Old friends stay in touch
The black patch of skin I had glimpsed at the edge of my sleeve continued up past my shoulder. The mark on my chest had grown into an angry black, spiraling out onto my back. It was like the curse realized I was getting closer to being rid of it.
I would need to wear long-sleeves to cover it. In summer.
More explanations. Yay.
My head was pounding, so I flipped off the lights and sank into bed. Despite this, sleep did not come.
One of the most wonderful things about being forced into unconsciousness, as I had when I’d run into the barrier, is that it doesn’t give your mind any chance to present you with annoying questions.
Left to its own accord, my mind was set wandering in fitful spirals that lapsed into and out of dreams—the kind that sets your eyes moving behind the lids and you can feel their desperate tiredness as the hours tick onward. But I knew I was only postponing the inevitable.
The nightmare started the same as it always did, occurring with greater and greater frequency over the last three years.
Trapped. I was in a glass box where everyone could see. They were shining lights on me as I tried to cover myself. The spectators called out names, trying to redefine the borders of my box, making the edges ever smaller. The need to stretch burned like fire, my skin and bones pressing too close. Much too close, folding into and on top of one another until I couldn’t tell where the cube ended and I began. And I was starved. Starved in a way that had nothing to do with food. My mind was separated and in piecewise chunks, strewn outside the box and bombarded by stimuli that prevented it from knowing and learning and putting itself back together.
But now there was something new: the tiniest of cracks. A mere blemish in the perfect surface of my cage. From it trickled a spring of shadow, like the quiet cool of an open window at night where you breathe it in and out, feeling your chest relax. When I focused on that, everything else faded away into a new dream.
This dream was different. Clearer. I was in the tower. My perception of the space was far stranger than anything I had experienced. I couldn’t see or hear or move, but somehow I was everywhere.
It was an awareness of space far more intimate than my mind could handle, so I focused on little things. A segment of shelves with 76 books leaning into one another, collecting dust. Twelve truth circles of various sizes, the runic engravings playing a spacial tune as I noticed them. The spiraled walkway, carpet turning to stone turning to stairs just beyond that black door— 689 of them, all the way down to… what was that?
Yechiel’s generator lights created a humming emptiness around the space I wanted to know. This was frustrating, but there were other places that were just now coming to my attention.
It was the air, a few rooms down from where I slept, bunching and billowing out from under a doorway. Here there were patterns, like waves but not quite. Sound. Words, I realized. As I concentrated, they wove themselves into meaning.
“You can’t seriously believe her, Tobin.” This must be Kai. His pattern was staccato, pointed.
I couldn’t perceive the room, just like the generator, but I monitored the conversation as it ebbed and flowed out of that blinding crack under the door.
Tobin’s tone was mellow, rising and falling in a smooth cadence as he responded, “We need to tread carefully. She was telling the truth, which means however this falls, Asha is the victim in this situation.”
“I don’t disagree with that, but you aren’t actually considering that she’s right, are you?” Kai said.
“No, but what harm can letting her look do? The Great One knows Yechiel could use an archivist to help her with work around here. Asha might even help us with our other problem.”
What other problem could Tobin be referring to? They had come after me, yes, but could that be only a partial truth?
“What about her master, Daedalus? How does he fit into all of this? She told us he healed her when she was born but couldn’t save her vocal cords, of all things? Those aren’t something people survive being born without— or living without, imperium or no. I think he did something to her voice box, whether she remembers it or not.”
Tobin was silent for a moment. “You think he’s plotted this entire situation?”
“It’s the only thing that makes sense. Outside of the Wayfinder, Asha is isolated, only exposed to what he teaches her, only able to communicate using his signs, and eternally grateful and indebted to him for the life he gave her. There couldn’t be a more perfect pawn.”
Unease filtered through me. Daedalus was a good man, and it was outrageous to even think he would use me in such a way. The mages didn’t know about my curse. About what he had done to keep me safe. But… I had to admit, many of the things he told me about the Wilderness, that the Covenant taught me, had been far different in reality. Talking monsters. Siphons. Energy without magic. Did my master being wrong make his intentions bad?
“Yeah, but what worries me is this idea he’s planted in her head.” Kai continued, “What if Asha’s not ready by the time the snows come? I know she told us that she wasn’t attacked by anything in the Wilderness, but there are terrible things out there that can leave a mark on you in other ways. She might not want to risk leaving at all. Not unless she validates her claim.”
“We can work on her survival skills. Teach her to wield a weapon to face any monsters that enter our path. But that girl can probably outrun anything. One day. I still can’t believe she made it. Maybe it could be a sign? Perhaps the Great One willed her to be successful.”
Kai snorted. “More like determination straight from Brimstone. She throws a mean punch.”
“How did she get the better of you, anyway?” Tobin asked.
My anticipation caused me to lose focus, my awareness drifting until I caught onto a scrabbling of small-clawed feet on wood. There. In the living space, Morag moved, swift and sure, between furniture, attacking dust with a rag.
He was by a pair of boots as I focused in, observing him tie Kai’s laces together in a vicious knot. But midway through the eighth loop, his ears stood erect and he stiffened, glancing around, his upper lip peeling back from his pointed teeth. His heart was beating faster and faster.
“Who’s there?” he called out.
I moved on, out across the grass blades, which were swaying in delicate curls of air, rising with moisture from the soil. A gentle scraping drew me to Morag’s flower beds, where Thana was leaving, confident and content and about as smug as a cat can be.
It wasn’t that he looked at me—I was all around him, but Thana addressed me with his eyes, which were defined by their unearthly swirling gray in this monochrome dreamscape of texture and space.
He suppressed the muscles along his hackles, smoothing the fur before saying, “Come to finish what you started? To change fate and fix pain? To keep the balance?” He let out a coughing yowl, which I realized was laughter. “Or am I now to the point where I run, yelling at the night itself because there is no one but me to remember and far fewer to listen?”
Thana’s cries drove me away. For a moment, I was afraid of him. Afraid to see him so unhinged. But this was just a dream… right?
I drifted over the flowerbeds, learning their multitudes and shapes as the memory of fear drew me to a presence at the edge of the ward. I could not sense the barrier, as other objects appeared to me, but I knew it by the unnatural bend of branches and vines and the dramatic change in life beyond it.
The Wilderness was crawling with monsters. I could sense nearly a dozen, mostly small, some scaled, creeping about between the trees. One was… eating. But a familiar emptiness was what drew my attention.
Standing stock-still at the barrier’s edge was a wily, needle-limbed creature. It was so twisted, narrow, and tall that from the ground it would appear invisible. But it was that ancient singsong trembling across the air which told me this was the monster I had met.
“Such a beautiful cage,” the monster said, frost settling in crisp spirals from where it stood. “Could set you free?”
I observed with twisted fascination as the monster reached out with one creeping appendage and tapped the ward.
Thrum. Thrum. Thrum.