“Seven gods,” Farryn breathed and sank to her knees, her staff clattering to the ground beside her. “Seven gods above, what am I supposed to do now?”
For a little while she simply sat there, her knees pressed heavily into the hard dirt floor, one hand resting limply on her staff, the other clenched in a tight fist. She couldn’t form a clear thought, couldn’t do anything but try to breathe. Inhale and exhale. In and out. Slow and steady.
Finally, she whispered, “A demon?”
She’d never heard of a dream demon before. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t real. There could be all sorts of things wandering in the dream realm that she’d never heard of. It wasn’t as though she’d had extensive training in dream-magic.
Dawn tomorrow. She had until dawn tomorrow. But how much time was that exactly? An hour? Twelve hours? And what was she supposed to actually do? Start scratching runes in the dirt, try to enter the fae’s dream again? Go hunting for that horrible dream monster?
“Well, it’s better than just sitting here waiting for that fae to come back and kill you,” she growled.
Pulling herself up, sitting back on her heels, Farryn drew her staff into her lap. Then, with a grunt and muttered curse, she stood, leaning heavily on her staff as she did so, and braced her feet. She’d never tried rune-writing in the dark before. Was it even doable? She wouldn’t try to write a list for the grocer without a candle, much less try shaping runes of power!
But what other choice did she have?
Her hands shaking so hard, she feared she’d drop her staff, Farryn planted the end of the staff in the dirt in front of her. For a moment she simply rested there, gathering her strength, focusing her mind. Then, with a muttered prayer on her lips, she started to draw the first rune. One long line. Then a curve out from the bottom. Then a divot up above . . . oh, gods! Was she placing it right? How could she possibly know?
She finished the rune and lifted her staff, waiting, her chest so tight she feared it would crush her heart. Would it work? Would the magic spark to life? Would it—
A flare in the darkness. Not something she could see with physical eyes, but brilliant to the eyes of her mind. She watched the Gweyir shield-rune rise up before her, floating in the void, small and frail as a firefly, but clear.
It worked then. Her magic worked.
“One down,” Farryn whispered. “Six more to go.”
She turned slightly and began to write the next rune, the Nardual. It was even more difficult to construct than the Gweyir, but somehow, impossibly, when she finished scratching out the lines and curves and jots, the spark of magic lit up once more, and the rune floated into the air beside her, hovering level with the first rune.
Farryn smiled a tight, determined sort of smile. Maybe she could do this after all. Maybe she could survive.
One after another, she wrote the magic circle into being around her. When she was finished, she turned slowly in place, studying each of the little flickering rune-lights. It wasn’t the strongest magic she’d ever worked, that was certain.
“But it’ll have to do,” she muttered. She straightened her shoulders and turned to face the Nardual seeing-rune. “Nothing for it now. Time to hunt a demon!”
Taking a seat in the center of the magic circle, she rested her staff across her knees and closed her eyes. She didn’t exactly fall asleep; a dream-walker never truly slept when venturing into the realm of dreams. Instead, she quieted her mind, stilled her thoughts, and let the pathways between worlds open before her, like parting mists.
It was much easier to step directly into another person’s dream while making physical contact with that person. When she’d entered Ayda’s dream, for instance, she had simply held the girl’s hand and, using the seeing-rune, opened her mind to Ayda’s unconscious. In this instance, she must try to find the dreamer before she could enter his dream. Which meant stepping into the strange Otherways—the murky realm between minds and souls.
The seeing-rune gleamed bright before her, beckoning into the mist. Farryn’s spirit rose up from her body and followed after the rune, drawing the rest of her magic circle with her as she went, clutching a dream-visioned replica of her staff in her hands. The Otherways were familiar to her. No monsters prowled these hazy paths. Once in a great while she might glimpse another dream-walker at a distance through the fog. But these sightings were rare, and they were never close enough to cause any concern. She had nothing to fear here at least.
So she set off at a quick pace, following her rune. The path manifest beneath her feet with each step she took. To her mind’s eye it looked like a series of polished white stones floating over a dark void. That void ought to terrify her, but she knew better than to look into the space between the stones, and her steps were swift and confident. Every few paces she would peer through the fog, catching half-glimpses of dreams just waiting to be explored. But these she ignored, intent on finding that one, vibrant dream.
Sooner than she expected, Farryn felt it—that humming, almost musical energy which had attracted her attention once already. She stopped, both feet planted firmly on the white Otherway stone and turned to her right, facing into a wall of dense fog. She waved her staff, and the Nardual rune responded, sweeping aside the obscuring clouds and allowing the landscape before her to take shape. Farryn drew a sharp breath.
It was so much more beautiful than she’d remembered. Every golden tree was so exquisitely shaped, so unique, so glorious. As though each one was the master-work of great artist, who had spent his whole life devoted to the creation of one perfect work of art. The result was nearly overwhelming, dazzling Farryn’s vision. She almost wanted to turn away, to shield her soul from such beauty, but simultaneously couldn’t resist gazing more deeply.
Was this forest some idealized reflection of the fae lord’s own home? Most dreams started out that way. Ayda’s dream, for instance, had begun as a re-imagined picture of her family cottage and her own humble bedroom. Whatever else her mind might conjure, either simple or fantastic, it always started with something known.
But the unknown waited just out of sight.
Farryn hesitated. The last time she’d stood in this same position, she’d wanted nothing more than to plunge into this beautiful realm, to explore its depths and discover more of the mind who dreamt it. But now . . . having met the fae lord . . .
This dream was dangerous. Demons and monsters notwithstanding, only a fool would step into a mind like this, so strange, so complex, so ancient. She might wander in those trees for an age and never realize that she was lost. Her mortal body would weaken, collapse, die, and rot away all before she reached the end of what this forest, this dream, might offer.
She twisted the staff in her hand and reached out to the runes around her. “Come on, now,” she whispered fiercely. “You’ve come this far.”
She pulled the Bitoris battle-rune around to float in front of her. The sight of that little spell flickering made her grimace. It was good enough in a fight against a mirada, sure, but she wasn’t fool enough to think it would do much against a monster which had brutally killed five powerful fae magicians.“Gods above,” she whispered, her whole spirit trembling with dread.
Then she lifted her foot from the floating white stone and stepped firmly into that forest.
The first moment was the worst. Her heart seemed to stop beating entirely, tensed in anticipation of horror. But nothing happened. She stood once more in the warm glow of that golden, shimmering dream-forest, and as she let her spirit relax, the pulsing sweetness of that song-like energy rolled over her, like the first scent of spring intensified a thousand fold. Her heart lifted, and for a moment, a purely magical moment, she almost forgot the danger in which she stood.
This was truly a lovely dream.
With a little shake, she pulled her mind back into focus. She wasn’t here on a pleasure spree. Turning in place, she searched for some indication of where to begin. Though she could feel the Otherway paths with the edge of her consciousness, the forest-dream appeared to surround her on all sides now. The golden trees hummed gently, their leaves playing softly in the gentlest of breezes. It was difficult to imagine anything truly horrible dwelling in this place.
A flash of movement in the tail of her eye.
Farryn turned sharply, following that motion, but it kept just beyond her sight. Whatever it was stopped, and she stood very still, willing it to move again. Was it the demon? No . . . she remembered that tiny, pixie face she’d glimpsed through the leaves the last time she walked this wood. She remembered that tiny, naked form, that flash of enormous, frightened eyes. This wasn’t the demon.
It was the dreamer.
“Hey,” she called out. “Hey, you don’t need to be scared. Not of me.”
At first there was nothing, no response. Even the trees seemed to have gone quiet, their leaves still, the humming energy turned to a hush.
“I’m here to help,” she persisted. “I was brought here by . . . by . . . well, by you, actually. Don’t you remember?”
Something caught her eye. Farryn turned and saw a small hand appear, long, long red fingers wrapping around a the smooth bark of one golden tree. The next moment a head emerged, peering cautiously out from behind the trunk.
It was almost impossible to recognize her powerful captor in those small, pinched little face. But the eyes were familiar. Even set in those dainty features, they were strangely ageless. Terrifying.
“Hullo there,” Farryn said again. She took a step, but as soon as she did so, the child retreated, ducking back behind the tree. Only the little hand remained in view, the nails long like a cat’s extended claws. “You haven’t given me much time. So, you know, I’d appreciate it if you told me which way to look. For the monster, that is. I’m here to fight it, you see. You . . . your waking self came to fetch me. Gods alone know why!” she added with shrug and shake of her head. “I don’t know that I can do much. But I’m here to try.”
Maybe the sound of her voice soothed the dreaming soul. Those wide, frightening eyes peered around the trunk again, followed by the rest of that strange, otherworldly face. For a flashing instant, Farryn almost thought she saw the severely beautiful features of the tall fae lord once more. But the moment passed, and there was only the child.
“Please,” she said, “will you show me? Show me where the monster is?”
The child’s fingers tensed, claws digging into the tree trunk. Then, in a flash of long, naked limbs, it sprang out from hiding and set off into the trees. This time, however, it didn’t duck out of her sight, but remained visible.
Farryn picked up her staff, gathered her runes, and set out in pursuit. The golden forest seemed to blur around her, and all of her focus fixed on that small, darting form ahead. She kept the Bitoris battle-rune firmly in front of her, just to be safe. After all, she couldn’t guarantee that the child wasn’t leading her into a trap of sorts.
Suddenly the little one stopped. He turned around abruptly, and suddenly he didn’t look as much like a child anymore. Neither did he look grown—rather, he was some sort of ageless conglomerate of youth and ancientness, beautiful and yet simultaneously grotesque. He lifted one long, muscular arm, and pointed. Farryn looked where he indicated.
There stood the silver trees.
It was just like she’d seen before—this strip of forest was no longer golden and glowing and humming with life. It was blasted as though by ice, only it wasn’t ice which coated these limbs. It was a thicker, shining substance, a liquid silver that coated every branch, every leaf, every twig, and gathered and dripped in globbing droplets, pooling on the ground beneath. And yet, no matter how much dripped and fell, the trees remained as thickly coated and misshapen as ever.
A shudder went through Farryn’s heart, flickering around her rune-circle. She shook herself and strengthened her grip on her runes before casting a glance back toward the boy. But he was gone. Vanished so completely, so silently, she half-wondered if she’d imagined him.
She couldn’t blame him for leaving. Now that she saw the suffering forest again, she had no desire to enter it.
“All right,” she whispered, angling her staff and testing the responsiveness of her Bitoris rune. “All right, demon. Where are you?”
She took a step and then another, and passed under the dripping branches. She took care not to step in any of the pooling silver, but this was difficult, for there were few patches of ground untouched. Droplets fell, pattering like rain, but struck the barrier of her protective circle and rolled away without touching her. With each small patter, her runes flickered, struggling. She was not strong enough for this. She had no business venturing deeper into such a dream.
But which did she fear more . . . the dream or the dreamer?
A low, guttural sound touched her ear. Like labored bleeding, like a throat struggling to draw a breath while coughing up globs of blood. Farryn turned toward that sound, not wanting to see, not able to resist looking.
She saw it.
It was almost manlike in shape. But not quite. The limbs were there, the torso, shoulders, the neck and head. But there was a wrongness to how they came together, as though the joints did not quite fit as they should. The arms dragged along the ground, and the jaw sagged, one side not properly attached to the rest of the skull. Liquid silver dripped from the corners of its broken mouth and spattered down its whole body, covering it in the stuff, just like the blasted trees—lumpy and dripping and shining. More silver gunked its eyelids shut, though one could just see the movement of eyeballs behind the fastened lids.
Farryn’s heart lurched to her throat. She took a step back, pulling her runes with her.
It was a mistake.
The being—the demon, if such it was—heard her. It turned sharply, its head twisting grotesquely from its long, dripping neck. The sagging jaw tried to close and couldn’t. Long arms reached out, huge, grasping fingers clutching at trees on either side as the being braced itself.
Farryn realized what was coming.
With a cry, she raised her staff and flung the battle-rune. It sped between the trees, bright as a burning arrow, and struck the silver demon straight between its sealed eyes. A brilliant flash of light exploded at the blow, reflecting off the silvery trees and momentarily blinding Farryn. She staggered, pulling her runes with her, reflexively trying to draw the Bitoris rune back. But it was gone. Broken the instant it struck its target.
A horrible roar erupted in her ears. Farryn yanked her head up, her dazzled eyes flaring wide. The demon, which lay sprawled out on the ground, pulled its terrible limbs together and, in awkward, jointed, jerking motions, righted itself.
It fixed its sightless gaze directly on her.
For a moment, Farryn tried to gather her wits, tried to pull the Gweyir rune in front of her. Panic surged through her veins, and she couldn’t find control, couldn’t force the runes to comply. The demon’s jaw sagged open, its dripping tongue bulged out over its sunken breast.
With a last, desperate gasp, Farryn brought her staff plunging down in front of her. She cried out for the Gweyir, dragged it in front of her. The shielding-rune flared to life, so small, so weak, so pitiful against that tremendous power.
The blast of silver erupted from the demon’s throat and struck with the force of a hurricane wind. It tore at her spell, tore at her soul, tore at the very essence of herself. She clung to her staff, driving it into the ground as deep as she could, clutching it as her last anchor to life.
Her feet flew out from under her, and spears of ice cold silver lanced through her spirit. She screamed.
Farryn opened her eyes. She lay sprawled out on her face, her arms and legs extended like the points of a star. Her chin smarted from where she’d struck the dirt hard.
Groaning, she lifted her head, peering up into the shadows. For a moment, she saw five little runes flickering in the air over her head, like floating candles. One by one they blinked out, leaving her in utter darkness.
She closed her eyes again and let her head sink down onto her outstretched arms. Shuddering with relief, she breathed in the scents of dirt and damp. She’d survived! The demon hadn’t utterly obliterated her. But her relief was short-lived. Dawn was fast approaching. And there was no chance she could do as the fae lord commanded.
Farryn curled up into a little ball, clutching her staff. Though she held her breath, trying to suppress swelling sobs, tears prickled from the corners of her eyes and ran down her cheeks.