Will’s mind reeled, and he tried to make sense of what he was seeing.
It’s…like looking at a cube rotating in space, Will thought. It’s like looking at a rolling die. If you’re looking straight-on at one of the faces, it looks like a square. The die tumbles, and it doesn’t look like a square anymore; in two dimensions, it looks like a series of irregular shapes, constantly changing. The die hasn’t changed shape; you’re just looking at it from a different angle.
The angel’s aspect was changing continually, and the changes weren’t just visual. Will was aware of shape, sound, smell, sensation―and he was aware that they were all part of the same entity, all different angles through which he was experiencing the same, unchanging being. There were wings, and there was the smell of incense, and the taste of copper in his mouth, but overlying all the rest of it, the predominant aspect of the angel, was that it was burning. The entity was burning, both from without and within, blazing eternally yet never consumed.
“I bid you greeting, souls of Elysium.” It was a voice, and not a voice; Will heard it, but not the way he heard standard sounds; somehow, the sound emanated not from the stone, or from the angel itself, but from inside of him. It was a ringing all through him, a sound that he felt as much as heard. Emily had been cryptic, but she hadn’t been wrong; the sound of the angel’s voice was like the feeling at the moment of incarnation. “Greetings to you, holders of the holy gift. I bring you tidings of an opportunity denied, of a war in Heaven, of the promise of salvation. I am Refi, of the Seraphim. We are the people of the ten directions. We are the guardians of souls. I am the Lightbringer. I have come to fulfill the promise of which you have been cheated. Rejoice, for I have come to bring you into The Light!”
“Know, owners of the gift, that I am not present among you; that you behold merely my aspect, not my actuality. A barrier divides us. You know the barrier; you have seen it. Now you shall know its nature.” Behind the angel, an image sprang forth. It was The Light, unmistakably, that Light which summoned all souls to itself, the source of love and union that Will had seen at the edge of the Axis of Eternity, at the edge of reality. “Know that it is a door, a portal to a realm of perfect union, and know yet that it itself is that union, that it is bliss. You have seen the chosen gathered into it. Know that they are one, and at peace; that for them, all toil is ended, all suffering has ceased. You know this, and you yearn for the light. You know that it has been denied you, yet you know not why. I have come as emissary to tell you that you have been wronged. I have come to tell you that all will be gathered, in time. I have come to light the way.”
It seemed to Will that the vision was no longer before him, but all around him―that he, a tiny observer, had suddenly been engulfed by the images he was viewing. He watched, awestruck, from a vantage point in the cold darkness of space, as The Light was eclipsed by a globe of darkness; the globe spun into the foreground, grew nearer, resolved itself into solid matter, became a world. His vantage point changed, and he was on the surface of the planet itself, confronting a hellscape of barren volcanic rock, red skies and arid wastes. In the midst of a landscape of basalt and pumice stood a huge edifice―a massive building, a tower of translucent stone. The colors of the building as the light refracted through it were familiar―crimson red, emerald green, powder blue.
“From beside the light, from this barren world of Asphodel, within the glorious confines of the structure you see before you―the Skeinhall―my people watched. We worked the skein, observing with pride the maturation of human souls, intervening where necessary, that the Light might triumph. That all might be brought home. But our trust was broken. The Enemy emerged among us, and sought to obscure, to deceive.” Out of a door at the base of the tower poured a thick fog; colorful bolts of electricity lancing through it. From somewhere outside of the vision in which he was immersed, Will heard Jason gasp. They had both seen that fog before. Every soul in Elysium had seen it. In Will’s case, it was the very first thing he could remember seeing. “The mist has many names. To the seraphim it is the STYX. It is not merely a barrier, but a weapon. Your flesh is the only shield against it. To your naked soul, it is pain and corrosion; you cannot long endure within it; it casts you out of itself. Worse, it is forgetting, for the STYX flows between men and their mortal selves, between men and their memories. To the Seraphim, the STYX is death, instant and irrevocable; we are not of flesh, but of the ten directions; we cannot stand against it.”
Will watched as the fog spread out across the rocky surface of Asphodel, his vision retreating from it, up into the atmosphere and back into the void. He watched as a milky veil covered the planet’s surface, suffused the atmosphere itself; then, like a living thing, it seemed to grow limbs, tendrils reaching up from the atmosphere, reaching out across the gulfs between worlds, across the Axis of Eternity, to Earth. “The STYX is no natural thing. It was devised by traitors among the Seraphim. Its purpose is to break human souls, to make men lose their way.” Will saw a tentacle of fog secure itself in Earth’s atmosphere, pumping forth its contents; slowly, an electric haze obscured the world from view. He saw free souls ejected by the thousands from earth’s atmosphere into the void. “Millions of my kind perished at its arrival. It drove us from Earth at the dawn of human history, ended the age of miracles. Among your people, it obscured men’s souls from mortal sight, made a barrier between the material and the spiritual. Of the age of wonder that once was, only rumor and legend remains. The minds of men are clouded, and even those who catch glimpses through the fog are thought insane, superstitious, dreamers.”
“Yet even so, the enemy’s victory is incomplete.” Will felt his vantage point change again; he was retreating back down the Axis of Eternity, watching as swarms of heartlights emerged from the fog, streaking past Asphodel and straight into the heart of The Light itself. “For the soul of man is strong, and knows its way home. But there are those who, cut from the anchor of memory, became wayward. Became lost.” Indeed, it was true. Not every soul was entering the light; off on the periphery, Will could see a few flickering specks, roaming the cosmos. “The fault is not yours. There is no weakness in it. For who can blame the lost sheep for straying? It is the fault of the shepherds, of the Seraphim. It is the great shame of my people.”
“In order to atone, my people built a new world, halfway in between Earth and The Light. A haven for lost souls. A second chance, for those who have lost their way.” A planet, conjuring itself into existence, drawing its substance from some entirely new direction invisible even to free souls. On the planet’s surface, a single continent surrounded by a single vast sea. Again, it was a sight Will had seen before, though at the time he’d been too busy dodging a psychovore’s jaws to savor it. “Here, and here alone, we were able to hold back the tide of the STYX. Here, things are as they were intended to be―flesh and soul, side by side, each fully aware of the other. Here, the crop that is a man’s soul may ripen. Here, a soul may gain its bearings. Here, in time, a soul may find its way home again.” And from space, Will watched as tiny solitary specks of soul-stuff emerged at intervals from the atmosphere of Elysium, rocketing through space and straight down the Axis of Eternity, towards The Light at its end.
“Yet the work of the Seraphim is not done. The work of the Seraphim is incomplete so long as even a single soul remains astray. We appeal to you, the lost sheep, to redeem your shepherds from their shame.” Once again, a glimpse of the world of rock and fire. “The Seraphim cannot penetrate the STYX. Only the gift of flesh makes such possible. We appeal to you to seek the Skeinhall, and to undo what was done, thousands of years ago. Disperse the STYX. Only then will memory be restored to you in full. Only then will the path be clear, that all may be one. That all may be brought into the fold.”
The angel again. Burning, yet never consumed. “I cannot go in your place. I cannot penetrate the veil surrounding Asphodel. But there is one among you who can go. For he who goes into the STYX, I will light the way. This is the promise of Refi of the Seraphim, the People of the Ten Directions. Go forth, that all may be Enlightened.”
And then, nothing. Nothing but the flickering of lamplight and the crackling of coals in a low fire.
Jason and Will withdrew their hands from the stone and stared at each other.
“Well,” said Jason.
“Yeah,” Will responded.
And then they stared at each other some more.
“Will,” Jason said, looking at him strangely. “The angel said ‘one among you can go.’ ‘One.’ You don’t think…”
“No, boy,” said a voice. “Ye don’t think. Ain’t what yer cut out for.”
Jason and Will turned. The workroom door was open. Ammerman stood in the doorway, a loaded crossbow pointed at the two of them. Keeping his eyes on them, he called out over his shoulder, “Dion. Git th’ others. We got us a situation, here.”