At the end of the world, a tape recorder clicks on, uncountable eyes open wide, and the Archive begins to speak.
“There is a tower at the center of creation.
"Jutting up from the scorched earth, it casts its oppressive shadow over all, so certain of its rightful place in this world. But although it may appear sturdy and eternal, it is, like everything else in this place, decaying – more slowly than the rest, but moving inexorably toward its own extinction all the same.
“In the dying light of a ruined world, it Watches over all that crawls and chokes and blinds and falls and twists and leaves and hides and weaves and burns and hunts and rips and leads and dies. For now, it is sated and gorged on the fear permeating its perfect world – but what happens when the fear runs out? There will come a time when each pinprick of life blinks out around it, one by one, taunting it with the dreadful knowledge of its ultimate, encroaching fate: a slow, agonizing death of boredom and isolation and starvation.
“And it will hurt.
"Nothing lasts forever, but rest assured: the tower will be the last thing standing, wilting alone in a barren and desiccated realm of its own making. It will be outlived only by death itself, and even then, only for the briefest of moments.
“The tower is a monument to hubris, and as such, it is destined to collapse.”
The recorder clicks off and Jonathan Sims comes back to himself, standing alone before the menacing bulk of the Panopticon. The statement was shorter than he's used to, but it isn't surprising – he can't See much here, in the Watcher's domain. Still, it took a lot out of him.
He barely has time to take a breath before a familiar door opens up in the ground just in front of him, its yellow paint chipped and faded. The Distortion’s ringing laughter ripples up from the ground and Jon closes his eyes, sighs heavily, and counts to ten.
“No ‘hello’ for me, Archivist?” Helen pulls herself up and out of her door to loom over him. “You’ve become quite rude these past few… how long has it been?”
Shaking his head, Jon readjusts the straps of his backpack and starts to walk. Helen, of course, prowls after him. Her gait seems different, Jon realizes, and when he trains his sight on her – yes, apparently she’s added an extra kneecap to her left leg. She watches him with a mischievous sparkle in her eyes, daring him to comment on her latest modification, but he’s learned by now that it’s best not to encourage the Distortion.
“That was a rather short monologue for you. I very much doubt your patron will be satiated.”
“Oh, how I wish he’d go away,” Jon mutters under his breath. The pronoun is wrong, but it still gets the point across, and Helen is familiar enough with his current mode of communication to catch his meaning.
“Still voiceless, are we? It must be very frustrating for you. Reduced to rifling through others’ trauma, forced to appropriate someone else’s terror any time you want to talk. It really is a shame your lexicon is so… limited. You’ve always had such a lovely voice. It seems a waste to deny it any novelty.”
Ignore her, he tells himself. Just ignore her.
“Silent treatment?” Helen pouts. “Well, that’s fine. I can speak enough for the both of us.”
Jon wishes he could comment on the irony of It Is Lies telling the truth, but the Archive doesn’t offer up any fitting statements. Probably for the best, really; as a rule, he tries not to let Helen rile him. Tries being the key word.
“Off to see the Watcher? I do wonder how our dear Jonah is doing these days. You’re curious too, aren’t you? You can’t See anything in there. You have no idea what you’re walking into.” Helen’s lips curl in a too-wide smile. “That must drive you mad.”
Jon ignores her. Even if he had something to say, he expects he would be speechless at the moment, beholding the Panopticon. The tower bears no resemblance to the Magnus Institute he remembers. It’s the tallest thing left in the wasteland, now; standing at its base and looking up, it’s impossible to estimate exactly how high it stretches. He could Know, but he doesn’t care to. (The Eye bristles at his refusal to ask the question; Jon dismisses it with an almost childish defiance.)
All of the surrounding buildings have been reduced to dust and rubble, and there is no remaining evidence of there ever having been a street. The composition of the tower's walls is entirely obscured by a viscous coating of –
…aqueous humor, grave dirt, assorted viscera, sawdust, flensed dermis, dental pulp, spider silk…
– Jon closes his eyes and shoves the knowledge away with a practiced resolve. Its content is no more unsettling than anything else he’s encountered, but even after all this time, having the Beholding hijack his thoughts is still nauseating. He had experienced intrusive thoughts long before becoming the Archivist, but Knowing takes the experience to an entirely different level.
After the moment has passed, Jon opens his eyes again to resume surveying the tower. He can’t tell if it no longer has windows, or if they’re just hidden by the horror cocktail smothering its exterior. He supposes it doesn’t really matter either way; the Watcher doesn’t need windows to See outside. The staircase stretching to the entrance is impossibly long, and the stairs are of the narrow, shallow variety that never accommodate anyone’s stride.
Jon sighs as he places one foot on the bottom step.
“That looks like an awfully long climb,” Helen observes. “And a tripping hazard. I would offer you a shortcut, but… well, you know.” She winks and flashes him a wicked grin just as her door materializes beneath her feet, dropping her down into a vertical corridor. “See you at the top, Archivist,” she calls cheerfully, her door slamming behind her and vanishing.
Jon rolls his eyes and ascends the stairs.
The enormous doors to the tower are already open when Jon reaches the top of the steps. The moment he crosses the threshold, he is bathed in a blinding white light and every one of his eyes reflexively snaps shut. One by one, the extra eyes he has grown so accustomed to wink out of existence until finally, for the first time in forever, he has just the two he was born with. It’s jarring, having his hundredfold, 360-degree sight so suddenly reduced back to a binocular field of vision, but it feels oddly freeing.
At the same time, he doesn’t quite know what to make of it. Does the Watcher want him at a disadvantage? Is there something inherent to the Panopticon that allows only the Ceaseless Watcher itself to See, rendering all others – even its Archive – effectively blind? What if -
“Look at you!” Helen chirps directly into his ear, cackling when he startles. “My, you spook easily, Archivist. Not very becoming for one who Sees all and revels in the terror he has wrought.”
Jon is already walking away. The light isn’t as overwhelming as it was before, but he still has to squint against it. As far as he can see, the interior of the tower is a flat expanse of white. He can't perceive any walls, a ceiling, even the floor, making it impossible to guess the size of the place – or if it has an end at all.
“Do you actually Know where you’re going?”
“I was finding it really hard to get a solid idea on where we were,” Jon admits.
“Yes. It’s quite like the tunnels, isn’t it? You never could See down there, either. What did you call it – ‘a universal blind spot’? Strange, how your voyeurism touches everything except your own domain.”
“I come to you not to wallow in my condition – but to request your assistance.”
She hasn’t been any help in ages, but Jon figures it’s worth a try. Helen simply laughs.
“What assistance could I possibly give? You are the most powerful thing the apocalypse has to offer, Archivist. Aside from the Entities themselves, that is. I’m certain you can figure it out on your own. As I’ve told you so many times, all you have to do is embrace it.” Jon glares at her. “Now, as much as I would love to stay and watch you get terribly lost, I believe there are more interesting things going on in the world.”
With that, her door swings open on the invisible ground in front of her.
“I thanked them as they left, even though they had been of no help whatsoever,” Jon grumbles to himself.
“You are tetchy today,” Helen teases. “Well, I’ll check back in with you later.”
She steps off the ledge and plummets down through her door again, pulling it shut after her. Jon pinches the bridge of his nose and sighs. It’s incredible how after all this time, even a short encounter with the Distortion leaves him feeling drained.
But she did have a point. He never could See in the tunnels, but that was before he became the Archive. As he is now, he probably has a better chance of finding his way than Helen would. It’s just that doing so is bound to be… unpleasant.
No use putting it off, though. He closes his eyes, looks inward, opens the door, and –
A churning deluge of information crashes into him, sweeping him along in its undertow. All at once, he’s drowning.
…the equatorial circumference of Jupiter was 439,263.8 kilometres before it was devoured by the ravenous Falling Titan…
…Mr. Spider has taken up residence behind innumerable doors – not every door, but any door. It has an average of one guest for dinner every 39 minutes and still it is hungry…
…the Sandman and the Buried wage war over scraps within the catacombs of Paris, now located approximately 6,294.2 kilometres below creation and sinking…
…as of 23.8 seconds ago, the Crawling Rot and the Lightless Flame have completed their race to consume the endless apartment block located at the corner of Nowhere and –
Jon shakes his head and tries to refine his search.
Tell me about Jonah Magnus.
…Jonah Magnus was born in –
Tell me where I can find Jonah Magnus.
…Jonah Magnus is –
A wave of force crashes into Jon like a freight train and then he’s back in the white space, eyes open, gasping for air and struggling to fill his aching lungs.
It comes as no surprise that the Ceaseless Watcher doesn’t want him to Know the way, but if the Eye didn’t want to be Seen, it should have picked someone less inquisitive. Or less stubborn.
He takes a deep breath, steels himself, and dives back in.
…in a hollowed-out sanctuary of bone and gristle, the Boneturner scavenges uselessly for –
Tell me where to find Jonah Magnus.
A harsh buzz of static starts to ring in his ears.
…the Distortion in its corridors waits for –
Show me how to reach Jonah Magnus.
The static pitches up into a shrill whine.
…Martin Blackwood’s last –
The noise reaches an earsplitting crescendo, then cuts out abruptly and –
When the Archive opens its myriad eyes, it Knows the way.
Once the knowledge settles in his mind, it's as if a veil has been lifted. As the empty, directionless white void resolves itself into perceptible details, Jon finds himself standing in a cavernous, cylindrical space. Countless iron-barred prison cells are recessed into weathered red-brick walls, stacked vertically one on top of the other and stretching all the way up to an impossibly high vaulted ceiling covered in… cobwebs.
Of course. It figures the Web would have infiltrated this place. In fact, it had probably staked out its territory when the initial foundations for Millbank Prison were laid and had simply never left.
Jon shudders and looks away. Or tries to, anyway; there are always a few recalcitrant eyes that linger on the things he does not want to See.
He turns his attention to the observation tower. Its looming presence seems to take up the entire room, radiating a palpable sense of dread. There is nowhere in this world that its gaze cannot reach, but being this close to it is nearly unbearable.
Jon forces himself to stand there, to experience and endure the sheer weight of its omniscient scrutiny concentrated wholly on him. This is what it’s like to be Seen by the Archive, and Jon needs to Know how it feels – how it felt when he turned the Ceaseless Watcher’s gaze upon the monsters he met on the journey to the Panopticon.
And it hurts.
It’s like having his consciousness torn to shreds, every memory and thought and experience comprising his existence ripped out of him, pinned under a microscope, dissected with precision, classified and then hoarded away by a dispassionate curator. It’s sharp angles and blinding lights and throat-rending screams and scalding heat; it’s burrowing worms and scalpel blades and crushing earth and cold plastic hands; it’s fear and pain and love and loss and it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts –
Jon’s knees give out and he crumples to the floor, panting, resting his head in his twitching hands as the aftershocks of white-hot pain ripple through him. He lets himself roll over onto his side and curls into a fetal position while he waits for the tremors to stop.
Martin wouldn’t have approved, but Jon had to Know. He had to Know what it was like, if the monsters he killed deserved it, if the punishment was proportionate to the crime, and –
They did and it was. He can confidently say that each sentence he handed out was justified, and it’s somewhat of a relief.
Beyond that, though, experiencing it firsthand was the best way he could think to fully appreciate the consequences of allowing his potential to go unchallenged and unrestrained, and to make clearer the distinction between Jonathan Sims, the Watched and the Archive, the Watcher – or conduit of the Watcher, at least. If nothing else, the memory of it will be an anchor going forward – a searing reminder of how much is at stake and the ultimate cost should his plan fail.
And, of course, it was also an effective way to assess the power he has at his disposal, to determine whether he’s strong enough for his plan to work. He did survive it, at least, which seems like a good sign. Hopefully it's a good sign.
As the pain fades to a dull ache, he pushes himself to his feet and takes a minute to compose himself before entering the observation tower. He has not come eye to eye with Jonah Magnus since before the world ended, before he forced himself through the domains of each and every fear that marked him, before he completed his metamorphosis. That was the point of the journey, he realizes now: reliving the terror and retracing every mark was necessary for him to emerge as the fully-fledged Archive.
He hopes it was all worth it.
Jon takes a deep breath, braces himself, and crosses the threshold.
Jonah Magnus is a pitiful sight.
He sits slumped on the Watcher’s throne within his lonely observation tower, ropes of spider silk binding him in place. The look in his eyes when he beholds his Archive is entirely unreadable, and Jon doesn’t care to Know.
Well – his two original eyes, in any case. The other eyes bulging through Jonah’s skin – bloodshot, rolling and twitching in all directions, and glowing a repellent shade of green – belong to the Watcher, and all they contain is a cold, measured fascination. Jon wonders absently whether they might cluster beneath the skin as well, a fitting mirror of Albrecht von Closen’s gruesome fate. Martin would have appreciated the poetic justice of that thought.
Jon takes a step forward.
“I don’t think I’ll ever know what they expected to happen.”
The Archive’s voice rips through the silence like a clap of thunder on a clear day. There is something of a command threaded through the words, a power that brooks no argument and permits no lies. Jonah flinches at the force of it, and Jon takes that as his cue to continue; he has Jonah’s full attention now.
“It’s weird, isn’t it, the things that can change your life?” Jon wonders, briefly, how Tim would feel about his statement being repurposed like this. Hopefully he would approve, seeing the way Elias – Jonah – is rendered silent and cowed in its wake, even if Jon’s voice is the vehicle. Either way, stolen words are Jon’s only option, and so he presses on: “You can plan for all the devastating, terrible possibilities you can imagine, and it’ll always be those tiny, unexpected things that get you. You know, the things that you never even noticed as they were happening, just… just nudging everything into motion. But even if there was a way I could have known, I really don’t think I’d be able to have stopped him.”
When Jonah opens his mouth as if to speak, Jon catches a glimpse of a roving eye sprouting from Jonah’s tongue. What comes out is not words, but a small spider, creeping languidly over his lip and up his cheek, as if summoned by the Archive’s mere mention of manipulation. Even from a distance, Jon can See all eight of its eyes focus on him.
The Spider perches there, patient and waiting. Whether she is issuing an invitation, a challenge, or simple, curious observation, the Archive does not Know, and Jon will not waste his energy searching for the answer.
Curiosity always has been Jon's fatal flaw, he thinks. It can be an asset in moderate doses, but he habitually took it to endangering and self-destructive extremes. By now he has learned how to wield that curiosity with precision, patience, and careful calculation. It was a lesson hard learned and at great cost, but now he knows: there is a difference between a constructive avenue of inquiry and a dead end. One leads to answers that need knowing; the other only sates the Eye’s voracious appetite and leaves Jon adrift and wanting. The trick is to prioritize – which means accepting the existence of questions that aren’t worth asking.
The Eye balks at an unsolved mystery, and the Archive’s every instinct drives Jon to seek, to ask, to know at any and all costs – but this is not the first time he has weathered the dueling instincts of Archive, Archivist, and human, and it will not be the last. If he stands in the crossfire long enough, breathes through the dissonance, and allows himself to simply exist as the strange, contradictory gestalt his apotheosis has made him… eventually, he can find the quiet.
In any case, the Archive’s eyes outnumber the Spider’s by far, and Jon meets her gaze with a resolve that still feels new and untested, but unyielding nonetheless. Neither of them blink, but the Spider does eventually – slowly, so slowly – crawl away and out of sight.
A stalemate. Jon expected nothing more or less; these confrontations with the Web never have a satisfying conclusion, only a protracted, stop-and-start hiatus.
When Jon feels the Spider’s presence fade away, he lets out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding. For all his bravado, the fear never has gone away. He suspects that the Eye would never give him the choice in the first place. It isn’t enough to Know or See the contents of his library – he has to live them, feel them, share in them, or else the knowledge is not comprehensive. The Beholding requires more than facts and words and retellings. It demands the insight and dread that comes only from lived experience, and it has no use for an Archive that cannot fully experience its own catalog.
If Jon was given the choice, though, he still wouldn’t give up the fear. It’s the fabric of this world, which makes it a reliable anchor as long as it exists. It tethers him to his humanity; it reminds him of his reason; it keeps him moving forward.
And so, he approaches the Watcher’s throne, and the Archive resumes its recitation:
“I continue to see in you the reflection of my own past hubris.”
It’s a nice touch, Jon thinks, using Robert Smirke’s dying words to rub salt in the wound, and the surge of stunned outrage on Jonah’s face confirms that for him.
“Why does a man seek to destroy the world?"
Jonah’s human eyes widen ever so slightly as he recognizes his own words.
“…you would quite willingly doom that world and confine the billions in it to an eternity of terror and suffering, all to ensure your own happiness, to place yourself beyond pain and death and fear.”
Jon kneels before the throne, a mocking gesture of fealty to a man who so arrogantly believed that he was to be –
“…a king of a ruined world” – he pauses, fast-forwarding the statement in his mind, picking through disparate fragments to cobble together something that can convey his intended meaning – “had miscalculated.” Another pause, and then: “The ritual failed."
Jonah squirms against his bindings, though whether it is in fear or frustration or anger, Jon does not know. He does not need to know, and he strangles that alien part of him that wants to taste exactly what flavor of distress struggles in front of him. He refuses to feed the Eye, even if it is at Jonah’s expense.
“…as much a victim as any” – Jon gives a curt nod to indicate Jonah – “trapped in the nightmare landscape of a twisted world.”
When he sees the glint of the knife, Jonah’s eyes widen further and he redoubles his thrashing. Jon is flooded with memories of his month held captive by the Circus – rough ropes chafing at his bare skin; cold, plastic hands slathering him in strong-smelling lotions; bruises that lingered long after he escaped through the Distortion's door. Part of him wishes that he could enjoy seeing Jonah like this – the one who orchestrated that trauma and so many others – but all he feels is that familiar revulsion that rises up in him any time he catches a whiff of shea butter.
Another, louder part of him is relieved to find that even after everything, he still can’t quite bring himself to find pleasure in torture.
Taking revenge on Jude Perry, obliterating the NotThem, casting the Ceaseless Watcher's gaze upon countless other monsters prowling through this ravaged world… it felt good in the immediate aftermath – to make them appreciate the terror and pain they had wrought, to stand in their presence not as a victim but as a long-overdue consequence. As soon as the adrenaline wore off, though, he would always crash. Whether or not they deserved their fates was never what haunted him the most. It was the simple act of using the same power that destroyed the world that always left him feeling sick, guilty, divorced from what remained of his humanity, and terrified of what he could become if he embraced his role as the Archive. It felt good in the same way that compelling live statements used to, and that frightened him.
Still, Jon has a point to make. He draws the knife to Jonah’s face and holds the tip mere centimetres from his right eye, poised to strike. Jonah freezes and Jon stares him down. The Archive’s innumerable eyes open wide and focus laser-like on a single point, and it waits for the would-be king to blink first.
And he does.
With that, Jon stands and drops the knife. As it clatters to the floor, Jonah opens his human eyes cautiously, looking first at the discarded weapon and then back to his Archive with uncertainty etched onto his face.
“…didn’t even have the decency to kill me,” the Archive says. Jon has to swallow down a wave of hatred at the memory of Peter Lukas’ voice, but he needs Jonah to understand this choice his Archivist has made, to truly appreciate the fate to which he is being condemned.
The Archive reaches for Gertrude next:“They might even stop death entirely, deny us the one last escape, keeping us alive and afraid – forever.”
It takes a moment for the words to sink in, but the existential terror slowly dawns in Jonah’s eyes. His greatest fear may have always been mortality, but faced with the reality of what an immortal existence could actually entail, well…
“You’ll get used to it here, in the world that we have made."
Jonah Magnus’ own triumphant declaration reverberates through the cavernous space in the voice of the Archive he forced into being. The words sound as smug and gleeful as they did the first time the Archivist read them to an empty room, on the day he opened the door.
Behind it all, though, is Jonathan Sims. Not the Archive, not the Archivist, just… Jon. He feels no catharsis, no gratification, no closure. He just feels tired.
But he didn’t come all this way to the Panopticon just to monologue at Jonah Magnus. This is the stronghold of the Eye, and that makes it Jon’s best chance of actually communing with the Beholding.
He places the tape recorder on the floor next to the discarded knife and turns his back on the man who sought to reign over a desolated world. As Jon walks away, the recorder clicks on, and the Archive’s final statement begins to play:
“There is a tower at the center of creation…”