SONG OF THE SEVERED LORD

Part One of The Dreambetween Symphony

 

 

The dream is shared by many. And some in that multitude are monsters…

For two hundred years, the creature known as the Severed Lord has preyed upon vulnerable dreamers, expanding his influence over the Dreambetween. Now he needs one final victim, a dreamer of rare and special talents. A dreamer like Lily Markart.

But Lily’s father does not allow her to dream. Though barred from her family’s legacy, she still feels the pull of the Dreambetween and its absence from her life. When Lily defies her father’s wishes and dares to dream, she finds herself seduced by an enchanted song and drawn into the Severed Lord’s snares. To survive and to ensure the future of the Dreambetween, Lily must resist his siren call and discover the dreaming power hidden within her.

Song of the Severed Lord is the first part of The Dreambetween Symphony. This sprawling saga of history, romance, fantasy, and dreams stretches over three thousand years from prehistoric times to the modern day. The series continues with the novels Exile Ballad and Requiem.

Will you dare to dream?


 

An excerpt from Song of the Severed Lord

•••

 

PORTAL

May 12, 2003

 

 

 

DEMENT-KENNEDY SLEEP CENTER

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

 

Somewhere, there was singing. A music in the silence.

Lily frowned. She knew the earplugs were still in place because she couldn’t hear the droning hum of the recorded voices that lulled her to sleep every night. Nor could she hear the familiar groan of the couch beneath her as she rolled over. No, those little balls of silicone were still in her ears, blocking all sound.

So where was the singing coming from?

Was this what her father had been protecting her from? From sounds in her head? 

Was this why he kept her from dreaming?

Lily kept her eyes closed. He would be watching, she knew. At home, he sometimes watched her fall asleep from the doorway, but usually he relied on cameras. Tonight, because he was running a trial, he needed to stay in the sleep center’s labs. That meant she was sleeping in his office, and he would be watching her on his laptop. A little window in the corner of the screen would be showing a live feed from the camera atop the bookshelf, too high for her to reach or “accidentally” cover up.

Camera in the office, camera in her bedroom at home. There was even a camera in the living room of their apartment if she chose to sleep on the couch. And there were concealed speakers, ready to whisper her to sleep, near every place she might potentially bed down.

Lily had known for years now that this wasn’t normal. She knew that other kids didn’t sleep with this kind of scrutiny, didn’t have to take pills before they went to bed, didn’t have to listen to recorded voices posing puzzles, telling stories, keeping them from thinking their own thoughts while they fell asleep. 

Still, it had taken her until now to actually do something about it, to find out why her father insisted on the pills and the recorded voices. She knew it had to do with dreams, though her father had never confessed as much. What would it be like to dream, and why was he keeping it from her? Was it worth the persistent headaches and illness, the fuzziness in her head, the constant trembling of her muscles? Was she just another sleep experiment to him?

Two weeks ago, Lily had turned fifteen. There had been no party, just her and her father, staring at each other across a lukewarm pizza. And a card. A card with a butterfly on it. She’d lost interest in butterflies when she was eight.

And that had been the last straw. She had to know what he was keeping from her, why she wasn’t allowed to dream, why he persisted in thinking of her as a little girl.

The earplugs had been the first step.

Planning had always been one of Lily’s strengths. It was like a puzzle—fitting events together in a logical sequence, one step leading to another, sorting out the eventualities, the obstacles, what time and tools she had at her disposal.

She had waited for a night like tonight, when her father was running a trial in the sleep lab. A trial meant that Lily would be sleeping in his office, housed in one of several buildings that made up a larger medical complex. The building had a combined gift shop and pharmacy on the ground floor.

Lily would never be allowed to go shopping without her father or some sort of minder who would report her purchases to him. 

This was her chance.

The waiting had been the hardest part. She had planned to wait at least an hour after her father had left for the lab to slip out of the office. Since it wasn’t time for her to sleep yet, he would only be keeping half an eye on the cameras while he prepared subjects for the study. He wouldn’t be suspicious if she left the room for a few minutes. She could be going to the bathroom or taking a walk in the hall to clear her head for all he knew.

She had sat at his desk, trying to study, but the words on the page before her swam, and she had been unable to concentrate, unable to distract herself by reading. In the end, she had only made it twenty minutes before she stood and moved toward the filing cabinet by the door, conscious of how awkward, how nervous, her movements were.

Surely he would suspect? Surely he would wonder what she was doing?

She had taken coins from the dish atop the filing cabinet, painfully aware of the cameras, but trying not to look like she was deliberately ignoring them. Her father always kept the dish stocked with spare change for her to use in the snack machine down the hall. He expected her to spend it. He wouldn’t suspect…

Last week, Lily had noted the price of earplugs when she and her father had been at the grocery store. She knew the price would be higher in the pharmacy downstairs, but hoped it wouldn’t be too much higher. She had left the office, moving toward the elevator in a kind of haze.

The woman behind the pharmacy counter had frowned when Lily had placed the ear plugs on the counter. She had paused, her fingers poised above the package, glancing over Lily’s head, examining the empty corners of the shop, probably in search of a parent. But she had rung up the sale in the end without questioning Lily, without remarking on the warm and moist handful of coins Lily had dumped on the counter. They were only earplugs after all. Nothing dangerous there. It wasn’t like they were pills or lancets. What harm could there be in selling a simple pack of earplugs to a teenager?

Hiding them from her father and keeping them hidden when he had returned from the lab to start their usual bedtime ritual had been almost as nerve-wracking as the visit to the pharmacy. Lily had pressed the soft, tacky blobs to the skin behind her ears, her long, sandy hair concealing their presence. 

Her father had covered her with the blanket, kissed her forehead, and handed her two pills and a small paper cup of water. He had never explained the pills to her, never told her why she needed to listen to recorded voices while she slept, never told her why she was forbidden movies and books that portrayed too much that was fantastic. Nor had he told her why she had private tutors rather than going to school like the other kids she watched from the apartment window, lugging their heavy bags, pushing each other and joking.

Smiling.

Why wasn’t she allowed to be normal?

Swallowing the pills had been easy to fake. Books on magic, on showing the practical workings behind the mystery, were allowed reading material. Lily had practiced the sleight of hand with erasers pulled from her pencils, dropping the erasers from one hand to the other before the hand that supposedly contained the “pills” moved up to her lips. 

Palm to mouth, show the empty hand, but don’t make it too obvious that you’re showing it to the audience. Then raise the cup, tilt and swallow. No pretending there. The swallow was real. But there were no pills accompanying the water down her throat.

Lily had thought she would be more nervous when she performed the deception on her father, but she had practiced so often that the whole process seemed natural and predictable. He had even been slightly distracted, probably thinking about the trial that awaited him in the lab. Besides, how many times had they performed this ritual? Hundreds? Thousands? Lily caught herself calculating the number of years, then months, then days, bringing order to the chaos that her thoughts had become in the overbearing silence that wasn’t quite silent. 

That’s what he wants you to do, she thought. That’s what the whispering voices do. They give you problems to engage your brain, to keep you on track and your mind from wandering. They make you order your thoughts.

But why?

What danger was there in disorder? In wandering thoughts?

Something tugged at the edge of her consciousness. A snatch of melody. A lilting, haunting tune that wormed into a corner of her mind, latched on to a stray thought, and multiplied. Permutations of tone. Memory harmonizing.

The second bit of sleight of hand had been the earplugs, disguising the motion of slipping the little blobs of silicone from behind her ears into her ear canals as part of an elaborate rolling over and readjusting on the couch.

That first silence when she had maneuvered the earplugs into place had arrived like a hammer blow. The whispering voices—suggesting brain-teasing exercises, offering direction, providing order—suddenly gone. Erased. Another hurdle down. A barrier removed.

What was her father keeping from her? Why weren’t her thoughts allowed to wander? Why did she have to listen to the recordings? Why did she have to take the pills?

The pills.

Lily felt a moment of panic as she found a flaw in her plan. She hadn’t thought how she would get rid of the pills after she transferred them to her other hand. If they fell from that hand while she slept, her father might find them on the floor or in the cushions of the couch, might know what she’d done. Lily focused on the hand that held the pills only to discover that she couldn’t feel it. Had her hand fallen asleep? She tried to move her shoulder, but it wouldn’t respond either.

Her panic intensified.

If she couldn’t remove the earplugs, couldn’t get rid of the pills before her father came to check on her, as she knew he inevitably would…

Lily couldn’t feel her legs either, couldn’t feel anything resembling a physical body.

But she could hear. 

Oh, how she could hear. 

The song was clearer now. And closer. And beautifully complex, like a puzzle that she could tease out into a thousand rainbow threads.

I’m dreaming, Lily realized.

She couldn’t say for sure if she had ever had a dream, but whatever she was experiencing now didn’t feel like anything she had ever encountered before. The tumult of her thoughts had settled, gone placid like a still pool of water. There was only the music. She tried to focus on it, to drag it closer, but it only seemed to retreat from her attention, as if it were shy and fleeing from her

And it dangled those tempting, teasing threads before her. If only she could catch hold of one…

Pills and earplugs forgotten, Lily pursued the song. There was no sensation of physical movement, of time passing, only the sense that the music flitted before her, always just beyond her grasp. She was unable to pull it to her, to untangle its wonderful, woven intricacies.

Something flickered in the dream-void. 

There was no time and space here, and yet there was something out there in the emptiness. Something that was not the song.

No. That wasn’t quite right, Lily thought. This thing, this other, this flickering—it was in the same direction she perceived the song to be coming from. Could they be connected somehow?

Even as that last thought arrived, a shape blossomed before her. But hadn’t it been immeasurably far away? Did distance even matter in dreams?

The shape was a rough oval, and the space it enclosed was the source of the flickering she had seen from a distance. Now that she stood before it, Lily could see that the area within the oval rippled like the surface of a pool reflecting sunlight, obscuring whatever lay behind the flickering. The edges of the oval were composed of what seemed to be a single strand of smoky gray material, pencil-thin, that wound about itself, twisting and convoluted and seemingly without beginning or end. Her eyes traced along it, delicate markings appearing and disappearing before her, shifting and squirming like a nest of serpents.

Lily’s first thought was of the full-length wall mirror beside the door in the apartment she shared with her father. And that brought thoughts of him examining himself before work in that same mirror—adjusting his tie, straightening his collar. She felt a moment of guilt for what she was doing.

I’m betraying him, she thought. But he’ll be monitoring me. He’ll keep me safe. I’ll be shaken awake any moment now. 

But then the chance would be gone, and her father would be doubly watchful.

Lily pushed the guilt away, determined to discover what her father was hiding from her before he returned to wake her. She did not like the mirror at home, did not like mirrors in general, and had only caught sidelong glimpses of herself reflected in it as she hurried through the door. But she could see no reflection in this surface, only the flickering space enclosed by the smoky, serpentine frame that her eyes kept getting pulled back to, that she kept trying to mentally unravel.

It’s not a mirror, Lily realized. It’s a portal.

Why that thought should have occurred to her, Lily could not say. But she knew that it was true. And she also knew a moment of unreasoning terror.

Why?

Lily lifted her hand without thinking, without considering that until now she hadn’t possessed a body in this nothing space. All that mattered was that she possessed one now, that she had a hand that existed at the end of an arm that was attached to a body.

Around her, the song swelled, urging her toward the portal, pushing and pulling her all at once. She extended her hand, one finger pointed toward the flickering space enclosed by the smoky and endless frame. Ripples on water. Ripples…

Lily’s finger touched the flickering, and the song seared through her, achingly beautiful and lonely and seductive and…

Hands came through the portal. Grasping hands that seized her wrist, her elbow, her shoulder, her hair, and dragged her through the portal before she had a chance to cry out.

•••

Dr. Aron Markart leaned against the door frame of his office, watching his daughter sleep. Something wasn’t right, but he couldn’t place his finger on it. He knew that he should be returning to the lab to start the trial, but he’d observed too many sleepers, had watched Lily sleep almost every night of her life, and something about her behavior tonight bothered him.

She was curled into a ball on the couch, a striped blanket pulled tight around her and held close to her jaw in bunched folds. He allowed himself a shuddering breath as he remembered his wife making that blanket.

“So that you won’t get too cold in that lab when you have to study the dreamers,” Iona had said.

She had been all too familiar with that cold since she had once been one of those dreamers. Before the dark times came, before Aron forbade her to dream.

He shook his head, willing himself not to think about his wife, but it was impossible not to, especially when he watched his daughter sleeping. Sometimes he could forget that Lily was Iona’s daughter when she was awake. But when she slept, when the hard line of her mouth softened and the tension and seriousness left her face…

It wasn’t so much that they looked alike, it was a facial expression they shared, one that only graced Lily’s face when she was sleeping but had lit Iona’s face in practically every moment, waking and sleeping. 

Every day until the end.

Stop it, he berated himself. She’s gone. Gone. There was nothing you could have done.

Not then, not now.

But he could still protect Lily, could keep her from the monster that had taken her mother. He could keep the dreams from claiming his daughter.

He knew that Iona would not have approved of the path he had chosen for Lily. Iona would have insisted on fantasy. She would have encouraged Lily’s day-dreaming and night-dreaming, would have wanted all the wonders of both the waking world and the dreaming world opened for her daughter to explore.

But Iona was gone. 

He had begged her not to go, had pleaded, had ordered. But she had gone anyway.

To face the monster.

Aron found himself staring at the ring on his finger in the dim light from the hallway behind him. Fifteen years she had been gone and still he wore the ring. Did he still expect that she would wake up, that by some miracle she would rise from the bed she had been confined to since that fateful day? The sleeping sickness was her family’s curse, and once it took them, it did not return them.

He would not let it take Lily.

His hand clenched in a fist, the ring winking as if Iona were mocking his severity. 

But he had to be stern in order to keep Lily safe. He had to discourage dreaming of any sort.

Still, he knew what Iona’s response would have been. He whispered the words to himself.

“At what cost?”

Aron knew the cost better than most. After all, who would know the physical effects of robbing someone of their dreams better than someone who studied sleep and dreams for a living?

That was how they had first met, he and Iona. In the lab. He a freshly minted graduate student in sleep studies, she the star patient. The one who lived in fantasies, who could control her dreams and remember them down to the last detail. A lucid dreamer. He had always been suspicious of fantasy before meeting her, had chided himself for daydreaming or succumbing to flights of fancy when there was work—real and serious work—to be done. 

But Iona had shown him joy, had shown him wonder. She had shown him the Dreambetween.

Aron did not remember leaving the doorway to enter his office but found himself somehow having crossed half the distance to his daughter’s sleeping form. 

Something was definitely wrong. 

In the darkened room, the recorded voices whispered around him, setting puzzles, directing thoughts. He’d used all the tools at his disposal to keep Lily from dreaming, no matter what the cost to the quality of her waking life. Better to be sick and in pain then to succumb to eternal sleep, to be robbed of life altogether.

Aron studied Lily’s face, lit by the slash of faint light coming through the doorway behind him. She complained of constant headaches, often debilitating. Her blood pressure was abnormally high for her age, and she suffered from severe anxiety. Fits of uncontrolled trembling sometimes reduced her to tears.

But she was safe. She woke up every morning and ate breakfast with him before the tutors came. She was too serious, too adult for her age by far, but it was the only way to keep her from being taken from him, from encountering the monster that lurked in her dreams. It was selfish, of course, but he could not lose her, not the way he had lost Iona.

Aron crossed the remaining distance to the couch and knelt beside his daughter. 

The resemblance was obvious now. Her hair and skin were darker than Iona’s, her eyes not remotely the same remarkable shade, and Lily had a spray of freckles Iona had never possessed. But that expression, that wonder…

Something in Lily’s face shifted, a shift that chilled Aron to the core of his being. He’d seen that shift before.

“Lily?” he whispered. Then he said her name again, louder this time.

He brushed a sandy lock of hair back from the side of her face and found himself staring at her ear, at something that was stuffed into her ear.

A silicone earplug.

“No,” he said, then said it again, this time yelling the word and her name over and over.

He grabbed her shoulders and began to shake her, desperate to wake her, desperate to keep her with him.

“Oh god, Lily, no. Don’t go. Don’t leave me alone. Don’t go to him.”

Her arm flopped free from beneath the pillow, and her hand fell open, scattering something across the hard floor.

Aron’s head whipped around, following the sound until he saw what she had been holding in her hand.

The pills? But he had seen her take them, had taken the empty cup back from her after she had washed them down.

“Why?” he shouted at Lily, still shaking her, unwilling to look at the slackness of the muscles in her face, unwilling to accept that she couldn’t answer him. “Why, Lily? Why?”

Dr. Aron Markart wrapped his arms around his daughter, pulling her body—still warm and still breathing—into a fierce embrace as if he could physically pull her back from the place she had gone, the place her mother had not returned from.

The Dreambetween.

 

 

 

DESOLATION OF THE TRAITORS

The Dreambetween

 

On reflection, Lily realized that tensing her entire body before hitting the surface of the portal had probably been a mistake. Every muscle in her body ached, particularly where she had landed on her shoulder and back. Strangely though, her head, which always seemed to be cursed with a persistent, dull ache, felt remarkably clear and pain-free.

There was whispering above her, but she kept her eyes closed. Why open them and ruin the strange sense of peace that had settled in her head? Why open them and see the faces that belonged to those whispers, that belonged to the long-fingered hands that had reached through the portal to grab her? Her face felt warm, like it was being bathed in sunlight. But if sunlight were shining on her face, she should be seeing shades of red through her closed eyelids, not black.

It only took a moment, but the fear that she had gone blind compelled her to open her eyes against all her better judgment. The return of sight was a blessed relief for all of a second or so, the length of time it took her to process the faces of those huddled around her.

“Hullo, Miss. Sorry ‘bout the tumble, eh?”

Lily could not pick out the speaker. She was too busy trying to believe that the creatures above her were human. 

Well, partly human anyway.

They were a misshapen lot, with their features shrunken, stretched, or enlarged to the point of grotesquerie—eyes in odd shapes and colors, skin in shades and textures that didn’t entirely fit within the normal human spectrum. And the clothes…

Lily sat up suddenly, and several of the creatures stretched their hands out toward her. They might have been attempting to help her up—they didn’t seem that threatening after all, and one of them had apologized to her, hadn’t it?—but Lily shrank back from the proffered hands with their ragged, yellow nails and twisted digits. She scuttled backward toward the only gap in the surrounding circle she could sense until her head bumped against something, and she looked up.

“Apologies, mademoiselle. So sorry we startled you. Have you suffered any injury?”

Lily twisted around, rising into a crouch and staring at the man—the creature—before her. It was not as misshapen as the others, though its clothing was similarly mismatched. Its thin hair, an indifferent brown, fell with an almost gauzy texture around an egg-like head perched atop a tall and emaciated body. 

He—and Lily resolved to think of the creature as a “he” rather than imagining it an inhuman monster—had an odd face, old and yet distinctly childlike, unmarked by crease or wrinkle. Black eyes watched her from behind rectangular glasses perched on the end of an upturned nose. He smiled, showing stained and crooked teeth.

“The master sends his greetings, and hopes you will join him at his palace this evening.” The man—thing?—bent forward in a bow, one white-gloved hand extended toward her.

Lily’s mouth opened, then shut, then opened again. Words failed her.

“Who?” she gasped.

Most words anyway. 

The round face tilted, perched atop an assemblage of clothes that Lily identified as coming from at least three different eras, in colors and patterns that made no attempt at harmony.

“The master, of course, is Prince of the Hollow Spaces and the Dreambetween, the High Lord of the Severed Folk.”

The thing blinked, and Lily saw now that his narrow eyes were almost entirely black behind the rectangular lenses. Inhuman. No whites, no iris. Just black. Lily shivered as she looked at the eyes, glittering dark voids in the creature’s face. She crossed her arms across her chest, conscious now that she wore only the thin pajamas she had been wearing when she fell asleep—pink and purple plaid because her father thought those were still her favorite colors.

They hadn’t been since she was seven.

“S-s-s-Severed?” she managed.

The black-eyed creature smiled, his lips stretching unnaturally wide, the smile improbably extending off the sides of his pale—and was it touched by a hint of blue?—face.

“Why, that would be us, mademoiselle. The Severed. At your service.”

He bowed again, this time with more of a flourish, and laughter sounded behind Lily. Close. Very close. She could almost feel their breath stirring the hair on her neck, their fingernails brushing the fabric of her pajamas. The creature before her stepped close, still bowing, and reached for her hand.

“My name is Shard, mademoiselle, and I would consider it an honor if you would allow me to escort you to my master’s palace.”

Snickering from behind her, and Lily thought she caught the briefest flash of anger on Shard’s face. She suspected that perhaps they were mocking his attempts at manners and formality, though maybe she was reading too much into their rough appearance. 

Lily gathered herself, uncrossing her arms and standing straighter. Perhaps if Shard respected formality…

“I demand to be taken home, Mr. Shard. I have been brought here against my wishes and do not wish to remain.”

No more snickering. 

Shard stared at her for a long moment, his head tilted again, hand still extended. His black eyes were unblinking behind his glasses.

“But, my dear girl, you are home,” he said. “You belong here. This is your birthright.”

As he spoke the words, the music swelled in Lily’s head again. She had almost forgotten the song in the confusion of her arrival, but now she realized that it had never stopped playing. In fact, it was so much more defined now, so much more captivating. She could hear a voice, singing without words, soaring and yet fragile, genderless and beautiful, sad and joyful, all at once.

“That music,” she whispered.

Shard sighed, his expression wistful. “Yes, we’ve all heard it. I envy you the hearing of it now. The master makes such beautiful music.”

“You don’t hear it then?” she asked.

“Not now. Not for a very long time. Not since we first…” His voice trailed off and he shook his head, the soft brown gauze of his hair fluttering about his pale face. “No matter, no matter. Only memories. Come, mademoiselle. It is time to go. The Desolation is no place to linger.”

For the first time since she had arrived, Lily looked beyond the circle of misshapen men surrounding her. The sky was lavender, cloudless and sunless, giving the impression of neither day nor night. Emerald forests crouched beneath the sky on three sides, and dark mountains rose on the fourth horizon.

Like a painting. An incomplete painting.

But the ground upon which they stood was barren, rolling hills of dusty earth with only the occasional patch of weeds or stone to break the monotony.

This can’t be real, she thought, trying to force what she saw into logical boxes. It’s only a dream. She had no frame of reference for what was normal in dreams. Perhaps this was how dreams were supposed to look and feel?

Even as she thought this, Lily knew it to be false, though she couldn’t say how. This was something more than a normal dream, something special. Something not every dreamer experienced. And something in that appealed to her. 

If her father would not allow her adventures when she was awake, perhaps she could have one while she slept? And besides, her mind and body felt so good here. What could go wrong in a dream anyway?

As if in answer, the distant sound of a horn cut through the spell of the song that surrounded her. Unlike the song, the horn was apparently something the Severed were able to hear. All around her, they dropped into crouches, hissing and extending their hands to ward off invisible foes.

“The Hunt, the Hunt,” she heard the whispers spread amongst them.

Then rough hands grabbed her, and she was slung over the shoulder of one of the creatures. The Severed fled in long, loping strides, their feet—attired in an odd mixture of boots and clogs and shoes and sandals—pounded a dull rhythm against the rolling, dusty hills as they made their way toward the dark peaks of the mountains in the distance. 

Lily, her view of their progress inverted and half obscured by the creature carrying her, thought the sky grew a little darker as the horn sounded again, and the Severed redoubled the pace of their flight.

 

 

 

DEMENT-KENNEDY SLEEP CENTER

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

 

"Not again, not again,” Aron muttered as he lifted his daughter’s sleeping form. All of her muscles were slack.

Aron drew a shuddering breath and started for the door, not looking at Lily’s face for fear that he might see a change. He’d seen her eyes twitching, the wonder of the Dreambetween lighting her face as she lay on the couch. If he looked at her again, he knew that her expression might be different, that her eyes might have ceased their movement.

That she might look like her mother or the other lost sleepers.

He could not forget that lifeless expression because it was all he had seen on Iona’s face for the last fifteen years. It was all he had seen on the faces of the other unfortunate men and women—distant relations all—lying in the Special Care Unit, sleeping eternally. But though they slept, they did not dream, for they had been robbed of dreams and robbed of their waking lives by the creature that haunted the Dreambetween.

The Severed Lord.

“Come on, Lily,” he whispered to her, shouldering his way through his office door and into the bright fluorescent glow of the hall. The striped blanket hung from the limp form in his arms, dragging on the floor and threatening to trip him.

Like that day fifteen years ago.

It had been Lily he’d almost tripped over that morning, startled awake only to find his world in ruins. Only Lily had been left to him. Fifteen years he had protected her, shielded her from dreams, kept her safe.

And now he had lost her, had lost them both.

Aron groaned and staggered to a stop. 

Why go on?

His legs wobbled beneath him, threatening to give way. 

Then he spotted the wheelchair. It was folded up and leaned against a potted plant beside a colleague’s door. Dimly, he remembered a brief flurry of excitement that afternoon. An elderly patient had collapsed and had been taken away on a gurney. 

Aron latched onto the promise presented by the abandoned wheelchair. Nobody would need it now. Nobody except him. It was as if it were placed there for a purpose. His purpose.

He carried Lily over to a chair in the reception area, setting her down while he unfolded the wheelchair. His motions were clumsy, his limbs heavy. They almost felt as if they were detached from his body. As he fought to get the wheelchair unfolded, he fought against the memories clawing at him.

Wheelchairs always reminded him of Iona. The briefest hint of a smile touched his lips as he remembered the races she had organized—sleepers versus grad students back in that first lab outside Baltimore. She’d always been the one to prompt things like that—madcap foolish schemes, fun for the sake of fun. Or had she just been trying to make the waking world more like the Dreambetween?

A world shorn of the rules that bound waking life.

Aron’s smile faded as he placed Lily in the chair and began to wheel her toward the elevators at the far end of the hall. He’d wheeled Iona through this same medical center that morning fifteen years ago. Her, slumped in a wheelchair, bathrobe wrapped around her nightgown for modesty. Lily, fussing in the car seat as it banged awkwardly against his side, his arm thrust through the handle. The nurse on the desk had tried to take Lily from him, but he’d refused. They’d tried to take Iona too, offered to push the wheelchair themselves, but he refused that help as well. He’d known where he was taking her, where she was destined to end up after all the tests, all the evaluations.

All the failures of modern medicine to determine what exactly had happened to her.

Aron knew. He’d known as soon as he had seen her face that morning.

Aron paused at the elevator and hit the down button, his eyes fixed on the amber glow as it lit up, still refusing to look at Lily’s face, still afraid of finding a change there.

He remembered Iona’s face that morning, remembered how she hadn’t moved when the sunlight fell on her, on that face he loved, that face he’d seen sleeping so often before.

But not like this. Never like this.

How many times had he watched Iona sleep over the years? Dozens of times during those initial trials in the sleep lab when they had first met. Probably hundreds of times in the cramped studio apartment that was all they could afford on her freelance copyediting income while he finished grad school. And how many times in those final few months when they moved into the townhouse with baby Lily? Iona had been unable to get any proper sleep as Aron did everything in his power to keep her safe, to keep her from the Dreambetween. Her face had not been lit with its usual dreaming wonder in those months, but at least it had been her face, even pinched and exhausted as it was.

But the face he saw that terrible morning was the face of a stranger. No joy. No life. No Iona.

He’d seen faces like that before.

She had shown them to him.

The faces of the Sundered.

The elevator dinged, and Aron shook his head to clear it, moving behind the wheelchair and pushing Lily into the gleaming metal chamber, long enough to accommodate a gurney should it need to. He parked the wheelchair beside the bank of buttons near the door and pressed B2, feeling so very small in the huge confines of the elevator as it began to drop, Iona’s face from that morning—and every morning since—swimming before him.

Nothing of her normal vitality lurked there, nothing of the normal glow of wonder that lit her features when she dreamed. He’d known that she was gone, that whatever made Iona Iona was no longer present in her body. But how could that be? And how could he be certain that she was gone forever?

He had watched her chest rising and falling beneath the covers and had known. His wife—the mother of his child—had been Sundered by the creature that stalked her dreams. Iona’s spirit was no longer contained within the shell that slept before him.

And would never return.

The elevator chimed, and the doors slid open. Aron pushed the wheelchair out into the corridor of Basement 2. His own lab was on the first basement level, but he was no stranger to the second.

He had come here often enough.

Aron shivered and pulled the edge of the blanket up around Lily’s shoulders when he realized that it was slipping. The center didn’t waste resources on heat down here. Not many among the living spent much time in Basement 2. He wheeled Lily past storage, past utility rooms, past the turn that would have taken him to the morgue.

The duty nurse on the desk in the Special Care Unit heard him coming and looked up, her eyes going wide when she saw who he was and who was in the wheelchair. He saw the softening in her eyes as they tracked back toward his face.

They all knew his story in the Special Care Unit.

 

 

 

DESOLATION OF THE TRAITORS

The Dreambetween

 

With every stride the creature took, Lily came down hard on its shoulder. Each impact drove the breath from her body, rendering her stomach an aching mass that connected her legs to her upper body. She tried to gasp out that she was in pain, that she needed them to stop, that she would run along with them, but she couldn’t find the breath to speak. 

Not that she imagined she could keep up with the pace the Severed creatures were setting anyway. She’d never been much of an athlete, and they were covering ground at a rate that seemed inconceivable given the lopsided, hunched stature of most of them. The ground shifted and blurred beneath their running feet in a way that made no logical sense to her—they seemed to be moving faster than their legs could possibly be carrying them.

Though Lily could not speak, her captors continued to mutter amongst themselves, their hushed voices fearful. The only words she could pick out were the ones that they repeated most often.

“The Hunt.”

What did it mean?

Was something hunting them? 

Past the body of the creature that carried her, she could see that the rest were pulling away from them. She heard the one carrying her cry out—a harsh, barking noise—and the other Severed slowed and turned back, casting nervous glances at the bare, dusty hills surrounding them.

Shard broke from the group and held out his stick-like arms, long fingers emerging from the sleeves of an overlarge brocade coat. The coat couldn’t seem to settle on whether it was brown, green, or black and clashed terribly with the tight-fitting blue trousers with red piping and the garish Hawaiian shirt he wore. 

The riot of patterns and time periods represented by the clothes made her dizzy.

“To me, mademoiselle. Arms around my neck please. We must move quickly,” he said.

Not that she had anything to do with the transfer. The creature that had been carrying her shifted her off its shoulder and passed her over to Shard, who slung her across his back. Instinctively, her arms tightened around his neck as he began to run.

Bon, mademoiselle. Bon.

She worried for a moment that she would choke him, but he didn’t seem to be bothered by the tightness of her grip. She could feel just how emaciated Shard’s body was beneath the heavy coat, but he evidently had little trouble bearing her weight. At least in this new position, it was her arms that took most of the abuse, giving her stomach a break and allowing her to gather her breath.

“What is the Hunt?” she asked, her voice soft, but near enough to Shard’s ear that he could hear her.

“Not now, if you please. Perhaps if we can outrun them there will be time to explain.”

The horn sounded again, and several of the Severed cried out in alarm. It was much closer this time, maybe even over the next rise beside them. They plunged down another slope, dust rising in thick clouds around them, their band beginning to stretch out as the stronger runners made better progress. The leaders leapt across a thin trickle of a stream at the bottom of the rise a full twenty yards ahead of those clustered around Shard and Lily at the back of the pack. 

And then, in that curious way that time and space seemed to behave here, they were over the stream and surging up the opposite slope almost before she could process their approach to the stream. The purple sky glowed ahead of them, and, to the right, Lily could see that the forest seemed much closer.

And much darker.

“Why’s the gate got to be here, so close to her horrible trees?” whined one of the smaller Severed nearby. 

“Witch wanted it that way, no doubt,” said another.

“Just run, you idiots,” said a third.

And then the not-hounds arrived.

That was the name Lily’s mind assigned to them anyway, though she had little impression of them at first beyond a pack of darting shadows that slammed into the side of the Severed band, sending her captors sprawling amid a din of cries and screams. 

Shard was dealt a glancing blow and spun beneath her, keeping his feet with a dancer’s grace, only to suffer a second blow and then trip over a not-hound that raced along the dusty ground like a serpent. Lily was thrown clear as Shard fell.

Time seemed to slow for her. Body twisting in the air, she was able to pick out the individual shapes of the not-hounds, their bodies indistinct but somehow reminiscent of both dogs and men, though not all at once. She thought that their bodies might be in constant transition, flowing from dog to man and back to dog without ever settling on one shape nor achieving its form completely. One of the beasts turned its head toward her as it passed. She could not read the emotion on its face, but sensed the intelligence that rode behind it. The thing knew her somehow.

Then she hit the ground, her shoulder slamming into the packed, dusty earth. The rest of her body was wrenched around, bouncing then slamming down again, this time with her hip hitting first. She was rolling. Rolling down the slope into the next gully. Lily threw her arms around her head and tried to curl into a ball to protect herself, but that only made her roll faster.

There was a stream at the bottom of this slope as well, and she splashed into it hard at the end of her tumble. She didn’t know why she expected the water to be cold, for the day was pleasant and the water shallow, but she did and found herself shocked that it was warm instead.

Blood warm.

Braced on her hands and knees, she saw nearly translucent shapes that might have been fish swimming just below her face, just below the surface, barely distinguishable from the water they swam in. Were they fish? Before she could study them further, the horn blew again and she was on her feet, hurrying along the stream toward the trees that darkened the gap in the hills ahead of her. 

She wasn’t sure why she ran for the woods. Indeed, she wasn’t entirely sure why she ran at all. It wasn’t like the Severed had mistreated her severely, so she wasn’t exactly fleeing from them. Maybe the not-hounds? Maybe she was running from them?

But hadn’t they come from the direction of the very woods she was running toward? 

Lily’s brain felt fogged again, robbed of the wonderful clarity she had enjoyed when she was first pulled through the portal. She wondered, dimly, if there might be something in the water that was clouding her mind and convincing her to run for the woods. The stream was running out of the trees, after all.

She had nearly reached the shadow cast by the trees when she heard a loud cry some distance behind her. She turned back to see that the not-hounds and Severed were still fighting, though their melee had moved to the bottom of the gully behind her. Shard was standing outside of the darting mass of bodies, his arm outstretched toward her, waving vigorously. Trying to get her attention? Perhaps to warn her? He cried out again and then was dragged back into the fighting.

It was only then that she realized the song had faded. It was still there, teasing at the back of her conscious attention, but the fog that had settled on her brain and the pain throughout her body were too insistent and would not let her focus on it.

That’s why I stayed with the Severed, why I went along so passively, she thought. They had been taking her in the direction that the song had insisted she go. Why then should she not continue to follow its siren call? Even with its reduced influence and power, she could tell that it was calling to her from the direction of the mountains. 

But something else was pulling her into the woods, and that something was stronger at the moment and seemed to make a more convincing argument.

Lily turned and moved into the trees.

She had never spent much time outdoors. Her father split most of his time between the office and their apartment when he wasn’t at the lab. Lily had never been camping, had never ventured into a group of trees larger than the small copse in the middle of the park opposite the sleep center. Her father took her to that park for picnics sometimes, though he always seemed to grow sad when they went there. She had always supposed it must have something to do with her mother.

But the trees in that park were nothing like the ones in this forest. The trees here grew in all manner of unnatural shapes and directions—several trunks emerging from the same patch of ground, some growing almost horizontal before curling up to the canopy above. And there was little in the way of undergrowth, save a green carpet of some moss-like growth that sparkled with tiny flowers in a variety of shades. With every step, the mossy stuff she crushed underfoot gave off tantalizing smells, never the same twice, and she found that she could barely hear the song now, even less so than when she had been on the other side of the portal.

Lily slowed, her feet shuffling through the aromatic carpet, still carrying her forward, deeper into the woods, though she tried to stop them.

How long had she been in this dream? There didn’t seem to be any sun, even when she was out in the open on the hills of what Shard had called The Desolation. She had no clear idea about how far the Severed had run while carrying her, nor any notion of how long they had run before the not-hounds’ ambush.

Would her father have noticed yet? Would he have discovered her earplugs or the pills gripped in her sleeping hand? Would he feel betrayed?

How long had she been asleep?

As if the distraction of thinking had allowed her mind to focus on other things, she realized suddenly that there were no sounds in the forest, that there hadn’t been any even when she had first entered. In the small copse in the park she’d been able to hear creatures moving through the underbrush, birds chattering and flitting through the branches.

So where were the animals that lived in these woods?

A clearing opened ahead, revealing a patch of lavender sky above. Lily moved into the clearing cautiously, her eyes on the large boulder that seemed placed in the middle of the clearing like an altar. It made no sound, but called to her nonetheless. She moved toward it, her scalp prickling with the sensation of being watched.

She hesitated a long moment beside the stone before reaching out to brush her fingers against it. It was smooth to the touch and warm, as if the sun had been beating down upon it all day. But she’d seen no evidence of a sun in this place.

Lily was drawn closer, pressing her palm flat against the stone’s warm surface. She sensed movement deep within the stone—a slow throbbing that resonated with something inside of her, with the part of her that found this place somehow natural despite all its strangeness. Slow. Deep. Steady. What did that throbbing remind her off?

“A pulse,” she whispered.

“True enough, child,” said a voice behind her.

 

 

 

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