Ruan had followed the dog into darkness, so he reached up and touched the cross hanging from his neck and it began to glow with a soft, warm light. He breathed a soft prayer of thanks that even in dreams, the Light watched over him.
The dog continued to lead Ruan, pulling at his sleeve as they descended a long flight of smooth, stone stairs. Down, down, down. Deeper than they should have been able to go. How far under the castle were they? Surely there was no basement this deep.
A dream, Ruan reminded himself. The most vivid dream he’d ever had. He’d studied maps. There was no stairway down from the walls. Nothing that dug this far into the mountain. This wasn’t real.
As if to prove that fact, the corridor opened wide into what looked like a thick, forested area. A carpet of thick weeds softened Ruan’s steps and he had to push through thick, dragging branches. Overhead, the trees were so thick he couldn’t see the sky. “Where are we?” he asked out loud, not because he expected an answer from his canine companion, but because he needed to hear the sound of his own voice.
The dog gave a low growl, its hackles raised. It wasn’t happy here. Ruan could empathize.
This new forest was as dark as the stairway had been, but ahead, Ruan caught flickers of a softer, warmer light than what his cross was producing. He doused it with a thought, then crept forward, noting that the dog followed his lead and also began to move low and quietly.
As he got closer, Ruan could hear the unmistakable crackle of a fire. He dropped down to a crouch, inching a little further, till he could see.
It was a small clearing in the woods. Space between the trees, although the canopy overhead was still solid enough no light came through from either moon or stars. In the center, a fire, and next to that fire, a man.
Not just a man. A wizard. At his throat was the sigil of the Star. He was young—or at least looked young—and he was missing his right eye. The empty socket was shadowed, but Ruan could see it well enough.
Beyond that, he was unremarkable. Neither handsome, nor un; not tall, not short. In simple clothes, with no ornaments other than the wizard sigil at his throat. Unlike the other monsters of this dream, he did seem to be alive. Which made him a welcome sight.
Ruan stepped out into the light. Slowly, trying not to startle. He failed. The man jumped up, raising his hands. Ruan prepared for magic, but it didn’t come. For a moment, they both stood frozen, staring at each other. Then the man asked, “Who are you? Are you alive? Are you real?”
An enlightening group of questions right there. “I’m Brother Ruan. Alive and real, to the best of my knowledge.”
A dream, Ruan reminded himself. But the words didn’t sit right in his mind.
“Peyter of the Star,” the wizard introduced himself. “Come join my fire, Brother Ruan. And tell me how you came to be in this place.”
Ruan moved forward, surprised when the dog didn’t follow. When Ruan looked back, it had gone.
“I see you’ve met Bolt.”
Peyter shrugged. “That’s what I’ve been calling him. He’s got that mark, looks like a lightning bolt. Plus, he bolts away any time I try to get near him. Jumpy, but who can blame him? I think he might be real as well.”
Ruan settled across the fire from Peyter. The ground was hard and cold, but the heat coming off the fire was real enough, and welcome. “If you’re real, and I’m real, and the dog is real, what isn’t?”
Peyter gave a thin smile and waved his arm to encompass everything around them.
“So it is a dream.” Except that still didn’t entirely make sense.
And in fact, Peyter was shaking his head. “Not a dream. Feels like it, though, doesn’t it? And you have to be careful. It’s easy to get…lost. But we’re awake right now. At least, I am. I guess I can’t be absolutely certain of you. But I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.”
Ruan wasn’t convinced. If this wasn’t a dream, what could it be? “I don’t remember how I got here. I feel like I dreamed this place. I remember…” being on the road. Samir. He remembered Samir. And…
Varajas. Being angry. Himself, yelling. Was that—did that happen?
Peyter was watching him closely, and Ruan felt a twitch of unease. There was something uncomfortably intense in Peyter’s stare. “How did you get here?”
Peyter shrugged. “I don’t remember anything either.”
Ruan had been trained to spot lies. He’d been trained particularly to spot lies from wizards. And something about Peyter was off. “What can you tell me?”
“What have you seen?”
“Dead men in the castle courtyard, trying to get to me.”
“Well that’s interesting.” Peyter reached into his jacket, pulled out a deck of fate cards.
Which made Ruan think of Samir. Something about Samir. Something that was right on the edge of his mind…something he couldn’t quite call up. It grated against him, this sense that he wasn’t in control, even of his own thoughts. That frustration made him sharp. “Are you going to tell my future now?”
Peyter looked up, gave an utterly unsettling smile. “Don’t you understand? As long as we’re here, we have no future.”