A blind girl's journey across the Dreamlands to rescue her sister. For Monster Maker
Rae knew there was something in the room the instant she opened her eyes.
It wasn't anything visible—certainly not to her, since Rae had been blind from birth—but it was there, and it wasn't friendly.
Across the room in the other bed, she thought she heard her twin sister Emily moan softly, and got to her feet. Emily had been suffering from bad dreams lately. She claimed not to remember them, and Rae wasn't about to argue, but this was different. There was something there; she knew it as well as she knew her own name.
Rae took a step forward. In the same way that a person knows there is a sheer drop at their back by the subtle changes in air pressure, she could sense the thing, whatever it was, looking at her.
"Who..." Rae's voice broke and she coughed, tried again. "Who's there?"
Movement. Rapid, fast movement as the air rushed past her and the visitor fled. At the same instant Emily screamed, and Rae, acting purely on instinct, grabbed wildly for her, only to find her hands clutching something else entirely, something that didn't feel like anything she'd experienced. It was like an oil-filled bubble, one whose touch chilled her to the core. As she clung desperately to it, there was a sensation of being pulled forward by a slow but irresistible force. Rae felt about frantically with her feet, but the floor seemed to have disappeared.
Struggling to free herself now, all thoughts of her sister gone, Rae threw her weight back with all her strength, an action that had absolutely no effect except to almost dislocate both her arms.
There was a sudden tug and Rae's hands were abruptly freed, just in time to catch her as she pitched forward, rolling down a smooth slope to land heavily on the ground, twisting her ankle painfully beneath her.
She felt around frantically, trying to get some sense of where she was, of what had happened. She could feel knee length grass seeming to tug at her hands. Was this some kind of crazy dream?
Someone spoke from directly in front of her and Rae jumped; she hadn't realised anyone else was there.
"Ekiáltês," the person said gravely, "what does this mean?"
It was a strange voice, one which managed to be composed and somehow wild at the same time, and Rae found herself thinking that if the wind had a voice, it would sound very much like this one.
I had already opened the gate when she seized me. This person didn't speak out loud, but seemed to communicate by transmitting emotions and sensations. Somehow Rae understood what was meant.
"You know the law. You are not permitted to be seen in the mortal realms."
I wasn't seen. Now the female-yes, it was a female, Rae realised with a kind of dull shock-sounded distinctly sulky.
Rae cleared her throat.
"Excuse me?" she said, somewhat apprehensively. "I don't mean to cause any trouble-"
Too late! the female put in acerbically.
"Be silent, Ekiáltês," the first speaker commanded. "What troubles you, human child?"
Something inside Rae bristled at being called 'child'—she was sixteen, after all!—but she swallowed it with an effort and continued.
"I'm looking for my sister. There was something in the room with us when I woke up. I don't know what it was but it was something...something hideous."
The mental feeling she got from the female this time was probably best translated as Hmph! Rae continued.
"I really didn't mean to cause you any trouble, whoever you are, but I'm not leaving here without her." Even as she spoke, she wondered how on earth she was going to accomplish such a thing.
"What is your name?" the first speaker said, more gently than before.
"Rae," Rae answered, still wondering where she was, "and my sister's name is Emily."
"Rae." The male voice barely breathed her name, causing it to echo in the air. "Your sister is gone from you. You must return to your own realm before you become trapped like her."
"My sister, trapped?" Rae somehow found the courage and strength to stand and hobble towards the speaker. "I told you, I'm not leaving here without her!"
She means it. Surprised respect, or something very like it, was in the female's thoughts.
"I am well aware of what she means, Ekiáltês," the speaker said. "But such a thing is impossible."
"I don't believe you." Rae shoved out in anger at where she thought the man's chest was, only to find her hand encountered something like a horse's muzzle. Startled, she jerked her hand back, suddenly too afraid to be angry. "Where am I? What is this place?"
"You are in the Dreamlands, child," the speaker said gravely. "Such a place is not fit for mortals."
"But my sister's here, isn't she?" Rae persisted. Things were changing too rapidly for her to keep track of them all, but she clung to that one gem like a dragon. Somewhere out there was her sister. And somehow, she had to find her and bring her back home.
"Your sister has already departed this realm, human. And you must do the same."
Relief made Rae go weak at the knees.
"Then she's at home?"
There was a measured silence before the speaker said, "I did not say that."
"Then where is she?"
"I do not know. There is only one who may know where mortals go to from here, and he is not easy to find."
"Who is he?"
"His name is Simurgh. He has lived through the birth and death of three worlds, and in that time has learned much."
"Where can I find this Simurgh?"
"Have I not just told you that nobody knows?"
"No." Rae set her jaw stubbornly. "You told me that he's not easy to find, which doesn't mean the same thing at all. So where is he?"
The speaker sighed gustily.
"I truly do not know. He likes to live in secrecy. The birds may be able to tell you, if you truly wish to do this thing."
Rae hesitated. Do what, exactly? Find Simurgh? Find her sister? Weren't the two interconnected? Even if this Simurgh couldn't help her, she had to try.
"I do," she said, and was proud at how level her voice sounded.
"Very well," the speaker said heavily. "I cannot dissuade you, but I will give you what help I can. Touch my horn."
"Your what?" Rae said, startled, then remembered the horse's muzzle and understood. "Oh no," she whispered. "It...you can't be..."
"Why not?" the unicorn asked her. "Where else would you expect to find one of my kind but in a dream?"
"Am I...is this a dream, then?"
"No. This is the place where all dreams and myths congregate. Very few of us can enter the mortal realms now. Touch my horn."
Nervous now, Rae reached out, feeling around until she located the sharp tip. There was a short silence, followed by a sensation like someone had just slapped her in the chest and she broke the contact instinctively, feeling around and gasping as her hand encountered something hard and unyielding.
"What did you do?"
"It is my mark," the unicorn said calmly. "Although I cannot protect you, all those who see it will know you are here by my leave. Ekiáltês!"
"You will travel with this mortal and aid her in any way you can."
What? Ekiáltês said again, in a completely different tone of voice.
"You brought her here. You are to take care of her and see she returns safely." Rae heard the unicorn turn away, then pause. "Three more things, Rae. One. Ekiáltês is what you call a Nightmare, and a powerful shapeshifter. I tell you this so it will be harder for her to crawl out of helping you now that you know her capabilities. Two. You have seven days to find your sister before you are trapped here for the rest of eternity. You yourself may leave this realm at any time; Ekiáltês will take you back."
Oh, she will, will she? Rae heard Ekiáltês mutter.
"Three," the unicorn continued, as if the Nightmare hadn't spoken. "If you truly wish to find Simurgh, you should seek out the Guardian of Trees. He is the only being here old enough to remember where Simurgh makes his home. I do not say he can help you, or even that he will, but he is the second wisest in the realm."
Rae didn't hear any hoofbeats, but somehow she knew that the unicorn had gone.
Come on then. Ekiáltês sounded impatient. If we've got to do this, we've got to do this.
"Do you know where to find the Guardian?" Rae said hopefully.
"Do you know anybody who may be able to help us?"
"Do you know anything at all?" Rae couldn't resist muttering, not quite under her breath.
There was a sudden sensation of cold and she wished she'd kept quiet as Ekiáltês spoke again.
You'd do well to treat the denizens of this realm with some respect, mortal. You are, after all, a guest here. The word 'guest' was stressed ever so slightly, as though it left a bitter taste in the Nightmare's mouth.
"Guest?" someone said from high above their heads. "Who's a guest? Why is there a guest in this realm?"
Ekiáltês snarled angrily. The guest is a human, Kekeko, and none of your concern. Go back to your flapping.
"A human? Here?" The voice was a little like a parrot's, but without the underlying roughness. Rae stopped, looking around, trying to pinpoint the speaker's location.
"Who's there?" She held out her free hand and a few seconds later felt something-a bird, judging from the feet-flap onto her wrist.
It's Kekeko, Ekiáltês said disinterestedly. Dump him and let's get going before time runs out.
"I'm not going to dump him," Rae said sharply. "He seems nice."
"Yes, yes," Kekeko agreed, shifting his weight on Rae's wrist. "Very nice. Why do you think I'm nice?"
Rae floundered slightly.
"Uh...well...you, um, just listening to your voice, I mean...you sound pleasant." What an odd thing to say to a bird, she thought. "Excuse me," she went on awkwardly, "but can I touch you?"
"Touch me? Yes, yes, of course you may touch me. Why do you want to touch me?"
"I'm blind. I can't see you and, well, I'd like to have some idea of your appearance."
"You are blind? Yes, yes, I see, a terrible shame." Kekeko hopped a little further up Rae's wrist as she felt his body gently. "Why are you walking with a Nightmare? Their kind and yours do not usually mix."
The fool mortal has lost her sister and I was ordered to help her in her search, Ekiáltês said bitingly. Rae, come on! Leave him; he's nothing but a nuisance.
"Nuisance? No, no, I am not a nuisance." Kekeko flapped his wings and flew up to Rae's shoulder. "Where are you travelling to?"
"We're looking for Simurgh," Rae said. "The unicorn told me that the Guardian of Trees knows where he is, so I guess we're really looking for him first."
"Guardian of Trees? Yes, yes, I see." Kekeko hesitated, then when he next spoke he sounded disappointed. "I do not know where they may be found. But there are two of our kind who may. You should look for Safat and the Ouzelum Bird."
"The what?" Rae said disbelievingly.
"The Ouzelum Bird. You will find him without too much trouble. He is very curious and he is the only bird here who flies backwards."
"Backwards?" Rae said, startled.
"Yes, yes, backwards. The Ouzelum Bird is not concerned with where he is going, but he does like to know where he has been. He has travelled very far in his flights. He may know where the Valley of the Trees lies and where you find the Valley, there you will surely find the Guardian. Safat also may know. She flies and flies and may never land. She has seen much of this realm."
We're asking birds for help? Ekiáltês sneered. Great. I knew I shouldn't have bothered going to work this morning.
Rae stared in her direction.
"What are you talking about?" she said.
Your sister. What did you think I was talking about? An oh-so-thrilling job as a bank clerk?
There was a strained silence.
"Do you know where we can find either of those birds?" Rae asked Kekeko at the end of it.
"No, no. Safat is always flying and I do not know where the Ouzelum Bird makes his nest. But they will probably find you. Yes, yes, that is it. They will find you. They like forests, though, so they may be in there."
"Where?" Rae asked.
He's pointing his wing at the copse on your left, Ekiáltês said, sounding bored. Can we go now?
Rae put a hand up and Kekeko hopped onto it, allowing Rae to hold him out in front of her.
"Thanks for your help," she said.
Kekeko gave one of her fingers an affectionate peck.
"No, no, no trouble at all. I hope you find what you are looking for."
He spread his wings and flew away, leaving Rae with Ekiáltês.
There was another awkward silence.
"Alright," Rae said resignedly, "let's go."
They had been walking for what seemed like hours, Rae finding her way with the help of a long branch, before Ekiáltês spoke again.
Rae did so, not out of any sense of obedience but because something seemed to be sucking her branch away. With an effort, she wrenched it free and stumbled backwards.
"What was that?"
We've left the Unicorn's Plateau far behind us now. This is the Swamp of the Tikbalang.
"What's a Tikbalang?" Rae asked.
A centaur. Well. Kinda. The story goes that they grew so arrogant in their beauty that they were cursed with unspeakable ugliness. They begged for a small mercy and it was granted; their front legs grew and grew and bent like an insect's until they could hide their features behind their knees. It is said that anyone who looks upon a Tikbalang's face is instantly struck blind. They hide in their swamps most of the time, but we'll need their permission if we want to cross.
"What happens if we try to cross anyway?"
Ekiáltês thought something that felt like a shrug.
Depends. They might let you pass. Or they might decide to kill you where you stand.
Rae backed off another few steps.
"What about you?"
Me? No. The denizens of separate dreams can never hurt each other. Only mortals can be killed here.
"Is that what happened to my sister?"
Another mental shrug.
Who knows? Maybe.
Rae swept the stick in front of her experimentally.
"Is there a path through the Swamp?"
For me there is. For you? I don't know. I don't know how mortals travel the land.
Rae bit her lip, considering.
"Can they hurt us here? I mean, where we are now?"
There was a silence.
No, Ekiáltês answered, seemingly reluctant. With the exception of the birds, who treat the entire sky as their home, the inhabitants of this realm have no power outside their own boundaries.
"So where are your boundaries?" Rae demanded. "How come you're able to come with me?"
I am a Nightmare, was the reply, delivered in cool, unshakeable tones. Everywhere in every realm is my land. Can you honestly say that there is not one mortal, not one being who has not been visited by my kind at some point in their lives?
"Can we walk around it?" Rae asked. "The Swamp, I mean."
No. Lands here are not arranged in the same way they are in your world. We must go through it or turn back.
"You couldn't shapeshift into some kind of giant bird and carry me over?"
I could, if you wanted to deplete my powers and take the chance that we'll be safe when we land. Contact with a mortal drains my energy, like running a marathon drains yours. That's why nightmares don't last all night. Mortals fight us even in their sleep, and when we weaken enough, they wake up. The Tikbalang are not excessively hostile, and I would rather conserve my powers for something that is.
Rae hesitated, then squared her shoulders and took a step forwards.
"Then we'll just have to walk through it."
If you insist. Rae felt the air around her grow still and cold as the Nightmare passed, and let the creature precede her without protest. She was glad to have someone go first, even if the Tikbalang wouldn't touch that person. Creature. Thing. Whatever.
"What does it look like?" she said suddenly.
Have you been blind all your life? Ekiáltês said.
Then how am I supposed to explain? Even if I were to tell you the kinds of plants, the colour of the path and ground, would it mean anything to you? Have some sense, would you?
Rae glowered at her, or at least in her approximate direction.
"I've been meaning to ask you this for a while now. How come most other people here like, for example, the unicorn tend to speak like something out of a Tolkien novel, but you sound like something out of a Stephen King?"
People evolve. People change. So do their dreams and nightmares. The unicorn hasn't lived in your realm for centuries, and people tend to associate it with medieval speech. It never needed to learn more. But now...people have nightmares about turning up to work or school naked, or failing exams. Like I said, my people have to move with the times.
They walked on in silence for a few minutes.
"Er...Ekiáltês?" Rae said.
"You, er, you will tell me if one of these Tikbalangs shows up, won't you?"
Do you want to know?
Candidly, Rae had no idea.
"I want to ask them about Safat," she said, "or the Ouzelum Bird." It was as good an answer as any, and she did want to know.
Ekiáltês gave a mental shrug.
Rae felt the Nightmare's presence drawing away and was grateful; spend too long too close to the likes of Ekiáltês and the feelings would probably drive you insane. Every instinct had been screaming at her to get away from the Nightmare ever since this journey had begun.
She continued on, somewhat cautiously. Since Ekiáltês had relapsed into a sulky silence, all Rae had to find her way was her trusty stick.
"Ekiáltês?" she said suddenly, hoping to use the Nightmare's voice to get a bearing.
There was no reply. Rae started to jog, a pace made all the more clumsier by her use of the stick, hoping to catch up.
The ground suddenly vanished from under her and before she could catch her balance, she fell face forward into the swamp. It was warm, even hot, but that didn't really matter to Rae as much as the little fact that it also seemed to be sucking her down.
There was the faintest of splashes, and a few seconds later something long and muscular wound its way around her waist.
Rae screamed and started to thrash about wildly. Somehow she knew it was a snake—nothing else had that kind of texture—and snakes were possibly one of her worst fears.
Will you hold still so I can get you out of this mess! Ekiáltês demanded waspishly.
Rae froze, motionless, more through stunned surprise than anything.
Better. Roll over onto my back and hold on.
Shuddering, she did so. The part of the snake's body above the water was smooth and to Rae, who had always equated the word 'reptile' with the phrase 'cold and slimy', surprisingly warm.
Ekiáltês swam on in snake form, carrying Rae through the water as though she weighed next to nothing. Hell, Rae thought, to a snake the width of a tree, I probably do.
She was just starting to enjoy the ride, and even beginning to think that snakes might not be so bad after all, when Ekiáltês came to an abrupt stop.
"What is it?" Rae said, startled.
One of the Tikbalang.
"Can you get me onto the path again?"
Yes. There was a surge of muscle and Rae found herself flying through the air to land on the muddy track.
"Well, I didn't mean quite like that," she protested.
Too bad. There was the customary rush of cold air as Ekiáltês joined her on the path.
"Where's the Tikbalang?"
Straight ahead. It's between us and the exit.
Rae stood up determinedly.
"I'm going to talk to it." She walked forward, tapping her way carefully along the path; the memory of falling into the swamp was still far too vivid for her to want to hurry. "Excuse me? We're looking for the Safat and the Ouzelum Bird."
'We', she says Ekiáltês muttered ungraciously. Rae continued, taking no notice.
"Can you please tell us where we can find them?"
Oh, very pretty, Ekiáltês said scornfully, after a couple of seconds' pause.
"What?" Rae said edgily. "What's happening?"
It just lowered its knees. We're supposed to be struck blind, but it doesn't bother me and you can't lose your sight again.
There was a silence. Then Rae said, "Hello?"
She heard something in front of her squelching through the muddy waters, and judging from the sounds, it was going away.
"No! Wait! Please! I want to ask you something."
The splashing stopped. For a few moments there was silence. Then a voice said, "Well?"
It was so sad, Rae remembered thinking later. It was a rolling basso voice, and one which would have probably sounded quite pleasant if it hadn't also sounded like the owner was on the verge of tears.
Yeah, Ekiáltês said bitingly. What now?
Candidly, Rae had no idea, and so blurted the first question that came into her mind.
"Do you know where the Ouzelum Bird is?"
"Have you tried the sky?" the Tikbalang sneered.
Behave! Ekiáltês ordered severely, just as Rae composed herself for another go.
"I mean...does it nest anywhere?" she said.
"Yes, the Ouzelum Bird nests for one month out of the year to lay its eggs. It makes its nest out of feathers shed by other birds. They like oak and maple trees. You can't miss them."
Rae made a mental note to ask Ekiáltês to keep her eyes peeled for any oak or maples, and nodded towards the Tikbalang.
"Thanks." She started forward.
"Where are you going?"
"We have to leave. We're trying to reach Simurgh's Realm."
"You may not leave. All who look upon our hideous countenance must be struck blind or perish."
"But..." Rae struggled for the right words, "but I couldn't have seen it. I'm already blind."
"Then that leaves only one option for you. Those who dare to look upon the Tikbalang must die."
Look upon this, pustule features, Ekiáltês said suddenly.
There was a silence, and then the Tikbalang howled. It was a terrible sound, one comprised of misery, hatred and terror. A rapid splashing assured Rae that he was beating a hasty retreat, and that the way ahead was clear.
"Ekiáltês?" Rae said, once they were outside.
"What did you turn into that scared him so badly?"
She felt, rather than heard, the Nightmare's snigger.
What else does a Tikbalang hate and fear the most? A mirror, of course.
Rae paused, then grinned. She supposed she shouldn't, but it was pretty funny, in a callous sort of way.
The stick touched something too light to be a pebble and too hard to be a leaf. Curious, Rae reached down and picked it up. It felt smooth, yet curiously pitted.
Just an eggshell, Ekiáltês said dismissively.
Rae sniffed it. It smelt delicious and before she could stop herself, she opened her mouth to put it in.
From the Safat, Ekiáltês added. Don't eat the shell, mortal; not unless you think you'd enjoy going mad.
Rae dropped the piece of eggshell she was holding, wiping her free hand on her clothes hurriedly.
"I thought Kekeko said that the Safat never landed," she said.
It doesn't. The female lays her eggs while flying, and they hatch before they reach the ground. Like I said, if any animal eats the shell, they go mad.
"I'm no animal!" Rae protested.
What are you, then? Vegetable? Ekiáltês paused. Hey, you know, that could explain a hell of a lot.
Rae ignored her, looking sightlessly up into the sky.
"Safat!" she called suddenly.
Oh yeah, Ekiáltês sneered. That'll work.
"Still ignoring you," Rae muttered. "Safat!"
Just what makes you think that the Safat bird is hanging around here of all places? They never land, or had you forgotten that little detail?
"If there's a Safat egg on the ground, there must be a Safat nearby." When Ekiáltês was silent, Rae continued. "Or if you prefer, we could stand where there's absolutely no trace of the Safat bird and shout there?" She raised her voice for a third time. "Safat!"
A new voice, one like a chorus of pan pipes, came from directly above.
"Who calls the Safat?"
Rae looked in the direction of the voice.
"I do. I need your help."
"Be quick about it then. I need to move on from here."
"Do you know where I can find the Guardian of Trees?" Rae said.
"Yes. Follow this route and take the Marmanhig Trail. The Guardian is somewhere on the other side of that land, although more I cannot tell you."
"Marmanhig?" Rae echoed, frowning. "Uh. Thanks."
She's already gone, Ekiáltês said matter-of-factly.
"Do you know where this Marmanhig Trail is?"
Of course I do. It's about two hundred yards up ahead.
You have some power of your own in this realm, human, Ekiáltês said, sounding amused. Haven't you ever had a dream where you seemed to teleport instantly from one place to the next?
"Then I can just teleport to Simurgh's Realm?" Rae said, trying not to sound too excited.
"But you said—"
I said you had some power. Between the countries here are neutral areas. The borders, if you like. The Great Ones—Simurgh and the Guardian, for example—have no borders to their lands. The only way you can reach them is on foot. All your power does is open ways to the next country.
Rae shook her head.
"Alright. Fine. I don't know why I thought it was going to be easy anyway. Let's go."
They hadn't been walking very far when Rae's stick hit something hard.
The Trail, Ekiáltês explained.
"What does it look like?"
A small road running through a village. Oh, the village is empty, Ekiáltês added, seeing Rae's expression. Even if it wasn't, the Marmanhig would soon rectify that.
"What is a Marmanhig, anyway?" Rae asked.
A form of undead. It has the strength of ten mortals and when in your world, it makes its home in attics, which is why their lands look like this. It kills people by tickling them to death.
"Sorry?" Rae said. "I must have misheard that last bit."
To be honest, I don't fully understand it myself. If you want to find out, why don't you just stay still and see what it's like?
"How fast are they?"
Not very. You can outrun them easily enough, but they don't get tired or feel pain like you do. Unless you can escape their country before they catch you, you're dead.
Rae suppressed a yawn. She was tired; god only knew how long they'd been travelling.
"What's beyond the Trail?" she said.
I don't know, Ekiáltês said flatly. Like I said, lands here aren't arranged like they are in your world. The geography of the Dreamlands can be somewhat...inconsistent.
Rae knuckled her forehead tiredly. She'd once heard that humans had had a third eye there, and although she found it hard to believe, she often found herself rubbing the appropriate area like an eye whenever she was especially tired.
A muffled crunch from behind jerked her into some semblance of alertness, and she turned to stare wildly around.
"What was that?"
We're on the Marmanhig Trail, Ekiáltês said tonelessly. What do you think it was? One just jumped out of a third-floor attic.
"They're jumping? Out of a three storey house?"
I said they were deadly. I never said they were smart.
There was a pause, then Rae said, "Should we run?"
That wouldn't be a bad idea.
Unlike Ekiáltês, these creatures were far from silent. Rae could hear the hoarse breathing as more and more joined in the chase (and why did undead breathe? she found herself wondering).
This way! she heard Ekiáltês shout from off to the left and swerved in that direction.
This way! Now the voice came from behind her and she skidded to a stop, confused.
This way! This way! This way! The voices came simultaneously from all directions and Rae turned around.
"Ekiáltês! Where are you?"
Here! the Nightmare answered.
Here! Here! Here! came the repetitions. Then Rae distinctly heard her own voice from quite close behind her.
"Ekiáltês! Where are you?"
Rae had just enough time to figure out what was happening before a hand grasped her shoulder. It wasn't a particularly hard or rough action—it was almost like the prelude to a backrub—but the hand had fingers too long to be human, and the mere touch was so cold it burned. Rae screamed.
A new sound drew her attention upwards. For a moment she thought it was just the Marmanhig echoing her scream, like they echoed everything else, but then it came again and she realised it sounded more like an eagle. Something wet spattered on her head and shoulders, and the Marmanhig let out a horrible shuddering howl, releasing her. Rae fell forward onto her hands and knees, feeling the stony ground scrape her palms and not caring.
Then something cold brushed against her cheek and she jerked back, eyes wide and staring.
Oh, pull yourself together, Ekiáltês said acidly, it's me. Come on, while they're too busy to notice.
Rae stumbled to her feet and broke into a shambling run, feeling frantically in front of her as she did so, stopping only when something cold and wet smacked into her feet.
It's only water, Ekiáltês said scornfully. It's not even very deep. Move!
Rae hesitated, then set her jaw and waded on. If the Nightmare was wrong or even lying, she could swim well enough.
To her private surprise, however, the water was only up to her waist when she felt it getting shallower, and before too long she'd reached the opposite side and collapsed onto it thankfully. Grass. No, not quite grass; it felt like the small plants you got underneath grass, the ones that Rae had always thought felt like tiny ferns.
"What if the Marmanhig follow us?" she said, getting to her feet again reluctantly; the ground had actually been rather comfortable. "Can they swim?"
Hardly. There was a note of definite amusement there, and Rae stared in the Nightmare's direction.
"How can you be sure?"
There's something I forgot to tell you, Ekiáltês said. Water's like acid to the Marmanhig. It's about the only thing they're vulnerable to.
Rae, still panting for breath, somehow managed to straighten up enough to glare in the Nightmare's direction.
"And you couldn't have thought to mention this when we were in the Swamp? I mean, we could have stocked up, gone in prepared!"
I don't know what you're complaining about. We escaped, didn't we?
Oh, picky picky picky. Rae felt the creature's attention shift. Gammie, hi. Thanks for your help.
"Gammie?" Rae echoed. "Who's that?"
"I am Gamayun." The voice came from somewhere around Rae's knees and she looked down.
He's this kind of bird that sees the future, Ekiáltês offered. Very big in your world at one time, right Gammie?
"You brought a degree of amusement into my life," Gamayun said, in a tone of voice which said he was going to make a point of ignoring 'Gammie'. "In return, I offer a prophecy."
Rae opened her mouth to say that she wasn't sure she wanted any prophecy, but Ekiáltês brushed against her and said very softly, Do not offend him by refusing. It's a great honour, and one that most of your kind used to journey for months to earn.
Rae closed her mouth again, her thoughts unspoken, as Gamayun began to chant.
"Two allies and companions on each other may depend, yet two deaths must be realised before this journey's end."
"Is that it?" Rae asked, when it became obvious the bird wasn't going to speak again.
"Yes. You may rest here to recover your strength. If you are thirsty, there is water."
Yes. From the Pool of Memories, no doubt.
"It is perfectly good water, and palatable. Now, please excuse me. I have pressing business elsewhere." There was a rapid beating of wings as Gamayun took off.
"What's the Pool of Memories?" Rae asked.
Ekiáltês snorted again.
Can't you guess? When Rae didn't answer, she went on. It's what it says. If you drink its water, you relive your most recent memory. The more you drink, the further back you go in time.
"Is it close?"
You're standing right next to it. It's about two hands to your left.
Rae jumped sideways hurriedly. There was a splash, and a sensation of cold, wet ankles before she squelched out and glared in the Nightmare's direction.
Er, your other left, Ekiáltês said, her innocent tone not fooling Rae for one second.
"Is it dark yet?" she asked.
"Alright." Rae yawned widely. "I'm going to get some sleep. Can you wake me when morning comes?"
Oh sure. Ekiáltês sounded thoroughly disgruntled. Yeah, you have a nice little nap and I'll just stay awake. Don't mind the Nightmare; we don't need any sleep!
"Good," Rae mumbled, already half asleep.
An icy breath on the back of her neck dragged her back into consciousness and she yawned, feeling thoroughly refreshed.
"Wassatime?" she mumbled.
You have slept through the night, Ekiáltês said. It's morning. On the fourth day, she couldn't resist adding.
Rae sat bolt upright, suddenly fully awake.
"What do you mean, the fourth day? What happened to the second and third?"
You slept through that as well. I wasn't sure how much sleep mortals required. But if you want to find Simurgh before time runs out, we need to get going. Like, now, the Nightmare added when Rae failed to jump up straightaway.
"You said you'd wake me in the morning!"
"I meant the next morning!"
Hey, you didn't specify. Are we going?
"In a minute. I'm parched." Rae reached down, feeling for the Pool's surface and cupping her hands to gather some water when she'd found it.
That stuff's dangerous, Ekiáltês remarked.
Rae paused, her dripping hands already halfway to her mouth.
"It's just water. Besides, there's nothing in my past I'm afraid to relive."
She brought her cupped hands up and drank thirstily.
There was no obvious change in her surroundings (well, there wouldn't be, would there? she thought harshly, remembering her blindness) but the air smelled different. That alone was enough to tell Rae where she was; the scent of the air freshener used in her room was distinct enough. But there was something else, wasn't there...something she could almost pinpoint, but not quite...
Rae choked. The air was thick with something, making it suddenly hard to breathe. The more she tried to inhale, the more stifled her lungs felt, until she finally collapsed, falling not onto the laminated floorboards of her shared bedroom but thick grass.
Are you finished? Ekiáltês said.
At first Rae didn't—couldn't—answer. The relief of being able to breathe again was so great that for several minutes all she did was suck in great lungfuls of air.
Oh wonderful, Ekiáltês said acidly.
"What?" Rae glanced around unseeing. "What is it?"
It's that pest of an Ouzelum Bird. I should have known; his kind spend a lot of time in and around the Pool.
"That's wonderful!" Rae said enthusiastically. "Maybe it knows where the Guardian is!"
I wouldn't get your hopes up, was the Nightmare's not too encouraging answer.
"Are you sure it's the Ouzelum Bird?"
Oh no, Ekiáltês answered sarcastically. No, it could be some completely different bird with multicoloured feathers that flies backwards. There must be millions of them around here.
Something about the same size and weight as an eagle owl hit Rae in the chest with the force of a small cannonball, sending her sprawling.
"Oops," her assailant said from just above her feet. "Sorry. Didn't see you there."
I'm amazed you can see anything, Ekiáltês muttered. Did anyone ever suggest the benefits of rear view mirrors to you?
"Ha ha," the Ouzelum Bird informed her sarcastically. "For your information, I wasn't expecting to find a mortal in this place!"
Obviously. What do you want with the Pool of Memories, anyway?
"Isn't that obvious as well?" the Ouzelum Bird said scornfully. "I want to remember where I was last year. I know it was somewhere fun; I just can't quite remember all the details."
Does your kind ever think about anything except fun?
"Life's too short to be miserable," the Ouzelum Bird said cheerfully, then Rae heard wings beating as it settled next to her.
"Wait!" she said suddenly. If her own experience was anything to go by, and if the Ouzelum Bird was going to relive memories from a year ago, she wanted to get an answer to her question before it started drinking.
There was the faintest rustle of the grass to suggest that the bird had just hopped closer to her.
"Do you know where to find the Guardian of Trees?" Rae spoke quickly, not wanting to lose the bird's interest. "The Safat bird said you might. All she could tell us was that it was somewhere on the other side of the Marmanhig Trail, and we're there, and we don't know where to go next."
Ekiáltês muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, And people say that Nightmares can be nonsensical. Rae ignored her.
"Of course I know where to find the Guardian," the Ouzelum Bird said matter-of-factly. "I came straight from there to here." Rae felt cool bird's feet walk up her leg in a way that seemed different somehow.
He even walks backwards, she realised (and wondered just when the bird had ceased to become an 'it' and become a 'he', even in her mind).
The Ouzelum Bird continued.
"The Guardian's valley is on the other side of Kludde's Forest. Go through there, past Gwyligi's country and through the tunnel under the mountain. The valley and the Guardian are both at the end of that tunnel."
Rae looked in Ekiáltês' direction.
"Do you know where this Forest is?"
Of course. Ekiáltês sounded distinctly bored. Are we going yet? 'Cause, you know, we're running out of time.
Now Rae was glaring furiously.
"Yes, and whose fault's that?"
You should have said you wanted waking on the second day. There was a rush of cold air as the Nightmare moved past.
Rae muttered something to the effect that the Nightmare had done something very unlikely with a Tikbalang, then followed. They journeyed in a sullen silence for some time, with only the changing surfaces under her feet to inform Rae of their progress.
They'd reached what felt like very tightly packed soil before Ekiáltês spoke again.
We're on the outskirts of Kludde's Forest.
Not really. He's not usually in the mood to receive visitors.
"What do you mean?" Rae tapped the ground in front of her with her stick, feeling the way, already starting into the forest.
Kludde is a shadow creature. He kills anything that dares set foot on his lands.
There was a pause, then Rae very carefully backed out of the woods again.
"But we have to go through, right?"
Yes. Ekiáltês paused, then said somewhat reluctantly, There is one other chance.
It is dark now. Kludde only hunts in the shadow times; dawn and dusk. If we hurry, we may make it through his lands before he even knows we're there.
"How long until dawn?"
She felt the Nightmare shrug.
No idea. I have no concept of time. It's been dark for a while though.
"Brilliant," Rae muttered.
And besides, even if we make it through Kludde's Forest, Gwyligi's country lies beyond it.
Kludde's cousin. While Kludde hunts in the woods, Gwyligi stays on the plains and fields. Like his cousin, he hunts in the shadow times. But dawn will come while we're in one of their lands, and possibly even dusk as well.
There was a silence.
"And we can't go around," Rae said tonelessly.
"Okay," Rae said at the end of it. "Can you lead me through?"
Yes. The path's clearly marked. Kludde likes to encourage visitors as much as he can. There was a sardonic inflection that Rae picked up on almost instantly.
"Like a mousetrap?"
You could say that.
Rae squared her shoulders determinedly.
"Well, it's not getting any lighter," she said.
"I was speaking dramatically!" And personally, she added mentally.
Oh, dramatically. You should've said.
Rae glared in the Nightmare's direction—Ekiáltês' tone had been a little too innocent—but let the subject drop.
"How far is it to the other side?" she said.
"That's not the right answer."
Yes it is. It's just not the one you want to hear. But I'd rather not meet either Kludde or his cousin, so do you think you could move a little faster?
Rae did her best to oblige. The Forest was so quiet, she thought. She couldn't hear any birds, any other animals, not even the wind through the branches.
No, Ekiáltês agreed, making Rae uncomfortable. She hadn't known Nightmares could read minds. Nothing living will come near this place. Even the wind blows away.
"That's ridiculous," Rae said, although her voice lacked conviction. "The wind doesn't choose where to blow. It doesn't have a mind."
Perhaps not as you understand it. But it does have a soul.
"It can't. It's not alive like us."
I am not alive, at least not from your point of view. If something exists, it has a soul, especially in this world.
Rae shook her head.
"What are you trying to say?"
I'm not trying to say anything. I've already— Ekiáltês broke off suddenly and, unprepared, Rae walked into the Nightmare and winced.
"Ekiáltês? Why've you stopped? What is it?"
The answer was hardly audible, breathed rather than spoken.
"What does Kludde look like?" Rae said apprehensively.
What difference would that make to you? Ekiáltês demanded. If you really want to know, usually like a giant black dog on his hind legs. Occasionally he takes the shape of a cat or bird.
They walked on in an increasingly nervous silence.
"Do Nightmares wear jewellery? Or have you changed into something that does?"
"Nothing. I just thought I heard something clink, that's all."
"It could have been," Rae admitted. "I wasn't paying too much attention, to be honest."
Can you ride?
"Can I what?"
Ride. Can you ride?
"No," Rae said flatly. "Most blind people don't usually get on horseback. I can't."
There was a slight implosion of air that she'd already learned to associate with Ekiáltês assuming another shape.
Learn, the Nightmare advised. Quickly.
Kludde's presence is always announced by the clanking of chains. He's covered with them. If you heard them, then there's no doubt about it. He knows we're here, and he's coming for us. He swings through the trees, and no mortal can ever hope to outrun him. Get on.
Rae felt around until she located the shoulder of the horse that Ekiáltês had shapeshifted into, then managed to pull herself up clumsily. As soon as she had a firm hold on the mane, the Nightmare sprang into a gallop that almost jarred Rae's arms from their sockets.
I cannot believe that people do this for fun, Rae thought over and over again grimly, as Ekiáltês swung left without warning, almost sending her out the side door.
As they ran, the sound of chains clanking increased until it seemed to be right in her ears. Icy talons raked at Rae's exposed back and she flung herself forward over Ekiáltês' neck, clinging tighter as the Nightmare suddenly leapt into the air. Rae had no idea what she'd seen; all she was really aware of was the terror and pain...pain which suddenly got a whole lot worse as Ekiáltês stumbled, flinging Rae forward over her head to hit the ground with a bone-jarring thud.
There was a high scream of rage from behind, followed by a frenzied jangling of chains.
It's safe. Ekiáltês sounded even worse than Rae; the chase and contact with the mortal must have really drained her. We made it.
"What's the time?"
How many times? I. Don't. Know.
"Let me rephrase it then," Rae said through clenched teeth. "Is it dusk yet?"
"We didn't seem to be in Kludde's Forest for that long."
Maybe not. But time in the countries is dependent on their lords. Kludde wanted to hunt, so it's not impossible for him to speed up the dawn. If Gwyligi wants the same thing, he can also advance time.
"So why doesn't it just stay dusk or dawn?"
I said they can advance time. I didn't say they could stop it. It's like a video; you can hit fast forward if you want, but you can't play the same second over and over and over again indefinitely. Time moves on. People here just determine how quickly.
Rae ran her fingers through her hair, winced as they encountered snarls and tangles.
"In that case, oughtn't we to move on quickly?"
Yes, Ekiáltês said calmly. We ought.
They could only have been going for about five minutes when Rae felt...something. It was almost impossible to explain, but if she had to try, she'd say it was like something pulling her from the inside. It was suddenly very hard to lift her feet.
What d'you think you're doing? she thought she heard Ekiáltês yell, but the Nightmare's voice was dim, as though reverberating through a network of tunnels, and by the time it reached her Rae wasn't even sure she'd understood correctly.
She turned. She felt strange, almost like she was floating.
The air in front of her grew cold, and she heard a howl that froze her where she stood, a terrible sound that filled the air with the promise of blood.
A chill presence rested against her, pressing against her chest. Rae dimly heard something snuffling eagerly around her throat and the thought occurred to her to make a run for it, but it was already too late. She felt the thing draw back slightly and take a deep breath that seemed to suck all the warmth out of the atmosphere, then there was a sensation of rapid movement and she was knocked sideways so hard that she rolled at least five times before coming to a halt.
Move! she heard Ekiáltês shout. The Nightmare's voice was much clearer now; it was as if a thick blanket had been unwound from Rae's head. Obeying instinctively, not pausing to question the merit of the order, she rolled over again and got to her feet, feeling blindly for her stick.
Never mind that! Ekiáltês said sharply. I'll bring it with me when I catch up to you. Just go! I don't know how much longer I can hold it off!
Rae turned away from the voice and broke into a sprint, arms waving wildly in front of her in a vain attempt to prevent her from crashing too hard into anything, hoping against hope that there were no sly rabbit holes or the nearest equivalent in her path.
She couldn't hear the battle. Rae supposed that if the sensations she'd had were anything to go by, she wouldn't; they were two shadows attempting to fight to the death and Ekiáltês had never made a sound no matter what shape she'd been in at the time.
Rae didn't know how far she'd run when she heard Gwyligi howl again, but she knew from the tone that it probably wasn't far enough. It wasn't paralysing like the first one had been, but it still caused Rae to stop momentarily. There had been a note of pure triumph in that howl.
Ekiáltês was gone. She knew that, knew it as surely as she knew her own name. Not only was she blind with no way of finding her path, now she was completely alone.
Gwyligi howled for a third time, this time in a manner the human had no difficulty in understanding as the prelude to a hunt.
Rae ran faster.
A rush of sudden, incandescent heat blazed past her and she heard Gwyligi yelp in pain.
"Stand where you are, mortal," someone said from just ahead.
Rae shook her head stubbornly.
"The dog..." she managed to get out in between gasping for breath.
"Gwyligi is no dog, and he will chase you no further. Stand where you are, I say."
Rae wished desperately that Ekiáltês was still there. She'd know the speaker, know whether to trust him. All she had to rely on now was her own judgement.
Rae stood. If she was wrong and the speaker was lying about Gwyligi's retreat, she was dead anyway. If the speaker was hostile, she was still dead. Either way, it would probably be easier to obey him.
The thought occurred to her at this point that this train of thought didn't seem to be particularly logical, but Rae let it go. She was so tired.
"Who are you?" she asked.
"I have many names, mortal."
"Really? Which one are you using right now?" Rae said, and kicked herself mentally. If this person had driven off Gwyligi when even Ekiáltês had failed, she really didn't want to antagonise him.
"You may refer to me as the Firebird."
"The what?" Rae struggled for understanding. "Do you mean the phoenix?"
"No. The Phoenix is my cousin, in the same way that Gwyligi is Kludde's."
Rae shook her head.
"No offence, but I seem to be running into a lot of birds in this place."
"What did you expect? Flight is one thing that your kind will never possess and the one thing you dream about the most, just like the sky is the one realm that you will never conquer. It is only natural to attribute myths and legends to my race."
The thought occurred to Rae that her rescuer was a little bit of a snob, but she kept it unspoken.
"You have overcome many dangers, mortal. The hardest part of your journey still lies ahead of you, however, and you must face it alone."
Alone, Rae thought numbly. Gamayun's words suddenly came back to her.
Two deaths must be realised before this journey's end.
"You are worthy of a gift, mortal," the Firebird said, his voice jerking Rae back to the present. He started to...no, sing was the wrong word, Rae thought. He was chanting, although she couldn't make out any words.
Rae listened. It was actually quite soothing.
With a trill and a flourish, the Firebird finished, and Rae felt something like a cool sheet of glass slide behind her eyes.
"It will take a while to work," the Firebird said, his tone almost daring her to complain. Rae didn't, not least because she had no idea what had just been done.
"Can you tell me where to find the Guardian of Trees?" she said.
"There is a tunnel through the mountains ahead," the Firebird answered. "You will find the Guardian on the other side of that tunnel."
"And there's nothing that will try to kill me between here and there?" Rae pressed, not without some measure of sarcasm.
"Nothing. You are standing on the boundary between lands. I would advise you to move further away from Gwyligi's country though; he does not like letting his prey go so easily."
"He got Ekiáltês," Rae said. Part of her that seemed to operate separately from the rest was surprised how upset she was by this. The Nightmare had probably been the closest thing to a friend that she'd had in this place.
"Ekiáltês is a creature of shadows," the Firebird said. "Gwyligi prefers meat; the fresher the better."
Despite herself, Rae shuddered.
"Where can I find this tunnel?" she said.
"To the Guardian? You will find it when it is time." Rae heard wings beating as the bird took flight.
"Wait!" she pleaded, but the Firebird was already flying away.
"Do not look Gwyligi in the eyes!" he called back to her.
Rae grimaced—how was she supposed to look anything in the eyes?—and sat down. The Firebird had said to wait, and she didn't have any better ideas.
The change was incredibly gradual at first, so gradual that Rae wondered if she was imagining things. She could make out something moving, something in front of her. Wiggling her fingers experimentally, she realised that it was her hand.
She could see.
Rae had heard legends of the Phoenix having healing powers. She supposed that had to apply to the Firebird as well. The question was, how good was her sight going to get?
It took several hours before her vision was what she would call perfect. Having nothing to compare it to, Rae didn't know if her newfound vision was good or bad.
Still, she could see the tunnel that the Firebird had mentioned just fine, and she'd waited long enough. Rae walked towards the mountains and the dark opening she could make out there.
Whether the Dreamlands distorted at that point, or whether it was a little of her own 'power', Rae never worked out. Whichever it was, the tunnel entrance seemed to arrive a lot sooner than it should have. Similarly, although her mind told her that it should take hours to walk through a mountain, Rae arrived in the Guardian's valley a little over ten minutes later and looked out from behind a hanging frond at the sight that met her eyes. Knee length grass covered the ground thickly, grass which became moss and climbing plants when it reached the cliffs. Rae took all this in in a heartbeat, still dazed beyond measure. She didn't fully understand everything that had happened but somehow she knew one thing; this valley was completely and utterly safe. Physically and emotionally exhausted, she stumbled through the grass until she found a likely looking patch, and lay down.
The sun crept over the mountains a few minutes later, but Rae was already dead to the world and didn't see it.
Rae felt around several of the trees she'd seen on entering. One of them must have a branch she could break off for a stick.
Being blind from birth meant that Rae was used to navigating the world without her eyes. She'd seen several small brown objects lying on the ground, about as long as the top of her thumb, smooth and shiny at one end and rough and pitted at the other, but it hadn't been until she'd actually felt one and smelled it that she realised they were acorns. The same thing had happened with the grassy slope; Rae had never learned to interpret gradients and inclines in the same way a sighted person could, as the numerous bruises all over her body bore witness.
It was no good. She could enjoy her vision when she got back to her own world; in the meantime, she would have to get through this one quickly, and that meant reverting to old ways, which in turn meant she needed a stick. And her hands could tell her far better which branches were suitable than her eyes could.
Rae felt along a young sapling and located a branch that might work. She knew it was birch from the shape of the leaves and the smoother texture of the bark. It would just have to do; she'd wasted enough time already. She reached up and started to break the branch off.
Rae was never quite sure what happened next. There was a creaking sound, then something hit her, something hard, and she literally flew several yards through the air before colliding with another tree and dropping to the ground. Her eyes snapped open involuntarily and she groaned, dazed, pulling herself to her feet and looking around for her assailant.
Apart from the trees, the valley was deserted. Rae wondered if some of the creatures here could turn invisible and the thought made her shudder.
She looked up to where the attack had come from, and felt her own jaw drop open as she caught sight of the tree there.
It could best be described as 'massive', and even that didn't really do it justice. It dwarfed the other trees in much the same manner as giant redwoods dwarfed people.
Leave the young ones alone. The voice washed over her out of nowhere, sounding like a combination of creaking branches and leaves rustling in the wind. Although it didn't sound angry, there was a stamp to it which said, disobeying this is a really, really bad idea.
The voice spoke again.
You have come a long way to find me, mortal.
"Sorry, did you..." She broke off, shaking her head. "No. No, that's impossible. Trees don't talk."
Do not believe everything your mortal realm tells you, human. It is not a case of trees being unable to talk, but of humans being unable to listen.
Rae continued to stare at the huge tree.
"Um. Okay. I, er, I'm looking for the Guardian of Trees. Do you know where I can find him?"
You are standing before him.
"What?" Rae said, then realised. "You?"
Do not sound so surprised. The Guardian's voice was more amused than offended, Rae was relieved to note. What did you expect to find? A human? Branches creaked overhead. Humans have been present in your world for a fraction of its time. My kind have lived for millions of years, and we will live for millions more.
"I..." Rae swallowed, not entirely sure how to proceed. "Can you see me?"
Yes. Our leaves serve as our connection to the outside world.
"But you lose your leaves," Rae blurted, then clapped a hand to her mouth. "I'm sorry; I didn't mean to—"
The Guardian lifted a small branch, cutting her off.
It is of no matter. Yes, we lose our leaves. You shed cells of your eyes, do you not? Yet you still retain vision.
Rae just managed to catch a smile before it reached her lips.
If you only knew... she thought.
What has brought a mortal so far into the Dreamlands, and into my realm? the Guardian pressed.
Rae lifted her chin slightly.
"I'm looking for my sister."
I cannot help you. My vision only encompasses the trees and forests.
"The unicorn told me I had to find Simurgh," Rae said. She wasn't going to give up now, not now she'd come this far. "And that you had some idea of where to find him."
Simurgh? Now the Guardian sounded pensive, as if such a thought hadn't yet occurred to him. Yes. Yes, if anyone can aid you, it would be him.
"Great. So where is he?"
You are very close to his lands, human. But to reach it will be the hardest part of your journey. Are you prepared?
Rae didn't hesitate.
"I am," she said steadily.
Very well. To reach Simurgh's lands, you must leave this valley and pass over Fearliath Moor.
"That's all?" Rae said, when it became obvious that the Guardian had finished.
"Fearliath Moor?" Rae frowned. "I'm sure I've heard of that somewhere."
Perhaps. Things from this place appear in your world in different guises, but under similar names.
"What is this Fearliath Moor?"
It is the Grey Man's country. I do not know any more. Nothing ever grows there and so I have no way of seeing into it.
"Is this Grey Man human?" Rae asked.
No. Not as you perceive it. Under ordinary circumstances, mortals may not cross the barrier between the Realm of Dreams and that of mortals. The Guardian paused before adding, Be wary, though. The Grey Man is never friendly, and rarely allows strangers to pass his borders unmolested.
A shiver ran down Rae's spine. She'd suddenly remembered where she'd heard the name before; some mountain or other in Scotland. It had been written slightly differently there, but it was the same one.
"His powers—" she began.
Will be greater here than anywhere once you enter his lands. What your kind experience in your realm is nothing more than a breath of his real strength. Are you still determined?
Rae set her jaw stubbornly.
"I am," she said again.
As you will it. The quickest path is through the Willow River. The Guardian's leaves rustled in what might have been a sigh. Such a shame, Rae thought she heard him say regretfully, but ignored him. She wasn't about to quit now that she was so close. Especially not after Ekiáltês...
Rae decided to stop that train of thought right there. The Nightmare hadn't been a particularly gracious companion, but she hadn't wanted her dead. Not because of her. She shivered and kept walking.
Willow River was a quiet, peaceful place, and one that Rae would have loved to have stayed for longer in. Willow trees of every size, shape and natural colour lined the banks of a clean river. Rae was sure she spotted some fish darting through the water, in and out of the weeds. She supposed even aquatic plants had their place here.
Come to think of it, was the Guardian of Trees literally just the Guardian of Trees, or did that title cover things like bushes and flowers as well?
Rae shook her head and kept walking. Plenty of time for daydreaming later, when she didn't have to worry about confronting some unseen menace.
The Guardian said that the Grey Man rarely allows strangers to pass, she thought. There's always the chance he'll let me through; the Guardian didn't say never.
Yeah, another voice spoke up nastily. There's always the chance you'll walk away from a game of Russian roulette as well. Wanna try that?
Rae bit her lip. There was no real answer to that one.
The sun had already risen high in the sky before she reached the edge of the Grey Man's country. Like its supposed denizen, it was grey, a dead, unpleasant shade, but it was bright and that was something.
Dead ice. The thought came seemingly out of nowhere, unbidden and unwelcome, and Rae didn't fully understand the significance of it. It was a shame Ekiáltês wasn't there; the Nightmare had been company after a fashion, and Rae suddenly found she wanted someone to talk to more than anything. This didn't seem like the kind of place you walked through alone.
Rae took a deep breath. Wishing wouldn't do any good. It would have to be alone.
The Moor wasn't so bad at first. It was dismal, and depressing, and dour (and why did so many words like that begin with d? Rae wondered randomly) but it didn't feel dangerous. In fact, it felt empty; she could even hear her footsteps echoing.
Something caught her ankle and she tripped, falling face down onto the ground. It had a kind of fuzzy feel about it, like static electricity. You got the definite impression that it was only half real.
How like the Dreamlands, Rae thought grimly as she got to her feet again.
Then she noticed that her footsteps were still echoing.
Calm...calm...there's probably a very good explanation for this...
Yeah, another voice inside whispered. They're not your footsteps.
Rae grimaced and wished she could have thought of an equally good, less creepy explanation.
She took one step forward, and then the singing started.
Rae supposed you had to call it singing, since there was no other word for it. It was like a strange, high-pitched humming, and one which set both her teeth and nerves on edge. There were no words in it; just a single note held continually.
The footsteps grew louder, and Rae looked around. Whichever way she turned, they always seemed to come from behind her, getting gradually closer and closer. Rae spun around, trying to see the owner, caught movement out the corner of her eye and stared into the sky in time to see several dark shapes soaring across it, blocking out the sun and reducing the land to a dark twilight. Looking around, Rae saw that the land and sky had seemed to merge into one. She was surrounded by grey nothingness.
Something grabbed her arm, a hand too cold to be human, and Rae let out an involuntary cry, then whirled, searching frantically for the source.
Nothing. The air was empty.
Except it wasn't, was it? The dark shapes across the sun and strange humming was proof of that.
As if in confirmation, what sounded like a thousand voices began whispering at once. To begin with, Rae couldn't make out any words among the hissing. Gradually it grew louder and louder, and as it did so, she thought she could catch the odd word. It didn't mean anything to her though; it didn't seem to be in English.
The volume increased, the voices melding into one single hissing screech until the person seemed to be shrieking it right in her ear.
"Dòrtadh fala fulangas ath-dhìoladh dòrtadh fala fulangas ath-dhìoladh DÒRTADH FALA FULANGAS ATH-DHÌOLADH!"
Rae's nerves finally snapped and she broke into a run. She didn't know what she was running from; she just knew that she had to get out, get away before it was too late.
Her foot caught in something that felt suspiciously like a rabbit warren and she started to fall.
No! That's impossible; this place is smooth! I saw it myself!
You saw nothing, her inner self argued, nothing real, anyway. The Moor reshaped itself around your foot and you know it. This Grey Man, or whatever he really is, doesn't want to let you go that easily.
The thoughts flew through Rae's mind in a heartbeat, only stopping when she hit the ground, hard.
The voice seemed to be sliding in and out again, and Rae let her head drop onto the ground. If she was going to die, she didn't care anymore.
Rae opened her eyes groggily.
"What happened? Where am I?"
A familiar trill caused her to look to her left and she saw the Firebird perched in the branches of a silver birch.
"You are on the other side of the Grey Man's country," the bird said, in between preening.
Rae looked at the sky. There was a definite pink hue there that hadn't been there on the Moor.
Pink. That means dawn, and that means...
Rae slumped back, finally defeated.
"What is the matter?" the Firebird asked, flying down to perch on her leg.
"I've failed, haven't I?" When the bird didn't immediately answer, Rae went on. "I was supposed to rescue my sister by the seventh day. I don't know how long I've been here, but I travelled through the Grey Man's country on the sixth day."
The Firebird hopped up and rubbed his head under her jaw.
"The seventh day is now dawning. You have until sunset to find your sister and make your decision. There is still time."
Rae stared, hardly daring to hope. If that was true...
"How do I find Simurgh's Realm from here?" she said.
"There is no need for that."
"What? Yes, there is; I have to find my sister! Simurgh's the only one who knows where she is!"
"I meant there was no need to go searching." The Firebird gestured around with a wing. "You are already here."
Rae sat bolt upright, spilling the bird onto the ground (ignoring his indignant squawk) and looked around her. She didn't know what she'd been expecting Simurgh's Realm to look like, but she knew it hadn't been this. It was flat, with patches of grassland poking up from water which stretched out in all directions as far as the eye could see. The general impression was one of a partially flooded meadow.
The Firebird flapped onto her shoulder again and nudged her head, turning it towards three figures on a patch of grassland which was shaded by a willow tree.
"Is that—" Rae began.
"Yes. Simurgh and his ally Baku await you with your sister."
"A spirit, one who protects against nightmares."
Rae winced. Thinking about Ekiáltês was still painful.
"Where are you going?" she said, as the Firebird spread his wings again.
"All this water makes me nervous. I must return to my own realm. Farewell, mortal, and good luck."
Rae would have liked him to stay—she didn't much fancy the idea of going up to Simurgh on her own and she wanted to thank him for his gift—but wisely kept quiet. The Firebird had already helped her enough.
Taking a deep breath, she made her way towards the three under the willow.
"You have come a long way to find me," Simurgh said, as soon as she was close enough.
He wasn't what she'd expected. Rae supposed she'd been imagining something that was, if not human, at least humanoid. A creature that looked like someone had thrown a peacock, a dog's head and a set of tiger claws in the genetic splicer was a new one on her, even in a place like this.
"My sister—" she began, then stopped abruptly. "Is that...?"
Ignoring Simurgh, she pressed forward towards the delicately built girl next to him. Dark blonde hair curled around her face and down her back, almost to her waist. She was...no, not hovering, Rae thought, because hovering implied flying and motion of some kind. This girl was just there, like a statue someone had suspended a foot above the ground.
That's Emily. Rae was never able to explain where the knowledge came from, only that it was true. Hard on its heels was a new burst of realisation, that this was what her sister looked like. Family members having been identified through sound, touch (and in one or two cases, smell), this new input was staggering. For long moments, all Rae could do was stand and stare.
That's what my sister looks like. And then: That's what I look like too.
There was a slight difference (namely that Rae's hair fell to just above her shoulders) but out of all the things she'd seen since regaining her sight, this moment of self-recognition was by far the most astonishing.
"Emily?" Reaching out, Rae tried to take her sister's hand, but her fingers passed through it with a slightly fuzzy feeling, like static electricity.
"Rae? They said you were coming." Even Emily's voice was somehow ethereal, like Rae was listening to it underwater.
"Yeah," she said. She suddenly felt very tired; her time had been eventful to say the least.
"Where are we?" Emily asked. Rae suddenly noticed that her lips weren't moving and she turned to Simurgh accusingly.
"What's happened to her?"
"Do you recall the prophecy of Gamayun?" Simurgh said.
Rae had to rack her brains to remember; she hadn't had a great deal of time to memorise it.
"Uh, something about depending...two deaths..."
Next to Simurgh, Baku shifted his paws.
Two allies and companions on each other may depend
Yet two deaths must be realised before this journey's end.
Rae shot him a look. Baku was worth two or three in any case; something with a lion's head, horse's body and tiger's paws wasn't a particularly common sight, even in the Dreamlands.
"Yeah." She swallowed, not wanting to ask the question but having no alternative. "Was I...am I...will I be the second? If Ekiáltês was the first?"
"The second has already been paid," Simurgh said calmly. "It was paid before you arrived."
It took Rae, whose brain was slightly foggy through lack of sleep, a few minutes to work this one out.
"You're not...you can't mean..."
"Mortals do not live here," Simurgh said. "However, all visit at some time in their lives. Most pass through here briefly after death."
"Do you ask the tornados why they destroy what they destroy? Or the tidal waves? Sometimes things happen because they happen. Not everything requires explanation." Baku growled very softly, and Simurgh added, "In the case of your sister, however, there is a reason. Your Nightmare companion was to take your sister's soul after her death. When you grabbed hold of her, you stopped the journey. Nobody still living is permitted to witness the afterlife, and when the unicorn spoke of your quest, it was decided to hold your sister here to await your arrival."
Rae shook her head, feeling like she'd just swallowed broken glass. Had it all been for nothing? Had she come here, lost Ekiáltês, suffered in the Grey Man's Moor, only to be too late now?
"You mean...Emily? But how can she be dead?"
"Can you not think of anything in your past?"
Rae's memory flickered back to the Pool of Memories, how drinking the water had caused her to relive those few minutes before arriving in the Dreamlands. She remembered how the air had been hard to breathe, thick with...thick with...
Smoke. That was it. The air had been thick with smoke.
She turned a despairing look on Simurgh.
"Are we both dead, then?"
Simurgh shook his head.
"No. Only your sister's soul has departed her body for good. There has to be a balance in all things, do you understand? There has to be a balance."
Rae's eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly.
"What are you saying?"
"Only one soul does not belong here. Only one soul may return. Whether it is yours or your sister's is down to you."
Rae's hand flew to her mouth.
"You're saying that for Emily to go home..." She let the sentence trail off, and Simurgh filled in obligingly.
"You would have to remain in the Dreamlands in her place. As I have said, you are not permitted to witness the afterlife. You would be trapped forever in the Dreamlands."
The colour drained from Rae's face.
"I'd have to stay here for the rest of my life?"
"You would have no life here," Simurgh said. "Life presupposes death, which in turn presupposes a sense of time. You must have noticed that time has no bearing or relevance in dreams."
"What about Ekiáltês then?" Rae said. "Isn't she dead?"
Slowly, Simurgh nodded.
"So death does exist here."
"But you said—" Rae began.
"I know what I said. Time has no relevance in the Dreamlands. It is impossible to age, therefore impossible to die in the way you perceive it. It is entirely possible to be killed here."
"What do you...no. No, time is real here. I was given a time limit, there was day and night, don't you stand there and tell me that time doesn't exist!"
"The cycles of nature and those of time are not always the same things," Simurgh said. "If your Nightmare ally had not woken you by the Pool, you would have slept indefinitely until something else did. Our state of being is only what we choose it to be, and it remains so until we choose it to be something else or it is chosen for us. There is no fatigue here, therefore there is no set time for the body to sleep and replenish its energy."
Rae shoved a hand on her hip.
"So how come I got tired?"
"You got tired because you are not of this world. You are a mortal and as such subject to a mortal's physical laws. However, when those laws are applied in this realm, you obey our conventions as well. You awoke refreshed because from your point of view, you'd had two days' sleep. As I said, if your Nightmare had not intervened, you would have slept for the rest of time."
"I woke up in the valley," Rae argued.
"You were awoken by the wind in the leaves," Simurgh said implacably. "Or the sun in your eyes. Or something entirely different; who can say for sure? Alone, you would not have woken."
Rae let it go. She still wasn't a hundred percent convinced it made sense, but it was no stranger than some of the other things in this place.
"Ekiáltês still died though," she said softly.
There was a silence.
"She said that the denizens of the Dreamlands couldn't harm each other," Rae whispered.
"She lied," Simurgh said calmly. "Some denizens are subservient to others. Have you ever heard the expression, 'a creature of nightmares'?"
Rae nodded wordlessly.
"The Tikbalang and Marmanhig are such creatures. They were created out of and by their own Nightmares and those of mortals. They hate the Nightmares even more than they hate themselves and others, but they were created by them and so can never harm them."
Rae found herself blinded again, this time by tears.
"Then what the hell's Gwyligi? And Kludde? If they're not out of a nightmare then what is?"
"Gwyligi and Kludde are brothers to the Nightmares. They are their equals; Gwyligi broke no rules and transcended no laws in fighting your companion. He was merely guarding his boundaries from your Nightmare ally."
"Ekiáltês," Rae whispered, the tears now starting to spill over onto her cheeks. "Her name was Ekiáltês."
Simurgh shook his head.
"Ekiáltês is nothing but another word for nightmare in your tongue. Nightmares have no names. They have no identity beyond the mortal whose sleep they torment. I will not say they are not each individual, for they are, but there are so many of them that there are not enough names in all the worlds for each of them."
"She shouldn't have had to die!" Rae burst out. "Not like that. It was all for nothing!"
"Her death gave you the means to complete your journey," Simurgh said. "That is far from nothing."
You have set a new precedent, Baku added. Rae found she didn't like to hear him talking mentally like that; it reminded her too much of Ekiáltês.
Never before has a Nightmare traded her life for the sake of a mortal. And never before has a mortal mourned the loss of a Nightmare.
"Nightmares only have true power at night," Simurgh said. "During the day, all the time the sun still shows its face, they are no more than shadows and whispers and easily defeated. The sun was setting when Ekiáltês and Gwyligi fought, was it not?"
Rae tried to speak, found she couldn't and so settled for simply nodding. There was a silence.
"Then there is your answer. Ekiáltês sacrificed herself for you, so that you would now be able to make your choice. Do you wish to go back, and let events take their course?"
Rae swallowed. "If I go back...will I be blind again?"
"Yes. Dream gifts and events are only real in the dream world. You would be as you were before you came here."
Turning, Rae started to pace rapidly, then abruptly buried her face in her hands and dropped to the ground.
"You want me to decide now?"
"You do not have much time. If you remain longer than seven days, neither of you will be able to return."
To return, Rae thought numbly. To live, to be home with family and friends, to see her parents, her grandparents...
But not your sister, a little voice inside whispered.
Emily had always been there for her, supported her, stood up for her. Could she cope without her? Rae thought she could, but...to be blind again? She could give up her sight or she could give up her sister, but she didn't think she could handle losing both.
"What happened to us?" she said. "The fire...how did..."
Simurgh understood. "There was no reason for it. A couple of young men were drunk. They had the remains of alcohol in their bottles and decided to drop a match in and throw the bottles at your garden. One of them went through your bedroom window. I do not believe they meant you any harm; it was simply a prank. Now choose."
Rae closed her eyes tightly. There was really only one choice she could make.
"Alright," she said, as soon as she trusted her voice not to crack.
"I agree. Let her go and I'll stay here." Should she say goodbye? It seemed almost sacriligeous not to, but Rae wasn't sure if it would be a good idea. How much of this would Emily remember? She didn't want her twin going through life with the knowledge that she was only there because Rae had, in effect, died to make it happen.
Then move away from your sister, Rae, Baku said calmly. It is time.
Stumbling to her feet, Rae obeyed, turning her head away. There was a rapid flash of purple light and when she looked back Emily had gone.
Rae faced Simurgh and Baku, and took a deep breath.
It is not all bad here, Baku said soothingly. There are ways for you to see into the mortal world, if you wish it. And the Nightmares know who destroyed your home. Soon it will be time for them to begin their other duty.
Rae frowned slightly.
Yes. Baku's jaws moved in something that was probably supposed to represent a smile. I suppose you could say they serve as a kind of police force. Most who do evil are punished by them.
A slight gleam appeared in Rae's eyes.
"What exactly are you saying?"
I'm saying, Baku said comfortably, that the ones who destroyed your home will probably be having some very, very bad nights in the not-too-distant future...