Well, at least that was over with.
On first seeing the carriage blocking her way to the cottage, Farryn had been half-tempted to turn around and take to her heels. The last thing she wanted was to see Kellam again, after all these years. All these years since he’d danced with her on the village green. All these years since he’d promised her he would write to her every week.
All these years . . . long since she’d stopped waiting for those letters, which never came, or wondering exactly when he’d ceased to think about the uncouth country wench who’d been his childhood friend. Long since she’d stopped trying to picture the faces of the rich and elegant young ladies who would be his fellow students at the university—ladies who would dazzle him with their beauty even as they impressed him with their magical talent. Ladies far more exalted than the joiner’s-daughter-turned-witch’s-apprentice he’d left behind.
So he was back now. Why should she care? She’d always known he’d return someday to take Mage Wysamenor’s place. Better they get used to being once more in each other’s proximity.
Better he get an eyeful of what she and her measly low-magic could do right away.
Farryn’s mouth hardened into a determined line as she stood a moment just inside the cottage door, allowing her eyes to adjust to the dimness of the room. Conall slammed the door fast, then shuffled around in front of her, muttering, “She’s back this way,” and beckoning Farryn to follow him. She fell into step behind him, crossing the dreary main room of the cottage and making for the listing door on the back wall. On her way, she nodded to the three little boys crowded around the hearth, eating from the same bowl of gruel, and offered a polite, “Morning, Mistress,” to Good Wife Conall, who sat on her stool by the window, working at a bit of mending. Each of them nodded solemnly in return but offered no comment. Ayda’s situation had cast a pall over the habitually lively Conall household.
The old man opened the door on the back wall revealing a small add-on room. It was hardly big enough to turn around in, but they’d managed to fit a bed of sorts. Ayda lay upon a pile of straw-stuffed mattresses, pillows, and much-mended blankets.
Farryn’s heart lurched at the sight of her friend. Ayda had always been a cheerful if shy sort of girl, with a rosy complexion, thick yellow braids, and a smile that was slow to come but warm upon arrival. Now her face was a pale as her old gray shift, and her hair had lost all its luster and lay in limp, sweat-darkened strands on her pillow. She was a sturdy build by nature with large, strong bones. Now those bones protruded severely through both skin and garment, giving her a strange, skeletal appearance.
For a moment, Farryn couldn’t speak, too startled by the transformation in her friend. “When . . . when did it start?” she managed at last, her voice hoarse and heavy.
“Two days ago,” Old Conall answered.
“What?” Farryn turned to him, shocked. “She’s changed this much in two days?”
Conall nodded and sucked thoughtfully on the little stump of chew-stick still in his mouth. “Be there ought you can do for her, little witch?”
Farryn gulped and stepped into the little room. Light filtered in through one small window and numerous cracks in the plaster wall. Kneeling beside the bed, Farryn leaned in to study Ayda’s haggard face.
This was certainly no fadefallow, no mild disturbance of sleep. Whatever had slipped into the girl’s dreams was obviously parasitic in nature.
“A mirada,” Farryn whispered. She’d heard about them—parasites of the mind, small and insidious, which planted themselves deep in a mortal’s subconscious and drained the life from their host. She’d only ever encountered one before in her dream-walking expeditions.
Reaching out slowly, she took hold of Ayda’s hand. It was hot and clammy, and Farryn almost dropped it again but forced her fingers to hold on. She leaned in closer, her eyes following the lines and shadows of Ayda’s face, reading what she could. But there wasn’t much that could be learned from this vantage.
She would have to venture in.
Farryn stood, gripping her staff hard and chewing the inside of her cheek. She cast an uneasy glance back at Conall, who watched her with inscrutable, heavy-lidded eyes. He knew she was young, inexperienced. But he still preferred her services over a university-trained Miphato. That had to count for something. She couldn’t let him see how uneasy she felt, couldn’t let him sense her fear. The time was come to put on a brave face, and maybe if she was convincing enough, she could even convince herself.
“I need the room,” she said, her voice firm. “No one is to come in or out without my say-so. You may . . . you may hear things. Voices. Ayda might cry out. But don’t let anyone come through, or you could upset the magic. Understand?”
Old Conall nodded. Without a word, without even a last glance for his ailing daughter, he backed out of the tiny doorway and shut the door fast. It wasn’t a large door and neither was it well-fitted in its frame. But suddenly Farryn felt very alone. Very cut off from her own world. But that’s what being a witch was all about, wasn’t it? Aloneness. Self-sufficiency. When did Mother Ulla ever complain of her solitude or show even the barest flicker of unease?
She certainly wouldn’t waste any time thinking perhaps she wasn’t the best one suited to this task. She wouldn’t even consider rushing back through the cottage and out the door, calling out to the tall Miphato, asking his opinion or assistance. Mother Ulla needed no one’s help.
Farryn drew a steadying breath and let it out slowly. “Neither do I,” she whispered, and set to work.
Her first task was to establish a rune circle around both Ayda and herself. This was accomplished by taking a seat beside Ayda on the bed and reaching out with her staff to write the marks on the dirt floor, the close, leaning walls, and even on the ceiling overhead. She wrote six runes in total—the Gweyir for shielding, the Nardual for seeing, the Quiris for reaching, the Vatris for running, and the Crawynn for hiding.
Last of all, she wrote the Bitoris—for battle. She didn’t want face a parasite-infested dream without means to defend herself, after all.
She scratched the familiar angular lines with care, taking her time and writing them with long, even strokes, at least a foot in length. The size of the rune didn’t actually make any difference, but she always felt more confident seeing them on large scale. As she finished each one, she felt the magic potency simmering, not merely in the runes themselves, but in the air, in the otherworldly ether, between her mind and the lines she’d inscribed. For this was where the true magic lay—the capturing of immaterial thoughts in physical form, sparked to life via interaction with the mind.
It wasn’t a concept Farryn totally understood. Mother Ulla had tried to explain it to her on more than one occasion, but Farryn had always gotten the distinct impression that the ward witch didn’t understand it either. This was old magic, but not of a sort commonly practiced in this day and age. Witches were taught their runes, of course, but they weren’t expected to actually use them. At least, not like this, not in conjunction with one another.
Farryn, still seated on the edge of Ayda’s bed, rested the end of her staff beside her bare feet. She looked round at each rune, checking to make certain they were properly drawn. Satisfied, she looked down at Ayda. The girl seemed even paler than before if possible.
“All right,” Farryn whispered, and took Ayda’s hand once more. “All right, let’s see what’s happening inside you, shall we?”
With that, she closed her eyes and reached out for the Nardual, the seeing-rune. The darkness behind her eyelids rippled, a strange sensation that made Farryn’s stomach dip and churn. She waited until the rippling passed and then slowly opened her eyes. She still sat on Ayda’s bed inside that tiny room, sheltered within the rune-circle.
But now all this reality was overlaid by the hazy unreality—or hyper-reality—of a dreamscape. She could still see the physical world as though through a wafting veil, but the world of Ayda’s dream was far more dominant, far more present and real.
It wasn’t a particularly exciting world, Farryn noted with a wry twist of her lips. Ayda’s subconscious wasn’t imaginative. It was basically the same as her every-day reality, only the colors were softened, the edges were blunted, the light wavery as though seen underwater.
Farryn stood. In the physical world, her body remained seated, surrounded by the runes. In this dream-reality, the runes followed her, bright points of light, creating a bubble of protection around her as she stepped to the sagging door and pulled it open. So long as she remained inside this dream and didn’t try to step into another, the circle should hold. But she had no intention of leaving Ayda’s dream; after all, the parasite was here somewhere.
She passed into the dream-version of the main cottage room, which was also very like its physical counterpart. Only it was empty, no sign of any dream-projected family members anywhere. Farryn stood a moment studying the room, then pulled again at the Nardual seeing-rune. The mirada was hidden somewhere inside this dream, perhaps in this very chamber. But though she scanned the space carefully, from the dark hearth to the rafters overhead, through every kitchen cupboard, even under the rag rug in the center of the floor, she sensed nothing.
Odd. Farryn frowned and looked behind her into the dream-version of Ayda’s room. This emptiness was unsettling. Dream-parasite or no dream-parasite, she ought to be picking up at least some sense of Ayda herself. But no. All she got was emptiness.
“Ayda?” she called out, her voice oddly echoing. “Ayda, do you hear me?”
Was she already too late? Had the mirada already devoured Ayda’s essential essence, leaving behind a mere comatose shell?
Farryn adjusted her grip on her staff. Surrounded by her runes, she crossed to the front door. She paused with her hand on the latch and drew a steadying breath. Something wasn’t right—she could sense the un-rightness seeping through the cracks between the door panels. Some new dream-reality waited on the far side of that door. Would it even be Ayda’s dream anymore?
Well, she couldn’t go back now. Not until she knew. Not until she’d done all she could.
Farryn turned the latch and pulled the door open. Her eyes widened.
A dark, warped world lay beyond the doorstep. A world of pits and bogs, a world of black, stagnant water offering up putrid streams of steam that gathered in the air overhead, creating a low, foul ceiling of fog instead of sky. A few twisted trees clung to the soil here and there, but they were so ruinous, so broken, so devoid of all life, that they had become hateful in their very existence. It was all so firm, so solid, that Farryn couldn’t catch even a glimpse of the physical world on the other side of the dream. The road, Kellam’s carriage and fine horses, the other rooftops and buildings Sydale Village might as well have ceased to exist entirely.
Ayda had certainly not dreamt this world. But this was still Ayda’s mind, Farryn was sure. The part of her mind taken over by the mirada. And it was a lot of her mind. Only the cottage remained untainted, but it could not hold out much longer.
Farryn glanced her floating runes. They flickered like candles, unnaturally bright in that gloomy dream-light. Would they hold if she stepped through the door? This was technically Ayda’s mind, but it wasn’t Ayda’s dream. Would the rune-circle break like it had earlier when she stepped into the silver dream-forest? She wasn’t keen to make that mistake again anytime soon.
But if she didn’t try . . . if she didn’t venture into that awful landscape and find the parasite . . . Ayda was certainly doomed.
Squaring her shoulders, Farryn lifted one foot.
Startled, Farryn twisted in place, raising her staff and unconsciously reaching for the battle-rune. Her gazed darted around the shadows of the cottage, and her eyes widened as one of the walls bulged, warped, and split. Beams of brilliant, multicolored light flashed through the opening, making Farryn wince and raise a hand to shield her eyes. The light faded almost at once, however, and Farryn squinted hard against the afterglow. She saw a tall, broad-shouldered figure step through the opening just before it closed behind him.
It was Kellam.
He looked as solid and life-like as reality, down to his perfectly coifed golden hair in its long cue down his back and each and every gleaming silver button adorning his breast. He carried an open book in one hand, and Farryn saw brilliant, white-hot words burning across the page. A spell. A Miphato spell.
Kellam lifted his own gaze from the book, his eyes meeting Farryn’s across the gloomy cottage chamber. Those eyes were perfect images of the physical reality as well—brilliant blue, framed by long lashes, and always just a little bit sad even when laughing
They weren’t laughing now, but fixed with stern intensity.
“What are you doing here?” Farryn cried, raising her staff and holding it defensively between her and him. After all, while the image looked convincingly like Kellam, it might be an illusion conjured by the mirada. One could never be too sure in dreams.
“Don’t be foolish!” Kellam took several steps toward her, still holding the open book before him. His voice had the odd, echoing quality of all who spoke in dreams. “Those runes of yours aren’t strong enough for work of this kind. You shouldn’t be venturing into an unknown dream without proper weapons or protection.”
There it was—that condescension she knew so well from of old. It had always been there, underscoring every word he spoke, even years ago. They might play at being equals, they might play at being friends, but always, always the unspoken truth had hovered in the background of both their minds—he was a lord’s son, and she a peasant’s daughter, who ought to be grateful that he gave her any notice at all.
But, seven gods blast her, she would not let him cow her! Not then. Not now. Not ever!
Farryn braced her feet and reached out for the battle-rune floating among the others in the circle around her. It would be unwise to access its power unless absolutely necessary, but she wanted Kellam to know that she had it and that she wasn’t unwilling to use it if he pushed her.
He saw, all right, and paused. His expression turned suddenly apprehensive.
“You weren’t invited into this dream,” Farryn said. “It’s wrong for you to be here without permission. Or are you exalted Miphates too far above the rest of us to care about such niceties?”
Kellam flinched and drew back a half-step. “I’m . . . I’m not in Miss Ayda’s dream,” he said quickly. “I’m standing just outside of it. I can’t see into her mind at all.”
Farryn narrowed her eyes at him. “A likely story. How come I can see you standing right in front of me, then? Care to explain that?”
“I followed you,” he said. “I searched for your mind and followed you to this place. I can sense the dream in which you stand, but I can’t see it, only you. I can also sense something else close by, some inhuman awareness. It’s a mirada, isn’t it?”
Farryn nodded grudgingly. “I think so.”
“You need to get out of there, then. You’re not properly equipped to deal with such a monster.”
“Oh, aren’t I?”
“Runes are too primitive a form of magic for a task like this,” Kellam persisted, taking another step toward her. “They lack the complexity, the nuance of more refined spell-writing. You’d be wise to return at once and tell the girl’s father to let me—”
“With all due respect, your mageship,” Farryn growled, “you can stuff it.”
With that, she shot a tiny spurt of the Bitoris battle-rune his way, just enough to make him cry out and dodge. Before he had a chance to recover himself, she turned and stepped through the cottage door, out into the dark dreamscape beyond.
Her runes wavered. For a terrible, heart-dropping moment, Farryn feared Kellam was right, feared her powers were too feeble for this dream. They ought to hold—this dream was still technically inside Ayda’s mind, after all, and she’d drawn the rune-circle around Ayda. But if the mirada had already drained too much of Ayda’s essence, perhaps the dream no longer belonged to her, and the runes wouldn’t hold. She held her breath, her spirit quivering with dread.
One by one, the runes strengthened once more, floating lines of burning magic surrounding her.
Farryn let out her breath and closed her eyes, offering a brief prayer of thanks to any of the seven gods who might be listening. She wasn’t exactly safe; she couldn’t guarantee that any of the runes would work properly if called upon. But they held. For the moment at least.
The dreamscape was quiet around her. Quiet, and still and, as far as she could discern, unthreatening. Totally unlike that silver forest she’d so recklessly entered during her last dream-walking excursion. There was a strong sense of sickness in the air, like the smell of fever, permeating the squishy soil under her feet and rising in vapors from the many foul pools. But no immediate danger presented itself to her view.
She looked back over her shoulder at the open door to the dream-formed cottage, half-expecting to see Kellam standing there. But he wasn’t anywhere to be seen. When she’d stepped into this side part of the dream, she’d left him behind.
Good. Served him right. He had no business following her anyway. Gods willing, he would take the hint, climb back into his fancy carriage, and head for home. He and his superiority weren’t welcome!
She tried to take a step and grimaced as the damp ground resisted. She pulled one bare foot free with a squelching pop, then set it down again, shuddering. This was by far the most unpleasant dream she’d ever encountered. Poor Ayda, to have her mind so invaded!
Time to find the parasite. Time to put an end to this.
Farryn reached for the Nardual seeing-rune again, using it to augment her vision in this strange, stinking atmosphere. The power of the rune was much weakened, and though she narrowed and widened her eyes, her vision barely improved. Still, the runes hadn’t utterly given out, and that’s what mattered. Besides, she was close. She knew she must be close.
Gripping her staff hard, she set out one loud, suction-popping step at a time, edging around the deeper, blacker pools of dark water. As she went, she used the Quiris reaching-rune, trying to catch a sense of another mortal mind close by. “Ayda?” she called softly.
A faint, tremulous, mewling sensation plucked on the edge of her awareness. The Quiris rune sparked in response. Farryn turned her head to the right and saw one of the dark pools lying close to hand. Hastening toward it, she crouched on the edge and peered into the murky water.
“Ayda!” she gasped.
There lay her friend, just a few inches beneath the surface of the black water, her face pale as death, her hair floating around her, green like seaweed in that strange light. Farryn started to reach for her on impulse, but paused when she saw that Ayda wasn’t alone in the pool.
A long, black, slimy shape attached to the girl’s neck—a huge, bulbous, glistening slug, sucking the life-force out of her mind. Its whole body pulsed in repulsive ripples with each gluttonous gulp.
Revulsion coiled in Farryn’s gut. She jerked away from the edge of the pool, leaning heavily on her staff, struggling to suppress the bile rising in her throat. With an effort, she pulled herself together. Ayda was still alive. She had to be, or the parasite wouldn’t still be sucking so vigorously! There was still time. Not much, but maybe enough . . .
She reached for her battle-rune. It responded to her beckoning, but she grimaced at how dangerously it wavered at her touch. She’d have to be careful not to break the rune-circle. She was already in a precarious position having stepped this far into the part of Ayda’s dream that no longer belonged to Ayda.
Using her staff to direct the power of the rune, Farryn crept to the edge of the pool once more and sent her magic down into the water. As it plunged beneath the surface, she shuddered as though her physical body had been doused suddenly with ice cold, mucky slime. The sensation was so strong, it took everything she had not to recoil, to run screaming.
“Come on, Ayda!” she growled, though she knew full well Ayda could not hear her and certainly could do nothing to help. “Come on, girl! I’m here for you.”
She maneuvered the spell right up to the slug. Her best bet was not outright battle, but to gently cut the monster away from Ayda, so gently that it hardly noticed what was happening. She began slowly, carefully to ease the spell between that sucking mouth and Ayda’s neck, sliding it one minuscule fraction after another with each breath she took.
A shudder rippled through the mirada’s grotesque shape. But it didn’t seem to sense interference. Farryn drew a breath and slid her magic a little further, trying to create even tiniest trace of a gap between the monster and its victim.
The spell flickered.
She felt the whole thing suddenly spasm, the integrity of the written rune compromised. With a gasp, she tried to catch it, to hold onto the power, but she was too quick, too reactive in her movements.
The mirada tensed. Became aware of her presence.
A long, slimy protrusion shot up from the water and wrapped around Farryn’s leg. It yanked hard, knocking her off her balance, and dragged her over the edge and into the pool.