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King

Of Dreams and Nightmares

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Where do we go when we dream?

That night, she was in Orisia.

It had been months since Irene last looked upon the Summer Isles, and yet she remembered it all, every detail, as though she were still there. In her mind’s eye, she saw the high peaks of the Areder Mountains in the north, rising up from the earth and splitting the cloud-filled heavens like a knife. At the islands heart, she perused the Valanian Desert, barren and scorching, teeming with all manner of hellish life. In the south, she was overrun by the thickness of the Ellwood Forest, a seemingly unending labyrinth of trees, roots, and dense underbrush. The growing city of Veelos, the pearl that was Versilla, the bastions there were Izabal and Drakiss. She saw all of these things and more, felt them dancing along her skin, tasted them in the air passing beyond her lips. This was home.

It was not the first time she’d dreamt or home, further still from the first time she’d longed for it and the treasures she’d left there. That night, as she dreamed her sweet dreams, she held one such treasure in her arms.

Philippe squirmed gently in his mother’s arms, fussing against the softness of Irene’s dress as she carried him across the shore. Grains of bleached sand, almost white, sank beneath her heels and rose up in the spaces between her toes as she moved, walking lightly with the breeze. Further down the slope to their right, foam-capped waves exhausted themselves over driftwood and dunes, sighing loudly as they slid back into the sea. A full moon loomed high above them, silent, glaring, and white as bone, without so much as a single dark cloud to obscure its view. With only the forest to their left, the ocean to their right, and the moon above as witness, Irene nursed her son, taking a moment’s reprieve upon a large, comfortably sized hulk of driftwood.

And like with all dreams concerning her prince, this one, too, ended in tragedy.

The child’s feeding lasted for only a few moments before he began coughing—slow at first, but then they came in rapid, violent succession. The intensity of Philippe’s coughs rose with her panic, Irene’s black blood splattered his infant lips. She screamed, yet there was no sound – only the child’s labored breathing, his pained cries for relief. Blood wept from his eyes, his nose, and even his ears, staining Irene’s dress and skin with gore. But respite came only a few moments later as Philippe’s struggled ceased, and his eyes closed. He’d died in her arms again, the same as he did every night—

But this time was different. This time, she was not alone.

Rather than wake from her nightmare, screaming in agony and terror as she often did, Irene remained asleep, suppressed by the will of another. Philippe fell away from her arms in a river of smoke and shadow, spilling down across her legs and dissipating against the blood-stained sand. Her guest, a phantom of the deepest shadow, sat posed on another piece of driftwood that had settled across from hers almost like a chair. The figure lacked any discerning features, yet its silhouette was broad and rigidly cut, even sitting. There were no eyes, yet she would know it was looking at her intently. “I see.” A thousand voices of a thousand pitches spoke at once, all of them in perfect unison, giving the being a voice that was both high and deep, serious and light, cold, but warm. “So, this is the pain that gave birth to the darkness inside you?” The phantom shifted, its curious attention settling on the sand at her feet. “The darkness that called to me.”

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It would be a strange thing to observe -- perhaps

 

Surely, Alexander had observed a great many strange things, and so, perhaps, Gabriela would not be quite such an oddity. But in the next moment, after the shape of little Philippe dissipated into shadow and smoke, Gabriela’s panic stricken face became a muted canvas, the horror that had shaken her small frame ceased completely, and the tears that had wet her cheeks dried away and were no more. Indeed, she was held here in the land of nightmares against her will but it was still within the realm of her mind and so she banished not only her weeping but all signs that sorrow had ever crossed her. 

 

Wisps of shadows ran through her fingers like strands of silk or running rivers of sand. She didn’t clutch at them in some useless attempt to hold on. Instead, she watched listlessly as the last traces of her son fell away from her to the darkened mounds of sand at her feet. And when it was all over and the proper observations had been made, for the sake of memory, she reached up and fixed some wayward strands of hair that had spilled away from the elegant, but loose, entrapment of her pearl-studded headband.

 

It wasn’t until she had gone through this odd, nearly ritualistic, arrangement of her hair and garments, for she fussed over her blood-stained gown, and made sure her sleeves were pulled up and that she was modest once more -- that she, at long last, regarded the uninvited witness to her nightmare. 

 

“I see.”

 

In this dream world, although she was no longer a vampyre, she retained the traits of her true heritage. Those brilliant eyes of hers, radiant as summer-set eyes, shifted from the featureless figure of black up toward the night sky. His voice reverberated in her chest and caused a ringing in her ears though it had been no louder than a conversational tone, nay -- almost as soft as a whisper. 

 

“So, this is the pain that gave birth to the darkness inside you?”

 

He had no eyes, but the movements of the figure he had chosen to take were easy enough to follow. Were most might have been frightened by his appearance, Gabriela found it familiar and likened it very much to Tenebre’s favored facade. And so, she followed his ‘gaze’ downward to the sad that had pooled around her feet. It was black, stained with blood. 

 

“The darkness that called to me.”

 

“You oversimplify me,” she replied -- all traces of the agony-stricken mother gone, in fact, any semblance of motherly sentiment seemed to have vanished once her conscious mind came to play. The dream he had witnessed was nothing more than a trick of the mind, a memory that had no rooting in reality, perhaps a fantasy turned rotten by the sheer amount of alcohol she consumed before drifting into fitful sleep every night. It wasn’t real. None of it was. Philippe had never breathed Orisia’s salty-sea air, in fact, his little lungs had never tasted breath at all. He had been stillborn, back in Dr. Marigolds laboratory on Terrenus. 

 

Gabriela set her palms upon the large hunk of washed up wood where she sat and leaned forward. She crossed her legs, one knee over the other, and with a pointed foot -- toyed with the black sand. 

 

“Surely, I am not the first mother to lose a child...and surely my pain was not any more or less than those mothers who came before me.”

 

She stopped then. Her toes stopped their circling of the bloody sand, and once more her golden eyes were upon the creature. Gabriela leaned forward, closer and closer to her uninvited guest, though a great distance remained between them.

 

“What called to you isn’t this… it isn’t a darkness birthed by this pain, nor any other pain that I’ve suffered. What called to you is the alignment of the stars,” she tossed a hand to the air, palm up -- and the sparse, white clouds that were brightly illuminated by the full moon, were suddenly blown away. Even the moon itself seemed to edge toward the treeline of a distant wooded hill. The sky, in all of its entirety, was opened to them. The cosmos above them came alive with movement. “What called you to me was the Awakening…”

 

For the first time since the nightmare ended, her features softened. She was looking up at the night sky. 

 

“My son is in a better place. A kinder place. He is light now, and he is free… I would set the rest of Valucre’s children free. I would rescue all the mothers from the pain that I lived, and the pain of those mothers before me. I would ensure that there is no more pain. Can you see it now? Do you understand? Can you understand... It isn’t darkness that resides inside of me, but rather a void -- awful and terrible -- that can and will be filled with the light of all the world.”

 

She laughed a little. It was soft and light. 

 

“He called himself the Great Devourer...he never knew, he couldn’t have imagined, that all the while he was nurturing the only true being with the appetite to ravage the world -- the universe, in due time.” 

 

Gabriela stood, she took a step -- two steps toward the figure and stopped. 

 

“Do you see me? Do you truly see me for what I am?”

Edited by Pasion Pasiva

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“No.” The phantom’s reply was simple, matter of fact. If it had eyes, they would be staring at her intently, far less plainly than his reply had been. She was beautiful in her own way, the inheritance of her people thickest, truest, in their royal bloodlines. Her eyes glowed more brightly in these dream, set against so many dark shades, and her beauty was paramount, for she would always be her truest self in the mind’s eye (no matter what shell she wore in the real world). “You underestimate me.”

In either of his two lives, the phantom had not been one for politics or the game of words that accompanied them. His people had crowned him king, called him master, but they were titles he neither desired nor cared to possess. When he spoke to the woman, it was not as a man to belittle her or make her smaller than what she was, for he was not so foolish as to attempt the containment of something so impossibly large.

“You have surrounded yourself with men and creatures that oversimplify you from the time you were born, and because you hate what you are, deny what you are, you allow them to do it.” As he spoke, shades of the devil, of the elder, of the great devourer passed them by on the beach, one after the other, as though the two of them were not even there. These hands had played their part in molding her into the self-loathing creature she had become. He’d heard a great many things about these men during his slumber, whispers in the shadow, and found them all lacking a great deal. Oh, how low one might stoop for the calling of ‘love’.

“This pain is not the pain of a mother losing a child, but the void, and there is the great difference between you and every other mother that has walked this earth.” Perhaps it was because they feared her that they all strived with such single-minded determination to shackle her, to keep her from harnessing all that she was? Or, perhaps it was that they desired that power for themselves? It was not as though they could strip that essence from her, woven so tightly into her very existence as it was, and thus they were resigned to merely taming her—and by extension, it. “There are some that say existence itself is the result of such pain, life violently made by the loss of something once held dear to pit between stars. And so too is true of you, Black Queen of Orisia.”

The phantom’s head tilted, its attention once again resting on the shadow-stained sands. “Had this not occurred, you would have gone on as you always have—herded like immortal cattle by the hands of your masters. But this, this has brought about change.”

It was looking at her again. “And change in the void is always the most interesting kind.”

What called you to me was the Awakening.

In this, they were certainly agreed.

My son is in a better place. A kinder place. He is light now, and he is free… I would set the rest of Valucre’s children free. I would rescue all the mothers from the pain that I lived, and the pain of those mothers before me. I would ensure that there is no more pain. Can you see it now? Do you understand? Can you understand... It isn’t darkness that resides inside of me, but rather a void -- awful and terrible -- that can and will be filled with the light of all the world.

“How benevolent of you.” The woman’s sentiment was beyond him, for the phantom harbored no love for mortals as they were. If she was the void, he was the storm, a ravaging maelstrom that drifted across the vastness of life at its leisure. He was a force of nature—and storms do not pity the drowned. But her reasoning mattered little, for it was the end that justified the means. Let her look upon herself through rose-tinted lenses, paint herself as a martyr of womanhood, a savior, if she would. Anything to promote the acceptance he had so diligently instilled in his own people, taught to hate themselves for what they were.

She stepped toward him then, asking if he saw her. Indeed, she was a void like no other, as bottomless as she was ravenous. And yet, the mouth of the pit that dwelled inside her was capped, layered with pitiful sentiment, self-loathing, and worst of all, hope. All her life she had run from it, denied it, only claiming her inheritance when it proved convenient for her. Philippe’s death had sliced through the veil like a dagger, and now, piece by piece, it was all falling away—consumed by her truest self.

No, it hadn’t been the pain of losing Philippe that drew him to her. He realized that now. It had been the disappearing of it, and all else surrounding it, as the emptiness inside her greedily devoured it. Still, there was so terribly much more there. How many hundreds of years had she played the part of something else, anything else, except herself?

“You are more ambition than action, more sentiment than conviction.” The phantom’s tone remained placid, as cool as the breeze gracing their beach. “You speak of filling yourself with all the light of the world, of the universe, and yet you, yourself, have only just begun to accept what you are.” Mirroring her, the phantom rose from his bench of driftwood, towering over her even at their distance apart. Yet he did not strike an imposing figure as so many often did, pointlessly trying to intimidate a woman they already controlled. The phantom existed – what others derived from that was of their own doing. “I see what you are, what you could be still, but also, I’ve seen what you’ve become at the behest of others.”

Did she believe herself free, to do as she wished? Did she believe herself to be the devil or elder’s equal – to stand against their tyranny, if she so chose? No, he did not believe it so. Were either of those feeble-willed men to desire it, they would ruin her, dragging her back to her cell to once again live out the rest of her days as their slave. It was only that they possessed more power than she that they were allowed to mock her, to debase her, to rape, shame, and spite her.

And so, the phantom extended his hand to her.

“It is not enough to simply know what you are. You must become it, wholly and unforgivingly, and never again allow yourself to be caged by another.”

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“No,” said the creature in reply to her petulant speech, and then concluded with, “--you underestimate me.”

 

“No,” she countered immediately. 

 

Gabriela felt a strong need to lead this conversation -- to control the tone of it, to not let it down the winding road of misinterpretation, failure, and eventual disappointment. She needed desperately, in this moment, to not be misunderstood.

 

“I do not underestimate you. I have no estimation of you at all. I don’t know you. I will make no assumptions, other than what is undeniably clear -- somehow, through my dreams and through my own awakening, I have awoken you.”

 

Yes -- she could taste it, the heavy and comfortable presence he exuded was reminiscent of a deep slumber. It was alluring, to say the least, and she felt the nearly irresistible call to give up right then and there and sit by his side and perhaps sleep for a while. Much like Tenebre, in his purest of forms, he extended a sense of calm and peace. Those were not traits that were likely ever attributed to the Witch King in his life, but in his death-like-sleep was he even aware that he had come to embody the temptation of death’s sweet promise of rest?

 

“You have surrounded yourself with men and creatures that oversimplify you from the time you were born, and because you hate what you are, deny what you are, you allow them to do it.”

 

She turned, called by the siren song of familiar footsteps, though they were nothing more than darkness passing over the gentle mounds of sand before the beach. With a mixture of love, contempt, and exhaustion she watched the parade of figures that had once upon a time had meaning in her life. 

 

“No, no, no…” she interjected just as the last shade walked away. “Don’t do that, don’t make assumptions. Don’t read about me from the pages of the book these creatures have written about my life. They are wrong. They do not know me. They do not love me. They surely never understood me.”

 

Quiet as one of those shades, Gabriela drifted forward and crossed the distance that separated them. She moved with all the familiarity of an old friend and stood close at his seated side. She looked after the dancing figures that had come waltzing out of the mist only to die in the darker shadows of the treeline far beyond. 

 

“I never hated what I was,” she went on, a soft whisper -- a confession perhaps. “Only that I was not the strongest, not the fastest, not the one who commanded the legions of them...there was so much I could have done if only I wielded the power to rule them. But I knew it from the moment I could reason. I was the last born -- the youngest in a dying breed, the least among the greatest. I saw the potential in myself as a solitary creature, and so I pursued that path. I was stronger, faster, and so much better than most of everything else I saw, but only alone.”

 

A soft silence followed, a gentle thing that allowed the sudden swell of the lake-waters to fill the void with the gentle lul of waves running up the beach and then rushing back down.

 

“I got used to being alone. I liked -- I loved myself, only when I was alone.”

 

“This pain is not the pain of a mother losing a child, but the void, and there is a great difference between you and every other mother that has walked this earth.”

 

They both were thinking the same thing. There was no pride in her or ego, simply a realization that she was indeed, not like every other other that had walked the earth. Perhaps, Tenebre had seen her love of solitude -- her true devotion to a path of isolation and found the kindred spirit necessary to hang up his mantle at long last. But she had failed in this by loving another. Nothing should come from the void, nothing save everything, and in her creation of Philippe, while wearing the mantle of living void, she had done what had only ever been done once before. 

 

Creation.

 

She had created something out of nothing

 

“There are some that say existence itself is the result of such pain, life violently made by the loss of something once held dear to pit between stars. And so too is true of you, Black Queen of Orisia.”

 

She sensed that the creature tilted its head but she couldn’t make herself look away from the shores of Lake Atitlan. Tears came to her eyes -- crystal clear instead of black like ink. 

 

“Had this not occurred, you would have gone on as you always have -- herded like immortal cattle by the hands of your masters. But this, this has brought about change.”

 

Is that why it hurt so much? 

 

The tears were gone -- a memory of pain, but not what she was actually feeling.

 

Is that why the wailing and gnashing of teeth of those other women -- those other mothers who had lost children -- was so galling to her? What were the lives of their children save the continual recycling of matter and energy, all on a predisposed path that started over and over and over again. How could they ever know what true loss was when they had never carried true life…

 

“You are more ambition than action, more sentiment than conviction.”

 

All of it -- truth

 

“You speak of filling yourself with all the light of the world, of the universe, and yet you, yourself, have only just begun to accept what you are.”

 

The creature stood at her side now, a towering figure. She did not feel him imposing on her space, but she did feel a swell of breath. If she was a seedling struggling against the elements, then he was the great and unbowing mountain casting its shadow and grace upon her. She could grow here, if only to eventually grow taller than the mountain itself. 

 

“I see what you are, what you could be still, but also, I’ve seen what you’ve become at the behest of others.”

 

His hand extended and she, for the first time, turned to regard the creature. It was not a difficult decision, it did not feel like a trick, or a deal, or a threat -- his hand was there, a black outline that she knew with an intimacy she could not explain, and so it was perfectly natural that her hand, pale and glowing like moonlight, should sit atop his. 

 

“It is not enough to simply know what you are. You must become it, wholly and unforgivingly, and never again allow yourself to be caged by another.”

 

“For so long a cage is all I’ve ever known…”

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“A cage of your own design,” the phantom replied once he’d secured her hand, shadowy fingers coiling softly around her paler, perfect ones. The grip he leveraged on her was as firm as the many others that had once held her captive, if not firmer, yet not so restricting that she could not pull away if ever she desired to. “For too long you’ve surrounded yourself with those that cannot comprehend what you are. And like all lessers, that which they cannot understand, they seek to dominate and control.” There was no malice in the shadow’s voice, for he harbored no ill-will toward the Black Queen’s suitors, but neither was there admiration for the wealth of power they’d hoarded during their lives. There were all of them unimpressive to him, thin and fickle, whereas she possessed a depth worthy of focus and care.

Though he held the woman’s hand still, there was no intimacy in the phantom’s touch, at least as she’d come to know it during her relatively long life. It possessed the familiarity of a long-lost lover, soft and supple, but also the likeness of her own, as she were simply cupping a wounded palm in careful inspection. They were the same – if only in some slight, far off shade of black – and that was enough. If he was the mountain casting its wide and deep shadow over the dark flower struggling against the elements, then he was also the gardener that would nurture her into full bloom. For it was not enough for her to survive in this world; she needed to thrive.

“Come,” he beckoned her with a thousand voices. “There is something you must see.”

The phantom did not pull her so much as he guided her, from the sandy shores and into waters, still reflecting the moon and stars against its inky surface. The waves should have been cold, but they were warm, inviting. Or perhaps the both of them were simply too chilled, themselves, that the waters felt so welcoming to them—like home. “You are still a great distance from me, Black Queen.” The statement was as factual as it was metaphorical. More than just miles upon miles of terrain separated the two kindred spirits, and not all the barriers between them would be so easily surpassed. “There are things you must do, things you must learn, on this road you have chosen to walk. I can show you the way, but every step you take must be your own, and yours alone.”

The waters lapped at their waists, greedily devouring them as he guided her further away from the safety of the shore. Never did his hand leave hers, abandon her. The phantom’s attention remained fixated on the horizon, west, as if staring at something far away. “I will show you how to give birth to your ambition, to nurture your sentiment into unrelenting conviction.” A wave swelled ahead of them, reaching high above their heads. “And it all starts—”

It swallowed them whole. But that was not the end.

The rush and pull of the ocean depths gave way to emptiness, a chamber as large as some king’s palaces. The soft, wet sand beneath their feet became hard tile, cold from disuse, and the waves that had devoured them became gothic pillars of dark stone, covered in hoarfrost, that rose to shoulder the weight of a vaulted ceiling. Iron braziers, overflowing with blue-white flames, mounted each of every column’s four sides, washing the room in an icy sheen. But still the darkness watched, quiet as it was patient, soaking the chamber’s furthest ends, its highest corners, and other passageways that beckoned to her.

Irene stood at the center of this chamber, her hand no longer in the sanctuary of the phantom’s palm. He was gone, but his presence remained, prevalent in every detail of the chamber she now stood. He was in the stone, in the deadness of the air, in the very flames that lit her way. Across from her, many strides to the north, was a throne. It was no simple work of iron and steel—blacker than night, with blazing runes etched across its bulk. Its curves were smooth, its edges sharp, all of it fashioned from the same enormous piece of metal. And upon this throne sat a man, pale of skin, white of hair, a dreadful runeblade impaled through his chest. The Witch King. “Asleep,” said the thousand voices, echoing from every direction. “Not dead.”

Then phantom formed once again, pulling itself from the sitting man in a hoard of ethereal tendrils. Still it possessed no distinctive features, other than its size which mirrored the man’s. “And you will be the one to wake me.”

Edited by King

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“A cage of your own design.”

 

There was that instinct to pull away in anger. She wanted to accuse him of making assumptions -- of not understanding. She didn’t design her cage! She never wanted to be put in a cage! All her life she spent running from being jailed away. From one situation to another, she ran as fast as she could, as fast as she was allowed, before eventually falling prey to entrapment. She wanted to say this and more, but she didn’t. Instead, she forced herself to recognize this moment for what it was -- perhaps her only true chance to escape, or rather, to stop running. What was running if not it’s own type of cage...

 

But it was a hard thing coming to grips with her own responsibility and the part she had played in not only years of insurmountable suffering, but also the death of her child. For there was no coming to grips with the truth without accepting it in its entirety. This was a long path she would have to walk on bare feet along a road littered with shattered glass. Every single step -- agony.

 

“For too long you’ve surrounded yourself with those that cannot comprehend what you are. And like all lessers, that which they cannot understand, they seek to dominate and control.”

 

Love -- as far as they understand it, she thought with a dim sentimentality.

 

“Come, there is something you must see.”

 

The bellow of his voice, a song of a thousand tongues all speaking in unison, brought her out of her reverie. He was holding her hand firmly and pulling her forward toward the lake’s crystal-like waters. He did not have to guide for long, soon enough she was walking by his side, treading deeper and deeper into the warm waters.

 

“You are still a great distance from me, Black Queen.”

 

For the first time, after the events of her birthday celebration -- the night upon which she was certain the devil had lost his life -- Gabriela felt a pang of sadness. This creature was so much like Tenebre before his decent into obsession and cruelty. It was a contributing factor to her refusal to ascend to his position as deity of the abyss. Was it simply impossible to maintain one’s self when one came to obtain so much power? 

 

There are things you must do, things you must learn, on this road you have chosen to walk. I can show you the way, but every step you take must be your own, and yours alone.”

 

The water licked at her belly. It swayed gently, back and forth, trying to saw her in half just below the breasts. Though the water was warm, she felt chilled suddenly. Everything around her was black, but not the warm, comforting waters of the abyss. There was meaning in these waters. There was a depth all around them that was full of knowledge she was afraid to recognize. 

 

“I will show you how to give birth to your ambition, to nurture your sentiment into unrelenting conviction.”

 

A wave rose. It crested high above their heads but not far from where they stood. She felt the pull of the water as it quickly receded back into the massive billow that gathered more and more force. This was a dream -- nothing but a dream, but she felt fear, real and true fear.

 

“And it all starts--”

 

“Wait…”

 

The water swallowed them whole.

 

She lost her grip on his hand and was pushed and pulled by the rippling currents of the black waters. Her arms went right and her legs went left, her head felt like it was being forced back while her torso twisted. She felt like she was being ripped apart -- until she wasn’t. 

 

She stood in the center of a massive chamber. Those brilliant eyes of her illuminated the darkness and brought life into the stillness of the space. Although she stood perfectly still, she became the beating heart of this place the moment those eyes of hers peered forward. And when she moved, for of course she moved forward, she became the blood that was pumped through that very same heart, and she returned life to all. Color was returned, even to the gray and damp floors, and even the darkness of the immensely tall pillars became animated with her approach. 

 

“Asleep. Not dead.”

 

On bare feet she traded carefully. The floor was covered in dust -- or perhaps it was ash. 

 

“And you will be the one to wake me.”

 

“Why me?” she asked, stopping before the throne and gazing at the sleeping creature. “I am nto the first, nor will I be the last, would-be-god or self-important, self-proclaimed monarch… why me?”

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The Witch King’s phantom stared down at her from atop the peak of the mountainous dais, shadowy arms tucked behind its back. It had eyes now, small blue flames that burned with the fury of the sun as they lazily rose into the sky. “Why does the wind blow?” he asked in reply, the thousand voices in his command weighted with the same confusion. “Why does the sun rise, do the oceans ebb and flow?” There were more answers to these questions than one might realize, were their eyes opened to the truth of the world. Where a scholar might say the wind was but a result of varying pressures, a druid might say it was the air, itself, dancing no different than a spritely child. Why her? Again, more answers than one might except—though she needed only one.

“No matter their numbers, I found you. I have watched, I have learned, and I have come to know pain and exhaustion from your trials and tribulations. No matter their numbers, it was you that called to me. No, you are not the first.” The voices fell silent, and the phantom began to slowly descended the dais. Though its body carried no weight, there was a gravity to his steps, as if the dream world that surrounded them was held in place by his very presence. If she was the blood pumping life through old, decrepit veins, then he was the body in which they were all housed, eager and hungry for new life. “Many have learned my name and sought me out, hoping to make my power their; called to me in the dark of night over spell and ritual.”

Leveled with her, as much as a mountain could level with a seedling, the phantom began the slow process of circling her. It was not in the predatory fashion of her species, as vampyres often did with those they meant to make feel lesser and vulnerable, but in a simpler manner all together. The phantom’s eyes danced around a throne room long-since neglected of care, only paying Irene a glance when they were face to face, their eyes able to meet, even if only for a moment. It was in this way – among the others thus demonstrated – that he suggested he saw her as someone to mentor so that she could, in time, stand beside him as an equal. Whether she surpassed him was of no importance, for though he was not of the void, not truly, he too was of the eternal essence. And that was enough.

“And yet, yours was the only one that I answered.” The phantom came to a halt beside her, staring up at the throne and the creature frozen upon it. “You often ask why things happen to you, whether they be good or bad, as if there must be some grand reason. Why you? Why not you, Black Queen? Why shouldn’t it be you to wrap a hand around that hilt and pull it free from his chest?” Those burning eyes were on her again, scorching her as they searched her expression for an answer. “Why should it fall to someone else? It can. Of course, it always can. But why should it? Must it always be some meticulous chord of destiny or genius stroke of luck? Is it not enough that a call was made and answered, and this is the result? I have forced nothing upon you, for all of this will mean nothing otherwise.

“If you feel that the prerequisites are unmet, by all means, cast yourself from this dream and I will pursue you no further. As you said, you are neither the first nor last.” Soft, flowing fingers of shadows wrapped around her delicate wrist, lifting her hand before them. “But if you see what I see, feel as I feel, and would seek as I seek, then free yourself from your gilded cage and become what you are, wholly and unforgivingly. Ascend and touch it. When you wake, you will know, and you will follow. And I will wait for you.”

The choice was, as it always should have been, hers to make.

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“Why does the wind blow?”

 

She stared, passively at the figure upon the throne.

 

“Why does the sun rise, do the oceans ebb and flow?”

 

Golden eyes narrowed upon the phantom figure that stood besides the sleeping king.

 

“No matter their numbers, I found you.”

 

I found you.

 

“I have watched, I have learned, and I have come to know pain and exhaustion from your trials and tribulations. No matter their numbers, it was you that called to me. No, you are not the first.”

 

But I’ll be the last.

 

“Many have learned my name and sought me out, hoping to make my power their own; called to me in the dark of night over spell and ritual.”

 

A witch…

 

The great wheel of fortune that set her upon this path of shattered and sharpened glass began centuries ago, perhaps millennia -- long before she was ever so much as a thought in the minds of her mother and father. But it could also be said that it all started a little over a year ago, when after falling pregnant and fretting about the future of the child that she carried, she sought the charms and magics of a woman in the woods. She loathed magic. She loathed those who used it. And yet she had allowed herself to be seduced by the mere possibility of certainty -- an impossibility in and of itself. The witch, wrinkled and gray, had promised a successful birth and a healthy life for her child on two conditions. One, that a sizable contribution of land be given to her as payment for her services upon the golden shores of the Summer Isles, and two that the child be born upon those same golden shores. She had been abducted days before her due date (a daring trial by a fledgling crime organization trying to make a name for itself), and regardless of Raphael and Roen’s tireless work, her child had been born in Terrenus. 

 

The child’s lungs never filled with breath.

 

Perhaps they never would have, regardless of location. But having made the deal with the witch and having been given a possibility of life and health, the loss of the child was extraordinarily compounded. Everyone was to blame -- Raphael, Roen, and herself most of all.

 

The phantom had descended and was now slowly circling around her. He seemed unconcerned with her lack of attention. The same way he peered around the haunted throne room, she peered internally into the memories she dared not visit since setting forth on this mission. Her pain was not unique -- she was no more or less than any other mother who had given birth to a stillborn. But she was unique. All of this was unique. All of this was as much a carefully crafted alignment of stars as the stars themselves appeared to be a chaotic, strewn about handful of infinitely small bursts of light. 

 

All of this was meant to be, and none of this had to happen.

 

Meaningful and meaningless. 

 

“And yet, yours was the only one that I answered. You often ask why things happen to you, whether they be good or bad, as if there must be some grand reason. Why you? Why not you, Black Queen? Why shouldn’t it be you to wrap a hand around that hilt and pull it free from his chest?”

 

The creature was looking at her and at long last she turned from the sight of the sleeping king. She looked at the phantom with pinched brows and that age-old expression that had made so many raise terrors against her in the name of love. She looked so troubled -- so exquisitely worried. 

 

“Why should it fall to someone else? It can. Of course, it always can. But why should it? Must it always be some meticulous chord of destiny or genius stroke of luck? Is it not enough that a call was made and answered, and this is the result? I have forced nothing upon you, for all of this will mean nothing otherwise…”

 

Tears came, and in this dream where she was still what she had always been, they came as black ink -- blood. But they did not spill. They merely welled in her eyes, which were now full of sentiment. Full of sadness. He took her hand by the wrist and lifted it between them.

 

“...But if you see what I see, feel as I feel, and would seek as I seek, then free yourself from your gilded cage and become what you are, wholly and unforgiving. Ascend and touch it. When you wake, you will know, and you will follow. And I will wait for you.”

 

“Tell me, Witch King…” she did not know who he was -- she had never heard of him, the title was given by her as she often named her acquaintances, funny that it should be so accurate -- perhaps further proof of the inevitability of her arrival in this place.

 

“Tell me why you put yourself in this cage.”

 

No one could put him here, she knew that. This was a cage, much like her own life, crafted by his own hand -- but why? Was it for love of power? For love of a woman? For love of a child… Or, was it for love of a lost father or mother? Was he her child -- was this the future of her son, was this dream nothing more than a visit to a future that would never come to pass? Or was this a vision of what was to come. 

 

“If pain was the catalyst that brought me here -- that binds us together, then tell me what is your pain and how can I soothe it?” 

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“I was betrayed,” the phantom replied, and though honest, it seemed a grievous underestimation of what had truly transpired. “Time, and time again.” In the years since his imprisonment, the Witch King had, of course, reflected on his time with her. He’d not been the best of men, far from the best of lovers, but he’d loved her purely and without reserve. Why had she not done the same? Why had she not done what was promised? Their hearts beat to the same rhythm, their souls two halves of the same coin—or at least, they had been, once upon a time. “It takes time to become something different. The greater the change, the more time it requires.” The phantom’s burning blue eyes lifted to the throne, resting on the body that sat there.

No, it wasn’t a prison at all. It was a chrysalis.

The Witch King was change once again. Regressing.

It had been through the purity of her angelic essence, bound to his black soul, that he’d managed to free himself of the lich-curse, transcending the restraints of the undead. He hadn’t become human again, not really, but something else—something better, he found. The Witch King was alive, a proper vessel for Zengi, and at the time that had been his ultimate goal. But his predecessor had fled, taking his shadow with him, and shortly thereafter, so too had his beloved. And so the Witch King looked upon all that he’d built with despair, and set with determination to become what he had once been—the fundament of his ambition.

The blade that extended from the Witch King’s chest had not been an attempt at suicide (it would take something far greater even than Torment to end his existence), but rather, to cut away the excess. The kindness, the love, the understanding that had begun weaving itself throughout his person, like untamed vines snaking along the trunk of an ancient tree. They were few and far between, these redeemable aspects, but they were strong, born of the sincerity he shared with her. And so it took time to rid himself of them—to free the blackened bark around his heart of this unwanted vegetation.

“I realized that I had become weak, distracted. The outside world has a way of abandoning its position and, instead, invading the innermost sanctums of one’s being. It blinded me to the truth.” It was there in his stasis, frosted over, paralyzed and immobile, that the Witch King had discovered these truths and held fast to their strength. They had hastened his transformation, sharpened Torment’s edge and laid waste to that once beautiful forest of love and compassion. Now, only a burned, blackened tree remained – its leaves silvery and dead. “But I have slept for long ago—dreamed my dreams, seen what I need to see. The time has come for one to wake me.”

It was a symbolic gesture if nothing else. Were it his will, it would be nothing for him to lift his hand—even now—and pry the weapon free from his chest. But he’d given this right to her, the Black Queen, to go about it as she saw fit. It was a time of choices, of decisions made and consequences suffered. He had become a watcher in his absence, and learned the joys of seeing those around him carve out their own paths, taking their own steps and blazing their own trails. Would the Black Queen seize that which he offered her, or, as she’d done so many times before, crumble beneath the weight placed upon her shoulders?

“My pain has long-since gone cold, Black Queen, soothed by the ice around us.” There were bits of it on his body, almost like armor—no, like a second skin, protecting him. The phantom looked away from the throne and his body, those blue eyes burning hotter now, their flames dancing across his shadow-face. “But I would have vengeance upon the one that has broken their oath to me, the one who has stolen from me.” The shadow’s fists shook with a primal fury—dark, dangerous. “But that is a matter for another time. This is your moment. Touch the sword—take it in your hand as if it is your own, and know me. Or…”

Or run forever, prey to the predators of this world.

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“I was betrayed.”

 

I believe...the gold of her eyes floated atop pools of black tears.

 

“It takes time to become something different. The greater the change, the more time it requires.”

 

I believe you will take me somewhere I’m not supposed to be…

 

She lost focus in her eyes, the tears became too thick to see through and so she closed her eyes and darkened the world. When she opened them again, they were clear and glorious -- un-muddied by the sentimentality she had suffered from just a moment ago. Did she view it as a weakness? No. She refused to negate herself the full range of her emotions. But in this moment, and with this person -- sadness, suffering, and sorrow -- were unwanted and unnecessary. He told some of his story, but only because she asked and not for the sake of teaching or sharing.

 

She didn’t understand, but she didn’t need to.

 

“I realized that I had become weak, distracted. The outside world has a way of abandoning its position and, instead, invading the innermost sanctums of one’s being. It blinded me to the truth.”

 

Standing besides the creature, a shadow figment -- perhaps a creation of her own mind, she sipped at the depth of meaning in his words. He was not sharing a new concept. He had not come up with this idea of ‘the truth’ -- if anything, it seemed that this revelation came to a great many men, always beings of great power, always creatures that were certain of their own destiny. For the first time, since awakening to this dream, her heart flirted with doubt. What made this man any different than all the rest? Whatever power he possessed, it had done little to ease the heartache of betrayal and that was clearly visible. He was as susceptible to disappointment as anybody else. 

 

“But I have slept for so long--dreamed my dreams, seen what I need to see. The time has come for one to wake me.”

 

She could hear the quake in his voice -- his voices, the whole gathering of them, the tremble that rose in the column within the throne room, shaking a ceiling that was impossibly high above their heads. It was fury she tasted, reverberating in the air and swaying flyaway wisps of hair around her beautiful face. She left him there, speaking after her, as she climbed up the steps to stand before the sleeping man.

 

“My pain has long-since gone cold, Black Queen, soothed by the ice around us.”

 

A pale hand extended. It was a masterpiece -- her slender wrist, her delicate knuckles, her long fingers, and her glass-like fingernails. That had hoovered there, above the hilt of that great and terrible sword that had been plunged so deep into the sleeping king’s chest.

 

“But I would have vengeance upon the one that has broken their oath to me, the one who has stolen from me.”

 

She wanted to speak and issue a warning. She wanted to tell him that the soothing nature of the cold was not to be confused with truth. It was a frace -- a numbing of true afflictions. It was dangerous to allow hurts to grow dull and eventually, deadened. Mummification would settle in quickly after, for there was no rot or corrosion in the chill air of those who walked through the abyss. But the comfort was not the truth. Pain, sorrow, and longing -- those were fundamental truths, and honest truths, and the sort of truths that would not lead you astray.

 

But she was learning.

 

It was not her place to speak to his experience, but it was her right to withhold her opinion -- especially if she disagreed. 

 

Behind her, she felt the shake of his anger. The boom of his voice blew her hair forward, over her shoulders like dancing tendrils of shadow. It was a swooping mass that she had to collect with her free hand and pin down against her belly. That black mane became a black sail, silken and lovely, framing her left side. 

 

“But that is a matter for another time. This is your moment. Touch the sword--take it in your hand as if it is your own, and know me. Or…”

 

Or run forever…

 

“And what if -- rather than pull the sword from your stone-heart, I plunge it deeper? What if I thaw you out so that I can eat your heart? What then? What then, Slumbering King? Will you look on in approval of my appetite? Will you end my existence before I end yours…” she leaned forward, past the hilt of his sword, and instead set her open palm upon Alexander’s cold, frozen cheek. She cupped the chiseled jaw, and caressed the edge of his high cheekbone. 

 

“I don't want to be anyone's equal...I want to end everything, I want to end everyone.”

 

She drew back, her fingertips dancing across the exposed edge of the blade until she landed upon the hilt and gripped it fully and tightly. 

 

“Show me… Show me how I can make them all sleep as you sleep.”

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