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The Palimpsest - kzc

"I've been retained by Pulver," Beethro reported in the formal, stilted tones that always seemed unavoidable in the presence of his uncle Jorthro Borgklan, "to attempt evacuation of his pit."

"Pulver's Pit of Despair?!?" Jorthro replied, "it's certain death!"

"No, not the Pit of Despair," said Beethro, "the other one. I figured I should start small, as it's my first time setting foot in a dungeon."

"Surely you mean in *the* Dungeon," Jorthro came back, a glimmer of conspiratorial mischief animating his eyes.

Beethro cocked a quizzical eyebrow, and held it for several heartbeats until it became clear that the older man would not elaborate without further prodding. "It seems to me," he began, "that it would be unwise to attempt, as my first commission, a hold deserving of the definite article." A hot, itchy tingle began to form under his scalp, as he realized he was attempting to match his speech style to the more ornate fashion preferred by his uncle. He felt awkward and exposed. "The job has a simple, one-level layout; I anticipate no undue challenges."

"I meant to impute no particular hazard to your assignment," said Jorthro, settling heavily back in his overstuffed chair with a dismissive wave of his hand, "I merely took issue with your implying differentiation where none exists. Would you remark upon the color of *a* sky? Do we sail upon *an* ocean? The Dungeon is no different - surely you don't imagine the structure you will set out to clear is somehow separate from others of its kind?" This last was delivered with an air of avuncular affection, yet Beethro sensed a muted challenge underlying it.

"But how could it be elsewise, Uncle Jorthro? Surely each dungeon *is* distinct - planned and constructed by unique men, built with distinct materials, separated by time and distance from the others."

"Does your schooling admit of no dimensions, then, other than the temporal and spatial axes? Before answering, consider this: why do rumors of 'seeding' persist, despite the unimpeachable character," - his speech was here interrupted by a paroxysmal fit of coughing which Beethro found impossible to contain - "the *unimpeachable character*," Jorthro continued, "exhibited by even the least scrupled among delvers? Perhaps you have also noticed," he continued, "that new creatures are being discovered underground with disturbing regularity. And have you taken no account of the seal of the Architects' guild? Can you doubt the import of its imagery?" Jorthro paused and gathered himself before continuing.

"Is it not possible, young nephew, that the Dungeon is actually a palimpsest, layers built directly upon layers along some esoteric axis, orthogonal to the space and time normally reckoned on the Eighth, and known only to the initiates of the Guild? Thus mightn't Kip's Keep, currently under construction in the north, and the long forgotten Condor Deep in the south, although differently situated to our senses, actually be part of the same grand design - one situated 'on top of' the other along such an axis?

"Would this not explain much, my young aspiring delver?" Jorthro was absorbed in his story now, a fervor not exclusive of fanaticism evident on his face. "Rumors of seeding, for example, need not be the result of an incompetent or fraudulent extermination, but rather could simply be a 'lower' level *bleeding through* to an already cleared dungeon - as a classic painting is sometimes revealed to have been laid down on top of an existing work of art, which itself may have yet more layers beneath it."

"Ummm...," began Beethro, but Jorthro's enthusiasm would not be dampened.

"And the unfamiliar creatures!" He was standing now, punctuating his theories with zealous jabs of his lanky arms. "Instead of being *newly* created species, might they not be races long extinct, slowly being exposed as newer levels of the Dungeon are cleared - stripped off to reveal the underlying art? Is it not possible that lying along the Guild's occult axis the entire history of the Eighth waits to be uncovered by the members of your chosen profession?

"And...," here his agitation became extreme, and Beethro, doubting his uncle's ability to return from the dangerous turn he had taken, began to plot the shortest path to the door. "And," Jorthro continued, "must we restrict ourselves to the Eighth? The symbolism of the eye and key on the Seal is irrefutable! Would a guild able to align such disparate domains restrict itself to one world, to one reality? Is there reason to doubt - I think not! - that we will find beneath those layers known to our world, others contributed by altogether more *exotic* members of the guild?" Jorthro paused to catch his breath, his face ruddy with exertion.

"And beyond those, who knows? Perhaps contained in the Dungeon are not only all *extant* configurations, but all those that are *possible*. Perhaps the Guild designs no holds at all, but rather *retrieves* their design from the infinitude of those available along the limitless axis whose secret they arrogate to themselves. Perhaps..."

"It's just a simple, one-day job," Beethro squeaked mildly, and sidled out the door as Jorthro lost himself to his lunatic speculation.

The next day found Beethro at the entrance to Pulver's Pit of Mild Irritation. "I hope the old man's all right," he thought. He wondered briefly if the whole scene had been an act, intended to deter him from an ignominious career in delving. Then he shrugged, and descended the stairs into the Pit.

As Beethro's eyes adjusted to the dim light, a lone sickly, bedraggled roach made its way through the gathered darkness along the east wall of the Pit and gently nuzzled Beethro's foot, as if to beg for a morsel of food. "Oh, for Groet's sake," Beethro thought to himself, "how can I kill this pathetic creature?" A swift, sharp pain in his leg brought the answer - the roach had apparently tired of waiting for crumbs from Beethro, and decided that the only alms it would be receiving had come in the form of Beethro himself. An efficient swing of his blade decided the one-sided contest, and Beethro limped off towards the back of the Pit, hoping he'd meet no further resistance.

As he neared the rear wall, he heard a soft clank as a floor tile shifted under his foot. He bent down for a closer look and noticed the design of the seal of the Architects' Guild embossed on the tile. The familiar eye and key, along with the equally familiar yet less decipherable elements, made the insignia unmistakable. Beethro took a moment to straighten the loose tile, then, in hopes of tamping it more securely into place, stepped firmly onto its center.

The tile settled with a soft, precise click. As Beethro made to step off of it, however, something gave him pause. He was certain the floor of the Pit had been a simple, plain gray, but now there seemed to be other colors underlying the dreary original. Squinting in the dim light, he thought he made out some blue tiles, alternating with a hoary silver. When he tried to focus on any single one, however, it reverted to its original colorless state.

Suddenly, a blur of motion off to his right distracted Beethro. He spun clockwise, slashing with his sword, but it clove only air. Blinking and squinting hard, he made out the ghostly outline of a roach scuttling off into the darkness; the floor tiles flashed blue and silver where its feet crossed them, fading quickly back to gray after it passed. Behind it, vaguer still, followed the spectral image of a swordsman, his blade extended at the ready.

Suddenly, he felt as if the floor had dropped from under him. His heart took a single, wild beat slantways across his chest, then seemed to stop as a wave of vertiginous nausea welled up from his gut.

Through the actual gray stone and tile of the Pit, he suddenly perceived a multitude of rooms, of rioutously variegated color and design. He saw walls of ice, of iron, and of stone. His vision swam with rooms full of roach queens, spawning brood after brood. He beheld creatures for which he had no name: black, winged monstrosities and revolting pink mounds of flesh. In one empty room sat a forlorn, decrepit green creature, waiting for a delver to come and challenge it - a challenge that would never arrive.

The vision was too much for Beethro, and he sank to his knees. As he teetered on the brink of consciousness, his awareness was drawn to a scene far off along the Guild's hermenetic Dungeon axis. Near the limits of his perception was a chamber where a swordsman stood with his back to Beethro. The delver had three tufts of snow white hair sprouting from his age-spotted skull, but he stood with stubborn pride as he faced some unseen adversary.

With the last of his strength, Beethro thought he made out a hideous, gurgling mass lying in the shadows beyond the ancient delver, taunting him with a voice of pure despite and bile. The man raised his battered weapon and took one grim step forward as Beethro sank into nothingness.

A short time later, Beethro picked himself up off the floor of the Pit. In pitching forward into unconsciousness he had broken contact with the Guild's tile, freeing himself from the unfathomable madness of the axis.

Shivering violently even in the dank warmth of the Pit, he slowly dragged himself up the stairs and back toward Pulver's for his reward.

The unseen figure trailing him wore on his hat a patch adorned with an eye and a key.