by M.D Schultz
Does man not see his mistakes? He must learn what happens when the era keys sing.
|“Man is like a blooming flower in a field of grass. So majestic is his splendor that he stands out amidst the rest. Yet, eventually the flower will fade and when it does, will the grass remember his magnificence?” -Dr. Nordstrom
This would be the third time that Priscilla had left the secluded chambers of a dark lab. For sixteen years she had been a test subject for an organization called the Fifth Chapter. They told her that she was special. They told her that she descended from the strongest of all Praetorians. Yes, Praetorians who controlled the fabric of space through powerful sentient instruments who were very picky about who wielded them. These instruments were called travel keys and Priscilla had only ever seen them three times in her life. Great golden keys the size of staves with segmented interlocking pieces that spun like the sides of a Rubik’s cube. It was said that they were as light as feathers to their chosen masters and brought power that had shaped the empire as it was known today.
Priscilla was destined to be a Praetorian, that’s what she was told. A child of careful breeding who was secluded soon after birth. She didn’t even know her parents’ names. What a terrible fate for a child never to know the love of a mother or father and yet such things were alien to her. The labs she was raised in were cold and constructed for a single purpose. Minute by minute, hour by hour, and day by day Priscilla was under examination. Sometimes she was asked to run for hours and other times to simply stand while lights of varying colors were flashed in front of her. None of the tests ever seemed to make sense but, to her, they didn’t have to. You see, Priscilla lived to please others. No matter how hard they pushed nor how long she had to stand in a secluded chamber, she would go the extra mile just to see the smiles on their faces. Priscilla would do it to hear the cheers of success and the passing of congratulations all the while never knowing what it was they were celebrating. She would be happy knowing that she could bring such joy into the world and, sometimes, she would hear the very words she craved most of all.
“Good Girl.” That praise would make her blush like a schoolgirl on a first date and she would do anything for it. Priscilla was a lap dog trained to jump for praise. It wasn’t right and yet no other world existed for her. Little did she know, her world was about to change forever.
She knew that day was different even before it began. They didn’t come for her like they normally did early in the morning. Instead, she lay in her bed for hours past breakfast holding a crude doll she had made from straw and cloth. Most girls her age were too old for that sort of thing but not Priscilla. She would never abandon the one thing that would never stop loving her, that would never stop praising her. Deep down she was afraid. She was afraid because she knew what the delays in testing meant. They were going to try and bond her to another key. When the doors to her chambers were finally opened her fears were realized.
The man who came to retrieve her, Dr. Bauer, was an old grizzled servant of the Fifth Chapter. She knew him very well because he never praised her no matter how hard she worked. It was all she could do to keep that look of disappointment from his eyes. A look that was all but living death to a child who sought his approval. He was a scientist who had given everything and received nothing his greatest achievements stolen by someone younger and sharper. He had worked hard for things that savants in the Fifth Chapter could do on a whim. The anger he felt was dished out to anyone in his way.
Testing with Dr. Bauer was different from all the other scientists she knew. Priscilla didn’t work hard to receive praise from him but rather she did it to avoid his wrath. Embarrassment, disappointment, and anger these were things that she couldn’t forget no matter how hard she tried. Praise was a powerful but fleeting pleasure that slipped through her fingers and was quickly forgotten. However, the disappointment and scolding’s she received from others stuck with her like scars from a wound half healed. Those wounds opened even years after they had been inflicted. Priscilla obeyed Dr. Bauer’s every command to avoid adding more scars to an already extensive library.
“Get up girl.” He only needed to speak those words for her to jump to her feet but not before she hid the doll in the pockets of her gown. He looked much older that day with graying hair and lines upon his face so deep they may have been trenches. Dr. Bauer had no interest in her and was in a foul mood given his posture and tone of voice. She needed her straw friend now more than ever.
Priscilla didn’t once ask to dress out of her nightgown as she was led from the room. Given her obedience, she was luckier than most of the other children. They, less manageable than Priscilla, were forced in chains or collars. Disobedience was punished harshly and she knew enough about it never to step out of line nor ask for anything she didn’t need. She had garnered quite a reputation as teacher's pet and so security was much more lenient. Yet, it was all she could do not to run away.
Today would not be like the others. Today, it didn’t matter how much effort she put in. Priscilla’s success was dependent entirely on another. You see, the keys that grant power are very picky about their owners. No Praetorian ever became what they were without being chosen. Even years after their creation, scientists still struggled to understand what it was that the keys desired in an individual. Perhaps, that’s what the tests were for.
Priscilla had already failed twice before. Once when she was eight and again when she was twelve. Both failures ranked highly in her library of scars. She still had nightmares about the faces, the looks of disappointment. What would happen if she failed again? They had put so many resources into her. She was to be great and the scientists of the Fifth Chapter were eager to see her blossom. Yet, that day simply hadn’t come. None of the keys created by man sung to her. She had been rejected and the pain of that bore a hole in her chest so deep that her heart lay bare.
Twenty four floors, she counted them as they traveled up the elevator. That’s how far underground her home was. Sometimes, when she was a good girl, they would take her up top to play in the gardens. Priscilla was one of the few they actually allowed to do that. She loved the sunlight as it rose and fell. Not today though. Today the sunlight was harsh and she squinted from the brightness that stung and caused her eyes to water. They emerged from an ordinary townhouse made of brick and stucco. To anyone outside the Fifth Chapter, it would appear a simple family home and Priscilla was just one of many children living under its roof. Never judge a book by its cover.
The car was already waiting for them. A limousine with tinted windows and surrounded by men in black suits. An uncommon sight in that neighborhood but one that only came once every four years.
“Eric, it’s been a while.” Came a voice as the back car door opened to reveal a younger man dressed in a white lab coat. Priscilla didn’t recognize him but she knew the red vestment he wore about his shoulders. This man was a chaplain of the Fifth Chapter, a high ranking official who rarely ever make public appearances. His presence meant that they expected results this time. She gripped the little doll in her pocket hard.
“Every year I get stuck babysitting these fucking children. This is not what I signed up for.” Dr. Bauer waved his hands at the other man dismissively.
For a moment, Priscilla caught a flash of anger across the dark eyes of the younger gentleman. It was easy to miss for the chaplain was good at concealing his true emotions. However, being addressed so blatantly with a lack of respect caused something inside to bubble out. It was this kind of emotion that Priscilla was good at reading.
“I would ask that you watch your language, Eric. These children are our future.” He turned ever so slightly to face Priscilla. “My dear, are you cold?” How silly a question to ask a girl standing in the wind with only her nightgown. Yet, in her anxiety, the cold had barely touched her.
“Please, we can talk on the way.” The chaplain ushered them aboard the limousine and Priscilla stepped from one prison cell to another.
How many times had she sat in a seat of luxury watching older men sip wine in a vehicle that may have been a moving hotel lobby? It was hard for her to believe that this was her third. She had been here so many times before in her nightmares. Every single time ended the same as the last, in failure. Yet, despite the weight of her anxiety, there was a glimmer of hope. If a key did choose her this time, Priscilla believed that even a hateful old man like Dr. Bauer would be proud of her. That very thought was how she found the courage to take the next step. That thought and her stalwart companion Edwin.
She reached into her pocket to make sure he was still there. The little doll was pressed snug against her thigh and the buttons she used for eyes pinched as she shifted uncomfortably in her seat. Edwin was the product of careful labor. She had constructed him from bits of cloth, discarded clothing, and straw that she had collected over a year. She worked in secret, using discarded pins and dental floss to sew. Priscilla made Edwin out of a desire to be loved not long after the keys had rejected her for a second time. For four years he had been with her and over that time she had given him a voice and a personality. He was not like the ones who tested her. No, he lived only for Priscilla’s happiness. After all, she had given him the greatest gift of all. She had given him life and, in return, he loved her unconditionally. She was his mother and that thought made her beam with pride.
Together, they drove deep within a port city of the Warcadian empire. For two hours she listened to Dr. Bauer and the Chaplain discuss matters she could scarce understand. They paid her very little attention so assured in her captivity. They weren’t wrong of course. Priscilla would never do anything to upset them and instead spent her time with her nose pressed firmly against the windows.
The world outside was amazing to her. She had read much about the history of Midgard and the mighty continent of Pangea. Yet, seeing it for herself made her realize that the books simply couldn’t do it justice. Being so close to the ocean, you could see the maelstrom Charybdis. Charybdis was an unending storm that embodied such intense power that the very ocean itself rose up like a pyramid to meet the point at which it began. A structure made entirely of seawater towered miles into the atmosphere and the clouds, which were as black as night, worked in reverse spinning into a vicious cyclone. The storm itself, although many hundreds of miles away, whipped up winds that could sweep a grown man from his feet.
Charybdis was an example of mankind's failure and why the Praetorians were such a necessity to life. You see, the storm itself was caused by a fracture in space and time. The point at which both water and clouds met was a gateway of limitless power. A wound in the fabric of reality caused by man's desire to travel through time. It was that desire that destabilized their world and caused rifts, just like Charybdis, to appear within Midgard and not all of them brought storms. Priscilla had read about monsters too. Before the creation of the Praetorian houses, the world was torn asunder by these Prism Gates. The Fifth Chapter was founded to seal away the rifts but those days were all but a thing of the past. When the Praetorians were born, the rift crisis had ended. Charybdis was a churning reminder of their past and proof of the chaos that was now a permanent part of human history.
The legacy of mending the void and safeguarding the realm was to be hers, that’s what she had been told. Yet, after several years of rejection, she wasn’t sure if she still believed them. In the distance, she caught a glimpse of the Praetorians power. Within the port city of Sidra, great pillars of light rose from the earth like skyscrapers. If you looked hard, you could see past the bright light and into another city halfway across the globe. These stable gates linked places all across Midgard together. You could live in Sidra as a member of the empire and work on the other side of the globe as a professor in the Confederacy. A Praetorian’s power, after all, wasn’t just limited to shutting gates, they could open them as well. Travel keys had the power to link two points on Midgard together by bending space. These were the most common keys and their power, while great, was limited. The further the distance, the harder it was for a travel key to form a stable gate. That was the biggest difference between travel keys and realm keys.
Realm keys were the rarest instruments of all. These tools were not limited to short distances and could open gates many light years away. Planetary travel was possible with the creation of these tools but it also opened the door for a new technological wonder of the modern world, the Augur.
High above the cityscape of Sidra and well beyond the reach of the maelstrom Charybdis was an orbiting city rivaled only by the moon itself. Although much of it was hidden by day, you could still make out the glowing city lights that penetrated the blue sky. By nightfall, this enormous space station was clearly visible just opposite the moon. Upon that structure was the very heart of the Fifth Chapter, a sentient AI called the Cathedral that controlled the cyberspace of Midgard. In the city of Sidra, you could hear the singing bell towers that rang in tune with the beating heart of the Cathedral. The SkyCity Augur was her destination.
Priscilla tried her best not to look up at the sky. She knew her destination even before this journey began. As they entered the city, they drove away from the heavy traffic that rode bumper to bumper through the glowing gates. They did not seek to go with the masses and instead took roads rarely traveled. Their destination was a lonely bar on the corner of a dark forgotten street. The sign that read “Ravens clutch” hung at an angle its light flashing on and off next to a shattered window. Trash lined the corners with men and women sleeping in the streets. This was not a place for young children or people of distinction. Yet, this was all an act. This bar was a nerve-center for operatives seeking entrance to the Augur. Those who slept in the streets were not homeless and nor were they helpless. Never once did their eyes leave the vehicle or those within.
“I will see what I can do Eric but I cannot make any promises for a promotion. For now, I expect you to behave as a man befitting your station.” The Chaplain rose to his feet taking Dr. Bauer’s hand before he could leave the vehicle. “Oh, and Eric, to put this in terms you will understand if I don’t see results this time I will make sure that the next job you hold will be scrubbing toilets at the local strip club.” The smile he gave chilled Priscilla to her core as Dr. Bauer wrenched his hands away and left the car. The Chaplain then turned to help her to her feet. “You wouldn’t want to disappoint me this time would you dear?” He left his question unanswered pulling a jacket from beneath his seat and wrapping it around her shoulders as if to hug her. “My dear sweet girl, even if you don’t hear the whispers just grab a key this time, maybe you’ll be lucky.” The Chaplain pushed her from the vehicle slamming the door behind them before the car rode away.
Priscilla stood in the streets shocked moments before Dr. Bauer grabbed hold of her hand and pulled her along into the bar. He was shouting something at her but she never heard a single word. Overall the years that she had been alive, never once had she been threatened. Priscilla knew exactly what the Chaplain was hinting at. Should she fail, better to commit suicide than wait for what he had in store for her. She was so afraid that her arms shook and her knees buckled. There was no turning back now, she had passed the point of no return.
Within the bar, there were no fake walls, moving bookcases, or hidden elevators. There were only those who knew who belonged and who did not. All eyes were on Dr. Bauer as he revealed his identification and spoke in hidden tongue. Taken by hand, Priscilla was lead into a back room with only a single stool, four white walls, and a lantern that swung from the ceiling. Here in this cell, Priscilla met a Praetorian for the third time in her life.
She was a younger woman in her mid-twenties with long white hair and who wore a dress embroidered with the emblem of a fire breathing dragon. That emblem meant she belonged to the house of the dragon which was owned by the empire. It should come as no surprise that Praetorians remained slaves even after attaining power. They were simply too dangerous to be allowed to roam free and this young woman wore a collar about her neck armed to explode. Her sad blue eyes told more of a tale than her words ever could. She was a woman who had once been proud and independent long beaten into submission without a shred of bravery left to carry her past the door. This was what happened when you disobeyed. Priscilla hoped that, if chosen, her fate would be different. Yet, she was looking at what was supposed to be her future for in that young woman’s arms was a stave as tall as she. A stave that bore the blade and handle of a key. A stave that shone a golden hue with individual pieces spinning of their own accord. This was no ordinary travel key, this was a realm key.
What came next was not at all like the books said. Priscilla knew that a key needed a door and, with a single piece of black chalk, that young woman drew one upon the empty white walls. Not a second past after the last line was drawn before the air became charged. It was like rubbing your feet across a carpet and feeling the energy build up at the tips of your fingers. This power radiated from a single source. Arcs of blue lightning ran across the surface of the realm key and coiled about that woman’s hands as if vipers. She was a weaver knitting an invisible quilt of power around the door she had drawn. Soon the very air around Priscilla began to warp and the black outline of that imaginary door melted away until only a gate of light remained.
Rift travel was once described as being a jarring and horrifying experience. Priscilla had read about the first rift walkers who traveled the realms beyond unstable gates. They were relics of an ancient past and their experiences simply couldn’t be applied today. Walking through a stable gate was no more difficult than going through an open door. Guided by hand, Priscilla walked from the wooden floors of that derelict bar to the metal hallways of the sky city Augur. When the gate closed shut behind them, Priscilla’s time had come.
The other doctors were already waiting for them when they arrived. Twelve other children were grouped together in halls that were as busy as a crowded mall. Scientists from all across the world came to the Augur to conduct studies on space travel and to assist in the development of new and powerful keys. This place, after all, was a vault that stored the instruments awaiting their masters. Masters that might be found amongst the children there.
This was a smaller group from years past and Priscilla was the oldest candidate. Surprisingly, the children were mostly boys. This was an unusual decision as it was well known that the keys preferentially chose women over men in a 3:1 ratio. Something was different this time around and that did little to settle her nerves. Although, it was nice to have her hand freed of Dr. Bauer who instead walked alongside the group of children with his colleagues like they were corralling sheep into a pen.
Priscilla ignored the voices of awe coming from the other kids as they passed the windows looking down on the realm of Midgard. She too was once like them when she first walked those halls. Just a curious little girl seeing her planet for the first time. A great blue gem set upon by endless darkness pierced by countless lights from distant stars. That was a sight to see but Priscilla was blind to it now. Anxiety crushed any ounce of curiosity she had and so she walked stone-faced and unflinching before God’s masterpiece. There was a part of her that envied the other kids who had yet tasted the sting of failure. Most of them had never been through this type of test before. Most of them didn’t know how easy this one was to fail.
They never traveled far into the Augur. The Praetorians always opened gates near the testing chambers so very few detours were necessary. The testing room itself was no bigger than a middle school science lab and had windows all around like an aquarium. Inside the room were twelve keys set in pedestals and each radiated power that caused light to bend around them. All keys were unique in shape no matter the type and the only thing they physically shared in common was their size. Each stood as tall if not taller than Priscilla herself who was just shy of five foot ten.
“Good afternoon children.” Priscilla recognized the voice of Dr. Nordstrom right away. She was an elderly woman with a kind disposition and who visited facilities all across the world including Priscilla’s home. As far as she knew, Dr. Nordstrom was a caretaker of children and an overseer of their welfare. On the surface, she was a grandmotherly character with silver hair and a tongue to match. Those less suspicious would come to love her but Priscilla saw things that others often missed. There was a darkness in Dr. Nordstrom’s eyes that betrayed her nature. In truth, she was the Chaplain in charge of all experiments involving adolescents and was directly responsible for the mistreatment of children like Priscilla. Yet, her character was so strong that all it took was a smile and her gentle touch to melt any suspicion away. That is what made her good at her job.
“I have heard so much about your progress. You’ve been a very good girl.” Dr. Nordstrom leaned over pinching her cheek. Priscilla blushed bright red as a crowd of boys snickered in the corner. “Make me proud today girl.” She whispered to her quietly before stepping away to address the group. “Y-yes ma'am.” Priscilla nervously choked out as her heart beat skyrocketed.
The demonstration before the joining ceremony was always the same. Children, especially the younger ones, had to be shown that the keys were not toys. You were never allowed to approach an instrument that didn’t call you first. Dr. Nordstrom explained that the keys were alive and that you would know if you were chosen. However, words were never enough, and so a demonstration was performed. Behind the glass windows, the children watched as a manikin was pushed headfirst into a travel key. The very second that human doll touched the golden metal it burst into a brilliant blue flame that raged until only ashes remained. That is what happened to those who weren't compatible. In other words, if you lie about the calling and touch a key out of desire, you will die.
One demonstration was enough to put the fear of God in every child present. Many of the younger boys began to cry and had to be forced into the chamber. Priscilla didn’t blame them. She was scared too. When the time came, she stepped into the room with the others and began her last examination.
The test itself was actually quite simple. All she had to do was sit with the other boys around the keys. This was not a physical nor was it an intellectual examination. If anything, this was a test of patience as the keys bided their time taking their measure. The test was over if you either heard the calling or were left unanswered after two hours. Priscilla was hoping for the former and, this time, she would not simply wait idly for the calling and tried to make herself a more appealing candidate. To this end, she singled out a key and, silently, tried to call to it.
The instrument she chose had a handle that looked like a clover with a cross-shaped pattern cut as an opening and towards the blade end of the stave were three intricate prongs with an ivy pattern winding about the metal. Just like the other eleven, it shown with a golden hue that warped unnaturally along both ends of the tool. Priscilla took in as much detail as she could and then, in her head, she spoke to it.
Her conversations were ridiculous at first. Priscilla, after all, was not a paragon of social experiences and so asked the unresponsive key how its day was and if it had any friends. After a few minutes passed, she was unable to coax out a reply. Disappointed, she changed tactics. Instead, she began complementing the key’s golden aura or the beauty of its intricate carvings. Surely it would respond to that. It didn’t. No matter how hard she pressed, the key would not call to her. After thirty minutes, and several attempts on different keys, Priscilla broke out into a cold sweat and started to panic. This examination was turning out just like the others.
It was at that moment that she heard cries of victory coming from a boy just opposite of her. “I can hear it! I can hear it!!” The little boy shouted over and over as the doctors surrounded him demanding to know which of the keys was calling. He pointed to the very one that Priscilla herself had singled out at the very beginning of the test. She had been completely ignored in favor of another.
None of the other kids actually got to see the joining. The boy was quickly taken from the room and the key was packaged away using a metal alloy called orsinium. This metal was only substance on Midgard that could touch the keys unharmed. The boys joining would occur far from prying eyes and, if the bonding was successful, he would become a Praetorian at only eight years of age.
Jealousy was a hard emotion for Priscilla to control. She couldn’t help but feel envy and rage boil inside. An untested boy had just succeeded where she failed. She, who had spent the last eight years in training since the first examination, still couldn’t succeed at something that she had been raised to believe was her destiny. It wasn’t fair and so Priscilla lashed out at the remaining keys. In her head, she screamed so loud that her nose bled from the effort. Yet, even this went unnoticed and soon her anger drained away into sadness. She couldn’t be like Dr. Bauer, such wrath was against her nature and it made her sick. Just another scar to add to her library. In the end, she spent the last few minutes in silence with nothing left to say.
Only one child heard calling during the examination. The others would likely return again in four years but Priscilla would not. It was extremely rare for a key to select a host beyond the age of sixteen. As such, she would be removed from the program. There wasn’t a moment that passed that she hadn’t thought about the Chaplains earlier threat. It would have been so simple to have reached out, touched a key, and ended it all. Yet, Priscilla was too afraid. She would have rather faced an unknown punishment than the certainty of death. This failure would not be easily forgotten but she would never have to go through that test again and, perhaps, that was something to be celebrated.
In a moment of absent thought, she took the little doll Edwin from the pockets of her gown beneath the jacket that had grown so heavy. She stroked the straw hair upon his head before whispering in his ear. “I’m sorry, I failed…” Priscilla never expected the blow that came next.
Overcome with rage, Dr. Bauer punched her stomach so hard it knocked the wind from her lungs and laid her flat upon the ground. Her head bounced across the tiles and she choked on air before vomiting all over the floor. Edwin never made a sound falling softly by her side. Nobody tried to stop Dr. Bauer as he struck her over and over until her face swelled and her front teeth shattered. Priscilla saw the anger in his eyes and came to realize that her failure was likely an end to his career. You see, her home hadn’t produced a Praetorian in over twenty years and was on the verge of collapse. They had spent too many resources to get a hold of a childlike Priscilla with a strong lineage in Praetorian blood. Yet, she had failed them.
There was a part of her that wanted to stay strong. A part that looked Dr. Bauer in the eye and refused to give him the satisfaction of her anguish. Yet, the pain was too much and she cried out for him to stop. He did, only to catch his breath and listen to her whimper. It was at that moment that he did something to Priscilla that all the pain in the world couldn’t achieve. Dr. Bauer took the doll at her side and threw it into one of the travel keys.
Edwin, the companion she had crafted with such love and care, was engulfed in a brilliant blue flame that left only ash. Priscilla watched unable to cry out her chest heaving in pain from cracked ribs. Something inside of her snapped as she saw that little doll turn to dust. Something that had been suppressed so deep inside that only suffering could dig it out. For the first time in her life, Priscilla wished to kill someone. “Die!!!” She screamed that word over and over ignoring the pain and slamming her fists on the floor covered in her fluids. That’s when she heard the voice.
“Look at you little girl. How blind deaf and dumb you were. Look at how beautiful you have become. Didn’t you know that I can taste pain? I’m ready to make a deal with one so full of flavor.” The voice was as deep as the deepest cavern and spoke in tongue only she could understand.
“Who are you? W-what do y-you want.” She spat out her voice shaking as Dr. Bauer stopped just short of another blow. “I have no name until a contract is drawn. My price is your pain and your gift is my power. Follow my words so that a deal may be struck.” The voice came again stronger than before and reverberated through every fiber of her being.
Priscilla saw a chance to end her punishment and took it without hesitation. “I hear it.” She crocked. “It’s speaking to me.” For a moment the entire room fell silent with Dr. Bauer frozen in time a fist aimed at her bruised cheeks. “You better not be lying to me girl.” His words were lost on a child at the brink of collapse. Priscilla closed her eyes giving in to exhaustion when he shook her violently and the pain forced her back. “Which of the keys damnit! Which one is speaking to you!” He shouted raising his hand to slap her.
“That is enough Dr. Bauer!” Dr. Nordstrom finally intervened proving once and for all the truth of her nature. She would have let him beat her to death if not for the voice. The value of her life depended on this moment. “Which of the keys do you hear.” She spoke in a gentle voice stroking her bruised cheeks.
Priscilla looked around the room trying to identify which of the instruments was calling to her but none appeared to stand out. Priscilla reached for the voice in her head. “Your life depends on my cooperation? I won’t allow one so delicious to die. Your worth is lost on useless theatre props. I am far greater than those you prostrate before. Follow my words, you know the way.” After the voice vanished, she did know the way. It was hard for her to explain, but her mind was filled with direction and purpose.
“It isn’t here.” She whispered to Dr. Nordstrom. “It’s there.” With one shaking hand, she pointed outside of the room and down a crowded corridor. Though she didn’t yet know why her words stirred excitement amongst the doctors there. Dr. Bauer lifted Priscilla up into his arms and carried her the rest of the way.
Few things in life are more painful than having to rely on whom you hate, but Priscilla was too exhausted to hate, too tired to be sad and afraid. It took everything she had not to drift off forever into the dark place. The pain helped and Dr. Bauer would tap her cheek every time she dozed off.
“That exquisite taste. You grow lovelier by the minute. Come closer girl, tell me your name.” The voice in her head guided them to places she had never seen before. Places never meant for prying eyes. Within the SkyCity Augur were vats of fluid and tissue from things not quite human and test chambers that controlled the power of sentient machines.
“You’re close now. Can’t you feel it? The pleasure within grows. Surrender yourself so we may be one.” Priscilla could feel it, a growing warmth within her chest as if she were protected in the arms of a mother she desperately desired but never asked for. That feeling filled her with strength and she gave herself to it unable to resist the temptation of power.
“That’s it, now reach out and find me.” The room that contained the voice was not at all like the testing chambers before. There were no windows here and the armed guards out front tried to stop them. They argued about how the keys were untested and not ready but Dr. Nordstrom would have none of it. They had gathered quite a crowd behind them of chatting men and women. There was excitement in the air, this was no ordinary bonding.
Inside that sealed room were four keys unlike anything she had ever seen before. Though they were the same size and made of the same twisting puzzle box metal as those before, these staves were silver, not gold. Furthermore, you could see straight through them like they were phantoms. It was as if one part existed in their reality and the other did not. These were neither travel nor realm keys, these were era keys.
She heard the name whispered behind her but they were quickly silenced. “Which of the keys is calling to you?” Again Dr. Nordstrom asked her and, this time, she could give her a proper answer. The stave furthest to the right was the source of the warmth that took away Priscilla’s pain. That key had an ordinary shape with a simple cut oval opening at the handle and one prong with two branching ears towards the blade end. The metal, that which was visible, was smooth with no carvings cut along its length. Her stave was simple but, to her, it was beautiful.
They laid her down before the key and, when the others stepped well away, the bonding ritual began. “If you wish to be freed from your situation, do as I say and speak as I do.” The voice caressed her mind and she nodded obediently. “Place your hands upon my flesh.” The era key commanded and so Priscilla reached out to touch the silvery metal.
At first, she thought her hands would pass right through the phantom key and, in a moment of fear, she hesitated. Flashes of what happened to Edwin and the manikin reminded her of how dangerous the instruments were. “I will not harm you girl. If you do not take my offer, they will kill you.” The voice was right, she had no choice.
Surprisingly, her hand came to rest on solid metal despite the keys appearance and, in a flash, her pain all but vanished. “Now, tell me your name.” The voice called to her and she found that she could stand once again. “My name is Priscilla.” her voice echoed around the room as if it were empty. “W-what is your name?” Her question, for a moment, went unanswered.
“I am your sheep, you are my shepherd. I Edwin agree to this.” The voice declared. “If you accept me as I am, repeat these words with your name and complete the contract. However, know that I am required by law to speak the truth and so I give you this warning. Your certain death may be preferable to the suffering of your uncertain future.” With that, the key awaited her answer. Priscilla needed no time to decide. After all, anything was better than her life as it was. “I am your sheep, you are my shepherd. I Priscilla agree to this.”
It’s often said that pain is a relative term and that experiencing the greater allows one to endure the lesser but, for Priscilla, no pain was greater than that of the bonding. The warmth that had once cradled her in temptation had been replaced with needles that forced themselves out from within. Every nerve in her body screamed as her skin crawled from the muscles that spasmed beneath. She fell to her knees in agony as pins were forced from the tears in her eyes. The pain became so great that she collapsed unconscious into sweet darkness.
For weeks afterward, Priscilla slipped in and out of consciousness never know where or when she was. Each time she woke, the searing pain returned and only sedation could alleviate it. Yet, her dreams were no safe haven. In her unconsciousness, she met face to face with the familiar called Edwin. A greatly bloated corpse of a whale with blood red eyes and a body covered in calcified barnacles. It was a being straight out of her nightmares. “Why are you doing this to me!” She shouted at it but the response was always the same. “You have to be remade Priscilla, I shall not allow your mortality to damn us.” No matter how much she cursed or pleaded, nothing could stop what came next.
Was it a month or a year that passed before she could wake without pain? Priscilla didn’t know and she didn’t care. For the first time in a long time, she opened her eyes and didn’t cry out. The pain was gone and she felt as light as a feather. She found herself in a hospital bed dressed in a loose-fitting gown with a needle in her left arm administering a clear fluid. On a table close by, she found the era key propped up by an Orsinium sleeve keeping anyone safe from touching it. As a Praetorian, only she was safe in its presence.
It was then that she noticed what was happening to her right arm. Just like the era key Edwin, her arm had faded and she could see straight through to the bed underneath. In a panic, she tore the sheets from her lap and lept to the floor. Yet, her legs were weak and she fell face first onto the tiles tearing the needle from her arm. The entire room was filled with a flatline that had once beeped softly to the rhythm of her heart. As Priscilla tried to regain her composure, she noticed her face in a two-way mirror. She couldn’t recognize herself. There was once a softness to her features that was now all gone. Her jawline had squared and her cheekbones were sharp which brought her attention to something else that wasn’t right. Her hair, once black as night, was as white as snow and her eyes red like blood. She screamed unable to recognize the woman she had become. However, Priscilla hadn’t anytime left as, before she knew it, nurses surrounded her pinning her to the ground as she thrashed wildly.
“No! No! What have you done to me?” She cried out as a sharp pain pierced her thigh and her body went numb. A nurse she didn’t recognize lifted her back onto the bed as she clung to wakefulness like the edge of a cliff. “Please… no… he’s waiting… in that place.” Priscilla had trouble forming the words that slipped clumsily from her lips. “Shhh rest now. It’ll be better in the morning.” The nurse spoke but she was already sound asleep by the time the needle was put back in her arm.
Priscilla spent a long time trapped within her own mind. Like all Praetorians before her, she was visited by the living conscience of the key she was bound to. A familiar that took form only after a deal was struck. The bloated whale Edwin waited for her in her dreams. It spoke very little in the time of her changing and, even when it did, her questions were seldom answered. After a while, she became used to its presence. As frightening as it was, it was no more a threat to her than she was to herself. They had a contract and were bound as one. Her dreams were never the same after that. After all, she was awake during them and could never forget even in the real world.
She slipped in and out of her dreams for the weeks that followed and was never awake for long. Sometimes she stirred to arguments amongst the doctors and tried to piece what they were saying together. Priscilla was suffering from something called the vanishing which was related to the era keys. In her time there, the other three keys had bound masters and all of them were fading away from the disease. Whatever else they discussed she couldn’t understand.
The last time she woke in that hospital, the room was empty save for one woman. Dr. Nordstrom sat close by stone-faced and empty of emotion. As the last of Priscilla’s strength ebbed away, she tried to lift her gown slightly to see if her body remained but her arms were as ephemeral as smoke. In a pleading gesture, she looked towards Dr. Nordstrom phantom tears passing through the sheets. “Was I… Was I…” Priscilla couldn’t get the question out her words falling flat. In one smooth motion, Dr. Nordstrom stood and tried to touch her cheeks. “Yes, you were a good girl.” With that, Priscilla smiled fading from the world leaving only garments behind.