|Dreamisodes S1, Episode 4: Whose War Is It?
Author: Jadebright PM
No one can fight your wars for you.Rated: Fiction M - English - Mystery/Adventure - Words: 4,482 - Published: 01-22-11 - Status: Complete - id: 2884422
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Echoes of the mind had followed me into sleep. This had never been done before, because my consciousness had not been this sharp. It had never been able to tell when the body was about to shut down, and when the dreams would begin. But it had recognized the signs, and I, though a fraction of a second away from falling into arresting slumber, and though my mind was forcing my eyelids closed, had mentally voiced the word that was then caught between the world of reality and the other world. It was extended by the distance, but could still be heard as I entered the dream:
Thinking against it hadn't stopped the dream from happening. Mental commands to remain in the real world would be of no help. Neither would anger be of any use, and I wasn't angry now. I didn't dare to be.
Heaviness set in as the world took shape. I raised my head to a black and starry sky. It stretched from end to end, an untouchable dome. It was night, so said my mind. I was on the ground, sitting on earth and grass. In the open. My hand moved lightly across the dirt. It couldn't be felt. In this world I was still numb.
But the subconscious was alive in this world, whereas it had been entirely caged in the other. I could sense things without having to touch or hear them. It was by this that I knew my hand had touched something nearby. It was a head, attached to a corpse lying a foot away. Its eyes were closed, and it seemed to be sleeping. Such was the effect given by every corpse I'd ever seen in funerals, in pictures and on the television. In my eyes dead people were always sleeping, while to everyone else they were clearly devoid of life.
I shook the memories away.
Rising, I surveyed what was quickly revealing itself to be a great and wide field. By the light of the moon and stars I was able to see that I'd appeared among many dead people lying everywhere. There were many of them, their true numbers mercifully half-concealed by the night's shroud. Pale light shone on the blades and shafts of weapons that were strewn among the dead. It seemed even the weapons had died as well. But these were old: battle axes, maces, swords, daggers and spears were among them, mixed with severed heads and flesh. There was small comfort to be found within the fact that I was unable to smell the blood all around; the air had to be rife with it. This was a battlefield, and the war had only just ended. It was a great war, and a bloody one; men, women and children had suffered.
The corpses went on and on so that I was lost among them, no longer significant because I was the only living thing. What war was it that the dead went on forever over the earth?
The sickly feeling which had, until then, been pushed to the back of my mind pushed itself in front with uncharacteristic willfulness. The Dark One was here. She'd been waiting, and waited still. It wasn't difficult to follow the cold darkness that blighted the air to its source. Caution crept into my steps. I looked ahead. The space before me had been altered without my noticing it. Her presence was seen as black within black, a heavier, impenetrable web that clung to the atmosphere almost solidly.
From it emerged lines, surfaces and shapes, all of which grew paler as they combined. Something was being formed. No longer separate, they became one looming thing. It was a skull, bone white to suggest that its flesh had fallen away long ago, when it had only just appeared here. This skull was far too large to belong to any existing land creature, yet there it was, existing.
Its jaws were open. They had no teeth in them, but were chipped where the teeth had been removed. Stolen. The Dark One was standing in the cavernous space between. On her face lurked patience and insolence. She'd known I would come, and had known exactly where I would arrive. She wasn't troubled by it, though she had promised to kill me. The woman unfolded her arms, and became animate. She stepped onto the earth.
Her thought was clear. Have you figured it out, yet?
I didn't answer, hoping she hadn't noticed the increasing fear that gripped me then.
Do you see why you're here, why you've returned?
My thought was timid, soft. Why am I here?
Her malice burned. Don't attempt to lie. You can't lie here. She gestured to the blood-soaked field.
Where is here?
Here is everywhere and nowhere.
The Dark One walked forward. It was becoming a daily visitor, the feeling of being rooted to the ground by indecision. Foreign cries and guttural screams filled my head, passing beyond my boundaries of deafness. These were the cries of the dead that erupted wherever she walked, as if her footsteps alone inflicted their spilled blood with anguish. Never had I sensed such horrible sounds. I looked left and right. The dead were still dead, but now the atmosphere was deafening.
She stopped so that there was a small space between us. The Dark One didn't speak, but gazed at me. Her sockets were seeing beyond the flesh, if flesh was what I had. They had seared it all away and were seeing my naked soul. I knew this without question; I could feel her stare, and I was afraid to think of anything, in case doing so would reveal to her what she was looking for.
You've come for the war, she thought. Then you'll have it.
The Dark One tightened her hand into a fist. It moved swiftly so that it was barely seen. There was a horrid thud in my head, but I felt no pain, only the warning that she'd struck herself. She'd delivered a shattering blow to her chin, and the bones of her jaws were cracked. There was no anguish in her face. The creature worked her disfigured mouth this way and that, and leered, giving the black mist an opening from which to pour down her chin in tiny streams.
That she couldn't feel anything was enough for me to consider again that she wasn't real. But in that world it was only a consideration, one that fled away as easily as it had arrived. When she leaned forward I leaned away, thinking the prolonged attack would begin. After all, there had to be a reason that she was here, in front of the one she hated.
She spat into cupped hands, and lifted them into the moonlight. White long teeth, too large to have fit in her own head, glowed faintly among the black, seething blood. These resembled the teeth of a predator, and most were partly-broken near the root. They were the smaller versions of the teeth which had been removed from the skull behind her. But that was impossible. It had to be impossible. The Dark One laughed. She relished my expression.
She wasn't done. It was quite simple, how her hand moved in a curve to cast the scattered teeth onto the earth, earth that, as I looked at my feet, was now freshly tilled. She had thrown them about like seeds. But the act carried an indecipherable warning.
I had to get out of here.
Another change had taken place. The field was surrounded by black mountains, tall as the sky above. They were immensely steep, so that they were like walls across the unreachable distance. The mountains were, to my sight, on the edge of the horizon, but looking at them again caused me to suspect that they had moved farther without seeming to move at all. The world had become a valley with no way out.
I could hear someone's thoughts, but there was no one standing among the dead. In this world I knew there didn't have to be anyone nearby for their thoughts to be heard. At my feet, among the mass of corpses, lay a severed head. It was on its side in the dirt, and its open, opaque eyes told that death had already taken its breath away. But its mouth was moving. The dead could speak here. I was afraid to look at it, because it was a horrible sight, but looking away meant that I would see what The Dark One was doing still.
Take the sword, it said.
Between the head and its prone body was a sword that shined brilliantly where there was only little light. The blade and hilt were clean and new, a contrast against the valley's grime. Its very sharpness was cutting the atmosphere, stinging the strings that connected it to my mind.
It might have been a trick, because it didn't seem wise to trust a talking head. Yet the contemplation of what The Dark One was about to do was attached to the other thought that I was helpless and standing beside a weapon that could offer protection. I took the sword by the hilt. Though such a huge thing should have been unable to lift, it offered no resistance, and was strangely light. Its steel took onto itself a silvery blue glow which grew the longer I gazed on it.
The ground rumbled and quaked. There was a restless reverberating stir underneath its surface. The Dark One had done the deed. She looked at me then through narrowed sockets, and the smirk was joined by the cold hate that I'd seen in the past. She turned, leaped over the uneven earth and disappeared in thin air.
My vision swung in every direction. Paranoia had taken hold. She couldn't be found. But whether she was gone or not became an altogether distant worry; the ground was breaking apart. Pieces of overturned dirt and uprooted grass spewed upward in violent bursts like geysers. Something was coming out of the earth.
As a child, nightmares had tormented my mind, horrible dreams in which, to avoid being killed by monsters that had destroyed many others, I'd lain among the dead so that they'd think I was dead as well. I thought of doing so now, but it would be futile, because The Dark One knew I was alive. She'd reveal my pretense. My movements were spasmodic as I broke into a crawl. I'd hide in the darker parts of the field, where the moonlight did not reach. They couldn't see me then. They would search the corpses while I attempted to climb the far-away mountains.
The moon must have heard my thoughts; the flame inside it waxed until it had brightened in ways that the moon shouldn't. In the space of moments, its weak crescent became whole, a burning pearl. The entire valley was being illuminated for all to see. The dead were mutilated, bloodied and already rotting. Ghostly shadows which until then had been invisible glided across the earth and descended on their flesh, moving smoke in the shapes of animals, predators. Their yellow eyes glittered in the dark before the light found them, then they vanished like breaths of air.
A bright beam of light found me. I couldn't escape it. It was showing me to the things that were coming up out of the ground.
Helmets pushed through the dirt. These were attached to broad and pointed armored shoulders that moved relentlessly, clawing upward. They rose out with leaps, and landed so that their full statures were seen. These were soldiers, in ancient armor, more statues than humans. Beyond the stained helmet of the nearest one I saw there was no face. They were not human things, but creatures without flesh and bone and thought. They were only essences that moved forward, meaningfully. Their swords, each the length of a man and heavily rusted, were raised. They were taking aim.
My mind screamed. No! Don't kill me!
They will kill you, said the severed head.
They've no reason to fight me; the war is finished.
It can't be finished if you're still here.
I have nothing to do with these people! I turned to the soldiers, holding the sword against them though I didn't know how to use it. This isn't my war!
The soldiers' steps increased into a dead run.
Fear gripped my heart.
The air thickened and quaked. It exploded into a massive friction in which all was pushing and pulling against the other. Its soundless noise was in my head, and I couldn't think, neither could I see what was in front of me. My essence shivered and juddered. My heartbeats weren't present, but they were being sensed. They were convulsions in my body where it lay on the other side. In this world, all was being pulled in every direction almost painfully.
The soldiers were still running forward, though they jerked and trembled in the tormented atmosphere. While I told myself it was some kind of illusion; they were still coming closer.
I feared the air and sky would be torn apart, and we would be ripped to shreds with it. It was as if the ground would burst, and there would be nowhere to stand.
Then the ground fell in.
It cracked and stretched simultaneously, and its gaps snaked in curves while gouts of air shot through their spaces. They were forming a circle around my struggling form. Fighting to maintain my footing among the descending pieces of earth paled in comparison to the ring of fangs that had risen through the circle. I was in the center of a mouth that was eating the ground.
My hands clawed for freedom, but it had already taken me under, and the mouth of the hole was suddenly far away, smaller. I wasn't crushed to death, though I should have been. Peculiarly, the rocks and dirt fell naturally, crushing one against the other, yet they didn't fall on me. I wasn't being harmed, but was wedged between the spaces. The fall happened for just a moment, and no sooner had I landed on the underground surface than it became instantly fallow and broke apart as well, taking more rocks and clods of dirt with it. Deeper and deeper I fell, with the earth breaking through each time as if the world's hard places had become brittle. This untimely escape held no solace. I'd escaped the soldiers to fall into even more danger.
An orange glow flashed below for the briefest moment before the last level of ground broke away. Then all was bright with orange light, alternated by blindness from the descending showers of dirt and my flailing limbs. I'd descended into a free fall through the air. Air beneath the earth.
I landed safely. As in previous times my feet touched the ground lightly as if I hadn't fallen at all, but had only hopped onto it. The place was black like burnt rock, giving the impression that the earth had been scorched as far as the eye could see. And no wonder; the underground was divided in several places by wide rivers and small rivulets of red, swimming magma. Steam billowed upward from their burning backs, faintly clouding the atmosphere. The slothful liquid fire had marooned me on an island which couldn't be crossed. Far off were volcanic mountains, gargantuan sentinels with reddened bodies and black crowns. There was no end to this place, and I might as well have come upon another world within the earth.
The cavernous walls and high ceiling glowed in strange pulsations, pale orange then sparking red. The tiny line of magma that burned through the rock by my feet waxed and waned alternately. It seemed to be breathing. The whole place was alive.
Several chains away was a colossal statue of a man sitting cross-legged. Its bronze body, several meters high, was a building. The magma didn't touch it where it sat on firm, unyielding rock, the hardest part of the island on which I'd fallen. At the intersection of its crossed legs was an open entrance. From where I stood it was a small square leading inside. The statue's bald head held a soft halo, and its opaque eyes looked forward. Even so, one could have thought it saw everything.
I ran for it; there was nowhere else to go.
It might have been mere coincidence that my decision to hurry was eclipsed only by the immediate cracks that ran along the mountains where they lay. As I watched, they broke apart into mammoth slabs of sliding rock, and from their openings issued molten lava like flowing blood. The lava was burning away its defeated walls. It would overcome the statue soon. It would destroy everything. Still I ran for the statue at the center of the earth; perhaps all wasn't lost yet.
The scene changed in a gold flash. I'd entered the statue without running the required distance as if the space between had been nothing more than an illusion, a thing of no consequence.
But I was still not used to the teleportation that this world provided, and stopped abruptly, just in time to avoid colliding with a tall earthen vessel. The statue was full of them, vases, jars and vessels of every size, some small as ornaments, others the height of a man, but they were all gold and shining with a pale sheen from the candles that stood on some of their heads. They filled almost every corner and crevice so that it was difficult to see the dusty cement floor.
I found I had to resort to squeezing through the spaces between these vessels, because they were heavy and couldn't be shoved aside. I'd hoped I'd be safe here, but nothing would protect me from the destruction that came closer with every expiring second. Much of my attention was given to the overly-populated room that was somehow becoming more and more difficult to press through. I fought to ignore the rising panic. It was dim, that place, and there didn't seem to be a way out.
I'd overlooked the lone gold statue that stood a few feet away, but upon seeing that it wasn't a vessel like all the others I gave it more attention. It had the robed body of a human, whose hands were clasped in serene supplication. It could have resembled a monk were it not for the head, which, when I looked closely, was that of a night owl. This statue wasn't out of place. It inexplicably belonged there among the vessels.
I'd looked at it only briefly, and had intended to move on, but the simple act of curiosity had done the deed: the owl's head rotated until the clay eyes were fixed in my direction. There didn't seem to be any life in it, but it was indeed animate, like a toy machine that wanted one to think that it moved of its own volition. I retreated slowly, not wanting to incite it to attack by making sudden movements. Asking what it was and what it intended to do was of no importance. I only wanted to get out. Alive.
The head looked down. It spoke without a voice. Where is your sword?
I looked at my hands. The sword was gone.
There was a sudden silence, a distinct tension in the air that had both sharpened and darkened it. The creature was suddenly cautious. Its eyes flitted this way and that, not idly, but with purpose. It was listening for something. I jerked when one of the statue's arms came to life, moving without cracking the whole body. It lifted the cover off the nearest vessel.
She is coming.
I understood. It wanted me to hide inside. I didn't think twice, but climbed into the gloom. The gold hand replaced the cover, and all went black.
I could have thought a thousand things where I hid. All of them would have been terrible. But as I endeavored to be deathly silent my mind dwelled on only a few. The Dark One was indeed coming; her essence cut through the threads of the atmosphere without severing them. I could tell she wasn't alone. Her army of soldiers was with her, marching in her wake like vengeful spirits.
I sensed it the exact moment she set foot on the threshold, because my mind was being breached by a sickly chill, and though my fingers reached for my head they couldn't touch the trembling words inside. Her steps slowed; she was looking, searching for the one she'd expected to find. The Dark One came closer, and my dread increased. Somehow she could sense my presence, though with some difficulty. I didn't want her to find me. I didn't want to die.
The owl's head emerged from the shadows. It had within it a light both soft and pure, and was a glowing thing in the dark. Even the head, absent the body, shouldn't have been able to fit inside the vessel, yet there it was. I stopped myself from thinking to it, afraid she'd hear.
But it wasn't afraid. The war knows to whom it belongs, and will follow its master until it is dead.
On its last word came a slicing sensation. The invisible strings which connected the creature to my mind had been cut. Its eyes rolled upward, and its jaws slackened. Its expired breath issued from the open mouth. The entire head melted into nothing.
Something had happened, and I'd remain in that hiding place no longer. My hand found the underside of the lid, and pushed upward with caution. Pale light poured inside. The statue wasn't there. My sight roved over the vessels as far as I dared to look, and I found it. It was lying in pieces on the floor among heaps of fine gold dust which had poured from its broken shell.
The armored soldiers had turned away, their large backs concealing their departing mistress from view. It had to have been her that had done the deed, perhaps out of frustration, or simple hatred. She'd stood close to the vessel but hadn't sensed me, when I was sure that she would have. And now she was leaving, thinking I wasn't there.
The statue had kept me hidden, and she'd killed it.
I felt a spark of anger, but it was in this that I acted recklessly.
Wanting to escape them, I'd leapt from the vessel as high as I could, though I doubted that the thing could be cleared in one jump. I only succeeded in stumbling over the rim and landing clumsily. Reaching for one of the smaller ones in the effort to steady myself must have caused it to shift. Its base scraped along the floor.
The soldiers at the rear stopped. They turned in fluid movements, and found me without effort.
The lightning shock of terror I felt then was equaled only by the sudden overwhelming feeling of lightness that passed through. The two worlds were merging again, and I was seeing them both: I was waking on The Other Side, and I was still in the dream world, seeing The Dark One pass through the soldiers who had become as solid as smoke. Her sockets were narrowed, and her mouth was bent in a mean leer. She bounded forward. The scene was interrupted by flashes of the blue bedroom ceiling.
Everything was happening all at once, and my mind screamed for my body to wake up. But my consciousness was pushing me back into the dream. I fought against it, to no avail. It had a life of its own, a mind of its own, and it was refusing me entry into The Other Side. The haze of the bedroom vanished, and I was in the dream again.
The inside of the statue was gone, as were the vessels and soldiers. I was standing on a gold, curved surface, underneath the rugged rocky ceiling. Behind me, the mountains had been fully overcome by the raging, glowing lava, which now flowed in deathly, amber currents far below. I was stranded on the statue's head, now the highest point in the center of the earth, and the surface produced slowly-rippling lights wherever I stepped.
The Dark One landed in front. Beyond her the small islands of rock and earth were already gone, covered by the moving red heat. The base of the statue was also being consumed. Soon it would be entirely melted.
The air simmered and rippled like tiny writhing worms. The sword had reappeared and was in my hand. I was afraid to acknowledge it, because I feared it would vanish in the next moment, when I needed it the most. The edges of its blade shined like before, so that it seemed to be alive. I pointed it at The Dark One, silently telling her to come no closer.
But she had her own black sword. It had been pulled from the air itself, and she brandished its dark blade. It was a frightful thing to look at, because it was curved from hilt to tip like a rippling tongue, and the darkness that lay at the edges ate at the surface's gold glow.
The Dark One was a snake then, watching me, taunting me with her silence so that I would be forced to strike recklessly. She didn't intend to leave before I woke, not this time. She took a step forward, I darted back. A shadow of a grin formed on her mouth. She knew I was too afraid to attack, and in confidence she approached steadily.
My body was moaning where it lay on The Other Side, yet its echoes were passing into this world, travelling over the waves of lava. It was feeling my fear, responding to it as if my real body was indeed in danger.
Stay back, I prompted.
She came forward. You won't last for much longer.
But by then she was close enough for me to see her horrible grin. The Dark One swung her sword, and all went black.