The pipes’ groan wakes him up. He springs out of the straw bed, listens to the approaching noise. A rattle passes through his chamber’s ceiling pipes before moving toward the corridor.
He dons the tattered leather cloak and darts out.
An unusual hour for a query, but he thinks nothing of it while he jogs through the Natural Sciences corridor, following the clanking of the rusting pipes overhead, past an arcade of chamber entrances, through the Archeonomy and Magicka sections, down the dusty steps and into the Languages basement.
He sprints after the metallic rattle, careful not to slip on the dusty cobblestone floor. With a click like scorpion pincers the query switches pipes, taking the left route into the Poetry chamber.
He pushes the door open, gasping for breath. Bookshelves line the four walls, and in the center of the chamber the pipe curves down from the ceiling like a hook, an opening at its tip.
With a clang the query reaches its destination; a protracted echo reverberates throughout the cold basement.
He grabs the query—a brass cylinder—from the opening at the end of the pipe, unscrews the top, and carefully extricates the parchment, rolling it out onto the moldy desktop in the middle of the room. Written in black cursive letters on the parchment are the words of the query, words he loves to read and lives to answer.
Illa-mon Mattina’s famous dictum.
He transfers the wooden ladder to the south wall, climbs it rung after precarious rung past titles embroidered in gold on beige book spines, all the way to the top to pluck out the necessary tome.
Split open on the desk, he flips through Notable Poets of the Second Era until the name from the query appears above a drawing of the poet and several paragraphs recounting her brief, but fertile life. At the bottom of the page, he finds the answer to the query, the sentence his entire body burns to write back to those in need of it.
Useless are the shards of a splintered soul,
a being is alive only when whole.
With the quill on the desktop, he jots it down on the verso side of the parchment.
He replaces the parchment back in the cylinder, stuffs the cylinder back in the hook’s opening, and pulls down on the lever beside the pipe. The cylinder’s sucked back in, a rattle leaving Poetry, and through the pipes in the castle’s hallways it returns to its origin.
A sigh of relief as pleasure spreads across his body in tingles, satisfaction of having served a purpose, when another, louder groan penetrates the chamber. A second cylinder arrives, spins until it loses inertia.
He reaches for the new parchment.
You are whole. You are alive. We are your liberators.
He blinks at the writing, unable to decipher it.
In between the usual queries which have him sprinting to and from knowledge chambers, fetching tomes and scribbling responses with alacrity, he receives the odd message from these self-proclaimed liberators, messages he neither understands nor writes back to. Always at a weird hour, and always leaving him empty, providing zero pleasure.
He’s in the Biomagickal chamber, copying word for word the explanation for the thinking force from Life Explained by Malaan Fraan on the back of a parchment, when the pipe spits out a cylinder.
You can think. You’re not an automaton.
Sharp pain flashes through his head. He crumples the useless parchment with its useless words, crams it in the cylinder and sends it back.
In the east chambers of the Natural Sciences corridor, answering a query about heredity in families, he receives another message, frustrating him further.
You have been made, but you are no one’s slave.
A pulsing sensation in his skull, a firm grip, and he screams, realizing that he is the one squeezing his head. The intense pain caused by unanswered queries, by not having served his purpose, has to be soothed somehow, and the castle seems willing to help because soon pipes are screeching again with query tremors.
Following them up the northern tower stairs to the Astronomy chamber. Panting, he scrambles for the spinning cylinder in the pipe’s hooked opening, removes the parchment, sees words he understands.
Distance to Mallinos.
From a stack of dusty books he pulls out Basic Astronomy, and scours it for the query’s answer. Once he finds the information in the book, calculated by the great mathemagicians of the First Era, he writes down the number of steps to the dark moon on the query’s parchment. Sending the cylinder back with the answer, he holds his breath, hoping nothing more comes, nothing hurtful.
But the groan returns, and a new cylinder finds him, carrying painful, unintelligible words.
After two moon swirls, we will come to free you from your prison.
He turns the valve—a corroded iron flower—and ice cold water drips on his face, his shoulders, his body, stinging him worse than the ticks in his bed. He soaps his torso, scrubbing dirt.
Black as soot, the water circles down and out the drain, into the depths of the castle, toward unexplored places.
He doesn’t wonder where it goes, not at all, but his gaze is fixated on it still because as it drains out it reminds him in a peculiar way of those drawings of Mallinos, black and round and swirling.
Once he’s done washing—and usually he knows he’s done when his body goes completely numb—he steps out of the tiled bathroom, wraps himself in wool, and dripping water, he pads along the corridors to his bedroom.
The chatter of his teeth echoes between the walls for hours.
A shiver passes through the castle.
He places a hand on the vibrating stone wall, closes his eyes, tries to pinpoint the disturbance’s exact location.
Thudding, muffled, coming from the north.
He jerks his hand away as if from flame and storms out blinking tears toward the castle’s bleeding wound. Primal reflexes overtake him, shove his body forward, make him run faster than any query-sprint of his.
Up the spiral staircase, three steps at a time, and into the Astronomy chamber with its polished shelves and silvery book spines, except there are no more shelves and no more book stacks, but rubble strewn across the floor, an ominous cloud of dust above it.
With a thundering sound wind rushes in, and he sees that the wall’s been breached, that there’s a gaping hole in the stone.
He sees the Outside. The out-of-Castle. It’s forbidden to even look, but he’s rooted to the spot, his gaze glued to the visible patch of black velvet—despite the crippling fear, his first sight of the sky is something he can not easily look away from.
Two distinct shapes swoop in through the hole. They spot him.
Wading through the debris, they grab and drag his kicking body to the opening. Clutching his armpits, they jump.
An entire forest of iron sprouts into view beneath—the spires and towers and houses of the city, and the river, pregnant with industrial wastes, like a black snake resting amongst them.
He screams, flails, his grunts lost in the rush of wind, in the loud flap of his kidnappers’ mechanized wings.
They fly him toward the outskirts of the monstrous city, and only when they start descending does he swing his head back to see his receding castle in the distance, and Mallinos’ vortex in the sky above, dragging the light of the neighboring stars like spilled milk in its swirl.
In a corner, hugging his knees, while they mumble things he doesn’t understand, the faint starlight from the only window picking at his fear-stricken face.
They place a bowl of vegetable stew before him, which, despite his stomach cramps, he kicks and spills on the ground. They scribble words on a parchment, hand it to him, and he stuffs it in his mouth, chews, and spits it out, fixing them a look of contempt.
Undeterred, they write on another piece of parchment, hold it before him. Too weak to break his conditioning, he doesn’t force his eyes shut, and reads the words.
We are here to help you, the parchment says. Are you okay?
A splitting headache knocks him out. His mind isn’t crafted for such language.
The two kidnappers retreat with bewildered expressions, watch him writhe in his corner, clutching his head. Conversing unintelligibly, they step out of the room through a fringed curtain, only to return a moment later with a fresh bowl of steaming stew, which they set on the wooden table beside the window.
They leave again and don’t come back the rest of the night.
The sun’s glimmer prods him awake, he opens an eye half-way, and as if pulled by an invisible giant hand he pounces into the stance of a cornered animal. He raises a hand, shielding his eyes from their first sunlight.
His two kidnappers are sitting on their knees in the opposite corner of the room. The one with long white hair saunters to the window, pulls a black sheet over it, shrouding the room in shadow.
Gesturing with their hands, slowly, pointing toward the bowl of food at his feet.
His stomach cramps unbearable, he picks up the bowl, takes a whiff, his gut grumbling with urgency. He looks at them. They nod.
He finds one meal insufficient to assuage his hunger, so they ladle more stew into his bowl from a cauldron, and only when he’s had four full servings does he put his hand over the bowl, grumbling and shaking his head.
The white-haired woman approaches, places a hand on his cheek, her eyes bulging. She pulls out a parchment from her pouch. He shuts his eyes before they can cause him pain, before those sharp headaches strike, but something about her gentle caress tells him, at an instinctive level, that they mean no harm. Slowly, he opens his eyes to the parchment before him, and no lance spears his head, he meets no pain but words, ones he understands.
How many fiefs comprise the Land?
The usual pleasure of receiving a query is subdued by the absence, the phantom weight of something missing, and he knows that it’s his castle with its chambers full of books full of knowledge and answers.
Tears bank his eyes. For the first time in his life, he’s utterly helpless, out of his normal environment, away from the only place he’s known as home.
The woman wipes the tears off his cheeks with her thumb. She crouches closer to him and gives him a hug.
He finds the contact with a human being—another first for him—surprisingly soothing, and he wraps his arms around the woman, tugging at her cloak with calloused fingers, burying his unshaven face in her silk scarf.
After a moment, she pulls back, holding him at arm’s length. Again, she brings up the wrinkled parchment before his eyes.
How many fiefs comprise the Land?
That atavistic shiver of pleasure shoots up his spine. A query. One he understands. But what use is a query without the heaps of books in the many chambers of his castle?
This time, his mental faculties don’t break down, because the phantom pain of being away is replaced by a tingle of remembrance.
He realizes that he knows precisely where he’d go for this exact query if he were back home, to which chamber and bookshelf and row and book. He closes his eyes. He breathes in through his nose, imagining the damp and moldy smell of the castle, the dusty air of the Historical section.
He imagines climbing the wooden ladder, pulling out History of Land, flipping through its introductory pages to where the number is given.
A smile tugs at the corner of his mouth. He opens his eyes. He flails an arm around, making scribbling motions in the air at the white-haired woman.
She hands him the parchment and a quill.
He turns it over and writes the correct answer.
It takes them two moon swirls to sketch an initial map of his knowledge and the extent of his memory’s reach, and another two for him to learn to recognize the women by the sounds they make at one another, assigning them the names Umma and Ulla-Byn.
Umma writes him queries and scribbles notes in a leather-bound book of hers based on the answers he provides, and Ulla-Byn cooks delicious stews and washes him with tepid water, sponging his body, massaging his head.
Once they obtain a general idea of his abilities, they proceed to teach him how to learn new concepts by writing a query he doesn’t know the answer to, while providing the correct response on the parchment’s back. They show him query, then answer, query, answer.
He picks up on the pattern much quicker than expected, so Umma soon begins her structured lessons on a variety of topics, at the end of which she quizzes him to make sure he’s retained the correct facts and answers.
In his imagination, the process is straightforward—all those books from the castle whose pages he doesn’t fully remember are now blanks to be filled, which is exactly what he does with the new information. With his mind’s quill he jots down words like the scholars and poets in their time, then wills the books shut and replaced on their shelves for later perusal.
He learns at an incredible pace, quickly filling up his imaginary books with things like the cruelty of the Lords and the selective breeding of individuals for use as slaves and the ones locked up in castles from birth and conditioned to serve as knowledge-fetchers and the people’s resistance and the impending revolution.
Umma and Ulla-Byn are pleased with his progress, and believe that soon, with a bit of luck, he will learn to think of himself, and choose a name.
Hands behind his head, flipping through the books in his mind during his evening exercise, when he senses burning heat on his cheek. He opens his eyes to tongues of flame licking the inside of the house through the window, through the door, the roof. The yellow serpents from his books. Deadly fire.
A chunk of burning debris drops from the crumbling roof. He zigzags to the door whose curtain has burned to ash, into the scalding hallway, coughing and shouting for Umma and Ulla-Byn. In their room he finds their beds smoldering, but empty. Eyes stinging, he pushes through smoke thick like cotton to the dining room, where the wooden table and chairs are aflame, crackling and spitting embers as if pleading for their lives.
He sees them, then. Cracked skulls, sticks jutting out of their bodies, lying in pools of dark blood reflecting orange fire.
He starts toward the women’s bodies, but hands emerge from the white smoke, grip him, jerk him out of the room, out of the hallway, into the night, just as the roof collapses and the house is no more.
Uniformed men coil a rope around his torso, put him on the back of one of their horses, then gallop into the cold, black night toward the amber lights of the iron city.
He walks the corridors of knowledge in the cold castle, ears intent on catching the distant groan of pipes whenever it might arise. He strolls, waiting, his feet taking him wherever they please.
Without meaning to, he ends up in the Languages basement. He sits down on the cobbles, cross-legged.
A strange something, a fragment, pops into his mind, one of his imaginary books suddenly flipping open, pages fluttering like bird wings until the book reaches a paragraph, a sentence. He reads with his mind’s eye.
Useless are the shards of a splintered soul,
a being is alive only when whole.
With a finger, he traces a circle on the ground. Whole.
Like Mallinos in the sky above, only in the ground, in the stone. Hole.
And in his imagined book he draws himself slipping into the circle, digging his way out to somewhere far, someplace warm, to where people like Umma and Ulla-Byn live.
He wills the book shut, placing it on a shelf for later.
Damien Krsteski writes science fiction, and develops software. His stories have appeared in Plasma Frequency Magazine, Flapperhouse, Bastion SF, The Colored Lens, Kzine, Every Day Fiction, Mad Scientist Journal, and others. He can be found at http://monochromewish.blogspot.com and @monochromewish.