David is out of shape.
This isn’t a new condition—he’s been out of shape ever since his first concussion—but it’s never been quite this bad. His time on the island took more out of him than he wants to admit.
His sides are burning before he gets anywhere close to the main complex, but he doesn’t dare stop. He can feel the magic getting stronger, an invisible noose slowly tightening, and he knows that they don’t have much time to prepare. He ignores the pain, ignores the knives stabbing at his lungs every time he draws breath, ignores the agony in his ribs and sides, and forces his legs to move. He’s running as fast as he can, not bothering to stop for apologies or explanations.
By the time he reaches the building his fear is so great he almost doesn’t notice his agony. He can hear the low rumble of thunder in the air, and he can feel an altogether different kind of rumbling behind it. Power gathers; the noose tightens further.
He bursts into the main lobby, ignoring the protests and questions of the man at the front desk as he manages to catch one of the elevators just as it closes. He punches the number for Dr. Thorpe’s level, then collapses against the elevator wall, gasping for breath, waving away the concern of the other men and women sharing that space.
When the elevator stops at the right level, he forces himself into the hall, stumbling as he tries to find his balance. He pushed his body hard—too hard, it seems—and now it’s ready to collapse. He forces himself to move, to run, but all he can manage is to stagger forward a few steps. Again, someone tries to help him, and this time he doesn’t push the help away. He mumbles Thorpe’s name, repeating it twice before it’s clear enough for anyone to understand. His good Samaritan—a middle-aged woman in a white lab coat—finally nods, understanding, and calls for help. She and one of her colleagues, a younger man with a patchy red beard, guide him as briskly as they can to Dr. Thorpe’s office door.
It opens the moment they arrive. David mumbles his thanks, steps through, the world swims around him, and he falls to the floor in a heap. It’s only then that he suspects there may be more going on than simply exhaustion.
He hears familiar voices: Dr. Thorpe, faintly, as if from a far distance. Artemis LaFleur, a bit closer, his voice sharp with concern. The woman who helped him, explaining what she could, her colleague chiming in occasionally to confirm. And then a firm grip closes on his arms, and he’s lifted easily into the air.
“Easy. I got ya.”
David’s vision clears, and he sees the scarred face of Jack Barrow peering at him.
David takes a deep, gulping breath, trying not to cough. “I need to… sit…”
Jack nods, and carries David over to one of the chairs near Dr. Thorpe’s desk. He collapses into it gratefully. He spends a few minutes trying to focus, to get his breathing under control. Nothing feels right. He knows he’s not in peak form, but it’s hard to accept that he’s in this state.
Without thinking he extends his right hand and summons the globe of darkness. Almost immediately he feels something shrink back, a pressure he hadn’t been aware of until that moment, and it becomes slightly easier to breathe. He focuses on the black orb and imagines it as a kind of shield against that pressure. He sees it pulse, and then he is surrounded by it, a thin, dark, radiance covering his entire body. His skin tingles slightly, and the pressure he’d been conflating with exhaustion disappears completely. He dissolves into a fit of coughing, again aware of how badly his lungs are burning.
“What’s that?” Jack asks.
“It is,” Artemis says, “something very close to, but not quite, magic.”
“How close?” The suspicion and wariness in Jack’s voice are, David thinks, entirely reasonable. He’s not a stupid man.
“Not as close as you fear,” Artemis says. “I am tempted to call this dream magic, though I fear it’s an imprecise term.”
Dream magic. David finds he likes the phrase. He nods, still wheezing, and gestures to Artemis. “What he said.” His voice is very hoarse.
“OK,” Jack says. Some of the edge in his voice is gone, but not all of it.
“David, are you all right?” Dr. Thorpe sits behind his desk, taking everything in. His voice is calm, but worried.
David shakes his head, takes two deep breathes, and forces himself to speak. “Someone is casting a spell.”
“Where?” Artemis asks sharply.
David finally manages to get handle on his aches and pains, and sits up. “Everywhere. Surrounding the whole island. Dr. Thorpe, I believe the people behind the virus have discovered your island, and I’m pretty sure they plan to destroy it.”
“Call me Robert.” Dr. Thorpe reaches out to the computer terminal sitting on his desk, and types a few commands. “What makes you believe we’ve been discovered? What makes you believe someone is casting a spell?”
There’s no obvious skepticism in his voice, just a simple request for more information.
“I think we’ve been discovered because of the spell,” David says. “And I believe there’s a spell because I can feel it being cast. It was pretty bad a second ago. It eased off when I did this.” He indicates the black shimmering field enveloping his body. “I guess it was sort like allergies. Really bad ones.”
Jack Barrow raises an eyebrow, and looks at Artemis questioningly. Artemis shrugs.
“Artemis.” David looks up at the older man. “I know what the spell is. So do you.”
Artemis stares back at him. His eyes narrow slightly.
“Yeah,” David says. “That one.”
An uncomfortable silence settles over the room.
“You are certain of this?” Artemis asks, voice becoming dangerously quiet.
Jack scowls, then sighs. “Well, shit.”
“Tell me more about this spell,” Thorpe says. He’s still doing something on his computer terminal.
“I remember very little in the way of specifics,” Artemis says. “At the time I’d been tricked into believing it would summon guardians to protect my island. Instead it summoned… things. Creatures that exist only to devour and destroy.”
“They come from the water,” David says. “They are the enemy of everything on dry land. They are attracted to it. They’ll swarm to it and strip it bare, leaving nothing but bleached rock behind.”
Thorpe looks up from his terminal. “Can we stop it? Counter it in some way?”
“Artemis did,” David says. “It cost him a great deal to do so. He had to erase an entire island out of existence to undo the spell. We won’t be able to do that, since we don’t know where the person casting the spell is.”
“I have an idea,” Artemis says. His voice is strange and dangerous; Jack glances at him in alarm.
“We’d also need to use magic ourselves in order to power it,” David says. “We’d need to burn it away, sort of. And we’d need more than I have. Artemis had an entire magical entity dwelling within him when he undid his spell. I only have a portion by comparison.”
Robert nods absently. “I think I see how they did it. Someone compromised a number of US satellites and used them to search us out.”
“Compromised?” Artemis asks.
“I’m an optimist.” Dr. Thorpe frowns slightly, then types a few commands into his keyboard. “I’m going to return the favor. If we can find out where the data was sent—”
His desk phone beeps once. Without looking, he reaches over to activate the speakerphone. “This is Robert Thorpe.”
A woman’s comes through the speakers. “Dr. Thorpe, this is Alison Tucker from Meteorology. There’s a storm developing over the island. It’s not anything we were tracking. We didn’t pick up any sign of it on our weather satellites. It just… showed up. Spontaneously.”
Thorpe glances at David.
“That’s how it starts,” David says.
Thorpe nods. “Dr. Tucker, have your department issue a storm warning for the island. Have all personnel and families move below for the duration.”
“Call me back if there are any changes.” Dr. Thorpe hangs up, then turns back to David. “Tell me how this spell progresses.”
David grits his teeth, then dips into Artigenian’s memories. “It starts with a storm. It’ll be a pretty strong one, with lightning and high winds. I’m not sure how long it’ll last. The one on Esperanza lasted for hours, but if it’s tied to the strength of the spell this one could be shorter than that. It’ll end pretty fast.”
“Is that when these creatures arrive?” Thorpe asks.
“No,” David says. “Then there will be the horns. Or at least one. Whoever casts the spell needs to use a horn to summon the creatures. There will be multiple calls with the horn, then silence. Then the creatures will come.”
“Do you know how?”
“Yes.” David is breathing normally now, the pain in his lungs, limbs, and side now merely a dull ache. Beneath the shimmering darkness, his expression is haunted and fearful. “Yes, I know how. Some of it. I saw it on Esperanza. The rest I know from Artigenian’s memories—he was never strong enough to cast the spell, but he always knew what it did. They come out of the water. They make their way to land. They destroy everything in their path, though they ignore everything else around them, unless provoked. There were so many…”
“They don’t think, they respond. The horn calls, they follow. They emerge from the water on to land, travel across the land, and disappear back into the water. They’re not invulnerable—you can kill them—but there are always so many… there are always more than you can kill. They continue to rise until the land is dead, until what lives on the land is dead. And then the water covers them up… and then they are gone.”
His explanation is almost a recitation—it doesn’t sound like David at all. With the darkness surrounding him, he doesn’t really look like David either. He looks gaunt, his eyes seem empty, peering inward. All eyes on the room are on him, sizing him up, wondering at his sanity. To be honest, he wonders a little himself.
“When the storm ends,” David says. “When the storm ends, and the horns begin—that’s how long we have. After that, the creatures come.”
Dr. Thorpe stares at his terminal and frowns. “In that case,” he says, “I think we may have run out of time. Look at the screen.”
Everyone looks up at the large screen set in the wall behind his desk. The image changes to a view of one of the beaches on Thorpe’s island. Seaweed litters the sand, which has been pushed into mounds from the wind earlier, but at the moment it’s calm. There is no rain. There is no wind, no thunder. The surf rolls lazily up the sand, retreats, and rises again.
“The storm,” Thorpe says, “appears to have ended.”
At that moment, from somewhere far above them, they hear a trumpet sound.