"Every psychologist of our day knows the origin of transformation therapy, though many prefer not to speak of it. It is considered embarrassing to be forced to admit that your primary tool for curing patients was developed by a group of torturers."
The Eternal Dungeon, a royal prison where criminals are transformed, has lost its leadership. The duty of returning the dungeon to normal falls on two Seekers (torturers) who are already burdened with their own problems. One Seeker is struggling to understand why an old love affair continues to gnaw at him. The other Seeker is faced with his greatest challenge: whether to risk the man who is most precious to him in order to save his own abuser.
A winner of the 2011 Rainbow Awards (within the "Eternal Dungeon" omnibus), this tale of love and adventure can be read on its own or as the second volume in The Eternal Dungeon, a speculative fiction series set in a nineteenth-century prison where the psychologists wield whips.
The Eternal Dungeon series is part of Turn-of-the-Century Toughs, a cycle of alternate history series (Young Toughs, Waterman, Life Prison, Commando, Michael's House, The Eternal Dungeon, and Dark Light) about adults and youths on the margins of society, and the people who love them. Set in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the novels and stories take place in an alternative version of America that was settled by inhabitants of the Old World in ancient times. As a result, the New World retains certain classical and medieval customs.
The office had a waterfall. That was what most visitors found striking about the Codifier's office: it had a natural waterfall that ran down the far side of the room, collected in a pool that reflected the stalactites hanging from the ceiling like dragons' teeth, and then disappeared down some hidden hole in its depths. If you looked carefully, you could see tiny, transparent creatures swimming in the water – creatures that had lived in the underground cave for so long that they had lost all color. How they were able to see to know where to swim, no one who visited the Codifier's office had been able to figure out, for their eyes, if any, were hidden. "Hooded Seekers" they had been tagged long ago.
So most visitors were struck by the waterfall. Weldon Chapman was not. He was struck by the presence of the door.
He tried not to stare too hard at it. Most visitors to this room never guessed what it was: it looked like the door to a great bank vault, and it operated much like one, opening by means of mechanics. It was virtually the only piece of machinery, other than the racks, that was housed in the damp Eternal Dungeon, and it was a miracle that it had not rusted long ago. Yet it continued to work, and Weldon, despite himself, found his eyes drifting over to the ceiling-high water-clock in the corner of the room, which marked the hours between dawn and dusk.
Then he forced his gaze away from this as well. The doorways that led to this room were nearly as heavily guarded as the main exit from the dungeon; Weldon had passed through two sets of guards to reach here. Even so, at this time of day the office would usually be deserted but for its owner and his trusted secretary in the adjoining room. That three other men were permitted to sit here now was a measure of the Codifier's trust in them.
The presence of the eldest man was perhaps not a sign of trust but simply an acknowledgment that he, unlike the other two guests in the room, was permitted to walk through that door. His hair was greying, and he had mutton-chop whiskers, the traditional appearance of a healer. At the moment, he was frowning.
"'When will he be well?'" he repeated in a loud voice. "Bloody blades, man, shouldn't you be asking me whether he will be well?"
Weldon glanced at the Codifier. Had he received this response from any other member of the dungeon, however exalted in title, the Codifier would have promptly melted that person with a fierceness as heated as the dragon he was rumored to have once been. It seemed, however, that he accepted a healer's right to be eccentric. The Codifier's hands remained folded calmly on his desk as he said in a voice so mild that it was almost hid by the harsh whisper of the waterfall, "Will he get well, then?"
"Ask the fates!" shot back Mr. Bergsen, the dungeon's healer. "They have a better idea than I do. In all my lifetime, I've never dealt with a case this bad."
Weldon threw a worried look at the youngest guest in the room, who was staring at the water rushing its way down the wall. It was a sign of great trust that the Codifier would permit this young man to sit in this room at this time of day. Weldon doubted, though, that Elsdon Taylor had given any thought to the honor, and that in itself explained why the junior Seeker was permitted here. His mind and his heart were so manifestly bound to one person in the Eternal Dungeon that there was no chance he was even contemplating the possibilities inherent in that door.
Elsdon appeared not to have heard the healer's words. He continued to stare blankly at the waterfall.
"It would help," the Codifier suggested with just the barest hint of a dragon biting down on its meal, "if you could provide more details on the illness. Is it the same as last time?"
Mr. Bergsen shook his head. He looked angry, as any healer might be who was faced with an illness he could not cure. "The dreamings are different this time. They are all of women. We know the reason for that." He turned his face toward Weldon, his brows drawn low over his eyes.
Weldon forced himself to relax. Unlike the furious whispers he had heard amongst other dungeon inhabitants during the past six weeks, the healer's words were not an accusation; they were simply the recital of a fact known by everyone in this office. Weldon found himself thankful, though, that the dungeon's newest Seeker-in-Training had not been invited to this meeting.
"All of women," Mr. Bergsen went on. "Women being raped, or mutilated, or screaming from hooks in the ceiling – do you really want me to detail the various ways that the High Seeker has contemplated destroying women in his dreamings?"
"That will not be necessary." The Codifier's voice was brisk and businesslike, though Weldon had seen Elsdon grow tense. Perhaps he was listening after all. Or perhaps he was simply contemplating the situation.
"And his dreamings are taking over his mind, as they did last year?" the Codifier persisted.
Mr. Bergsen shook his head. "No, the High Seeker has managed to keep them at bay this time. During the daytime, at least; no man can control what his mind does at night."
The Codifier raised one thin, sand-colored eyebrow. "Then I fail to see the problem."
Mr. Bergsen looked as though he were a coal-gas balloon that had inflated too much and was in danger of bursting. "The problem? The problem? The problem, Mr. Daniels, is that it is taking every last ounce of the High Seeker's strength to push back the dreamings. He has no energy left to do the simplest tasks, whether that task be to pick up a chamber-pot or to walk across the room. He would starve to death if he didn't have others to feed him!"
The Codifier accepted this news without change of expression. He switched his gaze to the third guest in the office: the man in charge of the inner dungeon's day shift, a Seeker whose seniority was second only to the High Seeker's. "You have been helping care for the High Seeker, Mr. Chapman," he said. "Is this your assessment of the situation as well?"
"It is hard for me to tell, sir," Weldon replied. "Mr. Smith has not been able to make himself understood to anyone other than Mr. Taylor for a fortnight now. He has stopped even trying to speak to the rest of us during the past two days."
The office was silent, and Weldon wondered whether the others were thinking what he was: that the last time the High Seeker had ceased to speak, it had been a sign that he was about to be pulled into utter madness.
"Has the High Seeker said anything that it would be useful for me to know, Mr. Taylor? . . . Mr. Taylor?"
The dragon's teeth bit, with a change in the Codifier's tone. It was clear enough a warning to bring Elsdon back into awareness, but the junior Seeker barely seemed to see the Codifier as he turned his head. "Sir, please," he said. "I ought not to be here – the High Seeker may need me . . ."
He was already halfway out of his seat. Weldon stared at him, his jaw slack. It was like watching a mouse scurry over the whiskers of a carnivore. The Codifier opened his mouth, and fire emerged. "Mr. Taylor! You will seat yourself!"
Even the healer winced. Elsdon, singed, sank slowly back into his seat, but there was a stubborn look in his eyes that did not bode well for his future. Weldon remembered the rumors he had heard, during his year as a dungeon guard, that some men entered the Codifier's office and were never seen again. It was popularly thought that the Hooded Seeker Fish ate what remained of their corpses.
The Codifier waited a moment to see whether Elsdon would make any further protest. Then he said in his usual composed voice, "Mr. Chapman, I trust that the High Seeker is being cared for at this moment?"
"His senior night guard is watching over him," Weldon replied. "Mr. Sobel has helped to care for Mr. Smith on occasion in the past, when both Mr. Taylor and I were busy."
"But never when the High Seeker was so ill! Please, sir . . ."
Elsdon's body had the tension of a prisoner who has taken one look at the rack and is desperately seeking the swiftest escape. The Codifier said imperturbably, "If the Eternal Dungeon is to continue to function – and continue to assist its prisoners – then I must have the information that will allow me to make the right decisions about Mr. Smith's future in this dungeon. Kindly remember your oath, Mr. Taylor."
This silenced the junior Seeker, as nothing else could have done. He settled fully back into the chair, his hands gripping the arm-rests so tightly that his knuckles turned white. Even with the cloth of his hood covering his face, it could be seen that his expression was one of misery.
After a minute in which the Codifier gave him a pointed look, Elsdon seemed to remember that he had been asked a question, for he said wearily, "No, he . . . he is concerned about the dungeon, of course. That is what he speaks of most of all – his concern that he has once again abandoned his duties. It's no use trying to make him think about his own health; he won't center his thoughts on himself. So instead I've been trying to make him think about . . . us. Him and me."
"You're perfectly right," said Mr. Bergsen gruffly. "Make him remember his love-bond with you, and that will keep him from losing touch with this world."
The Codifier picked up a pen, rolled it between his fingers for a moment, and said, with the finality of a magistrate about to pass judgment, "Do you have anything else you wish to add, Mr. Taylor?"
Elsdon looked as though he would have liked to speak, but he said nothing. Weldon felt pity enter himself as he watched the High Seeker's love-mate. It must be like waiting to see whether your loved one would be hanged. If the Codifier ruled that the High Seeker's renewed illness and long absence from searching prisoners was grounds to remove him from his work as a Seeker . . . Every man in this room knew that it would be a sentence of death to take that from Layle Smith. Yet, as always, the best interests of the prisoners came first. And the Codifier was the man who, in the end, must decide what was in their interests. He was the prisoners' advocate.
Weldon looked over at Mr. Bergsen. A word or two from the healer that Layle showed signs of reaching the end of his illness would be all the Codifier needed to delay making a decision. But the healer glared at the fish in the pool at his feet. . . .