The world was dead.
Asphodel lurked below, a smoking cinder in space, a blackened husk of a world at the end of eternity, lit not by the sun, but by The Light itself. It was the last of the line of worlds stretching down the Axis of Eternity from Earth all the way outwards to The Light. If Refi’s message from the blessing stone was to be believed, this had been the home world of the Seraphim. Yet as Will looked down upon it from orbit, it was impossible for him to imagine that anything had lived there, ever.
When Will had seen the planet for the first time, through the images in the blessing stone, he had thought it was Hell. Nothing he was seeing now dispelled the impression. Even from orbit, the brutality of it was surreal. From the edge of the mist, miles up, he could see a web of glowing rivers of lava stitching together fragile plates of soot-stained planetary crust. Above Will, the heartlights of souls streamed past, chasing one another into The Light. Here and there, in the distance, a predatory psychovore sought to chase them down. With such abundant prey so readily available, Will doubted any of them would even notice him.
Scanning the horizon, Will saw another heartlight hovering at the edge of the planet’s atmosphere. Again and again, it plunged into the mist, only to be repelled. One of Ammerman’s men. He was reminded of a moth, banging over and over against the glass of a lantern, drawn by irrepressible instinct, seeking its own immolation, yet unable to achieve it. Ramesh? he wondered. Milton? Takashi? Which are you? And how long have you been slamming yourself against this brick wall? How many weeks or months of self-torture, all for the sake of helping others, of restoring memories? The Light is right here, so close you can almost touch it. Yet you deny yourself, choosing instead this cycle of pain. For you, this really is Hell.
He looked down again at the planet’s surface. Somewhere far below him, fire blossomed in a mighty eruptive plume; the scale of it must have been unimaginable by Earth standards, a hundred Krakatoas. What must the air be like? What could breathe down there? And…I intend to go into that? Willingly?
Whoever’s soul that is over there, hammering away at the STYX, I have no business accusing him of being insane. I proved my own insanity the moment I drank from that flask.
This was a terrible idea.
Will. His soul resonated to the sound of the voice; his mind was full of fire. Will. You have come at last. My congratulations. You have overcome many hardships, suffered much, to arrive here.
That is correct, Will. You are he to whom I referred in my Holy Gift. You are he who shall redeem the shame of the People of the Ten Directions. It is you who shall restore what was lost to humanity, you who shall open the way to full enlightenment.
The Seraph was not physically present, yet somehow it was with him, in his mind, a glorious inferno drowning out all else, rendering conscious thought almost impossible. It was, unmistakably, a creature of The Light.
Refi…who am I? Where do I come from? What was I, before?
Your answers lie below, Will, on Asphodel. Only by untangling the strands of the skein can you restore what was lost to you, can you know yourself fully. I promise, Will, the answers await you…
Can’t you just tell me?
I could attempt to explain, Will. But the reality is…complicated. And there are those who would seek to deceive you, Will. Seek proof, Will; do not settle for a thing so fragile as “trust”. At the Skeinhall, you will find truth through revelation, truth beyond doubt―the truth of memory. Your own memories, Will. All the memories of your life, complete, unexpurgated.
And everyone else’s memories? They’ll regain them?
Every human soul on Elysium, Will. When you untangle the skein, you will bring down the veil of the STYX both on Asphodel and on Earth. My race’s great mistake will be undone. That which separates human souls from their earthly memories will vanish. Things will be as they were meant to be, as they should have always been.
But you said the Styx veiled human sight, too. Does that mean that people on Earth will be able to see souls as well?
Souls, yes, but also so much more. All veils shall be lifted from human sight, Will. Your intervention will change the world. Man has been cheated for far too long. There is so much for you to know, so much for us to show you. But beware…I am not the only one of my kind, Will. There are many among the seraphim who would seek to deny enlightenment to yours. The physical presence of Seraphim on Elysium is forbidden―not by the STYX, but by other means. But their methods are subtle, their strategies indirect. Remember, it was traitors among the seraphim who made the STYX. You must rely upon your inmost nature to reject their lies, to defeat their agenda.
Will smelled brimstone, tasted metal on his tongue. In his mind, Refi blazed, shading from crimson to orange to gold. Would that I could explain fully. I cannot know for certain what challenges you will face, and were I to explain the skein to you before you lay eyes on it, it would do you no good. When you reach it, I will do my best to aid you, but the knowledge that already lies locked inside you should be sufficient. But the first steps will be the hardest. I trust you have a means of passage beyond the STYX?
I…do. Sort of. And Will did, indeed, have a plan. Will knew what Ammerman had been hinting at when he’d suggested that, for a person with the ability to incarnate on cue, there might be a way. It was immensely, spectacularly insane―but it was a way.
It will have to serve. Know this, Will: when you enter into the STYX, my glory will be dimmed in your mind. You will be open to the voices of the liars, those who seek to deny enlightenment to your people. You must be firm in your purpose. Trust always in that which is your core. Trust to your questions, and to your demand for answers! Let nothing deter you. I will help you, where I can. But it is you, Will, and you alone, that can lift the veil.
The Skeinhall. How will I find it?
I have guided your steps to this point, Will. It is directly below you on the surface of Asphodel. But beyond this point, I can only advise. Trust yourself, Will…
Will gathered his wits about him. He drifted lower, and lower, into the fringes of the electric mist. There was the itch, permeating him from the inside out. There was the powerful, repulsive force of the barrier, pushing against him. But he was no longer the weak-willed soul-infant he’d been on Earth. Events on Elysium had hardened his willpower, reforged him. Will felt the barrier push against him, and he pushed back…
Lower still, and lower. His momentum was slowing. He was at the extreme edge of his abilities; the toxic fog suffused him, the unscratchable itch driving him to the brink of madness.
I’m well within the atmosphere by now, he thought. And atmospheric gases consist of physical matter. When my body draws in matter for incarnation―how wide a field can it draw from? Almost two hundred pounds of air…how much space does that fill?
I’m guess I’ll find out.
Will allowed his mind to drift. He seized upon a question.
Who am I?
There was a moment of resonance, as the air around Will was sucked inwards to a single point, the widely dispersed atoms drawing together, forming new molecules, densely packed, no longer gases, but a solid mass, the shape of a human body.
Miles above the surface of Asphodel, Will incarnated.