(This is story #5. Previous: “Paladin“.)
He waited until the wizard was alone.
The woman might have been his first choice, but then he saw her eyes. There was something dangerous about her. He couldn’t say what exactly, just that it put him off wanting to be alone with her. And he didn’t want to risk the strong one with the sword, for obvious reasons. But the little one in the black robes? Perfect target.
From the shadows, the outlaw watched the three of them slip down the midnight streets of the necropolis into a small shop. A moment later the swordsman reappeared, looking angry, and marched off in the direction they had come, back up toward the city above. And a moment after that, the woman emerged and began working her way down the street, looking into the windows of each long-abandoned home, until she disappeared around the corner.
He dashed around to the rear of the shop, slipped in through the back door, slinked toward the dusty front room where he found the young wizard lounging in a strangely clean chair, and he reached out with his shimmering violet glove to grasp the wizard from behind by the crown of his head.
The transition into the dream-realm was sudden and jarring, even for him. He had done it five-or-seven times now, but it didn’t seem to get any easier. Still, the dark shop vanished and the nightmare cavern of raw quivering muscle, stained bones, writhing tongues, and bloody pools appeared around them. The fetid air rippled with waves of heat, and plumes of dark vapors. Wet, sucking, grinding, guttering sounds echoed and boomed all around.
It was his own worst nightmare, one from childhood, being trapped inside some horrible predator, or being turned inside out, or both. The horror of the flesh, the horror of the unseen parts of his own body, and the exploded parts of others he had seen. Once. As a boy. His senses swam and lurched, and he fought back his own unease by focusing on his captive.
The young wizard in his black robes stood in the center of the bloody chamber of living, throbbing flesh. He looked…confused, turning slowly, inspecting the yellow eyes embedded in the walls, ignoring the fanged maws snapping from the ceiling.
The outlaw frowned.
Not the usual reaction.
He called out from his hiding place in the corner, “You’re my prisoner now! Imprisoned in a living hell! And you’ll die here, die screaming! Unless you do exactly what I tell you.”
The wizard looked straight at him and cocked an eyebrow. “Oh, hello there. So, this is…you?” The youth gestured halfheartedly at the chamber.
“This…” The outlaw grimaced back. “This is hell!”
The wizard snorted. “This is a dreamscape, and since I know it’s not mine, I can only assume it’s yours. And your name is?”
“I’m your infernal jailor! I’m the devil that follows your every footstep in the black nights when—”
“Zachary? It’s Zachary, isn’t it?” The wizard nodded. “Hello, Zachary. I’m Malachi.”
“I’m not…!” He straightened up and took a few angry steps forward. “How you do know my name?”
Malachi shrugged. “The dream-realm is my personal playground. It’s my favorite way to talk to distant friends, and… people who want to kill me. I know this world very well. And we’re in your dream now. Your true memories are actually written on these very unpleasant walls, if one only knows how to read them. Which I do.”
Zachary shook his head. “I don’t care what you know, or think you know. You’re trapped in this nightmare until I get what I want. Money. Food. Magic things.”
“Nightmare?” Malachi narrowed his eyes. “You call this a nightmare? This is a dog’s stomach with some creative liberties taken.”
“Shut up! I’ve terrified hard soldiers and holy clerics into giving me what I want,” Zachary growled. “You’re no different.”
“Oh? Let’s test that theory.” Malachi raised his empty hands and the dreamscape shifted.
The hideous walls of flesh and bone, the eyes and mouths, the pools of blood, they all quietly faded into the darkness, leaving behind a twilight plain of soft sandy dunes. For a moment, all was quiet and still. Then sheer walls of yellow stone erupted from the ground, spearing up toward the first pale stars of the evening, sliding one by one into place to form great temples and palaces. Pillars and stairs rose to meet broad domes and sharp spires. Silvery bells hung in every high tower, and bronze bird-shaped emblems of the angel Halcyon gleamed on the proud walls. The silence gave way to voices as people appeared in the streets, men and women concluding their work day, making their last deliveries and purchases, heading home from their tasks and errands, their studies and prayers. Merchants sang out their wares, and children laughed and played.
“This? What is this place? Is this Antar?” Zachary stared around at the pale golden city. “This is your nightmare?”
Malachi smiled sadly. “Wait for it.”
A sudden thundercrack shook the earth as a blinding column of green light shot up into the evening sky beyond the rooftops.
“That’s me.” Malachi nodded at the light. “Shattering the jade seal. Opening the doorway to the worlds hidden beneath our feet…and unleashing the demons.”
“Demons?” Zachary flinched back a step. He often heard the demons snarling and roaring in the caverns below the necropolis. He saw the patrols going down to fight them, and the battered and bloodied survivors who returned.
“Here they come,” the wizard said softly.
They came like a tide, like a flood of twisted white bodies cascading down the streets, clawing across the walls, and scrambling over the roofs. Infernal hounds that looked like skinned coyotes bounded through the screaming crowds, leaping and dashing as they caught fleeing men and women by their arms and legs. Small packs of three or four hellbeasts would all pounce on one terrified person, tear them limb from limb, spraying blood and viscera across the cobblestones and temple walls, and then race after their next victim.
Just behind the hounds came the goliaths, hulking troll-like masses of pale skin stretched over long sharp bones, staring down at the horrified citizens through unblinking black eyes, slashing their enormous clawed hands through people like scyths through wheat, separating human beings into flailing pieces, scattering bits and pieces of people in all directions.
Horrible winged monstrocities flapped overhead, beating the air with three leathery wings, twisting and flopping above the streets until they found their prey, only to drop out of the sky like toothed meteors, crushing and rending the panicking masses one by one.
Zachary jerked and jumped and hurled himself about the street to avoid the fleeing people, and the snarling hounds, and the stomping goliaths. When he wasn’t fast enough, the dream-creatures passed right through him, never leaving so much as a scratch even as they cleaved open skulls and ribs all around him. Hearts, lungs, brains, and intestines plopped and splattered across the roadway and the walls. Blood sprayed and dripped and pooled until the cobblestones drowned in red, leaving just clumps of hair and stray eyeballs floating down the lane.
“Ah, there I am.” Malachi pointed off down the block where a black-robed figured had suddenly appeared amidst a group of cowering families. A moment later the robed figure vanished, taking a dozen people with him. “Flashing in, finding people, flashing them away to the desert. I probably jumped thirty or forty times that night, into the city, out of the city. I’ve never cast so many spells in one day before. I don’t think anyone ever has. I thought I was going to die. Maybe a part of me hoped I would.”
Bells rang, soldiers shouted, clerics chanted, wizards invoked, and all the while the smallfolk screamed and ran. Flashes of holy fire and arcane shields glimmered off distant walls and windows as the city of Antar rallied to defend itself. Demons roared as they burned in golden fire and fell beneath silvery swords. But still they came, flooding up out of the cracks in the earth.
Zachary flattened himself in the corner of a doorway as the carnage continued to grind and splatter across the street in front of him. Limbs flew, heads rolled. Insides were torn out, waved wildly from claw and fang, and then devoured. The outlaw hunched down, making himself small as a woman ran toward him, reaching for the door behind him, only to be slashed open from shoulder to hip, shattering her ribs and bursting her lungs.
A goliath lifted her twitching body to its needle-toothed jaws and ate her, as its bone-white skin slitted open all along its massive arms to reveal dozens of writhing black tendrils. Some of the wriggling black ichor leapt free of the demon and landed on other fleeing people, clinging to them like giant leeches, boring their way inside them as they ran screaming out of sight.
One black leech wormed its way into a severed arm on the ground, which then jerked, rolled, and planted its bloody fingers on the cobblestones. Each finger slowly elongated, slender bones piercing dead flesh to form long curving claws, until it could stand up on those claws and begin scuttling away like an enormous scorpion, its ragged stump flopping left and right like a tail without a stinger.
Zachary shut his eyes, wrapped his arms around his head, and rocked slightly as he shivered and fought the urge to vomit.
“…and it’s all my fault,” the wizard was saying as he paced across the street, wading through the blood as the dreamscape flowed on and on, bringing ever more terrified people to die and ever more hideous monsters to kill them. “I wanted to save the world. I wanted to open the doorway to paradise. Instead, I did this. I made this. Carnage, horror, death. And now this is all I see when I close my eyes, when I’m alone, in the quiet, in the dark. Every hour of every day of my life now.”
The wizard drew close and squatted down to whisper in his ear, “Well? What do you think of my nightmare, friend?”
“Make it stop,” Zachary whispered. “Just make it stop. Please.”
“I can’t. Not for myself, anyway. But it looks like you’ve had enough.” The wizard stood up and stepped back.
Everything was silent. No more screams or snarls, no more wings or tendrils, no more splashing blood or growling flames.
Silence, and darkness.
Zachary opened his eyes and saw the dim, dusty shop. The wizard stood before him, pale and shaking, his eyes fixed on the violet glove in his hands.
“I…think I’ll keep this.” The wizard tucked the glove into his pocket as he swallowed and blinked. He exhaled loudly, straightened up, and cleared his throat twice, still not looking at the other man. “My friends will come back in a few moments. You probably don’t want to be here when they do.”
Zachary nodded, his head and back shivering uncontrollably. His stomach turned but there was nothing to expel. He hadn’t eaten in two days. Shuffling on wooden legs, the outlaw slipped out through the rear of the shop, made his way along the alley, and silently crawled into another similarly dim and dusty building, where he lay down on the floor and wept.
(This is story #5. Previous: “Paladin“.)