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The Minotaur, and Other Poems

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The thing was, Martin wasn't stupid.

His strategy against Elias had worked because Elias underestimated him. Had somehow forgotten that Martin had a good ten years' practice of lying through his teeth and redirecting conversations so no one would catch on that his credentials didn't match up to his competencies. It worked because Elias had been used to soft, scared Martin Blackwood, struggling to do anything right. It worked because Elias was arrogant enough to blink.

Peter Lukas, though. Lukas had seen the whole thing, knew Martin from the beginning as the man who brought Elias down. Lukas had targeted him from the beginning, and perhaps it wasn't just because he was lonely.

Lukas made him an offer, and Martin, as his options ran down, took it.

But he still needed a, what do you call it? An exit strategy.

XXX

The thing was, Martin had lied to Jon, a little.

There were so few people he could really talk to: Melanie resented him, Basira suspected him, Georgie Barker was a stranger and she touched Jon's hand with a casual confidence that turned Martin's stomach. There were so many things he wanted to talk about, but no one he could trust to listen.

The pound shop still sold A4 notebooks in packs of three, though, and they didn't judge his scansion.

He read a lot, as if the proper application of Tennyson and Thomas could exorcise his grief. When his mother died, he got stuck for a week in Ginsberg's "Kaddish:" couldn't make himself finish, couldn't let himself stop. He read Byron's thoughts on Waterloo and Kipling's epitaphs and even Wilfred Owen, as if he had any experience worth comparing them to. ( Dulce et decorum est—)

Peter put him to work doing admin, and Martin suspected it was at least partly a trick to keep him too busy to plan ahead. Too busy to do his own research, too busy to catch a glimpse of whatever Peter was plotting. Too busy for second-guessing or doubt.

But in between moments, without breaking their agreement, Martin could write.

XXX

The thing was, a labyrinth only goes in one direction. If the path actually diverges, then it's technically a maze. A labyrinth might confuse you, take you from center to periphery in unpredictable turns, but the path only ever goes forward or back.

This was only ever going to end one way.

"You chose this," Peter told him, and okay, technically, yes — he chose to do something, because doing nothing would get them all killed. He couldn't fight, he couldn't scheme, and he couldn't raise the dead, but he had something Peter wanted, which meant that he could bargain. Martin chose to walk forward because there was no going back.

Martin chose the monster at the end of the path; he probably couldn't slay it, but he might at least survive.

He went home in the evenings — Peter had rented him a flat near the Institute, for "security reasons," and moved his things over without warning or permission. Martin sat at a desk that probably cost more than he made in a year, and if he didn't have any busywork to eat up the evening, he wrote. No eye beholds the labyrinth / no ear obtains the heavy tread / of that enshadowed, looming dread…

"Nothing rhymes with labyrinth, you ass," he muttered, and scratched out another three lines. Maybe he just wasn't suited to the Italian sonnet.

XXX

It wasn't hard to let the Archives go: Melanie was too angry, Basira too suspicious, and every corner seemed to hold a ghost. The harder thing was telling Jon goodbye.

(The spring runs dry, a void grows in my breast / Eternal hope laid to eternal rest. Or maybe finally laid to rest. How many syllables was finally?)

The Institute was — had been uncomfortable for a while now, if he was honest. Rumors flew about what happened to Leitner in the archives, why Sasha had disappeared, and of course Tim's ranting seemed less like a nervous breakdown now, and more like a warning. Peter was a wolf not even bothering with sheep's clothing, and it took people about five minutes to realize Martin was his designated spokesman. To lay the blame at his feet for the cold, and quiet, and those who'd disappeared—

Better just to shut himself away. Better just to go numb, and forget.

(The labyrinth turns again; the path is set / and no hope now remains to stall, nor stray…)

XXX

(The coupon showed up in his email, mysteriously bypassing the spam filter. WordWeaver.com, your self-publishing solution! He deleted it.)

XXX

"I need you, Martin," Peter said, and even managed to sound sincere about this. "There's no one else who can do this."

"No one else pathetic enough, you mean?" Martin groused, at the time.

He wondered later, though: wondered about a life lived in fiction under an all-seeing eye. He chose, and chose again, to lie and keep lying for his mother's sake. Held everyone at arm's length so he wouldn't be found out. He chose to read statements, even after he knew what they were for: he made himself a lens for the Eye, because it might help Jon somehow, even when Jon barely looked his way.

He wondered what he would have done if he'd chosen only for himself.

"It's rare to find someone so perfectly balanced between multiple powers," Peter said, leaning into Martin's personal space a little too far. "You're at a crossroads. You have potential, and I can help you unlock it. Provided you're willing to help me in return."

And when his mother went, when Jon failed to answer, Martin said, "I'll do it."

(No eye can pierce the gloom within the walls / no hunter catch the monster's slinking tread / but even still, they face a common dread / the Minotaur to whom all heroes fall. Better. But now he needed more words that rhymed with tread.)

XXX

Martin turned his back on the living but wrote poetry for the dead. Or tried to. It mostly made him feel worse, not better, but as long as the notebooks didn't start talking back he didn't think Peter was going to complain about it.

He wrote about the Sasha he remembered and the violation of forgetting. He wrote for Tim, somewhere between anger and guilt. He even tried to write for Daisy, but the words felt wrong before he got them down. Maybe he just didn't care as much, or maybe he had hit capacity on grief and lesser sorrows couldn't make a dent.

Jon was … difficult, and Martin didn't try.

He tried to write for Helen once, before he knew her name. Once she was a woman who had come to give a statement. Once she was a victim in the endless corridors. Now she was the reason Jared Hopworth hadn't killed them. (Helen, and the anger that drove Melanie like a motor—)

"You were kind to me, once," she told Martin the last time he'd seen the tunnels.

"I thought that we could help," Martin muttered. Now he knew better.

Helen trailed all her fingers along the gray brick wall. "Do you know the difference between a labyrinth and a maze?" Martin shook his head slightly. "Originally they meant the same thing. But a real labyrinth is a single coiled path. No choice, but no dead ends."

"Which one is your corridor?" Martin asked her.

Her laugh was like a roller coaster. "Both labyrinths and mazes have an end."

Martin never told Peter about the tunnels, or Helen, but he also didn't know if the Throat of Lies qualified as a back-up plan. Peter was an awful lot of things (and a lot of awful things) but he was predictable, and Helen was not. Maybe that was why he couldn't write for her: he'd gotten rather tired of free verse.

XXX

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XXX

Jon came back and it was impossible—

Jon came back, but not when Martin needed him, after Martin had already given up—

Jon came back, or maybe he didn't, maybe it was a trick or a stranger or Stranger—

Jon came back, and it didn't change a thing.

"It really doesn't change anything," Peter said, and if he could tell that Martin wanted to hit him he didn't show it. "Unless you're no longer worried about being attacked. I don't think I've seen anyone from the People's Church lurking outside in a while..."

"You haven't even proven this 'emergence' is even a thing," Martin said. He knew he sounded petulant and he didn't care. "For all I know, you made it up so you wouldn't have to do your own paperwork."

"Well, I'm not going to deny it's been a welcome relief, having such a competent assistant," Peter said, showing his teeth. "But if it's proof you want, I intend to provide it. All in good time, though."

"Sure. Fine. It's not like you've got all these budget requests to approve," Martin muttered, but Peter was already gone.

He ignored the budget approvals, and spent the afternoon writing and then scratching out what he'd written.

XXX

The thing was, no one had ever accused Martin of being practical. He wrote poetry and cried at movies about dogs; Tim had derided him for his idealism, for daring to hope for a happy ending.

Martin also lied his way into a job, and spent weeks sharpening a corkscrew, and sent his boss to jail. And Tim had refused to bow to any gods, and Tim had died. At least Martin chose  this path knowingly. At least he knew the risks. As long as he could spin out this deal with Peter, they were safe, and when he found something better or the deal fell apart...

...he'd think of something else, then. He'd have to.

(The labyrinth turns, and in it shines a thread / as bright and bloody as the hero's sword / no guiding Ariadne spun this cord / it leads not to an exit, but ahead…)

XXX

So, yeah. Martin lied. He couldn't summon supernatural fog, but looking tired and busy almost worked. And if he didn't think about how open Jon's face looked, how eager, almost needy—

"Even if it looks like you're doing something really stupid," Jon growled, and that was familiar territory, even if the apology after wasn't. That was the cranky bastard Martin used to crush on from a distance, some part still ready to snap at a hand reached out in friendship, and—

— and he imagined asking Jon for help, asking Jon to trust him with something less than a plan, persuading Jon that he wasn't Peter's dupe —

— and god damn it. Jon was predictable, but not predictable enough .

So Martin chose again, knowing exactly what this was going to cost him. "Please stop finding me."

It was for Jon's own good. The only way out, for all of them, was through.

XXX

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XXX

The Lonely wasn't actually a god. Or rather — it was easy to imagine the Beholding as a thing, a being, singular — a literal Eye. When Martin first learned about it, he used to look at CCTV cameras and peep holes, tape recorders and computers, and imagine a bare and bloody eyeball on the inside, looking back.

The Lonely was different; Forsaken was the absence of a thing, of any thing. Peter took Martin there sometimes, except there wasn't any there there. Just a stillness that made time go a bit funny. Just a silence so total he could hear his own heart. Not a god confined to any fane or altar, but more of a genius loci, both choking and diffuse.

(Jon used to correct Martin's Latin like it physically pained him. Ghee-nee-oos, not jee-nyus. Ghee-nee-oos low-key . Martin had no idea why he missed that.)

Peter took Martin to the Lonely sometimes, "just to get you acclimated." Like he might get seasick, or something. The hell of it was, Martin could sort of see the appeal? Unseen and unbothered. Quiet and calm. Nothing to be afraid of, because nothing was there. Just you, and the world, and all the time in it.

Maybe there were other reasons why Peter had chosen him for this.

Martin shuttled between a locked office and a strange flat, between mindless admin and the end of the world, between You-Are-Forgotten and the people he was trying to protect. Crossroads, Peter had said. Martin would've said eye of the needle, himself, if there wasn't some inherent irony in it. If he wasn't afraid he was the camel in that particular metaphor.

(You walk. The silken urging leads you forward / into the labyrinth's twisting, curling ways / another step from daylight, down from grace… no, slant rhyme's cheating; find another word.)

XXX

The other side of the crossroads, the Eye of the eye, was this: Martin needed information.

He'd thought, initially, that Peter was planning something with the Institute itself: he said he needed access, after all. But three months of budgets, schedules and HR hadn't revealed any master plan. (He couldn't even be arsed to sign his name on documents. Martin looked into a stamp, then he gave up and started forging.)

What Peter needed must be in the building, not the business. Two hundred years of offerings to the Eye. Martin pushed at him for details, but for all he liked to ramble, Peter rarely gave up secrets: talked around them, changed the subject, worked in digs against the Archives or at Jon or at Elias until Martin interrupted and the sparring started over.

"You're making real progress," he said, and showed his teeth. "You'll understand it better once you've accepted our Patron."

"I could understand it now," Martin grumbled, jaw aching from the clench, "if you'd give me a straight answer."

"You're starting to sound like like Elias," Peter said, and then he vanished before Martin could retort (or throw a stapler at him, which at this rate would be equally effective).

Peter said he was confirming information: Dekker's statements, his own intel. He had other ways of sending and receiving word from outside, and he wouldn't be so stupid as to use his Magnus email, because Martin had the password and did all the correspondence. He could come and go unseen, or lurk observing in the corners. (Rich of him to call Elias the voyeur…)

Martin did his own confirming in the archives, in the dark. With all the others gone or sleeping, he could search for Lukas statements, or a hint of the Extinction. Jon might notice—

Well. He'd asked Jon not to find him. That would have to be enough.

Only once did Peter slip and leave his mobile in the office. Not a smart phone, which made sense. (Could you make calls from Forsaken?) Just a simple green-screened flip phone, but that meant there was no password.

He knew Peter might be watching, out of sight and out of sensing, whether Martin could be trusted…

"Ah." Peter reappeared close to five with an easy smile. "I was looking for that. Forget my own head if it wasn't attached, eh?"

"It's not like you answer when you have it," Martin muttered. He didn't look up or react as Peter put it in his pocket. Peter, if he had suspicions, didn't voice them.

XXX

People didn't talk to Martin much, anymore, unless he spoke to them. Maybe they didn't notice him (he'd long ago got used to not being noticed, but maybe that was … more now) or perhaps they were afraid of Peter, and him by association. That part was fair; Peter might be watching Martin any moment, invisible and waiting for a slip-up on his part. Or he might be nowhere near him and Martin's obedience was for nothing. Wasn't that Bentham's whole idea?

Still. Martin had got used to being watched, and by something even scarier than Peter.

People didn't talk to Martin, but there was still admin to do. Martin might've actually liked it if the circumstances were different — it was interesting, having a top-down view of the Institute and everything it took to run it. It was satisfying, in a way, being able to make changes with the stroke of a pen or a key, even if the changes he was making were all dictated by Peter. Also, frankly, statements gave him nightmares; spreadsheets didn't.

People didn't talk to Martin but they couldn't just ignore him; he was Peter's public face, and too much paperwork had to go through one of them. E-mail was a compromise, and Martin got used to checking both his own and Peter's magnus.ac.uk account, just in case.

Message from Lacroix, Diana: I need to inform Mr. Lukas that some documents have gone missing from Special Collections recently, including a few irreplaceable artifacts pertaining to the history of the Institute. Access to these items is strictly controlled, so I assumed that tracking them down would be a simple matter of reviewing our records, but all of them were properly checked back in after their last use. I've asked Barry to review the CCTV for the last six months...

Martin looked around on reflex, but the office seemed to be empty. He didn't feel any presence but the Eye...which was the idea.

Thanks Diana, if you could send me a complete list of what you're missing? Also replacement prices for any items that could realistically be replaced. I'll bring it up with Mr. Lukas immediately.

She sent the list (and a couple snippy comments about how theft should be handled): books on Millbank, books on Flamsteed, architectural plans and layouts for the current Magnus building…

Martin didn't bring it up with Peter after all.

(The thread, your guide, urges you on the way / cast off your hope, your doubt, and your regret / The labyrinth turns again; the path is set / no longer can you stop, nor stall, nor stray…)

XXX

(WordWea—)

(Delete, delete, delete.)

XXX

The whole business of the coffin was a farce, from start to finish. Martin left so that the others would be better off without him — Martin let himself be used, but if Peter was so useless—

Martin harbored no illusions: when he stood above the coffin and knew Jon had climbed inside it — when he'd panicked, feeling helpless — the idea of the tapes wasn't his own. But if it came from the Beholding, or the Web (as Peter seemed to think, asking his pointed questions) —

The Extinction was Extinction. There was that. But in the short term, Martin didn't care who helped them just so long as Jon survived it. And if Peter wasn't able, then perhaps he should look elsewhere for the power to protect him, any of them, if he could.

(And if that intention paved his road to hell, well, let him burn.)

XXX

Jon at some point had a file started on the People's Church, on Maxwell Raynor, on the Darkness that they worshipped. Martin found it late at night and skimmed in silence, taking pictures of the most important items with his phone to look at later.

He had seen the silver pendants on the streets, around the building. He'd assumed that they were watching for their own malicious reasons, and Basira had agreed they were a danger to the archives. When he'd struck his deal with Peter, he had mentioned they were watching; Peter nodded and agreed they had a motive and the means, and if the Flesh could ooze inside through tiny crevices and crannies, how much more in danger were they when their enemies ruled darkness? In a crowded basement archive, without windows, without exits?

Peter's phone was full of numbers with a Norway country prefix — one specifically for Svalbard. Out of all the missing papers, Flamsteed was an odd exception, one predating Jonah Magnus and the tunnels under Millbank.

What was lonelier than darkness?

Martin left Jon's things in order and retreated to the office. He had options to consider, and a budget to review.

XXX

Monday morning Martin found the office door unlocked; not left open, not left broken, but his key just twisted freely in the keyhole. On the desk there was a contract, just a page typed front and back, and he remembered signing one or something like it when Elias had assigned him to the Archive.

This was signed off Alice Tonner, and he stared at it a while. Remembering threats, and acts of violence, and the unexpected moments when she'd yielded to Basira. He had never really liked her, but he thought he understood her loyalty. And Jon had saved her—

Martin stared at it a while, then he took a pen in hand. If Peter didn't want him signing things, he ought to keep a schedule.

XXX

Robert Smirke had left a letter; Martin tried not to be bitter, thinking of how Tim would like it, to the extent Tim liked anything of this sort, towards the end.

(Tim had raged and Tim had died and maybe none of it had mattered, except that he'd had a choice, and saved the world...)

It didn't matter anyway: the pieces of the puzzle were all there, but not the picture, not a pattern that could join them. Millbank, Flamsteed, Powers, balance — found in patterns, found in buildings, found in old poetic meters? But it all was an illusion, just an algebra of terror, and it hadn't saved the architect, nor Gertrude, nor the others, any more than Tim, or Sasha, who had never known the monster that had killed her and replaced her.

And if none of it was real, not the names and not the rites, then what could guarantee that Peter's secret project would succeed…?

Martin made himself a file: tapes and statements, clues and papers. Left it sitting in the office with a lock he knew was broken. He had asked Jon not to find him, and he couldn't tip off Peter by returning to the archives, but he knew that the temptation of Elias's old office would draw someone up to search it. Maybe by then he'd have answers, or at least an exit plan.

XXX

Peter took him to the Lonely. Peter left him in Forsaken.

Martin only noticed slowly: he was busy in his office, people didn't talk to him if they could help it anymore, and Peter disappeared for hours as a rule. His email was quiet, but at first that was a blessing: he could finally get some work done—

Martin's email was quiet, and he finished his reports with time to spare. No interruptions, nothing stealing his attention, neither omens of Extinction nor the latest HR training.

Outside London's sky was twilit and the streets were cold and foggy; Martin wasn't sure if he could leave the Institute like this. There was still food in the canteen, and the shower in the basement. (There was mist inside the archives, like it wasn't really there. Martin wondered what would happen if he went inside. He didn't.) Paperwork kept on appearing on his desk, but not his email; every message that he tried to send was bounced. His phone was dead.

Martin tried to get on with his work, and slept inside his office; wrote his poems when he could and wondered if he'd been mistaken and this was his final fate. Here lies Martin, he played games beyond his grasp and then he died...

But he also noticed darkness: in the hallways, in the library, in the archives and outside them. Darker than the constant twilight, worse than any chilly fog, but it moved around the building and outside it like a warning...

"I have to admit, I thought you were further along," Peter had the gall to say when he returned. "Were you even trying to get yourself out?"

"I didn't think I was supposed to," Martin snapped. "Isn't that what all this acclimating has been about?"

"You're going to need more than acclimation," Peter said sternly. "I've met with a few of my colleagues, and the Extinction is closer than ever."

Colleagues made of moving darkness that he'd felt inside the Lonely. "How much longer do we have?"

Peter made a show of thinking. "Mm. Not long now. Almost everything here is ready, except for you. Once we get to the ritual site, things will really get started."

"So we're not doing it here?" Not that that meant it was Norway...

"One thing at a time, Martin," Peter said, and patted him on the shoulder. "Focus on yourself."

XXX

"It sounds like you have a decision to make," Elias told him smugly, keeping secrets, keeping scheming even while he was in prison—

Martin had to thread the needle but the needle's eye was closing—

He found himself at home (to the extent the flat was "his") and searching for a good distraction on the telly's many channels. Something caught his eye: The Labyrinth of the Minotaur just starting, the old version with stop-motion, not the new one with Tom Hardy.

(The labyrinth turns)

He had seen this one before a couple times: when he was younger, the effects had still been scary. He'd had nightmares of them after. Now they looked a little corny, with the shoddy chroma-keying, and the actors trying to react to air instead of monsters. This minotaur was clearly clay and fabric, not a creature, and he couldn't stop correcting when the characters said labyrinth . (They were trapped inside a maze; a labyrinth only has one ending.) Martin didn't understand why he was even sitting, watching, when his real life was scarier than anything in movies.

(and you must not forget)

When his life was now a labyrinth, every crossroads an illusion as alternatives had failed him...  Driven one way and another, closer now and then away, offered choices that weren't choices when the stakes were mounting higher...

( this thread that forms a noose around your throat)

He dozed off on the sofa and he dreamed about the monster. Not the sculpted clay illusion: this was real, this was waiting. A true minotaur of flesh and rage and shadow, this was silent, not a bellowing behemoth. This was waiting at the bottom of the labyrinth: all it had to do was wait, as Martin stumbled ever onward, with the stakes too high for stopping. There was only ever one way that the labyrinth was ending: there was Martin, and the monster, fate implacable as dying—

(you wove yourself, and now the fine garrote)

Martin woke.

He stumbled away from the sofa, trying to hold the dream in his head while he fumbled for his notebook and a pen. It had all been so clear while he was asleep, and now the words were coming to him; it had been so clear, so perfect, so right, the maze and the thread and the minotaur—

(leads only to the monsters you beget—)

He wrote. He couldn't tell if it took minutes or hours: he filled page after page with stanza upon stanza, not exactly effortless but...obvious, somehow. He wrote like he was on a deadline, clinging to the shreds of the dream before they could dissolve. He wrote because, in the moment, he couldn't do anything except write.

By the time he'd come to the end of the thing, his hand was cramped and smeared black to the wrist, and the horizon was glowing with dawn. Martin briefly considered skiving off work, but then he pictured Peter's reaction if he tried to call in with a bad case of poetic inspiration.

He locked the notebook in a drawer, to keep it safe. And to keep anyone else who snooped around the flat safe from it.

XXX

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Martin clicked it.

XXX

It seemed too obvious, when he saw it, but he found he couldn't say exactly why. Maybe Tim could've explained it, or Jon — but Martin was doing this himself, without risking anyone else. If an unspecified intuition could pull Jon from the coffin, maybe it would help him, too.

He waited until everyone in the Archives was gone or asleep, and went into the tunnels, with plenty of back-up torches and a tape recorder. Just in case this went horribly wrong, he told himself. Just so Jon would know where not to look, assuming the tapes really did somehow come back to him.

Assuming that he wasn't throwing himself to some other type of minotaur.  

Martin entered the tunnels, marking his path and counting his steps, making his way towards the little park behind the museum. He'd eaten lunch in that park probably a hundred times over the years, and even after he'd learned of the tunnels he'd never connected the two. Never realized that this had been the center of Millbank Prison, where Smirke had placed the chapel.

Martin made his way through the tunnels, to what had once been the center of the prison. He couldn't find a direct route, of course, because what was the point of a maze if not to keep people out of the center? But he wasn't in the middle of a headlong flight, this time: he took notes, and marked his path with chalk, and kept walking.

He found the room that had been full of worms, once, with a ring of holes still embedded in the wall. The stone inside the ring felt strange to the touch — almost soft, more like sand than stone, though it didn't yield when he pushed on it.

That was why he'd brought a prybar.

It only took a couple of good swings to break through the brittle rock, and on the other side, he found stairs.

XXX

It seemed obvious, though he couldn't say how he knew it—

Basira found him waiting in a corner of the archives. He'd waited until he'd seen Jon and Daisy leave together; he wasn't quite sure where Melanie was, but she wasn't here, and he wasn't staying long.

"Hey, Martin," she said, every inch projecting blank neutrality, which was as good as suspicion. "Need something?"

"You talk to Elias, don't you?" Martin asked her. He figured she'd appreciate the direct approach.

Her eyes narrowed. "So did you, I understand."

Which meant Jon had not only got the tapes, but shared them. That would make this quicker. "What's he told you about the Dark? What they're planning?"

"You believe him?" she shot back, instead of answering.

"I think he's setting us up," Martin said quickly. "Peter's collaborating with the Dark, and Elias wants Jon to interfere. If Jon wins, he'll, I don't know, level up or whatever. If Peter wins, well, the Extinction is stopped, and Elias has time to start over with a new Archivist."

"And why are you telling me this, instead of Jon?" Basira asked, raising one eyebrow.

Martin choked down a twinge of guilt. "How much have you told him?"

They stared at each other, in the shadowed corner of the archives, seconds ticking down.

Finally, Basira asked, "What do you need from me?"

"Just … keep him occupied," Martin said. "I've got a plan."

XXX

The stairs lead up to a dead end, a concrete slab that probably lay under the park. They also lead down.

Martin counted more than fifty when they finally came to an end. He'd sort of expected the room to be radial, like that other cairn of Smirke's — but this was small, square, and only had one door. The corroded bronze facing was etched with an Eye of Providence design, and Martin wondered once again how someone that clever could also be so completely thick.

The Eye was on him. He could feel it, growing stronger with every step he took towards that bronze door, and he wondered if this was why Peter needed someone who was already accustomed to being watched and unafraid of being known. Martin felt around the edges for a few minutes before he realized that the door was actually two doors, meant to open from the center: he had to use his prybar on the nearly-invisible seam, but with a shriek of rusted hinges, they swung open.

Old books, bound in matching brown leather. Not many, thankfully, because Martin didn't think he could haul an entire library out in his rucksack. He pulled one from the shelf and studied it, but knew better than to open it: the title stamped on the spine was in Arabic script, anyway. All of them seemed to be in good condition, despite the inescapable damp that came from being so far below the water table.

If these were the key to everything, the secret Peter had come to the Institute for, Martin wasn't letting him anywhere near them.

He crammed as many into his bag as he could without damaging them, and tucked the one or two left over into the crook of his arm. Fifty steps going up was always going to be less pleasant than fifty going down, even without the extra thirty pounds or so on his back, and he was breathless by the time he found his way back to the worm room.

A yellow door was set into the wall next to the real one, and Martin knocked.

Helen uncoiled from inside like a charmed serpent. "Is this the lost treasure you wanted me to hide?" she asked.

"Just for a little while," Martin promised her.

"That's what you all said about the Boneturner," she sniffed, but she delicately took one of the books in her horrible hand. "Oh, I don't like this thing. It stinks of labels."

"...basically, yeah."

"Disgusting," Helen said, but she accepted Martin's rucksack before she closed the door.

XXX

The padded mailer from WordWeaver.com arrived on a Thursday; Martin had had it sent straight to the Institute, partly for safety, but mostly because he wasn't sure of the postcode for his flat.

He pretended to unlock the office and put his things away as normal. The padded mailer took a bit of tugging to open, but eventually he got it, and slid the book out.

The coupon had only been good for a paperback, but it was still good quality, glossy and thick. The cover was a stock photo of a dark doorway flanked by torches, which he'd run through so many filters it had become an impressionistic blur. The Minotaur and Other Poems, said the embossed letters at the top of the cover. By Martin K. Blackwood.

"Oh, what do we have here?"

Peter was now standing across the desk, an avuncular smile on his face. Martin took a deep breath. "It's, er, a book? I mean, it's sort of my book, I… I had a coupon…"

"The vanity press is a wonderful invention," Peter said mildly, and he put out a hand. "May I?"

"Oh, er… sure?" Hesitantly, Martin passed him the book, and Peter flipped it open a random page. "It's not very — I mean, it's just a hobby."

"I had no idea you were a poet," Peter said absently. "I suppose we all have our faults, though…"

Martin opened his computer and started checking his email, carefully not looking up as Peter walked away from the desk. He forced himself to read about the fundraising projections for the current quarter instead of listening for the turning of pages, straining for any hint of breathing.

When he heard the book hit the carpet, he still finished the message he was typing before he turned to look.

Peter was gone. That wasn't strictly new. The Minotaur was on the ground, and Martin picked it up carefully, automatically smoothing down a slightly bent corner with his thumb. It didn't look any different, didn't feel different, but — he skimmed the table of contents. He'd agonized over which poems to include and how to order them, typing and copying and pasting and shuffling. He was almost positive he hadn't included, or ever written at all, a poem called "The Lone Sea Captain," which he was informed now appeared on page 67.

He had a good hypothesis about what would happen if he read it.

Martin went back to the desk and found a thick rubber band, which he stretched around the middle of the book before shoving it in a drawer. Just in case. Then he took the time to secure the passwords to every account in Peter's name that he could access, and made sure the rent was paid on his flat so he'd have enough time to move out of it.

Only then did he take his box of tapes and files under his arm, and head for the archives. With any luck, nobody would notice Peter was missing for a few days. Give them a bit of a head start.