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Empire of Dust

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The day Sansa was called, she had spent most of the afternoon working on a new dress she had been sewing for weeks. The lace and the ruffles had been embroidered just so, while the colour of the material complemented the scarlet of her hair like a charm.

All she had to do was unpick a few stitches in a corner, and it would have been ready. Plucking at the offending length of thread she wanted gone, Sansa pulled - and ripped the entire dress apart, rendering the lovely purple coloured material in her hands, into nothing more than tattered rags.

“Oh Sansa, all your hard work!” Jeyne cried out in sympathetic distress.

Septa Mordane, on the other hand, surveyed the scene in uncharacteristic silence. The eldest Stark daughter stared at the shreds of material in her lap, trying to understand what just happened. All she had been attempting to do, was to fix a stitch she had sewn by mistake.

“You look tired Sansa. Perhaps it’s time you took some rest.” their chaperone said quietly. Looking up, Sansa met the older woman’s eyes and thought she saw an oddly wistful shadow lingering there. The second passed, and suddenly, she was looking at her old Septa.

“Go on.” the woman reached out and plucked the ruined material from the disappointed girl’s hands.

“But I’m not tired,” Sansa found herself insisting.

“I won’t have you stabbing yourself with a needle. Don’t make me repeat myself.” Septa Mordane’s voice was growing impatient.

Irritated, Sansa picked up her skirt and swept off to her chambers, where she settled in her bed, chafing at being treated like a child. To her own surprise however, she began drifting off to sleep in short order. Perhaps her Septa had seen something she didn’t.

It wasn’t long before the dreams started.

***

She was walking through a forest covered in snow, and it was bitterly cold. Though her body was covered in furs, the roaring, stabbing wind pierced through her flesh like a thousand knives. In one hand, she held a wooden spear, in the other, a dragonglass dagger.

But she could not let herself be distracted by the chill, no matter how much it hurt to even breathe. The enemy was here, she could sense it.

Something moved in the darkness, and her instincts sang out in time with it. Out of the shadows, a figure stepped out.

There was something wrong with the woman’s face, was Sansa’s first, terrified thought. Quite outside her own volition, the body she occupied raised its spear and plunged it deep into the lunging creature’s chest. Yellow eyes widened in shock, and the thing’s body exploded into dust.

Behind her, she could hear more of them approaching…

…the scene faded, and now she found herself in a great hall. Somewhere close by, her father…no not her father. That was just the role the both of them played when they were in society. He spoke softly with her would-be suitor, threatening him subtly even as she stalked her own prey. Hidden in the folds of her dress, Sansa could feel the rough surface of the wooden spike she favoured.

Without meaning to, she caught sight of herself in a glass; the style of her dress was ornate and foreign. The eldest Stark daughter thought she remembered seeing it in a book once, in Maester Luwin’s little library. That wasn’t what was shocking however - the face reflected back at her was not her own.

The girl who stared back at her was perhaps, a few years older. Her skin was dusky, and her eyes were a rich, dark brown. Full sensuous lips were pulled into a puzzled grimace as she stared at her reflection in confusion.

Something moved in the shadows behind a heavy curtain, followed by the unmistakable noise of a soft, pain filled whimper.

Returning her attention to the matter at hand, she moved as quickly as her clothes and her manners would allow her. Stepping forwards, she pushed aside the curtain hiding the small alcove away from the rest of the assembled host. The sight that greeted Sansa made her want to recoil in horror as she watched the creature ripping into the throat of the young serving boy.

“Slayer,” the creature hissed, lifting its ugly, ridged face, its yellow eyes shining by the light of the lamps.

Twisting her lips into a hungry smile, she stepped forwards. Her weapon was at the ready, and her body was already aching for the dance to come…

***

“Sansa.” someone was calling her, shaking her awake.

Blue eyes snapped open. Someone shifted to Sansa’s right, and without thinking, her hand shot up and grabbed at the figure beside her.

“Stop it, you’re hurting me!” Arya screeched, trying to wrench her wrist out of her sister’s hold.

Fully awake and aware, the older sister released her younger sibling immediately.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Did I hurt you?” she asked, pushing her body off the bed and scrambling to her feet.

Arya looked at her with curious dark eyes as she rubbed at her wrist; she looked almost impressed as she regarded her older sister.

“What were you dreaming of?” the girl asked.

“What?” Sansa asked, hoping her cheeks were not turning red.

“You were crying out in your sleep. I came to fetch you for supper.” Arya continued, moving to step closer to her sister, now that she had deemed her harmless enough.

“Girls, do stop dawdling. You’re keeping your Lord Father waiting.”

Looking over at the open door, the girls found Septa Mordane eyeing them with her usual, dour expression. With a strange sense of relief, Sansa hurried towards the great hall, straightening her hair and her clothing as she did so.

***

The dreams would not stop. Sansa awoke in the mornings, feeling as if her body had been forced through gauntlet after gauntlet, tested and tried over and over.

Sometimes, she found herself in foreign plains, tracking monstrous things that didn’t even begin to look human. Other times, she found herself in strange cities, crawling through reeking muck and human waste, seeking blood-sucking terrors that dwelled in the filth.

Often, she found herself dying. Horrible, painful deaths, blurred images of loved ones she had never once met, forever carved somewhere deep in her memory.

“Sansa sweetling, why don’t you go speak with Maester Luwin, see if he has anything for what ails you?” her mother asked distractedly one morning as they broke their fast. Rickon, her youngest brother, had somehow gotten oatcakes in his hair, a feat that occupied most of Lady Stark’s attention.

Nodding in exhaustion, Sansa avoided Arya’s inquisitive stare. Thankfully, her brothers and her father were too busy discussing details for an upcoming hunt to notice what the womenfolk were speaking of.

Quietly, she excused herself and made her way to the Maester’s chambers. As she entered the dark room, filled wall to wall with leather bound tomes, she found herself looking at both the old man and her Septa, both of whom gazed at her expectantly.

Everything about the scene felt inevitable.

“It’s time Sansa.” the Maester she’d known since she was old enough to speak said. There was heartbreak in his eyes. “Will you walk with us to the crypts?”

“Are you asking?” Her voice was older than her fifteen years. “Or are you telling?”

He bowed his head slightly, even as Septa Mordane rose to her feet. “It is time for you to fulfill your destiny.”

A whisper of a phrase that had been haunting every last dream echoed in her mind just then.

Valar Morghulis.

***

Downwards they descended, into the shadowy depths of the crypts of Winterfell. They passed the Kings of Old, and Lyanna Stark herself; upon her aunt’s cold, stone cheeks, Sansa fancied she caught a glimpse of frozen tears.

Deeper and deeper they went, to levels she knew existed, but had never once accessed. The darkness should have scared her, she thought to herself as they walked, yet there was a strange familiarity to it. Their path was lit only by the torch Luwin held above his head.

“Who goes there? Please…help me.” a voice pleaded in the dark. Walking into a dusty, round chamber, the Maester and the Septa lit several sconces in the enclosed space.

A young man was bound to a post in the middle of the room, his wrists held fast by thick and heavy chains. The black clothes he wore from head to toe betrayed him for what he truly was - a brother of the Night’s Watch.

His skin was pale from having been kept away from sunlight, though Sansa noted, he really was rather handsome. Grey eyes looked imploringly at her, begging for release. Brown curls framed his boyish features, unkempt and dirty.

“Please my lady, please help me. I was abducted, and given a tincture to force sleep upon me. When I awoke, I found myself trapped in this dungeon.” he rasped in misery. “I don’t understand.”

“Do you sense it?” Luwin turned to Sansa. “Do you know what it is you are in the presence of?”

“I…” she shut her eyes, wishing she could lie. Her instincts however, were utterly on fire. There was something very wrong with the man before her, something that made her blood boil and reach for a weapon she did not carry on her person. “What must I do?”

“You already know.” Luwin said, nodding at Septa Mordane, who pressed an object into the girl’s right hand. Looking down, she saw that she held a sliver of sharpened wood.

The chained creature grew silent as he observed to the exchange. Already, his act of helpless ignorance was fading as malice flooded his wide, beautiful eyes.

“So she’s your new soldier is she?” he spat. “Some high born chit of a girl. How long do you think she’s going to last then?”

“Take the stake, and plunge it into its heart.” Luwin commanded softly, his eyes never leaving Sansa’s face as her fingers curled around the weapon.

“Better if you unchain me and let me finish her now. I’ll promise, it’ll be quick and merciful.” Ridges appeared on his visage where there had been none before. Grey eyes she had found so lovely, turned into a putrid yellow.

Inhuman teeth, sharp as the teeth of the Direwolf on the Stark Sigil, bared menacingly in her direction.

“Do not listen to its empty threats.” Septa Mordane warned. “It will only distract you.”

“Vampire.” Sansa said at last, giving name to the creature. In her dreams, she had fought monsters like him, night after night after night. Raising her stake, she stepped forwards, forcing herself to be unafraid.

“Slayer.” he spat in recognition. “Do it. Finish it.”

Heat and rage suddenly flooded her veins and guided her movements. Lifting her arm, Sansa swept forwards and forced the pointy end of the stake into the creature’s chest…

When it was over, when Sansa found herself staring at nothing more than a pile of dust, she could hear the old Maester begin to speak, reciting verses as if from memory.

“Into every generation a Slayer is born: one girl in all the world, a chosen one. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer…”

 

***

“This is boring. I’d much rather be down in the yard.” Arya complained again as she slowly destroyed a length of wool.

At their feet, Lady and Nymeria gambolled cheerily, yelping and whimpering as they nipped at each other.

She would rather her whole life were spent making dresses and braiding her hair, Sansa thought silently as she tied off a knot. She’d rather spend her days listening to pretty songs and dreaming of a golden prince who was hers, and hers alone.

“I’ll never understand why you’d prefer to play with sharp objects and dirty weapons.” she asked instead at her younger sister, holding up her handiwork. Close by, Jeyne coo-ed appropriately as she observed the intricate embroidery Sansa had committed onto the fabric.

It had been a year since she had been called, and since then, not only had she flowered into a woman, but her newfound strength seemed to increase by the day.

By night, she spent her time in the empty crypts, learning to wield all matter of weaponry - when she wasn’t traversing the dark Wolf’s Wood, seeking for that which would harm the living. It had astounded her at first, the things that crept in the shadows, waiting to leap out at anything that breathed.

But what continued to shock her, was the ease in which she dispatched every last disfigured thing that meant to harm her.

The old Sansa who had loved her songs and her stories of golden knights and sweet ladies - she would have hated the Slayer.

“What if I don’t want to answer this calling?” she asked plaintively that first day as she dropped her wooden stake, backing herself against the dusty walls of the crypt.

“It’s your destiny.” Septa Mordane had stated simply. “If you don’t fight for the living, who will?”

“Surely there must be another way. This is ridiculous. I’m just one girl. Wouldn’t Robb, or even Jon be more suited to this?” she demanded.

The Maester had sighed. “I understand this is hard on your Sansa, but this isn’t a choice you get to make.”

“We shall see what my father has to say about this.” Sansa made to turn away.

“Child, do you think I wanted this for you?” Luwin thundered after her, forcing her steps to a halt. “I prayed night and day that you would never be called. Let them take any other girl, I had asked like a selfish wretch. Leave this one - let her live, and marry, let her bear children and let her die at a ripe old age. I have loved you since the day you were born, like you were one of my own, as I have loved all your siblings.”

“If you love me as you so claim, how could you ask this of me?” she asked, shutting her eyes.

All of this, all of it had to be a nightmare, her mind insisted.

“It is not us who have asked it of you.” her Septa said patiently. “Sansa, you must not tell anyone of this. Not a one. You would put your family in danger if they knew - they would die to protect you, every last one of them.”

Whipping around, for a brief moment, the girl experienced a horrible urge to turn her new strength against these two. Already, she knew they would not last a minute at her hands.

As her eyes met her Septa’s however, as she caught sight of the unshed tears threatening to spill down the older woman’s cheeks, something hurt inside of her heart.

“That is perfect Sansa,” her Septa said in the present, studying her needlework with pride.

“Thank you.” the young woman said modestly, as was expected of her in the presence of others. “I think I shall wear this during the royal visit.”

Her Septa frowned at her, but Sansa didn’t care. Sensing her mood, Lady bounded over and licked at her hands.

As far as the Slayer was concerned, she was going to claw her way out of the hell she was finding herself in.

What could be worse, she wondered, than being forced to battle the fell creatures of the dark, night after night?

“Sansa, will you stay back a moment?” the Septa asked as the girls all made to leave the room as late afternoon gave way to early evening.

“Is she in trouble?” Arya asked almost gleefully, causing her older sister to frown at her in annoyance.

“Run along Arya, I’m sure your mother has a task for you,”

Realizing she wasn’t going to get a satisfactory answer, Arya sniffed disdainfully and dashed off, with Nymeria bounding eagerly after her.

“Cruel irony.” Sansa observed flatly. “That she should want to wield the sword, while I wish to spend all my days sewing.”

“Lady Sansa…” the Septa paused. “The Maester and I haven’t spoken to you of this, but the goal has always been for you to leave Winterfell.”

Blue eyes stared in disbelief. As if sensing that her mistress was distressed, Lady’s ears twitched as the direwolf climbed to her feet, before turning a menacing growl upon the Septa.

“Don’t look so surprised.” the woman sighed. “I know what you’re thinking. You’re hoping that this royal visit will be your escape route from Winterfell. From Slaying. You needn’t have worried. You are absolutely going to King’s Landing. The city is a cesspool of evil and unrest. Did you imagine that we would keep you up here to slay the occasional vampire?”

“Father would never agree to let me go to the capital if I told him I no longer wished to do so.” Sansa stated, wishing she could have denied that indeed, escaping from Winterfell had been something she had been working hard towards.

How many suppers had she spent wheedling and begging her parents that she ought to depart with the royal entourage when they inevitably left? How many dresses had she been tailoring, the better to show that she was suited to court life in King’s Landing?

“Foolish girl. Do you think we haven’t got people in the Red Keep whispering in the ears of the King since the day you were called?” she asked. There was nothing triumphant in her tone, nothing mocking. There was only the ever present wistfulness. “Oh Sansa, when will you learn? Your life has been planned for you from the start, on the chance that you would become more than just a Potential. As we speak, your father has already received the request for your hand. You are to marry the Prince himself, dear girl.”

“How very considerate of the Citadel to make such arrangements on my behalf.” Sansa said bitterly. “Men I’ve never met, conspiring with the people I placed my trust in, paving the way for my every step.”

Picking up the material she had so painstakingly worked on, Sansa deliberately ripped at it with all her strength again and again. Septa Mordane leapt to her feet and cried out in distress as ragged tatters fell all around them.

“It doesn’t matter does it?” Sansa asked almost cruelly, refusing to let her tears fall. “None of this matters.”

With one last haughty look, the Slayer fled.

***

The day before they were to leave Winterfell had been hard, not least because she had to play the part of the sweet and delighted girl, freshly betrothed to the crown Prince himself. Someday, she would rule by his side, she had been told. The Seven Kingdoms would fall at their feet, and she would bear the next generation of Baratheon heirs.

It had taken every iota of restraint on Sansa’s part, not to inform every person present, that it was unlikely she would live to see her nineteenth nameday. Slayers, she had learned, did not live long; when one died, another was immediately called.

Her one moment of satisfaction came when her Father had announced that he was to replace the late Jon Arryn as the Hand of the King, which ensured that her father would not only depart Winterfell with her, but remain close by her side. While she hadn’t at first seen the significance in this news, judging from how the Septa and the Maester had both blanched in distress, she gathered that this was not what they had desired in the least.

That was all it took to bring a beautific smile to her lips.

“Oh Father,” she had smiled sweetly. “It gladdens my heart to know you will always be with me.”

Lord Stark had in turn, cast her a strained smile, before turning a worried look towards her Lady Mother.

It almost made having to leave an injured Bran behind bearable. Almost.

“If they find out what I am, they would have my head, for surely, I will be as monstrous to them, as the creatures I hunt.” Sansa had muttered to Maester Luwin that night. Maester and Slayer trudged through the Wolf’s Wood, returning from yet another messy hunt.

Septa Mordane had not accompanied the two of them, occupied with packing and concealing the Slayer’s little armoury.

It had been months since Sansa had stopped wearing dresses during patrols; to no one’s surprise, blood and grave dirt ruined silks and satins, while skirts made movement tricky. Instead, the young woman had begun to garb herself in Robb’s old clothing.

“Let us pray they will not never know.”

“And how am I expected to keep on slaying, while performing my Queenly duties? I daresay, even with my ability to heal quickly, I don’t see how my sweet Prince won’t see me covered in blood at some point - what then shall I tell him? And have any of you considered what it would mean the day he gets me with child?”

“Do not continue to labour under the assumption that in being chosen, we at the Citadel or the Sept had any voice on the matter. I will say it again: I would that it had been any other girl who had been called.” Luwin shook his head bitterly, “Sansa, the Gods have seen fit to choose you. All we can do is live with their choice as best we can.”

“Aye. And I suppose the chances of me living to see motherhood grow slimmer by the day,” she laughed mirthlessly. “Soon it shall be the burden of some other poor girl, who exists to serve the whims of the Sept and the Citadel,”

“I hate that you have become embittered so soon.” Luwin shook his head as they approached the hidden passageway leading back into Winterfell.

“What did you expect? That I would be grateful to be enslaved to a calling I had never asked for?” Sansa asked in disbelief.

Luwin said nothing as they entered the castle grounds. He could barely meet her gaze as they emerged in the courtyards of her home.

"Sansa, for what it's worth - I am truly sorry." he called after her when she would have retired for the night. "This was not what I wanted for you."

The Slayer turned to look upon the wretched old man. There was a time when she would have gladly told anyone who would listen that she trusted the man before her with her life. The Maester owed his allegiance not to the Citadel, Lord Stark had always declared, but to the Starks. As far as every member of her family was concerned, the man might as well have been family.

Grunting in disgust, the Slayer turned on her heel and stalked towards her little training space instead.

In the deepest watches of the night, Sansa spent her last hours in Winterfell hacking her frustrations away, upon a straw man in an abandoned barn behind the kennels. When at last she had destroyed the wretched thing, the Slayer sunk against a moldy wall. Staring hopelessly into space, she considered the web she had inadvertently found herself caught in.

However, just as she was about to fall utterly into an abyss from which she would never emerge, Sansa caught sight of a flash of gold outside the doorway to the broken barn. Frowning curiously, she tilted her head…

To her surprise, Sansa found Jaime Lannister.

***

Riding past the gates of Winterfell with Septa Mordane to her left, and Lady to her right, the girl found to her chagrin that she still had no answer, no means of escaping the snare of her calling.

“Whatever it is that so troubles you, I suggest you let it go.” The Septa murmured. “Your betrothed approaches.”

Joffrey. Sweet Joffrey, she thought as she studied his handsome face. The boy had been nothing but the picture of chivalry and generosity. Yet here she was, deceiving him. And his mother - the picture of womanly grace, the epitome of beauty and loveliness…

If they only knew what they were accepting into their family, she thought, smiling her most charming smile.

They would all turn in horror from the monster she truly was.