The silver-haired man hangs in the air, clothed in a thin white robe, suspended by a power that existed before time. The circle of power that imprisons allows nothing to pass through, in or out, unless willed by its master. He gave up trying to escape long ago, so long ago that he barely remembers the attempts, though the failures still haunt his dreams. He has had neither food nor drink in this prison—the power that sustains it also sustains him, nourishing him just enough to keep him alive and nothing more. Hunger and thirst are ever-present companions: even in sleep he dreams of food and drink.
He keeps his eyes closed, focusing on that hunger and thirst, acknowledging them, then pushing them as far back as he can. He does this every day. Some days it works, others it doesn’t. Today it works, and the hunger and thirst recede to manageable levels. He sighs softly, allowing himself a measure of relief. Today he will be in control. Tomorrow will be another battle.
The large hall that holds his prison is empty now, but in a few hours that will change. In a few hours, the first of the acolytes will arrive, bringing in the artifacts and setting up the materials needed for the ceremony that will take place later that night. They will not see him, of course—they are locked in their predestined actions, caught in a time and a place where the silver-haired man and his prison do not yet exist. Later he will be forced to watch a shadow of himself perform a ritual that will doom the entire world, and even later watch that shadow perform a final ritual that will pull the world back from destruction by dooming every inhabitant on the island to non-existence.
All save him. Or so he thought.
The ornate double doors at the far end of the hall open, the sound echoing in the large space, and a man in a green silk robe strides purposefully into the room. The doors swing shut behind him of their own accord as he stares at the silver-haired man. That gaze was always unnerving; today it is almost painful.
Artemis LaFleur watches his teacher in silence. He can do nothing else: while in the circle, he can speak only if its master wills it. He watches as his teacher approaches, listening to the wist of the green silk robes brushing against the cold stone floor.
Artigenian appears to be a healthy, vigorous man in his early sixties. His hair is long, pulled back and held in place with an elaborate ivory and gold clip, revealing many gold and silver rings in his ears. He has no beard, which he claims is unusual for his people—instead, his chin and lower jaw are covered in tattoos. Each mark represents an aspect of the power he wields and serves. LaFleur knew what each mark meant, once. He can’t remember any of them now.
Artigenian stops at the edge of the circle, watching him in silence. LaFleur closes his eyes.
“No.” The man’s voice is thick and harsh. His accent sounds Balkan, though LaFleur isn’t sure which it is—Teteven, perhaps? Perhaps.
“No,” Artigenian says again. “You will open your eyes and face me.”
LaFleur feels his eyes open and his head swivel down to gaze on his teacher’s face. It is hard and uncaring, a far cry from the friendly and wise mentor he had once cherished.
That friendship was a lie. This is his true form.
“Fate, it seems, returns you. Why is that, I wonder?”
LaFleur says nothing.
Artigenian waits a moment, then sighs in exasperation. “Would that I could compel you to speak. But even now, you are strong, my pupil. Even in your present state. So I must… convince you. This will take some time.” He smiles savagely. “Fortunately, time is not a precious commodity in this place. Not for men like you and I.”
He turns away from LaFleur, stalking the room, circling the place where, in a few hours, they will call forth untold horrors into the world.
“So close…” his voice is almost a whisper. “On this night I came so close. I thought you were the one. You had the power to tear the veil from this… false existence. We were very nearly on the brink of returning the one true empire to its rightful place in the spheres. But you betrayed us! Spit upon your purpose. Turned your back on all we had given you… and did this!”
He sweeps his hand angrily around him. “This… abomination. This prison, where I must watch myself taste victory for so short a time, only to see it all undone by your treachery! To relive that victory and defeat, day in and day out, to see what might have been for a moment, and what is for eternity! You! Traitor!”
LaFleur feels a release of pressure as Artigenian permits him to speak. He clears his throat, coughing up half-dried phlegm, mustering his strength. “That isn’t how I remember it.”
“No?” Artigenian laughs, full of scorn.
“I remember a teacher and a friend telling me of a spell that would save my country from war. I suppose that wasn’t a lie, technically. But it was certainly a betrayal.”
Artigenian shakes his head. “Not a betrayal. A lesson. A hard one, to be sure, but a necessary step for a power such as yours. You should have embraced your act and risen above us all. You would have become something wonderful. Terrible. A god, perhaps. Instead you emptied yourself in a fit of misplaced love for the lie that is this creation. And now you are a… shell.” He spits the last word out contemptuously. “Empty. Hollow. Where is it? What happened to it?”
LaFleur doesn’t answer.
“You will answer me.” Artigenian’s voice is thick with contempt. “You are not the student I loved like my own child. You are what remains. You are the dust that made up his form, the shadow he used to speak. The student I loved grew within you, and now it is gone. Where has he gone?”
LaFleur simply looks at him.
“What has happened to your power?” Artigenian shrieks in rage, fists balled, flecks of spittle flying from the corners of his mouth. LaFleur stares back in cold defiance.
Artigenian takes a deep breath, then bows once. “Very well. You refuse today. Tonight you will watch our victory and our defeat. Tomorrow we speak on this further. Eventually you will tell me where you hid your power, and when you do I will unravel this damnable prison, free my students, and finish what we started so many years ago. Goodbye, my student. Tomorrow the lessons begin anew.”
He bows once more, then turns and walks to the double doors. At the end of the room. The doors open before he reaches them, then close with an echoing boom when he passes through. When LaFleur is finally alone, he sighs in relief.
They have had this conversation more times than he can remember, and if the world is to survive he must continue having it for as long as he draws breath. Artigenian believes himself free of the island, but that is only partially true: he is powerful, and his power grants him some autonomy, but the island is always pulling at him, trying to bring him back into the pattern. So far, that has saved LaFleur’s life, unpleasant though his current existence may be: Artigenian is completely unaware that he has been repeating the first day of LaFleur’s interrogation for months, maybe even years. As long as he remains unaware of this, he will not resort to the methods that will break LaFleur’s will. The moment he suspects…
LaFleur closes his eyes. He will suspect. Someday he will realize what LaFleur is doing, and all will be lost. But today is not that day… today there is still hope.