He’d been with Samir. That was the last thing Ruan could recall. Ruan lifted his fingers to his lips, to the remembered warmth of Samir’s kiss. There had been no more talking after that. They’d fallen back on the wide, flat rock, Ruan painfully aware of the sheer ledge beside them, how easy it would be to tip into the endless void. They’d kissed, and Ruan had felt lost in his pain, in a desperation to feel this again. To be wanted. To be needed. To be loved.
But every kiss, every touch, every caress was a lie. He didn’t want to lie to Samir. Not any more than he already had. So he’d pulled away—gently—and said they should return to the camp.
What he hadn’t been was strong enough to refuse Samir’s hand in his on the walk back.
Now he was dreaming again. A nightmare that felt strangely familiar.
He was standing in Ulek—a crumbled and decaying castle Ulek—in the dark of night. He stood in the courtyard, listening to the whispering sound of the soft breeze of a rope creaking high above. He didn’t look up. He didn’t need to. He knew who swung from that rope.
The gate to the inner courtyard and the rest of the castle was open. Almost as though it were beckoning him inside.
Shadows moved at the edge of his vision, but when he turned to look, he seemed to be alone. There was no life, no movement. Nothing but him and this dying castle. But that didn’t stop him from imagining all sorts of things that he couldn’t quite see.
Real movement. Ruan turned, drawing his swords as a shadow detached itself from the inner wall and moved towards him. A shadow that resolved itself as it came closer.
It trotted over to Ruan, a resolute approach that held no hostility. Ruan lowered his weapons. The dog came right up to him, then sat, looking up at Ruan expectantly.
Like it was waiting for something. Like it knew him.
Ruan sheathed his swords and crouched down. Moving carefully, watchful for any signs of aggression, he reached out to let the dog sniff his hand, and then up to scratch its head. That earned him a doggy smile, tongue lolling out and tail thumping lightly against the ground.
Well then. It seemed he had a friend.
The dog seemed to be black, although it was difficult to be sure, in the darkness. It had one bright white mark on its chest that looked like nothing so much as a lightning bolt. “Shall I call you Bolt? I feel like I should call you something.”
Tail wagging again. Probably just because Ruan was talking. He sighed and stood, leaving his hand resting on Bolt’s head.
Behind him, the rope creaked and there was a whisper of a different sound, a rustle of cloth. Like something moving that shouldn’t be.
“Shall we go inside?” If he stayed out here, he would look. And if the body was moving—it sounded like it was moving—Ruan didn’t want to see.
As he moved towards the inner courtyard, Bolt walked at his side as though he’d been trained to it. Ruan couldn’t resist a light hand on his ruff, scratching lightly through the thick, soft fur. Reassuring to feel warmth, the comfort of another living being in this desolate place.
The main door of the castle also stood open, and Ruan made for that. Whatever was happening here, he’d feel more comfortable with walls around him. The empty, lifeless courtyard felt too exposed.
The front hall had seen better days. Not only were furniture and rugs and tapestries all decaying, but the giant chandelier had crashed to the floor. It was a shame. The chandelier had been beautiful. So much of this castle had been beautiful. Ruan could mourn that beauty, even as he cursed the people who had corrupted it.
Next to the chandelier, Ruan’s gaze snagged on something out of place. It was a card, lying face up on the floor. He went to it, tweezing it carefully in his fingers. Like so many things here, it seemed aged, ready to crumble.
The picture on the card seemed well suited to the hall. Five large stones in a near circle, surrounded by the burned and crumbled remains of whatever structure they’d been a part of. He didn’t know what card it was. Ruan had never seen a fate deck up close until this trip and watching Samir fidget with his. Ruan carefully eased the card into a pocket.
Bolt was sniffing at the chandelier, and gave a low growl. Ruan held still, listening, looking, but he couldn’t see or hear anything that might be upsetting the dog.
Other than this entire place.
That was when he heard the groan from above.