The Lorelei Signal
The Length of an Hour
Written by Zoë McAuley / Artwork by Lee An Barlow
“You are ready now, Ilina, and worthy,” her mistress told her with the same straightforward tone she took when ordering a book copied. “The First Circle are in agreement. The rite can be performed at a time of your choosing.”
Ilina spluttered a mouthful of tea back into the cup. She set the splattered porcelain down on the parlour table as calmly as she could. Her mistress watched the mishap with little interest. Ekaterina’s tightly drawn face was as still as an owl’s, with the same occasional slow blinks. The undead scholars cared nothing for minor embarrassments, either their own or those of their servants. It was only the matter of a few moments, after all, in the span of endless years.
“Thank you, Mistress, I… I had no idea the Circle thought so highly of me. It’s a great honour, of course.”
“It’s your due. You’ve given fifteen years of excellent service, mastered all the necessary skills and proved your character,” Ekaterina stated. She was not offering praise, just a list of facts. “You have met our requirements. The library grows and so must our number.”
“Thank you, Mistress.”
“You will have to learn to stop grovelling,” Ekaterina said with the subtlest of smiles. It had taken five full years to recognise when her mistress meant to tease. “It was fitting for your old station, but will not be fitting after the rite. I suggest you undergo it as soon as possible, of course. Thirty-seven is a good age, respectable but little sign of wear. An excellent point for preservation.”
Like a fine piece of taxidermy, Ilina thought, then felt ashamed. The Eternal Scholars were not stuffed animals, not even when they stopped still to read, flexing only a finger to turn the page, or stood staring out over the barren jagged cliffs beneath the Eternal Archive, forgetting even to blink.
“I see your point, Mistress…”
“If you have a question, speak it or there is no hope of receiving an answer.”
“It’s just… the rite itself. What does it involve?”
Ekaterina’s face moved more than Ilina had ever seen. It wasn’t much - a tiny tightening of the mouth, a shade of discomfort in the eyes, a pensive hesitation where there were usually firm, immediate answers.
“All you will need to do is lie still. The rite master will do the rest. There will be invocations, sigils painted upon you. There is be a number of physical alternations… incisions, extractions of blood and viscera… and of course, it will involve your death, albeit temporary. Fortunately it lasts only an hour and then you will have all of eternity ahead of you. You must keep that in mind.”
And then the serene mask was back in place, the traces of a painful memory concealed again.
“That sounds… a little daunting.”
“That’s why it is best done sooner, with less time to fret over the inevitable. Occasionally, acolytes have been so consumed by fear that they have cast aside the opportunity and left. But death will have come to them all the same and with far less benefit. I believe you are stronger than that, Ilina. Do not disappoint me, or the rest of the Circle.”
“I have no wish to do that, Mistress, I assure you.”
They sat in silence. Ilina craved her tea and wished she had not spat into it. Ekaterina would probably say nothing if Ilina drank the rest regardless, but Ilina had not yet surrendered her mortal qualms. Ekaterina had taken no tea. She had simply ordered her servant to bring the tray to her parlour and then watched her drink it. It might have been a considerate gesture to make the mortal comfortable. It was hard to say.
“It is only an hour,” Ekaterina said at last, then gestured to a shelf. “Take that hourglass. It will help you understand just how short a span that really is. When you are ready, let me know and I will make the arrangements.”
Ilina rose and did as she was told. From its style, Ilina reckoned it at least three centuries old. It was just heavy enough to be uncomfortable. Looking back, she saw her mistress had folded in on herself, head drooped and eyes closed. Ekaterina did not bother to dismiss her apprentice - she simply withdrew into herself and expected Ilina to know to leave. Ilina balanced the hourglass on the tea tray and carried them away.
~ * ~
The Eternal Archive was carved into the peak of a mountain. Ilina stepped out of the parlour onto a gallery cut out of solid rock, its colonnade breaking through the cliff-face. Her thoughts scattered in shock. She hurried to the nearest protruding balcony and rested against its thick parapet. Below was a deadly fall, above the endless, empty sky. Neighbouring peaks blocked out all view of the wider world. After fifteen years, it was hard to recall what was out there. The Eternal Archive had become Ilina’s entire world. High arched windows pierced the stone skin of the mountain, letting light into the outer layer of stacks and private quarters. The deep chambers were illuminated only by lumps of enchanted amber. Flames could not be trusted in the vast collection of writings, gathered through centuries of work by centuries-old undying scholars.
Those writings had drawn her here, entranced by the idea of the place since she was a girl. It had not disappointed her. She had copied manuscripts personally written by the great philosophers, organised annals reaching back millennia and translated the most ancient poems. She had also done a great deal of maid’s work for Ekaterina, but that was required of an apprentice scholar. There was no guarantee that an apprentice would be asked to join the scholars proper. Ilina wanted it, of course - her pinning for it had been maddening in the early years, feeding worries about the quality of her work. Slowly she had learnt to simply do the work in front of her, without being consumed by what may or may not happen. And now that it was happening, the sudden change was dizzying. Forever amongst her beloved books, wrapped in the expansive stillness of the mountain top. She wanted it. She knew she wanted it and yet a small blossom of fear took root in her. She had heard a little about what was done to make the scholars eternal.
Her head began to clear in the cold air. There was still immediate work to be done. She headed down the coil of galleries and stairways that encircled the peak. She left the tea set in the scullery and entered for the kitchen, the warm heart of the warren. Here, caged in thick stone, barricaded behind heavy doors which slid themselves shut under the force of dangling weights, was the sole fire in the Eternal Archive. Here alone the living servants cooked food and heated water. A cunning system of pipes bore away the excess heat to fend off the chill elsewhere. It was that warmth that drew the servants to congregate here. The cook had her feet up by the grate, the work of lunch complete. She waved Ilina towards the simmering vat of soup. Ilina claimed a bowl and joined a table of familiar faces.
She set down the hourglass with the sand falling and told the others the news. There was no coy gossip in the Eternal Archives. There was a beat of surprised silence, then a round of obligatory congratulations. Envy glittered in the eyes of Emil, the other apprentice scholar present, but most here were household staff, no more under consideration than a king’s servants were in line for the throne.
“Well, I wish you best, but I wouldn’t do it. Gives me the shivers thinking about it,” said Ginka. “So still they are sometimes and just as cold as the stone.”
Though diligent enough, Ginka had been assigned solely to duties in the kitchen or guest quarters within a month of her arrival, where her babble could not break the silence. After three years, Ilina was surprised that she had not already claimed her pay and left, but Ginka seemed happy to linger and let the money pile up.
“I know I’ve said it often enough,” Emil sighed, “but do mind your manners about the masters.”
“I mean no harm by it! Heavens know it’s true enough and I bet they’d be the first to admit it, blunt as they are. Best employers I’ve ever had, but I wouldn’t be one of them. Not that they’re bad people, but I’ve heard a little about what’s involved. Nasty business. It’s not natural, lingering like that forever.”
“The rite’s only a hour long,” Ilina said. She watched the sands slip. The level had barely lowered.
“What’s that for then?” Ginka waggled a spoon in her direction. “Practising?”
“Something like that.”
“Right… I really don’t know what these Scholars are thinking sometimes. Hey, you won’t go telling them what I said, once you’re eternal yourself, will you? I wouldn’t want the masters knowing how I waffle on sometimes.”
“No, but I’ll be a master and I’ll still know…” Ilina pointed out gently.
“Oh. Of course, well, you know I don’t mean anything by it, don’t you?” Ginka paled.
A quiet moment passed as the others eyed Ilina, pondering the shift in power, wondering whether they’d ever crossed her. She looked from face to face and almost smiled - each was too caught up in their own considerations to realise they all thought alike.
“I don’t know when the date will be yet, but we could have a celebration the night before. A last chance to feel the full force of wine and enjoy all your company,” she said. She didn’t much care for parties, but the suggestion drained the tension.
“There’s a little dried fruit left,” said the cook. “I’ll make you a plum pudding for the occasion. Them above won’t notice.”
“Aww, that’ll be nice!” Ginka was talking again. “Been nothing worth celebrating since Midwinter. We’ll give you a good last night of life. Now, I’ve been speaking to the handsome herald come up from the East Country. He’s after some old legal nonsense, but the things he says about the court…”
A hour of Ginka’s gossip proved a long time, her words tumbling faster than the sand grains.
~ * ~
She found Atanas in the scriptorium just before sunset. The books stacked around him were fresh donations ready to be read, analysed and judged. The last crisp natural light blended poorly with the golden light of the enchanted amber, casting strangely shaded shadows over the youngest Eternal Scholar, only twenty two years dead. Ilina let her feet slap on the stone floor, rousing him with a start. He looked up and smiled. The motion was still lively, but once his lips are reached their arch, they stayed fixed there overlong.
“Ah, Ilina! It’s good to see you…”
“Don’t worry, I already know. Mistress Ekaterina told me about my selection earlier.”
“Ah, good! I didn’t want to beat her to it. I wasn’t part of the decision-making, of course, out on the Third Circle, but I entirely approve. It’ll be good to have you up here all the time and not wasted on servants’ work.”
She had spent many hours facing Atanas across a copying table in the last few years, when her skills had been deemed sufficient for important works. For the most part, she transcribed the mundane bulk of the texts, while he added the illuminations and attended to the more demanding arcane sigils, where even the slightest misplaced stroke could doom some future reader. The stillness of a dead hand proved a blessing in such cases.
“No more carting around crockery… that will be a pleasant change.”
“And copying gets better. You won’t get hand cramps any more. Those just stop.” He flexed his cold fingers fondly.
Ilina slid into her accustomed seat, setting the hourglass by her current work, but she did not turn it nor reach for a fresh sheet of parchment. She wondered how to phrase her questions, ones she did not feel comfortable putting to anyone but Atanas. As the lowest of the dead and the highest of the living, the gap between them was comparatively narrow, bridged by long familiarity. And still, she wondered if she was about to shame herself.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. His show of concern seemed natural, unlike Ekaterina’s deliberate compositions.
“If I might speak freely…
“It’s just… frightening. The rite, the future. I know I came here in hopes of earning an eternal place in the library, but now that it’s on offer, it’s…”
“You like the work, don’t you?” A reedy, desperate note ran through his words. “You’ve always seemed to like it. And when you’ve been inducted, you’ll have more access to the books than ever. I could point you at a decade’s worth of fascinating reading I’ve found so far and I haven’t even scratched the surface.”
“It’s not that. I do want that, the work, the reading. I have a list of potential researches as long as my arm… it’s just… the process itself…”
Atanas sucked in a breath, a dramatic habit not yet forgotten. He stared down at the text before him, but his eyes were distant, taking in nothing.
“What of it?”
“Mistress Ekaterina gave me a vague idea of what was involved. It seemed… highly unpleasant.”
Atanas shrugged, though it might have been a shudder.
“Well… it’s not enjoyable, but it would be hard to make dying fun. But it’s like any medical procedure. Temporary suffering to prevent long term harm. No matter how bad it might be, it’s only a small span of time and in return, you get eternity. The balance sheet is undeniably in its favour. You’ve got to keep that in mind. A brief price in exchange for endless years of what you hold dear.”
“Only an hour, Ekaterina said.”
“Sounds about right. And hours pass. Just think how many hours we’ll get in this place together in exchange. Why, someday, we’ll even get quarters with daylight, when we both reach the Second Circle.”
He’s lonely, Ilina realised with such sudden clarity that she did not know how she has missed it before that moment. The next youngest Eternal Scholar was over a century older than him and most were much older still. He saw in her a peer, a companion in the passage of ages and the progress of their undying state. It was not the urge for a mate - that did not return from the grave. It was a more fundamental need for someone who was like him. He needed her to be convinced. And in that need to convince her, he was blustering over her concern.
“That does sound pleasant, but still, right now, I cannot help but fear what the rite might involve. It might be rational to go through with it, given the yield, but it is also natural to fear pain.”
“But of course, the higher mind allows us to press through animal fear, by understanding what’s at stake. I know you have the strength to do that, Ilina. I admit, I hesitated a little too, but in the end, it was better when it was over. My advice - set a date soon. Delay it and all you do is lengthen the part of your life spent living in fear. Once it’s done, it can’t hurt you any more, but until then, it can distress you. The wise thing to do is to act and end the distress.”
Claiming her wages and heading down the mountain would also end her distress, but she said nothing of that possibility. She wasn’t even sure in herself that she considered it a possibility. She did not want to leave. She loved the Eternal Archive and there was nothing left for her below. Those who refused were dismissed, to make way for apprentices who might show more dedication.
“Perhaps you are right…”
“I’ve been through it. I like to think I learned something.”
“True. Only an hour…”
She turned the hourglass and set about her work. A hour lost in the motions of the quill passed quickly. Atanas had to point out its end to her. But her thoughts lingered on his little signs of discomfort for many hours more.
~ * ~
For a week, Ilina studied the length of an hour. They proved not at all alike. The first hour of the day, crammed with waking, washing, dressing and eating before the day’s tasks, was short to the point of inadequate. Hours spent fetching, carrying or waiting dragged, while hours spent chasing answers through the tomes of the library raced by. The hours after she lay down in bed, when fear nibbled most keenly and thoughts ran around her skull like rats, lasted for little eternities. The hours of sleep, when at last they came, were beyond perception. Still, they all had one thing in common. Every hour ended.
At the end of the week, she returned the hourglass to her mistress and asked for the rite to be performed as soon as possible. The hours waiting for the response were longer than usual, but it came by evening. It could be done in three days’ time.
She had three days left to live.
There was no lessening of her schedule in consideration of this, of course. Her superiors expected her work done as normal until the day of the rite. But then Ilina couldn’t think of what she would do with two days of free time anyway. There was nothing much else to do in the Eternal Archives and the foot of the mountain was several days away. The best she could do was go through those last days paying fresh attention to all the small aspects of living. She tried to taste her food as she chewed. She knew the undying could eat, but the older ones generally did not bother. Atanas still had a fondness for sweet things, requesting little bowls of dried fruit and nuts as far as his privileges would allow, so taste did not vanish immediately. Still, it seemed worth fixing in her mind. The same went for the feeling of breath and the heat of her own body. She took note of all her little movements, usually beneath the notice of conscious thought, in case she had to reproduce them from memory someday. In part, the effort was a distraction, something to deny time to morbid speculation on what was to come. But perhaps dwelling on what she would lose was foolish.
As promised, the cook brought out a plum pudding and a few bottles of booze the night before the rite. The whole of the serving staff made merry on her behalf. Plenty offered her their drunken opinions on her future. Some congratulated her and angled after her future patronage. Some, like Ginka, rambled about their own misgivings about the process. Emil drank quietly and continuously for most of the evening, before standing up to declare that he would be claiming his pay and heading down the mountain to start a book-making business back in his home town. That done, he vomited into the scraps bucket and had to be carried to bed. Though she ate to the point of discomfort and drank herself to dizziness, the party seemed somehow happen around her, rather than to her or even because of her. It went on after she left, humming through the thick walls of her quarters. Her small collection of things were already packed up. Soon she would have new quarters.
Some time before dawn Ilina realised that her last opportunity for sound living sleep had already passed. That final night brought her none.
~ * ~
Though it was barely passed dawn, she was already long awake and ready when Ekaterina knocked on her door, but she still shuddered like a startled deer at the sound. Ekaterina greeted her with a long, silent inspection, then nodded and led the way. No one crossed their path, though Ilina heard doors creak open behind her as they passed. She did not look back.
Together they climbed the spiral of stairways and galleries, passing between night and day as they passed between the western and eastern faces of the mountain. Still they encountered no one.
They passed through the higher reaches where Ilina had never ventured, where the spiral coiled inwards towards the peak, where only the eldest scholars and most precious books dwelt. Here, the ancient carvings had worn away to blunt outlines. Finally, the steps led up to a broad ledge hacked out of the side of the pinnacle, open to the vast sky and raking winds. Only a last spire of bare stone remained, rising to a crumbling point. A simple doorway led into the stone. It was open. Ekaterina paused on the threshold. For the first time in Ilina’s experience, she appeared nervous.
“You should understand that this is your last chance to leave. I won’t stop you. But once you’ve entered the chamber, it will be done, no matter how you feel about it.”
“No matter how I feel…?”
“There needs to a point of no return somewhere,” Ekaterina said with a small shrug.
“Is that when the hour starts?”
“Should I leave?” Ilina asked, shocked by her own boldness.
Ekaterina looked out at the full arc of the sky and the distant clouds.
“I think if you leave, you will never know if you should have, and if you stay, you will only know if you should have left when it is too late.”
“Should you have left?”
“No… I do not think so.”
Ilina took a last look at the stark morning.
“Then I will stay. Let’s begin this hour.”
Ekaterina nodded and led her into the darkness.
~ * ~
The round chamber was hollowed roughly out of the stone. At its heart, rising from the cavern floor, was a slab large enough to lie upon, caught in the channel of daylight cast through the open door. A circle surrounded it, fresh candles standing vigil around its edge, though they burned scarlet. Markings glistened on the floor. Beyond the circle, the chamber rose in carved ledges and here she found the Eternal Scholars, assembled in full. They only half-filled the seating, she noted distantly. The order had much room to expand.
The rite master stood by the slab. Krasimir was more mummified than most and seldom left the higher reaches. Ilina had barely glimpsed him in all her years at the Archive. Now he inspected her with eyes paled to the colour of parchment. Yet, though unnatural, his eyes were not unkind.
“Very good,” he said. “Now, Ilina, remove the robe and lay down on the stone.”
Ilina glanced around the room and blushed a little.
“Never mind them. They’ve all done it too. I’m afraid you’ve got to leave life the way you arrived,” he laughed drily. He clearly told this joke every time.
She looked at Ekaterina, who simply nodded and took the robe after Ilina shed it. Her mentor retreated to one of the higher ledges. Ilina climbed up onto the slab. It was bitterly cold.
Shuddering, she forced herself to lie down and discovered that the slab was not quite bare. Shallow carvings marked out some eldritch pattern beneath her, but more worrying were the cuffs - bindings of chain and leather screwed into the stone.
“I’ll just fasten these…” Krasimir’s bony fingers made short work of strapping her down at wrist and ankle, arm and thigh.
Meanwhile, the door was sealed, shutting out all daylight. The time to choose had gone.
She twisted to look around her. Amidst the dark robes, one object glittered within easy view - the hourglass on Ekaterina’s lap, the sand already flowing. If she squinted, Ilina could just about pick out the level. The hour had begun. All she had to do was lie here and let Krasamir do his work. Yet she already felt a fluttering panic.
It started with paint, thick and cold on a scratchy brush. She focused on steadying her breathing. A layer of sand had gathered in the bottom reservoir by the time Krasimir stepped away. The fearsome hour was already passing.
At the edge of her vision, black shapes moved in the candlelight. Then voices raised up in chorus, their number indistinct. It was a chant, in some unknown tongue, the long dead voices dry and rasping. Krasimir intoned over the drone with surprising skill. It was almost entrancing. She fancied that someday she might learn this incantation. In truth, she knew so little about the occult arts. The Scholars kept those to themselves. Soon it would be ourselves, she thought. More sand had slipped by. This would be easy enough, she decided. Her fears had been for nothing, as fears often were.
Then the candles went out.
Time was suspended as she lay cold and helpless, barely aware of whether her eyes were open or shut, the only sound the slightest scratch of cloth on stone. The hourglass was gone.
A knife slid shallowly down her chest, following a painted line.
Ilina screamed. There was no reply, except another cut across her abdomen. The shock burned away quickly, but the pain kept burning, accompanied by the wet warmth of her own blood. Every line was going to be cut open, she realised and whimpered. Layers of pain criss-crossed each other as more and more of her body shrieked for her attention. She tried to stop shrieking and failed. It did not seem to matter whether she cried out. The knife kept coming, its wielder silent. She had control enough not to beg, but not to stop herself jerking away from the blade’s touch. Unyielding hands held her when the bindings were not enough.
All she had to do was lie there. All she had to do was lie there and suffer. It was easy. Easy. There was no choice. Even in the dark, she looked to the hourglass. She could see nothing. The sands might have barely moved or been almost spent. She could not know.
Then came a gap in the slices. Not in the pain, of course. That carried on screaming over her skin. The chanting began again, more forceful, the rhythm matching her pounding heart. Wellsprings of blood overfilled and trickled over the curves of her limbs, pooled in the folds of her body. She could not tell how deeply she was wounded or how freely she was bleeding. Krasimir’s voice began again and a coldness crept over her like a thousand spiders. Now she could feel the dark, bleak magic drumming up around her, gnawing at the rents in her skin, slithering through them, taking root, chilling whatever it touched. But it did not numb like natural cold. It lacked that mercy. Krasimir kept singing his commanding, almost defiant hymn.
Ilina began to grow dizzy and did not fight it. Flickers of green and blue danced in the blackness of her vision. No one said she had to stay conscious. Perhaps she could slip out of herself along with her blood and wake up when she was dead. Then the cold magic reached her brain and held her starkly, bitterly awake. She sobbed.
All she had to do was lie there, until the hour was passed. It was too late to do anything else. No, she could hate herself, hate herself for allowing this, for lying down on this accursed rock. Nothing was worth this pain, nothing. There was no eternity, just one agonising hour stretching on eternally.
Krasimir was working towards a crescendo. A sudden driving pain plunged into her side, deep, deep in her guts. It sliced. Things within her slid and spilled away. Ilina became a mindless, screaming thing, until another slice crossed her throat. Then there was no air to scream with, only more pain. The cold magic ran into every part of her, even the freshly empty parts.
She felt a sharp point sliding over her breast, seeking a furrow between ribs, and welcomed it. It drove down and finally carried her into oblivion.
~ * ~
She awoke wrapped in thick wool, but she was not warm. She drifted, faintly aware of amber lights, an unfamiliar ceiling overhead. These things meant little. All that mattered was that there was no pain.
Eventually, she remembered that she could move. She did, just for the novelty. She tilted her head and found Ekaterina sitting nearby. She looked relieved as she met Ilina’s listless gaze.
“How are you feeling?”
Ilina considered. She felt cool. Still. She realised she was not breathing. She took a breath and let it go. She felt little need for another. Instead, she sat up. Her limbs felt light, a little distant, like the limbs of a puppet. She let the blanket fall away and found the cold meant little too. Her skin was scrubbed clean and clear.
There were no wounds, no scars.
Should there be? She wondered and then remembered why she expected them. The echo of the pain rushed back with hot horror. She coiled up. Ekaterina was suddenly standing by her, a hand on her back.
“It’s over now. You have eternity. Forget about how you got it.”
But the memories ripped open now. Stale fear gripped her, regurgitated by the recalling sensation of cold stone and sharp steel. She pulled the blanket up tightly, trying to ground herself in the present scratching of wool, but the ceremony continued to play itself out beneath the surface. Ekaterina grabbed her chin and forced Alina to look into her eyes. Reflected in them was the same eternally echoing scene. She hadn’t forgotten at all, Ilina saw. None of them ever did.
“Come now, Alina. You’re better than this. Speak to me. You still have your wits, don’t you?”
“Uh…I… yes, yes, of course…”
“Good. Then dress yourself. I believe there’s a gathering in your honour in the Third Circle common room.”
Ekaterina stepped away and gestured to a pile of new clothes. Her own true Scholar’s garb, Ilina realised, and reached for them. A task, a place to be, people to talk to, then work, research, a schedule, she thought greedily. All them stuffing for her mind, each one a plank to board over the memory, the fear, the pain, that would repeat itself within her forever.
Zoë McAuley lives in the north of England. There's a list of things she's written at zoemcauley.wordpress.com.