Once Upon a Nightmare
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Even to one as jaded and withdrawn as the faun, the towering skyroads and spires of Shangri-La were still a breathtaking sight, even as she told herself it was all just Fae smoke and mirrors. Nothing in this damned place was real, or at least real in the way she was used to.
Had been used to, rather.
She had long since lost track of the passage of time, without even the changes of her own body to use as reference. For a while after she was taken, she had tried to mark the days on a piece of wood, cutting a notch into it each time the sun rose. She had learned rather quickly that fairyland didn't seem to follow the same rules as reality, and "time" appeared to be based only on the whims of the Fae, just like everything else here--even this city.
She kept her eyes down as she weaved through the crowded streets, not wishing to draw any attention or trouble upon herself. She was here to pick up a package from one of her master's contacts, a seedy and goblinesque Fae gentlemen that she had done business with before.
Memory led her to turn down one the narrower streets, almost an alleyway, cloaked in shadows and smelling of unpleasant things. No sign or shopfront marked the apothecary, only an old wooden door with a rusted lock and a strange black mark carved into the wood. When she rapped her knuckles against the doors, a slat near the top was slid back, and a pair of mismatched eyes peered down at her for a moment before the door was unlocked and swung open.
"Well," sneered the creature, dropping into an exaggerated and mocking bow, "if it isn't the Doctor's little helper."
"Greln," she responded tersely, ears pinning themselves of their own accord--even after all these years, she still wasn't used to the way her new parts seemed to act on their own whim sometimes. The creature snickered.
"Always a chipper little ray of sunshine, ain't ya? Do come in." As he straightened up and turned back into the gloom of the shop, Faun caught another glimpse of his eyes again. One, the right, was a muddy orange-brown color, common in goblins. The left, however, was a sulfuric yellow, cut through with a catlike pupil. Healing stitches ringed the socket, the flesh still pink and inflamed.
"Lessee here..." he purred, rummaging through the shelves and crates cluttering the interior while Faun hovered near the door, eager to be away as soon as possible. He emerged shortly afterwards with a triumphant "A-ha!" carrying a trio of glass jars stopped with corks. Within one was a viscous substance that glowed a faint and ghostly green. The second was murky, but she could make out something pale and fleshy floating within it. In the third swished a thick black liquid of some kind, already beginning coagulate and harden at the very top. Though she was never quite sure what half of the things she couriered were, if the people she met during her runs were any indication, she had a sneaking suspicion that a good deal of the materials her master collected were suspicious at best and downright illegal at worst. The jars exchanged hands, disappearing into the satchel slung across Faun's shoulder. The inside had been padded with dry grass to keep anything fragile held within, like vials full of questionable substances, from breaking. Payment had already been processed--her master didn't trust her with his coin, although this transaction had been paid for with a different sort of service. "How's the eye doing?" she asked, not that she was all that concerned. The Good Doctor was a narcissist in addition to many other things, and took a great deal of pride in his work. He'd want her to keep tabs on his clients.
"Even better'n the one what got torn out," chuckled the goblin, "An' the night vision makes huntin' twice as easy."
Faun gave her satchel a queasy glance, wondering what poor bastard those substances had been pulled out of. "That's good. I'll be going, then."
"Say hello to the old sawbones for me," she heard him cackle as she stepped back into the alley, hooves rapping lightly against the cobblestones. Though she was glad that bit of business was over, she had a long trip home, and her master wouldn't appreciate her taking any longer than necessary.
Most people would consider themselves lucky to have escaped from Allutheria even once. Dumas, who had already done it twice, knew that he was pushing his luck beyond all reason. And even if he succeeded, he would still pay a price. Whether they came by intention or accident, mortals always paid a price for entering the Realm of the Fae. The first time, Dumas’s childhood had been stolen from him. The second time, he lost three months of his life, along with any certainty he’d ever felt about his own memories. What would this visit cost him? What did he have left to give?
Whatever it might be, Dumas would give it, and give it gladly if this journey led him even one step closer to Isadora. Isadora. Her name haunted his waking hours like a ghostly whisper. It was all he had. He’d never seen her, never held his own daughter in his arms. He only had her mother’s word that she even existed. But Dumas didn’t think Isis would lie to him about something like that. He didn’t think that she could fake so much grief.
So here he was, back in Allutheria. And, while Dumas certainly recognized the realm’s many hazards, he also acknowledged the awe it could inspire. No place exemplified that sense of amazement more than the market at Shangri-la. This was Dumas’s first visit, and he found himself in danger of getting whiplash as he twisted his head from side to side, trying to see everything at once. One vendor specialized in feathers -- some as tiny as eyelashes, others as tall as a man. And a few, perhaps plucked from the legendary firebird, that still burned like small torches. Another vendor displayed instruments seemingly carved from ice. When they were played, a chill wind sprang up and snowflakes danced in the air. Still another vendor sold seeds that grew into beautiful glass flowers.
It was a good thing Dumas had his wonder to sustain him. Because, at first, he made frustratingly little progress on the quest that brought him here. Everyone he talked to denied any knowledge of a mysterious Fae known as ‘The Doctor’. But Dumas persisted, and finally found a woman who’d heard certain rumors. She directed him to someone who knew a little more, and that person directed him to someone who knew a little more, and so on. Until Dumas eventually found himself in a much less savory part of the market. Now he deliberately avoided looking at the booths -- tried not to see the things that wriggled and writhed, bubbled and oozed, molded and decayed. He especially tried not to see the gelatinous blobs that called out to him in the voices of people he loved.
Instead, Dumas focused on his quest, pondering the information he’d learned so far. No one had dealt directly with The Doctor, or knew where he could be found. But several people mentioned a pathetic creature who ran errands for him. Horned and hooved like a satyr, she would be easy to identify. And, according to Dumas’s sources, she often visited the market.
So, when he heard the clack of hooves against cobblestones, Dumas spun towards the sound in time to see a figure emerging from a nearby shop -- horned and hoofed, just as he’d been told. Dumas’s first impulse was to dash towards her. But he held back. The young woman had been described with adjectives ranging from ‘timid’ to ‘snivelling’ and he didn’t want to risk scaring her off. After all, he probably looked a little disreputable, with his unruly brown curls and tattered clothing. So Dumas made himself to approach at a more casual pace.
“Miss?” No one Dumas had spoken to knew the young woman’s name. They didn’t even seem to consider the possibility that she might have one. “May I talk with you for a moment? Please? It’s very important.”
If the calm in Dumas’s voice was a little forced, the sincerity resonating behind his plea was not. And he was prepared to offer further incentive. As he walked forward, he unfastened the jeweled rabbit brooch pinned to his jerkin. It was his last reminder of so many things. But Dumas didn’t hesitate as he placed it in the palm of his hand and offered it to the young woman. “I’m willing to barter.”
A single tufted ear had flicked towards the voice, but it took her a moment to realize that it had been directed at her, causing her to stop and look around for the source. She often went out of her way to be inconspicuous, or at least as inconspicuous as something like her could be, and most tended to ignore her after a first quizzical glance. The crowds here were thinner and composed of less-savory folk, but none of them appeared to be looking at her, until she caught a flash of approaching movement in the corner of her eye and turned about to face it. The man was dressed rather raggedly, but something about his drawn and haggard face suggested hardship was the cause, rather than slovenliness. Oddly enough, he appeared for all intents and purposes to be a human--in a place like this? Looks could be deceiving in Allutheria, but she had yet to encounter a Fae who purposefully took on the guise of a ragged wanderer.
He sounded troubled, and despite her initial caution, she couldn't but wonder what had driven him to seek out the help of a stranger, especially one who was barely human anymore. "Yes?" Whatever this important thing was, she wasn't sure if she would be able to help, but she could at least try. If he was a human, that put him at a distinct disadvantage in Allutheria, and she couldn't help but feel a slight sense of camaraderie.
He stepped closer now, holding out a beautiful jeweled brooch wrought in the shape of a rabbit. As pretty as it was, she couldn't bring herself to accept it, especially when she wasn't even sure what it was the man needed. To offer payment so quickly, however, meant he must have been truly desperate. "Please," she said quietly, holding up a hand in protest, "that's not necess--"
As her eyes went up to his face, she had suddenly gone quiet, only to peer at him with furrowed brows. Faces tended to blur with the passage of years, but something about this man stood out to her, evoking memories of her days in Jareth's labryinth. There had been another changeling, older than her but very kind, who had done his best to help the recent arrivals adjust to their new lives and new bodies.That kindness was a rare thing in Allutheria, and she hadn't forgotten it after all these years. "...Dum?" she ventured. Had that been his name? "Is that you?"
It occurred to her belatedly that even if this was him, he likely wouldn't recognize her. Before her durance with the Good Doctor, she had been like any other stolen child. Now...not so much. Additionally, without a name to give him, she was likely going to have a rather difficult time explaining herself.
Dumas experienced a burst of relief when the young woman didn’t bolt. Instead, she turned around, seemingly willing to talk. Perhaps he even glimpsed kindness in her eyes as she refused the rabbit brooch. Nevertheless, despite her words, Dumas kept the piece of jewelry clutched in one hand. After she knew what he wanted, she might reconsider taking his bribe. From what he’d heard about The Doctor, enduring his anger was no minor matter, and even something as minor as arranging a meeting might provoke it. Dumas hated the idea of endangering an innocent. If there had been any other path capable of bringing him one step closer to Isadora, he would have taken it.
However, before Dumas could explain what he needed, the young woman spoke his name -- or, at least, half of it. It was the version he’d gone by for countless years, when he still believed that half a name was all that he deserved. Half a name for half a person.
“It’s ‘Dumas’ now. But I was ‘Dum’ for a very long time.”
Tilting his head to one side, Dumas studied the young woman. Now that he thought about it, she did seem vaguely familiar, like a faded reflection on a dusty mirror. Something about seeing her triggered feelings of sadness and camaraderie. But he still couldn’t place her in the proper context. And surely he would recall meeting someone with such a distinctive appearance.
Or would he?
“Have we met? If so, I’m sorry that I don’t recognize you. Ever since my last visit to Allutheria, my memories are unreliable. Sometimes I don’t remember things that happened. Sometimes I remember things that never happened.”