The journey back to that place I ran away from all those years ago ended up postponed for tomorrow. Night was coming, and even Zai wasn’t crazy enough to attempt journeying in the dark with the forest so close. We ended up camping within sight of the village’s entrance.
Dorn, the troll that first spoke up, had lit a smokeless fire and started cooking dinner. Wesson—the one acquainted with my knife— and Quentin were off to one side talking. Meanwhile, Zai was deep in thought or sleeping. I couldn’t tell from where I sat.
“Here, have a taste of the old special.” Dorn waved me over to the boiling pot of soup.
“I’m tied up here.” I showed him my accessories. “Hot soup all over me is not the kind of memory I’d like to make before sleeping. And don’t you dare try and feed me.”
“Your loss, Mr. Knight. Dorn makes the best meal on the road.” Wesson said, slurping a spoonful as he spoke. “And I should know. I once tried to boil a lizard with some potatoes, skin and all.”
"Bullshit. You tried to boil Alvert’s boots because he beat you at the cards for the thousandth time in a row.’ Quentin snorted. “Mind you, Mr. Knight, said boots were fire-proof, so it ended up being a pair soaked with boiling water that can’t dry out.”
“Oh, it was fun trying to explain that to the Masters.” Dorn chimed in, stirring all the while. “I can still feel my spine creak whenever Master Lude passes me.”
“Yeah.” “Same here.” Quentin and Wesson agreed.
“Quiet.” Zai said, “I’d rather not catch the attention of beasts this late at night.”
“Afraid of the dark Zai?” I teased him.
Zai’s face contorted for a second to one of pure rage, but settled for a mere look of hatred and contempt. The troll trio looked at one another and seemed to come to an agreement. With not much else to do, I laid down and put my back towards the fire. That didn't last though, as a pair of rough hands rolling me over to face the source of light.
“Face the fire, Mr. Knight. I need to keep an eye on you and I don’t want to use more rope than necessary.” Quentin whispered.
“I’m not going anywhere. The village is off-limits now and I have no gear. Do you think the forest cares about what escape plans I make now? Let me sleep how I want to; it’s the least that you can do.”
Quentin shrugs. “Better safe than sorry.” The troll then sighed and made himself comfortable, eyes pointed my way all the while. Annoyed, I stared back at Quentin, daring him to blink. Dorn, meanwhile, was enjoying the fruits of his labors, murmuring every sip or so.
And like that, I fell asleep.
I don’t often have dreams. But when I do, I note it down for…something. I don’t know why, but it feels important.
And what follows is how I think this dream went, when I slept while being an old friend’s prisoner. Funny how life works.
Anyway, here it goes.
“…-eone new.” “I saw him wi-…”
“…-No one to worry-…” “…-home."
“Home,” I spoke with tears. Why tears? No, I was crying.
It rained. There was rain. It was soaking.
It was a mission. Another. Is it a list or is this the last?
I’m lying. Lies. On the ground where it’s wet. Because I killed-
No, they just melt. And it’s a sunny day, so there’s no darkness.
Not baked bread, not damned pigeons, not laughing kids.
And then it cleared and I’m in a hallway.
It was in a mansion I knew well, belonged to someone I know not.
The carpet is blue.
I walked through the pond and knocked twice as the sound echoes thrice.
The third knocked me off-balance.
I’m living a peasant’s life in a fantasy book I read.
The fireplace is warm as milk. I’m married.
The wife misses her head. Her lower jaw moves as her butterfly wills it, sitting on a tongue as its throne. We kiss deeply as my skull is borrowed for her convenience, but I always get it back because she’s my wife, and she’s very kind. Kinder than all. Kindest.
“This mind will not do. But it will.” My wife whispers as her butterfly unfurled its mouth, probing into my ear. “My child is coming and she needs her knight. She must be protected.”
“I’m not Knight,” I said, begging for destruction to come. “Say my name and I’ll consider.”
“I am not real.” My wife admits, presenting her chest to me. “Your denial is as thick as the irony of your justifications.”
We dance through the night again and again as silence watched still.
“I could divorce you,” I said, enjoying the feel of her palms over mine. “It’d be pig-like and short and demanding.”
“Leave again, then.” A voice sprang from my wife’s left; from someone I regret meeting. “It’d be fun and sweet if we never met.”
“I have no cause for caution.” Another voice came from my wife’s nonexistent forehead; from a child too adult for fun. “I have sweets.”
Her right remained silent and I was relieved.
I woke up to vigorous shaking, jarring me to stand up straight. This led me to tumble and turn into a mess as my bindings reminded me of my place. Small chuckles brought my attention to the trolls and Zai, already set up and ready to go. Grumbling, I began searching for my things, only to remember I had none. With much difficulty, I cleaned myself as much as I could and walked over to Zai’s side. He gave me a dirty look but said nothing.
“Mr. Knight, please stay over here,” Quentin said, gesturing at the space in front of him. I did as asked and Wesson and Dorn came flanking me, keeping their distance in a casual way. I looked them over for something I can take advantage of, only to find their eyes staring back with a knowing look. Miffed, I rolled my eyes and waited for the time to move, which should be right when dawn comes.
It’s not that it’s actually safer to travel by day, as my experience with the snake-snail a few days ago made that obvious. But the thing about the coming darkness is that other things come and wake from their slumber.
They look human from afar, but the poor few who lived to tell the tale whispers of the true abomination that they are. Form-stealing, mind-reading, magic-empowered death dealers. They can cross a lake with one step and reduce boulders to dust with their breath. The evidence that they exist at all lies with the vial that Zai carries. The liquid within is their mere spittle, but its lethality is undeniable.
And the worst part is that they can never die. One of them still lives in the deepest level of Islefield Fortress, at Newold Pass. Or so people say. Many tell tales of human sacrifices thrown into a maze, left to wander for an exit as the monster hunts them down.
I, for one, don’t really buy into such outlandish rumors. With politics the way that they are at such places, but one would be a bigger fool to discount them.
If only we could bring the sun with us at night, I thought as the first light of the day came. Zai took the lead, with the trolls following and I herded in-between. As we exited camp, I glanced at Chance Village. With faith thinner than air, I hoped that my gear would somehow stay untouched while I was away. The girl, Sabine, seemed the sort to keep their word, but who knows.
Maybe it’s for the best. I sighed inwardly. I can at least be buried when I die.
“Knight.” Zai suddenly spoke up, looking at me from the corner of his eye. “What do you think of me?”
“Huh? Why’re you asking?” I replied, caught off-guard.
“Just answer the question,” Zai growled. “What do you think of me then, when you were in the Order.”
“You’re asking a lot out of your prisoner here,” I said, giving a small shrug. ”It’s been years.”
“Well…” I frowned as my mind slowly opened the deep archives of days long past. “When I first joined, you were one of the other new initiates as well. You had a weird bald spot on your head and everyone laughed at you.”
“It’s a birthmark.” Zai said, “Go on.”
“We sparred for the first time and we knocked each other out, but you fell first, so I won.”
“You mean, you cheated and won.” Zai huffed. “But given how the Order is, it’s my fault that I tried to fight fair at all.”
“How is a clean hit on your head considered as a foul? You know no protective gear was allowed.”
“A direct strike to a sensitive area was explicitly prohibited.”
“What sensitive area? Wait, did I hit-”
“The details don’t matter! Move along.”
“Fine. After that, we got into a sort of rival phase, though the rival part was entirely one-sided. We weren’t friends, for sure. But since there weren’t that many initiates, we often got stuck together and as usual, would start fights.”
“That led nowhere though,” Zai interjected. “So I proposed a truce.”
“You mean an alliance.” I corrected. “With the way things were, we were stuck in a bear’s den with the bear still inside.”
“And vipers lined the exit, while the forest burned outside,” Zai added. “It wasn’t an enviable position.”
“I believe everyone thought we would claw each other to death while they watched.” I smiled and, for the briefest of moments, I saw Zai’s mouth twitch up.
“Alright, that’s enough of the past.” He waved me off, which left me in the exact same position.
“Seriously? He’s even weirder than I remember.” I muttered, “I almost thought he was going to free me there.”