A boy’s eyes opened, to the sight of a strange ceiling made of some kind of wood and inlaid with metallic flower patterns.
“Oh, you’re awake!”
He sat up and looked around, feeling almost in a daze.
He was lying in what appeared to be a gazebo made of wood and metal, surrounded by a lush field of bright blue flowers of a kind he’d never seen before, with long, thin leaves that rustled in the wind, creating wave-like patterns dancing across said field; beyond the field, he could see a forest made of luminescent trees unlike anything ever seen on Earth, and beyond that was the sky… a sky that was absolutely stuffed with stars. Stars upon stars, in more colors than he’d ever seen – colors that made his mind twist itself in knots trying to parse them, until his eyes moved on to more familiar territory.
Above it all towered a vast black hole in the sky, in lieu of a sun. Large beyond measure, taking up a full half of the sky visible from the gazebo, it was of a black color unlike anything he’d ever seen, so black his eyes slid off of it, unable to focus on the vast nothingness, yet it illuminated this place by its vast, incandescent corona, which outdid even the stars surrounding it with its multitude of impossible, ever-shifting colors.
A whole sky, most of which his eyes could barely focus on, and so they moved down again and came to rest on the other person standing within the gazebo.
She was a woman in her late twenties, though she may also have been a well-kept thirty-year-old. She was short, he doubted she cracked one-fifty, if that much, and wore a dress he’d have associated with the war period, blue with white dots, reaching halfway down her calves, while keeping the arms and shoulders bare, tying around her neck to stay up. Her strawberry-blonde hair was lengthy, reaching down to her knees, and while made straight by its own weight for most of its length, curled naturally at the bottom; it suited her pale skin and dark grey-blue eyes. A ring made of five delicate gold bands weaving around five tiny sparkling jewels in five different colors graced the ring finger on her left hand.
“How do you feel? I’m sorry if this all feels quite baffling, but I promise, you’re safe here,” she said, her gaze as soft and friendly as her words.
The boy looked down himself – he was still dressed in his jet-black, form-fitting impact suit, with its gleaming, golden connector strips and ports, but it was completely undamaged, pristine – and then up at her again.
“I am dead,” he stated, flatly.
The older – it was hard to judge her age, but she was in her late twenties, at least – woman’s eyes grew sad. “You were,” she replied, with a touch of… anger… in her voice. “You gave me quite the shock, you know? I was tending to my flowers when suddenly your body just crashed into the flower bed!” she elaborated, clenching her fists in a more obvious display of anger.
“I am… sorry, about the flowers?” he said in turn, not sure how to process that. He’d been dead and now he wasn’t? Or was this an afterlife?
“I’m not angry about the flowers, young man!” she shot back, eyes flashing with almost maternal wrath. “I’m furious that a child would be harmed so! You’re not supposed to get yourself hurt like that, you hear me!?”
He couldn’t help it, he cringed back, as some instinctual part of his psyche was stirred up and flinched away from the display. “I… shall endeavor not to die again?” he tried again.
The strange woman huffed in turn. “Do so! Now, you didn’t answer my question – how do you feel?”
“I feel… well enough, I suppose. Considering I was apparently dead and now am not…” He looked at her, feeling both tired and confused, even though his body told him everything was as fine as could be.
“That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement,” she replied with a sigh, as she stepped forward and put a hand on his head.
The urge to dodge or deflect it didn’t even come up, somehow, and the boy just froze up as he felt the oddly alien-seeming gesture, warm fingers running through his hair, while she reached for a very English tea service on a small side table next to the bed he’d been lying on.
“Would you like some tea?” she asked in that oddly warm tone of voice, pouring a cup full of black tea. He shrugged, then reconsidered and nodded in response.
“And perhaps you could tell me your name while we’re at it?” she added another question. “Also, how many spoons of honey would you like?” came yet another, as her hand held a delicate silver spoon over the honey pot.
“Two spoons, I think? I have never had honey with tea before… as far as I can remember,” he replied, with a qualifier he felt was necessary in order to stay honest.
Why he cared to be honest, he wasn’t sure of. Something about this woman was odd, outside his experience, and he couldn’t even name the issue.
“Aw, that’s a shame – honey’s the best thing you can add to tea, I assure you,” she replied, taking her hand away from scratching his scalp to pick up the cup and saucer both, and hand them to him.
He took it with a murmured ‘thank you’ and raised the cup to his lips – something told him it wouldn’t be too hot, and he was quickly proven right, as the tea was at just the perfect temperature to enjoy.
The woman stood back and watched, smiling, like there was something to enjoy about the sight of him drinking her tea… was that normal?
Something was off… like there was something missing. He couldn’t say what, but it was… discombobulating to say the least.
Then he realized she might still be waiting for his answer. “My name, my name is…” he began to speak, but then stopped.
Her expression grew concerned again. “Do you remember your name?”
“I do, It is just that…” he frowned. He knew his name. It was a long one, but it was his… was it? “I am not at all certain that it is my name anymore,” he finally admitted, lowering his head as if in defeat.
A truth he’d tried to ignore, for a while now.
Before he even knew what was happening, the teacup and saucer had been taken from his hands and he was enveloped in a warm, soft embrace.
“You poor boy,” she whispered, as she stroked his hair. “I don’t know what happened to you, but it must have been absolutely horrid.”
He froze up. There was no other way to describe it, his entire body locked up.
She was warm and soft and kind. She wasn’t exceptionally beautiful, either, so she didn’t set off that particular trigger of his. Everything about this scene, about what she was doing seemed deeply, fundamentally right.
It felt completely alien to him, and he couldn’t say why, but it was driving him crazy, his heart was racing and he was breathing hard and all he could think of was that this was all right and all wrong all the same.
“What is going on here?” he said, trying to regain his bearings. “Please, I just… I need to know. How am I alive? Where am I? Why am I here? Who are you?” He asked, begged for any kind of clarity, and for the chance to breathe again.
She let go of him, finally, stepping back, and the panic that’d been rising up and choking him diminished, though it did not disappear.
He looked down himself and realized his hands were clenched hard on the mattress he lay, digging deeply into the sheets. It took a considerable amount of willpower to make them unclench.
“I’m sorry if you’re distressed. I’m sure this must all be quite taxing for you,” the stranger spoke, softly, drawing his attention to her again. “Let’s start with something simple. My name is Angelica.” She smiled again. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. As to your other questions… if you think you’re up to walking a bit, we can go to my husband and he can explain everything to you.”
“Why can you not explain everything? Anything?” he asked with a frown.
To his surprise, she just rolled her eyes with an expression of fond annoyance.
“Because my dear husband is a complete drama queen, and if I took away his chance at expositing to someone new, he’ll sulk like an overgrown baby for weeks,” she explained. “So, once you’re finished with your tea and your scones, we can go meet him and I assure you, he’ll be jubilant to talk to you.”
The boy’s eyes flickered to the bedside table – there were, indeed, scones on the tray the teapot stood on, and they did look extremely appetizing.
Noticing that he did feel quite hungry, he finally sat up properly, putting his feet down on the floor, and dug into the food without much further ado.
The tea was sweet and the scones savory, and it went together perfectly. As soon as he bit into the first scone, his stomach growled and he felt even more hungry, causing him to dig in with more enthusiasm than he thought he could muster.
He was halfway through his second scone when a slightly electronic caw drew his attention to the gazebo’s railing above the pillow his head had been resting on.
A jet-black raven sat atop the railing, its form seemingly true to life, yet quite obviously artificial to the boy’s eye. The false animal tilted its head, looking at him with beady black eyes, letting loose yet another caw, then beat its dark wings and took off.
“You…” he spoke, as if in a dream, watching the raven fly a circle around his head, before it landed upon his left shoulder. It was heavier than one would expect of a bird of it s size, but not by much. “I made you, did I not?” he asked the avian machine, lifting a hand towards its beaked head. It moved, following programming meant to make it blend in and appear lifelike, and rubbed its head against his fingers.
Its feathers were soft, and surprisingly warm.
“I can barely believe you followed me all the way to this place, little one,” he whispered to it, and though he knew it to be far from alive, and following behavioral coding he’d written himself, he still felt himself warmed, emboldened, by its affectionate response to his touch.
“He arrived here moments after you did, dear,” Angelica explained with a fond smile. “And he’s refused to stray from your side for even a moment.”
The boy looked at the artificial raven, not sure what to say to that. He had programmed it to act in such a manner, and yet… for it to have come all this way, somehow, in pursuit of its programming?
Perhaps it was due to how vulnerable, how off-center he felt, but he found himself… touched.
“So, what’s his name? Or is he a she?” the woman interrupted his thoughts on the subject, leaning closer to run a single finger over the silky feathers on its head.
“A name? I… I never gave any of them a name, just… numerical designations. This one is RSC-42. The last one I built.”
“Eh? There are so many of them?” she said, surprised and, apparently, stunned by it. “That must have taken so much work! I couldn’t even tell he was artificial, until my husband told me!”
He lowered his head, taking another bite off his scone, instead of answering immediately. “There were, but most of them have been destroyed. This is the last one.”
“Hmm… then he should have a name, I think. Yes, I think he’s earned one, hasn’t he?” she suggested, playfully.
The boy tilted his head to the side, considering it. “I suppose so… would you like to name him for me?” I hardly feel like an authority on names, right now.
Her face brightened, breaking into a wide smile that showed gleaming white teeth. “Ohhh! I can? Thank you!” She looked at the ravenbot again, humming excitedly as she leaned in close, studying it. “Hm. Hmmm. Hmm…” She squinted, then stood up straight and pointed at it. “I know! We’ll name him Inkblot!”
The boy turned the name over in his head a few times, smiling in spite of being unable to really share in her enthusiasm. Then he looked at the raven, which just looked back at him without any comprehension.
“RSC-42, register new primary designation: Inkblot. Over,” he ordered the machine. The raven froze for an almost imperceptible moment, then it cawed loudly and beat its wings, before settling down again.
“I guess he likes it!” Angelica announced with a happy laugh, as if the little display was something truly special.
The boy could just shrug, and turn to his scone and tea again, while Angelica kept cooing over the artificial raven perched on his shoulder – who, of course, soaked it all up, as he was programmed to do.
It was all strangely soothing, even if it was spoiled by how out of place he felt.
Finally, he finished both his tea and his scones, and felt a great deal more relaxed for it, though even the good food couldn’t banish that persistent feeling of wrongness pressing in upon him here.
“I am finished, madam,” he stated as he stood up, only to find himself towering over the woman. “I believe I am ready to speak to your husband now.”
Angelica gave him a beatific smile. “Oh, no one’s ever really ready to talk to him, dear boy,” she said, reaching up to put a hand on his free shoulder and squeeze it reassuringly. “But he’s really not as bad as he may seem, so don’t worry.”
With those ominous words, Angelica turned around, and walked out of the gazebo, onto a winding path made out of polished rocks sunk into the earth, cutting a meandering way through the field of blue flowers.
The boy followed after her, walking with his ever watchful raven on his shoulder and barely a sound upon the rocks, thanks to the soft soles of his bodysuit’s feet. While she walked ahead of him, he wondered at this whole situation, even at the basic scenery laid out before him. It was all unreal – it was bright as day, yet the sky was dark and filled with stars. A black hole served as a sun taking over half the visible sky – and though the light it gave off was made of more colors than the boy could count, the actual illumination it provided was no different than that of the sun on Earth – yet it did not blot out the stars around it. At the same time, before his feet, blue flowers created a facsimile of water, as the wind blew over them, creating a sound not unlike music.
The most off-putting thing, however, beyond all the weird flora around him, was how wrong he himself felt to be here – like he just didn’t belong in this serene world.
He kept musing, fruitlessly, upon that fact as they walked along the path, then passed into the forest, which was made up of strangely smooth trees which, instead of leaves, sported slender tendrils made of something more akin to translucent flesh than plant matter, like a jellyfish’s tendrils. They rustled and whispered in the wind, too, as electricity seemed to run through them, to the tune of the sounds around, creating quite the light show, as Angelica and the boy passed underneath them.
In the end though, they merely passed through a small corner of the forest, taking them less than two minutes before they reached the end of it – and not one animal in sight, though he did hear things moving amidst the purplish and pink undergrowth.
“We’re almost there,” Angelica spoke up, stopping just as they stepped out of the trees.
The boy blinked and looked out – the forest floor transitioned into another field of blue lilies here, but the ground was sloped up towards his right, leading up to a small peak that looked out over whatever lay beyond… a peak atop which sat a stone platform, upon which in turn stood a tall, lonely figure, their back to the boy and Angelica, hands clasped behind their back. Dressed in regal, dark robes, their, his jet-black hair flew in the wind, wildly, far longer than men normally wore it.
Though the boy could only see his back, though his memories were fragmented to say the least, he had no trouble remembering this one, and a great many things snapped into clarity, even as a million more questions were raised.
“Go,” Angelica said, softly. “I’ll go get some condiments and drinks, then join you.”
His head snapped about, looking down at the diminutive woman. “I thought… you would accompany me,” he said, feeling disappointed, and even more surprised that he felt so.
She put a hand on his back, smiling up at him. “Drama queen, remember? Really, you don’t have to worry. I promise you, you’re safe here, and if he so much as implies otherwise, I’ll beat him up for you, ok?”
The boy blinked his eyes at the surreal suggestion. Just who was this woman? “Very… well,” he spoke, finally, having no idea what else to say.
Thus, he turned back towards the stone platform and the tall figure atop it, and started walking towards it. Fortunately, the path forked right in front of him, with one fork leading straight up the slope of the hill, even including a few stone steps in particularly steep parts.
Step by step, he advanced on the path up the hill, doing his best to ignore the foreboding sensation that was trying to overwhelm him, growing more intense with every step that brought him closer to the man atop the hill.
Like he is surrounded by his own atmosphere.
The man did not seem to move, standing still as a statue, save for his hair and robe fluttering in the wind, even when the boy reached the steps leading up to the stone platform, and went up to join him.
The platform was bigger than he would have expected – rather than a square, it extended outward from what he’d thought was a hill, except it wasn’t; it was a cliff, and the platform extended out over the sharp edge, where it seemed like nothing so much as if someone had taken a cleaver to the ground and cut everything beyond this point off, leaving this hill to look out over empty space.
Only it wasn’t space, really. It was vast, yes. It was filled with stars, yes. But those stars were not normal, no more than the stars in the sky above had been. Some were vast, some were small. Some had strange shapes to them, gnarled and twisted, shiny and smooth, and innumerable others. And the colors. More colors than existed in the normal world, colors the boy had no name for, many of which he couldn’t even look at without his eyes sliding off involuntarily.
And between it all… between all the stars, was not space. He couldn’t articulate how he knew, but his instincts told him that he was far, far away from any notion of proper space. The stars seemed to be all part of a single whole, instead, the gaps between them filled by something… other, something his eyes couldn’t focus on no matter how much he tried.
Whatever it was, it felt the same to his eyes as trying to stare up into that seeming black hole above, a fact of which he assured himself again by briefly looking up, before looking down again in the same direction in which the man next to him seemed to be staring.
That’s not what I’m here for, the boy thought, and averted his eyes, of his own choice this time, turning his head to look up at the man.
He took a deep breath, drawing some comfort from the light weight of his corvid companion upon his shoulder, and spoke up. “Emyr Blackhill.”
The tall man turned to look down at him with those maddeningly dark eyes. “Boy,” he spoke, in that deep, reverberating voice, a voice that would be booming, if he was not consciously restraining it. “I will not pretend to have foreseen this, but I can in all honesty say that I am not exactly surprised to see you here.”
“Why?” the boy asked, and it came out far more desperate than he would have wanted it to. “Why am I here? Why with you? How am I alive – did you bring me back? What… what is going on?”
Emyr stroked his smooth chin, looking down at the boy. “You want answers. I have some of them, though I suspect not all that you seek.”
“Will you give them to me?” the boy asked, very nearly begged.
“Yes,” the godly man replied, nodding to the boy. “Though there are some questions which I cannot currently, in good conscience, answer you, and some to which I genuinely don’t know the answers, I shall answer as many other questions as I am able.”
The boy’s face twisted. “Again and again, it comes back to this… Questions you cannot answer – and questions you will not answer? Will you at least tell me why you won’t answer questions you could?” In spite of his best efforts, his voice rose in anger towards the end.
“Because I don’t believe you are ready for the answers, boy,” the tall man answered, seemingly without any emotion.
“Why!? Why am I not ready? Who are you to decide that!?” the boy shouted now, feeling his heartbeat rise up again – but this time it was genuine anger, not the blind panic he’d felt earlier, when Angelica had hugged him. “Just tell me, please, what I want to know!”
The tall man tilted his head to the side, like some curious bird, seemingly unaffected by the boy’s outburst. “So be it – answer me but one question, and I shall hold back nothing. Any answer that is within my knowledge to give, you shall have.”
He blinked, only now realizing that he’d started to cry. “What is it? I’ll answer it, if it’ll only finally give me some answers!”
The tall man leaned forward a little, his hands clasped behind his back, and opened his mouth to say…
“What is your Name?”
The boy’s mouth opened, and then closed again. “That is all? I tell you my name and you will not keep anything from me?”
“My word on it,” the tall man replied, leaning down further (he really was a freakishly tall man). “So, again I ask.”
“What. Is. Your. Name?”
The boy licked his lips, stunned that it would be so easy. So he opened his mouth and replied…
His mouth closed again, and he blinked. Why didn’t I say anything?, he thought to himself, and tried again, as the tall man kept looking down on him with those calm, yet not cold eyes of his.
He couldn’t do it. He had so many answers he’d given in the past, but not a one of them felt right.
My name? Why… why can’t I tell what my own name is?
The world began to wobble around him, distorting, as his breathing quickened.
“M-my name… my name is…”
What is my name? It’s not that… not that one either… how do I know what my name is when I don’t know who I am?
Suddenly, just as the world began to drop away around him, he found himself caught by two long-fingered hands, one on his shoulder and one on his chest, above his heart, steadying him.
“It’s alright, boy,” Emyr said, his voice all the softer for its restrained, booming quality. “You can’t force it. Let it go. Breathe.”
He pushed, gently, on the boy’s chest, as if to physically calm his breathing – and somehow, it worked.
Slowly, breath by breath, he stopped hyperventilating.
Finally, he calmed down, and the world stopped spinning. The strong hands guided him to sit on a chair which hadn’t been there before, before a table just big enough for two – or maybe three – with a single other chair on the opposite side, its back to the drop-off behind, and the black hole sun beyond.
“I do not mean to mock you, boy,” the tall man spoke, gently, pulling his surprisingly warm hand away from the boy’s chest, while the other remained on his back, steadying him. “Nor to taunt you with knowledge, or in any other way. I am merely, genuinely, convinced that there is knowledge I possess, which you want, yet which would be harmful to you, as you are now. After all, you cannot even tell me your own name.”
“Can you not… can you not fix them? My memories? Free me from whatever is… is doing this to me?” the boy begged, as wretched as he felt for doing so, as he wiped tears away with his bare hands.
“I could, yes,” the tall man said with a nod, sliding his hand from the boy’s back to his shoulder. “But I shall not, not yet at least.”
The boy’s hopes dropped quicker than they’d risen. “Why not!?” he shouted at the man, only held back from jumping up into his face by the hand on his shoulder, opposite from his raven.
Inkblot cawed and beat his wings, as if in support of his outrage, as the boy stared at the Martian pseudo-deity’s face with wet, angry eyes.
He expected to see some manner of arrogance or sadistic amusement in the tall man’s expression, but instead there was only… calm. Empathy?
“I will explain. I promise you, I will explain, and then you can choose whether you want me to restore your memories or not. But you’ll have to listen first,” he spoke, softly, ignoring Inkblot’s agitated
The boy’s shoulder’s sagged, and he lowered his head. “Why… why can I not just have my memories? Everyone… everyone else gets to have that,” he whispered, as a childish, long-buried part of him wailed against the unfairness of the world, even as the bigger, more cynical part of him shouted it down for having unrealistic expectations.
The tall man raised a hand, gently wiping the boy’s tears away. “Take heart, boy. You are alive, and where there is life, there is hope – and as the mere fact that we are talking to each other here can well attest, even death is not always the end of hope.” He patted the boy’s back, once, twice, thrice, and then pulled his hand back.
For a moment, there was only quiet, but for the tall man’s near-silent footsteps upon the hard stone floor, and then the sound of him sitting upon the tall-backed, nearly throne-like chair opposing the boy’s much more modest one across the table.
An indeterminate amount of time passed, before the boy wiped at his eyes and cheeks with his wrists, then sat up in a more straight-backed fashion, facing the crownless king…
No, not crownless. The man had positioned himself so that the black hole sun’s corona surrounded his chair, like a vast, ever-changing halo – or a crown, more epic than anything made of mere metal and gems could ever hope to be.
The boy took a deep breath, trying to order the blasted wasteland of his thoughts and memories.
“Perhaps, that is a good place to start,” he finally said, his voice as steady as he could make it. “How am I still alive?”
Emyr looked at him over steepled fingers, his eyes so dark they seemed like black pits, not unlike the black hole sun behind him. “You are not ‘still’ alive – rather, you are alive ‘again’. When you came here, your body was dead, riddled with holes from whatever conflict you were involved in.”
The boy gulped, a hand rising to touch his forehead, where he… where he’d been shot through…
“I… I did not know you could raise the dead.”
“It is not something to be done casually, nor something I could do easily, upon Earth or Mars. But here… here, in this limina locum, there are many things possible, which would not be, normally. What is impossible in there, is merely difficult out here, and what is difficult to others, is easily done to me,” he explained with a sweeping hand gesture when he spoke of the ‘limina locum’, indicating their surroundings.
“I… I suppose that touches upon my next question. Where are we, and why am I here?” the boy probed further.
“Those are two simple questions, with complex answers, and they touch upon some matters which I feel you are not yet ready to know – but I shall try to answer them anyway,” Emyr said, returning to the steeple-handed position. “Recall – when last we met, there was something I gave you, which you took with you from that little world we convened within.”
The boy looked at him, confused – then it hit him, and he reached for the pockets in his impact suit with fumbling, clumsy fingers.
From one of them he pulled out something he’d pretty much forgotten he’d had, until he’d just been reminded – a simple star, about the size of a dollar coin and seemingly made of pure gold.
“The gold star,” he said, eyes wide.
“Precisely,” Emyr said, with a satisfied smile. “So, let us speak of stars, shall we?”
They were interrupted by the sound of hard shoes on even harder stone, and before long, Angelica’s smiling face rose up from beneath the platform, carrying an old-fashioned, gold-embossed tray loaded with drinks and snacks.
“Ah, the woman arrives,” Emyr said, his voice warmer than the boy had yet heard it, and rose up from his seat.
“She arrives indeed,” Angelica replied, passing the tray to him, and rose up onto the tips of her toes, as he leaned down, bending at the waist – she looked even tinier than before, next to this giant of a man – and kissed his cheek, before they parted again, their motions so smooth as if they were doing a long-practiced dance.
Emyr walked counter-clockwise around the table, stopping halfway between his seat and the boy’s, and put the tray on the table, as Angelica stood on the opposite side, and with deft hands distributed saucers and tea cups that were even more exquisite in quality and material than the tray they had arrived upon. Emyr moved the cozy-covered pot of tea onto the table, followed by a plate of scones and another sporting genuine chocolate chip cookies.
Then, with a flick of his fingers, he made the tray disappear, and walked around the table once more, pulling a third chair out of nowhere, just as Angelica was moving as if to sit down on empty air, and crash down on the floor.
Smoothly, he slid the richly decorated, throne-like chair in place, one even more ostentatious than his own – and the boy somehow knew that it was his own design, not Angelica’s – as it was decorated with gold-wrought flowers sporting ruby-like petals.
The whole thing had gone off like a perfectly practiced show, every motion timed to appear as if they were merely one mind moving in two bodies, yet at the same time, it felt wholly natural for them, as Emyr returned to his chair, while Angelica lifted the tea pot. The cozy on it appeared to be the only thing on the table, other than the scones and the cookies, which did not come out of some flawless fantasy, looking rather handmade and fuzzy, in the colors of the Union Jack.
“I hope you like black tea,” Angelica said. “I’m afraid I forgot to ask, earlier.”
“I cannot say that I have any particular kind of preference, madam,” the boy replied, rather absorbed in looking at the ring on her finger… and then flicking over to Emyr’s hands, where for the first time, he noticed a matching band.
She filled his cup with steaming hot tea, then did the same for her husband, followed by herself. After which she spooned two dollops of honey into his cup, two into Emyr’s, and but one into her own.
The boy picked up his own tea spoon – made of genuine silver, of course – and stirred his tea with it.
“You are his wife,” he stated, lamely, eyes moving from her to him and round and round and round…
She chuckled, picking up her teacup. “Of course I am. Who else could tolerate being married to this oafish troll of a man?” she replied, her voice overflowing with fondness.
“Indeed, I am a blessed man, to be favored by the woman above all other men,” the tall man said, looking as proud as the devil himself, before sipping his tea. “Of course, it does come with certain perks, if one is mine only beloved…” He gave her a playful sideways look, over his tea cup.
Angelica rolled her eyes. “Now, I do hope he wasn’t too overbearingly dramatic, my dear…”
“Oy…” the man in question protested, without any heat in his voice.
“He was not… I am afraid that, if anything, I was the dramatic one, madam,” the boy said, thinking of his tearful breakdown earlier.
“I’m sure you have excellent reason to be distraught, deary,” she replied with a warm smile, reaching out to gently brush his hair behind his ears, on both sides.
“Yes, well, in point of fact, I was just about to help him unbecome distraught when you arrived, woman,” Emyr interjected petulantly.
“Were you now? Then, please, don’t let me interrupt,” she said, throwing him a look the boy could not begin to parse.
Emyr snorted softly, then focused on the boy again.
“Now, you wish to know about this place, and how you found your way here,” he began as he put his cup down on its saucer. “I have already named this place Limina Locum – the Threshold Place, or simply the In-Between Place. To explain, though, where it is, and why you are here, I must explain to you the basics of multiversal mechanics, so… hm…”
He looked down at the table, and the boy found himself clutching his tea cup, forcing his body not to tremble as he stood to finally get some answers.
“Ah, I know. Let’s illustrate it like this…” Emyr whispered, though even his whispers were loud by normal measures, his deep voice carrying easily. His long, almost spider-like fingers grabbed the lacy, white tablecloth.
“Don’t you dare make a mess now, Emyr Blackhill!” Angelica warned him with a suspicious glare, just as he began to pull it up.
“Fear not! I am far beyond such mundane worries!” he replied with a smug grin, “Let this serve as a proper model, to explain transversal mechanics!”, and pulled up – through the dishes on the table.
The boy blinked, as the tablecloth seemed to simply slide through everything, even the liquids, without a single stain upon it – it did not even stir the tea.
On his shoulder, Inkblot cawed realistically, as if in surprise, and beat his wings before settling down again.
Emyr pulled the whole thing up like it was a rigid sheet, and then let go, leaving it hanging in the air above the table.
“Let us imagine that this is the universe,” he said, raising his voice as he gestured with both hands at the cloth. “All of material reality, as a two-dimensional plain… and let us say that this is… yet another universe!” He grabbed the rim of the cloth and pulled it up by a handspan – yet left it behind as well, making two cloths that hung in the air, without touching each other.
The boy looked at it, frowning a little. “So the many world theorists are right, then?”
“Technically, I suppose,” Emyr replied with a shrug. “It is not as simplistic as there not being a wavefunction collapse, though… but let that not be our focus for now!” He gestures at his model again. “Now, there exist many realities, side by side – as far as I can tell, their number is infinite, or nearly enough so as not to matter to the likes of even me.” As he spoke, he pulled the cloth down again, creating a third ‘universe’ beneath the one they’d started with.
“Each world is separate from each other, for the most part. They each exist as their own closed whole – except for those occasions in which there is a certain crossover – which is a result of the way world’s vibrate.” He flicked the rims of the ‘worlds’ and set them to vibrating in place. “Each world vibrates at its own individual ‘frequency’, much like, say, each radio station has its own unique frequency.”
“So, going with that simile,” the boy interjected, “If one could, let us say, create a device by which to attune to a different frequency…”
“He or she could thus travel from one world to another,” Emyr finished, looking pleased. “That is essentially how transversal portals work – they tune anything which passes through them from the origin world’s frequency to the destination world’s frequency. Though do keep in mind that this is a very simplified way to look at it,” he cautioned with a raised finger.
The boy nodded, dutifully, finding himself utterly spellbound by the tall man’s speech.
“Of course, while I am portraying the worlds as spatially separate, it is best to think of them as overlapping.” The three tablecloths moved together, and did just so, overlapping, even as they changed colors – one remained white, another became blue and yet another green, their colors flickering through each other as they vibrated at different frequencies. “Though it is best for this demonstration if we keep them apart.” They moved apart again, atop each other, but retained their colors.
“So…” the boy spoke up, as the gears turned in his brain. “You called this the ‘In-Between Place’, meaning it exists somehow between two worlds?”
“Between all worlds, dear boy. Between all worlds, and the Source,” Emyr said, almost shouted, grinning roguishly. “We are in what you can picture as the membrane separating all material worlds from the Source of all Power. A place which exists between all realities, and outside all of them.”
“Hrm… that is interesting, but… it does not explain why you are here… or how I got here.”
“Just tell him already, love,” Angelica spoke softly, looking at the tall man with a gently reproaching look. “You’re getting long-winded again.”
“These are important matters, woman!” Emyr countered, aghast. “If I just tell him the answer to his questions without giving him a basic understanding of reality’s underpinnings, it will only confuse him further, not quench his curiosity!”
The boy looked at her and nodded. “Yes, this is actually really interesting. I want to hear more.”
Angelica looked him in the eyes, searchingly, for a moment, before she nodded. “So be it. But if he takes too long, say so, alright? You don’t have to be quiet and listen just to be polite.”
He nodded, then focused on the tall man again.
“Now, if we can continue without further distractions,” the tall man said, squinting at his wife, whom seemed entirely unperturbed. “Worlds each exist on a different frequency, their spacetime simultaneously overlapping and yet separate. To understand how you came to arrive here, of all places, you must know that this spacetime can be distorted. Mass distorts spacetime – and so does power, in all its forms. The more power, the more densely packed, the more it distorts the spacetime around it.”
He flicked his hand and a small rubber ball, of a blue color, appeared, which he promptly tossed onto the middle plane, at such an angle that it began to roll around the circular plane, once, twice… and it kept going, clearly not caring about such things as friction.
The boy blinked, as the cloths above and below seemed to also be affected by the ball – not only did it deform the middle plane, as it rolled around, but the planes above and below where pulled towards it as well, bulges travelling along beneath and above it.
“The effect of the Unawakened is negligible, of course, but even the least of Awakened are going to have an impact on their local reality, simply by being there – and more so by actively using their gifts.“ Emyr reached out and, plucking the ball from the cloth, yet the distortion remained in place, on all three cloths. “Even when the cause is removed, the distortion remains for a time.“ The distortions began to fade, the cloths smoothing out – the ones above and below more quickly than the one the ball had actually been moving upon, and there, the tail end of its trail ‘healed’ faster than where it had last been present. “Given enough time, distortions will disappear, as the walls between realities re-establish themselves… yet… hm… let’s simplify this,” he interrupted himself, flicking his fingers at the uppermost tablecloth, which promptly disappeared, “where was… ah, yes; conversely, if not enough time passes…“
The ball was tossed onto the now upper cloth, rolling in a steady circle to draw its trail of ‘distortions’ behind it, though it didn’t move fast enough to touch its own tail, before it smoothed out again.
Then, however, Emyr produced another, green ball, and tossed it onto the cloth. This one did not circle around – rather, it moved back and forth, from the rim to the center and at a rhythm that saw it never hit the blue one.
As such, it intersected the trail of the blue ball with is own.
At the point of intersection, a depression began to form, deepening each time one of the balls passed over it. Beneath, the cloth was bulging upwards towards it.
The boy watched with nigh-single-minded focus, processing the implications of the tall man’s words and the tableau he’d created.
Round and round, back and forth, the balls went, dipping into the ever-deepening depression beneath them. At the same time, the cloth beneath rose up, and up, until the tips of the two distortions touched, overlapped… and then kept going, moving through each other.
Even so, the two balls kept going as they had before, seemingly ignoring the other “reality”, sliding through it to continue on their path.
Furrowing his eyebrows, the boy felt a memory stir, one blessedly unconnected to his woes and thus easier to focus upon.
“A while ago, I read a report from a fellow gadgeteer,” he said, slowly, weighing each word he used as he processed what he was learning. “A friend of his had an odd experience… he had been on the road, driving a car from the West Coast to Chicago. Only a few hours into the drive, he found himself driving through a strange woodland scenery, though one which still contained the road he had been driving upon – yet he should have been in the middle of a desert area. After only a brief time there, he found himself driving down the road towards Chicago, mere hours having passed since his departure from Esperanza City… that would be where Los Angeles used to be,” he added, as the thought came that the two of them probably didn’t know about the new city.
Angelica merely looked curious, while the tall man smirked. “That friend of your fellow, did he happen to be Awakened?”
The boy nodded, and the tall man responded in kind, as he produced another ball, this time a yellow one.
“Observe,” he said, simply, and tossed it onto the cloth.
The yellow ball rolled towards the depression the green and blue had made, as if to cut straight through the cross they formed, trailing its own distortion after itself.
“When reality becomes sufficiently distorted, especially when further awakened people and their powers become involved, then, at times, things like these here happen…”
The yellow ball dipped down into the depression, as had the other two balls, but then it didn’t – instead, it rolled onto the second cloth, where it had overlapped with the first one, creating a “floor” within the depression that was higher up than the actual cloth – and which made for a much shorter route from one edge of the distortion to another.
It reached the edge of the ‘distortion’ and slipped back onto the upper cloth, continuing on its path.
“A wormhole,” the boy said, his eyes widening at the implications. “He slipped through a wormhole.”
“Essentially, so. He was… fortunate,” Emyr replied with a solemn nod.
The tall man looked at him with dark eyes, snapping his fingers to point at the tableau once more – where the yellow ball was rolling back the way it’d come. Once more, it slipped into the distortion. Once more, it slipped onto the second, lower cloth.
This time, however, it did not return to the original one when it reached the edge of the distortion. Instead, it slipped through the cloth it had started upon, and continued on to roll on the plane of the second, lower cloth, while the other two balls remained on the upper one.
“One’s return is not guaranteed,” the self-proclaimed Godking said in a severe voice. “Perhaps this man was merely possessed of good fortune… perhaps he had enough connections to Awakened of our world, that kept him anchored… but many have not had them. Though I can not prove it, I suspect that quite a lot of Awakened Ones whom, throughout the decades, have gone missing, did so because they slipped into another world… and found no way back.”
Angelica lowered her head, sipping her tea, as her face grew solemn, and the boy found himself leaning back upon his chair, putting his hands on the table in front of him, one over the other.
His eyes fixated on the lone ball in the lower cloth, lost to another world…
“Is that what happened to me? I somehow… slipped through the cracks?” he asked in a quiet voice which was barely even a whisper, growing thick.
“In a manner of speaking… yes.” Emyr tapped a finger on the table, steadily, like a metronome. “I am merely theorizing, of course, as I wasn’t present, but I suspect that however you died, it happened in a place of great… transversal instability? A great many powers being used, concurrently, most likely against each other, possibly in a location that’s prestressed?”
“I was within the area of Desolation-in-Light’s power… someone who is probably in the same category as you, Sir,” the boy agreed. “Hundreds of metahumans were fighting her for a prolonged time, and it all happened in New Lennston…”
“New Lennston, which was built upon the ruins of Lennston, which is where Point Zero took place, where all powers began,” Emyr completed the sentence, and thought. “One of the most unstable areas on the planet, to begin with. It is no accident that the area produces more awakened ones per capita than any other place in the world. Add in the influence of multiple powers, including this Desolation-in-Light and, well, I would bet a lot that Lady Light was involved, probably the Dark as well…”
The boy nodded.
“Yesss… distortions abounded. The fabric of reality, stretched thin…” The cloths stretched, growing thin in one particular spot. “Distorted,” They did that, as well, twisting up where they were stretched thin, “And then comes a youth with a particularly…”
He stopped, searching for the right word.
“Intense, perhaps?” Angelica suggested, from behind her cup of tea.
“Yes! Intense, perfect! Thank you!” he replied, exuberantly, grinning at her before he turned to face the boy again. “Intense, yes. An intense power, in such circumstances… you may have slipped through no matter what – but then you went and got yourself killed… which, honestly, you shouldn’t do.” He tapped the table with a finger, giving the boy a stern look. “Dying’s not a good idea. I speak from experience there.”
“I… shall endeavor not to die again?” the boy repeated his earlier words, confusion obvious in his words.
“Good boy!” Emyr shouted. “So, you died! And death, it is not so much a state of being as it is a process – a process which releases certain energies, sets certain mechanisms into motion. A process which, I might add, can be reversed, so long as it is not yet completed, which is why you yet live again;” he explained in a more somber tone. “Death is inherently a transition, but also a separation. As your physical body dies, that which we call the mind fades away, as it is pulled-“
He stopped when the boy raised his hand, questioning.
“Are you talking about souls?”
The tall man folded his hands on the table, his countenance becoming more somber. “That is a question even I know not the answer to with any certainty. What I do know is this – there is a Source, an Origin for all Powers. All humans alive since Point Zero have been connected to it, as if by an umbilical cord extending from our brains all the way to… there.”
He raised a long-fingered hand and pointed behind himself, as his mouth spread into a wide, wolfish grin that looked all the more imposing for the bright gleam of his teeth in contrast to the shadows which suddenly fell over his face.
The boy followed his gesture, and stared straight at the blackness-that-was-not-black, the vast, eye-straining gap in perception which dominated this alien sky.
“That is… the source?”
“That it is. The Source of it all. Every human being is connected to it, leads back to it. I know not whether we are born from it, but we are destined to go to it, when our time is over. Like a line cast out, the strand which connects us to the Source reels us in when we die, as if our body was an anchor keeping our mind and, yes, perhaps we can call it that, our soul, tied to reality, an anchor which we lose along with our physical form.”
“Everyone who dies thus merges with the Source – and much like an object which has crossed the Event Horizon of a Black Hole, once one has crossed a certain point in his process, they are gone forever, beyond any hope of resuscitation or revival; however, the process is not an instant one, nor uniform. For some, ‘dying’ may take but hours, or days. For others, months, or years.”
Angelica chuckled at that, as her husband picked up his own cup and drank some tea.
“No. Not decades. The longest time span between one’s physical death and one crossing the point of no return, that I know of, took a little less than a single decade.”
The boy looked around their strange location, then at the couple in front of him. “What is this, then? Should not the both of you be long… gone?”
That wolfish grin returned again, nearly splitting the tall man’s face from ear to ear. “Ah, we should be – both the woman and I should long since have faded away. Yet I knew of this… celestial mechanism, and so chose to prepare for it.”
Angelica leaned forward. “An insurance, if you will,” she said, calmly. “In case his numerous plans for his own – and my – immortality or revival fell through.” She leaned in closer towards the boy, raising a hand to seemingly shield her mouth from Emyr’s sight, as she stage-whispered to the boy, “Which, of course, they did.”
“Well, excuse me for being unprepared to deal with weaponized anti-reality and a hermaphroditic pseudo-god of death out for my blood!”, Emyr grumbled, all regality disappearing as he sulked. “Honestly, it’s a testament to my sheer brilliance that I managed to take down all but that one down, or that I’m still here with even a chance of returning left to me.”
“Which one was the… hermaphroditic pseudo-god of death?” the boy asked, confused. He dimly remembered a fragment…
There were eight, actually. The count starts at Zero, not one.
“Do you mean the zeroth member of the Seven Regicides, which you mentioned during our last meeting?”
“Yes. Nasty fellow, that one,” Emyr leaned forward, putting his elbows on the table, and resting his chin on his intertwined. “Not that I want to undersell the efforts of the other seven – they fought marvelously, and even figured out a means by which to immunize themselves to being directly affected by my power, but it was thanks to that other creature that they were able to break through all of my defenses and… best me,” he elaborated, twisting his face up as the last two words seemed to all but physically hurt him to say. “So in the end, it took another god, to overcome m-“
“You are no god, Emyr Blackhill,” Angelica spoke teasingly, leaning over towards him.
“I actually created life! I populated a planet! Woman, what else need I do to be a god?” he shouted, throwing his arms up in his most theatric reaction yet.
“Don’t be dead.”
He deflated, slumping back against his high-backed chair. “Jesus died, too.”
“He planned to, though. And he came back. In three days,” she continued with a very amused smile on her face.
“Why do you keep taking the piss out of me, love?” he whined, looking down at his knees, rather than at her or the boy.
She cooed, reaching out to stroke his hair. “I do it because I love you, of course. Also, watch your language, there’s a child present.”
The nigh-omnipotent conqueror of all man-kind pouted like a child, yet did not rebuke her caress or her words. If anything, he leaned a little into it.
The boy watched, once more experiencing that sensation of alienation. Looking on a scene he’d seen before, but which didn’t seem quite real or true to him. Something he lacked a reference for, perhaps.
It was kind of sweet, though, and it didn’t seem staged.
“A word of advice, boy,” Emyr said, while shamelessly enjoying his wife’s caress. “When you choose your wife-to-be, make sure it’s someone smart and bold enough to always know when and how to deflate your ego. Life is better that way.”
“It is true,” Angelica agreed with an exasperated look thrown Emyr’s way, before focusing on the boy again. “Look at how inflated my dear husband’s ego got, when I was gone. The ‘Godking of Mars’,” she mocked, rolling her eyes and dropping her voice when intoning the title. “Could’ve used someone to keep you grounded, my dear, sweet, narcissistic husband.”
Emyr was about to respond to that, when the boy interceded again, trying to keep the conversation focused.
“Excuse me, but could we perhaps get back to the point of how I am here, what this ‘In-Between Place’ is and, seeing how you brought it up, how you are here, madam?” he asked with a gesture towards Angelica. “You passed away decades ago. In fact, it is popularly believed that your passing was his Origin,” he continued, when they didn’t interrupt, pointing with both hands at the tall man. “You did not seem to be alive during his reign as ‘Godking’, which as far as we know began five years after your passing, so how are you now? Are you even alive? He apparently is not, but I am, supposedly, yet I have not observed any difference between his and my state of being! The exact number and nature of the people involved in your defeat is incredibly interesting, but also, as far as I can tell, entirely irrelevant to this.”
The two of them looked at him with odd expressions, matched in spite of their very different features. As if they were not used to being pushed.
“Of course… I apologize,” Angelica replied, blushing a little. “It’s been a while since we’ve had to consider anyone but each other, I hope you understand.”
Emyr didn’t look nearly as bashful as his wife – if at all – but he seemed more amused than offended by the interruption.
The boy took a deep breath, then released it, calming himself. “I suppose I understand.”
That earned him a grateful smile from Angelica.
“Very well, very well,” the tall man spoke, sitting back as some of his regal countenance returned to him. “As she just noted, I prepared for the eventuality of death, and the possibility of there not being a quick revival. But how to assure that neither I, nor my beloved, would be lost to each other?” He gestured at their surroundings. “Thus, I constructed this… afterlife, of sorts. At least, that was my intention. A place in-between life and final death, catch and preserve our selves, until such a time as we can return to full life,” he explained, a rather prideful smirk on his face, not that it wasn’t warranted. Then he sobered up, though. “Of course, it was meant to allow for an easy return. Simply open the right door and step back into life, for both myself and any others whom I gave entry to it. And it would have worked,” he snarled, looking aside with a frustrated expression. “It would have, were it not for that spear. It limits my power, prevents it from reaching back into reality proper. Here, I remain as powerful as ever. But my power reaches no further than this liminal land, which will become important later.”
He paused, taking a breath and calming himself. “Thus, I wrote this land, as a contingency. Thus, when I was slain, I came here, rather than fade away. As for the woman, I had already resurrected her years earlier. When I first unlocked this greater form of my power, the first act I undertook, was to call her back to life,” he explained further, reaching out to put a long-fingered hand onto his wife’s, sliding his fingers into the gaps between hers, so the could both curl them up and squeeze each other. “It was a success, if not quite in the way I had hoped.”
At the boy’s questioning look at that statement, Emyr actually averted his eyes, and it was Angelica that replied for him, reaching out with her free hand to squeeze his shoulder. “With Emyr, everything’s in the wording… the way he worded it, back then, he gave me back my life… a life which had ended after a scant twenty years,” she explained, softly, as Emyr lowered his head.
It took only a moment for the boy to take that idea to its logical conclusion. “He brought you back, but you were set to die again after twenty years… at which point he was no longer around to resurrect you again. Instead you came… here.”
“Got it in one,” she praised him with a bright smile.
His eyes drifted from that discombobulating smile to the soothingly familiar demigod whose hand she was stroking now. “The spear prevents you from… not from giving her life, obviously, as you were able raise me as well… but she is stuck here, because you can not send her out of this space.” He frowned. “Which means I am trapped in this space, as well. Never mind that I still do not know why I ended up here in the first place.”
He tapped the bare wooden tabletop with a finger, next to the golden star still lying there.
“Dear, perhaps it’s time for a little brevity?” Angelica said to her husband.
“Hrm. I suppose so,” Emyr grumbled. “Soul of Wit it is, then. Alright. I mentioned earlier that worlds overlap, but they each vibrate at a different frequency.” The boy leaned closer, almost hungrily so. “Everything that is part of a world vibrates on the same general frequency. There can be slight variations, but they are ultimately negligible – imagine, if you are tuning your radio to a station, you don’t necessarily need to hit their frequency exactly – just by getting close enough, you’ll still receive that station, though it may be distorted. To apply that to the matter at hand, when your personal frequency does not quite match that of any one world, you are liable to default automatically to the one you are closest to; imagine the worlds as depressions in the fabric of reality, with the interstice between worlds being the tall, impossibly thin rims; unless your frequency is balanced perfectly between two worlds, you will slide down into one of them. Over time, as you remain in the same world, your frequency becomes more and more alike that of the world, even if you started with another. It will never be perfectly the same, there is always a range within which we vibrate; that range is greater for living beings, than for inanimate objects and greater still for those like us whom are innately connected more deeply to our extra-versal power source than others, which is another reason for why the Awakened, or metahumans if you prefer the more plebeian term, are prone to slip through the gaps.”
He snapped his fingers at the floating table clothes and still-rolling spheres, and they dropped down, again through the objects onto the table, the cloths becoming one again, and the balls landing on top, remaining unnaturally still rather than roll around.
Meanwhile, the tall man barely took a breath, before continuing in his explanation. “Now, we come to you. You died, and moreover, you were in a particularly unstable region of reality. Possibly, someone tried to move your corpse from one reality to another, or perhaps into a pocket dimension – do you think that was likely?”
“You made a Bag of Holding? That is an impressively useful item to have.”
“Yup! Awesome, isn’t it? And it’s even better than the game version, because it’s compartmentalized. I can store different things in different sections and recall them at will! I even have a stasis section, to preserve stuff in!”
“So it’s more of a Handy Haversack than a Bag of Holding, ain’t it?”
“Hrm… I suppose so. But it looks like a bag and Bag of Holding sounds more respectable than Handy Haversack.”
“Sure thing, Heck.”
“Don’t call me Heck!”
“Alright, Heck. Anyway, B-Six, can’t you make a sci-fi Box of Holding? It’d be sooo useful, and way less of a copyright infringamadinger!”
“It’s called copyright infringement, you philistine…”
“I tried to build something like that, but found myself unable to, sadly. It would be incredibly useful – fortunately, Vasiliki’s should be more than sufficient for our groups’ needs.”
“That’s sweet of you to say! Look, she’s even blushing!”
The boy shook his head at the surprisingly vivid memory. He could even remember the smell in the air of that moment, a mixture of the bag’s fresh leather, Vasiliki’s perfume – she’d come really close when showing off her contrivance, forgetting her usual poise and reserve in almost childlike excitement – and freshly soldered circuits.
It hurt too much to focus on that, so he moved on.
“It is… possible, that a friend tried to store my body in a pocket reality,” he replied, nodding slowly.
“Which would mean that, for the briefest moment, even if you were merely moved into a pocket reality – a bud on the reality you’re within, rather than a separate one altogether – you had to, briefly, cross an interstice, a moment, a space, where your body’s frequency was being adjusted, like a knob on the radio being turned, moving reception across bands of frequency. Normally not a problematic matter, but when done in an area like New Lennston, right after or during massive distortions caused by a major battle of dozens, even hundreds of awakened ones, while the subject is also an unusually powerful one – thus already far more prone to a wide frequency range… a confluence of many factors coming together, to make things go wrong, in all the right ways.”
He put his elbows on the table, leaning forward, his hands extended towards the boy. “Instead of your body moving properly into the pocket reality, while your power and your cognition were pulled and assimilated into the Source, reality had become so thin and unstable around you that they dragged your body with them into this transitory space.”
“How could my… soul… drag my body here, physically?”
“Normally? Not at all. But when all other laws of reality fall away, in a space thinned out and broken down, the last law that remains is the law of connection. That which is connected, draws together. Imagine it as your body… hm…” He stroked his chin again, thoughtfully, seeking words.
Angelica jumped in again. “Imagine your body growing so light that it’d float on the air. So untethered it could be pulled just by tossing a silk thread on it, pulling on the thread, and have the friction between your body and the thread provide enough of a hold – not because your body itself was changed, but because all other forces working on it had either been disrupted or outright fallen away.”
The boy nodded. “That makes sense, going by the premises as presented.”
Emyr pouted at his wife, who just sat back with a satisfied smile and bit into the last soft cookie, ignoring her husband’s annoyance with practiced, even joyful ease.
Emyr grumbled something under his breath, before clearing his throat. “Moving on. As she said, your body was unmoored to such a profound degree that any connection, no matter how slight, could pull it around. Any resonance whatsoever,” he explained, leaning more heavily on his elbows, his head moving closer to the boy. “If you were one of the people for whom I created this artificial afterlife for, then it wouldn’t matter how you died, barring a few extreme causes – you’d always come here, with or without your body. But, if one is in such an unstable state, then the slightest resonance can change one’s course entirely; such as the resonance between my power and an item I created wholesale with it,” he concluded, gesturing at the golden trinket.
The boy picked the star up, turning it over in his hand, contemplating the little thing with something akin to awe. “That is it? That is all it took?”
“When reality itself breaks down, then, by definition, the normal strictures of probability and possibility no longer apply.”
They all fell quiet, as the boy processed these revelations, his mind a quiet storm of thoughts, not all of which related to the situation at hand.
Then Inkblot pecked at his fingers, snatching the star up and holding it in his beak.
The boy gave his pseudo-corvid companion a long look. “So then Inkblot managed to find his way here, what, because of his resonance with me? My power? Since I made him myself?”
“Unless you also gave him the capability for transversal travel, yes, that would be the most likely explanation,” Emyr agreed.
“That answers how and why I am here,” the boy continued, after a short break spent just looking at the mechanical bird. “Now, I would like to know why I should even consider not to restore my memories? Especially since I am apparently trapped here anyway.”
“Straight to the point,” Emyr sighed. “Very well. Come,” he rose to his feet. “This is something that will be more easily understood when shown.”
“Do finish your tea at least, dear,” Angelica cut in, looking at the boy with a slight smile.
The boy stood up, then stopped, looking down. Why are there so many crumbs on my plate? he thought, in surprise. He hadn’t even realized he’d eaten any cookies or scones… but he still had their taste in his mouth (it was delicious). No… Angelica kept giving me some, while Emyr was talking. He’d failed to consciously process it, having been so enthralled by the man’s words. But he had eaten them.
Things keep slipping.
With a blush, he picked up the seemingly fragile teacup and drank the still-warm black tea.
The honey really does suit it well.
“Thank you, madam,” he said, politely, if still weirded out by it all. “It was… it tasted really well.”
“I’m glad. Now you two go have your talk,” she replied, standing up and starting to gather the used dishes.
“You are not coming along?” He couldn’t tell why he felt the need to confirm it. Having her around felt weird.
She gave him one of those strange smiles of hers. “I think it’s good for boys to have some time to themselves. I’ll be in my observatory, but if you do need me – even if it’s just to remind my dear husband to be a little more succinct – simply speak my name three times in succession and I’ll be with you in the blink of an eye.”
He opened his mouth to question that, then he remembered who’d made this place and its rules, so he just nodded to her.
Without another word, he followed after Emyr down the steps from the outlook platform.
For the first time that the boy could remember since hitting his growth spurt – not that that meant much – he had to walk faster than usual just to keep up with another person’s casual stride. Emyr Blackhill really was freakishly tall, taller than any man or woman he could recall meeting (again, that hitch in his thoughts, like a mental snort at the ridiculousness of him relying on his memories) that hadn’t been altered by their powers.
Then again, perhaps he had? Perhaps it was deliberate, he’d used his power to enlarge himself, not to superhuman height, but so as to stand above most normal persons. It would fit him.
It didn’t feel right, though.
“Observatory?” he repeated the word, to focus on something else instead, as he followed the tall man and felt like a little boy running after his giant of a father.
“The woman has always been rather scientifically minded, in stark contrast to myself,” Emyr responded, half-turning his head to look at the boy with a surprisingly fond, gentle smile. “She always dreamed of studying the natural sciences, before her first life was cut short. In her second life, she did do just that. Physics, in point of fact. To her, this fragmentary place is less a prison and more a little heaven, where she can probe the very fabric of reality and study its inner workings. To that purpose, I created an observatory for her use, among other things, and she has well-refined it in the years since.”
The boy looked behind himself, up the hill they were descending from, at the slight, unassuming figure at the top. He wouldn’t have pegged her for a scientist, though perhaps the fifties’ housewife aesthetic was to blame for that more than anything else, never mind how off-balance he felt around her.
“After all these decades, she could likely teach you a fair few things,” the tall man added, with mirth in his voice. “Your own power notwithstanding.”
That actually seems like something I’d really enjoy… if only this woman wasn’t so strange. “Why do you keep calling her ‘the woman’?” he asked, instead of vocalizing those thoughts.
Emyr chuckled. “You don’t read many of the classics, do you?” he asked with another look over his shoulder, as they hit the pathway that the boy and Angelica had first approached the hill by, turning right to follow it away from the gazebo the boy had woken up in. “It’s a literary reference, ‘in his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex’, though it is not a romantic thing, nor even a thing of love, in that story,” he explained with another wide, toothy grin. “Besides. She is quite literally the only female in this world.”
The boy mulled that over. “Does she have a name like that for you?”
“Oh, she has given me many. Clod, troll, oaf… I could go on, but I think you get the gist of it.”
“Yes, I do. Why does it feel like I am always at risk of suffocating around you?”
“You are sensing the distortion I am causing in reality,” Emyr explained, his tone shifting to a more serious one. “Your brain merely interprets it as a kind of pressure. It could as well have been felt as heat, as a charge in the air, you name it. Powerful awakened ones, particularly older ones, distort reality more strongly, and most our kind can sense that, can sense our mere presence.”
He mulled that over, as well. “I observed the same sensation when I was in Lady Light’s presence, though not in the Dark’s. Lady Light’s was even more intense than yours, even though she is weaker than you are, so it can not simply be due to strength. One would also expect the Dark to be her equal in such matters, as well.”
“It is not solely due to raw power – it also depends on location, circumstance. The form in which a person’s power expresses itself, how intensively it is being used… I presume you interacted during a crisis in which she was using her power more heavily?” He stopped in his speech, looking at the boy for confirmation.
“Barely an interaction, even,” the boy confirmed with a nod.
“Meanwhile you and I have only ever interacted in – to me – more relaxing circumstances.” He stroked his chin, thoughtfully. “Furthermore, I would bet my entire collection of Shakespears’ works that the lady is capable of far more than she publicly pretends to be, much like her counterpart. Speaking of said counterpart, the very nature of the Dark’s power is to spread himself thin. Fissioning off pieces, fragments, shards of his power, his very self. Doing so dilutes his presence.”
The boy didn’t reply immediately, considering that, too, while their steps took them towards a stone-wrought gate-arch, beyond which he could see a rather quaint-seeming country house in a style he dimly connected to England, in his mind, though he couldn’t quite say why.
The arch itself was an elaborate thing, technically being five arches standing corner to corner in the rough shape of a pentagon.
No one said anything, until they reached the arch, where the tall man knocked on the stone with the knuckles of two fingers, in passing.
It was as if he’d turned the knob on an old-fashioned television, causing the image beyond the arch to distort, the space within the pentagon seeming to fuzz, then come into focus again.
The boy and the tall man walked into the new space – or was that through? – and continued into what appeared to be a vast cave system illuminated by crystals growing out of the rocks above, casting everything in a soft, neutral light. The ground was surprisingly smooth, as if many people had often walked this path and worn it out; between that, and the soft shoes built into the boy’s suit, he made nary a sound walking upon it; yet Emyr’s footsteps were much sharper, and echoed through the caves, seeming somehow louder, heavier, more real than they should be.
“When I was but a child still living in the old country,” Emyr spoke in a surprisingly soft voice, “I once disregarded my mother’s warnings, as well as my father’s advice to heed said warnings, and went into the woods to explore them. There I came across a cave, which, being but a foolhardy tot, I chose to explore.”
He looked up at the vast ceiling of stalactites and the crystals which grew between them, like distant dots of lights, tiny stars, in the darkness above. “The awe, the fear, the wonder I experienced that day has stayed with me ever since.”
The boy followed his gaze, looking up at the starry ceiling, and found something within him respond to the sight. A memory, buried, denied to him, yet so close to his heart he could still feel its echoes.
He’d looked up at the stars once, he was sure, and felt something much alike what the tall man spoke of.
“Though I have at times lost my way… lost sight of what was most important… I never forgot the wonder of my early days, and it has ever guided me back unto the path.”
Knowing not what to reply to that statement, feeling only a great sadness upon him, the boy stayed quiet, and so did the tall man, for a time.
Then, they came upon a crossing of many cavernous tunnels, branching off from the way they came. All seemed similar to each other, but for one, which split off to the right, and was illuminated by a radiance of a fel red color coming from within. That was the direction the tall man led them towards.
“Why are we walking?” the boy asked, after a few steps. When the tall man turned his head to look at him, he continued, “Why that arch? Why not simply speak us to our destination?”
“Why not? Why not simply speak tea into existence, at perfect temperature? Why bake the pastries we enjoy, rather than speak them into being?” the man elaborated. “Why indeed? This is a lesson only learned too late, after I died – what we achieve does not matter alone, but how we achieve it,” he said, his voice much softer than its usual booming quality. “You’d do well to remember that, boy. The journey matters as much, if not more so than the destination. Now hush – sooth is upon us.”
The radiance illuminating the cavernous tunnel grew brighter, as its source came into sight – after but a hundred paces, the tunnel opened up into a larger cavern, one which looked far less terrestrial than the earlier parts; the stone was the same, but crystals jutted out from every wall, spikes made of a translucent material like glass, each dozens of meters long, all homing in towards the center of the cave, with only a single gap created by the tunnel’s opening into the cavern providing a pathway in.
Within said center, they all terminated in hair-fine tips, all equidistant from the very center, forming a perfect sphere around…
The boy had to blink, looking twice, then thrice, before he was able to properly parse the sight. A golden rectangle made of pure red, blood-like light floated a place above the floor, at the very center of the half-sphere formed by the spikes.
From said rectangle – the boy immediately thought of it as a door, as he tried to make sense of it – from said door reached forth hands… many hands. Dozens, hundreds of hands, each one glowing as if made of translucent glass filled with all the colors of the rainbow – all but red.
Fingers curled around the edges of the door, as if clinging to it, while many more reached forth, akin to tentacles, reaching for the spikes around them, yet seemed to reach an invisible barrier instead, unable to fully make contact.
The limbs writhed and groped, seemingly mindless, as if seeking…
They’re seeking me, the boy thought, and though he knew not how he knew, he knew it to be true.
“What is… all this?” he asked in a low voice, almost whispering, as if trying not to be heard by those strange limbs.
“This is the crux, the choice you must make,” the tall man replied, as he stepped forth, then half-turned towards the boy, standing with his side to him, so the boy could see both him and the door. “I moved it to this place, to contain the will of your tormentor; but this door is in fact the same passageway through which you entered our little demesne. It opened up in the sky above, at the boundary of this realm, and you tumbled through.”
He cleared his throat, looking the boy straight in the eyes. “As has already been established, my power is limited by the boundaries of this realm. I can not send you back to Earth. I simply can not, no matter how much I would like to. However, if you were to step through this door, you would be able to retrace the path you took to come here, and return to the world of the living.”
The boy blinked, looking away from the man and to the door, feeling… hope? But also a nameless dread, bloom within him. “W-what… what is the catch?”
“It is not by my power, that the door is still open. The pathway should have closed as soon as you passed through, yet it is being held open from the other side,” he explained, gravely. “Held open, in fact, the very same power which denies you your true memories, your true self!”
Before the boy could even react to that, the tall man suddenly stood in front of him, his long-fingered hands on his shoulders, as he leaned down to look him in the eye. “That is why I said you must choose, whether you wish for me to restore your memories! It is by the power that has so defiled your mind that this pathway is being maintained!” He leaned closer, his eyes boring into the boy’s. “The will of they whom so wish to keep you in their thrall is the breadcrumb trail that can lead you back home! It is within my power to break their hold over your mind, to set you free, but doing so would wipe away your route home – you would be stranded here, as I and the woman are. Do you understand, boy? Do you understand the choice you must make?” he spoke, more intense than he’d been throughout their entire acquaintance so far.
The boy just nodded, unsure as to whether he’d be able to form coherent words, as overwhelmed as he felt now.
“Know though, that to choose to step through this gate is perhaps not your sole way of escape,” the tall man added, cautiously, which immediately threw the boy’s thoughts into disarray, just as they were starting to sort themselves out again. “You could have me sever the strand of connection… free your memories. You would be stranded here, true, but you would have every resource you needed to exert your power, and both mine and the woman’s knowledge to expand your own; given what I have seen of the true nature of your power, I am certain that, in time, you could devise your own means of escaping this limited place, and returning to the material realm on your own terms.”
He paused, for a moment, then chuckled. “Naturally, Angelica and I may well use those means to travel back as well, and circumvent the spear’s bindings. So I confess some preference to you choosing that option.”
“Why would you not just restore my memories then?” the boy asked, his voice trembling, even taking a step back from the tall man. “Why even give me the choice?”
“What worth is there to a path, if it is not one chosen freely?” the tall man replied, his voice colder. “I am not so desperate, nor are my woman and I so miserable here, that we would force such a choice upon you. Upon a child, even less.”
He sighed, closing his eyes. “There is only one thing I will force upon you, my boy. Choose to return, or choose to stay – but choose, you must. The one thing I cannot bear is the indignity of indecision.”
The tall man opened his eyes once more, standing with his back to the door, between it and the boy; its fel light outlining his vast form, turning him into something quite grand and terrible to behold.
“So if you have any more questions, boy, ask them now. And if not, choose!”