Korin stood in the center of the Naktigan town square.
He knew he wasn’t really here. He’d never actually been here. Not in this precise spot, between the charred remains of two pyres that had long since burnt themselves out. He’d never seen the aftermath, the smoking remains. Which was how he knew this had to be a dream.
And yet, he could smell the acrid, greasy smoke. He felt the uneven crunch of charcoal embers beneath his feet. The silence was so oppressive it had to be real.
He hadn’t thought of Naktigan in a long while. Hadn’t dreamed of it since the night he’d told Ádan about what had happened here.
Now he was back.
A dream. It had to be. But it didn’t feel like a dream. Nor did it feel unlike a dream. Confusing and unsettling and Korin wished he would simply wake up.
Instead, he looked to his left, to the pyre that had been at the center of the square. The piled wood had burned down to a thick layer of ash, but the pole at the center still stood. It was charred and pitted by the fire, but that wasn’t the only reason it cast an uneven silhouette against the night sky. The round shape a few feet up, black with soot, but unmistakable. A skull.
Korin picked his way through the ashes until he stood at the pole. The wood had been piled high when they’d tied Teriad in place. His skull was almost out of reach. Korin had to stand up on his toes, careful not to lean against the pole, which was no longer anchored. He pulled gently, working it unstuck without disturbing anything else.
Skull in hand, he moved away from the center of the square. As he walked, he brushed away ash and soot. The heat of the fire had cleansed the bone, leaving it brittle and scorched.
Still, it was a piece of Teriad. Not that long ago, it had been Teriad.
Once, early in his apprenticeship, Korin had asked the question that had seemed so obvious to his seventeen-year-old self. If healing was simply a matter of making the body remember when it had been healthier, why was death a barrier? Wasn’t it just another condition they could reach back through and fix?
Teriad had been angry. It was one of the few times he’d ever yelled. That kind of magic was blasphemy, he’d said. It was dangerous. It was a corruption of what they did.
Korin had never brought it up again. But now, standing here in this dream that wasn’t entirely a dream, Korin wondered.
Teriad had been a hands-on kind of teacher. Korin and Lia had practiced their magic on him, on each other, on themselves. It meant that Korin knew Teriad’s body in that deep, thorough way that he knew his own. Why couldn’t he reconstruct that? It would take power and skill, but Korin’s experience with the blight, with the cultists, was making him think he maybe had those in abundance.
But what happened next? Even if he were able to marshal the power, to reach into Teriad’s skull and pull his healthy body back through—what then? Would it even be Teriad?
Korin had never thought much about the question of souls, about what happened after death. He was mostly concerned with keeping people alive. He knew what the church taught—that good servants of the Light were taken into its presence when they died, and bad servants went…elsewhere. But that was predicated on a big assumption, that there was even a part of you that continued to exist once the body died.
Korin had seen no evidence, either way.
You are not the first to ask these questions.
The voice didn’t surprise Korin. A part of him had been expecting it all along. The tree—the knife—the snake—Korin turned, ready to face it.
Tonight, he faced none of those things.
A woman stood in the center of the square. Silver-pale in the moonight, in a dress of shimmering, diaphanous white. She was beautiful, like the edge of a knife or a cobra poised to strike. Her white hair trailed behind her like a veil, reaching all the way to the ground. Her eyes glittered, diamond-white.
Everything in this dreamspace was strange. Which made it easier for Korin to ask, “Do you know the answers?”
Not answers that would help you.
“What does that mean?”
It means that you are a mortal being and I am not, so the answers I have would be neither useful nor relevant to you. Her voice took on a tone that Korin could only describe as rueful. I have tried to give answers before, and have been told they were unhelpful.
It was strange, having this conversation in this space. “You made all this happen. The least you could do is try to help me fix it.”
She moved towards him, her steps gliding over the uneven ground. Korin took a step back, unsure, his hand wrapping protectively around Teriad’s skull.
She stopped a few feet away. You loved him.
“I did. Can you understand that?”
I understand what it is to love. And I understand what it is to lose that which you have loved.
“It was your power that did this. They sent your power against this town. These people who had already suffered so much. It was your power that drove them over the edge.”
The anger in that single word dimmed the moonlight and twisted the air so Korin had to struggle to breathe. He gasped, backing away again.
They took what was mine. They held me trapped, locked away in a prison. Forever, they have used me. It was not my power. It was stolen.
Korin felt it—her rage against the knights. It echoed his own.
But still, her claim that it wasn’t her power—she might not have been in control of it, but Korin had stood in the room with the knife. He’d felt exactly the power that lived there. It was death. She was death. “They can’t set you free.”
Their words, you speak. Why would you listen to them? Look around you, Korin. This is what they have done. You hold Teriad in your hands because of them. You know this. You know it. You are angry at them too.
Korin had seen the power of the knife unleashed. The black fog that had rolled down from the castle. It had spread through this town, reaching to engulf people with an almost living malevolence. Screams had echoed through the streets as people were drawn into it, as their bodies dissolved from the outside in.
So many dead, and the rest driven to a frenzy. Because of that, Teriad, Lia, and Jonathan were now all dead. Korin’s family—gone.
“What do you want from me?”
Her anger faded and Korin could breathe free again. A heavy sadness came over her face. I don’t want to be alone.
That sadness, that loneliness was thick enough Korin could feel it. And he understood this too. So hard not to feel for her, even knowing what she was. This was a suffering anyone would be able to identify with.
But he couldn’t trust her. He couldn’t listen. Not while he stood here, in the place where so many had died because of her.
“I’m sorry.” He set Teriad’s skull down, placing it with delicate care on the ground. Even if this was a dream, no reason not to be careful. “I wish I could help you.”
A dream. Nothing but a dream. It had to be a dream. Which meant he could wake up.