Age of War (Part XXXV)

Jonis stared blindly into the absolute darkness that surrounded her. She might as well have had her eyes shut – here, so deep underground, beneath the awesome weight of this mountain, no natural light filtered down. Her assurance deserted her in an instant: what had possessed her to come down here like this? Why had she sent the others away? She had no rational explanation for anything that had occurred since the previous morning. It was like she’d been controlled by a will not her own. “Who are you?” she asked the black with a wavering voice.

“Don’t you recognise me, Jonis?”

“How can I recognise you when I can’t see you?” Scared as she was, the anger rose up in her too. Who was this man stalking her in this secret place? Where had he come from? Her sword was hanging from her belt. She couldn’t see her target, of course, but if she followed the voice and flailed around, it might at least do some damage. Most of all, it would make her feel like she was in control of the situation. Her hand was already moving.

“My voice, Jonis. Don’t you know my voice?” There was a soft chuckle, and she froze. She did know that sound. But from where?

“I…say something again…”

“Maybe I’m just making too much sense now.”

That’s when it slid into place. She opened her mouth in shock, for all the good it did. “Malick?!”

“Indeed.”

“But…but that’s impossible…” The ancient Keeper who’d been her only companion in her exile to this vault’s equivalent in Atlas was an invalid, his mind broken by age, a bent and weary man. There was no way he could follow them so far.

“You’ve seen many things since you arrived here, Jonis. Has your impression of what is possible and what isn’t not been expanded of late?”

It was unmistakably Malick’s voice, but now he spoke in complete sentences, and his voice rang with power and authority. Had it all been an act? If so, for what purpose? “You’re a hundred leagues away,” she told him firmly, “beneath Atlas. There’s no way you could have escaped somehow and made your way here without us noticing.”

“There is one way.”

“Are you going to tell me then?” She was certain this was some twisted game. Perhaps all of this had been set up to lure her here for some hideous purpose. Or maybe, a treacherous thought whispered, she’d never left that pit, and everything she’d experienced since coming back into the light had been a hallucination brought on by despair and madness.

“I came with you. And I never left.”

“What?”

“I am not Malick. Not truly. I am a shadow of a ghost of the man that once came to this city, long ago.”

“Came to this city? What do you mean?”

“I will tell you the story of Malick, for it is one now known to very few left alive. I was a Loneborn.”

Jonis nodded, understanding. A Loneborn might perform great service as a Keeper, and even win renown of a sort, but they would never truly master a Cyclops of their own. That required twins.

“I was content with my lot,” Malick’s voice continued, now seeming to come from all around her, “but like you I became curious about our ancestors. I noticed the same inconsistencies, and followed the same clues, though it took me rather longer, lacking as I did the kind aid your friends provided. I left, against the orders of my Matriarch, and searched long for the lost city of Omega. It took me over a year of wandering the mountains to find it.”

“But it wasn’t difficult at all…our road was almost straight…”

“It’s easy to find a path when you already know the way.” The disembodied voice sounded amused.

“What does that mean?”

He didn’t answer, but carried on with his story. “I found my way into the city, as you did, and began exploring. I saw the same strange artefacts left behind, saw similar fragmented visions, and resolved to unlock these ancient secrets. It took me many, many months, and too late I made the most important discovery of all.”

“What?” Jonis demanded, now growing impatient.

“That I could never complete this alone. Each day, I woke up with new holes in my memory, with a mind more prone to wandering. I was descending into madness. I had enough wit to see it, thank the fates, and so I resolved to leave. That took more time, for I somehow became lost in the labyrinth above us, even though I thought I knew it so well. When I finally stumbled into the daylight, there was very little of the man I had been left. I found my way back to Atlas, where I tried to explain to the Matriarch what I had found. It was too late. I was lost. Not knowing the irony, they sent me to into the deeps to live out my days in darkness, where I would be unable to spread word of a history that had been forgotten by the world.”

Jonis swallowed. A sad tale, to be sure, if any of it was true. “How is it you’re speaking to me now then?”

“This place,” Malick said heavily, “is steeped in memory. Soon, you will understand why. But know this now: as in Atlas, the effluence of a city falls into this pit, but here it is not filth and sewage, but the lives and dreams of all those who lived here for so many millennia. I joined that chaotic river of consciousness in my time here, and everything I lost still exists – I am still Keeper Malick, simply split in two. Strange, that after so long, I should get my dearest wish and become two people…”

“So…I’m speaking to Malick as you were…how long ago?”

“I came here forty years ago.”

“Right. So how do you know me? I only met the crazy Malick. No offence.”

“You carried the memory of that shell with you to Omega. When you arrived here and joined your memories with those locked in these stones, I was reborn, whole. I am Malick.”

“You were guiding me,” she guessed, “showing me the way, although I didn’t realise. And you…you sent the others away?”

“Yes.”

“Why? Because they’d have heard you?”

“Only you can hear me. No, I sent them away for their own safety. This place is dangerous. Less so for Keepers, but nonetheless…”

“I understand. Can I have some light now?” She was conscious of the looming space around her, and the skeletons that she now imagined staring at her with their empty eye sockets.

“That would not be wise.”

“Why not?”

“There is a dark power here, and I must use it to speak with you. It’s best you not see the form I have been obliged to take.”

“All right…” That hardly filled her with confidence, and she pulled her arms in a little, wrapping herself up tightly. Her legs ached and she wanted to sit down, but she remembered the jagged carpet of bones beneath her feet, so she remained standing.

“I knew I’d never completely understand the meaning of these ruins, Jonis. I don’t know if I did what I did consciously, or if it was an accident, or some still further will was guiding me, but in any case I can now pass the mantle to you. You must complete this task.”

“What task?”

“Uncovering the truth. Saving the world.”

“Oh that.”

“I must tell you what I found. The rest will be up to you.”

“Can’t you do it yourself now? You said you were whole…”

“Whole, but not as I was. When you leave, I return to the darkness. I must work through you, Jonis. You must finish this.”

“But I don’t even know what it is I have to…”

“Listen. I spent months here, translating inscriptions, piecing together the truth bit by bit. It consumed me, literally and figuratively. You won’t have to do this: you can escape before you lose yourself to Omega and its secrets. One alone cannot do this.”

Jonis took a breath. That mantra was fundamental to the ideology of the Keepers. One alone cannot be a Keeper. Loneborn were tragic figures because they couldn’t ever share in the merging of spirits needed to have mastery over a Cyclops. She and Jonin had taken it for granted they would achieve that in time, but perhaps things would be different now. “Tell me,” she said.

“I don’t know everything. So much was lost. What I do know is part supposition and guesswork. Even before coming here, I studied the oldest texts and familiarised myself with the folk mythology of Atlantis. Therein lies the secret: this great nation of ours was not always as it is now, and only fragments survived the upheaval that destroyed Omega a thousand years ago.”

“A thousand years ago?” Jonis said, unable to hide her surprise, “as recently as that?”

“Compared to the weight of centuries that Atlantis carries it doesn’t seem like much, does it? But a thousand years is two-hundred or more lifetimes. So much can be forgotten. Some of it with good cause…some that perhaps it would have been better to remember…”

She noticed that Malick still had a tendency to wander, even lucid as he was. Perhaps that was just his nature, and the madness he claimed to have suffered had just made things worse. Or maybe, being a – what was it? – a shadow of a ghost in this black hole had granted this spirit or whatever it was a new kind of insanity. “What happened a thousand years ago, Malick?” she pressed.

“The story begins much earlier than that. Ten-thousand years or more, when Atlantis was founded.”

Somehow it was a relief that that much, at least, seemed to be true. “Go on…”

“Once, this island was home to a race of Cyclopes. They were titans, towering over humans, with a single monstrous eye in their foreheads. But their horrifying appearance belied their true nature: they were wise, peaceful creatures, sages and artists. They were few in number, and preferred solitary lives. Their chieftains, the kings and queens of their race, built for themselves great mansions, hidden from the sunlight which they found uncomfortable. These palaces were each centred around a great dome, the structure of which was designed to amplify the other thing that made their race unique.”

“The black lightning,” Jonis guessed.

“Not quite. The Cyclopes possessed an innate power for which there is no adequate translation in modern Atlantian. Their word for it connotes skill, craft, wisdom, but also intrinsic strength of will. I called it, simply, ‘the Ability’. This Ability allowed a Cyclops to draw upon its physical and mental fortitude and perform miraculous acts. They could, I believe, communicate with one another over great distances, influence the minds of lesser creatures, create illusions and phantasms, share memories and many more things I don’t understand. The Ability was mediated through their singular eyes, which could perceive the energy that suffuses the world, and harness it in themselves.”

“I’m not sure I understand all that, Malick.”

“Neither am I, Jonis. Understand, it took me a long time to learn even the fragments I pass on now. It seems the Cyclopes lived in peace for a great many centuries. They were immortal, and exceptionally hardy. They used the Ability to make their lives comfortable and fashion their realm into one more suitable for themselves. Then, the first humans came. They arrived from the mainlands, perhaps in one confederation, or maybe in successive waves of different tribes. I don’t know what brought them here, but they began to settle in the lowlands, far away from the Cyclopes’ cities.”

“I know this part,” Jonis interrupted, “everyone does. The Atlantains came across the sea and fought against the Cyclopes. We took Atlantis from them ten-thousand years ago.”

“That isn’t the whole truth. I’m sure there was violence in the beginning, but the primitive humans could never have hoped to defeat the Cyclopes in battle. If peace was won, it was because our enemy had no interest in fighting us. In fact, it seems we found a common cause. You see, humans could use the Ability as well. For them, it wasn’t so easy. They lacked the physical prowess of the Cyclopes, and drawing upon their own strength caused them to age faster. They suffered physical and mental degradation, becoming lifeless husks in just a few decades. But even so, users of the Ability came to dominate the human nations of early Atlantis, passing down their talent to their children and forming mighty dynasties. The Cyclopes became the allies of these humans, and gradually our ancestors became associated with certain Cyclops cities, centring their nations upon these ancient foundations. Each city was named for its ruling Cyclops, and I think you may guess their names…”

“Atlas,” Jonis said, “Hyperion, Chronus, Hades…Omega…”

“Indeed. Thirteen in all, including Talos.”

“But Talos wasn’t founded until…” She stopped. How could she be sure of anything now? “Go on.”

“The greatest of all was this place, Omega. The people of this land were the most powerful users of the Ability because of a new technique they discovered. The human body could only wield so much power, but if there were some way to spread the damage over two bodies, lifespans could be increased accordingly. But for two to use the Ability in concert like that, they must be highly attuned to one another. In effect, one soul split between two bodies.”

“Twins,” Jonis said.

“Precisely. So began the practice of the twinned Queens of Omega, who used the Ability together, as one. As each fragmented, the other would absorb the scraps of mind and memory, until they truly were one soul, each knowing all that the other knew, each one half of a single whole. They reigned for long, bountiful centuries.”

“So what happened?”

“The Omegans were isolated, not just physically here in the mountains, but also in character. They held themselves apart from the other Atlantians and became a race unto themselves, mysterious and aloof.”

Jonis touched her own face reflexively. Cyclops Keepers resembled no other people in Atlantis. She’d heard there were others like them in some parts of the mainlands, but here their appearance was very distinctive. Strange, that all that was apparently thanks to her ancestors, these Omegans, and whatever fate they’d suffered.

“They immersed themselves in research into the Ability,” Malick continued, “becoming more and more powerful. The Cyclops King aided each generation of queens in their studies, lending his own strength. That was how this city became so suffused with memory. The power of the Ability sank into the very stonework, and the thoughts of people who had been dead a thousand years entered the dreams of the living. It must have been a strange place then.”

“It sounds it,” Jonis agreed. The idea gave her chills. Just being here for this short time had played havoc with her thoughts. What must it have been like to grow up in such an environment?

“But a darker age was to come. A little over a thousand years ago, a new discovery was made. A new way of harnessing the Ability. Since time immemorial, it was the user’s own strength – or that of their twin, for the Omegans – that fuelled it, and this is the technique the Cyclopes imparted to their human allies. But the energy exists in all things, even those without the Ability. A skilled user could wrench it free of an alien body – indeed, from the very world around them – and unleash terrible, terrible power. This technique had another name which, again, I couldn’t translate. It meant something like seize or conquer, with connotations of unearned power and shortcuts to greatness. I call it simply the Power. In many ways, the Ability and the Power were the same thing, but the use of the latter horrified the Cyclopes and most of the other human nations. Only the Cyclopes of Omega stood beside their Queens, supporting them in their efforts to understand and master the world. This was the cause of the first war Atlantis had seen in millennia, as the other cities moved to stop this abuse of forbidden and dangerous arts. While the Ability slowly killed the user, the Power killed whatever was used to fuel it, leaving the one who wielded it unharmed. It was wholly evil.”

Jonis shuddered in the darkness. She remembered the dream she’d had, with the tattooed people standing around the amphitheatre, using the Cyclops as a conduit for the black lightning they summoned. She remembered how it suffused the spectators and turned them to dust. “I saw it,” she said, “I saw them use it. They were trying to destroy the ones who opposed them, weren’t they? The other Atlantians…”

“Yes. It was a terrible war. A cataclysm. Many humans and Cyclopes died, killed by mortal weapons, or twisted into ruin by the Power. In the end, only two cities remained standing: Omega and Talos. The monarchs who survived vied for dominance across the mountains, each bending their minds to destroying the other. Finally, the Omegans performed a great ritual, unleashing a wave of darkness that utterly consumed Talos, obliterating it in one night of horror.”

She’d been there. That was the moment in her dream. The death of a civilisation. “So who destroyed Omega?” she asked. “If all their enemies were defeated…”

“They destroyed themselves. Such a surge of Power had unintended consequences. The entire world was warped by it. The warmth of life was drained away, only for a short time, but it was enough to set in motion a catastrophe of hideous proportions. All of creation was changed irrevocably, and for the first time in the memory of either race, ice began to gather.”

“What?” Jonis didn’t understand that. “Where?”

“Anywhere,” Malick said simply. “Before that time, the world was a much warmer place. There was no ice to the north, no snow even on the highest peaks. That all changed. That, Jonis, was when this age of winter began.”

Jonis sat down heavily, heedless of the bones that crunched underneath her. She was speechless. They’d caused it then. The Omegans. Her ancestors. She shook her head. “But…”

“That was not all,” Malick’s voice went on ominously, “other changes were wrought. The Power is deadly, but not only in the first instance. Like the Ability, it seeps into the land, and its rot never truly leaves. All across Atlantis, in the ruins of those ancient seats of power, it pooled and began to work changes on the survivors of the cataclysm. Over the following generations, they changed. For the humans, these mutations were subtle. A twisting of whatever nature they possessed, a slow degradation into a form that spoke to the secret bestiality of the soul.”

“The hyen-a-khan.”

“If that is what they call themselves. They were unknown in my time.”

“They’ve multiplied. But they came here from the mainlands. If what you say and what I’ve seen here is true, this is where it began.”

“There are no records of the bloody years that followed their emergence. Only scraps left by the survivors, garbled and confusing. The Queens of Omega survived, and not understanding the depths of their folly, continued to abuse the Power. Slowly, the world grew colder. The hyen-a-khan were destroyed, at great cost, and driven into the sea. But some no doubt survived, hidden in the mountains, and some rose in the mainlands too, for the dark energy still thrummed across the world, earthing itself where it would. Other strange and twisted creatures were given life too, though the texts I could recover and interpret were mercifully vague about them.”

“And what about the Cyclopes? What happened to them?”

“That,” Malick said, “is the saddest tale of all. Those who survived, the kings and queens of their race for the most part, saw the danger and resolved to repair the damage that had been wrought. Just as their eyes could focus and control the effects of the Ability and the Power, so too could they absorb its aftershocks. They set about sweeping clean Atlantis, trying to rid it of the contagion. But even they were not immune to its effects…”

Jonis felt sick. She pulled her legs up beneath her chin. “They became as they are now,” she whispered, “hideous monsters. The Power made them like that as they drew it in.”

“Yes.”

“And now,” she said, trembling, “they spew it out at our command, don’t they? That’s what the Breath of Entropy is. It’s that Power that they drank up to try to save the world, and we recklessly unleash it because we forgot what it really was. And we…we make them our slaves…” She thought of the Cyclopes in their pens, naked and chained, treated like dumb beasts. Did the noble creatures they once were still lurk within that horrid mass of tentacles? Did they know, these ancient monarchs, how they were prodded and beaten, mated with one another, examined and caged?

“What minds they had are lost,” Malick said, his voice sounding oddly kind. “I’m certain of that, from what else I discovered. The mind is destroyed before the body. The hyen-a-khan were beasts in their heart before they grew claws. The Cyclopes are not in torment, except for what is inflicted upon them by their own forms.”

Jonis shook her head. “Even so. This is…horrifying…to know what we did, what we did to ourselves, to them, to the world itself. This is all our fault, isn’t it? The ice, the dogmen, everything. We started this a thousand years ago.”

“Our ancestors. We’re innocent.”

“No,” she said, voice grim, “we’re not. We used the Cyclopes as weapons, and every time we did, we ushered our doom a step closer. We’re the cause of all this woe.” She stood up, crunching the bones of these poor creatures as she did. “And we have to fix it.”

“Jonis, what’s done cannot be undone.”

“Then at least we can stop making it worse! We have to tell people what happened here! And…” she stopped, “why was this kept secret, Malick? Who hid it from us all these years?”

“That,” he said with a sound like a sigh, though he had no breath, “was the most difficult part to discover. There was a last Queen of Omega. Her sister died in battle, and she took up her sword and ruled alone. She married the ruler of the city of Atlas, rebuilt upon the ruins of the Cyclops city. Omega was crumbling, assailed by the hyen-a-khan. In the end, it fell when she was in Atlas, the last defenders holding closed the doors against the savage descendants of their own kin. They closed the tunnels at the last, blocking the flow of air. They all died.”

“The skeletons in the passage…”

“The last Queen of Omega became the first Empress of Atlantis. Her name was Olympia, and she gave her name to the great dynasty that followed. The Omegans that survived went to Atlas and gathered together the Cyclopes, whom they tended to as lost children in what remained of their home. They alone, who carried the spark of the Ability and the Power, could withstand the warping effects of the Black Wind. Gradually, the ruins were built over, those who remembered the truth died, and none spoke of what had happened.”

“No, no that’s not enough,” Jonis said, “if you could figure out all this, so could anyone else. In a thousand years, someone must have stumbled on this too. Why are all the records truncated?”

“Atlas, in its present form, has only stood for a thousand years.”

“But these ruins are still here!” She waved her arms wildly, invisible in the darkness. “It was there to be found.”

“Only a Keeper can pass through…”

She spoke over him. “In a thousand years, no one besides us tried?” She shook her head firmly. “I don’t believe it. Something like this is too big to just be accidentally forgotten. There are histories of times before a thousand years ago, vague though they are. None of them mention anything about this.”

“Do you think I’m lying?” the disembodied voice sounded affronted.

“No. I think someone is actively working to rewrite history. I think they’ve been at it for a thousand years, editing books, hiding evidence, making sure we all forgot what happened here. We haven’t looked after the Cyclopes – we’ve used them against our enemies. How is that avoiding the mistakes of the past? We’ve only made things worse.”

“How could anyone do that? The simplest explanation is always the most likely.”

“This is the simplest, Malick. An entire nation doesn’t just forget its past. Someone erased it. Someone is keeping us ignorant.”

“For a thousand years?” He was almost scoffing.

“More than one person then. A group. A cabal.”

“A conspiracy.” The voice dripped with disdain.

“A faction…hidden somewhere in Atlantis…dedicated to preserving the status quo at all costs. Maybe…maybe they don’t even know why any more. Maybe it’s become a sort of religion to them.” She stared into the darkness. It hit her like a thunderbolt. All those wars, all that death, a thousand years of conflict between various branches of the Imperial family. A militia numbering in the hundreds of thousands, mobilised for an unending war against rebels, brigands, mainlanders. Atlantis had been unchanged for so long, and for what? Simply because it must endure. She felt treacherous even questioning the notion. This was Atlantis, the flower of humankind. But they had no real enemies: it was all one long, pointless civil war, dynasties toppling dynasties, Emperors and Empresses coming and going…not even keeping their names so you could never tell them apart… An unceasing age of war, to keep the truth hidden. And it was still going on. Saffrey was making sure of that. She turned around abruptly. “Malick, which way out? Give me some light!”

“What? Jonis, there’s so much left to discover…what I’ve told you is mostly assumptions and educated guesses. With you here, not yet afflicted by the draining of body and soul, we can find out how to stop this, how to save the world, how to turn back the ice.”

“Malick, unless I get back to Atlas and help my friends, this will all be for nothing.”

“But if you die…”

“If I die, chances are Lord Saffrey takes the throne and makes himself Emperor. And then, we’ll all die. This isn’t just about a man and his ego: this is about the fate of the whole world. Trust me.”

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