with even less of what made her who she was.
“I miss her too,” Tayne said.
Jonis shook her head. “No, I don’t get it. You slept with her the night before that battle, but before that the only thing you did the whole way to Priam was snipe at her and Rayke. You all but accused her of insubordination. I thought…well…I thought you hated her.”
“No. Hating her would be the last thing I’d ever do.”
“So is she just that good?”
Even in the torchlight, Jonis could see Tayne turning bright red. “I didn’t…I mean…”
“Sorry. It goes back to before then, doesn’t it?”
She nodded. Jonis got the impression she’d never told anyone any of this before. “I’ve known her for years. Known all of the Seventh, really. We were stationed in the same city. They’d come back from other Provinces, lay waste to taverns and brothels across Atlas, get into brawls that we’d have to break up. That’s just who they were.”
“And Morrow’s the worst of all.”
Tayne’s smile was small, but there was something warm and beautiful about it. Jonis felt her heart melt. “I don’t know what it was…she just…I met her, and a lot of things made sense for me.”
“Did you know you preferred women before her?”
“Oh yes, of course. But I’d never felt like that for anyone before.”
“So you’ve been in love with her all along?”
Tayne’s expression turned bleak. “Yes. For years now. She went away and I’d try to just forget about her and move on, but then she’d come back, we’d end up hauling her out of some whore’s bed, still drunk from the night before and for some reason those feelings would always come back just as strong as before.”
“Why didn’t you tell her?”
“Have you seen the women she beds? She’s famous across Atlas as a…a conqueror.”
Jonis was incredulous. “You think you’re not good enough for her? Are you serious?”
“Not that exactly.” Tayne waved a hand irritably. “I’m not making sense, and you don’t care about this. It’s my problem, and we’ve got bigger things to worry about.”
“It’s fine. Morrow’s my friend. And, I don’t know, I suppose you are too now. You’re good for each other. I hope Morrow will see that. I think you should tell her how you feel. It’s no good waiting for her to realise on her own – she’s clever about some things, a little dense about others.”
“I know. I just thought…after Priam…maybe that was it…”
“It still might be.” She realised something important suddenly. “Look, Tayne, it’s not my place to say, but she went through some difficult things in Talos.”
“You mentioned that already.”
“Right. I think she’s putting on a brave front, but she needs someone to care for her right now. I don’t know if she can find that in the Seventh. Rayke loves her like a sister, Hasprit like a sort of…I don’t know…a wayward niece perhaps, and she’s close to Gena, but it’s not enough. You can help her work this out.”
“I don’t want to hurt her any more than she has been already.”
“I don’t think you will, Tayne.” She patted her knee reassuringly. “It’ll be okay. We’ll find out what we need to from this place, then we’ll go home and we’ll figure out our messed up lives.”
“That sounds like a plan.” Tayne smiled again, but this time it was broader. Tears had left wet streaks down her freckled cheeks. “I am sorry I was going to kill you though.”
Jonis stood up and held out a hand. “You weren’t ever going to really, were you? You had plenty of opportunities before that…”
“I had my orders.”
“Orders are for a world that makes sense.” Tayne finally took her hand and Jonis helped her up. “Friends?” she asked.
Tayne shook her hand. “Friends.”
“All right, so let’s…”
There was a noise from somewhere back the way they’d come. It was quiet, but distinct. The sound of dozens of howls, reverberating in a large, open space. “That sounds like it’s coming from The Circle,” Tayne said, eyes wide.
“It sounded like…like wolves.”
“No, it didn’t.”
They’d both heard howls like that before. Not wolves no, and not men either, but something standing hideously betwixt the two. Suddenly, a lot of things clicked into place for Jonis. She drew her sword. “The others will still be there.”
Tayne’s weapon was in her hand too. Her face was determined. Soldiers: all business when it counted. “Let’s go.”
They both ran back towards their camp as fast as they could, dreading what would be waiting for them.