David Bernard sits, cross-legged, on the far end of the conference room table. All of the chairs in the room have been pushed out to the walls, making his perch look more like a runway than a meeting table. Behind him, a transparent portal runs the width of the room, showing nothing but darkness. The Nautilus is running too deep for light to filter through the water outside. He suppresses an involuntary shiver as he imagines the immensity of the ocean around him. That tiny strip of not-glass is all that separates him from it. It occurs to him, yet again, that it might be safer to wait until he’s on solid ground before trying this. He reminds himself, yet again, that everyone is running out of time.
He thinks back to last week’s conversation with Dr. Thorpe. If Thorpe is to be believed, he didn’t build the Gladiator battlesuit because of his Metahuman intellect. That gave him access to the knowledge, which was important, but more important was the discipline and creativity that allowed him to apply the knowledge in a way no one had ever thought to use it before.
David has knowledge. He has the accumulated knowledge of one of the most horrifying minds he’s never met: a magus named Artigenian, a man who taught a young and foolishly ambitious Artemis LaFleur the secrets of magic. He remembers every lesson Artigenian ever taught—and, perhaps more important, he remembers every lesson Artigenian ever deliberately withheld. The stolen thoughts of this madman are poison; the mere awareness of those thoughts burns like a brand that is never removed from flesh.
Since Esperanza, he has spent a considerable amount of time trying to keep those thoughts at bay. He dips into the knowledge only when absolutely necessary, keeping David and Artigenian as separate as possible. He felt it was better that Artigenian be a terrifying guest in his head rather than to find a proper place to put him. He still feels, in many ways, that it’s the better choice… certainly it’s the safer choice. Certainly, given the number of choices available to him at the moment, it’s the one he prefers.
It is not, unfortunately, the correct choice.
“Sometimes you have to take the hit.”
He hadn’t intended to say it aloud, and the words sound ridiculous in the context of what he’s about to do. Once, not too long ago, he willingly took the hit in order to save civilians from a drugged-up madman. The injury forced him into retirement, into disability, and still affects him to this day. This was a physical injury. What he’s contemplating now would be a… well, for lack of a better term, a spiritual injury.
Can he afford to take this hit?
An image of a rubbery-black tide of monstrosity swarming over Thorpe’s island appears, unbidden, in his mind. He dismisses it with a shake of the head. The creatures are likely gone by now… but the island likely is as well.
That’s what we’re fighting. That’s just a taste of what we’re fighting. Maybe I can’t afford to take this hit… but can I afford not to?
He doesn’t try to push back the indecision, not for a while. A little uncertainty is appropriate. A little fear is appropriate. A little longing for simpler days, when his decisions didn’t require him to willingly hurt himself so completely, is appropriate.
Eventually, however, he realizes that it’s time to commit. He sighs, pushes back at the uncertainty and fear, and focuses on the slithering, alien presence murmuring in the back of his mind.
He feels it take note of his attention, uncoiling itself as it emerges from whatever dark corner of thought it has chosen to dwell within.
The magician wants magic to serve him, to be the tool he uses to get what he wants, but in order to do that he must find a way to get magic to serve him while remaining true to its own nature. To do this, the magician must study that nature. This often drives them mad.
Those were the words Artemis had used to describe the process of becoming a magician. They echo the stolen thoughts of the mad wizard, Artigenian, though it is perceived differently.
The initiate starts blind, filled by the lies of this false world. To learn, to see, the initiate must be emptied of those lies. Each learned truth will burn away a lie. This process is painful. Seeing the light after a life in darkness is agony. But there will come a point when the pain fades, when the promise of sight is fulfilled, and there will come an ecstasy of wisdom that the mewling flesh-ridden creatures of this world cannot truly understand…
He dismisses the thought abruptly, even as he senses the alien power within him purr with satisfaction.
“Yes.” David speaks aloud. The shard of power—sentient, alien power—doesn’t need it, but he does.
masHEuDH wHy dO YoU fIGht tHiS kNOwlEdGE
He doesn’t respond.
iT Is fOR YoU
“It is not for me,” David says.
yOu dEsIRed iT
yOu fOUghT fOr iT
yOu WOn iT
iT Is fOR YoU
David considers the argument. It’s true, after a fashion: he felt they needed Artigenian’s knowledge, though he’s not sure he’s willing to use the word desire in quite the way the creature means it. The power that came with the knowledge, however, was an entirely unexpected and mostly unwanted side-effect.
iT Is fOR YoU
Initially unwanted, at any rate. If he’s being completely honest, the thought of being able to get back into the action is appealing. More than appealing. He was looking at being out of the game before he even turned thirty, and now…
I cAn hEAl YoU
His heart skips a beat; his breath catches in his throat. Outwardly he doesn’t react, but the thing knows it has his attention.
I cAn hEAl YoU
David takes a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “No you can’t.”
“You are lying. Magic doesn’t heal. That’s not what it’s for.”
flEsH Is mAttER
aLL mAttER cAn bE cHaNgED
For a moment the presence recedes, and all David is aware of his himself. His pulse races, his breath is heavy, taking on a ragged edge… and he realizes that he’s actually considering it. He shouldn’t—he very much knows he shouldn’t—but he is. He asks the questions he knows the power wants him to ask.
Still from a distance, barely intruding on his conscious mind, it whispers.
a bODy iS nO DiFFerENT fRoM a SaCK
a tEAR cAn bE pATchED aNd sEwN
iT maY cHaNGe thE sHaPE bUt nOt tHE fUnctIOn
“It may change the shape?” Immediately David imagines horns growing out of his head, sporting fangs, and glowing red eyes.
The word repeats, this time with a hint of impatience.
“Right,” David says. “That’s what I said.”
The impatience grows into frustration.
Something surges inside David, and he feels momentarily dizzy.
“I don’t think you’re using the right word,” David says.
The whirling, surge of emotion in him subsides.
“It may change the substance,” David says, “but not the function.”
“Healing me would require changing my… substance.”
“I see. You know what, I don’t think that’s any better.”
The entity doesn’t reply. The silence feels… petulant, in a way, as if it is offended at David’s reluctance to do something that feels very much like rewriting his soul.
David shakes his head, amazed at how amazingly simple this creature’s approach to everything truly is. Its most effective tactic had been its first, when it tried to frighten David into using it. Since then it has done nothing but alternate between trying to tempt him with power, and raging at its own captivity. The creature is almost childlike in its lack of complexity. That makes very little sense, given the complexity of Artigenian’s mind—going through his memories is like trying to make your way through a spinning maze, blindfolded. This fragment of his power bears very little in common with a mind like that…
David frowns, considering this point. This fragment of his power bears very little in common with the mind the power came from. There’s something wrong with that thought—the power doesn’t actually come from him. Magic is a parasitic entity that binds to its host. It is not the host. David knows this, because Artemis was able to sacrifice his power without sacrificing himself.
Magic is not the host.
His eyes widen as he considers exactly how wrong he may have been. All this time he’s been trying to understand magic through Artigenian’s memories—but they’re Artigenian’s memories. Artigenian experienced magic, and attempting to understand it drove him insane… but he didn’t walk into his bargain as a good man. He was already an evil, damaged creature, willing to make bargains with darkness in order to serve his own ends. Everything he experienced afterward started from that point, and was filtered through his own expectations and desires.
Of course, the power that bound him didn’t do anything to defy those expectations…
“Yeah, OK.” David stretches out his hand and conjures a ball of darkness. It hovers in his hand, mocking him. That, and a little bit of clumsy flight, is the extent of what he’s been able to do so far.
That’s about to change.
“Here’s the thing,” David says, staring at the globe as if it were the entity itself. “Contrary to all accepted wisdom, I’ve decided that you’re not actually evil.”
There is a vague stirring of… something in the back of his mind. Hope? Fear? Both?
“You’re definitely not good,” David continues. “Your actions certainly default to evil. But I don’t think that’s a team choice. I think that comes from a lack of perspective.”
The hope and fear he feels slithering through him is replaced with something else. Curiosity.
“I don’t think you really understand this world,” David says. “Artigenian has a memory of you showing him something you call the ‘True Realm.’ He deliberately chose not to tell Artemis about this place, because he didn’t really understand it. His best understanding was to call it ‘perfection.’”
The power says nothing, but David knows he has its full attention.
“That’s where you’re from, isn’t it? I don’t understand that memory, I don’t have any way to understand that memory. And I’m betting this world is the same to you. You don’t understand it to the point that it offends you. So you seek out the broken pieces of it, like Artigenian, in order to break it further.”
Still it says nothing.
“It’s more complicated than that. It’s always more complicated than that. But this is a place to start.”
He stares at the globe, momentarily caught by the emptiness of it. It wobbles slightly in the air, and David can hear the power murmuring softly to itself. He doesn’t understand the words, but the sound—a high-pitched babble of nonsense words, descending into a sigh. The sound makes his flesh crawl, but behind the sound David can sense quite a bit of subtext: Uncertainty. Eagerness.
“Yeah,” David says. “You think it’s finally going to happen, don’t you?”
The babble falters, the strange syllables fumbling over themselves. The uncertainty increases, the eagerness fades… and the hunger surges, mixed with desperation.
The uncertainty fades into the background, and the voice—or, at least, what David perceives to be a voice—becomes soothing.
I wiLL tEAcH yOu mUCh
It purrs as it utters the lie. The lie washes over him, full of promise, hinting at all the untapped potential within, waiting to be released.
“Yeah,” David says. “I think you will. I don’t think it’ll go quite the way you expect, though.”
The power ignores his comment, continuing to purr unspoken promises.
“The problem,” David says, “is that it can’t continue this way. We can’t exist like this. If I were more like Artigenian, maybe something could be worked out… but I’m not. So here we are. Something has to change.”
The purr fades, replaced with an uneasy silence.
“I don’t want to change,” David says. “But I will, if I have to. To a point. Sometimes you have to take the hit. But if I’m going down, I’m pulling you up.”
The uneasy silence sharpens into wary malice.
“That’s right.” David half-grins at the floating sphere, feeling a thrill of adrenaline shoot through him. “You say you will teach me much. Well, I believe it. I have a lot to learn. But I’m going to teach you something, too.”
He closes his hand on the globe, dispelling it, as he feels the power surge within him, full of malice and rage.
“I’m going to teach you to dream.”