Chapter 18: A blast from the past
The moment I pass that heavy iron gate I feel the years fall off me like sand, swept away by the coming tide. It’s been so long yet it all still looks the same. The buildings, the roads, the air. It’s like the whole place got frozen in place.
I feel sixteen again.
I feel alone again.
The buildings are so big, the people are so loud.
It makes me want to hide.
Back in those days, all I could think about was getting out again.
Back to being a child, back to being with Stegarius and spending the days making small automata.
I must have known that was impossible, even then.
And yet I acted as if rejecting university could force my parents to let me be home-schooled again.
I skipped classes. Was rude to teachers and spent most of my time holed up in the library sitting, reading and seething.
The library was a great place to avoid everyone and stew in my loneliness without having to try to go out there and make friends.
I bet back then the librarian started talking to me out of pity more than anything else.
If she’d known that it would lead to me stealing her father’s notebook I bet she wouldn’t have bothered.
But I pull myself out of it, this isn’t the time to reflect, it’s time to act.
I head up the tall ivory stairway to the library.
On the way, groups of children walk past chatting and laughing and horsing around.
Gazing down the little windows in the classroom doors I see teachers I never hoped to see again and struggling to remember what sleight they had committed.
I wonder if, had I known what it all would lead to.
Alchemy, Mercury, doll fever.
Would I have done it?
Would I have spent so much time chipping away at a mystery if I had known it would cost me my dearest friend?
I doubt it.
Another staircase, wooden this time with a brass handrail. A woman shoots past me with a tight updo and a bottle-green bustle dress. I know I must have known her name at some point. She teaches geometry.
I wonder if she would have recognized me if I weren’t in disguise.
She opens the doors to the library and dashes down the aisle.
The library is massive.
It’s divided up into sections, you have an armillary on the right side of the door leading to astronomy, a globe on the left-hand-side guiding to geography
Walking further you get to the study of life, biology, medicine and botany, a lot of models and bottles with things floating in them. Then going even deeper you arrive at dead matter, a giant marble table inlaid with every element known to man lets you know you’ve entered the chemistry section, sandwiched between physics and mathematics. A place dominated by bearded men with rulers and dials.
Above my head, there are brass balconies and long filing cabinets sorted on writer, subject and field.
To my sides are rows and rows of writing desks and reading lights, and in the middle of it all, an elevated stage with a round desk raised up ominously like a watchtower.
With a single doll overlooking all of it.
I walk towards it, keeping close to the bookcases, hoping not to get noticed.
In vain of course.
“I didn’t expect you to come back, Winton.” They tell me, bitterness in their voice.
I try to wave politely, they sternly signal me to come up.
I walk up the wooden steps that curl around the podium. By the time I’m up there, they’re already waiting for me at the top arms crossed.
I pull the book from my bag and put it on the desk “This doesn’t belong to me.”
“It took you some time to figure that out.” They pull the book back hastily and open it, instantly the eyes are glued to the pages.
“I translated it too, those are the loose sheets of paper wedged in there occasionally, you can throw them out if you like, I didn’t alter the book itself in any way.”
They hum but don’t speak, walking to a big chair in the middle of the podium and sitting down.
I could leave now I guess, the book is where it ought to be, job done… right? But I really should apologize “I’m sorry.”
“I won’t forgive you, you know.” They then tell me coldly as I keep standing there.
“That’s all right, I understand.”
I turn and walk back to the staircase.
“You should have asked if you could borrow it.”
I don’t know what I’m hearing. “Would you have lent it to me then?”
“I don’t know but I’d have liked the option to say no. After you took it I spent weeks looking. I was afraid I’d never see it again.”
Well, at least they’re honest about it.
I sigh painfully “I should have realized how important that book is to you. I was so busy with my own petty obsessions that I disregarded the feelings of those who were kind to me.”
They hum “Indeed you did.”
I sigh “I don’t have an excuse for that but I’ll work to do better in the future.”
They shrug at that, I take it as my cue to leave.
As I descend the stairs wonder if it’s forgiveness I’m after or if it’s just one step into reaching my goals.
But at least the book is back where it belongs and I apologized as best I could.
I drift back to the door passing the rows and rows of tables going down the central hall. I can see myself sitting there, working alone as darkness sets. Copying passages and jumbling the letters, pulling tricks and drawing grids in the hopes of finding words that make sense.
A giant puzzle, a grand mystery.
I’m not sure I expected to solve it.
It all looked like a game back then, but I didn’t know the stakes at all.
Was it worth it?
I walk out into the world again, the sky is grey and sad.
I guess that depends on what happens next.
For now, I need to find the alchemists.
Which poses a bit of a problem.
Without Mercury, I don’t know where to find the other alchemists, Neon, Steel, Tin, and the rest, they all have their own hiding spot and I have no idea where.
There’s only one other den besides Mercury’s I know about and I have no idea if I’m gonna be welcome or not.
Let’s say the last time I saw Tungsten was… a bit rough.
I rub my neck as I think back on it.
If he’s still with Mercury’s philosophy, going there can end very badly for me.
But shouldn’t Prishtoli have mentioned him in that case?
His half-man half-beast aesthetic isn’t one you easily forget or gloss over.
So that means it’s fine right?
Either way, I guess there’s not really another option.
And the others are counting on me.
All right Inquiry, time to be brave or very, very foolish.
I make up my mind.
Then make my way to the woods.
The woods around Unebre are pleasant enough if you keep to the carefully tended paths and clearings. But beyond the planted magnolia and cherry trees there stand ancient oaks, weary walnuts and papery birches.
One tree leans precariously against another as if it could slip at any moment and come crashing down with an earthshaking thud. Three pale trees ended up entangled in one another, coiling like snakes and covered in knots.
The deeper you go, the darker it gets.
There are tales of horrible things living in the woods.
Mermaids in the lake that will drag you to your doom if you stop by it to drink.
Thieves that steal your face before they kill you, monsters and ghouls that haunt the night.
It feels childish, ridiculous.
Monsters aren’t the ones who hurt us, there are no evil doppelgangers or ghosts.
People hurt people.
And making them into monsters is just an excuse so the genteel public doesn’t have to ask why.
Why did they steal, why did they cheat?
Why did they kill?
When Stegarius laid out his plan to me it all sounded so straightforward, logical even.
Then he died and now I have neither heart nor backing from the alchemists.
Just as I wonder how long I’ve been walking for I pass the little spot we planted all those trees back then.
The ones that Mercury deemed unworthy but Stegarius refused to toss out like garbage.
They’re arranged in a circle, exactly one meter apart from one another to give them room to grow.
So meticulous, so careful.
It feels almost hypocritical now, saving all those pointless little trees while practically killing himself.
The longer I think about it the more I wonder if Jaxogeras was right.
Maybe we rushed things? Maybe there was a better way?
If only I’d told him no, got him back to Bar-B, planned with everyone.
Maybe we could have found a better solution.
I kneel down at a little sapling and gently hold onto a leaf.
The trees are still so small, so fragile.
I count three less than we planted. Looks like not all of them made it after all.
I wonder if he knew, probably not.
I hope he didn’t.
It’d only have made him sad.
I feel like crying but I don’t have the time or energy.
I never knew how much effort it took to cry until I started doing it regularly.
I sigh, put my hands in my pockets, leave the little trees be and keep on going.
We’re not there yet.
Not by a long shot.
The trees are packed up tight in here, no more leaves but coniferous trees. Light is sucked away by millions of fragrant green needles.
The sun vanishes leaving the place shrouded in dusk-like shadows that jitter and rustle with the squirrels and the wind.
It’s the perfect place to hide.
Twenty minutes of walking later I’m in so deep it almost looks like nighttime.
Looking at my watch it’s not even midday.
My gaze is glued to the ground, feet kicking at anything resembling loose soil.
It should be around here somewhere.
The guy can’t have moved already.
The annoying part is that in this place every spot looks the same.
I hate to give it to him but he chose his hiding place well.
But I know it’s around here somewhere.
And I don’t intend to give up.
No matter how long I’ll have to look for it.
I get to walking.
Some more walking.
I check my watch again, it’s around three p.m.
My legs are sore from the search.
I sit down on a tree stump and take a moment to breathe.
I should have brought food and water.
My tongue keeps sticking to the roof of my mouth and my stomach rumbles in protest.
Maybe I should retreat for now.
Think up a better strategy and come back tomorrow.
It’d be another day lost though, another day where war could break loose.
Another day wasted.
One more hour.
If I can’t find him for one more hour I will go back and call it a day.
I get up again and head deeper into the forest.
It’s the sound that gave it away.
After listening to your boots hitting the forest floor for hours on end, a thunk, no matter how soft, sticks out like a sore thumb.
I kneel down and push at the sand and needles with gloved hands. Unearthing the trapdoor underneath.
I pull the handle, it seems to be locked.
I roll my eyes and pull a key from my pocket.
Slot it in, turn it.
I wasn’t completely sure Tungsten used the same lock as Mercury.
But I’m very grateful he did.
I climb down the ladder and take a look at the sprawling tunnel system beyond.
Of course, Stegarius would look at it once, remember how we went last time and just lad me through it without effort.
But I doubt I’ll get it right the first time.
Or the second one for that matter.
I pull a notebook from my pocket, a small stumpy pencil dangling from the bookmark.
I open the notebook on a blank page, pencil in hand and get walking.
Mapping out the place on the way.
This place goes in circles a lot.
I stumbled on the parlour by accident really. I was trying to backtrack and then there I was, in a spot I thought was somewhere else entirely.
Turns out map-making is a skill I haven’t quite mastered. But to my relief I made it.
Unfortunately it looks like Tungsten is nowhere to be found.
So I wait and look around.
Mercury’s lab always had an air of cold sterility to it with tiled walls and metal trolleys.
This place looks more like an overly enthusiastic kitchen with jars and jugs on every shelf. I walk past them reading the labels.
Animal parts, most of them. Some large, some small.
I thought Mercury called Tungsten “mod-curious” but it seems to be far more than that.
I don’t know how to feel about modding. I remember hearing Tungsten raving about restoring lost limbs and helping people out, but when I look at this I wonder how much he truly meant those words.
It mostly just feels icky.
Like a part of nature that doesn’t need toying with.
I jump at a sound behind me.
Then turn to find a very big man with very big arms.
He looks at me.
Then turn on his heel, tail beneath his legs.
And hightails it back out of here.
After a moment of stunned realisation, I rush after him.
“Wait Tungsten! I just want to talk!” I yell in a futile attempt to get him to halt.
He’s fast for such a big man and these turns are short and sudden.
If I don’t get him to stop running I’ll surely lose sight of him.
Around me neatly papered walls get replaced with wooden boards, then cardboard, then nothing but earth and wooden struts propping up the ceiling.,
Where the hell are we going?
Unease spreads down into the pit of my stomach.
Something isn’t right.
I pass a corner and find my legs stop moving forward.
I lose my balance and topple forward with a thud.
I manage to catch myself with my hands just in time, my face twisting into a painful grimace as they grind over the rock-filled dirt.
I pull at my leg to drag myself upright again but find my legs tied together with some automatic trap construction. It coils around my legs and tightens painfully as I try to pull myself loose.
“Tungsten!?” I cry out as I try to reach for the snare but my body wasn’t made for flexibility.
I grunt and huff but it’s no use.
I look beyond into the dark and find my captor has stopped running.
A meter further into the tunnel the man is sitting on a goat-legged stool. His head is low, his arms resting on his legs.
His face is hidden in shadows yet his reflective eyes shimmer in the dark as he looks at me.
A chill goes up my spine.
This whole situation feels way too much like the generic modder stories, the ones meant to scare people off the dangers of alchemy.
“Tungsten?” I repeat a bit more carefully.
He looks up at me, the light shifting on his face and I see his eyes are red with tears. “Look Mercury made me do it okay!? she said she just wanted to have a peek inside, I didn’t expect her to grab a bloody axe to do it!”
I sigh relieved “I’m not here for revenge, I’m not even angry with you.”
He scoffs “And I’m supposed to believe you? I grabbed your neck Ion!” he shouts, watching his trembling claw hands. “I was aiming for the shoulders I swear but then people started yelling and I panicked and missed and I didn’t dare let go and-”
“Tungsten!” I interrupt him trying to keep him from rambling until the end of time “Mercury made you do that right? You didn’t want to hurt me right?” I speak slowly, carefully.
“That doesn’t change anything I- I-”
“I need your help Tungsten.”
His eyes shoot towards me “What?”
“That’s why I came here today, I need your help.”
“You agree Mercury went too far right?”
“Are you kidding!? she’s insane! Riling up the whole community, telling them to kidnap dolls. She’s always been an odd one but now she’s just unhinged. Like she snapped somewhere down the way.”
“I see, now the thing is she’s dead.”
“It’s a long story, I’d like to tell it upright if you’ll let me.” I pull my feet up.
“Did you kill her?”
“No, but I know who did.”
His face has lost three shades since the last sentence but after a moment of silence he gets up “Right then, you want some tea?”