The silver-shrouded man hangs in the air, suspended by a power that existed before time.
Granite walls and floors gleam dully in the soft light filling the otherwise empty room. The light doesn’t come from the room, but from the power: the circle that surrounds him, the symbols inscribed within the circle, all glowing with enough strength to reach the very end of the long room, to reveal the door—plain, almost shabby compared to the room—that sits, closed, at the far end.
What is this place? How did I get here?
He remembers anger. Purpose. A need for vengeance. He remembers traveling, towns, cities, empty roads, all flashing by him in the blink of an eye, all bringing him closer to his prey. And then, just as he was getting close, he remembers feeling something close around him, as if a giant hand had reached down from the sky and snatched him up…
“Artemis Dante Ignace Joseph LaFleur.”
A silvery head raises. Silver eyes open, blinking once to adjust to the soft light, and narrow as they focus on the man standing before him.
“I regret, very much, that our first meeting must be like this.” A man’s voice, deep and strong. A familiar voice. A familiar face.
He is a well-dressed man, wearing a charcoal-gray business suit that is expensive without being ostentatious. Handsome and dignified, with strong features and graying hair, he stands with the vigor and strength of youth. His eyes, however, are not young eyes: they are deep, even wise, filled with such resolve that some might call them cold.
Artemis understands the look in those eyes. It’s a look he sees every time he gazes at his own reflection.
“You do not deserve to wear that face.”
The other man’s eyebrows rise in muted surprise. “It’s a face you wear often.”
“It’s a face I can claim by blood,” Artemis says. “He is my father.”
The other man smiles slightly. “The degree to which he is not my father is of no consequence.”
Artemis says nothing, choosing instead to examine the circle surrounding him. It reminds him very much of the one Artigenian used to confine him on Esperanza, but the immense wave of power that radiates from the circle is alarming. He no longer has any tie to magic, but he can feel its strength: his skin tingles from the wake of the power encasing him. Artigenian is powerful, but the magician who created this eclipses him in every way.
As he examines the circle, he catches sight of his own hands. Both silver. He is still in his silver form.
“I appear to be at something of a disadvantage,” Artemis says, voice dry.
The other man laughs. “Indeed. In more ways than one.” He turns, walks a third of the way up the length of the room, stops, turns again. “Lights, please.”
Lights embedded in the baroque tiled ceiling fade to life, filling the long room with soft, warm light. Artemis can see every part of the room clearly. The other man turns, and with a wave of his hand the circle imprisoning Artemis fades.
He isn’t prepared for that, but he doesn’t waste time. Artemis lands in a crouch, his hands quickly elongating into impossibly sharp blades. His muscles tense as he prepares to spring forward.
The other man sighs, waves his hand again, and suddenly Artemis is flesh. He shivers as he notices, for the first time, that the room is cold.
“I confess,” the man says, “I rather hoped you’d be willing to talk.”
Artemis tries to restore his silver form. He fails. He tries to teleport away. He fails. He fights back a surge of frustration—keep calm, keep calm—and lowers himself to sit, cross-legged, on the granite floor. He suppresses the urge to shiver in the chilly air.
The man stares at him in thoughtful silence. Artemis waits patiently.
“Do you know who I am?” the man asks.
The smile disappears from Artemis’ face. “Not entirely. You are the Chairman and CEO of Haruspex Analytics. You wear my father’s face—a face I have used myself, on many occasions, which has lead to no less than two former members of my organization questioning whether you and I are one and the same. I hypothesize that you are something that was created when Esperanza was unmade—an interaction between the death of the island, and the magic I was forced to sacrifice in order to work the spell.”
“Incorrect,” the man says.
Artemis raises an eyebrow.
“The moment of interaction you describe—when you sacrificed your magic to unmake the island—is not the moment of my birth. It is the moment of my change. I am the very magic you sacrificed, made manifest in this world. I was part of you for years before that moment, and in that moment I became you, Artemis, in so very many ways. I have become what you see because I am you. Had you been where I was, confronted with what I have seen, you would be standing in my place, wearing this suit, leading this company, doing everything I am doing today. And before anything else happens I want you to understand why.”
“That is very unlike me,” Artemis observes.
The man laughs. “True enough. I can’t deny the cliché. Nor can I deny the tactical danger you represent. And yet I must persist.”
“Why?” Artemis asks.
“Because we are…” The man frowns, reaching for the right word. “Family. You are my brother, my father, my mother, and me.”
Artemis looks up at the man wearing his father’s face, his own revealing nothing.
The Chairman of Haruspex Analytics looks down at Artemis and smiles. “But this is all wrong. It will not do at all. If we are to meet, then we must meet. We must talk. Not as captor and captive—though that cannot, I fear, be avoided entirely…”
The Chairman gestures with his hand. The room darkens, and Artemis blinks rapidly, unsure whether it is the room or his eyesight that is fading. A roaring fills his ears, similar to the sound of water pouring out of a burst dam, and for a moment he is sitting in nothingness, surrounded in darkness, and in that moment all sound stops.
And then, a moment later, he is somewhere else. He sits in an overstuffed chair, gingerly holding a hot cup of tea.
It takes a few moments for him to register the change, process it, and realize what it means. As his awareness catches up to his circumstances, his hand trembles, just for an instant. Tea sloshes over the side of his teacup, running down his finger.
Artemis inhales sharply, setting the teacup down on a saucer sitting on a side table just to the right of his chair. He picks up a cloth napkin folded neatly in his lap and wipes the tea off his finger, feeling his skin tingle as the cloth passes over it.
“The tea is hot,” the Chairman says.
Artemis glances at the man, sitting in a similar overstuffed chair with its own side table—though his has, along with his teacup sitting on its own saucer, a teapot, a creamer, a sugar bowl, and a plate full of shortbread cookies.
He looks around warily. They appear to be sitting in a small parlor decorated in a style that appears mostly Victorian. Ornate wallpaper covers the walls. A small fireplace—currently unlit—takes up the wall behind him, and a large window sits in the wall before him. The window is curtained with a semi-opaque gauzy material that obscures the view but lets in a considerable amount of light, and it appears to be the only source of light in the room. The other two walls are covered in books, all bound in leather, the names on the spines currently either too small or too faded for Artemis to read. The only other furniture is the overstuffed chairs and the tables. The chairs are angled to face both the window and each other.
There are no doors. At least, none that he can see.
He stares down at his hand for a moment, noting the faint line of red on his finger where it was burned from the tea. Only then does he realize that he is dressed in a suit and tie.
“How much of this is real?”
There’s no trace of hostility or challenge in his voice. For the moment, the only feeling Artemis is aware of is curiosity.
“The simple answer is ‘all of it,’” the Chairman says. “The complicated answer is ‘all of it, however…’ And the ‘however’ would be incomprehensible to you.”
“Why is that?” Artemis asks.
The Chairman smiles slightly. “Because I no longer dwell within.”
“I see,” Artemis says. He looks around the room again and frowns. “I find that difficult to believe. If you truly are who—what—you claim to be, then… well, I remember very little that is specific about magic, but I know enough in general to be certain that this room is entirely too pleasant to be brought forth out of it.”
“A reasonable conclusion,” the Chairman says. “Incorrect, none the less. I can hardly fault your doubt: there is nothing, in the entire history of my kind, that would lead anyone with any knowledge of us to believe that our power can create. It can’t, not here… and yet here we are, in this room. Here is this room, created ex nihilo by a power that has but one purpose in this realm: to unmake. I am very pleased with this room. It is one of my better works.”
He pauses for a moment, considering what he just said. “One of our better works.”
Artemis feels his eyebrows start to rise.
“Oh yes,” the Chairman says, “our works. You aren’t aware of your contributions, but they are significant. You are the reason I am here in the form I have, with the intent I have. If you were not who you are…”
The Chairman leans forward slightly, eyes locked on Artemis, radiating strength, and will, and a terrible, endless ocean of purpose.
“If you were not who you are, I would never have existed at all.”