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The Consultation (Transformation #4)

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The year 359, the third month. (The year 1881 Clover by the Old Calendar.)

Recently, revisionist historians – rightly recoiling from the smothering effusiveness of early biographies of Layle Smith – have suggested a very different portrait of the Eternal Dungeon's first High Seeker. They depict Layle Smith as a cold-hearted murderer and rapist who reached his exalted title as a result of chance and who remained, to his dying day, a dangerous and unscrupulous man, feared by all who met him.

Ironically, the primary evidence for this portrait is drawn from Layle Smith's indictments of himself in his letters. To sense how far his self-image lay from reality, we need only read the most important eyewitness account of Layle Smith's First Madness.

This account comes from the Codifier, the man who supervised the ethical conduct of the Seekers at the time of Layle Smith's High Seekership. Excerpts from the undated entries of his official records follow hereafter.

* Report from Mr. Sobel [a guard] that Mr. Smith, while supervising the beating of a prisoner, seemed suddenly unaware of his surroundings. Mr. Sobel was alerted to this fact because Mr. Smith had been speaking words of comfort to the prisoner in the midst of the prisoner's pain. Mr. Sobel says that he has known Mr. Smith to have moments of unawareness in the past, but never to the point where it caused him to neglect his duty. Request from Mr. Smith shortly thereafter to receive discipline for his neglect of duty. Request denied; matter referred over to Mr. Bergsen [the dungeon's physician].

* Report from Mr. Bergsen that he has been unable to assist Mr. Smith in the matter of his dreaming spells and that Mr. Smith's problem appears to be worsening.

* Report from Mr. Sobel that Mr. Smith, on the point of entering his prisoner's cell at his usual time of duty, suddenly refused to enter, stating that he was a danger to the prisoners. Request from Mr. Smith that he be given leave of absence from his duties. Request approved. Dungeon temporarily placed under the care of Mr. Chapman [Weldon Chapman, a Seeker of senior rank].

* Report from several of the inner dungeon dwellers that Mr. Smith's condition is affecting his ability to communicate with the other Seekers and the guards. Mr. Bergsen has requested permission to bring in healers from the palace to examine Mr. Smith more closely. Request approved.

* Report from Mr. Bergsen that the consultation with the other healers proved fruitless. Request from Mr. Smith to be permanently released from his duties as Seeker and given duties in the outer dungeon that would not bring him into contact with the prisoners. Request denied. Have bound Mr. Smith into the care of Mr. Taylor [Elsdon Taylor, a Seeker]. Mr. Smith has been confined to his living quarters except when accompanied by Mr. Taylor.

* Report from Mr. Bergsen that Mr. Smith's condition is worsening; his spells are now occurring several times a day. Mr. Bergsen does not believe that Mr. Smith is likely to become violent. He says that the problem is just the opposite, that Mr. Smith is withdrawing from this world. Mr. Taylor reports that Mr. Smith continues to abide by the conditions of his binding.

* Mr. Chapman has voiced his opinion that the burden placed upon Mr. Taylor is too great and has asked to be released from some of his own duties in order to assist with Mr. Smith's care. Request approved. Mr. Taylor, when asked, has expressed the desire to continue searching his present prisoner. He reports that, when Mr. Smith is present at the searching, he remains silent. Mr. Taylor also reports that the prisoner is showing unprecedented amounts of sympathy and concern as a result of his witness of Mr. Smith's illness. Have requested Mr. Taylor to send this office daily reports on the condition of Mr. Smith.

* Have received numerous requests from the other Eternal Dungeon dwellers to be of assistance in Mr. Smith's case. Have arranged for the Record-keeper to issue daily reports to the senior Seekers. Mr. Bergsen, Mr. Chapman, and Mr. Taylor all report that Mr. Smith's condition continues to decline. He is now spending more than half his waking hours in his dreamings.

* Request from Mr. Smith to be confined to a locked cell, as he believes himself to be a danger to the dungeon dwellers. Request denied. Have given Mr. Taylor permission to take any steps he considers necessary to assist Mr. Smith.

* Hourly reports are being issued by the Record-keeper on Mr. Smith's condition. The Queen has been informed.

* We have lost him.

The last, heartbreaking entry is in such stark contrast to the Codifier's usual formal style that it provides a striking image of the depth of respect that Layle Smith's fellow workers held for him. Unfortunately, the Codifier was apparently so deeply troubled by the High Seeker's illness that this is his last entry on the topic. Thus we are deprived of his account of Layle Smith's struggle back to sanity.

Revisionist historians have suggested that Layle Smith's "recovery" consisted of him passing from a coma-like state into a far more dangerous psychotic condition, in which he fully accepted the "dark dreamings" that apparently sparked the madness. From this point forward, the revisionist historians say, Layle Smith lost all sense of reality and became a destructive influence upon the Eternal Dungeon.

This charge, resting as it does purely on speculation, cannot be easily refuted. Nonetheless, it is possible for more conscientious historians to reconstruct the steps Layle Smith took to emerge from his madness . . .

—Psychologists with Whips: A History of the Eternal Dungeon.


His duties had occasionally taken him to other dungeons and prisons in the world; the conditions in these less sophisticated places for searching prisoners had always made him wince. He had done his best to find tactful ways to suggest changes, and such was his reputation that sometimes his advice was taken. After all, the torturers told themselves, it is one thing to receive recommendations on prison reform from some soft clerk who has never in his life worked with stone-hearted prisoners. It is quite another thing to receive such recommendations from the High Seeker of the Eternal Dungeon.

Never before, though, had Layle Smith visited a dungeon that smelled so appalling. He paused for a moment as the boom of the great iron doors closing behind him echoed through the room. Some of the smells he recognized: blood, of course, and human waste – that was to be expected. Even back home, where the laborers were fanatical in their efforts to keep the Eternal Dungeon clean, these normal prison smells lingered on. Yet there was more here than the usual noxious fumes. He thought he smelled rotting food and vomit and another smell that tickled at his memory in a pleasant manner – which worried him.

He swallowed his instinctive reaction to the smells; he would not make a good impression here by throwing up on the threshold, and it was becoming increasingly clear how important it was that he make a good impression. This was a dungeon whose torturers were badly in need of being made to see that effective methods of preventing lawbreaking need not be incompatible with acts of humanity toward prisoners.

He looked around the room he was in. Never before had he seen an entry hall that was so crowded with prisoners; new arrivals seemed to be streaming in at each moment. They were dragged to the record-keeper's desk, where the record-keeper would give them no more than a glance before assigning them a cell. Then they would be dragged off – one of the women prisoners was dragged off by her hair, Layle noticed with anger. This place was worse than any prison he had ever visited, since he left Vovim.

He elbowed his way past a guard who was bashing a screaming prisoner over the head with a club, and managed to make his way up to the front of the desk. Murmuring an apology to a prisoner who was cowering before the record-keeper, he said, "I am Layle Smith. I was asked to come here for a consultation."

The record-keeper flicked his pen into the inkwell nearby before looking up and saying, "Ah, yes, Master Layle, we've been awaiting you."

"Mr. Smith," he corrected politely.

"Really?" The record-keeper pulled a paper in front of him. "It says here you received your training at the Hidden Dungeon."

He felt himself tense, but after all, it had been his own decision three years ago to release the information of where his origins lay. "I was only at Vovim's royal dungeon until I was eighteen," he said. "I had not yet been granted the title of master when I left. I completed my training at Yclau's Eternal Dungeon, where I received my full rank. I am addressed there as Mr. Smith."

"Mm." The record-keeper started to make a notation on the paper, then stopped with a curse and flung his pen down. "Get me more ink!" he shouted at a cringing page-boy, who scurried off.

"Right," the record-keeper said, fishing into his drawer. "The prisoner is in Cell 43,516. You'll be assigned your living quarters later. Your shift runs from midnight to dusk."

Layle did not move to take the iron key that the record-keeper had placed before him. "It appears a misunderstanding has occurred," he said quietly. "I am here for a consultation only. My position remains at the Eternal Dungeon."

"According to my records, you've been assigned a prisoner. Your shift will be starting soon; you'd better go check your equipment."

Layle sighed. Record-keepers were the same everywhere. If they read something on a piece of paper, they thought it must be true. "Sir, I think I'd best speak with your head torturer now."

"The High Master is busy. He's always busy. Complaints about work conditions should be delivered in writing to the communications committee, which will act upon them when appropriate." The record-keeper turned his head toward the page, who was returning to the desk.

The page was pulling behind him a girl who was even younger than himself, perhaps six years of age. She was crying and saying, "I'm sorry! I didn't mean to hurt those puppies! I'm sorry!"

The record-keeper ignored her cries. He grabbed the girl's arm and brought it down with a bang upon his desk. Then, with his free hand, he took up a sealing-wax knife and plunged it into the girl's arm.

The girl screamed and tried to escape from the arms of the page, who looked as though he would faint at any moment but was holding her tight. The record-keeper carefully turned the girl's arm and directed the spurting blood into the inkwell. His aim was true; not a drop escaped to spatter upon the desk. Once the inkwell was filled, he gestured to the page, who pulled the sobbing girl away into the crowd.

Layle had watched all this with the horrified fascination of a Seeker-in-Training witnessing the rack in use for the first time. Now he turned his attention back to the record-keeper and said evenly, "Is this a youth prison, sir?"

"We take anyone we are sent." The record-keeper dipped his pen in the blood and carefully wrote down Layle's proper title. "Mr. Smith, I'm rather busy today, as you can see. If you have any questions about your assignment, I can place you under the care of one of the master torturers here."

Layle looked over his shoulder. It had not seemed possible to him, when he first arrived, that more prisoners could fit into this hall, but while he had been talking to the record-keeper, the number of prisoners had doubled: they were squeezed tight against each other, like a pile of corpses crammed into a narrow grave. At the very edge of the hall, prisoners continued to pour in.

Layle turned back to the record-keeper. "I'm sure that I can sort this problem out with the assistance of the torturer you mention. I thank you for your time and your help, sir."

The record-keeper gave him a curt nod. "Try Cell 1. You're certain to find someone there. Don't forget your key."

Layle scooped up the key, unwilling to cause further delay by argument. He nodded his farewell to the record-keeper and squeezed his way past the pleading prisoners in order to reach the low doorway through which prisoners were being thrust by their guards.

He ducked his head to pass through the arch, and then paused to take in his surroundings. Like the Eternal Dungeon, this dungeon was housed inside a natural underground cave, but whereas the engineers of the Eternal Dungeon had built cells and living quarters within the cave in the manner of the lighted world, the architects of this dungeon had apparently taken a more creative approach, using the natural architecture of the caverns themselves. The corridor in front of him was made of twisting rock, with an occasional stalactite hanging from above, threatening to knock unconscious any unwary traveller. It was not clear what the source of lighting was in this place; the entire corridor was glowing dimly, too faintly for Layle to be able to read by, but brightly enough for him to make his way. He thought perhaps it must be some sort of phosphorescence arising from the rocks themselves.

He found Cell 1 easily enough; it was the first door along the corridor. He hesitated at the entrance, but no guards stood outside the door. From the sounds throbbing through the thick door, he supposed the guards must be inside, assisting the torturer. He lifted the latch and walked in.

The torturer was indeed hard at work on a prisoner, and the sight of the prisoner alerted Layle to what smell had tickled his nose earlier. Of course, he thought. It had been over twenty years since he had walked in upon a scene like this, but his mind had remembered the smell of burning human flesh. That smell was quite common in the Hidden Dungeon.

This particular prisoner – who was alternating sobs with groans – was only being lightly roasted. She was bound in chains upon a grill encircling her, so that she could be slowly turned, each part of her body receiving the heat of the flames below her. It would take quite a while for her to break if she was roasted at this low level, Layle concluded. But then, he thought with growing disgust, he had known torturers who preferred slow pain over hard pain. . . .

The torturer turned to look at the newcomer. He was a bearded man, broad-chested and tall, and with friendly brown eyes. He smiled and said, "Hello, Layle. Close the door, will you? I don't want the draft from the corridor to blow out this fire. It will take me just a minute to finish up here."

Layle stood motionless, every spoonful of blood in his body pounding madly in its race. He could feel his face turning cold as the blood drained away. The torturer turned back and said to the guard rotating the grill, "You're taking her too far. Pull the grill up a few notches and bank that fire. Then start again when she's ready."

The guard nodded and followed the instructions he had been given. The torturer picked up a cloak that was hanging from a hook nearby. Bits of flesh were hanging from the hook as well. He began to fling the heavy cloth over his shoulders, then glanced over at Layle and tossed him the cloak. "Here, they should have assigned you one of these. It can get a bit chilly here, unless you're working with a prisoner who requires fire."

Long training kept him from speaking while in the presence of a prisoner being searched for her crime, but the moment that the door of the warm cell closed, Layle stood motionless in the corridor and blurted out, "Master Aeden, what are you doing here?"

"My work," his old master from Vovim said with a smile. "What else would I be doing in the middle of a workday?"

"But I killed you!"

His master lifted an eyebrow. "In actual fact, you offered me the means to kill myself. But if you'd like to add murdering your master to the list of deeds your conscience tortures you about, you're welcome to do so. Do put that cloak on; this place will be colder further on."

Layle fumbled himself into the cloak. There was something about his master's presence that made him feel like a youth once more. As Layle finished, Master Aeden flung his arm over his shoulders and began to draw him down the corridor, saying, "By the torture-god of hell, it's good to see you again, my dear! When I heard that you were coming here, it made my heart leap with joy."

Layle would not allow himself to be distracted. "Master," he said in a tight voice, "you died. I saw you plunge my dagger through your heart."

Master Aeden gave him an amused smile. "And did you check my heartbeat? Have a healer declare my death? Did you do any of the things I taught you to do if a prisoner gave you the impression that he'd killed himself?" At Layle's silence, Master Aeden sighed and added, "My dear, you may have risen high in the world since your days as my apprentice, but you still have much to learn. I think I can help you to complete your training here."

As he spoke, he drew Layle through an arched gap in the rocks. Beyond it was a small cavern with hundreds of stalactites hanging down. From each stalactite hung a body – a living body, writhing in its attempt to break free. No weights hung from the prisoners' feet; no scars marred their bodies. Nothing dragged the prisoners down toward mutilation or death. They were simply undergoing the usual sort of prolonged pain that accompanies being hung from a ceiling.

Layle stared upward, his mouth open at the sight of the hundreds of bodies flailing in the air, each crying out or groaning in its own manner. The prisoners were wearing the clothes they had evidently worn in the lighted world, for they spread in a multi-colored pattern across the ceiling of the cavern, as though they were a wildflower field.

He did not realize he had halted until he felt Master Aeden's hand urge him toward a doorway at the opposite end of the cavern. "Don't stop, my dear. I know that the cavern of hanging must be a delectable feast for you, but your shift will be starting soon, and I should brief you before that time."

The cries faded away behind them as they made their way through another corridor, this one leading downward at a steep slant. The air was growing more chill; ice began to glint upon the rocks, and Layle could just see the mist of his breath in the increasingly darkening surroundings.

"It should be warmer underground," he heard himself say. "That's one of the reasons we're able to save on winter fuel costs at the Eternal Dungeon."

"Is that so? You'll have to tell me about that – but we'll have plenty of time for chit-chat later. Here we are."

Master Aeden pushed open a door that led into what appeared to be a very small cell. It was not much different from the cells for prisoners at the Eternal Dungeon, though considerably more cramped: the room was barely big enough to accommodate the naked bed-shelf. There was no chamber-pot; a plank on the ground suggested that a pit served this purpose. A few items were stowed under the bed-shelf, mainly clothing.

"Nice, isn't it?" said Master Aeden, looking at his surroundings. "I was lucky to get a residence this large. I'm afraid that, as a newcomer, you'll have to put up with living quarters a little less luxurious. Do have a seat." He waved his hand at the bed-shelf.

Layle sat down on the hard bed, which was made of the same rock as the remainder of the room and was painfully bumpy. "Sir," he said, trying to take on the cool tones of the High Seeker, "you seem to be under the same misapprehension as this dungeon's record-keeper. Much as I would like to spend time talking with you, I'm afraid I'm only here for a short visit. I was asked to come here for—"

"A consultation. Yes, I know." Master Aeden was crouched down, rummaging under the bed-shelf. "Why don't I ever have the proper food ready when guests come by? I don't suppose you want any of this?"

He held up a dead rat. It had been skinned, but its tail had not been chopped off. Layle stared at it open-mouthed, his stomach heaving once more. Master Aeden sighed and tossed the rat under the bed-shelf, saying, "No, I suppose not. It takes a while to get used to the food in this place. Honestly, I couldn't recommend this dungeon to any torturer for its amenities. But oh my dear, the work conditions . . . Now, about your consultation."

"You know about that," Layle said with relief.

"Certainly; the High Master spoke about it. Well, not to me, of course. I'm far too junior for that. He spoke to his secretary, who spoke to the liaison, who spoke to the communications committee, who spoke to me. They knew we'd worked together in the past, you see."

"And what does the High Master wish to consult me about?" Layle asked patiently, keeping his booted feet carefully far from under the bed-shelf, lest he trample upon any of Master Aeden's food.

"A prisoner, naturally. We had a new one brought in the other day – he didn't look to the torturers who first searched him as though he would respond to the usual methods. Somebody suggested that the Eternal Dungeon has ways of dealing with prisoners that no other dungeon in the world has, so you were brought in, so that you can teach the rest of us how the Yclau torturers take care of their prisoners."

"The Yclau Seekers," Layle said quietly. "There's more to being a Seeker than simply torturing a prisoner."

"You see? We need you here; we're obviously neglecting important lessons that we can learn from the Yclau. I don't think we've ever had an Yclau torturer – sorry, Seeker – come to this place. They all seem to bypass this dungeon for some reason. Lots of other foreign arrivals, though. We're a popular destination."

"Well," said Layle, pulling the cloak closer to his body in an attempt to shield himself from the chill, "I'll be happy to demonstrate the Eternal Dungeon's methods of searching prisoners. I'm only sorry I didn't think to bring a copy of the Code of Seeking with me. I'll be sure to send your High Master a copy when I return home."

Master Aeden stared at him for a moment, and then laughed. "You seem very sure you'll be returning home soon. Do you think that your duty to your new prisoner will end that quickly?"

Layle hesitated before answering; he was taking in the eerie silence of this room. He was used to dungeons and prisons that were punctuated at intervals by screams, but he could only hear the faint sound of groans nearby. The part of him that remained always on-duty noted this fact and reached its conclusion: the low level of torture that he had hitherto seen in this place was not abnormal but common. For whatever reason, the torturers here were not permitted to take their prisoners to a high level of pain.

There were various possibilities for why this was so. He hoped consideration of the prisoners' welfare was the real reason.

"I don't want to underestimate the amount of time it would take to break a prisoner who has not responded to the efforts of your torturers," he said carefully. "That is particularly the case if the rules of this dungeon limit the amount of pain that can be used to bring the prisoner to the breaking point. But as I'm sure your High Master realizes, I cannot stay here for long. I have duties that must be tended to at home."

Master Aeden, who had been kneeling as he continued to rummage through the rubbish pile beneath the bed-shelf, looked up at him. "I was told that the agreement made for your visit was that you would stay here until your work with this particular prisoner was through."

"I made no such agreement," Layle replied patiently.

"Our High Master seems to think you did. And our High Master is exacting about work terms being met."

His master rose to his feet. His smile had disappeared, and he looked down at Layle as he had on the day that the youth had finally accepted the limitations on his ability to find pleasure in bed. There was a small, chill silence.

"Sir," Layle said quietly, "is this dungeon under Vovimian control?"

Master Aeden gave a sad smile. "I'm afraid so, my dear. You know what that means: no torturer who comes here to work ever leaves. And I'm afraid you won't find it possible to escape this time. This place is tightly sealed, and they'll be on the alert for you."

Layle stood up slowly, his gaze travelling round the prison cell where his master was housed. He ought to have known from the moment he entered this cell, he thought to himself dully; he had lived in a cell like this during his years as a torturer in the Hidden Dungeon. But in those days he had been trusted enough to be permitted to leave the heavily guarded dungeon for occasional visits to nearby towns.

That was before he had broken his oath as a Vovimian torturer by fleeing to Yclau for sanctuary.

He looked over at his master and said in a level voice, "A death sentence was passed against me after I left Vovim. It won't be invoked?"

Master Aeden gave a wry smile. "Only in a manner of speaking. I'm sorry, my dear; I know that this must be a great shock to you, as it is to me."

"A great joy." His voice was harsh to his ears. "That's what you said you felt when you heard I was coming."

"Shall we say my feelings were mixed? I knew your transition here would be hard, but truly, Layle, I believe that this is the right dungeon for you. You'll find work conditions here much better than at our old dungeon – or, for that matter, than at the Eternal Dungeon."

Layle let out a deep breath and spent a moment walking the six paces possible from one end of the cell to the other. He placed his hand against the cell wall; it was as chill as a winter lake, numbing him the moment he touched it. He turned and pulled the cloak off, saying, "Here. You're older than I am; you're more likely to be affected by the cold."

Master Aeden's smile deepened. "You haven't changed. But I've grown used to the cold here, Layle. You keep the cloak till you're issued your own."

Layle shook his head, giving an incredulous laugh. "And if you die from a chill—"

"Not at all likely, as you'll discover when you come to know this dungeon better. That's one of the benefits of working here."

Layle felt his body beginning to tense, and he forced himself to relax. Placing the cloak at one end of the bed-shelf, he reseated himself at the other end of the bed, saying, "Master, I know that I've never been able to make you see why I need to work at the Eternal Dungeon—"

"So? You have plenty of time to convince me now." Master Aeden sat down beside him and stretched out his legs with a sigh. "Ah, that's good. Dark-to-dark shifts exhaust me. . . . You were a youth when last we talked of the Eternal Dungeon, Layle. You're a full-grown man now, with a High Seeker's title to prove your worth. I'm more inclined to listen to what you have to say."

Layle laid his elbows upon his thighs for a minute, resting his chin upon his interlocked hands. Finally he said, "Very well, here's the image I'll use to describe it. You know the Vovimian hell, where the torture-god and his assistants punish the guilty for eternity?"

"I haven't forgotten it," Master Aeden replied with a smile.

"I was told as a child that this was justice, because only the guilty were punished, and their evil was so great that they deserved to endure pain forever. I always thought this was a fitting image for the Hidden Dungeon."

Master Aeden raised his eyebrows. "The prisoners at our old dungeon certainly didn't endure pain forever. Death awaited them."

"Yes, but the concept of destruction was the same. The evil would remain evil forever – there was no chance of transforming the prisoner to good. But in Yclau . . . They don't believe in eternal hell in Yclau; they believe in eternal rebirth."

His master leaned forward, interest written upon his face. "This is how the Eternal Dungeon got its name?"

Layle nodded. "We try to give our prisoners rebirth from an evil life into a good one. But in order to do that we must first break them away from their old life – there must be a breaking before there can be a birth. It's as though the prisoners were chicks within their shells, painfully pecking their way out. That's why we use torture when needed – because some prisoners require external pain to reach the point where they can recognize the evil of their past and transform themselves into good."

Master Aeden nodded. "So any torture that the Seekers inflict upon the prisoners is for the prisoners' sake alone."

"That's right."

"Mm." Master Aeden leaned back, stretching his legs out further so that his toes touched the icy wall. He wiggled his feet for a moment before saying, "Was I entering a dreaming, my dear, or did you go cock-high the moment we entered the cavern of hanging?"

Layle felt the blood wash from his face. His master glanced over at him and added, "Forgive me. That was a blow outside the rule-books."

"No, it's a fair question." He tried to keep his voice level. "You know I've always received pleasure from the sight of pain. That hasn't changed. I've tried various methods of handling my dark desire over the years, to stay within the Code I must abide by as a Seeker. None of the methods I've used included the method I employed in Vovim: simply allowing my dark desire to rule me, so that I tortured and raped prisoners to satisfy my lusts."

The master who had taught him these skills seemed not at all disturbed by this indictment of his training. "And have these methods of controlling your desire been successful?"

There was a long silence. Ice-water dripped from the ceiling, cascading into a pool near the pit. Finally Layle said, "So the news has reached this far."

Master Aeden gave him another of his sad smiles. "How could it not? When anything important happens to the High Seeker of the Eternal Dungeon, every torturer in the world hears the tale." He reached forward and placed his hand over Layle's, saying quietly, "That's why I recommended to the High Master that you be brought here, my dear. Trying to follow the Code of the Eternal Dungeon has driven you mad before – I can't chance letting it happen again."