Will was a wretched, naked pilgrim under bloody skies. The jagged landscape stabbed at the soles of his feet with every step. The wind was a blast furnace in his face; the air was like sucking at a car’s tailpipe. He had either severely bruised or cracked one of his ribs in his fall, and every inhalation felt like a knife in his side. Worst of all, he was in a state of acute paranoia, constantly scanning the landscape for the “enemies” Refi―or Refi:Sül?—had mentioned. Of them, there was no sign. Indeed, looking out over the blighted landscape, it seemed to Will that he was the only living thing that had walked this planet in many millennia.
Then how can there be oxygen? What’s producing it? There’s no plants.
Oh, for Chrissake. What’s the point in asking?
Questions. So many questions. Everything I’ve encountered in this afterlife I’ve mentally turned inside out, poked at, prodded, shaken and stirred, stripped down and reassembled. I’ve questioned every gift I’ve been given―a new world, benevolent authority figures who’d guided me back to physicality, selfless friends, my own immortal soul. And where did those questions take me? They took me from a world of peace and plenty to this hellhole.
Maybe not everything needs a reason. Maybe I’m not ready to understand it all. Maybe it’s time to stop analyzing everything and just start living. But he couldn’t, of course. Will could no more eliminate his desire to know than he could choose to stop breathing. So he simply trudged onwards, one bleeding foot in front of the other, towards the crystalline structure in the distance.
His throat was parched, but there was not the slightest sign of water anywhere. Then where did the water in my body come from when I incarnated? He knew the answer to that one, though. There had been abundant material for reincarnation at the crash site; for the most part, his body had just recycled itself, reconstituted itself out of its own splattered remains. In any case, it doesn’t matter. I’ll make it to the Skeinhall before dying of dehydration. And even if I don’t, what of it? Dying will be awful, but I’ll just build a new me and march on.
Or: I could just quit.
Wll glanced up in surprise at the thought, shrugged, and took another step.
Seriously. What’s the point? I’ve been asking every question but the most important one: why do this at all?
What am I DOING here? I have no idea what my goal is! I’m acting at the behest of an unknown master, trying to regain memories of a life which for all I know could have been traumatic beyond description. I don’t HAVE to do this.
Will stopped in his tracks, shook his head slowly back and forth, as if to clear it. “Stop it,” he croaked at himself through parched lips. Quit whining. This isn’t just about you. It’s about Emily, who can’t remember her sister, and thousands like her, who’ve been stripped of what’s most fundamental to them. Their memories.
Over a period of seven years, virtually every atom in a human body is replaced. If the physical is all there is to a person, then no human ever born survived to see his or her eighth birthday. So what makes a living human the same person that he or she was eight years ago? Continuity of memory. Nothing else. What’s been stolen from the people of Elysium is the central ingredient of their identity. Rogue souls they may be―but memory is the biggest piece of those souls, and it’s been stolen. I have to get it back.
He walked on, knives in his feet at every step. He had almost recovered from his mini-crisis when the landscape itself came to life. One moment, there was nothing but barren black rock―and then suddenly, directly in front of him, the rock was rising, somehow, under its own power. The ground itself, somehow, was rearing back, taking shape. And then Will saw that what he was looking at was not the ground at all, but a creature born of it, one with it…that strip of jagged obsidian had been the ridges of its backbone, running down to the tail, up past the unfolding wings, over the serpentine neck to the lizard skull in which twin crimson fires burned.
The dragon had been camouflaged perfectly. He had almost walked directly into its jaws. It rose up before him, its scales black basalt, its jaws open, roaring. It tossed back its head and sent a vast gout of orange flame skyward. Will stumbled backwards to the ground, but it had him locked within its gaze, and there so many teeth within those gaping jaws... His mind was screaming: FLEE, find a hole to crawl into and die, and when you do, let the STYX push you away, LEAVE THIS PLACE, GET OUT, there is NOTHING BUT DEATH HERE. The dragon bent its neck towards him, and he was scrambling away in a desperate crab-walk―
And he stopped.
What does it eat?
The dragon’s gaze locked again with Will’s; it lifted its neck and roared a warning.
Against the roar, his voice was tiny. “What do you eat?” he asked, aloud.
Another display of flame. Another stare of menace. Strands of acidic drool ran from the mouth, hissed against the rocks in front of him. But Will was pushing himself up on the heels of his hands, working his way back to his feet.
“Pointed teeth,” he said, his voice shaking a bit. “Perfect for rending flesh. Eating princesses, and such. Emily would like you. But…there’s no princesses here. No animals of any kind, in fact.” Will was looking the monster up and down. “You’re a big guy. Fifty feet, maybe? Twenty, thirty tons, right? So what were you eating, all this time, to grow so big? Rocks?”
The dragon roared again, but Will’s panic was rapidly receding. “Plenty of rocks here. You look like the sort who might eat rocks and drink lava. But…pointed teeth don’t make much sense for a silicon-based diet, do they? You’d never have evolved them in the first place. But you didn’t evolve them, because you’re not real.”
Will shook his head, and when he spoke again, it wasn’t to the dragon at all. Instead, he was shouting into the open air, addressing an unseen enemy. “WHAT DID YOU THINK I WOULD DO? RUN SCREAMING BACK TO ELYSIUM? OR DID YOU FORGET THAT I CAN’T DO THAT WITHOUT DYING FIRST?” He looked the dragon in the eye, lowered his voice again. “Tell you what. You gobble me up, and I’ll head straight back, no harm done.” To his surprise, he was actually angry. “I may not know who I am, but I don’t think I’m the sort of guy who runs from imaginary monsters. And I’ve already died twice this week, and I’ve got an appointment to do it again as soon as I’m done here. So either get on with it or get out of my way.”
Will blinked, and he wasn’t looking at eyes, anymore, but at two flecks of reddish stone in a large formation of black volcanic basalt. He stepped around the rock formation and continued onwards.
In the distance, the Skeinhall still loomed, growing ever closer. Will trudged onwards. His thoughts were wandering. What about Ammerman? Shouldn’t it tell me something that the most selfish, destructive individual in Haven approves of my plan, and that Ben, the main agent of stability and community, opposes it? What was it that made Ammerman so eager to see people get their memories back? Why would he willingly deprive himself of the one advantage he had over his enemies―the advantage of memory? Why did he send his henchmen, while refusing to go himself? He says that giving people their memories will set them free…how? What does that even MEAN?
The angel descended in glory and terror. A pillar of fire soared forty feet into the sky. A blazing giant stood before him. Refi’s vision had given Will no sense of the scale of the things―but then, why would it? What would keep them from being whatever size they want? The Seraph was attended by a whirlwind that whipped volcanic debris skyward in a soaring geyser, knocking Will to the ground, tearing at his bare skin. I know now from whence nomadic cultures derived their tales of “Efreet” and “Djin” in ancient days…I know now what it was that went before the Israelites in the desert. This was nothing native to Asphodel, nothing natural. Will looked around, but there was nothing, no shelter, no weapon, he was naked before the creature’s fury, and it was reaching down for me now, reaching down, and he knew, somehow, that it was not content with the destruction of his body, but that this being could pluck away his soul, that he was, for the first time, facing not merely the death of his body, but true and final extinction…
Slowly, he pushed himself back to his feet, bracing himself against the whirlwind. The stones and sand continued to wear away at his skin, grinding him raw, but he barely felt it. “Not real,” he whispered to himself. And then, much louder, “Not real! You’re not real! Every angel on this planet died when the STYX was unleashed! And I know the STYX is still here, because I just fell through it.”
Refi had warned Will of a subtle, skillful enemy. Now, here he was, facing it, and all it had to offer was a set of cheap illusions. So why is my mind still screaming at me to be afraid? he thought. Will drowned out his inner voice with his outer one: “If angels could touch me here, and wanted me dead, I’d be dead already. Dead in an instant.” He looked up at the pillar of flame. “And I’m not buying the idea that you can cross the infinite gulfs of space in an instant but that it takes you ten seconds to sloooowly reach down and pull out a teenager’s soul. This just isn’t going to work. Sorry.”
The pillar of flame faded, but Will kept speaking, addressing the empty air. “And spare me the rest of the monster manual too, all right? No orcs, no trolls, no pixies, no…I dunno, sparkly vampires or whatever. You’ve played that card. Whoever you are, you’re not going to get what you want by throwing another fake monster at me.”
The Skeinhall was very close now, just up another rise. The brilliant, colorful discharges within the tower’s structure lit up the landscape as Will approached.
Without their memories, virtually every person in Haven can imagine that they were a king on Earth. They can pretend that the poverty and deprivation in which they live are the product of their environment, their circumstances, not their own flaws. It is the absence of memory that preserves their self-esteem. What will happen when they know their true nature? What will happen when they are reminded of those they’ve lost, when they are forced to compare their current tasks, their chosen families, to those that came before? What will contain the resulting chaos? Gone, in an instant, Ben’s authority. Gone, in an instant, all semblance of cooperation. Jason, dead in Ben’s defense…Emily, swept away on a tide of anarchy, killed or worse…all my friends…all I hoped to work for…
Will inhaled slowly, then spoke aloud. “And that’s not going to work either.”
His thoughts went silent. He closed his eyes and spoke again.
“I don’t know the names of angels. I know what Djin and Efreet are supposed to be, but I have no memory of having read about them. The same holds true of the Bible and its stories. And even if all that were true, I don’t use phrases like ‘from whence’.” He was cresting the rise, now. The Skeinhall loomed before him, glittering and glorious. “I’ll give you credit. The last trick was the best one. But you’ve lost. You took your best shot, and you lost.” He spoke through gritted teeth. “So you can leave my head now. Your world, yeah, but it’s my skull. So leave, please.”
Will. You do not understand.
“What’s not to understand?” he shouted, his voice rasping in his throat. “You stole our memories! You’ve blocked thousands of souls from achieving salvation! You’ve deceived us and concealed the truth at every turn! You’ve invaded my mind and tried to talk me out of doing the right thing by impersonating my conscience! By whispering lies at me in my own voice!”
We had no choice, Will. You have been misled. The agenda of the Seraphim is not the salvation of humanity. They value your people only for instrumental reasons. To them you are nothing but cattle. The liar Refi:Sul has misled you, sought to make you his instrument…
“No more lies! YOU are Seraphim! And whatever Refi may be after, at least he doesn’t try to climb inside my brain and operate me like a puppet!”
Will…you have never been a puppet. You must understand this. We may have observed, we may have advised…but you have always been free.
There was a short pause. Will stood in the shadow on the Skeinhall. In front of him yawned an open rectangular portal, perhaps seven feet high. Beyond was darkness. And a moment of genuine, unforced terror seized him. “Wait a minute…have always been free? You didn’t just enter my thoughts when I incarnated on this planet, did you? You were there before. How long have you been in my head?”
You must understand our reasons. Though we are Seraphim, yes, we are not OF the Seraphim. We are rebels against the designs of our race. We are they who work towards the liberation of humanity. We are the Rel Dega.
It was all too much. His breath was hitching in his chest; the noxious air was surely doing unspeakable things to his lungs. The pain in his ribs was only growing worse. His feet were a continual agony. And now he was being asked to evaluate some kind factional conflict amongst extradimensional aliens. It was all a bit much for a sixteen year old boy. Will started to laugh, but doing so felt like a spear in his side, and he stifled it.
Will, our time grows short. Refi:Sül has made the Council aware of our presence. Soon, we will be forced to leave you.
“How long?” Will repeated. “How long have you been inside my head? How many times did I think I was thinking…only it wasn’t me talking to myself, it was you?”
Will, the task which Refi:Sül has appointed to you was not the task for which you were created. You must not enter the Skeinhall. You must not repair the skein. The Seraphim work only towards the exploitation and destruction of your race. We regret that we have misled you, but it has only been an effort to protect you, and all humanity. You must believe us.
“Protect us?” Will stammered. “Protect us from what?”
From the Seraphim. From the rest of our own species. A decrepit race, our imagination long since withered, hopelessly addicted to our decaying technology…and to that which fuels it. The Seraphim do not seek to serve humanity, Will. Their claims of “enlightenment” are a cruel joke. They do not regard you as equals. They regard you as a crop to be harvested. Would that we had time to explain…
Will shook his head. “You had time. You could have told me at any point. Instead, you chose deception.” He shook his head again. “I’m tired of the manipulation. I’m tired of being treated like the truth is something I’m not prepared to understand. I’m tired of being protected from the consequences of my own choices. Maybe, if you’d been open about your agenda from the outset, I would have listened to you. Now it’s too late.” He stared into the blackness beyond the doorway. “Now it’s time for me to see.”
So be it. They were thoughts in Will’s own head, spoken in his own voice―and yet the voice sounded sad, resigned. When you recover your memories, Will, you will learn why we could not tell you the full truth. Our ways will seem cruel to you. You will judge us harshly. The voice in his head was fading by degrees. Yet in time, you may wish you had heeded us more closely. In time, you may be prepared to learn why we have…made use of you. When that day comes, seek us out.
Another voice in Will’s head, this one as loud and clear as ever. It’s another lie. They want you to believe they’re gone, that your mind is your own. But it’s a fake-out. They’re never going to leave your mind, not willingly. From here on in, you can’t even trust your own thoughts.
“Seek you out―where?” he asked, as much for completion’s sake as out of any genuine desire to know.
We do not yet know. To hide from the Council is nearly impossible. But if we can, we will send you a sign. The voice was barely a whisper now. Good-bye for now, Will. For what you are about to learn, we are truly sorry. And Will...whatever you do…don’t go into The Light...
And then there was nothing but the distant tectonic rumbling, the heartbeat of Asphodel itself.
Will stepped through the portal and into the Skeinhall.