Dynaea walked down the dormitory aisle, gray robe swishing at her bare heels. Though she’d long passed the need to go barefoot in an effort to remain awake, she still followed the custom. It didn’t feel right to wear shoes around those she guarded while they slept. Dozens of still forms lay under blankets, their repose lit by moonlight through slim windows. Looking over them made her grip the Selak dagger tighter. Her watch was almost over, and she hadn’t been required to slay any of the sleepers. Maybe the Slumber would pass them by this night.
Pausing at the bed of a small boy, Dynaea placed the dagger behind her back. Thankfully she’d never disposed of a child in her eight months as a Sentinel. She recalled when she slept in the dormitories because it was too dangerous in the countryside. Too dangerous to close one’s eyes and sleep. Dream.
The boy turned onto his side, clasping a stuffed ice bear. Dynaea smiled and walked on.
Her joy faded as she fought another headache. Ever since Caltor had Branded her, she’d not required sleep. Awake night and day so she could keep watch over the people of Salfar. Her sense of taste was almost gone, too—another side effect of the wizard’s Thosite sorcery.
Firming her jaw, Dynaea neared the end of the aisle. Her sacrifices were worth it. Many had been spared from the Slumber due to her vigilance.
Something purple glittered from the corner of her eye.
Taking a deep breath, Dynaea turned. An old woman lay on her back, so quiet and peaceful. Her gray locks were tied in the traditional Salfaran braids, just like Dynaea’s. Wrinkles and laugh lines testified to a long, happy life.
Violet frost crystals on the woman’s lips and eyelashes testified to the curse of the Slumber.
Dynaea glanced around. Good, no one stirred. She edged closer to the woman’s bed, Selak dagger held out before her. Its straight, fluted blade caught the moonlight for a moment, like a killer star.
Forcing her hands not to tremble, Dynaea observed the first Sentinel rule: try to wake the victim. She laid a hand on the woman’s shoulder and shook. Though her chest still rose in regular breaths, the woman’s body was cold to the touch. Frost crystals slid off her clothing and littered the sheets. Dynaea drew her hand back.
The second rule was to open an eyelid. If a normal, dilated eye stared back at her, then the woman might still be saved, with the aid of a small incantation.
Dynaea opened the old woman’s right eye. The frost crystals crunched as she separated eyelid from skin. Underneath, a solid black eyeball gazed into nothingness.
By the Myths this woman hadn’t fully frozen yet. With another’s help, she might be able to dispel the curse. Dynaea stared at the exit door.
“I need help in here!” she called, knowing the next Sentinel would be waiting to take the next shift.
No one answered. Dynaea straightened and took a step towards the door.
Wait. She had done this many times already. The third Sentinel rule was firm and simple:
After lowering the blade over the woman’s neck, Dynaea closed her eyes.
“Bestir, for the light comes,” she whispered, inflecting the syllables with Thosite magic. A chill spread from her chest and coursed through her limbs, tingling her flesh.
She slit the old woman’s throat.
Dark hotness sprayed Dynaea’s face and robe. In an instant the purple frost melted from the woman’s face. Within seconds the pillow and sheets glistened with blood.
A door opened at the other end of the room, and the next watch’s Sentinel came in. Lips tight, she showed him her dripping dagger, and gestured at the woman’s corpse.
“The curse had barely taken hold of her. She could have been saved. Didn’t you hear me?”
He ignored Dynaea, studying the sleeping people, dagger clasped in a steady hand.
Dynaea stormed out the opposite door, not bothering to clean her face with one of the anointed towels offered by the guard outside.
Inside the Sentinel Rotunda, Dynaea removed her gray robe and laid the Selak dagger on the altar. Other Sentinels came and went, putting on similar garments or disrobing. Long inured to embarrassment over her slight, pallid body, she washed off the old woman’s blood in the communal trough. At least none paid heed to the scar above her left breast. Beside her, other Sentinels cleansed themselves. No one looked at each other. None spoke. The cold, crimson-stained trough water sloshed onto her feet.
After toweling off, Dynaea donned her plain gray dress and blouse, then slipped on a heavy gray wool coat. As a Sentinel, she wasn’t allowed to wear other colors, even while off-duty. As an unwed Salfaran woman, she wasn’t allowed to wear darker colors anyway. She looped her black plaited hair around each arm. Last year, before becoming a Sentinel, the plaits had reached her ankles. Men would pay her no mind now, though.
Dynaea exited the Rotunda and entered the streets of Altakraesis, capital of Salfar. Snow was still falling, and street sweepers struggled to keep the paths clear for horses and noblemen. Ladies attired in elegant black dresses, covered in Thosite designs, passed Dynaea without a glance. Soldiers in hulking black plate mail marched down the street, off to another campaign against the Dryxans or Seradomians. Peasants glanced at her, whispered to each other, then hurried along.
No matter. The only person she wished a conversation with never walked these streets.
Keeping her chin up, Dynaea strolled down thoroughfares ringed by buildings so tall their tops faded into the wintry pall above. People rushed about their business, dark circles under their eyes from lack of sleep. Raised voices, galloping horses, and creaking wagons hammered in her ears. In the alleys, city guards cleared out the night’s dead—either frozen by cold, or fallen into Slumber. Each year, fewer could afford the Sleep Tax, which allowed them to rest in a dormitory at night. But not these impoverished victims. The purple-crusted corpses looked more alive than those dying naturally.
Memories of Dynaea’s home town, its people frozen solid in purple ice, came to mind. The wicked cold. Those horrified faces.
She quickened her pace.
As Caltor’s tower came into view around the next block, Dynaea walked even faster. After pushing through the crowds nearer the city’s hub, she entered through the tower’s thick, engraved doors. Only those allowed entrance by the wizard could go in. Caltor never denied her.
Whereas the noise outside had filled her ears, silence reigned inside. A few braziers burned, lighting a long chamber filled with ancient statues of Thosite dragons, old imperial maps, and bookshelves. Scents of soot and dusk spice stung her nose. Dynaea paused and enjoyed the tower’s warmth, its spacious solitude. It remained unchanged since her childhood, when she’d first met Caltor.
“You took your time.” His strong, thick voice filled the room.
Dynaea started to bow, but a gentle hand brushed her cheek. She blinked and gazed up into the golden, reptilian eyes of Caltor—the wizard who’d rescued her years ago. The same one who’d Branded her as a Sentinel.
“You have plenty of it,” she replied, smiling. It almost hurt her face to do so.
Caltor stood a head taller than she, with broad shoulders covered by thick black robes decorated with Thosite runes. Short black plaits hung from his head, fitted with onyx clasps. He smiled back. A handsome man… who never aged.
“There is sadness in your voice. You had to perform your duty last watch.” Caltor stepped back and examined her. “I still smell her blood in your hair.”
As a master Thosite wizard and an advisor to the Emperor himself, Caltor seemed to know everything. Which was why she’d come here.
Dynaea’s blouse collar made her throat itch. “I want to know if the Emperor’s counselors have come to a decision regarding two Sentinels per shift.”
His smile disappeared. “You ask me this too often.”
“That is not an answer.” She tried to keep her voce humble, but his frown deepened.
“You are unhappy. It is always harder for young Sentinels.” Caltor walked to a wall map of Rathos. On it, Salfar controlled the northern part of the continent. The southern lands—Dryxas, Seradom, Nemason—were just names she’d read on the casualty lists after each campaign. Battles to secure food and goods for an empire stricken with Slumber. Her brother had never returned from Seradom. Both her uncles had been slain in Dryxas. Her people were no better off despite such costs.
“I cannot taste food and drink anymore,” she whispered. “My monthly cycles… they have ended. And now I—”
“Have headaches,” Caltor said. “I know. So do I. That is the price paid by all who practice Thosite magic. Be thankful you are not I. My eyes were once bluer than yours, and my tongue, unclipped. But to speak the dragon magic requires… eschewal of the person we once were.”
“But the dragons cursed us with the Slumber!”
“You came here for that argument again?” He turned away and touched the map.
“We are poisoning ourselves with their magic just to survive a little longer,” she said.
Caltor faced her. “What would you have us do? Take drugs to remain awake, like the southerns? Pray to the ancient gods like uneducated fools? Allow our children to sleep in unguarded, unwarded buildings, only to find them frozen come morning? You know the consequences of that.”
Scowling, Dynaea clutched at the scar above her breast. “You dare mention that to me?”
“You need reminding.” Caltor spoke a guttural, heavy word and became shorter, thinner. His black hair turned brown, and the robes became an embroidered tunic and pants. Blue eyes replaced the reptilian ones, and his face…
“Father,” Dynaea whispered.
“You willingly let me Brand you. Willingly took the Sentinel oaths, so that the memory of the man I imitate would be honored.” Caltor neared her, and Dynaea tried to breathe.
His voice, his husky scent… that dimpled chin… Caltor’s magic copied her father in every precious detail. She reached out to him.
In an instant her father’s countenance weathered into a cruel, gray-skinned visage of hate. Solid black eyes glowered at her, and thick black claws now hung from each hand.
Crying out, Dynaea recoiled. The scar itched and became warm.
“Do you remember?” The figure before her asked, then swiped at her with its claws.
Dynaea tumbled to the floor. Her plaited locks came free and draped her shaking face. The scar burned now, just like the day her father, transformed by the Slumber into a Grul, had tried to kill her. She’d never forget the Grul poison running through her body, spreading from the wound… incinerating her heart.
“Stop it! Father, stop… “
The next moment, Caltor’s soft, large hands cradled her head to his shoulder. She didn’t weep. Not even sob. All she could do was gasp, or try to rub the scalding fire from the scar.
“When I passed through your frozen town that day and saved you, all your people had wakened from the ice,” Caltor said. “Cursed by the Slumber, their dreams stolen by the dragons of Thosos, and twisted into Grul. Alive, but mindless and filled with an ancient draconic spite.”
Dynaea recalled how she’d refused to leave, hoping her family would rise from the ice. Hoping one of her uncles would return in his engraved plate mail, fresh from a victory in Dryxas. Not until afterward would she know why her family had become monsters, or her uncle’s fate. Kinless and not wanting others to face the Slumber unguarded, she’d accepted Caltor’s instruction to become what she was now.
“And what am I? I am more dead than alive,” she mumbled.
“You do what needs to be done,” Caltor said. “Without the Sentinels, we would have no warning. Our people would have even less sleep than they do now. Your magic ensures that their bodies do not rise again.”
“We need two per shift,” she said. “There are so many in the dormitories now.”
“We haven’t the Sentinels to spare.” Caltor frowned. “You know that would not change anything, even if the counsellors allowed it.”
“What of the southerns? Surely they do not cart out wagonloads of dead every morning.”
Caltor rose and straightened his robes. “Soon they will. The Slumber is spreading. With each passing year it grows in potency. The reach of the dragons is great.”
“Why not send someone down there? We could share with each other what we have learned, and work together on a solution. I could make the journey. The southerns might—”
“Youth blinds you. Many others have studied these things, and know how to handle them. Your next watch will begin with nightfall.”
Dynaea stood and wrapped her plaits back around her arms. “Forgive me, Master Caltor. There is… much I have yet to learn.”
His face softened, and a trace of humanity shone through his draconic eyes. “We have all lost, Dynaea. You, your entire family. Me, two daughters to the Slumber and a wife who disowned me. If we are to save others and return pride and security to Salfar, we must never give in to childish hopes. Sleep is for those who can only dream. You and I… we act.”
Meeting his eyes, she nodded. After delivering a half-curtsy proper to her social status, Dynaea departed the tower. Outside, the snow had drifted onto the curbs, and the blinding white squall enfiladed her face with a hundred tiny cold impacts.
Any children she passed didn’t play in the snow. No snowballs. No snow kings or queens, built as tall as a person, with rocks for eyes and noses.
Why should they? The last snowballs she’d thrown in her hometown had been stained purple.
Not bothering to protect her face from the blowing snow, Dynaea strode down the street.
The rest of the day she carried out her usual routine: reciting Thosite poetry from the Remembrance Balcony to commoners in need of culture; studying the Sentinel’s Tome, a collection of historical volumes maintained by her order; and attending Sepulture, the ceremony where each night’s dead are interred into stone pits and burned. The quiet, somber ritual left her even emptier than she’d felt after leaving Caltor’s tower.
Gazing southward, she stiffened. What if she left the city anyway? She’d be long gone before anyone found out. And when she returned with a cure from the southerns, everyone would rejoice.
A small girl stumbled into Dynaea as people left Sepulture. Dynaea sucked in the chill air. No, she had to protect them. Going south would only betray her oath and leave them unguarded, with no extra Sentinels to take her place.
As night drew close, she paced in one of the city squares, watching the young men and their consorts. Couples holding hands, or braiding their personal seal into each other’s hair. Young women wearing the traditional Salfaran dress that hid the legs but revealed arms, back, and the top of the bosom. Things she could never show now, since all would see that awful scar. Blemished flesh was almost considered a disease.
One couple whispered to each other, then kissed. Dynaea ran from the square, cinching her overcoat tight against her body.
Not even the single young men there had looked at her. These ugly gray clothes, advertising what she was… she ran faster, bumping into people.
Did any of these fools realize what she did for them each night? What she had given up, so they’d be safe?
She arrived at the Rotunda early. After stripping her clothes, Dynaea just stood there. Wondering if any fellow Sentinels would look her way. Recognize that another human being was in their midst, that she had this gross scar, that she was too thin, or that her breasts were too small—
Before anyone could see the tears, she shoved on the dark-stained gray robes, yanked the Selak dagger from the altar, and entered one of the dormitories.
With the snow storm outside, no moonlight spilled through the windows this time. Dynaea marched up and down the aisle, bare feet numbing in the cold. The sleepers had received an extra blanket, but she still wore the same thin robe.
She turned the dagger over and over in her hands. Like all Selak blades, its handle was wrapped in Grul skin. The pommel was fitted with an onyx carved into the shape of a closed eyelid. When used in conjunction with a Thosite incantation, the dagger ensured anybody cut by it would remain dead forever, their essence severed from this world. It was the only way to ensure the dragons would have no control over the corpses.
Caltor had admitted the southerns didn’t have Sentinels. And they had some sort of drug to resist fatigue. There had to be another way. Slitting people’s throats wasn’t honoring her family’s memory.
Hours drifted by like snow over a desolate street. She handled the dagger so much the metal stayed warm. She untied and retied her braids twice. How had that young woman worn hers in the square? Four times she tugged down her robe and checked the scar. Wondered if she could carve it away with the dagger, speak an invocation, and sever that memory from her mind forever. Just like she severed these people’s lives.
A light bell tone sounded. Struck by the guard outside the door, it heralded the last moments of her watch.
Dynaea studied a few sleeping forms, then stopped at the bed where the little boy with the ice bear slept. It had slipped from his grasp, and now dangled on the edge of the bed.
As she pushed it back under his arm, something cold touched her fingers.
Her throat constricted. The robe made her shoulders itch. She passed the dagger from hand to hand, tried to slow down her breathing. Maybe the curse had just started, and he could still be saved. Or she could have tracked in snow from outside… but that had been hours ago.
She opened one eyelid, then the other. Twin pools of oblivion greeted her. The boy’s chest rose and fell in a comfortable cadence. Sitting on the bed, Dynaea nudged him. Poked his belly. Prodded her thumb into his back. Then prodded it again, hard.
The boy didn’t stir.
By the Draconor, he’d better awaken! Dynaea punched and elbowed him, then slapped his face. That innocent, beauteous face of youth and possibility. Everything she had lost.
An awful chill wrenched through her stomach, and she almost gagged.
Rule number three. Never hesitate.
“Bestir, for the light… the light… “
Dynaea looked away and cut the boy’s throat.
When the next Sentinel arrived, Dynaea still trembled on the bed, staring at the blood-soaked ice bear at her feet.
Though Dynaea was allowed into Caltor’s tower the next day, hours passed before he finally came down to see her. Good. Let him see she wouldn’t be ignored. She would wait forever if need be. At a word from him, the brazier flames rose, and warmth spread over her body. It didn’t reach her heart.
His reptilian eyes narrowed. “I know you hurt. Yet you break Sentinel protocol by coming here expecting me to reverse the Brand.”
Dynaea stalked up to him. “That’s not why I’m here. I remember my oaths. I know what we face.”
“There is no other way. Not yet.” Caltor turned toward the stairs.
“There might be.” She laid a hand on his arm. Were she a commoner, she could be whipped for such an act. Even as a Sentinel, she risked three days without food. Thosite wizards commanded more respect than most noblemen.
He studied her face. How many centuries had those eyes seen? How much death?
“Grant me leave to travel south. I will learn how the southerns deal with the Slumber.” The words spilled from her lips.
“The southern kingdoms? Barbarians and pirates. They can teach us nothing. Salfar has always been alone in this struggle,” Caltor said.
Dynaea stared at him. “Have you tried? Have you ever left this city to find out?”
The air hummed until her eardrums throbbed. The brazier flames flickered near her face. A heaviness pressed on her chest, and she had to withdraw her hand from Caltor’s robe, it felt so hot. She’d not seen him this angry in years.
“You presume to lecture me?” he asked in a low voice. “Ignorant of the world, of men? What could a girl like you learn that I have not?”
Though she flinched, Dynaea maintained her stare. “Destroying ourselves and our children will not save us.”
“Neither will naiveté.”
“Only the dead stop trying,” Dynaea said. “We have made a tomb for us all here, when we need life!”
He sighed, and the heavy sensation left her chest. The brazier flames calmed. “Do not waste your life on a misguided dream.”
Dynaea clasped his hand. Even now, Thosite power coursed through it, making her flesh tingle. “At least let me live that dream, before the dragons steal it. Like they stole your daughters.”
Caltor flung her hand aside and climbed the stairs.
After staring at the map of Rathos for a long time, she left the tower.
Dynaea led the stolen horse to the city’s southern gate. In an hour, she’d be expected in the Sentinel Rotunda. Unless she got at least two leagues from the city, her Brand would consume her with great pain. Caltor would make it worse.
She’d sworn to defend her people from the Slumber. And so she would. Her way.
As she crunched over fresh snow, the horse whinnied. Soldiers at the gate studied her. Did they suspect? Shaking, trying to breathe, Dynaea forced herself to continue.
“Sentinel Dynaea?” a voice called.
Lips pressed together, she turned around. Across the street waited scores of armored troops and several horse-drawn wagons.
Someone had reported her. No doubt she’d be forbidden food for a week, maybe worse. So be it. She couldn’t taste anything now, anyway.
The soldiers parted ranks and Caltor’s dark-robed figure appeared. Dynaea made herself stand straight.
Peasants stopped and knelt as Caltor passed. Noblemen bowed their heads. Dynaea gripped the horse’s bridle so tight her palm burned.
“You would leave without my permission?” Caltor’s neutral tone sent her heart pounding.
Swallowing, she looked down and nodded.
Caltor’s voice rose. “Even if it means your death?”
She faced him. “Yes.”
Snowflakes pelted her. The horse pawed, the soldiers stirred. Dynaea didn’t drop her gaze.
Caltor motioned a soldier forward, who saluted and presented her with a sealed letter. Dynaea clutched the bridle tighter. At least he had made her punishment official. Finally breaking her stare, she took the letter and opened it. She had to read it three times before she could breathe.
It was a diplomatic dispatch addressed to southern rulers, with her named as the emissary. These soldiers, the wagons—all assembled as her entourage. Caltor had signed the missive in intricate Thosite characters, far eclipsing normal penmanship. Rolled into the letter was a map of Rathos, with all those names she’d only heard about.
Dryxas. Seradom. The graves of her kin. The future of her people.
The bridle slipped from her grasp. She blinked away snow and gaped at Caltor.
“Bring us back light,” he whispered. Before she could answer, he gave her a fond look and left.
“Sentinel Dynaea? Are you ready to travel?” the soldier asked.
Something cold and hard slammed into her back. She whirled around.
Two little boys laughed and ran away, clasping snowballs.
She smiled as snow collected on her shoulders, in her plaits. None of it chilled the glow within her.
“Yes,” she replied.
© 2015 by Tony Peak
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