22: The Night Everything Changed (Part One)
“This is a dream?” he asked. “I—I thought it was real?” All those other times, those other dreams and imaginations, had taken place in worlds that could not have been anything but a dream. He could accept them. But this? This was the real world … but not.
“Not quite,” replied his mother. “A bit of both. Halfway between, maybe. Well, more like a quarter. Or less. Yes, definitely less.” She sounded as young as she looked, with a spring of happiness in her words that he rarely heard. “This is still the real world. Or, at least, a reflection of it.”
Dante looked back at the shrine. Oihana stood where they left her — and his mother was still there at her side. He felt another wave of vertigo, then another breath of relief as his mother took his other hand.
“Yes, I’m in two places at once,” she said. “Sort of. That’s just my body. If you had a look inside the shrine, you’d find yours, too. We’re projecting, Dante. It’s like…” She twisted her mouth, “Well, we’re kind of outside ourselves. Kind of, but not really. More like—”
She stopped as Oihana appeared beside her, as if she had just blinked to life from nothingness. Dante clung to his mother as if he were hanging from the edge of the Seventh Wall with the ocean crashing below him.
“There’s a group approaching the sanctuary’s perimeter,” she said. “I do not know how they followed us this far, but it may be dangerous to leave. The moment we step outside, the magic will not protect us.”
“And if they find a way through the magic?”
Again, Oihana’s form wavered. “They will not. Th—they cannot. They are only men.”
“Just keep your guard up, Oihana. I’m going to spend a moment with Dante, then we’ll work out what to do next.”
Oihana nodded and, in the blink of an eye, was gone. Dante shivered.
“You get used to it,” said his mother. “It’s a bit like painting, actually. The more you practise, the better you’ll get! My friend, Aliana, has a daughter about your age, and she’s already working at the ten-to-one level.”
“It’s a technical thing. It means that, for every ten seconds she spends here in the aether, one passes in the real world. Right now, you’re a novice, so we’re pretty much at one-to-one levels, but you can get better!” Then, all of a sudden, her smile melted to a sad frown. “I really should have taught you when you were younger, then maybe you’d be at Aliza’s level too, but I wanted you to focus on your school work and your painting, so you would have a strong foundation to work with.” She glanced up at him, tried to force a smile. Somehow, in this dream-but-not-a-dream, it was even more obvious a lie than ever. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I haven’t been much of a mother to you.”
But of course she had! What else could she have been all these years, if not the best mother Dante could know? Better than even Katy Ritches’s mother! As he looked into her pale-winter eyes, he wondered — and feared — whether the madness could reach her in this place. Already, the world seemed darker…
“No,” she replied, restoring a touch of light to their surroundings. “I can’t blame … I can’t blame that for not teaching you right. Aliana is … Aliana is no different, and she taught Aliza. It’s my fault. I was … I was scared. Scared of what you might find if you learned to look inside yourself. Scared of—”
Oihana’s cry drew their attention to a group of figures emerging through the shroud of hawthorns. Dante felt his body lurch — not from vertigo or disbelief, but as if some cord were tugging at him, pulling him elsewhere…
“I’m sorry,” said his mother, “but I’m sending you back. I—I’m sorry, Dante. Please, go back to sleep…”
As talented as she is, and with all her accolades from the war, Ophelia is still only 27. They don’t really teach parenting skills in Seelie…