The Survivor

Julia rose out of the dream realm like a tired swimmer from the depths. She opened her eyes panting and gasping. Sweat rolled off her in rivers despite her chattering teeth. Her entire body ached with need. A need that if fulfilled would kill her as sure as a sword in the gut.

Tancred.

It was her personal poison. She needed it. It was killing her. Yet without it she’d die screaming in agony. The need was worse than the pain. It was two edged. She needed it like oxygen, and also needed it to find Renard. That elusive dead man she could only meet in the dream realm. He’d shown her possibilities she needed to know to survive the coming conflict with Mortain. She’d accept any amount of pain to keep Keverin safely by her side.

Julia stared at the clouds, nerving herself to go back. She needed a moment in the real world. She’d spent years in the dream, learning how to make it show her what she wanted, yet out here less than a season ago she’d been dancing with Keverin in the palace. Time ran different there. She needed these lucid moments to remember he was alive. Not dead, or old, or crippled. She needed to remember the terrible visions she’d relived over and over for years were only dreams. Just shadows of shadows. They could be averted. Would be averted, when she went back and tracked Renard down.

Julia turned her head to study her escort, and fix the moment in her memories. She needed the imagery for navigating the dream. Most were mounted, some walked. All wore tan leather tunics and trousers. The closest ones had colourful beads decorating their clothes. They rattled as they walked. The noise was soothing, and the colours bright to her tired eyes. They were shamen. The warriors didn’t have noisy beads; they had swords sheathed at hips, but wore them the way Hasians did, hanging from a belt not thrust into a sash like her adopted people. They had round shields hooked to saddles, and carried spears with one end resting in their stirrups. Everyone had feathers or beads in their hair.

Julia licked cracked lips. She rolled her head back to see the sky. She was burning up, yet shook with cold. The furs heaped over her should be stifling, but shivers wracked her exhausted body. She couldn’t move her arms. The travois she lay upon bounced and swayed as the horse dragged it over frozen snow-covered ground. Kerrion had tied her onto it with ropes to prevent convulsions and a fall, but she felt trapped not safer.

The sky above was still grey and contemplating whether to drop its contents on her or not. Why not, she thought sluggishly. She’d had worse than a little snow, and it might cool her down. A spike of pain crackled through her poor body, and she took a ragged breath to scream. She gritted her teeth so hard she feared they might shatter. No dentists out here. The thought might have been funny if the fear hadn’t been so real. She held her breath and grunted. Better than a scream. Screams attracted attention and more tancred. She needed it. Badly needed it, but she wasn’t ready to go back to the dream.

Julia released her breath as the pain ebbed, and tears leaked from her burning eyes. She couldn’t wipe them away and the realisation made her sob harder. What a stupid thing to cry over. She should save her tears for her humiliation at not being able to clean herself, or for the pain, or for her dual addictions. All were worthy of tears. Tancred would kill her, but so would magic one day according to Lucius. Both were addictions she couldn’t live without.

She strained to satisfy one of her cravings, but her personal talisman remained just out of reach. The Olympic medal spun and glittered, sending its promise of power deep into her psyche along with it’s golden light. There it sat in her mind’s eye, mocking her behind its invisible wall of tancred. She lunged for it, and felt the slippery surface of the wall beneath imaginary fingers. She tried again, and again, and again, unaware of the grunts of effort each attempt elicited from her cracked lips.

“Oh God, not again,” Julia whispered as pain crackled through her body. “Hnnnoooooo!” she screamed, unable to hold it in.

Julia panted and turned into a wet noodle, unable to do anything but breathe. That had been her own damn fault for trying something so stupid. What would she have done with her magic anyway? Kill herself probably. Maybe she could just hold it, the craving whispered, tempting her to keep trying. She could hold it and not use it. The second wave of pain arrived to punish her thoughts. She’d made it worse by exerting herself.

“Hnnnoooooo!” she screamed. “Hnnnoooooo!”

Kerrion arrived with a bottle of tancred, she eagerly accepted the offering like a baby sucking on her mother’s teat. She clamped the damn thing between her teeth to prevent him withdrawing it, and whimpered when he refused to tip it high enough to get more than a taste. The pain was building. She sucked on the bottle, but barely a dribble entered her mouth. She had to let it go.

“Hnnnoooooo!”

“You still have pain?” Kerrion said, sounding shocked.

Julia nodded weakly, and panted as the agony ebbed.

Kerrion offered the bottle again, and this time tipped it a little higher. She got a real taste this time. The acrid fumes flooded her mouth, and the drug burned its way down her throat to lodged sullenly in her belly. Tancred, the disgusting, addicting, life-giving, pain-numbing, elixir she hated.

And craved.

He withdrew the bottle.

“Oh God thank you… thank you… thank you,” she whispered as tears leaked from her eyes.

“How do you feel now?” Kerrion asked kindly.

“Terrible,” she croaked.

“You still have pain?”

Another cramp hit. “Hnnn! Yesssss,” she gasped.

“I cannot heal this with magic. If I increase the strength of the drug, you’ll never be free of it. You could die.”

“It’s… it’s all right… I’ve had… I’ve had worse,” she gasped.

Kerrion looked sceptical.

Julia didn’t have the energy to explain her history with tancred. She wanted Kev to hold her like last time. He’d cradled her in his arms, and talked to her while she screamed Malcor’s walls down. His voice and touch had saved her sanity. She needed him to do it again.

“I want Keverin,” she pleaded. “Please. Take me to Kev. I need him.”

“Your man?” Kerrion asked.

Julia managed a jerky nod.

“I don’t know where he is. Do you know of a Hasian named Navarien?”

“Yes… he… hnnn!” she gritted her teeth to prevent the scream escaping. “He was the general—the leader that tried to take Athione—my home from us. I killed his men and sent him back to the Hasa.”

“Well done! This man is killing my people, everyone in the north. He’s a vile creature that kills his own men and laughs while he does it. He allows them to use children for sport and—”

“No,” she whispered tiredly. Her head rolled from side to side. Her strength was fading. “He’s my enemy, but he’s an honourable man. A very great general for his people. He spared Lucius… my friend… I need Kev. Take me home to Kev. I need… need him. Take me home.”

“How can you say that?” another voice said, one out of Julia’s sight. “He’s a monster! Thousands are dead in the north; their corpses left unburned and covered by snow.”

“I say it because it’s true. I watch Navarien in the mirror sometimes. I know he…” she grunted as another cramp hit her. “…he’s an honourable man.”

“Let her rest, Darnath.”

Kerrion offered the bottle again, and Julia gratefully sucked down another vile mouthful. She hated herself for being weak, but she needed it to leave the fucked up shell her body had become. She was done here. If she couldn’t have Kev in this world, she’d have him in the next. In the dream realm. She was so done here.

The pain receded, or was it her? She was still awake, sort of, but everything was hazy and disjointed. She was on her way out. Kerrion walked by her side and talked to another shaman, but his voice faded in and out. The world slowed to a crawl. She watched a snowflake hover before her eyes seemingly suspended in time. She wasn’t dreaming yet; she was almost sure she wasn’t. Another snowflake replaced the first and slowly made its way to land on her face. She blinked it free of her eyelashes, but another joined it.

Kerrion’s hand appeared an inch at a time like a stop motion film, and brushed them away.

She blinked fuzzily up at him. “Your poor face.” He was hideously burned. “So sorry about your face. Bet… bet that must’ve hurt.”

Kerrion shook his head in puzzlement.

Julia was floating now. She eagerly embraced it. This was it, she was going. She floated gently into the sky. If she reached over there—a place in her head—she could fly away to Athione. She could see exactly how to do it, though she’d never tried anything like that before. The pattern was there, bright and glorious.

Oh… she could fly away to Kev for real if only the gold thing would come to her. She fumbled for it, but it kept getting away. She nearly had it a couple of times, but it squirted from her grasp like a piece of slippery soap.

Julia let the drug have its way, and drifted above the troop carrying her empty body away. She looked down at the pathetic thing on the travois and pitied it. Small broken little girl. She looked away to the horizon and felt her heart’s desire calling to her. She felt him there. The drag marks in the snow led straight to him. He was just a thought away.

Nearly there.

Keverin enfolded her in his strong arms. It was a memory, but one she could make real in the dream realm. It had been night. Atop one of Athione’s towers. The huge banners flapped and cracked above and behind them. She heard them… there… She felt him enfold her in his arms from behind… there… and she turned in the circle of his arms to look up at his face…

Nearly there… and…

Now.

Mark E. Cooper

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