Feasting on Dreams, Volume Two: Chapter Fourteen

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I woke in my own bed, the same as every morning. A yawn, a stretch, the familiar feel of scratchy woollen blankets against my legs as I pushed the covers back and swung my feet to the floor. Wooden boards worn smooth, and patchy whitewash on the far wall… these things greeted me like old friends. Dreams still wreathed my mind, and I reached up to scratch my head, cracking another yawn. My fingers trailed down the back of my neck, then moved to the line of my collarbone and the hollow at the base of my throat. I rubbed at the sleep-warm skin, frowning slightly, unable to recall what it was I should find there.

Still, there was no time to waste dithering about with the tail ends of dreams. I had chores to do. They were the things I did every morning, the rhythms of life that were as much a part of the day as breathing. Clothes on, set the fire, fetch the water, boil the kettle, set a bowl for Father to wash in, scrub the floor, the step and the table, then make myself presentable for the day.

I couldn’t quite remember what I was meant to be doing… was I on the gates today? A glance around the room confirmed there were no stacks of gloves to sell, or other odds and ends. Perhaps Shianni would be collecting flowers from the grower down by the east end. We did well with flowers, usually. Shems would buy bruised tulips from wide-eyed elven girls… the women, especially. It gave them the warm, fuzzy glow of charity, I always suspected.

We overcharged them something rotten.

I pulled on my dress, pushed my fingers through my hair, tunelessly hummed the first few bars of The Woman Who Lived in the Sea, and folded up the blankets. Shafts of thin sunlight were poking their way through the window, and it wasn’t long before I was on my knees in front of the hearth, grubbing out cold ashes and building up a fresh fire. Behind me, the door opened, and familiar footsteps scuffed on the boards. I didn’t really understand why my heart raced and my stomach clenched.

I stood, brushing my sooty hands against my hips, and turned to see Father greeting me with a smile.

“Ah, my little girl.”

He held out his arms, and I folded happily into them, breathing in the familiar scent of the soap he used, and the dusty sharpness of his old leather jerkin. He stroked my hair and chuckled as he pulled back to look at me.

“There, now. Anyone would think you hadn’t seen me in a month! You look so like your dear mother, you know. So beautiful.”

He dabbed one thick, calloused finger to the end of my nose and smiled again. Laughter played all over his face like sunshine, and… and somehow that wasn’t right. Father didn’t usually call me beautiful. Nobody did, on account of it really not being true. I wasn’t hideous, but I wasn’t pretty the way elven girls were meant to be. No glittering eyes or delicately tapered limbs. No swan-like neck or ample bosom upon a slender frame. The only day I’d been called beautiful was… some other time, I felt sure. I just couldn’t remember when.

It’s the last day I’ll be able to call you that, isn’t it?

Father ruffled my hair, the way he hadn’t done since I was a child.

“Go on, now,” he said, smiling. “Your cousin’s waiting for you.”

“Y-Yes, Father.”

Had I finished setting the fire? I couldn’t remember. I wasn’t… sure about anything. But it didn’t matter. Not when there were things to do. I nodded meekly and headed out of the door. Sunlight pooled in the cobbled streets, and the smells of the marketplace were almost drowning out the middens. Everything seemed so… bright. I was home, and it was wonderful, but I wasn’t sure why. People kept smiling at me, which seemed odd, because I was just doing what I did every day of my life.

I looked down at the pail in my hand, which I didn’t remember picking up.

A stray dog with a brindled coat and large, golden eyes trotted up to me and whined. I reached out and patted the creature’s broad, flat skull. It fitted very neatly beneath my palm, and my fingers curled around the warmth of the dog’s head. It looked up at me, fixing me with a look of such intelligence that I was sure there was something more than ordinary canine interest behind that odd, ochre-gold gaze.

But… I didn’t have time for idle fancy. I walked up to the pump, and Shianni was there, all sharp humour and gossip, like she was every day. The sun made flames of her red hair. She wore it braided today, and the intricate little tendrils danced as she worked the pump handle. I watched her hard, clever hands, and I held the pail still. I looked at her narrow face, her wide blue eyes, and the freckles dusted across her clear, pale skin… and something didn’t feel right.

Shianni must have felt my gaze on her, because she looked up at me and smiled that wide, knowing smile of hers.

“What’s the matter, cousin?” she asked. “Are you off daydreaming again somewhere?”

“Hm?” I blinked guiltily. “No, I… I was just thinking.”

Shianni raised her eyebrows. “Oh? About what, hm?”

I shook my head. “Nothing. Well… no. It doesn’t matter.”

The water gurgled from the pump, splashing and spinning just the way Shianni’s laughter did. She wiped the back of one lean hand across her brow.

“I know what you’re thinking about… your dreamy betrothed!”

“What? No, I—”

“You are! Admit it! Uncle said you got another letter from Highever. Is it true he’s making you a ring?”

The heat of a blush—the memory of embarrassment, it seemed—prickled at my cheeks, and my lips twisted into an uncertain, discomforted smile. More memories: the touch of thick paper, its smell and its rustle… all that excitement as Father read the letter to me. He’d glowed with pride, clucked over every detail like a broody hen, and we’d sat at the freshly scrubbed table, him planning the wedding to end all weddings.

I wasn’t sure I wanted that. Knowing I wouldn’t have to leave Denerim was enough… I didn’t need flowers and silk. Still, Shianni was grinning at me, and I shrugged awkwardly.

“Mm. Apparently.”

“Ohhh, you’re so lucky.” Shianni sighed, but I recognised the glint in her eye as she went back to working the pump handle. “What girl wouldn’t want a blacksmith’s son? And they say he’s handsome. I can see him now, standing in front of the forge, beating away with his big… hammer…!”

She let out a peal of laughter, delighted at having made me blush, and I thought about what little I knew of Nelaros. Bare facts, really, nothing more. Just what the matchmaker had told Father, and what few missives we’d had from the family. It was all very well for Shianni to rhapsodise about my prospective husband, but I had no idea whether any of it was true. It was all just perceptions, so far… second-hand murmurs and the wisps of dreams.

Dreams.

Something itched at the back of my mind, some thought or impulse that I couldn’t put words to, but it was hard to concentrate on anything with Shianni making dirty jokes about puffing the bellows.

“Will you stop it?” Heat flamed in my cheeks. “People are staring.”

“Oh, so what?” she retorted. “Anyway, at least you have Uncle to see to your match for you. Did you hear about the girl the hahren’s found for Soris?”

I blinked, looking into my cousin’s impish, mischievous face. She grinned again, and the freckles shifted like tainted snowflakes on her cheeks. I could remember—but was it really a memory?—a girl so unlike Shianni… a pale, pointed little mouse of a thing, with a heavily cut fringe and dainty, delicate ears. The impression of kindness whispered to me across that strange chasm of unknowing, and I fought for clarity.

“V-Valora?”

The name was foreign to me; I didn’t know where it came from, but I knew I should know. There were other faces, too… other memories. Tears, and screams, and—

By dawn, the city will run red with elven blood. Think about it. You know how this ends.

—everything began to crack around me. The little things, the things that weren’t quite right, all seemed to be bigger somehow, more glaringly obvious. The beautiful day, the sunshine—too bright, too early—the laughter and the love… the little mistakes. And there were mistakes. For a start, nothing ever truly drowned out the smell of the middens.

No.

I… I remembered, sort of. A tower, and a boat, and an echoing stone hall. A voice that told me to resist, and one that coaxed me to forget. But I couldn’t, could I? Because all I had to hold onto were memories, both the good and the bad.

And I remembered all of this. It was mine. These were my memories, and I… no, I was not going to stand for some bastard demon sorting through them like lost ends of ribbon and tying them up together all wrong. Because that’s what this was, wasn’t it?

A dream. A pretence. A picture, painted in my head with all the wrong colours, the wrong nuances. A time before the bad things happened, but a time that had never really existed.

Shianni.

I opened my mouth, but my throat was dry. She smiled at me; that crooked smile that made her nose wrinkle slightly, and I wanted to see it again. I wanted to see her laugh, and see her happy, and safe, and content. I wanted to talk about nothing, to pick over the gossip of matchmakers and flirtations, and the piffling little dramas of who wasn’t talking to whom, which family had declared themselves slighted by the action of another… and which of the boys had been seen reeling in drunk at four in the morning.

I want to go home….

But I was home, wasn’t I?

Yes. It would be so easy to stay. So easy to let the dreams wrap me up, keep me safe in their warmth and their perfect, splendid solitude.

And yet… I could hear another voice, a familiar voice that wept and screamed and cried, begging me over and over to take her home, to take away all the pain and the mortification.

I remembered then. Really remembered. I remembered it all.

Shianni, and Nola, and Nelaros… Duncan, and the black blood of the Joining, and Daveth choking as the taint ate him up, and Jory dying of fear, and every single one of those screaming, bloody minutes on the ascent of Ishal, and how everyone we’d seen, everyone we’d been there to help, was lying dead in the mud in that forsaken place. I remembered Lothering, defenceless and gutted open even before the horde got there—darkspawn, who surged in my memory all over again, swarming black and fetid and filthy through my mind, with bladed teeth and belching flesh-stink, those things that would destroy the whole world if we let them….

It was a continual howl, that chain of memories that unfolded through me like a knife drawn with deliberate slowness across unguarded skin. Everything, from the day I murdered Vaughan to the siege of Redcliffe and the endless, bloody repetition of corpses and monsters. The Circle Tower, and the abominations, and the white, terrified faces of the children whom the templars had locked in to die. Every impossibility, every mistake, every agony. I fell to my knees, the pail that wasn’t really there spilling cold, clear water all around me. I wrapped my arms around my head and wailed, and the world whirled into dark, blinding shapes.

~o~O~o~

I stood up, or dreamed that I stood up, or… whatever it was, I was in the Fade. More than that, I was aware of the fact. Everything was wisps around me, in an existence where there was no up or down, no sky or ground—at least, not in the conventional sense. I looked at my hands, wriggled my fingers experimentally, and watched them cycle through the movement as if every second had been drawn on paper and then pinned together. Everything was ragged, shrouded in a yellow-tinged fog that wrapped up all it touched.

But I was not alone. A dark-haired man stood—both several feet away and at once right next to me—and he wore the robes of a mage… or he seemed to.

“W-What… how…?” I tried, my voice echoing in my head the way voices do in dreams, where speech is not speech and time is not quite time.

“Who are you?” The man looked at me in surprise. “Are you a demon? No… no, I see that you’re not. You’re like me, aren’t you? Well, congratulations on getting out of that trap.”

“Trap?” I repeated, confused.

He smiled sadly, his face flickering before me like the wavering reflection on a pool of water.

“The demon traps everything that comes here in a dream. It thinks they can’t—or won’t—try to leave. I thought I’d escaped, too, but I’ve been wandering these empty, grey spaces for a lifetime.”

Shards of memory poked at me, and I furrowed my brow.

“You’re… you’re Niall, aren’t you?”

He nodded. “Yes, I am. I was trying to save the Circle when I encountered the sloth demon. I expect our experiences were similar.”

I winced. “Maybe. What… I mean, how do I—?”

“Get out?” He shook his head. “There’s no point. It’s useless. It’s too late now, anyway. Everyone’s dead.”

“No.” I blinked, trying to hold together the loose chains of thought that slipped, serpent-like, around my head. “No, they’re not. There are survivors. The Circle can be saved.”

Niall looked curiously at me. “You sound very sure of yourself.”

“It’s true! Now, if we can just find a way out of here….” I started to look about me, as if waking up would so simple as walking through a door.

Niall chuckled bitterly. “Huh. You’d think so, wouldn’t you? There’s no way out, though. I know. The sloth demon has guarded himself carefully. He keeps the dreamers apart… wraps them up in their own little worlds, so they can’t find each other.”

“What?” I frowned. “You mean my companions could be here, too?”

“You came with others? Well, yes… it’s possible.”

“Then I have to find them. I have to—”

Niall gave another grim chuckle. “You might as well forget about it. Even if you can get out of the trap, there are obstacles. Always something in your way, taunting you… crazy dream things. Rivers of flame, impassable doors. You might see the path but never be able to get there. It can drive you mad,” he added, with a touch of hollow wistfulness.

There was a terrible calmness to the way he spoke, as if he was resigned to being here forever. I squinted up at the yellowish… well, not sky, but whatever approximation of it the Fade had. Curling archways of not-quite-rock wound around us, like the roots of some living thing, some leafless, dead, stone tree. I thought of the vhenadahl back home, and how Valendrian always spoke about the strength of standing together, and the bonds of community.

A desolate hopelessness pulled at me as I recalled how far from my old life I was—how I could never go back, never truly be part of that world again—and it washed over me like a huge wave. I shook my head. No… no, that wouldn’t do. I couldn’t afford to wallow in self-pity.

We are strongest when we stand together.

I knew what I had to do.

I frowned, and looked at Niall. “You spoke of a… sloth… demon?”

“Hm? Oh, are you still here?” He gave me a tired but genial smile. “Yes. Demons have their own hierarchies, their own… games. Mortals serve as pawns for them, perhaps even bargaining chips. The demon keeping us here probably rules this entire section of the Fade. It’ll not let us go easily, if at all.”

“Well, I’m not going to sit here and wait to die,” I snapped. “I’ll find a way.”

Niall seemed faintly amused. He tutted. “Well, well. Nothing dampens your spirit, does it? I don’t know whether to admire or pity you.”

“You could tell me how Uldred started all this,” I said, peering again at the eerie, shrouded fog around us.

Demons, spirits, and dreamers… I didn’t much like the idea of encountering any of them.

“What’s that?” Niall sounded distracted; I could tell I was losing him to the crushing apathy this place created. “Hm? Oh… yes. Uldred. You know about that?”

“Not much,” I admitted. “Just that he tried to convince the Circle to side with Loghain, and something went badly wrong.”

Niall nodded dreamily. “Oh, you could say that. Yes, you could…. I was there, you know. In the meeting. He panicked when Irving confronted him, tried to leave… Irving wouldn’t let him.”

“Did Uldred confess?”

The mage shrugged, and he sounded distant and unconcerned. “I was barely paying attention. Such meetings are boring: the course of action is usually decided before we even congregate.”

“Yes, but—” I stifled an irritable sigh. “But how did the trouble start?”

“Uldred let loose a bolt of energy that flung us all against the far wall.” Niall smiled darkly. “That certainly woke me up. It might have been a signal. That was when a whole group of mages poured into the chamber… and I saw real blood magic in action for the first time in my life. It was like they brought the wrath of the Maker Himself down upon our heads.”

For a moment, a look of awe, of something that was almost hunger crossed his face, and I had to fight not to be repulsed.

“But the abominations,” I prompted, “where did they come from? We saw… in the tower, there were—”

“What? Oh, yes. I was getting to that.” Niall blinked, and the trace of wistful yearning was gone. His mouth tightened. “Uldred must have also dabbled in demonology. When the fighting started he tried to summon something… or some things. They overwhelmed him, and when the screaming stopped, Uldred was… gone.”

I had a horrible feeling I wasn’t going to like the answer, but I asked the question anyway:

“Um. What do you mean, ‘gone’? Dead?”

Niall shook his head. “I’m sure he wishes he were dead. Uldred became an abomination. And when I saw it, I ran for my life.” He glanced up at me, his face etched with a terrible guilt and regret. “I imagine you think I’m a coward.”

“After what I saw in the tower?” I raised an eyebrow. “I would have done the same thing.”

He smiled thinly; I didn’t know whether he believed me.

“I was in a panic. Once I calmed down, I thought about what would happen if that… thing… got out. I gathered some of my fellows and we obtained the Litany of Adralla from the stockroom. I thought if we disabled the others, we could throw everything we had at Uldred. But I saw my friends fall, one by one… and now it’s my turn.”

He started to grow weary and dull-faced again, and I reached out to shake his arm, force him to look at me.

“The Litany of Ad-Adralla? What’s that?”

Niall blinked, struggling to stay focused. “Hm? It, er, it protects… protects against the blood mages’ dominion. They can control you, you know. Make you do whatever they wish…. I have no idea who, or what Adralla was, but the Litany is a powerful weapon.”

He tilted his head, regarding me with a fuzzy, slightly unsure expression.

“Do you… d’you really think you can get out?”

In that moment, I didn’t know. A knot of doubt sat in my throat like week-old bread and I almost couldn’t speak past it… but then I thought of Duncan, who had saved my life because he believed there was some spark of potential in me that was worth sparing. Duncan, who had believed I could become a Grey Warden, and who had expected me to be worthy of the title.

“I intend to try,” I said, as firmly as I could manage.

Niall nodded slowly. “I… I even think you might,” he said, seemingly half to himself, and then he bit his lip. “If… if you do, take the Litany from my body. Use it against them. It will give you a chance… do you understand?”

I stared. “What? But—”

“Listen… I won’t leave this place. Not now. I’ve been here far too long. The demon… it feeds off the dreamers it traps here.” He let out a low, weary breath, and shook his head. “I am dying. It’s as simple as that.”

He sounded so utterly defeated, so crushed.

“No,” I began. “No… you come with me, Niall. We’ll find a way out, we’ll get you healing. There are other survivors, other mages who—”

“Thank you, but it is too late.” He shook his head, and smiled gently at me. “I do not fear what may come. My only regret is that I could not save the Circle. But you… I think you can. Do not trust what your eyes tell you. Find your strength… and take the Litany off my body when you return. It is important. Promise me.”

“But—”

“Promise,” he repeated, with more conviction than I’d heard from him in our entire exchange.

I nodded glumly. “All right. I promise.”

Niall seemed to relax. “Good. Then it is time for us both to be on our way. You should go, before this place gets its claws into you. The Circle is all that matters now. Thank you and goodbye… friend.”

I mumbled some useless platitude, touched by his bravery to the point where my eyes burned and my throat grew heavy, but I turned nonetheless and began to walk away, into that strange and blinding fog. That distorted, shrouded world echoed and sang darkly around me and—when I looked back to where I’d been—Niall was already no more than the wisp of a shape… a memory, or the ghost of a dream.

~o~O~o~

Even after all this time, I still hesitate to write of the journey through the Fade.

Niall was right; it was enough to drive a person mad. There were rivers of fire, and unbreakable doors, and portals through which no mortal body could pass. There were spirits and demons and dreamers; the souls of sleepers who could not see me, yet whose worlds clawed at me, trying to drag me into their visions and keep me there, consuming me totally. I saw the faces of the dead, and knew the demon was trying to trick me once again.

My mother called to me from the fog. Duncan, too; even Nelaros, handsome and brave and telling me he did not regret giving his life. He stretched out strong, white hands for me, calling me away to a perfect rest, just as Duncan commanded me to cease my foolishness and recognise my inexperience.

I pressed on, and on, and tried not to trust a thing I heard or saw. Soon, my measured paces turned to desperate running, and I flung myself through blind mile after mile of timeless, spaceless insanity, frustrated and furious… and with tears wet on my cheeks.

My head was still spinning with it all when I found the first dreamer I sought.

I stood in front of a pretty cottage, with white-painted walls and little blue windowboxes on the sills, filled with flowers. There was a blue-painted door, four neat, symmetrical windows, and a shingled roof. It wasn’t real. Even if I hadn’t known I was still in the Fade, it would have looked too perfect, too much like the kind of house a child would draw. I squinted upwards, almost expecting the sky to be a broad daub of bright blue, with the sun a yellow dot at its centre. I wasn’t sure whether that would be worse than the unsettling, shroud-like fog, but it didn’t matter. There was no daub of blue, just an unpleasant leaching of colour where this dream joined the wider Fade, and it put me in mind of ink seeping into water.

I pushed open the door. It swung back easily, and I heard the laughter of children, the thumps of running feet on wooden boards. Two red-cheeked boys with tousled mops of golden curls pelted past me, and the smell of fresh-baked bread dangled temptingly on the air. My throat tightened. The sheer strength of this dream scared me.

“Merien!”

Alistair beamed cheerfully at me. He looked… different. No armour, no sword, no shield. Just clean, fresh, civilian clothes, and good, well-polished boots. He seemed so relaxed, so free, and yet I could see the clouds in his eyes. I didn’t know what he was seeing, whether this false, comfy little kitchen was the entirety of his vision, or just the run-off, but it worried me.

“I was just thinking about you,” he said amiably. “Now here you are! Isn’t that a marvellous coincidence?”

“Alistair….”

“You haven’t met my sister, have you?”

The woman at the stove turned and smiled at me. She was lovely. Long, blonde hair flowed down her back, her slim figure draped in a pretty, blue dress. She looked like him… but she wasn’t real. None of it was, I reminded myself.

A little girl, no more than three or four, tottered across the floor, reaching out for her mother with stubby pink stars of hands. Blonde ringlets framed pudgy, sticky cheeks. Alistair’s not-sister bent down and scooped up the child, and I fought back the warmth that started to rise in me.

Not real.

I could almost taste his belief. It was there on his face; that shiny, desperate intensity, as if every shred of his determination was focused on the dream. I wasn’t sure whether it had consumed him, or if he was keeping it going.

The woman straightened up, the child on her hip, and for a brief moment her gaze caught mine. I shuddered, recognising the hard, pupilless eyes of a demon. It stared at me, the soft, pretty lips of its make-believe face caught somewhere between a delicate smile and a challenging snarl.

It knew me for what I was, just as I knew it… but it wasn’t giving up without a fight.

I glanced at Alistair, but he was oblivious, still chattering enthusiastically.

“It really is wonderful, you know. We’ve so much lost time to catch up on, but we’re one big, happy family, at long last! You’ll have to meet the children. All of them. There’s… well, there’s… a lot of them. I lose count.”

He frowned slightly, as if catching at a loose thread, realising that something was out of place. I should have jumped on it then, made him look, really look, at the dream, but I wasn’t quick enough. Alistair blinked, shook his head, and smiled distantly at me.

“One big, happy family,” he repeated, his voice slightly husky, his eyes dark and hazy. “And now you’re here, too. Isn’t that great? Are you staying?”

I bit my lip. Poor sod. Twin surges of rage and pity coursed through me, and I reached for something to say, something that might start to chip through the dreams that wreathed him… the dreams he was clinging to.

“You seem very, er, content,” I ventured.

“I am.” Alistair nodded fervently. “I’m happier than I’ve been my entire life. Isn’t that strange? I thought being a Grey Warden would make me happy… that I’d belong. But I didn’t. Not really. I-I belong here, though. And I’m happy.” His smile widened, but grew a touch melancholy. “I really am.”

The not-sister creature slipped a dainty, possessive hand into the crook of his elbow.

“I’m overjoyed to have my little brother back,” she said, and I wondered if I was the only one who could see her lips were moving at a slightly different speed to the words. She gave me a knife-like sneer, more a baring of teeth than a smile. “I’ll never let him out of my sight again!”

A shiver crawled down my spine. The room seemed to flicker around us, and I was aware of the children—whatever they really were—creeping back in from the dark corners, drawing close and staring. Alistair was fighting it, somewhere in there, even if he didn’t know it. The children were beginning to look a little… off, their legs and arms a touch too long, fingers oddly attenuated, their faces grown too sharp and too thin.

Alistair blinked again and looked faintly confused. The demon squeezed his arm, and bile burned in the back of my throat. It suddenly seemed very important—vitally, achingly important—that the creature did not touch him.

Whatever it thought, it did not own him. I would see to that.

“How lovely,” I said sweetly. “But d’you think I could borrow him for a second? We have business elsewhere.”

I reached out, meaning to grab hold of his sleeve, but Alistair pulled away.

“No. I… don’t think I’ll be coming. Sorry.”

“But….” I began, not really knowing why I was quite so stung by his refusal, too surprised to try to understand it. “The Blight…. What—”

He gave me an odd look, full of sadness and defeat and yet oddly liberated, as if he was finally giving vent to a truth he’d held close for too long.

“I’m sorry. Really. But I don’t want to spend my whole life fighting, only to end up dead in a pit along with rotting darkspawn corpses.”

The words landed on me like a weighted glove, but I couldn’t stop to think about them. I blinked, trying to find the way into his sealed, guarded world. If I could just make him look….

The demon smirked, and rested the cheek of its pretty, false face against his shoulder, staring levelly at me all the while.

“Well, Alistair, is your friend staying for supper?”

The voice was light, musical… like laughter. I wanted to stay, I realised. I wanted to believe, and to sit at a table with smiling, happy people, and eat fresh bread slathered with butter, and—

No!

“Yes… say you’ll stay. I’d like that.”

Alistair had that unsettling, vacant smile on his face again, and I shuddered.

“Goldanna’s a great cook. Maybe she’ll make her mince pie.” He covered the demon’s hand with his, and looked imploringly at the woman he saw in his mind. “You can, can’t you?”

“Of course, dear brother.” The creature shook out its golden curls, and gave a charming, delicate giggle. “Anything for you.”

Its eyes flashed as it looked at me, lips bowed into a nastily triumphant curve.

Fury beat in my throat; I could not let it win, and the anger burst out, rash and harsh in my voice.

“I’m not staying, Alistair, and neither are you.”

He frowned, looking at me with unfocused eyes, and the demon’s smile widened. The burn of anger turned to icy dread. We might be trapped within the Fade, but how easy would it be for the creature to make him fight me?

I shook the thoughts, not willing to even imagine it. Besides, none of this was real—and if I couldn’t get us out of here, nothing would ever be real again, until we withered away, not even conscious of our own deaths.

“You’re acting really strangely,” Alistair said reproachfully, and shook his head. “It’s… it’s not like you at all.”

“And this isn’t you, either!” I protested. “Look at this. It’s not real. It’s not—”

“Stop it!” He shook his head again, harder, an adamant refusal. “Why can’t you be happy for me? I… I thought you, of all people, would understand.”

That brought me up short, my mouth hanging open and the lost ends of words trailing empty and unsaid.

“I have everything I ever wanted,” Alistair said hollowly, looking at a distant point about two inches to the right of my ear. He blinked, and fixed me with a dreamy, glazed smile. “I think you should stay. In fact, your odd behaviour is probably brought on by hunger. Now come and have some pie. I promise you’ll feel better.”

He was looking right through me, and Maker only knew what he saw. I sighed.

“Bloody idiot shem,” I muttered, though I only half meant it.

His dreamy smile dipped a bit, and a slight frown dented his brow. “Hmm?”

The not-sister gave me a glittering smile.

“Are you sure you won’t stay for supper?” it said, in those chirpy, syrupy tones.

“You don’t fool me, demon,” I growled, glaring into the pupilless, blank eyes.

The smile became a snarl, and the voice lost its false glitter, a darker tone echoing inside my head.

He is ours. Nothing you say will convince him otherwise. He sees only what we want him to see.

I scowled, refusing to accept it. Once more, I reached out, and I grabbed Alistair’s wrist, feeling the tightness of sinew, the warmth of his skin, and the silent hum of a pulse beating too fast. I dug my fingers in, pinched hard, wrenched when he tried to pull away.

“Look at me! Listen—”

“Ow, that really—”

“—is this what Duncan would want you to do?”

Sometimes, cruelty is a hot knife, paring away the things that kindness cannot.

Alistair was a good head taller than me, not to mention heavier and made mainly of the densely packed muscle that comes from years of training. As he looked down at me, the fog beginning to lift from his face, I realised how totally defenceless and vulnerable so much of him was.

“Don’t you remember Ostagar?” I hissed, fingers biting into his wrist. “Ishal? D’you think Duncan died down there on the field—ripped apart by darkspawn—so you could stay here and eat pie?”

Hurt sluiced across those hazel eyes. It wasn’t my proudest moment.

“That… that was… a long time ago,” Alistair mumbled, sounding uncertain. “It—”

“No. Look at this place, Alistair. Really look. How did you get here, hm? What happened?”

He frowned, and his resistance to my grasp weakened. I loosened my grip; my fingers had left red marks on his skin that faded to white as he rubbed them absently.

“Fine,” he muttered gracelessly. “If it makes you happy. You’re not usually so— no, wait. It… it’s a little fuzzy. That’s… strange.”

He shook his head, and I let my hand fall to my side. He was starting to see, and the whole place was flickering around us. The demon, still wearing its false face, began to look worried.

“Alistair?” The light, musical voice seemed slower, deeper. “Come and have some tea.”

It raised one small, delicate hand, but he shook his head, swaying back, out of its reach.

“No… wait. I-I remember a… tower. The Circle. It was… under attack. There were… there were demons, and—”

The not-sister parted those soft, pink lips, its neat, pearly teeth bared in a growl of frustration. The walls of the cottage were thinning and the attenuated shadows of children had begun to pale, turning to streaks of mist again the fog.

Alistair looked at me, confused, wide-eyed and hurting, his mouth bowed around a soundless groan of disbelief. Betrayal coloured his face as the dream fractured, and I could see him fighting it, torn just as I had been between hating the lie and wanting so badly to stay folded within it.

I nodded. “You’re right. And one trapped us in the Fade, where we are now.”

“A-Are you saying… this is a-a dream?” He took one sad, final look around the cosy little kitchen, with its clean-scrubbed floor and the walls through which chinks of light were already beginning to seep. “But it’s so real….”

Just as real as he wanted it to be, I thought. I touched his arm again, gently this time. At least, I supposed, my dream had been based on memories. Had he really had nothing for the demon to pull from him? No ragged ends of happiness, stored away somewhere like old letters or children’s shoes?

“I’m sorry. Come on, we—”

“Of course it’s real!” the demon snapped, making one last effort at keeping its prize. “Now come and wash up before supper and I—”

“No.” Alistair shook his head wearily. “Something… something doesn’t feel right. I… I think I have to go.”

He gave me a pinched, tired look, and I just felt so overwhelmingly guilty at what I’d done, as if I should have left him there… left him happy. I blinked, pushing the thoughts away. It was this place, that was all. The Fade, and the things it did to your head. I tugged Alistair’s wrist.

“Come on. Come with me, then.”

He nodded, and the demon gave a low growl of rage. It spoke, the ends of the false human voice tied up with that dark, spiteful echo.

No! He is ours! We would rather see him dead than free!

It roared, and the world—the cottage, the stove, the pretty blue dress and the golden curls—fell away, winding around us in a sheeting, echoing whirl of violent darkness. We held firm, eyes clenched shut against the howling void and, eventually, the noise faded, leaving nothing but a sucking, awful silence behind it.

I opened my eyes cautiously, aware of the solidity of Alistair’s broad frame at my shoulder. Odd, I thought, that we should have such definite physicality—that he should—in this place, where nothing was real.

I found the emptiness of the Fade incongruous. The fog that swaddled everything, choking the life and the reality from it, blanketed out so many of the other worlds, the other dreamers… and yet I knew they were there. The Fade was a crowded, complex thing, but it felt so completely desolate.

Alistair stepped forwards, blinking like a drunk caught in the dawn’s first cold light.

“Wh…. G-Goldanna?” He rubbed his forehead and groaned. “I can’t believe it… how did I not see this earlier?”

“The, er, demon probably did something to your head,” I said kindly.

“Mm.” He turned back to me with an expression of intense embarrassment that almost masked the hurt in his face, and winced. “You, uh… you won’t tell everyone how easily fooled I was, will you?”

I shot him a small smile and shook my head. “Secret’s safe with me.”

Alistair nodded ruefully. “Thanks. Can… can we go? I mean, how—?”

Find your strength. That was what Niall had told me, and there was strength in numbers, wasn’t there? The demon feared that… took pains to keep the dreamers it trapped apart.

I looked towards the twisted, knotted paths of the Fade’s uneven, coiling firmament, and wondered whether they really were changing in front of me, ever shifting and dissembling.

“We find the others,” I said, narrowing my eyes, trying to see clearly past the dreams and the falsehoods. “Somehow.”

~o~O~o~

Travelling that peculiar realm was not as bad with a friend at my side, although Alistair remained subdued, feet scuffing at the strange ground like a boy kicking up autumn leaves.

Things certainly felt different. Other dreams, other worlds did not claw at me the way they had before; it was almost as if the Fade was watching us, waiting to see what we did next. The demon, I suspected, was completely aware of our actions.

I told Alistair about Niall, and the Litany, and Uldred’s apparent… change. He nodded grimly, and gave me a brief but enlightening lecture on the dark plane where blood magic and demonology met, and madness walked in the footsteps of death and terror. I didn’t really want to ask how he knew his subject matter so well but, even in this place of dreams, I could see him worrying at the flat gold disc of a totem he wore on his left hand.

We would, I thought, need more than lucky charms to see us through.

At last, and despite every false turn of the path ahead—sometimes blocked by fallen rock, sometimes spongy as winter mud—we found our way to Leliana’s dream.

I smelled incense, and dust, and as we drew nearer to the kneeling figure at once both a speck on the horizon and a shape close enough to touch, I thought I heard the low murmur of a distant chant. Our footsteps seemed to echo on smooth flagstones yet, when I looked down, I saw nothing but the honeycomb texture of the Fade’s odd, living ground. Something dark brown and snake like seemed to shift under my gaze, like a tree root blindly butting its way to water. I looked away, looked up… and found myself in the small, simple, sanctified space of Lothering’s chantry. Dust motes danced in the air.

“Maker….” Alistair murmured, and I glanced at him. He raised his brows. “Can you see…?”

I nodded. Ahead of us, Leliana knelt before the altar in her lay sister’s robes, hands clasped before her head as she rocked in earnest prayer. A tall woman with grey hair and broad, solid features stood beside her, one hand on her shoulder. She turned as we approached, and regarded us with a quiet serenity that was in stark contrast to everything I saw in her blank, pupilless eyes. It offended me, somehow, at a deeper level than I would have expected, to see a demon posing as a priest.

“Leliana?” Alistair started forwards. “Leliana, we—”

“Please, do not vex her,” the demon said, in tranquil, measured tones. “She needs quiet and solitude, to calm her mind and heal her heart.”

Alistair drew breath to challenge the creature, but Leliana rose from the altar, turning to us in confusion.

“What? I don’t understand… what are you two doing here? Have you come for the service?”

She brightened at that, but I shook my head.

“Listen, this is a dream. You’re in the Fade. None of this is real.”

The demon that guarded her seemed a weaker soldier than the one Alistair had been feeding. It pulled back the lips of its human face and gave a soundless snarl, but I could see the illusion beginning to quake around us already.

Leliana frowned. “Isn’t real? Whatever do you—”

“Think about it,” Alistair said. “How did you get here?”

She blinked, a delicate furrow appearing between her pale brows. “I… I came to Lothering for peace,” she murmured. “The Chantry asks nothing of me, and accepts everything. I—”

“But you left,” he insisted, “didn’t you? Don’t you remember why you left the cloister?”

“That’s right,” I put in. “Your vision. You remember that, surely?”

Recognition flickered in those glass-chip eyes and, slowly, Leliana nodded. The walls of the dream-chantry thinned a little more, and the smell of incense seemed to fade.

“I remember… you’re right, there was a sign….”

The demon-priest reached out a hand that was both pale, blue-veined flesh, and a darker, gnarled and twisted claw. It touched Leliana’s shoulder gently.

“Come now, we have discussed this… ‘sign’ of yours. The Maker does not care to interfere in the affairs of mortals. What you call a vision was most likely the work of demons.”

Alistair snorted. “You’d know about that, wouldn’t you?”

The creature bared its teeth again, its very form seeming to flicker before us, just as the world it was trying to maintain appeared to be dying.

“Don’t listen, Leliana,” I said, thinking back to the night we’d spoken of her vision, camped up near the Highway, ankle-deep in mud and rabbit guts. “You know it’s true. You feel the Maker’s presence all around you, don’t you? Will you take the priest’s word over something you know in your heart?”

She fixed me with that strange, complicated gaze—such a mix of innocence and terrible knowing—and her mouth twisted as she pulled away from the demon and its beguiling touch.

“What she says is right: the Maker cares for us. I believe He misses His wayward children as much as we miss Him and, though my vision may not be from him, still it guides me to do what is right.” Leliana shook her head, staring at the demon as the last shreds of sanctity tumbled into nothingness around us. “My revered mother knew this. I don’t know who you are, but you are not her.”

Desperate now, the demon tried another tack. It wheedled, holding out its hands, its voice shifting and crackling as the illusion peeled away.

“But this is your home, child… your refuge. Do you truly wish to leave the comfort of this place behind? Stay, and know peace.”

Leliana was stepping backwards, towards us, and though the demon followed her, it seemed to weaken with every step.

“There is no need,” Leliana said, sounding surprisingly calm. “I carry the peace of the Chantry in my heart.”

She stared levelly at the creature, which appeared to enrage it. Losing almost all semblance of the form it had worn now—the image of the priest a ragged, wispy picture, lop-sided and fuzzy—it roared in fury:

“You are going nowhere, girl! I will not permit it!”

“You command me no longer!” Leliana cried back. “Now begone!”

Once again, there was that ear-splitting shriek, the roar of darkness and gritty, violent shadows… and we were left, alone, desolate on the empty, insane landscape of the Fade.

For all her bravery, Leliana now looked pale and shaken.

“Holy Maker! She… she was a—”

“A demon,” I supplemented. “Yes.”

“Well done,” Alistair added vaguely. “With the, er… ahem. Did you not know at all, then? Did it really seem real? I mean, really, really—”

“Really real,” Leliana said weakly. “It did, yes.”

He looked relieved. “Oh. Right.”

“We need to find Wynne,” I said, looking towards the place that once been a path. It was blocked now, overgrown by a thicket of those brownish, briar-like roots that, the more I thought about it, seemed less like vegetation and more like tentacles.

~o~O~o~

We found Wynne sitting alone on the ground, just a solitary figure in the midst of the Fade’s strange landscape. At first, it seemed like a trap, and I hesitated.

She sat almost perfectly still, her right hand in her lap and her left moving rhythmically in the air at her side, as if she was stroking something… washing something, I realised. Then, when I saw the tears on her cheeks, I understood.

The left hand passed an invisible thing to the right, and she moved as if she was dipping it into a bowl of imaginary water, squeezing out the cloth that only she could see.

“What is she doing?” Alistair murmured.

I let out the deep breath I’d been holding, and unpleasant memories came with it, scudding to the surface when I’d kept them buried for such a long time.

“Laying out a body,” I said.

I hadn’t done much to help Mother. In all honesty, I hadn’t wanted to, not from the first moment I touched her and found her so cold, so… waxy. Barely like flesh at all. I’d just fetched and carried and watched as Nera, the hahren’s sister, washed away the blood and the dirt, and I’d helped to wrap her in linen before we carried her up to paupers’ field.

“Wynne?” Leliana was moving forwards, her hand stretched out towards the mage.

Wynne didn’t look round, didn’t stop. She shook her head, and her words were quiet, their edges rough-hewn with grief.

“Make forgive me. I failed them all. They died and I did not stop it….”

I didn’t want to know what she was seeing: the bodies of her fellow mages, or those of apprentices? The shrunken, pale forms of little apprentices, maybe, no more than ten years old and so ill-prepared for what they’d had to face.

“Don’t believe it, Wynne,” I said, though I knew it wouldn’t do much good.

Anger coursed through me at the creature that kept us here. Dreams or memories, nightmares or blissful reveries, these were our hidden places, our private wounds and our secret hopes, and they should not be opened up like this, split and pulled out to be pawed around by some filthy demon.

She wasn’t listening. Leliana was at her shoulder now, reaching out a hand to the slippery fabric of her robe.

“It isn’t real,” she began, but Wynne shook her touch irritably.

“How can I disbelieve what I see, what I smell and feel?” she demanded, glaring up at Leliana, her face taut and hard. “Death. Can you not see it? It’s all around us….”

Wynne looked away, and I could only imagine the makeshift mortuary she was seeing. I recalled the corpses in the great hall; mages and templars falling side-by-side as they struggled to bring down unspeakable horrors… and the warped, ruined flesh of the abominations.

Leliana knelt beside her, trying again to break through, but Wynne was growing impatient.

“Listen… you’re in the Fade, Wynne. This is a dream. It’s not—”

“Leave me to my grief, can’t you? It is all I have left!”

The older woman turned her head away, determined to stay shackled to her agony. Thin hands with veins that stood proudly on their backs moved tenderly through the air as she returned to the bodies of those she believed she could see, and the raw edges of her words were whetted with regret.

“Why was I spared, if not to help them? I failed them… failed them all. Let me be, and I shall bury their bones, scatter their ashes to the four winds, and mourn their passing until I too am dead.”

Leliana glanced up at me over Wynne’s shoulder, and shook her head.

“Well, we have to do something,” Alistair said.

He crossed to the mage, trying to make her look at him, adopting that crisp, authoritative tone that—when we’d first met—made me think he was some minor gentry’s brat.

“Wynne… whatever this is, you have to fight it.” He hunkered down in front of her. “This isn’t real. You didn’t fail anyone… you saved those people, remember? Just leave this and come with—”

I groaned inwardly. He meant well, but I wasn’t sure I’d ever known anyone with such a gift for sticking his foot in it. Wynne stared at him, aghast, and the pain in her face even cut through those familiar clouds.

“Didn’t fail? I did not fail them?” Her mouth tightened, and the hurt began to harden into a cold, concentrated fury. “They are dead, are they not? They died… such horrible deaths, and you think nothing of this? Your blatant disregard for the souls of these children strikes me as being utterly inappropriate.”

I could all too easily imagine Wynne bringing that sharp tongue of hers to bear on an errant apprentice, all disappointment and indisputable reprimands. Alistair looked uncertain, like a chastened schoolboy, but he rallied.

“Look, just think about what you’re doing here… how you got here. Don’t you remember—”

She shook her head, her high principles solidifying into a stubborn refusal to listen. “I do not know what you’re trying to tell me. Why must you make this more painful?”

“Because we’re trying to help!” he protested, growing frustrated.

I could see this was getting us nowhere. Wynne frowned, fixing him with that clear blue gaze, regret and disillusionment hauntingly condensed into those twin shards of sapphire.

“Help?” she repeated. “Help? And where were you when this happened, Alistair? I trusted you as an ally and you were nowhere to be found!”

He looked as if she’d slapped him in the face, mouth hanging open around a half-formed protest, and eyes bruised and shocked.

“I….”

“It is just as it was at the battle,” Wynne said hollowly, and she seemed to be both looking at him and looking straight through him, but into what dark memories, I didn’t want to know. “We were fighting, dying… and where were you? Where was the beacon?”

A small, dry noise—part way between a croak and a gasp—left Alistair’s throat and, when he managed to speak, his voice was hoarse. Wynne couldn’t have hurt him worse if she’d tried… and I wondered if she even knew.

“The… the tower was overrun. I-It wasn’t—”

He broke off, looking to me to back him up, I supposed, to repeat those mantras we told ourselves, those good, solid reasons that were meant to make everything all right.

“Perhaps it does not matter,” Wynne said darkly, staring back into the empty spaces before her, which must have been filled with so many horrible dreams. “Loghain betrayed us. He would have retreated regardless… he sought only Cailan’s crown that day, not to defeat the darkspawn.”

“But they must be defeated,” I heard myself say, as I picked my way across the tangled, unruly ground. “Mustn’t they? We can’t give up, Wynne, no matter the cost.”

I knelt before her, and she looked at me with a strange, poignant mix of muddled confusion and deep certainty, that thin-lipped mouth curved into an apprehensive line.

“But….”

I reached out, took gentle hold of the hand she thought still clasped a wet cloth—the hand she thought was still ministering to the dead—and brought it in front of her, willing her to see the dream for what it was.

“We all lose people,” I said softly. “But you can’t live in grief. Not when there’s still so much to do.”

Her frown deepened, and my own words echoed in my ears. I was the one afraid to let go of my memories, my grief… my guilt. It was I who feared both holding the past tight enough to stifle it, and letting it stream away into the wind, and now I thought to offer advice?

However laughable it seemed, it appeared to be working. Wynne blinked and shook her head.

“No, I… the Circle is lost. The tower has fallen. There is nothing to—”

“It hasn’t fallen yet,” Alistair said. “You saved all those people, Wynne. You protected them. There are survivors.”

“I… I don’t… remember,” she murmured.

“Concentrate,” Leliana put in, adding her encouragement. “You can do it. You know you can. This is nothing but a dream, Wynne. There is always hope.”

The mage pinched the bridge of her nose. “It is so difficult to focus. It feels as though something is… stopping me from concentrating. I have never had so much trouble before.”

“Yes, well you’ve probably never been held captive by a demon before,” Alistair muttered.

Wynne loosed a tired, shallow sigh. “I… I think you are all right. It would be better if I were to step away from here for a little while. I need to… to clear my head.”

She blinked again but, when she looked up, the fog was lifting from her face. Just as my dream had broken to pieces around me in a whirling pit of horror and anguish, I could see the hidden time collapsing back in on Wynne. Yet, unlike me, she did not quiver or wail. She merely bowed her head, her hand shading her eyes and her shoulders rising and falling to the rhythm of quick, light breaths, until it all subsided.

Before I’d left the alienage, I’d never imagined humans were capable of such dignity.

~o~O~o~

Niall had hinted at how we might defeat the demon that had ensnared us, but it seemed to me that simply finding each other was not enough. We were together, but still trapped in the Fade. I envisioned more endless paths, more stumbling and blind rambling through all the impossible worlds—all those eye-bending places were there was no true concept of time or space or distance—but that was not the case.

The world shifted around us, the eerie wisps of fog trembling as the very ground rose up to surround us, trapping us in a ring of rocks like jagged teeth. The sky—or whatever it was that passed for it here, textured with that same smoky, yellowish fog—grew darker, greying with the stink of sulphur and fire.

“Well, now,” purred a familiar, laconic voice. “What do we have here? Escapees?”

The demon’s laughter echoed from unseen places, at once above us and all around us, and we pressed together, back-to-back in defence against this invisible enemy.

The creature seemed to melt out of the rock, gliding towards us as if it was made of no more than a breath of summer breeze. It did not wear the same form as it had in the tower. No foul, corrupted flesh, no puppet corpse of a mage-turned-abomination cloaking its spirit form. It was like nothing I’d ever imagined… nothing I ever wanted to see again. Brightly coloured robes covered its long, attenuated limbs and torso, a coruscating curtain of opulence that might as well have been woven from the air itself, so light and diaphanous were they. Above that rose a neck like that of some giant insect, oddly bent and ridged, yet the hands that peeped from the overlong sleeves—and the lower part of a face just visible from within the shadowed recess of a cowl—were as grey and bony as a skeleton.

I shuddered, and the creature’s laughter rolled around us.

“My, my… you do have some gall. But playtime is over. You all have to go back now.”

“You will not hold us, demon,” Wynne said, her voice as unbending as iron. “We found each other in this place and you cannot stand against us.”

It tipped its sightless head to the side, and extending one of those dead hands towards us, beckoning stiffly.

“Come, now. If you go back quietly, I’ll do better this time. I could make you so much happier….”

At my side, I felt Alistair’s stance stiffen.

“I’ll make my own happiness, thank you,” he said curtly.

“Seconded,” I agreed. “We’ll do nothing you say, demon. You may as well let us go now.”

“Or what?” it enquired, tilting its head again in that incongruous, bird-like gesture. “You will fight me? Hmm… perhaps I should teach you to bow to your betters, mortal!”

The demon raised those stick-like arms, and I doubt any of us saw it coming. There was just a great rush of energy, like a thunderclap, and then a bright flash, and the awful lancing pain of something searing through me. It was like lightning, and it jumped from each of us to the next, a thin blue thread of fire that burned and crippled. I recall crying out, dropping to the ground… and wondering where your soul went if you died this side of the Veil.

“This is the Fade,” Wynne shouted, as whatever the assault had been dispersed and we scrambled to our feet, preparing to scatter. “Nothing is real, except your will!”

I didn’t understand what she meant at first, until white light flared from her palms, bursting forth in a huge, all-enveloping sheet that rushed over everything. I flung up an arm, shielding my eyes, but I felt her magic changing things and—when I looked afresh—we were no longer clad in the vestments of our dreams. Leliana’s Chantry robe was gone, replaced by a suit of glimmering mail and a bow of white ash. Alistair, encased in highly polished plate, wielded a brightly painted shield and shining sword and, when I looked down at myself, I discovered I was laced into leather armour studded with bright steel rivets, a blade in each hand. Their weight was phenomenal; like swinging a feather through the air.

A slow smile spread across my face. The demon, by contrast, did not appear to be so confident.

It was the strangest fight I’d ever known. Everything was defined by magic, by pretences and impossibilities and—just as in the weird, unreal world of dreams—the rules kept changing. Weight, force, gravity… nothing was normal, but the pain was certainly physical enough. When the blows landed, there was blood and torn flesh, both ours and the demon’s, and though the song of metal shimmered all around me, it was wrapped up in the disorientating, ragged fog of the Fade.

It felt almost like dreaming of a dream; like being aware of dreaming, and yet unable to change course, tossed and mauled on the crest of something by turns both horrible and enlightening. The demon shaped and moulded the Fade around it, each subtle twist of those long, bony hands plucking new horrors from the air around us. I found myself thrown against rock, dashed to the ground… burned by fire and numbed by ice. Wynne was the only constant, calling to us to remember that the demon was real, not the things it caused us to see. She fought with such grim determination, such precision—every attack countered, every movement parried. I would never have pictured her as such a cold-blooded, ruthless opponent, but I was intensely grateful for it.

The demon shifted its form, time and again. It was a great, gnarled bear, or a creature made entirely of fire, or an ogre, like the huge, rancid beast that had almost killed me at the Tower of Ishal… and then, just as quickly, it returned to that horrible, dry shape, cloaked in facsimiles of silk. It rose up, pushed us back with a wave of violent energy—that shattering blue flame that jumped and burned like lightning—and gave a tremendous, shrieking roar that seemed to be part defeat and part pure, inexhaustible anger.

We were blinded, scattered… and then it was gone, and the world was dissipating around us, fading ribbons of clogged, yellowish air that fizzed gently as they passed into nothingness.

I stopped for breath—did we even need to breathe here?—and, panting, looked wildly at the others. I opened my mouth, but the words disappeared, snatched from me like a shout into a fierce storm, lost on a wind that wasn’t there. Everything seemed to grow thinner, dimmer, and I could feel it all slipping away.

Was I waking? Or had I never really been sleeping at all?

 ———————————
Volume 2: Chapter Fifteen
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