Alma found herself in a world of blackened pearl and white marble. The sky…or was it ground? Or both, or neither? Whatever it was, it shivered in nacreous ripples that pulsated in a dark wash all around and under the walkways of grey-veined marble she trod. Every step echoed and the dark seemed to swallow it. She had the feeling that if she turned around, there would be eyes, floating off the safety of the softly glowing marble walkway, but when she tried, there was nothing there.
Someone was whispering her name, softly, obsessively. The sound rustled around her like dead leaves, making her shiver in a wind that didn’t exist. She shook it off, looking around to try to discover where the dream had taken her now. Just bare steps away, although it was across a chasm that might as well have been miles across, someone lay crumpled. A young woman, hair startlingly similar to Alma’s own, tools spattered around her as if she’d fallen from a great height.
One of the freakish children stood next to her, blond and cherubic, although its eyes were shadowed under the blue cap and mop of curls it sported. The way it stood over the girl seemed… possessive, somehow, and it smiled across the gap at Alma with white, white teeth that swirled with the same pearlescence as its eyes. She measured the gap; it wasn’t wide but she was weighed down with her equipment and—except, she wasn’t, was she? If it was dream equipment and dream logic, then she, who ruled this land, should be able to change this reality.
She eyed the child, who grinned like it knew what she was thinking, then backed up, took a running start, and leapt the gap. The child’s face dropped in amazement as she was on it with barely a breath, sword to its throat.
“Whoa!? So you have claws after all! I’m not messing with you without my brothers around.” It seemed to fold space around it like a cloak and disappeared without another word. Alma hissed, her eyes narrowed in poisonous, feral hate. She wanted to make it hurt, the way it had hurt her, but the young woman behind her moaned and Alma turned to her, fury forgotten as she took a hit to the heart.
She knelt next to her daughter and reached out a trembling hand. A dream, it was a dream, only a dream…but Kamila’s hair was soft under her fingertips, her skin clammy. It was there, a year’s worth of cares that she had never seen. There was a wrinkle between her eyes that had never been there. Could she really imagine a Kamila that seemed so real? Her human-ness seemed to warp the dream all around them, in a way that was completely unlike the thing that was not, nor ever had been, a child.
Her daughter whimpered at her touch and Alma jerked her fingers back before, more firmly, putting them to Kamila’s shoulder and shaking her. “Wake up!” Her words seemed to spiral away, devoured by the watching eyes. Kamila didn’t move, and Alma gathered her in, pulling her weight up and into her arms. She could not leave her here, dream or not, and they couldn’t stay.
She took one careful step, then another, balancing the weight of her daughter and her worries. Her next step came down—
--not on smooth polished marble, but on unfinished, gritty stone. The mines of Narshe swirled queasily around her before settling into place; Alma knew them with every painful step and beat of her heart. She’d been here before, once when the world still had held hope. She looked down; Kamila had disappeared but she now piloted a suit of Magitek armor. Alma recoiled; these were the things that had once laid waste to her homeland.
Carefully, she put her hands to the controls and took one tentative step forward. The machine rumbled and clanged around her and Alma grimaced at the sound, but kept walking. Monsters attacked, but she cut them down without mercy as she stomped forward like an avenging angel through the green dream-light.
A moogle—had that been Bailey? –rushed right through her, emerging from the chest plate, and disappeared, followed by a lean, red-haired young man who brandished his sheaf of paper like a weapon. For lack of any other path, she followed, manipulating her machine through tunnels growing smaller and twistier with every step. At last, through a niche that was almost too small to accommodate her, she came out into a larger, open room. At the end opposite her sat a large round stone, carved with a round-eyed face and a prodigious amount of facial hair.
In front of it sat Jowd, eyes closed and meditating. He almost seemed to glow, but, Alma noticed with a start, he didn’t distort the world the way Kamila had. The light he emitted was dark, pulsing like the oily sheen to the darkness before. Was this him, or a dream of him? But she’d never been here before, never seen this statue. It was wrong; everything was wrong.
Bailey and the rowdy youth from before entered from another crack in the cave walls, determined looks on their faces, and Bailey carefully and with great ceremony tied a ribbon around Jowd’s ankle before beginning to dance. The youth, too, danced in his own way, pamphlets raining down like snow across the cave. They seemed to do this for a terribly long time as Alma watched, but finally gave up in dejection, leaving Jowd alone again.
What good was it, Alma pondered, to stand here and watch a dream, even if it was a dream that seemed to have no connection to her memories? She couldn’t climb down from the armor; she’d tried. She couldn’t attempt to wake him. Calling his name, as she demonstrated for herself, had no effect. And there was still Kamila to consider; they’d been together and now they were not. Where was her daughter? Why, even in dreams, could they never be reunited?
She blinked, and Jowd was gone, leaving only the ribbon he’d had tied around his ankle, laid with sacrificial reverence in front of the statue. The cave was dark and cold, and fading around her, but the ribbon seemed to glow a bright yellow, penetrating the darkness with all the warm cheerfulness of the sun. It seemed to radiate heat. Alma’s eyes were drawn to it. Unlike Jowd, or even the cave denizens, but much like Kamila, it seemed to distort the dream. Oh, how she longed to escape the vile machines of the Empire and reach it, but it seemed impossible. The dream was fading, and she’d accomplished nothing. She wished, at least, she’d saved her daughter, but the dream had stymied her yet again.
She flinched as, without warning, Kamila plopped into her lap from nowhere, laughing. “Chung, chung! Chung, chung! Magitek armor!!” Her excited yells rang through the abandoned cavern. “I have always wanted one of these!”
Alma gasped, the wind stolen from her by her daughter’s precipitous appearance. “You—what? Where did you come from?”
“Mama, that doesn’t matter right now!” cried Kamila. “We have to go after Papa!” She wrenched the controls around, preparing to leave the cave, but she paused at the last moment. “What’s that…?”
She leapt from the armor with ease, displaying more agility than Alma had ever known her daughter possessed, and grabbed the ribbon. “This is like the one I gave Gramps, isn’t it!” She smiled back up at her mother. “You’d better take it. Come down for a minute?”
“I… I can’t.” Alma admitted. “I don’t know how.”
Kamila snorted a laugh; when she did that she sounded very like her father. “Sorry, I wasn’t thinking.” She reached out, patting a leg of the armor. “Time to go away now. I want the real stuff anyway.”
Alma found herself falling for a moment before the ground seemed to reorient itself for her and she was on her feet. The armor was gone, melted away as if it had never been. Kamila stood there, warm, bright. Real? She smiled at her mother.
“You’re not the only one with a connection to Doma,” she reminded Alma, who stared at her blankly. “This dream can’t fool me!” She reached up and undid her mother’s hair, wiping the pale imitation of a yellow ribbon away with an irritable hand before regathering the bun in a careful style that inextricably looped warm yellow in and out of coils of hair. “I don’t know why this is here, but if it protects Gramps, it’ll protect you,” she said.
Alma sputtered. “I don’t need protection—”
“Hmm.” Kamila gave her a look of pure teenage skepticism that clearly said you need it more than me anyway. “Well, you have it anyway and I won’t take it back. Now, come on, we have to get Papa!”
Alma found herself following her daughter, addressing her broad back in somewhat plaintive tones. “But where did you come from?”
“Hmm. Those dream clowns grabbed me—and all those doughnuts Uncle Cabs made too—” Kamila pouted. “And then you found me and then I was nowhere? Like some big nothing place.”
Alma went cold. “And then…?”
“Don’t you know? You called me.” Kamila turned and caught her hand, leading her across a rickety suspension bridge. “Mama, you have to remember that you control the dream.”
Alma’s face went still and she snatched her hand away. “So, you’re just another figment?”
Kamila stomped her foot. “No!” The bridge swayed. “You can’t run away from me that easily! Not again!” She stomped again, and the bridge broke, sending them both toppling back into the oily darkness. She reached out and took her mother’s hand again. “We’re here, and we won’t leave you!”
Alma let her daughter hold her tight, closed her eyes, and tried to believe as they fell through the dark. The last living heirs to the line of Doma floated in the darkness, eyes watching them from all around, until they landed with hardly a bump back on the marble floor from whence they’d come.
A door, made of the same white and gleaming marble, stood invitingly open, beckoning them onward. The destination was unclear, but Kamila and Alma stood together at last, at least until Kamila doubled in on herself, gagging helplessly as she ripped her hand from Alma’s. “Mama… help me…” she said, and crumpled to the floor, green as the dream and once again clammy to the touch. “You ha… have to cast Esuna on me, quick…”
Alma gasped in dismay, gabbling out the words to the spell and kneeling to her daughter’s side. Kamila began to breathe more easily almost immediately, and her first words were reassurance. “It’s OK… it’s OK, mom. I’m all right, I promise.”
The Queen of Doma, lost, for words, stared down at her daughter. The poison of Doma had almost claimed another of her family, and she had almost been the cause. She took a breath, then another. She knew what had happened to Doma. Now, if she could only figure out what Doma was doing to her.