David Bernard sits at the end of the pier, conjuring orbs of darkness as he watches the ocean roll by.
Robert Thorpe’s artificial island is an impressive feat of engineering—in some places it’s indistinguishable from the real thing—but here, at the end of the pier, something is different. He’s not sure if his new connection to Artigenian’s power has altered his senses, or if his knowledge the island is fake is convincing him to doubt what he sees, but he’s half-convinced he can feel a point just a few feet from the pier where the island falls away, and ocean depths begin.
No, it’s not his imagination: he can feel it. In his mind’s eye he can feel the cold of the ocean drawing him down. If he closes his eyes he can almost see it—a dark, murky green, the only light coming from the sun filtering through the surface, steadily dimming until it’s little more than the barest hint of suffuse luminescence. Finally all light disappears, and his perception of the water changes: no longer shades of light and dark, but shades of motion and stillness, currents and the ripples of things swimming through, all the while the water growing ever colder…
David’s eyes snap open. He looks over his shoulder to see CB standing a few feet behind him. He half turns, forcing himself to focus on the lean man.
CB is dressed in what is, apparently, his usual attire: a worn t-shirt, jeans, thick boots, and a long tan trenchcoat fraying at the sleeves. A lit cigarette dangles from his mouth. His dark hair is half spiked, half matted—like he slept on it and hasn’t bothered fixing it yet. He hasn’t shaved in a few days, and the dark rings under his eyes suggest whatever sleep he’s getting hasn’t been doing its job.
He stares at David, waiting for an answer. It takes a moment to remember the question.
CB raises an eyebrow, then gestures to David’s hand. David looks down and realizes the orb of darkness he conjured earlier is still there, floating just above his open palm.
“Oh.” David closes his hand. The orb disappears. “That’s… uh…”
“Magic?” CB speaks with deliberate casualness—the tone of a man trying to keep an angry crowd at bay while he slowly inches to the exit.
“Sort of.” David frowns, glances back down at his hand, and summons the black orb again. “But not exactly.”
CB mutters something under his breath, then walks up to the edge of the pier, sitting down next to David. “Look, I’m not trying to step on your toes, but I know a little about magic. Very little, OK, but enough to know that it’s all bad news. As in, there is no part of magic that is actually good news.”
kIll hiM mAsHEuDH
The thought is there in an instant, so strong and overpowering that for a moment David goes rigid as it courses through him. The power roils within, aching to be let out. He forces it back.
“Pretty much,” David agrees.
“And I don’t really know you.” If CB notices David’s reaction, he doesn’t show it. “But I’ve heard about you, from people I usually trust. You were Sky Commando, right?”
The rage and hatred leaves David as quickly as it came. The old yearning shoots through him again.
“Crossfire says you’re a stand-up guy, which is a lot coming from them. Travers respects you, and even though I broke his jaw once I gotta admit he’s a pretty good judge of character.”
David raises an eyebrow.
“Long story,” CB says. “Point is, people I’m inclined to trust don’t peg you as the evil wizard type. Only you’ve got magic, and as we just established, there is no part of magic that is actually good news.”
“Right,” David says. “You’re wondering if I’m evil now.”
Power surges through him again. His heart races, his head is pounding, he tastes metal.
tHerE is nO EvIL mAsHEuDH onLy cOmmitMEnt
CB shrugs. “I wouldn’t put it exactly that way. But yeah.”
David takes a deep breath, forcing the presence back once more. This is not your body. I am in control here. “It’s a fair question. I absorbed a piece of power. The man I took that power from is, without question, evil through and through. I carry that power—and that evil—in me, somehow. I also have a lot of his memories, which I find deeply unpleasant.”
CB nods. “I’ll bet.”
“But none of it is actually me,” David says. “The memories are like a really unpleasant houseguest that won’t leave. I can access them, but there’s no way I can see that I’ll ever confuse them for mine. The power is a lot more dangerous—”
yOu mUSt wIEld mE
“—but as long as I never use it I should be all right.”
The orb flickers as the presence fades from consciousness, only faintest awareness of its discontent seeping through.
“Uh…” CB points at the floating black sphere. “That sort of looks like you’re using it.”
David looks back at the sphere. “Oh. Yeah, I guess it does. But I’m not—at least, I’m not using it directly. This is kind of a cheat.”
“I like cheating,” CB says. “It’s a personal favorite. But I’m gonna need a little more detail.”
David stares out at the water, saying nothing. CB doesn’t press him. David frowns, trying to sort through all the thoughts in his head, wondering if it’s possible to put them in order.
“I was a cop,” he says. “I mean, yeah, Sky Commando, but Sky Commando is a duly sworn officer of the New York Police Department. Before that I was military. I was a good soldier. I was a solid cop. All modesty aside, I was great at being Sky Commando. But none of those really prepared me for where I am now.”
“I’m not trying to hold out on you, Curveball. Or on anyone. What happened to me is legitimately dangerous. I think we need the information I have, especially now that we know how magic is involved in this virus, but that doesn’t mean it won’t someday turn me into a monster every bit as horrifying as the man whose power I… acquired.”
“But you’re not a monster now,” CB says.
David takes another deep, steadying breath. “I don’t know. I don’t feel like one. But I’m not really sure how to talk about it. Not sure I can talk about it. You say you know a ‘little’ about magic. How much can you talk about compared to how much you actually know?”
CB’s eyes unfocus slightly. “Not… not all of it.”
David nods. “Artigenian—that’s the man I took this power from—some of his memories are very specific to the transactional nature of acquiring power. If you willingly enter into a transaction—often even if you do so completely ignorant of what you’re doing—there’s a price that you’re bound to. In many cases this price is silence. In fact, that seems to be the default setting.”
CB’s eyes are still unfocused. “Yeah, that lines up with some of what I know. ‘My tongue cleaves to my jaws, and you lay me in the dust of death.’”
“I’m pretty sure you’re using that out of context,” David says.
CB laughs, his eyes snapping back into focus. He shakes his head, grinning. David doesn’t understand why, but he doesn’t press the issue.
“Seems I’m a little less bound by the rules than some,” David adds. “The way I acquired my information was definitely through nonstandard channels. Those rules are still out there, but it seems I have a bit more freedom. I don’t know why. I think it’s all tied up with how I do this.”
He nods to the black orb hovering over his open palm.
CB returns his attention to it. “How do you do that?”
CB frowns. “You look awake to me.”
“I am. Did Artemis ever give you the big speech about magic?”
“I got the summary,” CB says. “Ancient force, hostile to life, do not try to negotiate, run like hell.”
“Fair place to start,” David says. “Ancient sentient force. That’s the part most people don’t expect. Magic has a kind of awareness—it is aware of its surroundings, and in the case of magic dwelling within people it’s aware of its host and of itself.”
“OK,” CB says. “So the power you have is alive and can think?”
“Yeah,” David says. “And it speaks Arabic and Aramaic. It keeps calling me ‘masheudh.’”
“It has a pet name for you?” CB eyes David warily.
“It means ‘warlock’ in Arabic. I had to Google it.”
“It has a pet name for you.”
David shrugs. “It’s not used affectionately. But here’s the interesting part…”
“Oh,” CB says, “the interesting part hasn’t happened yet. Good to know.”
“Here’s the interesting part,” David repeats. “While magic can perceive this world, it’s not part of it. There are aspects of this reality they don’t understand.”
“Oh?” CB leans in. “Like what?”
“Like you, for one thing. The power in me doesn’t understand you. Also, it doesn’t like you at all. It wants me to kill you—I’m not planning on it, just to be clear, I don’t take its advice. It’s not fond of Artemis, either, though I think that has more to do with his past history with Artigenian.”
“So it doesn’t like metahumans,” CB says. “I’d noticed that about magic in general.”
“No,” David says. “I mean, yes, it doesn’t like metahumans, but this is different. It doesn’t have any specific feelings about Regiment, or Vigilante, or Red Shift, or Scrapper Jack. Or Zero. Hostility is its default setting, so yes, but you and Artemis actually get it worked up a little.” His brow furrows. “And one of the Feds. The man. Agent Grant.”
“Oh,” CB says. “Yes. That’s interesting.”
“Does it mean something to you?”
“Not really. Go on.”
“Well, the thing that’s relevant to this little black orb is that it doesn’t understand dreaming. Not only does it not understand it, but if you’re lucid dreaming, you can control it somehow. I’m not sure how that works. I know it doesn’t involve touching or channeling it, because I have memories of how that feels.” David shivers. “They’re not pleasant memories. It’s not like that.”
“Kind of, what?” CB asks. “A remote control?”
“That’s as good an explanation as any,” David says. “When I was asleep back on the—back where Artemis and I were, I could affect the environment around me because it was permeated with magic. And that’s essentially what I’m doing here—I’m ‘dreaming’ a floating black orb above my hand, and the power I’m carrying is creating it. Reluctantly.”
“But you’re not dreaming,” CB says.
“That’s where it started.” David grows and shrinks the orb, making it look as though it’s breathing. “It started with dreams, but I figured out how to duplicate its effects while I was awake… after a fashion. It’s harder to do. It’s a mindset thing. You ever heard of ‘focused daydreaming?’”
CB shakes his head.
“Oh. Well, it’s like that.” David shrugs. “I don’t know how to explain it. There’s a specific state of mind I need to be in before I can actually do anything.”
“Do anything like what?”
David smiles ruefully. “Creating a little floating orb, mostly. When I do that I know I’m in the right frame of mind. I’m trying to get that down before trying anything else. I’ve noticed a few interesting side effects though. It seems to enhance my senses a little. Just before you showed up I was daydreaming into the water, and it almost seemed like I could…”
David’s voice trails off. His face slackens, and his eyes take on a faraway look.
“Could what?” CB passes his hand in front of David’s face. He doesn’t blink. “Hello? You there?”
A moment later David’s eyes widen in alarm. “I need to find Artemis.”
“Trouble?” CB gets to his feet, his voice steady and calm.
“Maybe. Probably… yes. I’m almost sure. Where is Artemis?”
“LaFleur is probably with Robert, in his office. Anything I should know?”
“I don’t know yet…” David stares at the black orb floating in front of him. It appears to have expanded to twice its original size. He closes his hand, and the orb disappears. “Bad magic thing? Sorry, I don’t know how to be more specific right now.”
“Go to Robert’s office, have him page LaFleur if he’s not there,” CB says. “I’ll round up the others. We’ll all meet there.”
“Right.” David stares out at the water for a moment, then shudders. “Thanks.”
With those words he turns, running full-tilt down the length of the peer. He’s still running as he passes behind the marina’s office, disappearing from sight.
CB reaches into his trenchcoat pocket and pulls out a flat metal disc. He passes his thumb over the back, causing it to beep softly. “Robert.”
A moment later, a voice emerges from the front. “CB? Is that you?”
“Yeah. You’re gonna get a visitor. The emaciated magic guy. He’s going to need a minute to remember how to breathe, but after that you should probably listen to what he has to say. Call Artemis if he’s not there.”
“He is,” Robert says. “Trouble?”
CB turns to look out over the water, wondering what the man saw. A stiff breeze picks up. The air suddenly smells like rain. “I didn’t really follow everything he said, but I’m gonna go with ‘yes.’”