A secret, Abuela had taught Tristan, always whispered twice.
The first was the secret reaching your ear, the hidden thing unearthed. The second was the whisper of what a man had thought worth wielding a spade to bury, what it said of them they would keep away from prying eyes. He thought of that, as Lieutenant Vasanti called up her soldiers and introduced him as their fresh meat, a new helper in their work to unearth the tower’s secrets who would soon be joined by three more. He thought of it and smiled at the strangers, because the blackcloaks were bringing him to find out the pillar’s secrets but it was not them he truly wanted.
He was going to find out what that Watch had buried here and why they’d buried it.
And once he had had, once he heard the second whisper and he saw the whole of the mosaic instead of a hundred pieces, then he would decide where to slide the knife.
The first act he took come morning was sowing the seed Beatris had given him.
“And she told you this in person?” Isabel pressed.
“Last night,” he said. “And as a parting gift to us both, Lady Ruesta, she told me we share a trouble.”
The dark-haired infanzona smiled, and Tristan wondered how long it had taken her to craft this one: friendly but not overly inviting, just a touch cheerful and naïve. Even without the contract Tredegar would have tripped all over her boots around Isabel Ruesta.
“And what would that be?”
Tristan feigned wiping his lips, enough to hide how them from watchers.
“Remund Cerdan,” he said.
Isabel’s smiled widened.
“It is very kind of you to be so concerned,” she said, “but though taken with me he has not been-”
“My sister lost her hands to his contract,” Tristan lied. “He’s a shit and you don’t want to marry him any more than I want him to make it through this trial.”
Oh, the thief thought as he watched Isabel Ruesta’s face shift seamlessly from slightly touched to cool pleasantness. A schemer’s face, but he would wager not her true one. It was just another sort of play she put on, changing role for every stage. She was the most dangerous sort of the snake: the kind that did not announce the venomous fangs with bright colors.
“I did think you were just a little too convenient to simply be a rat,” Isabel mildly said. “Revenge, however, is an expensive business. Which coterie sponsored you?”
“What would that matter to you?” Tristan shrugged.
“Won’t you indulge me?” she asked, batting her eyes.
Was she using her contract? He could not tell if she was. The thought angered him regardless.
She looked more amused than miffed.
“So we share a trouble,” Isabel acknowledged. “What do you propose to do about it?”
“Poor choice of words,” Tristan noted, to a quirk of her lips. “And today? Nothing. I have business here in the Old Fort. I need two things from you: a recounting of the venture in the maze and for you to find a place where I might corner him.”
“You want me to spy for you,” Isabel lightly said.
“Spy is such an ugly word,” the thief noted. “Which is fitting given that we are arranging your fiancé’s murder.”
The mask of pleasantness cracked. That, at last, had touched a nerve.
“We are not,” Lady Isabel Ruesta coldly laid out, “engaged.”
“Nor will you ever be, if we help each other,” Tristan smiled back, all charm and friendliness.
From the corner of his eye he saw Angharad Tredegar approaching their table and he cocked an eyebrow at the infanzona. They could not speak long without suspicion, or easily again without causing the same.
“Agreed,” Isabel murmured.
Would she betray him, Tristan wondered? Too early to tell, but only a fool would discount the possibility when faced with such a snake. More likely, though, she would keep this secret in her pocket in case it might ever be of use in getting her home to the life she did not want to leave behind. The thief waited until Tredegar joined them, then made quickly his excuses to leave. He now had eyes in their crew and an accomplice for what was to come.
That was one piece of the mosaic in hand: now he must collect the rest.
Talking his comrades into joining Lieutenant Vasanti’s efforts had not been difficult: they were all eager at the thought of getting the Watch’s help and protection. What Tristan had not expected was for the Watch itself to argue over Vasanti’s decision. It was very much the case, though, and after spending so long tiptoeing around the blackcloaks Tristan found it rather lovely to see them tear into each other like this.
“- against every rule,” Lieutenant Wen insisted. “We have a clear set of duties overseeing the second trial and using its takers as labor undeniably goes against them.”
“Oh look,” Lieutenant Vasanti drawled, “the boy has an opinion on rules. That’s nice. In thirty years, I might even start giving a shit about what you think.”
They weren’t even hiding this, the thief gleefully thought. All three of them were in the kitchen, in sight of everyone, and more than a few watchmen were looking at the scene.
“You’ll be dead in thirty years, crone,” the Tianxi snarled.
“And what a relief it will be,” Vasanti replied, “to finallybe beyond the reach of your whining.”
Tristan knew better than to get involved. The Watch was clannish, like a tightly knit coterie, and no matter how at odds the pair got they were sure to band together against an outsider. Instead he sat in his seat, moving as little as he could, and tried very hard not to grin at how red in the face Lieutenant Wen had gone.
“I will kick this up to Captain Tozi if I have to,” Wen threatened.
The large Tianxi lieutenant had always been so sure in his power until now, so willing to toy with all of them. Tristan found that seeing the man’s jaw clench and his eyes flash with anger was good for morale. He’d keep this moment in mind, next time Wen threatened to hammer an entire bucket’s worth of nails into his body.
“The same Captain Tozi you told she’s only been picked for the Academy because she’s nobleborn?” Lieutenant Vasanti replied. “Do wait until I’m in the room to try it, at my age there’s only so many good laughs left ahead of me.”
Lieutenant Wen gritted his teeth.
“Won’t care what happens outside Three Pines so long as it doesn’t splash his boots,” Vasanti cut in, unimpressed. “He’s just here to pretty up his record before a committee bid.”
The old Someshwari shook her head, as if disappointed.
“Besides, this is all far away,” she said. “In the Old Fort, Wen, I am the senior lieutenant. Do you remember what that means?”
The Tianxi’s face tightened.
“You haven’t run a goddamn thing, Vasanti,” he said. “It’s all been me while you’ve holed up in the pillar with your favorites and-”
“It means,” Lieutenant Vasanti coldly interrupted, “that I am your superior. And your superior has just ordered you to shut the fuck up, so you had best get to it.”
Lieutenant Wen’s face went even redder, which Tristan had not thought possible, and he closed his mouth. He stalked away, not bothering to hide his fury, and the old woman snorted at the sight.
“There’s only so far a pristine combat record will get you, kid, with a mouth like yours,” she said, then sighed. “And you, rat, keep that smirk off your face.”
“I am not smirking,” Tristan said. “And you are not looking at my face.”
Lieutenant Vasanti turned an irritated eye on him.
“I have a fine nose for conceit,” she said. “You positively reek of it.”
“I’ll try to trade for an earlier bath ticket,” Tristan easily replied.
The irritation in her eyes grew.
“Go gather your little band,” she said. “Wen’s going to be a right pain for the rest of the year, so you had better be worth the trouble.”
The northwestern bastion was Lieutenant Vasanti’s private kingdom.
That much became clear within moments as five blackcloaks gathered to her like chicks to their mother, coming to around the table by the telescope while looking all eager and polite. The four of them – Francho, Vanesa, Maryam and Tristan himself – were escorted up the stairs by the same middle-aged Someshwari woman Tristan had first thought to be the Vasanti last night. She was, in fact, called Sergeant Ovya.
She also had it in for him.
“I don’t suppose,” the sergeant asked, “that you have any notion of why I’ve ordered to write ‘I will load my pistol properly, like a grown woman’ a hundred times with a charcoal pen?”
“None whatsoever,” Tristan lied.
The Someshwari leaned closer.
“When you inevitably piss her off,” Ovya whispered, “I’ll be sure to ask to be the one to cane you.”
Best nip that in the bud, he decided.
“Sergeant,” Tristan replied, pitching his voice loud and feigning indignation, “that would be quite inappropriate, given your authority over me.”
Surprise flickered across her face a moment, the confusion. At least until she’d noticed he had spoken loud enough to be heard by all the watchmen at the table, several of which were now frowning at her. They’ll remember this if you try to wiggle your way into delivering a caning, he thought. Trying to beat a younger man for refusing her unseemly advances was the kind of thing that would darken her reputation permanently, so odds were she would back off. Sergeant Ovya glared at him.
“You can find your way to the table, I am sure,” she coldly said, then strode away.
There was a moment of silence, then behind him Maryam sighed.
“I’d assumed you talked your way into the good graces of the lieutenant,” she said, “but why is that beginning to feel like optimism?”
“I applied the full breadth of my charms,” Tristan defended.
“Oh dear,” Francho wheezed out. “Where did you even find a cliff to jump off from?”
“Stop teasing him, you two,” Vanesa chided.
She sent a smile his way.
“I’m sure he has angered no more than half of these fine folk,” she added.
Betrayal on all sides, Tristan amusedly thought. Making sport of him seemed to put a little life back in Vanesa’s pale face, so he let it pass without retort. The four of them made their way to the table, where Lieutenant Vasanti was fiddling with a scroll. She shot them an impatient glance.
“Did you go for a stroll first?” she complained. “Come closer, I don’t have all day.”
Which was factually untrue, Tristan thought, but he chose silence. If you kept putting your hand in the crocodile’s mouth, no matter how lucky you were eventually you lost the hand. Vasanti’s eyes swept through the four of them.
“How much did you actually figure out about this place?” she asked, then frowned. “Never mind, I don’t actually care. Let us keep this simple.”
She pointed upwards, at the great golden aetheric machine mimicking the stars and casting its glow on all of the massive cavern.
“The Antediluvians built this place and the pillar that connects the ceiling and floor of this cavern,” she said. “Sometime after, likely beginning as early as the Old Night, devils began building the rest of this place – namely the maze of ruins and the Old Fort.”
Lieutenant Vasanti paused.
“That’s intriguing, but we don’t like the devils here,” she said. “Why do we not like the devils, Biter?”
“It is Bitor, ma’am,” a young man with the Sacramontan look reminded her.
She did not acknowledge his answer in the slightest, which must have been common because he went on without even a sigh and no one looked surprised.
“We do not like the devils here because they sabotaged the iron gates leading inside the pillar,” Bitor dutifully said. “We have found parts of what was almost certainly a mechanism to open them in the basement of the Old Fort.”
Francho cleared his throat, earning a look from Vasanti. She did not insult him, to Tristan’s surprise, not even when the old scholar dipped into a wet cough before he could speak.
“Did the devils tinker with the aetheric machine?” he asked.
She nodded approvingly.
“One of the questions we seek answers for,” Lieutenant Vasanti said. “One of my predecessors blew his way into the pillar, but our progress has since stopped. Some of what was found, however, implies that there are controls for the machine somewhere near the top of the pillar. It is entirely possible the devils got that far and are responsible for the current ‘laws’ enforced by the aetheric device.”
The very underpinnings of the Trial of Ruins, Tristan thought. The reason why they could venture into the maze and take tests: the gods could not harm humans unless terms were first agreed on, only each other, and they could not leave their seats of power. The devils also brought hundreds of shrines and built a fort around the gate to the pillar, the thief thought. What is it they were trying to achieve? He was still missing too many pieces to begin making out the pattern.
“Do we have any notion of why this place was so important to them?” he asked. “They spent many years and much effort on this cavern.”
Lieutenant Vasanti considered him.
“You might not know this, given your youth and lacking education, but it is not uncommon for devils to sabotage or destroy the finest works of the First Empire,” she said. “We have no reason to believe this is any different.”
Liar, Tristan thought. There was a glimpse of the second whisper: Lieutenant Vasanti believed she knew why it was the devils cared about this place and she did not want it known. Known by us, or by everyone? He would have to find out of the other blackcloaks were also being kept in the dark. His instincts had him suspecting they would be. If it was something she could use to get more men and resources, she already would have. It was being kept quiet, perhaps by more than just her.
How many hands were on this spade?
“Good to know,” Tristan smiled. “I take it you have something in mind for us to aid in?”
Lieutenant Vasanti unrolled the scroll she had been fiddling with, spreading it out on the table. It was a drawn schematic of the pillar, Tristan saw, or at least a small part of it. He easily recognized the room where he had almost been shot last night and the stairs on its side, leading up to an intersection. On one side the stairs led to an intricately drawn chamber centered around a complicated machine, while on the other they rose to what looked like a dead end – save for a side door marked as a word in Samratrava he did not know the meaning of. The Someshwari officer tapped a finger on the machine-room.
“There are mechanism in there that respond to Gloam and what might be instructions for their use that we have not deciphered,” Lieutenant Vasanti said. “I haven’t been able to talk a Navigator into coming here, so the girl who can use Signs will have to do.”
She paused, turning to Francho.
“How are you with cryptoglyphs?” she asked.
“My language studies centered on cants, but I am familiar with the Naukratian glyphs,” the old professor toothlessly smiled.
Tristan kept his confusion off his face. He knew what cants were – darkling languages, supposedly descended from the single original tongue the Antediluvians had spoken – but had no notion of what these cryptoglyphs might be.
“Then you’ll be taking a look,” Vasanti said. “The best I managed to get is Luisa here, who is only familiar with one of the Second Empire codexes. She will be your assistant.”
He leaned closed to Maryam.
“First Empire scientific language,” she murmured back. “Signs are based on it.”
So Francho was familiar with some of the glyphs, while Luisa – a young woman with short blond hair, looking a little nervous – had only read a ‘codex’. The difference between someone who knew the letters and someone who had read a list of words, perhaps? He would make inquiries with Francho when they had the time. However short their exchange, it had caught Lieutenant Vasanti’s attention.
“Stop chattering,” the old woman warned. “Now, for the last two of you I have something else in mind. We’ll be going for a look at the central shaft, then we can discuss what I want from you.”
That did not sound so bad, at least until Tristan saw the grim looks on the faces of the blackcloaks.
One of the watchmen, a stout man with unfortunate acne, had to carry Vanesa up the ladder tied to his back.
Much as Tristan would have liked to be allowed to roam inside the pillar, he did not even get to see the machine-room where Maryam and Francho were taken away to. Instead Lieutenant Vasanti led him and Vanesa up the narrow stairs, at a slow pace accommodating of the crutches. They took a right at the crossroads and continued up for another flight, leading right to the dead end the drawings had laid out. Only they had not shown why it was a dead end, a detail that would have been worth the mention.
Someone had buried the last stretch of stairs below massive slabs of stone. A few of the stones were shattered and there were scorch marks on them and the walls, but the effort must have been aborted for it was well shy of anything like a doorway.
“Why stop?” he asked Lieutenant Vasanti, flicking a look at the slabs.
“There were concerns that the amount of powder it’d get through would bring the ceiling down on our heads,” she told him. “That and one of our contractors found out there’s a layer of metal at the back.”
“The door was welded shut?” Tristan breathed out.
“The devils did not want anyone to get past those stairs,” Lieutenant Vasanti said. “They are not creatures prone to half-measures.”
He let out a low whistle. The devils, he thought, were at the heart of this mystery. They had built the maze, built the fort, and gone to great lengths to keep people from being able to enter the pillar before abandoning the Old Fort to the blackcloaks. The secret they care about is in the pillar, he decided. Exactly like the Watch, they had centered their entire presence on the Dominion of Lost Things around what existed in this cavern. Is it all about the golden machine above us? Not, it shouldn’t be. If the devils had been able to get up there, as Lieutenant Vasanti clearly believed, then they would have been able to destroy the Antediluvian machine.
There would have been no need to prevent entrance through the gates or block stairs with stone and steel.
“I don’t see the door shown on your scroll,” Vanesa called out from a few steps down. “It should be around here.”
“There’s a trick to it,” the lieutenant replied, black cloak brushing past Tristan and she came down.
The old Someshwari leaned close to the wall, then pressed her thumbs against a spot. There was a small click, then the stone popped open and the outline of a door swung out half an inch. The lieutenant stepped back and opened it all the way, inviting them to look. It wouldn’t exactly be accurate to call what he saw room, as that would imply it was usable. It was not.
What Tristan was looking it as was a vertical stone shaft at least two miles long that was positively filled with ticking, shifting cogs and wheel. At a central pillar there seemed to be something like a twisting rope made of steel, if rope could be thicker than a carriage. The racket was deafening whenever he put his head through the open door but when he pulled it back out it faded to something more sufferable. So that’s why no one heard the shot last night, he thought. The Ancient built the pillar so it wouldn’t fill their cavern with noise.
Others had more practical interests,
“That,” Vanesa said, leaning on her crutch, “is an overgrown tension engine.”
Lieutenant Vasanti nodded.
“I believe the same,” she admitted. “My guess is that it is part of one of those near-perpetuating engines the Antediluvians loved slapping inside everything – it might provide the power behind the entire shifting machinery in the ceiling.”
“It should have nothing to do with the iron gates, then,” Vanesa opined.
“Not exactly true,” the watchwoman said. “See over there?”
The Someshwari pointed a finger past the threshold, through the mess of steel, and Tristan frowned as he tried to make out what she indicated.
“I can’t make out anything,” Vanesa admitted.
“A door,” the thief said. “About half a level beneath us, there’s an opening in the wall.”
“Maintenance access, like this one,” Lieutenant Vasanti said. “We used a longview to get a better look and we are certain that room connects to others. It might lead us to a way to open the gates.”
Tristan eyed her skeptically. That sounded rather like wishful thinking. Taking in the riot of moving steel inside, the way cogs went up and down and wheels scythed through, he could see why the devils had not bothered to bury this door: no one could go through it without being crushed or rent apart.
“Have you tried to access it from the outside?” he asked. “Shouldn’t be too hard to figure out the corresponding location, then you could blow your way in like this one.”
“We made the attempt,” Lieutenant Vasanti curtly replied. “Three barrels of blackpowder did nothing but scratch the stone. The only reason we were able to force in our way the first time was that there was a crack in the pillar.”
“Then how have you tried to reach the room?” the thief frowned.
Lieutenant Vasanti raised an eyebrow. No, he thought. Surely she couldn’t mean…
“You sent people into that, didn’t you?” he said, pointing at the moving steel.
“Two,” the Someshwari acknowledged. “Volunteers. One lived long enough to come out but the wounds took her in the night.”
“And you haven’t tried since,” Tristan deduced. “If the body count gets too high, the commander in charge of the island will step in.”
The blackcloaks were likely willing enough to let Lieutenant Vasanti molder here so long as that was all she did, but if she started getting their soldiers killed that was another story.
“I was not forbidden to continue the research,” the old woman said, “but I was ordered to find a better avenue than just feeding people to the shaft.”
Vanesa let out a little noise of comprehension.
“So that’s why you have the telescope,” she said. “You’re marking down how the mobile moves above and trying to match it to movements here. You are looking for a safe path through.”
“Clever,” the Someshwari praised. “We have kept extensive records. I am from the aetheric branch of the Umuthi Society, so I will admit that causal mechanics are not my specialty. A clockmaker, however, might see catch I would not.”
“It would be my pleasure to take a look,” Vanesa said. “Not quite as exciting as working with one’s hands to solve the puzzle, but I suppose my days for that are past.”
She did not need to reach for her missing eye, or need to.
“I suppose I should begin to head down now,” the old clockmaker sighed. “It will take long enough.”
“Take the chair in the room downstairs,” Lieutenant Vasanti told her. “I’ll have the records brought to you.”
Vanesa thanked her kindly, and warily began the journey down. Tristan waited for her to be too far to overheard before speaking up.
“How far did you get mapping out the patterns?”
Lieutenant Vasanti grimaced, then spat to the side.
“Some,” she said, “but not as much as I need to justify another attempt. At exactly three past midday every day there is a sequence that repeats, but near the end of the path through there’s a random variable. We haven’t been able to narrow down what causes the differences.”
Tristan cocked his head to the side.
“And by variable you mean…”
“A serrated wheel went right through the dummy we threw yesterday,” she said. “It’s all been along those lines.”
“So this is a death trap,” Tristan flatly said.
“I’m sorry to hear you say that, boy,” Lieutenant Vasanti coldly smiled, “since you’re going right in it.”
He kept the surge of fear off his face. Admitting to it would do nothing but pleased her. The lieutenant had good as told him he was meant for this from the start, Tristan realized. All the others were of use to her – Francho as a historian, Maryam as a Gloam witch and Vanesa as a clockmaker. This murderous place must have been what she had in mind last night, when she’d said she ‘had a use for him’.
Fortuna leaned past the threshold, taking a look inside and retreating with a solemn look on her face.
“Yeah,” she said, nodding decisively. “You’re definitely dying in there.”
Her support was, as always, invaluable.
“How long until the sequence?” Tristan asked, forcing calm.
“Three hours and change,” the lieutenant shrugged. “We have a clock downstairs.”
The thief looked at Vasanti who was staring back with poisonous satisfaction. It seemed unlikely she would let herself be talked out of sending him in there and backing out of their ‘deal’ was not an option. She’d then simply tell Lieutenant Wen he had gone into a forbidden part of the Old Fort without permission and he would be removed from the trials. Had she figured out he intended to kill her last night, was that why so much hostility lurked under the smiles? No, he thought. Tristan had been hated by people before and this did not feel the same – it was not as personal.
It might not be him, the thief thought, that Lieutenant Vasanti was getting back at by sending into the whirling steel.
“Then I shall take that time to prepare,” Tristan said. “I expect you don’t mind me trying to improve my chances?”
The watchwoman’s face was blank, but her face was pulled tight as if holding in a frown or a snarl. Vasanti, he realized, had just gotten angry. Did she want me to beg? He was not too proud for that, and would have if he’d had any inkling it might work. The thief felt as if he were missing something again, but there no time to untangle the snarl.
“Do as you will,” the lieutenant said. “So long as you’re there thirty minutes early.”
Tristan nodded, breathed out and put on a smile.
Now he just needed to figure out how to avoid being buried in pieces.
If he was to cheat death he would need help, and that meant Maryam.
The room where she and Francho had gone was guarded by a blackcloak armed with sword and musket, though the man looked more bored than wary. He let Tristan in without a second glance, letting the thief deduce the measure was more about keeping things in than keeping people out.
The first thing he noticed after coming in was the machine.
The drawing had not shown color, so he had not expected the intricate device to be made of some golden alloy. Its basic shape was simple: a rectangular box atop which twelve cylinders interlocked with pistons had been welded. The cylinders were connected to something like a barrel lying down, though the ‘lid’ of that barrel was dull green glass. The whole thing stood about as tall as a grown man. The intricacies, the parts that filled the room, were the levers.
The box atop which everything rested was open on the sides, revealing slowly turning cogs, but from a golden frame beneath the cogs spurted at least four dozen spindly levers on each side. They were at least five feet long and could be moved, up and down and to the sides, which seemed to make different parts move in the frame beneath the cogs. Maryam’s hand was on one of the levers when he came in, though she took it off when glancing his way.
Francho, who was standing by one of the walls with his blackcloak assistant – Luisa, the thief recalled -immediately noticed.
“Ah, Tristan,” he toothlessly smiled. “I’d wondered if you would come take a look.”
The room around the machine had been stripped bare, much like the one where the blackcloaks had made their base but carved into the bare stone of the walls were narrow stripes. Tristan had to squint to realize that they were in fact small intricate marks, so small and close to each other that from a distance they looked like lines. The mentioned cryptoglyphs, he guessed.
“It is quite the machine,” Tristan said. “Have you made any progress?”
“The professor is a man of great learning,” Luisa eagerly said. “Already we have associated some levers and instructions.”
“I will not be enough to get them working,” Maryam frankly said. “The expectation seems that whoever uses this is able to use Signs corresponding to the cryptoglyphs, but there are dozens mentioned – it would take a full-fledged Navigator to do it, and one with a specialized field of study at that.”
To the thief’s surprise they did not seem to be writing anything down, but that was not his trouble. He’d not come here for the machine.
“I need a word with Sarai, if you do not mind,” he said. “It is about the work that Lieutenant Vasanti gave me.”
Luisa looked away guiltily. Well, that was one way not to get an argument. Francho shrugged.
“It will be hours, if not days, before even a basic understanding of this text can be had,” he said. “Take as long as you need.”
Maryam glanced at him curiously, then at his unspoken invitation followed him out of the room. The armed watchman stopped them, confirming the thief’s earlier suspicion by professionally patting them down to see if they were taking anything out. He then let them out without a word. Tristan only led them up the stairs enough they should not be overheard.
“Trouble,” he said.
“Do you ever bring me anything else?” Maryam drily replied.
“I may well die in three hours,” he said, which earned her full attention.
He told her all of it, even his suspicions about the source of Lieutenant Vasanti’s hostility – though he called Abuela that, and not ‘Nerei’ as the watchwoman had.
“The globe of Gloam you used when we tricked the airavatan,” he said. “Could it be used as a shield?”
She shook her head.
“If it is forcefully shattered, there is a decent chance my brain will be cooked from the inside,” she said.
His eyes widened. Well, if Signs were easy to use everyone would dabble.
“I don’t suppose you have anything else?” he said.
She bit her lip.
“I might be able to drag you back,” Maryam said. “Once. And given how weak my understanding of the Sign is, the ‘hand’ will have to hold thick clothes if you do want your skin to char.”
“That is something,” Tristan acknowledged.
“You should refuse and risk Wen,” she advised him. “He is unlikely to kill you, which this very well might.”
It would have been the clever thing to do, but he could not. His silence spoke volumes, enough that Maryam breathed out.
“Tell me why, at least,” she said.
“If it were just a beating I was headed for, I would take it,” Tristan said. “But Lieutenant Wen will likely remove me from the trials as well.”
Maryam stared him down.
“And if you are thrown out, you lose your chance at Cozme Aflor,” she said, letting out a long breath.
She did not ask whether vengeance was worth gambling with his life, a reminder that they had not come to be companions by mistake.
“I will do what I can,” she finally said. “But a chance is the most I can buy you, Tristan.”
“That is the most I can ask,” he replied, then paused.
Slightly embarrassed, he cleared his throat.
“Thank you,” he added.
It was a dangerous thing for a rat to express gratitude. Few in the Murk had qualms about exploiting debts owed.
“Thank me if you live,” she grimly replied.
Visiting Vanesa had been something of an afterthought. He had time before his execution and would not go through that door having left stones unturned. She was comfortably ensconced at the lieutenant’s own desk, pouring through stacks of paper and keeping some notes to the side in a charcoal pen.
“Anything interesting?” he asked.
The old woman almost jumped out of her skin.
“Manes, I didn’t hear you come in,” she said, hand resting on her heart.
He had not tried to sneak, he thought, so she must have been quite absorbed by the reading.
“It is all very interesting, though not as much as the iron gates,” she told him. “They have paid very close attention to the mechanisms directly by the door, mapping out the movements by the hour and drawing them in great detail.”
He leaned in.
“I hear,” he said, “that at three past midday there is a particular sequence.”
“It is an obsession for them,” Vanesa told him. “They have manuscripts’ worth of attempts to match some of the movements to the moving parts near the cavern ceiling.”
“No success?” he lightly asked.
She narrowed her eye at him, not fooled by the tone.
“Why the interest?”
He saw no need to lie.
“I will be attempting a crossing,” he admitted. “The odds seem steep.”
“That is madness,” she said. “We must ask her for more time, you-”
“It will be today, Vanesa,” Tristan gently said. “There will be no convincing.”
The old woman looked at him, then, and though she did not ask anything an understanding passed. She might not have been a rat, born and aged far from the Murk, but she was no fool. She had not come here by choice any more than he. Sadness twisted her worn face, though as a few heartbeats passed it turned to something entirely colder. She was, Tristan realized, angry on his behalf.
How long had it been, since that last happened?
“I cannot solve that sequence for you,” Vanesa admitted. “It is too complex. But there is something else you could do, something they would never consider.”
The thief met her eye.
“I am listening.”
He arrived fifteen minutes early instead of thirty, purely to spite Lieutenant Vasanti. The jest was on him, however, for she had only left a watchman there and she arrived five minutes later with a smirk. Vanesa had come up the stairs with him, so at least he did not spend what might be the last minutes of his life alone with a silent blackcloak. Maryam arrived when there were eight minutes left. She stayed close, as if to offer comfort, and the time passed all too quickly. Tristan glanced at the open door, the madness of metal past it, and his heart clenched.
Still, there was no need for a surfeit of losses today so he took off his hat and pressed it into Maryam’s hands. She took it, looking baffled.
“Keep it safe,” he solemnly said.
Maryam glanced at the worn tricorn, then back at him.
“If the hat a symbol?” she tried.
“It’s a really good hat,” Tristan defensively replied. “Keeps the rain out of my face.”
“Well then, that changes everything,” Maryam said, lips twitching.
He smiled back, then turned towards the door. He breathed in deep, trying to settle his nerves and failing.
“Three minutes,” Vanesa announced, eye on her watch.
Lieutenant Vasanti, standing further up the stairs, stared down at him.
“It is not too late to back out,” she told him. “I will turn you over to Lieutenant Wen, but a caning’s the worst you’ll be in for.”
Tristan’s eyes narrowed. Is that what you were after the whole time? For me to give you an excuse to be passed off to Wen, thrown out of the trials. The lieutenant had said that killing him might result in retaliation by Abuela, but if he only failed the trials and the matter was handled by another besides, well she could hardly be blame could she? It would have been natural to feel indignation at that, at being made the pawn of a game between others, but Tristan found he did not.
He was a rat: he’d spent all his life scurrying around the boots of men.
“I thank you for your concern,” the thief pleasantly smiled.
The old woman’s face clenched.
“One minute,” Vanesa said. “Remember what I told you.”
He wrenched his gaze away from the watchwoman, stepping to the threshold of the door. There he counted down in his mind, matching Vanesa’s spoken count of the last seconds, and clutched the small metal orb between his fingers.
“Now,” Vanesa said, and he moved.
In whole, it took twenty-one seconds.
He jumped down onto a horizontal cog, keeping low as wheels passed above his head. Three steps, then to the side. The piston tore through, bleeding steam, and he hurried forward before the second one could take him in the side.
He grabbed a warm pipe and hoisted himself across, sweaty fingers slipping, dropping down on the spoke of a wheel just a heartbeat too early. The tick of the wheel jostled him, enough he almost fell forward, and he stumbled.
Fifteen seconds, but he was off.
He had missed a beat. He climbed between two wheel, began to crawl through, but they were already too far ahead: he would never make it across before they pressed down enough he got stuck. So Tristan took the long odds, bet on Vanesa’s cleverness.
He borrowed, borrowed deep, and as a ticking began that drowned out even the cacophony of this place he blindly threw the small metal ball he had taken from the forge. For a moment there was nothing
Then metal screamed, the gears grinding to a halt.
Stuck, as Vanesa had told him it would be. No matter how good the clock, she had said, sometimes all it took was a grain of sand. He hurried through, dropping down on the pipe, and then there was a crushing sound. The ball was broken, the gears began moving, but he was almost through and…
He did not see the piston until it was too late. The damned thing came not from the side, like all the others, but from above. He moved in time, or almost: it caught the edge of his hand, a mere brush of the massive thing enough to break it.
He swallowed a scream, forcing himself to go forward, but he’d missed the timing. He could see the door, but before he could jump through the wheels coming from the side would cut through his limbs. He tried anyway, leaning forward.
He heard a distant shout, felt a cool wind, and something grabbed him by the back. Maryam. He was shoved forward, through the open door, as something sharp clipped the edge of his coat.
Twenty-one, and Tristan was through.
He landed belly first on the stone, barely taking in the sight of small stone chamber before he released the luck. Tristan braced himself with a wince, looking for from where the hurt would come, but as he flipped back on his back nothing happened. His wince deepened.
Those prices were always the worst.
The thief got back on his feet, swallowing a curse at the throbbing pain of his finger. The room was small and mostly empty, but that there was anything left at all was promising. There a set of stone shelves to the side, empty and coated in dust, and on the other wall the tiling was in some elaborate green pattern as well as striated by cryptoglyphs. The part that caught his attention, though, was the rod left propped up by the shelves. A length of metal about four feet long, it ended in a metal brand made of the same golden alloy as the machine from earlier. There was no obvious use for it, however, so he tore his eyes away.
There was only one door out, to the right, so he quietly moved into the next room. There he stopped after two stuttering steps, eyes fixed to the display taking up an entire wall. He had seen rows of metal tiles like this before: he was looking at an exact match for the tiles at the center of the iron gates leading into the pillar. Suppressing his excitement he swept the rest of the room – two doorways out, both closed doors – before getting closer. The tiles here were adorned with a single black glyph each, unlike those outside, and peeking behind them they seemed to be connected to a series of pistons and gears going into the wall.
Lightly he dared push a stile and found it easily gave, pressing back the piston behind it. He stopped before anything could come of it.
“Well,” he said, “that might just get us into the pillar.”
Leaning against the wall with her arms crossed, long red sleeves billowing, Fortuna scoffed.
“I would worry more about getting out of this place, if I were you,” she said. “Unless you intend to try the cogs again?”
Tristan grimaced, glancing at his broken and swelling finger. He’d been lucky that was all he had paid for the passage with. Fortuna was right, he needed to find a way to return to the Old Fort instead of getting caught up in the exploration. The door next to her was smooth stone with only a small round opening where a lock should be, and he was not fool enough to risk putting a finger in there. His goddess cleared her throat, pointing just to the right of her blond locks. There was a small indent in the wall, he realized, and nestled in it were three stone buttons covered with a strange writing he had never before seen.
“Well spotted,” he praised.
“At least one of us should end up a passable thief,” she replied.
He rolled his eyes at her. The stone buttons came out easily and he took one, then pocketed a second out of habit. Tempted as he was to try to open the stone door with the obvious key, he instead had a look at the other. More of that golden alloy he kept seeing, and a more traditional door as well: a simple latch kept it closed. He pried it open, or tried to: the moment he touched the latch it came loose and drooped to the floor with a tinkling sound. The door cracked open an inch.
Tristan paused: that had felt uncomfortably like luck turning on him.
When he risked a glance trough the open door, however, he found no danger. Dim light with no visible source revealed a curving hallway of stone, ending in a distant door. The thief opened the door all the way and stepped into the hall, careful to keep his steps light. After a dozen steps he caught sight of a door that had been hidden by the curve. Green glass, but almost transparent and through with he thought he was seeing-
“Tristan,” Fortuna suddenly said.
He stilled instantly, for in the goddess’ voice he had heard fear.
“Walk back into that room,” she whispered. “Very slowly.”
There was a sound like a breath, amused.
Oh fuck. He was not an utter fool, so he’d begun running the moment he heard the breath, but even so he was too slow. The large shape dropped from above and he caught sight of slimy scales before throwing himself to the side – the hit had his broken finger throbbing. Something like a hand – the size of his torso – passed close enough to ruffle his hair. He scrambled to his feet, glimpsing globulous yellow eyes before breaking into a run for the door.
He had time to take a single before the lights of the hall went out.
Oh, fuck, Tristan thought. He threw himself to the side again, running on pure instinct, and felt something massive and wet pass less than an inch above his back. Worse it stayed there, dripping some kind of stinking pus. The thief rolled to the side, narrowly avoiding something trying to snatch him up, and broke into a running start again. Light came through the open door to the tile room, revealing that the wet thing was a deformed red tongue twice the length of a man, and Tristan almost whimpered when it withdrew, sucked in with a slurp. He got through the doorway and tried to slam the door shut behind him, but the latch was still broken.
That fucking latch was going to get him killed.
“You smell,” the god said, “like hubris. Delicious.”
He could not have described that voice, save that it was sick and somehow it felt like a tongue dragging across his skin. Trying to master his panic Tristan ran for the other door, miraculous having not dropped the stone button.
Then the lights in the room went out.
“No,” he snarled, feeling the god enter the room from the movement of air alone.
Was he really going to die here just because he could not see in the dark? He began groping for the opening but he could not quite recall where –
“Here,” Fortuna hissed, guiding his hand.
Fortuna, who like the god after them no more needed light to see than she needed air to breathe. He pressed the button into the hole and the door popped open, and light came through. Hands scrabbling against the stone, Tristan hurried through and slammed the door behind him – turning to see horrifyingly human-like teeth the size of his hand biting down at where he had been standing, a too-long throat convulsing behind them.
The door snapped shut, the stone button falling out of the opening on his side and rolling down the stairs he now stood on.
Tristan slowly followed it down, limbs trembling and eyes unblinking as he kept staring at the door. He slid down the wall, falling into a crouch. His eyes never left the door separating him from the room where he had just almost been eaten alive. Fortuna set a hand on his arm, and sitting by his side, and eventually his breathing steadied.
“That thing,” he croaked out, “heard you talk to me.”
“It is an old god,” Fortuna murmured. “Perhaps as old as I am.”
The thief passed a hand through his hair, then forced himself to get back standing.
“It does not seem able to pass the door, at least,” he said. “There is that.”
Not that he intended to linger here regardless. Not when he could almost feel what lay on the other side of the stone, patiently waiting to sink its teeth into his flesh. Tristan, forcing calm, picked up the fallen stone button and headed down the narrow stairs. They looked much like the ones he had climbed on the other side of the pillar, and were pointed in the direction he believed to be outside. At the bottom of the flight was a long room of bare stone, whose monotony was broken up by only two things: the first was what looked like a folded ladder of golden alloy, three feet wide and folded so many times he could only guess at the length.
The other was a series of black triangles painted on the wall before him, around slight triangular stone protrusions. Heartbeat rising, the thief pressed on one of the triangles and found it sunk into the wall with a metallic click. There were nine others and he pressed them all, each clicking into place, and after the last there was the dim sound of wheels turning.
The wall before him shivered, then began to rise, and Tristan had never seen anything so beautiful as the expanse of the dark cavern laid out before him.
25 thoughts on “Chapter 27”
Ah, the chapter where I almost thought no changes at all would be made to my cast overview. I was wrong.
Chapter 27 Cast Overview Fanart.
Also, have a Fortuna dress design for this chapter. You guys have to understand… EE off-hand mentioned a new kind of sleeves. This is clearly very important.
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And somehow I messed up up a link.
Fortuna Dress Design
Hopefully this works.
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I didn’t expect Tristan to get Isabel to work for him given his dislike of nobles but it was really smart of him. Also Tristan is such a little shit towards the Watch embers and it’s hilarious.
Love the lore about gods and devils it’s really neat. Also really excited to see the rest of the carven Tristan has entered.
And so, Tristan takes the less dangerous path… Only to find out it is not less dangerous at all. His friends are safe, at least, so there’s that.
Tristan’s reaction to being forced to run a death-gauntlet, possibly intended as a bluff, possibly as a feint, is just one more chuckle-worthy moment of reading his PoV:
‘Did she expect me to beg?’ I read him say, and immediately expected the ‘Well, if so, screw that’ so common of protagonists. And instead I got an ‘because if so, she only had to tell me, I would have totally begged’, and that small subversion left me delightfully surprised. Tristan is a Rat’s Rat, he will do absolutely anything to survive.
Except, it seems, let go of old grudges. He is absolutely willing to die to get a chance at revenge. In that score, he’s actually (and surprisingly) the same as Angharad.
I just now noticed this properly (because I’m a bit slow, it was very clear in the narrative), but Tristan doesn’t actually give a fuck about the Cerdan brothers. He’ll kill them as a matter of course and convenience if he gets the chance, and that’ll probably brighten his day a little, but the one he’s willing to risk his skin to get at is actually Cozme.
Always fun to see Tristan and Angharad working at cross-purposes even when they have similar goals.
I think if given the opportunity he will burn house Cerdan to the ground in it’s entirety. To me that is what he meant by calling the brothers “ledger work,” just one more piece to bring the whole diseased house crashing down.
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In some ways the brothers are an exploitable weakness for Cozme. Keeping them alive improves Tristan’s odds of getting revenge
Some great lore and confirmation of a sort that Isabel is not to be trusted. No doubt she is using Angharad.
Is it just me or did Tristan’s group get all of the good characters? So far if I’m doing rankings we would need to get past Tristan, Maryam, Yong, Vanessa, and Fortuna before we’d even get to the second POV character.
Nah, that’s only because Tristan is more observant than Angharad. If their positions were switched we’d know a lot more about the crew that went into the maze. Even so, Angharad herself and Song are two of my favorites, and I really want to know more about Yaretzi.
I am wondering who Abuela is? Why she taught Tristan or forced Tristan in to this place? What is it that she want? It feels like we are playing puzzle and Among Us at the same time.
She’s a member of the Krypteia, and therefore a spy. Spies have circles and tools to help them gather information. Tristan started a tool, I think, but proved competent enough to train. Now, I think, she’s seeing if he’s worth recruiting. Or possibly already decided that but needs to prove her faith in him to her colleagues, rivals, and coworkers in the Watch.
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Was cutting all exists for Tristan really is the best way to recruit him? It is a little forceful. If Abuela just … told Tristan to join the Trial, wouldn’t that be better? What exactly is the reason that stop Abuela from just simply told Tristan to join.
If Tristan did want to do it then he might not be that suitable. It is better if all participants are willing. Unless, there is some reason that Tristan wouldn’t join the Trials. I means he seem very enthusiastic at the chance to have his revenge.
If Tristan did want – If Tristan did not want
@vuthuha912: Cutting all exits from Tristan is *guaranteed* to recruit him or kill him. He can’t just say ‘no’ and walk away, and if he says ‘no’ and walk away you’ve either lost a valuable tool or handed it to a potential enemy. She didn’t give him a choice to decline and become someone else’s knife to use against her, and she’s managed to give him a carrot as well since she timed it right that he’d arrive on the Dominion at the same time as his top name on his hit list.
Spies cannot afford to be merciful, as if they are caught traditionally they are killed. They need to be cunning, ruthless, and determined to succeed and survive… And ‘Abuela’ means ‘grandmother’, so Nerei has likely been doing this a long time.
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She didn’t tell him because that risks exposing who she is if someone were to overhear, or having to put herself in a compromised position if he says no and she has to kill him.
Spy logic, simple and pure
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From two or three chapters back, we know that she’s a Watch intelligence officer by the name of Nerei. She has a bit of a reputation for long plans, and for revenge on Watch members who cross her too openly.
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I think given this and Angharad’s pov we just found a key to what is going on with this whole maze. The description of this old god seems to match the visions Angharad keeps having with seeing the ‘red flesh’ in the throats of the puppeted maze gods. Given that the devils went to extreme lengths to hide this part of the pillar perhaps they sealed this old god in there in such a way that it can feed off of the entire maze.
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Cants, the languages of the People of the Dark, are known by everyone to be descended from the Antediluvians. I had considered the possibility, but thought the evidence would slowly be uncovered. A history recovered by our protagonists, potentially to be put to greater purpose.
But that didn’t even need to happen. Everyone knows the people they have cast out of society are the children of the nigh-omnipotent progenitors. It is such common information that nobody even consciously considered it until now, background information unnecessary to the day-to-day thoughts of anyone on Vesper, yet vitally important to us. The very people who laud the creations of the ancestors as peerless and beyond compare denigrate the descendents as subhuman. They do not recognize this contradiction. Do not stop to consider the obvious implications of readily available knowledge. Unless our characters are very much mistaken, there do not even seem to be any attempts to ask the Children of the Dark what they know of the devices of their forebears, to see if anything can be restored or built. All the potential ancestral knowledge languishes, held only by people despised by everyone with the resources to do anything with it.
Much is said of the cruelty of imperialist thought. This is as it should be, for all the cruelties of the modern age descend directly from it. But where cruelty exists, we as humans often find it difficult, crass, even profane, to talk of inefficiency and waste. As if the horrors we inflict upon ourselves overshadow and outweigh the material losses inherent to horror. But they go hand in hand, inseparable. How many potential builders of wonders have died unremembered and unremarked on the Dominion of Lost Things? How many stories preserving the means to maintain or repair a machine have been forgotten? We know such things must exist, after all, as they exist in our own languages too. Mnemonics, acronyms, shortcuts to the memory of long instructions; these things are encoded in language as much as anything else, and the language of the people who built all the wonders of Vesper still lives. What could be recovered from this? Our characters do not know. Worse than not caring, they don’t consider it. No moral or material assessments of the possibility of learning from these people are performed because they have not recognized that their most hated outcasts and most powerful artifacts share the same origin.
Even without ancient artifacts of incredible power, this lesson finds application in the real world. Idiotic tech billionaires, among many other worthless ideas, have fronted the possibility of building supposedly sustainable cities in deserts on countless occasions. Of course, their visions are both impossible and would be massive wastes of every material involved. Glass skyscrapers in deserts are better understood as greenhouses, and require titanic amounts of energy to prevent them from cooking their residents. Lush gardens out in the open, meant to visually contrast with the wastes surrounding the city, lose enormous amounts of water to evaporation. Shining white walls look good on a computer render, but would be blinding to look at for any resident. These ideas are nonsense, fit only to stroke the egos of men whose only posession of greater magnitude is the number of zeros on their bank accounts.
But what if we wanted to actually build a sustainable desert city? What would that look like? I thought about this for a few minutes and came up with this: short concrete buildings, closely spaced so the streets were shadowed at all times. No room for cars, which cause horrific urban heat islands in any case and make the entire outdoors unusable, so all streets are really just walking paths anyway. Mass transit can be placed underground. The buildings’ thick walls insulate them, and being short and effectively made of stone means they can benefit from the ambient temperature of the underground, much like caves…
I stopped there because I realized something. I wasn’t inventing anything. None of those solutions were creative or new. All of them were over a thousand years old, first developed by the various Pueblo nations. They have lived in deserts since time immemorial, so of course they developed the best way to build cities in them. Modern cities built or inspired by white people are insane wastes of resources and human life when placed in such regions – see the entire city of Phoenix, Arizona – but theirs work just fine, with modern amenities relatively trivial to add to the mix. But we didn’t bother to ask the experts on desert city construction before building Phoenix, or Dubai, or Jeddah, because we didn’t consider their culture or history to grant them that expertise. Because we didn’t consider them fully human.
Well, from the fact that the Antediluvians built the machines that disperse and focus the Glare while the Darklings are known to avoid it we know that even if those two peoples have some connection they’re not the same. Furthermore, someone already said a few chapters back that the Darklings are decades or more behind on technology compared with the rest of civilization. So, while I agree that they may not deserve to be treated as barbarians (we really have no way of deciding for now if their traditions are just different or actually rely on constant unwilling human sacrifice) they probably wouldn’t be able to contribute much, if at all.
Besides, it is unlikely academics like Francho (at least originally) learned cants from anyone other then their speakers – Darklings themselves. That, combined with an offhanded mention by Tristan that he has interacted with at least one hollow in Sacromonte leads me to believe that Darklings are not as detached from the rest of civilization as you seem to think.
China was several decades behind the rest of the world in term of technology and so was Japan when the American forced them to open up. Generally, the rest of East Asia were all behind in technology when European started to colonize them. That doesn’t mean they have nothing to contribute. The fact that Darklings can survive in the dark longer than anyone means they can discover this world more freely than most normal people. All the things like old ruins, buildings, technology, resources which were lost in the dark can now be uncovered. Darklings have the ability but lack the structure to process stuffs they found, normal human has knowledge and structure to process but it is a dozen time more dangerous for them than for Darklings. Co operation is the win-win solution.
It takes around a decade or so with proper planning for some nation irl to catch up but they will catch up eventually.
Generally, I do think the Darklings should be integrated back into society, just for the potential of having a generation that does not require Gloam to survive. However, as that did not happen, I assume that something or some forces is stopping this, likely the one who hold the monopoly on Gloam who did not want that monopoly destroyed.
Still, I do want to see more of Darkling society to be sure on how to approach the issue of integration.
Now I’m worried Maryam’s Sign got broken and she got killed by the backlash without Tristan noticing. Having the consequence of the luck backlash be hidden really is the worst.
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We already know Children of the Radience can become dark as one of the outcomes of Gloam sickness. Even assuming the Antediluvians weren’t of the dark themselves, we have a clear mechanism for them to have become so once their empire fell and their wonders began to fail. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to presume all existing cultures of the Children of the Dark do descend directly from those of the Antediluvians, and indeed that many of their people do as well. We know their language does, after all, and language consists of, preserves, and conveys the majority of any human culture.
Furthermore, marginalized peoples in the real world aren’t “detatched from the rest of civilization.” Many may well be better off were that the case. Instead, they are assaulted constantly by the entirety of the civilization; their cultural practices banned or denigrated, their appearance shamed or discriminated against, their ability to participate in trade, education, and other basic societal functions curtailed, and their existence and voices ignored except when necessary or convenient to those maintaining this oppression. The People of the Dark could be singing songs on the maintenance of ancient devices daily and it wouldn’t matter. They would be ignored, just as the advice of the Navajo, Hopi, and many other nations was ignored while we built desert monuments to hubris and waste.
And sure, the Children of the Dark might be behind in technology now, but the technological advancement of a culture depends on more than just knowledge. What use is a memorized rhyme on the construction of some ancient device (which are things that exist in the real world, mostly around the construction of complex traps, fishing wiers, etc.) when the mines for the materials are all held by your enemies? What good does it do them to know how to maintain a device built high in the sky when the means to reach it are gone? A poem about a machine which has been moved or dismantled for spare parts would not advance their apparent technological prowess. There is so much they could know which would not help in their current state of deliberately and maliciously engineered deprivation.
And as for whether such things would, or even could, be preserved in the oral traditions of an ancient people, the answer is unequivocally yes. The last time Mt. St. Helens (known as Loowit to some of the surrounding indigenous cultures) erupted was in 1985. The time before that was twelve thousand years ago. Despite this, every culture surrounding the mountain has stories about its prior eruption. Which is to say their oral tradition preserved the fact that the mountain was a volcano, with zero means of testing this empirically, for twelve thousand years. Twelve thousand years, incidentally, is also the approximate amount of time we would need to store the most deadly nuclear waste without anyone forgetting what it was or why it should be avoided. Which is why indigenous peoples around proposed storage sites have offered to write them into their own oral histories. Because that’s what oral history is for: remembering what needs to be remembered forever.
Now sure, a mnemonic preserving the means of maintaining a machine in the form of song is going to be more complicated than a story preserving a single fact, but the People of the Dark have written language to help with this, and also only need to have remembered it for around a thousand years. We also know too little about them to know what they remember from their ancestors. But the fact remains that they have the language with which wonders were built. Just knowing what words came from the Antediluvian language might be a huge help in deciphering their works because they would tell you what they did and did not know. Having the syntax, full lexicon, and actual native speakers, even of dialects long removed from those of the actual builders, could well allow a clever linguist to reconstruct the ancient tongue in its entirety. That’s how we’ve deciphered many real-world ancient texts.
But if anyone has thought to do this, they haven’t told our protagonists, and they haven’t begun repairing broken wonders with the knowledge. Because the people who have it are outcasts, and their voices are unheard and unheeded. This potential wealth of knowledge is instead the province of obscure researchers and old men. Not of the engineers who could use it most.
You seem to be analyzing this situation purely as a conflict between imperialists and oppressed natives, without factoring in the various established supernatural entities and factions which lack such direct real-world equivalence. The American civil war and westward expansion didn’t have battles interrupted by a god waking up and eating most of the combatants on both sides. If such a thing were widely accepted as possible, I suspect it would have had strategic relevance even without actually needing to happen, similar to nuclear deterrence or a https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fleet_in_being , but based on the events of the story so far, bloodthirsty and/or soul-hungry monsters are routinely encountered on this particular island and many other places, in enough strength to credibly threaten locals and imperialists alike.
Two-sided and three-sided conflicts work differently. Generalizing from one to the other risks introducing errors.
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In point of fact, there were ravenous beasts woken on real-world imperial battlefields which laid waste to invader and invadee alike. They had names like Malaria, Yellow Fever, Cholera, Smallpox, and Gangrene. They functioned in more or less exactly the same way as the Airavatan Beast as well. Striking down people in close proximity to each other, killing some, maiming others, and leaving the lucky unscathed. Native to the lands being invaded, and therefore less dangerous to the people of those lands whose cultures and bodies adapted to work around them, but still a scourge upon them all the same. Impossible to fight meaningfully with any weapon, escaped only by those clever enough to develop and use effective pharmaceutical solutions. Malaria in particular is a close match here, as it is not contagious person-to-person, and therefore confined to the places the Anopheles mosquito can thrive, much as the beast is confined to the island. The point is none of that stops colonizers. The threat of death by horrible indigenous plagues or monsters is not enough to quell the ravenous hunger of the imperial machine.
It is that machine I am analyzing. The conflicts you identify are merely a symptom of its continued function, after all. Rat or noble, prince or pauper, unhoused or billionaire, everyone participates in the machine. No matter their role, the fact is they play one.
It is, I have found, a poorly examined fact among revolutionary thinkers that the oppressors, too, are obeying the dictates of the system. Workers are incentivized to fight the boss, but the reverse is also true. Being the boss doesn’t make one free, just a more comfortable cog in the machine grinding all of humanity to dust. They must still do as the machine demands, and doing anything else will see them lose everything. It is that machine which is the enemy, those incentive structures which must be changed in order to make meaningful improvements. The nobility – no matter what they call themselves now – are only reasonable to model as enemies in a bilateral conflict because their role in the machine is less miserable than that of the peasants. They are incentivised to believe the machine is a good thing, that it cares about them. That it won’t turn on them just as easily as it has everyone else, the moment its values conflict with their own.
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