I woke to blackness.Blackness and suffocation.
I was in a small room, a box really, crammed in so tightly that my arms wrapped around me and my knees were drawn to my chest.Weirdly, my limbs seemed too long.
My whole body did, actually. My body changed all the time with shape-shifting, but this wasn’t what I’d been wearing with Roman. This was different. For a moment, that horrible space seemed to close in around me. I couldn’t breathe. With great effort, I tried to calm myself down. There was enough air. I could breathe. And even if I couldn’t have, it wouldn’t have mattered. The fear of suffocation was a human instinct.
Where was I? I didn’t remember anything after the bedroom. I recalled the light and the music and Roman bursting in too late. I’d felt his power build up, like he was about to take action, but I hadn’t seen the conclusion. And now, here I was.
Before my eyes, two identical luminescent forms suddenly appeared, like torches being lit in the darkness. They were tall and thin, with willowy, androgynous features. Black cloth wrapped around their bodies, seeming to glow with a light of its own, and long black hair flowed from their heads, blending in and losing itself in the cloth. Their eyes were a startling radioactive blue, too blue for any human, and seemed to bug out of those long, pale faces that were neither male nor female.
It was weird too because it was like they stood before me in a large room, as though they were ten or so feet away from me. Yet, I was still crammed into the confines of my box and its unseen walls, barely able to move. Aside from them, everything else was pure, unfathomable blackness. I couldn’t even see my own body or any other features of the room. My brain couldn’t get a grip on this spatial hypocrisy. It was all too surreal.
“Who are you?” I demanded. “What am I doing here?” I saw no point in wasting time.
The duo didn’t answer right away. Their eyes were cold and unreadable, but I saw a bit of smugness in their lips.
“Our succubus,” one said. His – my brain decided to assign them a gender – voice was low and raspy, with a lisp that reminded me of a snake. “Our succubus at last.”
“Harder to catch than we thought,” added the other, voice identical. “We thought you would have succumbed long ago.”
“Who are you?” I repeated, anger kindling. I squirmed in a futile attempt at escape. My confines were so tight that I didn’t even have the space to beat my fists against the nonexistent walls.
“Mother will be pleased,” the first one said.
“Very pleased,” confirmed the other.
The way they alternated phrases reminded me of how Grace – Jerome’s former lieutenant demoness – and Mei used to interact. That had had a charming, moderately creepy The Shining feel to it. This…this was something else. Something terrible and icy, burning my senses like nails on a chalkboard.
“Mother will reward us,” the first said. I decided to call them One and Two for the ease of mental processing. “She will reward us when she is free, when she escapes the angels.”
“Who’s your mother?” I asked. A troubling suspicion was beginning to form.
“We will avenge her until she can do it herself,” said Two. “You will suffer for betraying her.”
“Nyx,” I murmured. “Nyx is your mother. And you’re…you’re Oneroi.”
They said nothing, which I took as affirmation. My head reeled. Oneroi? How had this happened? Oneroi were a type of dream demon – but not demons like the ones I interacted with. Heaven and Hell were forces in the universe, but there were others, others that mingled with and often ran parallel to the system I existed in. Nyx was one such force, an entity of chaos from the beginning of time, when the world had been created from disorder.
And the Oneroi were her children.
I knew a few things about them but had never seen them – or ever expected to. They visited dreams, feeding on them. Nyx had done this too, but the manner had been a little different. She had manipulated people into seeing the future in their dreams – a twisted version that didn’t unfold the way the dreamer expected. It had led to crazy actions that spawned chaos in the world, allowing her to grow stronger. She’d also fed on my energy directly, taking it in its purest form and distracting me with dreams of my own.
But Oneroi fed on the dreams themselves, deriving their power from the emotions and realities fueled by the dreamer. My understanding was that they also had the power to manipulate dreams but rarely had reason to. Humans provided plenty of hopes, dreams, and fears on their own. They needed no outside help.
That was the extent of my Oneroi knowledge, but it was enough. Feeling even a little informed about the situation empowered me. “That’s what this is about? You took me because of Nyx? I wasn’t the one who caught her. The angels did.”
“You helped them,” said One. “Led them to her.”
“And then refused to save her,” added Two.
With a pang, I remembered that horrible night, when Carter and his cronies had recaptured Nyx after her devastating free-for-all in Seattle. An angel had died that night. Another had fallen. And Nyx had promised to show me a future and family with a man I could love, if only I would give her the rest of my energy and let her break free.
“She was lying,” I said. “She was trying to make a deal when she had nothing to offer.”
“Mother always shows the truth,” said One. “Dreams can be lies, but truth is truth.”
I decided pointing out the redundancy of that statement was useless. “Well, I’m sure she’ll appreciate the Mother’s Day gift, but you’re wasting your time. Jerome will come for me. My archdemon. He won’t let me stay here.”
“He won’t find you,” said Two. This time, I could definitely see smugness. “He can’t find you. You no longer exist for him.”
“You’re wrong,” I replied, with a bit of my own smugness. “There’s no place in this world you can take me where he can’t find me.” That was, of course, assuming they hadn’t managed to hide my immortal aura. To my knowledge, only greater immortals could do that. I wasn’t sure where Oneroi fell in.
One actually smiled. It was not attractive. “You aren’t in the world. Not the mortal world. This is the dream world.”
“You’re one of many dreams,” Two said. “One dream among all the dreams of humanity. Your essence is here. Your soul. Lost in a sea of countless others.”
My fear stopped me from offering commentary on his sudden shift into metaphor. The metaphysics of the universe and its layers and creation were beyond me. Even if someone had explained them to me, it was something past the comprehension of a mortal, lesser immortal, or any other being who was made-not-born. I had enough understanding, though, to recognize some truth in their words. There was a world of dreams, a world without form with nearly as much power as the physical one I lived in. Was it possible to trap my essence in it and hide me from Jerome? I was unsure enough that I couldn’t write it off.
“So, what?” I asked, attempting haughtiness but mostly sounding as uneasy as I felt. “You’ll just keep me in this mime box and feel better about yourselves?”
“No,” said One. “You’re in the world of dreams. You will dream.”
The world dissolved again.
It was my wedding day.
I was fifteen years old, jailbait in the twenty-first century but more than old enough to be a wife in fourth-century Cyprus. And more than tall enough too. The Oneroi had sent me into a memory or a dream of a memory or something like that. It was a lot like the dreams Nyx had put me in. I was watching myself like a movie…yet at the same time, I was in myself, experiencing everything quite naturally.
It was a disorienting feeling, made worse by the fact that I had never wanted to see my human self again. Selling my soul had come with obvious downsides, but there had been perks too: the ability to shape-shift and never again have to wear the body that had committed such grievous sins in my mortal life.
Yet, there I was, and I was unable to look away. It was like being in A Clockwork Orange. My younger self had been about five feet ten inches tall by today’s standards and a giant of a woman in an era where people had been shorter. When dancing, I’d been able to put that long body and all those limbs to good use, moving gracefully and effortlessly. In everyday life, though, I’d always been painfully conscious of my height, feeling awkward and unnatural.
Watching my old self walk now, from the outside, I was astonished to see I didn’t appear as clumsy as I’d always believed. That didn’t negate the revulsion I felt at seeing the thick, waist-long black hair or passably pretty face. Still, it was kind of a surprise to watch reality (if this was reality) and memory meshed.
It was just after dawn, and I was carrying a large amphora of oil out to a storage house beyond my family’s home. My steps were light, careful not to spill any of it, and I again marveled at the way I moved. I set the vessel down beside others inside the shed and started to head back toward the house. I’d barely taken two steps outside when Kyriakos, my husband-to-be, appeared. There was a covert expression on his face, one that instantly told me he had sneaked over here to find me and knew perfectly well that he shouldn’t have. It was an uncharacteristically bold move for him, and I chastised him for the indiscretion.
“What are you doing? You’re going to see me this afternoon…and then every day after that!”
“I had to give you these before the wedding.” He held up a string of wooden beads, small and perfectly formed with tiny ankhs engraved on them. “They were my mother’s. I want you to have them, to wear them today.”
He leaned forward, placing the beads around my neck. As his fingers brushed my skin, I felt something warm and tingly run through my body. At the tender age of fifteen, I hadn’t exactly understood such sensations, though I was eager to explore them. My wiser self today recognized them as the early stirrings of lust, and…well, there had been something else there too. Something else that I still didn’t quite comprehend. An electric connection, a feeling that we were bound into something bigger than ourselves. That our being together was inevitable.
“There,” he said, once the beads were secure and my hair brushed back into place. “Perfect.”
He said nothing else after that. He didn’t need to. His eyes told me all I needed to know, and I shivered. Until Kyriakos, no man had ever given me a second glance. I was Marthanes’ too-tall daughter after all, the one with the sharp tongue who didn’t think before speaking. But Kyriakos had always listened to me and watched me like I was someone more, someone tempting and desirable, like the beautiful priestesses of Aphrodite who still carried on their rituals away from the Christian priests.
I wanted him to touch me then, not realizing just how much until I caught his hand suddenly and unexpectedly. Taking it, I placed it around my waist and pulled him to me. His eyes widened in surprise but he didn’t pull back. We were almost the same height, making it easy for his mouth to seek mine out in a crushing kiss. I leaned against the warm stone wall behind me so that I was pressed between it and him. I could feel every part of his body against mine, but we still weren’t close enough. Not nearly enough.
Our kissing grew more ardent, as though our lips alone might close whatever aching distance lay between us. I moved his hand again, this time to push up my skirt along the side of one leg. His hand stroked the smooth flesh there and, without further urging, slid over to my inner thigh. I arched my lower body toward his, nearly writhing against him now, needing him to touch me everywhere.
“Letha? Where are you at?”
My sister’s voice carried over the wind; she wasn’t nearby but could no doubt show up if she sought me. Kyriakos and I broke apart, both gasping, pulses racing. He was looking at me like he’d never seen me before. Heat burned in his gaze.
“Have you ever been with anyone before?” he asked wonderingly.
I shook my head.
“How did you…I never imagined you doing that…”
“I learn fast.”
We stood there, locked in time for a moment. Then, he pulled me back to him, his lips crushing mine once more. His hand returned to my dress, hiking it up over my waist. He held my bare hips firmly and pressed himself to my body. I felt him hard against me, felt my body respond to something that seemed both new and natural at the same time. The fingers of one hand slid over, feeling the wetness between my thighs. His touch felt like fire, and I moaned, wanting him to stroke me there more and more.
Instead, he turned me around so that I faced the wall. With one hand, he kept the skirt of my dress up, and with his other, I had the vague impression of him fumbling with his clothes. Then, a moment later, he pushed himself into me. It was a shock, like nothing I’d experienced before. I’d meant what I’d said earlier: that I’d never been with another man. And even wet with desire, it still hurt to have him inside me that first time. He seemed too big and me too small.
I cried out at the pain, an odd sort of pain that didn’t diminish the fire that had been building within me. His thrusts were hard and urgent, no doubt fueled by feelings he’d long been holding back on. And after a while, the initial pain seemed irrelevant. Pleasure began to grow as he moved into me over and over, and I adjusted myself so that I bent over more and let him take me more deeply. He thrust more forcefully, and I again exclaimed in surprise and blissful pain. I heard a muffled groan, and then his body shuddered as he spent himself, his movements at last slowing down.
When he was done, he pulled out and turned me around. It was the first time I’d seen him naked in all of this. There was blood and semen on both of us, which I tried to clean off my thighs before finally just letting my dress fall back over me. I’d be bathing before the wedding anyway.
Kyriakos had just finished putting his clothes back on when we heard my name again. This time, it was my mother. He and I stared at each other in wonder, scarcely believing we’d just done what we had. I was aglow with love and the joy of sex and a whole host of new feelings I wanted to explore in more detail. Fear of my mother drove us apart.
Stepping back, he grinned and pressed my hand to his lips. “Tonight,” he breathed. “Tonight we…”
“Tonight,” I agreed. “We’ll do it again. I love you.”
He smiled at me, eyes smoldering, and then hurried off before we were caught. I watched him go, my heart filled with joy.
The rest of the day went by in a dreamy haze, partially because of the flurry of wedding activity and partially because of what had happened with Kyriakos. I’d had a vague idea of what would occur on our wedding night, but my imaginings had never come close to the real thing. I practically danced my way through the rest of the day, impatient to truly be Kyriakos’ wife and make love again and again.
The wedding was taking place at our home, so there was enough work (along with my own preparation) to almost keep me distracted. As the ceremony time grew nearer, I was bathed and dressed in my wedding gown: an ivory tunic of fine material, wrapped with a flame-red veil. I had to kneel a little for my mother to adequately adjust the veil, earning a number of jokes about my height from my sister.
It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered except me and Kyriakos being together forever. Soon, guests began arriving, and my heart rate increased. Anticipation and the day’s heat made me sweat, and I fretted about ruining the dress.
Someone called out that Kyriakos and his family were approaching. The excitement in the air grew palpable, shared by everyone now. Yet, when Kyriakos arrived, he barged right into the house, going against the traditional procession and stately ceremony that should have taken place. For half a second, some girlish part of me thought that Kyriakos – in his burning love for me – couldn’t wait through the drawn out process of a ceremony. I was quickly enlightened.
With a face flushed with fury, he marched up to my father. “Marthanes,” Kyriakos growled, finger in my father’s face. “You insult me if you think I’m going through with this wedding.”
My father was clearly taken aback – not an easy thing to accomplish. People chastised me for my sharp tongue, but that was largely because I was a woman. I wasn’t half as bad as my father, and he’d intimidated a lot of men twice his size. (It was a sad irony that while I was tall for a woman, my father was short for a man.) A few moments later, my father recovered his usual bluster.
“Of course you are!” he exclaimed. “We’ve made the betrothal. We paid the dowry.”
Kyriakos’ father was there, and judging from his fine clothes and surprised expression, this was all news to him too. He set a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Kyriakos, what’s this all about?”
“Her,” said Kyriakos, pointing his finger at me. His gaze swung to my face, and I flinched from its force, as though I’d been slapped. “I will not marry Marthanes’ whore of a daughter!”
There were gasps and murmurs from those around us. My father’s face turned bright red. “You’re insulting me! All of my daughters are chaste. They’re all virgins.”
“Are they?” Kyriakos turned back to me. “Are you?”
All eyes turned to me, and I blanched. My tongue felt dry. I couldn’t muster any words.
My father threw up his hands, clearly exasperated by this nonsense. “Tell them, Letha. Tell them so that we can end this and get our dowry back.”
Kyriakos had a dangerous glint in his eyes as he studied me. “Yes, tell them so that we can end this. Are you a virgin?”
“No, but – “
Chaos erupted. Men shouted. My mother wailed. The guests were a mix of stunned shock and delight over a new scandal. Desperately, I tried to find my voice and shout above the din.
“It was only with Kyriakos!” I cried. “Today was the first time!”
Kyriakos turned away from where he’d been telling my father the dowry would not be returned. He glanced over at me. “It’s true,” he said. “We did it today. She spread herself as easily and knowingly as any whore, begging me to take her. There’s no telling how many men she’s offered her body up to – or how many she would even when married.”
“No!” I exclaimed. “It’s not true!”
But no one heard me. There was too much arguing now. Kyriakos’ family was raging over the insult. My family was bristling against the name-calling, and my father was trying his best to do damage control, though he knew perfectly well that my own admission had damned us. Premarital sex was not so out of the ordinary for lower classes, but as a tradesman’s family, we modeled a lot of our customs on our betters among the nobility – or pretended to. A girl’s virtue was a sacred thing, one that reflected on her father and family as a whole. This disgraced all of them – and had serious repercussions for me. As Kyriakos well knew.
He had moved toward me so that I could hear him through the noise. “Now they all know,” he said in a low voice. “They all know you for what you are.”
“It’s not true,” I said through my tears. “You know it isn’t.”
“No one will have you now,” he continued. “No one worth having. You’ll spend the rest of your life on your back, spreading your legs for whoever comes along. And ultimately, you’ll be alone. No one will have you.”
I squeezed my eyes shut to try to stop the tears, and when I opened them again, I was surrounded in blackness.
Well, not entirely in blackness.
Before me, the Oneroi glowed more brightly than before, lit from within by that eerie light.
“An interesting dream,” said Two, with what I think passed for a smile. “One that gave us much to feed on.”
“It’s not true,” I said. There were tears on my cheeks in waking, just as there had been in sleep. “That wasn’t true. It was a lie. That wasn’t how things happened.”
The dream was muddling my brain, almost making me question myself, but my own memories soon won out. I remembered that day. I remembered kissing Kyriakos by the building and how we’d then gone separate ways, strengthened by the knowledge that we would soon be man and wife, making our wedding night that much sweeter. And it had been. It hadn’t been rushed against a wall. We’d taken time to learn and explore each other’s bodies. He’d been on top of me, staring into my eyes – not my back. He’d told me I was his life. He’d told me I was his world.
“It was a lie,” I repeated more firmly, fixing the Oneroi with a glare. “That’s not how it happened. That’s not how it happened.” I knew I was right, yet I felt the need to keep repeating it, to make sure the words were true.
One gave a small shrug, unconcerned. “It doesn’t matter. I told you: Mother shows the truth. But dreams? Dreams are dreams. They can be truth or lies, and all provide food for us. And you?” He smiled a smile that was the mirror of his twin’s. “You will dream…and dream…and dream…”