Curveball Issue 21: This Mortal Coil

Part Five: Esperanza Imperial Palace

Artemis LaFleur stands in a room he has not thought of for a very long time.

When he’d commissioned the construction of the Imperial Palace, he’d made it a grand and public affair. Set into one of the few mountains on the island, it would look out over his tiny nation, serving as both beacon and reminder of its new way forward. His quarters, it was reported, would be at the lowest levels—no dungeons here, just a secure suite for the island’s leader. This was in stark contrast to the previous “leader,” a despot who took pride in the dungeons and torture chambers of his own palace. It was also considered a reasonable nod to security, since the United States and Soviet Union had been locked in a desperate cold war, and the threat of nuclear Armageddon was ever-present.

There was another reason Artemis had wanted his rooms there, however. As soon as he moved in he began carving out a series of secret rooms beneath his own—a sanctum where he could plan in private. Rooms that, eventually, only he could open—he could thank Artigenian’s tutelage for that, for the spells that recognized their master and opened only upon his command.

There is a moment, just before he reaches out to a specific point on a specific panel on a wall, that he fears he will fail. Perhaps the magic that seals the portal is not keyed to him, but to the magic he once possessed. Perhaps, as far as magic is concerned, the power he possessed was the only part of him that mattered. But when he reaches out to the panel on the wall it opens, and behind it the broad stone stairway leading down is immediately illuminated by light from an unseen source.

He descends in silence, lost in memories. This had been a sanctuary, a place where he could work alone, free from the attention and expectations of friends and enemies alike.

The stairs open into a comfortably-furnished sitting room. Bookcases and cabinets line the walls—the bookcases full of trivial but entertaining books, the cabinets full of liquor and drinking glasses—and in the center of the room are two overstuffed chairs and a love seat arranged around a simple wooden table. The only thing the room lacks is a fireplace. He never did figure out how to ventilate the room properly for that.

The cabinets are well stocked, and when he finally catches up to old habits he’s sitting in his favorite chair, a copy of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in his lap and a snifter of brandy in his hand. It’s been a long time since he’s been here, and he realizes that this room, more than any other, was home to him. For a while he sits, and wallows in the memory of a happier time. A time before he realized the extent of Artigenian’s betrayal. A time before he had to unmake the only part of the world he’d ever come close to saving.

Perhaps now is not a time for drinking, he thinks. He sets the brandy aside, and waits.

Half an hour later the dream-form of David Bernard floats down the stairs. Artemis smiles at the image of the clean-shaven man, dressed crisply in black fatigues, shirt, and utility vest. This is still how he sees himself—not the bearded man currently sleeping in the library.

Artemis stands. “I’m glad you made it.”

“I’m glad you made it,” David says. “I was afraid you might have a relapse, after what happened last time.”

Artemis smiles reassuringly. “I’ve recovered fairly quickly, since then.”

The truth is, it was close. He is much recovered, but being in a state of near-starvation for almost a year isn’t something you shake off in a matter of days. Teleporting to his chambers had seemed the most logical method of approach for him—he doesn’t have the ability to move about unseen, as David’s dream form does—but it was tiring.

“Well, you give good directions,” David says. “You should close the outer door now, though.”

Artemis nods, walks over to the stairs, and passes his hand across a carving set into the wall. The light on the stairs dims, and he can hear the click of the upstairs wall as it swings shut.

“We will not be disturbed, now. Not without a great deal of warning.”

“Your friend won’t bother us?”

“He doesn’t even remember me, at this point,” Artemis says.

“You mentioned that before,” David says. “Why is that, exactly? I mean, good for us, but it’s curious.”

Artemis unbuttons the top of his shirt—taken from one of the abandoned clothiers in the city—and reveals the very top of the glistening symbol Artigenian embedded into his chest five days ago.

“The day you found me Artigenian realized he was trapped in time. And he suspected, based on my physical frailty, that I was not. He needed a way to escape, and as far as he knew I was the only ‘new’ thing on the island—and I was helpless.”

“Sure,” David says. “He had you trapped, he didn’t know I was there.”

“Exactly,” Artemis says. “So he made a very daring and clever decision. One that would, had you not intervened, have freed him from the island’s grip. He took every memory he had of me—from the time we first met, right up to that very day when he realized he was trapped and I was not—and bound it into a sigil which he then bound to my flesh.”

“I get the daring part,” David says. “Not so sure how it’s clever.”

“The problem with the island is that memory is not persistent here,” Artemis says. “When you are in its grip, whatever you do in the last twenty-four hours of its life is erased from your mind. Unmade, just as most of the island’s history is no more. The process of this unmaking places the victim in a deep, dreamless slumber first, which is where the memories are undone.”

“That’s how I got out of it,” David says. “I was asleep but aware, and the magic didn’t… know what to do with me, I guess.”

“It seems as good an explanation as any,” Artemis says. “It would never occur to Artigenian to try that. But he knew—suspected—that I was free of the island entirely. So he fused his memories of me into my flesh. When the island began anew, Artigenian would wake up with no memory of me at all, but when he inevitably found me hanging in my prison, he would recognize that symbol, realize its purpose, and retrieve those memories. And because those memories would have persisted past the island’s cycle, he would be free of it from that point forward.”

David looks at the edge of the symbol snaking out from the top of Artemis’ shirt and shudders. “So his solution was to rip out a piece of himself and burn it into your chest.”

“It seems so.”

“Magic is a sick business, LaFleur.”

“It makes monsters,” Artemis says.

David looks around. “So if every memory of you is trapped in that thing, then any knowledge he’d have of this place would be trapped with it.”

“Which means we can take our time.” Artemis stands, and gestures for David to follow. “Let’s get what we came for.”

The sitting room is attached to a small office with a rolltop desk. Just beyond the office is a trophy room—sculptures, works of art, strange objects kept in glass cases. Artemis stands before one of the sculptures—a small statue of a semi-formed humanoid with a face that looks reminiscent of the larger sculptures on Easter Island—and places his hand, fingers outstretched, over the top of its head.

“What’s that?” David’s voice is sharp and wary.

“What?” Artemis keeps his hand over the statue, waiting patiently.

“I feel something…” David reaches for the right word. “Moving, I guess. I don’t know how else to describe it.”

“Ah…” Artemis glances up at David and nods. “I expect that’s the ward reacting to my presence. You seem to have an uncanny awareness of magic in your dream-state. It shouldn’t be long now.”

As if on cue, the statue twists in place. Artemis takes a step back as the statue and the pedestal beneath it rise out of the floor and slide to the left, revealing a staircase going down.

David exhales sharply. “You have a secret room inside your secret room?”

“Layers within layers,” Artemis says. “I assumed someone would learn of the existence of these rooms, or that I would eventually trust someone enough to tell them myself. So I set aside a place for the things I wished to keep to myself. A vault of secret and dangerous things. The books we need are here.”

“The magic books,” David says.

“The magic books.” As his foot touches down on the first step, he sees the chamber beneath him fill with a soft, dim light. It is a large rectangular room of rough-hewn stone, completely empty and unadorned. Stone doors without visible hinges or latches line the far wall, eight in all.

“Is it safe down there?” David asks.

“Only I will be able to pass through the vault doors,” Artemis says. “But the foyer is fine, and I may need your assistance in a bit.”

Artemis steps down into the foyer and stands before the second door to the right. He is dimly aware of David standing at the bottom of the stairs, watching him silently.

“This is where I placed forbidden knowledge,” Artemis says. “That sounds excessively dramatic, when said aloud, but I don’t think it’s wrong.”

He runs his hands across the door. It seems almost foolish to call it a door, since it is nothing more than a stone fitted perfectly within the stone wall.

“When Curveball described the runes on the skin of the man he fought—Plague—he said they seemed to move. To ripple across his skin. That tugged at an echo of something. I’m certain I read about something very similar in one of the books sealed behind this stone.”

“But you don’t remember what,” David says.

Artemis shakes his head. “No.” He doesn’t bother disguising his frustration. “I wish I remembered how to describe the relationship between a magician and the magic within him. The best description I can manage is that of a symbiote in a host. It grows within, is nurtured, its strength becomes the host’s. And the knowledge of magic is contained within magic itself. It is remembered by the magician because the relationship between them is symbiotic, but the actual knowledge is not stored in the mind.”

“That sounds more like science fiction than magic,” David says.

“Yes,” Artemis says. “Any magic, insufficiently explained, is indistinguishable from technology.”

David snorts.

“It’s time to open this door.” Artemis places both palms on the surface of the stone door.

“How are you going to do that?” David asks.

“If it were anyone else,” Artemis says, “it would take someone with the strength of Jack to move this stone. And if they did, it would trigger a number of… other, deeply unpleasant things. But this place still recognizes me, and all I need to do is…”

A light tap on the stone causes it to sink back and slide to one side, revealing a darkened room beyond.

Artemis smiles in satisfaction. “Now we just need to figure out how to get them…”

His voice trails off. His eyes widen in shock.

“LaFleur?” David remains at the foot of the stairs, unsure how close he can get before he triggers whatever protects the room. “LaFleur? Is everything OK? Can you see it?”

Artemis turns to David, face ashen, his expression one of bewilderment and fear. “Gone…”

“What?” David takes a step forward. “What’s gone?”

Artemis leans against the stone wall and gestures to the room. “Empty. The entire room. Every book is gone. Every last one.”

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