22nd May 2024

The Palace of Crows

Welcome Letters From Unknown Lands, a series of stories about a world of fallen empires, magic, war, and power. Told through journal entries and letters written by travellers to their patrons, the story, place, and characters emerge piece by piece.

Today we have a new correspondent, Astronio, who has just ventured into a palace that might be deserted, or might be very much something’s home. Enjoy!

Asch, Ninth Day After Midsummer

My friend,

To your last – what shall we call it; missive, order, communique? – I have taken no action. The reasons for this should be obvious, if you consider the ludicrousness of the idea it was based on. I would not have taken the time to reply, if it were not for the fact that I had already begun to write a brief account of my expedition.

The palace remains. I admit I was wrong in my prediction. Its spires still rise from the rock and its stones endure, at least for the most part. The Distant City is another matter. It is not a place I would choose to pass through again, and when no doubt I have to, I will make that visit as brief as possible. It is strange that the Palace, which was the source of much of the Cataclysm’s spite, still stands, but the city – whose only crime was to be close to it – now smells of moulds that only grow in ash.

People have moved into the lower walls and palace barbicans, though they are a fraction of the numbers of either Palace or city in the past. Most are communities formed from treasure seekers who came in the wake of the cataclysm and never left. They don’t seek treasures now; they have learned that lesson. Instead, they concentrate on what all communities focus on after a few generations; forming factions and grudges. It does not take long for a minor role of a forebear to become the centre of identity and status. So it was that I had to negotiate first with a ‘high key holder’, so called, and then a ‘walker of the halls’, and then with both so that the one would agree to open the doors that the other would lead me through. Each of these ‘grandees’ guards their prestige and status with the jealousy and suspicion of a king on an ancient throne.

The long-negotiated access to the Palace involved a stooped crone with a rusted puzzle key and an iron bound door to a narrow spiral of stairs that reeked of bird droppings and mould. There was much muttering and a few furtive gestures that I assumed were attempts to ward off any ill fortune that might come through the open door. Or possibly that those who cross the threshold might bring back.

My guide was a barely an adult, but she at least seemed undaunted once the door closed behind us. We saw little as we made our way up through the first halls. The Palace is not in a well state. The beams supporting roofs have given way, spilling tiles onto floors and allowing the rain in. There is dust. In places sheltered from the draughts, great blankets of it, soft and grey. It smells of dust, and stone, and holds the chill of a place where people no longer light fires in the hearths.

My guide asked me how high I wanted to go, or if I was looking to collect an object or memento from a particular reach of the Palace. I understood that this form of grave robbery is the main reason for outsiders to come here at all. There are door-tithes and evaluations depending on what is brought back, a form of taxation enforced and extracted by another faction of the lower Palace dwellers. I replied that I did not want to take anything back, and that I wanted to go to the highest tower. She blanched, then shook her head. That was not possible, she said. Later I would understand how much was hidden within that statement.

We agreed that she would take me as high as she could. My intention was to make any final assent to the highest tower alone if necessary, though I did not share this with my guide. My request seemed to have deepened the laconic glumness I had already noted in her.

We began our climb – paradoxically – by going down. The Palace was built on a stack of stone in the middle of a canyon. The stone stack is supposedly some eight-hundred feet in height. Crystals fleck the stone, and it is hard, and harder to work. Once the palace began to accumulate on the stack, the builders were loath to try and cut through its shape. They went around its spurs and irregularities and conformed their structures to its caves and cracks. The towers and wings are moulded to the finger of rock at their core. This makes traversing from one part to another less than straightforward. Where it might make sense for a set of stairs to go directly up, an overhang of rock might have other ideas. Hence, our journey upward began by going down.

It took some time to begin to ascend. A spiral stair led downwards. Portions of it had been cut into the rock, the rest was of pour-stone. Again, the smell of water, and of dust. I became aware that I was searching for the smell of mould, which never came. There was wood that had become waterlogged, beams that had split and given way, painted plaster that had flaked from walls. But no black or green spores. I saw no insects either, nor vermin. In other abandoned places, you might see creepers threading their runners and roots through cracked walls or broken roofs. There were none. No claws skittering on the tiles. No plants that had made their home where they should not have been. Just the smell of dust and water.

My guide moved through it all with apparent disinterest, but after a time, I noticed that there was an intent and pattern to how she moved. She would walk with measured stride down a hall, pause to touch a carving on a wall, or look up at the ceiling while turning full circle. She would stop, and we would wait while the sand in a timer drained before moving on. I presumed at first that these pauses were for rest, but she showed no sign of fatigue, and only occasionally drank or ate. She said little, other than to give me instructions about the route we were following. Those instructions were very clear, and became more precise the further we went and the higher we rose.

We passed through a library. The volumes were intact. No rot had taken paper pages nor the vellum. A great many of the volumes had been taken. Clearly, the treasure seekers that pay for entrance and guidance consider the books treasure. There was nothing of note in what remained. I left them and we pressed on.

There were no corpses. My mind had begun to work on the absence of decay and natural processes, and to wonder whether we would come across the remains of those that had perished here during the cataclysm. Without the agency of mould, rot, and carrion eaters, would the dead lie as they had fallen, skin dried to the bone under damp-sheened cloth? They did not. There was no sign of them. In fact, the halls and rooms that I passed through held no signs of habitation. The small things of life – plates, cups, half burned candles –were absent. I wondered if they had been the first objects to be looted. After all, a silk embroidered curtain might be worth its weight in silver, but if you are making your home here, you need light and something to eat and drink from.

We climbed, up and up, like insects ascending through the cracks in an ancient tree that had grown on stone and then died. It is wondrous, there is no denying it. Not in the way of the tent palaces of Keld – billowing and bright and filled with sun shadows. This was something subtler. Passages curved to the edge of sight. The angle of wall and floor created a sensation that each step floated you further into the distance. There was a hush to it. A finger pressed over the lips of even the echoes of your footfalls.

I felt a hand jolt my shoulder and looked around to find my guide looking hard at me. Her expression was cautious, wary, and it was not until I spoke to her that she seemed to relax. She told me not to look at the distances or ceilings for more than five heartbeats. I asked her why. She turned away as she answered, something about getting lost. I had a feeling that both she and the ‘walker of the halls’ had put aside certain pieces of guidance that it would have been useful to know. I did what she said and was careful not to let the distances or spaces hold my gaze for long.

We climbed. I am not sure for how long. It became more difficult, the further and higher we went. There was what I can only describe as a weight that began to press at the edge of thought. It became harder to focus on more than one thing at once. When I stopped to look at a book that lay on the floor, I found I could not remember the page that I had just read, even though I could read the page in front of me quite clearly. So it is that I cannot give a coherent picture of what there is in the palace. I can only say what I believe I saw: A hall where the walls are black glass, smooth as mirrors, but with no reflections. A room of statues, each one cast in bronze, but with faces of ivory and crowns of golden leaves. A garden set in a courtyard with dead trees holding up canopies of silver feathers… golden pebbles on the ground, a stream chuckling over rocks into a pond, but no source for the water or bottom to the pond.

I found myself sitting on a balcony with my guide boiling water over a small fire she had set. The fire, water and kettle had all been brought with us. She removed dried food from oilskin wrappings, laying it out as though it were the offerings on an altar, everything precisely aligned as though to a sacred pattern. She handed me both food and drink with similar formality. I asked why.

‘We must remember that we have eaten,’ she said. I made some remark that was no doubt more dismissive that thoughtful. She considered it for a second, and then asked me how I was dealing with the loss of my charcoal and papers. I blinked, began to scoff and then checked my pack. Neither the charcoal nor the paper which I had been using for sketches were there. I became angry, asked her what she thought she was doing. She made no response, at first, other than to chew her food. I had lost it some way back, she said. We had talked about retracing our steps to find them.  Or rather I had said that we should, and she had refused to contemplate it. We would not find them, she had said, and our chances of getting lost ourselves was high. I was going to argue, then stopped.

The particularness of my guides movements and habits now made sense. She had observed the contents and features of particular rooms and sections of the palace and then attached those memories to what must be an intricate map held in her mind. Not a map of places but a map of journeys. Everything was made up of how you might get to a place, or so I would infer. Part of her reticence about reaching the highest levels of the palace now made sense – if she had not gone that far and did not have the rote steps of landmarks and steps taken, then she could not be sure of getting me there. A question occurred to me that should have been asked before. ‘Have people been lost in the palace?’

‘Yes, they have.’

‘And what happened to them?’

‘They remain.’ That was all my guide would say.

I thought of the absence of all signs of life or death in the portions of the palace we had already passed through. Were they there – the living and the dead? Present but never in the places that could be seen, or where they could leave?

We moved on. Up and through the places where the monarchs had ordained the course of life and then, through their pride, allowed calamity to be conceived and born. I know that you disagree that what happened was the result of a few, that the foolishness of those who wore crowns was but the largest rock to fall in a landslide of hubris, but the palace speaks more strongly for my view than yours. The rooms, old friend, the long rooms that I still glimpse at the frayed edge of dreams, gleaming bright with candlelight though no candles or flames burn, while outside there is only night. Spaces so small that I thought I would be crushed if I entered them, but that were so large that my footsteps echoed to the distance as I crossed them. I cannot fit those things in a cohesive set of memories. They are like impressions stolen from another place that my mind is not equipped to perceive or recall. They are the scars left on reality by the monarchs who dwelt there.

My guide spoke less and when she did, she spoke only to herself. Her demeanour hardened to a knife point – she was going to push as far as she could and get me as close to my stated goal as possible. I wish with all sincerity that she had not, that she had demanded we turn back, or refused to try and press the path further. She did not. Dutiful to her task, and me to my goal, we pressed on.

High up into the palace are the rooms that the Five Lines of Crowns lived in, slept in, ate in, defecated in, gorged and starved in, while making us believe that they were something higher than the rest of humanity, and then tried to make that lie a reality. I walked through the wings and rooms of their lives. I cannot remember any of it. But it is there, as a shadow on my senses. Dust. Enfolding. Drowning. Heat. Ice. Sharp edges and bright light.

By this point, I cannot say what my state of mind was. I must have been thinking. I must have been filled with sensation and emotion. But I cannot say what it was. I do not mean only that my memory failed – it did, but only in part. No, it is that I am unable to express what I can remember. The thoughts and sensations I experienced do not correspond to words that I know in any language or mode of expression. The words run out into scrawl. The pictures drool ink into a black pool. The sounds become a drone. It is unpleasant to try and try and recall.

My guide took me as far as she could. I do not remember her saying that she was stopping. I presume that I left her and made the final ascent through the upper chambers of that palace. I must have, because I reached the end.

I have said much about the failing quality of memory in that place, how it frays like unravelling thread the higher you go. But I know that I reached the highest part of the palace, the throne room under its spire tip. I know because I can remember it. Not the mundane details. Not how I reached its threshold or stepped across it. Not whether the tapestries of ages still hung on the walls, or whether dust lay on its floor as it did in the rest of the palace. My memory does not place me in that space. My presence is inferred from the fact that I was there, but there is no place for me in that place or time.

It was dark beyond the pillars that that marched towards the thrones. Vast and dark, and wheeling with lights that were small and silver but not stars. Not stars at all. And there they were. The thrones, all three of them. Not covered in dust, or broken, empty shells of  past failures. No, they were there. They loomed and shimmered, gleaming, shining. We wondered what became of the triarchy, and you wrote asking if their books or codicils might still exist and be recovered from the palace. I have replied that you are a fool to ask, and a fool you are. There were figures on the thrones, you see, robed in mauve and grey. Their hands rested on the arms of the thrones. Their heads were the heads of birds, of crows, and they looked into the distance with grey eyes. Cold indifference radiated off them. They were vast. They dwarfed me. They dwarfed the room which contained them. Yet they were no larger than three people, three withered people sat on chairs. I had no sense that they were aware of me. I do not know if they could be aware of me. I remained looking at them for what might have been an age, or just as long as my frayed will allowed. The next thing I can remember is pausing for a drink of water with my guide.

We had descended and were in the lower wings of the palace. She did not ask me what I saw, and I did not talk. This letter is the first time I have allowed myself to remember. I departed the palace. The assayers waiting on the other side of the doors were disappointed to find that I had brought back nothing from my expedition, and so needed to pay them nothing. Even so, I gave a large amount of coin to my guide. She accepted it without comment and left without farewell.

I wonder if she told her people where she had taken me. There might be great prestige in having taken someone to that point, to the pinnacle of that place. There might also be the reverse, the rule unspoken that you do not go there. That is my sense. I do not think I should have gone to the palace, and having gone, I will not go back. If you still have a mind to collect some of the papers and books that you alluded to, then you will have to use one of your other correspondents.

I remain your faithful friend,


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Edited by Greg Smith

Written without AI

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