I am unraveling.
David winces as the glowing ribbon of flesh tears away from his hand, pulled inexorably into the maelstrom below. The pain is significant now, as if he were grasping a red-hot brand with his bare flesh. The pain spikes, and his arm ripples, his skin twisting and expanding as more of it pulls away. Spidery lights flicker across the surface of the maelstrom below, somehow keeping time with the pulses of pain coursing traveling up his arm. With each pulse he can feel his essence unravel further. Up to his elbow now. Up to his forearm. Up to his shoulder.
A different kind of pressure on his other arm—the grip of the shadow—intensifies.
MAKE THIS STOP
“I don’t know how!” Words are difficult to form—the unraveling of his physical form appears to be confined to his arm for the moment, but there’s something else at work, attacking and devouring his mind. “Tell me how!”
I DO NOT KNOW HOW MASHEUDH
David tears his gaze away from his own disappearing form, and glances at the shadow. It, too, is unraveling—a purple-black ribbon of matter unwinding from its left arm, to match the shining golden thread streaming from David’s right.
“Why is it affecting you?” Fear spikes, temporarily beating back whatever is trying to devour his mind. “I thought you were from here!”
I DO NOT KNOW MASHEUDH
I DO NOT KNOW WHAT TO DO
It, too, is panicking. It, too, is afraid.
David searches through Artigenian’s memories, looking for something—anything—that he might use as a means of escape. There is nothing. As far as Artigenian knew, it was impossible to enter this place.
He tries dreaming. He imagines a shining golden sphere surrounding them, protecting them. It appears, and for a few seconds it actually works—the golden thread is cut, the shadow-ribbon disappears, the piercing pain eases, the roar of the storm below fades away. But the golden sphere shudders, twists, its form distorts, and then it bursts apart, pulled down into the seething mass of destruction below as the pain in his arm returns. He feels something ripping inside him. He suspects it won’t be long now.
The shadow keens in despair, and for a moment it twists, distorting much like the golden sphere did before it was torn apart. He suspects it won’t be long for either of them.
Somewhere in the back of his mind he hears Billy Joel singing Goodnight Saigon.
And we will all go down together…
David looks at the shadow again. He gets an idea. He doesn’t like the idea, but it has the advantage of being the only idea he has.
“You’re gonna have to trust me,” he says.
The shadow stops keening. A second strand of purple-black shadow begins to peel away from the back of its head.
I WILL SUBMIT
“Good enough,” David says, and then pulls the shadow toward him.
It disappears into his skin, expanding to fill the gaps being ripped away by the maelstrom below. Shadow sinks into bone, merges with sinew, and the cold of it makes him scream, even as it drives away the searing heat of his unraveling flesh. An impossible pressure builds up in his head, his sight blurs, every concussion he’s ever had throbs painfully, and just as his mind is about to break there is a great shift and David and Shadow are one. In that moment David understands, almost instinctively, where he is, what he is, and why he is dying.
This is a place the shadow’s people call the True Realm. In their understanding, it is the first place—a place that existed before any other aspect of creation, encompassing the entire multiverse. The storm that rages so far below them isn’t a storm at all: it is alive, and ever hungering, and because it cannot feed upon itself it rages.
But it feeds now.
David and the shadow came into this realm unprotected, unprepared, and the maelstrom reached out. It set its hooks into them. And now, despite the vastness of the distance between them, it is pulling them apart. David and the shadow are too small to provide any real sustenance, but he maelstrom does not care. They are sweeter than any meal it has had in eons.
He feels the shadow’s terror, and understands it. How can anything stand against that?
We can stand against it, David thinks. Together.
Together, the shadow agrees. Let it be so.
He extends his right hand, a strange hand made of light and shadow both, and closes it into a fist. Immediately the golden yellow thread of flesh and the purple black ribbon of shadow burst like chains shattering at each link. The maelstrom surges, angry at the loss of its meal. It gets even angrier when David calls out to all of the scattered bits of himself and the shadow that haven’t yet been swallowed up by the storm, and they defy their own destruction.
Piece by precious piece he feels himself return. His hand tingles as what was taken was flows back into his flesh. More important, he feels stronger and more confident as his mind and soul are pieced back together. He feels the same thing happening to the shadow, feels it strengthen as most of what it lost is recovered. Neither of them are complete, now, but there is enough. Together, they are enough.
But only for the moment. Spidery traces of white fire flicker across the maelstrom’s surface, and then they flare up and stream together into a single blazing point of light beneath them. The maelstrom has decided to retaliate.
Together, we are enough.
It isn’t David’s thought, this time. It comes from the shadow. The shadow has shed most of its terror as it begins to suspect exactly what they can do. David agrees, casting his mind back to his time on Esperanza, summoning a very specific memory. He senses the shadow remembering the same event, registers its shock as it realizes what David is planning, then feels the shock fade as it accepts the necessity. But the acceptance is not without criticism: there is context David is missing, and when the shadow provides it, he understands how the plan needs to change. He alters it quickly, offering it up for inspection. The shadow examines it carefully. It agrees.
“You’re going to need a name,” David says.
The shadow considers. It reaches into David’s mind and shows him its choice. David laughs, genuinely surprised.
The fire gathering in the maelstrom condenses further, shines brighter. It won’t be long now.
Begin, the shadow urges.
Begin, David agrees.
“I am David Bernard.”
He doesn’t try to shout, but his voice pours out of him, louder than he ever thought it possible to be. The sound of the storm fades as he speaks, as if the weight of his words pushes the roar away.
“I have a soul.”
He feels pressure building around him, as if this reality is trying to push his words back into his mouth, to prevent their escape.
“The soul of the man is also the man.”
Howls of outrage fill his ears. They don’t come from any specific place, but from everywhere at once. The maelstrom shudders for a moment, as if pulling back in revulsion.
Just wait, David thinks to himself. We’re not at the good part yet.
“I name myself Allard.”
David speaks, but he is not speaking: he has ceded control to the shadow while it does its part.
“I claim a soul.”
The howls of outrage turn into shrieks of fury. This place can sense one of its own, however changed it may be, and it has just committed blasphemy.
“The soul of Allard is also Allard.”
David flinches as he feels a weight settle over him. It is the feeling of being watched, only more so. It’s not the maelstrom. It had already noticed them, and it doesn’t appear to be possessed of the level of awareness he’s feeling now. This is a much colder, more calculated awareness. The eyes of predators who measure their prey.
This was inevitable, the shadow—Allard from this moment forward, however many moments they may have—tells him. To be what we are, where we are… there will be no quiet escape. We will attract notice.
David sets that knowledge aside for the moment. They have other things to do.
Their identities declared before the firmament and all its denizens, David returns to dreaming. He summons the golden orb once again: it snaps into place, humming with the authority of David’s declaration. There is a moment when it shudders, then the golden sphere dims as purple shadow seeps into it, strengthening it. Instantly the pressure subsides: there is no longer a tug from the maelstrom below, no longer a feeling of being watched by vicious, unseen eyes. David and the shadow, together in David’s body, float within a golden-black bubble of defiance in the vast emptiness of nightmare, untouched.
For the moment. That will change if they remain where they are.
“We need to move,” David murmurs. He feels Allard assent, and murmurs a suggestion. David nods, focuses his will, and the sphere streaks across the emptiness, leaving a faint trail of purple-gold behind as it dives, as fast as it can, toward the swirling maelstrom below.