Corin

Piltover is full of old, dark places. The chemical closets there are still, raw with the odor of an electric fire that has caught the husks of moths. I sometimes get poetic when I think about these places, but that is only because they remind me of techmaturgy’s dusty melancholy. The first snow is falling in Piltover. It will only be a matter of time before the bitter, northern cold drives all the scientists back into their burrows, their places of techmaturgical worship, their small altars where science and magic together bend electricity to do things that no common man could dream. These altars have become like extensions of me.

I miss my daughter deeply, but every time I smell the ancient fire I am reminded of the possibilities, that I might again get to remind her just how beautifully she dances.

I often ask myself What is peace—really?, and in the shores of my mind the answer comes up blank. Perhaps it is the chilly wind, the way it makes your feet cold even if you have thick shoes, the way it makes you consider the hardness of a stone. When you think about this, especially on the blustery days of the first snow, you feel in a sense—softer, as a window pane rubbed with snowflakes or imbued with the smell of pine or the stains that candlelight sometimes makes on wood. Did you know that light can stain? It has been known to tarnish even the crucibles of angels.

Soft was how I felt then as the thought struck me, as I held onto my hat with one hand and tried to keep my coat from unfurling with the other. A howling gust moved down the road, carrying with it frosted debris. The feeling against my ankles was not of winter, but of broken concrete, icy and abrasive and unhappy. I thought of the Freljord then, what it must be like in the coldest place in Valoran. I felt vulnerable. Empty. Perhaps it was because I knew that there were people freezing to death in the cold mountains of the north.

And because I also knew that the techmaturgists sometimes procured frozen dead from there for research, and what they did to those corpses.

I knocked against the gray door of a manor tucked away from the street. The sky was getting dark and purple, a violent lake of stars that seemed to be shedding snowflakes.

“What is it?” An old woman said from behind a peephole.

“I need to speak with him,” I said.

There was a moment of silence. “The professor is not taking visitors.”

“This is important.”

“No, I don’t think it is. The professor is sick.”

I recognized this excuse almost immediately. It was clockwork, and the regularity of it, the predictability, made me smile in the cold. It cracked the corner of my chapped lips. “Mrs. Pididly? Let me in.”

She opened the door. “Corin? Well, why didn’t you say so?”

“Is the professor really sick?” She shuffled me in. She was holding a candle and shut the door briskly behind me, but the cold did not extinguish its flame.

“Of course not,” she said with a smile. She hugged me. Even though she was older and her body was frail and small, she emitted warmth that seemed to penetrate the narrow hallway leading deeper into Stanwick’s manor. Whether this radiation came from her age or from an overheated core didn’t seem to matter. With Stanwick, such mysteries were commonplace and to be accepted as entirely normal.

I had been in this manor before, many times in fact, but something about it seemed quiet and unfamiliar now. Mrs. Pididly seemed to drag herself down the hall, her candle imprinting its yellow light on the dim walls and revealing old portraits and schematics. I recognized some of these as the professor’s work, but some of them looked drawn by the hand of another.

“The professor is busy,” she said. She hobbled into the kitchen. It was immense. A small light above the stove did not do the grand walls justice, but it made every shadow and corner look like a mouth. It was spooky. I took off my hat and sat down at a table much too small for the space. “Would you like something to drink?”

“I need to speak to Stanwick,” I said.

“Stanwick and I recently traveled to Ionia.” She moved between a few cupboards and took out a small box. She placed a kettle on the gas stove filled with water and it made strange noises as the metal got hot. “A monk there told me a story about the plants in Valoran, and my—” she shook her head gravely, “I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a more tragic piece of mythology.”

“It was likely not a myth,” I said, half unsure of how I would break the loop. It usually did not end well.

“There are trees that only grow in Ionia. Have you ever been there?”

I shook my head. Of course I had been there, but I played along. This was a sequence I had programmed, after all.

She opened the box and unusual aromas filled the room, cloying, tickling, prophetic. She plucked a small leaf and held it up, as if examining it for the first time. “This one is a flower,” she said. “It is boiled and used to make tea.”

The kettle whistled very quietly as she placed the leaf inside it, her eyes never turning away from me.

“What does the tea do?”

“It depends,” she said. “In Ionia it is believed to have healing properties. During our trip, Professor—I mean, Stanwick—, he tried this tea and said that it changed his life. I think you should try it. Perhaps it will change your life, too. I remember when you were just a small boy.”

“Do you? What was I like?”

“A monk there told me a story about the plants in Valoran. What does the tea do? Do you?” She said. She tilted her head curiously like a dog.

“What was I like?” I asked.

She turned and plucked another flower from the Ionian case. “This one is a flower. It is boiled and used to make tea.”

“Is the professor busy?” I asked.

“I love him,” she said. “He is a foul man and I wish the worst kind of—used to make tea—a flower—this one is—change your life—professor—I mean, Stanwick—this tea changed his life—you should try it—”

There was a small but violently loud pop. There was a spark that lit up the dark kitchen in blue radiance. A small tendril of smoke coiled from the back of her head. The kettle on the stove began to scream, louder and louder behind her. She did not collapse to the floor, however. She only stood silently in her spot like a statue. Her eyes went dim and flickered as a lighthouse lost in fog.

Stanwick was standing in the doorway, his arms folded over his chest, watching.

“Must you always do this?” He asked, exasperated.

“You didn’t answer my letters. It only seemed appropriate.”

“She did say I was busy…”

Another man entered the kitchen behind Stanwick. He was much younger than the professor and was quite handsome. He had a face pulled tight to the cheekbones, which gave him an attractively skeletal look. His hair was tousled as if he had just woken from between the pages of a chemical dictionary. His eyes were deep and green, the kind of emerald that you can see even if the only light in a room is coming from a candle. He surveyed Mrs. Pididly with dismay. “I’m not redoing her again,” he said simply. He moved past me, barely acknowledging me, and turned off the kettle. “You did this?” He said to me. I wasn’t sure if he meant the kettle or Mrs. Pididly’s unfortunate fate.

I just nodded.

“You short-circuited her metaconscious neural hoop. How did you do that?”

“Well, I designed her core,” I said. I resisted the urge to smile, but the man seemed unimpressed. “It was a long time ago.”

“Huh,” he said. He ran a hand through his hair and ruffled it absently, as if searching for an answer. “This won’t do.”

“The problem is in the latticework, I think.”

The man’s eyes seemed to become a shade lighter. “Fascinating,” he said. “I had considered that. Are you a student, too?”

Was a student,” Stanwick corrected. He took a seat at the table. “Now he’s a rotten techmaturgist. What did you come here for, other than to pollute my student and destroy my possessions?”

“My apologies for that, but I have discovered something important.” There was a jolt inside of me when I said that to which can only be prescribed the metallic hit of science, of eureka, the pursuit of something eternally unintelligible for a second made visible. It is like when the wind hits the surface of the water: you do not see the wind. You see the impressions, its footprints, and somehow you finally understand it looks much bigger, much different, than you thought. “We have been missing the secret of sentience because our configurations were just completely wrong. Techmaturigcal sentience is possible and very real. It might already be in Valoran.”

Stanwick snorted, but his pupil’s eyes glittered malevolently as a knife of lightning behind a far cloud. I only saw the change from the corner of my eye, but I could see the shadows across his brow shift dramatically. I could feel the change of energy in the room. The shadows almost became red, if that was a thing that shadows could do.

“You seem to be suggesting that the second pillar of techmaturgy is fundamentally flawed after thousands and thousands of years of careful study.” This didn’t come off as an admonition; in fact, he seemed very interested.

 “I only have a few data points, but a replicable process nevertheless. Countercurrent trapezoidal configurations of the internal clockwork lattice tend towards system states that promote metaconscious fabrication—I mean, the real kind, not artificial nonsense.” It was very hard not to look at Mrs. Pididly’s smoldering framework.

Stanwick was silent.

“Have you considered spherical configurations of the clockwork?” The student asked.

 “Viktor,” Stanwick interrupted the student. “Have you?” There was something suddenly unusual about the way the professor spoke. He had a nervous tick that lingered just behind his words as they formed against his teeth. It was like this student, the man he called Viktor, was suddenly scaring him.

Viktor only waved his hand at Stanwick. He spoke directly to me. “Spherical configurations allow for the birth of electric wells. Over time, the wells burst and disrupt the main dial, but they do not stop the clockwork from operating. The equilibrium state of a system that moves continuously like this, over time, is a gelatinous electric core enclosed in a coat of solid sheen.”

“Like a brain?” Stanwick asked, incredulous.

Viktor smiled darkly. “Like a soul. Whereas trapezoidal configurations over the same duration lead to a pocketed lattice that barely reaches prismatic capacity, spherical frameworks create scenarios in which electrical sentience can actually inflect.”

“Like a soul,” Stanwick said. He looked at the broken figure of his robotic wife, her eyes lifeless, the smell of burnt circuits still fresh under the aroma of Ionian hemlock. I watched him look between her and Viktor helplessly. It was difficult to see if he was crying, but one needed only to listen to the heaviness of his breathing and the way that it filled the silence of the large room to understand.

I had not expected this.

The implications of Viktor’s theory were absolutely astounding, and I think the suddenness with which it came out of him was what struck Stanwick the most. I wasn’t so much frightened by the display as I was angered. The professor suggested that I stay for a least two weeks while they pollinated theories and conducted experiments in the laboratory, but that was utter bullshit. Stanwick actually had no idea about the real implications of what Viktor said that night in the kitchen, and to the two of us it was completely obvious. We bonded that night only because of the simple fact that we both understood that the professor didn’t know. It was a code.

But still, it sowed the seeds of my hatred for him completely.

Trapezoidal configurations are undoubtedly superior to spherical ones, since (in theory) they actually lead to a sentience that most closely resembles our own. The theory predicts that perfect sentience is impossible, but that—that is the true discovery I had made. It was possible. That was the real reason I had visited Stanwick. Looking back on it now, I sometimes wonder what might have happened if Viktor had learned that by predicting impossibility, the theory actually laid out the fundamental framework for a way to achieve the very perfection that it proved could not exist.

Techmaturgical sentience is not to be taken lightly, and the fine fabrication and runework required to create active clockwork big enough to suit, say, a hummingbird, takes resources beyond the capacity of even an able magician. That Viktor had rationalized a theory of spherical frameworks was frightening at the outset because I had actually run the calculations before, and such clockworks (in theory) supported consciousness that was much greater than his or my own. Such frameworks created sentience that was imperfect and devoid, even monstrous.

I later came to learn through several more conversations with Viktor that he did not just have one theory, he had several. Some ran in parallel with one another. I could see the influence of Stanwick’s heavy focus on arcana, but there was something fresh in his approach to the scientific fabrication of the clockwork technology. It reminded me a lot of myself when I had decided to leave the professor’s tutelage.

During those two weeks we exchanged theories and discussed the deeper implications of our conflicting frameworks, and we did so without Stanwick. It was better that he didn’t know. Stanwick’s techmaturgy was inherently flawed in its reliance on magic, and I could see that this fundamental difference had driven a stake through any relationship he and Viktor would ever have.

Viktor was not an easy fellow to like. And although we got along when in the laboratory, I did not leave Stanwick’s manor on good terms.

That was all so long ago. I’m not sure why the first snowfall of Piltover reminds me of my daughter so much, but I am beginning to suspect it has something to do with the conversations that Viktor and I had in Stanwick’s laboratory. There was a dark, incredibly malefic drive in him to cast the eyes and ears and mouths of the great magical scapes beyond our own in his lurid visions, where the electrical sentience of the clockwork was controllable via his whims. In a way, it was something entirely different than clockwork.

                                   rien n’est jamais acquis à l’homme

I can hear the snow. It is whistling against the windows, rattling them in their hinges. It sounds a lot like the whine of clockwork when you first turn it on. It is an ethereal hum, something so small—a life so tiny and miniscule—that you are not sure that it is even there, that it will ever have the capacity to create an idea from an image, or a word from a connection, that it will ever have the capacity to develop what might even be considered a soul.

And then you are suddenly astounded when the bright golden, coiling fire of the ancient magical electricity moves through the gears. You are suddenly astounded when the menageries of a past life are regurgitated in holograms above it. You never actually get to see this event happen, of course, because it takes place deep within the heart and framework of the hextronic husk: the shell we create in the likeness of the ones we love, the shell that we scientists of the techmaturgical altar like to think justifies the work that we do. It does not justify anything but our own need to live, to love, to feel.

                          ni sa force, ni sa faiblesse, ni son coeur

I will be the first to witness what happens when clockwork is activated outside of a body. The snow outside does not matter anymore, the cold does not matter anymore. The only thing that matters now is the glittering blue radiance of the clockwork. I can hear it. I can hear itwhat do you think now, Viktor? What do you think now?

Dancing, I am dancing. I feel a rush of heat moving through me, coursing with life, with sentience, with magic, with something inexplicable and unlike anything I have ever—

The clockwork has cast a light. I am dancing. The electrical radiance has burst all throughout the room. The snow and the driving frigid wind are pressing against the windows of my small shop, but the warmth—the divine warmth, it makes nothing else matter. The electricity is a beautiful woman, my daughter, and she is pirouetting in a frame of blue lightning. I put my fingers into the rays coming from the radiance and we spin together, and the framework is for but an instant my little shop in Piltover nestled under the wind. Spinning, dancing, the frills of her leotard stiff and fragile as the wings of a dead monarch cutting against the still air of the shop.

In the single luminous moment that the static ballerina came she was gone, and the gears of the clockwork I had just activated slowed and stopped.

         et quand il croit ouvrir ses bras son ombre est celle d’une croix

Please, I asked to the empty space. But the room came back to me lacking color. The brown wood of the shop designed especially against magical fires was raw and earthen. I picked up the clockwork, broken. In that single moment I was absolutely certain that my theory was proper.

But the profundity of what I had witnessed from the clockwork was not the way it muted the wind or made me feel.

I felt a dull ache. Not nostalgia, no. The realization that I had perfected electrical sentience, and the equally heavy understanding that Viktor had probably already far surpassed this.

                     et quand il veut serrer son bonheur, il le broie

                       sa vie est un etange et douloureux divorce.

                                  il n’y a pas d’amour heureux.

There is no happy love.

But you will be as the champions that you revere. That is a promise, Orianna. I will make you new in their image, for there is a great and absolute love somewhere and it transcends us because we cannot understand its radiance. So long as you remember who and why you are, you will know that love can be neither happy nor sad, for love is greater than even those feelings combined.