Part Six: This Mortal Coil
David stays against the far wall, but moves over so he’s facing the door. Through it he can see a long room that reminds him of the old workshop his dad had in the basement of their house—narrow, full of shelves, with a table set against a wall that lacked only a vise to complete the picture. And it is empty: every shelf, every surface. Completely bare.
“The books are gone?”
“I don’t know,” Artemis says, voice hollow. “It’s… it’s not possible. The wards are intact—they must be intact, because the door opened. And if the wards are intact, then I am the only person allowed in this room.”
“Obviously that isn’t true,” David says.
“Obviously…” Artemis takes a moment to compose himself.
I am my only master.
“Still, it’s appropriate to take a moment to reflect on the sheer impossibility of this.”
“It’s not impossible if it happened,” David points out.
“That’s not what I mean,” Artemis says. “When I originally left this island, I deliberately left these things behind. The power that had been mine was gone, sacrificed as part of that final spell I cast, so I could no longer really understand them in any practical way. As a result of the spell, I wasn’t sure if they were the originals. Technically, in this world, Esperanza never existed, so I never claimed it as my own, Artigenian never sought me out, and I never sought them out. It was possible they existed both in my vault and out in the world.”
“Maybe that’s a good thing,” David says. “Maybe that means we can still find copies of—”
“No,” Artemis says. “The books existed here alone. That was one of the first things I looked into. Each of the books mysteriously disappeared at about the time I procured them in the old reality. Artigenian did the same—I was able to track down his history almost to the day when he showed up at my doorstep. Reality becomes a bit of a mess where Esperanza is concerned…”
David says nothing.
“So in theory,” Artemis says, “my decision to keep the books here was sound. My vault was more secure than any of the places I’d taken them from, and the vault was on an island that exists as a single day in the entire expanse of time… barring destroying them—which I wasn’t sure was possible—there was no safer way to keep them out of the hands of others.”
“I hate to sound like a broken record,” David says, “but however safe it was in theory, it looks like someone proved you wrong.”
“I agree,” Artemis says. “Placing that reality beside the theory gives us an idea of who is capable of doing so. Someone who knew the island existed. Someone who could find the island. Someone who could escape the island. Someone who could retrieve the books without triggering the wards that protected them. There is only one other person, besides myself, who has the ability to do such a thing.”
David raises an eyebrow. “Only one? Who?”
Artemis looks at David, expression grave. “Me.”
David frowns. “You said other than you.”
Artemis starts to reply, then he looks around and sighs. “Let’s go back to the library. There’s nothing for us here, and there’s no reason to continue talking here. Wake yourself up. I’ll be there soon.”
* * *
David is groggy when he wakes up. He’s not used to that—before the concussion he was always alert and moving the moment he opened his eyes. Even with the concussion he was able to rouse himself relatively quickly. Here on the island, however, things are different. Especially since he started interacting with it in his dreams—there seems to be a recovery time as he transitions from the weirdness he encounters in his “dream form,” as Artemis calls it, to the physical world.
It takes him a few minutes before he’s aware enough to stand, clear his head, and walk out of the utility closet and into the main floor. When he does he’s not surprised to see Artemis waiting for him. He is surprised to see a bottle of brandy and two snifters sitting on the table they’ve been using.
“From my private stock,” Artemis says. “I think we can both use a drink at this point.”
David doesn’t disagree. Artemis pours; they both drink. David waits long enough for the brandy to take the edge off, then he gets to the point.
“You were about to explain how you were the only other person who could have taken those books.”
Artemis stares at the brandy as he swirls it around in his snifter, frowning deeply. “The final spell… the spell I cast that unmade the island. It required a sacrifice.”
“Sacrifice,” David says. “We talking stone table, bound virgin, heart on the altar?”
“That could have worked,” Artemis says. “That’s not what I did.”
David feels a surprising surge of relief. “Glad to hear it. It’s not really your MO.”
Artemis smiles. “Thank you. I chose to sacrifice myself. At the time I believed the sacrifice would be literal—that I would indeed die when the spell was cast. Obviously that didn’t happen. Instead, I woke up on the island devoid of power. The magic inside me was gone.”
“Which is why you don’t really understand magic any more,” David says. “Not like you did. Symbiotes and whatnot.”
“Yes,” Artemis says. “I assumed the magic was the sacrifice. That it was consumed by the spell. But every day—every day but the day you witnessed—Artigenian would say something to me that makes me question that assumption.”
“What’d he say?” David asks.
“He said ‘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 he is gone.’” Artemis looks at David gravely.
David’s brow furrows. “He was referring to your magic as a… person.”
“I thought he was speaking in metaphor,” Artemis says. “That I had betrayed my purpose. But he was convinced that my power still existed. He demanded to know where it was…”
David can see where the conversation is going. He doesn’t want to go down that road.
“I told you once that magic was a living thing.” Artemis looks exhausted. As if the mere act of speaking the words is sapping his strength. “Alien, utterly alien, but alive.”
“And you think it’s still alive,” David says. “Right now. Out there, somewhere. That it—you, or a piece of you, enough of a piece of you to get past those wards, took those books and… went somewhere.”
“That is what I think,” Artemis says. “I think that during the casting of that spell, something… happened. I have no idea what. But if Artigenian is convinced that my power must still exist, and if I am the only one who could have removed the books in the manner they were taken…”
“Damn,” David says. “Damn it all to hell, LaFleur, one of you is bad enough.”
“It gets worse,” Artemis says. “I’m fairly certain I’m the good twin.”