Length: 1725 words
Sleep was reluctant to come that night. Sofia tossed and turned, which was unusual; she was a heavy sleeper and usually needed to do little more than close her eyes to drift off, but tonight she felt uneasy. Something made her skin crawl, and the shadows at the edges of her vision seemed to shift and grow.
She recognised the signs, though it had been many years since the last one. It was coming for her, and it would only come when it so chose.
It wasn’t until the oil in the lamp beside her bed had long since guttered and died that she at last fell asleep.
When her eyes opened, she was not in her room any more. The heat was overwhelming. Endless pillars of smoke reaching for the sky and beyond dominated the landscape. Mountains, aglow in the falling dusk like embers in a dying bonfire. A sky painted orange, and the air so thick she could not draw breath.
She knew it for the dream that it was. Though her lungs hurt, she ran through the desolate landscape with light feet, hair billowing behind her and catching fire from the boiling temperature. An alley of tall statues stood in the middle of the flames, flanking the stairs rising to a palace she had only seen in pictures. All around her buildings collapsed, sending out a cloud of sparks that ignited the air.
The pillars of the high ones, she thought in awe, watching the statues as if hypnotised. Even as the city died around her, she couldn’t help feeling captivated. Few mortals ever visited the great elven cities of the south, though Sofia had often daydreamed of it. Should she never see it in waking, this moment would have to do – to stand in hellfire and witness the heroes of yore looking down upon their heirs with stony smiles as the world turned to ash.
In the flames figures like shadows moved, and spells sent the ground trembling. Sofia nearly fell to her knees. Even in a vision the earthquake filled her with dread. Mages marched out of the burning palace, singing their magick to the approaching night, mages with their hoods drawn low, but Sofia recognised the northern garb even at a distance.
‘You are not supposed to be here.’
A cool male voice cut over the roaring of the earth.
A figure walked down the alley of pillars out of the palace, sword in hand. With the cloak flying behind him he looked like an apparition of the ancient world. Sofia could see him as clearly as if he were right in front of her. A short, slim man with pale blue skin, untouched both by the fire and the quakes, and she knew right away that he wasn’t part of the dream: he was there for real, just like she was.
She stood her ground, chin up. The man stopped at the top of the stairs, his lips curling as he looked at her.
‘A human dreamwalker. Curious.’
His gaze shifted to the building to her left, and a great explosion of flames burst out of the windows. She fell over in her haste to get away from it, but she could still feel the heat biting her face.
‘Just a dreamseer, then. You cannot bend its course as I can.’ He sounded disappointed. ‘It’s time to wake up, seer. If you still can.’
The statues tumbled over with an earsplitting sound of stone grinding against stone, and Sofia sat upright in her bed, panting violently.
Her heart was hammering in her ears. She looked at her hands and winced; there a long red burn on her forearm. She got out of the bed with shaking feet, scrambled to her supply closet and spent a moment searching the shelves before finding the ointment she wanted. The burn sent out a wave of searing pain as she coated it with the ointment and wrapped her arm with gauze.
It was still dark out. It had started to rain while she’d slept and the air was unpleasantly humid, which made the shirt sticking to her back feel even damper. She tossed it over her head, changed into a dressing gown and left the room.
A quick peek in the quest room told her Theodius wasn’t there, which didn’t exactly surprise her. Sofia tip-toed across the drawing room and made for the stairs, careful to avoid the steps that tended to creak.
As she reached the landing Sofia heard the telltale rattling of dice against the table, and Theodius’s low growl of a voice saying, “I saw that, sticky-fingers.”
“I’m losing my touch. This easy life of regular housing and guaranteed meals has ruined me,” Ingrid sighed. She removed a card from her sleeve just as Sofia entered the room.
Theodius looked up from his hand and frowned when he took in the dishevelled sight of her. She could feel hair sticking to her sweaty face. Slowly, he took the pipe from his mouth and exhaled a cloud of smoke.
“Well, let’s just say you’re up earlier than expected,” he said. The clock on the wall said she had only gone to bed two hours ago, though she felt like she’d been in the dream for days. Theodius was still in his dayclothes, his eyes fully alert.
Ingrid turned around to glance over her shoulder, curly hair bouncing as she moved. She was watching Sofia with her mouth open, but before she could ask Sofia said curtly, “I need to speak with him in private.”
“Ah. Mage business. Got it,” Ingrid said airily. If she’d minded her tone, it didn’t show. She grabbed her cards and dice and shoved them into her pockets. “Be seeing you, Theodius.”
She closed the door after herself, but Sofia didn’t sit down immediately. She listened until she was sure Ingrid’s footfalls had vanished down the stairs, then bolted the door.
“And just as I was securing another win from that cheater,” Theodius said, but there was no real complaint in his voice. He was still eyeing her with some suspicion.
Sofia opened a cupboard and pulled out a bottle. She sat down in Ingrid’s seat and grabbed the glass she’d left behind, then filled it to the brim with wine. She held out the bottle to Theodius.
“You want any?”
He shrugged and lifted his glass.
“I had a Seeing,” Sofia said while she poured. She had switched to the nordling tongue, which earned her a raised eyebrow from Theodius. “I haven’t had one in almost ten full years.”
“How bad was it?” His voice was always softer, his pitch even lower when he spoke in his native language.
He brought the glass to his lips and drank, all the while keeping his eyes on her. She rolled up her sleeve, exposing the burn. It was already leaking liquid through the gauze. He stared at it for the longest time without blinking, glass hovering in mid-air until he remembered to set it down.
“Let me see that,” he finally said, holding out his hand. Sofia obliged. His four-fingered hands were careful as he examined the damage. He ran his hand over the wrapped burn and Sofia felt the hairs at the nape of her neck stand on end, just like they always did when he channelled. She could feel him hold onto the flow, saw his eyes turn black momentarily, but he never released it.
“Nordling magick,” he muttered, letting go of her. He blinked, and the black film from his eyes was gone.
“I thought so.” She pulled the sleeve back over the burn. “I’ve been hurt during a Seeing before, but never because of someone channelling in my dream.”
“There was someone else in your Seeing?”
She downed her glass in one and told him everything she remembered. Theodius lit his pipe again, disappearing behind the haze of sweet-smelling smoke, and his expression was even more withdrawn than usual when the smoke parted.
“A mage entering another’s dream,” he said and poured himself another glass. He sounded troubled. “I’ve never heard of such a thing. Or was it you who entered his dream?”
Sofia pinched the bridge of her nose. “The first thing I’d like to know is, why the City of Tears? Elves haven’t gone to war in two thousand years, except against their own kind.”
She had taken to pacing back and forth, brain buzzing. She’d have to send Ingrid out first thing in the morning. She had once made herself a living in taverns, singing, telling stories, entertaining night after night – if there were any news to be heard, she’d find them.
“You’ve said your Seeing isn’t always precise. Can you be sure what you saw wasn’t depicting past events?”
“No, I can’t, she admitted begrudgingly. “Just this feeling I had.”
They lapsed into silence. Theodius glanced out the window into the rain-blurred night, unease creeping up his spine. There had been rumours of unrest trickling, then flooding from the north for the past two years. Perhaps he’d been away from home for too long.
“I think it’s time I took my leave,” he said. “If a war is coming, I’d rather wait for it in Fallgrove.”
Sofia managed a wry smile. “They’ll apprehend you for crossing the border without permission one of these days.”
“They’ll have to catch me first.”
“You might have missed your calling as a smuggler.”
He got up, stowed his dice into their pouch and grabbed his cloak. “My best to your charming, ah, companions.”
“I’ll see you to the door.”
She waited in the foyer while he gathered his meager belongings. His nordling garb was covered by a nondescript brown mage’s robe when he left the room with his rucksack slung over a shoulder, the pipe still between his teeth. He pulled the hood over his head. The rain was coming down even harder as Sofia opened the door, the street outside deserted and muddy.
“I’ll send a word if I hear anything worthy of your notice,” Theodius said.
“Try not to get killed out there.”
He smirked and gave her a small bow, just in case anyone was watching from the nearby windows. The downpour swallowed him as he left the House of Dreaming and Sofia latched the door after him.