It was the Well in his chest that woke him up. Semt’s eyes opened to the darkness of one of the Graveyard’s barracks. Dae was curled around him, her legs intertwined with his own, her head on his chest. Beneath the threadbare blankets, the warm press of her body was welcome. Asleep, the previous day’s events were far from her relaxed, peaceful face. He smiled and pressed a kiss to her forehead, to which she sleepily muttered something and shifted without waking.
The night was quiet, nothing more than crickets and wind.
They had decided to stay the night in the Graveyard after the scare in the Sanctuary. Who was there to even talk about something like this? He had never heard of this happening to someone’s Well— probably because of its death sentence. No Well-magic, no healing, no regeneration, no immortality. Her Well had even closed itself to him. Ever since squeezing that little mouthful in, it was like trying to push water through a wall. Impossible.
It had taken a healthy dose of alcohol just to calm her enough for sleep. He couldn’t imagine what she was thinking. Fear clutched at him though, in his every breath, in his every moment. She was mortal right now. Vulnerable. He had nearly forgotten how fragile the mortal body was. He remembered the stillness of the woman Dae had killed yesterday. Permanent.
Then, he felt it again. A barely tangible Tug. It was reluctant, vague, but he felt it. For a moment his heart quickened at the feeling. It felt like the Pull to a breach. But that would’ve woken up Dae and everyone else in the camp. Just like a Pull, however, it was near irresistible.
Semt gently pulled himself Dae’s grip. Her hands clutched after him in her sleep, but her eyes didn’t open. He thanked Telas for small mercies and pressed another kiss to her forehead before pulling the blankets over her. The Tug sounded again, patient but stubborn. He followed it out of the barracks and into the night.
It was a colder night than it had been lately, but he couldn’t find the drive in himself to go back for his jacket. Instead, he wrapped his arms around himself and followed the Tug. It was the early hours before sunrise, but the camp wasn’t completely asleep, even at this hour. Returned and mortals of equal measure were on the streets. Some sat with their backs against cabins, falling to insomnia and bad dreams and chasing it away with bottles of cheap booze. Otherwise, there were few sober at this hour. Semt wasn’t sure if their thousand-yard stares were any better.
He followed the feeling toward the trees, not even hesitating to step into the undergrowth. His Well stirred, and he followed its urging to boost his senses. Using the Well-magic to improve his body was always overshadowed by the need to heal wounds during a breach. Right now, however, Semt wasn’t interested in stumbling around in the dark. The moonlight and starlight intensified, and the shadows of the night solidified into shapes.
Sudden nervousness stirred in his gut. Where was he going? His enhanced senses made him even more jumpy. The stirring of leaves, the skitter of a mouse, a falling branch, a loose rock. He noticed every single one with easy clarity and his heart jumped in his chest each time. It was hard to find real danger in the cacophony.
The Tug led him to the banks of a river ten minutes from camp. The second he reached it, the Tug slowly faded from him, like it had never been there. Semt stood there awkwardly alert, scanning the trees and the river. Something felt off, but he couldn’t place it. The wind whispered it’s melody as it drifted through the trees, the creek gurgled and splashed a few feet away from him. But he didn’t hear any birds. No deer in the trees, or rodents. The forest was empty here.
The invisible tension built until Semt slowly exhaled the Well-magic from his senses. It was easier to stay calm when he wasn’t able to feel the absence of life so clearly. His senses closed in, and he relaxed a little at the relief of ignorance. Did Telas bring him here? He had always assumed that she had been the one behind the Pull, but there was nothing here. Could he really have imagined it? Dae was going to laugh her ass off at him when she heard about this. Or beat his ass for giving her a heart attack when she woke up with him missing.
Semt shook his head turned back toward the Graveyard.
A branch tumbled out of the trees above. His eyes went toward it, and he didn’t see the second thing falling in the air until it knocked him clean off his feet. His back hit the rocks of the riverbank, pushing them painfully into his skin. Above him, a demon of white marble snarled at him, and he threw all his strength against its chest to stop it from tearing out his throat with its stone teeth. Panic and shock delayed him for only a moment, Nightroot flying up from his belt into his hand the moment he realized what was happening.
Molten steel boiled up from the handle and the demon threw itself off him with a snarl before it could be burnt. Semt scrambled to his feet, facing off against the demon as it stalked around him a few meters away. It looked like a Knight, bigger than a Pawn, with its wings closed tight against its back. Well-magic snapped the night into focus and he formed a half-spear with the Nightroot. No time to think.
The Knight roared with a force that seemed to split the air, its wings unfurling and whipping gusts of wind toward Semt, kicking up dust and rocks. Under the canopy the Knight couldn’t take off, but the wings gave Semt another thing to worry about. They were still made of dense marble.
Golden ichor hardened into knives in the monster’s claws and it flung them at Semt as blurs. He sidestepped one and caught the other on the shaft of his spear, sending it spinning off into the trees. The demon watched this closely, pausing. It was sizing him up.
If Semt fell here, the demon could cut him apart until he couldn’t rebuild himself. No one would find him here and be able to put him back together. If he lost this fight, he was dead.
What was almost a smile split the demon’s face. It pulled its wings back and snapped them forward toward Semt. As it did so, the marble shattered into a hundred needles of stone. Reflex transformed the Nightroot into a kite shield and he threw it up, but the force of the needles hitting the shield still send him flying backward into a tree. Shattered marble dust floated in the air, pulverized by the force of it hitting the shield.
This wasn’t a normal Knight.
The bones and muscle in his back reknit and recombined as the demon stalked toward him through the dust. As it did so, the dust condensed back onto it, its wings reforming. Gold swords formed in its hands as it closed the distance between it and him.
Semt gasped as his bones snapped back into place, and he rebuilt the Nightroot into a spear as the demon approached. It leapt for him, blades swinging, but he ducked beneath the hungry metal and drove the Nightroot into its chest. The black spear tip caught it right in the chest, spilling a jet of molten gold. That didn’t stop it, and its swords caught him right in the chest, each of them jutting from his back. Semt couldn’t breathe.
He tightened his grip on the spear and pushed it forward, melting the tip into hot metal and burning straight through the demon. It wrenched back its swords with crimson sprays, but Semt forged the speartip into a disc that was larger than the entry wound within the demon’s chest. When it tried to pull itself off of the spear, most of its chest exploded into metal and stone. It destroyed itself. The monster stumbled back, gold drenching its front, before tumbling backward into the river.
It was over.
Semt fell to his knees, Nightroot clattering to the stones of the river bank. His vision darkened as the Well hummed and vibrated in his chest. His blood seeped back across the rocks, up his clothes. The terrible holes in his chest healed and the flesh reconstituted. Somehow the Knight had missed his heart. He hadn’t died. The cold feeling of his lungs and muscles fixing themselves in his chest ached through his body.
The golden metal blood and shards of marble slipped downstream. He crawled on his hands in knees the river upstream of the corpse and splashed himself with the freezing water. He shook as the water streamed off his face, soaking up his pants legs. A demon in the woods. No breach. No warning. Was anyone safe anymore?
And with Dae’s Well being empty…
She wouldn’t even be safe outside the breaches. Not to mention he barely survived this one. They were getting deadlier, stronger.
It took nearly a quarter of his Well, but he stumbled back to his feet and called the Nightroot into his hand. He had to warn the camp. The elder Returned in the Lodge had to hear of this.
But the Well in his chest stopped him. The urge it echoed through him wasn’t a Tug or Pull, but a Halt. It hung on his bones. Stop, it said. The air on the riverside chilled, and the magic within him rippled, sending a shiver through him.
Then, it felt as if reality split.
The shadows on the far side of the river lengthened and deepened into abysses that sent a pang through his temple. His mind couldn’t comprehend what it was seeing. Infinitely deep spirals, ancient designs older than the world he stood on. Something beyond him was coming.
A figure emerged from the darkness, or rather, the darkness became it. The abyssal spirals spun into the shape of a woman. Her clothes were the gray chaos of storm clouds and her skin— she was black. But not in the way Semt was black. She was the color of the night sky, the color of tar and coal and soot. Its texture changed even as he looked at it, shifting between polished wood, infinite spirals, human skin. Her hair flowed like a river down her back and in the wind, the color of darkness. The whites of her eyes was like ebony, her pupils silver.
It was Telas. His goddess.
A tightness in his chest grew until he realized he wasn’t breathing and he took a gulp of the freezing wind, his breath fogging in the air.
And then, the effect retreated. The normal cool night air blew through in a breeze. Reality… hardened. Her skin became solid and humanlike, her hair fell normally and blew in the wind like it was supposed to. Her clothes became fabric. In an instant, he felt the pain retreat from him. But it was no less clear that he stood before a goddess.
“Hello, Semt,” she said. Her voice was deep and smooth, ringing with beauty. He relaxed at its sound.
Semt really wasn’t sure what to say.
She stepped across the river, walking through the water and snapping her fingers. A tree dipped one of its branches, the wood splitting off and sprouting into a table and chairs. A cup grew out of its surface, forming and hardening into a wooden mug that sat on the table. “What do you like to drink, Semt?” she asked.
For the first time in his life, he felt a strong urge for something a little more inebriating, but he licked his dry lips and said “coffee.”
The black liquid bubbled up within the cup, and she placed her fingers over the rim. “Sugar, milk, whisky?”
The white powder rained from her fingertips, and she handed him the steaming cup. He took it gingerly, careful not to touch her skin. She smiled at him. “There’s something about drinks, isn’t there? It’s one of my favorite things to come out of your kind. The variety. The preferences. Each one of you has a favorite. It’s a good metaphor, is it not? Each human is different from another. Unique.”
Telas formed her own cup of coffee on the table, garnishing it with cream and honey. She held it between her hands like a prize and drank from it like a noble. She drank half of it with a smile. “It’s hard for me to pick a favorite.”
He swallowed. “When you have the choice of whatever you want, I imagine it would be.”
She looked a little surprised at him speaking to her, but it fell into another comfortable smile. “I suppose you have a point.”
“Mistress,” he murmured. “Why are you here?”
He blinked at her.
Telas set her coffee down and sighed, shoulders slumping. It was such a human action that it actually caught him off guard. He had expected her to be otherworldly in her actions as well as her appearance, but the expressions on her face… she could’ve been human if she just looked different.
“You intrigue me,” she said. “You remind me of a compassion I used to have. Your lover, Dae, and you make quite a pair. I’ve… been watching. Which I know must be unsettling.
“But I think you can help me. And I can help you.”
“How could I even begin to help you?” Semt was just a man. He had no illusions about his worth in this world. He had been a face in the crowd in his first life, and now he was just a soldier in a line.
“Things are changing,” she said. “As they are wont to do. It’s something I’ve always had my problems at grasping. It’s not my domain. I think you could be my hand, my helper.”
She gestured to the dead demon. “I led you here as a test. You have the ability to match your character. This is an Archknight. No easy task for even a multiple of your cohort.”
“Why is it here? How did it get here?”
Telas looked at him. “I don’t know. Aren’t you going to drink your coffee?”
Disbelief rose in him. He set the cup down the table beside hers. “I’m confused. How could you not know?”
“My power doesn’t extend to what your kind expects it to. I am powerful, Semt. But I am an observer looking at a board. I’m not a piece on the board, I am the player. My energy is focused on giving the Gifted— the Returned— my power. I can give you drops of it. Give you the ability to hold it within you without it tearing you apart. But my hand on the board any more than that? My power would rip this land, this world, to shreds.”
It made a sick sort of sense. It explained this war and gave it more reason than he expected it to. They were how she fought this war. The power that she had was unimaginable. He had seen it within the spirals, the designs, that were written on her skin. “It’s like a river meeting a pebble,” he said.
“Exactly,” she agreed, looking pleased. “I knew you were smart. And I’m not the only river.”
Kaltena. Her sister.
“If she’s as powerful as you, why doesn’t she just use her power to destroy us?”
“Because she wants this world too. Humankind is a precious commodity. The parts of the world she owns are shrouded from me, but I sincerely doubt she has anything like you.”
“That’s all she wants? To own us?”
Telas looked sad. “It’s a cold void beyond this world. Unimaginably large, unimaginably lonely. Perhaps there is life beyond this world, but we could never be sure. She won’t be leaving.”
Semt sat down on the river bank, looking at the still demon. “Why doesn’t she just make more of us? Couldn’t you make her some?”
Telas sat down beside him. She smelled like a cold morning, like coffee beans. “That’s part of the problem. We are old beings. Somehow… somehow our memories of the past have become clouded. We do not remember where we were before this world, and we do not remember it’s beginnings. That domain of our power is lost to us.”
“You don’t remember how to make humans?”
“Or life,” she confirmed.
It was hard to comprehend a deity forgetting something. But it was harder to imagine being alive for an eternity. It wasn’t like he could argue with her.
“Why do you want me?”
“Even my presence here is marking the land. Standing with my power bare here strains the world here. Like a bird on a branch that’s too fragile for its weight. I need an anchor. A Vessel. You will become my eyes, and your body will become capable of withstanding greater forces of my power. Abilities that none of your fellows can manage. With your help, maybe we can start to answer some questions.”
He looked at the dead demon. Answering questions sounded like the ideal right now. Then he remembered why the demon worried him so much.
Semt looked up at Telas. “Dae— my friend— her Well—“
The goddess held up a hand. “I know. She killed a human using the power of the Well. It’s a response that I placed into them long ago, not realizing what I was doing. I meant for the closing of the Well to be a banishment, a discharge back into humanity where they could still live a normal life. But the Returned are outcasts in society, and the Well will always call for them to fight, empty or not. It’s… horrifying.
“But if you join me, I will force her Well open. She will be safer than before, with my eyes on her. But the cost is your allegiance.”
“Allegiance? Isn’t this Well already proof of that?”
“This will be more demanding,” Telas said simply. “Together, we’re going to work together on solving things. You will be the Vessel of my Will. My champion.”
Semt shivered. He wasn’t a champion. He was a farmer’s son. He could stomach his life now. Between the breaches, he was with the woman he loved, far from the society that killed him.
But change always came. It was inevitable. He knew that. All he could do was try to save what he loved.
“Alright,” he said. “I’ll be your Vessel.”
A cold icy feeling enveloped his left arm, the ice sinking as deep as his bones, his muscles seizing and immobilizing. He gasped in pain, and Telas stepped forward to take his arm in her stony hands. Reality warped like it had earlier, phantom wind blowing through the forest as frost appeared on the ground around them, climbing up trees and freezing the water of the river as it flowed. She kissed the back of his left hand, and the ice in his arm vanished. A burning like frostbite blossomed where she had kissed, and he watched a black spiral form on his skin, full of ancient designs and smaller spirals. It abruptly stilled into a matte black. Like ink.
The goddess was gone. But the Spiral on his hand remained.
The cold faded slowly. Semt watched as the river slowly began to break free of the icy and flow over the corpse of the Archknight once more. The heaviness, the buzz of the air that had came with Telas’s presence was gone. The table and cups melded back into the trees. The world seemed much more real now, less strained.
“Fuck,” he muttered softly to himself. He clenched and unclenched his hand, the Spiral tingling slightly. Change had come.
Dae woke to the feeling of heat enveloping her. It wasn’t the comfortable feeling of being in Semt’s arms. It was suffocating. She was sweating before she even opened her eyes. The place that she had woke to was definitely not the Graveyard.
The ground was covered in a layer of mossy roots, soft to the touch. A soft white fog hung in the air where she laid, stirring as she sat up, instantly alert to the situation. White, stone spires climbed into the sky around her, massive green roots and vines wrapping around them. The sky above her was misty but clean, showing the blue through the thin clouds. Fog closed in around her, the towers emerging from the top of it as if floating. The hot, humid air clung to her skin.
She slowly got to her feet, the otherworldly scenery around her capturing her attention. Distant chimes rung through the fog, the only sound in the still air. Unease rippled through her. She was still dressed in the clothes she slept in, no Lockroot sword at her waist. She had nothing to defend herself, the empty Well in her chest making her tattoos worthless.
The soft sound of footsteps came from the fog. She turned to face the source, seeing a tall figure silhouetted in the gloom. It came closer and closer before entering the clearing where Dae stood.
It was a woman, nearly eight feet tall. Her robes were white and gold, but that was a small detail beside her skin, which was white like ivory with shiny crack of gold running through it. Gleaming golden hair was tied into a bun on her head, her eyes like golden saucers.
“Hello, little human,” she said, smiling and walking in a wide circle around Dae, watching her closely.
“What the fuck is going on? How did I get here? Where am I?”
“You’re still in a cot in your camp. Sleeping like a baby.”
The woman shrugged. “That would make sense, wouldn’t it? Granted, this isn’t a normal dream.”
Dae knew that. Her senses were completely immersed right now. The smells of the air, the heat, the sound. The feeling of her bare feet on the roots. Dreams were never this vivid. “Who are you?”
“Someone you aren’t going to be inclined to like. But your goddess has forsaken you, hasn’t she? All for defending the one you love. She made you mortal.”
Her Well. Still empty. “How do you know that?”
“It’s written into your mind. The anxiety. The fear. My sister might have locked you from me physically, but your mind is still open to me.”
Dae connected the dots. “You’re—“
“Kaltena,” the woman drawled. “In the flesh. Somewhat.”
Years fighting demons. Countless times waking from the cold sleep. All for this woman’s wishes. It was all because of her.
Dae clenched her fists. But this was a goddess. And she wasn’t stupid. “Fuck you.”
Annoyance flashed on the goddess’s face. “That’s not necessary.”
“I’ve died dozens of times playing your little games. A ‘fuck you’ is me being civil.”
“It’s not my game,” Kaltena said. “It’s my sister’s. Telas is the one who perpetuates this war.”
Actual regret appeared in the goddess. “I’m sorry for any suffering you’ve gone through. None of this happened as I intended.”
“You’re a goddess. You have to be able to do something,” Dae said. As far as she knew, she was the only human to ever speak to her. Maybe she could be reasoned with. “Stop sending your demons through the Gatewall. We haven’t done anything to you.”
“Things aren’t that simple. My domain is motion, change. I’m the mind behind the power, not the power. Your goddess keeps from me what I was promised. My power cannot stay dormant. It is restless, angry. This land is too still. I cannot stop the creation of the demons.”
It sounded nonsensical to her. But it wasn’t like she could really speak against a goddess. Dae had no real idea how any of this worked. “They’re just being made on their own?”
“It is true that I designed soldiers in the past. I wanted to destroy what I couldn’t have. But now I know better. I suppose my power doesn’t.”
“So it can’t be stopped?”
“It could be. If Telas would give me what she promised.”
“Not all of you. But you are her creations. She promised to share the secret, the trick to your kind. Without it, my land is dead. Mindlessness is all I can conjure. The magic that suffuses this air has no where to go. It’s a pond of stagnant water.”
This place was the other side of the Gatewall. Quiet, hot, and still. This was Hell. It wasn’t what she expected.
“Why am I here?”
“Because we can help each other. I want this war to end. And you want power.”
Dae cocked her head. “I want this war to end too.”
Kaltena clucked her tongue. “Oh, but you love this ‘second life’. You love feeling the power coursing through your body. You love the ability to decide for yourself. You love being able to choose who you love, instead of sitting in the back of Daddy’s court. I know how you really died.”
Dae took a step back, and the goddess followed her with a step forward. “How could you know that?”
“I am the goddess of dreams. Your desires are open to me. Your joys. Your secrets. I see you, Dae Ashwood. And you want power.”
She missed the feeling of magic in her body. She missed her immortality. She hated the fear that had seized her the moment she started coughing up blood. She hated being helpless.
“What do you want me to do?”
The goddess looked away. “I’m not sure yet. But I need a pair of eyes. I need someone who I can be with in the waking world. What I’m looking for isn’t within someone’s dreams.”
“Listen,” Dae said. “I’m not doing anything until you tell me what you want me to do for you. Right now there’s very little reason for me to trust you.”
Kaltena laughed. “You’re a strange little human. Powers untold and you’re making demands of me.”
“Then no deal,” Dae said.
“Calm yourself. I’ll tell you,” the goddess snapped. She ran a hand through the golden threads of her hair and sighed. “Telas keeps her lands carefully shrouded from my eyes. The only ways I can look beyond her Gatewall are tenuous. I can feel for sleeping consciousnesses, place myself inside them. But I’ve begun feeling pockets of myself in this world. Places where my power has broken through. If you allowed me to use you as a sort of Vessel, I could ride you to these sources and use them to talk to my sister. Maybe then, at least, I could try to fix this.”
“I don’t like the sound of Vessel.”
“You will have full control over yourself,” the goddess assured her. “I will borrow your eyes, and pass my instructions onto you. In return, I will give you a Reservoir of my magic. It is different than the Well-magic of Telas, but you can use it to heal yourself just as well, while keeping the Well in yourself and Telas none the wiser. She won’t notice a single soldier who she damned to die.”
Dae knew she couldn’t trust the goddess completely. But she hadn’t immersed herself in this second life just to lose it in an instant. She refused to be mortal and powerless again. She was free for the first time ever. She was with someone who loved her for who she was. This was a way to save her from this cruel end.
The goddess smiled, and the fabric of the dream warped. The fog thickened and the heat built until she was sweating and all she could see was the intense brilliance of Kaltena. She was blinding but Dae couldn’t look away. She was the surface of the Sun, swirling and burning and shifting. Hundreds of stars exploded over and over. Was this what her power really was? It was infinite.
Kaltena reached out her radiant arm and took Dae’s right hand in hers. If this wasn’t a dream, she would’ve been obliterated. The fire spread from the goddess to Dae, enveloping her skin in flames. It didn’t hurt at all. In fact, the uncomfortable heat faded into a familiar warmth. Like that of Semt’s embrace.
The light faded into steam. It was so thick, she couldn’t see her hand in front of her face. But slowly the strange scenery of Hell returned, and the goddess looked as she had. On Dae’s right arm, a golden tattoo began burned itself right into her skin. It was the image of a blazing star, full of flames with rays curling off of it. Even when it was finished, it stung like a burn.
Kaltena gave a relieved sigh, examining the mark. “Oh, that’s good.”
“I wasn’t sure what that would do. I’ve never done it before. Just seen Telas do it.”
It was a little disconcerting to hear that after a glimpse into the goddess’s true power. It would’ve only taken a drop of what she saw to reduce her to ashes. The goddess’s power didn’t work like she expected it to, but it was still the power of a goddess. That part couldn’t be questioned.
“Can you feel it?” Kaltena asked. “The Reservoir?”
Dae focused, but at first she could only feel her Well’s cold weight. But there was more than that now. A warmth, a lightness. It seemed overlaid with her Well, like it occupied the same place. She reached for it and called power from it. Heat and sparkling pain followed the pull of her own will, filling her tattoos with warmth instead of chill. They glowed with golden light, and a globe of yellow light constituted above her palm.
She focused, pushing the Reservoir-magic into her Well. The transition created a tremor through her body, but when she pulled this magic into her tattoos, they ran cold and silver. Like they always had. This would take some time to get used to. The magic was more potent than it ever had been before. “It’s incredible,” she breathed.
“I promised you power,” the goddess said. “And now you have it. This time my sister can’t take it away from you. You are my Vessel.”
“I’ll contact you when it’s time for your end of this deal. Be careful. You have my magic in its purest form. You will be able to do great and terrible things with it.”
The chimes in the distance grew louder. Kaltena reached up and snapped her fingers. “It’s time to wake up,” she said.
The fog engulfed them. Dae closed her eyes.
Consciousness returned to her in the darkness of the barracks. The sunrise peeked inside, casting a line of orange on the wall opposite her cot. Semt was curled around her back, legs intertwined with hers. His right arm was wrapped around her abdomen. She barely noticed the navy fabric encircling his arm down to his right hand. Pushing backward deeper into Semt’s embrace, she looked at the gold sun on her hand.
Just as she was about to use the Reservoir-magic to heal the last of her wounds, she felt it. The drip, drip, drip of her Well refilling.