Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Chapter 5: The Dream

    "Elinora was the light and love of our lives. It was a mercy for Viktor that he Passed before she did, and a curse for me that I didn't." Countess Amelia wore an expression of deep contemplation and even deeper sorrow. "To see such joy and beauty ended before its time is a tragic thing in any case, but for a parent it is the worst kind of agony."
     Dreamer Merrik Trammer interrupted her. "Your grief is understandable, Countess, but surely you know that both your beloved husband and your daughter have come to no end. It is well to miss them, but bear in mind that they await you in The Dream."
     "I'm well aware of your teachings, Master Dreamer."
     "You have doubts?"
     "At my age one begins to doubt everything – even one's own mind. Whatever awaits us all on the other side of Sleep, those of us still in the Waking World are probably deeply ignorant of it."
     "We are all ignorant until Morpheus guides us to The Dream."
     "So say you and your former brethren." Her special emphasis on the word former elicited a slight widening of Trammer's eyes. "However, if you'd allow me to finish, I think we'll come to some understanding."
     "Forgive my interruption," he said solemnly. "Please continue." The Dreamer closed his eyes and concentrated on her words.
     "As Owerst Nandliss indicated, my Viktor Passed in battle nineteen years ago. Elinora was only seven at the time, but she'd already learned her father's love of nature. She loved horses most especially. From the age of three she sat a horse more confidently than she could walk. The two of them would spend hours riding together, visiting other estates, or seeking out quiet places for picnics. Her favorite place to explore was the Willow Wood."
     "I remember one evening when she and Viktor came back from that accursed place very late – after Sol had gone to sleep and the darkness had come – she was so excited to have discovered a faerie circle. The two of them had hidden in a hollow nearby and waited for the pixies to come out and play. For days afterward she spoke of nothing but how beautiful they had been dancing in the moonlight to the music they made with the crickets. Oh mommy, she would tell me, you should have seen their graceful dancing."
     "After her father died, she was never the same." The guests all winced at her use of the word died. It was a word that was rarely used of people, and never in polite company. In the minds of some talk of that sort bordered on heresy. In her youth, the Countess would never have used such impolite words, but now she savored them: dead, killed, piss, war, fuck and damned. Such words were direct and to the point. She hadn't time to spare in talking around a subject just because someone's delicate ears might take offense. Of course, she didn't use such words lightly – only when they served her better than other words.
     "If anything, Elinora grieved even worse than I did. She never knew of her father's faults and so, to her, he was the perfect man. It was nearly a year before she rode again, but she took back to it as though she'd never left the saddle.  Within a couple of years, she began taking these two with her on her expeditions – as soon as they were old enough to ride on their own, really. Of course I always insisted that Rikard go with them, as he was older than Elinora by a year. He was always a trustworthy boy in those days."
     This time it was Elinge that interrupted. "You say that as if you believe him to be less than trustworthy now."
     "Well, that wasn't my meaning, I suppose, but he's known loss, too. So much loss does something to a man. I don't expect he'd ever allow any of us to come to harm, but he's not as dependable as he once was. He doesn't think I know it, but he drinks too much and he's prone to laziness if not minded."
     "How did he come into your service?"
     "His mother, Livinia, was my maidservant. She was in my service before I married Viktor, and she came to the manor with me."
     "Where is Livinia now?"
     "She Passed into The Dream the same year as Elinora. She was still young – only thirty-eight – and Rikard was only fourteen."
     "Who is his father?"
     "You ask too many irrelevant questions, Mistress Froske. As it happens no one knows the answer to that one. Livinia never revealed his precise identity – only that he was a merchant's guard she'd met at a tavern. It seems she'd drunk too much and didn't take care with whom she kept company at times. That sort of behavior runs in the blood, you know. That's why Rikard's becoming such a layabout, no doubt."
     "Please forgive me if I've offended, Countess. Curiosity is in my nature, as you are undoubtedly aware. I don't expect you'd have sent for me otherwise."
     "You are correct that I hope your curious nature will be of some use. I'll explain why later."
     Elinge nodded. 

     "I didn't like Elinora going into the Willow Wood, but there was simply no keeping her from it. On one occassion they brought back a number of rusted iron arrow heads and axe heads. It seems they'd discovered the ground where the Orgish raiders had been beaten back by Viktor and his men."
     "Another time they found the remains of the camp where the twins were found."
     At this, Jessa and Jens, who had been paying little attention suddenly sat a little straighter in their seats. The topic of their origins was rarely discussed in the manor – no matter how often they asked about it.
     "That's right, you two," continued Amelia. "Pay attention now, because I don't like discussing these things. It was Livinia who found the twins. This was just a year before Viktor's battle in the wood – when the Orgish uprising was just beginning. As you may know, the whole conflict began with raids into Palonian territory from the Grey Mountains to the north. This being one of the outlying estates, and as one of the main trade routes of the time ran along the western edge of the Willow Wood, we were subjected to some of the first raids. Before we'd come to realize the extent of Orgish plans, we still felt safe in traveling alone or in small groups around the estate and into Lunelton – that's the village you passed through on your way here from Ayrst."
     "One day Livinia and Rikard had been in the village, no doubt on one of her dalliances in the Black Horse or some such disreputable place – I never understood why she'd take her boy with her on these trips – when she came upon a terrible scene. There was a merchant's train that must have pulled off into the wood a little ways for a campsite that night, and had been attacked. She said that everyone at the scene had been killed and the wagons burned. Poor little Rikard was traumatized by the scene, no doubt, but he was the one that heard the babes crying. Apparently the children's mother had hidden them not too far from the campsite. It's a wonder the raiders hadn't discovered them."
     "She said they'd been curled up together in a hollow tree stump. They looked half starved and were crying out for their mother. Livinia brought them home with her."
     "We never discovered who their parents had been, nor could we find anyone who knew anything about the caravan. Judging by their size at their current age – this was twenty years ago – they must have been from some foreign land where the people don't grow as tall as we do here. Or perhaps they were malnourished through their earliest years, or the trauma stunted their growth. I don't recall Livinia ever mentioning the bodies being of small stature, but I don't suppose she took the time to examine them too closely."
     "We raised the children here, as they'd nowhere else to go, and we feared they'd not do well in an orphanage. Besides, they took to Elinora like she was their older sister. She used to call them My Little Pixies, and she treated them as though she were their natural mother."
     "Viktor took to them immediately, but I was a leery of growing too close, at first. I had hoped for their sakes that some relatives would be found. But as time passed, I came to love them as my own children."
     "Of course, it was only a year later that Viktor Passed. Do either of you have any memories of him now?"
     Jens said, "I remember you and he took care of us. He showed us how to catch fish from the river, I remember that. But we were very young, so that's about all."
     "I remember he was very big and strong," began Jessa. "He used to ride us on his shoulders, and would give us sweets sometimes when Livinia wasn't looking too close. And I remember going fishing, too."
     "Yes, the two of you were very young," continued the Countess. "Four or five years old, we expected – though considering your size now, it's difficult to be certain. What do you remember of my daughter?"
     "Oh, we loved Elinora, didn't we Jens?" Jens nodded agreement with his sister, who continued: "We'd play together in the fields, and then she taught us to ride. She especially loved to explore in the woods, though that sometimes scared Rikard. He was always telling us it was dangerous in there, though we never came to any harm, so I don't-"
     Countess Amelia interrupted Jessa then, a sharp tone in her voice. "You two never came to any harm, but Elinora certainly did!"
     Jessa lowered her head. "Yes, ma'am. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to say-"
     "I don't suppose you did. But you look to have finished your pudding, so go up and wash for bed now, both of you."
     "But, we want to hear more stories, ma'am," said Jens. "We promise to be quiet."
     Jessa joined in, "Please let us hear more. I'll even help Nansi with cleaning up."
     "No," came the response. "To bed with both of you. I'll not hear another word about it."
     The twins stood up and pushed their chairs back in place. They left through the kitchen doors.

     Once the twins were gone, the Countess began again. "Now I'll tell you of my dream."
     "It began as many of my dreams do: Viktor and I were dancing. The time and place changed, as in the manner of dreams. One moment I believed it was our wedding, and another it was a festival. One moment we danced in a crowd, and the next we were alone."
     "Early in the dream he spoke to me, but his utterances were merely sweet nothings. He had a silver tongue, my Count. Between that and his charming smile, there were few in the world who could ever deny him anything."
     "It was later in the dream, when we were suddenly dancing on the lawn behind the manor, that he began to speak in a way that he sometimes does in my dreams: in a way which leads me to believe that he is not only watching me from The Dream, but somehow is able to speak to me in my own dreams."
     The Countess noted the unease with which Master Trammer sat in his chair. "Some of this will make you uncomfortable, Dreamer, but it is truth I speak. And it was not so long ago that your very brethren would not have been so edgy around such talk. I've read my history."
     Trammer responded: "I should be careful discussing any books with that sort of knowledge so openly. The Temple has issued strict orders that the ecclesiastical histories of the Old Gods are to be removed-"
     "Calm yourself, Master Trammer," said Elinge. "I think the Countess is quite safe here in her own home. She's hand picked her company for this evening, and I suspect she wouldn't risk such talk if she believed any of us were the type to go running to the Temple of The Invincible Light with tales of heresy."
     "Quite so," replied the Countess. "As my Count used to say: 'Faith has its place, but it is not in restricting thought or reason. They must have their places too.'"
     "Well," replied Trammer, "I have my own reasons for being cautious. I expect you know my history, Countess?"
     "Indeed, I do. This is why you were among those chosen. And you may call me Amelia – all of you. I wish this to be a meeting of friends, and as I said, I don't much stand on ceremony here – at least not any longer."
     The company nodded their agreement. Only Owerst Nandliss stiffened a bit at Amelia's suggestion.
     "Please, Amelia," offered Elinge, "do continue."
     "The reason I persist in beliefs which make our dear Dreamer so nervous, is that sometimes Viktor speaks to me of things that are in no way on my own mind. As such, it is unlikely that I've dreamed up such things for him to say."
     Nandliss broke in himself at this point. "I take it you've read the essays of Doctor Jehltsen of Ehronia? He claims to have evidence that ordinary dreams come to us from our own minds rather than as gifts of the Oneiroi." After registering the look of shock on the Dreamer's face, he added, "Of course, they'll allow all manner of heresy to be discussed openly in Ehronia. I'm sure the Countess didn't mean to imply she believes their nonsense."
     "Oh, but that is precisely what I mean." Amelia smiled broadly. "I believe Doctor Jehltsen is entirely correct, but not so far as he goes. His work seems to have as its mission to discount the need for any of the Old Gods, and I suspect his ultimate aim may be to disprove any gods at all."
     "However, Master Trammer," she said, as the Dreamer began to choke from surprise, "I believe he goes too far, and will likely find himself on a witch pyre, should he publicly make such a claim. Even the Ehronians have their limits, I suspect. Nor would I support such a claim."
     "It is my belief that he is right as far as run-of-the-mill dreams go. However, I believe Morpheus may send his Oneiroi to gift us with special dreams – dreams which may carry messages for us in the Waking. And I believe the dream which I'm describing to you now is just such a one."
     The others sat in silence. Amelia was unsure whether they were shocked by her words, or merely interested to hear what else she had to say, so she picked up her story.
     "Viktor asked after the twins. He told me there was danger surrounding them. He then told me to remember Elinora. Suddenly, I felt myself transported into the Willow Wood. Although I have spent very little time in that place in my life, and I've never gone back in since Elinora's Passing, everything about it seemed so very vivid. So much so, in fact, that for a time I forgot that I was safe asleep in my bed."
     "I heard the beating of a horse's hooves on soft ground. When I turned, I saw Elinora in the distance. She was laughing and riding Zephyr – she was her favorite mare, and the one she rode the day of her accident. She approached me quickly: riding far too fast for such precarious ground."
     "You are of course, familiar with Willow trees and how their roots twist and wind and create traps for the unwary traveler, yes?"
     "Oh yes," Nandliss nodded. "And as they grow best on wet ground, the earth often washes away from under the roots. One must always take care when riding where Willows grow."
     "Yes. And my Elinora knew this." Her eyes grew misty at the thought of her dream, and the day of which it reminded her. "But sometimes she was too free in spirit. Oh, how she did love to ride, and the faster the better. Zephyr truly matched her temperament, too. That horse loved to run as much as she loved to ride."
     "I tried to wave her down; to catch her attention. But she ignored me, just as she had on that fateful day. As she passed me, she leaned her head back and her peals of laughter echoed throughout the wood."
     "I gave chase, but it was of no use. The harder I tried to run, the more slowly I moved. I looked down and saw that roots and vines were growing about my legs. I pulled and strained against them, but as soon as I tore some of the tendrils, more grew in their place. I screamed with all my might for Elinora to stop, but she was paying me no attention whatsoever: a tizzy of fairies had formed above her head, and she was reaching out to them, no longer minding the reins at all. She called out to me, 'Oh look mommy! The Pixies have come back!'"
     "And suddenly Zephyr tripped on the root, just as she had in Waking life thirteen years ago. Elinora flew out of her saddle as the horse tripped and collapsed, her forelegs making a sickening snap – I'll never forget that sound for as long as I live." Amelia shuddered at the memory. She dabbed at the corners of her eyes with a silk kerchief which she had drawn from her sleeve and held a closed fist to her mouth.
     Elinge rose from her chair and then knelt beside her. "Amelia, please. This is clearly difficult for you to recount. Let me send for some water."
     "No. I just need a moment ... and perhaps another glass of wine." She took a deep breath before calling out, "Rikard! Where are you, Rikard?"
     The manservant bustled in from the kitchen, red-faced and flustered. "Yes, Countess?"
     "Please fill all our glasses, and then go to the cellar and find a bottle – no, two bottles – of Viktor's best wine. I believe we still have several of the Mayrand White of 752."
     "Madam? Are you sure you want to bring that out? Its value-"
     "I said to bring it! There's no telling how much longer I'll be around to enjoy it, and I may as well enjoy it and share it with the few friends I have left."
     Rikard served them what was left of the bottle he had on hand, as Elinge retook her seat. He then bowed his exit.
     The Countess raised her glass in a toast, "To happier times past, and to making new friends."
     The company saluted and drained their glasses in unison.
     "Well, I  may as well finish with this dream-tale now." Amelia took another deep breath as she sat her glass to one side.
     "Once Elinora lay on the ground, the vegetation let me go. I screamed and ran for her, much as I had all those years ago. I picked her up in my arms. There was blood pouring down the left side of her face. She was limp, but still breathing."
     "And then a shadow passed overhead. I looked up, and the sky was turning blacker than any night – moonless and starless. A shadowy hand reached down and caressed Elinora's bleeding head. Her eyes opened, and she looked at me. Her voice was quiet and hollow, and I could barely understand the words."
     "'Mommy,' she said, '"You missed them – the fairies. They were so beautiful and they danced so gracefully. And for a moment, they showed me how to fly.'"
     "And then her voice changed, and her eyes grew a glassy, far-away look in them, as though she was speaking to the world in general, and barely registered my presence at all. She sounded as though she were speaking with three voices: her own, Viktor's, and another deeper voice. She said, 'Beware the willow and the ash.'"
     "And then I woke up."

     The company sat in silence for a few minutes while the Countess Amelia composed herself. Rikard returned with two ancient looking brown glass bottles with a faded label on each bearing the blue dragon insignia of the Mayrands – the current royal family of Palonias, whose wineries were known as one of the finest in this or any of the surrounding countries. He popped the cork on the first one and filled their glasses yet again.
     "Rikard, if you would, please, open the other bottle now. You may take the first one and share what's remaining with Nansi. You are both relieved for the evening. You can clean up tomorrow. I expect my guests and I may be up late, and there's no need for the two of you to lose sleep over our affairs. Oh, and see to it that the twins are abed."
     Rikard did as instructed, and bowed. He left them alone again, this time smiling at the half-full bottle in his hand.
     Mr. Insel was the first to speak: "I expect that's why you're having so many trees cut. You're culling the willow and the ash trees?"
     "Not only that," she replied. "I'm destroying he whole forest. We'll cut the better trees for lumber and sell them off, but anything that's unsuited will be hacked and burnt. I know how prophecies work – how unpredictable they can be – and I'm taking no chances."
     "You believe your dream to be prophetic, then?" asked Merrik Trammer. "It seems to me if it spoke to you about anything, it was the past."
     "You are correct, Master Dreamer, but I believe the warning at the end was a warning for the future. After all, the voice said to beware, not that I should have been wary."
     Mr. Insel broke in then. "If you don't mind my asking, Madam LaDuce ... what has any of this to do with us? I mean to say, I expect you have a reason for sending for us. The Dreamer I understand: you're hoping with help in interpreting your vision. Owerst Nandless is a skilled tracker, so I expect you want him to search the wood for anything threatening."
     The Countess nodded. "Yes, Mr. Insel, precisely so."
     "But then," he continued, "that doesn't explain what you'd want with Miss Froske or myself. Unless there's something you haven't told us."
     "There is at that, Mr. Insel. Very astute of you to notice."

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Chapter 4: The Dinner

     The dining hall at LaDuce Manor evinced only a shadow of its former glory. It was spacious; with a high ceiling and a large stained-glass window at one end depicting some long-forgotten battle in which some equally long-forgotten ancestor of the LaDuce's had been victorious. Clearly Luna was given credit for his success, as the moon goddess herself was depicted smiling down on the scene from a higher window in the shape of a triangle with its point downward. The wallpaper was faded, as were the rugs and even the tablecloths. The moulding was chipped in places, and the room had an overall musty feel about it. A large fireplace sat empty on either side of the long table which dominated the center of the room. Above one of the fireplaces – the one on the east wall – was a portrait of a dark-hared man with bright blue eyes. He appeared to be just shy of his middle years. He wore a military uniform, as people in such portraits so often do. In a chair before him sat a girl with curly blonde locks and a serious look on her face. Above the other fireplace was a portrait of a young woman sitting in a chair that matched the one in the other portrait. Standing to either side of her were two small children: Jens and Jessa at a younger age. The painter of the portrait had caught their delicate features perfectly in the work.
     The guests were shown into the hall by Rikard, who had changed into an ill-fitting coat and tails. He helped Elinge with her chair, and motioned the men to sit.
     "Drinks will be served," he said. "And the Countess will be with you shortly." He bowed and exited through one of the side doors.
     A few moments later Nansi entered with a tray of fruits and cheeses, followed by Rikard, who bore a bottle of chilled wine. Each of the guests was served, and they both exited once again.
     "I believe you were going to finish telling us of the time you hunted the chimaeras." Elinge began, "But we arrived at the manor before you could finish. Would you mind continuing, Owerst?"
     "Oh yes, that. Of course, dear lady, though it may not be the best topic of conversation just before dinner." Aerik Nandliss looked at the other guests. "However, if no one else minds?"
     The others nodded their consent and made agreeable noises, so Nandliss continued.
     "Of course, of course. As I said, we had tracked the beast out of the forest, through the scrub-lands and into a dry sort of country. Not quite a desert, you see."
     Owerst Aerik Nandless was one of those men who loves to hear the sound of his own voice. There was no topic too big nor too small for him to have formed an opinion, and he would gladly explain that opinion to anyone who would give him half a chance. He also loved to recount tales of his many exploits – especially those involving hunting or military action. He had served in the Palonian Rangers, a branch of the army that specialized in scouting unknown territories and in operations behind enemy lines. He'd reached the rank of Owerst  and was very proud of his numerous medals, especially the Traveler's Cross, which he'd received from King Jacke-Petrer Himself. Since then, he had mounted numerous hunting expeditions – mostly for ferocious or legendary creatures.
      He continued, "The terrain was all rocky, which made tracking somewhat difficult, but I was determined. Such a large beast as a chimaera shouldn't hide easily, you see, but it's coloring was close to that of the terrain, and they have semi-magical properties, as I'm sure you know."
     Elinge seemed captivated by his every word. The frail man in the black and blue robes maintained his silence, but listened politely. Mr. Insel seemed to be paying only half his attention. While he listened to the blustery old officer, he also studied the room – teasing out its history and its secrets.
     Owerst Nandliss rambled on, describing the methods used to track such a fantastical beast. He detailed the methods of looking at rocks to see which ones had been recently disturbed, and the uses of divining powders obtained from the far-away lands of Tik'kalli.
     "The creature knew we were on its trail. But it must have also known it could never lose us. We had been tracking it for three days, after all. Finally, it must have grown tired of flight, and found itself a position from which it could most ably defend itself. It had chosen a little cavern of sorts, with the only approach through a narrow defile that, at that time of day, allowed the sun to shine straight in our faces as we approached. We had a rather difficult decision to make: assault it head on, all but blinded by Sol's glare, or wait until he set, thus having to fight the beast in darkness. The way I saw it, there really was no choice. We naturally decided to ..."

     He was interrupted by the entrance of the Countess, who was accompanied by the servants, along with Jens and Jessa. The guests rose at her entrance, and Rikard helped her seat herself at the head of the table, with the windows behind her. The twins seated themselves on the other side of the guests, opposite one another: Jessa next to Mr. Insel, and Jens next to the Owerst. Nearest to the Countess were Elinge and the Dreamer.
     "My apologies for not welcoming you in person earlier," said the Countess. "My health isn't what it used to be, and sometimes I need a little rest in the afternoons."
     "No apology required, Madam Countess," replied Owerst Nandliss. "I believe I speak for all of us when I say that It is a considerable honor merely to be invited to your great and storied home." The others murmured agreement and bowed.
     "My home isn't as honorable as it once was, I'm afraid, so we needn't stand on such ceremony." The Countess motioned to their chairs. "Please do sit, all of you."
     Once everyone was seated, Nansi left for the kitchen again, while Rikard filled the Countess's wine glass before following her. The Countess took a sip and studied her guests. Countess Amelia LaDuce was educated in the ways of proper courtly behavior, but at her advanced age she had little patience for it.
     She was a tall woman and possessed a regal bearing. Her hair was as white as snow, and her face was wrinkled, but fair. Her azure eyes possessed a sharpness about them that might be mistaken for coldness, but was actually a sign of her undeteriorated mental faculties. She wore a grey silk gown – somewhat formal, but not elaborately so – with a white lace shawl and pearl buttons.
     "Thank you all for being here. I trust your journey went well. Are your rooms agreeable?"
     "Yes, quite well, Madam." Nandliss, naturally, was the first to speak. "Your coach was quite comfortable, and the accommodations are more than pleasant. Thank you for your hospitality."
     "I'm very glad to hear that, Owerst Nandliss." She turned to Elinge and Mr. Insel. "And yours?"
     Elinge replied with a simple Yes, Ma'am and Mr. Insel only nodded.
     "And you, Master Trammer?"
     The Dreamer nodded to the Countess. "Yes. The journey went well, and the room will suffice."
     Nansi and Rikard returned with a large tureen of wild mushroom soup. They began serving the guests, who made small talk. Through the first courses of the meal the Countess and her guests discussed mostly pleasant, light topics; such as the weather or the year's fashions in Ayrst. The twins ate silently.
     Mr. Insel broke the chatter with a question. "I noticed that there were workmen cutting and burning many of the trees on your estate. Is there any particular reason for clearing so much land now?"
     "Yes, there is," replied the Countess. "But we'll discuss that later."

     After the main course of roast lamb with vegetables was over, came the Rivvener cream & peach pudding. While the dessert was being served, the Countess got down to business.
     "No doubt, you are all wondering why I've invited you here. Yours were not the only letters I sent, but among those that replied, you were the four I chose. Before I get to the reason, I'd like to know what you all know of my late husband's history." She nodded towards the portrait above the eastern fireplace.
     Without hesitation, Owerst Nandliss put forth his knowledge.  "I know Count Viktor LaDuce was born some twenty years before our Good King Jak. You and he were married in 758. You bore him a daughter, Elinora, who Passed into The Dream at a young age, but you had no other children."
     Seeing the Countess wince at the mention of her late daughter's name, Nandliss paused. "I apologize to m'lady if I brought up an unpleasant memory there. It was a well-known tragedy at the time – some fourteen years ago, I believe?"
     "Thirteen years ago last month. Please, do continue."
     "He was a man of some renown even before the Orgish rebellion. It was during the Battle at the Willow Wood of 768 that he was lost defending this very homestead. He was granted the Blue Dragon for his valor, though it was granted posthumously. By all accounts he'd lived the same way as he Passed: an honorable man."
     "That is what is commonly known, yes." The Countess nodded to Nandliss. "What few know is what a devoted and loving husband he was. So devoted, in fact, that though he has Passed into The Dream, some part of him as remained. He watches over his ancestral home. He still watches over me. And sometimes he still speaks to me from The Dream."
     At this, the Dreamer opened his eyes wider in surprise. "Surely, Countess, you know what you speak could be construed as heresy?"
     "Yes, I know, but there is no Hierophant here to scold me. Surely you have no interest in running to the Temple?" She laughed. "Though I've little doubt they'd love to hear the tale."
     "Now, back to the point at hand," she continued. "I believe my deep connections with my dear departed Viktor have given me a waking connection to the Dream." She motioned the Dreamer for silence. "Patience, Master Trammer. You will be heard, but as you've no doubt guessed your presence here is especially important."
     "You see, it was in the week before the anniversary of Elinora's accident that I had a dream. A  dream which involved Viktor, Elinora and that accursed forest. First, I should tell you of the nature of Elinora's Passing."

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Chapter 3: The Watchman

     Captain Hambelton Frayg of the City Watch of Ayrst, was an even-tempered man on an ordinary day, but today he felt a little grouchy. First off, he hadn't slept well the night before, and secondly, he hadn't had his usual morning kaffea drink. So when the page had come around that morning to inform him that he was needed at the Watch House immediately, he wasn't in the best of moods. When he discovered that the reason he was needed was because someone had been killed at an inn overnight he was in a mood to chew rocks
       Just what I need, he thought, to look at a stinking corpse before I've even had breakfast. When duty called, however, he tucked his breeches into his boots, grabbed his coat and left.
        Murders weren't common in Ayrst, but every so often some poor fool found himself in the wrong alley of a night, and ran into someone who wasn't polite about asking for a handout. It was nearly impossible to find the murderers in those cases as the alleys were always full of people who hadn't seen a thing that wasn't at the bottom of a bottle or mug. Once in a while, if you did just the right favor for the right person, answers could be had. Captain Frayg knew that some answers could be found through divination, but it was a rare case in which the Temple would take enough of an interest to help out the City Watch. They had more important concerns: like finding heretics.
       As he approached the Watch House Frayg pulled out a clay pipe and thumbed its bowl full of tobacco. He pulled a bit of tinder out of the fire in front of the House to light his pipe. If he couldn't have breakfast, at least he could have a good smoke before going to the crime scene.
        "There you are," said Commander Brylle as he entered. "There's a real mess down at the Carter's Rest. You seem to have a knack for getting information when it's needed, so I thought it best to put you on this."
        Ham nodded to his commanding officer through the cloud of smoke that began to writhe around him. He was sitting on the edge of the long counter that stood just inside the doorway with a sour expression on his face.
        "Yeah, sure. You always give me the weird ones."
        "This one's a little weirder than even you're used to, Ham."
        "Oh? How's that, then?"
        "I think you should form your own opinions at the scene. Then we'll talk."
        Frayg shrugged. "All right. I guess I'm wasting time here, then." He nodded to Commander Brylle then turned on his heel and headed for the Carter's Rest. Yeah, I always get the weird ones.

        The Carter's Rest Inn was a large three-story affair. Its common room featured a long bar, two enormous fireplaces and a spacious gallery above. There was also a small raised platform for musicians or other performers to entertain the inn's guests. Before the platform was an open area which was commonly used as a dance floor.
        Captain Frayg walked up to the bar where a man was putting a tap into a fresh keg of ale. The man was Jaik Welman. He was a large man, and a bit rotund. His graying hair was mostly missing at the top, but his clean-shaven face was smooth for his age, which was about forty. He wore a smock over his tunic and leggings – nothing fancy, but well-made.
        Frayg sat on a stool and waited for the inn keeper to finish.
        "How are you doin', Ham? Am I ever glad to see you! Can I have Ena get you anything?"
        "Thanks, Jaik. I could do with some breakfast. Before that, though ... I hear one of your patrons had an accident?"
        "Weren't no accident. That boy was ..." he lowered his voice before continuing, "murdered – plain and simple. Never seen anyone have an accident like that."
        "Maybe I'd better have a look. Where is he?"
        "Up on the third floor. Room nineteen. One of your guards is already up there."
        "Thanks. I'll be back in a few minutes. I'll eat whatever you've got left over from last night – I'm not picky." He stood up and walked up the two flights of stairs, stopping to empty out his pipe and then put it in his pocket. Brilliant light shone through an open window at the end of the hall. The cold morning breeze carried the acrid smell of blood even from out here. Must have been pretty bad. A guard stood outside the door of room nineteen. He looked pale and was covering his face with a bar towel.
        "Been here long, son?"
        "About an hour, Captain. The smell seems to be getting worse." The guard winced.
        "How about that. This thing locked, or can I go on in?"
        The guard opened the door for him, holding his nose and taking care not to actually look into the room. As soon as Frayg entered he could see why: there was blood splattered all over the walls. The room contained a dressing-stand with an oval-shaped mirror which was cracked, a wash table with a basin – the pitcher was on the floor, in pieces – a table with two chairs, one of which was on its side, and a large bed. The wide double windows here were open, too, for a mercy. The smell was bad enough without it having been closed up all morning. 
        In the bed lay the body of a young man. His tunic was torn open and there were large gashes on his torso. His wrists were bound to the posts with thin, strong rope – silk, from the look of it. He had been young: only the slightest hint of a beard was visible on his chin. His face was contorted – a rictus of fear frozen on it in death. But the most obviously gruesome detail was in the eyes, or rather the absence thereof.
        Frayg approached the body with some hesitation. He pulled his coat up over his nose and mouth. Clearly someone had ripped the eyes right out of this young man's head. On closer examination, he realized that it was more than that. The skull appeared to have been completely emptied: the brain was gone.
        Frayg reached into his coat pocket for his pipe. Grimacing at the very thought of what he was doing, he held the still-warm bowl of the clay pipe between his thumb and forefinger and poked the stem into an empty eye socket. Sure enough, there was nothing inside the dark recess of the skull. He then put the pipestem into the mouth. It made an audible click when it hit the teeth, but he was able to wedge it in and pry the mouth open. The tongue was still there.
        Whoever did this was only interested in the eyes and brain. He shuddered.
        Frayg stood up and addressed the guard. "Did anyone else enter the room before I got here?"
        "Yes, sir. There was the maid who came in to clean up – she was the one who found the body. And then I was the first to arrive and I took a look around. Aside from the ... the eyes ... it looks to be a robbery."
        "I suppose it does. The boy's purse is missing. It appears to have been torn off his belt. Has anyone looked out the window?"
        "No sir. I remembered the time we found that old man and how you told us we shouldn't disturb things at a crime scene. After I saw the state of the body, I immediately sent to the Watch House."
        "Good man. That was for the best."
        Frayg walked over to the window. There was a small balcony outside, just as with all the nicer rooms at the Carter's Rest. He must have had a good bit of coin to rent one of these. Gods, I hope he wasn't some lordling – we'll never hear the end of it. There was no sign of forced entry: no splintering of the window frame or broken glass. The balcony was empty apart from two rocking chairs.
        "Does anyone know who he was?"
        "No sir. I asked the proprietors, and the girl who found him was too hysterical to talk. Mistress Welman took her downstairs to calm her down."
        "I'll need to speak with her later. And with Jaik and Ena. I suppose there's little chance anyone remembers seeing the boy, or anyone with him." He opened the drawers of the dressing table one by one. They were all empty.
        "I didn't have a chance to ask many questions, sir. I thought it would be best if I guarded the room from any tampering. The inn was mostly empty when I arrived."
        Frayg noted that the wash basin was dry, as was the place where the pitcher had broken on the floor. He didn't even have time to call for water to wash.
        "Well, I need to go speak with the Welmans and the girl. Will you be all right here for another hour or so? I'll get them to send someone up here to clean the place up and get you some relief."
        "It would be a mercy, sir."
        Frayg patted the guard on the shoulder reassuringly. Then he headed for the stairs.

        Jaik Welman, having finished preparing his kegs for the upcoming night, was wiping his bar down. He paused and looked up at Frayg as he came down the gallery stairs. He wore a concerned look.
        "So what happened up there?"
        "Looks like a robbery. The young man's purse was stolen. He didn't seem to have any other belongings, but those may have been taken as well. Whoever did it was particularly brutal about it: there's blood everywhere. It'll take some time to clean it up."
        "Your guard wouldn't let us. He said you'd want to see the room as it was."
        "He was right. Sorry to make you wait, Jaik."
        "Can we clean it up now, then?"
        "Well, I'll have to send some men around to collect the body, but once they've done their job, you can clean it up. I don't expect you'll be able to let that room for a while – cleaning it's going to be a real job of work."
        "Not many people staying most nights anyway. At least they won't until the Changeling Festival starts proper."
        Frayg nodded. "Another thing ... I'd like to speak to the girl who found the body."
        "Oh, poor Tania. We sent her home to her ma."
        "I was afraid of that."
        "I can send someone for her. Might be one of the other girls knows where she lives."
        "I'll be back after lunchtime. If you could have her here then, I'd appreciate it. Oh, and Jaik – I'll need to ask you and Ena a few questions then, too."
        "You aren't staying for breakfast?"
        "Give Ena my apologies, but for some reason I don't have much of an appetite any more," he told Jaik. Besides ... right now I have to go buy a new pipe.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Chapter 2: The Manor

        The LaDuce manor was an imposing building. Manor homes are frequently built that way, and in that sense it typified its purpose. It was large, made of stone, possessed numerous windows and a complex roof with peaks and towers, and it sat in the middle of a grand estate. Everything about its design bespoke power.
        What was unusual about it was its state of decay. Such homes were usually well-kept, but the LaDuce Manor had certainly seen better days. The other thing that might make an observer take note was the amount of noise and smoke that issued from behind the home.
        A black-laquered carriage with the insignia of the LaDuce family – a pair of waxing crescent moons with the one to the right side a bit larger than the other – shone silvery on the doors on either side. Behind the carriage came a plain wooden cargo wagon. They pulled to the front of the manor house, where a servant awaited their arrival.
        The servant was a tall man with slightly-ruffled black hair. He stooped slightly – the result of years of physical labor around the manor. He also had pale blue eyes and a distinctive hawk-like nose, which made him look serious, even when he wasn't. He was one of the two full-time servants still working at the LaDuce Estates, where dozens had worked in the past. He wore a threadbare black coat, emblazoned across the breast with the same double crescents as the carriage. He was known simply as Rikard.
        The driver stopped the carriage in front of where Rikard stood. The footman jumped down and handed Rikard several envelopes. He then turned and opened the door for the passengers, as Rikard perused the addressing on each of them.
        First out of the carriage came a very large, muscular man who looked uncomfortable in the finery he wore. Discernibly unaccustomed to the clothing of the upper classes: he was dressed in a formal shirt with a blue cravat and black jacket. His piercing blue eyes looked about him quickly, as if he expected physical violence at any moment, even here in this presumably peaceful setting. He also had the crooked nose of a man for whom this expectation had been learned through brutal experience.
        Next came a woman with flaming red hair. She was also dressed well, but seemed quite comfortably so. She wore a green and white garden dress with a matching bonnet and parasol. Her features were fine, but her nose was perhaps slightly oversized. Her eyes seemed to match those of the man who had preceded her, in that they were blue, and seemed to look for danger where none should be found. She accepted the footman's hand as she exited the carriage, but wore a small frown on her face as she did so.
        The third passenger was a shorter man with hair even blacker than Rikard's. He wore a cloak that faded from a pale blue at the bottom to to a darker blue in the middle and then black around the chest. It was embroidered with stars around the shoulders. He wore dark make-up around his grey eyes and he was very thin and pale. He looked unhealthy and in need of rest.
        The final passenger was a burly man with auburn hair and a long beard which were beginning to turn white with age. He was of average height, and wore a dark-brown traveling suit, with a proper tie. His dark brown eyes seemed to measure everything around him in a glance, and he carried himself with the upright bearing of a military officer.
        The footman turned again, and stepped towards Rikard. "Your Mistress's guests, sir."
        "Thank you," replied Rikard. He then addressed himself to the guests, bowing slightly. "Manservant Rikard, at your service. The Countess will greet you in the dining room, after you've been allowed to freshen up from your journey."
        Each of the male guests handed Rikard their card, except for the large muscular man, who handed him two cards: his own, and the lady's.
        "Thank you good sirs; ma'am." Rikard bowed to each of them. "If you'd please follow me?" He then led the small group to the top of the short stone stair where the footman, who had gone ahead, opened one of the doors for them.
        They entered a large foyer with a broad staircase that swept up from the center of the room to a balcony above. Rikard led them to the left of the stairs and down a hall, where there was another stairway which led to the upper west wing of the manor. The upper hallway was long and covered with faded floral wallpaper above a tarnished baseboard. Doors lined either side at regular intervals, with a large set of double doors at the far end, where another hall ran perpendicular to the one they were in.
        Each of the guests was shown to his or her room. Soon after, the wagon's team brought up all their trunks and other belongings.

        From around the corner at the end of the hall Jessa watched the arrival of the guests with great interest. It had been nearly ten years since they'd had guests at LaDuce Manor. That one must be Master Nandless, she thought to herself as she spied the burly man in the brown suit. Stories of his exploits, both in war and in hunting, were known far and wide. I wonder who the woman is. The sallow-looking fellow must be the Dreamer. That leaves the large one as the Lady's bodyguard, probably. He certainly doesn't look or act like a servant would.
        Jessa turned quickly and ran up the north hall to find her brother Jens. Where is that boy? She found him in the kitchen with Nansi, who was scolding him and immediately included Jessa in her reproach.
        "Where have you been, young lady?" Nansi squinted one eye at Jessa suspiciously. "Spying on the guests, I'd wager."
        Jessa lowered her head. "No I wasn't!"
        "You're lying girl, and don't think I don't know it when you do!"
        "No, I'm not! And I'm no girl. We'll be twenty-three this year. Just because Jens and I are small for our age doesn't make us children."
        Nansi arched her eyebrow at Jessa. "So you say, girl, but it's not size as makes you grown up. It's how you act. And right now you're acting like a girl. Stop your pouting and help your old Nansi. We've guests, as you well know, and I'll need a bit of help in treating them rightly."
        Jessa and Jens were small in stature, but both evinced all the traits of being adults. In just the last year Jens had grown a couple of inches. He was also more muscular, and had finally begun growing a bit of wispy blonde hair on his chin. Jessa had been late in beginning her menses – not until she was twenty, in fact – but seemed to have blossomed into full womanhood in just a year afterwards. In fact, they both appeared to be full-grown adults, but scaled down.
        Jens was only about Five feet and maybe three inches tall, where Jessa was only a hair higher than five feet. They shared most traits in common: honey-blonde hair, large green eyes, narrow and slightly pointed noses. They were also of slight build, even for their small stature.
        Nansi handed a large pitcher of water to each of them, and put some towels over their arms. "You need to get these up to our guests quickly. They'll be wanting to wash the road off of them. I expect you know where the Lady's room is, Jessa. You serve her first. Jens can go to any of the other three rooms, but you'd best both come back right quick for to serve the other two."
        Jens began, "But Nansi, we're no servants!  You can't tell us-"
        Nansi cut him off with a glare. "Servant or no, these are the guests of the Countess! Now look sharp, and no more of your tongue!"
        The pair of them hustled out of the kitchen, Jessa leading the way. She led her brother to the back hall and up the staircase. She pointed Jens to the door of the room with the Dreamer in it. Priests gave her the creeps. Let Jens deal with him! Then she went on to the Lady's room.

        At first she thought she'd knocked on the wrong door, as the large man opened it. Jessa hesitated.
        "Come in," came the woman's voice from inside. Jessa looked past the man and saw her standing near the back windows. She turned to Jessa and motioned her to come inside. "Mr. Insel may look like a beast, but I assure you he has the heart of a kitten."
        Mr. Insel gave her a smile that was missing a few teeth, and stepped aside. Jessa bowed her head briefly and entered the room. She then went to the washbasin and poured in half the contents of the pitcher. She sat the pitcher to the left of the basin, and the towels to the right side, all the while watching the two guests in the mirror in front of her.
        Jessa turned towards the woman and curtsied. "I'm Jessa. And to whom do I have the pleasure of addressing myself?"
        The woman suppressed a small smile. "My name's Elinge. Elinge Froske. And I see if you have any training it's as something other than a maid."
        Jessa blushed. "Apologies, Ma'am. I'm afraid I don't. It was wrong of me to introduce myself. Please forgive me."
        "It's quite all right. I don't expect you've received very many guests out here since the Count Passed into The Dream."
        "No, Ma'am. None that I can remember since I was ten. That was for Elinora's Passing. It seems we only have guests when something sad happens." She tilted her head to one side. "Has something sad happened again? Is that why you're here?"
        "Well, the impudence of your questioning a guest aside, I'm afraid I do not know." Elinge winked at Jessa. "My presence was requested by the Countess, but no explanation was forthcoming. Have you any ideas as to why the Countess would invite me or any of the others here?"
        "No, Miss. I have no idea. I expect she'll tell us at dinner. Did you all receive the same kind of request?"
        "Us, you say? Interesting. So you'll be dining with us, then? I suspected you were something other than a servant."
        "We usually do dine together. It's one of the rules."
        There was a knock at the door. Mr. Insel opened it to reveal Jens standing there with another pitcher of water.
        "Jessa," he began. "Nansi wants you back downstairs. Now."
        Jessa stiffened, and addressed Elinge more formally. "If you'll excuse me, Ma'am. Will there be anything else?"
        "No, Jessa. You may go."
        Jessa all but ran out of the room. Mr. Insel closed it behind her.
        "Just like you to leave me all the work, Jessa," complained Jens.
        "I'm sorry. She kept asking me questions."
        After another brief lecture by Nansi, Jess came back up with another pitcher and set of towels.  She left them in Mr. Insel's room, which was unoccupied for the moment. She then went to clean herself up for dinner.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Chapter 1: The Eyes

       The Patrons of the Carter's Rest Inn were in high spirits tonight, and Nodge Prayner was no exception. The music was loud, the girls were dancing and Nodge had just been paid.
        Mistress Welman and her maids were serving up drinks as fast as Jaik could pull them. It was always like this just before the start of the Changeling Festival. People were tired of working all summer and worried about the coming winter, and trying to find some time to enjoy their lives in between.
        Nodge had already had a few ales more than he normally would have, but he was determined to make the best of the night. This was going to be his last night of freedom for some time, as he'd gone down to the docks yesterday and joined the Palonian Navy. He would be assigned to a ship tomorrow, and gone the day after that: sailing the seas and seeing what the world had to offer.

        Nodge's parents, Novril and Ella Prayner, were unhappy about this decision, but he'd made up his mind. He knew was never going to be a rich man, so this was his best chance of seeing the world. Besides, the pay was good, and the opportunities to gain status were better in the military than if he stayed and worked in his father's bakery.
        Nodge tried to explain his reasons to his father, but Novril took the decision as an insult to himself and his profession. His reaction had been to become angry and shout at Nodge a lot, while Ella simply cried. 
        "Do you see what you're doin' to your mother?" His face grew redder moment by moment, as he pointed at Ella, who sat at the table weeping with her face buried in her hands. "She don't want her idiot son gettin' himself killed on account o' some bickerin' 'tween lords or somesuch! And all you'll be is the smallest pawn in their bloody games. How can you not see that?"
        "But, Dad, It's not -" Nodge tried to respond. His father was in no mood to listen, though.
        "My own dad was a baker as was my granddad. It's what's kept us fed an' with a roof over our heads. We may not be rich, but we're better off than most and you've never wanted for anything! How can you just walk away like that? How can you throw your own life and your family, and all our work away like that? You think your better'n me and your granddad, is that it? You're too good for the life we've struggled to build for you and your sister?"
        "No dad, of course not. But I -"
        "Shut your mouth, you wastrel. Spend all your time down the taverns drinkin' and whorin' and -" It was at that point that Ella's crying became a loud wailing.
        "Is that what he wants? That why he's runnin' off like this?" She was hysterical. "I thought he was a good boy! But, now I find he's runnin' off to find loose women in strange ports. Is that what this is all about?" She wailed again and fled up the stairs.
        Novril started in again. "That's it. You're killin' your ma. Get OUT!  Get out of our house and I never wanna see your ungrateful face again!" Novril all but picked Nodge up and bodily threw him out into the street.

        Nodge shuddered at the memory, and took another huge gulp from his mug of ale. It was their eyes that had disturbed him most. His mother's had flowed freely, puffy and red. His father's had gleamed like hardened steel – full of anger and betrayal. He never wanted to see eyes like that again.
        What do they know, anyway? They've never been anywhere or done anything but bake loaves and sweets all day. That was fine, as far as it went, and maybe someday he'd settle down to a steady business like that himself. But before that day came, Nodge wanted to explore – to see what opportunities lay over the horizon ... and if he fell into the arms of a comely lass or two along the way, what was the harm in that?
        As it happened there was a lovely girl, dark of hair and eye, who'd been giving him quick smiles all night. Perhaps it was time to introduce himself. Besides, if things didn't go well, it's not like he'd be in Ayrst much longer anyway. He drained the last bit of courage from his mug, and strolled confidently – or as confidently as a young man who drew his courage from a cup could – up to the woman sitting in the corner.
        "Hello, ma'am," he began as he bowed. "My name's Nodge, and I couldn't help but notice – even from across the room – that you have the most lovely and mysterious eyes." She offered her hand, and he took it, bowing. "Would you be so kind as to allow me a dance?"
        She blushed slightly and stood. She gave him a small curtsy. "Gladly," was all she said, and then they were dancing.
        She moved gracefully, and she wasn't shy about holding him close. They danced through two numbers before she asked him for a drink.
        He waved at the nearest serving girl and motioned for two fresh mugs of ale. They sat together on a bench against the back wall of the common room, beneath the loft above, where shadows danced darkly in the light of the fireplace.
        "Thank you for the dance," Nodge said. He was slightly out of breath. "Where did you learn to dance so well?"
        "Oh, here and there," she replied. "I've had a little practice. You dance rather well yourself." She gave him a warm smile.
        Nodge blushed. "Oh, but nothing like you, umm ... miss?"
        "Please forgive me," she said. "I'm Lily." She once again offered her hand.
        "I'm very pleased to finally meet you, Lily. A lovely name for a lovely girl."
        The serving girl returned with their mugs and hurried on. Nodge took a sip of his.
        "Oh, I'm so sorry," began Lily. "I had hoped for some red wine." She looked at Nodge with a hopeful expression.
        "Anything for you, m'lady. I'll take this back."
        "No, no. Just keep it for later, after we dance some more, you're going to be thirsty." She winked at him.
        Nodge stood and bowed to her. "I'll be right back with your wine. Then I'll join you for a drink and another dance."
        "I'll guard these with my life." She laughed as she motioned to the two mugs of ale that sat on the bench.
        A few moments later, Nodge returned with a pair of full wine glasses. "If I'm to drink two more mugs of ale, surely you'll be thirsty enough for another glass of wine."
        Lily stood, took the two glasses from him, drained one in a single gulp, and sat both of them next to his two mugs. She took his hand and pulled him back onto the dance floor. She pulled him closer and looked up at him. He could get lost in those dark eyes ... her smile ... her smell. They danced for what seemed like eternity. 
        Finally, he had to beg off for a moment's rest. The inn wasn't as crowded as it had been, so their seats were still available, and their mugs and glasses stood undisturbed. Nodge sat and took a big gulp, while Lily put her arms around his neck and sat in his lap. She nuzzled against his neck, giggling.
        "Aren't you tired?" He asked Lily.
        "Maybe a bit. What about you?"
        "Yes, but with you around, I think I could stay up 'til morning."
        She gave him a mischievous grin, and pulled herself a little closer. She whispered in his ear ... and the next thing he knew he was using the last of his coin to rent them a room upstairs for the night.

        Nodge couldn't believe his luck. Where had this girl been all his life? And why did he have to meet her tonight, right before he was to leave Ayrst for gods knew how long? He was determined to make the most of this night with her, at least.
        After the serving girl left them alone, Lily leaned against the door. She sat her still-undrunk glass of wine on the mirrored dressing-stand. Then she went to the window and opened it. The night air was cool but pleasant, as the curtains billowed in the breeze.
        "Put out the lamp," she said. "Then sit on the bed." Nodge didn't hesitate. 
        He could just make out her shape in the light of the moon as she unlaced her corset. She still danced in a strange way ... so fluidly. She seemed to bend in places a body shouldn't bend. Maybe it's just the drink, he thought to himself. I have had quite a bit.
        "Now close your eyes, and I'll give you a surprise."
        He did as he was told, and realized he could barely sit up. Did I really drink that much? He was suddenly afraid he would pass out. He fell backwards on the bed.
        Nodge heard a noise at the window. He opened his eyes, but all he could see was the ceiling spinning above him in the pale light reflected off the mirror. He struggled to sit up before he heard Lily's voice in his ear.
        "Be still my sweet. It will all be over soon." That seemed a strange thing to say. Wait. Who's voice was that?
        "Lillleee ..." He could barely slur out her name. "Wha'sh happening? Ish shomeone in here wit' ush?"
        He finally managed to sit up. From the window approached a bulky figure. It was something inhuman – unlike anything he'd ever seen before – a nightmare made shadowy reality. He could barely make out anything in the darkness, but it had a large, bulbous head with a long snout ringed with small sharp teeth that glistened in the moonlight.
        But it was at the eyes that he couldn't stop staring: or rather, it was where the eyes should have been. In their place were a pair of long tentacles, reaching out towards his own face. What in all the hells is that?
        The voice continued, "Don't be frightened. You'll be in a better place soon." He could almost feel the lips against his ear, but he couldn't turn his head. He couldn't look away from the monstrosity before him. 
        The creature moved closer and leaned over him. Nodge felt hands on his shoulders, pushing him back down onto the bed. Then he felt his arms being pulled over his head, and a tightness around his wrists. He was powerless to resist. The creature was on him ... he could feel its weight, holding him down while the world was spinning. I'm going to be sick, he thought.
        "No," came yet another voice, seemingly from inside his own head. "You're going to die."
        He could hear screaming from somewhere. That's me. I'm the one screaming. Why does it sound so far away?
        Screaming, however distant, was the last thing Nodge Prayner ever heard.