The new silence that fell over Ravi’s heart and mind was borne of the terrible truth that had broken free at last. No longer did she need to hide her feelings, or pretend that she wasn’t exactly what Somnia had named her to be; a murderer, just like her. She had wanted to tell Baku, at least, someday; when everything was over, and time had proven the righteousness of her goal. Now even that had been torn away by the same witch that had already taken so much. She might have cared, if she weren’t so empty already.
She could feel their eyes on her; Baku’s accusatory and grief-stricken, and Melvin’s shocked and disturbed. Both were fair reactions. There was no point in defending herself against either. She’d called herself far worse; damned herself to far worse than they could ever dream. Perhaps, when the time was right, she would exact vengeance, as a proper Queen should; but not before she’d taken her crown.
Murderer she might have been, but her people did not deserve to pay the ultimate price for her sin. No matter what she had hidden away, it could not compare to the magnitude of the woman’s treachery.
That was true, whether her friends still believed in her, or not.
Somnia was laughing, a mere handspan away from Ravi, looking for any sign at all that she’d won. The silence that Ravi had already given her was ample enough for that. She would give the witch no further joy in her victory – or her death.
She was still clad in her armor, her scythe at her side, butt end dug into the dirt for support. Her fingers clutched at the wooden haft, her instincts still on full alert for incoming treachery. Baku and Melvin might have done anything, in their fury – she was glad they hadn’t. More bloodshed would not have changed anything. Despite her sins, she had truly tried to protect them all, in her own way. Even in her moments of violence and rage, she had only wanted that, and nothing more.
I am sorry. I truly am. I never meant for any of this to happen. But now… is not the time for regrets. And if you don’t understand that…
She looked up, jaw set, into Somnia’s eyes, noting the briefest spark of surprise within their icy depths; so much like her own.
I’ll do it all by myself. This is what I was born to do.
The forest around them shuddered, then, at the forces that sprang forth from nothingness into reality. Mountains rose from the earth to tower above the trees; trees uprooted and tumbled like rain to the ground below. The ground heaved and roiled like the water of the waves, and the waves crashed in an attempt to drown the world. The powers of the line of Kuranes were not to be trifled with; with twin imaginations at war, very little might remain.
To the outside observer, it was all too fast to follow, and both she and Somnia knew it. To Somnia’s mind, it was the work of a careless child of a princess, hell-bent on revenge. Perhaps it looked that way to Baku and Melvin, too.
To Ravi, it was a final farewell to those she loved.
I won’t have any more deaths on my hands, do you understand? Get out. While you can. This is your only warning.
When the dust settled, only Somnia and Ravi remained, encased in a valley surrounded by jagged peaks and blighted ground; a crater in the midst of a world that had once been beautiful. Baku and Melvin were gone, to what Ravi hoped was safety.
That was the way she’d wanted it. No matter what else happened, or which of the last of the Kuranes line prevailed, at least they would settle it themselves, alone, without further interference.
Ravi smiled, her grin feral as she stared down her scythe’s blade at the woman who had once been her aunt.
“Know this, witch, before we end this, once and for all. You may have taken my friends from me. You may have destroyed the land we called home. You may have buried my entire life in your ashes.”
“But I’m nothing like you. Let me prove it to you.”
The battle began, then, in earnest.
Melvin had never run so far or so fast in his life. He’d been trying to wrap his head around the kitten’s disappearance in blue flame, and the knowledge that Ravi had murdered someone, when the entire world erupted around him. For a great many breathless moments, he thought he might not make it; somehow the spreading darkness had always ended just shy of where he stood. Now he looked out at it; a sphere of opaque darkness in the middle of the once-lush forest. He couldn’t have seen anything, even if he wanted to. After the experience he’d had with his fingers, reaching for his sister, he wasn’t about to breach the perimeter without need.
Now he sat in the grass, his back against a tree, just staring out at the darkness. He had no idea where Baku had gone; he hadn’t had time to concern himself with anyone other than himself. He might have tried to protect Ravi, but that, of course, was impossible. He just hoped that the old man in the shape of a monster had been able to flee.
If he’d been Baku, he might not have bothered to try.
It was terrible to think about. How many years had the so-called dog followed her, spending his entire lifetime just to keep her alive? How long had she lied to him? How long had she hidden her terrible secret? So many questions ran through his mind, and he didn’t relish the need for any of them.
In all the time he’d known Ravi, he had not missed the fact that the woman could be dangerous, but he had never once considered the possibility that she couldn’t be trusted. She’d been far too open and honest for that, even in her anger and rage.
Now, he wasn’t sure anymore. He no longer trusted what she’d told him about anything. If she would lie to the man who replaced her father, what would she tell a man she hated? Melvin had no illusions about her opinion of him, after this long. Perhaps she’d brought him here to die? That didn’t really make sense either, but in the aftermath of all that had happened, he wasn’t sure what did, anymore. He was alone, with nothing but lies to go on.
He looked down, then, at his hand, clenched around an object – the chain of his sister’s beloved locket. While Ravi had been trading words with her aunt, he’d crept up behind Baku and removed it from the creature’s ooze-like form. A sense of impending doom had taken over his wits, and try as he might, he felt certain that he’d done the right thing. Now he was even more certain that these people were not here to help him find his sister. They didn’t care a single bit about her, and perhaps they should never have been expected to do so. They were, after all, from a different world.
He couldn’t just let them take the last surviving memory of his sister. Despite the nonsense they’d been spewing, he had little else to explain the events of his own past two years. If Cheryl had truly gone to the Dreamlands…
His eyes settled on the stairway in the distance, around and behind the shadowed sphere of battle. It would be nothing to sneak over to it and take what he’d worked so hard to find; a chance, albeit slim, to brave the darkness and find Cheryl. He had to believe he wouldn’t need a guide. He had to believe he was strong enough to find her and bring her home with the power vested in him as her brother and protector.
In the end, he was just as naive as Baku or Ravi, but like both of them, he couldn’t afford to be wrong.
Look at me, a grown man calling on the magic of a strange and unearthly realm. What a fool I am. I’m too far gone to be helped, now. Look at me, Cheryl. Do you see what I’ve become, without you?
He ignored the voice in the back of his mind that told him that he might, just might, have found peace in this realm with Ravi, had she been anything like what he’d dreamed – but no. Those were only dreams, not reality. She and Baku had their roles to play.
He did, too.
He stood, collecting his breath, his thoughts, and his courage, and crept toward the stairway, crossing the distance in what seemed like no time at all. His feet were heavy and tired as they climbed, one stair after another, back to the place where he’d lost Cheryl and the rest of his life along with her.
He stared into what had once been nothingness, but now formed the oblong, pulsating dark portal from his nightmares – no, his memories – of what had taken Cheryl away. He was close enough to touch it, now, and this time, more than just his fingers would be at risk. He questioned his sanity, knowing he might never return to the world of his birth unchanged.
What was it that Ravi had said, about this way being harder? He couldn’t remember. It was probably a lie, anyway.
At last, Melvin stepped forward, letting the blackness of the throbbing portal envelop his body.
What lay beyond was a silence unlike any he’d ever known.
Baku forced his monstrous body up the flight of stairs, one thick stone at a time, the effort bringing out the red lines of stress that so often had appeared on his body of late. He had survived Ravi’s sealing as well, though only just; now his heart and mind lay trapped in the bubble along with her.
Torn between the wickedness of Somnia’s revelation, and a father’s faith in his daughter, he was utterly alone for the first time in twenty years. Where Ravi had gone now, she was, too – the bond between them had been severed. All his lessons about relying on others, and fighting together, had fallen on deaf ears.
There was nothing for him to do now but go back through the yawning portal that had spat him out into this world like the monster that he was, and hope beyond hope that she survived.
His own survival meant little, without her.
He did not hesitate at the final step.
In one fluid motion, he disappeared into the blackness, and was gone from the reality he’d accepted as his own.
The battle raged on for what could have been an eternity. Ravi supported herself on her scythe, panting, her body drenched in sweat and her own blood. Somnia was no better; her scandalous dress was torn and exposed bruised, beaten flesh beneath. Neither of them had wasted more time on words; words had done enough damage already. In the end, they were at an impasse; neither was going to emerge victorious at an acceptable cost.
Then, the unexpected happened. Somnia stood upright, her face cold and mocking. Her rasping, wicked voice cut through the silence.
“We’ve wasted enough time, dear niece. The truth is that you’ve already lost. You’re better than I thought, and you certainly have your mother’s gifts… but you’ve forgotten the most important part of all, haven’t you? Twenty years is a long time to remember.”
Ravi attacked her again, but was far too slow to connect. With a cackle, Somnia retracted all of her weapons and magic, standing before Ravi as human as Melvin had ever been.
“If you think you’re ready, I won’t stop you. Come home. Come see what I’ve made of your parents’ lives. Be my prisoner. Be my puppet. I wanted to end you here, but since you’re going to make this difficult…”
She smiled, cruelly. “Allow me to return the favor.”
Before Ravi could react, she’d retreated, stepping through the portal and disappearing into the Dreamlands.
It was Ravi’s duty to pursue her. She had no reason not to, not anymore. The portal had always been her own true goal, and through it, she firmly believed her salvation would come.
As she followed her aunt through into darkness, Ravi saw her own reflection twisted in the darkness; the memory that Melvin had seen, of a child still screaming in the wake of tragic loss. Her siblings bodies laid out before her, lifeless and gone.
Nothing had changed. But at least now, she would die in the land of her birth. If she was lucky, she might atone for her sins, first.
She disappeared into the portal, leaving reality behind.
She stood before the blind gate guardians of Celephais, once again barred from entry. This time, they did not attack; she presumed this was Somnia’s doing on some level. Instead, they spoke, in voices that echoed steel cutting through layers upon layers of silk and satin; lesser minds might have gone mad.
“You are not welcome in the lands of Celephais, stranger. Begone.”
The words, more than anything else that had happened to her since her journey began, twenty years ago, cut Ravi to the core.
They were the words spoken to those who were too old; too corrupted and twisted by reality to enter such a place of beauty and imagination. Countless humans suffered such fates each and every day, and Ravi had always believed they’d deserved it. How hard was it to keep believing, when everyone around you had lost hope?
Twenty years ago, she’d thought it was easy. Now, she’d become little more than a shade of her former self, and with the transformation, she’d locked herself eternally out of her home.
I have killed. I have lost faith. I have lost… everything. Baku tried to warn me. Melvin tried to warn me, and he didn’t even know. I’ve been chasing this dream for so long… and now my dream has become my nightmare.
I have failed. This is my punishment. This time, sorry won’t be good enough. I’ve earned this… a chance to forever know what I’ve lost, and live out the rest of my life as a stranger to my own land. I never thought anything could be worse than exile to another world… now I know. Exile in my own world is worse.
Ravi turned from the gates of Celephais and wandered into the night, a stranger in the land of her birth. What came next was of no consequence to her now.
Somnia had won, as she’d claimed.
She could only pray that her family’s suffering would end soon.