"Rose! Is that really you? Gods, please let it be you..."
"Fid? What's wrong? Why is it so dark?"
"I'm... I think I'm on the bottom of the ocean. You're very far away, and I don't have much energy."
"You're... Did something happen to Osprey?"
"She drowned. She... We were on deck during a storm, and she was swept overboard, and she drowned. I tried to help her, but then her ribs started to break, and she's dead now."
"When did this happen? Is the 'Sufferance' all right?"
"A while ago. I don't know. I don't know anything. You're the first person I've talked to since then."
"Fid... How long was it, after I left the 'Sufferance'. that this happened?"
"I don't... A year?"
"I left five years ago, Fid. You've been alone on the bottom of the ocean for four years?"
"I guess so. I don't know. Probably?"
"Fid, how did you find me?"
"There are lights that I can see when I look for them, off in the distance; wizards and dragons and strange things. I can tell what they are if I try hard. And then I found YOU, and you're a magician now, too, aren't you, and I am so lonely..."
"Can you find me again, Fid? Tomorrow, when I am asleep again?"
"Yeah, I think so. I hope so. I know what your light looks like, and sort of where it is. I can find you."
"That's good, Fid. Morning is going to come, and I am going to wake up, but at night, when I am asleep, I will always want you to find me. Always. Remember that."
"Right. Rose always wants to talk to me."
"I think that that's very important, Fid. Never forget it. Never doubt it. Do you have any idea where you are?"
"I'm going to find you, Fid. I'm going to bring you back."
"That would be really good."
"Right where you left me, Fid. How are you today?"
"Really glad I found you again. I couldn't touch you when you were awake, but you're back, now.”
"I will always... I will do everything in my power to always be here, Fid. And I will come for you as soon as I can, but it may be a while."
"I can wait. I don't have much choice. But it really helps knowing you are there, and trying."
"I went down to the docks today, and put out a reward, looking for anyone who can give me a date and location for Osprey's death. That should help."
"It should. Any idea of when you will come?"
"First where, then how, because the where will influence the how, and THEN when."
"So a while."
“But as soon as I can.”
"I can wait."
"Gods, Fid, you sounded so forlorn yesterday. I'm so sorry."
"Do I sound less forlorn today?"
"Yes. Quite a bit."
"Hope will do that."
"So it would seem."
"Rose... Yesterday, I heard the first voice I had heard in four years. The darkness was over, and that was all that mattered. But now I have had a day to think about who that voice belonged to, and just how incredibly lucky I am. You're not just anyone, you're my friend, you're the Corrosion Flower, you're a magician, you're YOU. And if you say you will rescue me, you will."
"With the horizon in my eyes."
"The horizon's not big enough for you, Rose. Not even close. And you are going to come for me, and I am going to follow you forever."
Rose was silent for long moment. "Yeah, I am. And I am going to hold you to that."
Rose could feel Fiddler's smile as he said, "You have to catch me first."
"Hello, Fid. How are you today?"
"Very much the same, thank you. How else would I be?"
"How do you do it, Fid? Why are you sane?"
"I'm not IN the dark, Rose, I'm just surrounded by it. I have the dreamscape; I have my music, and I can run, and swim. And I started doing sculpture, of all the lovers I could remember."
"I thought you were short of energy."
"I am; I used to draw on Osprey, or my other partners, whenever I would reach out. But the dagger stores some, and recharges itself, slowly. And the dreamscape is really all inside the dagger, so it doesn't take much, or any."
"Hmm. Fine. Have you made a sculpture of me?"
"Three of them. As a human, as a faun, and as a mermaid."
"It seemed right. And if the faun was delicious... I don't have words for the mermaid."
"You will have to show it to me sometime."
"As soon as I can."
"And how is her Luminosity this evening?"
"Restless, Fid. And frustrated. Nothing went right today."
"I am sorry to hear it."
"Because you ARE, Rose. Before, you were fairly ordinary, magically speaking. And now you are big and bright."
"I was a sixteen year old girl, Fid. And now... I'm a lot different."
"And the story behind that is?"
"YOU want ME to tell YOU stories? After all the dodging you used to do?"
"I am sorry, Rose. I will try to make it up to you. And soon enough I will never be able to say 'No' to you ever again."
"What was that?"
"If you recover the dagger, and bond with it-- which I want you to do-- I will be your slave as long as you draw breath. It's the nature of the magic."
"That's awful, Fid."
"It is the way of things. I'm a ghost, and I have just spent four years with no company at all. I am fond of you, I think you are fond of me, and it will be my honor to serve you."
"So you were Osprey's slave, before."
"And she didn't care that you went dream walking with me and the other girls?"
"Well... She saw no point in objecting. I can't refuse an affirmative command, but 'Don't' is not affirmative. Not when the person who gives the order has to sleep."
"No, I'm a ghost. A charming and elusive ghost. Also a persistent one. The story?"
"Tomorrow. You deserve to have the need to sleep played against you."
"Well played, my Lady. Until tomorrow, then."
"Good evening, Madam Storyteller."
"Remind me again why I don't hate you."
"Because I am a paragon of moral rectitude?"
"Para... That may be the most absurd thing I have ever heard anyone say."
"I exist for your amusement. But you still promised."
"I'm not sure I did, I'll tell it anyway. And I can feel that grin."
"I have never grinned in my life."
"There is that. The story?"
"The story. Fine. I left 'Sufferance' and shipped out on the 'Storm Turtle', a pirate chaser. They rated me as an Able Seaman, and an apprentice at arms. They worked me hard, and I earned my keep. I learned how to use a lot of weapons, and fought in several actions. My tally got up to nine kills..."
"Including that first duel?"
"Yes. The deed gets easier. And the ghosts get smaller, eventually. Eventually. They promoted me, called me an Able Seaman at Arms. I felt like I belonged, it was good. And then one day, after I had been on the 'Turtle' for about two years, there was a situation where I got myself isolated against two opponents. Some of my crewmates saw the situation, rushed to help me, and when they got there I was still standing and my enemies were dead. And then they started doing tallies, and decided that I had killed someone else earlier, making three in one day."
"That sounds impressive."
"My crew mates thought so. The next time we made port, they wouldn't let me buy a drink, and I took advantage. There was a man in the bar; he had red hair and green eyes, and he started calling me cousin because we matched. And then I started calling him cousin, and we ended up in bed together."
"And you promised me you would be faithful."
"You have a sick sense of humor. I woke up sick the next morning, fevered and delirious. I stayed that way for several days. The 'Turtle' waited an extra day for me, but eventually they had to sail, and left me and all of my things with the local healers. Healers who didn't actually have any idea what was wrong with me, as it happened."
"But you recovered anyway."
"But I recovered, eventually. I woke up with a head full of a language I didn't know, and the ability to cast a handful of minor spells. I think I now know what it felt like when all of the unicorn knowledge landed on you."
"It sounds like it."
"Do you remember the runes I showed you, that Auntie Moss had taught me?"
"Yes. They said, 'Sea dragon blood'."
"Just like that? No torment before you told me?"
"You already knew. What would be the point?"
"Spoilsport. So, yes, the mystery language was Dragontongue, and I got fine scales over most of my body to go with it."
"Yup. The redhead had them too, but he had some kind of illusion over them. I only know they were there from my fingertips, and by the time I had my hands on him, I was too drunk and too involved to care."
"Really? Scales? I know you get really involved but... Scales?"
"Do you want me to tell the story or not?"
"Forgive me, your Reptilian Majesty. Please continue."
"Do you WANT me to leave you on the bottom of the ocean?"
"So... I took my scales down to the local sorcerer, and he did some magical examination, and he decided that I must have had a sea dragon in my ancestry. So that, plus the sea dragon blood in my tattoo, combined with another injection of... material from my scaly red headed friend. who apparently was a sea dragon at some level..."
"No. I blush every time I think about it."
"And those three things combined to trigger a metamorphosis. Which made me a Dragon Mage, mostly a hedge wizard. And then I talked Drellan, the local sorcerer, into taking me on as an apprentice, and then a few weeks ago, I broke the Second Circle and I became an honest-to-brimstone sorcerer."
"You're not going to let that go, are you?"
"I kind of want to take them for a test ride."
"Good night, Fid."
"Until tomorrow, Rose."
"Your turn, Fid."
"As my Lady wishes. If only I had a story to tell."
"Tell me how you died. Full orchestration, four part harmony."
"It's a long story."
"I thought you were going to follow me forever."
"But I am an incorrigible liar."
"Which means you should have no trouble making something up. Tell the story."
"But to tell that story, I have to tell you about Salsi, and to tell you about Salsi, I have to tell you about Kellath..."
"Sooner started, sooner finished, Fid."
"And that means I have to start with more about unicorns, and how they interact with humans."
"Impatiently, I should think."
"Indeed. Let's start with the dreamspace. A sleeping unicorn, or a dead one, as it turns out, can usurp the dreams of any creature that does dream, and pull that creature into his dreamspace."
"Any creature that dreams, though there isn't much point if that creature doesn't have language. Inside the dreamspace, we, the unicorns, have a great deal of power, though there are limits. We can shape earth and rock and plants as we wish, but we can't create animals; we can shape our guests in any way that we wish, and we can shape ourselves within certain odd limits. Our own forms always have cloven hooves, pointed ears, a tail of some kind, some kind of single horn, and our hair is always silver-white."
"So the faun shape you wore was the closest you could actually get to being human."
"Exactly. We can't actually compel our guests to move the bodies we make for them against their wills, but we can manipulate their desires to an extent that is almost the same thing."
"There's a difference?"
"It's deception rather than coercion. Suppose there was a coffin in front of you, and someone wanted you to get into it. He could physically overpower you, and force you into the coffin, or he could offer you some absurd amount of gold to climb in on your own. Assuming there is no gold..."
"And there almost certainly isn't..."
"...The first example is coercion, the second is deception. You could do either with magic, and no physical contact, but they are different things. Unicorns can't do magical coercion in the dreamspace. They can do physical coercion; a unicorn can commit significant acts of physical violence on his guests if he wishes to. Some of my cousins are sick and evil creatures."
"But not you."
"I have tried very hard to avoid evil, but I have been extremely careless and stupid on occasion."
"Careless AND stupid. That is an exit line if I ever heard one. Goodnight, Fid."
"Good evening, Fid. Where were we?"
"You were regaling me with stories of your childhood."
"You should be ashamed. You're capable of much better lies. And we were discussing coercion and dreamspace."
"So. A unicorn can pull anyone into his dreamspace, and do anything he wants."
"Almost. Some people are too strong. You, for instance."
"I seem to recall otherwise."
"That was then. Osprey was stronger than you were, and I drew my strength from her. When I was alive, I was stronger than Osprey was. But you, now, are much stronger that that."
"Good to know. Wasn't there a story in here somewhere?"
"Eventually. Maybe. Other than recreation, the USEFUL thing that unicorns do while dreamwalking is find and recruit servants."
"And just how is a a 'servant' different from another guest?"
"A servant has been bound to the unicorn with a blood oath, and can communicate with the unicorn while conscious without physical contact with the unicorn's horn."
"Which is otherwise necessary, even if the unicorn is dead."
"Even when the unicorn is dead. The difference is that the living unicorn is stronger than the servant, and able to control her emotions, and the dead unicorn draws strength from the partner, so the living partner is dominant."
"Again, good to know. But that seems to be a pretty minor difference."
"The communication includes the same level of emotional control that the unicorn has in dreamspace."
"So a servant is really a slave, who can be made to want to do anything the unicorn wants."
"And you think I would have made that deal?"
"Sixteen-year-old you, maybe. Not who you are today; you're too scary."
"I will take that as a compliment."
"I will take that as an exit line."
"No, unicorn. Though I admit to occasional similarities."
"Still waiting for the story, Fid."
"I am vanquished; my subterfuges are defeated, I surrender."
"I'm rolling my eyes extravagantly."
"Even so. Well, then... After I changed, after I became a unicorn, I followed the... Instinct? Compulsion? Whatever-it-was, and went looking for another unicorn. The one I found was mostly crazy, and tried to kill me, but he had never been anything but a unicorn, really, and I had been a centaur, and I understood things about fighting that he had never had to learn. And he was used to fighting creatures that were not nearly as fast as he was, and he didn't have that advantage against me, and eventually I killed him. I was REALLY unhappy about that, but I kept looking for other unicorns, and eventually I found one."
"And this one wasn't crazy?"
"No, he was really nice, and he had a healthy and very friendly servant, too. And he told me some things about dreamspace, and a LOT about taking care of servants, and his servant taught me some things about having sex as a biped..."
"Wait a moment. I need to.. I think I need to forget that last line, but... Taking care of servants?"
"Humans can't live by grazing, and need clothing under most circumstances, and are really easy to kill if you do something like tell them to stop complaining."
"I would imagine."
"So I went on my way, and when I got lonely, I went looking for a servant. I went through the first few pretty quickly, in spite of the coaching, until I figured out what to look for when I was recruiting, and learned the necessary survival skills myself. Farm girls, even on remote farms, don't often have the hunting and tracking skills that life with a unicorn required, so I had to be able to teach them."
"That makes sense."
"I learned to look for battered wives with no children, or perhaps a single child that made her unhappy that she was willing to abandon. Sometimes they killed their husbands as they left; sometimes I killed their husbands. One killed her husband AND her infant child; I didn't know she was planning that until it was done. She killed herself not too long afterwards, and I didn't regret her death. I felt pretty awful about the whole situation, though."
"So you were a monster with a guilty conscience?"
"If you like. I never just turned around and recruited a new servant, though; it was usually at least a year, and sometimes several years, after each loss, before I went looking for a new servant. And that, finally, brings us to Kellath."
"Who you mentioned at the start of this?"
"Yes. He was my next-to-last servant."
"Yes, he. My worst mistake in a long string of them. I been alone for a long time, and had wondered far north. I didn't think about it at the time, but I guess that one of the reasons was that there were fewer herds up that way, and fewer herds meant fewer compulsions. But I got really lonely, and started wandering to the edge of settlements and doing dream walks. And I found Kellath, who was a middle-aged slave from the south who hated his life, but knew he would die in the wild if he tried to run. So I offered him a chance to go south again."
"This can not end well."
"It doesn't. After a few weeks, I got stupid, and put it in his head to wonder what it was like to be a woman, and it went from there. I was happy, he was happy because I forced him to be happy, and then one day while we were on a mountain trail along the edge of a cliff, he jumped off of my back and over the edge."
"So not EXACTLY evil, but REALLY careless and stupid."
"I need to think about that for a while."
"I will be here."
"Good evening, Rose."
"Good evening, Fid. Please tell me that last night was the worst bit."
"Well, I am going to die, but yes, that was the worst thing I have ever done."
"Onward and upward, then."
"Indeed. After Kellath, I was alone for a LONG time. More than a decade. But as always, I got lonely, and started to dreamwalk again, and eventually I met Salsi, who was intelligent and personable and the most miserable person I had ever met. She was married to a brute who beat her regularly; when I first started talking to her, she was on her third pregnancy, having lost the first two to her husband's fists. I offered to kill him more than once, but she told me that she wanted to persevere. And then the brute came home drunk, and she lost this pregnancy too, and I kicked down the door and pinned her husband to the wall and watched him bleed out. Then I healed Salsi, and asked her to be my servant, and she accepted."
"How did you know what had happened? How did you find her?"
"Because I was waiting for her in dreamspace, and she turned up unconscious. I knew where she was physically because I had been looking for her, and asking her questions. She took the oath, climbed on my back, and we ran. I had learned a LOT about the care and feeding of servants, by that time, and I kept her alive for nearly a hundred years. We worked out a deal where we would actually get paid for servicing the herds. Life was really good for many years."
"And then someone killed you."
"And then a thrice damned sorcerer named Belkith Norr decided he wanted an unicorn horn dagger, and, eventually he found me. For a few years he just sent servants; they tried to kill me, and I killed them instead, and they tried to capture Salsi, and I killed them instead, and then finally Norr got bored, and came in person, and blasted me. I don't know what happened to Salsi. That's kind of worse than being dead."
"I don't have words, Fid."
"There aren't any. But I appreciate the thought. But to continue: When a unicorn dies, its essence retreats into its horn. The unicorn can give up existence if it wants to, but life as a ghost in an unicorn's horn isn't that bad. And the horn is anchored to the skull unless the unicorn lets go of it. So Norr threw a domination spell on me, and made me let go of the skull, and then he used magic to reshape the horn into the dagger you know. And then he used another compulsion spell force me to create a blood bond with him, and then I was his slave."
"Except that he was such an arrogant bastard that he never actually learned the rules. 'Never attempt to harm me in any way,' is not an affirmative command. He opened the bond between us, which gave me access to his power, and then he tested the edge of his pretty new toy against his thumb, and I turned the full force of his will, which was significant, against his body, which was pretty ordinary, and he died."
"Which left you where?"
"Which left me locked in a sorcerer's workshop, waiting for some enterprising thief to break in and let me get on with my existence."
"Why do I get the feeling that this isn't something else that I should feel sorry for you for?"
"Norr had a dragon bone staff, that also left behind in the lab when he died."
"When a unicorn dies, its essence retreats into its horn. When a dragon dies, its essence is fragmented throughout its entire skeleton, and under the right circumstances, each of those fragments can develop into a complete personality. So Norr's staff actually had a dragon spirit that hated Norr as much as I did."
"You are NOT going to tell me..."
"Yes, she was female. Sulissa and I became very good friends before the helpful thief finally made his entrance."
"Why do I think that if I leave you where you are, you'll find a new species of mermaid?"
"I'd really rather have you, Rose."
"And on that note, good night."
End of Chapter Two