A rushing came around his vision, and the dank cistern laboratory was swept away by an amber wind, enveloping him in a buzzing void of orange-gold that, suddenly, superceded all sensation of the world around him.
For an endless moment he was insensate, hanging in nothing, an infinitesimal point that merely observed without action. Then he felt himself growing, expanding into a rough facsimile of what he remembered his own form to be, a symbol of the being that was Key.
There was no sensation of movement, no sense of up or down; the void was endless and empty, a plain of light the color of the twinkling vesicles within Seffa’s elekstone pendant.
Only his mind remained, a mind increasingly overwhelmed and experiencing a sensation he might have recognized as severe anxiety if he’d had the requisite body to present the appropriate symptoms. In place of a pounding heart and a tightening chest, Key had fragmentary, intrusive thoughts that roiled like leaves in a whirlwind.
In his rising state of panic, he wished for something to focus on—anything, a point, a star, a horizon.
He willed it, and suddenly it was there: a glowing, prismatic nodule that beckoned in the middle distance. He clung to the sight of it like a drowning man to flotsam, and found himself pulled inexorably toward it by a hidden tide that was only now making itself apparent.
Shimmering amber walls approached, an ethereal vault hanging before him. Key reached toward it involuntarily, his fingertips—did he have fingertips, here? He couldn’t see them—yearning to touch the translucent amber glass.
Before he could draw himself back, something reached out and pulled him in.
* * *
Black marble, veined in gold, and tiered seats filled with black-garbed men.
He was not Key. And yet, in the back of his mind—if the essence that existed in this place could be called his mind—he knew that he was still Key, if removed from that person and that world. Here, now, he was a soldier. A knight? He felt himself sinking into a stranger’s thoughts as is if into a sand pit: slowly, but inexorably.
He was seated in a wide, circular chamber, lit dimly by torchlight. Set in the midst of the black floor at the center was a ten-pointed star. He wanted to strain his neck, to look upwards at the ceiling, but he had no immediate control over the stranger’s body. He could only look where the stranger decided to look, as if he was a passenger in the man’s mind.
The man—a name swam to him from the man’s most basic consciousness: Ektor—Ektor stared at the middle of the chamber blankly, waiting for something. He sat on a stone bench, close between two man in like attire. Their black robes were dark as night, and aside from the glittering marble and the golden sashes of one or two of the assembled gathering, the room was a pool of ink. The blackness pervaded not only the attire but the mood: faces were downcast. Men stared at the floor before them and out into space; one or two shed tears. All waited. All watched. The tension was palpable as a fog.
Ektor looked down at his hand and examined a gold signet ring, set with a black resin crest bearing the same ten-pointed star that adorned the council floor. Conclave, came the word, floating again to Key through Ektor’s distracted mind.
Ektor looked up at the sound of a door opening, and through his eyes Key saw an old man escorted in under heavy guard. The man had raven hair shot through with silver, and wore the same black robes as the rest of the men. His face was downcast, but Ektor could see his bloodshot eyes glinting from within the curtain of his long hair. Behind the prisoner, a young man walked, chin held high, a longsword at his waist.
Ektor ground his teeth in anger at the sight of the young man, his eyes flicking between him and the prisoner. When they knelt the older man in the center of the conclave floor, something burst in Ektor, and rage flooded out. The wave of it panicked Key and swept his awareness forcefully away from the scene—the memory?—washing him back into the amber darkness of the void.
* * *
The sewers were dank and cold, though the smell was not bad tonight. The torches hung in makeshift sconces along the ancient stone walls may have accounted for that. Key could smell their piney resin. He was again not himself, but neither was he Ektor. As he concentrated, his sensorium sharpened the sense of place. He recognized the Undercity, though a part of it he was not familiar with.
The sense of being drawn in was acute: his surroundings passed slowly but surely from the blurred ambiguity of a dreamscape to the clear sharpness of reality. He felt himself lowering into another man’s head, but this time he resisted, remembering with discomfort the sensation of being at the whim of another man’s emotions.
Something responded to his hesitation, and to Key’s surprise he found himself still present in the memory but somehow outside the person whose remembrance he inhabited. It had become clear to him, in the removed place where Key was still Key, what was happening: the elekstone was showing him the memories of other men, somehow stored in its crystalline depths. The details of the memories seemed to indicate that these were not only the thoughts of strangers, but of men long dead. How was any of this possible? It exceeded even his most fantastical conjectures.
These thoughts came and faded briefly as the vision progressed. Key had taken up the position of daemon, a disembodied soul hanging over the subject’s shoulder, like the eponymous guardian spirit of legend. He stifled the analytical thoughts running through his own mind and focused on the record before him.
Key observed as he moved through the close corridors of the underground. A chanting could be heard in the distance, through the stone. Somewhere close by a crowd had gathered.
The man was short, his hair a mousy sort of black, swept across his forehead in a short, utilitarian way. He wore strange leather clothing, which Key finally recognized, after a few minutes of examining him, as an old-fashioned type of blacksmith’s jacket.
The man reached a narrow archway that someone had hung with thick, woolen curtains. He reached a hand up to push them aside, and Key saw that the first two fingers of his right hand were stained with ink. A scribe, then, or some sort of academic.
The curtain split to reveal a small chamber, more brightly lit than the dim corridors without. Despite being located in the service tunnels of a sewer, the space was surprisingly cozy. An open tray of coals—a brazier, Key recalled suddenly—burned for warmth next to a small writing desk. The walls were lined with old furniture, torn and mildewed; what looked like an eating table and a cot were pushed against the far wall. There was only the one door.
The sense of time in this place was strange; the earlier vignette from Ektor’s perspective already seemed long in the past. Each moment spent within one of these memoryscapes drew him further into that world, and while his own consciousness remained, Key sensed a growing relationship between the watcher and the watched. As if, at some point, the two might merge. The thought unnerved him: was it possible to spend too much time in this place? How, indeed, did he leave it? He’d been pulled from Ektor’s mind—could he exit this man’s memory of his own volition?
He considered trying to escape now, an option fueled by sudden anxiety, but as he watched the short man seat himself at the writing desk and take up a pen, he couldn’t resist staying longer. What if this was his only opportunity? He must make as thorough an examination as possible. He had no idea if it would even be possible to repeat this experiment.
His over-the-shoulder vantage point suddenly seemed to impartial, too ascetic: he had no context for what he was seeing, and his senses were dimmed from here. He wanted to experience this as if he were present. Emotion seemed to make the connection between himself and the subject unstable, but the risk was worth it.
He willed himself within the man’s head, and felt the drawing sensation again. He sunk into the guise of the man before him, and the part of him that was Key was again removed to the background.
He was Ruprek, and the night’s work was only just beginning. The scratch of his pen on the parchment was his favorite sound. His enemies, and many of his supporters, as well, saw the clash of steel as the true sound of power, but Ruprek knew where true power lay: in the nib of his pen and the tenor of his voice. The rabble assembled in the cistern were growing impassioned. Hempka and Alfred would have spent the last hour pumping them up, readying them for his address. Hempka, Alfred: Key knew these names as Ruprek knew them, though they seemed so central to the man’s understanding at the moment that it was difficult to gain a clear picture of who they were.
Ruprek was composing a journal entry, but with less than perfect attention, and Key found himself drawn primarily toward the active thoughts at the front of the man’s mind.
He was simultaneously putting the finishing touches on the speech he was due to give, only minutes away now. He had stopped writing, to consider a choice between two words—blame and duty—when the curtains parted and Alfred entered the room.
This time, it was not the subject’s anger but Key’s own surprise that shattered the bubble of memory. Ruprek looked up to see Alfred standing beside him at the desk. Alfred leaned down—to read over Ruprek’s shoulder, Key thought—and put a hand on Ruprek’s side affectionately. He pressed his lips to the other man’s, and from within Ruprek’s small body Key could feel the stirrings of lust.
* * *
He was returned, again, to the amber sea, as if by some mystical escort. That was how it seemed, at least, though Key suspected it was his own subconscious desire to leave that controlled his presence in each particular memoryscape. Whenever Ruprek, whoever he was, had lived, the customs surrounding same-sex attraction had clearly been very different from Key’s time. In Oridos today, men caught in “carnal congress” with one another were subject to prosecution by the Church of Daas. The One True God did not approve of men loving men, or so the priests claimed.
It was becoming clear to Key that he needed to mind his line of thought in this place, particularly as it regarded the desire or intention to travel on the glowing ocean void. A fickle mind appeared to be rewarded by immediate response from the aether around it.
Another thing that seemed clear was that Key could use this aether, this plane, to access the stored memories of men who had lived in the past. While he hadn’t recognized the precise locations the two scenes he’d just witnessed, he had recognized the city of Oridos easily enough, and the details of each man’s memory—the torches, the weaponry—were the trappings of an age long past.
If he could see into the past through the elekstone, would it not be reasonable to assume he could also see into the future?
The question seemed so simple at first, but the more he considered it, the more haunted by the possibility he became. Even as the reasons not to test such a hypothesis began to list themselves for him, Key already knew he was going to try it.
For the first time since he had fallen into this place that surrounded him, he focused the floating point that was his mind and concentrated on a single intention. Show me what is to come, he willed the void. Show me the world as it will be. He imbued it with as much mental power as he could muster, trying his best to impart the sense of grandeur and fatalistic logic upon which he imagined any true vision of the future must be founded.
The amber horizon of the all-encompassing sea shivered a bit, perhaps, but that might have just been his imagination. What was this place? What kind of medium responded so acutely to his most passing thought, but then refused to acknowledge a focused command?
He reformed the command into a request, then into a conscious simulation of a passing idea, and waited. The void did not respond. Nor did any of the crystalline nodes through which he’d experienced the memories of Ektor and Ruprek appear. He floated, adrift, without location or time. The sudden thought that he might be trapped here shook him, and he began panicking again: was this place conscious? Was it toying with him?
He envisioned himself leaving, returning to his body, exiting the amber stuff of this place and abandoning the ethereal powers it relied on. He wanted it now, now: a single word repeated in his mind. Now. Change. Go back. Real. I want out. Out!
If he’d had a body he would have been waving and scrambling about, like a blind man in an enormous empty room, looking frantically for the exit.
In his desperation, he felt something shift. It was not himself that shifted, but rather his perspective: something akin to looking straight up after you’ve been looking straight ahead. A ninety-degree change, but more than that: he would be hard pressed, forever after, to describe the feeling, even in his own journals. But the void shifted around him, and became not glowing amber but black, an even emptier nothingness that pierced his heart with a sinking loneliness unlike any he’d ever known.
And in that darkness another vision began, shuddering as if seen through a shaking telescope. Faint pinpricks of light appeared in the distance, and the close, utter blackness became the endless, celestial ink of the heavens. Stars winked from inconceivable distances, and below him the orb of the world spun, glowing like a jewel in the black. A silver lance pierced its hazy shell, and as Key watched it grew in size, closing at a speed that must have been gargantuan. He watched in growing horror as he realized its course would intercept its own, and in the emptiness he screamed: a sound like nothing, with no mouth to spill from.
The image vanished, and he was overwhelmed by a different blackness entirely.
* * *
He woke, shaking, on the floor of the cistern, the dank stone cold beneath his back. Seffa’s face—her beautiful, concerned face—hovered over his own. Past her shoulder he could see the edge of his workbench. For a long moment he remained still and said nothing. He could see her lips working, speaking his name, but at first he could hear nothing. Hearing returned in time, and when he was certain he wasn’t going to vomit into her lap, he let her help him sit up.
“How…” he began, but realized he wasn’t up to speaking yet.
“Key,” said Seffa. “What were you doing? I found you slumped over your table. For a moment I thought—” She swallowed, composing herself. “I came back to apologize, and then I found you—have you been here the whole time?”
“Whole time?” he mumbled.
“I left you hours ago, Key,” Seffa explained. “It’s past suppertime. I can’t stay long or I’ll be caught out. You’re late too, I don’t doubt.”
Hours. He’d been in there for hours.
“I—where’s the pendant?” he demanded suddenly.
“My pendant?” she asked. “It’s still where you—”
But he had already shot up, steadying himself on the worktable when the world began to spin around him, looking feverishly for the elekstone. He sighed when he saw that it was where he’d left it, sitting in the copper dish.
“The circuit’s broken,” he said.
“It was the only way I could wake you up,” Seffa said. “I tried everything. I didn’t even understand what it was, but when I realized it was a battery I pulled off one of the wires. Did you have an accident?”
“No,” he said quietly. Reassured that the pendant was safe and undamaged, he circled the worktable, leaning on its edge like an invalid, and finally seated himself in the chair next to Seffa’s reading area.
“What’s going on, Key?” she asked. The concern in her voice was deeper than her usual worry, he could see. Something bade him answer her.
“I’ve done it,” he said. “I’ve done it.”
“Done what?” Seffa demanded.
He shook his head. “There’s a whole department at the university dedicated to the study of elekstone fields, did you know? They call it phirotics. From the Old Elimannen word for light. The manufacturers value the stuff above gold, but to academics it’s something of a pseudoscience—there’s been no new findings since they discovered it could be used to generate regular electricity. Past that, no one’s interested…but I always knew there was something else.” He looked at her to see if she understood, and could tell immediately that she didn’t.
“It’s just…it’s just jewelry, Key,” she said.
“No. The ancients…before the Rehabitation. Before the Plague. They knew its secrets. And now I’ve found them again.” His gaze had drifted, taking in his modest laboratory without really seeing it, but now he looked at her intensely. “And it was because of you, Seffa. Because of this pendant. I found a way in. A way to someplace else. A way to power, beyond anything they’ve ever dreamed of…all of the lost history. All of it, I think it’s all in there.”
“I don’t understand,” said Seffa. “In where? You’re not making any sense, Key.”
“Don’t you see, Seffa?” he exclaimed. “We’re not just animals run by heart and lungs and liver, we’re more. We can achieve more. We’re…destined for something greater.”
Key pondered his own words even as he spoke them, the ideas rolling off his tongue as if they belonged to someone else. The possibilities seemed endless: within even this chip of elekstone lay a universe of opportunity that overwhelmed his young mind in its potential.
“I could have saved her,” he said suddenly. “I could have saved all of us. If I could just…”
Something broke in his voice then, and felt tears welling hotly behind his lids. Seffa’s concern became understanding as she held him. They curled together in her overstuffed reading chair, her hands on his face as he wept for the first time since he was a small child. He couldn’t have described where any of it came from. He couldn’t have said for certain that he was crying for his mother, or if he was crying only for himself, or both. Perhaps he cried for Seffa, for all the vague, dark secrets she held close to her heart, for all the pain he would never know. But he cried, and she held him, and for a few minutes’ time stopped for him again, and despite the shame he felt at this display he wished that he could encase the moment in a crystal node and save it forever, untarnished by time.
“I love you, Seffa,” said Key. She nodded, and kissed him.