by Emily Livingstone

I wait, body long under the misty waters of the Dream Way, for someone to trespass. The Nightmare Crone, as the humans call her, asked us to be here, to kill the ones who don’t belong, and to transport the few who do. Not many come, and I would be hungry if I were not so filled with patience. I close my eyes, let the thinnest film of water skim over my reptilian head. Someone is coming. I feel the vibrations of the little boat.

I rise from the water, and she is properly awed at my size. She’s heard tales of those like me, I think. I coil around her and her boat breaks under my weight. She struggles. Hunger rises up, embarrassing in a being so old, but we cannot help how we are made. I squeeze her tighter, and she relaxes. She is trying to strategize. That is the human way, but it won’t matter. I will eat her, and either she will die or she will be reborn from me, into that other place. If that happens, I will be the one to die. 

I remember to stop struggling. Grandmother says the Guardian Serpents kill you faster if you struggle. It seems true, because the snake slows down its constricting and looks at me. Even as it holds me, a large portion of it rises up out of the water, taller than the hovel where I live with Grandmother, Mother, and Little Sister. It is the largest animal I’ve ever seen, and yet not an animal. It glows white in the darkness, and I see the reflections of lost souls in its scales.

There’s a knife in my boot, and I ease one arm down to reach for it. Do I have the self-control to wait to be swallowed whole? To carve my way out of the tight, living skin of this creature? Grandmother says it has been done, but only by Lunida Dreamspinner. Little Sister says she’s done it one thousand times, and gnashes her teeth as though she could chew her way out of any trouble, but she’s never traveled the Dream Way.

I’ve been traveling a year. Grandmother taught me to lie still and let my mind climb into a boat, and sail, while my physical body stays put. I’ve been reckless, she says: If you die in the Dream Way, you will die in every way. But she and Mother—they’ve only done what was known. They’ve visited deceased relatives, or traveled to deliver a dream message to distant family. They’ve prayed to the gods, hoping to amplify their voices by speaking from that other realm.

It’s rare. My family has had a traveler in every generation for centuries. They worry that will end with me, and maybe they’re right. The coils are tightening, and my legs are getting numb. 

I see the girl thinking. I can almost taste her thoughts. When I begin to eat her, I will know her from skin to muscle to bone. Perhaps I will also know if she will kill me. I lean down to her, but then I see the Crone, waiting in the shadows behind the girl. 

I pray, trying to feel calm, to reach for the light inside me and offer it outward. Heart Mother, Dream Sister, or…Nightmare Croneplease help me. I know that I’ve ventured far. I’m sorry. If I do not die—if you save me—I will accept your will. I feel the warmth ebb from me as the prayer leaves my body.

I hope it was sincere. I feel regret, but my desire for that distant city of lights that the Serpents guard is undiminished. The gods will know that. 

The Crone appears, face shrouded in darkness, and I would tremble if the serpent’s hold weren’t so tight. She is the most mysterious, the most frightening, but I’ve always been drawn to her.

You are a seeker, she says in a voice crackling with age but rumbling like an earthquake within me. My will is that you seek. You will live, but not as you are.


The Crone lets me hear what she says to the girl. Then she looks at me. “Comeviatorum,” she says: my name and her command. I know I will die, but I begin to swallow the girl. I drink in her taste, the sweat of her skin, and all her past—the fights with her mother, the nights curled around her little sister, and her desire to go to the City. Her desire burns so hot that I feel singed inside. So this is one who will go to the City, where even I have not gone. I savor her, even as she burns me, even as I regret eating her. Could I have been like her? Could I have defied what I was made to do? Told to do? It is too late now to know.

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