Roman wandered through a silent forest, feet treading lightly. He stepped over a fallen tree trunk and looked up at the overcast sky, perfectly visible through the leafless branches that shot like lightning into the sky. Roman’s gaze followed the line of the branches down the trunks. Thin, blue, and 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 fully surrendered to winter. Mist gathered around his boots and hung low over the forest.
Roman had been many places. He knew many things. These trees, he knew very well. He knew the path he stood on and knew where it led. He also knew it was the last place he wanted to go, but he walked anyway, compelled forward as if an invisible thread was reeling 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. It 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.
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. Her eyes, lighter than his own. They were the honey-sweet tones of sunshine streaming through a bottle of whiskey. Her voice, always sounding close to laughter.
“Amaimon!” She called, no longer looking at Roman. 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.
“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. “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 to Amaimon 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. He felt like a flame burned inside his chest, pumping fire throughout his body with every beat of his heart. Distantly, he registered noises around him. There was a laugh, then he heard Catalina scream. He tried to look, but his muscles were locked tight. Agony coursed through him.
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, and when Roman stood, he looked down to find Catalina dead at his feet.
Roman stumbled toward her and fell to his knees. Amaimon stood on her other side, and there was blood on his hands. The boy touched his face, transferring a streak of red to his cheek, where it mingled with the tears falling freely. When Amaimon looked up at Roman, his eyes were completely black.
“That’s not what happened,” Roman told the boy, told the dream, told himself. He couldn’t remember, could never remember, but he knew something was missing. “I didn’t kill her.”
Amaimon only stared at him, black eyes expressionless. A laugh echoed through the trees. Roman looked toward the sound, and 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 blinked, surprised, and then 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 visiting 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, he just never remembered until waking. Never, though, 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. Knowing that it never would, Roman wiped the tears from his eyes, 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.”
“You had one of your nightmares again,” Dinara guessed.
Roman sighed. “The same one. It’s always the same.” He hesitated, then, knowing he owed Dinara some truth in the face of all the lies, decided to explain. “My mother was killed when I was young. My dreams are always echoes of it. It was different tonight, though. Weirder.”
“I’m so sorry.”
Roman just shrugged, because 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. “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 wandering into 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, she got caught and 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 Bellona— 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.”
“Good,” Roman sighed. This happened every time. He shared too much and scared them all away. “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 the middle of 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 than this.”
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.”
“Actually, 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. But he spoke, and the words flowed easier now that he needn’t fear Dinara’s reaction. The worst had happened, and he’d survived.
“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…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 formal 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 fear, 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.