Stephan lurched from his bed, the screams still ringing in his ears. “I’m coming Ashona,” he shouted, trying to reassure her as he struggled into his dressing gown. He stubbed his toe on the door separating their rooms in his eagerness to reach her, as the heavy wood swung inwards. He swore as he hobbled to her side, pain lancing through his foot. Her screams were far more important than his injury. It did not help that the rooms were in pitch darkness. It was late, past midnight and he had been deep asleep when his subconscious mind picked up the sounds of screaming and even now his brain was partly fog filled from his own dreams. There was an air of unreality about the night. It was as though the world held its breath.
He reached her side. She was still screaming and thrashing in the tangled sheets. There were no coherent words, just the terrified cry of someone in the grip of a fearful nightmare.
“Hush,” he said, trying to calm her. He did not know what else to do. It would be forward to touch her but then her screams reached a crescendo and fearing for her he leant over, taking her in his arms. Instantly she came awake.
“No! Don’t let them take me,” she cried out, still in the grip of her nightmare. She sobbed and Stephan held her tight, swaying gently back and forth to reassure her. “Hush. You are safe now. It is a dream. It is over.”
“Don’t let them take me,” she sobbed. Her tears soaked through his robes. The intensity of her appeal shocked him. Never had he heard such anguish. “Don’t let them take me,” she gasped, trying to draw breath. “They were ripping my soul from my body. The pain. Don’t let them harm me.”
“I’ll protect you,” Stephan swore, and he meant it too. Her sobs quietened although she gripped him fiercely, and he gasped as her embrace forced air from his lungs. She was trembling and crying now.
“What have I done,” Stephan moaned, stroking her hair.
For a moment longer, except for her sobs, they were silent. “I should never have started this experiment. I should never have suggested this. This is the worst nightmare you have had, isn’t it?
She nodded her head. He released her, letting her settle back onto the bed. “What happened?” he asked.
Her voice, raw with emotion, cracked as she spoke. “I was in a cave. It was awful. They surrounded me. I couldn’t escape...” Her words came in a rush, and he could hear the growing panic in her voice.
“Hush now,” Stephan said, holding her hand. He turned to a candle standing on a bed side table. He waved his hand, a finger drawing a rune in the air. A shape long learned by sorcerers to summon elementals. A flame elemental sprang into being at his summons and its flame spread to the candle before it disappeared into the ether once more. Its task fulfilled.
“There. You can see now. You are safe,” he said.
She stared at the flame, and her look shocked him; her eyes were screwed tight against an unseen fear. Her face was wet and gently he dried her tears with his sleeve. She was not beautiful in an obvious way, but her eyes held him captivated. She had beautiful eyes, soft brown and always so gentle. The contrast now was alarming. Never had he seen her so afraid. He brushed her hair from her face.
“Now, tell me what happened. If you are up to it?”
She looked haunted.
“I was in a cave. Demons were all around me. They were ripping my soul from my body and feeding on my pain. Never have I had such a dreadful nightmare. It was so real. I was truly there, amongst them.”
“You are safe now. It was a dream. Nothing more, but we are a step close to finding the source of your dreams. This is the fifth night you have had them in this vicinity, and this was by far the worse dream, so the source must be nearby.”
“Why?” she sobbed. “Why am I having such fearful nightmares?”
His heart went out to her. He stroked her hand, trying to comfort her. “Well, we have moved around the city, and you have slept in several different locations, trying to find the source of your dreams. I believe this maybe it.”
She smiled for the first time, wiping her tears away with the back of her hand, “And what will people think? The two of us, not even married, sleeping in different rooms these last few weeks.”
He smiled reassuringly, “Who cares what anyone else thinks. You are all that matters, and I want to see an end to these nightmares.”
“What is causing them though?” she wailed, clearly desperate to have them at an end.
“I don’t know,” he answered, lowering his gaze for a moment. Looking up at her again he said, “But I do know they are worse in this area of the city, and close to his laboratory.”
“Whose laboratory?” she asked, but he sensed that she already knew.
“Lothanal,” he whispered as though afraid to say the name aloud.
She looked at him, shock engraved deep within her eyes. “But demons are not real,” she whispered back. “I mean, it is one thing to dream about them, but another to believe that they truly exist.”
“Our history is steeped in demon tales. There must be some foundation in them and don’t forget that our ancestors clearly believed that they existed.”
“But that makes my dreams all the more terrifying,” she gasped.
He stroked her hair. “Yes. Have you noticed the candle?” he asked, and her eyes flashed to the flame.
“Blue,” she choked.
“And folklore tells us that flames burn blue in the presence of demons. For a while I have suspected Lothanal and have had lanterns distributed around this area for several nights. At night, they have often burned blue. Tomorrow we have plans to bring into fruition. It might be dangerous, and I will need your help. That is, if you are able?”
Her nod was barely perceptible. “Stephan,” she said clasping his hand more firmly.
“Yes,” he answered, fearful of the intensity of her look.
“Something really dreadful is going to happen.”
“You are still fearful of your dreams. It will be dawn soon and then you will see that no night terrors threaten.”
She shook her head. “Stephan, don’t leave me.”
“I must, silly,” he said. “We dare not leave these rooms together. I know I said I didn’t care earlier, but there is your reputation to think of.”
Her grip intensified. “Stephan. Do not leave me. Please.”
Her eyes and her voice implored him with an intensity that shook him. “Don’t worry. I am not going to leave you,” he said smiling.
“Marry me,” she blurted.
“You daft thing,” he admonished. “You are terrified still. What sort of man would I be, taking advantage of you like this?”
“Please,” she implored, the flickering candlelight reflected from the moistness of her eyes.
He knew this was a serious request. After a moment silence he said, “Well. Normally it is the man who asks, but on this occasion perhaps we can make an exception.”
Her face lit up and her oh so beautiful eyes sparkled with life. “You will?”
He nodded and then struggled for breath as she threw herself at him in a tight embrace.
Lothanal’s heart lurched, and he nearly stumbled. Pain lanced through his feet and a numbing cold assailed him. He gaped around at the landscape, his eyes barely believing the view. Desolation. The whole landscape was bleak. Everywhere he gazed was faintly glowing green rocks. No life, nor any signs of life. Green was the colour Lothanal associated with demons, so his destination must have been correct, but the shock of standing in their world was nearly too much for him.
For many months, he had spied on the demons through his kara-
He was at the pinnacle of his career. He had dared what no other sorcerer had before. If he succeeded, he would have power unlimited. He would be a force to be reckoned with, and then he would show his people, the Eldric, what true power meant. His plans were huge. He would conquer a world. He would be an emperor and people would fawn at his feet for favours.
He looked around at the desolation and doubt assailed him. Where were they? Where were the demons? He pushed a rock with his toe and immediately agony lanced through his foot, searing its way to his heart. He stifled a scream. The very contact with the ground sent shock waves through his body. The pain subsided and he realised that the rock seemed weightless as though all the life had been sucked from it.
A world of cinders and ash.
He looked up at the sky. Nothing but darkness and stars. No clouds and even the stars seemed dimmed as though seen through a fog. He glanced down at his hand and was shocked to see that the kara-
In trepidation, he raised his hand to his face. To his joy something white and translucent was within his palm, almost filling it. It was his kara-
He had anticipated being afraid. Afraid! That was an understatement. He was terrified. Bravely, he took a tentative step forward and again pain lanced through his leg. His mind screamed in agony. Undeterred he took more steps. He was naked and freezing. Walking failed to bring any warmth. He looked down at the shadow of his kara-
He walked a few hundred yards and then something brighter up ahead caught his attention. He squinted, trying to see it better. Against the dark outline of a hill, strewn with boulders at its base, a glow emanated from a cluster of objects that he could not quite fathom. As he came closer, the shape resolved into three creatures and his heart leapt to his mouth. They were static so he walked closer, his pace slowing as he considered flight for the first time. What would they do with him? They could take his soul and bind it to their world permanently. The next few steps were the hardest in his life. If they captured his soul, he was doomed to an eternity of torture.
Two were demons, that much was clear, but the third was a man and that sent shock and fear coursing through his soul. He stopped advancing and held his breath. Had his people, the Eldric, travelled here before him? The demons were tall, gangly creatures, long-
He had espied demons before, but there was a stark difference between seeing them from afar, in the comfort of his world, and standing before them.
But what was a man doing here? He paused, doubt eating at his mind like a cancer. This could be the end of his plans before they had even started. No one knew as much about the demon world as he, of that he was certain. And yet someone else had dared to travel to their world. If he, too, were an Eldric...
The figures did not move, they simply stood there eyeing him in challenge. That they did not attack was encouraging. He took that as an omen and strode a few more paces, ignoring the pain as much as he could. He saw then the man’s eyes, they were the only thing about him that seemed alien. They were blood red and had an intensity that beckoned him forward. He found that he had involuntarily taken a dozen more paces. He stopped himself, no more than ten or so paces from the unlikely trio. Close to, he realised that all their eyes were red, and they watched him with an intensity that made him shiver. He felt that he was breakfast, lunch and dinner wrapped up in one package.
“Welcome,” the man offered, causing him to jump in shock. His mind was wandering, and he tried to focus. “Welcome to our world.” His words seemed silk and honey. He was handsome in a way that was too painful to behold. He stood with his hands clasped behind his back in a manner that simply oozed confidence. It was as though Lothanal was an insect, or a worm beneath the boot of a superior being.
Lothanal glanced at the two demons. He sensed their potency but could fathom nothing about the man, which frightened him. If he could sense their power he felt in control, but not knowing was unsettling. He surmised the man was a demon, and the most powerful of the three, given that he could conceal his abilities.
“I am here to negotiate a pact with your people,” Lothanal stated simply. “I seek the power that you command, in return I offer you souls; I am your ally. Soon the barriers separating the worlds will thin and your people will be able to cross to my world. I can help them to achieve this. Join me and our combined strength will dominate the land.” He had rehearsed this speech a thousand times, but what came next was a complete and utter surprise.
A voice boomed “We have seen enough.” He spun on his heels; seeking the source of the voice, noticing that the demons seemed equally alarmed. The voice was all around them. A blinding flash followed by deep sonorous boom followed, throwing him backwards with a force that sucked the air from his lungs and knocked the senses from his very being.