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from The Tale of Countess Vivian

Vivian’s dreams that night were disturbing. She was chased through a misty landscape by someone she couldn’t really see, but as the mist lifted she knew that her pursuer could at last see her. Arrows from the dark played a minor role, but a greater threat bore down on her from behind. She took refuge in a dark abandoned house, but her every hiding place also served to conceal what was seeking her. She peeked out through cracks and nearly met eyes looking in; she hid in an earthy cellar and was followed by an invisible creaking on the stairs; she escaped from the shadows of the house at last, fleeing from the place where she had sought refuge, and staked her freedom on a final sprint through trees and across a field. She could not see it, but it was behind her still, and closing. She pushed her legs to their limit, and her heart and her lungs, but there was no refuge, nothing in all the flat landscape to make for. So she ran, ran while she could.

She woke up breathless, lying in bed on her back, light flooding the room. All was quite still. She tried to take in a breath. Her lungs remained empty except for half a gasp of stale air. Her muscles were frozen: her mind had awakened but her body remained asleep. Panicking, she clawed mentally at herself, tried to force her body to take in air. till it sat there, a heavy lifeless thing.

She searched the room that stood in her vision, and found it empty but for the expected. This was no dream. She knew it now. The thing that had pursued her in sleep had caught her at that last moment, and now it had her, strangling her slowly, driving the air from her lungs, its spirit hands closing not on her throat but on the nerves that made it work. She struggled and strove, her mind fought desperately, but her body was unmoved, as unmoved as a wall that she might throw herself against. Slowly she suffocated, and slowly the child inside her died.

She reached down to her daughter, and that familiar face was uplifted to her, as if they were both drowning deep in a clear lake, and looked into each other’s eyes a last time. Those blue eyes. She saw something in them—a reserve of strength, a bubble of air that her attacker did not know about, a few more seconds of life. She drank greedily of that strength, then held back, leaving half for the child.

Her open eyes examined the room one last time. No one was there, but Willd, lying inert beside her. There was a mirror on the wall beyond the foot of the bed. And in that mirror, in that complete reproduction of the world, with all sense reversed, in that narrow window, less than half a foot in each direction, there was something that was not in the room in which Vivian’s body lay.

It was a dark nondescript form, a robed thing, with a hood from which protruded a bit of nose. Beneath that hooked nose was a mouth, a human mouth like many others. It wore a satisfied smile. She examined it in her head, though it knew not that she saw.

It was not her heart, but something beat faster in her as she scrounged around in the dark cluttered room of her skull. Here she found an anger, and there a pride, and she gathered up a ferocity and a mother’s love and a longing and a hate. She balled it up with a poison that she found in a pool deep in her soul, and weighed it in her hands: would it be enough? She thought not. And then, nearby, she found the love of a good man, an innocent and total love, and an unexpected strength. With the weight of that as well, she made a great rock, and then she reached out and just as the figure noticed her shadow in the mirror, just as it turned to see what loomed, she pushed the rock in its face as hard as she could. The smile left that mouth as she fought him, as, like the cat sleeping on her bed might have done, she seized him in her front claws and kicked, kicked, until with an unheard howl he broke away and fled. Vivian sat up, panting, on the bed.

Simone lifted her head and yawned and opened her eyes halfway to look into those of her mistress. Vivian took breath after breath of the sweet air. After minutes she became calm. She shifted sideways into a patch of sun and pulled the blankets about her.

Willd lay beside her dreaming of horses. Something dark had touched his dream as well, but indirectly, and now, in typical Willd fashion, he shrugged it off and was riding in the sunny hills. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she hugged her bulging stomach, and then curled up beside her warm man and hugged him too. He half awoke and rolled over to hold her, and so they lay. She did not sleep again that morning, but lay in Willd’s arms in the sun, whimpering and whispering, “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” over and over again.