No sooner had my head hit the pillow than I awoke again, the sensation of water lapping at my feet. I propped myself up on my elbows and looked down to find that I was in no bed, but on a beach, a mix of sand and gravel underneath me. Waves danced around my heels, swirling in little eddies to the sides of them, stopping just short of soaking into my pants.
I could feel that my elbows rested on soft grass, and the shade of a tree cast a shadow over me in the against the twilight sky. I wore only my bedclothes; a cold breeze passed over me and caused me to shudder. Back on the Sea of Dreams, I sighed, wondering whether I’d feel that I’d gotten any rest when I awoke. If I awoke.
As before, thick woods occupied the island on which I found myself, leaving only that short stretch of rugged beach between the interior and the water. In the distance, other islands pierced the horizon, dark silhouettes against the grayish-bluish-orange of the sky. I tried not to let my thoughts dwell on what might occupy those faraway places—the demesnes of other dreamers I’d never meet.
Already the oppressive feeling that presaged the arrival of the amorphous creature I’d encountered previously in this place hanged like a mist about me. It mattered not; I had no other chances of yet to communicate with Aevale except in this place. I’d not let this one slip away unused.
Sticks and thorns seemed to cut my bare feet as I moved into the island’s forest, as if the very ground warned me away from my path—or the island itself wished me harm. I stopped occasionally to listen, my neck straining as I attempted to catch a hint of the smallest or most distant of sounds. Often, I wondered if I’d actually heard something or if I’d only wanted to hear something so badly that my mind had tricked me into satisfaction.
Cracking branches echoed from somewhere around me, the trees distorting the sounds so that I could not determine their origin. I looked back and forth, hoping for some movement to attract my focus. Finding none, I quickened my pace, thinking at least not to be caught flat-footed.
With a single blink of the eyes, I found myself transported—still on the island of Aevale’s dreaming, but not where my next steps should have led me. I stood in a clearing, in the center of which lay a shallow pool, the lady Aevale reclined over it, the edges of her white garments beginning to wick the water upward, her hand tracing signs in the water, leaving only ripples and disturbances across the surface. She did not realize the futility of her actions, for when her motions failed to leave a lasting impression, she only added force to the movement of her finger, now leaving a rough wake behind it.
I looked about for the creature of shadow, which I now presumed to be Orren’s spirit, but observed no signs of its presence. As lightly as I could manage, my bare feet torn and bruised by my running, sore even against the soft grass of the glade, I moved toward the woman, telling myself to remember every detail I possibly could when I awoke from this place.
As I approached, she turned to look at me, face drawn in a sign of mixed frustration and despair. Without speaking, she only turned back to face her ephemeral strokes through the liquid, drawing my own vision to the same. I struggled to track her movements, recreate in my mind’s eye the lines she traced, but the total structure eluded me.
The movements indicated a complex design, perhaps a seal or sigil, even a ritual circle in miniature. “What are you trying to show me?” I asked her as my silent observation failed.
Without looking back to me, eyes remaining focused on her art, she answered, “Trying to remember.”
“Remember the things that keep me here. Remember the things that draw him to me—or me to him.”
“You mean Orren?”
“I mean the creature that stalks us even now, waiting to devour us. Its name does not matter. Only what it wants.”
“And what is that?”
Tears began to form at the corners of her eyes, gaining size and mass until they fell across her cheeks like the intermittent droplets of a spring drizzle. “I can’t remember!” she sobbed.
“What do you remember?” I ventured.
“Aryden. My love. But a darkness parts us now, like a veil, and I cannot see his face.”
I pointed to her hand, still moving in the water. “Is this what brought the veil down upon you?”
“I forgot myself,” she said softly, “and I continue to lose myself ever since. It is consuming me, taking me from myself, until I become nothing. Only then will it be satisfied.”
“Revenge?” I asked her.
She dashed her hand quickly across the surface of the pond, as if erasing all that she had drawn before. Then she stood, looking me in the eyes. I could see in her face that she meant no metaphor with her words. She had diminished, somehow, something I recognized implicitly even without having known her before the process began.
I stepped back to look at her and found the edge of her form blurry to my vision, with tiny wisps trailing away in some unfelt wind, as if even now Orren’s spirit siphoned her essence from her.
Under the Law of Essence, one of the immutable laws of the Subtle Art, the true nature of a thing may not be permanently altered. Through the Art, whether thaumaturgy, theurgy or one of the other disciplines, the aspects of thing might be changed, even for very long periods with the right techniques and enough power (though the cost of such techniques prove dissuasive enough that such workings are rarely attempted, and never lightly), but never may the truth of a thing, being or object be made to be something it is not for an indefinite period. The Temple scholars believe that this is The One’s own will and power superseding the petty conjuries of mortal beings, protecting the integrity of Their creations. Changing the essence of a thing through anything other than experience and unfolding existence remains a mystery to us—as it likely should.
All of this is to say that what was happening to Aevale shouldn’t be. Orren had become no mere tormenting spirit, if the word “mere” may ever be appointed to such beings; he had become something else entirely. What, I did not know. But I marveled at the possible scenarios I could conceive that might have the slightest potential to create the situation I believed I now observed. The amount of Power necessary to such a transformation would far exceed the greatest amount I had ever drawn upon at my most foolish, most brash, most desperate. Sacrifice would be required, and more than the boy’s death alone. Something that transcends even that force that binds soul to body, that riddle of incarnation.
But I had little time to puzzle on the subject. A cold wind blew across the glade, sending Aevale running into the forest, holding up her dress, hands about her waist, cloth cascading from those hands like billows of clouds or water, to allow her feet the freedom to carry her away without tangling in her garments. I made no effort to follow her, saw nothing more that I could do for her within her own dreamscape, even as compassion pulled at me to do something, anything, to alleviate the depth of her suffering that had only now been made clear.
Orren’s spirit, predatory and possessed of wrath for the living, manifesting as a dark mist that moved with strange intent, here forming a clawed arm, there forming a glowing eye before collapsing back into amorphous vapor, entered into the clearing with me. Instinctively, my hand went to my side, searching for wand or implement that might aid me in resisting this intruder. Naturally, I found no such tool waiting for me, for they had not accompanied me to this place.
To this day, I am unclear on the metaphysics of the Sea of Dreams and its innumerable islands. I have heard tales of those who, while in this place, may will changes to the landscape, create and destroy with sheer will and thought alone, without resort to the Art, as some fortunate few do in less tangible dreams. I am not one of them, so I turned to my thaumaturgy for my defense.
Defense is perhaps the wrong word, for my previous encounter with the specter had convinced me I lacked the Power to confront the spirit in a head-on fight with much chance of success. Instead, I made a desperate gamble. As the mist-form moved ever closer, I began the incantation for a thaumaturgy intended to heighten the senses, to increase awareness of both one’s body and one’s surroundings. I sped through the words, sloppily, the images forming in my mind loose and ragged but substantial enough—or so I hoped.
As the spirit came near—near enough to strike, I closed my eyes, hoping to block out all distraction as I sought to complete the working. I felt a rush of wind across my face, undoubtedly the creature raising some malformed claw of air to rend at me—
And then I awoke, sitting bolt-upright in the bed, hyperaware of the sweaty flesh underneath my bedclothes, the slightest hint of sunlight peering into the room, the cold that surrounded me despite the summer heat, the drops of water—I hoped—condensing onto the ceiling of the room and falling upon me like heavy raindrops. Of any injury or pain, I was thankfully unaware. My gambit had worked, the sensations of my body pulling my spirit back to it from where it had traveled, and just in time to avoid the mortal blow.