David stepped over the threshold and into the fabled Cordis Cana at the centre of the labyrinth. All was silent and still. A hard blueish light filled the room, illuminating every pore and crevice of the rough marble walls. Several other rooms radiated from this first cave, all brightly lit, though there was no sign of the light source. The strong illumination seemed simply to exist – light trapped forever, with nowhere to dissipate to. The rooms were devoid of furniture. David took a couple of tentative steps into the room and let go of the door. It swung shut with a muted but decisive click. There was no handle on the inside.
‘Hello?’ he called softly. The air was perfectly still and utterly silent. He tried to look into the other chambers, but could see nothing but more rough walls. He was about to call out again when a thin dry voice came from a room to his right.
‘David. Is that you?’
Startled for a moment, he stood frozen.
Again the voice spoke.
‘Come in. I have been expecting you.’
Gathering his courage, he walked stiffly towards the room the voice had come from.
‘Who’s there?’ he said. There was no reply. He stopped in the doorway of the chamber. In the corner stood a low platform made from rough-sawn timber. There was no other furniture.
‘Come closer, David.’ A barely audible voice came from beneath a white sheet covering the platform.
‘How do you know my name?’ David saiad.
‘I have been waiting for you. Many years, knowing one day you would return.’
‘Me? I’ve not been here before.’
‘You have, David. Uncover me.’
David approached the platform and gently pulled back the sheet. The man who lay beneath it did not see David’s look of horror, as he lay with his eyes closed.
‘Who are you?’ David managed to ask, his throat tight, his body rigid with fear.
No immediate reply came.
He had only uncovered the head and shoulders of the man’s body, but even in this world of horrors, what he saw repulsed him more than anything he had yet faced. Grey papery skin was stretched over the bones in the man’s upper arms and skull; his lips were drawn back and his neck was a twig-thin, gnarled map of atrophied muscle and sinew. His cheek bones stood high on his face, and when he opened his mouth to draw a rasping breath, David could see his gums had receded so far the roots of his full set of teeth stood out from the jaw bones. Long thin strands of grey hair hung limply from the flaking scalp. The man was a living mummy.
‘I am Tithonus,’ the figure said. He opened his eyes, and turned the milky white globes in David’s direction. ‘Will you help me up?’
David leaned over the prone figure and took hold of his upper arms. The frail body weighed almost nothing. Tithonus made no attempt to help as David slid him up the bed and leaned him against the stone wall.
‘Eutrycia told me I must see you before I leave,’ David said, retreating a couple of steps from the bed.
‘Of course she did.’ Tithonus closed his lifeless eyes. ‘Unlike me, she can move about in the upper world, so you knew she would be able to find you.’
‘What do you mean? I’ve never seen her before. I didn’t know she’d find me.’
‘But you knew her, didn’t you?’
‘Yes, I knew her name, but I don’t know who she is.’
‘Eutrycia is one of the Thrones, from the first circle of angels. She is the last left here. All the others fled during the time of the fires, but she stayed. She paid a high price for her loyalty to mankind.’
‘She’s an angel? I thought they were supposed to have wings.’
‘She did, once. You saw the hump on her back? The Keeper mutilated her with a scythe in punishment for remaining in his world. Now she can never leave, and you should be very glad she can’t. She’s all that kept this world from swallowing you whole.’
David’s head swam and for a moment he thought he might faint. He steadied himself and noticed that Tithonus was studying him, not by sight, but by some other, deeper sense.
‘How old are you, David?’
‘Seventeen.’ The old man’s brow creased a little further in thought.
‘You have been here, but only in your future. Your tomorrow is my yesterday.’
‘You mean I am coming back here?’
‘You will be older, I will be a little younger, though it matters very little to me now. I had wondered back then how it was you knew so much about me. How it was you found me in the White Cell. Now I see. Remember, time is not one long continuum. Waves and spirals, cascades. That’s what he told me. I remember it well.’
‘So why did Eutrycia send me to see you now?’ David said.
‘Because you need to know where you are. If you know the truth, then you will know why you must return.’
‘But if I’ve already been here, what does it matter?’
‘Time is not fixed. You are a pebble, David; a pebble that drops or does not drop into a deep pond. You send out ripples or you leave the surface calm. You have free will, but if you know where you are, your will may be moulded onto the right course. You may drop, and your ripples may change time.’
‘What do you mean ‘know where I am’?’
Tithonus lay propped against the wall in silence for so long, David began to wonder if he had fallen asleep, or died. Eventually, he took a rasping breath and spoke again. His voice came in short, whispered gasps.
‘This world is your world, David. This is your own life as it might have been. Something happened. An event that split time itself. Two parallel worlds evolved. One is the world you know as home, the other is the one you see before you now. Both exist side by side, in the same time and the same place. What separates them is but a thin wall of chance.’
‘How do you know all this?’
‘Because I caused that split. The catastrophe occurred in the year 1395. I was a young man. A Traveller came to me with a great, leather-bound book. The Great Secret, out of which everything we knew, everything we had, was born. Before the Great Secret, the world was a collection of separate, warring countries, but that book unified us, working together for a common aim. The book held enormous power.
‘But I was a fool. I made a grave mistake. I was wrong to betray the Secret.’
‘Hold on… 1395? If this is the present – my present – that’s… over six hundred years ago!’
‘I was alive then. My desire for eternal life came at a vile price. In my haste I failed to see the truth. I have aged, as all mortals age, lying for all those years in my refuge within the walls. I have suffered illness, gone blind, and become weak. I scarcely eat or drink now. My damned soul is trapped forever in this dried out carcass.’
‘You can’t die…’ David whispered, more to himself than to Tithonus. ‘But why are you telling me all this? What’s so special about me that I’ve been here twice?’
‘You will know. You have the ultimate power, the one thing the Great Secret did not deliver us: you can move through time itself. You can prevent this, unravel the destruction wrought by Firestorm.’
‘Me? But I’m just… nobody.’
‘You, David, can close Pandora’s Box.’
‘No. No, not me.’
‘Look deep inside yourself and you will see the light that can banish this world back to the oblivion it deserves.’
Tithonus slumped a little further back against the cold stone wall, exhausted from the effort of speaking.
‘So the ruler of this place, the Keeper everyone talks about, that’s the Devil then?’
Tithonus croaked a thin, reedy laugh.
‘As he was wont to say, ‘nay, not so.’ The Devil is a fairytale, David. What mankind knew as the Dark Lord, Satan, whatever you want to call that force, was merely a shadow of the truth. Few men understood God, so what chance had they of uncovering the secrets of the Other?
‘No, the ruler of this world, the Keeper, as most call him, goes by his original title now. It is a word too evil even to pronounce. Lift my shroud, boy, I will show you.’
Hesitantly, David removed the sheet from Tithonus, exposing his cadaverous torso. Burned on his chest were five small letters that David could not immediately resolve into a word. They appeared to be a mix of different alphabets – Greek and Roman maybe – though the instant he saw them he knew their pattern would forever be burned into his mind.
Against the grey skin, angry red burns still showed. They traced out the word:
David recovered the old man up to his neck. He was unsure quite what he was supposed to feel now, but he was aware, somewhere in the core of his being, that this moment had changed him.
‘He branded you with that?’
‘Branded with rods of ice the day I made the pact, the day I became his. It never heals. It’s not like the burn of fire. That creature marks those he calls his own with ice, colder than you could imagine, so cold the air around it turns to liquid and sound itself shatters in the vacuum.’
‘It all makes sense now. Fulgar told us about the Ice Palace within Dis, somewhere no one ever goes. That’s where the Keeper lives.’
‘Ice Palace? Malebolge!’ Tithonus strained his head forward a fraction. ‘It is not an ice palace. It is the crucible of everything evil that ever existed. Say the word! Say it, and remember it always!’ A tiny bubble of saliva popped at the corner of Tithonus’s thin white lips and his sightless eyes rolled in rage and pain.
‘Malebolge,’ David whispered.
He felt a violent tug, a force pulling downwards from his guts. He gasped for breath and stared, wide-eyed, at the old man. Tithonus had the faintest hint of a smile on his skull-like face.
‘Go on…’ Tithonus whispered.
‘Say it, and you will know.’
‘You’ve come so far, David. Take the final step…’
David drew a breath and before he was fully conscious of what he was about to do, the word formed on his lips.
Suddenly he was falling. The ground beneath him shattered like the frozen surface of a black winter pond and he was free-falling. All heat was ripped from him so quickly he did not even have time to shiver, he simply became rigid against it as it plunged like a million knives into his body.
He spiralled downwards, not into water but into liquid air. He could see nothing in the total blackness of this place, could feel nothing as his blood slowed and solidified in his veins and his lungs collapsed in on themselves. He could not move, he could not cry out.
The tiny hairs on the backs of his hands stood up, and around them ice formed. Tendrils of frost snaked out across his skin as the liquid was sucked form his body.
He was nothing. Sensation ebbed from him. Each cell in his body became a disparate, lonely entity, coalesced for an instant in the infinity of time, by chance, into human form. But the form could not hold. He felt himself being torn apart as the cold of Malebolge drained him of all living heat.
And still he cascaded down into the pit.
Around him echoed the faintest sound of the word he had uttered in Tithonus’s cave moments earlier. Each reverberation fizzed with purple-black light and the word itself seemed to float in the fluid around him.
He pushed against the cold, trying to force some heat from his core out to his arms and legs; trying to keep himself from being reduced to nothing more than atoms in an endless black cosmos. He strained to move any part of his earthly body, even the slightest movement to prove he was still alive.
He managed to flex his fingers, disembodied things somewhere almost beyond the reach of his mind now. Where they moved black flames erupted from his knuckles and his flesh glowed an angry red.
He was not falling now, though he knew he was still moving. The liquid around him held him in stasis, tumbling him down towards the bottom of this pit. He was weightless; he was frozen; he was burning. He felt the ice flex and push against his eyelids as he tried to blink… as he tried to close out the darkness and retreat inwards to the sanctuary of his own mind.
But even there Daxov’s icy reach could not be escaped.
In the vacuum of hell’s inner sanctum, the electrical impulses of his thoughts shattered into a million silvery fragments and were gone. He could feel thoughts trying to form,
but nothing in his conscious mind could be controlled.
This was not death: it was something beyond death, out there in the hinterlands of oblivion where forever lay. This was a non-place, where nothing moved, nothing changed, nothing was itself. It was the pit from which nothing, not even light, could escape.
This was Hell, where the Bad People went, the fairy-tale made real. But the Bad People were not here, any more than he was. In a heartbeat his soul had been ripped from his body and he had been shattered. Only the final essence of his life-force now remained, staring wide-eyed and unblinking into Eternity.
Then as suddenly as his fall had started, he was jolted back onto solid ground. The nerves in his eyes fired again, taking in the familiar stone cell, the bed, the withered ancient swaddled in a thin white sheet. The floor beneath him was solid, the air just air, his skin pale but unburned.
He collapsed to his knees, coughing and gasping for air.
Tithonus stared at him with milky eyes.
‘Malebolge,’ Tithonus whispered. ‘That’s why you came to me. So you would know.’
‘But how can I ever leave here? Fulgar said only one person had ever escaped the Cordis Cana.’
‘And did he tell you who that person was?’
‘Me? Did I escape from here?’
‘It was John Fulgar himself. It was he who brought me here.’
‘So he does know how the labyrinth works? Why did he pretend he didn’t?’
‘There are three ways into and out of the Cordis. The labyrinth is only one. John used another – perhaps the most dangerous route of all, for it runs deep within the city.’
‘And the third?’
‘Is the way you will escape. But this third route is different, you must understand that.’
‘It was created by the machines. No human has ever passed through it. Every time you think you understand this simple path, it changes. You did well to navigate the labyrinth, but your intelligence can not help you if you choose to leave here now.’
‘I have to go,’ David said.
‘Then go. When we meet again in my past, don’t judge me too harshly. Know me, and you will know a part of yourself.’ Tithonus waved a shaky arm towards a small hole at the far end of the Cordis.
‘I’m not coming back. Not ever, not to this,’ David said.
With a speed and accuracy David would never have believed possible from the grey husk that was Tithonus’s mortal prison, the old man grabbed his hand. The cold grip was firm and sure. He pulled David towards him and searched his face with wide, unseeing eyes.
‘Faith, David. Dig deep; find it. Not in the blind recitations of the Hollow Men, the fools who rattle and vomit above you for their own needs, but in love. Hold on to that and you can come through this. Believe in yourself–’
David wrenched himself free of the old man’s fingers and ran towards the entrance to the tunnel.
‘Do not be in too much of a hurry,’ Tithonus said. It sounded as if he were laughing.
David pulled his blanket close around him and peered into the dark passageway. No light shone from the other end, no torches on the walls, nothing… just an endless deep blackness stretching, he hoped, all the way back to Orbis.
Without looking back, he plunged into the narrow void. The cold whisper of Tithonus’s voice accompanied him on the first few steps. He heard words he barely understood in his panic to be out of that place, but they haunted him on the miles that lay ahead.
‘Do not go out with haste. The faster you try to move, the longer your journey will be. Believe….’
David ran, blind and terrified, into the darkness.