David Bernard 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 glances around the dreamscape, briefly wondering if this is the one he always uses, and not a clever counterfeit. It feels right, which probably means more than whether or not it looks right. The only thing that doesn’t seem right is that he’s alone. Usually, that’s how it should be. Today is a little different.
“Come out,” David calls.
A patch of air to his right shimmers and ripples as if it were sitting over a campfire. The shimmering patch darkens, coalescing into a roughly humanoid shape. It’s too thin, it’s limbs are too long, and a feeling of wrongness hangs around it like the smell of rain after a storm.
It is not, David realizes, a proper shadow. It isn’t simply the absence of light, obscuring something in the world—rather, it is an absence of the world itself. It is a human-shaped nothing standing in the middle of creation, a flat absence of everything that exists only in silhouette. The outline of the creature is the only part of it that has any detail at all: the edge where substance meets nothing shimmers slightly, light appearing to cross over into the creature itself, ultimately disappearing into the nothingness, never to be seen again. It reminds David of a TV show he watched once, where a scientist attempted to describe the event horizon of a black hole.
The creature stands before him, unmoving, making no attempt to speak. David has almost grown accustomed to the malice it radiates, even in its calmest, most quiet moments, but at the moment he feels nothing coming from it at all. No malice, no drive, no emotion of any kind.
A spider, patiently waiting for its prey to get caught in its web. Then it will feed.
David takes a quick, shuddering breath and tries to push the image out of his head.
“Do you know where we are?” He manages to keep the tremor out of his voice, but only just.
The top half of the creature’s body shifts slightly. It’s nearly impossible to read the body language of a creature whose form is utterly devoid of detail, but the movement almost appears contemplative.
ThiS iS whERe yOu LiE
The words do not come from the flat, featureless silhouette standing before him. Rather, they seem to come from everywhere else, surrounding him. David almost falls to his knees from the weight and power
ThiS iS whERe yOu LiE
David frowns. “Explain.”
yOu cONsTruCt a wOrlD of LiEs iN yOUr Mind
yOu hiDE iN tHOsE LiEs wHen yOu slEEp
“They aren’t lies.”
tHEy aRe NoT rEAl
David can feel the vehemence behind the declaration. Vehemence and… something else. A second emotion, wrapped up with the first. He frowns as he tries to figure out what it is. It’s almost fear, but it’s more aggressive than that.
Desperation. That’s what it is. Desperation. David feels himself starting to smile.
“You know what,” David says, “a lot of people would… well, not agree with you, exactly, but they’d see your point. They’d think you were being a little pedantic about it, but at the end of the day we all know dreams aren’t real.”
His smile widened a bit. “We know it. You don’t.”
The world darkens. They’re standing in a small barn, bales of hay lining the far wall, sunlight streaming through open barn loft doors, illuminating the top of the gambrel roof and filtering through the beams to make patterns on the dirty, straw-strewn floor. The air is warm and sleepy, heavy with the scent of cows and drying hay. Beyond the closed barn doors he can hear chickens and the feint braying of donkeys.
He stares at the shadow, barely visible in the dim light. “Tell me, is this more or less of a lie than where we were before?”
The world brightens. They’re standing outside the barn now—his parent’s barn, back when they still had the farm. They stand on a worn gravel path that runs from the barn to the farmhouse, a three-story wood house painted avocado green with maroon red shutters. The air is cooler, a hint of autumn in the breeze, and the sky is unflinchingly blue.
“Same place,” David says. “But it’s early September in… 1998, I think?”
ThiS iS A LiE
“This is a memory,” David replies. “The barn we were in is the same place, but from a different memory in early summer.
They’re back at the dojo, the sky a paler shade of blue, the sun beating down relentlessly overhead.
“I saw this place in a movie, once. I can never remember the name of the movie when I’m awake, but I remember the whole thing, start to finish, when I’m dreaming. Dragon, Sun, Sky for the record.”
They stand in a lush, green field. Ducks splash in a pond just behind a copse of trees to his left. To his right, a worn dirt path winds up a hill.
David points up the path. “My parent’s farm. The barn and the house, and all the rest.”
“I’m trying to get you to understand something.”
ThiS iS A LiE
“That just tells me you don’t understand it yet.”
The scene changes, and changes again: places David has seen, or lived in, or passed through. Significant places, like the army base where he first enlisted in the service, and the police academy where he first became a cop. The Sky Commando building. The Cherry Blossom trees in Washington DC. The Grand Canyon from the perspective of a seven year old boy.
“None of these are lies,” David says. “They’re memories.”
ThEY nO lOnGer eXiST
They’re back at the dojo—it seems to be his preferred setting when talking to an evil magic parasite. “Some do,” David says. “Some don’t. Is memory a lie? It isn’t always accurate, I’ll grant. But do you consider all memories a lie?”
The feeling behind the words is so strong and sudden that David is certain it’s not true.
ThESe arE ALL LIES
thEy aRE fALseHOoDs yOu inVEnt tO avoID rEGret
“I see.” David stares at the creature, his face betraying no emotion, his mind clear, his emotions calm. “Tell me what you think about this one, then.”
The world around them pulses. The dojo literally falls away—the half-formed walls collapse, the floors cave in, and soon even the land it sits on appears to melt and run as if disappearing down a drain. David and the shadow stand in the middle of nothingness.
Before the creature can finish its question, a scene unfolds beneath them. A vast, purple-black mass of darkness expands beneath their feet, a seething storm of indescribable power that glows faintly from streams of energy that arc across it in long, spidery bursts.
The size of the storm is vast beyond comprehension. Even though David exists outside the storm—is effectively “floating” far above it—he can’t help but think infinite when he looks at it. Even though he can see where the storm ends, the feeling that it is everywhere, encompassing everything, persists. He can even hear it now, a massive roar accompanied by a strange, nearly subsonic thummm that makes his teeth ache.
WhAT iS tHiS
The sound of the storm—the unending roar that fills the space around them—almost drowns out the creature’s question. David considers not answering until he feels a hand gripping his arm.
The creature—the shadow manifestation of a piece of Artigenian’s power—has grabbed his upper arm. It reminds him of something he used to do to his physical therapist when he was recovering from his concussion, and couldn’t walk straight. In the early days he couldn’t keep his balance—just standing in one place made him feel like he was going to fall down—and the first time the therapist stepped away, he remembers lunging for the man’s arm and gripping it as if his life depended on it. The shadow, currently feeling as real and as solid as anyone David has ever met, is doing exactly the same thing.
WhAT iS tHiS
Is that panic? It feels like panic.
“A dream,” David says.
The storm pulses. The storm roars. It looks like it’s growing.
It is panic.
“Relax,” David says. “This is a dream. It’s one of the last dreams Artigenian ever had.”
ThiS iS nOT whERe yOu LiE
ThiS iS rEAl
“What? No.” David waves his free hand dismissively. “Look, this is what I’m trying to explain. This is one of your memories, filtered through Artigenian’s—”
He stops, frowning as he stares at his free hand. Stares through his free hand. He notes, with detached interest, that his flesh is unraveling, flowing down into the storm, unspooling like golden thread pulled from a spindle.
ThiS iS rEAl
David stares back at the shadow. It’s still gripping his arm, but it’s outline is starting to blur and warp. A tiny speck of shadow breaks off from its head—just a fleck—and immediately falls away into the storm. Then a second, then a third, and then all at once hundreds of dark specks stream out of its body, into the storm. It shudders.
ThiS iS rEAl
David looks down at his hand, and the flesh being pulled away from it. He realizes, for the first time, that it hurts.
“How?” He whispers. “How is this possible?”
I dO nOt kNoW
tAKe uS bAcK
David thinks of the dojo. The storm below them continues to roar, and the pain in his fading left hand increases.
“I can’t,” he says. “It’s not working.”
tHeN We aRe gOIng tO dIE
We hAve EntEReD tHE TrUE Realm
aNd We aRe gOIng tO dIE