Alma stood in the throne room of Doma, listening to distant echoes. It should have been quiet—everyone had fled this blighted land long since. She remembered, after Jowd had been taken, sending representatives to ensure that refugees had had a place to stay, although she hadn’t been able to bring herself to come back.
No one came here. And yet she could hear footsteps and several voices talking, although she couldn’t make out what they said. She scowled. Looters, or worse, come to defile the last resting place of her family. Well, they couldn’t have this place too. She’d already lost too much—she would not give these interlopers the satisfaction of taking her last home.
She shook her head, struggling with memory. No, this was the dream again, wasn’t it? She was dreaming whoever was out there. Another trap by whatever held her here, to make her leave her stronghold. Well, and she would not, not without a fight. She had powers beyond…well, anyone’s now, didn’t she? Anyone human anyway…demons and monsters ruled the lands outside the walls and the only others with magic had perished with the rest of her party. Well, except one. Her hands fisted at her sides. He had survived when the rest had not. They’d been blinded by their emotions and been fooled by the fake. It didn’t matter how often she’d told herself there was no way she could know. She’d rubbed that thought as smooth and thin as one of the pebbles in Doma’s river and still it brought her no solace; she hadn’t known and it had cost them all the world. Her faults abruptly lay heavy on her and her knees loosened. She slumped into her mother’s throne and stared toward the doors of the throne room, listening to the voices of her past.
The ground swayed beneath her and she felt dizzy, as if she was being lifted up. She kicked out, struggling and fighting, but it seemed to make no difference. The feeling stabilized and she felt—safe, almost, as if she were home, but she knew better than to trust it. Her hand fell to the sword at her waist, but she didn’t draw. The voices had quieted, and the world shifted then stabilized once more, although she felt bereft somehow, as if she were no longer cradled in a protective grasp.
She could almost see it, as if through a hazy dream in which she was somehow within and from which she stood apart: Jowd laid her down on the vast four-poster bed that dominated her childhood room and lit the fire with a quick blast of fire magic—it was so cold in this castle, you’d think it was winter outside instead of late summer—and pulled a chair up to the side of the bed.
As he took her hand, the other Alma’s face twitched and she whimpered, a soft, lost sound that Alma-the-waking watched hit him directly in the heart. Powerlessly, she saw the blackness descend on him and knew his thoughts as if they were her own: it was his fault, of course. He’d left her to fall on that airship, hadn’t been there when she needed him. He was worthless, useless. Gotten himself captured. Couldn’t save Kamila, couldn’t save his wife, couldn’t even save his kingdom without help, and forget saving the world. He was so tired. So tired, and so worn.
“This land is crawling with demons. Why did you come here?” he asked aloud, but neither the other Alma or the one watching could answer. The bleak winds moaned around the windows and served as her voice as she despaired. She and Jowd, finally reunited, at least in this dreamworld, but as always, they were blocked from simple.
She watched him spiral further, holding “her” hand, his only anchor too frail and weak to ground him. His thoughts battered her. He had let his family be splintered. He had let the world fall to ruin. He should have seen the betrayal coming, should have known no one from the Empire could be trusted. The other one should have been so obvious. It didn’t matter. He was garbage. Worse than garbage. Worthless. Should never have allowed Figaro to enter that truce, should have…
As Jowd dropped into uneasy sleep, he fell forward, his head landing face-down on the bed. Alma, still watching, yearned to touch him and run her fingers through his hair, to let him know she was there. Almost, almost could she forget that this was a dream, and she felt herself being drawn to his side, but she whirled as behind her, something snickered. It wasn’t a sound she wanted behind her; it didn’t sound as though it wished her any kindness. She could feel it watching them, waiting for her to fall back into the dream.
She tried to harden her heart, to ignore this seeming of Jowd, but something in her wouldn’t let it happen. She drew her sword and stood in front of him, guarding his rest. In the corner of her eye, a child of indeterminate gender giggled, impishly playing peekaboo with the curtain. She scowled at the thing; no child had eyes like that, the corneas pearly white and gleaming with iridescence like a beetle’s wing, the pupil a black hole from which no light could escape. She felt herself being drawn in as the child came closer to her, falling fast into the madness those eyes promised, and yet she could not look away as the child giggled and danced forward.
The laughter seemed to echo strangely, to come from all corners of the room. Alma held her grip on the sword steady but her eyes slid involuntarily to the side as a giggle resounded directly in her ear. She recoiled; another child sat on Jowd’s back behind her, and another floated down from the ceiling, chuckling as its hair brushed her nose. Their gaze tore at her, ripping her apart molecule by molecule as she crossed the event horizon of their laughter; she felt herself unravelling as Jowd slept out of her reach. She spooled into helpless nothingness and Jowd slept on as the three children gathered around him, eyes gleaming with the same unearthly light.