Do What You Love, Love What You Do

Well, folks, NaNoWriMo is well behind us, so I think it’s time for another post. Even further behind us lies the last Rant article I’ve posted. Let’s rectify that, shall we?

During my daily perusal of the Slate website a few days ago, I found a headline that managed to divert my attention from the Dear Prudence column, of which I am fond. This headline stated the claim that the old advice given to many of us in childhood – “do what you love, and love what you do” – was not only wrong, but dangerous. Elitist. Disrespectful of our fellow human beings, who do not love what they do. Having always found this advice to be some of the best and most rewarding I’ve ever received in my life, I felt compelled to read the rest of the article; to challenge my viewpoint, even if I didn’t expect to be swayed. I have no wish to be dangerous, elitist, or disrespectful, and I was hoping for something that might shed some light on how I might better conduct myself.

In the end, I found myself compelled to respond to an argument that I found to be just as short-sighted and defensive as the one the author attacks. I think there is much to say about people taking jobs and making life choices that suit them on both sides of the “love what you do” fence, and unfortunately, articles like this one have a tendency to prefer painting a picture of the enemy and the “other,” instead of finding a common ground that could benefit us all. If we could stop pointing fingers for just a moment, we might find that the way forward is not mutually exclusive to either viewpoint.

First, I will link to the article, in its entirety. It will help to have context here. Take some time to read it, and formulate your own opinions, before you return for the rest of my post.

Stop Saying ‘Do What You Love, Love What You Do.’ It Devalues Actual Work.” by Miya Tokumitsu

Are you back? Great. Let’s jump right in.

There’s little doubt that “do what you love” (DWYL) is now the unofficial work mantra for our time. The problem with DWYL, however, is that it leads not to salvation but to the devaluation of actual work—and more importantly, the dehumanization of the vast majority of laborers.

This is the claim of the article, as written by the author. It is also the part that first left me scratching my head. How could advising someone to love what they do – to take joy and pleasure in whatever job they choose to devote their lifetime to – devalue work? How could it dehumanize people, when at its very core is the desire to return some sense of humanity to our business ventures? Keep reading, folks. The story’s just begun.

Superficially, DWYL is an uplifting piece of advice, urging us to ponder what it is we most enjoy doing and then turn that activity into a wage-generating enterprise. But why should our pleasure be for profit? And who is the audience for this dictum?

Two questions arise here. First, why should our pleasure be for profit? I’m not certain the author understands who the audience for this dictum is, either. If she did, she might realize that those of us who do take this advice, and “do what we love,” do not view the pursuit of making money through what we love as turning a profit on our pleasure. This isn’t some kind of prostitution gig. The intent is to put our skills and passions to use in such a way that we are able to devote the bulk of our lives to them. The alternative is to relegate those skills and passions to hobbies, which is what most people choose to do, and unfortunately, many people are obligated to do through necessity.

Who is the audience for this dictum? Historically, this advice is given to folks in high school and college by their parents and teachers. It is advice given from grown-ups who have relegated their skills and passions to hobbies, either by choice or by necessity. Their aim? To encourage young men and women to make lifestyle choices that include their skills and passions as a larger part of their world, rather than something to do when time allows. As we grow up, we lose the freedom to do what we love, and instead focus on the jobs that will support us, our loved ones, our families, and our eventual old age. Many of us reconnect with our skills and passions in retirement, but having the time and/or money to capitalize on that future – much less the health – is becoming an unrealistic expectation. Is it so hard to understand the attraction of a claim that you can have what you love, and a job that brings you enough money to live well, by combining the two?

According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation but is an act of love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, presumably it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.

This statement assumes quite a lot, and manages to miss the mark on almost all of it. Most of us recognize that “labor” means work. Work can and should equal compensation, even if that compensation does not happen to be in monetary form. There are many forms of compensation – skill development, opportunity wealth, industry recognition, vacation time, stock options, even the simple good feeling of accomplishing something you thought you could never do – the sky is the limit. Most of us tend to view anything but profit compensation as sub-par – this is reflective of our culture, and it is a large enough argument by itself that it should be saved for a more opportune time. it should be noted that many “do what you love” folks do what they love for no monetary gain at all.

Labor, then, isn’t about what you do for love. It is still very  much about what you do for compensation. There are some folks who truly just write, paint, and otherwise create only when the mood strikes them, and have no interest in sharing what they produce, but most creators in the world do so out of a desire to share what they have created with others. As a writer, I create stories because I love doing it – but it also compensates me by enriching my mind, furthering my skill with the written word, and carries the potential for me to earn profit and industry recognition, if and when I am skilled enough. If that compensation did not exist, I doubt I would be a writer. I would search for something that filled that need.

If profit doesn’t happen to follow… the level of assumption here is phenomenal. The number of things that could be preventing a person doing what they love from achieving profit or success is astronomical. However, those things can and do fall under the blanket of “insufficient passion and determination” from time to time. Let’s use an example here – a young man loves  making video games, and wants to eventually sell the next big thing in the industry. Let’s assume he has the talent to do it. However, like many stereotypical game creators, his social graces leave much to be desired. He doesn’t present or sell himself well. He gets angry whenever someone, inside or outside his industry, has suggestions or ideas that differ from his. He hates business and PR. If this young man does manage to sell his game on talent alone, he is going to struggle with the needs of his career that he has not yet met, and put his future success in jeopardy as he does so.

This is where love matters most. A person truly devoted to doing what they love cannot and will not be dissuaded from doing it. A person doing what they love looks up with red-rimmed eyes after the thousandth negative review and says “You know what? Maybe I need to rethink the way I do things.” A person doing what they love looks a critic in the eye and says “Actually, I didn’t like that part either. I’ll do better next time.” It is unfortunate that most people in this situation instead decide that doing what you love is a joke or a lie. They then give up on what they love, and enter a job that they don’t enjoy, take no pleasure in, and blame for the failure of what they loved most. They cause undue hardship in those careers too, as you might have noticed anytime you go out to eat, or shop at a store where you need help finding something. Someone doing a job they do not enjoy at all is far more at risk for causing harm than someone who is.

“But,” you cry, “that’s what the article was trying to say! It’s not fair to tell people to do what they love, when there are people like this guy in the world!” More on that later.

One last note, though, before we move on. Labor that serves the self, and labor that serves the marketplace, should be one and the same. You are working for some sort of compensation, yes? That serves you in some fashion, even if that fashion isn’t monetary. It also serves the industry, because your product wouldn’t be out there. Capitalism – and by extension, our economy – doesn’t flourish without this truth. Even if you are one of those folks that does what you love 100% for no profit, you are benefiting the marketplace by expanding the craft – let’s use an artist as the example here. That artist will do things unique to them that nobody has ever seen before. Even if he doesn’t sell his work, his kids will inherit his work. Perhaps he’ll inspire one of them to paint. Perhaps his kids never liked his “junk” and throw it in the trash when he dies – only to have it fall into the hands of a homeless man with a pen, a dream, and a love for art deco. He may not have foreseen any of that, but without his painting, none of it could have happened. It’s a small world.

Even the world of finance has gotten in on DWYL: “If you love what you do, it’s not ‘work,’” as the co-CEO of the private equity firm Carlyle Group put it to CNBC this week.

Ah, yes. This is where most folks trip over the “love what you do” wire. Unfortunately, as anyone who does anything for a living that they enjoy will tell you, taking this statement at face value is a laughable offense. Of course it’s still work, even if you love doing it! The mental image many of us get is of a writer who just waltzes in on some dreary Thursday and knocks out the next Harry Potter novel, or an artist who just sits down and recreates the Mona Lisa out of chewing gum. Nobody has it this easy in the world, folks, and anyone who tells you they do is lying to you. Even if you love what you do, you will work. Hard. Sometimes, you will even work harder than the folks that don’t love what they do.

“Aha!” you cry, your fist in the air. “Proof that doing what you love and loving what you do is bad advice!” Just wait a minute.

The difference is that loving what you do often inspires you to go that extra mile in pursuit of your accomplishments. Loving something enough to keep doing it, no matter how hard it gets, or how much you have to learn in order to succeed at it, is what drives most of us that do what we love forward. It’s not that we stop working – it’s that work becomes what we do in the name of what we love, instead of the other way around. Most people that do not do what they love work jobs because they must. It is the subtle difference between working to your limit in order to seize the rare moments of freedom you have in your life to do what you choose, and working to your limit on something that is difficult – but still thrilling and rewarding because it was something you wanted to do. It is the difference between life itself as the challenge, and making challenges for ourselves. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that’s not a privilege, though. More on that in a moment.

One consequence of this isolation is the division that DWYL creates among workers, largely along class lines. Work becomes divided into two opposing classes: that which is lovable (creative, intellectual, socially prestigious) and that which is not (repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished). Those in the lovable-work camp are vastly more privileged in terms of wealth, social status, education, society’s racial biases, and political clout, while comprising a small minority of the workforce.

As stated here, lovable and unlovable are not opposing forces, the last time I checked. Those of us that have the luxury of doing what we love still require the world to function around us. We could not do any of the things we do in our lives without the folks that deal with the daily jobs that make things happen. We buy gadgets that are made in factories where millions of people work jobs they don’t love. We eat food at restaurants prepared by people who don’t love what they do. We wear clothes made from fabrics created by people who don’t love what they do. If we lost the infrastructure created by these countless, so-called unlovable jobs, America would suffer deeply. So many people can and do forget this, and it is shameful at best. However, the finger doesn’t need to be pointed at those of us who choose to do what we love. It needs to be pointed at society at large.

That said, it would be quite difficult to maintain a stable world if these people had no jobs. We need these people – but they need us to buy the things they produce, too. The minute that Apple factory stops selling units, those thousands of people employed to make iPhones and iPads and iWhatzits are going to be out on the street. Is that truly a better world for them? Believe me, I would like to see a world where we could take the money we would have spent on an iPad and give it directly to a Chinese factory worker too, but we do not live in that world. Change is necessary, but that change is needed not at a consumer level, but at a human rights one. This is a matter for diplomats and international activists, not consumers and producers. Volunteer, if you wish to help. Don’t point fingers.

Admittedly, Thoreau had little feel for the proletariat. (It’s hard to imagine someone washing diapers for “scientific, even moral ends,” no matter how well paid.) But he nonetheless maintains that society has a stake in making work well compensated and meaningful. By contrast, the 21st-century Jobsian view asks us to turn inward. It absolves us of any obligation to, or acknowledgment of, the wider world.

Going back to this statement for a minute, now, makes a little more sense. I would dare to suggest that the world could use more pride and honor when it comes to the un-lovable jobs, too. How many disillusioned, disappointed, struggling folks don’t perform to the best of their ability in simple jobs because they don’t feel like they should have to? It’s “just” flapping hamburgers, they tell us. It’s “just” washing diapers. Who cares how it’s done? Who cares if it’s done to standard, or how fast, or how well? And if they get fired from one “just” job, there are millions more waiting to be done. This is an unfortunately common refrain, and one that does not serve anyone well.

It doesn’t take a college degree to care about what you do. If you are hired to flap burgers, then by God, flap those burgers like you mean it! Be the best damn burger-flapper there ever was. Flip it twice for that one customer who claims flipping it just once causes cancer – not because he’s right, but because it makes him happy. Wash those diapers extra well. Find a spot someone missed and re-do the load. Ask that customer with delicate skin if she’d like the starch left out of her baby’s load. Moving up in the world is hard for all of us in today’s economy and worldview, but failure to care, failure to improvise and adapt, and failure to make the most of a bad situation hamper all of us. These are things that do not change in any profession, whether it’s doing what you love or not. And if your employers are good people, with an eye to the people who make them what they are, you will be compensated for the trouble of caring. If not, then that reflects on them, doesn’t it? Again – this is a human rights issue that needs addressing, but it is not the exclusive purview of those who love what they do. Please don’t make us the straw man here.

That sounds like Thoreau’s view. The author claims that Steve Jobs’ view, and the rest of the do-what-you-love view, is more inward-focused. I disagree. Mr. Jobs did a great many things for the world, but he was not known for his kindness – he was known for his profit. He is probably one of the worst examples that could be used to illustrate the lack of respect shown to those who do not “do what they love,” which is why I assume the author has invoked him here. Is every person that does what they love Jobs-ian in their blindness to what their choices cost others? No. I think you would find many of us insulted by the comparison. Many of us can and do care very much about those that allow us the freedoms we have. In turn, we attempt to support them in the ways that we are able to. Ask Mr. Jobs’ counterpoint, Bill Gates.

There is always more that can, and should, be done to help them – but this goes beyond any one person’s means. Nobody should suffer the indignities and cruel treatments that workers have suffered as a result of Apple’s factories, but laws and legislatures, both on our side of the pond and abroad, allow for this. Who is the real enemy?

“Do what you love” disguises the fact that being able to choose a career primarily for personal reward is a privilege, a sign of socioeconomic class. Even if a self-employed graphic designer had parents who could pay for art school and co-sign a lease for a slick Brooklyn apartment, she can bestow DWYL as career advice upon those covetous of her success.

Well sure, but what about those famous sports teams who play the college football and basketball we all enjoy watching? Some of those guys grew up on the streets in places that would make WASP skin crawl. They saw and did things none of us would wish on anyone. And yet they got through school, being recognized for their talents. (Say what you will about sports allowing schools to ignore basic learning – that’s an argument for another time.) They received help from schools and mentors based on talent alone. They went on to greater and greater things. Eventually they became the sports stars we know and love. Do you think they would tell you to do what you love? I do.

Telling someone to “do what you love and things will just work out” isn’t supposed to promise that they’ll get to do what they love AND live in a fancy apartment AND go to school. Strokes of good luck like that are most often – well, luck. Privilege. Most of us do not have this hypothetical graphic designer’s rich parents. More likely, we would have to choose – the fancy apartment, OR the schooling, OR the self-employment. Everything else would have to be prioritized after that initial choice. The reality of the world is that even most do-what-you-love folks don’t have everything handed to us. Some do – but some don’t, and over-generalizing this is just as infuriating to us as it is to you, when you see someone that has been handed everything. This isn’t about work – it’s about time, and the rather strange cultural belief that we are expected to be young, beautiful, educated, and independently wealthy on our own salary at age 25. Our expectations are so far out of alignment with the norm that it has long ceased to be funny.

If we believe that working as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur or a museum publicist or a think-tank acolyte is essential to being true to ourselves, what do we believe about the inner lives and hopes of those who clean hotel rooms and stock shelves at big-box stores? The answer is: nothing.

Again – being true to ourselves has nothing to do with the prestige of the job, and everything to do with doing the job that we have chosen – through choice or necessity – to the absolute best of our ability. Doing a terrible job at something has never been the road to success, and the only way you succeed while still doing a terrible job is through money. Isn’t that what we’re trying to avoid – privilege?

No one is arguing that enjoyable work should be less so. But emotionally satisfying work is still work, and acknowledging it as such doesn’t undermine it in any way. Refusing to acknowledge it, on the other hand, opens the door to exploitation and harms all workers.

Yes. If the author had said this, and couched the rest of her argument around this, instead of pointing the finger at everyone else and making radical comparisons between Steve Jobs and the rest of the do-what-you-love world, I wouldn’t have felt the need to respond.

It should be no surprise that unpaid interns abound in fields that are highly socially desirable, including fashion, media, and the arts. These industries have long been accustomed to masses of employees willing to work for social currency instead of actual wages, all in the name of love.

Actually, I thought internships were always supposed to provide significantly  more value in terms of exposure and practice in a given field, than monetary compensation. It’s a chance to experience what having a job in the field entails, not a job itself. I am having real trouble determining if the author has any respect at all for compensation that is not monetary. A rich intern is not something I have ever seen in my life, at least, unless it came with the blessing of parental excess. That should be an anomaly, not the norm. (And consider just how much these parents are sacrificing for their intern children. When Daddy can’t retire until the day he dies, and Mommy can’t afford her hospital bills, I think we’re going to see a lot of folks regretting the usage of their money in this way.)

What unites all of this work, whether performed by GEDs or Ph.D.s, is the belief that wages shouldn’t be the primary motivation for doing it. Women are supposed to do work because they are natural nurturers and are eager to please; after all, they’ve been doing uncompensated child care, elder care, and housework since time immemorial. And talking money is unladylike anyway.

Honestly, I’m not sure we want to see the outcome of a world where women – or any gender – put price tags on their friends and family every time they need something. That said, nobody should be forced to work insane hours for no sort of compensation unless they choose to. Nobody is required to accept these terms to do what they love. Women are just more used to capitulating and accepting sub-optimal situations than men are when it comes to the workplace. “I can’t do what I love because it would require effectively becoming a bought slave” is a valid reason to say no, folks. Every time you say yes, despite knowing what it’s going to cost you, there will be a price to pay. Doing what you love, as we’ve discussed, is a privilege. If the price is too high, then you have the option of deciding you can’t afford to do it at this point in your life, and falling back on a job that is less glamorous, but pays better and doesn’t demand sacrifices that are more than you can bear. That shouldn’t be stigmatized, and anyone with a brain understands that.

Some sacrifice, though, typically is required to do what you love, at least at the outset. Nobody who is famous through a do-what-you-love path got there by refusing to work long hours (yes, I said work), refusing to take any sort of pay cut, or risking a more lucrative option along the way. It is not easy to do what you love, and this is at the heart of what I do agree with the author on – the need to recognize that doing what you love IS still work, even if it’s work that you feel more inclined to perform your best at. Taking this option in life isn’t a one-way ticket to Margaritaville. It’s a promise to yourself that you are going to make things happen and live life on your own terms – and then you have to go out there and DO it. If you cannot make that promise, or if you cannot actually follow through on your dreams, then you are going to have to accept work that is not doing what you love.

This is the side of doing what you love that doesn’t get enough attention, and this is where the inward focus comes from. If you are choosing to do what you love, chances are good that you’ve chosen either a creative profession (writing, painting, music) or something in the field of helping others (doctor, teacher, professor). In the former, you have the luxury of not having a boss – but that makes you, yourself, the gatekeeper of how much you accomplish with your life. If you don’t manage your time wisely, you may find yourself wasting the time you have, instead of truly doing what you love. It is amazing how easy it becomes to view what you once loved as troublesome or difficult when you do not have someone breathing down your neck to finish it or else. You are the one solely responsible for your own success or failure – nobody else can make it happen but you.

If you’re in the latter category, the way you choose to teach or help others falls under a similar situation. You can be the sort of teacher that loves students but hates teaching, and ends up being a lot of fun for your kids, but they don’t learn much from you. You can be the kind of doctor that loves diagnosing and treating medical issues, but has no bedside manner (hello, Dr. House). You decide how your curriculum advances, and what your students learn, and how your patient is treated – and nobody is going to do that for you. You’re now responsible not just for your own success or failure, but for the lives and livelihoods of others in addition to your own. That is a ton of pressure!

If we acknowledged all of our work as work, we could set appropriate limits for it, demanding fair compensation and humane schedules that allow for family and leisure time.

And if we did that, more of us could get around to doing what it is we really love.

In the end, the author is correct that we need to revisit the rather saccharine belief that work we enjoy doing is not work. It gives us, and the people around us, an incorrect idea about the kinds of things we do in our lives, and the things we accomplish every day. Only love will keep us coming back for more, when the difficult things start flying – but that is true of any job, not just the ones we do for love first. In any job, success and joy come from doing a job well, going the extra mile to be sure it is done well, and having the sort of boss (even if that boss is you) who will hold you to the promises you have made without placing unnecessary stress on you. We are not so different, are we?

Remember that, whether you’re doing what you love, or simply making the best of what you do, the real enemy is the folks that do nothing at all and still succeed.

 

NaNoWriMo: Day 19, 2483 Words (The End!)

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.

NaNoWriMo: Day 18, 2629 Words

Melvin held the kitten in the crook of his arm, cradling it against his chest. He hadn’t quite gotten over the shock of what he’d seen, but he was enough of a survivor to know when other things were more important to focus on. It was plain as day that Ravi didn’t want to talk about it, and really he wasn’t at all certain he wanted her to. Most of it was explanatory enough. What would she say, except to tell him what it had been like to live through it?

He kept his attention on the creature, who was still suffering from its various injuries. He was close enough to gauge its gender – a little lady kitten – but he couldn’t see any injuries. Her paws and nose were bloody, but they didn’t seem damaged. He wondered if she’d been feasting on some animal’s corpse, out in the wild; that didn’t explain the fear or the pain she seemed to be experiencing. He glanced at Ravi, who looked as concerned as he’d ever seen her, but she didn’t seem to be making any attempt to help him.

If she saw anything, she’d tell me, or at the very least, she’d react to it. I guess I’m on my own here.

He reached down to pet the kitten’s soft white fur. She mewled in protest, and just when he was about to open his mouth and start to talk to her – he’d done so for countless pets, growing up – she looked sternly up at him and sank her tiny, pointed teeth into the side of his hand, as delicately as she might have eaten a fish.

He wasn’t really surprised. Animals, especially injured ones, had a tendency to do that. What surprised him was how much it hurt. The searing pain that seemed to cut down into the very bone made him wince and bend over to let her go, almost without intending to. Her eyes glowed a ferocious blue as she sauntered away from him, tail held high and indignant despite her pain.

If she wasn’t standing right next to him, Melvin might have guessed that Ravi had turned into a cat.

That’s no cat. It looks like a cat, and it feels like a cat, but there’s no way that was a cat bite.

As if to prove his point, he looked down at his hand, rubbing at the spot where she’d bitten him.

Twin points of blood had already sealed themselves into glowing blue fire, disappearing as if they’d never happened at all.

He scratched his head and glanced over at Ravi, at least some of his stunned stupor clearing along with the pain.

“Friend of yours?”

She was clearly not a thing of his world, at the very least.

***

Ravi gazed at the kitten, her mind whirling with questions. The kitten itself didn’t hold any meaning for her, but the eyes… the eyes couldn’t be ignored. Those eyes were a symbol of the blood that ran through her veins and made her who she was; the royal sign and signal of the line of Kuranes. It could have been Somnia, sent to cause more mischief and mayhem, but she wasn’t so quick to believe that, this time. Somnia had done her dirtiest work in plain sight, so far. Why send a kitten to do a witch’s job?

That posed a problem. If it wasn’t Somnia, and it wasn’t her, then who could be causing it? She’d assumed her mother and father were dead. There was no question of her siblings’ fates. Had someone survived to send her a message? Or could she be dreaming this herself, on some distant psychological battlefront, to deceive herself into believing that home was not so far away?

She still couldn’t trust herself anymore. In the absence of that, the kitten would have to prove itself, instead.

She locked eyes with the kitten, feeling a surge of adrenaline course through her body at the contact. Instead of blinking and looking away as any normal cat would do, this one maintained contact, simply sitting in place as if waiting for orders.

No. That’s definitely not a cat. Which means that either this is some kind of trap… or it’s a message. I can’t afford not to find out. And that’s exactly what I’m afraid of.

“I don’t know who you are, but… are you waiting for us to follow you? You’d better not be leading us anywhere bad.”

The kitten mewled plaintively, lifting up one of its bloody paws as if injured. After a moment, it set it back down and walked on it as if nothing had ever happened.

“I don’t speak cat language. I guess we’ll follow you?”

In response, the kitten proceeded to put on a burst of speed that nobody had considered possible for an injured stray. Ravi broke into a run, hearing Melvin join her moments later. Baku brought up the rear, unaccustomed to moving at that speed.

They followed her, into the depths of the forest, between the dark, foreboding trees and sagging branches, for what felt like an eternity. Ravi couldn’t even tell how long or how far they’d traveled. Maybe Melvin could, by the position of the sun, but he was too out of breath for her to ask him. Baku was a good five miles behind them.

At last they emerged into a clearing that took Ravi’s breath away.

There, reflected in the kitten’s glowing blue eyes, was the expanse of stone-thick ruins that Melvin had spoken of to Baku.

And in the distance, a tall stone staircase, leading into oblivion.

She was almost home.

***

It took Baku longer than he cared to admit to catch up with the rest of the group. It was no small thing, to travel at high speeds with the resistance and drag of his ooze to consider. He’d enjoyed the fact that Ravi had always been sympathetic to his needs before; now that she was running off after Melvin and a kitten, he found himself lamenting his long-lost legs a little more than usual. As a man, he could have outpaced all but Ravi.

Either my age is showing, or the fact that I’m a damned monster is. I’m not sure which it is, anymore.

Still, when he arrived in the clearing with the others, it was easy to see why nothing had yet taken place. Ravi was still spellbound, her eyes on the staircase-shaped prize. Melvin looked shifty and uncertain, as if he were waiting for something strange and magical to jump out and slay him where he stood. Baku, for his part, thought Melvin might have the right of it. Though Ravi wasn’t indicating it at all, he could feel the strangeness hovering in the air; the pressure and weight of a portal to another world, invisible to the naked eye at this distance, but no less present, and no less aware. Melvin might have missed it, if he were less sensitive and less believing, but he was clearly taking it in.

This kitten… she has the eyes, right enough. But so does Somnia. This has been too easy, hasn’t it? The last step of our journey should have been the hardest one. Now we have a tour guide. This is all happening so fast. We’re not ready.

She’s not ready.

The echo in the back of his mind was an itch that he just couldn’t scratch. Ravi, the light of his life and the heart of his soul, was no more than the child she’d been, twenty years ago. He’d wanted so badly to arrive at this place with all the confidence and faith of a doting father, beaming with pride as his beloved child took her place among the future with joy and excitement. Now he felt nothing but trepidation and terror at what was to come.

Have I become so old, so set in my ways, that I cannot be happy for her? Or am I truly right?

He was always right. She’d told him that, time and time again.

One last time, then? For good measure?

He breathed deep, preparing to voice his fears despite his limitations, when Ravi stepped forward, a new certainty in her body language, her eyes, and her voice.

“Let’s go, Baku. Let’s go… home.”

She never looked back, not even once, to see if he followed her.

***

The ruins were not hard to traverse, knowing what lay at the end of them. Ravi kept a soldier’s pace, rushing as fast as her legs would carry her. The kitten was weaving her way between stones and broken remnants of walls, always ahead of Ravi no matter how hard she tried to outpace her. At times she faltered, still seeming to be in pain, but then the pain would be gone, and she’d return to being a normal cat. Ravi had long since stopped asking questions, in the face of what lay ahead. Either the trap would spring soon, or she’d be too far gone from this world to care what happened next.

Melvin was trailing behind less than she’d thought. For just a moment, she allowed herself to sympathize with him – her home beckoned, but so too did his sister. She had promised him aid, after all, in finding her. His face, when she chanced a glance at it, was unreadable. What was he thinking, as he strode alongside her, just as eager to end his journey as she was? Was he truly naive enough to believe he would just walk into the Dreamlands and take her, after all of Ravi’s warnings?

After everything she’d seen, she couldn’t believe it – though he did seem to have a great amount of difficulty in taking no for an answer in other respects. He was persistent, she’d give him that. He had to know what he was up against. For him, that portal was not the end of his journey – it was only the beginning.

She looked away then. It didn’t matter what happened to him, really. She’d saved his life, and he’d chosen to chance the impossible with it. Unless he found her in the Dreamlands and requested her aid, there was little else she could do for him – and that was assuming that she could even get in. Her mind drifted back the great gates, with their towering blind guardians. If she dared to challenge Somnia, would the witch oblige her? Or would she demand some sort of payment or sacrifice? She was about to be on Somnia’s terms, whether she liked it or not.

The realization was perhaps more sobering than it should have been.

And yet, I am the true Queen – or, if Mother somehow lives, then I am at least the true heir to the throne. That has to count for something, somewhere. Even if she has the guardians controlled, there must be some way. I can find it, if I’m there. I have to believe that. It has to be that I’m just not strong enough, here in this world. Mother was wrong after all… if I’d just stayed in the Dreamlands, maybe I could have found a way to stop Somnia. Now I’m just a shadow of my former self.

Ahead of her, the kitten stopped, transfixed by something only she could see. Ravi just barely had time to skid to a halt and blink before the creature erupted into a column of blue fire that threatend to engulf the entire forest. Ravi covered her head instinctively, dimly aware that Melvin was protecting her, not himself – but it was too late. The fire dissipated, leaving no trace of the kitten except for their memories of her.

In the distance, atop the staircase, a figure emerged from nothingness, as if it had pulled open an invisible curtain between this world and the next. She was clad in scarlet, the top of her dress fitting far tighter than the bottom, which billowed in waves behind her like the finest of ball gowns. She wore gloves up to her elbows in the same shade. Her smile was beautiful, and yet Ravi felt as if she might vomit where she stood when she looked at it.

In her mind’s eye, the woman’s teeth were stained with the blood of the fallen. Her hands were crimson both inside and outside her gloves. The raven-dark hair that fell down her back in waves might as well be made of midnight and grief; she brought both of them where she stepped, and reveled in their bringing.

Somnia – the usurper Queen of the Dreamlands, bowed mockingly to her and spoke, her rasping voice like knives in Ravi’s ears.

“The prodigal daughter returns from the grave. Welcome back, my dear niece. Welcome back to what’s left of your memories.”

For the first time since Ravi had fled the Dreamlands, she felt as if she’d already lost the only battle she’d ever fought.

***

Baku watched Somnia stand before them, mixed emotions rising and falling in the breaths he fought to take. The woman had been wicked and cruel before; what she was now radiated both sin and power in equal proportions. Ravi had trained for years on a world that never wanted her; Somnia had done the same, cloaked in the impossible magics of the Dreamlands. He had feared for Ravi before, but laying eyes on the witch just cemented the feeling of dread that had risen in his mind since they’d left the town in disguise.

She’s changed too. Grown. Learned. She is confident. Poised. Unflinching. Ready to do what is necessary to defend her false throne. Wicked or not, she is thinking of more than just her desires. She is thinking of how to win.

She… is everything that Ravi is not.

I have failed. I have failed utterly. Forgive me, Kuranes. Phaetra.

It is too late, now.

He watched, helpless, as Somnia descended the stairs with cool grace, stopping to stand before Ravi with a sadistic grin on her face. The end was nigh, and monster that he was, he had no ability to do anything about it. Melvin was frozen in place, uncertain; he might try to protect Ravi if it came to it, but a man like him would be little more than an insect against a woman like Somnia.

I’m sorry. We should never have brought you here. Your sister would have wanted you to live.

The woman spoke again, cutting through the silence.

“You know, you nearly had me, back there, in that farmhouse. I should congratulate you. Your aim was just a little… off.”

Ravi looked even more as if she were going to be sick, but not nearly as sick as Baku himself felt at her words.

The farmhouse. I knew it. Something happened. Something… dark. Something… terrible.

“I guess we both have blood on our hands now, don’t we, princess?”

Before he could react, Ravi had called upon her armor and scythe, flying at Somnia with a rage unbridled and free; the rage of an avenging angel, set on ending the world. He thought, for one single moment, that she might have connected – her speed was amazing! – but Somnia simply smiled, stepping aside from the killing blow as if expertly avoiding an insect on the pavement.

“Now, now. I didn’t become ruler of the Dreamlands just to let a cowardly murderer take my place. Understand that.”

Her voice was no longer taunting and cruel – it was flat and level, matter-of-fact and almost friendly.

“At least when I kill someone, I know what I’m doing.”

Baku, for his part, had heard all that he needed to hear.

I’ve lost her. I’ve lost her forever.

Long live the ashes of the Dreamlands.

NaNoWriMo: Day 17, 1944 Words

Baku found himself, for the first time in his existence, grateful for his inability to speak. Had he been in his fully-human form, he might have said, or done, something irreversible in the face of Ravi’s uncaring and ungracious attitude. He found himself echoing many of the complaints that his father had once made of him; it was not a comforting recognition, and it bothered him all the more that he was the one delivering them to her instead of King Kuranes.

She’s your daughter. You should be the one to tan her hide!

He would have sighed, if he could. With parents as stubborn as they had been, it was a wonder she wasn’t worse off, really. Still, the instinct to turn her over his knee was impressive, particularly when it came from a man that never planned to be a father at all.

At least half of his frustration stemmed not from the attitude itself, but his inability to place what had caused it. As he had acknowledged quite often in the past, the thing he liked about Ravi was that he could so often guess at what was bothering her. She thought she could hide a great deal, but as far as he was concerned, she was an open book to him. He was a smart and considerate man – well, had been – and something just wasn’t adding up, this time. He knew well how much Melvin annoyed her, but that didn’t account for anything other than her animosity toward him.

He was anything but blind, at least, in the psychological sense. Since she’d left the farmhouse, she’d been twitching harder and faster than the tail of an angry cat. Baku had expected to spend that night staying out of the rain and allowing her a rare night’s rest, but then she’d rushed outside again, with a story about the old woman’s bed being wet; she was apparently too senile to notice this before she’d invited Ravi indoors. He hadn’t pressed her, if only because he had limited reason not to trust her word to him; she so rarely lied. It occurred to him that though she never lied, she was certainly an expert at dodging the truth.

What had happened in that farmhouse to change her so thoroughly? The strong, capable warrior he’d raised was still at her core, and came out on rare occasions, but she was somehow overridden by the scared, desperate child that she had been, years ago. He would not have blinked an eye, had it come in her teenage years. She was far stronger, smarter, and wiser than the woman he saw before him now. It was as if something inside had crippled her.

There are names for those things that cripple men and women. Pain. Fear. Regret. Guilt. Shame. None of them she should feel. She is beyond this. We are beyond this. Something is not right.

The realization that something was not right was made all the more clear to him, thanks to Melvin’s attempt at gaining her attention. He’d never been more impressed with the man than he’d been at that moment. Melvin might have been a homeless, self-serving thief at points in his life, and he may have pressed his advantage to gain favors from those that didn’t know better, but one thing was for sure: he was no more an idiot than Baku was. Baku hadn’t yet determined whether his feelings for Ravi were genuine, but if they weren’t, he certainly had no compunctions about taking his life into his own hands when it came to helping her.

Can he love his sister enough to use her, even after all this?

He wasn’t sure he wanted the answer. For the time, at least, it had opened his eyes to just how weak Ravi had become. The number of times she’d lost control of her mental state enough to inflict unintentional dreams on others, he could have counted on one hand. He, of course, had seen none of what passed between them, but from Melvin’s shaken demeanor and his urge to protect her, he could guess well enough.

If he saw what I think he did, then those memories are first and foremost in her mind. They should not be. The pain is reaching too far and choking off the strength and the hope. If she cannot pull herself together, there is no chance at all of our making it back to the Dreamlands. She will not survive the Void, this time.

And I am not strong enough to stop it from consuming her, either.

The Void was the name that most natives of the Dreamlands used to refer to the space and time between their world, and the worlds that others inhabited. It was not a place fit for human sensibilities; powers far greater and darker than dreams walked that space and called it their home. When Baku had carried the young Ravi through it, he had borne the brunt of the agony himself, knowing what it might do to him; the small portion of it that she had seen for herself had terrified her. She knew she would have to brave it a second time to return, and that was what he’d been training her for, tirelessly, for years.

It took many things – bravery, courage, sacrifice, sanity, and naked need – to traverse the Void. Most who tried failed, lost in the depth of nothingness for what remained of their physical lives. It was why most people only visited the Dreamlands, instead of returning in phsyical fashion. But even Ravi, born within the lands beyond the Void, would not last long, without the mental armor she required. The thought of losing her now, after everything he’d done to protect her, and after all they had been through together, terrified him.

Like a father, he had to let go and let her choose her own path. The trouble was, he was almost certain she’d chosen the wrong one, and she’d done it without ever consulting him first.

He kept his focus on Melvin as he supported the still-sleeping Ravi. How much time did they have, before his fears were put to the test?

The staircase home wasn’t far at all, now.

***

Ravi’s eyes opened slowly, painful against the light of the setting sun. She recalled the last time that she’d felt that sensation; was it only a week or two ago? She’d been dreaming of home, building the perfect replica; an exact copy that would someday engulf this tiny little world in its glory, replacing it with a new era of Celephais rule. She had done it perfectly, remembered all of it- or at least, she thought she had. Baku had pointed out a flaw. It had all come tumbling down around her, much like the real kingdom.

She blinked against the light, confused by her inability to move. What had happened to her? Gradually, reality replaced the confusion of dream-sleep, and she discovered something she had never expected – she was standing, her hands sweaty and cold and tight around fistfuls of Melvin’s shirt. An unintentional glance at his face showed that his eyes were closed and his expression was somewhere between thoughtfulness and sleep. From his deep, regular breathing, she thought he might actually be asleep in truth.

He was holding her against him, like he might have held a loved one – his sister, perhaps. She wanted to pull away, ashamed and alarmed, but something about him seemed abnormally fragile and shaken. What had happened? The last thing she remembered was turning on him, angrily, when he demanded to know what was going on, and what the message back in town had actually said. Now the fierce man asking too many questions was silent.

I didn’t… I didn’t actually hurt him, did I?

For one terrifying moment, she wasn’t sure. He looked so peaceful, just as the old woman had, bathed in her own blood, torn apart by the dreamscythe. In one of the million compartments of her imagination, she watched him suffer the same fate a thousand times, occasionally replaced with the reality of the old woman’s death.

She couldn’t bear it any longer. She loosened her hands in his shirt, pulling back and away from his grasp, intentional enough that he couldn’t possibly miss it, asleep or otherwise.

Why didn’t Baku stop him? I can’t believe it’s not clear that I don’t want-

It turned out that Melvin wasn’t asleep. He’d been resting, or meditating, somehow, locked in his own mind until something else had need of him. He didn’t attempt to hold onto her or resist her exit at all. She looked at him distantly, out of her peripheral vision; he seemed embarrassed, which surprised her.

I don’t think it’s supposed to embarrass you when you push yourself on women like that. You have much to learn, don’t you?

Something nagged at the back of her mind; she was being too hard on him. He had helped her, for no other reason than to repay a kindness. And- she had been awful to him, before she’d apparently fallen asleep. All he’d wanted was to know what the message said. She could have just as easily told him the part that didn’t address her status as a murderer. His kindness raised her suspicion more.

After everything I said to him… why?

She stopped watching him as he shoved his hands into his pockets, and retreated to stand near Baku, suddenly shy for no reason that she could explain. The black pile of sludge wriggled in greeting, but made no move to fill in her lapse in memory.

That was bad. Baku was always quick to explain, if he could. What had happened to her?

“Baku? What… what just happened? Did Somnia…”

He bubbled – laughter, not rage. She’d been briefly afraid.

“No magic but yours. That was enough.”

Melvin stiffened behind her. “It’s fine, you don’t have to tell her. Don’t bring it up. I’ll… I’ll be fine. Just a little walk is all I need.” Even his voice was shaken, which, given everything she’d seen of the man since the day she met him, absolutely terrified her. Now she was certain they were in danger.

She glared at Baku. “Tell me. Now.”

When she looked at him, she could almost see the reflection of the child she’d been in his darkness.

He paced, slowly, in a circle, coming back to rest at his original place in the dirt. “Let him tell. I did not see.”

“You didn’t see… wait.”

See? My magic? I was asleep. I couldn’t have done any magic. Unless…

She whirled to face Melvin, a look of shock and horror spreading across her face. This time, it was he who couldn’t meet her gaze.

“Did I… lose control?”

Their silence was all the answer she needed.

Now, she had no choice but to explain everything. It was far kinder than the half-truth her subconscious had handed him.

No one should have to see that. No one. Ever again. I should control myself better! How careless, how stupid, how-

I’m so sorry it had to be you.

And just when she had opened her mouth to explain, the darkening forest produced another surprise.

Between the trees stumbled a white kitten, its paws and nose coated in blood. It mewled, plaintively, before collapsing onto the ground, trembling in fear or pain.

As Melvin moved to approach it, Ravi saw that its eyes were the color of the ocean waves of her memory.

Something strange is happening here.

From Baku’s hesitation, she suspected he thought so, too.

NaNoWriMo: Day 16, 3480 Words

They left the scrawled messages behind, at Ravi’s behest. She’d claimed that it said nothing important, but Melvin had long since decided that she was probably not telling the truth. Baku’s silence and reticence since her announcement of the fact, now that he knew what to look for, spoke volumes. Baku could read it too, of course. If it had been anything truly important, he would have said something – wouldn’t he? Maybe not. He was duty-bound to protect and obey Ravi, no matter how foolish she might be.

After putting an hour’s worth of walking between them and the still-duped crowd, Melvin was growing tired of the fact that out of all of them, he was the only stranger in a strange land. For all that Ravi had been in his shoes for twenty years of her life, he thought she might have learned better. It was no wonder she didn’t make friends or sow favors very well, when left to her own devices. Her beauty and grace would only get her so far, and she didn’t use those to her advantage unless pressed by someone with less noble aims, such as himself. How had she survived so long?

Her powers were exceptional, but he was starting to realize just how much her years of avoidance and deterrance were taking their toll. If you took her at face value, without the magic, she was still a human trying to pass herself off as the harmless dog that Baku had appeared to be. Humans, of course, didn’t live that way.

She is a lone wolf, answerable to no one. She even shuts out the guy that should be protecting her. I can’t help her unless I know what’s going on, and she’s hiding things from me, too. For every moment I gain her trust, there are five more where she hates me. We’re never going to get anywhere like this.

It was time to grab the wolf by her proverbial fangs.

He only had to think for a moment, before catching up with Ravi at the front of their ragtag group and reaching out to touch her shoulder. He wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d sprung her armor and scythe on him; he’d never touched her before, outside of his initial meeting with her, and what was strictly necessary to aid in her disguise back in town. She was angry and clearly focused on her mission – how easy it would have been for her to sever more than just the physical connection between them. He didn’t want to assume too much, believing that she couldn’t afford to kill him, but at the same time, anything less than a demand would fall on deaf ears. She had no time for polite questions, as far as he’d seen.

She didn’t stop, or even shrug off his hand. In fact, he was reasonably certain that she hadn’t even noticed, and awkwardly retracted his hand, until he heard her speak.

“What is it?”

Like a soldier, all business and no pleasure. I guess that’s what she is, isn’t it? Maybe there’s still a girl, or a woman, left inside of her, but she’s dead and buried right now. Can’t blame her, given what she’s been through.

He spoke fast and low, making sure she couldn’t miss a word of what he had to say. “We’ve been walking for a little over an hour now, right? I can tell by the position of the sun.”

“And?”

“And I still want to know what that message said. It’s not fair, you know? So far, I’m giving you the information I have about your destination for free. Nothing in life, at least in this world, is free. Even for strange princesses wielding magic.”

He paused. “I was lenient with the cloak, before. I don’t need your gold or your riches. What I need is the truth. I need to know what I’m getting into.”

Now she stopped, forcing both Baku and Melvin to screech to a halt behind her, just as he’d hoped. “I told you before that things wouldn’t be easy. Do you really need to know more than that? I don’t have time to stop and explain every little detail of what’s going on here every time you’re lost. I have to get home. Don’t play games with me, Marque.”

It was the first time she’d ever said his name, outside of her ridiculous act in his wagon. Instead of the pleasure he had hoped for, the first thing that jumped into his mind was the usage of his full name by his mother, after some of his less appropriate childhood behaviors. She wasn’t happy with him. At all.

Still, he pressed his luck. It had served him well, so far. “That’s OK. Forget I asked. Just realize that I don’t have time to stop and explain every little detail of where you’re going every time you get lost, either. A few wrong turns and you’ll get there, eventually. As long as I get where I’m going, there’s no rush, right?”

She pursed her lips, clearly trying not to erupt in fury. He wasn’t sure if she was more beautiful when she was angry, versus when she was still confused and lost from one of her many dreams. At least the angry tended to last longer. Her eyes focused on his neck again instead of his face, and he did his best not to laugh.

“You realize I could make you tell me? Once I know where I’m going, I don’t need you anymore. I may have saved your life by not leaving you to the villagers or turning you out among them, but make no mistake here. You’re only here because I allow it. If you want to see your sister again, you’ll do as I say.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Melvin could see Baku shaking in place, little red lines of anger or frustration lacing through his body between his assorted objects. Her words and actions were upsetting him far more than they were Melvin. When you took the wolf by the fangs, you had to expect some drool along the way. None of it bothered him in the least, which perhaps was what infuriated her even more. She couldn’t get rid of him if she tried.

In the face of her rage, he smiled, realizing that he’d never seen her do so, even once. “Say that to my face, princess.”

“What?” She was confused. She didn’t even know how useless her own threats were. It was time to show her.

“If you’re a princess, you have to mean what you say.” Melvin glanced at Baku briefly, hoping the man-monster understood his intentions for what he was about to do. Finding no immediate reaction, he continued. “You’ll forgive me for saying so, my dear, but I don’t believe you meant a word of what you just said to me. In case you hadn’t noticed, my face? It’s up here. Not where you’re looking. You’re fortunate I even heard you.”

She blinked and raised her gaze a little – to his chin.

He laughed, letting the sound carry out and echo into the depth of the forest around them. “Not good enough. Not even close. What, exactly, do you think I’m going to see, in those eyes of yours?”

Now her body was tense, desperate to lock him out even more. “This is ridiculous. We’re wasting time-”

He cut her off, rudely. “Yeah. I’m wasting your time. And I dare you to do something about it. All you have to do is look at me first. If you can look me in the eye and tell me that that message, and all the other things you’re not telling me aren’t important, then I’ll pretend this never happened, and you can go right back to ignoring me. I’m used to it.”

She shifted her weight, looking exasperated and completely beaten at the same time. “Melvin… please, let’s just go.”

This time, he didn’t hear his mother. It was far more pleasant. It still wasn’t going to sate him, though. She was stubborn, and as much as he found that frustrating, he also found it attractive. There weren’t many women that had challenged him this way; produced a puzzle to solve, rather than simply a conquest to win. He still wanted to win – it was in his nature – but he would have been content just to turn the tables on her, even for a little bit.

“You’re the one that stopped, not me. If you hadn’t felt the need to threaten me, we’d still be walking, right now.”

Her eyes closed, and for the first time since he’d met her, Ravi’s face changed into something that he honestly could not put a name to. It was so thouroughly unreadable that he wondered if perhaps he’d made his final mistake. Near him, Baku had lost his red lines of fury and simply watched, bubbling quietly to himself. He watched her struggle with herself, wondering whether she’d decide to punish him, or collapse entirely.

In the end, she did neither, still relying on what amounted to her poker face. “If we don’t move soon, we’ll be stuck out here in the dark. We’re not far enough to be out of harm’s way. They’ll find us. Is that something you want?”

He shook his head, and gave his best dramatic sigh. “Not really. I think it’s something you want even less, though. We appear to be at what my mother used to call an ‘impasse.’ The only explanation I want, princess, is the one that tells me the truth. I know what the risks of standing here are just as well as you do. So decide.”

She looked down, again, at his throat, and Melvin finally decided that he’d had enough. He stepped forward, crossing the already small distance between them, and wrapped one of his large hands around her delicate chin. Gently he pulled it up, guiding her eyes to his; she was too surprised to react.

“What are you afraid of? Show me. I won’t tell a soul.”

It took her a minute to start to struggle, and slightly less than that for his mind to collapse. He had, perhaps, expected to fall in love even more, and though he got that well enough, the rest, he had not bargained for in the slightest.

He would have done it again in a heartbeat, had anyone asked.

***

The tile was awash in blood, punctuated with the lifeless bodies of children, all of whom looked more or less like Ravi. A man, older than Baku’s human form had been, but still handsome and stoic, stared out at the scene with eyes that nearly channeled madness. Next to him, a beautiful woman with golden hair and a blue dress wept, her tears soaking her fingers and falling between them into the horror below. The room would have been beautiful enough, inlaid with mirrors that reflected the sky in the color of sunset, were it not for the destruction that marred it completely.

There was a third person; a woman, swathed in a gown made of white satin. The neckline was wide enough to expose much of her slender shoulders and ample bosom. Streaks of blood had stained the hemline of the dress permanently red; her hands were red, too. Unlike the weeping woman, this woman looked enough like Ravi to be easily mistaken for her; only her hair was too long and too ragged, held back by a tarnished silver circlet, inlaid with a single blue gem. She stood between the bodies of the eldest and youngest child, a cat-like smile twitching at the corners of her lips. Her eyes were closed in rapture. Though the room was silent, and her lips did not move, the sound of singing filled the air and echoed through the halls.

The black-haired woman spoke without ever opening her eyes. With power like hers, she needed no contact to appeal to others. Her voice was sultry, yet carried the rasp of sandpaper on steel.

“Come to me. We will rule, together, as we should have, when the stars were young and time stood still.”

The man responded, his stern jawline quivering with the effort it took to spit out his words.

“I’d rather die, witch. You’ve taken enough already.”

The woman paused for a beat, her breast heaving as she took a single, deep breath.

“Will you turn your back on me, then, after all I have done for you? All I could do for you, in an eternity?”

He spat at her feet. “Burn in the fires of hell. I reject you, as I always have, and I always will. My heart, and my life, are Phaetra’s. That will not change, for you, or for anyone.”

She opened her eyes, then, and as the tears began to fall, so too did the stones that made up the walls. The mirrors began to shatter, reflecting the icy blue color of the fire in her eyes.

She did not speak again before the image faded from view.

***

Utter, complete, unspeakable blackness. The stars, and the moon, were dead and buried. Galaxies bent and twisted and died among the ashes of worlds far older than they ever knew.

In the absence of reason or sanity drifted a girl with no name and no purpose. The blankness filled her mind and soul and heart as it enveloped her head to toe. Everything she had been, or would be, was as dust in the wind; the darkness had remade her in its image.

In the far distance, somewhere between the past and the future, her companion’s screams went on forever, trapped in one mournful sound that echoed without end amid the chamber of silence.

The girl closed her eyes and imagined an end to the pain.

For the first time in her life, it changed nothing at all.

***

The world was bathed in blue and brown. The sand was warm and gritty and expansive, disappearing into a horizon that the girl had never seen before. The blue water writhed and rose up in massive waves, fit to sweep her off her feet and back into the endless depths. She no longer needed to fight. The sand, and the body of something that had once been human, held her fast to the earth.

She looked at it with eyes that had ceased the production of tears. There was nothing more she could do, and nowhere for her to go.

She sat down and fell asleep, nestled in the false warmth of its painful, burning embrace.

In her dreams, all she found was blackness.

***

Melvin returned to his body to find Ravi’s fists clenched in the fabric of his ruined shirt, her knuckles stark white against the brown fabric; the same shade as her face. It took him several minutes to recover enough to function again; when he did, it became clear that Ravi still hadn’t returned from wherever she had taken him. Baku had approached them in what Melvin could only guess was a protective stance. How long had he been gone? Though it felt like a lifetime, it had likely only been a few minutes of normal time.

A soft, repeating sound that filled his ears turned out to be Ravi, who was muttering one single phrase that broke his heart far more than the realities of her plight ever had.

“Please. Stop. Please.”

He had known, when he started, that he was treading on thin ice. Now that he’d finally pushed her too far, for one single moment, he deeply regretted it. Still, at least he understood why she’d fought him so hard. There was no way she would have intentionally shown him any of that, was there? If that were the case, no wonder she avoided others so much.

She could barely tolerate it herself. Weaker minds would have gone catatonic. It was only Melvin’s own difficult life that kept him stunned instead of broken.

Ravi was still begging for him to stop – no, not him. Whatever memories he’d dredged up. He’d never felt so much like a monster in his life, not even after his first attempt at exploiting the girls he’d attempted to deceive. How he would make it up to her, he’d never know – if he even could. Some things were unforgivable.

Baku spoke, his voice softer and more human than Melvin had heard it before, outside of his actual human form.

“She will heal. In time. Believe in her. She knows the way. Help her find it.”

Melvin couldn’t argue with that.

Uncertain of what to do next, and unable to pull her hands away, he did the only logical thing he could think of.

He put his arms around her and held on tight, knowing well that her return, whenever it came, might spell the end of his life.

***

Back in the ruined farmhouse, the blood of the old woman seeped into the floorboards, staining them an obscene shade of scarlet. Tarepha had struggled to bury her mother’s corpse alone, having no one left to aid her now that Ravi had turned against her. She had hoped, hoped against reason, that she might have been able to talk Ravi into a sane course of action, but that hadn’t turned out in her favor – not by a long shot. Now she had a violent death to grieve. She’d tried so hard to avoid it, but Ravi had been much less compliant than she’d thought. It was a massive waste.

Her fault, not mine. It’s always been her fault.

The blood had gotten into her hair, and all over the expensive fabric of her dress. The stench was starting to overwhelm her delicate nose. Bitterly she stripped off her dress and threw it into the corner, uncaring and unflinching about her own state of nudity. People had always been too quick to judge when it came to such things. What she did in the privacy of her own home was her business, and she would conduct it as she chose.

She scowled, the expression odd on her soft, gentle face. She was not a creature built for such violence and such rage. She might never have witnessed any of it in her life, had she not found herself at the mercy of a soul far more twisted than she’d ever believed in her life. Now, she had no choice but to obey.

There was only one way to clean up the mess that Tarepha found herself in. She wandered outside to the nearby river, brazenly accepting the cold wind and the rain against her naked body, and brought enough water into the farmhouse to fill up a proper bath. She would clean the floorboards later; or perhaps not. It was time to move on, and the house would no longer afford her any utility in her plan. From now on, the plan had to be more mobile; more aimed at dealing with the eventuality that was to come, rather than slowing progress, as she had been.

Ravi was different than she’d expected. After twenty years, she’d changed quite a lot from the naive, innocent child she’d been. She had known, of course, that Ravi had escaped her original plan, but she hadn’t known about the so-called dog until the girl showed up at her door. That had been a stroke of good luck; now she knew where Ravi had spent her childhood, and she had a good estimate of the girl’s ability. The old Guardian of Celephais had always thought far too much of himself for good measure. She’d always hated knights in shining armor.

Still, someone had taught her well; she’d killed the right person, when it came to it. The old woman had been in just the right place at the right time to serve her needs. If Ravi had actually killed Tarepha, as she planned to… well, that would have been most inconvenient. Borrowing Phaetra’s image was so much easier than having to dream herself into that shape, since she had to act so much less. She didn’t enjoy acting. She enjoyed results.

For one fleeting moment, she’d been sure that Ravi was going to see through her plan. In the end, she’d barely managed to maintain the facade long enough to get rid of her. She might not get so lucky a second time.

Tarepha sank into the filled, warm tub of water, and closed her eyes, letting the image of her dearly enslaved sister fall away from her body. It wasn’t until she could see her own long, black hair that she could fully relax as herself.

Somnia had worn the shape of her sister for far too long.

The thought was, in a word, repulsive.