Vermilion Dreams_A Vampire Fantasy Epic, page 1
Copyright © 2017 by M.U. Riyadad.
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For my friends.
Without all of you, I would have finished this years ago.
I was only thirteen when Saythana first visited me in my dreams. Mother had warned me about him. She said to close my eyes and not look at him. She said that if I ever saw Saythana, I should do whatever I could to wake up before he spoke to me. To run or hide, to fly or swim. But when it happened, I just sat there.
There were lots of children in our city who were visited by daemons. Mawlik had gone through an exorcism when he was younger. But those were daemons whose names you didn’t know. Daemons who feared the words of priests and ran from consecrated land. Daemons who were judged by the gods and lived within the boundaries of our creators, just like us. Daemons like vampires and werewolves. Wraiths and ghouls.
They weren’t like Saythana.
I didn’t know where I was in the dream. I was sitting on a cliff, looking out at an open forest. Two moons hung overhead, one red like a marble soaked in wine, the other blue. The color of lavender and sweetberry mist. The forest was far below the cliff. We were on the edge of a mountain. A river ran in the distance, and beyond that, there was more forest. There was no sky, only an empty plane of stars. We were in another world.
Saythana emerged from the meadow of trees behind me. He was crawling on his hands and feet like a centipede. First there were two pairs of hands and two pairs of feet. And then there were three pairs of each. Then four. It didn’t bother me. It all seemed perfectly normal in the dream. A fire burned and crackled between us. His elbows and knees twisted and turned in disjointed motions as he came closer. He whipped his head back. Tendrils of white hair spread apart to make way for a set of deep red eyes that sparkled like blood diamonds. The image burned itself into my memories. It’s how I would always remember our first meeting.
He stopped and began swerving his head back and forth, staring at me from beyond the fire like a wild animal. He moved with the intent of a venomous insect and the elegance of a jungle cat. His eyes were brighter than the moons, inviting me to share in the same occult sensations they were lost in.
He had many names. Saythana. Red Shaed. Lu’hra Jahd. And my favorite: Dream Weaver.
The priests spoke of him like he was a myth. Other daemons would hide themselves as people you knew to deceive you. They’d whisper to you in the dark, where you couldn’t see them. Some were harmless, only there to haunt your nightmares like a harrowing memory. Not Saythana. He announced his coming like thunder rolling in the distance. Like the warmth in your bed before a fever dream. No one would see him for centuries. And then, just as people started to believe he was gone forever, he would appear again out of thin air.
He crawled around the fire. When he finally came to sit next to me, he looked normal. Just as beautiful as the stories said he was. He had narrow shoulders, heavy brows, and dark bristles along his neck. He was only a few years older than me at most. His skin was light, but had a red tint. From beyond the fire, his hair had looked coarse. But now, it looked smooth, and glistened under the moonlight like strands of silver silk. His teeth were thin and sharp. They gave him a vicious, deranged expression when he smiled. And his scent. Sweet and pervasive, unnatural and overwhelming. Last week, Father and Mother were speaking of a drug that was ravaging the lower parts of the kingdom. A drug you only had to smell before it stole away your senses. I imagined its scent had to be something like Saythana’s.
We sat there in silence for a long while. In between blinks, and for split seconds at a time, something about him would suddenly change. His hands, instead of looking slim and sharp, turned into distorted appendages as big as his whole arm, and with fingers like worms. His face would change to the head of an alien creature, with a neck that extended from beyond the fire. But then I’d blink, and he was beautiful again, sitting peacefully in a thin, cotton red shirt like a nobleman sitting in a garden.
“Dina. You wrote a poem about me,” he said. His voice sounded musical, and echoed from the back of his throat. Every word had its own cadence. He placed a hand around my head, letting his fingers rest on my ears. They felt coarse. His nails were so rigid and sharp, it was painful to let them rest against my face, but every time I turned to look at them, I only saw the smooth, genteel hands of a well-groomed man. He pulled me closer.
Saythana continued, “You write poems. It is your greatest passion.”
His voice rang in my ears as though there were chimes attached to every syllable.
Bits of restlessness seeped down my throat like cold air. My heart wasn’t racing, but there was this mellow, monotonous, morbidly magnificent, morose, macabre mumbling noise. The scarcely scintillating, screaming yet soundlessly simmering sound of savorless, screeching anxiety.
He wrapped his fingers around my throat and I almost jumped.
“Don’t be so far,” he said. “Come closer to me.”
I pulled my feet in from over the cliff. I’m not sure what it did, but the colors of the world suddenly looked more vivid. The moons vibrated with radiance. The forest danced in a lush mix of yellow and orange, blue and green. The night itself felt alive when I moved closer to him.
“Dina, you write many poems, and you show them all to your mother. Except for one. You wrote a poem about me and you never showed it to her. The priests told you to never sing my name or write it, because that’s how I find children to eat. And most children listen. They never write about me, or sing about me. But you did. And I noticed. You wrote a poem about me a few months ago and I’ve been singing it to myself ever since. Will you sing it for me? I always wondered what it sounded like in your head.”
I remained silent, still adrift in his scent. It was more enchanting than the wildest flower you could find, more inviting than a coma.
“I sing it in my own tongue,” Saythana continued. “I’ve been staying in your dreams for a while now. Somewhere close by, where I can watch you. When I’m walking along your thoughts, I sing your song in my own tongue. If I sing it for you, will you sing it for me in return?”
I meant to shake my head, but instead, I only tilted it to the left a bit. My eyes stayed fixed on him.
He tapped my nose gently. “You’re brave for being thirteen,” he said. “You know who I am, but you’re not running or trying to wake yourself up. Anyone else would have jumped off the cliff by now. They would have called for Yuweh or Raya, or some other god to save them. But not you. You want to know more. You want to see more. You want me to sing for you.”
And then, he sang:
“Lae, lae, lae, unalae dyheni
Inta urae, juhree bah leta gruata
Cowh ne hata, jun kaht, jun kaht-kan
Koo maej, uk bahta oe urobo
Cheeli jun kyea, ytean ji cher
Ghan uk jilte, jun sinnum yoro
Lae, lae, lae, unalae dyheni”
Taa and Mother often sung me stories in dramatic pause, extravagant voices, and other languages, but it was nothing like this. When Saythana sang, you could breathe in the words as though they were giving you life. When Saythana sang, it put to shame the patrons of any king. His tone changed from hoarse and guttural to soothing and warm with no more than a single syllable between the alterations. I couldn’t translate a single word, yet the meaning of the poem played out in my mind like an opera.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said, smiling. “You’re thinking that I sing better than your mother and Taa. I do.”
I nodded once, slow and subtle, as though it were a secret between us and other people were watching.
“Tell me your poem in your words,” he said, more commanding this time. “Your words are what first caught my attention. They’re what led me to you. Or really—you to me.”
After another minute of silence, I finally found my voice. I told him the words:
“Red, red, red, vermilion witch
Treading in green, taking children bewitched
Feasting on bone, and heart, and soul
Seeking her own, to play a part in his role
Shrieking and shouting, rhyming with no reason
Wreaking and spouting, chiming through seasons
Sing to the dead, in that reptilian pitch
Red, red, red, vermilion witch”
“What beautiful words,” Saythana said. He wiped a tear from his eyes. Blood dripped from the corner of his mouth. He wiped that next.
“I’m sorry,” he said, smiling warmly. His teeth flashed under the moonlight like pearl knives. “Your words were just so erenduor. Beautiful. And you. You were so welcoming. So pure of heart. I haven’t met anyone like you. No child has ever invited me in like that. I couldn’t help myself.” More blood dripped from his mouth.
“It is only your shoulder,” Saythana said. “Nothing will happen. It will be gone by the end of the day. I would never do anything to hurt you. Not yet.” He combed my hair with his nails. “The daemons that haunt your world, they are bottom feeders, Dina. They’ll eat anything. Being afraid of them is like being afraid of rats.” He bared his teeth as he spoke. “But the Dream Weaver? I would wait a thousand years to feed on someone like you.”
I couldn’t feel the wind, but it blew across the leaves of the forest below. The trees rustled in a cool whisper, and the moons dipped closer to the forest.
“Why are you here?” I asked.
“Dina, do you know why you’re not jumping off the cliff? That is what your mother would tell you to do. If Taa were here, she would have pushed you off herself. Your grandmother is like that. Bold and hungry, like a starving lioness. I saw her once, when she was young. She was even more daring back then. I would watch her move and dance and fight with such awe. Wondering about the kind of power in her bloodline. Imagine what it felt like, to find you and discover you were her granddaughter. There is a word for this in Voz’ruhdal, the daemon language. Anyeg. When the feeling of coincidence is so powerful, it overwhelms you with a sense of purpose. Anyeg is a staggering sensation for daemons. For all eternity, we feel separated from the world, but in such moments, we suddenly feel a part of its design. A thread in a tapestry so much more vast than anything we could have imagined. Beyond good and evil.”
He took a deep breath, and then pointed to the trees.
“Dina, if you jump now, I won’t bother you again,” Saythana said. “I’ll leave you. You’ll wake up with no memory of this dream. But if you don’t jump, I’ll be with you forever.”
The moment froze. I glanced over the edge. The longer I looked, the farther away the bottom seemed to go. The trees swayed in the wind. There were no signs of birds or animals, of life or movement, only the rustling of abandoned woods and the muffled sound of a river flowing somewhere in the distance. I inched myself away. I could feel the heat of the fire on my back, the light of the moons on my face, Saythana’s skin against my own.
He held me tighter.
“A part of you is thinking, what if it’s not a dream?” he said. “Is it that you’re courageous for staying with Saythana, or that you’re so afraid of death you can’t free yourself from me?”
My right shoulder felt cold. He wiped more blood from the corner of his mouth.
“It’s okay, Dina. These are the things that bring you closer to me. So long as I’m with you in your life, you don’t have to be afraid. You saw the plague take Mawlik’s father a year ago. You wondered, What if that was my own father? Your mother. Taa? They’ll leave you one day, but I never will. Death herself is afraid of Saythana.”
I closed my eyes. I thought I could fall asleep and dream once more inside of this one. And in that dream within a dream, it would be Mother or Taa or Elsa or Mawlik sitting next to me on this cliff. Not Saythana.
“And Dina, do you remember a few days ago when you saw Elsa and Jahlil talking together? And you wondered if they’d fall in love like all the princes and heroines in the stories your mother and Taa tell you? And then you wondered if someone would ever fall in love with you? You don’t have to be afraid of such things. I would love you until the sun itself died and the gods called everyone but me to the heavens. Do you know what it feels like, meeting you? Do you know how lucky you have to be to fall in love the way I fell in love the first time I saw you?”
I shook my head.
“It would be easier to sit in an open field during a storm, clasp your hands together, and catch thunder between your fingertips.”
I felt pride, not terror. Vanity, not fear. Saythana had chosen me out of all the children in the world.
“You’ll love me too, Dina. More than Mother, Taa, and Father. Yephi and Iris. More than the boy who will show you blood magic. More than the boy who will swear his life to you. And you’ll learn to trust me, just as I’ll trust you. I’ll prove it to you. I’ll give you my true name. It will show you where you can find me. I’ve given it to only a handful of people.”
“What is it?” I asked.
He answered by resting his hand over my hair. When I couldn’t see it, it felt like a thin, bony claw. I heard nails scrape the floor.
“How do I say that? I saw only images. Scenes in my head.”
“Remember them as clearly as you would my face,” Saythana replied. “What did you see?”
I paused, thinking.
“A tree with one branch. A sea with two eyes. A house with three floating circles. A desert with four suns. And a city. All in fire.”
“That’s all it is,” Saythana said. “My name is a thought. It’s not a name that people could say. It’s a name they could think about. That’s why you should call me Saythana. Or that other name you like so much. Dream Weaver. But keep my true name for yourself. It’s a sign of our trust.” He reached over and put his hand over my heart. “Keep it here. Just as safe as your own name. One day, you’ll know the meaning of it. And when you think of it, I’ll always come, no matter where you are. Always.”
“Why did you give it to me?”
He sighed deeply, grazing my shoulder with his hand. “Dina, four years from now, on this very day, something terrible is going to happen to you. All your world will fall apart. I’ll visit you again then. And when everything is shattered, when your world is in pieces, I’ll give you the solace that you’ll need.”
“You’ll keep it from happening?” I asked.
“Oh Dina, I wish I could,” Saythana said. “For how much I love you, I would shield you from all the pain in the world if I could, but I can’t. What will happen to your family and all that you cherish, it is what will bring you closer to me. Isn’t that what you want? But I’ll be with you. I’ll protect you from what I can. What I’ll help with comes after. I’ll bring to you a peace just as pure as your own heart is right now. Before all of that happens.”
“Will it be daemons that harm me?” I asked.
“No daemon would harm you, Dina. They don’t touch what belongs to Saythana. You trust it?”
I nodded, filled with that same pride that made me cling to his robes with fists doused in sweat.
He stood to leave. For no reason that I could point to, the pain of having him go was unbearable. The cliff suddenly felt like the highest point in all the world, and far away from everything I wanted to be close to.
“You’ll come back, won’t you?” I asked him.
He smiled, then gave me a single, slow nod. More blood dripped from his mouth. “Find me, Dina.”
“Someone will know that a daemon came to visit me,” I said. “The dream catcher will be broken. Maybe a priest will sense it. Maybe Mother. What do I tell them?”
As he walked past the fire, he turned into that long, centipede-like creature again, growing larger and larger as he made his way back into the meadow.
“Saythana never hides, you know this.” He laughed. "Tell your mother. Tell Taa. Tell Father. Tell the priests. Tell all the world that you saw Saythana. Tell them you saw him dancing in vermilion robes, flying through vermilion skies, breathing vermilion smoke, singing to vermilion moons, riding through vermilion deserts. Tell them what we talked about, tell them what I said, sing them your poem. Lae, lae, lae, unalae dyheni. Red, red, red, vermilion witch.”
“Dina, wake up,” Cecily called.
I lifted my head up, turned to the windows to tell the time, then lay back down. The sun was too low and my pillows were too soft.
“Why were you up all night?” I asked.
“You heard me last night? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“You didn’t wake me, I just noticed now,” I said. “My stuff on the table is all shuffled. You knocked something over in the dark last night then tried to fix it. Your eyes are drooping low, and your teeth are stained with lima tea. You’re trying to stay awake. And I know all the maids wear the same uniform, but you haven’t changed from yesterday—still with the same threads loose from catching the palace doors in the afternoon.”
M. U. RIYADAD SERIES: