I had the dream again last night. It went the same way it always did when I was in junior high - it would start out about something else, and then through some shadowed door or opening which hadn’t been there before, the knight would step out into the open.
Ancient One, he’d say, and his voice would have that unfamiliar lilt to it, the lilt that had told me long ago he belonged to another world. The kingdom needs you again.
I can’t really control what I do, in the dreams. Something leads me that’s not my common sense. So the dream played out just the same as it’s done dozens of times before - I asked what he meant, what they needed, and he motioned me through the door he’d stepped out of. I followed to find myself in a cramped chamber hung with strange, luminous tapestries of dragons and fairies and elves.
A powerful sorcerer who calls himself the Dread Vigil is gathering an army to the east, the knight said. Our people are helpless against his magic.
And you want me to kill him? I asked.
No one else stands a chance. The knight looked up at me, examining my face like he’d just noticed I looked older. I trust, Ancient One, that you remember how to pass through the veil into our world?
Of course I do.
And he smiled at me, like that answer had solved all his problems. Like I’d cut through his fear and turned it into hope. It’s been a long, long time since anyone’s looked at me like that. Like the world’s on my shoulders.
I woke up not long after.
Junior high, of course, I’d have gone straight for my sturdiest shoes, dressed for traveling, and headed toward the portal in the woods. Yes, of course I remember where it is - no one can see it except me and those I choose to confide in. Perks of being the Ancient One. Junior high I’d have had nothing on my mind but saving that other world again. But I’m in college now, and the woods behind my house are hundreds of miles away. I don’t have the money to get there. And I can never really tell how long I’ll be gone - time goes weird when I cross that threshold, it spits me back out when I least expect it. I don’t have any time to spare these days. I’m working, I’m applying for summer internships. I’m preparing for my thesis - it’s actually a really interesting topic, and doing research for it is the most fun I’ve ever had with homework. I can’t just drop everything.
I went to class instead. Did a shift at the café, then spent my evening at the library. Pushed a couple textbooks through the copier. I was pretty productive today, actually. I’m pretty proud of myself.
I hope this thing isn’t going to mess up my sleep schedule too much.
Last night he came back. I think it’s true - it’s been so long now - that sometimes twenty-four hours here can be a month or more over there. Anyway he looked different. A little more haggard, more sleep-deprived. Nothing like the ghastly picture he made the first time I ever saw him, sixth grade when the castle had just been stormed by the Devourer; then his eyes had been lined with circles like bruises, his hair hanging limply to his shoulders, his face several days unshaven. But more urgent.
Ancient One, he said, when can we expect you?
Still can’t really control what I do. If I could, I’d have tried to explain, tried to make him see that ‘defeating the Dread Vigil’ can’t be put on a resume with an itemized list of responsibilities, that ‘wielder of the star-forged sword’ isn’t a title I can bring up in an interview. But I couldn’t. Instead I said is my old armor ready for me?
It is, he said. It’s been perfectly preserved.
I shook my head. Better tell the warlocks to make it taller.
That was all the conversation we could have. I thought I heard him say something else, something about waiting for me at the portal, but the dream was going garbled at that point, and I was moving back toward consciousness. I woke to my dorm, my roommate still snoring above me.
Another productive day today. Picked up a paycheck. Did my laundry. Made an appointment with my advisor at the career office to talk about spring break plans.
The knight didn’t come.
The first time I ever saw the knight, I’d gone to sleep crying. It was a heavy day near the end of summer, the kind of day that has kids trudging to the store for binders and pens, knowing the toil of the school year’s looming over them again. I ran into kids from school and they smirked at me, snickered behind their hands. I found out the most popular guy in school - who’d been my best friend, back in around second grade - had spread a rumor about me. Said I’d written a love note to this greasy-haired kid who sat alone at lunch and ate nothing but tuna sandwiches. I’d never even talked to the kid before, but everyone believed it; everyone’s mocking eyes followed me wherever I went, and I imagined how much worse it would be when school began, when I had nowhere to go to escape them. When I was trapped inside the tight hallways crammed full of people, and nowhere in the world was quiet and still.
That was the first time it occured to me that I didn’t have any friends anymore.
I dreamed that night of flying away. Escaping the confines of junior high, journeying far out into some mythic mountain range. I imagined learning to do magic, twirling a wand or mixing potions or maybe just shooting fire from my hands. I imagined adventure; waking up under the sky, moving from place to place, questing for gold and treasure and saving cities along the way. I imagined epic battles against formidable enemies.
I wished desperately for those things. I wished so hard, that night, I thought I was going to explode.
And then there was a door, and the knight came through and called me Ancient One. Said there’d been a prophecy about me, and I had to save his world from a demon called the Devourer. Gave me very specific instructions about how to find the portal in the woods.
So of course, the moment I woke, I went straight for it. Before my parents were up, before the late-summer sun had touched the horizon, I was dressed and packed and stumbling through the woods toward the other world. I hardly believed it when I saw the portal glowing purple and blue and bright white before me - it was real, it hadn’t been mere wishful thinking. I plunged through it without a second thought.
I emerged in a forest where the trunks were darker, the shadows deeper. Where elves held court just outside mortal vision - though they welcomed me, when they learned who I was. They fed me glittering river-fish and bread stuffed with herbs and gave me a dark green cloak that turned me invisible and directed me to the castle, where the knight was waiting to bestow my sword.
They never even had to teach me any spells. I knew what to do, when the moment came, when the Devourer attacked. Like I’d always known it. And they threw a feast in my honor, when the kingdom was safe, and told me that bards and tapestry-makers would represent my story, my courage, for a thousand generations.
That was the first of half a dozen times. All in junior high. They went quiet in high school, and I filled my time with textbooks and assignments instead. Got a little study group together, and we watched movies on the weekend. Then we started going out to parties.
I ended up getting into the same college as that greasy-haired kid. We’re dating now for real, and it’s nice - really nice, actually. Makes me wish I’d given it some thought in junior high. Funny how those things work out.
The knight looked worse when he came last night. A lot worse. Still not as bad as I remember from the days of the Devourer - though, it’s occurred to me, maybe I’m just more used to seeing sleep-deprived people now than when I was twelve.
I’ve waited for you by the portal, he said, desperate. How close are you, Ancient One? The people are beginning to lose faith that you’ll come at all.
It’s a long journey, I said.
The Dread Vigil has nearly reached our gates. He’s taken the farmlands and our people fear starvation.
It’s a lot of pressure, I found myself saying.
The knight put a hand on my arm. Ancient One, it’s nothing you haven’t faced before. And you have the support of the whole world behind you.
Those words echoed in my ears for a long time. When I woke I almost wanted to set out back to that old forest.
I didn’t think it would get this far, but I felt restless all morning. So when I had that meeting with my career advisor this afternoon, I talked to her about it. Asked her to shut the door and explained I’d been a chosen one once. She sat through the descriptions of my dreams, nodding along.
“At first I thought it wasn’t even worth mentioning,” I said. “But the dream won’t leave me alone. There’s no way - I mean, I don’t have any chance of spinning this into relevant work experience?”
My advisor sat back and stroked her chin. “I think your instincts are good. Unless you want to be a middle-grade fantasy writer, or maybe work at a Renaissance fair, it’s not a good call.”
“You don’t think I have - I mean -” I blushed. It sounded silly. “You don’t think I have any sort of responsibility to go, do you?”
She waved a hand. “They’ll find another chosen one. A younger one. They always do.”
That’s what I’d been thinking too. It was nice, though, to hear an adult say it. Someone real and in my own world. I felt better when I went back to the library to copy more textbook pages.
How do I make him understand? That world is so far divorced from this one. It’s so hard to feel that both are real at the same time. In junior high I wanted so badly to belong to that dark forest and those woodland elves and that ancient, mystical castle, I was able to convince myself it didn’t matter what happened here.
How do I tell him that the Ancient One has changed? That I belong to this world now, that my concerns are of this plane and not of his?
I think he’s begun to suspect I’m not coming.
I’ve got an internship for the summer! I texted my parents about it, and they told me they were proud of me. I took myself out to dinner to celebrate. A whole eleven dollars spent. The internship’s even paid a stipend, so I won’t have to find any part-time work on the side.
Not filling out any more applications frees up some time for me. And I’m making good headway on my thesis, too. I just found a set of old newspaper clippings in the library that’s going to be absolutely perfect for it. I’m in such a good mood - the weather’s finally getting a little warmer, too, as March approaches. Think we’re in for maybe one more snowstorm before it all melts for good.
I called up one of my friends from high school, just for fun. We reminisced some about the old days. Remember our eleventh-grade science teacher? Oh, yeah, I thought he was the height of crazy before I found out what college professors are like. Easy banter, like we were back in our old hallway, leaning against our lockers. Part of that massive crowd, that shouting noise.
“Do you ever think farther back?” I asked. “Ever remember junior high?”
“We didn’t know each other then,” my friend said.
“I know, but - do you ever think about it?” I sat back on my bed. “Remember what it was like to be that age?”
“I try not to. It sucked.”
I laughed. “It did.”
I went to class, I went to the café. I’m going to call some friends over for a movie night tonight. We’ll watch something dumb and laugh at it together. We can talk about internships, too, and I can brag about how good my life’s going.
My mind’s filled with midterms. They’re coming up faster than I thought - I always forget there are fewer days in February - and I need to up my studying game. My GPA’s high, but that just puts the pressure on to keep it stable.
It’s late. I just finished all my homework. I’m going straight to bed now - I have to be up early tomorrow for a class at nine. Why did I ever agree to take a class at nine? What an ungodly hour. The good mood from getting that internship is still around, but I won’t really relax again until the midterms are over and I’ve done all right on them.
I just hope tonight I can sleep normally.
I had the dream one more time.
This time, when the knight came through the doorway, he looked better. A little less tired, a little more well-kept. Not fully healthy, but I was expecting worse. Fearing worse.
Another has passed through the portal from your world, he said. A champion who we found was able to wield the star-forged sword in your stead.
Yeah? I said.
Yes. The Dread Vigil has been beaten back, though not yet destroyed. The kingdom has hope again.
The knight looked up at me. That trusting smile he’d had on his face the first time he came was gone. The expression he gave me now was harder to describe - a mix of emotions, caught up in unsaid words. I wondered if he had the same trouble speaking his mind here that I did.
The champion is about the same age as you were in the days of the Devourer, I think, he said. He says he has no place in the world he was born in. He says he has nothing he feels is worth going back to. The same kinds of things I used to hear from you.
I nodded again, still not saying anything. What was there to say?
There’s one more thing I should tell you.
He reached into a bag he was carrying over his shoulder, and pulled out a weaving; it was the kind artists the kingdom over made to commemorate the greatest heroes of their time. I stood in the center of it, wielding my sword, surrounded on all sides by the enemies I’d killed.
When the Dread Vigil was at the height of his power, said the knight, he heard our people were counting on you for deliverance. So he decided to destroy all memories of you from the kingdom. He destroyed all artists’ depictions of you, and slaughtered every bard who knew your songs. This is all I managed to save.
He handed it to me. I think you should have it.
The fabric was soft in my hands. Softer than any substance is in our world. I stared at my own face, still young and round but with that old determination in my eyes, the determination I’d mustered when I’d been charged to protect thousands of lives.
I stared at it, and I held the fabric tight, and I suddenly wanted to cry.
I can’t take this, I said.
He blinked. Why not?
I pushed it back into his hands, releasing it and stepping away. Already this room hung with ancient tapestries was beginning to look less distinct. Already his face was going fuzzy.
I can’t take it, I said, because it’s not real.
I’ll never forget the last look he gave me. All I could really see anymore were his eyes, but they had this look of mourning in them, like I’d just broken his heart a thousand times in a single sentence.
I watched you do the impossible, the knight said. I watched you find the strength a thousand armies couldn’t find. I will miss you, Ancient One.
I held out my hands to him. Can you at least be happy for me?
But I never heard his response. Should have known the conversation would be cut short. I woke up to the dark, to the cold of February’s final snowstorm.