Elias Bouchard realizes three things simultaneously: He is definitely no longer in Artifact Storage, people are shouting at him, and he is stone cold sober.
He pats himself down in search of a joint and realizes belatedly that he’s wearing a suit. It’s crisp and well-pressed, made of an expensive-feeling wool. He’s wearing a tie. Elias hadn’t even worn a tie to his interview, just shook out some of the wrinkles in his “formal occasions” button down (the only solid-colored shirt he owns) and called it a day. He wouldn’t be caught dead in a suit, especially in a sensible navy blue.
It’s not his first clue that something is terribly wrong, but it’s definitely up there.
He yanks the tie off of his throat, briefly considers tying it around his head, and stuffs it into a pocket instead. Some of the shouting stops then, though a thin, tired-looking man with glasses and grey-streaked hair hasn’t so much as paused for breath. He sounds very agitated, yelling something about rituals and crowns and also maybe the end of the world?
It’s way too fast for Elias to actually understand. He shoves the sleeves of the suit jacket up his forearms and goes for the shirt sleeves too, but there are actual cufflinks in the way. They’re little silver eyes, probably also expensive. Elias fiddles with them for a moment and then gives up, putting his hands up. “Hey, uh,” he says, going for nonthreatening, “what the fuck is going on?”
That seems to stop glasses short. He opens and closes his mouth a few times, brow furrowed, and the stout woman in a hijab beside him pinches the bridge of her nose. She sighs. “What do you remember?”
What Elias remembers is curling up in the armchair down in Artifact Storage that has definitely eaten people but doesn’t seem to like the taste of him. He’d taken a probably-counterfeit Leitner, intending to do a quick perusal and then take a nap. Maybe have a smoke after if there was any day left.
This does not seem like it would go over well, particularly with glasses. He seems like the sort to get really judgy about appropriate use of institute resources.
“I was, uh, cataloging artifacts,” he says instead, which has the benefit of being technically true in a manner of speaking. “Y’know, in Artifact Storage? Where I work? No idea how I got here.” He gives hijab two thumbs up and a grin, which only makes glasses splutter more.
“This has to be a trick,” glasses says eventually, having regained the power of speech. “I don’t know what you’re trying to pull, Elias--”
“I’m not trying to pull anything!” Elias protests. Glasses looks, if possible, even more stressed out by that, and Elias wishes he could offer to chill him out a little. It’s probably not worth the risk of glasses going even more paranoid, but Elias is starting to feel a little nervous himself now, and he could really do with a hit. “I was in Artifact Storage, and now I’m here. Where is here, by the way?”
Hijab gives him a flat look. “Are you serious? You don’t know?”
“No?” says Elias. He takes a proper look around now - he’s in some kind of stone room, probably underground, judging by the damp chill that hangs in the air. He’s stood on a raised dais in the center of the chamber, which has a crude eye carved into it. Glasses is just at the edge of the dais, like he’d been standing on it too and stepped off. A little ways behind him are hijab and a wiry blonde woman who looks like she’s about to keel over.
Elias turns, looking for some kind of exit from this spooky basement. Behind him, there’s an implausible wooden door set in the bare stone, yellow paint peeling around the study metal handle. Beside it, there’s an archway in the stone. On the ground, there are two still figures, one a young woman and the other an older man with matted facial hair. Something copper-colored and wet seeps out from underneath them.
“Holy shit,” Elias says, whipping back around. “Are they dead?”
The blonde woman shrugs. Elias takes this to mean 1. yes and 2. the blonde is the one that killed them. He takes a step backwards, which takes him unfortunately closer to the bodies but further away from the apparently homicidal blonde.
“We’re underneath the Institute,” hijab says, apparently willing to just skate right over the whole fresh corpses thing, which Elias thinks maybe deserves a little more scrutiny. “In the tunnels?”
“There are tunnels underneath the Institute?” Elias says, horror momentarily supplanted by curiosity. There are probably no smoke alarms in subterranean tunnels.
“They’re part of the old Millbank prison,” glasses says. He looks very tired now, like all the shouting had really taken it out of him. Elias can sympathize - he never did get that nap. Actually, he sort of feels like he hasn’t had a nap - or a proper night’s sleep - in a long, long time. “But you do - you know who you are, right?”
“Sure,” says Elias. He’d only been high enough to forget him own name that one time, and there were extenuating circumstances. “Elias Bouchard. I’m a practical researcher. I think Janice is technically my supervisor?”
“Okay,” says glasses, “that rules out a couple of different types of amnesia. I take it you don’t know who I am?”
“Not a clue,” Elias says cheerily.
“Jonathan Sims?” glasses says, like that’s supposed to mean something. “Jon? The Archivist?”
“Oh shit, what happened to Gertie?”
Gertie, mouths glasses, nonplussed. Hijab just stares. “...You shot her.”
Elias frowns. He’s pretty sure he would remember something like that. “I don’t think so. Wouldn’t I be in jail for that?”
“Yes,” hijab says testily. “Yes, you should.”
“So what am I doing here?”
Hijab throws her hands up in the air. “I wish I knew, Elias! I really wish I knew!”
Glasses - Jon, apparently - scrubs a hand through his hair. “Okay, let’s - let’s maybe have this discussion upstairs. Whatever was going to happen obviously didn’t, so we should be fine in the Archives. As far as I know, it’s only the Stranger’s ritual than can be restarted immediately, so the Beholding shouldn’t have another shot at it.”
Those are certainly some words that Elias knows individually, but he’s pretty sure he’s missing something big about how they’re supposed to fit together. “And what are we going to do about, uh…” He jerks his thumb over his shoulder towards the corpses. He has a suspicion it will not involve calling the police, which he’s pretty sure is what you’re supposed to do if you find a dead body. Probably it’s a little different if you caused the dead body. He’s seen movies.
“I seriously doubt anyone will be able to find this place again,” hijab says. “Not if you’re really - mind wiped or whatever.”
“Which begs the question of how we’re going to get back,” Jon says. “The way we came?”
“I don’t think we have a choice.” Hijab strides past Elias, giving the bodies a wide berth, and raps at the yellow door. After a moment, it creaks open to reveal a woman who sort of looks like an estate agent, only there’s something wrong with her eyes. Her face doesn’t make sense, and her hands are - it’s weird, whatever it is. The Magnus Institute is weird.
“Hello,” the estate agent says pleasantly. “Return trip?”
“If you would be so kind,” Jon says.
The estate agent steps aside, pushing the door open the rest of the way. Beyond it is a dimly lit corridor. It’s carpeted, and there are mirrors hanging every few feet on the walls. It doesn’t look like the same building as the stone room, but maybe it’s a late addition. He follows Jon, hijab, and the blonde through the door. It closes behind them, and the estate agent moves past to take the lead.
She pauses beside Elias, peering at him curiously. “How interesting,” she says, tilting her head more than should be possible. “It seems your master has abandoned you.”
“I mean, Gertie was my boss and she’s apparently not around anymore, so…”
The estate agent smiles with too many teeth. “If this one is no longer useful to you,” she says to Jon, “I’d be more than happy to take him off your hands. It would be so… fascinating… to find out how long he’d last in my corridors.”
“Uh,” says Elias. He’s pretty sure he doesn’t want whatever that means, especially when he glances at her reflection in the mirror behind her and her fingers stretch out long and sharp like knives. He’s seen his fair share of spooky shit in Artifact Storage since he’s working for the Magnus Institute, but he’s usually way too high to be afraid of it.
Sobriety fucking sucks.
HIjab gives Elias a considering look. “Actually -” she starts, and Jon cuts her off with a sharp, “Basira!” that Elias takes to be her name.
“No thank you,” Jon says to the estate agent in a clipped tone, eyes still narrowed at Basira. “We’ll take him with us.”
“He did kill two people,” hijab - Basira - points out. “At least. And prison clearly can’t keep him locked up.”
“Two people?” Elias yelps. “At least?! No way, man, there’s no way I’m a murderer. You must have me confused with someone else.”
“Yes,” says Jon dryly. “I rather think we might.” He turns back to Basira. “Let’s find out what he does or doesn’t know first. As for what to do with him after…”
Elias frowns. He doesn’t appreciate being talked about like he’s not in the room. “I’m standing right here, you know. I can hear you.”
Jon and Basira turn to him in unison. “Shut up, Elias,” they both say, as if they’ve had some practice at it. Which is fair. Gertie had managed to distill “shut up Elias” into a single harsh glance after a while.
The estate agent gives Elias a lingering, vaguely hungry look that sends a shiver down his spine and then continues past him. “Very well,” she says, and starts off down the corridor.
This set of corridors is, to Elias’s extremely keen eye, really fucking weird. The mirrors all look empty, but if he pauses to look at his own reflection, it’s like he can see through them into more corridors like this one, full of people wandering aimlessly. After about the sixth consecutive right turn, Elias realizes they must be lost because they’re definitely going in circles.
He’s about to bring it up when they round one more corner and come up against another door, the same faded yellow as the previous one. It opens into the Archives, right into Gertie’s office. Well, Jon’s office now, Elias supposes.
The estate agent ushers them out, and her gaze lingers on Elias. “Offer’s still open if you change your mind,” she says. Jon gives her a flat look, and she shrugs before heading back into the corridor. And then… then the door is gone, like it was never there, leaving behind a bare patch of wall.
Elias really, really needs a cigarette.
“Do you need me to stick around?” The blonde says in a low voice to Basira. “In case he--”
Basira shakes her head. “I think we can handle it,” she says, and the blonde skitters away.
“I doubt he’ll be much of a threat at the moment anyway,” Jon says, which Elias would be a little offended by if they didn’t seem so convinced that he’d killed two people, at least.
“Do you know that?” Basira says. She puts an odd little emphasis on the word ‘know’, like it’s code for something.
Jon considers it. “Yes, actually,” he says after a moment. “Helen was right; it’s like the Beholding is just… gone from him.”
“Is that a good thing, you think? Like is he still… the ‘beating heart’ or whatever?”
“There’s really only the one way to find out,” Jon says, “but I don’t think we should try it.”
“What if you, you know, ask him. Do your thing, eat his brain.”
“Hey now!” Elias interjects. His mind had been wandering to whether the little baggie of weed he’d stashed in the drawer of a spooky desk down in Artifact Storage is still there, but potential brain eating is something of an attention grabber. He definitely doesn’t want anyone to eat his brain, especially considering he’s still using it for being alive and stuff. “Do not do that, man; that is not cool.”
Jon ignores him. “What, so that’s okay when you need information? What happened to not giving the Eye what it wants?”
“We can just kill him if you’d rather.”
Elias lets out a high pitched sound that is definitely not a shriek, thank you very much. His gaze darts to the office door, but Basira and Jon are both standing in the way of it. “I really don’t think that’s necessary, guys. I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.”
“Very well,” Jon says, but he’s not looking at Elias. He sinks down into the chair at the desk and adjusts his glasses. There’s a click, like the sound of a tape recorder turning on, and then he says, “Statement of Elias Bouchard, regarding his time at the Magnus Institute. Statement taken direct.” He looks up now to meet Elias’s eyes. “Elias. What do you remember?”
The question… tingles. It’s not entirely unpleasant, but questions are not supposed to tingle, not when regular people ask them. Part of him would like to protest whatever weird magic shit Gertie’s replacement is doing to him, but what comes out of his mouth is, “So I just barely scraped by in uni, right? Got a couple of dead-end jobs, bounced around a bit ‘til I applied to the Magnus Institute, ‘cause who doesn’t want to find ghosts and shit.”
He sits down. He gives a statement. He can’t seem to stop talking - words just keep pouring out of his mouth, like when he’s high and off on a ramble, but more coherent than Elias thought himself capable of. When he’s finished telling it, even the part about the armchair and the nap, Jon is wearing a contented expression, like he’s just finished a good meal.
Elias is pretty sure he’s the meal.
“Anyway,” Elias says. “Can I maybe get some answers now?” This is probably the longest he’s been sober since primary school, and he does not care for it. “What the hell is going on? Why don’t I remember who you are or what happened to Gertie?”
“I suspect it has something to do with that book you found,” Jon says. “It… changed you. And now that change appears to have been undone.”
“What, so some book just body snatched me?” Elias has had his fair share of nights that disappeared into hazy static the next morning, but like, that’s what alcohol is supposed to do, and he usually remembers drinking it at least. “That’s fucking rude.”
“Quite,” Jon says dryly.
"What are the odds that book is still in his office," Basira says, and Elias starts. He’d forgotten about her, caught up in Jon’s focused gaze. There’s just something about his eyes… He’s attractive in a hot librarian sort of way and also in a rugged, scarred kind of way. It’s too bad he’s probably an Eldritch monster person.
“Probably pretty good,” Jon says, shifting his gaze to Basira. “He won’t have wanted anyone else to get ahold of it.”
“Him who?” It sounds like they’re talking about him right in front of him again, but Elias definitely does not have an office. He’s pretty sure he doesn’t even have a desk, and if he does, he definitely doesn’t spend any time at it.
Jon and Basira continue to ignore him. “Might as well have a look.” Jon pushes up from the chair and gives Elias an expectant look.
“What?” Elias says.
Basira just rolls her eyes and reaches for Elias’s wrist. “Come on,” she says, and drags him along behind her out of the office.
They head up to James’s office. Basira shoots Jon a questioning look, and Jon shakes his head, so she pushes the door open. Elias makes to follow them when he spots the placard next to the door frame. What it’s supposed to say, what Elias remembers it saying, is “James Wright, Director.”
It does not say “James Wright, Director.”
It does not say “James Wright, Director” because it says instead, in a sensible sans serif font, “Elias Bouchard, Director”.
“Uh?” Elias manages in a squeaky voice, gesturing vaguely at the placard. He pokes his head into the room. “Hey guys, am I the fucking director of the Magnus Institute? Oh my god, did I get a raise? Is there a parking spot?”
Jon and Basira share a look. “It’s complicated,” Basira says eventually. “A lot’s happened in the last twenty years.”
Elias wishes desperately for some kind of intoxicant, and he’s no longer especially picky about what kind. He’ll even take that terrible, skunky weed that Mikey tried to sell him when his regular dealer was out. Twenty years. Sure, Elias hadn’t thought too much about his future, had imagined himself continuing basically as he always had, but still. Twenty years.
“Wait,” Ellias says slowly. “So… I’m basically a time traveler.”
Jon and Basira share another look, longer this time. Eyebrows are involved.
“Sure,” Basira says with a mixture of exasperation and dismissiveness that even Gertie would be hard pressed to beat. Not that Gertie would ever get the chance, since apparently Elias shot her. Or whatever hijacked Elias’s body shot her, anyway.
James’s office does not look anything like what Elias remembers, which makes sense considering it’s apparently Elias’s office, and also it’s been twenty years. There’s a silver sci fi-looking thing sat on the desk - his computer, probably. Elias pokes at it, and Basira slaps his hand away. She is, if Elias is honest, a little too quick off the mark for his liking, as if she’d been waiting for an excuse to hit him. Elias decides whatever took over his brain was probably a jerk.
He shoves his hands in his pockets instead, and watches Jon pause in the middle of the room, head tilted as if listening. After a moment, he makes a beeline for a filing cabinet against the back wall. He pulls open the bottom drawer, rifles through it, and then comes up with a small, leather-bound volume held delicately between his thumb and forefinger.
“Elias,” Jon says. “Is this the book?” Elias reaches out for it to give it a closer look, but Jon pulls it back out of his reach. “Better not,” he says. “Just in case.”
Elias peers at the cover. The lettering is a bit faded, but it looks familiar enough, Vigilo, Operior, Audio stamped into the leather. “Yep,” he confirms. He wonders if the thing that took over his brain stashed any weed in the office. Context clues do not exactly indicate it was the type to chill, but it was in Elias’s brain.
Jon sets the book on the desk and very gingerly flips it open. There’s a bookplate inside the front cover, “From the library of Jurgen Leitner”, and the title is printed on the first place. Jon pokes at it, like he’s afraid it’s going to explode or something, and then he turns the page.
Jon frowns down at the book and flips to the next page. It is also blank. He picks the book up then, flicks through the rest of the pages. “Huh,” he says. He turns the book so the pages face out, and they’re all blank. “I guess it’s… inert?”
Basira gives it a suspicious look. “What, it was a one use Leitner?”
Jon shrugs. “I guess.”
Elias reaches for it again, and Jon lets him take it this time. The soft leather binding is almost familiar, like the last remnants of a dream. The pages are all blank except for the title page, with no sign that any text had ever been there. Elias is sure when he looked at it before, it had been full of cramped, handwritten text that Elias had struggled to make out.
Well, if it wasn’t counterfeit before, it’s apparently useless now. “Can I keep this?” he says, rubbing one of the pages between his fingers. The paper is thin, nearly translucent, with a soft texture that Elias knows will provide a long, slow burn. In other words, it’s perfect for blunts.
Jon hesitates, and Basira says, “Absolutely not.” They share another look, and then Basira continues, “Just because it’s inert now doesn’t mean it’s safe. We should burn it.”
“Yeah,” says Elias, “that’s what I was gonna do with it.”
Jon plucks the volume out of Elias’s grasp. “Basira’s right; we should destroy it.” He inhales slowly and scrubs a hand over his face. “And then I guess we should figure out what to do with you.”
“Right,” says Elias. “So do I still, like, have a job here or…?”
Jon heaves a very heavy, very tired sigh. “Sure,” he says. “You said you worked in Artifact Storage?” Elias nods. “Just.... watch out for Leitners.”