Now it's a party.
But at my back in a cold blast I hear
The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.
-T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
"What am I?" the man repeated, holding out the words as if he was delighted to have finally been asked. "Well. What am I, indeed?" He flashed Clovis a quick grin, which was vicious enough to cause her muscles to tense.
Abruptly his expression turned to a scowl. "Why the hell should I tell you? I had to figure it out myself."
He drifted several steps back from her and regarded the floor with a perturbed look. She used the opportunity to run.
"You can't go anywhere." He sounded annoyed, but in the vague, bored manner of a veteran telling a young recruit that war wouldn't be all valor and glory.
Watch me. Clovis dashed on toward the darkness at the ends of the hall, stopping only when she was certain that the madman was far behind her.
She turned to see him no more than ten yards away.
Well, shit. Biting her lip, Clovis began to walk slowly backward, keeping her eyes trained on the area between her and her adversary. Although she felt herself move, felt the stones change beneath her shoes, and even stared at her own rising and falling feet, the distance never increased. Ten yards remained the gap. Throughout her efforts, the man leaned against the wall and studied his hands, glancing up from time to time to give her a triumphant smirk.
At last she crossed her arms and stood still. "So what's going on?" she asked, trying not to sound frightened and frustrated. She didn't quite manage it.
"I told you," he said. "You can't go anywhere. You're caught. Sucked in. Tangled in a dead tree by your hair." The grin returned. "Do you know what year it is?" Without waiting for an answer, he added, "I don't. Time's a liar, anyway."
In a few swift motions he had closed half the gap between them. Despite the warnings flashing through her brain, Clovis met his gaze impassively. There was a spark of violence in his eyes, and, considering that his throat wasn't slit open, he was either incredibly agile or a powerful mage. Neither option would make for a fair fight.
As he continued to prowl toward her, his smile faded. "They show up from time to time, and I drive them to it. I don't know where they go afterward. I don't see them anymore. Perhaps dragons..." He trailed off as he came too near to her for comfort, near enough for her to see that his pupils were like wells that extended deeper than he did, as if he had lost part of himself and kept the emptiness.
Not that it would matter in a few seconds.
That's it, she thought, positioning her dagger in her hand. Let's see how fast you are up close.
"It's crazy," he murmured, "what you wonder about..." His face leaned in near hers, his lips only inches from her left ear. Clovis froze in mid-stab when she felt no breath.
A colorful litany of curses knotted on her tongue, and all that came out was "You're a ghost."
He spun away from her and began to laugh so hard that his entire body shook. "Brilliant!" he cried. "Just beautiful!" In the next moment he was sober again, leveling his gaze at her and saying, "I feel like I breathe, you know. Even feel my heart beat. But I can sigh on a stone all day and never warm it."
He seemed to be waiting for a response, so Clovis crossed her arms. "Well, cry me a fucking river."
He ignored her and continued, "They didn't trust me. At least, not enough. I don't know what happened to the other two, but the elf..." His eyes clouded, as if in prelude to a storm. Giving her a look she couldn't quite decipher, he pulled off his shirt and let it fall to the ground.
Clovis rolled her eyes. "Funny, that elf looks like a pasty, underdeveloped chest. You got a point here, or-"
She didn't finish. He had turned to expose his back to her, and to the left of his spine was a gaping knife wound, its edges crusted with blood.
She choked and fixed her gaze on the floor.
All of Clovis's prior experience with the undead had involved zombies and their ilk, bodies reanimated by the nearest evil force to wreak mindless havoc upon the countryside. They were nightmarish, but they were also monsters with only the barest semblance to human beings. Lopping a desiccated limb off a ghoul was nothing like staring at the death wound of a restless spirit. Shivering, Clovis moistened her lips and wiped the sweat from her face.
She looked up to see the man watching her reaction from over his shoulder.
"You didn't stab him in the back, did you?" he asked, turning around to face her.
Clovis's head ached, and she still felt ready to vomit. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"The man you killed. You didn't-"
Automatically she brandished her dagger. Smooth one, Clovis. Grimacing, she lowered the weapon and took a deep, calming breath.
He grinned. "You're transparent."
"Leave me alone," she snapped, turning her back on him. "And put your goddamn shirt on." She bit her lip and stared vacantly at her feet. It had been a long while since anyone had pushed her as far as this specter had twice managed to; in fact, she hadn't been this upset since-
No, not going to think about it. She narrowed her eyes and tried to clear her mind.
The process was interrupted by the sudden presence of the man's face directly in front her own. "My name's Cham," he said before she had managed to sprint away. He laughed and leaned against the wall. "You may as well tell me yours," he added. "You're not going anywhere."
She stood like a stone on the bow of the ship as the sun dried the blood on her clothes and hands. The north wind blew the scent of death over her, mingling it with salt and combing them both into her sweat-soaked hair. She did not flinch. She had not flinched then, either, when the betrayal in the captain's eyes had faded to glass, nor when her own blood had mixed with that of her shipmates. Her breathing was steady.
"Always the quiet one, aren't ye?" said a voice from behind her. She recognized the second mate but did not acknowledge him. "I figured ye'd come through." She closed her eyes as he added, "Cap'n."
"To keep your bearings," the old man had said, but the little arrow hadn't understood up or down, and she had found her bearings on her own. North didn't matter when the storm swept in.
She clenched her fists until her nails bit at her flesh. "Deck wants swabbing," she said evenly, feeling the skin of her palms break. "Set the cabin boys to it." There was a moment of blank silence before she heard footsteps retreating.
Glenn felt as if he'd been walking for hours, and his mood was deteriorating accordingly. To make matters worse, he had begun to suspect that he wasn't covering any ground, which was a ridiculous idea that nevertheless made as much sense as anything else that was happening.
Halting his march, Glenn plucked a hair from his head and used one of his wrinkled fingers to stick it to the wall. The prune effect, he decided, was the worst part of being stuck in the water. His feet felt terrible.
Focus, focus. Keeping his eyes trained on the red line of the hair, he began to back away from it. He was more annoyed than surprised when his distance from it did not increase.
"All right," he called, "I give up. What's going on?"
The hair slid into the water. Sighing, Glenn leaned against the wall and closed his eyes, trying to ignore how thirsty the abundance of water made him. And there's no way I'm drinking this stuff. He wondered what he would do now that he'd found the hallway to be enchanted, but his prospects weren't good. After all, he was stuck here- naked, helpless, waiting for starvation or for some sea monster to come along and rip him into shreds of meat-
Woah. Happy thoughts, he told himself. We are going to think nice, happy thoughts. Clovis came to mind first in that regard, and he tried to let himself drift into memories of her. There was that time when... when...
Frowning, he opened his eyes and furrowed his brow. He could remember her grumbling on long hikes, her fraternizing with the Pravokans in Maggie's crew, and her general lack of concern for anyone else's welfare, but none of his memories were more than impressions. Had he ever had a conversation with her that meant anything? Had they ever confided in each other? Did he know anything about her, other than her status as a thief and holder of an Orb? They had never even fought side-by-side- and for that matter, none of the four had ever functioned as part of a group. At least, not a healthy group.
Glenn sank up to his shoulders in the water. At first he tried to pretend that he was having an epiphany, but he had always been aware of it; he had just found it easier to pretend. When Clovis teased him, when Dimitri could be bothered to speak to him, even when Maggie saved his life, there was never anything more than a thin, Orb-enforced sense of obligation to account for it. They shared nothing but mutual expendability.
"I won't anymore," he promised the air. "If I see them again, things'll be different. When. If."
Feeling hollow, he turned to walk upstream, not because he expected to get anywhere but because he had to keep moving.
A sudden hiss made him jump. As the results of his splashing died down, Glenn became aware of air touching skin that had previously been underwater. Looking down, he confirmed that the liquid around him was indeed draining, apparently seeping away through the floor. The lower portions of the walls lit up as the water left them.
When at last he stood, dripping and shivering, on more or less dry stone, Glenn still saw no sign of his clothing. He sighed and indulged in a few moments of self-pity before walking on.
He already felt like a liar. Good idea, Glenn. Now we'll pretend that we're not pretending. Very nice. His fists clenched. If he reached in deep enough, there had to be something real: smoke over fire, clouds over the sea, glass over reflection. And he remembered- if he let himself, he remembered-
Whispers curled around his head.
"Where will you go? What will you do? You have no one.
"What will you do? What happened to them?
"You have no one. What will you do?"
She stood like painted marble beside the well, an empty bucket swinging from her fingers. Hair like spring roses spilled over her scarf. Sky and breath were filled with snowflakes, which parted for her voice: "If you're afraid, don't leave me. If you're hurting, don't ignore me. If you're lonely, don't push me away."
And he had walked on in a haze of white.
In the end, she changed nothing.
It was a sport, a game, a complicated dance to a chorus they never seemed to hear. There were some who blamed him, more who blamed themselves, and a handful who affected nonchalance. But the beautiful moments were when perceptions shifted, when worry and confusion fell away, and they either hated or pleaded with him. Sometimes it amazed him that so many people could be so desperate to believe.
He didn't believe, and he knew how to make the most out of oblivion.
The hallway came into focus. Something cold pressed against his back, and Dimitri found that he was huddled against one of the walls. His disorientation turned to anger at himself. Brushing off the memories, he used his staff to stand up.
In his experience, loneliness only led to stupidity. So it was to his credit that he didn't let himself feel lonely, and that he didn't see other people as anything more than transients in his life. Let the idiots around him chase after eternity; nothing was permanent, but he could be static in the face of upheaval. He knew where to find the lonely and gullible, and he knew how to feed on the death of dreams.
She made me wonder what it is that I want.
Loneliness made them tumble into need. But a fleeting desire, a passing fancy for something easy to obtain, gave him the upper hand. He shrugged where they despaired.
"Is it worth it?" she had asked. "I don't know. But I'd like to find out."
He hadn't answered, because he hadn't trusted himself not to want.
"It's over," Dimitri said aloud, hoping that his voice would clear his mind. "What's the point of regret?"
What if it had been?
The ache that been building in his head dissipated through his body, leaving him shaky. He leaned back against the wall and willed the past to leave him alone for a while.
He didn't know how to function outside the past.
The older boys wore robes woven from blood and ink. Overhead the bandied-about whispers of charity mixed with the voices of the bells: "No one wants you. You're here because no one wants you."
Trembling and panting, soaked with blood that was not hers, she staggered out of the woods and collapsed on the sand. The proximity of the ocean stirred her senses. Groaning, she tried to drag herself forward, but her muscles felt shredded. It took more energy than she'd thought she had to crawl into the dinghy.
As she lay on her back, staring at the sky and waiting for her energy to return, she felt tears warming her face. Wiping them smeared blood over her cheeks. When her shaking subsided, she sat up painfully and began to row back to the ship.
She wondered what she'd tell them had happened.
It had been some time since either of them had spoken. Clovis leaned irritably against the wall, turning her dagger over in her hand and keeping an eye on Cham, who sat across the hallway. He remained shirtless to spite her.
"Bored?" he asked, his eyelids drooping. The word curled his mouth into a sneer.
"Leave me alone."
"Of course you are." He rose, causing her muscles to tense. Moving like a bipedal cat, he approached her and stopped the moment before she would have bolted. His eyes were leaden as he said, "You get sick of it here, waiting in circles-"
He lunged. Before she could dash away, his forearms passed through her collarbones.
Her teeth clamped together, but she didn't scream. Glaring at him, she sidled away, trying not to shiver as she passed through hands and wrists that were perfectly incorporeal. God, she'd thought there would at least be a chill in the air...
Cham's gaze followed her, and he smiled in a way that verged on affability. "The last dragon passed out," he said, then let his arms fall to his sides as he slouched against the wall. He stared at the floor for a moment before turning to her. "Even the clever ones don't stay, though."
"Well, that's dragons for you." Clovis crossed her arms and frowned at her foot, which had begun to tap of its own accord. Her skin was still crawling from the sense of nothingness.
Exorcism hadn't figured into any of her training. A few hours ago, she would have agreed that there was no sense wasting valuable brain space learning how to drive away something dead and technically harmless, but she was beginning to see the merits of a good warding spell, especially since Cham's expression suggested that he was fishing for another conversation starter. She narrowed her eyes at the invisible barriers in the corridor and wondered what was keeping her back.
Well, there's an idea.
"So," she said, "you can't touch anything, right?" When he didn't contradict her, she raised an eyebrow. "Then if you want to leave so damn much, why don't you just prance on out through the walls?"
His grin died. Regarding her coldly, Cham drew back an arm and punched the wall. There was no sound. When she squinted, Clovis saw that the blow had been caught a hair's breadth from the surface.
"Because," he said in a voice like sheet metal, "I can't fucking reach them." He stamped his foot silently, and she saw that a miniscule layer of nothing also separated him from the floor.
Clovis nodded. "So I see."
"Do you? Do you know why I'm here?" Without waiting for a response he said, "I'm here because it won't stop remembering me."
He slumped against the wall- the space a fraction of an inch away from the wall- and lowered his head, fixing the floor with a stare too hollow to be one of pure hate. Clovis couldn't tell whether he was shaking.
"You'll stay, too," he said. "Doesn't let go."
She ignored him.
"But I wonder," he added, his eyes half-closed, "if you're like the dragons. Maybe it just wants me." His lip curled. "Or maybe it doesn't, but it can't get rid of me. No way I'd know, is there?" Cham laughed once, stabbing the air with the sound, before looking expectantly at Clovis.
She continued to ignore him until the silence became more uncomfortable than the conversation had been. It didn't help that he was most likely plotting ways to entertain himself at her expense. "Hey," she began, then paused to phrase a question in her mind. With any luck she could get him to sulk quietly. "What made you think I've killed?"
"It's a safe bet." He looked up and smirked. "We're all killers, even if someone else has the knife. We're all choking on our guilt." With a fresh glimmer in his eyes he added, "But you, now... you reacted like a murderer. Panicked."
Swallowing her temper, she forced her voice to remain level as she loaded ammunition into it. "So who'd you kill?"
There was a split-second pause before he broke into laughter. "Give me some credit," he said, suddenly and dangerously cheerful. "We used to treat our authority figures with a little respect."
The next thing that registered was the sound of her fist connecting with the wall. Blood oozed from her knuckles without staining the stone, but Clovis was too busy cradling her hand to care why. Cursing, she stared at the split skin and wondered how much it would hurt once the rush wore off. "Stupid son of a bitch," she muttered.
Cham grinned. "Transparent."
His whispers brushed her ear, moving in time with the caresses of his hands over her shoulders. Her muscles were knotted like wet ropes. In front of her on the deck lay a piece of cork, and she fixed her gaze on it to avoid watching the empty sea.
"I wish the stars were out," she said.
"At least it's not raining." He swept a stray lock of hair off her neck. When the silence began to solidify between them, he asked, "Are you nervous or excited?"
She noticed that her hands were clenched and relaxed them. "Both." Feeling the need to explain, she added, "I've never been this far north."
"Mmm." The sound was as contemplative as understanding. "Don't worry. You're with me."
Reclining against him, she tilted her head back to meet his kiss. When they parted she rested her head on his shoulder and pressed herself against him. Closing her eyes, she imagined the night sky on fire, the heat soldering them together. The idea left her troubled.
Then his arms encircled her, and she could stop thinking.
The chime of the clock was still reverberating in his stomach as he crouched in the brush, sweat glazing his hands and face. Clouds thinner than insect wings drifted over the new moon. Only a few yards away he could hear the thick buzzing of their voices, and time crawled in a slow spiral as his legs burned with anticipation...
Glenn pinched himself hard enough to turn the skin scarlet and bring the hall back into focus. What the hell? he thought, staring at the sore spot on his arm. I didn't want to remember that.
Not that what he wanted had any bearing on what happened to him. In addition to being naked and still damp, Glenn had to struggle to keep from being pulled bodily into his memories. To that end he stared at the opposite wall until his eyes burned.
"Stop it," he said aloud. His voice was only a few degrees away from cracking. "Leave me alone. It wasn't my-"
It wasn't my fault.
It lay dark and silent in the weeds, radiating an almost living energy that it seemed to be drawing out of the dew, the clouds, the dead man lying beside it. His breath caught in his throat. The black crystal guzzled sunlight, and it drew his gaze into the shadows at its core, as if it sought to consume him as well. Shivering, he turned and tried to walk away from it, but something inside him twitched in sympathy to its hunger. For a few seconds he hung suspended, staring at the world out of reach above him and feeling a dark sea rock beneath his feet. There was no decision to make. Almost without realizing what he was doing, he tucked the black sphere into his makeshift pack (how could it be so heavy?) and resumed walking, his legs carrying him in what he hoped was the direction of the city. All thoughts of the corpse had been swept away.
Who was he? Why did he have to die?
Glenn clutched at the anachronous thought and shuddered back to the present. "Leave me alone," he said again, his tone harsher. "I don't want to-"
Go. He didn't want to go. And they towered over him like stone idols, unfit for prayers, unable to comprehend that his blood didn't flow with their dreams.
I'm sorry. I could never be what you wanted.
Her brain smoldered from the heat of the lights and the drone of the voices. Letting out an agitated breath, she rested her head on the table, letting the rough wood scrape her skin. If she shielded her face with her arms, the lights disappeared and all that she had to ignore was the constant noise, along with the stench of too many people crowded together. Her head swam.
A tap on her shoulder startled her. Raising her head with a flash of hope, she had less than a second of relief before the disappointment set in. "You," she grunted, slouching back onto the table. "Go away."
"Sociable as ever, I see." He perched on the seat opposite her and grinned in a way that suggested an advanced stage of inebriation. "You don't have to be miserable, you know. Have a drink. Loosen up. My pointy-eared pal here's paying." She heard the sound of a hand clumsily clapping someone on the back as she blocked out the world with her sleeves. "Oh, c'mon. He's not even late yet."
"Go away," she repeated, a jagged edge creeping into her voice.
"Hey..." Her head snapped up when she felt a hand on her arm, and she returned the somewhat muddled look of concern with a glare. "Why won't you ever say what's wrong?" he asked, oblivious of her growing wrath. "I mean, we're a team, right? Shouldn't keep so many secrets." He sighed, clearly having trouble surmounting the alcohol long enough to collect his thoughts. She gritted her teeth. "We're still like strangers or-"
He disappeared from her line of vision just before she would have forcibly removed him from it. As she drooped back onto the table, snatches of the ensuing discussion drifted to her ears, ending with something about "taking your excessive social tendencies elsewhere." This was spoken without any of the malice she'd come to expect. Briefly she wondered when those two had begun getting along, then credited the amount of ale she'd watched them consume.
Letting out a long breath, she tapped her fingers against the wood and wondered if getting drunk would help.
"Honestly, what did she expect me to do with a child?" Jewels glimmered from her wrists and ears, and he watched them flash with her movements, hoping to fascinate himself. Her gaze alit on everything but him.
In a few brisks steps she strode to her vanity, where she spent a moment facing her reflection. Her elaborately pinned hairdo had released a few strands to tickle her face. With a flicker of annoyance, she tucked them behind her ears and opened a drawer.
He remained perfectly still in the doorway, counting the diamonds twined around her pale throat. If he stared long enough, would she feel his eyes? Would she turn around with the face he wanted to see?
Peeling the gloves from her arms, she brushed aside a coven of bottles and spread stationery over the table. The quill scratched at the paper like a dirty fingernail.
She was the evil enchantress of his fairy tales, the body of his mother with a death's head. He wanted to cling to her gown and kiss her feet until she counted him an enemy, or at least a thorn in her skin. But when he crept forward to touch her ankle, she kicked him away.
The drawer nearest him was open enough for a child's hand to pass through. Taking it as a sign, he reached into the darkness and pulled out a jade brooch, which pricked his palm as he clutched it. Droplets of blood slid down the pin. Trembling, he clung to the sting, thinking, If I bleed, you have to keep me.
She never glanced at him.
A drizzle of wax and a stamp of her ring ended it. Look at me, he wanted to say. Tell me you hate me. Just look at me. Biting his lip, he tucked the brooch inside his pocket, wiping the blood away in the process.
Her eyes passed over him to the darkness in the hall. "Take the boy to the academy," she said. "Show them this letter, and do not mention the woman who sold her birthright. Say that an orphan wandered in from the streets. Offer him on charity."
He was receding, feeling her suck the light away from him. It was only then that he dared to speak: "Why won't you look at me?"
She never answered, because she had already forgotten about him.
"Stop." Dimitri's hands shook as he pressed them to his head. "It's not that simple."
A woman's voice, low and wispy as spiderwebs, giggled in his ear: Are you sure I didn't mean to leave you?
Maybe he screamed. All he was aware of was stumbling to his feet and running, his hand grasping his staff with the force of a vice. His panic blinded him. That's not true, that's not why, it's not about you-
Gasping for breath, he forced himself to stop running. His heart pummeled the inside of his chest. At first he tried to lean on his staff for support, but he ended up huddled around it, as if it could warm him. Shivers ran like icy water down his back.
"They're nothing but memories," he said aloud, trying to work the cracks out of his voice. "Let the past bury itself." His breathing slower but still ragged, he straightened and used his staff to push his hat out of his eyes.
When he looked up, he found that he had entered a room at the end of the corridor. All around him, the light of the stones illuminated the porcelain faces of a congregation of dolls.
Blood slicked her hands and dripped from the blade of her ax. Her robe would never be clean again; she went through too many of them this way.
Behind her, the air hummed with unnecessary chatter:
"So where is it?"
"I dunno, somewhere in the mud. Possibly under a corpse. Would the party members who actually have muscle tone like to start looking?"
"Stop whining. It was your job to keep an eye on it."
The sound of grumbling registered in her ears as she kicked the head of the giant she had most recently decapitated out of her way. The ground, already muddy, was so wet with blood that each motion threatened to land her face-down in the muck.
Then she heard him come up behind her, and she turned to see him as filthy as she was. The blood that she felt spattered over her face was reflected on his.
Their kiss was rushed and mutually invasive, a fusion of battle stories. When they parted, she could hear the rainfall outside the cave growing louder.
"Great, now it'll get even muddier- there! And here we have our first up-close and personal look at..."
There was a moment of silence.
"So, who else is disappointed?"
"It's not jewelry, you fool. It's a key. A channel. A reservoir of power."
"Still could have done with some gems, maybe a little engraving..."
She let the noise fade behind her as she walked with him out into the rain. The grass at her feet was tinged with pale red water, and the blood in her hair was rinsed down her neck.
He had probably intended to say something, but she was gone before he got the chance.
"Evisceration," Cham announced. "Now there's a nasty way to die."
Clovis looked up from her seat against the opposite wall, where she had been nursing her wounded hand. She was taken too far off guard to keep herself from reacting. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"I'm rating deaths. What's your take on asphyxiation?"
She stared at him. "We are not having this conversation," she decided, then returned her attention to her hand.
It was with a mixture of annoyance and weariness that she noted Cham's sudden presence beside her. "Go away," she muttered, resting her forehead in her palm.
"Might as well talk about it," he said, maneuvering his face directly in front of hers. Incorporeal or not, he was not welcome in her personal bubble, and Clovis scooted several inches away from him. She could tell without looking that he was grinning as he said, "What makes you think you won't die here?"
"Would you shut up about that?"
His laugh was low and bitter. "That's right, don't think about it. See if it goes away."
She didn't respond, hoping that he'd grow bored and retreat. But her hands were shaking. I won't die here. You can't make-
"Look at me."
His tone was so soft that she obeyed without thinking about it, and the sadness in his face took her off-guard. He looked so broken that the lines in his irises were fissures.
"The dragons tried to fight it," he said, "but none of them won. I haven't seen them in so long. They must finally be afraid." His eyes hardened as he continued, "The ones who resisted longest, they're just as dead. But it was worse for them. And they didn't stay, regardless." He smiled viciously. "An angel of mercy, that's me."
Suspicion narrowed her eyes. "What did you do to them?"
"Me? Nothing." He shrugged. "I'm only the moon. They did it themselves- or didn't. Nature has a say."
You're not dancing out of this. Clovis leaned toward him and punctuated each word: "What did you do?"
He bristled. "I told the goddamn truth. And the ones who ignored me got the agony- they waited until their bodies crumbled. How the hell is that my fault?" He paused, and when he spoke again, his voice had calmed. "It's better to do it when you still have control."
Clovis's eyes widened in comprehension. Sputtering threats, she jumped to her feet and backed away from him.
As if her anger was enough for them both, he smiled sedately. "Think about it," he said, watching her from his seat without giving any indication of chasing her. "Do you want to die piece by piece, until you choke on the desert in your throat? Or do you want it to be quick?" His gaze drifted to the dagger at her belt.
"Fuck you," she spat. She turned her back on him and tried to ignore her sudden thirst. Like hell. I didn't come all this way just to die here.
She brought a savage halt to a thought that suggested poetic justice.
"One more day's hike, one quick battle against seemingly impossible odds, and we'll be ready to set sail and make history. Not even the dragons can forget us when we do what they can't."
She woke before dawn to keep the light from spying on her dreams.
"I said I was sorry!"
Glenn's voice was cracking, both from emotion and exhaustion. He had pressed his knuckles to his eyes until his vision became a field of novas, but the memories were flooding his mind, and no amount of pressure would dam them. "What else do you want?" he shouted. "I'd take it all back if I-"
No, I wouldn't.
The thought brought his head up with gasp. Blinking away the silent explosions, he stared into the air in front of him, panting.
"No," he croaked. "I- if I'd known then, I'd... I'd..." The words wouldn't come, and he suspected that it was because they didn't exist. Defeated, Glenn slumped back down.
There was point in lying to himself. Even if he had known everything in advance, even if he had seen the consequences spelled out in blood, he would have made the same choices. He was sorry; he regretted; he wouldn't change a thing.
"Is that why I'm here?" he said aloud, half-expecting an answer. "So that I can't run anymore?"
With a start he felt water swirling around the parts of him that were in contact with the floor. Glenn leapt to his feet and saw, to his horror, that water was rushing toward him from the darkened end of the corridor. It had already reached the level of his ankles.
Frantic, he clawed at the walls, only to find them as smooth as mirrors. The current wrapped around his knees like a sahag's fingers.
"Don't do this to me," he pleaded, looking madly for a way out. As before, everything below the water level was thick darkness, and the sight of it made his legs shake. "Please, I can't swim..."
The water reached his waist. Giving in to his panic, Glenn tried to run downstream but found his movements precarious in the current. Each step made him feel as if he would slip, allowing the blackness to devour him.
Don't think that way, he told himself, but he couldn't come up with an alternate line of thought. He was submerged up to his shoulders.
Casting off any efforts at rationality, he began to thrash. All he succeeded in doing was splashing himself, but he persisted. The realization that staying afloat would be futile if the water reached the ceiling only made his motions more desperate.
"Oh, God," he gasped, flailing as he felt himself swept along with the increasing force of the current. Only the tips of his toes scraped the floor now, and he choked on every wave.
His next breath rewarded him with water and burning lungs. Spasms racked his chest. With a final, desperate grab at the receding air, Glenn felt himself dragged below the reach of the light.
They lay tangled together, two shades of autumn hair spilling over each other's shoulders. The silence was almost perfect; no voices came from the other tent, and no insects sang. The only sound was their breathing.
"Are you happy?" he whispered, his lips brushing her ear. His body was warm with sleepiness.
"Mmm." She traced the contours of his arm with her fingers, appreciating the fine interplay of muscle, flesh, and bone. Running her hand down to meet his, she turned so that he could see her smile. It was strange how important it was to him, as if he couldn't otherwise believe that she was content.
"So'm I." With a soft sigh, he touched her cheek before drifting off to sleep.
When the regularity of his breathing indicated the depth of his slumber, she slipped out his embrace and rose. Shrugging into her robe, she took her ax and crept out onto the darkened campground.
They had pitched their tent near an old tree, and now she reclined against the trunk, staring into the sea of stars overhead. Some nights they were so distant that she couldn't even dream of them; other nights they were suspended inches from her face, and she could never explain the change.
She heard the tiny rustle of the other tent flap, so even the silence of his footfalls could not hide him from her. But she didn't acknowledge him until he said, "What is it you're afraid of? Losing him? Or just losing?"
The stone in her glare was meant to tell him that he was wrong, but she went back to her tent and slid into her lover's arms with a sense of urgency. Burying her face in his shoulder, she clung to him as if he had already begun to fall away.