Moments later, Pickering stepped from behind one of the columns. He looked empty, drained of his usual humor and energy. Eclipse sprang to her feet. What was he doing here? Or was this some trick of the Great Maze, some reminder that she had crossed an unmarked boundary and was subject to its whims?
“All my life,”he said. “All my life.”He stared across the vast piazza, not seeing her. “All my life, I have been pursuing a dream. Always convinced I had made small mistakes, correction of which would solve everything. Mistakes, I thought, I could have corrected, if I had been a bit more clever, a little sooner. It didn’t matter. Nothing I might have done would have worked. Not and gained me what I wanted. Even this cyclopean edifice,” he gestured at the squat pile of stone behind him, “for all its command of time and space, cannot help me. All it did was find alternate failures. Failures.”
“Failures?” she asked. “But you’re alive!”
“Of course I’m alive,”answered Pickering. “The Maze only kills those it defeats. But it didn’t matter.”
“But it was only moments!” she protested. “You weren’t gone long enough to win.”
“The Maze lies beyond space and time. It was hours. Or was it days? Long enough to solve a variety of interesting albeit trivial puzzles. But that’s over. It didn’t matter.” Pickering shrugged.
“You walked the Great Maze? And it doesn’t matter?” she asked.
“I walked the Maze, stood at the Arch of Time, where the tapestry of fate may be woven and rewoven. And found that no matter how the threads are arranged, my dream was not to be. Either she found another, or the finding changed her, so she was not what she was to have been, or … many things. All failures. It all didn’t matter.” Pickering’s voice was devoid of all emotion.
“Even the Great Maze couldn’t help you? That’s awful.” Eclipse wondered for what Pickering had actually searched, what impossible goal defied even the Great Maze’s supposedly infinite power. She knew it was all grownup romantic nonsense, but it made absolutely positively no sense whatsoever.
“Now we have each walked a Maze, mine less challenging to me than yours to you. And neither of us gained great reward thereby.” Pickering looked over the embankment, down into the starry void, a darkness without matched by his darkness within.
“But wait!”she exclaimed. “From the Arch. From the Arch of Time, no mortal may leave dissatisfied. That’s the promise.”
“True,”said Pickering. “So you may be satisfied, or you may be not allowed to leave. Or, as I explained to the MazeMaster, you may leave behind mortality. He shared the remarkable assertion that no mortal would believe my observation. Do you disbelieve me, or are you immortal?”
“No. No to both. I think. Sure I believe you. That can’t be right—you’re not allowed to, said the Mazemaster. The Maze’s Master is an immortal. Sometimes answers of immortals demand exceedingly convoluted interpretation,” a puzzled Eclipse responded.
“I found the last of these alternatives appealing. Curiously, of those who have stood astride the Arch and seen the flux of temporal possibility, almost none agree with me.”
“You gave up dying?” Eclipse asked.
“Adara’s people make a habit of it,” Pickering answered. “Giving up dying, I mean. And they seem to do reasonably well, for a group of slave-holding sword-wielding barbarians overrun by overaged mafiosi. But now, dear, we must not overstay our welcome. The rules allow me a choice of paths home.”