A/N: And parts three and four make chapter two! As it turns out, every two postings on spacebattles accounts for just enough content to warrant adding a another chapter here. As such, here we are. Enjoy, you twisted maniacs! :D
His eyes opened with a serene start. Above him mix-matched clouds floated in silence. A gentle breeze warmed him, while the cobble earth beneath him was cold to the touch. He raised his head, glancing about himself furtively.
He stood, taking in his surroundings in a much clearer fashion. He stood before an old church; more of a chapel than not, which degraded stone steps leading up to its sealed doors. For a moment he wondered, how strange? for he was certain this was not the first time he'd witnessed this sight, nor felt these sensations. It was as if he'd already retraced these steps once before…
He stepped forward, sans caution, for he knew – somehow – that this was a safe place. He couldn't speak to why.
But there was one thing that stood out as differing from his half-forgotten memory. He was certain that before the steps leading to the chapel, there had been a thing… something laying aside. For a moment, he barely recalled what it was, until he saw the forgotten thing standing where it had once lain. It was a human sized figurine. Abnormally tall, dressed in fine attire with a thick dress and simple bonnet, its hands clasped in its front, and eyes watching expectantly, as if it had been awaiting his presence all this time.
All what time?
He frowned as he narrowed his own gaze towards it and approached. Its face, a beautiful porcelain material, almost shown in the light of the crystal clear moon that hung in the sky in the background of the chapel above him. The thing, this doll moved, reaching out a hand to him in a gesture of welcome.
"Master Dunham," it – she – began, sending chills streaking down his spine, though of what emotion he strangely couldn't discern, "it is good to see you well."
Strangely, seeing it move, hearing it speak disturbed him less than he'd expected it would. It felt… familiar.
Unable to establish some tenuous grasp on vocabulary, he settled for a simple nod of acknowledgement. The doll took his muteness in seamless stride, gesturing with gentle hands up the stairs.
"You are expected within," she said as if it was the simplest truth she'd ever delivered.
Dunham frowned, but, seeing as… somehow, he was "expected," he wasn't left with any time to think about what exactly he was doing.
So up the steps he went.
When he reached the small double doors, open as they were, he gazed inside. The single room was lit by warm golden light cast from the burning fireplace, illuminating several cases of books, books which also littered the room every which way, yet in a fashion that bespoke some due amount of organization. On his right was a table, upon which sat countless tools and trinkets, and above which hung many different blades of varying designs, A velvety red carpet, trimmed with gold thread ran along the length of the small chapel all the way up to the altar at its head. For a moment, the church was empty, yet when he blinked, it was not so. In front of the altar sat a man dressed in drab leather with his back towards the entrance.
The man did not turn at his arrival, so Dunham cautiously approached. He'd gotten halfway to the altar when the man turned to regard him. He was an older fellow, old enough for his hair to have turned white at snow beneath his cap.
In one of his hands was clutched a simple book, its title too faded to make out from their distance apart. It was closed with a thump.
"Ah, you've arrived," the stranger commented with a pleasant tone of voice. For some reason he couldn't explain, it all felt a little too… familiar. Like he'd done this before…
How very déjà vu.
"Déjà rêvé, actually," the man countered, startling him.
He was sure he hadn't said that aloud…
The stranger set the book in his hand onto the altar, setting it aside thoughtlessly, yet with such measured delicacy that Dunham was sure every movement was actually very deliberately.
Dunham fumbled for words. "Why… No, how am I here right now?" He recalled the clouded voice that he saw surrounding the grounds around the chapel. "Is this a dream?"
He'd never had presence of mind to recall dreams, nor to notice that he was dreaming at all. Yet he'd heard of those who could dream so lucidly as to be able to control the happenings within. Perhaps this was his first.
"Not a dream. The dream." The man lowered his hands to the sides of his chair, where he gripped a pair of wheels and pushing himself forward a short measure. "The only dream that matters."
Dunham fixed him with a curious look. "The Hunter's Dream," he clarified with an ambiguous smile. "But where are my manners? My name is Gehrman. Friend to you hunters."
Dunham's brow furrowed. "Hunters? I'm afraid you must have me confused with someone else. I'm an outdoorsman yes, but my skill is in metalworking. I'm certainly no career hunter."
The man's eerie smile didn't fade. Though there was a slight tinge of annoyance in his voice. "Oh, I don't doubt it. Hunters who enter the Dream rarely are." He let out a low chuckle. "But you might recall the contract you signed before you came here last…"
At the mention of the emphasized word, something in Dunham's mind triggered, a lost memory hovering at the fringes of his mind, like those so faintly remembered after a night of good drinking.
"Contract…" Dunham repeated as if to jog his own memory.
"Of course… When I arrived at the clinic for aid with my sickness! The girl, she – she gave me a drip of good blood, flushing out the bad. And then when she left the room that man, he-"
In a flash, the memories returned. He'd been lying there, watching with mild interest as young Rebekka took care to clean the site where the needle would puncture his flesh. Then, once she'd done the deed, she left to attend her other duties. No sooner had she done so than did the man appear. Tall and imposing and with a tone to match. He was masked by a thick stained cloth over his mouth, which at first Dunham assumed was because he was some sort of doctor, but only now realized the rest of his attire didn't match the profession. He'd offered a deal… In exchange for blood which would empower the body beyond the limits of the common man, he would become the stranger's agent. A hunter... or something.
Dunham was by no means a frail man, but the sickness that had plagued him for months had yet to subside, and the exhaustion it filled his body with had driven him near to the edge. The temptation of empowerment was… too sweet to pass over. He'd accepted. And then that vision…
"I see the moment in question turning about in that head of yours," Gehrman commentated, drawing his attention back to the old man.
"That man… Who was he?"
Gehrman's eyes, partially glazed though they were, were piercing as he spoke. "Your patron. And host of this dream."
Dunham cocked his head aside. "Patron? Host? You mean this isn't my dream?"
Gehrman gave a snort. "As flattered as I am that you think you'd dream of me…" He left the comment unfinished. "No, it's actually best if you don't think too hard about all of this." The elder said, his smile dimming somewhat. "Just… follow the signs. It's for your own good, remember?"
And indeed he did remember. He'd had this conversation before after all.
This was the second time he'd been to this dream.
"Yes… Yes, you said that before," he revealed, though they both already knew. "I… I was hurt fighting the Kushan and I… I fell asleep. Woke up here." He remembered said events with some due clarity, yet he couldn't quite remember how the devil he'd gotten back to the clinic afterwards...
Gehrman nodded slowly. "The Dream protects those who sign the contact."
"Protects?" Dunham frowned pondering what the man was actually saying. "Do you mean to say it won't let me die?"
At that, Gerhman's gaze turned cold and cynical. They were black, and some of the haze faded from within them. "Oh, do not fool yourself. You'll most certainly die. Again, and again, and again. Over and over you'll perish and expire until you go right mad." The perturbing grin on his face sent a chill down Dunham's spine. For a moment, he wondered why he was taking this man's words so literally. Surely death cannot be circumvented by just a piece of paper and a clause. That wasn't how the world worked, much to the dismay of every honest death-fearing man.
"But you're lucky,"Gehrman pointed out with a wry smirk. "You have my wonderful company to return to each and every time."
Dunham glowered at the man mirthlessly. "Oh… lucky me." He let the sardonicism go and tried to find anything but the old man to occupy his gaze. "I think I'd rather take that freakish mannequin outside..."
For a moment, a dark look flashed over the old man's face, so quickly in fact Dunham wondered if he'd even seen it right in the first place. But Gehrman's next words confirmed he very well might have.
"Oh... I'd be careful of such language. The doll is a very special thing, as you will soon find out and if you have any sense about you."
Dunham frowned, his good spirits draining in the face of what could very easily be interpreted as a threat. "What's that supposed to mean?" he asked skeptically. It was obvious the man knew more than he was letting on, and purposefully leaving out important information that he could share. He has a feeling the old coot enjoyed watching him bumble about like a butterfly trying to evade a spider's webs.
Once again, the old man smiled toothily, a dry cackle escaping his lips. "It means your patron will be quite upset with you if you don't learn to mind your manners."
Dunham's frown deepened. His patron... "The man in the mask... Who is he, truly?"
Gerhman leaned back in his chair calmly a knowing twinkle in the man's eye. "You'll come to find out soon enough, my dear hunter."
As if to silence any further questioning, a presence made itself known behind him, and he noticed the doll, pale and porcelain in appearance, stood in the doorway. She gestured for him to step outside. He gave a long look at the old man but finally acquiesced, following the womanly figure's direction out the door and down the stone steps.
He was the kind of individual who kept to himself. A solitudinarian through and through; he wasn't especially fond of people, and preferred to judge society from a distance. After all, the closer you stand, the less you can see. And if nothing else, it could be said of him that he preferred to see the big picture.
Once, long ago, at the onset of his self-imposed isolation, he was brazen enough to think he'd seen all there was to see. Of course, that was soon proven to be false, and he bore the memory was a reminder of his foolish, youthful pride. Though he'd be the first to contend an elder's self-worth based on their age alone, he had to admit that to dismiss the experience that came with it would be the height of folly.
Unfortunately, to learn from someone, one must first spend time with them… a daunting notion for someone of his disposition. Nevertheless he found himself walking the murmuring outskirts of the town. Not of his own volition, mind you. It was more or less an order. From who, you ask? Recall a few lines prior…
He sought the big picture. But if… just what if… the picture you expect to see is only a single dot in a great pointillist canvas? Would that not send one's mind a-whirling? Could one's mind even comprehend such a thing? A reality so vast it cannot be perceived even by those who occupy space within that same reality? It near drove him mad when he'd learned such. Indeed, every time he ruminated on it, he felt his teeth grind against each other, sending jolts of pain through his tightened jaw. It made him so angry. Were men such helpless beings that were blind to even the dirt beneath their feet? Blind to the sky just overhead?
What utter foolishness. What catastrophic idiocy!
It was an ailment the entire world suffered. It would be the death of the human race.
At the very least, he took solace in knowing he wasn't the only one who'd glimpsed this unseen truth. Beside him strode another.
This one was clad in a thick coat that looked as if it were taken from a great winged creature, beneath which was a set of steel armor. His face obscured, fully encased in an ornate helmet that tapered to a point at his mouth. Like himself, this stranger with whom he found himself accompanied was quiet. He'd barely heard the man utter more a dozen words at any given time.
But the letter he carried with him spoke volumes.
For the past few weeks, he'd been haunted by dreams… rather, nightmares. It was recurring, like a horrifying book he couldn't help but reread. Dreams of strange monsters that walked the earth aside armored men, sent out to wage war against other men, slaves to the will of a master not of darkness, but of light. A Bright Lord bearing the trappings of a luminous bird of prey.
He would witness the carnage wrought and wake soon after. Sometimes though, more so as of late, the dream might continue and he'd see things… strange things he didn't understand. Another master, a crownless king, and his army of slinking, monstrously strong men. Not soldiers, he observed, but bestial brutes who were sent out to slaughter the servants of the Bright Lord. Beyond that, the dreams seemed to devolve into a series of horrifying and uninterpretable visions. Not that the dreams were obscure; on the contrary, they were impossibly vivid. But that led to even more confusion…
That all changed six days prior.
He'd been walking the garden of his family's villa, pondering the nature of his dreams obsessively as he'd been apt to do as of late, when lo and behold a stranger approached from the hedge maze. That stranger was the man beside him now. Wordlessly, the interloper withdrew an envelope, addressed to him personally. Tentatively, he deigned to read it. Woe to whatever version of himself that didn't read that letter!
Within, certain things were said… certain offers alluded to. Certain futures predicted. Certain mysteries revealed. It wasn't signed, nor did it offer any directions. It was as if the author simply spoke, and expected that to be enough. When he questioned the cloaked stranger about the nature of the letter's origins, he'd simply indicated that if he wanted to know the truth, then he should follow after him… and be willing to give up his freedom.
The man turned to leave with such suddenness and disregard that he'd almost not thought to chase after him. Call him crazy, but the words that were scrawled across the parchment that now lay against his breast in a pocket beckoned him forth. It was beyond his explanation.
He was shaken from his ruminations by his companion, the muffled voice from within the helmet both quiet and curiously authoritative (as all his words tended to be).
He looked to the building beside them to which knight had indicated. It was an older building… ornate against the backdrop of the city, however much it had fallen into disrepair. The grounds around it no doubt once stretched well into the city's walls, but over time had been claimed by the wealthy landlords within. It was a surprise said men hadn't claimed the whole of the property; in the state it was in, it was unlikely anyone cared to declare the asset theirs. It also begged the question, "What are we doing here?" A question he gave voice to in that same moment.
The helmed man simply shrugged his head to the side as he pushed one of the doors open. "Come."
Tentatively he followed suit as the man led him through the maze of corridors and rooms with intimate familiarity. Clearly it wasn't the first time the man had been here. Presently they came to particular parquet that had been disguised as just another part of the flooring. The darkness within blinded him, though he was able to follow his guide by the sounds of his boot steps until the light of a torch lit the hall, and continued to do so all the way down at twenty foot increments.
Eventually, the hall emptied into a large room, filled with tables and a raised stone dais upon which sat a throne, and a person upon that throne.
"I see our guest has finally arrived," the individual said as they entered the room, rising from his seat to spread his arms in greetings. "I bid thee welcome, Victor Petrosian."
Victor raised a brow in surprise. "You know my name?" Ah, but the letter had been addressed to him as well. That made sense.
"Of course. We make it our singular duty to know who is who and where they stand. My dear friend Corvus has taken a keen interest in you and your... perspective."
Victor turned to regard the man indicated, realizing that the cloaked enigma was in fact named Corvus. Until then he'd only called him "friend" when addressing him. But that was certainly surprising. That this strange man took an interest in him? Surprising... and disconcerting.
"And who, exactly, is we?"
The man let out a short laugh. "Ah, where are my manners. I am is Regis. We," he gestured between himself and his associate, "are part of an organization comprised of members of various noble houses. Being the son of a prominent family yourself, you understand why we took an interest in you. Well, your nobility and your curiosity."
Victor frowned at the man. He felt... queer. He'd never considered what it might feel like to be unknowingly watched and observed without his knowledge. As a noble's son, it wasn't so foreign to be attended to by many servants who had been trained to take note of his habits. But unlike servants, who served his family, these men were strangers to him. He wasn't exactly sure how he felt about that, but he was certain he didn't like it too much. "What do you mean?" he asked,, his brow furrowing. "Explain!"
Regis made a strange face and grabbed a long candle. Holding it up to a torch, it ignited, and with it he traversed the room, lighting other candles. Warm light slowly spread through the room. "Our organization seeks out those who pursue more than what this petty life has to offer. Those who seek a broader perspective."
The emphasis on those words made it clear that these men were aware of his unspoken desires. How, he wasn't sure, and he honestly was afraid to know.
"I remember when I was first approached by a stranger telling me of things I thought I only knew," Regis continued with a distant smile. "I was skeptical as well. But I gave them a chance. After all, if there are mysteries yet unlearned by mankind that these people might know, was it so strange the think they might have a method for knowing the mind of a stranger?" He eyed Victor with a shake of his head. "Not at all. But, to put your mind at ease, the truth of the matter is we have been doing this for quite some time. In that time we've learned to identify certain traits in individuals that indicate compatibility with our creed. You displayed an eighty-six percent compatibility rating based on distant observation alone."
Victor felt stupid for asking, but he felt compelled to know the answer. "So... you can't read my mind?"
Regis let out a laugh and nodded. "Correct. But we needn't open one's skull to know their mind. There are practices of observation which can reveal just as much as a magic spell could; practices honed over generations of use." He blew out the candle in his hand and set it down, peeling off the wax that had cooled over his fingers.
Victor looked around, noting the room's now-less obscure features. It seemed to be made of stone. On either side of the room were large tapestries bearing the image of a sigil. Two golden wolves, if that's what they actually were... they might have been emaciated lions, or some form of wingless dragons... in a red field rearing up, facing opposite sides of the crest. Rather simple, if regal looking.
"As old as we are, we are but infants compared to the things that exist beyond the veil... beyond mere sight. How many civilizations have risen, fallen, risen again, overturned by another and crushed into dust? How many conquering kingdoms have been conquered themselves? How much knowledge has been lost to jealousy and greed? What secrets of history have been hidden away in the deep places of the world? And how insignificant were the lives of those who facilitated those civilizations that we no longer know even existed?" Regis turned and eyed Victor with a stern, discerning gaze. "These are the questions we ask, and the answers we seek."
Truly, Victor would prefer to be honest than deceptive, though he was still unsure as to the benevolence of an organization that had been all but spying on him. In that regard, he found himself agreeing with every word this man was speaking. "I've long since wondered the same thing. Surely there must be more to living than mere life."
Regis turned and walked the center of the room up to the chair atop the dais. "We are the few prosperous humans. Meager men work all of their lives scratching out a living wherever they might. They haven't the attention to worry about things they cannot see. Only we, who in our abundance of leisure allow our minds to drift, consider such things. In that regard, I consider it our noble duty to protect the histories and mysteries of the world. It's about time nobility benefited someone other than themselves, yes?"
Victor found it concerning that every word was in agreeance with his creed. Perhaps it was just a ploy to gain his cooperation for... whatever their true goal was. But then, there was always the chance this was exactly what it appeared to be. A gift from God? Surely it was a sign of some sort. It sounded like it was just the thing he would at any other time kill to be a part of. "What of my family? Do I leave them to join you, or does my position benefit the group in some way?"
"It depends. You are the fourth son of the Petrosian house, and as dangerous as the world is, it is not too far a step from fourth son to head of the house. Naturally, should it not be a hindrance to us, we would willingly... aide you in that endeavor. After all, we take care of our own."
Instantly Victor raised a hand to stop the conversation. "To that I must decline! If it is God's will that I take the mantle as head of the noble Petrosian family, then I will do so according to His machinations alone. I will not seek to interfere with His plan."
Regis frowned but did not comment, except to nod his head understandingly. "You might not feel that way once you're fully inducted, but if that's how you want to proceed, then that is how it shall be."
Victor felt a short breath escape his lungs. He didn't even realize he'd held it. "Thank you."
Regis' frown morphed into a smile and he lifted himself from the chair. "For the time being, you've been kidnapped by a rather dangerous looking individual," he said with a wink and a gesture to follow after him. "Come along. We have some things to do during your... internment."
Victor threw a glance to Corvus, the masked man saying nothing but nodding towards him, either in reassurance or to direct him to follow his fellow. The noble son didn't know either way. He did however follow accordingly.
Perhaps he could put up with these peculiar fellows... for a time at least. Time would tell.
The troupe stalked forward quietly, less by intention than by unsolicited practice during their weeks of travel. With the fall of Wyndham and the subsequent withdrawal of state troops, the western reaches had become not only a home to Kushan raiders, but to Midland banditry as well. Many men who had lost so much and had nothing else to live for than their own wants... Of course, that made their travels all the more tedious. It was impressive really, how well men who had once been drunks, town thieves, masons, or farmers could train themselves to track a query and do so silently. Such accolades made it dangerous to let one's guard down even in the daylight.
It was fortunate that outlaws had low self esteem, for it seemed more often than not their stench traveled ahead of them as foul and odious as their intentions. It became common for the quartet to literally smell the enemy before they were even in sight. They had eluded many an imminent ambush as a result. No one seemed interested in asking how it was a their human noses were capable of picking up such scents.
Rarely did they sleep. Not for lack of fatigue, but it seemed every instant they detected the presence of a potential foe, excitement would flood their veins like fire and set alight a flame deep within that would burn for hours upon hours before finally calming to embers. It made sleeping on these dangerous roads quite the chore. Nevertheless, sleep eventually did manage to find one or two of them at a time. The other two or three agreed to set watch over their sleeping comrades, for even if they could not find rest in sleep, they would not begrudge a fellow for finally finding it himself. Especially since they did so with the hopes of reciprocity; for with sleep brought the Dream. The Dream that no one spoke of. The Dream and the kind doll who tended to their doubts and fears.
Though she hid a great trove of knowledge within her frame, they did not pry for it, only waited for her to dispense what bits were necessary to push them forward. Alexander, personally, believed she knew of the masked man who had established their contracts, the same contracts that allowed them to visit the Dream. It only made sense after all. Her and that Gehrman fellow both. Though he was far younger than his three contemporaries by some decades, he was careful not to let his inexperience in the field, nor his youthful eagerness become stumbling blocks to his companions. He would watch and quietly learn. Especially since he wasn't so old and skeptical to ignore the strange value of their existences. The Dream, the doll, the old man, the monolithic territory upon which the little chapel sat, amidst a great expanse of sky... What could it be if not some godly miracle? And that a contract need be established before he was granted access to these wonderfully strange luxuries... Could it be said any other way than that they were chosen?
By who he had no clue and he was certain none of the others did either. The enigmatic figure whom they'd taken to calling "the man in the mask" had contracted with them for a reason, and had subtly brought them together and sent them out on a journey to Vritannis. Why and for what, beyond the apocalyptic visions of death and fire that had plagued their dreams before the onset of their journey which were most definitely a sign.
The man wanted them to go. So go they did.
Now, as he sat with a stick in hand, poking idly at the crackling flames of the fire that they encircled he allowed his mind to wander. He didn't deign to think the man as the Lord. For as much as he was apt to call their recent happenings "miracles," there was no symbolic or verbal insinuation that the man or the Dream was in any way related to the faith he'd come to distantly know. Not that he was a very pious man by any means, but he knew enough to pass as one in a crowd if he so chose. Courtesy of his parental upbringing.
He breathed in deep the scent of the smoke and flames. It soothed his mind and calmed his nerves. He'd always been partial to the smell of burning wood, especially in the cold days of autumn. It reminded him that the white snows of winter were coming. It brought back so many fond memories of his family sitting by the fireplace eating and making merry in the warmth. How he longed to return to those blissful days... the days before disease took it all away.
With those foul memories came an equally foul whiff as well. His eyes lit up and he glanced at the only other conscious companion. Wallace, who was sitting further away from the fire, lay contentedly on the grass with his coat pulled up to his chest and his arms resting behind his head as he gazed up at the night sky. The clouds had rolled in far enough to cover the light of the moon making the stars twinkle all the brighter.
"Mr. Wallace," he tentatively called out.
The man spoke with clarity and confidence that belied his more advanced age. "Aye lad, I smell it too."
Alexander felt the hackles of his neck rise. It hadn't been his imagination. "Should we wake the others?" he asked as he eyed the two lying beside the warm flames.
Wallace lifted himself to sit up and followed his junior's eyes and nodded. "Best to."
Alexander set his stick down and made to rouse Gottfried from his sleep. The man stirred for a moment with a groan before his eyes cracked open the sight of Alexander's face occluding the starry night sky. "Up and up, Mr. Gottfried, we have company."
The man grumbled as he brought a hand up to rub his eyes tenderly. "...Pleasant or unpleasant?"
Wallace let out a grim chuckle. "Hah! Would th't any decent comp'ny came in th' middle o' th' night..."
Gottfired grumbled again and rolled himself onto his hands and knees. Alexander went about waking Dunham as well. "Wake up Mr. Dunham, we need to move from here."
"Move?" Wallace interrupted as Dunham stirred from his sleep. "Nay child, th' smoke's dulled yer senses."
Alexander blinked at the man as he took another, deeper sniff of the cold night air. The fire that crackled amidst them seemed to surge with heat, lighting his veins on fire as he realized what Wallace had already known.
They were surrounded.
Alexander let out an unsteady breath as Dunham rose to his feet, cracking his back. That the interlopers had managed to evade their senses surprised him. Perhaps these men washed properly...
By the time all four men had woken and risen fully, the intruders made themselves known. There were nearly a dozen of them of all shapes and sizes weapons gleaming in hand and greed in their eyes.
"Ho gentlemen! No need to rouse yourselves on our account." The one who spoke was tall and built, sturdy enough to perhaps work in a lumber yard or a quarry. He approached and rested his hands on the handle of an ax. "We be but humble highwaymen who seek to give purpose to those things that are no longer wanted. I'm certain you have many such supplies or coins that you'd be more than happy to part with. Or... am I mistaken?"
The glint in his eyes belied his true intentions. Not that anyone but a fool could mistake the nature of the encirclement they found themselves in. Bandits came in all forms. Some preferred surprise and violence to get the job done, others intimidation. Even others might be willing barter but at exorbitant rates; no better than thieves they were.
This cadre seemed to act as a sort of guard, demanding a toll for passage through what they might call their "territory."
Sadly, the would be disappointed. "I'm afraid we have nothing of value for you," Dunham announced as he stepped forward. "We have but the clothes on our backs... and the weapons in our hands." The last line a dangerous tone as Dunham flexed his right hand, said weapon hefted therein.
One thing that each of them in turn had had to deal with was believing whether the Dream had been a genuine experience or not. Any one else might have dismissed it out of hand as a bad bit of dinner. But upon their first visit, they'd been given an item. From the little emaciated imps that emerged from the ground in murky grey water, and in their hands they held them; gifts. As the contracted hunters of the Dream, and therefore of the man in the mask, each of them had been given, free of charge, a weapon of their choosing. A cane, a saw, or an ax. When they'd woken up the next morning, the only thing convincing them that the Dream had actually transpired was that very same weapon still clutched in their hand.
And none could believe such was a coincidence, even then because the nature of the weapons were unique. Each possessed a mechanism that transformed them from one form to another. The saw could unhinge and swing out to use the other side of the blade which was sharpened like a cleaver. The cane turned into a serrated whip of razors. The ax was simpler in construction; the handle could extend, turning the thing into a two-handed pole arm.
Dunham had chosen the first, the dull rustic metal deceptively sharp despite its thick edges. While the cane had appeared the more wieldy of the three, it didn't appear to be much of a weapon, lacking any form of an edge beside the singular pointed end. Of course, at the time Alexander didn't know it had another function. On the other hand, the ax appeared far too large to be used in a fight; it actually looked more like a headsman's ax than anything else. More for ceremony than practical use. At the time, he hadn't expected one of the perks of being a contractor was a notable increase in strength. Wallace had chosen the ax, and yet he seemed to have little difficulty lifting it even with a single hand despite his advanced age. Gottfried, befitting his age, though younger than Wallace, chose the cane. Functional in addition to everything else.
In the end, the only sensible choice for had been the saw-cleaver. It looked heavy, but still light enough to be wielded with one hand, all the more so when he realized how much stronger he actually was.
It was that same weapon he lifted from the ground as he faced the ring of crooked men.
The man who stood ahead of the rest regarded them for a moment, his smile dimming slightly as he noted Dunham wasn't the only one armed. But besides Alexander, each of them were middle-aged or older. Surely in a fight they'd be no match against a dozen fresh and ready youthful men who were used to fighting in the dark of the night. Such were his thoughts Alexander was sure. He knew because he was thinking the same thing. He'd never been a real life-or-death fight before, though over the past few weeks he'd resigned himself to the knowledge that he'd likely have to face that fact sooner rather than later.
Perhaps this was the day. He took a steadying breath.
"Careful old man," the bandit cautioned as his fingers gripped tighter around his weapon. "It's much more easier to profit from the dead than the living," he said with a voice that assured Alexander this man had killed before and was prepared to kill again. No doubt that much was obvious to everyone.
Nevertheless Dunham went on undaunted. "I agree. The only question is who will be left alive to profit at all. You? Us? The Kushan? Perhaps the only true victors are the carrion who'll pick our bones clean." A smile spread across the man's face as he reached behind and grabbed a burning stick from the fire, casting a fearsome shadow across his form. "Well then? Let's get on with it."
Alexander steeled himself as he watched the bandit's eyes narrow and frown mar his expression. "You'll regret this, old man." He turned to his fellows and raised his ax high with a war cry that echoed across the plains.
Moving like the flickering shadows of the firelight, they all danced the dance of death.
Rebekka felt her stomach twist and ache as she leaned over the bucket. Her mind, when not focusing on the agony she was experiencing, was whirling. How desperately she sought an answer to her ailment. If not a remedy then at least and explanation. For weeks she'd felt this strange nauseousness overtake her time and time again. It didn't make any sense. An upset stomach was only a symptom of something the body had ingested that it needed to expel. She was certain she'd expelled her own body weight in fluids by this point.
Another wave hit her, doubling her over the bucket as she dry-heaved. When the episode had passed, she tenderly pressed her hands against her sore belly. Oh, how long would this last? She'd changed her diet, taken some medicine, though she was careful not to over-medicate... There were only so many options available to someone who wasn't educated in the medicinal ways.
She wasn't especially religious, being a skeptic and all, but she prayed every so often mostly out of rhetoric. More so in recent days and with increasing enthusiasm.
"Oh God... What's wrong with me?" she questioned oratorically. Questions were almost never answered. But requests sometimes were. "Please remove this sickness from me. I can't bear it any longer..."
She panted after her ordeal, hoping that God would answer her prayer. When she looked up, she went stiff.
There, on top of her dresser sat an object. It was small, but large enough to be noticed; a small glass container of an eerily familiar red liquid. The thick crimson left little in her mind what it could be. After all, there was only one liquid of that color and consistency in the inn at all, and it was locked securely in the cellar below her.
It was not the first time she'd considered perhaps taking a small drip of the miraculous fluid. She'd seen how it seemed to work, as if like magic, in the bodies of those she attended. Mr. Dunham had said to use the blood to treat the desperate, the sick, and the eager. At this point, she was a golden combination of all three. But was the blood meant for her, or for others only? She wasn't keen on waiting to find out. She set the bucket aside and stood shakily, nearly falling as she steadied herself on the bedpost. When she was sure she was secure enough, she took a step toward her dresser...
...Only to recoil so violently she nearly cracked her hip as she landed on the floor. Her eyes were wide as disks. Her mouth hung ajar. A hand instinctively brought in front of her protectively.
Before her stood a man... A man who hadn't been there a moment before. He stood silently, appraising her as their gazes met. It felt like an eternity before she found her voice. "W-Who are you?!"
He didn't answer. Instead, he took a step forward and leaned down, offering a hand to her. She didn't take it. When he noticed she had no intention of accepting, he withdrew his gloved hand and straightened.
"If thou canst not recognize me for what I am, then thy faculties are in dire need of rejuvenation." His words, eloquent and a bit old fashioned, flowed like milk out of his mouth. In a strange way, the sound alone set her mind at ease in a way she couldn't explain. Though, he was correct; he was the same strange phantom figure that had haunted her home for some time now. He always seemed to be present, yet never there.
But this was the first time she'd had any actual words with him, which made this a unique encounter. Tentatively she spoke, attempting to sit up onto the side of the bed. "You're the ghost." Is wasn't so much of a question as a statement, though if she was wrong on either account she was sure he would be swift to correct her.
He didn't. "Ghost might be putting it a touch trivially, but I am in a way, a phantasmal being," he said. "I suppose ghost is an easy word for you."
"The one who gave me the blood," she pressed, to which he nodded.
"And with which you have been putting to good use," he affirmed, referring to her previous patients.
She nodded blankly. If course she was. Once she learned it could easily heal others like magic, she had difficulty convincing herself that it wasn't necessary for every situation. "That blood... what is it exactly?"
She wasn't sure how long this conversation would last, so she intended to utilize every vivid moment of it. The man gave her a queer look that spoke more than words could. Blood. Obviously. She felt stupid for even asking such a simple question. "What about it makes it capable of healing men so quickly?"
At that, the man's eyes twinkled. Perhaps in approval, perhaps not, but it was almost literal from her position. Once again, he held his hand out for her which she tentatively accepted. He lifted her to her feet and sat her on the side of the bed. "It's mine."
She blinked at his words. "E...Excuse me?"
A narrow grin shifted his mask as he reached over and plucked the small jar from the top of her dresser. The thick fluid sloshed sickeningly within the glass container. He didn't repeat himself as he looked from it back toward her. "Rather, more concerning is thy condition," he said dismissively as he stood close to her. Uncomfortably close.
She was taken aback at his words, and she recoiled uncertainly. "...My condition?" she parroted, wondering if either he knew the cause, the result or the cure. Or perhaps all three, she hoped.
"It is not a disease," he clarified as his eyes bored into her in a way that produced a notable discomfort in her skull. With a single finger, he reached down and pointed to the base of her belly.
"It is me."
And like a fever dream he was gone.
Once she recovered from the shock, her mind reeling and unable to process what had just happened, she would note that the jar of blood sat on her nightstand, the lid now removed. The glass had changed shape from a bottle to a cup. She would consider the implications of it's new appearance. Consider, and hope she was wrong.
A/N: And there we have it, chapter two finished! Man I'm really feeling my groove in this story and I can't wait to post more for you all! Let me know what you think in the comments below and feel free to ask questions, as I'm sure you have many. I'll answers all questions in kind!
Until next time!