The Darkness I had woken crouched inside me like a salivating shadow, watching the dreamers partake of the Dream. The older woman appeared in and out of my view. She vanished, then returned to her place beside the altar to look at Persephone. She was well-versed in the Dream, moving with ease. Where the villagers flickered and wavered as they dreamed, her movements were deliberate, solid, powerful.
Where there is power, there is always the hunger for more power. We can use that.
Yes, we can, I answered the Darkness, fully intending to do so. I waited for the old dreamkeeper to vanish again. The moment she winked out, I gathered the shadows of the night around me, layering them on the Darkness straining within my skin.
Remembering the mask inside the hut, I shaped myself in its image, but taller, more terrible. I grew until I loomed over the villagers like the mountain behind us, my eyes glowing and seething like its volcanic heart. The shadows roiled around me, their matte darkness contrasting the bright sheen of my obsidian skin. A necklace of pale claws fanned around my neck like violent petals, still tipped with blood.
Peeling back the thin curtain veiling me inside the Dream, I stepped from the shadows surrounding the largest hut and approached the altar. Screams and gasps erupted from the villagers as they noticed me, followed by the clamor of dropped tools and the muffled thuds of knees hitting the ground. I paid them no mind, my eyes on Persephone and her alone.
She lay still upon the altar, a vandalized version of herself. Bruises as dark as Dream Poppies bloomed across her eye and cheeks. The sigils painted on her skin mingled with bleeding cuts, telling a story of violence that wrenched my heart. Her chest rose and fell in the deep rhythm of sleep, but slower.
An acrid odor rose from her, tearing at my memory, bringing to mind the dart Selene had found and the poison coating it. They had drugged her. Beaten and drugged her. As the realization unfolded inside my mind, dark wings unfurled from my back, blocking out the light of the sun. Just then, a hunter with a blowgun came around the corner of one of the huts, saw me, and screamed. Those prostrate on the ground joined him as day became night at my whim, the moon swallowing the sun.
He is a hunter. See? He holds the weapon that did this to her. Let me have him. Why did you wake me if not to do the thing your heart wants to do? Give him to me.
I did not even hesitate to give the Darkness control. It roared inside me. With a flick of my wrist, the man hurled through the air over the heads of the tribe. His scream turned to a shocked, choking silence as a long roof pole of one of the huts gored him. His mouth worked soundlessly as he looked down at his broken ribs bursting brightly from his chest. Then he fell limp, dangling like meat drying on a hook as his heart landed on the ground with a meaty thud. I felt my cheeks lift in a smile.
“What is the meaning of this?”
I glanced up from Persephone’s face to find the old woman standing on the opposite side of the altar, her back towards me. She surveyed all the villagers bent low to the ground and turned slowly, her eyes widening as she faced me. To her credit, she did not bend, though she did tremble at the sight of my claws raking through Persephone’s hair, and the way my burning eyes hissed and spat living fire.
She murmured their name for what I was and lowered her eyes. “Paluaga! Are you pleased with the sacrifice we have found for you, Night Hunter?”
Sacrifice? They were going to kill her! The Darkness within me glanced at the dripping wreckage of the hunter, then back to the woman. It licked its lips, waiting, hungry.
“She is one of the Undying Ones,” the old woman continued. I do not know if she saw true at that moment, but she finally found her knees and bowed her head. “I felt it when I touched her sleeping mind. We will give her to you at dawn, Paluaga. Her fire will feed yours for many moons and tides!”
Give her to me. Give her to me now. Let me suck her blood from her bones! Let me…
The old woman’s head snapped up, a look of stark terror on her face. She thought I spoke to her, that I had rejected her sacrifice. It gave me an idea.
“No, you will not kill her, dreamkeeper,” I told her, folding my wings and the Darkness back inside myself. Her eyes widened as I shifted in her sight, returning to my true form, cloaked in swirling darkness. I kept the necklace of claws about my throat as a savage reminder of who I was. “You have pleased me greatly, honored one. So much that I have chosen to come and claim this offering in the flesh.”
The old woman pressed her hands to her forehead and bowed low. “Thank you, oh Paluaga, for showing us favor!”
I circled the altar, coming to stand in front of her. “Not only will I step from the Dream to pluck this flower, but I will also leave you with a gift, a special powder that empowers the dream. But it is for you alone, that you may…stand for your people.”
The woman bowed again, kissing the hem of my cloak. “I understand.”
“Rise, dreamkeeper.” I waited for her to gain her feet, then placed my hands on her shoulders, looking into her eyes. “Through you shall all be done.”
Then, I stepped into her and exited inside the large hut beside her sleeping pallet. I watched her wake with cold eyes. Despite the dream, she jumped when she saw me standing over her.
“I said, rise, dreamkeeper.”
As I walked outside, an ululating scream rose from one of the huts. I knew its source. The wife of the hunter had woken to find her mate dead beside her. The Darkness chuckled inside me, drinking in the primal wails of grief that rolled through the village. One by one, the huts spat out sleepy villagers in various states of dress. They stopped cold at the sight of me advancing on the altar.
Behind me, the dreamkeeper called out, “Paluaga comes in the flesh for his offering! He comes!”
The villagers dropped to the ground as they had within the Dream, foreheads pressed to the dirt. Ignoring them, I went to Persephone’s side and untied her bonds, casting them to the ground. I shook with the effort it took to keep my control. This was not the Dream. Here, I was outmatched. Revenge would have to wait.
I slid my arms beneath Persephone’s shoulders and the bend of her knees, picking her up. Her weight was a comfort, a reminder she was no longer lost to me. I shifted her limp form against my chest long enough to pull a glass vial of purplish-black powder from my pocket. I tossed it at the dreamkeeper.
“Your gift, honored one. It will only work when the moon is whole again in the sky. Wait until then, and I will come to you and teach you many things.”
Like all the ways, you will scream for what you have done. Though, no one will hear you. No one will ever hear you again.
The old woman’s eyes flicked to the shining glass vial. She licked her lips and bowed her head again. “Yes, great Paluaga. It will be as you say.”
“See that it is. Or you will dream no more.”
Without another word, I picked a path between the prostrated bodies of the natives and left the village. I could still hear the woman keening behind me as I passed into the jungle. The plant life here was too thick for moonlight to reach the ground. I paused to let my eyes adjust, focusing on Persephone’s pale face and fair hair. When the curve of her cheek was visible in the surrounding darkness, I continued slowly, listening.
The sound of water reached my ears, not the low roar of a waterfall that had called us earlier that day, but the quiet murmur of a stream. Following a game trail that spurred off the main path, I turned in the direction of that sound, immediately startling something that bounded off in a panic through the undergrowth. As everything returned to stillness, a pale glimmer of water caught my eye.
There ahead, a stream flowed into a stepped series of pools, each one gleaming like a misshapen silver coin in the night. A narrow strip of soft sand bordered the pools on one side. I headed for the spot and laid Persephone down gently. Supporting her neck, I piled some sand to pillow her head, then laid her down the rest of the way,
Pulling the remnants of my ruined shirt from my pocket, I knelt by the pool to soak the silk in the water, wringing it out before returning to Persephone’s side. As gently as I could manage, I cleaned her wounds. Streaks of pale skin began to appear between the layers of grime, blood, and sacrificial paint.
I had no idea what the poison in her system had done, how long it would last, if this unconscious state was even reversible. I did not know if it would have any other…effects. My mood darkening, I rose again, returning to the water’s edge to rinse out the cloth when I heard a low moan behind me. Persephone was waking! Had the water flowed any more briskly, I am not sure I would have heard it at all.
I darted back to her side, flinging aside the rag to take her in my arms. Kneeling, I slid my arm beneath her, pulling her to my chest and tucking her head beneath my chin. Her words were gibberish, phrases that made no sense in the waking world, the words of a dreamer trapped in a nightmare. Her murmurs grew louder, crescendoing into a scream of terror that vibrated against my chest.
The sound of her surfacing from her drugged state rattled my cage. The Darkness inside me growled in righteous anger, hungry for blood. It hurled itself against the bars of my resolve, seeking an escape, wanting to go back on black wings and carve a trench where the village now stood. To tear it down and erase it forever.
I focused on the slow beat of Persephone’s heart, allowing it to lull the bloodthirsty beast inside me back to sleep. Drifting in the awareness of her, I felt the rhythmic breathing of sleep stumble. With a jerk, she freed herself from the clutches of the drug.
“Please be real,” she slurred softly, muffled against my chest. She twisted in my arms, weak. “Old woman, don’t torture me here, too. Leave me my dreams…please. Leave me this.”
Her arms tightened around my torso as she shifted against me, head lolling back to look up at me. Her eyes drifted closed and opened again, several times. She was like a drowning swimmer attempting to surface, only to go under again. I pulled her closer, pressing a kiss to her forehead.
“This is real,” I whispered, feeling my throat tighten. “I am real. The only ones with anything to fear are those who dared harm you.”
“Real,” she repeated in a whisper. “I have lost track of what was real and what was not.”
I felt her fingers reflexively dig into my back, tension flowing out of her like water. The ghost of a relieved smile played along her lips. Still dazed, she struggled to form words, the drug and its effects still thick in her system.
“They took my Powers, Morpheus. Took everything that made me who I am! How can mortals do that to us?”
Anguish echoed in her voice. She clung to me like she was dangling from a cliff, but I knew she had already fallen, had already struck the realization of how fearfully cruel mortals can be. I shushed her, rocking her slowly, the way parents do their children when they wake from a terrible dream. Only this had not been a dream. I would give anything to make it one.
“Fear stirs the worst in all things. Fear makes monsters of us all.” I looked down into her eyes. “I know it must feel as though you have been asleep for days, but you need rest. True rest. Not the death-sleep caused by this drug.”
I remembered the dart. While I was uncertain about its applications as pertained to dreams, any drug that could nullify an immortal’s powers was no joking matter. Hekate would be able to distill more information from it, perhaps. Or Hades. But first, we had to get off this island. More immediately, I needed to get Persephone—and myself—as far from that village as possible.
“I need to get you back to camp. It’s not safe here.” I shifted my feet beneath me and rose with Persephone in my arms. I pushed through the undergrowth until I found a clear path that wound around the base of the mountain. After a while, the whispering rush of a waterfall reached my ears, growing louder with each step. Thank goodness, we are closer than I thought.
“The ship?” Persephone asked with hesitation, shifting to loop her arms around my neck. “The others? Is…the ship alright?”
I stopped. There was no easy way to say this. “The ship lies in Poseidon’s keeping, Persephone.”
“I-It sank?” Guilt strangled the words as they left her lips. “I didn’t mean to. I mean, I tried to control it, to not get upset. But I-I couldn’t stop the storm. It was too big, too wild…” She buried her face against me, her tears soaking through my vest. “I’m sorry. I am so sorry.”
The sound of her voice faded to a whisper, carried away on the wind as the anguish crested within her and crashed down. Cradled in my arms, I felt her fall slack, head lolling against my shoulder as the revelation dragged her under. Too much to bear.
Ahead in the darkness, I saw the warm flicker of firelight, heard the warmer tones of Athena’s laughter cutting through the night sounds around us. I pressed my lips against the top of Persephone’s head and exhaled with relief as I started towards the camp. She was not ready for the nightmare waking would be. It was better that she slept. It would be waiting for her, regardless.
But she would not face it alone.