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Fiction: A Change of Seasons

Books & Writing, Culture, Short Fictions

October 13, 2017

The old man leaned on the bridge’s railing, watching the end of September be the end of September – melancholy and wet and above all, indecisive.

“Neither one thing nor the other,” his sister Jan would say, “Too cold to swim and too hot to ski, no oomph to it!”

He had always considered this somewhat unfair. After all, September is an equinox month, and you can’t balance two opposite truths without something breaking. Or was that how balancing eggs on the equinox was an urban myth, that is, a lie? Something about truth and lies and breaking eggs anyway; it was getting harder to remember.

He turned away from watching the stream below and caught sight instead of a bus pulling away from a nearby stop. The back of it was taken up by a travel agency ad exhorting him to see the world. He was just reflecting how after thirty or forty times even that gets old when the running girl plowed into him and bounced off.

She fell backward, splayed out, onto the slushy sidewalk; all her things went straight up, and when it came back down – in the slow-motion way disasters pretend to have about them – her coffee splattered into a tragic puddle all around the old man’s feet. She stared up at him in shock; old he was, but not small, easily six foot four with shoulders like a sheltering oak tree and a huge white beard that would be the envy of any streetcorner Santa. He was dressed in a tweed suit and wool coat at the height of fashion for 150 years ago, and despite leaning on a cane had felt as solid as a wall.

“Oh dear me, I am so very sorry. Are you all right, my dear?” he said, reaching a huge hand to help her up.

“My bus!” she said, in tones of deep anguish, then took the hand and climbed to her feet. She stared after the retreating bus for a moment (“Key Largo? Montego? Isn’t it time you go?”) then sighed. “No… look, I’m sorry. I was trying to catch the bus, didn’t look where I was going – hey, are you okay?”

The old man grinned. “Yes, I am fine.” Then he sniffed the air. The spilled coffee was producing non-coffee-like smells he mostly associated with pie at the end of a holiday feast.

“Damn it anyway. Mud. October can’t get here fast enough.”

His eyebrows shot up. “Really?”

“Yeah. Of course. Real fall. Leaves and a chill of winter and Halloween, not just this… wet.”

He paused for a moment. “If you are not still in a hurry, I would very much like to buy you a coffee to replace the one that met its end because of my untimely presence.”

“Oh no, I couldn’t do that! It was my fault anyway!”

“Grant an old man a moment of generosity? At my age, there’s no knowing if it may be the last one.”

“If… if you’re really sure… and there won’t be another bus for almost an hour… well, all right then.” She stuck out her hand. “I’m Sera, by the way.”

He clasped her hand gently in his. “I am pleased to know you, Sera.”

Soon they were seated together in a coffee shop not far from the site of their impactful first encounter, holding identical paper cups with identical beverages inside.

The old man sipped his with something of an air of fascination. “This is a ‘pumpkin spice latte’, you said? But it has no pumpkin…”

Sera smiled. “No, just the spices that get used on pumpkin. There’s a lot of stuff you can get like that now. It’s either a celebration of fall or a desperate fad for nutmeg and allspice, depending who you ask.” She leaned in conspiratorially. “And I’ll tell you a little secret: I love all of them. Even the dollar-store candles. My friends think I lose my mind every year, but… I can’t help it! October especially is my month. Fall just fills me with… with… I don’t know.”

The old man’s eyebrows rose. “Wonder, perhaps?”

“Yeah! Wonder. That’s it.”

He chuckled. “Wonderful! I was like that too, a long long time ago. I suppose my job just drains it out of one.”

“Oh yeah? What do you do?”

“I am… a public servant. Yes, that is the way to put it. I organize and arrange things. Very seasonal work.”

Sera took a sip. “Wow. I can see how that could get monotonous. Almost as bad as my job! Office assistant at a shipping accounting firm. Ugh.”

“Oh, things changed. Things changed a great deal, especially in the last few years.”

“Mm. The Internet can be hard to keep up with.”

“No, no. I have no dealings with that. I mean things like this.” He held up his latte as though it was, personally, the source of all his problems. “Modern things, strange things. I used to know my name meant something, and I suppose it must do still, but I don’t always know what.”

“Your name. I don’t think I caught it?”

He paused a moment, deciding how best to answer this, and went for the blunt truth.

“I am October,” said October.

“Oh, like how The Saint sometimes went by August? I didn’t even know that was ever a people name!”

“To my knowledge, it is not.”

Sera squinted at him, suddenly worried she’d gone to coffee with an escaped asylum inmate. October just regarded her mildly with his inscrutable storm-blue eyes and let her stare at him. A few hairs caught Sera’s eye, and she suddenly knew with certainty that the old man’s white hair and beard had once been the brilliant red-gold of sunlight shining through autumn leaves.

“My dear, It has been my job for two hundred years to make the proper arrangements for my time of the year, to arrange the ripening of the harvest and the first snowflakes of winter yet to come. September is my brother, prim and proper but desperately indecisive and mercurial.”

The girl slowly pushed her chair back. “Oooookay then, I’ve definitely got to get going, thanks for the coffee, see you later, and so on…”

October made no move to get up or bar her way. “Yes, it does sound rather crazy, does it not? I said much the same myself two hundred years ago.”

The sensible part of Sera’s mind, the part that had suggested that stopping for a latte on her way to catch an inconsistent bus might have been a bad idea, watched in horror as the rest of her pulled the chair back in. Something about this old man was tugging at the parts of her that were still six years old and jumping in leaf piles, the parts that still felt, deep down, that ‘magic’ wasn’t just a word for stage men with decks of cards and no fashion sense.

“Only two hundred years? What about before then? There had to have always been a… a tenth month, hadn’t there?” she said.

“The October before me had been a sailor and still looked it, with a great red brocade coat and a huge handlebar mustache you could hang a shovel from. Still red. He told me the one before him was a crusader, both harsh and just, but, of course, I did not meet him.” He chuckled. “There has always been an October, my dear, but surely you can see October of, say, 1965, would be very different from that of 1720, and neither of them at all like the one in 1012. Times change, and time changes with them. To my knowledge, there has been only one thing October has always been: a redhead.”

Sera unconsciously rubbed the back of her head. Her hair was a layering of dark blues and turquoises, but her natural color was indeed dark copper. “Why are you telling me this? You know this sounds ridiculous, right?”

October took a long sip of his coffee. When he met Sera’s gaze again, it was with an expression of deep sadness. “I know. Of course, once upon a time, the notion of the Earth orbiting the sun, or of maladies caused by minuscule creatures also sounded ridiculous. Yes, yes, I know, it is not the same thing. I have not spoken of the work to anyone but my brothers and sisters in ages; I do not care to be looked at like a madman.”

“Your brothers and sisters?” Sera broke in, “As in… May, August… months?”

“Indeed. It is a strange family that comes and goes. My sister May is a gentle soul, older again than me; August is new, and he is a dark, dour boy who I fear thinks too much of the power of the ever hotter sun. As for why I am telling you, surely you must have figured it out. We do not age like mortals, but we age when time begins to pass us by… and I fear I am very much at the end of my days. I used to preside over the great harvest and folk preparing for winter; now the harvests and the feasts are unconnected and the changing climate means I am not entirely certain what October will even be ten years hence. I simply do not understand, and I am too old and tired to learn this much-too-fast world. So I have been looking for a successor.”

“Me?”

He nodded.

“Were you waiting for me? Have you been watching me??”

“Not at all, not at all. I have known you no longer than you have known me, about forty-three minutes. But when we met, without knowing who or what I was, you told me of your love of fall.”

He grinned. “And you told me October was your month.”

Sera stared at him. This had gone well beyond ‘crazy’ and into ‘call the police’, but still she sat. “What… if I say no?”

“I bid you a good day, and continue my search with a heavier heart.”

“Will I remember any of this?”

“I presume so. Perhaps the tale of introducing a crazy old man who thinks he is a month to pumpkin spice lattes will serve to entertain your friends.”

“And what if…” Sera said, ignoring the screaming in the sensible part of her mind, “what if I say yes?”

October smiled and, just for a moment, laid one of his gnarled old hands on hers. “I believe you just did.”

The girl blinked and looked around. She was alone, with no sign that the old man had ever been there, not even his coffee cup. She rubbed her face. “Oookay, this is a thing that happened? Come on. Get it together. You don’t need to be hallucinating in public. And you do need to catch a bus.”

She grabbed her things and hurried out of the coffee shop. When she brushed against the coffee shop’s corporately-approved bushes, some of the leaves began to turn red, but in her hurry she did not notice this, nor the way a chill in the air began to follow her, nor even how her hair had somehow returned to its natural colors. There would be time enough to notice these things when it was her month.

After all, the one thing October always was, was a redhead.

 

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518

Fiction: Take You Home

Books & Writing, Culture, Short Fictions

July 13, 2017

Beyond the end of the world, the end of all the worlds, is a place where they all meet. All manner of creatures and beings come here; it is a place of refuge, of shelter from the storm. And there is always a storm somewhere.

On the seaside Red Cliffs where the gryphons built their aerie, storms are all too common, from the light showers of summer to the harsh monsoons of wet winter. But the cliffs gave them shelter, and the ocean gave them food, and the proud gryphon folk desired little else.

One particularly dark and cold winter, soon after dawn on the shortest day, there blew up a storm more terrible than any in living memory. The sky blackened like midnight, the waves frothed and beat against the red granite, and the strongest and smartest of the gryphons’ warriors and hunters exhausted themselves keeping the aerie’s nests safe and secure. The storm lasted three days and three nights, the heavens themselves shattered by lightning and thunder, and when dawn the final day finally brought calm, the gryphons patrolled their beach to see what havoc the sea had wrought.

There were fish and creatures well known to them washed ashore, which they gathered to eat, and the remains of their beach shelters washed away. Corals and shells from the briny deep lay scattered about, as well as bits of wreckage and debris from constructions made by some unknown hands. And there was the girl.

The gryphons of the Red Cliffs had never seen such a creature. Nor indeed had they ever seen a human, or else they would have deemed her to be like them, slender and clad in a garment of shimmering sea green, but unlike humans her pale blue skin bore the outlines of soft scales, and webbing stretched between her digits as well as between the spines of the fins on the backs of her arms and legs. They gathered, concerned, and sought the elders’ advice on what to do about her.

“Cast it back to the waves. It is no problem of ours,” said one elder. “Put it with the bounty of the storm, we shall feast upon it,” said another. “Kill it and bury it with haste, lest it attract more of its kind,” said a third. They and the others argued about how best to dispose of the creature, when a voice boomed over all of them, “NO.”

They turned and there stood the one called Yalos, eldest son of the chief, and regarded in all things a wise elder of the clan despite his youth. “Have you not listened to the tales? This is not a fish, nor merely some deeper animal. We must show compassion, lest in our haste and greed we commit a grave sin.”

The gryphons scoffed. How could this be anything but an animal? Did it not lack feathers and beak as well as tail and hindclaws? Such a thing could be nothing better than the bounty of the sea, and nothing worse than a pest. But Yalos stood over the creature and drove the others back with wings, claws, and beak. They hissed at him. “You may be our Prince, but that does not give you leave to break our traditions!” spat an Elder, the one who had wished to eat her.

In ones and twos they left, voicing their disdain, and when Yalos was again alone on the beach a soft voice spoke from between his legs: “You have faced your own kind… for me? Why?”

The gryphon stepped aside and peered down into the now wide open pale blue eyes of the girl from the sea. That she spoke his language surprised him, but that she spoke at all did not, for he had listened to the tales. “The right thing to do is that no matter who it is for. I am called Yalos, Prince of the Red Cliffs. May I have your name?”

The girl hesitated, then sat up. “I am Nehelennia of the Waves. And I think… I am lost. Where are these cliffs?”

Yalos indicated the tall cliffs of granite and clay that ran along the beach, but he understood her deeper meaning. “The Mourning Mountains lie further north, the forest we have not named lies further inland to the west. All else is The Sea.”

“The stars, the stars. I must see the stars…” Nehelennia said, though it was not a reply. She pushed on the beach, trying to stand, but was unable.

“Hush,” said the gryphon, shaking his head. “You have been injured in the storm. Rest here; I will bring you food.”

Nehelennia began to protest, but Yalos had already flown off. The prince was as good as his word, and over the following days cared for the nereid, for that is what she was, as though she was his own chick. And each night, as the black velvet sky shone with stardust, she became sadder and sadder.

“Why do you cry when you see the stars?” Yalos asked one such night.

“I am lost,” she replied, “This is not the sky of my home.”

“It is the only sky,” said the gryphon with some confusion.

“No. It is but one of many. When the storms between the worlds blow, they cross from sky to sky, and the storms…. they took me, years ago. I have been alone ever since, and do not think I will again see the sky over the Brightwater.”

And with that, she placed her face in her hands and wept sea foam.

Yalos’ heart broke for her, though he did not understand this talk of other worlds. He wrapped a wing around her in comfort and said, “Then let your loneliness at least be eased. I will take you home.”

The nereid shook her head. “No, you cannot! Even I do not know the way.”

“We shall find it together,” said he. “By the Egg of the Sun, I will take you home.”

Nehelennia protested further, but it was to no avail. A gryphon’s promise is neither given nor broken lightly, and a prince’s even more so. A fortnight had not yet passed when she dove into the waves to once again seek her home, and when she did so Yalos took wing and followed overhead.

A gryphon is a strong creature, and Yalos was both strong and wise, but they are not normally users of magic. A nereid, contrariwise, is formed of the magic found in the hidden depths. Nearby, water and ice moved as she directed it, and each night of their journey as the sun sank and Yalos’ wings tired from flight, she would make a pan of ice and there they would both spend the night, he curled upon it and she bobbing upon the waves.

Days passed. Nehelennia seemed to know where she was going, but each night when Yalos asked if they were drawing nearer, she would simply reply, “This is still not my sky.” Just as the gryphon was beginning to wonder what they sought, the girl pointed excitedly at the horizon. There, a huge storm was gathering against the darkening sky.

“That is the storm between worlds! We must… I must go to it!” said she.

“What? Go into the storm? We will be killed!” Yalos squawked.

“I must!” Nehelennia insisted. “You do not have to. Return to your people.”

Yalos shook his head. “I cannot. We are too far – but that does not matter. I have not fulfilled my oath.”

The argument would no doubt have continued, but no storm moves as fast as the one between the worlds, and it struck them as they spoke! The gryphon struggled, beating his wings hard and dodging the flashes of lightning and the worst downdrafts, as did the nereid, fighting to maintain control as the waves began to rise and tower nearly the height of the Red Cliffs themselves!

Nehelennia was losing the battle for control. A creature of the sea, she could not drown, but neither could she control where she was thrown. The waves buffeted and threw her about until, with a sudden jerk, she was yanked upward into the storm instead. Yalos had scooped her from the foam.

Traveling upwards within the clouds, both beheld a sight they had never seen before: as the clouds roiled and broke, between them snatches of land and sea could be seen – but not the sea they left. Worlds mundane and exotic flashed past, until finally the nereid pointed and yelled “THERE!”

Yalos threw them both through the gap without thinking about what he was doing, and suddenly the storm was gone. Instead, they floated above a calm green sea, with islands on the horizon.

“What has happened?” the gryphon asked, amazed.

“The storm between worlds, dear Yalos. We have crossed,” the nereid replied.

She looked around, and a smile began to spread on her face.

Yalos looked at her. “Is… is this your sky?”

“It is not… but it is one I have seen before. Perhaps we can follow the trail backwards. Through the storms.”

Thus began the hardest time in the gryphon prince’s life. Through storms and strife, barren worlds and worlds rife with deadly creatures, the two of them traveled, always seeking out the Storm Between Worlds when it touched down. With Yalos’ wings, they were able to choose between the worlds they glimpsed among the stormclouds, rather than being at the mercy of the waves to toss them through as Nehelennia had once been. Still, it was nearly a year and a half by Yalos’ reckoning when finally their journey came to an end.

They passed through the storm to a foggy world with no clear horizon, and touched down gently upon the waves. The fog bank proved to be nothing more than mist and blew away, and when it did, Nehelennia looked up and shrieked with delight.

“Look! The Dancers! The Anglerfish! The Waterspout! See the stars, Yalos? We are finally here! This is my sky!”

The gryphon smiled and flew a grand loop in celebration. With the familiar stars overhead, it was only one more night before Nehelennia directed them both to a lagoon surrounded by a reef – a lagoon within the sea. “This is the Brightwater. This is the place where I was born, and where my family…” She trailed off and watched him land.

Yalos settled down on a reef to rest. “Good, good. If this is the place, then you are home. I am glad. Allow me to rest here a short time, and I will… be on my way.”

They looked at one another, and at the same time realized what Yalos had done. He had crossed the storms, driven to keep his oath, and come as far from his home across as many worlds as Nehelennia had been when they first met. Nehelennia, for her part, looked about the deserted Brightwater and realized that she had not been the only one swept up.

Yalos put his head down on his forelimbs. “I cannot deny it. I am lost. But you are home now, my oath is fulfilled, and with guidance of the Egg I may yet find my way home.” He closed his eyes and shuddered, thinking of the journey ahead.

Nehelennia hopped up and sat beside him upon the reef. “You have shown me a greater kindness than I ever imagined. You have taken me across the worlds, and kept me safe, and never once thought of your own journey home.”

She laid a hand on the feathers of his head and stroked gently. It was the first time they had touched for a reason other than the necessities of the journey. “Let your fear be eased. By the Dancers on the Deep… I will take you home.”

The gryphon began to protest, but it was as futile as her own had been before. When Yalos left the reef, Nehelennia came with him, and together they plunged once again into the storms.

That is them there, as you may have guessed. Even in a place such as this, a gryphon is a rare sight, and it is hard to miss the blue maiden of the sea. You may wonder how they came here; why, they came as most do, blown in from the storm. And they have stayed, for one very important reason.

They did not tell each other at first that they were alone. Yalos’ actions on Nehelennia’s behalf earned him, if not the status of an exile, at least the status of an insubordinate, and among the Gryphons of the Red Cliffs that is nearly the same thing. Nehelennia’s home had been devastated by the storm, much more than she had known before her return; all that she had known was gone, and the work to rebuild would be great indeed.

But the reason they stayed was to keep their promises. For neither had promised to bring the other to a place, but rather promised to bring them home – and after the trials they had faced together, for each of them, ‘home’ could be anywhere…

As long as that is where the other is.

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284

Fiction: Dearly Beloved

Books & Writing, Culture, Short Fictions

June 13, 2017

Beyond the end of the world, the end of all the worlds, is a place where they all meet. All manner of creatures and beings come here; it is a place of refuge, of shelter from the storm. And there is always a storm somewhere.

Time passes here, though not always in step with the many worlds it touches, and even here there is change. Consider the proprietress, the young silver-haired woman all in white whose true nature is betrayed only by the small nub of shimmering ivory in the center of her forehead. She accepted the task when her predecessor tired of it, the latest in a line of innkeepers stretching back through time immemorial – the latest in a long line of beings who found so much solace in the World’s End that they chose to remain here for much of their lives, abandoning the worlds that birthed them. They had each their good reasons for doing so, each a past so riddled with sorrow or anger that ‘home’ lost all meaning.

The lands of the fey are very beautiful, as are many of the fey themselves. The lands of the fey are also deadly to the unwary, both in body and soul, as are many of the fey themselves. Even in lands of such magic and beauty, a unicorn is a rare thing indeed, and much hated by the darker fey for its purity of nature and its magical light. Most of them are for this reason shy and retiring, preferring to hide among the ever-present foliage in the Summer Queen’s Great Forest, but this one could not.

Dahlia Shining Sun named herself in traditional fashion for the flowers that grew around her birthing nest when she came of age, for unicorns are not born of unicorns, and no matter their good intentions, her sire and dam could never hope to understand their daughter. Dahlia was never by nature the sort of creature that could easily hide. She grew at first bored and soon deeply frustrated with the self-imposed exile, and craved friendship; more than that, she craved adoration.

And this is how she nearly lost her life.

To we outsiders, the fey seem capricious agents of mischief. And indeed they are, but within the chaos is a core of rigid order. All fey owe their unswerving fealty to either the Summer or Winter courts, to lofty Oberon and distant Titania, or to dreaded Cernunnos and mad Maebhe, and the main part of that fealty is war. The Summer and Winter courts have been at war for so long now that not even the Kings and Queens remember why, but it is a deadly and vicious war for all that.

Oberil Wheatwhistle was born to and was for many years a member in good standing of the Court of Titania and Oberon. Their orders were easy enough to fulfil until the focus of the War shifted to bring the fey of the Wheatwhistle lands into direct conflict. Oberil was and is a pacifist, claiming that choosing to harm another creature, even a vassal of the Winter Court, is the greatest sin there is.

Thrice did the Queen and King of Summer ask Wheatwhistle to take up arms for the Summer; thrice the refusal came. This was itself an honor beyond measure – not the order to battle, but the three times asking. The monarchs of the Fey brook no disobedience and have destroyed others on the spot for far smaller infractions. Oberil may have somehow been blood of their blood to receive such a favor, as well as the sentence passed: exile instead of death outright… though exile from the lands of Summer means only the realm of Winter, and death would still be the inevitable result.

In the Winter lands, the sun had not set thrice before the young elf noble encountered a disturbing sight. In a clearing were many lesser creatures of the Winter court, boggarts and redcaps and kobolds, trolls one and all, stood in a grand circle laughing and jeering. In the circle was the unicorn, battered and bloodied but unbowed; the creatures had found her in the Summer fields and lured her with promises of love and adoration to the Winter lands, where they began their terrible sport. Whichever way Dahlia faced, whichever way she tried to charge to end the torment and break free of her captors, the rocks and arrows and blades that harried and tortured her came always from behind; in front, she encountered instead pikes and torches that would drive her back to the center.

Oberil’s heart melted at once. Here was a better reason to take up arms than a thousand thousand years of politics. If protecting innocence was not a noble battle, nothing was. So the exile charged into the ranks of the trolls and scattered them to the four winds; they were no match for the singing blade of a full-blooded Summer Court warrior, exile or not.

This done, the elf went to render aid to the unicorn, but instead of gratitude was met with fury. Blinded with rage and terror, Dahlia charged her would-be savior, her horn cutting a furrow into Oberil’s side. Realizing she thought herself still under attack, Wheatwhistle ran; and when Dahlia gave chase, the young noble realized that after all this time in the dark lands, the only way to save the unicorn would be to lead her back to the light – despite the terms of exile imposed by the Summer Queen.

For three days and nights they ran, and whenever they met Dahlia inflicted another wound on Oberil before the elf evaded her and ran again. Oberil refused all this time to simply escape, leaving Dahlia still in the dark, until finally they burst into the Summer fields, where the noble collapsed.

Dahlia rushed in to destroy her quarry, believing this would free her once and for all, but at that moments the clouds parted and the shock of the bright Summer sun after all the darkness cleared her mind. The unicorn realized she was free, and it was her liberator she was about to kill. She fell to her knees instead and cried over the still form of the elf that risked everything to bring her back into the light.

They say unicorn tears can heal. Sometimes… they are right.

True love does not come at first sight, no matter what the stories say. But sometimes it is fated, and blossoms from even the harshest of beginnings. Oberil Wheatwhistle is an exile from two lands of the Fey that both promised an undeserved death, and finally found solace here beyond the end of the worlds. And Dahlia is here because there is nowhere else in all the worlds or beyond she would rather be than here, with the elf who proved more noble than Summer and Winter combined.

And she calls herself Dahlia Dearly Beloved now, because after all those years, she finally is.

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478

Fiction: My Bad Dream

Books & Writing, Culture, Short Fictions

May 13, 2017

Beyond the end of the world, the end of all the worlds, is a place where they all meet. All manner of creatures and beings come here; it is a place of refuge, of shelter from the storm. And there is always a storm somewhere.

Among them, strangely even for this strange place, is a child. A girl of eight or nine in a nightdress, flaxen-haired and blue-eyed, the very picture of innocence. One might be worried in this place that she is somehow a trap, a monster hiding, but it is not so. Goldie really is a little girl, but she is a dreamer.

Goldie fell asleep one night. It was a strange falling asleep, but she remembers nothing more about it. Then the terrors began. Night after night, week after week. The teeth in the woods, the house of blood, the gray faces, each more terrible than the last, the nightmares haunted and tormented her. Even in sleep, there was no rest.

But time passed. It always does, even if it moves strangely beyond the veil of worlds. One can eventually get used to anything, and though Goldie really is a little girl, she had been a little girl now for a long, long time. One day, with the teeth snapping at her heels again, she tired of the chase. She sat under a gnarled, blackened tree, picked up one of the fallen branches, and waited.

The snarling and howling stopped the moment she sat, and in short order, intrigued, the nightmare appeared to her, taking the form of a tall, dapper man whose body seemed to be made of black fire.

Why do you not run? it said, the words being remembered without ever being spoken.

“I’m tired.” she replied.

But you are asleep, it said, For years now. How can you be tired?

“Not sleepy,” said she, “Tired. Tired of running. Why do you torment me?”

The nightmare paused. This was something it had never considered. How could it? Do fish wonder why they swim, or flames wonder why they burn?

Finally, it spoke, without speaking: I am your Nightmare, it said.

“Mine?” Goldie asked.

Yours and yours alone, it said, as long as need be.

The girl stood. “You… are mine? You belong to me?”

Confused, the nightmare nodded, for was that not what it said?

Years of darkness change anyone, even someone who really is a little girl, and there in the gloom and the dark Goldie smiled for the first time in years, and ran forward, embracing the burning man who did not really burn.

“You’re MINE!” she said. It was the first time she could remember that anyone or anything was truly hers, even from before the strange sleep began. And the Nightmare, for it was made of her dreams as much as her fears, to its surprise wrapped its burning but not burning arms around her and hugged her back.

This, gentle traveler, is how you may meet the dreamer who has been young for so long in the place beyond the end of the worlds. Beside her always is her traveling companion, her Nightmare, which brings her from dream to dream wherever darkness touches, teaching her now the joy and laughter that lives where light doesn’t reach, for it already taught her everything it could about fear and pain. The nightmare is itself, himself, young in many ways, and does not always understand the places they travel. But it knows two truths that are clad in iron.

Firstly, he is HER Nightmare. Without her, he does not know what he would be, perhaps the nameless dread in the dark again, and it would be awful to go back to that sort of nonperson after finding this richer life.

And secondly, he looks really good in that hat.

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