Roman wandered through a silent forest, feet treading lightly. He stepped over a toppled log and looked up at the overcast sky, visible through the leafless branches that shot like lightning into the sky. Roman’s gaze followed the line of branches down the trunks. They were scraggly and blue, nothing like the trees of Gallontea.
Dead leaves lined the trail beneath Roman’s boots, hidden under a light dusting of snow. The air was cold, the life of autumn having surrendered to winter’s grasping hands. Mist gathered around his boots and hung low over the forest.
Roman had been many places. He knew many things, and these trees, he knew very well. He knew the path he stood on and knew where it led. It was the last place he wanted to go, but he walked anyway, compelled forward as if an invisible thread reeled him in like a fishing line.
A dark shape appeared in the fog, and before Roman was ready, the lonely cabin emerged out of it.
The cabin was made from the same pale blue wood of the forest – the ibal tree, so common in Troas. The cabin stood as Roman had last seen it, windows boarded shut and lonely shadows hanging in the open doorway. A shiver ran through him.
He stepped into the clearing. No grass grew on the frozen ground leading up to the cabin. Nothing survived in this cold place. Roman took another step toward the door, but a movement glimpsed out of the corner of his eye—the rustle of a skirt, the wave of a hand—made him stop. When he turned, all he saw was forest, the sickly trees affording little coverage for anyone hoping to hide.
Someone laughed behind him and he spun again, surprised to see a figure on the porch. She raised a hand to beckon him closer, but Roman couldn’t move.
“Mother,” he breathed.
Catalina Rosario smiled. Or rather, this distorted dream version of her did. It had been so long since her death that Roman had forgotten what she looked like. The Catalina that stood on the porch was a constantly changing blur, her features warping and shifting every few seconds. In the way of dreams, Roman barely noticed, just knew that she wasn’t real.
Some things about her were clear, though. Her eyes, lighter than his own. They were the honey-sweet tones of sunshine streaming through a bottle of whiskey. Her voice, always close to laughter.
“Amaimon!” She called, no longer looking at Roman. Roman started at the sound of his birth name: it had been so long since he’d heard it. But Catalina wasn’t speaking to him. She ran down the steps, passing Roman, and scooped a child into her arms. The child stared at Roman over his mother’s shoulder, cold black eyes boring into Roman’s own.
“Well?” Catalina asked, leaning back to examine the child’s face. “Didn’t you miss your mother?”
“Yes,” the boy said seriously. “Don’t go away anymore.”
Catalina laughed and made no promises not to leave again. “What can I do to make it up to you, sweet boy?”
Amaimon considered this. “Tell me a story?”
“A story, hm? About what?”
“Heroes,” the boy said. “I want to hear about a great hero.”
“Yes, sir,” Catalina said, wide eyes dancing with laughter. The boy seemed to know he was being made fun of and squirmed in his mother’s grasp. “Enough of that. I’ll give you your story, love. Must you be so serious?”
Roman remembered many moments like this. His mother knew a great number of stories, more than Roman knew even today, and was good at telling them. She spoke softly, sweetly, using her free hand to make grand gestures.
“I want to be a hero,” Roman heard his younger self say, the child’s voice only an echo.
They were facing Roman now, oblivious to his presence. Catalina smiled at her son, but Amaimon wore the same serious expression as before. Catalina was right; he’d always been a serious child. He’d learned to stop taking his life so seriously when doing so made him want to end it.
“A hero? No, son, leave heroism to lesser men. You can do better.”
Roman inched closer, trying to hear the story, when someone else appeared in the doorway, hidden in shadow. All Roman could see of him was a pair of snakeskin boots, but it was enough to force a trill of fear through Roman. The boots stepped forward, and then came pain.
Roman gasped and fell to his knees, suddenly unable to breathe. Something burned inside his chest, pumping fire through his body with every beat of his heart. It beat against his ribcage, trying to escape, drawn to the man on the porch. Distantly, he registered noises around him. There was a laugh, then Catalina screamed. He tried to look, but his muscles were locked tight.
As suddenly as it began, the pain receded. Roman stayed on the ground a little longer, folded in on himself, afraid that it would begin again if he moved. When he finally dared to look up, the world around him had changed. The cabin rotted, the trees darkened, the forest flooded with mist. Black ribbons of something alive and writhing convulsed across the dark sky. Some old memory – far out of reach – tugged at Roman at the sight. When he stood, he looked down to find Catalina dead at the porch steps.
Roman stumbled toward her and fell to his knees. After all the times he’d had to see this, all the times he’d had the same dream, this part still hurt.
Amaimon stood on Catalina’s other side. There was blood on his hands. The child touched his cheek, where the blood mingled with falling tears. When Amaimon looked up at Roman, his eyes were all black.
“That’s not what happened,” Roman told the boy, told the dream, told himself. But he couldn’t remember. There was something missing. He just didn’t remember what. “I didn’t kill her.”
He held a hand out to his younger self and saw that there was blood on his own hands, too.
The body before him, he realized, was no longer Catalina’s – it was a Gallontean guard, the first person Roman had ever killed.
“I didn’t mean to,” Roman said weakly, his cheeks wet with tears.
The body changed again. Roman didn’t remember this man’s name, but he knew his face. He remembered all of them, each face he saw in these horrible dreams.
There were humans, alfar, dragons, monsters, politicians, children. Some how knew, some he didn’t One right after the other, faces flashes past. Some – the early ones – had been intentional, the others just unfortunately collateral damage in his disastrous life.
There was Leandros, Dinara, Bellona.
“No,” Roman said, falling back. “They’re not dead yet. I didn’t kill them.”
“You might as well have.”
Roman looked up at Amaimon, who kneeled by Bellona’s body. Amaimon’s eyes were still black, his face expressionless.
“Excuse me?” Roman asked.
“You didn’t kill them, but that would have been kinder. You lied, you left, you used them up and then dumped them. It’s what you always do.”
“No, I…I helped them,” Roman said in a small voice.
Amaimon laughed, and it was somehow worse than the blank stare. “You’re no better than her.”
The boy was looking to the wood, so Roman followed his gaze. The last thing he saw before waking was glowing crimson eyes and a twisted smile fading into the mist.
Roman sat up, flailing in the streets for a full minute before realizing where he was— away from the cabin, away from Amaimon, away from his mother and whatever killed her. He reached for the other side of the bed, for the warmth of a lover to reassure him that he was really here, that he was safe, but he was alone.
Roman fell apart all at once.
He wrapped his arms around himself, hoping that might stop the shaking, might protect the raw edges of his soul, exposed like a torn-off scab after seeing those barracks again, after that awful dream ripped him apart and left the pieces to flutter in the wind.
He’d had that dream before, but never had it come with so much pain. Roman still felt echoes of it, like a poked-at bruise. Like it hadn’t been just a dream.
In time, the shaking subsided, but the wound didn’t close. Roman knew it never would. He wiped his tears. The wound wasn’t going to close, but at least he could ensure no one saw it. He pushed himself out of bed, and went to find Dinara. As he was about to leave the trailer, a faint thump from above made him pause. He climbed onto the trailer’s handrail, then up to the roof. Sure enough, there Dinara sat, knees hugged to her chest, the moon hanging large and bright behind her.
She turned when Roman joined her, expression betraying all of her thoughts and none of them at once. “What are you doing awake?” she asked.
Roman made his way carefully along the roof to sit beside her. “I’m always awake at strange hours of the night.”
“I didn’t wake you?”
“You didn’t wake me.”
Dinara reached up to touch his still-damp cheek. “You had one of your nightmares again,” Dinara guessed.
Roman sighed. “The same one. He hesitated. In the face of all the lies, he owed Dinara some truth. He could tell Dinara about his mother, how she haunts him and has haunted him since he was a child. But instead, he shrugged. If he said any more he might cry. “I’d ask you why you’re up, but I think I already know.”
Dinara frowned and looked away, the moonlight catching on her hair.
“You’re thinking about yesterday?”
“About all the questions left unanswered,” Dinara confirmed.
“I’m sorry if I’m being evasive.”
“Evasive doesn’t begin to cover it, Roman. I feel like I’m worlds away from knowing you.”
“You know me better than almost anyone.”
“That’s not comforting. It’s sad.”
“Probably,” Roman conceded. He took a deep breath. “Dinara, if you really want answers, I can—,”
“Tell me about last time,” Dinara said, not even waiting for him to finish. “Last time you had to flee the Island.”
Roman’s mouth snapped shut. After a moment’s thought, he said, “Okay.”
Dinara waited for him to continue, but he was lost in thought, staring out over the quiet camp. “I was…a prisoner,” he said, finally. “More in practice than in name.”
“Why?” Dinara asked.
“Why were you a prisoner?”
Roman took a deep breath. “I killed someone. Accidentally.”
He glanced at Dinara, then quickly looked away again. Digging further into the haze of his memories, he said, “I was homeless, at the time. My parents died when I was young, leaving me with nothing and no-one. I made the mistake of coming to Gallontea, naively thinking I could find a job, maybe save enough to finish my education. I had no idea what I was walking into, and the police then were even worse than they are now…a week in town, a group of them accosted me while I was trying to find somewhere to sleep. They were beating me, and I just…reacted. I was so sure they were going to kill me. I killed one, wounded two others, and was arrested immediately after.”
Ignoring Dinara’s horrified expression, he continued. “They kept me on the Island for a long time. Eventually, Ivey found me, helped me plan an escape.” Roman sighed. “I had a friend in the…prison. Bellona. Barely more than a kid. She was supposed to get out with me, but when the time came, everything went wrong. The guards tried to stop us, and we had to fight our way out. Bellona got caught and was carried away by the guards, and I…I just kept going. I had to get out.” Roman squeezed his eyes shut. “I think she’s why I was so keen to help yesterday. Maebhe reminded me of her— spirited, clever, scared. I wanted to do better this time.”
“What happened to Bellona?”
Roman shook his head. “I don’t know. I tried going back for her, but…no luck. I assumed they’d killed her. After the escape, I—,”
“Stop,” Dinara said, looking surprised at herself for speaking. She shook her head. “I don’t think I want to know any more.”
Roman sighed. This happened every time. He shared too much and scared them all away. “Good. I don’t think I want to tell any more.”
Tears swam in Dinara’s eyes, but her cheeks were dry. Her voice was even as she said, “Where does that leave us, Roman? If you can’t tell me about yourself, and I can’t hear it? Yesterday, in all that action, I feel like you were more yourself than I’ve ever seen you, and if you can’t be that person with me…”
Roman rubbed his eyes. He was so tired. “I know. You deserve better.”
Now that they seemed to be on the same line of thought, Dinara relaxed. “Probably. But so do you.”
Roman wasn’t so sure.
“You’re still welcome to travel with us,” Dinara said. “You’re part of the family. That won’t change.”
“No. I think I’m going to stay in Gallontea.”
“Oh,” Dinara said. Roman pretended not to hear the relief in her voice. “What will you do?”
Roman took a deep breath, met her gaze. “I have to do something about Unity.”
“What about them?” Dinara asked.
Roman looked up at the moon, debated holding his tongue. Speaking the words into existence meant he would have to stand by them, and that was a terrifying thought. Standing against Unity again, so soon…he didn’t know if he was ready. But he spoke, and the words flowed easier now that he needn’t fear Dinara’s reaction.
“I had to work for Unity, when I was their prisoner. The things I did for them shattered me. You’ve caught glimpses of the broken pieces, but you have no idea how bad it was. It took years for me to be whole again, and I’m still a badly-patched vase one shove away from hitting the ground and shattering all over again. When I finally got away from them, when I rebuilt myself, I was so focused on not letting them get near me again that I missed them doing the same harm to others. I was selfish, but I think I’m ready to help.”
“Please be careful, Roman,” Dinara begged. “Don’t underestimate Unity.”
“I won’t.” He took her hand in his own. “What about you? What will you do now?”
Dinara frowned, surprised at the question. It was assumed she’d stay with the Players, keep traveling, like she’d always done, but Roman saw the question ignite the possibilities behind her eyes. “I don’t know,” she said, again surprised at the words that left her lips. “Maybe I’ll try something new. I’d like to be a real actor.”
“You’d be amazing at it,” Roman said honestly. “You shone at the Unity performance.”
Roman raised Dinara’s hands to his lips, kissed her for the last time. “I’m going to go,” he said. “I’ll come back for my things tomorrow.”
“Okay,” Dinara tried to say, but no sound came out. “Goodbye, Roman.”
Roman didn’t bother climbing down from the trailer, just jumped, landing easily on the balls of his feet. As he walked away, he felt pain. It was pain like a fire burning over his heart, like the pain from his dream. As he walked away, his eyes turned entirely to black, and slowly, veins of hot-white light spread across his hands and face, setting him aglow.
Roman stopped walking, instead staring down at his hands. It wasn’t with horror, nor surprise, but something like frustration. He squeezed his eyes shut, and then he kept walking until they unclouded and the glow faded from his veins. He swayed slightly, when it did, his vision blurring and unease roiling in his stomach. He tried to tell himself that the feral thing that worked for Unity once upon a time was gone. He wasn’t that person anymore.
But then, who knew what the road ahead held. Maybe he would have to be.