He dreamed of the place often.
They weren’t dreams of the Dravara or of how heavy an issued pistol felt in his hand, how clumsy his fingers had always felt on a trigger that was never his to pull. They weren’t dreams of his room or the wall he slept by where the wood always cracked and let the air seep inside. They weren’t dreams of any of the men themselves, no ranks and no patrolmen, no horses and no new recruits rushing around blindly for something meaningful.
Simply, they were dreams of the Rift.
They were dreams of pained screeches, blood scattered snow and the crackle of ice beneath his boots. They were dreams of their camp, sharp claws against skin and the rage filled snarls that never managed to fully leave his ears. They were dreams of a heartbroken wail, a cry that came after the loss of one’s love, and of hides painted for a war they never had any chance at winning.
They were dreams of them.
There were dreams where it was just him and the massive expanse, the chasm that stood between him and what horrors lay on the other side. There were dreams of the snow, the lack of anything beyond the whiteness and the cold. He could see nothing, not the trees or the stretch of the keep that peeked out over them far beyond.
It was simply there, grand and silent.
Other times he found himself in the very same place, always the same side and looking out where the horrors lay. The Rift itself would groan, waters rushing below exploding up into the sky, swirling into the heavens and there they joined the lights, the rivers combining in an arc above his head. They would fade then, dripping back to the snow only to disappear the moment they descended.
He would stare at the bridge, watch it sway and then finally fall, crumbling down and shattering far below. All of the world would heave. The ground would quake and the skies would bleed stained snow from fumbling clouds.
Finally, the Rift would lash out.
It would drag him by the ankles, the wrists, the throat, but he wouldn’t fight.
It would swallow him up, leaving nothing behind.
And then he’d wake up.
Those dreams has since faded into memories, gone as quickly as they had come in the first place, and his nights were often spent in an inky blankness that clung even when he woke. And yet, there were still nights he didn’t sleep.
The sky itself felt heavy on his back, the air littered with iron and choking him with an invisible smog. She was asleep back at the camp, resting peacefully where he had done his best to make her comfortable with what few things they had. Comfort, he thought, was the best he could offer.
He had woken up in a gasp, unable to breathe.
It wasn’t the first time and it wasn’t the last and the tingling in his fingertips was something too wrongly familiar for him to think about. Things hurt, burning like a fire that even when doused never fully went out. It didn’t go away. It only worsened.
The creek was difficult to navigate to, tucked back into the woods and down a ridgeline he’d simply fallen down rather than walked. For some time there was nothing but the weight on his chest, the crushing bulk of something he couldn’t see, and lost to whatever thoughts came to mind. They were few, disjointed and fluttering just beyond his reach to focus on clearly.
He thought about Evander.
He thought about home.
He didn’t know where either of them were.
His knife was difficult to reach, awkward and even heavier in his hand than any pistols had ever been. The blade glinted in the light reflected off the water as he pushed himself to sit up, shaking as he moved to slice away the cloth of his shirt. It was in tatters already, but cutting it off was more of a task than he anticipated. His chest was smeared, dried veins of crimson melding with fresh trickles that slipped down over his ribs.
Leaning back against the bank, he let his eyes shut briefly.
The bullet was still there, lodged somewhere he couldn’t see. With the knife, he could find it. He could get it out. He could breathe.
The blade was against his skin, but the handle was slippery, slicked with blood and sweat from his quivering hands. It tumbled away before he was able to cut far, only managing to gouge the outer layers of his flesh before it rolled away and towards the water. He lunged for it, fingers grasping at thin air as he collapsed onto his belly and was left still swatting at the shallow creek.
A sob caught in his throat.
He didn’t want to die.
His heart pounded in his ears, drowning out his gasping and wheezes, whatever fading attempts at breathing he could manage. It stayed that way, droning on, until finally, that sound faded too.
~ ~ ~ ~
The gun went off.
There was far too much and it came too quickly, rushing out over his hands and through the cracks in his fingers. A river, a flood that bubbled up from the ground until they were both drowning in it. But it didn’t bloom out into the snow like it had with her, only flowing over to drip into the white beneath his back.
“Open your eyes!”
It came as a roar in his head. “Step away from him.”
A trial, a plea for a trial and then the sound of boots crunching over fallen snow, scattering blood splattered flakes, scattering the last of the faeloren as they fled, scattering his thoughts.
His breathing turned to choking, but she didn’t stop, didn’t turn back. She kept going, striding away and then disappearing.
For once, they won.
And yet, something far more important was lost.
He sat upright, eyes still fogged over and dream crazed.
“Are you alright?”
Blinking, he righted himself, pushing himself up from the ground they had been resting on for some time. He nodded as best he could, eyes rising slowly to look at the glint at the kaleidoscope eyes staring back at him. His hair was tousled, lips curling into something of a tired smile and voice still husky with sleep. “Not so sweet dreams, I assume?”
He shrugged, leaning his head back and groaning at the stiffness in his joints and feeling the heat of Aurora’s shoulder against his again. They had been seated that way for a while, tied much in the same way in the same place and told to stay there.
They didn’t have much of a choice but to listen.
“What was it?”
Daniel shook his head. “What are you talking about?”
“You were making sounds, Daniel.”
He sat up, shuffling sideways away from the smug sort of grin on Aurora’s face and the warmth of his arm. Laughing, he moved a hand towards his face, brushing the dirt from his cheek and wiping a smear of mud from his lip, grimacing.
Aurora’s eyes followed the moment, one brow raising. “Sounds,” he repeated. “I was concerned-“
Daniel cleared his throat, stiffening. “You shouldn’t be.”
A heavy head came to rest on his shoulder. “I am concerned, though, Daniel. Above all, I should know how horrible those sorts of things can be.”
He blinked, smile twisting into a smirk. “What was your dream about?”
Again he slid sideways, moving as best he could without alerting either of their captors and leaving Aurora to slip off his shoulder with a mutter. He looked far too smug, too calm, and too normal given the situation. It made Daniel uneasy to say the least.
“Was it wolves? Something terrible?”
He glanced up to glare. “Leave me alone…please.”
“Oh, come on. Is that all I’m getting? You know I love a good story-“
Daniel stared back, eyes narrowing. “No,” he paused, “you don’t. Y-you hate it when I ramble or even talk to you most days.”
“Are you scolding me for talking now?”
It hit him.
“You’re doing it again.”
Aurora looked puzzled. “It?”
“You act like everything is fine when it’s not,” Daniel hissed back. “You were losing your mind a day ago.”
He blinked, frowning as his attention moved forward again, down to his boots and then to his side where the hat lay. Daniel waited.
“Concern, do I hear it in your voice again?”
“Aurora,” Daniel scolded. “Stop.”
Finally he swallowed, eyes still staring off. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to do.”
They were silent for some time.
Daniel sighed, eyes rising to the rocky overhang they had been tucked beneath for the evening. They were told to rest, sleep until morning came and they could continue on their way towards the east. It was well beyond that now, light crawling up through the treetops and bleeding out into the skies.
He tried his best not to think about what happened then, the feeling of Aurora’s blood on his hands and the eventual weight of a chain as they were led towards a wolf den. The closer to the east they traveled, the more he thought of that day. The more his dreams shifted to memories, terrors shoved too far back into his mind to recover.
They were coming back.
Swallowing, he rubbed at his wrists, feeling the rough bite of the rope there, the flesh that had begun to be stripped away. It hurt, but something else hurt far worse.
“East,” Aurora breathed.
“We’re getting close, aren’t we?”
Aurora shrugged. “I would assume. The air is getting a great deal colder, isn’t it?”
Daniel shivered, nodding his head slowly.
A lone howl brought his head up and he shrank back against the stone, shifting closer to Aurora out of reflex. Dogs were something he had never liked. They made him uneasy, scared on occasion.
Wolves were far worse.
It was Daniel’s turn to laugh then, quietly, brokenly.
“Why are you apologizing? You…” His words trailed off, eyes rising, but words too frozen in his throat to speak.
“Me.” Aurora’s voice faltered, dropping and turning into something unsettlingly helpless. “It was always me, Daniel. My fault, my doing that got us into trouble. I got us into this, all of us. I got us into something that we knew couldn’t be stopped-“
Daniel grabbed for his sleeve. “There was a reason I came back for you. I knew what I was getting myself into. For that,” he paused, shaking his head and chuckling bitterly, “you can’t blame yourself. When I left you, I realized that there wasn’t a normal for me, not without you. You should know that-“
“Know it,” he commanded in a hiss, “and don’t ever forget it.”
Aurora smiled, eyes rising to the sky. “I told you once I didn’t need friends.”
Daniel felt the weight of Aurora’s head against his shoulder again, the warmth.
“I’m sorry for bringing you back into this. Daniel, please just listen to me-“
He sat up, shoving him off for a second time and hearing Aurora stifle and outcry, biting his lip and cradling his injured arm against him.
“No, you listen to me,” Daniel commanded. “When they brought you back to the infirmary, I was frantic. I convinced her to let you live, stand for a trial and…” He trailed off, swallowing. “I just needed to buy you time. You were brought back there, patched up and for a while nothing happened. I stayed there waiting for you to wake up, trying to convince myself that everything was going to be alright.”
He went silent then, clearing his throat as softly as he could.
“I trusted her over you, Rowena over my best friend. I wasn’t about to let you die for my mistakes either.”
Part of him expected another laugh, some futile attempt at hiding behind a smile they both knew would fail the moment Daniel wasn’t looking. Instead, Aurora only nodded once, then again until he let his head slid down, slipping until he managed to turn his face into Daniel’s arm.
“We are a mistake.”
“A mistake?” Daniel repeated. “Or several?”
Aurora didn’t answer, only sighing.
“We aren’t mistakes,” he assured. “There has to be some better way of saying that.”
Aurora mumbled something, sitting up straighter once more. “Unfortunates,” he mocked. “Isn’t that what the one called us?”
“Unfortunates,” Daniel agreed.
“You do know,” Aurora paused, fists clenching, “that you have every right to hate me for this-“
He groaned. “Aurora, you’re my best friend. My entire point with that explanation was that you mean more to me than anyone else-“
“Aside from Fina,” he cut in gently. “You better not exclude her.”
“You know what you mean to me. Aurora, I love you-“
Aurora cut him off with a laugh. “Is this really the time for confessing things? If so-“
“Just…you know what I meant,” Daniel huffed.
A grin, lopsided and just as disheveled as the rest of him.
“I thought we were finally getting somewhere.”
He should have known the conversation would turn, move from something far too serious for either of them to handle. Daniel shook his head, staring down to hide the smile that had flickered across his lips. “My point is, I will never turn my back on you again.”
Aurora didn’t answer.
They were still doomed. Nothing had changed, not in any meaningful way that would save them. The east was still coming for them, bearing down on them like wolves on the trail of a deer. That much hadn’t changed, the fear never faded.
The sun still rose.
The air grew colder still.
Somehow things didn’t feel so bleak.