Aphelion Issue 244, Volume 23
October 2019
 
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Inner Child

A Dream Weaver Story

by Colin J. Fenwick



Evening arrived in sapphire and silver, setting the sky on fire and tarnishing the tufted clouds. The warmth of the sky belied the winter chill in the air. It was going to be a cold night. Pedestrians wrapped up against the cold as sunset faded quickly into darkness.

People poured out of offices and into cars and the main thoroughfares filled with traffic that ground slowly to a halt as rush hour began.

The drivers crawling down University paid no attention to the sidewalks, ignoring the little girl standing motionless outside the office block on 12th. She stood facing the bank on the ground floor, her face expressionless. She could have been no more than six. Her body was thin and frail, her skin pale. Her eyes were dark and empty and cold. She was dressed only in a loose fitting summer dress, yet showed no sign of feeling the winter around her. She stuck out like a sunflower in snow, yet no-one noticed her. The last of the bank staff and office workers filed out of the building, walking past her to their cars.

Then something changed. Her countenance darkened. Her eyes welled up. Her shoulders dropped and she visibly sagged as if the weight of the world were suddenly dropped on her.

The memory was crystal clear. A ghostly apparition swept across the building. Ghosts of yesteryear leaving the bank. The sun was still shining in the humid summer evening. A man came out of the bank, rummaging in his pockets for something. He looked up and saw her. Smiled. Waved.

She waved back to her father.

There were distant screams from inside the bank. He turned and then the shot rang out, deafening her. He stumbled. His crisp white shirt turned scarlet. He fell.

She clung to the ghostly image of her mother, but the spectre faded from her grip. The scene faded until she stood alone in the winter night.

The emotion swelled within her and the air surrounding her filled with energy. Static sparked down her arms. Her hair stood on end and swayed as the energy pulsed along her body. Her whole frame began to glow until a bright white light shone around her. She closed her eyes pulling the light inside her, drawing the energy into herself. Her heartbeat grew louder -- a drum in her ears -- and gradually slowed. Everything around her began to slow as she focused on the steady thumping of her heart. It slowed until almost everything around her stopped and then with a single heartbeat, she expelled the energy with all the force she could muster.

The office block vanished as light consumed it, spreading out across 12th and University and beyond. When the light faded, the girl was gone. So was 12th and University.

####

All was chaos. Emergency lighting flooded what was once 12th and University. The rubble of University House lay scattered over most of 11th, 12th and 13th Streets. University lay torn and shredded. The devastation lay for a half mile in every direction. The heart of Little Rock lay in ruins, but there was no time for mourning. Emergency services struggled to maintain their professionalism against the shock. None of them had seen devastation like this. None of them would ever forget it. Emotionally drained, they worked beyond their strength to find the survivors, if there could possibly be survivors among this kind of carnage.

People from all over Little Rock came out of their homes. News crews put down their cameras. Anyone that could came to help. It took hours, but eventually they found the first, and then there began a steady stream of survivors.

The cloud cover overhead thickened, and soon the snow began to fall. Suddenly the rescue effort became desperate as the snow began to fall thick and fast. The last survivor -- though the rescue workers could not know it yet -- was an eight year old girl, shivering against the cold. She tried to cry, but the chill in her bones sucked the air from her lungs.

The quiet man that pulled her out of the rubble carried her to the paramedics, who wrapped her in a silver blanket.

As the warmth began to penetrate her body tears came to her cheeks.

The man, his short hair shining like copper, slowly stroked her hair until his fingers slid underneath her scalp and into her skull. His hands began to sparkle as his mind absorbed her memories and personality and began to weave images that would help the girl forget, if just for a moment, the pain of that night. He wove memories of the summer spent at her grandma's farm in Texas. Wove images of ponies in all kinds of colors. Images of flowers and butterflies and best friends enjoying an endless summer.

The girl stopped crying and settled into a gentle sleep, her heart beat steady, her broken leg secure, her cuts and bruises dressed. She was stable and fortunate to be alive.

The Paramedics ferried her away to the children's hospital and the copper haired man went back to survey the scene. The others still looked for survivors amidst the thick settled snow, but he searched beneath the destruction with unseen eyes and knew that the young girl was the last. He slipped away, leaving the rescuers to their futility and wandered south of the rescue effort. No one noticed him go.

####

The morning greeted Little Rock with a blanket of thick snow. It shone in the early sunlight, muting every sound issuing from the city's uneasy slumber. Vermillion walked through the locked door of the small, beat-up house and onto the snow covered path. He wandered onto the sidewalk, the snow showing no sign of his passing, the surface remaining smooth and untouched. He looked up into the sky, watching the sun climb slowly over the horizon. It had been a long night and one filled with fear. Krulhers had besieged Little Rock. The small shadowy creatures fed on hope, leaving fear to fester and grow, and when left unchecked, they would drain all hope, leaving their victims in a deep, dark depression. Normally the Yotasha -- small creatures of light that gave hope and absorbed fear -- would keep the Krulhers in check, but incidents like this brought in so many Krulhers that the Yotasha often became victims themselves. That was when Dream Weavers and sylphs made the difference, redressing the balance. Times such as these made the pleasant process of dream-weaving a battle, draining his power and strength. He'd not felt this tired for many, many years.

He cast his gaze across Little Rock, taking in the waves of light and shadow engulfing the city. He could see where the Yotasha were maintaining their influence against the Krulhers, and could see where the Krulhers were overpowering the place. He found one area where all he could see was utter darkness and knew that soon people there would be utterly without hope.

He had not seen any other Dream Weavers in Little Rock. Normally he would not expect to, but when great tragedy struck, the Dream Weavers were usually present in force. Yet he could not feel any others here. Suddenly, in that moment, he felt very alone. He wished for the companionship of his friends. Of Argentis, whose wit and cynicism made him appear more human than he was, but whose friendship had been a great strength over the years. And Cerulean, whose thirst for adventure and the darker recesses of this world had led the three of them to places where they had been most needed. A thirst that had ultimately led to his death at the hands of a Dream Wraith. The same Wraith that had taken the life of Argentis. The Wraith that Vermillion had helped to defeat. Now he stood alone, wishing he had the support of his friends, for he had never needed them more.

He looked southward where the Krulhers were feeding. The City gave way to the quiet suburbs, the landscape changing as he walked. He turned off one lonely street heading into nowhere arriving at a small collection of duplex homes surrounding a park. A few benches surrounded a lone set of monkey bars and a pair of swings wrapped around the frosted frame. Startled, Vermillion froze as he confronted a face he had hoped never to see again.

####

Chiasma bathed in the sunrise, her hair changing as the sun painted the sky in ever lighter shades of blue. Despite the winter chill, she wore only layers of silk that wrapped around her in waves. Then again, Chiasma was not one to feel the cold. Sylphs never did.

She knelt by one of the benches and drew pictures in the snow with her finger. The pictures were childish, but Sylphs weren't known for their artistry. Bored with drawing, she jumped up and, sweeping her arms out, spun at a dizzying speed. She flung herself out of the spin and began to dance to some far away music that only she could hear. She danced wildly, waves of silk flowing after her like a thin wake of water responding to her every move. At times graceful, at times frantic, she moved around the snow, kicking up swirls of snow-dust that echoed her own movements. Had anyone seen her, they would have stared in wonder at her movements. But no-one watched. Everyone stayed behind closed curtains today. Even if they had, they would have simply seen some strange breeze kick up the snow. Humans didn't notice the magical creatures sharing their world. The world of magic was one that Humans had lost sight of long ago. Only a handful of Krulhers watched from the shadows still clinging to homes, wary of the Sylph.

Chiasma twirled and flung herself into the air at a breath-taking speed, landing softly and deftly into a crouch. She paused, and smiled, then stood slowly and calmly faced the creature she had come to meet. She tilted her head slightly and smiled in her usual child-like way.

"Hello, Vermillion. You look just as I remember you."

####

Vermillion could not help it. He sighed. Of all the creatures encountered in his life, it had to be her. He did not know how long it had been, but time had not dulled the discomfort he felt from their first encounter. Time had not changed him. Neither had it changed her. She walked toward him, twirling as she went, her playful attitude still present. She reached up to stroke his face and despite himself, he flinched.

Then she surprised him. Instead of touching him, she withdrew her hand and seemed to withdraw into herself. Her hair dimmed and her skin became translucent. Although she still looked a child of thirteen or fourteen, there was an ancient quality to her. Vermillion surprised himself by reaching out to place a hand on her cheek.

"You are fading," he said softly.

"Yes," she replied and for a moment her old self returned, but only for a moment.

"I am sorry. I did not mean to flinch, but I remember your touch from our last meeting."

"Ah yes," she replied, remembering that meeting in another park, in another land. During that encounter her touch had allowed Vermillion to dream. "Do you still dream?"

"No," Vermillion replied flatly.

"How strange. You must know that I did not give that gift to you. I merely awakened something that lay dormant within you."

"How can that be? Dream Weavers weave dreams. They do not dream."

"I wish I could explain all the mysteries, Vermillion, but I do not have the time. There is one who can, and it is he you must seek."

"Is this another of your quests?"

Chiasma laughed gently. "This is not my quest, but yours. My quest lies along a different path, though our paths will meet again Weaver."

"And yet I still cannot follow the path of your thoughts."

Chiasma's face became sad and for a moment her body became ghostlike. She appeared to crumble within, falling away. Vermillion reached out and grabbed her. As they touched. Chiasma's frame glowed with power and a huge flash of magic exploded outward in a wave that consumed the area. Everywhere the magic touched, the Krulhers burned, consumed by Chiasma's light. Vermillion felt the power suddenly drain from him and he fell to his knees. Chiasma's frame dulled once more, and she fell into Vermillion's arms.

"They must not hear," she whispered. "They serve the darkness now and forever. They must not hear."

"Hear what?"

"It is not my place to tell you. That is for someone else. I am needed elsewhere. though our paths will bring us together again."

Vermillion had to admit that he didn't really know Chiasma. As a rule, Dream Weavers stayed clear of the playful sylphs. They were unfocused, unpredictable and their magic chaotic, whereas the Dream Weavers were focused and, for the most part, serious creatures. Yet Vermillion felt something in Chiasma's being that was very unusual. There was a sadness about Chiasma, unusual for any Sylph, but definitely out of character for her. There was also a thread of pain running through the fabric of her magic -- something only a Dream Weaver could ever notice -- and that was unheard of for any Sylph. That was why Vermillion did not question, did not argue, did not resist.

"Where do I find this someone?"

"He is already here," She smiled and suddenly the Chiasma he once knew returned. She spun away from him and as she twirled the snow sprayed up around her. By the time the snow settled, she had vanished, and there stood a creature he had given up hope of ever seeing again.

####

"You certainly took your time. Thought you'd have caught up with me by now."

Vermillion simply knelt, unable to speak from the shock. The creature stepped forward and held a hand out.

"You'll catch your death if you stay there. Come on. I know somewhere that does a half decent bacon sandwich. We can talk there."

Vermillion reached out and the outreached hand pulled him to his feet.

The figure smiled and clapped Vermillion on the shoulder. "It's good to see you again old friend."

With those words, Vermillion came back to himself and returned the smile. "Indeed it is, Argentis. Indeed it is."

####

The deli was empty apart from the two Dream Weavers. Vermillion sat by the window looking out onto the snow. A television behind the counter showed news reports about the destruction. Vermillion focused on the snow outside as it started to fall again and the news coverage faded into nothing more than background noise.

Argentis sat opposite his friend, placing a bagel filled with bacon In front of him. Vermillion chuckled to himself. He had never taken to human rituals such as eating, but Argentis loved it and the two had faithfully kept breakfast together for many years. It was a ritual that had strengthened the friendship. Partaking like this once again almost made the years since Argentis's death feel like a memory.

Argentis bit deep into the bagel. "It's not what we were used to, but it's not half bad," he said, his mouth full.

Vermillion picked up the bagel, looked it over, and took a bite. "That is not too bad," he nodded. "So..."

Argentis swallowed. "So." He paused. "What am I doing here?"

"It came as somewhat of a surprise." That was an understatement. The last time Vermillion had seen his friend, he was killed by a Dream Wraith, his body lying cold in the snow.

"It's hard to know where to start. By rights, the Wraith consumed my magic, but it seems Chiasma saved me. Brought me back. Gave me the chance to come back again."

"Again?"

"You really have forgotten haven't you?"

"I do not know what you are referring to. I feel as if I am talking to a sylph."

"Maybe I'm part sylph now. That's a scary concept eh?" Argentis chuckled.

"You have certainly not lost your sense of humor."

"No chance of that. Well, it seems Chiasma may have left a bit of an imprint on me, but like a bloody sylph, it always seems to be just out of eyesight. Anyway," Argentis said, suddenly becoming serious. "Chiasma found me a few hours ago. Told me to come to a certain place and that an old friend would find me there, and that I had to help him dream again."

"She mentioned that, though it is not something I desire to do again."

"She did say it was more important that anything any magical creature had ever done before. Said it was linked to what happened last night."

"She is fading," Vermillion whispered.

"Something big is happening Vermillion. Something that will turn this world inside out."

"I do not know how to dream."

"Apparently, you just need a trigger."

Argentis pushed a cup of tea toward Vermillion. "This should do the trick."

"What is it?"

"Chiasma said it would be the trigger."

Vermillion hesitated.

"I'm right here. You'll be fine. Trust me."

Vermillion sipped from the tea and made to speak, but the deli began to swirl and then fade into nothing.

Argentis chuckled.

####

12th and University. The scene was bathed in silence with no sign of the rescue efforts nor any other human presence. The landscape had a calm, almost sacred feel to it, despite looking empty and dead.

Vermillion sat on a wall jutting up from the edge of the crater bathed in the silence, torn away only by the voice beside him.

"Hello."

Vermillion turned to look upon a young girl. Her thin frame was clothed only in a light summer dress, her bare arms showing no sign of the cold. Her ginger hair hung perfectly around her face, falling over her shoulders and down her back. Her brown eyes showed nothing, but her lips smiled warmly.

"Who are you?" she asked in a gentle southern drawl.

"My name is Vermillion," he replied.

"I'm Starla," she said and climbed up to sit beside him. "I like your hair," She said, touching it. As she did her ginger hair turned a brighter shade of copper, the strands glistening like his own. He tried to keep his surprise hidden.

"Are you a Sylph?"

Starla laughed gently. "I ain't ever heard of a Sylph. You're a funny man. I'm just a girl."

Vermillion was taken aback by this. A girl. Human. Yet possessed of magic. It couldn't be. As he thought of something to say, Starla spoke.

"I haven't seen you here before."

"I was here yesterday. During the night. Helping"

Starla surprised Vermillion again by raising his arm and sliding under its protection, nestling into him. His time around humans had given him certain reflexes, and without thinking he placed his arm around her shoulder.

"I did this," she said flatly, though Vermillion could hear a slight tremor in her voice. It was barely enough for human ears to discern, but Vermillion's magic cut through the mask to hear what was buried within. He felt awkward, uncomfortable, not knowing what to say. He dug deep inside his memories and the dreams weaved over the centuries to find what he needed. He reached over with his other arm and began to stroke her hair and whispered, "It is all right. It is not your fault."

He whispered the mantra over and over again, and instinctively, his fingers passed through her hair and into her skull. The magic began to sparkle along his fingers, circling his wrist, as he began drawing from her mind the memories of her childhood. It lay before him in glorious colors and shades of light, until suddenly, just before her sixth birthday, the colors shifted to dark flames, violent and chaotic, only to be replaced by shadows and mists. A final storm of flame and darkness burst forth, and in that moment, Vermillion knew. Tears ran down his cheeks.

Instinctively, Vermillion shaped the magic, warping the color and brightness of it and then weaved for Starla a dream so vivid and stark, so bright and saturated, that it would never leave her. A vision that would always remain for her. A beacon against the darkness. A gift to chase away the shadows whenever she needed it.

When Vermillion finished, he withdrew his hand. Starla looked up at him and smiled.

"Don't cry. It's nice that someone knows and don't hate me for it."

"I cannot hate you. You have done nothing worthy of it."

"You saw it?"

"I did," he replied. "I know everything."

"Not everything," she said and her childlike smile returned. "She said I had something to give you, but I didn't reckon on what it was until now."

"Who?" Vermillion asked.

"This strange girl that comes to see me. She's crazy-like, with her hair all changing color. She's nice though, but I can't never remember her name."

"Chiasma," Vermillion said to himself.

"That's her. She reckoned you'd be coming here, and said I had a gift for you, but only when you'd done what you came to do, or something."

Vermillion opened his mouth to speak, but Starla placed her forefinger on his forehead and he was struck dumb. Sparks flashed as she touched his skin and a flood of color filled his mind. It was as if the mountains of his mind were broken down, to open up the vast landscape below; a landscape hidden from view. The energy overwhelmed him and he felt his balance leave him. His hand reached out to steady himself, but there was nothing solid for him to grasp. He could hear Starla's voice, but it sounded so distant, he could not make out the words. He felt himself fall backwards as the flood engulfed him and he fell, only to wake on the deli floor.

####

"Welcome back to the land of the living."

"Pardon?" Vermillion responded.

So many memories. His, yet not quite his own. It felt as if he were seeing life through many pairs of eyes. "I feel as if I am going mad. I cannot make sense of it."

"The sylph said you'd be carrying a few extra memories. Bound to be a bit of a struggle to start with."

Vermillion tried to relax, but the images came so fast as he remembered lifetimes lost to him. It was like falling down a mountain face and no matter how he tried, he could not slow the descent. He fell forward, his hands scrambling at the tiled floor. Instinct kicked in and his hands began to sink below the tiles. Magic crackled around his forearms, flashing sporadically, passing his power into the Earth. Chairs shot up, bouncing against the walls and windows. Power surged through the deli, shorting appliances. The television exploded. Sparks surrounded the place as staff ran out the back. The large deli window rippled like the surface of a pond as sparks of magic struck it, sending ripples outward; then it exploded as Vermillion's magic flashed intensely, filling the whole deli with light.

Then, just as Vermillion felt as if the power would consume and destroy him, a hand grasped him firmly on the shoulder and a wave of peace enveloped him. He collapsed to the floor, his fingers unclenched, the magic flowing evenly along his hands and arms as it was slowly absorbed back into him. His skin began to glow until his whole being radiated with magic. It rocked his hair in gentle waves and licked at his coat tails. Vermillion pushed himself into a kneeling position and looked at his hands, glowing with the magical power of his five lifetimes. He looked up at Argentis, the silver hair glittering with the extra magic he had absorbed.

"Still with us I see," Argentis said with his characteristic grin, though there was an echo like quality to his voice.

"It is overwhelming. I do not understand it all."

"Remembering is one thing. Understanding is another."

"Remembering?"

Argentis smiled. "Are you sitting comfortably?"

"What?"

"Never mind. I'll tell you what I know."

Argentis reached out and helped Vermillion stand. He kicked a chair upright and sat his friend down. Reaching out with his magic, he pulled a table and chair toward them. The table slid between them and Argentis sat as the other chair skittered behind him.

"Cool. Never done that before," he said absently. He lifted up Vermillion's head, looking deeply into his eyes. "

"Take a few deep breathes."

Vermillion raised an eyebrow. "We don't breathe."

"No? So what is your chest doing right now?"

Vermillion looked down and realised his chest was expanding and contracting rapidly, trying to catch his breath.

"You've been around Humans too long Vermillion. You've picked up as many of their habits as I have."

Vermillion stopped his chest moving in defiance.

"Don't fight it. It's these little human habits that will help. Breathe deeply. Trust me, it'll help."

With a suspicious look, Vermillion let himself breathe once more. Slowing the rising and falling of his chest. As he did, he felt the magic within him settled.

"I do not understand this," Vermillion said.

"It will be jumbled," Argentis said. "I need a coffee." He reached out and a shattered mug re-formed and flew into Argentis' hand. It was filled with black, sweetened, coffee. Vermillion looked concerned. Argentis shook his head.

"I promise to only use my powers for good, dad!"

Vermillion continued to give him the look.

"Look, I don't understand this any more than you do, but whatever is going on, looks like you've got a hell of a lot more power than you had before."

Vermillion's expression did not change.

"And I might have taken a bit of that for myself. And before you start, I had no choice. You saw what happened last night. I know you were there. If I hadn't sucked some of that up you'd have destroyed the entire city. You want that to happen."

Vermillion relaxed. "What is happening?"

"Chiasma explained it to me, but you know what my attention span is like. Here goes. Magical Creatures 101.You know how we are born as wisps and how we don't take our true form until we choose our purpose?"

Vermillion nodded.

"Apparently, when we die, we return to the ether as a wisp and are then reborn, but we forget what we were before. I guess us Dream Weavers are a bit more refined, because Chiasma said once a Dream Weaver has chosen its purpose, it is always reborn a Weaver. Other creatures flit around a bit, or so I'm told.

"Anyway," Argentis continued, waving his friend quiet. "When you were born, you made a choice that no other magical creature had made before. You chose to dream. Somehow that flicked a switch so you remember your previous lives. You've done this four times, then fifth time around, for reasons known only to yourself, you chose not to remember. That killed your dreams thing."

Vermillion looked surprised. "You're saying I chose to dream in my previous lives?"

"I'm not saying anything. I'm just the messenger."

"If I chose to forget, why would I want to remember? There must have been a reason?"

"Chiasma said a lot of things that, admittedly, went in one ear and out the other, but one thing I do remember is that she said you needed the power. She said you would need it to protect from what was coming."

"She doesn't change." Vermillion sighed and reached out. Another mug sprang from the debris and filled with coffee, landing smoothly in his hand. He sipped slowly, savouring the bitter taste.

"Be grateful," Argentis said. "She told me I'd have to fight what was coming."

"Sylphs," Vermillion said bitterly.

"Sylphs," Argentis replied. "They never change."

Argentis sipped his coffee, staring at Vermillion who looked lost in his thoughts. "Must have been one hell of a dream."

"I met a little girl. A human girl. She was responsible for the destruction last night."

Argentis looked sceptical. "A human girl did that?"

"She has magic. A magic so powerful I have never encountered anything like it."

Argentis drank from his coffee and then stopped. Laying the mug down, he stood and paced the floor a while before facing his friend.

"A human has never touched the magic before. They turned their backs on it. If one of them discovers it..."

"...then it will change everything."

"Especially a child. If a child discovers it..."

"...then they will transcend from the mortal world, into the magical world."

"Crap. If any other magical creature finds out..."

Vermillion walked over to Argentis.

"What are you thinking?"

"What if there was a creature that wanted power, I mean so much power we could only imagine? More power than all the magical creatures put together?"

"They would destroy everything. No magical creature could hold onto that kind of power unless they transcended..." Vermillion let the words trail off as they both realised the significance of what was happening. True, lives had been lost, buildings torn apart, but there were billions more humans to carry on and rebuild. Out there though, was a human child who was growing in such power that she could destroy so much more than part of a city, yet all that paled into insignificance if another magical creature tried to take that power for themself.

"Do you know where to find her?" Argentis asked.

"Yes."

"We should go before something else finds her."

"But who would want such power?"

####

A thick blanket of snow reflected both the moonlight and the ornate streetlights. Palace square lay still and silent under the clear night sky. Two figures walked alone, one speaking in quiet fretful tones. The other seemed to be lost in his own thoughts, starring at the fašade of the Hermitage. The combination of snow and moonlight seemed to increase the brightness of the building and the figure appeared transfixed.

The first figure stopped talking and waited, expecting a response. He was clad in a heavy fur coat and a dark ushanka that looked several sizes too big and sat just above his sunken eyes. The effect of the outfit was to add size as well as provide warmth to the short, wiry man, yet the result was rather comical.

The second figure, a tall, slender, graceful man dressed only in a long leather coat that was so dark it appeared to absorb light and gave him the effect of being clothed in darkness. His skin was pale, his head crowned with a thick mane of black hair, highlighted with a thin bright line of white hair running from front to back.

He finally acknowledged the short man beside him. "Very good. Make sure everything goes as planned, Dmitri, and you shall be rewarded as promised."

Dmitri bowed and then scrambled through the thick snow. When Dmitri had vanished, the taller figure returned to staring at the Hermitage. Unseen, behind him, a shadowy figure slipped along the Palace Square, clinging to the shadows. Briefly, the moonlight caught it, the smooth, armour like skin shining like silver. Its head was smooth and featureless, except for one large pearl-like eye lodged in the centre of its skull. It's long, slender arms ended in long, wiry tendrils. The armoured skin broken only above the wrists where muscular fibres were laid bare, ready to absorb any magic the creature would capture from its victims. It was unmistakably a Dream Wraith.

The Wraith slid back into the shadows and waited. Suddenly, the lights of the Palace Square flickered and died, leaving only moonlight reflected against snow. Still, the tall figure remained transfixed by the Hermitage, ignoring the darkened streetlights.

The Wraith hovered for a second and then launched forward at an incredible pace. It raced past the Alexander Column toward the man, and then it stopped beside him. The man turned and as he did, his shape changed. As if made of mercury, his form flowed from human to match the creature approaching it. The Wraith stopped and seemed to bow before the shape shifter.

"Impressive, Slipshard." The shape shifter pulsed. The ethereal voice seemed to linger in the air. "Yet you are far from home. What is wrong?"

"My Lord Penumbra," Slipshard pulsed in reply. "I have news. The burst of power in America. You have felt it?"

"Yes," Penumbra replied.

"I have found the cause. It is a human."

"Impossible. Humans do not see the magic around them."

"Nevertheless. It is so. But there is more. The human is a child."

"A child? How interesting." Penumbra slinked toward the Alexander column, the moon almost directly above, he looked up and the light it cast made his skin glow. Slipshard sloped beside him, his head tilting to one side. Penumbra looked to his fellow Wraith.

"If this child can be taught to harness her power then she could be taught to become one of us," Penumbra suggested.

A wave of energy flashed down Penumbra's skin from head to toe, melting the snow at his feet.

"Slipshard. Bring me the child. At all costs."

"Yes my Lord Penumbra."

Slipshard vanished into the magical ether, leaving Penumbra alone. From nowhere, a low, hollow laugh began to fill the Palace Square. Taking one last look at the Hermitage, Penumbra sprinted away toward Kupchino to feed. Behind him, waves of small, shadowy Krulhers followed. Penumbra's laugh hung in the air, echoing quietly across Saint Petersburg, sending fear into the hearts of everyone.

Tonight was going to be a good night to feed.

####

The Arkansas Children's Hospital was quiet and still. Children slept through the eternal night and the hospital staff were no-where to be seen. Starla walked silently through dim, cold, empty corridors, her bare feet barely touching the laminate floor.

She stroked the walls as she went, pausing to look at the notice boards filled with pictures painted by patients past. One caught her eye - a picture of a man in a tall dark coat and bright red hair. He stood over a child with rainbows at his fingertips and the artist had stuck silver stars to the man's hair. She looked at the name -- Briana, aged 8. Starla stared at the image wondering if Briana, aged 8, had met the Dream Weaver whose face would not leave her memory.

She pulled herself away from the picture and turned the corner to pass through the double doors of the ICU. The room was large, but only contained eight beds, four on either side of the room. In the middle and toward the rear was a nurses' station and a storeroom.

Three of the beds were filled with long term patients, the other five filled up the night before after being pulled out from the rubble. Each of the children slept to the melody of beeps and blips coming from the monitors. Starla didn't know what any of them did, but she liked the way each of the little sounds combined to make a soothing song.

The boy nearest to her groaned in his sleep, his pain buried not quite deep enough under the drugs. Starla glided over to the boy and gently stroked his head, whispering in his ear. Light sparkled along her fingers and fell around the boy's face until he stopped groaning and fell into a deep and peaceful sleep.

Starla turned around and noticed Chiasma, silently sitting in the same place she always sat -- beside a girl of about sixteen. Chiasma never moved from the bedside these days. She sat, her eyes staring sadly at the face of the girl, bordering on womanhood, but still retaining the last of her childhood. An IV drip went into her left arm and a set of wires worked their way from her chest to a single monitor that blipped silently, steadily, monotonously toward death.

The girl was beautiful with long red hair just like Starla's, but it made Starla sad to see the life fading from her. Even Starla, at six years old, could tell that the girl was dying. Yet deep inside, Starla knew that she wasn't so much dying as simply fading away. Starla looked at the name taped to the end of the bed.

"Ruby Caitlin. That's a pretty name."

"A pretty name for a pretty girl," Chiasma replied, her voice weary.

Starla took hold of Ruby's hand. "Will she ever wake up?"

Chiasma turned to look at Starla. "That all depends on you Starla."

Starla said nothing. Starla knew about Ruby, but was scared to admit that to Chiasma. Sometimes she thought Chiasma knew more about Ruby than she let on, but these days Chiasma just looked more and more tired and more and more sad. Chiasma didn't play anymore like those first few days. She wasn't the same Chiasma that had taken Starla dancing through the hospital corridors. The memory made Starla smile.

"Chiasma. Can we dance again? I liked it when we danced."

Chiasma forced a smile. "I hope so. That would be nice."

Starla climbed up onto the bed and curled up into a ball at Ruby's feet. She closed her eyes and fell instantly asleep.

####

Lights flickered and died along the windowless corridor. In the shadows a glint of starlight shone out and searched out, sniffing at the life-forces of the Hospital. Then it froze. The starlight faded back into the dark and the lights flickered back to life, revealing the crouched form of a Dream Wraith. Slipshard looked around himself, and sloped off toward the ICU.

####

Chiasma woke up, startled. Starla, who was already awake, sat bolt-upright.

"I have to go, Starla," Chiasma said as calmly as she could. "I'll be right back. You stay here okay?"

Chiasma stroked Starla's arm and then vanished, leaving Starla alone.

####

The sun began to set outside the hospital as Chiasma appeared beside Ruby's bed. Her appearance was ghostlike, her magic weak, and it took time for her to solidify. Ruby lay comatose, as she had for the last year. Starla was gone, remaining in Ruby's dream world. Two nurses were busy behind their station, two others checked on each of the children. None noticed Chiasma's presence. Chiasma tried to stand, but her strength was failing. The transition in and out of Ruby's dream world was taking its toll. Soon she would not be able to hold back the tidal wave of power and for the first time in her life, Chiasma felt anxious. Felt afraid.

For so many of her early years, Chiasma had wondered about the many emotions humans experienced, so she had set out to experience them. She had shared many human experiences, but she chose the childlike, playful ones. The emotions she felt in her last days were different and these were not born of humans. These came from herself.

She mustered what strength she had, stood, and walked towards the doors. She froze as the nurses sat at the nursing station collapsed, one of them dragging a computer keyboard to the floor. The two other nurses heard the clatter and froze in horror as Slipshard rose slowly from behind the station. Slipshard let out a burst of dark lightning that knocked the nurses from their feet. He leaped over the station in a smooth catlike move. His single, pearl-like eye bore down into Chiasma.

"Give up the girl," Slipshard pulsed.

"I will not give her up to you," Chiasma replied weakly.

Slipshard laughed a dark ethereal laugh. "Foolish sylph. You are no match for me. Your power is fading. You are not even worth feeding on."

"Is that an admission of weakness?" Chiasma challenged as a wave of light flashed across her hair.

"An admission of victory."

The two circled each other. Chiasma's body flashed with all the magic she could muster, and then Slipshard pounced. Chiasma slid to one side, Slipshard corrected his movements, aiming to swing round tightly and strike again, but he lost his footing and slid, crashing into a rack of bedding and supplies, scattering them across the ward.

Chiasma built up all of her magic and prepared to engulf Slipshard, but something distracted her. From Ruby's dream world she could feel Starla becoming more anxious. Could she be sensing Slipshard's presence, the fight, Chiasma's weakness? Chiasma could feel Starla's power building up and instinctively, she used her own power to hold it back. If Starla's power reached critical mass again, it would consume the hospital. The way her power had been growing, it could destroy the whole of Little Rock.

Slipshard pounced once more and again Chiasma slid aside, but this time, Slipshard caught hold of the sylph and she did not escape as she had hoped. She crouched on the floor, her strength spent. Slipshard stood by the door, his armoured skin glistening in anticipation. He laughed again, then fell silent as a flash of white flame sliced through the air. Slipshard's head rolled forward, his body fading into nothing.

"Oh, I like these new powers," Argentis announced, stepping into the room. The last remnants of the conjured flame tripping off his fingers.

Chiasma tried to right herself, but could not muster the strength and began to fall. Vermillion appeared beside her and caught her, easing her to the floor.

"I must return." Chiasma whispered. "Her power is growing and I cannot hold it back."

Vermillion spoke softly. "How can I help?"

Chiasma smiled. "Dream."

She reached up and gently tapped his forehead. Vermillion's eyes closed and he fell to one side, fading as he went. By the time he hit the floor, he had vanished.

####

The room looked as it had in reality, except it was quieter and the fading sunlight outside was replaced by perpetual cloudless night. Chiasma and Argentis were gone, the debris of the fight nowhere to be seen. Vermillion looked around to gather his bearings when he was leapt upon.

Starla clung to him, her arms tight around his neck. "Vermillion," She shouted. "I'm glad you came."

He chuckled and held her embrace. "As am I," he replied. "As am I."

####

Penumbra watched the snow fall. It looked like some pathetic human fairy tale -- the way it swayed gently to earth. There was almost a magical quality to it. Almost. It may have looked like some idyllic winter scene, yet it contrasted sharply against the mood of the city. Saint Petersburg stood on the precipice of terror and under the silence of curfew. Only the military were out on the streets. In truth, Penumbra had been impressed with the speed at which the humans had reacted. Streets filled with armoured cars and tanks. Soldiers garbed in winter coats over NBC suits with gas masks poking out under ushankas policed the city.

He smiled, remembering the night. How the Dream Wraiths had fed. The Krulhers too. They fed with more ferocity than even he had expected. Not even the marrow in human bones could sate them and they were now sucking the very life out of human veins.

An armoured car unloaded its nervous cargo to patrol the streets. They tried to maintain an air of confidence, but he could see through the bravado and sense the fear.

The Krulhers could smell it too, but they were holding back, waiting for something. Penumbra sent a silent command and the shapeless shadowy creatures moved with lightning speed. The soldiers could not understand it. First the fear, as the last ounces of hope were drained from them. One of the soldiers gave in to his panic and started to fire at the unseen enemy, shooting two of his comrades. The Krulhers covered him, a shadowy mass enveloping him, burrowing beneath his clothes and into his bones and his veins. He screamed in agony as his life was drained. The last of his comrades screamed as they were decimated by the Krulhers. The attack had lasted less than a minute. The Krulhers were feasting and their appetites were growing. They hovered again and Penumbra could feel the pleading, the hunger, the sheer desire to feed. He flashed his approval and the shadowy creatures vanished into the buildings to continue unabated.

Penumbra's pleasure was short lived. He never tired of watching the little creatures feed. It gratified him that it was he that had freed them, transforming them from the raw magic that fed on hope into an unstoppable army that lived to serve him. Yet today was different. He was unsettled. Ever since news of the girl had come to him. She was the key. He could only do so much, even with the Krulhers, but the girl... She would bring about the next step in his evolution.

It wasn't the expectation either. If anything, Penumbra was patient. He had lived three lifetimes and remembered them all. Time was his ally, not his enemy.

No, it was Slipshard that unsettled him. He was reliable and capable, perhaps more than any other Wraith. Penumbra should have had word by now. Slipshard should have returned with the girl. The fact that he hadn't was not a good sign. Penumbra could not shake the sense that something had gone wrong. Time. What was it Human's said? Time waits for no one. Time enough. A time for every season. Time to act.

Then he was gone.

The snow fell thicker and faster over the streets of Saint Petersburg as the screams from inside the buildings began.

####

"You know. Don't you?" Starla questioned as she sat on Ruby's bed beside Vermillion. "That I'm Ruby?"

"Yes," he answered softly.

"Does Chiasma know?"

"I think she does."

Starla sat silently. Vermillion placed his arm around her shoulder. "Chiasma still likes you."

"Do you?"

"Yes."

Starla smiled and huddled into Vermillion.

"Why is it happening?" Starla asked.

"I do not know. This has never happened before. Sometimes bad things change people. Sometimes for good. Sometimes for bad. Sometimes it is too much. I am guessing that for Ruby, the things that changed her led her to find the magic around her. Then she created you, her magical self."

"But why is she asleep all the time?"

"I think that as you grow stronger, she grows weaker."

"So it's my fault?" Starla said, sadness creeping over her face.

"No it is not. Ruby created you. Let you grow. I think Ruby wanted you to become real instead of her. But you are a kind and loving girl. You don't want to let Ruby go, and so she sleeps."

"If she dies, will I die?"

"I believe she will fade away as you become real. She will become you, just as she wanted to."

"Will I die?" She repeated.

"No," Vermillion answered.

"So you can't die?"

"Not as people do. Our lives end and we return to the realm of magic and we are reborn to live again."

"That sounds nice. Not to die and be nothing. How did you get born?"

"All magical creatures exist as something called a wisp. It is like raw magic. In those first moments we choose what we will do, and that decides the shape we take. Then we are born."

"Who looks after you when you're a baby?"

Vermillion smiled. "We are not born as babies. We are born as we are."

"So you were born a grown up?"

"Yes."

"That's so weird."

They sat in silence for a while and then Starla spoke again.

"When I was little I could see the fairies in the yard. Momma thought I was dumb, but I could see them. I could talk to them too."

"That is unusual. Fairies are very hard to talk to. They must have liked you very much."

"They said so. That was after daddy died. I started seeing them. No-one believed me. Do you believe me?"

"Yes."

Again, they sat in silence and Vermillion weighed up Starla. She was a creature of incredible power, yet she was still a little girl buried under a child's fears. She had lost her father and that had caused a scar so deep it had never healed. From the memories shared during their first meeting Vermillion also knew of her mother's death, the foster homes, the cruelty, the absence of love and finally running away until one bitter night a year ago, she had been found unconscious, battered and bruised on the streets of Little Rock.

In the midst of all that pain, Ruby had found solace in the magic discovered by a six year old girl.

"What do you think I should choose to be?" Starla asked.

"I cannot tell you what to choose. You must decide that."

"I don't know what I'd like to be. I'd kind of like to be you. But I'd like to be Chiasma too. She's funny. At least she used to be. She looks all sad now."

"Then why not choose to be both? It is your choice. Be whatever you want to be."

"Can I do that?"

"Of course you can."

"I don't know."

Vermillion felt the fear inside Starla. The fear that prevented her transformation. The fear that, if unchecked, would destroy the mortal world.

"Starla," Vermillion said softly. "You cannot stay here. Your power is growing and it grows every day. The longer you stay with Ruby, the more you will hurt people. You remember what happened the other day?"

Starla nodded, biting her lip.

"You didn't want that to happen, but your power became too much for you to control. Do you understand that?"

"Uh-huh."

"You don't want that to happen again do you?"

"Uh-uh."

"Starla, the only way to control your power is to give it a purpose. Do you understand that?"

"I think so."

"Tell me why?"

"'Cause when you make a choice, it tells the magic inside you what to do?"

"Very good Starla. That is why all magical creatures make a choice. It shapes their magic. Without it, we would destroy the world."

Starla looked at Ruby's pale sleeping face.

"I'm scared," she admitted.

"I know. But I am here. I will help you."

Suddenly Chiasma appeared. She seemed tired and the colors of her hair and robes muted. It was her eyes though that caught Vermillion's attention. They were full of fear.

"We are out of time," Chiasma said quickly, her voice unable to hide the fear.

####

Penumbra peeled himself from the shadows of the Arkansas Children's Hospital lobby. The security guards, paramedics and police saw nothing. He walked passed them all, invisible to the human eye. Sensing his presence, Krulhers from all over the city converged on the hospital. Like a wave of shadows they came, hungry and expectant. In response, the Yotasha came too, like rays of moonlight swimming across the ground. Penumbra stretched his arms wide and let forth a burst of magic. Black lightning flashed from his fingers, taking out the lights in the lobby and knocking unconscious the humans congregating there. Faster came the waves of shadow and light.

Penumbra let forth a second burst of power and waves of darkness sped out to meet the Yotasha. It washed over the little creatures, their light dimming as the darkness absorbed it. Across Little Rock, people stared in awe as the small glittering lights shone and then went dark. Then panic ensued as every light in the city went out and Little Rock was left at the mercy of the night.

The Yotasha withdrew from the city, leaving the Krulhers to converge unopposed on the hospital. Penumbra pulsed all he had taught the Krulhers in Saint Petersburg, and he could feel them respond with desire -- primordial, uncontrollable desire for marrow and blood. They swept past him, crawling over the walls, up the ceilings and into the wards of the hospital. When the screams began, Penumbra moved on.

####

"I must go," Vermillion announced calmly. Starla wrapped her arms around his neck.

"Will you come back?"

"Not here. It is time to make your choice."

A wave of fear washed across her eyes. "But I don't know how."

Vermillion unhooked Starla's grip from around his neck and touched her forehead. "Everything you need is in here. Do you remember when we first met?"

"Uh-huh."

"A part of me was left with you then. All you have to do is look inside and you will find it. Chiasma will be here as well."

"Okay."

"I will see you again."

Starla gave him a final hug and then he was gone.

####

Argentis already had blades of writhing flames flickering from his fingers when Vermillion appeared by Ruby's bed. Both flashed with an intense white liquid fire that oozed from fingers. His eyes were focused intently beyond the door.

The ward was doused in dim starlight, the lights of the ward and the monitors lifeless. Vermillion could feel the panic across the whole city. Could hear the screams of the lower floors.

"He has brought the Krulhers," Vermillion announced.

"Who?" Argentis asked.

"The one you are here to fight."

"Oh joy," Argentis replied sarcastically. "Just like old times!"

"No," Vermillion corrected. "Like new times."

Vermillion strode from the ward with a new sense of power. Ever since his first encounter with Starla, Vermillion had been remembering each of his past lives, but the remembering had slowly evolved into realisation. Just as he had left his imprint upon Starla, so too had Starla left her mark upon him. He was no longer Vermillion, Dream Weaver. He was evolving into something more. Starla had a choice to make. So did Vermillion.

He vanished from the doorway of the ICU and appeared in the lobby. The smell of death hung in the air. He wandered deeper into the hospital, perceiving the shadowy forms of the Krulhers. He could not see them in the darkness, but he could sense them. Could feel their malevolence. As he approached them, they slowed, wary of the magical presence. Some, so frenzied by their feeding, rushed forward, but Vermillion's power flashed out and the Krulhers withered and vanished. The others became more wary and began to back away. Soon, his presence affected all the Krulhers in the Hospital and they stopped their feeding. Their entire focus became levelled at Vermillion. He pulsed out, calling them forward, and they heeded, unable to resist.

They fled from the wards, seeped through walls and floors, speeding toward the lobby. They gathered in strength and then flowed over Vermillion like a tidal wave. He was consumed by darkness, his magical form hidden under the shadows, and then a bright flash of light burned through the darkness and the Krulhers withered into nothing. A second burst of power surged through electric cables and power circuits and across the city. The lights of Little Rock came back to life. The Yotasha, holding back on the fringes of the city felt a new pulse of power. It was warm, comforting and peaceful. They answered and swept across Little Rock. Gradually, hope began to shine once more.

The Yotasha swept through the doors of the hospital and began to feed on the fear left by the Krulhers. Vermillion closed his eyes and let his power spread across the wards. Like copper moonlight, it rolled along the walls and the wards. It drifted over the bodies of the children who survived the onslaught of the Krulhers and eased their fears. Together with the power of the Yotasha, children fell back into a dream filled sleep while nurses and doctors, paramedics and volunteers, went back to providing care.

In the lobby, the last waves of copper washed away. Vermillion was gone.

####

Penumbra stopped abruptly on entering the ward and smiled. "Argentis. I heard you were dead."

"Penumbra? Oh and I thought this was going to be tough," Argentis replied.

"Still have your sense of humor I see."

"Still have your skunk thing going on there I see. I'd have dyed that out by now, vanity being your thing and all."

"Time to finish what my Wraiths could not."

"Try it," Argentis beckoned, feeling the power swell inside.

"Think you can stop me?"

"No."

Penumbra's grin spread wider. "Then why try?"

"You misunderstand. I don't think it. I know it."

Argentis swung the blades in a wide arc and glided across the room. The air seemed to part for him and as the fire came down they were brushed aside by the armoured forearm of Penumbra's Dream Wraith form. His face gone, replaced by a smooth skull, accented with only one large pearl-like eye. The body armoured and smooth with the tough muscular tissue revealed only where the armour parted to absorb magic.

Penumbra turned his body round into Argentis, barging him aside, and spun away, his figure morphing once again as he turned. His flesh remained clad in armour, but his bulk grew in size and became darker. Black, leathery wings grew from his back and a single row of horns grew from the front of his head, now sporting two large pearl eyes and a sharp fanged mouth. In his hands sprouted two large swords, both doused in hellfire.

Argentis stepped back, astonished.

"Good, isn't it?" Penumbra gloated. "You should have known better. I am Penumbra, the changer. I am not your usual, pathetic creature of magic. You are probably too young to remember when Demons walked the earth. Let me teach you what they were like."

"Well," Argentis responded, keeping his humor alive. "It's an improvement."

Penumbra roared as he lunged forward, swinging his blades down toward Argentis' neck. Argentis ducked and leaned under the blade, bringing his flaming blades up towards Penumbra's wings. Penumbra leaped up and over the blades, laughing.

Argentis smiled with satisfaction as Penumbra eventually felt the dark demon blood dribble down from his sliced wing.

"You're still suffering delusions of grandeur!" Argentis announced loudly. "And you're still ugly!"

The two swirled and danced around each other, all the while Argentis kept Penumbra away from Ruby's sleeping form. Penumbra parried every blow, but could not work his way past Argentis. Eventually Argentis pushed Penumbra through the ICU doors and into the corridor. Panic swept over Penumbra and in desperation he lashed out wildly, taking Argentis by surprise. Argentis stumbled as Penumbra's twin blades sliced across his chest, the hell-fire burning as the blades bit.

"You see," Penumbra gloated. "You are afraid of me."

"But I ain't," came a voice from the ICU.

Both turned to see a young child, her body glowing, standing at the entrance to the ICU. Looking only six years old, her hair shone like copper, except for one slender streak over her left ear that shone in a myriad of changing colors. Starla.

Her figure, though childlike, had eyes that were ancient. Power was reflected in those eyes. A power neither had seen before.

Penumbra lashed out with his demon blades, but Starla merely reached out and caught the tips lightly with her fingers. Though she barely touched the blades, they held fast and then melted away. She stepped forward, and now Penumbra stood still, fear in his eyes. He felt her gain control over him and unable to resist, knelt before her, mutating back into his original form. His Dream Weaver form.

"You've forgotten your place. You gotta return to the beginning."

She reached out and placed a finger on his forehead, and Penumbra began to fade until there was only the silver mist of Penumbra's wisp. Then that too faded.

Argentis let the flames die. As he did a bright copper glow took shape beside him. Vermillion stood gracefully for a second, and then lost his balance. Argentis caught him and Starla ran up to him and wrapped her arms around his waist. He knelt down and Starla twirled away from him, giggling. She waved and faded away.

Argentis sat against a wall and Vermillion joined him where the pair sat in silence.

"Seems she made her choice," Argentis said. "You did all right."

"I doubt it was anything I did. I have a feeling Chiasma helped her take the final step."

"She did have a bit of Sylph about her."

"I wonder if we will see her again?" Vermillion asked.

"I am pretty sure we will. I'm also sure we'll learn what she's become."

Vermillion nodded in contemplation and then his Dream Weaver senses kicked in. There was a feeling of unease still lingering in the hospital.

"There is work to do," Vermillion said, rising from the floor.

"A Weaver's work is never done," Argentis replied.

Vermillion nodded, stood and pulled Argentis to his feet. They took the stairs to the next floor where the youngest children where. They found the NICU and together, starting with the youngest, began easing them to sleep. One by one, the children's hospital descended into a night of peace as the children dreamed.

The End

The End


© 2012 Colin J. Fenwick

Bio: "Yorkshireman. Father. Mormon. DBA. Part Geek. Photographer. Writer. Fan of Lego, NCIS and Fountain Pens. Cynical Idealist." (from Mr. Fenwick's website -- link below). Three of Colin's stories appeared in Aphelion in 2002 and 2003, including Dream Weaver (March, 2003), which introduced the characters of Chiasma and Vermillion.

E-mail: Colin J. Fenwick

Website: Unraveling Shadows

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