Carl kept his eyes shut for a long. long while; it felt like weeks, in fact, though it was impossible to know just how much time had truly passed.
Nothing on earth--no amount of training, no degree of exposure to anything in his past--could have prepared Gustavus for what he saw when he opened them. The vision was too horrific to express in language; it transcended any measure of intensity. He wanted to scream, but he knew that such a feeble gesture could not possibly relieve the agony.
He was aware, too, that beneath the surface shock, he felt nothing. He was numb, inside and out. Could not move, could not think, could barely breathe--
--and yet he was alive. Whatever this was, it was a portent of something yet to come. Something not yet here. Something he would have to face again, perhaps very soon, but not now.
Now there was only one thing on his mind: not a thought so much as a need, a want, a desire ...
You want more, don't you? the voice teased. The fruit of the tree of knowledge.
Gustavus nodded, a crazed look in his eyes.
How badly do you want it?
Gustavus said nothing.
Bad enough to do whatever I say?
He hesitated, then slowly nodded once more. He could not understand what he was going through, but he was growing aware that he was no longer in control of his thoughts and deeds. He did not care; the feeling he'd just experienced--both the intense calm and the sheer, gut-wrenching terror--was so powerful that he could not resist the desire to feel it again, right away.
We are not alone, the voice said. See that man over there?
Gustavus looked over and noticed for the first time that another man, also masked and vaguely familiar, was lying on the other side of the room, evidently in the midst of his own private hell.
You know him?
He is ... an illusion. Something you have conjured up in your head. I would say he is not real, but that is not quite true. He exists, he lives and breathes, but he is merely a dream. Do you understand what the dream means, Carl?
Gustavus looked puzzled.
I will tell you, the voice continued. He is you, Carl--more precisely, he is the Old You, the one that must be extinguished for the New You to break free. Do you understand what you must do now, Carl? Is the path growing clearer to you?
Gustavus slowly moved his head up and down. He was clearly dazed, but he was working hard to listen and obey.
Do not be afraid, Carl. It must be done. And you must be the one to do it. Destroy him with your bare hands--and let the New You be born!