AUTHOR'S NOTE: Hello. :) This is the first story I've ever published or let anyone outside of a very small group read. I hope you enjoy it. I haven't done a whole lot of revision outside of spelling and grammar, so if you notice anything please feel free to let me know. Thank you.
Chapter One: The Realm of Dreams
He didn't understand how he had gotten here. Or really where or what here was. It was a vast space. Empty save for the scattering of trees that were too widely spaced to be a forest. All of the trees were dead, though there seemed to be an aspect of life to them that he couldn't explain. The space was not white, nor really any color he could discern or identify. Nor was it illuminated. The only light seemed to be on the trees, but even then it did not come from them nor anything in their vicinity. Thinking about it made his head hurt.
"Oh?" A new voice made him jump, "You're awake."
The voice did not sound in the air, nor did it echo through his mind. It was simply an understood implication, but he didn't know where it was coming from. Looking around brought him no clarity. The only living thing was an unusually large raven perched in the tree closest to him. Birds obviously couldn't speak, so who was talking to him?
"How rude. Just because we don't talk to you doesn't mean we don't talk at all. You Humans are all so ignorant."
This bird could also apparently read minds, which was a terrifying thought. It clicked its beak together before dropping from the tree into a graceful dive. He watched warily, uncertain of the intention, but the raven only swooped back skyward and into a lazy circle.
"Follow me then. If you want to understand where you are and what's happening, that is."
Without waiting for a reply the raven turned in mid-circle and began to fly away. Seeing no other alternatives, he scurried after it. There was nothing in this space to look at. Nothing to admire or help him determine what this place was. Nothing except dead trees that weren't even in rows but rather dotted here and there as though there seeds had been carelessly tossed to the breeze. He started to wonder if maybe he was dead and the raven was guiding him to judgement.
"Stop." The raven turned in a sharp curve and dropped to hover in front of him. The look in surprisingly stunning stormcloud eyes was a mixture of understanding and irritation, "Your thoughts are too loud, and you're going to attract everything in range. You need to silence them."
"I don't know how." Almost apologetic but not quite, irritated right back because this bird wasn't giving him any answers. He didn't understand what was happening or who he was and he couldn't remember anything before waking up in this place. He couldn't even remember his name.
The raven didn't even blink, simply offered what might have been a sigh, and tapped him in the middle of the forehead with its beak. A gentle peck, not hard enough to hurt or really do anything except startle him.
"I'm not allowed to tell you. I'm simply to guide you. That's why I was waiting for you to wake up and dealing with any unpleasantness that came sniffing your way. I don't expect you to trust me, but I do expect you to follow. Its not too much further."
"Fine." Grudging acceptance because he really didn't have a choice. If there was someone who could explain what was going on, he would follow this blunt bird to find some answers. "How do I silence my thoughts?"
"I don't have time to teach you, so I did it for you. It's temporary." And then the raven was lifting into the air again, doing one small circle before moving on.
He sighed, annoyance growing, but followed. Didn't even ask permission before messing with his head. He supposed he should be grateful, but at the moment it was tempered by his growing contempt for the bird. He wasn't sure if it was dislike for the bird or dislike of his situation. Maybe both. Either way, it didn't seem to be doing him any good.
He was so focused internally he almost missed the raven do a nose dive straight into the ground and disappear. Blinking, sure he was missing something, he moved closer to investigate. Sure enough the raven was gone, but in its place was a hole just large enough for him to squeeze through.
"Coming?" That damned voice sounded below him, "Better hurry, there are more unpleasant surprises outside that would love to rip us both to pieces."
He wasn't sure why that amused him. Maybe because despite the words the raven didn't sound fazed in the slightest. Bored, almost, with whatever 'unpleasantness' he had to deal with. He could see the raven as a warrior, an endless field of battle stretched before and behind that was covered in the rotting corpses of fallen foes. Blink once and the illusion is gone, leaving him to squeeze through the hole and land in a surprisingly large hallway.
The hallway, too, had no discernible source of light but seemed well lit in spite of that. There was only one way to go, and no visible way to climb back out of the hole. Wondering vaguely if he was making a mistake, he trudged onward toward the opening at the end of the hall resembling a doorway.
The space beyond that was even larger than he had anticipated, though only one room. It resembled a large cave, complete with the well maintained bonfire in the middle of the room. The floor was surprisingly carpeted, masking the stone with a sort-of cushion that seemed to be more for decoration than comfort. It was all a deep wine color that seemed richer in the firelight. Cushions were scattered about the cave, large enough to sit or lay on comfortably, though there didn't seem to be anything in the way of traditional furniture.
There were people in the room, too, though no one was talking or even sitting remotely close together. They seemed deliberately spaced out, avoiding making eye contact as they lounged in their own worlds. He said nothing, hesitating on the edge of the cavern and unsure who he was supposed to talk to. The raven had said he was leading him to answers. This did not appear to be the case.
A lean form detached itself from the shadows on the opposite side of the cavern, catching his attention only because it moved in the light. He couldn't make out any features, but some instinctive part of him told him this was the being he sought. He moved, then, edging carefully into the room and stepping around the pillows instead of over them. He avoided the people, not wanting to disturb them, and met up with the figure in the center nearest to the fire.
Physically she appeared to be a young woman, with the most vibrant yellow eyes he had ever seen. Nearly neon in color, striking against the winter grey of her untamed waist length hair. Her skin was a very light grey, nearly unnoticeable except when the firelight glanced over her a certain way. He could sense, however, that she was ancient even in this place. He just didn't understand how he knew that.
"I apologize for my brother." Her first words, and not words but merely a thought placed directly into his mind while her mouth never moved, "He has had too much hardship, and as such does not know how to be welcoming. Please forgive his initial rudeness, as beneath that he is a good man."
"I'm not angry with him." He surprised himself when he realized that was true, "Confused, lost, and annoyed at the situation, but not angry with him."
Her expression didn't change, but he could feel a sense of relief from her without being able to explain it. She inclined her head, then half-turned as though to lead the way.
"We have much to discuss, you and I. This way please."
He followed obediently, noticing for the first time that she was garbed in a grey wolf's pelt. It covered little outside of her private areas, but she didn't seem to mind showing so much. In fact, he was gathering that most of these... creatures? Very rarely covered anything and she was simply trying to be polite. That confused him a little bit, but he pushed it aside if only temporarily in favor of the more pressing concerns. One puzzle at a time.
She led him through a smaller archway type opening he hadn't immediately noticed, into a smaller cavern with a smaller fire going. There were only three of the large pillows back here, grouped around the fire, and no room for much else. It was onto one of these pillows that his new guide settled gracefully. She folded herself to sit cross-legged, and gestured to the pillow on her left.
He obeyed, less gracefully, and was grateful that these pillows were actually comfortable. He kept his gaze on the woman, waiting for her to speak. Waiting for something. She didn't blink, staring right back as though studying him. Her gaze, he decided, could see more than flesh. It was as though she was reading his soul. Judging it. Deciding if he was worth the information she had to offer. He felt himself being surveyed and could not find it in himself to blame her.
"What do you remember?" Surprisingly gentle, curiosity evident in only her tone, "Before waking here?"
"Nothing." He shrugged half-heartedly, wishing he could give a better answer, "I don't even remember my name. I don't remember what I look like. I don't remember anything about who I was. I have no idea where or what here is."
She nodded, "I expected as much. You are not the first to enter our Realm in such a condition. You are lucky my brother found you. Those who wind up here usually end up as fuel for the nightmares and Night-Terrors that lurk outside."
"What do you mean?" Slightly suspicious now despite himself, wondering the fate of the others like him, "What others?"
"Let me start at the beginning." She closed her eyes, briefly, as though this tale pained her, before opening them again to regard him, "We are in the Realm of Dreams, but not in the sense that you are dreaming. No, this place is on the edge of madness in the minds of every creature that roams the entirety of the Realms. One wrong step sends them careening into the Abyss with no hope of escaping. Your kind calls that Oblivion. This, then, is Oblivion's Gate"
"Oblivion's Gate?" Interrupting without meaning to, frowning, "I've heard that before. In some distant piece of my mind, swallowed by an ocean I don't see the bottom of."
"All of your memories lie somewhere in that ocean." She shifted slightly to get more comfortable, tilting her head, "That is your mind's way of protecting itself. It buries the pain because to do otherwise becomes a precursor to madness."
"What could possibly be so bad that I needed to forget everything?" Baffled by this concept, biting his lip because he was starting to feel nauseous. Just talking about this was making him uneasy.
"I do not know." Shaking her head again, regarding him solemnly, "I do know, however, that you are different from the others that came here. Your mind is a storm, and a beacon. Your thoughts project so loud and so clearly that silencing them is no easy task, and you are not even aware of it. I have only met one other with a prele like that."
"Preel?" He struggled to pronounce the word she used, not understanding its meaning, "What's that?"
"Pre-ll." She enunciated it for him again, "Soul. Your soul is overwhelmingly bright. I am uncertain where your greatest strength lies, but I doubt it will be hard to find."
"Whoa, slow down. My soul is bright? What are you talking about?"
She paused, contemplating the best way to explain, and then spoke again, "It is like this. Each soul is a combination of gifts from the Well of Souls, created by the Gods. Those gifts vary from person to person, and make up who they are. The brighter the soul, the more gifts they have been given. This is not always a good thing. However, each soul has a specialty, a 'strength', that they can access and wield better than any of the other gifts. Some souls do not have the capability to access their gifts at all. Each case is unique, even if two souls share the same 'strength'. Everyone has their own way of using their gifts."
"So its like magic?" Disbelief etched itself into his tone without his consent, making him sound a touch condescending, "Superpowers?"
"Magic is what your people call it. There are a great many names. The truth of the matter is there are only a select few who understand this substance in its entirety. Many have devoted the entirety of their lives to the subject only to be swallowed whole and lost in the madness."
"Forgive my skepticism, but magic doesn't exist."
"Are you so certain? How else do you explain everything that has transpired since you awoke? You and I are not speaking with voices. My brother spoke to you and he is a bird. You are lost in a Realm you know nothing about with no memory of where you are or what has happened. You do not know how you got here. What would you call something like that?"
"You said it yourself. We're in the Realm of Dreams. I'm dreaming."
"No." She was studying him with traces of disapproval now, "We all wish our answers could be so simple. You are not dreaming. You have stumbled onto a land no one else comes to of their own volition."
"I don't believe you." He couldn't. He couldn't accept any of this because it was too much. "You're a figment of my imagination, and so is this whole crazy world. So was the talking raven. All of it. I'm leaving and you can't stop me."
"I could." There was a low growl to her words, and it was so brief and so sudden he wondered if he'd imagined it, "That would, however, be wrong. You are free to go. You will find a ladder leading you back out of the hole you came in through."
"This is goodbye. I'm going to wake up." He said it with such confidence, such authority, that he almost believed it, "Even if I never learned your name."
She shook her head sadly, "I will not say goodbye. Not yet. I will instead bid you farewell, and until next time."
He shook his head at her and her silly nonsense, rising from the pillow without another word, and retreated back the way he had come. Down the hall without a word to anyone else toward the ladder that was waiting for him as promised. Only when he had vanished back to the surface did another young man step out of the shadows behind the woman. He was a dark inky black color that let him blend in seamlessly, and his lean muscled form was covered by a cloth that was both leather and black feathers. His stormcloud eyes were irritated, and he regarded the woman for a moment before he spoke.
"He is a fool."
"No, brother, he is lost and confused. Trapped in a world he knew nothing about and doesn't know how to understand."
"I didn't react like that." He folded his arms over his chest even though she still wasn't looking at him, "When I first arrived here."
"No." Agreement was quiet, sad, "You did not."
The young man sighed, knowing what she wanted without her having to say it, "I'll keep an eye on him, but he's an asshole. I just want you to know that up front."
"Thank you, brother." She looked over her shoulder at last, smiling a little, "Just make sure you do not get killed protecting him from himself. He is not worth your loss. No one is."
"You flatter me." Stooping to kiss the top of her head on his way past, smiling in turn because he couldn't help it, "You'd be just fine."
He didn't hear her reply, moving through the larger cavern with the ease of someone who did it a lot. Changing back into bird form was easy, just a deep breath and the release of the image he held onto as a humanoid. Instead he called the raven to mind, feeling his body shrink and morph into the large bird, and when it was complete he was flying up and out once more.
He didn't like spending too much time on the surface. It was dangerous here. Too many things to go wrong, too many things to be wary of. He had learned that the hard way. Nothing on the surface to hide behind, nothing to run to or climb to escape. None of the trees could support much weight, although he had tested their limits and discovered they could hold him in raven form. Sometimes he came up here just to get away from the responsibilities that came with living below. The duty he was forced to uphold. Something he had never asked for. He didn't blame his sister. It wasn't her fault. But he blamed everyone else. They all blamed somebody.
Shaking that off because now was not the time to be thinking about such things, focusing instead on following the beacon that was his charge. His sister was right, the man's soul was overwhelmingly bright, he just couldn't see it himself. No wonder every night-terror in the vicinity wanted to eat him. To find such levels of power in a place like this was almost unheard of.
He was a little bit surprised he hadn't run into any Night-Terrors yet. Surely they should be chasing the soul down with the reckless abandon of a ravenous beast. He had yet to see that in action. It was strange, because they tended to go for anything with even the slightest hint of strength. Their absence just served to make him even more wary. The silence couldn't be good. Could they be plotting something? They had been getting more devious lately...
A loud cry from somewhere in front of him snapped the raven out of his thoughts, and he took off with a powerful thrust of his wings in that direction. Inwardly cursing himself for getting too lost in introspection, he flashed toward the source as fast as he possibly could.
Sure enough, the young man was lying pinned on the ground terrified out of his wits with a gigantic monstrosity looming over him. Its lanky form was a deep swirling black that seemed to suck you in the longer you stared at it. It was entirely smooth save for the jagged spikes sticking out along its curved back. Bleached white claws were lethally sharp, accenting the massive paws that looked more like skeletal hands than anything else. The worst part was its face. Teeth that were too big for its mouth were a blood stained rust color, the jaw oversized and exceptionally powerful. The slobber, too, was a disgusting shade of pink that said it hadn't gone hungry for long. There were no eyes, the thing was entirely blind, but it made up for that weakness with an exceptional sense of smell and even more sensitive hearing.
Shifting back into his humanoid form mid dive and slamming into the thing's side with all the speed and force of a fully trained warrior. It was enough to knock the creature off balance, pulling away from its prey with a confused and infuriated shriek. It turned on him, sniffing in his direction as though trying to determine how much he was worth. This creature was relatively young, its inexperience making it easy to disorient and therefore easier to destroy.
He had his daggers in hand before it pounced, and utilized this advantage to slash at its side as he dodged sideways. The cut wasn't deep, but it was enough to make the creature more wary. The creature's attacks were clumsy and uncoordinated, easy to dodge and counter, but that didn't make it any less dangerous. He was careful to keep his guard up, paranoid there were more nearby, and finished it off as quickly as possible. Burying his dagger in its neck and ripping sideways so the billowy smoke came spilling out.
Only when the thing had exploded into ash and dust did the raven turn his attention back to the young man. He was still sprawled on the ground, apparently unaware that he was bleeding from a wound to his ribs, staring at his savior in horror.
"What... What was that thing?!"
"A Nightmare. An exceptionally weak one at that. Must have been freshly made." Moving over to the young man as he spoke, frowning with disapproval, "You're lucky. Anything else would have killed you on sight."
He examined his charge critically, looking for other signs of injury, and nodded once to himself, "I'm going to have to make bandages out of your shirt. You're bleeding and I don't have the power to heal you."
"I thought I would wake up." The response was quiet and small, sounding on the verge of tears, "I thought this was all a dream and I would wake up. Why didn't I? What is this place?!"
"You're an idiot." The raven didn't wait for permission, using one of his daggers to begin cutting strips from his charge's shirt to make bandages out of, "You don't just wake up from this place. This is the edge of Creation. There is no escape unless you're let out, and even then you have to be judged worthy of rebirth. Didn't you understand anything my sister told you?"
"I thought it was a dream." He repeated, not protesting as the other man began to wrap the bandages around his torso, "I thought she was part of the dream. I didn't know it was real."
The raven sighed, his gaze softening the slightest bit, and helped his charge to his feet, "We need to get you to Mynx. She can mend your injuries. Then you need to have a real conversation with my sister."
"Are there more of those... things?" The idea made the young man visibly pale, terrified of something he could only describe in passing, "Is it safe?"
"The Nightmares and Night-Terrors can't reach us in the den." The Raven replied, wrapping an arm around the young man's waist and guiding his other arm over his shoulders to help support his weight, "Chron sees to that, but I help her out from time to time. You'll be safer there than out here in the open."
"What are they? What are you?" He was dazed and overwhelmed, struggling to keep up with everything that was happening and definitely feeling his wounds now. Everything hurt.
"All questions better answered by my sister." The raven shook his head, beginning the slow trek back to the den with the young man leaning most of his weight on him, "Ara is better at explaining, and I'm not technically allowed to answer anyway."
"You never told me your name." Still dazed, accepting the dismissal as best he could in his current condition. Mostly because he didn't have the strength or willpower to argue.
The raven hesitated, then sighed, "Dhajir is what they call me. I don't remember my original name. Do you remember yours?"
"No." The young man frowned, biting his inner cheek, "I don't remember anything."
"Ara may be able to help you with that." Dhajir sounded thoughtful now, but they had reached the entrance to the den and his attention became focused on getting the attention of a rather large woman lounging in the tunnel.
She was easily over six feet tall, with short chestnut hair cut to stay out of her face and fierce honey gold eyes. She was all muscle, too, making it easy to visualize her wielding the massive sword strapped to her back. Dhajir seemed relieved to see her, almost, a ghost of a smile crossing his usually scowling features.
She looked up at her name, surprise raising one eyebrow in mute curiosity, but waited for him to continue.
"Can you give me a hand? We need to get him to Mynx."
A nod in response, and then Dhajir was shifting his hold on his charge to carefully lower him into the hole. Chron caught the young man easily, not even the slightest bit burdened by his weight, and stepped out of the way so Dhajir could join them.
"What happened?" Her voice was low and soothing, mellow for someone so tall. She had the demeanor of calm acceptance, shaking her head when Dhajir went to relieve her of her burden,
"A Nightmare. Really young. Probably fresh off its first kill and still on the power high."
"Ah." As if that explained everything, and turning to lead the way instead as Dhajir kept rear guard, "Any more of them?"
"I haven't seen any in a while." He frowned, biting his lower lip anxiously, "Its strange. Normally they'd be all over a prele like his. Its almost as if they're waiting for something."
She paused, glancing over her shoulder at him and raising an eyebrow again, "Like what?"
"I don't know." Frustrated, but forcing it away for the time being, "Is Mynx here?"
"Yes. She and Ara were talking when I did my rounds earlier."
Dhajir, content with that answer, lapsed into silence as he contemplated their predicament. This behavior from their foes was entirely unnatural. They had never, in the centuries he had spent in this Realm, been so quiet. It unnerved him but he refused to show it. He didn't have anything to back up his instincts, and no matter how many times his instincts had proven accurate his fellows always demanded proof of some kind. The only exception was Ara, and they didn't always listen to her.
"Mynx." Chron's voice brought his attention back to the present, and Dhajir realized they had reached the woman in question while he had been trapped in his head like an idiot.
Chron was already setting the young man down on a cushion, gesturing for the much smaller woman to join them. The young man hissed a protest when the movement agitated his injuries, but otherwise remained silent and almost motionless when she put him down.
Mynx was only about four feet tall and exceptionally slender. Almost bone thin, frail like a gust of wind could knock her over. Despite that, she displayed surprising strength when dealing with a patient, and could hold her own when it came to combat. Her waist length hair was entirely white, a shining opal that reflected other colors when caught in the firelight a certain way. Her eyes were a faded cloudy pink instead of the once brilliant ruby. She had lost her eyesight to a Night-Terror, and even her magic hadn't been enough to mend the damage. It was an odd contrast to her extremely childlike face, but no one dared say anything about it.
"What happened?" Her voice was a somewhere between a rattle and a rasp, as though her vocal chords had long since withered and speech actually hurt.
"This young man got caught by a Nightmare. A young one. It got him on the left side." Dhajir reported dutifully, as he had been present during the attack, "I managed to kill it before it inflicted any more damage."
"Then why did you let it hurt him in the first place?" Something like a sneer in her voice, disdain, maybe, for the warrior.
Dhajir bit back a scathing retort, reminding himself that they needed Mynx because she was the only one capable of healing anyone, and forced his reply through clenched teeth, "I didn't let it do anything. He decided to leave the den because he couldn't accept that this wasn't a dream, so I followed him to make sure he didn't get killed. When I caught up with him, he was already injured."
Mynx snorted, but chose not to reply to him, focusing her attention instead on her patient. Healing was a quick and relatively easy process, depending on the severity of the wounds. Something like this should be easy for her.
Dhajir didn't wait for it to begin, either, "I'm going to report to Ara. He's exhausted and confused, so he'll likely sleep when you're finished."
Then he swept away without waiting for her to give him permission. He didn't answer to her, gods damn it, and she needed to stop pretending that he did. The only person he accepted orders from outside of the DreamKeeper himself was Ara, and that was only because Ara was the oldest and wisest out of all of them.
He found his sister seated in her little section of the cave. Deep in meditation by the fire, eyes closed and breathing even. Not desiring to interrupt, Dhajir settled down to wait. Lowering himself onto the pillow on her left and studying the fire uneasily. Looking for answers in the swirling flame and finding only more questions to chase in circles.
"Something troubles you."
Ara hadn't opened her eyes, but Dhajir could feel her scrutinizing him anyway. He nodded once, chewing briefly on his words before speaking them.
"Something feels off. The Night-Terrors have been eerily quiet since that kid arrived, and even the Nightmare that I killed was too young and too weak to have access to prey like that. Normally the older and stronger ones would kill it before it even so much as sniffed in his direction. I feel like they're waiting for something, but what it is and when its coming I have no idea."
"I had much the same premonition." She actually opened her eyes this time, regarding him with her ever-present calm, "You have always been sensitive, my brother. I am inclined to believe that this is no exception. We must protect the boy. He is the key to all of this."
"I knew you were going to say that." Groaning, covering his face with one hand, "He's helpless. It would be a hell of a lot easier if we could teach him to fend for himself at least a little."
"I agree." That surprised him, and Dhajir dropped his hand to give her a curious look, "He needs to learn independence. I fear we will not always be able to save him."
"Maybe have him train with all of us?" Studying his sister thoughtfully, not liking the slightest furrow of her brow, "It would help to figure out what his gift is."
"I will speak with the others." Ara nodded, smiling faintly at him, "And when the boy awakens he and I will have an actual conversation. I would like you to be present, also."
"Of course." Puzzled by her request for his presence, but not one to argue or decline anyway.
"That is not all that you are thinking about."
How did she always know? Dhajir scowled, but gave in despite that. "Mynx is getting under my skin again. She's really starting to piss me off. Claiming I let the boy get injured. Her looking down on me is painfully obvious and I just want to deck her. If she tries to order me around again I will punch her. Consequences be damned."
Ara's lips thinned, "I will speak with her. She is in no position to look down on any of us. The number of times you have saved her life alone is nothing to sneeze at, either. I will find out what is causing this behavior."
"Thank you." Grateful for her, as always, and yawning slightly as weariness started to creep up on him, too. He had spent so long keeping watch over the kid when he first arrived that he hadn't slept in days.
"Rest, brother." Ara was rising fluidly to her feet, "I will wake you in time."
He didn't have the energy to argue, warmed by the fire and lethargic now that he wasn't running on adrenaline anymore. He only had time to wave a weak hand in acknowledgement before he was falling asleep.