David doesn’t like being a passenger in his own body, but he takes some comfort in that he isn’t a prisoner. He can, he realizes, retake control over his body and mind at any moment—it is trust and active restraint that is allowing Allard to take control.
Allard turns David’s face away from the maelstrom, focusing on a patch of nondescript, empty space far in the distance. David can’t see anything, but he can feel Allard’s certainty that something is there.
The mix of golden light and dark shadow changes, the gold dimming as the shadow darkens, and he feels something shift around him as they move faster toward their destination. The pulse of the storm, though ever-present, lessens. In time it recedes to an angry murmur, an ever-persistent but not overpowering pull. David glances down—the storm is still spread out below them, still fills up most of his view, but it looks less like a raging storm and more like a slowly swirling cloud.
There, Allard murmurs, and David feels his head turn, his eyes focus ahead. Far above them he sees lightly discolored shapes emerging out of the darkness. Little pale gray dots, set in single file across the expanse.
Are they stars? No—at least, not stars as he would understand them. They’re set too regularly, spaced too evenly from each other, to be natural. Now that he knows what to look for, he can see even more of the strange pale gray dots in the distance.
They continue on. The dots grow larger, now the size of a fingertip, and David notices a thin, spindly line extending from each, connecting them. The lines continue on, connecting each dot in turn, and as the lines grow sharper and more defined David realizes the dots aren’t laid out in a straight line, they’re curved. They arc across the empty space and curve down seeming to disappear behind the storm’s horizon, like a…
“Is this a ringworld?”
David senses Allard’s confusion, then feels the creature sifting through his memories, trying to find context. It considers the question.
Imprecise, Allard thinks. But not wrong.
David’s eyes drift back to the distant pale-gray dot directly in front of them. “So what are these things? Islands, like we saw floating over the storm? Connected by roads?”
Not roads. Rivers. Great rivers between the empty spaces, connecting the Great Cities.
The pale gray dot grows larger, almost to the size of a half dollar. David can see more detail: the “dot” is actually a huge, flat disk, hanging in space, with a mass of smoke swirling and churning underneath. On top of that foundation he sees massive, looming architecture: regular geometric shapes, set in a methodical fashion, against a backdrop of absolute darkness.
“This is the place you were trying to tell me about,” David says.
“Each of the gray dots—each one is a city like this?”
“And the connections between them are… rivers? Like you showed me in that vision.”
“All right.” David looks at the smoke churning beneath the city platform, and frowns. Something doesn’t look quite right. “Why is there all that smoke under the city? Is it an engine? Is that what keeps the cities in place?”
He feels Allard’s tension rising.
No. Soon. You will see. Soon. Listen.
David listens. He can still hear the storm, now very far below them, a low, ever-present noise in the background. There is something else, though, very faint, just behind the roar of the storm.
“What is that?”
It rises, crests, and recedes, dipping back behind the roar, only to surge again. It sounds like voices. Strangely human-like voices, crying out in despair, each cycle a little louder than before. The rises and falls in time with the swirling of the smoke beneath the foundation, growing louder as the smoke expands, quieter as it recedes.
“What is—” David’s question dies on his lips, unasked, because suddenly they are close enough to see the smoke in detail. In that moment, he understands that he is wrong. The smoke isn’t smoke at all. It’s a swarm, and the swarm is made of people.
Humanoid shapes, male and female both, struggle beneath the city foundation like ants in a collapsed colony. Their heads are empty, featureless, with only vague indentations where eyes and nose should be. The only distinctive feature they have on their faces are mouths, which are always open and screaming. They turn blindly out into eternity, as if they can sense that freedom lies out there, but they are inevitably pulled back into the mass of bodies by one others trying to claw to the outer edge.
“What is this?”
The movement is always down, away from the city. The farther up he looks, the less movement he sees, until finally the bodies aren’t moving at all: eventually they twine together, arms and legs wrapped and bound and lashed to each other to form a chain of flesh that stretches across the city’s foundation, stretches beneath the “rivers,” stretches as far as he can see in two directions. People—not humans, perhaps, but people nonetheless—are bound together, holding up cities and the paths that connect them, stretching an almost infinite distance across nothing, potentially encircling the storm.
“What is this?” David’s voice is hoarse. His cheeks are wet.
There is a trace of bitterness in Allard, and the emotions that run through it are fast and complicated and hard to separate. There is loss, homesickness, revulsion and fear, horror at what is happening and longing for a time when the knowledge didn’t matter. It occurs to David that perhaps Allard can’t answer the question, because it no longer understands, precisely, what it’s seeing.
They are even closer now, and the wailing of suffering and despair grows as loud as the roaring of the maelstrom had been earlier. Allard changes direction, no longer flying directly toward the city but aiming to fly over it. The wailing is now so loud that it drives out any hint of the roar from the maelstrom below, and for a moment David is aware of every mind around him. He can feel their panic as bodies crush against them, their terror as they scrabble for every chance to reach the very outer layer, and their despair when they feel something loop around an ankle, or arm, and pull them deep into the pile, toward the city. There is resignation, then, and the will to fight flickers out and dies.
“Allard.” David is panicking. There are too many voices in his head, too many, too distinct. “Allard!”
He is overcome with the urge to take back control and fly as far away from this place as he can. “Allard, I don’t think…” Another wave of despair shoots through him. “I don’t think I can do this.”
And then they are past the net of flesh, and there is only stone and silence.
The pressure is gone. The wailing is gone. Even the faint sound of roaring from the maelstrom is gone. They are flying through a complete absence of sound, and for a moment all David can feel is an overpowering sense of relief. The relief turns to shame, prompting a brief murmur of irritation from Allard.
Perhaps Allard is right. There’s no shame in being free of that feeling. He can’t do anything for them—not now, not in their present circumstances—and forcing himself to feel that endless despair will do nothing but break him, in the end. He doesn’t want to break. He wants to survive this.
He focuses on the stone that forms the foundation of the city. They are flying close to it now, and despite their speed he can take in an unusual amount of detail. What looks like a smooth, thin plate of rock from a distance is surprisingly uneven—it looks like the sides of the cities foundation melted, turning patches of it into glass. Rough stone is interspersed with smooth, irregular patches that rise up and twist into distended shapes, hills and bubbles and whorls, and even some extrusions that look like half-formed…
And just as the truth of it begins to dawn, they shoot past the foundation and arc high over the city itself.
It is a city made entirely of glass. There is light everywhere. All the streets, all the buildings are lit by brightly shining globes of white, pushing back the darkness and reflecting off the glittering dark surfaces of the mirror-like buildings. The buildings themselves are geometrical shapes: half-globes, cubes, tetrahedrons suspended on long cylindrical columns. Four massive pyramids, each with thirteen sides, mark the four corners of the city. At its center, a massive obelisk rises above everything else.
They hang motionless over the city, the protective sphere around them intensifying, flaring up gold and shadow-purple as Allard gathers their strength for the next push. They float over one of the rivers that arches out across the expanse. Looking closer, it is more accurately a canal: its shores are nothing more than broad stone walls holding it in. As the canal passes into the city it opens up into a lake, complete with docks and buildings along the artificial shore that might be warehouses. There are ships on the canal, each made of the same glass as the buildings, each lit by spheres of light.
And then they are moving, diving down into the city itself. David, surprised by the speed of their descent, feels a familiar thrill as they cross the city skyline, descend along one of the wide avenues, and head directly toward the obelisk at the city’s center.
This city is not empty; there are creatures here. Many are humanoid, some looking like the faceless ones bound beneath the city, others looking entirely human. Many of them stand motionless, heads turned up, gaping at David/Allard as they race through the sky. There are other creatures as well, things that are not humanoid. They appear as dim shadows, barely distinct from the obsidian glass, standing tall above the crowds. They look vaguely like the shadows of jellyfish. Occasionally one thrusts a shadowy tendril into one of the humanoid creatures, who seizes up, screams, and falls to the ground, only to sink into it, never to be seen again.
The shadows, when they notice David/Allard, raise a shriek of anger—the first sound David has heard since they passed beyond the net of flesh. It is a terrible sound, many voices at once, some low, some high, all dripping with malevolence and rage.
David is overcome with fear. Allard is also afraid, David notes, but its fear is different. David fears the unknown. Allard knows what the shadows are, and that is why it fears.
The shadows leap into the sky, but David/Allard shoots past them, closing on the Obelisk. The shadows gather in pursuit, wispy tendrils reaching out, but unable to pass through the globe of golden light and purple shadow. The globe trembles with each hit. Each time it trembles a little more. David wonders if the globe will hold.
It will hold, Allard says. We are nearly there.
The obelisk looms before them. Four main roads lead to its base, and four sets of massive double doors, all open, reveal a vast chamber within. Inside the chamber is a light so bright it is impossible to see anything distinct: there are dark silhouettes of robed figures, but David can see nothing else.
Allard’s tension ratchets up another notch. It urges them on faster.
“Shouldn’t we slow down?” David asks.
Allard doesn’t answer. The shrieks of the shadow-things grow harsher, angrier.
“Allard!” David’s calm breaks as some of the panic he has been trying to push back begins to break through. “We’re going to have to slow—”
All at once they are surrounded by light. Harsh, smothering light that bears down on their globe with such relentless force that David hears it sputter and buckle under the pressure. All at once they come to a halt, there in the room of light, and David can feel searing heat leaking through the globe’s walls.
Dream now dream now dream now dream now dream now dream now dream now dream now dream now dream now
Allard returns control of his mind and body as it continues to repeat the same command, over and over again.
Dream now dream now dream now dream now dream now dream now dream now dream now dream now dream now
David immediately thinks of his dojo, conjuring the flat stone floor, the dry plains, the warm sun beating down from a blue sky. He feels something tear, and suddenly the world around them disappears. Gone is the harsh, ever-burning light. Gone are the shadows, shrieking in impotent fury. Gone is the city of merciless glass. He stands on the cracked stone floor of an open dojo in the middle of an endless grassy plain. A warm wind blows, carrying with it the smell of dry soil. The sky is clear and blue, and the sun shines hot on his face and neck. He stands motionless for a moment, unsure whether what he’s sensing is real.
It is real.
He feels something shift within him, then sees a dark silhouette remove itself from his body. It is different from the shadow-form it had taken when this first began. It is still shadow, but it is not an absence. It is fuller. More clearly defined.
“We’re safe?” David asks.
The shadow dips its head. Safe. We live. We are no longer there. We are here.
David looks around his dream dojo. Then, in spite of everything, he starts to laugh.
“So you agree dreams aren’t lies, then?”
Allard stares at him, then it too emits a rough kind of laugh. You might perhaps have gone too far to make your point.
David laughs harder. He lets himself laugh like that for a while. It is the prerogative of a man, recently escaped from Hell, to laugh at anything that strikes his fancy.
He stops when he realizes Allard watching him, lost in its thoughts. David can’t exactly tell what it’s thinking, but he can feel it has come to a crossroads and can’t decide which path to take.
“What now?” David asks.
Allard stirs. I believe that is for you to decide.
“Well,” David says, “I know what I’m going to do. I suspect when I end this dream we’ll wind up back in the meeting room where everything started. We’re probably there right now, physically. So I’ll stay, and I’ll help Dr. Thorpe and the others as best I can. I… think that the best I can is significantly more than it was, before all this.”
It is, Allard agrees. I do not know how you managed to enter the True Realm, but to survive it you changed. You changed, and I changed with you. Neither one of us is entirely what we were.
“You sound different,” David says.
We were being destroyed by the Storm Beneath. We merged. You are part shadow, now. I am part… you.
“So what will you do now?”
I am part you, Allard says again, a bit impatiently. I am bound to you. Your will bound me to you back on the ever-dreaming island, and while it changed in the True Realm, it did not break. If anything, it grew stronger.
Now that Allard mentions it, David can feel it. There is a bond between them. There are many bonds between them, now, but the original one is still there. It’s more of a leash than a bond, held by David, compelling Allard. And as David examines that leash, he can see that it cages the shadow completely. It can no longer attempt to vie for control of his body or mind. The thing David feared most—losing himself to the sentient fragment of Artigenian’s power—is no longer a concern. The leash makes him safe.
He feels some regret when he wills the compulsion between them severed, but not much. He smiles when he feels the shadow’s shock through the many other bonds that still exist.
You release your claim on me. It is almost a question, and the questions that lie behind the thought are too complicated to speak aloud.
David shakes his head. “That’s not what happened. You named yourself, back there. You claimed a soul. I can’t release a claim on you, because I can’t put a claim on you. I mean, if it turns out you’re still evil and you try to destroy my world, I’ll certainly try to hunt you down and destroy you, but I can’t keep you bound to me.”
“Because,” David says, “I will not build a city using you as my foundation.”
The shadow does not reply. David steps forward, reaching out, and for a moment he sees his right hand shift—now flesh, now shadow, now flesh, now shadow again—before it rests on Allard’s shoulder. A moment later Allard’s hand falls on his shoulder in return. They stand there for a moment more, then Allard changes.
Allard’s form shifts, shrinking and distorting, until he floats before him in the shape of a bird. One of the shadow-birds, David thinks, only sharper and more clearly defined. He lets his arm fall to his side as Allard soars into the air, streaking through the sky, then swoops back down to the dojo. It lands on David’s shoulder, adjusting its weight as it settles into place.
I think I will travel with you awhile yet.
David smiles again. “Then I think we’d better wake up,” he says, and opens his eyes.