The scent never changes. Other details fade in and out, insignificant and essential at the same time. But the scent he remembers with perfectly clarity. It is bitter and metallic, sharp to the nose and tongue. Sometimes there is the taste of blood.
Midnight. This time it is a forest clearing during a thunderstorm – the rain so heavy that it drowns out all sounds. Every few seconds lightning flashes overhead. The circle of magic runes glows bright red and in the center of it lies a woman. Her green eyes are staring at nothing. From the edge of the clearing Ander stares, helpless, at his wife. She is dead.
He has dreamed the same scene every night for almost twenty years. Sometimes he is standing over his wife’s body, other times he kneels beside her as she gasps softly, clinging to each breath. At times they are in a cave, a house, or the depths of some enemy’s dungeon. The runes glow red, silver, green, or not at all. Sometimes there is a knife in his hand. The details change and shift, all but the scent, and when he finally gets it right he’ll remember what truly happened and where he went wrong.
Youth is his only excuse. Youth and ambition, combined with an excess of talent and power that no boy should have. He was a Dreamwalker, more powerful than even the magi in the East. They could not walk between worlds or control dreams – not without hours of practice and complex rituals. They could not speak to spirits or run wild with the winds. They were beings of study – he was wild, untamable. At nineteen Ander decided that patience and cautious training were beneath him.
It took less than a year for that decision to end. Although the details of his wife’s death were always on his mind, Ander wasn’t even sure where he had buried her. Several days later he left the home they had created together. Sometimes it felt as though he had been moving on ever since, forever chasing the creature responsible – the demon. He thought of little else. For years he searched without stopping, following legend, rumors and hearsay, chasing any whim. He had to find the demon. Nothing else mattered.
As the years dragged on Ander noticed the fire and determination of his youth had left him. He was slowing down. Rumors and legends were replaced by lists and diagrams. They were his obsession. Every night he dreamed that same instance, whether by herb or spell or, rarely now, the natural onset of sleep. During the day he recorded every detail that he could remember, for each night the details changed, even if only slightly. He wrote lists of names – names he remembered from his youth, people he had met during his pursuit of his wife’s murderer, and the many names of the demon itself. Sometimes he spent hours copying older lists when he had nothing new to write down. Eventually it came down to one name: Ambrosine. He had written it so many times that the movements became almost instinctual.
He settled in Delving Vale, a quiet village in the Southern Mountains, far from demons and magi and memories of his mistakes. It was a small village of farmers and craftsmen. The people were friendly enough, though most were aware of Ander’s abilities and knew it was best to leave a magic-weaver alone. Many were refugees from the wars. Some were soldiers – deserters, maybe, but Ander never asked. No one asked about another’s background if they did not wish to be asked about their own. It was a fact that Ander appreciated.
He had lost all desire for material things and lived only on what he deemed to be necessary. Wild game and vegetation that he could provide for himself were the bulk of his diet. He ate well enough, not because he was hungry, but because it kept his mind clear and his body able. He often traded for any items of clothing or tools that he could not fashion on his own. It was the sort of quiet life he wished he could have lived much earlier.
Then the demon came.
The scent is bitter and metallic. Ander swallows in attempt to lose the unpleasant taste on his tongue. Outside the sun is only beginning to set, but the cavern is dark already. He hears the drip of moisture as it descends from the vaulted ceiling far above. A pale blue light emits from the runic symbols drawn on the stone floor, giving everything around them a faint aura. Ander stares helplessly from a far wall, unable to stand from the wounds he has sustained.
Morning. Ander hesitated to open his eyes, trying to hold onto the fragments of the visions in his mind. He rolled out of bed and moved automatically to the desk across the room. A half empty metal cup fell to the floor with a ringing crash that resounded across the sparsely furnished room. The rest of the sleeping draught that Ander had drank the night before creeped across the bare floor as it seeped from the cup that had been knocked askew. Ander did not even look at it. Papers covered the desk – a small stack of off-white blank sheets to the left and a carefully arranged pile of lists and drawings to the right. He sat and pulled one of the blank pieces to the center.
Without hesitation he took a pen and began to write. He wrote quickly and without pause, straining to record every detail of the dream he could recall. Under the words he drew a careful diagram of the cave, down to each stone and puddle he could remember. Ander placed two fingers against his right temple and pressed there, his knuckles white from the pressure as though he were trying to push out just one more memory, one more detail he might have forgotten. Another page was for the lists – lists of runes and places and names. He wrote the demon’s name until there was no room on the page. He placed the fresh writings, the paper still wet with ink, over the others, then dressed and went downstairs. A slice of old bread and a cup of water were his breakfast. He did not notice the taste – he ate because it was necessary. An empty stomach would lead to a sleepless night, and he needed to dream.
Autumn was nearing its end. Ander stepped out of his cabin and felt the crunch of frost as it gave way to his boot. The sharp chill to the air caught his breath at first. His nostrils flared as he looked around at the new day. He would need to start gathering firewood before winter set in, he supposed. He walked out to the crest of the hillside on which his cabin sat and looked at the valley and the village below. Families were emerging from their snug homes, making preparations to start their day. Ander allowed himself a moment to wonder what he might have done. His wife would be coming up the hill with buckets of water from the river, her cheeks red from the cold, smiling at him with her eyes. Ander’s expression melted into a frown. What color were her eyes?
He knew Draven was coming even before he heard the gentle clop of the horses’ hooves as a group of men approached the cabin. They were the village militia, founded years ago by Draven Gree. He had been a soldier in the north, and Ander had guessed at his reasons for leaving. He knew the old stories – soldiers subjected to unknown trials that enhanced their bodies and minds, turning them into monsters. The scars that lined his face and hands spoke of many ugly battles, and Ander knew the look in his eyes told of long nights and heavy memories, much like his own. He supposed that was why Draven trusted him with whatever sort of news required a five-man escort.
He approached the road and raised a hand in greeting. “Gentlemen, good morning.” He nodded to the captain as he dismounted. Draven returned the gesture.
“Ander, morning. All is well I hope?”
“Well as can be.” He sniffed and looked toward the craggy mountains across the valley. “Bit cold for a morning ride.”
Draven released a short sigh. He rubbed at the stubble under his chin with the back of his hand. “It is at that. I’m sure you know this isn’t a social visit. I’m afraid I have some bad news.” He took a breath and looked side to side before he leaned in toward Ander. “Something a shaman like yourself might be able to help us with. We’ve been having troubles.”
Ander raised a brow. “Troubles.”
“Aye.” Draven scratched the back of his head and shifted his stance. “Thought it was wolves at first, or a bear claiming new territory. You know we never have troubles past that around here. But lately we’ve had reports of dead livestock in the outlying farms, since about, oh, three nights ago.”
Ander could see Draven’s embarrassment but wasn’t sure why a few dead cows required his input. Something else troubled the soldier. “Go on.”
The soldier sighed again and got closer, his tone low and reluctant. “When I say dead... I saw the poor beasts. Oxen, goats, didn’t matter- each was ripped to pieces. Nothing left to tell one from the other.” He swallowed and shook his head. “This isn’t a bear or some predator from the woods. It doesn’t leave a trace, ‘least nothing my trackers can find. In truth - I don’t know what this is.”
Ander frowned. Something about the description troubled him. “Take me to one of the slaughter sites. I’ll see what I can find.”
Ander rode ahead of the others as they arrived at a clearing in the woods and dismounted. He could already smell the blood and decay thick in the air. Ahead in the clearing were several corpses of cattle, all of them mutilated beyond recognition. Flies droned all around. The militiamen stayed back without having to be told, covering their noses and mouths, muttering superstitions to one another and making the sacred signs with their hands to ward against evil.
Ander took a moment to feel his surroundings as Draven fell into place behind him.
“Wasn’t humans. The war-“
“Had nothing to do with this, I think. Rest easy, captain.” Ander turned and rested a hand on the other man’s shoulder for a moment of assurance, seeing the subtle relief in the soldier’s eyes.
He closed his eyes and let his body relax. The sensation he felt as he allowed his spirit to walk past his flesh was like drifting down an easy river. In moments he was between worlds. He could see the others, reduced to shapes of white light, oblivious to the idea that he might be anywhere else than in the body that stood in front of them.
Everything was bright. Objects from the living world seemed sharper here, and somehow detached. There was almost complete silence. Many who tried to come to this place were quickly driven mad by the silence, but not Ander. He felt stronger here. He always had. He took a long breath in through his nose, though breathing was not necessary here, and let himself drift again, this time into the past.
Shapes of light drifted lazily in front of him, repeating the movements of their living counterparts. The currents of time and place came as easily to him as a well-worn forest road. Ander watched the cattle and their keeper as they had been several days before. He watched the sun pass overhead and night fall on the clearing, but everything remained as bright and sharp as ever. Then he saw the shadow. Out of the brightness of the trees he saw a formless mass, darker than anything found in the waking world, as though it rejected all of the light that surrounded it. Ander watched as it slithered from the trees like a dark liquid. The shape of the keeper seemed to sense the danger and ran. Smart, Ander thought. The cattle panicked and scattered but the darkness was too quick. Ander saw as each massive animal was taken down as though they were nothing. The darkness seemed to grow and then retracted back into the forest. There was only ever silence.
Ander opened his eyes and took in a deep gasping breath. He bent forward and retched, sick from the feat and from what he had seen. Draven came to his side, a look of concern on his face.
Ander coughed and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “You’re right. There was a demon here.”
Draven swore under his breath. “What can we do, Ander? My family-“
“Keep them indoors, and that goes for everyone. We’ll have to find the thing, but tonight I must rest.”
There was a common adage that the gods granted sunrises to the world to remind its inhabitants of new beginnings, but Josue had always liked sunsets better. Everything always seemed to fall into place as the sun began its slow descent behind the mountains, peeking over with its last remaining rays of light as though to check on the world once more before dawn. Animals returned to their paddocks to escape the chill and the darkness together, and families settled in for their evening meals and to recap the day. By the time the stars were out everything was where it should be, ready and waiting for the next new day.
Josue enjoyed the colors as well. His simple cabin that looked over Delving Vale gave him a perfect view of the tiny village and the surrounding valley. Now that autumn had set in the forest was a brilliant mixture of red and gold that glowed like fire during those last few minutes of light. The goddess Lyetia whom he served favored the coolness of the forest, rich greens and gentle blues, but Josue knew that experiencing the fires could make one appreciate the rains all the more.
He stood at the threshold of his little house, a cup of tea in hand, and whistled softly. The old dog who had been asleep by the herb garden rose and stretched, then ambled lazily into the house for his next nap. Josue patted his head as he passed, musing for a moment that he had forgotten the old dog’s name, but that it didn’t matter anyway. He stoked the little stove that served for both cooking and warmth in the one-room cabin, then settled into his favorite chair as the night crept in around them, held at bay by the warmth and light of the flames. Praise to Lyetia, another day come to a close, he thought. The sigil of the goddess he had served all his life hung with a comforting weight around his neck.
He must have nodded off, the gentle drone of the bordering forest sounds and the hum of the mountains as the wind passed through them guiding him to another night of rest. But when he woke there was only silence, such a silence that made him alert with instincts humans rarely invoked. Beside him the old dog was sitting up, his bristled fur forming a ridge down his spine. Josue bent down to give the mutt a reassuring pat, then pushed to his feet, listening to the silence. No birds, no insects. Even the wind had given pause.
Then he saw it, just past the edge of the light that seeped from his window. A black shape passed through the underbrush with silken movements, barely disturbing the ground, but the very sight of it turned his blood cold. His hand shot up to grip the sigil of his goddess, but he could barely recall the words to invoke her protection.
That night they were in a forest. Runes glowed white from the tree trunks, forming a perfect circle around the couple. Black shapes surrounded them, unable to pass the runes. Ander held the pale, slender hand in his own, caked with blood. His wife smiled at him one last time as her life slipped away. Her eyes were brown. The trees around them began to crack loudly and fall, shattering like glass.
Ander was wrenched from sleep suddenly by a loud knocking sound. Lightning flashed outside and rain trickled in from a leak in the roof. Ander rubbed his eyes and frowned. Knocking again. No, more like pounding. Urgency, or maybe fear. He wasn’t imagining it. He shook his head once to rouse himself from sleep and headed downstairs.
Draven was at the door, along with two of his militiamen and a man Ander recognized as Father Josue, and old priest of Lyetia. One of the soldiers held a bloodied cloth over his cheek. Draven held a large black bundle over his shoulder. Ander noticed how cold he felt – unnaturally so, despite the season.
“We caught it.” Draven and the others pushed past Ander and stood in the entryway.
With a beckoning gesture Ander led the men down into the cellar. Dusty shelves and tables lined one wall, each stacked high with papers curled and stained with age and neglect. Ander ignored these and walked to the far corner of the room. He kicked some empty crates aside, several of which fell apart from the force. Ander wiped the dust and grime from the wall and whispered a few words under his breath. Blue-white runes appeared at his word on the walls and floor in a circle that enclosed the corner. Ander stepped back and pointed to his work.
“Put it here.”
Draven gave Ander a questioning look but did as he was told. He pulled away the blanket that had wrapped around the form and dropped it against the corner. The runes faded once but then grew brighter.
The demon was a girl. She was young, perhaps twenty, with a small, fragile build, pale skin and straight black hair that draped over her face and shoulders like strands of silk. Her unconscious form was completely still. Something about her demanded silence and pause. Black tattoos covered her skin, seemingly from head to toe. They were beautiful and intricate, woven together in a flowing pattern that complemented every feature and curve of her body. At the same time there was something about them that was cold and forbidding. Ander recognized them as individual runes of power, each woven into the next in some complex grand design chosen by the artist. He could not help but take a moment to marvel at its masterpiece.
“A cage for demons.” The priest’s soft voice broke the silence. He was older, his well-trimmed beard completely white and his face lined with age. Ander always noticed that his eyes, grey but not dim, were very kind. The old priest had settled in the village a few years before Ander, and though priest and Dreamwalker were two very different walks of life, each had a mutual respect and recognition for the other’s purpose. Ander had always liked him.
“Correct, Father.” Ander knelt down and fastened shackles that were bound to the floor around the girl’s wrists. They glowed with the same runes that lined the floor.
“You’ve had this here for a while, shaman. Did you expect this to happen?”
Ander met the other’s gaze for a moment before answering. “I prefer to be prepared for such things. You never know what your path will cross.” He was sure both Josue and Draven saw through the lie. He turned to the two militiamen. “Go home and tend your wounds. You’ve earned a rest. Tell no one what you have seen here.”
Draven rubbed at his chin as he watched them leave. “We didn’t hunt for it, I want you to know. We were just warning the outlying families of the danger.” He nodded to the priest. “When we got to Josue’s house we knew it had been there. We tried to follow at a distance but it circled around and attacked my men. By some luck or blessing above I managed to knock the thing out and here we are.” He sniffed and looked at the girl with a scowl. “I’m ashamed to say that small thing almost bested us.”
“Nonsense.” Ander crouched down just outside the circle. His eyes never left the girl as he studied her, fascinated. “This is a vessel.”
“Many demons have no earthly form.” Josue stepped forward. “They require a body to sustain their presence. It is likely this child was prepared for her fate over many years, judging by the work done to her skin…”
“Just a body.” Ander rose and faced the others. “There is no girl, it’s just a shell. Some are bred soulless for such a purpose. There never was a girl.”
Josue looked at Ander and shook his head. “You cannot be sure –“
Everyone stopped at once and noticed that the demon’s eyes were open. They seemed dark, almost black in the light. They stared at each man in turn without blinking. Ander never looked away as the demon tilted her head and glanced down at her bindings. She lifted her wrists to test the weight of the shackles. Her lips curved upward into a sly smile.
“This is something new.” The voice was soft and feminine. “New place, new – bonds. New master?” Her gaze focused on Ander. Something about her gave him a chill.
“Your name, demon.” Ander forced himself to keep eye contact.
The demon licked her upper lip. “First tell me yours.”
Draven interjected, his tone low and rough. “We haven’t time for games, witch. Tell us what we want to know or I’ll force the answers from you.”
Her glance darted to the solider. She let out a low chuckle of amusement and sat up in a manner that accented the curves of her body. “I’d like to see that. I remember you. Strong, quick. Perhaps too much so.”
Draven growled and started forward but Ander stepped between them. The demon was speaking magic into her words to cause anger, anger that would cause Draven to do something foolish. He placed his hand on the wall over one of the runes and spoke a single word under his breath. The rune shifted and changed shape at his touch. The girl released a shriek and bent forward in pain.
“You were warned.” Ander moved his hand away from the wall.
“Magic weaver.” Her words were a low hiss. “Spirit-namer.”
Ander ignored her challenges. “Speak your name, demon. Your vessel is dying.”
He regretted revealing the fact as soon as it passed his lips. Would it be able to possess another without aid? He could not be sure. Surely the priest would be protected by the grace of his goddess, but if that thing possessed Draven Gree…
The girl tilted her head, the movement slow and mechanical as though her neck were a rusted hinge. She looked aside to one of the tables that lined the walls, piled high with stacks of papers – Ander’s lists and drawings.
“You know it already. I see it there, written over and over again.” Her lips curled into a cruel smile. “We’ve met before, you and I.”
Draven frowned. Josue raised his brow as he turned toward Ander. “Of what does she speak, Shaman?”
Ander frowned. “She speaks lies, Father, nothing more.”
The girl’s cold dark eyes fixed on Ander. “Why speak lies when the truth is so much better? I had forgotten all about it, the night you dared to summon the likes of me. You were younger then. Handsome as well, though I much prefer you now – stronger, lined with experience…” She smiled.
Ander turned away and brought a hand over his eyes, pressing against them in attempt to keep away the images he had spent so many nights trying to hold onto. He heard faint whispers from every direction, reading off his many lists of names.
“Come now, Spirit-namer. Name me.”
“Be silent, she-demon.” Draven tried to place a hand on Ander’s arm but he pushed him away.
The whispers were growing louder, though the solider seemed not to notice them.
The girl began to laugh. Josue grasped a golden sigil that hung at his neck and mumbled a low prayer, his words shaken and unsure as he drew back from the others. Draven began to shout threats to the girl, his weapon in hand. The whispers persisted. Ander heard a ringing in his ear that grew louder by the second.
Then all at once there was silence, save for a single name Ander heard whispered as though someone’s lips were next to his ear.
He mouthed the name as it was spoken to him.
In moments he was on her, Draven’s knife in his hand. He shouted curses as he struck her across the face and then raised the weapon over his head with every intention to make his next move fatal. But the demon was too quick. The chains that bound her fell away into dust as she took hold of Ander’s neck, the movement so swift and precise that Ander had no choice but to move to defend himself. He grabbed at her wrists with both hands, the blade pressed against her skin. She was far stronger than her vessel’s small frame should allow.
Ander felt Draven pull him back despite his shouts of protest. As Ander and the demon broke contact the knife in Ander’s hand sliced through one of the tattoos on her arm. She shrieked at the sudden pain and tried to renew her grasp. With a sharp kick to the ribs Draven sent her flailing back into the rune bindings. Her head struck against the stone wall and she fell silent, her eyes closed. Blood trickled from her broken lip and the seething cut on her arm.
For a moment it seemed to Josue as though the ink markings around the cut shimmered briefly before fading, and after that they seemed somehow different from the others.
Ander and the soldier struggled, but though the two were equal in strength it was Draven who had the training. In moments he had his knife back and flung it across the room. Ander growled as he pushed away.
“Why did you stop me?”
“She’s the one who had you on the fray, friend.”
“Let me kill it!” He made another lunge toward the motionless girl but was subdued by Draven. “I must!”
“No!” The two men paused at Josue’s sudden interruption. The priest stepped forward and rested an urgent hand on Ander’s shoulder. “You cannot.”
“Stay out of this, priest.”
“You cannot.” He spoke more softly now, his words laced with concern. “Think, shaman. You know better than I that a demon must remain bound to its vessel. It cannot be allowed to go free. You would only harm the girl.”
“I won’t have a rogue demon in my village.” Draven released his hold on Ander and rolled his shoulders forward in a gruff motion. “It’ll be on your head, Ander.”
Ander clenched his jaw and turned away. It was right there, right there! The others didn’t understand. So much time spent searching, and now it was right there. At his mercy.
But they were right. Killing the vessel would only release the demon, putting everyone at risk. Here and now, at least, it was contained. Ander sighed and let his shoulders drop.
“Leave it here, then. I’ll see to things.” He straightened his stance and faced the two men. “But this demon has much to answer for, and I will see it done. One way or another. The vessel is just that – do not try to guilt me into thinking otherwise. That thing is no more a girl than the stones outside.”
Midnight. The sky is clear tonight and gives way to the full moon that beams into the open window, illuminating the circle of runes that shimmer in the silvery light. But some are red now, stained with blood that trickles from the dead woman’s mouth. Her blue eyes are staring at nothing. Ander kneels beside her, his hands stained as well. He hears the faint feminine voice whisper help me. White light flashes from nowhere every few seconds. With every flash it reveals the demon crouched in the corner, a shapeless black mass. No, a girl. Such a small, unassuming girl. Watching. Watching. Laughing.
Ander gave his eyes time to adjust to the darkness. Dawn was a few hours off yet, but he was alert, jarred by his dream. He dressed and returned to the cellar, ignoring his instincts to write the details of his sleep. Beams of moonlight illuminated the small room and the girl who lay unconscious in her magic cage. With silent steps Ander knelt before her, his breath caught in his throat. The pale gleam of the knife in his hand reflected the light, forming a thin white stripe on the girl’s tattooed skin.
He noticed the wound he had given her earlier. It was a shallow, almost superfluous cut, but the skin separated just enough to split one of the tattoos that lined her features. Ander frowned as he studied the marking, pulling it whole in his mind. He knew that rune, as he did so many, written countless times on his papers and upon the walls. He had written it once himself, badly, so many years ago. A rune of control. He exhaled sharply and looked at the girl’s face.
She was breathing. Her chest made the slight labored heave of one who is ill or out of breath. Her eyelids fluttered as she dreamed. Ander saw the corner of her mouth make a delicate twitch.
He closed his eyes, turning the blade of the knife flat against his wrist as he rose and left the room. Regret tugged at his chest as years of torment and searching screamed at him to turn back as he climbed the stairs and returned to his bed. Turn back, end this. Be free of her. Turn back. But he couldn’t, he wouldn’t. Twenty years of agony and the painful need for closure were all held at bay by one simple truth.
Demons didn’t breathe.
The sting of cold thrashed against his skin as Ander walked into the morning air outside. He did not stop until he had reached an overlook that allowed him a view of the entire village below. The streets were already busy with people going about their business. Ander dragged a hand down his face and sighed heavily. Demons didn’t breathe. The thought filled his mind like a pot of water boiling over the sides. The vessel was a person, not the empty shell he had known of possessions in the past. Such an instance shouldn’t be possible. It was impossible. He had been sure of it. In the countless times he had run this scenario through his mind he had been so sure.
He thought at first to visit Josue, to seek the help of the gods for the first time in his life. Magic and divinity had never been at odds with one another, although some priests taught the idea that no man or woman should have the power of shapers or walkers that mimicked what the gods could do. The two had separated not out of strife, but by simple deviation as one pushed the confines of science and the other found comfort in faith and guidance. No doubt Father Josue would provide Ander with guidance and wisdom, and perhaps even answers. He would have some way of leading him away from what he knew was a destructive path, and show him how to release his obsessions and seek something more fulfilling. The process might take years, but in the end he would be wiser for it, and his nights would no longer be troubled. Josue would help him find peace.
But peace was not something he wanted, and so when he came to where the path split between the mountain roads and the descent into the valley, he took the latter. He needed the wisdom of someone who had devoted himself entirely to a cause, who had put his very being into something, and then found doubts when brought to the brink of everything he thought he wanted. Ander had met other deserters before. Men and women fled the war for all sorts of reasons, but cowardice and fear were not things he knew in Draven Gree. The young captain was steadfast and battle-worn, and had been touched by the war in a different way.
His old friend greeted him at the fence, inviting him in with a gesture and a few amiable words. Ander could see that he hadn’t slept that night. He would want to know about the demon, but followed the rules of friendship and courtesy by offering him a cup of wine mixed with herbs and water. Ander accepted and the two took chairs by the open window, warming themselves with drink to stave off the cool mountain breeze that reminded them winter was not far off.
“Is it contained?” Draven asked at last when all polite formalities had been satisfied.
Ander shook his head. “I made a mistake, Gree.”
Draven sat forward, his face drawn with concern. “What do you mean?”
“The vessel… there’s something there. Someone. I think there’s someone there.” He told Draven about what he had seen, and what it meant. The other man sat in silence, listening without judgement or opinion, only nodding on occasion to mean he understood. When Ander thought he had nothing else to say, his friend’s silence managed to push him to explain even further.
“I’ve been hunting this demon for a long time. It took something precious from me, and now I’m not sure I can take my revenge.”
“Is she dangerous?”
The thought of the woman and not the demon that possessed her tugged at Ander’s chest. “The demon, yes. I’m not sure about…her. I’m not even sure she’s conscious.”
Draven pulled a long sigh and rubbed at his unshaven chin. “What did she take from you?”
Ander stared at him for a moment, then pulled the cuff of his sleeve away from his right arm. A thin black band was tattooed around his wrist – a mark of marriage. Draven only nodded.
“Tell me about Fort Legend, Draven.”
He knew the name from whispers, not all of them from the waking world. Fort Legend was an enigma. It had been built in the middle of pure wilderness. The location was not defensible, nor did the surrounding area hold any strategic value. None had ever claimed the land before and it was unlikely anyone would for some time. There had been no battles at Fort Legend, nor had there ever been an attempt by the enemy to seize it. Travelers avoided the fort as best they could, though no one could really explain why. No one went to Fort Legend unless ordered there, and those who came out again were always to be feared. Ander had never asked Draven about his past before, but insight and whispers from his journeys to the Otherworld had made the connection not long after their first meeting. It was more than a guess—he was certain of the connection. Fort Legend was the haunted look in Draven’s eyes, and the weight that bent his shoulders forward. It was the quickness in his arms when he drew his weapon at the slightest foreign sound, and the pause before he swung his blade. The name had been on Ander’s mind for some time, though he knew not why, and now seemed like the only time to ask, as though he might not have another chance.
The man leaned back and sighed, his expression drawn with fatigue. He took a pouch from his breast pocket and turned it over in his hand. An iron ring tumbled into his open palm. Crudely made, three faces stemmed from a single head, each twisted in agony, a different colored gem placed in each mouth. Ander had never seen it before. Draven took the ring between his fingers and turned it over thoughtfully.
“We were soldiers, Ander. Soldiers take orders. Very few were transferred to Fort Legend to be trained there, but everyone knew what it meant. You were the elite – the very best, without question. We were trained to be the most efficient killers, weapons that would devastate the elven armies, but it was so much worse than that.
“Old men ran the fort. Alchemists. Not generals, not warlords—men of science and magic. They gave us these little vials of black liquid and we drank them without question. The first weeks were painful, but the results came soon after that to those who survived. The speed, the strength – reflexes and instincts far beyond anything- anything I-“ He inhaled sharply. “We were like gods, Ander. You’re the only man I know who might understand the feeling of it – beyond lust, beyond need or desperation, beyond ecstasy. I took down entire armies in mere minutes.” He let his head fall back, the veins of his neck bulging outward as though they might burst. Ander began to speak, but Draven waved him quiet and sat forward again.
“I’ll admit I thought him foolish when Nikil first expressed his doubts toward our cause. I don’t think I cared anymore, or at least I didn’t want to. He won me over, though, and Varric too. We’d volunteered for the war together together, trained together…yet when we decided to see the source of these potions for ourselves, I was ready to deny everything and turn them in. I was that far gone. I thank the gods for Varric, who beat me senseless and returned my mind to reason.
“I don’t remember how many elves there were in that room. I don’t think any of us counted. There they had been all that time, bound and gagged so we would never discover them, most mutilated so terribly they couldn’t be called elves anymore. And weak, too weak to move when we approached, though I’ll never forget the fear and dread in their eyes.” His hands were trembling and Ander saw true terror in his expression. “We gave each of them a blade to the temple—it was the first mercy I had offered anyone in years. Varric was a fool for insisting we take the she-elf, but she was still whole and would live, unlike the others. Something about her blood—they harvested the others for their organs and other parts, but this one had been laid out on a strange table, her veins opened just enough so that she would survive the slow drain. Varric carried her out with the strength her own blood had given him, and we all got away that night.
“That was never going to be the end of it, of course.” His smile was wry and bitter. “We hid in the wilds for weeks, going deeper into those woods than anyone had ever dared before. Nikil is still there, if he lives. Varric and his she-elf were together for some time, then they parted and he went on to the coasts. I hear word of his comings and goings now and then, but we agreed never to make direct contact. He’s joined the elves in the war. I came here to Delving Vale, trying to forget. But they hunt each of us to this day. One day the war will stretch its ugly shadow far enough to find me here, but by then I’ll have taken my wife and my children just a little bit farther.”
Draven leaned back again, his eyes wild and staring as though he were experience the fresh shock of what he had just described. Ander let the silence linger for a long time, knowing there could be no words of comfort or encouragement to give him. Silence was his only gift; silence and the lack of pity or verdict.
The soldier took a deep, slow breath. “Sometimes you want something so badly--things appear to happen so perfectly that you don’t allow yourself to see the flaws. It takes something more important or more terrible than your goals to pull you away from the wrong path.”
Ander nodded and rose from his chair, clapping his friend on the shoulder. As he reached the doorway Draven called after him.
“What was she like, your wife?”
Ander took pause and let his shoulders drop. “I don’t even remember her name.”
It was almost nightfall two days later when he returned to the cellar. The last few rays of light beamed in through the window and fell on the girl who sat in her magic cage, watching the entrance as though she had been waiting all along. She watched as Ander entered and, ignoring her, went immediately to the table at the far edge of the room and began looking over his papers. It was the first time he had ever reread any of his notes. He combed his fingers through his hair and sighed heavily, convincing himself that he must have missed something. He did not let himself look at the girl.
It was she who broke the silence. “You’re awake. I’m surprised. I know how you like to dream.” She sat up, arching her back in a slight stretch.
Ander could not contain his sigh. “Don’t speak as though you know me.”
She smiled her sly smile. “Why not? Don’t you remember? I do know you, Dreamwalker.”
Ander let the pages in his hands fall to the table as he turned. His movements were stiff and slow, and his eyes sunken from lack of sleep. He had tried to sleep without his draughts or brews and would not let himself believe that his body had forgotten how. “How do you know that name?”
She shrugged. “I know your kind. You dwell on things that have already happened, or things that might. You spend your short years, and yes, they are always very short, walking in worlds that humans were not meant to touch and seeing things not meant for your eyes.” She broadened her smile. “You are a fleeting people, with no true purpose to the world. Yes, I have known many of your kind. You are all the same.”
“That is quite the description.”
“And only a scratch on the surface. I know all of you. Not one of you is without a loss that drove you to your path. Who did you lose, I wonder? My long nights are filled with questions.”
“The answers to which are none of your business.” Ander turned back to his papers. His hands pressed down over the words with enough force to turn his knuckles white. This was the demon, right in front of him. The object of his obsession and his torment for so many years was finally within his grasp, yet he could not bring himself to reach for it. Was it guilt? Was it mercy? Surely the demon deserved neither.
The girl's voice persisted, each syllable ringing in his ears. “Perhaps they are. A parent, perhaps, or a lover?” She never took her eyes from him. Ander could feel her watching, though he could not make himself turn. She - it - would not break him so easily.
Ander closed his eyes. “Perhaps you should try sleeping instead of wondering about my affairs.”
He heard her laugh, the sound low and mocking. “You must know that I do not sleep. So I ponder, and you are the most interesting thing about this quaint village. Did you know I’ve been here for months? I was drawn to you, Dreamwalker. I heard your sweet screams as you called out in your sleep.” She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply. “Mmm… I can still hear them.”
Ander did not respond at first. He closed his eyes, remembering the black shape from the Otherworld in his mind’s eye. Was this thing before him the girl or the demon? He looked at her at last, searching for any sort of answer in that defiant stare. The urge to strike and to kill rose and then vanished. The ease of revenge passed him by in a fleeting moment he barely noticed. He decided to take a chance.
“Then we are three of a kind. I can hear both of you.”
The girl’s mocking expression melted into a frown. Ander resisted a smile, but the rush of elation washed over him, driving away the exhaustion. His bluff had been correct after all.
“Something wrong? I thought you wanted to talk.”
He had been right. He knelt close, staring at her now like a wolf preparing to lunge. There was something beneath the surface, something he had missed before. Layers of doubt fell away before his eyes like the waters of a receding tide. The eyes, her eyes - there was something there. The impossibility of it all fascinated him and urged him to continue. “I am not. I can hear the both of you now, screaming at each other from the inside.”
He reached forward and tapped two fingers against a symbol beside her eye. The girl flinched and turned away.
“Liar. Don’t touch me. You Dreamwalkers are all alike, twisting lies from spirits and trying to make the waking world what you want it to be.”
“That may be so, but not all the time. Will you tell me your name, girl? Do you even have one?”
They were struggling now, not just through words but through display of power. A faint humming sound emanated throughout the room. Both lashed forward without moving, testing their strengths against one another in a battle few had the ability to recognize. Once, Ander might have allowed the challenge to consume him, pressing forward with everything he had until he was lost in the euphoria of raw magic and pure will, but today he remained a steady force, silently victorious over the girl's own lack of restraint and the demon's failure to regain its full hold.
The girl snarled, growing more desperate. “You know my name. You’ve been shouting it to the dark for two decades.”
Ander shook his head. “That is not your name. It belongs to the demon, but not to you.”
“Don’t start this, Dreamwalker.”
“The sooner you accept that the sooner I will set you free.”
She clenched her fists. Ander saw the glow of the cage-runes flicker and fade. He placed a hand over the markings, lending his own strength into them.
“You wanted to talk about knowing me, so let me return the favor. You and I both know these bonds have no real ability to hold you back. I’ve exhausted my energies for days trying to maintain them and I know you know that. What is holding you here, then? It’s you, girl. You’re not the demon they brought in to me.”
“Leave me alone.”
Deciding to be bold, Ander cupped her face in his hands, tracing the tattoos with his thumbs. “These have been your cage, girl, but you’re the cage now.”
The glowing runes began to pulse. A ringing sound emanated in the little room, growing louder by the second, drowning out all other sensations. Ander clenched his jaw, forcing all his power against hers, knowing he would collapse if he lost even a second of concentration. The girl cringed and tried to pull away from his hold.
“Look at me.” He shook her once. Sweat beaded on his face as he struggled to match his power to hers. The air in the room had become hot and thick. “Look at me!”
The ringing escalated until he heard a snap, like the shattering of glass. The runes on the floor and walls were in pieces, reduced to meaningless black lines. The air was cold again and the girl was gone. Ander gasped as though he had been holding his breath and looked around. She could not have gone far.
The wind whipped rain-drenched hair across her face but she did not care. She lifted her head and looked up to the sky, her eyes hot from the tears that mixed with water and streaked down her face. Then she screamed. It was an animal sound – one of deep inner pain and rage and loneliness that very few experience. Instinct was all she knew and she gave in willingly. Thunder rolled across the sky. Far in the distance a pack of wolves answered her call with soft howls. The girl sank to her knees on the rain-soaked ground. She stayed there until the sun began to rise.
Ander approached with caution at first. A part of him still wanted to see Ambrosine, the monster he had hunted and could destroy so easily now if he allowed it. This girl had the same powers and the same spirit inside of her. The only difference was who held control. He fought against the urge and knelt beside the girl, staring at the sunrise with her. For a long time they both kept the silence.
“Are you going to kill me?” she whispered at last. There was a tremble to her voice.
“If I meant you any harm I would have caused it by now. No, I’m not going to kill you.”
The girl ducked her head, hiding the relief in her eyes. Ander tried not to look at her, both out of courtesy and his own need to convince himself of the difference between this woman and the thing that he had been hunting for so long.
“Does it hurt?”
She nodded. “Everything is sharp. My footfalls are heavy. Even breathing is—how is it I do not forget to breathe?”
“Trust your body, you aren’t used to having it to yourself. Some things will come naturally, like breathing. There are needs you don’t have in the spirit world, which is where you’ve been held while you were dragged about. Do you know how old you are? How many winters have you seen?”
She closed her eyes, touching fingertip to thumb and moving her lips without words. “Twenty three, maybe more. Time is everything and also nothing. Everything is… fleeting here, but so permanent at the same time. The sounds and sights and the feelings. How does anyone keep track of it all?”
“One day at a time. Focus on the smaller things first. Have
you thought of a name?”
She nodded. “Jaqueline. I don’t know where I got it. Just a name, I suppose.”
Ander swallowed. “It is a good name.”
“I don’t know where I got it.” She looked down at her hands, flexing them slowly. She tilted her head, each movement new and alien. “A thousand names. People, demons, stars and wind. It all belongs to her. I don’t know what I am. Everything I was… is her. Ambrosine.”
Ander cringed at the name. “Not anymore.” He placed a hand on Jaqueline’s shoulder, but drew away when she flinched. “You – she was a monster. You are something new. Decide what that means.”
Tears fell from her eyes again as Jaqueline leaned forward and whispered two desperate words. “Help me.”
They helped each other for one winter. Ander taught Jaqueline the careful methods of study and control that he had abandoned so long ago. The demon was still inside her, but it was she who had control now. Ander saw to it that she learned how to keep that control. He burned his old lists and spent evenings mapping out each tattoo on Jaqueline’s skin. After a time Jaqueline offered to explain the meanings of each mark, each dedicated to the harnessing of some rare power that she now possessed. After the first month she offered demonstrations and lessons of her own. Ander was as eager to study during the long evenings as he was to teach during the day. He learned discovered things about his own powers he had never known. He could not remember when he stopped needing the sleeping draughts, though each night he still dreamed of his wife’s death.
Ander came to realize as the days grew longer that Jaqueline would leave soon. Their lessons had grown fewer and farther between as Jaqueline proved the control was hers now. She spent long hours walking alone in the woods, sometimes as a shadow or a creature of the wilderness. He noticed she liked to change shapes, to shed her human form. He guessed that it helped her distance herself from her time as the demon’s vessel. This was necessary if she was to heal and become whole. She spoke often of the power she held, of the places she had been and the things she had seen, but she never offered to speak about the fact that she had been a prisoner inside herself for her entire life, forced to watch herself carry out unspeakable deeds and endure terrors few could imagine, and Ander did not ask about them. But he could tell she did not feel right being a part of the world and would seek to distance herself from anything that she might become attached to, even him. Sometimes she would not return for days and he wondered if she had gone for good that time, but each time he was wrong.
She confirmed his thoughts on one warm afternoon as they sat together on the hillside that overlooked the valley. “I’m leaving.”
Ander nodded, looking ahead. “I know. You know I’m not keeping you here.”
“Yes. But I was. I needed your strength.” Her words were distant, as they often were. Something about Jaqueline was always elsewhere, wandering. Ander smiled a little.
“You are always welcome here.”
She looked down at her lap. “There is one more thing I must do. I want to give you something.”
Ander raised a brow in question.
Jaqueline turned to him and leaned forward, closer than she had ever allowed him to be. Before he could react she framed his face with her small, delicate hands and kissed him deeply on the lips. Ander closed his eyes and felt himself drift into sleep.
She had been sick. She was dying, Ander knew. Youth and desperation made him believe that he could fix her, that he could set things right. He would drive the sickness from her. All will be well again by morning, he assured her. Just sleep and dream. I won’t let you go. He arranged the ritual in their bedroom, drawing the circle of white runes on the floor at the foot of their bed. He laid her sleeping form in the middle and began shaping the words that would banish her sickness. But he was too young, too new at this. He misspoke.
White lights flashed from nowhere, blinding Ander. An unseen force pushed him on his back. A formless shadow formed over his wife. She gasped as her final breath was stolen from her. Her eyes opened one last time to look at Ander. Her eyes were green.
Ander felt himself drift again. Now he was in a forest clearing. On a stone dais covered in red, glowing runes a woman was giving birth. She had black hair that clung to her body, which was drenched with sweat. White lights flashed from nowhere. A shadow hovered above her heaving form, but in the instant the child drew its first breath, the demon was gone. It had been summoned elsewhere by some folly, and by that same folly the child had an instant to be her own person. Although that other self was soon stifled as the demon returned and marked her body for its own, she would not have existed otherwise.
Ander opened his eyes and sat up. The moon was high overhead. As he stood he noticed a single set of wolf tracks lead away into the forest that bordered his land. He smiled to himself and went inside for his first dreamless night.