Curveball Issue 23: AEInterlude

Part One: Esperanza, July 20, 1992

David Bernard and Artemis LaFleur stand in the living room of a small house near the shore of an island that only barely exists. Through the curtained windows the bright glow of lightning flickers, followed shortly by the low rumble of thunder. It’s getting close to the moment when a pale copy of an Artemis that was—a byproduct of the island’s unique condition—will finish casting a spell that dooms the world.

David’s body sleeps fitfully on the couch beside them, and his consciousness—what he’s started thinking of as his “dream form”—stares down at it uneasily. The sleeping figure looks almost nothing like him—the full beard and long hair frame a face that is considerably more gaunt than it was when he arrived at the island. He’s never lacked for food, but the diet isn’t what he’s used to, and that combined with a severe concussion at the beginning of his stay contributed to a lot of weight loss. He looks like a man who has been stranded on an island for a year.

Which, in almost every sense, is true.

His dream form reflects the way he still thinks of himself: as a Lieutenant in the New York Police Department. His hair is short—not as short as it was in the army, but that distinction would be lost on anyone who wasn’t—and he’s still in shape. It’s pre-concussion David all the way, without a trace of the wear or exhaustion on his body. He looks old, sleeping on that couch. Much older than he should.

“You look at yourself like you’re seeing a stranger,” Artemis says.

“I am, I guess,” David agrees. “Not too many people get to see themselves quite like this.”

“And not many have been through what you have, in the past year.”

David nods, then turns back to face the older man. “And what we’re about to try is going to be a hell of a lot worse.”

“We don’t have to do it. It will probably be much better for you if we don’t.”

David shakes his head. “We need the intel.”

“Do we?” Artemis raises an eyebrow. “Is it really so important that you’re willing to put your soul on the line for it? Don’t fool yourself into believing the stakes are any smaller than that.”

“LaFleur, do people dabble in this stuff?”

Artemis frowns. “I don’t understand your question.”

“I mean when people practice magic, is it the kind of thing they do on the side, or do they go all in?”

“It’s not something you can dabble in,” Artemis says. “It takes time and dedication to learn to control the power, to figure out how to communicate with it without it destroying you.”

“That’s what I thought,” David says. “So if this guy Curveball fought—Plague—if he’s covered with spooky runes all over his skin, whoever put them there didn’t do it as a weekend job. Someone on that side has all the skill and dedication your teacher has, only he’s not trapped in 1992.”

Artemis sighs. “Very likely.”

“Yeah. We’re wasting time.”

“I should point out,” Artemis says, “that even if this works, the likely side-effect will be that Artigenian is also freed from this island.”

David shakes his head. “I think I figured out a way around that. C’mon, things are happening out there. If the point is to take advantage of everything getting stirred up outside, we need to get started.”

Artemis hesitates, then nods, unbuttoning the front of his shirt to reveal the symbol embedded in his flesh. It covers his entire torso, traveling from shoulder to shoulder and crisscrossing his chest in multiple places until it ends halfway down his abdomen. It’s glowing slightly, and the glow pulses rhythmically, matching the swells and eddies of the power raging outside.

“Does it hurt?” David asks.

“No,” Artemis says. “It is unpleasant. But it’s not precisely pain.”

“All right.”

“How are you going to do this?” Artemis asks. “You have no more training in the art than I.”

“Yeah, but I’m dreaming,” David says. “I don’t know anything about magic, but I can still do things. I just need to will it to happen. And… uh… formalize it, I think. Look, Artemis, this next part is a little embarrassing, so just… try not to comment, OK?”

Artemis raises an eyebrow. It’s the first time David has called him by his first name.

“I don’t really know how magic works,” David says, “but I know how I think it works. I mean, in terms of fantasy stories and stuff like that. I can manipulate the environment around here, but it’s clumsy, because I don’t have a point of reference to work with. So I’m going to—uh—invent my own magic in order to work with the real stuff.”

Artemis’ eyebrow remains raised, but he says nothing.

“I’m not going to recite mumbo jumbo, or say ‘a la peanut butter sandwiches,’ or anything like that, but I am going to vocalize what I’m doing. It’ll help me focus.”

Artemis nods.

“OK. So don’t move.” David’s dream form reddens slightly as he stretches out his right hand, fingers splayed open.

“I define the man before me as ‘Artemis LaFleur,’ also known as ‘Overmind.’ I further define that the man before me has a soul, and that the soul of the man is also the man.”

Artemis blinks in surprise.

“I further define that dwelling within the flesh of this man, but not part of this man, is a power that is not this man. It is a mark left by a man I define as ‘Artigenian.’ I further define that this mark is both a source of power and a shell for that power, and that until defined further the shell of that power shall not be broken.”

Artemis feels the mark embedded in his chest pulse, as if responding to David’s words.

“I further define that in this space ‘Artemis LaFleur’ and ‘the mark left by Artigenian’ are complete and distinct entities, and that nothing apart from these entities, here or in any other space, shall be affected by my words and deeds.”

Against his will, Artemis feels his eyebrow start to rise again.

“In light of the truths I have spoken and defined, I declare that Artemis LaFleur and the mark left by Artigenian are imprisoned by an act of my will, and that only by an act of my will shall they be released.”

In the passing of a single heartbeat the air darkens around Artemis, and a globe of shadow surrounds him. This is not the prison Artigenian had placed him in, when he was trapped in the palace—this is… something else. Similar, but considerably more substantial. He can barely see it, just a shadow bending around him, but he can feel it pressing against him, making him unable to move. He fights back a sudden surge of panic.

“This is just temporary,” David says. “Bear with me while I set up the next part.”

Artemis nods quickly, trying to force the claustrophobia down to a manageable level.

“OK,” David mutters. “Time for the next bit.” He stretches out his left hand, fingers splayed open, mirroring his right.

“In light of the truths I have spoken and defined, I declare the entities Artemis LaFleur and Artigenian are separate and whole, each unto themselves, and that they shall be separated.”

David spreads his arms wide.

The burning in his chest intensifies for a moment, and Artemis cries out as he feels the symbol tear away from him, ripping itself out of his flesh. Almost as quickly he feels the pain recede, and he can move again. When he touches where the symbol was he finds his flesh is smooth and unmarked. The symbol floats in the air before him, seething angrily in the dim light.

“Sorry,” David says. “I’d hoped that wouldn’t be as rough.”

“I’m fine.” Artemis’ voice sounds hoarse to his own ears. “Please continue.”

David nods. “In light of the truths I have spoken and defined, I declare that Artemis LaFleur is released by an act of my will, and that he may pass beyond the bounds of the prison I have made.”

Artemis no longer feels the shadow pressing against him.

“Get out of there,” David says. “You should just be able to step through.”

Artemis steps forward and passes through the wall of shadow. It tingles slightly as he crosses the barrier, and then he’s out.

“Take a step or two back. This part gets a little harder.”

Artemis hurriedly steps back.

David steels himself. Hands still outstretched, he focuses on the symbol floating in its shadowy prison. “I define the entity Artigenian to be of two parts: that of power and that of shell. I define that the shell contains the power, but the shell is not the power. I further define that the power, unbound by the shell, shall continue to be the entity Artigenian, and shall continue to be imprisoned by an act of my will, and that only by an act of my will shall it be released.”

The symbol continues to hang in the air, apparently unaffected by David’s words. Artemis supposes there is no reason it would be, since the words take no specific action against it.

“In light of the truths I have spoken and defined,” David says, “I declare the part of Artigenian that is shell to be no more, while the part that is power shall remain.”

At this David closes his fists. Artemis hears something cracking, then the symbol changes—it flickers, grows brighter, and finally expands to fill the entire prison. It is no longer a symbol, but a whirling mass of energy—a miniature storm trapped by a wall of shadow that suddenly seems much too thin.

David nods in satisfaction. He closes his eyes, steadies himself, then walks through the wall of shadow and into the center of the prison.

It reacts almost immediately, swirling around him instead of simply swirling, flattening out into a disk, rotating like a hurricane with David’s dream-form in the eye. Occasionally strands of energy leap out of the mass, leaving shimmering trails behind them as they arc up as far as David’s face, or down to his shins, leaving corkscrew patterns in the air around him as they eventually wind their way back.

A horn sounds in the distance, followed by another, and another. Artemis closes his eyes for a moment—this is when the world ended—then opens them, focusing on David. “You’re running out of time.”

David nods. “In light of the truths I have spoken and defined…” His arms stretch out, as if to embrace the power swirling around him. “In light of the truths I have spoken and defined… where this power is caged by my will and subject to it… I claim it as my own.”

The room falls silent. David’s dream-form stands motionless in the shadowy cage as the light surges around him. Then the horns blare again, all at once, urgently, triumphantly, and the power collapses in on him. It tries to destroy him, and David begins to scream.

Not his dream self: the physical body of David Bernard bolts up from the couch where it sleeps, eyes open but unseeing, as it screams in fear and agony. The t-shirt he’s wearing begins to smoke as the pattern of Artigenian’s rune burns its way through the fabric. Artemis pushes David’s body back down on the couch, grabs a heavy blanket folded over the back of a nearby chair, and tries to stifle the flame. He can smell flesh and fabric burn as David continues to scream.

Artemis looks over his shoulder. David’s dream form is suspended in the shadowy prison, engulfed in energy. His face is expressionless, almost serene. It’s a stark contrast to the expression of terror and agony etched in the face of his physical form.

“David,” Artemis says, “wake up.”

The body continues to scream and thrash. The smell of burning flesh grows stronger. The dream-form doesn’t move.

David.” Artemis raises his voice. “It’s time to wake up.

No response. Artemis turns to face the dream-form again, and notes its face—eyes wide, mouth open, as if about to speak. Frozen in an unmoving mask of… surprise.

Artemis hurries into the kitchen, opens the refrigerator, and pulls out the gallon jug of milk. He removes the top as he hurries back and dumps the contents of the bottle on top of David’s head.

Almost immediately the dream-form disappears, and David bolts upright, sputtering and clutching his chest.

Artemis sets the jug on the coffee table and kneels beside the younger man. “Are you all right? Can you hear me?”

David tries to speak, but the best he can manage is a nod.

“I apologize for the rude awakening. I thought it best.”

David nods again, still clutching at his chest.

“I’ll get the first-aid kit,” Artemis says, and turns toward the bathroom—then stops as he sees the shadowy prison, still set in the middle of the living room, still encasing the pulsing, swirling energy released from Artigenian’s rune.

“It’s still there,” Artemis says.

“Good,” David manages to say.

Artemis steps around the prison, into the bathroom, and moments later emerges with gauze and first aid cream. He hands them over to David, who has shed his shirt and is gazing down at his torso in dismay. The same mark that Artigenian had embedded into Artemis’ flesh is now seared into his own.

The two men work in silence as they clean and dress the wound. Outside they can hear the inhuman sounds of the creatures coming out of the ocean, slithering past the tiny house, silhouetted by unearthly green light as they pass. When the wound is treated as best they can manage, they continue to sit in silence as the monsters move past. And they continue to sit in silence as the horns call, then falter, then the crimson light washes over the island and everything twists in every wrong way and suddenly the day has reset.

It’s the morning before the end of the world. David, Artemis, and the trapped, swirling mass of energy remain where they were, but the empty gallon jug of milk and the first aid kit—including, unfortunately, the dressing on David’s wound—are gone.

“I should have thought of that,” David says.

“We’ll do it again,” Artemis says. “Did it work?”

David closes his eyes. “Something happened. Something’s there. There are words…” When he opens his eyes they don’t focus.

Artemis carefully goes through the process of treating and dressing David’s wound again. “This should hold long enough to get off the island. Once we’re out of its influence I expect the bandages will remain.”

David nods. His eyes still aren’t focusing on anything.

“David,” Artemis says. “David, can you hear me?”

David nods.

“The process you devised to free me and trap the rune…” Artemis waves his hand in front of David’s face. The young man doesn’t blink, his eyes don’t track the motion. “It was inspired. How on earth did you come up with it?”

David mumbles something indistinct.

“Come again?” Artemis snaps his fingers in front of David’s face. He still doesn’t blink, though he tilts his head slightly at the sound.

David closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. “Requirements.”

“I… don’t understand,” Artemis says.

David opens his eyes again and turns his head to stare at Artemis. His eyes manage to focus on him for a moment, then his gaze slides away into nothing.

“Federal requirements,” David says. “Ever read them?”

“No,” Artemis says.

“Lucky you,” David says. “It’s like what I just did, only it makes less sense…”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Artemis says.

“There are words,” David whispers. “In my head. Swirling, just like that light. Terrible, sharp, burning words that want to devour… everything.”

“Not you, I hope.”

David shakes his head. “They don’t have the purpose for that. They have no volition. But they burn and hunger just the same.”

Artemis frowns as he stares at David, trying to determine how best to help him. Ultimately he decides he can’t—not directly. The best he can do is try to get them both away.

“How do you feel?” Artemis asks. “If we’re going to get away, now is probably the best time.”

“I feel different,” David says. “I can’t see. Or… I can see too much? Either way it’s the same thing.”

“Can you walk?” Artemis asks.

David thinks about it, then nods.

“Then grab my arm,” Artemis says. “We can’t afford to have you and Artigenian on the same island, not when you’re like this. We’ll leave Esperanza, and once we have a safe place to rest we can figure out our next step.”

David nods and reaches out. Artemis guides David’s hand to his arm, then helps him to his feet. David stumbles once, rights himself, then follows as Artemis opens the front door, and steps out into the night.

There are words.

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