The first sense to return was smell. A scent of pine, underscored by the deep, dark scent of dirt filled her nostrils. She drew in a deep, gasping breath and knew at once, before the rest of her mind had a chance to catch up, that she was underground.
The next sense to return was hearing. The air around her was so perfectly still, that she might have thought she’d gone deaf, save that far, far away, came the plink, plink, plink sound of dripping water. It was like tiny, clear, crystal bells in her ears.
After that, she felt a pillow under her head. Not a particularly soft pillow. On second thought, was it a pillow merely a pile of pine boughs? The latter, she thought, by the prickling against her cheek. This, at least, explained the strong pine aroma.
Farryn groaned and drew another long breath before attempting to open her eyes. Only, with a horrible, heart-thudding jolt of realization, she discovered that her eyes were open. Wide open and staring up at perfect darkness overhead. Had she gone blind?
Her hands shot out, feeling through the shadows around her, trying to get some sense of her immediate surroundings. Her left hand immediately hit a wall. She felt craggy stone and clay-like soil crumbling away under her searching fingertips. Her right hand seemed to hang out into empty air. She drew it closer and found the edge of a stony shelf on which her body lay. Gripping that edge, she pulled herself slowly up into a seated position, pressing her back against the wall. When she swung her feet over the edge, she didn’t feel floor at first. Was she suspended over a pit? No. No, the air around her felt too close for that. She stretched out her foot a little farther and, with a sigh of relief, touched cold, bare dirt floor.
“All right,” she whispered. Her voice sounded much too loud in that stillness, and she winced and bit her lips hard. Then, with a little shake of her shoulders, she tried again, louder, more firmly. “All right. I’m awake. I’m alive and . . . .” She ran her hands over her body, feeling for any sign of breaks or wounds. Nothing. “. . . and I’m whole. So that’s a good place to start.”
Now, if she could just remember how she’d got here. Was this a dream? No, for dream senses, though acute, were never quite so earthy, so mortal. She was definitely awake. Blind? She didn’t think so, though there was no way of knowing for sure. If she had to guess, she was pretty sure she was being held in a cell underground, thus explaining the sensation of blindness.
She bowed her head, buried her face in both hands, her hair falling in tangles over her shoulders. How had she come here? And where was here, exactly? Her memories were jumbled, confused. Forcing her mind to focus, she caught flashing glimpses of . . . of . . . of dargin vines in the south plot. Of Mother Ulla waving her witch’s staff like a weapon. Of a tall shadowy figure stepping over the low garden fence . . . .
Oh. That’s right. The fae. The strange fae lord. Whose dream she had inadvertently invaded.
“Seven gods smite me!” she muttered, lifting her face from her hands and pressing her fingers hard against her temples. “Smite and blast me! What was I thinking?”
How many times had Mother Ulla warned her against wandering into a stranger’s dream? But it had been so bright, so beautiful, so enthralling. And it was sometimes just a little too easy to think Mother Ulla didn’t know better. The old witch wasn’t gifted in dream-magic after all. She only knew her witchy ways, and she always seemed more willing to hold her apprentice back than to push her forward . . . with good reason.
Farryn squeezed her eyes tight, though it didn’t make any difference. What a fool she’d been! Mother Ulla wasn’t holding her back; she was protecting her. Protecting her from her own recklessness.
“You’re mine now.”
A shudder raced down her spine. Those were the last words she remembered hearing before blacking out. But . . . but . . . but she wasn’t hearing them now in memory. They were there.
Spoken in the darkness beside her.
Farryn startled up from the shelf-like bed and backed away. Within three small, stumbling paces, her shoulders hit the wall, and she flattened against it. Her fingertips dug into the crumbling clay, and she wished, desperately wished, for her staff.
“Who there?” she demanded, her voice sharpened to ferociousness by fear.
It was a stupid question anyway. She knew very well who it was. She couldn’t see him, but she remembered him clearly and could picture him now, seated there on the stone shelf—tall, graceful, ageless, beautiful. Deadly.
She swallowed hard, trying to wet her dry throat. When she spoke again, the words came in a harsh croak: “What do you want from me?”
“You broke the Pledge.”
She nodded. Something told her that, though she was blind here, whoever sat in the cell with her could see perfectly well. “I . . . yes, I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t realize what I was doing. Not exactly. It was a mistake.”
There was a sound, a shifting. She couldn’t say for sure, but she would be willing to bet that the fae had stood, that he approached her on silent cat feet, that he loomed directly in front of her now. If she dared raise one hand, she could reach out and touch his muscled chest. She pressed a little harder into the wall, turning her face to one side.
“You saw the demon in my head.”
Farryn blinked. There was something strange in that voice, that powerful, controlled voice. Something she wasn’t quite sure she recognized. Was it . . . was it hope? Or desperation?
“You saw that which stalks my dreams. And when it tried to take you, you stopped it. You escaped.”
“Oh.” Farryn shivered, recalling suddenly that ridge-backed figure she’d half-glimpsed among the blasted silver trees in the dream-forest. She hadn’t known then what it was, for it was unlike any dream-monster she’d ever heard of. A demon? Perhaps . . .
“I didn’t really stop it,” she said. “I mean, I didn’t let it get me, sure. But—”
“All others who have ventured into my dreams have died.”
There was a sudden crack, like two fingers snapping. In the same instant, light flared, small but too bright after that perfect darkness. Farryn cried out. She closed her eyes, looked away, frozen with fear. But when nothing horrible happened right away, she peered up through fluttering eyelids.
The fae stood over her. He held a little candle flame cupped in the palm of one hand. Its light gleamed brilliantly off his bare torso and reflected twice over in the golden depths of his strange eyes. He was more beautiful than she remembered, and ten times more terrible, standing close to her in this dark, dark place.
“Five times,” he said, “I have sent magicians into my dreams to find and destroy the demon. Fae magicians of tremendous power, who I summoned from all corners of Eledria. There was Anaeril of the Raphyra Court. He was torn in half. There was Pyria Yesmaris of Lunulyr. Her neck was snapped like a twig. Ilinala, Calarel Sarhana, and Elandorr of Ruitha . . . all powerful magic users, master manipulators the quinsatra’s mysteries . . . all of them died, one after the other. And still the demon plagues me. Still it prowls inside my head, searching, always searching. I will not be able to hide from it much longer.”
Farryn stared up into that too-close face, like a small brown mouse unable to look away from the gaping jaws of the cat. At first she could hardly understand him through the hammering of fear in her veins. But as those last few words fell from his lips, she frowned and looked more deeply into those flickering eyes. And she realized—he was afraid. Terribly, almost frantically afraid.
He seemed to see the recognition in her face. His eyes flashed harshly, and he turned away. He strode across the cell from her, carrying the light with him, and she got a clear view of the small space in which they stood. It was a hollowed-out dirt cave with neither windows nor doors, only an opening in the ceiling high above, much too high for her to reach. Other than the little shelf with the pillow of pine boughs, it was utterly bare.
The fae man strode maybe six paces before he reached the far end of the cell. There he stood with his back to her for some moments. At last he turned, the curtain of his long, dark hair rippling in the glow of the light he carried, and looked at her over his shoulder.
“I had almost given up,” he said. “I had almost resolved to end my own life before letting the demon find me. But then . . .” He turned around, faced her once more, and lifted the light a little higher. “Then you came. Entered my dream with such ease. And when the demon bore down upon you, when it sought to blast you to oblivion, you did . . . something. Some magic. Mortal magic.”
He spat out the word as though it tasted bad. But then his lips twisted, and his teeth flashed in a deadly smile. “I had not thought to seek among mortals for my deliverance. But now you are here, Pledge-breaker. You will help me.”
“What?” Farryn gasped. Her stomach plunged, and if her knees weren’t locked, she might have sunk to the floor. “I . . . I can’t help you! I’m no magician. I’m just a witch’s apprentice! I do a little dream-walking and I’ve picked up a trick or two, but that’s all—”
“You will save me.”
There was such finality in those words, like the fall of an ax. Farryn opened her mouth, but all protests died before they could be spoken. She felt as though the walls of the cell closed in upon her, as though the ceiling lowered, ready to bury her alive.
The fae looked up suddenly. The candlelight emphasized the sharpness of his jaw, the deep shadows around his eyes. He raised his other hand, fingers outstretched. Suddenly, something dropped through the opening above. He caught it with ease and brought it down in front of him.
It was her staff.
“I believe you need this,” the fae said, striding across the cell again. He planted the end of the staff on the ground right in front of her and tilted his head to one side. “To work your magic.”
“Um. Yes,” Farryn managed. After a moment’s hesitation she reached out and grasped the staff, her hand just beneath his. He did not release it right away, and she thought he might wrench it out of her grasp again. She peered uncertainly up into his eyes.
He nodded once and let go. Taking two steps back, he raised the light cupped in his palm a little higher once more. “You have until dawn tomorrow, Pledge-breaker. You will use your magic, enter my dreams, and destroy the demon. This you must do, for you belong to me now. If you fail, your life is forfeit.”
“If I . . . I’ve got to . . . you mean . . . what?” Farryn grasped the staff in both hands, her whole body shaking. The fae turned away from her, moved to the center of the cell, and looked up to the opening. “Please, I’m not a magician!” she cried, taking a few hasty steps after him. “I can’t . . . I don’t know anything about . . . about dream demons! I barely survived a little mirada, and that was with help! I can’t do what you’re asking! I would if I could, I swear, but I simply can’t.”
“In that case,” the fae said, leveling a cool look her way, “you had best prepare your soul to meet your gods.” With those words, he closed his hand into a fist, snuffing the candle and plunging the cell into darkness once more.
“Wait!” Farryn cried and took another lunging step. But it was already too late. How he went, she could not guess, but he was gone already. She stared up through the darkness, searching for some sign of the opening above her, but knew with dreadful certainty that only solid earth arched over her head.
She was alone. Buried alive and alone.