Shadow's eyes shot wide open. He found himself looking up at a dark grey sky. In the distance he could hear thunder and every few seconds the sky lit up with lightning. However Shadow could not feel a drop of rain. He looked to his left and raised an eyebrow. He could see the Wizard standing over him, with the paladin by his side. To his right was an even stranger sight. The princess was standing over him as well, her hand outstretched.
Although he was quite baffled, Shadow still took the hand. The princess helped him to his feet, and he took in more of their surroundings. They were surrounded by a labyrinth of mismatched buildings, each one completely different from the last. Huts made of sticks and mud were put next to stone churches, two story guilds were side by side with simple shops, and blacksmith's work places were next to collapsing homes.
Furthermore, each was some odd shade of color. Or some odd lack of color. The buildings were blurry shades of dim purple, grey, black, red, and brown. Looking at them made Shadow's head hurt.
"So where are we?" Shadow finally asked. He briefly looked down to see that the ground underneath him was more of a grey smear then anything truly tangible. It was like he was standing on a blotch of paint that had been traced over a bottomless void. It also looked rather fuzzy, as if Shadow's pupil's had been dilated.
Surprisingly, it was Princess Annabelle who answered. "This is her creation," she explained. "The woman who sent you three here. She made this to imprison me and slowly seep of my father's political power. When I caught on… suddenly she said I had been possessed. I was locked in my room and trapped here."
The Wizard shook his head. He said, "I should have known… my vision disappeared right after we started eating. She must have done something-"
"Oh give it a rest about your prophetic vision," Michael sneered. He looked around and asked, "Why this illusion? It's just a jumble of half created buildings. It looks like if you jumped too hard, the entire world would collapse." He looked down at the ground to see the infinite abyss just a few inches underneath the strange path they walked on.
"It changed when you three arrived. I think it's a mix of all four of our minds. Originally it was just buildings from the capital, but now I see many unfamiliar sights." She indicated a small hut directly in front of her.
When he looked at the hut, Shadow came to a realisation. He let out a sad chuckle and said, "That's a hut from the village I grew up in. Small little place in the middle of the woods. Anything you see that looks like its made of dirt as much as it is wood, that's mine." A sad look passed over his eyes, but then Shadow blinked and it quickly vanished.
"Aye," Michael nodded. He pointed to a fuzzy stone building on the other side of the street then said, "That would belong to me. It's similar architecture to an old town I had visited ages ago. I'm a lot older then ye little ones so I get the feeling a lot of the buildings will be based on my own experiences."
While Michael was talking, the Wizard had approached a tall guild hall specialized in trading fur. Shadow recognized it as well. The Wizard said, "And this would be one of mine. I believe it isn't just our experiences, but primarily painful memories. Things that bring back sorrow or anger."
"That sounds about right…" the princess admitted.
"Well do any of you have an idea of how to get out of here?" Shadow asked, taking a look at some of the huts. He shook his head slightly then looked at the two magic 'experts.'
Both looked completely dumbfounded. Once more the princess surprised them by saying, "There's a crystal ball over… Well now there's likely four. There should be four crystal balls each guarded. I think once we destroy them we can escape. I tried to break mine but…"
"It's guarded by a monster," Shadow guessed."
The princess shook her head and said quietly, "When you try to destroy one, it projects a series of painful memories into your mind. You quickly lose all willpower and leave it be,"
Beginning to trod forward, the Wizard declared, "Well we won't get anywhere just standing around. We need to find these crystal balls and tear them down. Onwards!" His enthusiasm seemed to help boost the morale, as the other three followed the strange man forward through the dismal lands.
While they walked, Shadow took note of anything he could take note of. There was no wind and he felt no heat or cold. When he walked, there was no tap beneath his feet. When he snapped his fingers, the sound was very dull. Furthermore, he could only see a few feet forward or backwards. It was if the world was slowly being created in front of them and erased behind them with every step.
"It's to preserve her energy," the Wizard explained, guessing Shadow's thoughts. He said, "It's far easier to keep a half formed, empty and soundless illusion going then a fully detailed illusion filled with people and noise."
That made a lot of sense, Shadow thought. He looked to his left to make sure Annabelle was still following by. He was constantly worried she would be a hindrance in their plans to get through the illusion.
"I can keep up," Annabelle said at the fourth time Shadow looked over. He internally cursed. Were his actions that easily readable? His thoughts were interrupted by Annabelle picking up the pace and going a step in front of Shadow. He sighed and shook his head. He couldn't wait to throttle that old hag Angela when he got out of the illusion.
Michael turned and asked, "So Princess, what can you tell us about Angela?" There was a look in his eyes that said he wouldn't mind doing some non lawful things to Angela once he got out of the illusion. It was obvious that Annabelle had some sort of psychological damage from being there, and it made Michael wonder what sort of illusions were in store for him.
"My father said she has been his advisor since before my birth. That she had risen through the ranks and earned his favor. Ever since mother died she has always been there to help me as well. She always seemed to be a kind woman who wanted what was best for us. If I hadn't watched her cast those spells on me or you three, I wouldn't be able to believe she was behind it."
The story made Shadow wonder a few things. He asked the Wizard, "Could it be possible that Angela is possessed?"
Both the Wizard and Michael shook their heads. It was the Wizard who answered, "Demons or spirits can't cast spells when in another's body. There is another possibility I'm considering."
Michael said it for him, "She implemented false memories into the king and princess. Both are detached enough from the rest of the city that few would be able to notice if a new advisor had mysteriously entered the palace. Likewise, the palace has been kept empty as can be ever lately,"
This clearly took the princess back. She asked, "Could… no… How would I know if my memories were fake or real? If I can't trust my own memories then…"
"When we're out of this illusion, I will check for you," the Wizard assured her. Although he didn't think he would really need to. A quick interrogation of Angela would likely tell them all they needed to know.
"Thank you," Annabelle said quietly.
At once the four of them stopped. Up ahead they saw a stone pillar with a glowing sphere in the center. When they approached it, they saw that it was made of reflective glass. However it only showed Michael. He smirked as he concluded, "Whatever these things do, I must be the one for this one."
He went to grab it when Annabelle grabbed his wrist. She said, "Careful. Please be careful. These things are… painful." She said it in a sad voice.
"I'll be okay, Princess," Michael assured her. Then he touched the sphere and the entire world spun, then went black.
Michael woke up in a church, what a surprise. He had probably been in a thousand of them throughout his life, but this one was special. For one it wasn't a mass of blurry colors like the rest of the illusion. The seats had definition, the windows glistened from the sunlight, and the murals were as colorful as he remembered.
It was also the first church he had ever set foot in. Behind a wooden podium stood a stern man around his late fifties. He wore long yellow and red robes, with his hair in a ponytail. He was looking down at the podium, likely reading from a biblical text. Michael noticed that while one eye was green, just how he remembered it to be, the other was pure white. Michael realized his other eye was the true sphere he needed to destroy.
When Michael took a step forward, the man looked up. He smiled and said, "Hello Michael. What brings you back so soon, my son?"
A tear briefly fell across Michael's cheek. He understood the illusion. He understood the torment. As his hand reached for the hilt of his sword, he understood Annabelle's pain. Michael said, "I'm sorry, Father Joseph. I think… I think I have to kill you." His head felt fuzzy as he said it.
Joseph's eye widened in confusion while his other eye merely reflected Michael's own sad expression. Joseph asked, "Why would you do such a thing? After I brought you into my home… I taught you the ways of the sword, the ways of the Seven." He sounded like he was on the verge of tears as he said, "Please, my son. Surely you would not kill me while the initiates were here?"
At that moment, the church seats were suddenly filled with dozens of children. Michael recognized every last one of them. Some smiled at him, some waved, while most looked on in confusion and terror as Michael held his blade in hand.
"Children," Father said. He asked, "Might we recite the Paladin Commandments? It seems Michael has forgotten." At once all the children stood up and stared directly at Michael. In unison they said, "Thou shall not lie, cheat, or steal! Thou shall not harm the innocent, unarmed, or young! Thou shalt not kill out of anger! Thou shall help those whenever possible! Thou shalt love thy neighbor! Thou shalt stop evil whenever possible! Thou shall uphold the law and divine teachings of the Seven!"
They then sat down as Father Joseph said, "Can you tell me how many of those commandments my death will break, Michael?
"Four," Michael whispered. He took a step towards Father Joseph. He held his blade tight.
"Michael!" Father Joseph pleaded. He said, "This goes against everything I have ever taught you! I raised you! I took you in off the streets! I fed you and cleaned you! You are my son, Michael. Please do not-"
His voice cutoff as Michael held the edge of his blade an inch from his throat. Michael said sadly, "I don't want to lose you, Father. Not for-" the fuzziness returned as his brain worked to manage the sentence. Then the fuzziness finally broke as he said, "For a second time… You're already dead. You died over thirty years ago. She is altering memories." The realisation sealed the fate of the double
"Michael! What are you talking about? Have the Devils possessed you? Have you been drugged?" Father Joseph asked, confused. Michael pulled back his blade. "Stop and think for a moment!"
At once all the children began hollering in a frenzied panicked voice, "Michael! Michael no! Don't kill Father Joseph! No! Don't do it!"
By now Michael was on the verge of sobbing as his body trembled. Father Joseph noticed this and said, "Please my son. Lay down your weapon. We can work this out. Whatever foul evil has taken over you it surely cannot-"
He did not finish the sentence. Another group of tears streaked down Michael's face as Father Joseph's body fell to the ground. His body sizzled as it slowly disappeared, leaving behind the small crystal sphere. Michael slammed his foot down on the sphere.
Once more the world spun. When at last the vertigo ceased, Michael was back among the three. He lifted his glasses from his face and wiped his wet eyes. He turned to Annabelle and said, "Princess, I am deeply sorry for whatever it is you have had to go through. I give you my word I shall free you of this blasted illusion and save you and your father."
"Oh my," Annabelle said, taken aback by his sudden resolve. She then smiled and said, "Thank you. Thank you all. I'm truly so very sorry to have to drag you into this, but I am thankful for your dedication to help me escape. I had long since believed I would never again see my father or the palace again."
The Wizard offered a toothy grin while Shadow just gave her a small smirk. The hooded boy said, "It's in our best interests to keep going. We still have three more spheres to break and the sooner the better, right?" he asked. He then kept marching forward.
Shadow took a deep breath as the three followed him. He already knew what illusion he had to face. He just didn't know if he could accomplish what he had to.
While they walked, Shadow had a grim thought. He asked, "If all four of us are defenseless in our sleep, then why are we still alive? Why doesn't Angela just kill us? Hell, if she wanted to she could frame us. She could kill the princess in her sleep, wake us up, and blame the three of us. Why is she just letting us stroll through her illusion?"
Suddenly the mood seemed to change. Everyone stopped as they pondered what Shadow had said. Annabelle's face went pale as she realized how vulnerable she was. How at any second she could be killed and the three people trying to save her would be blamed for it. She felt her heartbeat begin racing.
"You're gonna give her a heart attack with that sort of talk, lad!" Michael cried out. He shook his head in exasperation. However he couldn't set the thought aside either. It would be so easy to kill or frame them. Why hesitate?
Now all stood uneasily as they pondered the question. None looked paler then the princess as she wondered if at any moment she would die.
The Wizard said, "If we spend all our time wondering why we aren't dead, we'll be in a lot more danger then we already are. Let's get out of this silly illusion and then we can question Angela as to why she didn't just off us."
Everyone was in agreement with that. Worrying about something that may never happen would only drive them mad. So with that the group began moving forward once more. Still, the dark thought was at the back of their minds throughout the entire stroll. Any one of them, or all of them could suddenly die with no way to defend themselves.
All of a sudden Shadow stopped. He had realized that the dull sound of their footsteps had grown even duller, even emptier. He turned around and realized with horror that Michael was gone. Annabelle and the Wizard turned around as well and gasped. They were now three.
Likewise they realized that the illusion had changed. The sky had become a deeper shade of grey. The buildings around them had slightly straightened out and gained texture. Yet they were also missing a wide variety of buildings. Buildings that Shadow knew had been tied to Michael's memories.
"Is he dead?" Annabelle asked, her voice filled with despair, She took a few long glances around the strange world they had been placed in. Perhaps if she kept looking back and forth the paladin would return. She was sorely mistaken.
"We don't know that for sure," the Wizard offered. Still there was a growing concern that was showing up in his tone. He said uneasily, "All we can do is keep continuing forward." It's literally all we can do… he thought to himself. He took a turn behind himself to see the path before them had dissolved back into the empty abyss they were trapped in. All they could do was go forward
Doing his best to mask his own uneasiness, Shadow replied, "He's right. Annabelle, we'll get out of this. We have to…" He looked forward to the void in front of them. They had to get out of this. Shadow noticed that as they continued onwards, Annabelle stuck far closer to him then she had before.
They had not walked far when another sphere appeared up ahead. This one shone a bright electric blue and smelt of electricity and sugar. It sat in the center of a wood pillar that had roots curling around the sphere. At once all three knew who it was for. The Wizard's reflection appearing on the surface only further confirmed it.
Before the Wizard touched it, Shadow asked, "How do we know this is what we're supposed to do? Michael destroyed his sphere and now he's-" Shadow resisted saying dead. "disappeared. What if the same happens to you?"
"It's either we walk around this place eternally until we die in our sleep, or we break these spheres," the Wizard said solemnly. He gave Shadow and Annabelle a wide smile and said, "I'll be fine, don't worry. After all, I'm an angel!" then he slammed his fist against the sphere.
The Wizard found himself standing on a hill overlooking a camp down below. It consisted of about a dozen tents with men coming in and out of them. The camp was encircled by a crude wooden wall with archers posted on each side.
"It's repulsing, isn't it, mage?" a deep voice boomed. "Absolutely sickening… Those vile filth who sit down there and sit in their own muck. I can sense it… Rapists, murders, highwaymen, pillagers, thieves, and scoundrels. I hate them…"
Goosebumps formed on the Wizard as he looked to his left towards the origins of the voice.
The armor caught the Wizard's attention first. Just as it was supposed to. It was a horrifying display of death and power. What had started out as simple chainmail armor had been covered by a thick layer of leather. Leather made of human skin. Coiled around the tanned skin was an interconnected series of human bone, held together by tendons and ligaments. His helmet was an orcs skull, big enough to fit over his head and small enough not to move while he wore it. Beneath that orc mask, two eyes burned with rage as they gazed down at the bandit camp. One was scarlet red, and the other one was a white pearl.
"Get on, mage," the voice commanded in a way no other voice had ever commanded the Wizard before. The Wizard looked at the man's black horse, one of the largest horses in the continent. Over it was a set of bright and shining steel armor. How ironic.
"Of course, Monrun," the Wizard said. Together the two looked down at the last bandit camp for over four hundred miles. Hidden deep within a valley between two tall mountains, it had likely survived for several years. Had it not committed one small raid on a cart a mere seven years ago, perhaps they never would have found it. Perhaps they'd have met a different fate.
"Hiya!" the voice boomed, whipping the reins. The horse shot forward, catapulting down the hill. In two seconds flat it had reached the camp and barrelled through the gate, tearing through its lock and slamming it open. At once everyone in the camp was alert and up in arms at the sudden intruder. Archers aimed, swords were unsheathed, and shields were held against the rider.
This did not unnerve the rider in the slightest. He had seen such a display a hundred times over if not a thousand. He reached into his sheath and pulled out a steel longsword. The Wizard knew it well. It served as another reminder of Monrun's plight on the evildoers of the world. It had been forged using iron from the blood of bandits and the hilt was wrapped in leather made from the skin of manticores, an animal that Monrun had thoroughly hunted to extinction. Likewise, the carbon from bone marrow was used to further temper the iron into a steel like substance. It was a sword the Wizard had helped forge, and a sword he loathed.
In the blink of an eye, Monrun's horse dashed forward. The sword cut through the air and by the time the horse stopped, three men had fallen dead in one clean swipe. The rest of the group looked on in shock, and Monrun only used their distraction to charge forward and quickly cut down two more.
He was a whirlwind of steel as he moved throughout the camp. Not once did he stand still or rest his hand as he charged from person to person, cutting them down where they stood. Some barely had time to realize he was there. By the time they did, they were looking at the rider from a head rolling across the ground.
It took little time for the camp to be emptied. Soon the dirt was stained with blood and there were more corpses on the ground then grass growing from it. Monrun sheathed his blade and dismounted from his horse.
"So that's it…" he said quietly gazing around the camp. "Why then, do I still feel this way? I have killed thousands of bandits. I have hunted four beasts to extinction and I've driven the orcs from this continent. I've liberated two cities and helped end an unjust war. Yet… I still feel the same. I still feel hatred. I still feel so much vengeance. I can't take it… Mage, I cannot take this pain any longer. I demand you take it away! I cannot bear it!"
Indeed the Wizard knew he could not. He could feel the sorrow that spread through his body with every beat of his heart.
Monrun lifted his helmet from his head and threw it down on the ground. He turned to the Wizard with sad eyes and begged, "Kill me… I cannot take this any longer. My hand only grows heavier with the weight of the blood on my sword and the bodies that rest on my conscience. End it! Please!"
As the Wizard looked at the sphere glistening in Monrun's soaked eyes, he saw the cruel irony. He had been given this chance before to strike down this monster. Yet he did not take it. This time he knew he had to. He said, "Give me your sword, Monrun. I will take this burden that I've dropped on you."
Monrun nodded and handed the Wizard his sword. He held his head down low as tears fell to the bloody grass beneath him.
The Wizard looked pained as he held the sword up high. He knew it was just an illusion, yet it was still painful. He looked down at a man who he had been a companion to for nearly thirty years. A man who he had known since his adolescence. Yet he also knew what the alternative was. In one fell swoop, the Wizard brought the sword down on Monrun's head.
Watching Monrun's head fall to the floor, the Wizard felt enraged at having been put through this illusion. He knew it had been made to mock his display of weakness many decades ago. He threw the sword from his hand and cried out, "You were wrong! You thought I couldn't do it, but I could! I'm not the same man I was all that time ago! Yet you're still the same pathetic witch!"
After screaming the last part, the Wizard realized he had been sent back to the main dream world. Shadow and Princess Annabelle looked confused by his display. He simply said, "It was… an unfortunate illusion. Forgive me for my outburst. I don't wish to look insane."
"More insane anyway," Shadow replied. A small grin formed beneath his face mask, but his eyes looked sadder then ever. On impulse he asked, "What did you see?"
To which the Wizard responded, "You know it's funny. The whole illusion was meant to mock a decision I made which I've long since regretted, but it gave me a chance to correct that mistake. Even if it wasn't real, it still was quite satisfying."
"You realized that is an extremely vague answer, don't you? Oh hell what am I saying? Of course it's an extremely vague answer," Shadow muttered to himself. To his side, the princess giggled at his annoyance. Shadow shook his head and said, "If you'd been travelling with him as long as I have then you'd be exhausted of him too."
Again the princess giggled as the Wizard asked, "How long have we been travelling anyways? I'd have to guess a bit under a month. You know I've had a few companions who had travelled with me for about a year."
"Well then I feel deeply sorry for them. Once I've taken care of my affairs, I'm getting the hell out of your destiny," Shadow replied with a chuckle. He continued walking forward waiting for the Wizard's reply, but none came. Shadow spun around, almost tripping himself from the speed.
"No!" he yelled on instinct, knowing what he'd see. His eyes darted back and forth through the dream world. He looked up and down the homes and across the street. The Wizard was gone. Shadow bit his lip and clenched his fist as the absence of the Wizard left him far more upset then he had guessed it ever would.
Before Shadow could scream, Annabelle grabbed his arm and said, "We don't know for sure if he's dead yet. Just try to keep calm, please. I'm scared for him and the paladin too, but right now we have no other choice but to keep going."
A strange feeling overcame Shadow. It was a mix of shame and annoyance at having to be calmed down by the princess. She was really starting to get on his nerves. Still she had a point. Shadow replied, "Yeah, you're right. Sorry, that outburst was poor of me."
Neither said much else as they trekked forward through the dream world. By now the sky had colored to a dark blue and a few fuzzy clouds could be seen in the sky. The buildings had further developed and now were a mismatch of crumbling huts and cabins set against massive homes, towers, and shops. Shades of brown and chipped wood cabins were reflected against finely polished tan wood homes.
The ground beneath them had also further deepened into a thin but noticeable path. Shadow thought back to what the Wizard said about how difficult it is to project an illusion for four people at once vs one or two. As a painful thud spread throughout him, he quickly had to bury the thoughts of the Wizard.
"I have a pet orc," Shadow said suddenly, trying to keep himself distracted.
"You have a what?" Annabelle asked in confusion, but there was excitement in her voice.
Shadow nodded. "His name is Henry. He's about eleven feet tall, probably weighs a ton, and his biceps are the side of my torso. Ya see, one time when me and the Wizard were fighting some orcs in a cave, I had to fight the chief. Pretty much every bone in my body was broken into thirds from the fight, but I still got the bastard. Sort of anyway." Shadow let out a small laugh at the memory. He could still feel the pain throughout his ribs when he thought about it.
He continued talking although he wasn't entirely sure why. The words came on their own, "So I stabbed him with my hidden blade and he fell down. Then a minute later he gets back up, but this time he's well… well I lobotomized him. Now he's friendly as can be. When we get out of here maybe you can meet him."
The princess let out a series of giggles then said, "I used to have a parrot. However I must say that your pet is much more interesting then mine is. Yes, when I get out of here I'd love to meet Henry. So long as he doesn't eat me." She let out another giggle.
"Don't worry, he's pretty docile. Well… probably. I haven't really seen much of him fight yet. Although from what I hear he's currently with Sir Remmington fighting against the undead in the castle," Shadow said.
"Wait, there's undead in the castle? But- for how long?" she sounded distressed.
Shadow gave an honest answer, "Probably for about as long as you've been trapped in your room and in this nightmare. I don't really know most of the details other then there's an infestation in your walls and the knights are trying to dispatch it."
"Oh… oh my," she said. "That's terrible."
With a shrug, Shadow said, "I wouldn't worry too much. Sir Remmington is leading the force against them and he seems fairly capable."
"I suppose so," Annabelle said. She moved closer to Shadow much to his confusion, and stayed in that proximity for the rest of their walk.
"So what do you want to happen to Angela?" Shadow asked curiously. He continued, "Throw her in the dungeon, hang her, torture her, give her a pat on the back and send her back home? What do you want to happen to the girl who took over your kingdom, filled your castles with the undead, and trapped you in an eternal walk across a dark street."
The princess was quiet as she thought over the question. She admitted, "I really do not know. We of course can't just forgive her, but locking up people who dabble in magic never goes well. Bars melting, possessed prisoners, guards killing themselves, among other things. Still… just killing her. I don't know how real the memories are, but I remember her teaching me to braid my hair, helping me get on a dress, feeding me all my meals for the last decade."
"Look those memories are probably fake," Shadow said bluntly. In a moment of self awareness, Shadow said, "Sorry. Just, don't be too merciful on a woman who likely has filled your head with lies. When you let someone who betrayed you live, you end up bitten twice as hard."
"Perhaps you're right," she said sadly. She then asked, "Shadow right? A funny name…" She was quiet for a few moments before asking, "You've killed someone before, haven't you?"
Shadow nodded and the princess asked, "You've killed a lot of people. I can tell. Both by how carelessly you answered and the arsenal you have on yourself. What's it like? When you kill someone do you feel regret, power, triumph, indifference? I guess maybe I want to know how I'll feel if I have to give the order to kill Angela."
Once more, Shadow chose not to lie. He nodded and said, "I've killed dozens, maybe hundreds of people. The first time is always a struggle. A question of whether or not you can do it. Then your resolve sets in. That killer instinct. By the time you realize what you've done, your blade is drenched in blood. However that was just the first kill." He stopped and looked at the princess. He said plainly, "You are walking beside a cold blooded killer. I have murdered men in their sleep, on the toilet, poisoned their meals, and thrown them off balconies. All without remorse."
"So you don't regret it, then?" she asked in a strange tone. Shadow could not tell if she was horrified, curious, sad, happy, or indifference.
"I regret that I have to kill them, but I don't regret the murder in itself. I regret that my family had to die in the first place, that I wasn't there to save them. Still, I only kill the wicked or those that stand in my way of killing the wicked. I regret the fact that I have to be on the path of murer, that they have to be on it with me. Yet I will not think twice before slashing their throats."
"Then how did such a cold blooded killer end up in this illusion? Trapped with a naive princess. Did you plan on killing me? My father perhaps?" She sounded curious rather then afraid.
Shadow laughed at the question. He shook his head and said, "You know Annabelle, I've wondered that myself. It seems to be that the Wizard has more or less hooked me into his grand scheme of saving the world." His voice became quiet before saying, "Honestly I sometimes wonder if I follow him because I really believe him and all his destiny talk and I think his quest interconnects with mine. Or if…"
"If what?" she asked.
It took a long while before Shadow answered. Frankly he wasn't sure if he should. Yet an urge to open himself up welled up from inside him as he confessed, "Or If I'm just a sad and tired fool who would have taken any distraction he could from a long quest of hunting down and murdering nobles. If I'm just at the point where I'd take even a self proclaimed angel in blue robes and use him as an excuse to take a break from my tiresome mission." Shadow broke into quiet, sad laughter as he delivered the last line.
"I'm so sorry," the princess said quietly.
Shadow didn't understand. He asked, "Why are you-" then a sudden roar shook the two to their core.
Shadow looked up ahead and saw the glowing orb in the distance. Standing in front of it however, was nothing short of a demon.
It was twice the length of an elephant and just as tall with four long reptilian legs. It's body was long and thin with a thick coat of black hair covering it. At the end of the body was a deer-like head, roughly the size of Shadow's torso. Its skin was a sickly green and slowly coming undone from rot and decay.
"Princess," Shadow said in a stern voice. He said, "Go around it. Touch the sphere. Whatever touching it does to you, it has to be better then what that thing is planning." He took a long look at its rows of razor sharp teeth, barely covered by the rotting flesh on its cheeks.
"But-" she protested.
"Run, damn it!" he yelled. The first weapon he reached for was his blowgun of all things. He quickly filled it with darts and pressed the end up against his lips. The demon began running towards him and he emptied the darts into its eyes. The demon staggered for a second as the princess began running past it.
Hearing the princess running, the demon prepared to slice down on her. Shadow quickly lunged forward and cut both of his silver daggers against the creature's torso. It roared in pain and turned away from the princess as she sprinted forward and touched the sphere. Yet nothing happened.
The creature spun around and faced Shadow. Shadow responded by plunging his dagger into the beast's already rotting face. He plunged both daggers into the beast's cheek and ran under its body leaving a trail of blood and cut skin behind him. A sickening howl filled the entire illusion as the monster leapt around in a frenzy.
The princess cried out, "This is yours! Come touch it, hurry!"
Instantly, Shadow said, "No! Just keep running, damn it! Keep going and don't look back! Find your sphere and get the hell out of here!" The princess looked ready to argue, but Shadow screamed, "Go!" and she ran.
Shadow did his best to avoid the angry beast's assault. As it swiped down at him, he slid under it and began running forward. He didn't want to touch the orb, he did not want to see what he knew he'd see. Yet he was not a coward. As the monster lunged its bloody jaw forward, Shadow touched the sphere and vanished, leaving the monster to bite air.
Shadow found himself standing on a field of grass. He was close to a small cabin, the cabin he had grown up in. Without hesitation, Shadow walked into the hut. Inside the hut were three people. A tall muscular man with jet black hair, a woman with long raven colored hair, and their baby daughter. Shadow's sister. In her eye glowed a bright sphere.
Once again, Shadow pulled out his dagger without hesitation. His mother saw him first. She cried out, Rupert! What are you doing with that dagger?" His father stood up, nervous by his display. He began walking towards Shadow.
"I'm a cold blooded killer…" Shadow whispered as his eyes watered. He slashed against his father's throat, cutting it instantly. His mother cried out in horror as his little sister began balling.
"I'm a cold blooded killer…" Shadow said again as his hands trembled with regret and remorse. He leapt across the room and stabbed down on his mother's chest. Tears were pouring down his face as his baby sister was wailing in terror.
Shadow clenched his teeth as his began sobbing. He held the dagger above his helpless sister as tears began soaking through his cloak. "I'm… a cold… blooded… killer," he said one more time. He then screamed a scream of agony as he brought the knife down on his little sister.
He threw the bloody knife against the wall and let out another scream. By now he had been reduced to frantic sobbing as he collapsed to his knees. Slowly the illusion faded as he cried into his hands.
"Wake up, Shadow!"
Shadow shot up from the floor. His first instinct was to grab his chest. Not only was there no wetness, but his cloak had not been torn in the slightest. He looked around and saw everyone present. The princess was getting up from her bed, Michael was kneeling with a tired expression over his face, and the Wizard was standing in front of him.
"Is this real?" Shadow asked, skeptical. For all he knew this was merely another part of the complex illusion that had been weaved for them.
Both the Wizard and Michael shook their heads. The Wizard said, "We all woke up at the exact same time. Tell me Shadow, what happened after I went wherever I went. It's strange, after I ended my illusion I woke up instantly. Yet somehow we woke up at the same time."
"Don't ponder how time flows in a dream," Shadow said, speaking from experience. His dreams were always so short yet took up the entire night. Shadow explained, "There was a monster guarding Annabelle's sphere. I distracted it while she went inside. A few moments later and the entire illusion came undone. Now here we are."
As Shadow spoke of her, the princess slowly slid off her bed and onto her feet. Shadow realized she was far paler and thinner then she had been in the dream. Likewise her blonde hair seemed thinner and had grown much more uncontrollably. She was also on the verge of weeping.
Sadness or tears of joy? Shadow wondered as he looked at her soft blue eyes. Before he could get a word in, Michael asked, "What be the origin of your tears, Princess Annabelle?" He stood on his feet, seemingly free of the fatigue. However, Shadow noticed at once that a tiredness had set in on his body.
"It's just… I had been trapped in that illusion for weeks. Again and again I had to confront my deepest fears, regrets, and most painful memories. At last I'm… I'm free…" at once Annabelle's words became dreary as she started slumping to the ground.
A moment before she tumbled, Shadow grabbed her by the shoulders and held her upright. He shook her, perhaps a bit too violently, yet it did the trick. Her eyes opened up ever so slightly and she got back onto her feet. She said, "I feel exhausted. Like any moment I might just fall back asleep."
When she said it, Shadow realized he himself had grown even wearier. His eye lids seemed heavy and the weight of his weapons was dragging him down. He surely would have fallen back asleep with the princess, had it not been for a sudden whack on the back of the head from the paladin.
"Snap out of it, laddy! The woman's put some sort of spell on the room. Should we fall back asleep, we would be imprisoned in that nightmare once more. Indeed, if there is one thing we must avoid…" Michael let out a yawn before adding, "we must avoid falling asleep. If we fall asleep, we are likely to fall back into the illusion. We must… get out of this room…"
Shadow cursed. They had finally escaped, yet were at risk of falling back into the illusion.