Cat's LifeLady of
the Lake ...
the Lake ...
Cat's Life Lady of
the Lake ...
the Lake ...
by Emily Crook
by Emily Crook
The sea overspread
Forests and fields—deep-drowned land
Lost souls wander there.
Nastaran winced as memories not her own tore through her mind. Wild water ripped trees apart, the roaring flood inescapable. A dark surge crashed down, devouring. Deadly.
“I hear you,” she whispered. “I understand. You can’t free yourself from your untimely end. Not alone. Let me help you?”
All around her, the dreaming world was in chaos, the only constant the flickering light of tormented, sundered spirits. It took all her willpower to concentrate, not to fear the waves that built and built around her, then disappeared into mist-filled glens and mighty trees of massive girth, dissolving into a wreckage of sea-bed filled with the rotting corpses of those same trees . . . and the other beings that had lived and died there.
Fear surrounded her. “I know,” she murmured. “I know. But—you’ll only be going home. That’s not so bad, is it?”
Surrender. As she reached out, the wavering form in front of her solidified for a split second into a young girl, scarcely older than five, her ebony eyes wide with wonder. She smiled, fading, and Nastaran’s hand closed on nothing. More spirits crowded around, and she was buffeted by their final moments as she sought to share their burden. The crowd began to thin. By dawn, the last figure had faded, and she sighed with relief as she woke.
I’ve lived at least three lifetimes’ worth of suffering these last few months, she thought as she shivered in the clinging damp. Rubbing her eyes with the heels of her hands, Nastaran knelt and composed her thoughts. It had become increasingly difficult of late to separate her own from those the drowned dead pressed upon her.
“I am Nastaran,” she said aloud, her eyes tightly closed, her knuckles white as her fingers interlaced in her lap. “I serve Kirian, who guides all lost souls home. I am a Dreamwalker by blood-right—therefore I may walk in both realms freely. And I did not drown in the sinking of Shavarash.”
Opening her eyes, she sat back on her heels and looked around her reassuringly solid room, so different from the Dragomir’s shifting landscape. Weariness pressed in upon Nastaran as she contemplated the vast concourses of souls yet to guide from their watery grave. She was grateful for the mundaneness of her days, her only respite from the mournful night.
Though her main work was accomplished in the dreaming world, her own realm had also been affected by the sinking of Shavarash.
“How’s it coming?” called the village head, as she emerged from the shell of a house destroyed in the aftershocks, dragging a filthy rug filled with jars and bottles from the half-collapsed cellar.
“There’s plenty to do,” Nastaran called back.
They allowed her to stay with them for now because she had proven herself creative in salvaging whatever was left—furniture, pottery, food, even rocks and timbers from tumbled walls. It was slow work, and those with any kind of harvest left were called away to the fields.
“How long will you be here?” asked the householder she stayed with. Nastaran squinted at the woman.
“I’m not sure,” she said cautiously.
“I’m afraid it will be a lean winter,” the woman said, and Nastaran nodded, sighing in agreement. “Even with the fall crops we’ve put in, it’s going to be a struggle,” she continued, and Nastaran listened to the woman’s litany of worries as she helped sort through the remains of her stores. In light of the villager’s fears, each unbroken jar would be a brick in the bulwark against starvation’s assault.
* * *
Night came after a hard day’s work—and with it, dreams.
Sunlight shone into shadow under vast canopies of leaves, and for a few brief moments she enjoyed the memory of Shavarash unmarred. But all too soon the surge engulfed her once more, reminding Nastaran of her appointed task.
Outward, ever outward she traveled, careful in searching despite the tumult, but found nothing until well after midnight.
In the midst of the oncoming waves to her left stood a man, his arms outspread as though to stop the unstoppable. Nastaran paused and watched, astonished, as the waves crested, then foamed around him. The ground beneath her feet sank until she stood underwater. As far as she could see, the Dragomir had ceased its convulsive changes; all had sunk into the depths of the encroaching sea, memory yielding to a new reality.
The man lowered his arms and turned away, his shoulders slumping.
“Who are you?” she asked, and he spun in the strange un-water of the Dragomir, hands clenched.
Nastaran stepped toward him on the sea-bed, reaching out even as he turned. Taller than most mortals, he had the look of the Shavarashan. Some had survived, of course, though not many.
He watched her, wary, his eyes glinting in the wavering light.
Trying again, she asked, “How did you do that?”
“There are others?” the man whispered to himself. “But no, you are not Shavarashan.”
“I am not,” Nastaran agreed.
“Then where . . . ?”
“I was sent,” she told him, “to guide lost souls home. I call no realm or country mine.”
The man looked at her, mystified. “You have no home, yet guide others to it?” he scoffed. “What a riddle.”
Nastaran blinked. “I have a home,” she told him. “But you would not find it while you yet live, unless you were to achieve ascension.”
“Ah. That answers your riddle not at all.”
Nastaran stared at him. “You are a Dreamwalker, yet know nothing of the Way?”
“What?” His puzzlement was clear as he stared back. “No, you are not one of the dream-creatures,” he muttered after a moment, shaking his head.
A thought came, and Nastaran blurted, “Did you know your parents?”
The man tilted his head, his shaggy hair swirling out in the currents of the dream-sea.
“Do you always ask strange questions of strangers?”
She blushed and looked around—anywhere but the man.
“You are clearly a Dreamwalker, and have some Talent I have not seen before, to quell the torment of the Dragomir,” she mused. “And yet . . .”
Turning to him, she leaped forward and landed close enough to see that his eyes were so dark that pupil and iris seemed to be all one.
“What is it,” he asked, inching backward, clearly wary.
“I wonder what—”
* * *
Nastaran woke shivering. She felt as though she’d been swimming, though her bed was warm and the blankets dry despite the chill in the air. As she stretched, she took a deep breath and considered her encounter, and whether she ought to report it.
I forgot to ask his name, she realized, slumping over and hiding her face in her hands. And I was so rude!
Nastaran shook herself out of her embarrassment. There was nothing to be done about it now. If they met again, perhaps . . .
That day, she salvaged usable timbers until early afternoon, then took a hike away into the narrow-ridged foothills to the north. They now ended abruptly in a raw new cliff high above the ravenous sea.
She reached the ridge just before Okothe began his descent from the swift-moving storm clouds that piled in the air like battlements. His membranous wings glowed like sullen embers in a sudden shaft of sunlight as he dropped from the air, claws reaching for the cliff.
“I can’t stay long with that storm brewing,” she said, breathless, and looked out at the horizon.
Okothe folded his wings back neatly and turned his long sinuous neck to look out across the troubled waters. “There is no danger in this,” he hissed, his fan-like ears quivering at full stretch. “The airs do not mingle as they hwould before a thunder-match among the hLost.”
Nastaran nodded, her heartbeat slowing after a long scramble along goat-paths. “Still,” she said, “I would prefer not to get drenched.”
Peering down at her, Okothe sighed, steam coming from his nostrils. “I forget how fragile hyou humans are.”
“As are you, in ways that we are not,” she said amiably as she sat down on the ground and pulled out her record book.
“Hwhat progress in the hwork?” asked Okothe, coming around to sit behind her. Nastaran suppressed a shiver and reminded herself that dragons didn’t eat humans, despite their teeth.
“Just two nights ago I sent a whole village home,” she said, and could not suppress a weary sigh.
Okothe growled deep in the back of his throat, molten umber eyes narrowing. “First General Azare’s deeds have caused much sorrow. There are many innocents whose blood cries out against he who sunk Shavarash.”
Nastaran looked out across the newly-formed sea. “There are.” Then, hesitating, she breathed deep and said, “Okothe . . . I met another Dreamwalker.”
“There are no others here,” Okothe rumbled. “If there hwere, you hwould not have been sent alone.”
“Not true, for I came upon a man walking in the Dragomir,” she countered, “and he has a Talent I’ve never seen before. With only a gesture, he brought the Dragomir to quiescence, as close to this—” she flicked her hand out at the water below, “—as the dreaming world can be.”
The dragon hummed. “The name of this Dreamwalker?”
“. . . I didn’t ask,” Nastaran said. “By his speech and looks he is Shavarashan.”
Okothe grumbled thoughtfully, but said nothing. Nastaran turned to look at him narrowly.
“How many?” she demanded. “How many have slipped through from Ryndari to the Dragomir?”
He was silent a long moment, the tip of his tail flicking over his claws like a cat’s. “Do you not know well?” he said at last. “Tis the other hway around.” His deep voice rumbled, an echo of the distant thunder. “A few from the Dragomir found passage to Shavarash.” His glowing eyes closed, and with a steamy sigh, Okothe whispered, “Such tales rarely end hwell.”
Nastaran bowed her head in tacit agreement, then finished her report. She did not return before the storm swept through.
* * *
Days passed, and nights, and Nastaran widened her search to the limits of her range, but she did not move on. Not yet. She’d found a swathe where the Dragomir had settled into its new shape, no longer tormented by fractured memory. It made her glad, for her own work was easier there.
A fortnight passed before she met the other Dreamwalker again. This time the Shavarashan noticed her first.
“Strange lady, wait,” said someone from behind, and she turned to see him walking among the broken remnants of an ash grove. He smiled hesitantly when she waited for him to approach.
“I was discourteous,” she blurted, at the same time he asked, “Why did you call me—?”
They both paused, and Nastaran chuckled, gesturing for him to continue.
“What is a Dreamwalker?” he asked.
She gestured to their surroundings. “A Dreamwalker may, by birthright, walk out of their own dreams and into the Dragomir, the dreaming world where all souls rest in sleep. I asked such strange questions when last we met because only those who have a parent from each realm may walk in both.”
His eyes widened, mouth opening. Nastaran waited until it was clear he would not speak.
“Will you walk with me?” she asked. “I would teach you more.”
He hesitated. “Why?”
“Dreamwalkers are rare,” she said. “And there is danger for those who walk the Dragomir unwary.”
“Danger?” the Shavarashan’s lips twisted disdainfully. “I know the dangers of this place. I am dangerous here.”
Nastaran looked up at him. “I daresay you are,” she said, taking in his size and the lean strength of his frame. “But do you understand why, or what the Dragomir is?”
After a long silent moment, he looked away from her and shook his head. “Teach me,” he mumbled.
Nastaran learned that his name was Talis, but he said nothing more of himself, content to ask her questions until it was nearly dawn. He promised to meet her again in the ruined ash grove the next night—was waiting there when she came to it.
“You said that there are three realms but only one world, and that the Dragomir is both a realm and the world’s dream,” Talis said, his brow furrowed. “You live in a different realm than me, so we cannot meet outside of dreams. But—Dreamwalkers are born from parents of different realms. Meetings must be possible, yes?”
Opening her mouth, Nastaran paused. There were deep secrets here, not hers to share. “They are possible,” she said carefully, “but such meetings rarely end well. The realms were created for souls of different strengths, and those who move from a lower realm to a higher often find it . . . difficult to adjust.”
Talis considered this. “You also said that the reason I can change the dreaming world is that I have a Talent?”
“Yes,” Nastaran said quickly. “Every soul has been given two Talents: one which changes your own perception of reality, the other giving power to influence the physical world. But in Dreamwalkers, the Talents mix with their blood-right gift in unpredictable ways.”
The Shavarashan eyed her. “How do you mean?” he asked.
She shrugged. “It differs for every Dreamwalker,” she said, “but in my case, my perceptive Talent is to share others’ memories. However, I must touch their soul, and I can only do that in the Dragomir.”
Talis pulled back involuntarily.
Nastaran frowned. “If a soul is unwilling, I cannot cross the bounds which are set! I would never delve into a living soul’s memory for—for mere curiosity. Would you?” She shuddered, and Talis looked down.
“I was rude,” he muttered. “I did not mean it so.”
Nastaran laughed weakly and the conversation turned to a discussion of Talis’ own Talent. She kept her distance, unwilling to frighten the wary Shavarashan away.
They walked together often from that night on, Talis dispelling the chaos of the Dragomir around them as Nastaran searched for lost souls wandering.
“It hurts you to send them on,” Talis observed after one such encounter.
Nastaran shook her head, hair flying in a ruddy cloud around her. “It’s not pain I feel,” she said, passing a hand across her face. “Not my own. But I remember final moments that are not mine, and —”
He looked around the broken remnants of a village now buried beneath the sea. “I think I understand. We are both trapped by memories not of our making. If only I could forget . . .”
Glancing at him, Nastaran was caught by the blankness of his eyes and dread crept softly into her heart.
She had asked Talis nothing of his past except his name, but it clearly cost him to set the Dragomir to rest, its new reality a burden he could hardly bear. And he was breaking.
At their next meeting, she told Okothe about her meetings with Talis.
“He hwishes he hwere Lost,” Okothe observed, and Nastaran bowed her head.
“I know,” she said, her voice low. “I know. Yet he continues to use his Talent, though it brings him nothing but sorrow. I do not understand.”
Okothe shrugged his mighty shoulders in a strangely human gesture—wings spreading, then resettling against his sides. “I cannot counsel you on human matters,” he rumbled, “for I understand them less than you yourself.”
Nastaran left despairing.
* * *
When she met with Talis again, she asked him, “Why do you set the Dragomir to rest, when it causes you such pain?”
He looked out at the desolate seabed. They stood beneath the skeleton of what had once been a mighty oak of many generations.
“There is nothing left for me in the waking world,” he said bleakly. “The sound of the sea haunts me, and yet I cannot leave its shores. Each night I find myself here, watching as the waves overtake me again and again.” Talis laughed, a dry bitter sound.
“I cannot bear the sight; I’d rather everything were drowned as when I wake, than watch it happen one more time. It is an agony for me to relive the coming of the waves, as it is to let them stay.”
Tilting her head back, Nastaran looked at the rippling of waves far above them, the faint light of the stars warped out of their constellations. Her throat closed against further speech.
The next night, Talis spoke not at all; Nastaran watched him walk through a grove of tall spreading beeches, their branches stripped bare, stark in the uncertain starlight undersea. His eyes were desolate, and when he turned to her at last he seemed to flicker weakly as if he were one of the wandering spirits she had been sent to guide. She did not know what guidance she might give to one so lost when she felt lost herself.
As always, she took refuge in the daylight hours, seeking to ground herself in the ordinary tasks she was given. It was three nights before she met Talis again.
At the furthest reaches of her searching, Nastaran came upon what must have been a settlement of farms, families living in clusters, spread in all directions. Even now, their sundered spirits kept close together, traveling in drifts like fireflies.
Nastaran reached out to one of the quavering forms, whispering, “Show me,” and sank into memory, fragmented perspectives made still more confusing as they converged.
Terror had overtaken them all the day before the waves claimed them, the King’s Hunt sweeping in like a harbinger of the flood. The men had been out in the fields when the wall of water came crashing through, and many of the women, waiting for the hunters to return, or not.
Nastaran showed them the way home, weeping as brother followed sister; mothers, children, with fathers close behind. She wept so hard that she didn’t notice exactly when the dreamscape around her turned from forest and field to a graveyard sea.
Talis stood before her, but his eyes were empty.
“T-Talis?” she gulped, smearing tears away as she shoved her wildly floating hair back behind her.
He showed no sign that he had heard, stood still as though rooted, looking through her as though she were not there. Slowly he paced to one of the ruined, quickly decaying houses, its stone foundation crumbling from the force of the waves upon it.
Then slowly, ever so slowly, he knelt before the threshold, prostrating himself with fingers formally crossed beneath his forehead.
Nastaran, who had followed him, suddenly felt that here was a private grief, one she should not intrude on. She began to turn away.
“. . . if only I had been strong enough,” she heard him murmur, before his voice sank so low that Nastaran could not hear it over her own heartbeat swelling in her ears. With sudden new understanding, the memories the drowned dead had shared with her were suffocating in their immensity.
To Nastaran, it seemed as if she had been set adrift in a sea of sorrows, unable to escape its hungry depths. She was drowning, crushed under the weight of pain not her own.
“Kirian,” she choked, sinking to her knees.
What troubles you?
It was a mild voice, more felt than heard. She looked up, relief flaring into panic.
Nastaran, it sounded, and was silent. Waiting.
Her head bowed to her chest, and Nastaran breathed his name once more, heart thundering.
Your cry is heard. What troubles you? he asked again. Not just a voice—a visitation.
Shaking her head, Nastaran felt tears begin to burn, unshed. She swallowed a few times before she spoke.
“I—I am sorry,” she said haltingly. “I did not mean to call you, lord.”
He was illumined with a remote inner light, bright as a star yet near enough to touch, if she’d dared.
You are weary, said Kirian. Though there was no one else to send, your appointed task lies heavy on you.
Nastaran bowed her head, rebuked, though his voice held no condemnation.
“I am weak; I cannot bear the burden of memory which the sundered souls have given me,” she said at last.
It is more than any mortal can bear, Kirian agreed, his straight dark brows drawing together. He turned to look at Talis, still prostrate before the threshold of his ruined house. And this Dreamwalker’s grief is as a wound unhealed. But sorrow for suffering is not weakness.
She stole a quick look at Talis, then lowered her eyes to her hands, which twisted together painfully tight, her fingers pale and bloodless. “He has much to grieve,” she mumbled, “and I know not how to ease his pain.”
Nastaran. Kirian waited until she looked up at him again. Of you it is not required to make all things right. Do you not remember? That price has already been paid; he must choose his own path.
“He is almost Lost,” Nastaran pleaded. “How—how can I keep him from losing his way?”
Be the burning beacon which lights the Way. See the sorrows before you. Forget not that joy which is their reward. As you guide others along the Way, remember that you must follow it yourself.
Looking over at Talis, Nastaran asked, “You mean for me to teach him the Way?”
Is it not given for the ascension of mankind? The Dreamwalker wanders purposeless. Give him something to strive for and he will heal, given time.
Taking a slow breath, Nastaran let it out slowly and bowed deep. “Thank you,” she said, and gave a single weak chuckle. “I . . . I will try. But I have no experience.”
All shall be well, Kirian assured her, his eyes tender as his mouth curved into a soft smile. His countenance, already bright, began to gather brilliance until Nastaran knew she would be blinded were she not dreaming. She blinked and Kirian was gone, and Talis was rising from the threshold of the ruined house.
He saw her kneeling there and came over to stand before her. “What is wrong?” he asked, the terrible emptiness of his grief displaced by mere mundane concern.
Nastaran rose, shaking her head. “All will be well,” she told him, “in time.”
“I wonder,” Talis muttered, casting a glance behind him.
“I sent them all on,” she said hurriedly. “Before you came. They are no longer trapped in that last terrible moment.”
She paused, swallowed, and asked, “Are you?”
Talis blinked. His face darkened, anger furrowing his brow. “It may be easy for the dead to forget,” he hissed, looming, “but what of the living?”
“But the dead do not forget,” said Nastaran, refusing to back away. “I take no memories; I only share the burden of them, for in sharing I lighten their load. Then they may fly free to the home which awaits them.”
After a moment of silence, Talis whispered, “Then they will . . . remember me?”
“Assuredly.” Nastaran gave him a hesitant smile, and though he did not return it, Talis no longer seemed devoid of feeling or filled with fury, but rather thoughtful.
“They will remember, but they can do no more. You, though—you have the chance to make your bonds with them more than mere memory.”
Talis’ eyes narrowed. “You speak of your Way.”
“Yes,” Nastaran confirmed. “Are you willing to walk it?”
“What of those you call the Lost?” he asked, turning aside from the subject.
Nastaran shook her head. “They forget all that made them human,” she stated. “They become mere vessels of power, controlled by that which they should have mastered.”
He turned away from her, head bowed, and said, “I have much to think on.”
“And I have work still to do,” said Nastaran, standing. “Will you come with me?”
Talis paused, then flicked a glance behind him. “I will,” he said. “Another night.”
Noting the tension in his stance, Nastaran sighed. “Certainly,” she said, and, “Thank you.”
* * *
The brink of despair
Is edged by slow-healing wounds
What price the abyss?
More days passed, and nights. She met with Talis often, and where they walked the Dragomir settled into its new shape and the trapped souls of those lost to the waves were set free. Slowly, the blankness in Talis’ eyes faded.
“I no longer wish to forget,” he said one night, and Nastaran let out a breath she felt she’d been holding since he had first wished so. The un-water of the Dragomir rippled with the force of her sigh, and Talis looked at her sidelong.
“I have been afraid that you were becoming Lost,” she admitted. “I have found . . . met them from time to time. It was not—not a comfortable experience.” She turned to him and studied his face. “What you would become, I cannot imagine,” she added, “but the Lost are ever alone. I would not wish that. I would not wish it on anyone else.”
Talis looked down at her silently until she turned away, an inexplicable shiver running through her.
At last, Nastaran reached the end of her work in the south-facing foothills of the borderlands. All the drowned dead were at rest, the Dragomir quiescent. She roamed restlessly, Talis at her side.
“You have finished your work here,” Talis observed as they paused beneath the bleached, bare branches of an oak.
Nastaran flicked a glance at him. “I have,” she said, “but there is more than a lifetime’s work still to be done elsewhere. Shavarash is—was—a large country, and many lived here.”
“And died here,” Talis added. Loneliness and grief still haunted him; he had yet to let go his burden of guilt.
She took a deep breath, then blurted out what she had stayed one final night to ask.
“Will you come with me?”
Talis gave her the same puzzled look he’d given when they first met. “We live in different realms,” he pointed out.
“I’m aware,” she said with exaggerated patience, then paused. “I phrased that badly.”
“What did you mean to say?” Talis asked, and Nastaran stared. She was almost sure that there had been a hint of stifled laughter in his question.
“We may not be able to travel together,” she said, looking down and fidgeting with her shirtsleeves, “but so long as we move in the same direction, we will still be able to meet in the Dragomir . . . continue to work together?”
He was silent for so long that Nastaran looked up, wondering if he had woken early for some reason.
Talis’ entire body was taut as a drawn bowstring, fists clenched, shoulders rigid as he looked out at the bones of the forest. She could almost hear him thinking, More pain in remembering, because you wish your own work eased?
“I was wrong to ask,” said Nastaran slowly. She fled to the waking world, her thoughtlessness choking any other words she might have said.
* * *
She traveled northward three days’ journey, across the foothills, hugging the dizzying drop into the sea. There she found a camp full of Shavarashan refugees. Their dreams were dark, their waking hours darker.
“There is nothing,” said one of the women, “nothing for us here or anywhere else. The Kiriothans have their own troubles. But where can we go? What can we do?”
Her eyes glinted large in her already starveling face, and Nastaran stood silent—for truly, there was nothing she could do to ease their suffering.
It was not long before she traveled on, unable to bear the unremitting anguish that hung like a pall in the air. It was almost better, thought Nastaran, for the dead. They had been swallowed in an instant by the ravening flood, and that single moment, shared, was enough to set them free. The living had been forced to bear the loss and continue on.
The memory of Talis’ sorrowful eyes came often to her; Nastaran shied away from it as a burning brand and tried to continue her work. The Dragomir’s fragmented memory mirrored her own as she took in ever more experiences from lost souls.
Where will the healer find healing? she wondered, as she sat and shivered one morning in the autumn frost—trying to remember herself, when all she could think of was the pain radiating from Talis’ soul when she had last spoken with him.
Slowly, she bowed her head to the ground, echoing the gesture that Talis had made at the threshold of his ruined house. “Forgive me, Kirian,” she groaned. “I who arrogantly sought to guide have instead led a man astray. Watch over him wherever he is. Keep him from harm.”
But hard as she tried, she could not trust that her prayer would be answered. She herself had caused Talis’ hurt, then run from it, too self-absorbed to mend what she had broken. The gods could work mighty miracles, but Nastaran knew painfully well that they could not take away the consequences of human error.
So she continued on, settling into a small community in the northern foothills where the mountains met the sea in a sheer forbidding cliff. Autumn’s harvest had ended and winter begun, far harsher than any in living memory. But the people of this hamlet welcomed her eagerly. Haunted by a Nightmare so glutted on broken souls that it had strength enough to wound unfortunate dreamers, they were willing to pay any price for safety.
Though Nastaran’s work was to guide souls, she had also been taught to defend them. The third night she slept there, predator became prey as she chased the Nightmare through the Dragomir until it cried for mercy. She bound it with strict oaths and sent it on its way.
Time would heal the wounds it had inflicted. Here, few of the drowned dead were within the range of a night’s dreaming—the forest had grown so deep and thick that it had been set aside for hunting. No one had been there when Shavarash sank, so there was little work to do.
Nastaran roamed the chaotic dream-realm of the Dragomir by night, restless with wishes she dared not utter.
* * *
One night she found a stretch of the Dragomir where there was no chaos of memory, and she waited there, expectant, fearful.
He came with the crashing waves, his tall form strangely sleek as he cut through the un-water that surrounded them. Nastaran did not recognize him at first, for he had become something other.
No longer did despair deaden his eyes; instead they were pure liquid darkness, inhuman. His hair swirled like seaweed about a mask—no, not a mask: his face was covered with delicate scales, and tucked beneath frilled ears, gills fluttered in his neck, torso narrowing to a tail and fins instead of hips, legs, feet.
“Lost,” Nastaran whispered as Talis paused in his course, flicking a glance at her. “How did it come to this?”
But he was not totally immune to curiosity, for he stretched out a webbed hand to catch at the ruddy cloud of her hair that swirled in the illusory water around them. Nastaran looked into his glittering eyes and stretched out her own hand, fitting palm to palm, his large enough to enfold hers.
“Will you allow me to see what led you down this path?” Nastaran asked slowly, keeping eye contact with this strange new creature that had once been Talis. She didn’t know if he understood human speech still.
His hand clenched around hers, and his eyes widened, darker than the sunless depths of the sea. And Nastaran remembered what she had never known.
* * *
Talis had fled to Kirioth only hours before the cataclysm, pursued by the war-dogs of the Third General. He’d done his best to draw the attention of the General’s army away from his kin, for they were reputed to indulge in cruel sport with all unable or unwilling to join their ranks. When he finally lost the pursuit, he’d turned back. From the mountains of Kirioth, Talis had watched as the earth tore itself apart just moments before the waves came roaring over forest and farm. Indeed, he had nearly died himself as the mountains were shaken to their foundations.
Too late, Nastaran heard, a lament that ran like a thread through all his memories from that moment on. Everlastingly too late . . .
He’d wanted to die or to forget, yet could not bear to leave the shores of the drowned land, grieving wildly for his kin. He was drawn into the tormented, fractured memories of the Dragomir, watching the waves overcome his homeland, all around him consumed by the graveyard deep. Endlessly the shattering of his world was repeated—each night, every dream.
I’d rather everything were drowned forever, he’d thought. Finding the rift between memory and truth, he’d mended it, and the waves rushed in upon him one last time before the dreaming world stilled.
Though it brought him no peace, Talis had thrown himself into this strange new work with near-frenzied pace, like one who reopens a wound to feel pain—to feel anything; he still feared the numbing grasp of forgetfulness more than the wound-throb of memory. Even as he laid the memories of the Dragomir to rest, his own he kept raw by battling the chaos each night.
Why? How could you bear to continue like that? Nastaran wondered, bewildered by the torrent of conflicted, conflicting feelings that swept around her as she shared Talis’ remembrances.
Want to forget, cannot forget, must remember, cannot bear to remember . . .
And then Nastaran saw herself, red-gold hair flying in the strange un-water of the Dragomir. A faint light of stars was about her, and there was wonder in her eyes.
In that moment, Talis had forgotten his anguish for a time; in its place grew curiosity, for in all his wandering he had never yet seen another living soul in the dreaming world except the strange dream-creatures that sometimes crossed his path.
Seeing their meetings from his perspective made Nastaran’s cheeks burn. She relived her ill-considered words and clumsy attempts to draw Talis out of his self-destructive state, and saw him slowly edge back from the abyss.
Until . . . until their final meeting, when she had fled, her courage only so much after all.
Nastaran flinched, wishing she could pull back from this one moment, but need spurred her on.
“I must know,” she said aloud, and her grip tightened against the grip of the Lost one’s slick webbed fingers. “What did I do to you, Talis? Was it I that drove you to lose yourself?”
The Lost one’s hand clenched, and Nastaran remembered.
“Will you come with me?” asked Nastaran, and Talis stared.
“We live in different realms,” he said, for she’d told him as much herself.
“I’m aware,” she said, exasperated. “I phrased that badly.”
Talis felt his lips twitch. “What did you mean to say?” he asked, surprised at his own amusement.
“We may not be able to travel together,” said Nastaran, looking down as she grew uncharacteristically fidgety, “but so long as we move in the same direction, we will still be able to meet in the Dragomir . . . continue to work together?”
That was when Talis realized two things. He could not bear never to meet Nastaran in the waking world. And he would never do so.
The thought staggered him, for immediately following was an awful clarity of thought. How painful would it be to meet but never touch? Yet how much worse never to have met? He tensed as though to receive a long-anticipated blow.
And then Nastaran looked up at him, saw something in his face that made her cry out, “I was wrong to ask.”
Before he could react, she disappeared.
Talis searched recklessly far to find her, spent his nights, consumed his days in restless waiting. At last he was forced to admit that she had gone, and there would be no more meetings.
Despairing, he loosed his hold on the raw power within himself, the Talent that Nastaran had explained so carefully to him. The loss of that which he had barely found, added to what he had already lost, was too much to bear. If everyone I love is to be taken from me, better to forget how to love.
* * *
“Fool,” Nastaran whispered miserably as she drooped, her forehead touching the back of his hand. “But which of us is the more foolish? I also—I didn’t—I assumed that I knew what you were thinking, instead of asking.”
She laughed bitterly. “And now a mere apology is even less able to right what has gone wrong. Yet . . .”
Nastaran looked up. “Forgive me my failure to ask what troubled you,” she pleaded. “I should have when I had the chance. Instead, I fled, fearing to give you the truth.”
Taking a deep breath, she whispered, “I wished you to come with me in order to make my work easier . . . that was what I told myself, and felt guilty for making such a selfish request. But that was not what I truly wished.
“I—I had hoped to keep you close, so that perhaps we might someday meet in the waking world.”
Nastaran swallowed the rest of the words that threatened to spill out as she lowered her eyes. What good would they do now? Talis was Lost.
Slowly, the Lost one reached out with his other hand and caught her chin, raising it until she looked him in the eye. She stared into his inhuman face, fascinated, as his grip slowly tightened to the point of pain. Letting out a tremulous breath, Nastaran held his gaze until his black eyes slid away and he released her.
* * *
Nastaran woke with a gasp, half-expecting to meet the Lost one’s gaze once more, but she was alone.
She was clumsy and slow about her daily chores. Always before, she had taken refuge from the night in the toil of day, but now her meeting with the Lost one consumed her.
It was a sennight until her next meeting with Okothe, and waking or sleeping, Nastaran could not erase the memory of the Lost one’s eyes. She had looked deep into those black wells, and seen not even a hint of what had once been Talis.
Though the day was cruelly cold and the wind from the new-formed sea cut through her like a flurry of blades, Nastaran climbed to the highest cliffs. Okothe waited there, hunched so tightly around himself that he seemed merely part of the landscape.
He unfurled a little when she put a tentative hand on his neck. Cold as it was, Okothe was warm enough to make her frozen fingers burn.
“Hwhy have hyou come to such a remote place?” he asked, looking down at her with narrowed eyes. “Surely there hwere few who lived here even before the flood?”
Averting her eyes, Nastaran said, “I . . . have found the limit of my strength of late, Okothe. And I cannot travel in this weather, so I am taking my rest here for a season.”
Okothe hummed softly. “Hwhat else?” he asked.
“There was a Nightmare here,” she said. “And . . . I made a mistake, which I must amend.”
The dragon waited, still and silent, as Nastaran gathered her thoughts, slowly shifting closer as his heat overcame her natural caution. She explained Talis’ transformation, and the memories he had shared.
“Is it impossible to restore the Lost?” Nastaran asked, folding her arms as she shivered—from cold or softly held hope, she could not tell.
Okothe regarded her for a long, long moment, his umber eyes bright. “Kirian’s charge is to guide lost souls,” he said at last. “All lost souls.”
“I have a message from Kirian,” Okothe interrupted, and Nastaran closed her mouth and waited.
“He says, ‘redemption cannot be given to those unwilling to receive it—and hyou, Nastaran, will find forgiveness only when hyou seek it.’”
Nastaran bowed her head. “I don’t understand,” she admitted, “but I will think on it.”
* * *
Through the winter, the Lost one crossed paths with her frequently. Most often, his blank black eyes slid over her as he passed. Sometimes he stopped to watch her.
Once she held out her hand. He pressed his own to it as he had before, a sort of greeting. Nastaran remembered all that the Lost one had shared of Talis’ memories, and her heart clenched.
I wish I could make amends, she thought, and, oh. So that is what Kirian meant.
She puzzled over how she might seek forgiveness from one who was Lost. One night as the wind blew soft and almost warm, Nastaran walked through the sea-scoured remains of the wildwood. She turned at a sound and saw a now familiar figure swimming through the un-water of the Dragomir, twisting gracefully to avoid the ensnaring tangle of dead branches.
Like a wild thing, the Lost one sensed her gaze and stilled, turning its inhuman eyes on her, those eyes of well-deep black. Carefully, Nastaran moved toward the Lost one.
“I—I beg your pardon,” she said, coming to stand before the Lost one, whose tail waved gently in the water. Slow, soft, Nastaran knelt, looking up at him. How could one ask forgiveness, or give it, when one could not speak, the other could not understand?
“My Talent is of no use here,” Nastaran said, a bitter chuckle welling from her throat. “After all, I already know what happened to you. It does me no good to—share—”
Struck by a thought, she reached out a hand impulsively, and the Lost one fitted his own against it. The gills in his neck flared wide.
“Whatever you wish to know,” she whispered, “ask for it and I will try to give it to you. I owe you that much.”
Reversing the flow of memories was difficult; she had done it only rarely, and certainly never with one who was Lost. But she persisted, her thoughts turning to the moments she had shared with Talis.
Their first meeting—her awkward questions, and subsequent embarrassment at their second meeting. Her growing fascination with him.
The fear she had held for Talis as he clung to his sorrows.
Kirian’s answer to her distress.
Nastaran allowed the Lost one to see the hopes she had harbored, the misunderstandings caused by her firm belief that she understood him, the sorrow for the pain she had caused him. Soon, it seemed that their perspectives met and melded, and each was part of a still larger whole.
Indeed, I had not thought to share my own burden of memory, she thought, surprised. The strain she’d borne up under for so long began to lift as understanding grew between them.
At last, their shared memory reached the final moment. Nastaran’s hasty interpretation of Talis’ expression merged with his sudden realization, and as Nastaran looked into the Lost one’s inhuman eyes, she thought she saw a flicker of surprise run across his face. Breaking away, the Lost one arched into a somersault and whirled upward through the stark, stripped branches of the thicket.
“Wait!” Shaken by the sudden loss of contact, Nastaran was too slow to prevent his leaving. Panic surged through her. I thought he was beginning to understand, she thought as she lurched through the grasping undergrowth, trying to keep pace with the ever-more-distant figure of the Lost one. I thought I was beginning to understand!
She followed, tearing through the forest like a hunted hind—or perhaps the hound that hunted. At the edge of her range, the Lost one paused.
“What—what is this place?” she asked, bewildered.
Before her rose an edifice of red stone. It had clearly been damaged by the flood, its towers tumbled, its windows empty and staring—yet still it retained something of its former glory.
The Lost one flicked its tail, waiting on the threshold before warped double doors, intricately carved of dark wood. She walked forward and peered inside. The faint light of the stars did not penetrate the murk.
Nastaran followed the Lost one inside, feeling her way like one struck blind. The faint movement before her was her only clue to the Lost one’s whereabouts.
“What are we doing here?” she asked aloud. “What am I doing here?”
A webbed hand grabbed hers, slick and strong. She stumbled in the direction it pulled her—up stairs to the second floor, where a little more light came through the windows—and the gaping holes in the ceiling. The Lost one led her through what had once been a high-vaulted apse. Once they reached the altar, miraculously untouched amid the destruction, the Lost one stopped. Enfolding her hand with both of his, the Lost one waited.
Timidly, Nastaran reached out in memory, and the Lost one responded in kind, impressions mingling. It was easier now, and Nastaran bowed her head as she relived the moment when she had fled.
“You thought me strong,” she whispered, “but I am weak as ever a mortal could be. Forgive me.”
Light flared red beneath her closed eyelids, and she opened them in shock.
A flame burned on the altar, bright as a star come down to earth. The Lost one’s hands tightened on hers, but he did not turn away. His head sunk to his breast, hair swirling around him, hiding his face. Then he looked up at the pillar of impossible flame, and his mask-like face stretched into a smile, row on row of teeth filling his mouth, delicate scales wrinkling at the corners of his eyes.
Nastaran stared at the fire on the altar, and saw at its blue-white heart a face she knew well.
“Kirian,” she breathed.
Forgiveness has been sought and granted by the one whose was the hurt, he said. Seek no further for redemption.
Nastaran turned to the Lost one and stood soundless, for his eyes were slowly changing, white creeping back into their corners, iris and pupil turning the black of Talis’ own eyes. She glanced down at his hands holding hers; the fingertips had flushed a human hue once more, the scales receding more and more quickly.
“How?” she asked, amazed, pulling away to stare as the rapid changes revealed Talis’ true form once more, now clothed in tattered rags. His dark eyes were dazed, eyebrows twisted in confusion.
“What happ—why are you—where, where are we?”
Talis looked around, and his gaze stopped on the flame above the altar. He took a step back on newly restored feet, turning to Nastaran.
“Wha—what?” he stuttered as he glanced warily at Kirian.
Nastaran’s smile was wide enough that her cheeks twinged. “Talis,” she said, and stretched out a hand. “Talis, shall I show you what you missed?”
Hesitantly, Talis reached out, and Nastaran’s most recent memories—the Lost one’s webbed hand reaching for hers, his flight to the abandoned temple, Kirian’s words, the Lost one’s transformation back into Talis—all rushed through her in a joyous jumble.
“I was Lost?” he blurted as her recollections ended. Nastaran nodded. “The last thing I remember was—” He paused and looked down at their clasped hands, and Nastaran watched, fascinated, as his ears turned scarlet.
“—Was searching for you,” he said at last.
“I am sorry that I left,” Nastaran told him, her mood turning somber. “—I was foolish, and afraid, and . . .” This time, she was the one who blushed.
They looked at each other awkwardly, hand-in-hand. Nastaran turned to glance at Kirian, who was smiling at them, amused.
Show him, Kirian urged. Teach him the Way. His smile turned knowing, and he added, Walk it together.
Nastaran was sure her face was aflame, and not from Kirian’s radiance.
“Am I still able to follow your Way, having fallen so far?” asked Talis.
As you were restored to humanity, so you may continue to ascend, if it is your will, said Kirian. Nastaran will show you.
With that, Kirian left them, and Talis turned back to Nastaran.
“What did he mean?” he asked, all his attention suddenly centered on her.
Nastaran gaped. “Uh—um,” she stammered, biting her lip as she looked down, then away, taking a deep breath that shuddered through her sleeping body’s lungs.
“Why did you ask me to walk the Dragomir at your side?” he persisted, hand clenching around her own.
Slowly, Nastaran looked him in the eye once more. “I’d hoped that someday we might find a way to meet,” she said, “. . . meet in the place where only those who have ascended by the Way may go.”
“Is that so?” asked Talis quizzically, tilting his head.
Nastaran’s lips curved into a wondering smile. “I hadn’t thought it possible, but you are no longer Lost.” She reached out as if to trace Talis’s cheek—stopped just short. “Forgive me?” she asked again.
Talis bit his lip and tangled a hand in her wild hair, letting it play out between his fingers. “You left,” he said.
“I found you, though I was Lost.”
“I already tried giving up,” Talis told her.
“I noticed,” she replied drily.
“I won’t again,” he said, his fingers weaving through hers. “If there is even the smallest chance that we might meet, I will seek it out.”
Nastaran watched him carefully. “You do not fear me anymore,” she observed.
“How could I fear the one whose sorrow restored me?” asked Talis, a crooked smile spreading across his face. “I would have remained Lost if our paths had not crossed. If you had not pursued me.”
“You might not have become Lost in the first place,” Nastaran felt compelled to point out.
Talis said nothing, but his lips twisted skeptically.
Here in the ruins of a forgotten temple, the Dragomir was still and silent, and Kirian’s radiance was slowly fading. Looking at one another, they turned to leave.
“I am a broken vessel,” said Talis, as they walked out the warped front doors together. “I cannot contain all the sorrows I have seen.”
“If you are a broken vessel, then what am I?” asked Nastaran. “My work is to share the burden of remembrance with souls that have lost their way, to help them walk paths I have not trod. I am filled to overflowing with memory not my own, so much that I scarcely remember who I truly am.”
She paused, and Talis waited.
“I want to walk beside you here,” she said at last. “I want you to walk with me in the waking world. Help me learn how to lift your burdens, as you have done with mine.”
“If you are willing,” said Talis, settling his palm against hers as he smiled tentatively. “Walk with me now?”
“Certainly. Until we meet in truth.”
Pilgrims meet in dreams
Broken, but still enduring
Lost, found, remembered.