“So what are you planning on doing over Yule?” Swan leaned back in her chair as she tossed a shelled peanut into the air. She caught it in her mouth easily and tossed one across the table at the quiet nerd of a warlock she was friends with. The shell bounced off of Gally’s impassive forehead, jolting the human out of her thoughts. “Girl you are glazed like a donut.”
“Ugh…don’t remind me.” Gally groaned, rubbed her temples with her fingers as she glowered at the rogue. “Dante is sucking me dry! His hunger is insane!”
“Hunger for what? Hot pussy? If you don’t want to feed him, I’m free most nights. Send the snarky bastard on down the hall and I’ll give him as much as he can eat.” Swan smirked, her pointed blue ears twitching in amusement.
“Hunger for energy and magic. I’m not very powerful; I can’t keep a strong demon like him fed.” The warlock sunk back into her chair weakly. “Every night he drains me and it takes all day for me to recover. “
“Where’s he now? Here, have my beer…you need it more than I do I expect.” One pale blue hand pushed the heavy tankard across the table, sending peanut shells skittering onto the tavern floor.
“It’s Sunday, he returns to the Nether on Sundays for his day off. If it were up to me he’d stay longer but the enchantment won’t let him stay there for more than a day.” She picked up the mug in her hands and stared down into the amber liquid. Her face was paler than normal and late nights had given her dark circles under her hazel eyes. At the moment her wavy hair was tied up in a messy bun on the top of her hair, giving her the look of a frazzled librarian. “Teacher was right; I’m just not strong enough to control a demon like that.”
“Hey! Give yourself more credit! And you never answered my first question.” Swan leaned forward and started to slice the loaf of brown bread that had been sitting untouched under a hot towel on the table between them. “You stayin’ around one of our base camps with the rest of us Black Widows or are you goin’ home?”
“I might go home; if I can get Dante to shift forms into a human for a day maybe I can convince my parents to quit trying to marry me off to stupid farmer’s sons.” Gally said sullenly, taking a sip of the ale. “Human men don’t do it for me anymore. Oh well…at least a demon can’t knock me up. What are you doing?” The ale had gone flat but she enjoyed the bitter taste of it. Swan thought this question over for a few moments before replying, pausing to lick a few crumbs from the side of her dagger.
“I was thinking I might go back home for a few days. See if Mum will talk to me. “
“What about your dad? I find it amusing that you came from somewhere. Is he as crazy as you are?” Gally grinned as she reached across the table for a slice of the warm bread. Despite how much she had been eating during the day she had lost quite a bit of weight since she summoned Dante. Before the demon she would have felt guilty for helping the svelte rogue polish off a pound of cheese and a couple loaves of bread but now she knew she’d need all the energy she could get.
“I don’t have a father. Well I mean, I did come from somewhere; elves don’t grow on trees, but my mum never talked about him. Said he was a druid sleeper but that was it. Cheese?” Swan poked the wedge of brie cheese next to the bread with one finger. “Losers; its cold! It’s supposed to be room temperature. Oh well. ”
“A druid sleeper? You mean those druids that are lost in the Emerald Dream?” The human female leaned closer, suddenly interested. “What about your mum, what’s she do?”
“She used to be a Sentinel guard for the sleepers until she quit. She protected them during the day shift while the other guards are sleeping. Now she runs a flower shop in Darnassus. “ Swan shrugged slightly, making a major point of slowly carving the rind from the side of the brie. “She wanted a druid in the family but I can’t use druid magic well; everything I touch dies. I have a total black thumb. Once she found out I quit druid training to become a rogue she stopped talking to me. We haven’t spoken in a few years now.” The rogue leaned back in her chair, propping her booted feet up on the table. Talking about her parents wasn’t something she liked to do; that part of her life was over. “I always try and pass the olive branch at Yule every year, mostly for my own guilty conscience. Every time I show up at the shop she isn’t there, or she’s there but refuses to come out of the back room to see me.“
The two went silent for a while; happy enough to just share each other’s company over cheese and bread as fall leaves swirled outside. Swan was lost in thought as she sharpened her daggers one by one with slow and calculated strokes. The silver-gold glow of her eyes illuminated the tops of her cheeks and nose slightly as she stared down at the shining metal. Gally knew not to try and push her friend into talking anymore; once Swan started sharpening that meant the conversation was finished. She rested her head on her hands and looked out the window over the elf’s armor clad shoulder. The thought that her long time friend was the child of a sleeping druid and a sentinel made her smile inwardly; it was like a perverse version of sleeping beauty.
A long ass time ago….
The sun had started to peak over the hills and trees, illuminating the carved gateway to the underground druid cave. The two heavily armored elf sentinels guarding the door looked very tired after their long shift. Another guard, this one a slightly built sentinel in gold armor strode up to them, her footsteps sure and silent on the mossy ground.
“Sentinel Egret reporting for First Day Shift.” The new guard said smartly as she tapped shaft the fierce looking halberd she carried on the flag stones. “You are relieved of your station sisters.” Her face was hidden by a mesh helmet in the shape of an egret’s head, topped with long plumes of the bird’s white feathers to denote her station as a Day Watcher. The two guards bowed slowly before heading back down the hill to rest. Egret doffed her helm and headed into the dark tunnel in the cliff wall. As she passed the threshold the stone seemed to close behind her, hiding the door from any passers as the morning rays touched the stone. Until the sun went down again she would have to stay in the cave, watching the Sleepers by day.
Egret hated this job. She hated the sun, hated the dank caves in which the druids slept and hated the loneliness of her life. Because of her job as a Day Watcher she slept at night when everyone else was awake. During the day it was just her and a hundred sleeping druids in their dark and chill cave. One thing brightened her dull life and made her shift of sunup to sundown enjoyable. She headed down one of the narrow corridors to a newer area of the cave where the air seemed fresher and warmer. There was a chamber far ahead of her where only one druid slept; a very young man who had been known for his great skill in magic. However, instead of being given the choice of sleeping the Emerald Dream, this man had been forced. She remembered the scandal as a child; a druid who used their power for destruction was most hated indeed. His name loosely translated meant “Thorn Apple” but he was mostly known as Thorn. Instead of healing, Thorn had an innate skill at causing damage, instead of helping the forest grow; trees seemed to die at his touch. Because the druids themselves found execution to be a great sin in itself he was given the choice of the Emerald Dream or exile. The druid had chosen to become a sleeper and in his sleep his powers were no longer so dark. It was almost as if in his sleep he had begun to do what he was supposed to; help the forest heal and to grow.
She stood in the small room and stared at the sleeping druid on the simple carved alter he slept on. Unlike the other druids who looked exactly the same as the day they had first entered the dream, Thorn looked younger and more peaceful than he ever had in waking. Egret walked over to the druid’s sleeping form and started to pull the heavy vines of wisteria and rosary pea that seemed to grow over him every night; wrapping the druid in a protective embrace of living wood. A thin shaft of moonlight illuminated the room by night and the plants seemed to thrive in the glow of the druid’s magic as well as the moon. The air smelled sweet with the perfume of the flowers as she carefully pulled the vines from their place around the alter, and from where they grew protectively over the druid.
“It must be lonely here. I know you can’t hear me Thorn but I won’t let you be lonely by daylight.” She said softly as she pulled a few stubborn sprays of mistletoe from the wall where they grew every night. The small cave would fill up with flowers and vines in a matter of days if she didn’t attend to them every morning. The leaves seemed to curl around the sleeping form of the druid, drawing on his power and his life as he slept. Egret put the torn vines and flowers in a pile outside the door and moved back over to the alter to uproot some nightshades which had happily wrapped their tendrils around Thorn’s bare arms as if he were a statue. “The plants certainly love you, even if everybody else thinks you’re a traitor. I don’t though. You’ve got a right to use your powers how you choose; the elders shouldn’t make that choice for you.”
The heady scent of jasmine which filled the room from the roaming vines on the ceiling always made her feel woozy and hot. The white flowers drooped in the sunlight, giving off their sweet perfume in offering to the sleepers lost in their dreams. Egret never pulled these vines down and instead allowed them to flourish; only cutting them back when they overstepped their bounds.
Sometimes after she had walked through the caverns and checked on all the other sleepers, she would choose to return to Thorn’s chamber and sit on the edge of the stone alter. There she would tell him stories, talk about how her night after work had been, and sing songs all to keep him company. The other sentinels knew what she did during the day but they also realized that trying to talk her out of her lost cause was a waste of their limited time. Every day Egret did her duties to guard the druids but her true passion was Thorn. Sometimes she would take a nap, curled up next to him in her armor on the hard stone. Even lost in sleep the druid was warm unlike the others in the cave who were chill as the stone on which they lay. She had done this for two years and nothing had changed: Thorn still slept and Egret still watched.
That was until one day, in the heat of summer.
“I hope you realize that no matter how much you fawn over Thorn he’s never going to wake.” Egret was startled out of her thoughts by the crisp voice of one of the night guards as they changed shifts. It was the week of the yearly fertility festival but because Egret was the only Day Watcher she had to continue her duties in the caves while the rest of her people slept to get ready for the wild celebrations at night. “Eventually he’ll grow cold just like the rest of them; lost in the Dream. Why don’t you find yourself a man who’s still living?”
The older sentinel leaned against the cave wall, annoyed and bleary eyed from a long night watching the caves. Egret frowned behind her helm, her plate mail covered hands clenching around the shaft of her halberd. “He’s not dead! None of them are! One day they’ll awaken…that’s why we guard them!”
“Their bodies are alive but their souls are dead. There’s nothing to waken. We’re more funeral guards than anything else.” The sentinel in purple armor snapped, jabbing a finger at a sleeping elderly druid on an alter. The old elf’s form was covered in dust and cobwebs. “There is nothing living in these caves! Yes, they breathe, their hearts still beat…but there is no mind or soul left. The Dream has drained them dry just like your sleeping beauty over here. Do you think that one day he’ll wake up and be all yours? He will never open his eyes again and neither will any of the others. You should know better Egret. Don’t turn into a dreamer yourself.”
Egret tried to think up a reply to the chill statement as the other guard stalked out of the room but her lips would not form the words for her. Instead she stood in the thin shaft of sunlight from the hole in the root of Thorn’s chamber and listened to the receding steps of the guard as she stomped up the long staircase to the surface. Whose job was it to decide who was living and who was dead? Certainly that choice was not theirs to make. She took her helm off of her head with shaking hands, her long white hair falling over her shoulders. The soft rays of sun danced over the druid’s sleeping body, giving his pale blue skin a hint of gold. She watched him intently from where she stood next to him, almost willing him to move. The summer heat and the scent of the flowers made her feel drowsy and hot under her armor as she sat on the edge of the stone alter. Her helm slipped from her fingers as she lay down next to the sleeping druid. She pressed close against him, her cheek resting on his bare shoulder. His skin was warm under her touch, not chill like the others in the caves.
“Maybe she’s right; why return to the waking world if you’re lost in a beautiful dream.” She sighed as she closed her eyes. The heat of the sun beat down on her, making her want nothing more but to sleep for a while until the golden light passed in the afternoon. She took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of the climbing jasmine. “I wish I could join you in that dream. It would be so much better than this.” Egret whispered as she gave in to the heady scent of the flowers, falling asleep next to the druid. Many times she had fallen asleep like this after checking the caves. She would curl up next to Thorn and sleep until the sun moved and the golden rays no longer illuminated the room. This time however, it felt different to her. She didn’t dream of beaches she would never see or the cities she would never visit but instead she dreamt of Thorn.
“You shouldn’t be here. Wake up and return to the living Egret.”
She turned, hearing a rich voice that while she had never heard before, she recognized instantly.
“This is my dream Thorn; I’ll stay as long as I please.” She returned, her eyes taking in the surroundings. Everything was grey and foggy and hard to focus on but the imposing young druid who stood before her. Like in the cave he wore only a linen wrap adorned with wooden beads and brightly colored rose quartz. His long white hair so like her own hung down to his narrow hips as his golden eyes bored into hers.
“Oh this isn’t your dream. This is mine.” He said softly “Thank you for all you’ve done for me so far my lovely. I could hear you talking even if I couldn’t reply. It gets lonely here.”
Egret stepped forward, hardly believing what she was seeing or hearing. She knew she was dreaming; she never felt floaty like this while awake and Thorn would never be up and talking if that was the case. She sighed a little, reaching one hand out to touch him but he shied back away from her.
“Don’t. If you touch me here, you’ll never be able to return to the waking world again. As it is I’m taking a big risk talking to you like this.” Thorn sounded slightly strained as he spoke. “Will you do me a favor Egret?”
“Anything!” Egret nodded excitedly. Even if it was only in a dream, the wish she’d prayed to the Goddess every night for had come true in a way. “I’ll do anything for you Thorn! Just ask and it’ll be done I swear.”
“I have enough strength to waken one time. Tomorrow during the fertility festival I will be free of the Dream from dawn until sunset.” He stood close to her, near enough so she could feel the mysterious warmth of him but not touching. “Will you…give me a child; a child with my magic, with your skill in battle and your loyalty. Will you Egret?”
The Day Watcher sentinel shivered in her armor. Her cheeks burned as the thought his proposal through. She had wished for this hadn’t she? That he would awaken and be her lover. “I’ll do it. One day with you will be better than a lifetime with another man.” She whispered “Anything for you Thorn.”
Her dream man smiled at her warmly and nodded before fading back into the fog of the dream. Soon she awoke in the cave once again, her cheek still resting on the druid’s shoulder. Had the dream been real or merely the sad thoughts of a lonely elf woman who guarded the sleeping dead day after day. She leaned down to look at his sleeping face; he looked the same as before. Impassive, cold, and sleeping the deep dreams only a druid could.
“I’ll be here at dawn tomorrow like I always am.” She said softly before bending over to press her lips to his in a warm kiss. She let her kiss linger for a moment, almost willing him to awaken then and return the favor. Like always, Thorn was silent as she pulled back. “If you awaken I’ll be the happiest woman in the world. If you don’t…then things really won’t have changed.” Egret said with a sigh before leaving the chamber to do her rounds in the rest of the cavern. As much as she tried to keep her hopes up, the thought of Thorn waking even for a day was more wonderful than she could imagine. Wonderful things didn’t happen to her.
Early the next morning, before the sun was even close to rising, Egret packed a lunch like she always did: bread, cheese, moonberry wine, and lotus seed pudding. On her way to work she stopped at the temple to get a blessing. As she stood in line with the other hopeful women she felt out of place. Unlike the others in their soft silk dresses in shades of cream and pink, Egret had her golden armor. Instead of a chubby baby in her arms or a child at her feet she had her halberd and her helm. The others looked at her from over their shoulders as she waited. Some nodded softly in greeting, others started to whisper amongst themselves. To see a Sentinel trying to get a fertility blessing was beyond odd to them. The women fighters typically had other things on their mind besides children.
“I thought the Watcher’s took a vow of chastity?” One woman said next to her, her long blue hair pulled into a high ponytail. She looked at Egret as though she were a common street whore instead of one of the sentinels. “Certainly a fertility blessing is a waste on one of them.”
“Never hurts to dream does it?” Another said with a simpering laugh, covering her mouth with one hand. Her infant gurgled in her arms happily as it played with a strand of her green hair. “I hear that girl has a fancy for once of the Sleepers. Can you believe it? Silly little thing! Might as well try to make love to one of the Forsaken; at least they can talk!”
“And the dead are always stiff!” The two laughed like two old maids at a pie bake-off, enjoying their gossip a bit too much for polite company.
“My how perverse!” A woman with short purple hair muttered from next to the other gossipers, holding her two young boys to her side. “Come along, we’re late. Daddy will wonder where we are. Such people in the temple! Hmph!”
Egret stared straight ahead, trying to ignore the odd looks and the whispers until after she had gotten her blessing from the priestess. Then she turned and ran from the temple as fast as her legs could carry her, almost as if she were racing the rising sun. If the sun reached the cave before her it would be sealed and if by change Thorn did raise from his sleep, her one happy day would be over before it began. As she ran she let her hair fly untied behind her like a young elf maid on her way to see a lover; not a warrior on her way to her job.
“I’m sorry I’m late sisters.” She bowed to the two waiting guards at the cave once she reached her destination. The others sighed as they looked at her flushed face and ignored her as they passed by her as silently as owls in the dark, leaving the Day Watcher to her job. She ignored them; no amount of cold elvish logic would sway her from the choice she made. Her feet barely seemed to touch the stone stairs as she flew down the stairs, one hand touching the stone wall to keep her balance. Her heart was racing so hard she was sure it was echoing in her golden armor. The caves were just as cold and silent as always as she rushed through her first pass through the chambers. Everything was how it had been since she got the job; the old druids were sleeping soundly under their cobwebs and slow growing vines. The younger ones on the upper levels were still as the dead, their heads still resting on the ceremonial pillows. The hops and lavender that had once filled the silk had long since lost their scent and instead smelled like dried autumn leaves to her. She followed the soft scent of jasmine in the air up to the highest chamber where Thorn slept, her heart pounding still. Her hands clutched her helmet and halberd in numb fingers as she slowly entered the silent room. The first rays of the sun had not yet shone through the hole in the ceiling as she stepped into the small cave. As always the vines had grown to cover Thorn’s body in a blanket of flowers. Nothing else had changed; he still lay still as the dead on the alter; tendrils of nightshade curled about his head like a crown.
“Well…not like I was expecting anything anyway.” She sighed heavily as she dropped her gear on the floor by the carved doorway with a resounding clank that echoed throughout the caves before sitting down on the edge of Thorn’s stone bed. The others had been right about this; her infatuation with the sleeping druid was a lost cause, and the lust influenced dream from before was exactly that.
Egret leaned over him and sighed heavily as she started to pull the sweet pea vines off of his sleeping form. “You’ll just sleep forever like the rest of them won’t you?” She muttered testily before crushing a clump of the pink flowers in her hands and letting the crumpled petals fall to the ground. She stared down at him steadily for a moment, hoping for anything to show that he had heard. But just like every other day he didn’t even twitch. Egret bent down to get nose to nose with Thorn as she pulled the vines away roughly and tossed them aside. Whether he was awake or not she was going to do what she came to do.