David Bernard sits cross-legged on the cracked stone floor in the not-dream of the old dojo.
The old dojo still sits in the endless grassy plain. The sky is still a canopy of clear, deep blue. The alien power that dwells within him still murmurs occasionally, slithering through his mind, but it hasn’t actually done anything since it tried to break him earlier. He doesn’t remember how long he’s been there, methodically sifting through Artigenian’s memories, suppressing his revulsion as he examines each in turn, a menagerie of remembered horrors. The lore that Artigenian remembered teaching a younger Artemis LaFleur was nightmarish in itself, but the lore that Artigenian had decided not to teach him—the lore he’d decided his pupil wasn’t ready to accept—that was far, far worse.
He closes his eyes, forcing himself to learn, forcing back the bile that rises in the back of his throat as the knowledge stains him. He sees exactly how Artigenian had been trying to reshape LaFleur’s perceptions, nudge him down a path of nihilism and self-destruction—where he had succeeded, where he had failed, and how, when the opportunity had presented itself, he had set the would-be monarch on a path that would end in the world’s annihilation…
…and how he had, ultimately, failed… which was fortunate for everyone in the world, except the doomed citizens of Esperanza.
The power stirs again, and David pushes back against the unease that rises with it. LaFleur’s descriptions of how magic interacted with people made it sound like a kind of parasite, but he never described it as something that could communicate with its host. None of Artigenian’s memories involve teaching LaFleur anything about the sentience of magic. But the power he’d absorbed—the power he could feel growing inside him, like a lizard regrowing a lost limb (or more accurately, a lizard’s lost limb regrowing the rest of its body)—had actually talked to him. It had tried to trick him into putting it in the driver’s seat, and giving it control of his mind and body. It failed then, but what will happen when it grows stronger?
Best to master it, before it masters you.
David frowns, brushing the thought aside. He doesn’t want to use that power. It’s bad enough that he can feel it inside him, bad enough that he knows much of what it can do. To actually wield it would be dangerous.
There may be a way around that.
David frowns again, wondering if that was his own thought, or if it was the power trying to trick him a second time. The thought won’t go away, though: on the island, while he was asleep, he could do things. Change things. He’d had power that wasn’t exactly magic, but rather a way of interacting with it to make things happen. He was able to do it because that power permeated the island of Esperanza. And now that power, or one very similar to it, was inside him.
Could he use it to do what he did on the island?
He considers the question. What he did on the island wasn’t entirely dreaming, and it wasn’t entirely magic… it was taking the tension that existed between them and pushing it around until it did what he wanted. The magic had been easy to push around, because it was everywhere.
It isn’t everywhere any more… but it’s inside him. He doesn’t try to command it using the words and bindings he knows from Artigenian’s stolen memories. Instead, as he keeps his awareness of the power active, he tries to change his surroundings the way he would change a dream.
Power stirs. The air pulses around him. For a while, that’s all he can manage to do as the tries to discover the right mix of introspection and concentration needed to go further. The air pulses again, and suddenly it all snaps into place–he hits upon the right balance of self-awareness and outwardly directed will—and he slowly rises off the ground.
David feels the power stir angrily—it doesn’t like what he’s doing. He pushes the feelings aside, reminding himself that he is in control, then returns his attention to what he’s done. He’s floating, still cross-legged, about three feet off the dojo’s cracked stone floor.
He lowers himself to the floor slowly, releases his concentration, and tries again. He spends some time practicing this, trying to strike that balance, getting used to how it feels. It’s not a fast process by any means, not yet, but each time it feels a little faster. Eventually it takes no longer than three deep breaths to reach the equilibrium he needs.
Then, with a gathering of will, he soars. He watches the dojo shrink into a dark, indistinct speck, disappearing altogether as he climbs higher and higher into the sky. He feels the cold of the air around him as it thins, and the sky darkens until the barest hint of stars can be seen through it. In the real world he would suffocate at this height, and probably freeze to death, but this isn't real. He can control this false world the same way he can control his dreams, though it requires a little more concentration to do.
He dives, laughing, back into the warmth of the clear sky, and amuses himself by skimming above the endless grassy plane, watching his shadow play along the ground as it twists and bobs with every unseen bump and trough beneath layers of prairie grass. Despite the presence of the alien power within him, for the first time in a very long time, he feels free.
It feels good to be this free, even if it is in a dream. Or a not-dream, or entity-spawned hallucination, or whatever it is he's in. As his mind sifts through the possible differences between an actual dream and where he is now, it occurs to him that he might not actually be confined to doing this in a dream.
He comes to a landing as he ponders this new thought. This isn't the island, and his relationship to the power within him isn't the same as the power on the island. It's inside him, and there's no reason that he can think of that would prevent him from interacting with it while he was awake.
Is there any reason he couldn't fly while he was awake and in his physical body? And if he could do that, what else could he do?
There's only one way to find out, David. You have to wake up.
He nods, accepting the realization. He wasn't going to find any more answers in this place. The only way he was going to learn anything new was to gather his will and
Something beeps in his ear as his eyes flutter open and immediately close to block out the painfully bright light. He hears a surprised gasp and a pressure on the side of his head releases as someone takes a step back.
“You're awake.” A man's voice, slightly accented.
David opens his eyes again, blinking rapidly to try to minimize the blinding light. Seconds pass, the pain fades, and he realizes the room isn't brightly-lit at all. He's just not used to it.
“Where.” His voice is hardly recognizable, dry and cracked.
“Mr. Bernard,” the voice says again.
A blurry figure looms over him. David squints, and a middle-aged Asian man dressed in scrubs comes into focus.
“You are in a recovery room at the Thorpe Institute. I am Doctor Shào. Doctor LaFleur and I have been monitoring you as you undergo mutationis.”
David shakes his head, trying to clear his thoughts. “What?”
Doctor Shào hesitates, thins his lips, then says, a little unwillingly, “it is commonly referred to as 'cocooning.'”
“We've been a little concerned,” Shào says. “Your progression through mutationis was… atypical.”
“Right,” David says. “Atypical. Can I have some water?”
“A moment,” Shào says. He disappears from view, then promptly returns with a clear plastic cup and a straw. “Small sips.”
David tries to take a small sip from the cup, pulls too hard on the straw and spends the next few minutes coughing furiously. His next attempt is better. After a few sips, he manages to sit up (much to Doctor Shào's alarm) and look around.
He looks down at his arms. They're very thin, almost frail. His face itches. He scratches his cheek and discovers he still has a beard. He sighs, annoyed.
“Where's Artemis?” David asks.
Doctor Shào looks confused for a moment. “Do you mean Doctor LaFleur? I believe he's about to attend an impromptu conference Doctor Thorpe has organized. He did ask that I page him when you awaken. Please don't try to get out of bed just yet. Physically you're very frail—it will take some time to completely bounce back from your ordeal.”
“That seems to be the story of my life, these days,” David says. “What year is it?”
“Doctor LaFleur told me to tell you it's been roughly one month since you 'left.' I'm not sure what he means by 'left,' but I assume you do.”
David nods. “Yeah. Yeah, I do. Thanks.” His voice is stronger and steadier now.
“I'll return in a moment,” Doctor Shào says. “Please wait here.” He exits through a door on the far end of the room.
David struggles to sit up straighter, resisting the urge to pull out the IV taped to his arm and follow the doctor under his own power. He was pretty sure doing that would end with him collapsing in a heap on the cold floor until the doctor or a nurse could haul him up and back on the bed. He contented himself with sitting up and trying to remember everything he could.
He remembered the island, and the boat. He remembered the not-dream.
The entity—he remembered that. Was that real? As if in response, he thought he felt a dark presence slithering somewhere inside him. Probably not physically inside him, of course, or he would have woken up inside a containment room instead of what looked like a fairly standard recovery room. So it was… metaphysically inside him. Whatever that meant.
If it's inside me here, in the real world, I can probably use it.
He considers trying to levitate, looks at the IV sticking out of his left arm, and decides now is not the time. Instead, he tries for something simpler. He stretches out his right arm, resting his elbow on his knee, and turns his palm face up. He closes his eyes, breathes deeply three times, and focuses his will.
When he opens his eyes, he sees a small black sphere resting on the palm of his hand.