By John C
Years ago, my friend Perithoös went into the Night
Lands. His whole company had perished in their flesh, or had been
Destroyed in their souls. I am awake in the night, and I hear his
Our law is that no man can go into the Night Lands
without the Preparation, and the capsule of release; nor can any man
with bride or child to support, nor any man who is a debtor, or who
knows the secrets of the Monstruwacans; nor a man of unsound mind or
unfit character; nor any man younger than twenty-two years; and no
The last remnant of mankind endures, besieged, in our
invulnerable redoubt, a pyramid of gray metal rising seven miles high
above the volcano-lit gloom, venom-dripping ice-flows, and the cold
mud-deserts of the Night Lands. Our buried grain fields and gardenlands
delve another one hundred miles into the bedrock.
Night-Hounds, Dire Worms, and Lumbering Behemoths are
but the visible part of the hosts that afflict us; monsters more
cunning than these, such as the Things Which Peer, and Toiling Giants,
and Those Who Mock, walk abroad, and build their strange contrivances,
and burrow their tunnels. Part of the host besieging us is invisible;
part is immaterial; part is we know not what.
There are ulterior beings, forces of unknown and perhaps
unimaginable power, which our telescopes can see crouching motionless
on cold hillsides to every side of us, moving so slowly that their
positions change, if at all, only across the centuries. Silent and
terrible they wait and watch, and their eyes are ever upon us.
Through my open window I can hear the roar and murmur of
the Night Lands, or the eerie stillness that comes when one of the
Silent Ones walk abroad, gliding in silence, shrouded in gray, down
ancient highways no longer trod by any man, and the yammering monsters
cower and hush.
Before me is a brazen book of antique lore, which speaks
of nigh-forgotten times, now myth, when the pyramid was bright and
strong, and the Earth-Current flowed without interruption.
Men were braver in those days, and an expedition went
north and west, beyond the land of the abhumans, seeking another source
of the Earth-Current, fearing the time when the chasm above which our
pyramid rests might grow dark. And the book said Usire (for that was
the name of the Captain), had his men build a stronghold walled of
living metal, atop the fountain-head of this new source of current; and
they reared a lofty dome, around was set a great circle charged with
spiritual fire; and they drove a shaft into the rock.
One volume lays open before me now, the whispering
thought-patterns impregnated into its glistening pages murmuring softly
when I touch the letters. In youth, I found this book written in a
language dead to everyone but me. It was this book that persuaded the
lovely Hellenore (in violation of all law and wisdom) to sneak from the
safety of the pyramid into the horror-haunted outer lands.
Perithoös had no choice but to follow. This very
book I read slew my boyhood friend-if indeed he is dead.
Through the casement above me, the cold air blows. Some
fume not entirely blocked by the Air-Clog that surrounds our pyramid
stings my nose. Softly, I can hear murmurs and screams as a rout of
monsters passes along a line of dark hills and crumbling ruins in the
West, following the paths of lava-flows that issue from a dimly-shining
tumble of burning mountains.
More softly, I can hear a voice that seems human,
begging to be let in. It is not the kind of voice that one hears with
the ear. I am not the only thing awake in the night.
Scholars who read of the most ancient records say the
world was not always as it is now. They say it was not always night,
then; but what it may have been if it were not unending night, the
records do not make clear.
Certain dreamers-once or twice a generation, we are
born, the great dreamers whose dreams reach beyond the walls of
time-tell of aeons older than the scholars tell. The dreamers say there
was once a vapor overhead, from which pure water fell, and there was no
master of the pump-house to ration it; they say the air was not an inky
darkness whence fell voices cry.
In those days, there was in heaven, a brightness like
unto a greater and a lesser lamp, and when the greater lamp was hooded,
then the upper air was filled with diamonds that twinkled.
Other sources say that the inhabitants of heaven were
not diamonds at all, but balls of gas, immeasurably distant, but
visible through the transparent air. Still others say they were not
gas, but fire. Somehow, despite all these contradictory reports, I have
always believed in the days of light.
No proofs can be shown for these strange glimpses of
times agone, but, when great dreamers sleep, the instruments of the
Monstruwacans do not register the energies that are believed to
accompany malign influence from beyond our walls. If it is madness to
have faith in what the ancients knew, it is a madness natural to human
kind, not a Sending meant to deceive us.
As I nodded, half-awake, softly there came what seemed
to be the voice of Perithoös into my sad and idle thoughts. I was
called by my name.
"Telemachos, Telemachos! Undo for me the door as once
I did for you; return the good deed you said you would. If vows are
nothing, what is anything?"
I did not move or raise my head, but my brain elements
sent this message softly out into the night, even though my lips did
not move. "Perithoös, closer than a brother, I wept when I heard
your company was overwhelmed by the monsters. What became of the maiden
you set out to rescue?"
"Maiden no more I found her. Dead, dead, horribly
dead, and by my hand. Herself and her child; and I had not the courage
to join them."
"How are you alive after all these years?"
"I cannot make the door to open."
"Call to the gate-warden, Perithoös, and he will
lower a speaking tube from a Meurtriere and you may whisper the
Master-Word into it, and so prove your human soul has not been
destroyed, and I will be the first to welcome you."
The Master-Word did not come. Instead, mere words, such
as any fell creature of the night could impersonate, now whispered in
my brain: "Telemachos, son of Amphion! I am still human, I still
remember life, but I cannot say the Master-Word."
"You lie. That cannot be."
And yet a felt a tear stinging in my eye, and I knew,
somehow, that this voice did not lie: he was still human. But how could
he forget the Word?
"Though it has never been before, in the name of the
blood we shed together as boys, the gruel in which we bound our silly
oath, I call on you to believe and know that a new sorrow has appeared
in this old, sad world, like fresh blood from an old scar; it is
possible to forget what it means to be a man, and yet remain one. I
have lost the Master-Word; I have my very self. Let me through the
door. I am so cold."
I did no longer answer him, but stirred my heavy limbs.
Though my hands and feet felt like lead, I moved and
trembled and slid from my desk where I slumbered, and fell to the floor
heavily enough to jar myself awake.
How long I lay I do not know. My memory is dark, and
perhaps time was not for me then flowing as it should have been. I
remember being cold, but not having the strength to rise and shut the
window; and this was an old part of the library, so there were no
thought-switches I could close just by wishing them closed.
My thoughts drifted with the cold wind from the window.
This wing of the library had been deserted for half a
million of years. No one came into this wing, since no one could read
the language, or understand the thoughts, of the long-forgotten peoples
who had sent Usire out to found a new stronghold. Only I knew the real
name of those ancient folk; modern antiquarians called them the
Orichalcum people, because they were the only ones who the secret of
that metal; and no other trace of them survived.
And so the Air Masters, during the last two hundred
years of power-outages, had lowered the ventilation budget in this wing
to a minimum. I had needed vasculum of breathing-leaf just to get in
here, and would have fainted with the window shut.
Nor were failures of the ventilations rare. Most windows
of most of the middle-level cities stood open, these days, no matter
what the wise traditions of elder times required.
It was two miles above the Night Land. No monster could
cross the White Circle, and nothing has climbed so high since the
Incursions of four hundred thousand years ago; and even if they did,
this window was too small to admit them.
I remembered wings. In my dreams I see doves, or the
machines used by ancient men to impersonate them. But the air is thin,
and even the dark and famished things have no wings to mount so high.
I thought there was no danger to have the window open.
Stinging insects, vapors, or particles would be surely stopped by the
Air Clog. But what if the power losses over the last few centuries were
greater than is publicly admitted by the Aediles or the Castellan? But
it had not stopped the Mind-Call, as it should have done.
Many Foretellers have dreamt that it is five million
years before the final extinction of mankind. Most of the visions agree
on certain basic elements, though much is in dispute. Five million
years. We are supposed to have that long. I wondered, not for the first
time, if those who say that they can see the shape of fate are wrong.
I came awake when there was a movement, a clang, behind
me as the hatch swung open. Here was a Master of the Watch, clad from
head to toe in full armor, and carrying in hand that terrible weapon
called the Diskos.
I knew better than to wonder why a Watchman was here. He
came into the chamber, his blade extending before him as he stepped,
and his eyes never left me. The shaft was extended. The blade was lit
and spinning. The furious noise of the weapon filled the room.
Flickering shadows fled up and down the walls and bookshelves as eerie
sparks snapped, and I felt the hair on my head, the little hairs on my
naked arms, stir and stand up. I smelled ozone.
Without rising, I raised my hands. "I am a man! I am
His voice was very deep, a rumble of gravel. "They all
say that, those that talk."
Slowly, loudly, clearly, I said the master-word, both
aloud with reverent lips, and by sending it with my brain-elements.
It seemed so dark in the chamber when he doused his
blade, but his smile of relief was bright.
My youth had been a solitary one. To hold one’s
ancestors in honor, and to love the lore of half-forgotten things, has
never been in fashion among school-boys. The pride of young men
requires that they seem wise, despite their inexperience, and the only
way to appear all-knowing without going to the tedium of acquiring
knowledge, is to hold all knowledge in weary-seeming contempt. Students
and apprentices (and, yes, teachers also) bestowed on me their
well-practiced sneers; but when my dreams began, and ghosts of other
lives came softly into my brain as I slept, then I was marked as a
pariah, and was made the butt of every prank and cruelty boyish
imagination could invent.
Perithoös was as popular as I was unpopular. He was
an alarming boy to have as a schoolmate, for he had the gift of the
Night-Hearing, and he could hear unspoken thoughts. All secrets were
open to him; he knew passwords to open locked doors and cabinets, and
could avoid orderlies after lights-out. He knew the answers to tests
before the schoolmasters gave them, and the plays of the opposing team
on the tourney field. He was good at everything, feared nothing, and
anarchy and confusion spread from his wake. What was there for a
schoolboy not to love?
Once, when the Head Boy and his gang had me locked in
the cable-wheel closet, so that I would be absent from the feast-day
assembly and gift-giving, Perithoös left the assembly (a thing
forbidden by the headmaster’s rules), took a practice blade from the
arm’s-locker and spun the charged blade against the closet door hinges,
shattering the panel with a blast of noise.
Not just school proctors, but civic rectors and men of
the Corridor Guard arrived. To use one of the Great Weapons while
inside the pyramid was a grave offense; and neither one of us would
admit who did it, even though they surely knew.
We both were scourged by the headmaster and given
triple-duty, and had porridge for our holiday feast, while the other
boys dined on viands and candied peaches.
Perithoös and I ate alone in the staff commissary,
our shirts off (so that our backs would heal) and shivering the cold of
the unheated room. We were not allowed to speak, but I tipped my bowl
onto the board and wrote in the porridge letters from the set-speech: shed
blood makes us brothers-I shall return this deed.
Even at that age, he was taller than the other lads,
broad of shoulder and quick of eye and hand, the victor of every sport
and contest, the darling of those who wagered on gymnastics games. He
was as well-liked as I was ill-liked. So I expected to see doubt, or,
worse, a look of patronizing kindness in his eye.
But he merely nodded, wiped away the porridge-stain with
his hand quickly, so that the proctor would not see the message. Under
the table, with perfect seriousness, he clasped my hand with his, and
we shook on it. Porridge dripped through our fingers, but, nonetheless,
that handclasp was sacred, and he and I were friends.
At that time, neither one of us knew Hellenore of High
I had been found in the library by proctors of the
Watch, whose instruments had detected the aetheric disturbance sent by
the voice in the Night.
The Monstruwacans kept me for a time as a guest in their
tower, and I drank their potions, and held the sensitive grips of their
machines, while they muttered in their white beards and looked
doubtful. More than once I slept beneath their oneirometers, or was
examined inch by inch by a physician’s glass.
I told them many times of my mind-speech with
Perithoös, and they did not look pleased; but the physician’s
glass said my soul was without taint, and my nervous system seemed
sound, and besides, both the Archivist (the head of my guild) and the
Master of Architects (the head of my father’s) sent letters urging my
release, or else demanding that an inquest be convened at once.
I spent the remainder of my convalescence in
Darklairstead, my father’s mansions on level Fourscore-and-Five. Ever
since, a generation ago, the power failed along this stretch of
corridor (half the country receiving from the sub-station at
Bountigrace is dark) it has been a quiet and restful place.
Among my very earliest memories was one dream, repeated
so many times in my childhood that I filled a whole diary with scrawled
word and clumsy sketches trying to capture what I saw.
When I was seven years, my mother died, and her shining
coffin was lowered into the silvery rays of the Great Chasm. My father
became strange and cold. He sent my brother Arion to prentice with the
Structural Stress Masters. Tmelos (who is younger than I) was sent to
the quarters of my Aunt Elegia, in Forecourtshire, for her to raise;
Patricia took holy orders, and Phthia stayed with Father to run the
house and rule the servants. Me, I was sent to board at a school in
Longnorthhall of Floor 601, where the landing of the Boreal Stair
reaches for many shining marble acres under lamps of the elder days,
and potted Redwoods grow. When I left home for school, the dream left
As I recovered at my father’s manse, the dream came once
again, and it no longer frightened me, for nothing that reminds one of
childhood, even ill things, can be utterly without a certain charm.
It was a dream of doors.
I saw tall doors made of a substance that gleamed like
bronze and red gold (which I later found to be a metal called Orichalcum,
an alloy made by a secret only the ancients knew). The doors were
carven with many strange scenes of things that had been and things that
In the dream I would be terrified that they would open.
Father and I would dine alone, without servants. The
dining chamber is a pillared hall, wide and gloomy. Out of the hatch
window, I would often see, across the air shaft from me, little candles
dancing in the hatches of some of my neighbors. Once, candles had been
used only for the most solemn ceremonies, back when the ancient rules
against open flames in the pyramid had been enforced: the sight of
candles used as candles always saddened me.
Some nights there was a hint of music from some city far
overhead, echoing down the shaft, and, once, the hiss of a bat-winged
machine carrying a Currier-boy (only boys are small enough) down the
airshaft on some business of the Life Support House, or perhaps the
Castellan, too urgent to wait for the lifts.
Our table was made from a tree felled down in the
underground country, by a craftsman whose art is the cutting and
jointing of living material, an art called Carpentry. Such is Father’s
prestige he can have such things brought up the lifts for him, but he
has never moved the family to better quarters.
My father is a big, tall man, with fierce, penetrating
eyes in an otherwise very mild face. He shaves his chin, but has a
moustache that bristles, and this gives his penetrating eyes a strange
and savage look.
I have dreamed of other lives, and once, in a
prehistoric world, a dusky savage who was me, strong and lean of limb,
and braver than I ever hoped to me, died beneath the claws of a tiger.
The great cat was more bright of hue than anything in our world is,
shining orange and black as it slunk through dripping jungles beneath a
sun as hot as the muzzle of a culverin. I wonder what became of that
species, that lived on some continent long since swallowed by the seas,
before the seas dried up, before the sun died. I have always though
that extinct beast looked something like my father.
His bald head was growing back in new hair, as sometimes
happens to men of his order, for men who work near the Earth-Current,
their vitality was greater than normal.
After dinner, we brought out carafes of water and wine,
which glistened in the candle-light, and mixed them in our bowls. I am
sparing with the wine and he is sparing of the water I; but he is sober
even when he drinks deep, and shows no levity nor thickwittedness.
Perhaps exposure to the Earth-Current helps here too.
He sat with his bowl in his hand, staring out the
air-shaft. .He spoke without turning his head. "You know the tale of
Andros and Naäni. You were raised on it. I am sure I hate it as
much as you adore it."
I said, "Andrew Eddins of Kent, and Christina Lynn
Mirdath the Beautiful. The tale shows that, even in a world as dark as
ours, there is light."
Father shook his head. "False light. Will-o’-Wisp light!
I do not blame the hero for his deeds. They were great, and he was a
mighty man, high-hearted and without vice. But the hope he brought
served us ill. Perithoös was no Andros, go into the Night. And
that high-born girl who toyed with your affections; Hellenore. She was
no Mirdath the Beautiful. Hellenore the Vain, I should call her."
"Please speak no ill of the dead, father. They cannot
He raised his bowl with a graceful gesture and took a
silent sip, and paused to admire the taste. "Hm. Neither can they hear
me, and so they will not flinch. She is not the first of the dead who
have served the living poorly. He did us ill, whichever forefather
first thought it would be wise to leave us tales and songs that tell
young boys to go be brave and die, or to perish for a gesture."
I said, "Keeping a promise counts for more than mere
"Does keeping a promise count more than preserving flesh
I said, "Those who study such matters say that souls are
born again in later ages, even if the conscious memories are lost;
poets claim that oath-breakers are reborn into lives accursed with
turmoil and bitter anguish. If so, then each man in his present life
must take care to die spotlessly, his soul still pure."
Father smiled bitterly. He did not read poets. "What
point is the punishment, if, in his next life, each criminal has
forgotten what crime he did?"
I said, "So that even men who are stoical and hard in
this life will fear to break their word; for, in their next, they will
be young and green again; and suffering that comes unannounced, for
reasons that seem reasonless, are surely the hardest pains of all to
"A pretty tale. Must you die for an idle fiction?"
"Sir, it is not a fiction."
He said: "Must you die, fiction or not?"
"I had no other friend in my school days."
"Perithoös was no true friend!"
"And yet I gave my word to him, friend or not. Now I am
called to fulfill it."
"Who calls? There are Powers in the dark who can mock
our voices and our thoughts, and deceive even the wisest of us. Only
the Master-Word is one the Horrors cannot utter, for it represents a
concept that they cannot understand, an essence that does not dwell in
them. If what called to you did not call out the Master-Word, you know
our law commands you not to heed it."
I answered: "Despite the law, despite all wisdom,
still, a hope possesses me that he is alive, and undestroyed, somehow."
He said grimly: "A true man would not call out to you."
I did not know if he meant that a man of honor would
die before he let himself be used to lure a friend out into the
darkness; or if he meant that what called out to me had not been human
at all. Perhaps both.
I said: "What sort of man would I be, if it truly were
Perithoös calling, and I did not answer?"
He said: "It is your death calling."
And I had no answer back for that. I knew it was so.
After a space of silence, eventually he spoke again:
"Do you see any cause for hope you say has taken possession of you?"
"I see no cause."
"But hope fills me up, father, nonetheless, and it
burns in my heart like a lamp, and makes my limbs light. There are many
ugly things we do not see in this dark land that surrounds us, father,
horrors unseen. And there are said to be good powers as well, whose
strange benevolence works wonders, though never in a way humans can
know. And they also are not seen, or only rarely. There are many
things, which, although unseen, are real. More real than the
imperishable metal of our pyramid, more potent that the living power of
the Earth-Current. More real than fire. So, I admit, I see no cause for
hope. And yet it fills me."
He was silent for a while, and sipped his wine. He is a
rational man, who solved problems by means of square and chisel, stone
and steel, measured currents of energy, knowing the strengths of
structures and what load each support can bear. I knew my words meant
little to him.
He reached his hand and doused the lantern, so that I
could not see the pain in his face. He voice hovered in the dark, and
he tried to make his words cold: "I will not forbid you to venture into
the Night Lands…"
"Thank you, Father."
"…. Since I have other sons to carry on my name."
Visions, pulmenoscopy, and extra-temporal
manifestations are not unknown to the people of the Last Redoubt. The
greatest among us are known to have the Gift; and at least one of the
Lesser Redoubt also was endowed with the Night-Hearing, and
Mirdath the Beautiful is the only woman known to have crossed the Night
Lands, and her nine scrolls of the histories and customs of the Lesser
Redoubt are the only record of any kind we have for the history,
literature, folkways and sciences of that long-lost race of mankind.
All the mathematical theories of Galois we know only from her memory;
the plays of Euryphaean, and the music of an instrument called a
pianoforte, infinite resistance coil and the sanity glass, and all the
inventions that sprang from them, are due to her recollection. Her
people were a frugal folk, and the energy-saving circuits they used,
the methods of storing battery power, were known to them a million
years ago, and greatly conserved our wealth. Much of what she knew of
farming and crops we could not use, for the livestock and seed of our
buried fields were strange to her. She knew more of the lost aeons than
even Andros, and was able to tell tales from the time of the Cities
Ever Moving West, of the Painted Bird, and of the Gardens of the Moon;
she knew something of the Failures of the Star-Farers, and of the
Sundering of the Earth. More, she also had the gift of the Foretelling,
for some of the dreams she had were not of the past, but of the future,
and she wrote of the things to come, the Darkening, the False Reprieve,
the disaster of the Diaspora into the Land of Water and Fire, the
collapse of the Gate beneath the paw of the South Watching Thing, the
years of misery and the death of man, beyond which is a time from which
no dreams return, although there is said to be a screaming in the
aether, dimly heard through the doors of time, the time-echo of some
event after the destruction of all human life. All these things are set
out in the Great Book, and for this reason Mirdath is also called The
Predictress. Mirdath and Andros had fifty sons and daughters, and all
the folk of High Aerie claim descent from them, some truly, and some
not. Hellenore of High Aerie was one of those who made that claim
When I was a young man, a time came when my future had
disturbed those whose business it is to seek foreknowledge from dreams,
and I was summoned to an audience.
For many generations the Foretelling art had fallen in
disrepute, and charlatans rose to deceive the common people; but then a
girl of the blood of Mirdath was born whose gift was proven by many sad
events, the Library of Ages-Yet-To-Be was reopened. The Sibylline Book
had more treatises of prophecy added to it, and eschatologists compared
dream-journals and revised their estimates. Even I had heard of her:
the hour-slips said she was sure to be the next Sibyl.
I don’t recall the date. It must have been soon after
my Initiation, for I wore my virile robe, and my hair was cropped short
as befits a man. The blade that was ever after to be partnered with my
life, I had hung over the narrow door to my cell in the journeyman’s
room of the Librarian’s Guild-house, as only those beyond their
fourteenth year are permitted. I remember that the squire to come fetch
me called me ‘Sir’ instead of ‘Lad’, even though he (to my young eyes)
seemed incredibly old.
I remember the Earth-Current was running strong that
year. It was my first time at the Great Lift Station for my floor.
Invisible forces lifted the platform in a great surge of wind off the
deck. Maidens clutched their bonnets and squealed, and many a young
gallant (for a strong flow of the Earth Current makes lads more bold
and amorous) took the opportunity to put an arm around fair shoulders
to steady a maiden making her first voyage away from her level. Some of
the more daring boys learned over the rail, and waved their caps at the
rapidly dwindling squares and rooftops of the city, before, like an
iron sky, the underside of the next deck upwards swallowed the lift
platform. I rode the axial express all the way to the utmost level. I
remember I had to drink a potion made by the apothecary, because of the
thinness of the air.
Fate House that sits atop the highest stories of the
highest city; the hanging gardens of High Aerie sit between the shining
skylights of West Cupola and the pleasances and airy walks of Minor
Penthouse. There are floral gardens here, under glass, as well as pools
and lakes amid the rooftop-fields of the long-empty aerodromes built by
The domes of Fate House are dusky blue, inscribed with
gold, and, above the roof-tiles, many a monument of ancient hero or
winged genius of the household stood on slender pillars among the
minarets. All within was a somber and august as a fane.
Here was Hellenore daughter of Eris. I see again the
sheen of her satiny dress, as she sat beneath the rose lamp on a
Lector’s chair too large for her delicate frame. How like a swan’s, her
neck, all her mass of ink-black hair was gathered up and held in place
with amethyst pins, jewel-drops like the stars the ancients knew,
within the clear darkness of their temporary nights. I recall the
delicate small hairs, wanton and wild, that had strayed from the
strictness of her coiffure, and kissed the nape of her neck.
None of our pyramid has eyes like that, hair like that,
save those descended from the strange blood of Mirdath the Beautiful.
And none but me remembered the grace of the swan, and so none but me
could see it in her.
Her voice was soft music, each word careful and light,
like a brushstroke of calligraphy laid in the air. With what delicate
tones she spoke of the grim horrors in the night, the grim future she
foresaw nightly in her dreams!
We spoke for a time, of the horrors of the Deception
two million years hence (slightly less than half way between now and
the Extinction), when colonies of man leaving the Great Pyramid would
go to dwell in what seemed a fair country to the West, even as certain
legends said, not knowing that the House of Silence had already cursed
and undermined the whole of that land, and merely held their influence
at bay for millennia, waiting for the memory of these prophecies of
Hellenore to be forgotten. Whole cities, pyramids and domes as great as
ours, would be swallowed and cracked open, and multitudes would die,
one entire branch of the human family wiped out; the survivors to be
changed into something not human.
Then we spoke of my fate.
"My visions revealed hundreds shall die because of some
ill-considered act you set in motion; first one, then many more, will
go pelting out into the darkened world to perish amid the ice, or be
ripped to bloody rags by Night Hounds, to be sucked clean of their
souls and left as husks, grinning mouths and eyes as dry as stones.
Heed me! I see many prints of boots across the icy dust of the Night
Land, leading outward from our gates; I see but one set coming in."
I asked: "Must these things come to pass?"
"No human power can alter what must be."
"And powers more than human?"
She said softly: "We foreseers behold the structure of
time; there are creatures not quite wholly inside of time, powers of
the Night Land, whose malice we cannot foretell, since they are above
and alien to the rules of time and space that bind all mortal life;
there are said to be good powers, too."
"A riddle! Man’s fate can be changed, but men cannot
change fate." I asked.
Her full lips toyed with a smile, but she did not allow
the smile to appear. "We are but drops in a river, young man," she
said, "No matter what one drop might wish or do, the river course is
set, and all waters glide to the ocean."
These words electrified me. "Ah!" I said, forgetting my
manners, jumping up and taking her hand. "Then you have seen them too!
Rivers and oceans! In visions, I have seen and heard the waters
flowing, ebbing, pulled by tides, crashing by the shore. There is no
sound alike it in the world, now."
She was startled and displeased, and favored me with a
look of ice as she drew her fair and slender hand from mine. "Strange
boy-what is your name again?-I spoke a line from old poetry. My people
in the high-most towers are learned in such lore, and know old words
like river and sea; but no one has seen them, except in
the decorations of volumes none can read."
I did not say that there was one who could read what
others had forgotten. I spoke stiffly, "My apologies, high born one.
Your comment thrilled my heart, for I had thought you meant to say that
we would do great deeds in times to come, to defy that ocean that must
swallow of human lore and history, so that the watercourse down which
the current takes us might be ripped free of its bed, and set to a new
"Strange boy! What strange things you say!" She
recoiled, one slim hand on her soft bosom, her lovely long-lashed eyes
looking at me askance. Even in surprise, even when showing disdain, how
elegant her every gesture!
"There was a time when all men spoke thus, and did
deeds to match."
"Only men?" But she was not looking at me. Her eyes
were turned sideways, and she stared at some spot on the walls of her
family’s presence chamber. There were many busts, portraits, and
engraved tablets along the walls-I don’t know which ancestor her gaze
was resting on. In hindsight, it surely was Mirdath.
I said, "Can you tell me what this ill-considered act
Her eyes were elsewhere; she spoke airily, unheeding:
"Oh, some chance remark spoken to some girl you fall in love with."
My voice was hollow, and my stomach was empty. "What?
Must I vow to be silent, to speak never more to any woman?" It took me
a moment to rally my courage. I drew a breath, and spoke. "If that is
my doom, I will learn to welcome it. If I must, I will take the vow,
and go to some monastery in the buried basements, forbidden to woman,
that I might never meet my love."
Her glittering eyes returned to me, and now a girlish
mischief was in them. She said archly: "You will defy the structures of
time and destiny, and rip up the pillars of the laws of nature, but you
will meekly foreswear love and speech, merely because you are ordered
to it? Backward boy! You would challenge what we cannot change, but
would submit to what we can!"
That made me smile. "Perithoös says the same thing
of me. Always looking backwards! We were walking at the Embrasures, and
he joked once that-"
Hellenore sat upright, eyes shining. She said, "You
know Perithoös, the athlete? What hour does he stroll upon the
balcony, what level, where?"
A glow of joy lived in her face; and then she blushed
and my heart ached with pleasure to see her cheek glow; but the thought
of meeting Perithoös was such that she could not put away her
smile, so she lifted her slender hand to hide it. If you have seen
young maidens in the grip of first love, you know the sight; if not, my
poor pen cannot mark it.
I told her I would arrange a meeting, and the smile
came out again.
Beautiful, was that smile; though not for me.
And yet so lovely!
They met, at first, with chaperones.
At first. One of them could see the future and the
other could see thoughts; both were bold, nobly born, and love-drunk.
How was a duenna to keep them under watch?
They died swiftly, those who died, when the three
hundred suitors set out to rescue Hellenore.
The company had been divided into three columns of one
hundred men each. Before five-and-twenty hours of march, the rearguard
column had driven off a host of troll-things from the ice hills, and
stopped to rest and tend their wounds. From the balconies, and from the
viewing tables, we watched them made a camp. It was hard to see, for it
was well camouflaged; the tents and palisade were mere shadows among
shadows, even under the most powerful magnification; and the sentries
at the picket moved without making noise, warily.
But then they did not stir again. Either a sending from
the House of Silence, or an invisible fume leaking from the ground,
made the sleepers not to wake. Long-range telescopes glimpsed the
survivors, perhaps the sentries who did not lay down, trying to carry
one or two men to higher ground. The rest were left behind. A pallid
slug a thousand feet long oozed into view near the last known position
of those men; the Monstruwacan instruments recorded tiny Earth-Current
discharges at about that same time, so it was thought that the
survivors swung their weapons once or twice before they died.
At about seventy hours, the main column was beset by
the Great Gray Hag, mate of the monster slain by Andros, and her fleshy
fingers pushed men into the sagging hole that formed her maw, armor and
all. The column was routed, and fled into the Deathly Shining Lands to
escape her. They did not emerge. The Shine is opaque, and nothing has
been seen again of those men. The scouts accompanying the main column
were eaten by Night Hounds, one by one.
The vanguard column lasted until the end of the second
week, when the Bell of Darkness descended from the cloud, and tolled
its dire toll. Only seven out of those hundred had the presence of
mind, or strength of will, to bare their forearms and bite down on the
Capsule of Release. Those whose nerve failed them, and who did not slay
themselves in time, were drawn silently up into the air, their eyes all
empty, and strange little vulgar grins upon their lips, and their
bodies floated upward into the mouth of the Bell.
We all watched from the balconies. I heard from
underfoot, like an ocean, the sound of mothers and wives weeping, men
shouting, children crying, and the noise was like the oceans of the
ancient world, but all of grief.
The shattering noise of the Home-call echoing from the
upper cities interrupted, ordering all the millions to shut their
windows; and lesser horns were sounded on the balconies to pass the
warning to the lower cities. The watchmen ordered the Blinds raised up
on their great pistons to block the windows and embrasures of every
city and hamlet dug into the northeastern side of the pyramid; and the
towers and dormer windows lowered their armor.
I remember hearing, before the Blinds closed over us,
the whispering murmur of the air-clog, straining under double power,
raising an unseen curtain to deflect the malice of the tolling bell,
lest the sound of it drive mad the multitudes.
Perithoös had been in the vanguard. The
Monstruwacans studied blurry prints made from long-range telescopes,
and tried to confirm each death, what little comfort that might have
been to the grieving families. Not every corpse was accounted-for.
My cousin Thaïs came to see me while I was
undergoing Preparation. She is pretty and curt, with a sly sense of
humor and a good head for chess and math. Thaïs did not, aloud,
try to argue me out of my venture, but she showed me her calculation:
The expected average lifespan of men who went forth to save Hellenore
worked out to an hour, twelve minutes.
By traditions so ancient that no record now recalls a
time when they were not, those who venture into the Night Land do not
carry lamps. It is too well known, too long confirmed by experience,
that a traveler cannot resist the temptation to light such lamps, when
the darkness has starved his eyes for too many fortnights.
And so it is thought, that since the weapons we carry
give off light when they are spun, that those who walk in the Night
will have light when and only when it is needful: that is, namely, when
one of the monstrosities is no further off from us than a yard or two;
for then we must strike, we must see to make the stroke.
Our craftsman could make lamps to burn a million years
or more. We will not carry them into the Dark. A man who will not trust
his soul to warn him of unseen dangers coming silently upon him, is the
only kind who needs a lantern in the Night. But would such a man, too
unsure to trust his soul, be man enough to beat back all the horrors
his lantern would attract?
We carry also a dial of the type that can be read by
touch, for to lose track of hours, and proper times for rest and sup,
is to court madness.
There is a scrip for toting the tablets, made of
solidified vital nutrients, which is the traveler’s sole food-for there
is nothing wholesome in the Night Lands to eat, and more solid food,
even a bite from an apple might bring too much belly-cheer, and relax
the discipline of the Preparation.
Likewise, water is condensed out of the atmosphere in a
special cup by a powder made by the Chemist’s guild. The new-water is
pure and clear, but bitterly cold, and the cup has that virtue that
anything placed in it is cleansed of venom or morbific animacules. Some
travelers hold the cup over mouth and nose when treading lands were the
air is bad.
The mantle is woven of a fiber that, though it is not
alive, is wise enough to shed heat more or less as the deadliness of
the chill grows more or less, depending on the amount heat escaping
from the ground.
The armor is so stern, and made so cunningly, that even
monsters many times the strength of a man cannot dint it, and the
joints are fitted at a level to fine for the eye to see. A blessing in
the metal, an energy not unlike what throbs so purely in the fires of
the White Circle, is impregnated into the helm and breastplate, to help
slow those particular influences that attack the brain and freeze the
Arms, armor, mantle, are made by craft a million years
has perfected; and they are fair to the eye, but grim and without
ornament, as befits the sobriety of the undertaking.
At last the torment of the Preparation Chambers ended. I
was oddly clear-headed after the fasting and the injections, and I had
endured the test of being forced to view that which still lives,
pinning to a slab and sobbing, within the refrigerated cell at the
center of the secret museum of the Monstruwacans. I had read the
bestiaries of former travelers returned sane from outer voyaging, and
learnt what they said of the ways and habits of the night-beasts; and I
understood why such journals are not shown to any save those whose
quest carries them outside our walls.
The Capsule of Release still ached within the tender
flesh of my fore-arm; and the hour of parting was come.
The lamps of the Final Stair were darkened. The
watchmen, armed with living blades and armored in imperishable gray
metal, stood for a time in silence, composing their thoughts, so that
no disturbance in the aether, no stray gleam of thought or metal or
sudden noise, would tell the waiting horrors of the night lands that a
child of man had strayed among their cold hills.
I stood with my face pressed to the periscope for many
minutes, and the escort with me showed no impatience, for they knew it
was my life I staked at hazard on my judgment of the ground.
At last I raised my hand.
The Master of the Gatehouse saluted me with his dark
Diskos, and the door-tender closed the switch that sent power to the
valves. The metals leaves of the inner gate swung shut behind me, and
then the outer leaves swung open, very swiftly and silently.
Out I stepped. The ashy soil crunched beneath my boot.
The air was as chill as death. The outer valve was already shut behind
me, and two layers of armor heavily closed back over it, locking
pistons clicking shut almost without noise. If a monster were now to
lunge across the Circle from the all-surrounding darkness now, or a
Presence to manifest itself, the door wardens were obliged to do
nothing but guard the door. I was already beyond rescue.
None within would come out for me, as I was now going
out for Perithoös, and he had gone out for his fair Hellenore.
Prudent men, they all.
A few minutes walk-no more than half a mile-I crossed
the place where a hollow tube of transparent metal, charged with holy
white energies, makes a circle around the vast base of the pyramid. It
is held to be one of the greatest artifacts of ancient times, the one
thing that keeps all the malefic pressures, the eerie calls and
poisonous clouds and groping fingers of subtle force at bay. The hollow
tube is two inches in diameter, hardly higher than my boot-top. It only
took a single step to cross it, but I must clear my mind of all
distempered thought before the unseen curtain would part for me. My
ears popped with the change in pressure.
It is customary not to look back when one steps across
the line of light. I was inclined to follow the custom.
My father had not been present to see me off.
© John C
Wright 19 Jan 2003
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