That was a mistake. She only just had time to get out a terrified blurt of sound before her mouth filled with disgusting black water. She choked, tried to spit, her whole body and soul heaving in an effort to break the surface and draw in a lungful of air. The slug’s hold on her tightened, dragging her deeper down.
Reacting on impulse rather than thought, she slashed at the tale with the Bitoris rune. The spell cut deep into the slug’s soft flesh, and a white pussy substance oozed through the opening, accompanied by a terrible stench. But the slug let go.
Farryn flailed, but somehow managed to get her head up above water once more. She sucked in a great gasp of air. It was stinking and thick and awful, and yet somehow tasted sweet to her desperate lungs. She kicked hard and flung out her free hand, trying to catch the edge of the pool while simultaneously gripping her staff with her other hand. She dared not lose her staff, even if it was only a dream-projection of the physical reality. If she lost it, she wouldn’t be able to control the runes, leaving her totally vulnerable within this dream.
But she couldn’t seem to get a grip on the crumbling soil on the edge of the pool. Clumps of mud fell away in her hands. She was painfully aware of the mirada’s thrashing tail, felt it flick against her kicking legs, trying to wrap around her once more. She wanted to scream with terror, but when she opened her mouth, more fetid water poured in, choking her. It was all only a dream, but it was too real of a dream. If she drowned here, her mind would surely break, and her physical body would die.
She looked up. In that same moment the mirada pulled her under. Her eyes staring up through the black film of water only just saw the tall figure appearing on the edge of the pool. Desperate, she flung out one arm, breaking through the water, her hand waiving desperately.
She felt strong fingers catch old of her wrist, even as the slug’s tail tried to wrap around her ankle. For a moment, she gave herself up for lost.
Then, with a heaving pull, her body surged up out of the water. Gasping and choking, she spat out horrible mouthfuls. Her arm felt as though it would be yanked from its socket, but then she landed on the ground on the edge of the pool, and she didn’t have time to think about any pain. She scrambled out of the water, struggling against her own sodden skirts, dragging her staff behind her. The mirada’s slimy hold on her leg weakened and let go, and she shuddered with pure relief.
“Farryn!” Kellam’s voice was there in her ear. She blinked and became aware of his hands clasping her shoulders, pulling her toward him. “Farryn! Are you all right? Speak to me!”
She tried to answer, choked again, spat out a glob of something horrible, and scowled furiously up into his too-close face. His eyes swam before her vision, shining with concern beneath his fair, puckered brows.
“You gods-blasted idiot!” she gasped, and tried to shake his hands away. Her whole body quivered too hard, however, and she ended up leaning into his grasp for support. “What are you doing here? You can’t just come barging into her mind uninvited!”
The concern in his face melted away into offended dignity. “This is hardly the time to worry about such niceties. What matters is that we—”
The slug reared up out of the pool.
Farryn saw the movement from the tail of her eye and twisted in place, screaming as she saw the huge, black, globular body, glistening with slime and streams of dark water, far bigger than it had been a moment before. Feasting on Ayda’s mind and swollen its natural proportions, and it towered of her and Kellam. A circular mouth leered down at them, revealing row after row of serrated teeth and three long, lapping, forked tongues.
Farryn opened her mouth to scream. But there was no time.
With a soul-searing shriek, the dream-monster dove straight at them. Farryn just had presence of mind enough to fling herself out of the way, but in her panic, she dropped her staff. Immediately she felt the fragility of her rune-spells around her and her own terribly vulnerable state. She yanked herself up onto her elbows, flung hair out of her face, and cast about for her staff.
She saw Kellam standing across from her, the slug between her and him. For half an instant their eyes met.
Then he drew back his hand, shouting out a string of strange words, and brought his arm swinging down in a scything motion. She saw a flash of light in the shape of curved blade, which struck the slug hard on the back of what for want of a better word might be its head. It shrieked and writhed, its whole long, hideous body lashing wildly. Kellam tried to leap back, but wasn’t quick enough. It struck him hard, and he flew through the air, his dream-form momentarily losing all substance and vanishing like vapors.
“Kellam!” Farryn cried. But then she had to move as well, or risk being struck and similarly knocked out of the dream. Without her staff, without her runes for protection, she might not survive such a hit. And what of Kellam? Was he all right? Were his spells strong enough to protect his physical body from such a blow?
There was no time to worry, however. Farryn got to her feet, backing away from the pool, and watched the dream-monster slide back into the water, disappearing in a series of noxious bubbles. Her staff lay on the edge of the pool, unbroken, and she could just see the flickering runes around it.
Ayda. She was still down there. But for the moment, the mirada didn’t have a hold of her.
There was no time to think, no time to plan or even to ponder the wisdom of her next move. Farryn was already in motion. She sprang forward, bent just enough to catch up her staff in both hands. Then she collapsed on her knees by the edge of the pool and, drawing on the Quiris rune, she reached down into the pool, searching for Ayda. She found her almost at once, a pale soul floating there in the darkness, barely holding onto life. Farryn wrenched her staff, sending the Quiris spell wrapping around her friend, and tried to haul her up from the water. For a moment, the pale form of the dreaming girl started to rise, and Farryn caught a glimpse of her friend’s face breaking through the water, black droplets rolling like tears down her white cheeks. She was so close . . . .
The slug lashed out, wrapping its horrible body around Ayda like a constricting snake, and yanked against the spell.
“No!” Farryn screamed, feeling her rune ready to give out. She lunged and, using her free hand, caught hold of one of Ayda’s long limp braids. In the same movement she brought her staff streaking down and lashed out with the battle-rune. The mirada lifted its awful head, filling her vision with a gaping red throat, licking tongues, and far too many teeth.
The battle rune struck, dead in the center of that maw.
A flash of brilliant magic light momentarily blinded Farryn. She cried out and fell on her side, but somehow managed to keep her hold both on Ayda’s braid and on her staff. Through the pain of that flash, she heard the slug shrieking again, and water sprayed against her skin, dousing her in a wave. She tossed sodden hair out of her face and peered through rapidly blinking eyelids just in time to see the retreating bubbles as the dream-monster sank back into the pool. But it had let go of Ayda.
For a moment, triumph flared in Farryn’s breast. The following moment, however, triumph was replaced with a shuddering realization. Her battle-rune! It was broken! Which meant, so was her protective circle.
Ayda . . .
Farryn set aside her staff and stretched out her other arm, catching hold of Ayda’s shoulder. Scrabbling and half-sobbing with terror, she dragged the sleeping dream-form of the girl to the edge of the pool and, with strength she didn’t know she possessed, pulled her out onto the shore. Already she saw movement under the water, writhing coils of the mirada’s swollen body.
Ayda weighed little more than a breath, so drastically had the dream-monster drained her life-force. Farryn heaved the girl up over her shoulder as easily as she might a small child and got to her feet. She snatched up her staff; but there was no time to try to conjure any fresh runes. She had to get out. Now.
She turned for the cottage, which was transparent and phantom-like but still present. Adjusting Ayda over her shoulders, she took three running steps.
Before she could take a fourth, something slimy wrapped around her ankle and yanked her off her feet. Farryn fell heavily, losing her hold on Ayda, who rolled away in the mucky soil. Farryn reached for her, almost touched her hand.
Then she was dragged back to the pool’s edge. She kicked, screamed, struggled, her hands clawing uselessly at the ground, but it was no use. In mere seconds, she was on the edge of the pool. She just had time to draw a deep breath into her lungs before dark water closed over her head. The slug’s awful body coiled up her leg, wrapped around her waist, tightening its hold on her. She opened her eyes, seeing only darkness and a flash of bubbles. Thrashing out blindly, she hit something with her fist and thought maybe it was that awful head. But it was no use. Without her staff, without her runes, she was utterly helpless. The slug would attach its sucking mouth to her, drain her life-force as it had Ayda’s.
Farryn sagged, her spirit sinking into the darkness of that pool. This was it. Her first calling, and she was already done for. And Ayda? Would she survive? No, for as soon as the mirada finished with her, it would return to its original victim. She’d failed. She’d—
A blast of white-hot magic burned through the darkness. For an instant, the whole pool was a brilliantly illuminated, and Farryn saw everything clear as day—the hideous, black and glistening coils wrapped around her body, the circular mouth and flashing teeth, mere inches from her own face. She saw the spell sharp as a razor blade tear a straight path through the water, rip through the mirada, severing that awful head. The three lashing tongues flailed wildly, and an impossible screech of rage and pain vibrated in the frothing water.
The bands around her body loosened.
Farryn kicked free and tore for the surface of the pool, her arms stretching, her hands clawing. She broke through, gasped for breath, and surged for the shore. Any moment she expected the mirada to re-form its horrible shape, to lash out and catch her, to drag her back under.
Kellam was there, reaching out to her from the pool’s edge. Farryn, coughing and gasping, lunged for his hand, caught hold, and let him pull her up beside him. She spat out great mouthfuls of foul-tasting water, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and stared up at him. “Ayda?” she gasped.
He nodded and hauled Farryn to her feet. “This way. We’ve got to get out of here, fast!”
She didn’t argue, but allowed him to turn her in the direction of the cottage. Ayda lay where Farryn had dropped her, but her dream-body was faded, almost immaterial, and Farryn feared they wouldn’t even be able to touch her, that she was too far gone. But Kellam pushed her into motion, and she staggered to her friend’s side. When she bent to grab her arm, she was relieved to feel something solid under her fingers.
“Let me take her,” Kellam said, crouching on the unconscious girl’s other side. Farryn wanted to argue. This was her job after all, her first calling. She didn’t want to give him anything.
But then the slug reared up out of the pool again, bigger than before, and its horrible shrieking made the whole dream-world shake.
“Hurry!” Farryn cried, and Kellam leaped up, Ayda cradled in his arms. He sprang into a run, and Farryn followed at his heels. But, even through her nearly soul-blinding terror, something caught her eye.
The mirada surged up out of its pool, coil upon coil of slimy body oozing and writhing as it gave chase. And it was so powerful, so glutted on Ayda’s life-force, it might well catch them before they reached the cottage. Unless . . . unless . . . .
“Farryn, what are you doing?”
Kellam’s voice reached her from some far off, distant place. She ignored it.
With a sudden burst of determination, leaped for her fallen staff, caught it up in both hands, and turned to face the approaching mirada. It loomed toward her, coming too fast, too huge, too impossible.
If she fled Ayda’s mind, Ayda herself wouldn’t be safe. The mirada would merely latch hold again, would finish the horrible work it had begun. It had to be stopped. Permanently.
Farryn drove her staff into the ground. Her eyes fixed on the undulating monster, she wrote from memory, scratching the lines swiftly but with precision, feeling the power growing as they took shape: the Naesala—the banishing-rune. It flared into being, floating up from the ground, bright as a burning red star. The air around it sizzled with heat.
The mirada’s huge mouth filled her vision, plunging straight toward her, ready to swallow her whole.
Farryn swung her staff and hurled the rune straight and true. It shot deep down that awful throat.
For a moment, the monster froze. Though it had no face, it somehow contrived to look surprised.
Then thread after thread of shining magic burst out from inside the mirada’s body and wrapped around it like strands of burning web. The dream-monster uttered a horrible, ululating scream and tried to fight back, nearly turning itself inside-out in its efforts to resist. The web continued to spread, covering every inch of that bloated body and constricting it. Black, slimy flesh bulged between the strands, but the mirada couldn’t resist for long. It shrank and shrank until it was a little black ball of vibrating malice, covered in brilliant magic strands. For a moment, it hovered there in mid-air, the last of the dream-monster’s will still fighting the inevitable.
“Go!” Farryn cried and, swinging her staff, struck the ball. It flew in an arch up into the foggy sky and vanished. There was a moment of perfect, soul-splitting silence.
Then the dream-world began to break apart.
Each of the many pools spewed their dark waters in steaming eruptions, burning the air as they rose in deadly fountains. The pools themselves grew, spread, swallowing up the ground. This whole dream would be destroyed in moments.
Farryn whirled and ran. The cottage was still there . . . more distant than she’d thought it was, and faint, as though no longer quite part of this world. She saw Kellam standing on the threshold, Ayda still draped over his shoulder. His eyes were wide, shining with horror, and she saw his mouth shaping her name. She redoubled her speed, running harder, harder, her dream-form almost losing shape in her desperation.
Kellam stepped over the threshold, back out into the breaking world. He stretched out his hand, his arm straining, reaching for her. The ground beneath her feet fell away, and the black waters fell like rain, burning where it landed. Farryn flung herself forward, lost her footing, fell.
Caught Kellam’s fingers.
He pulled her through the doorway. She tumbled and collapsed on the floor, heard the reverberating slam of the cottage door being shut. She closed her eyes, her whole soul and spirit shuddering.
“Get up!” Kellam cried, and his hand closed painfully around her arm, dragging her upright. “We’re not out of it yet!”
She got to her feet, staggered, leaned against him. The floor of the cottage rippled, and she saw dark water bubbling up between the floorboards. Kellam, still carrying Ayda, dragged her across the room, making straight for the little listing doorway leading to the small add-on room. It seemed miles away, too far . . . too far . . .
They tumbled through the opening.
Farryn blinked and blinked again. The dream melted away all around her, and she realized she was blinking her real, physical eyes. She lay sprawled across Ayda’s bed beside the sleeping body of her friend, surrounded by a circle of broken runes.