It was a grey sky above a cracked grey desert. No living thing crossed this place. The name first given to it by man was long forgotten and the true name had never been spoken. It was simply The Desert. It was an ancient place hoarding time as desperately as thirsty men kiss water.
The Sleeping Man walked across the dry, baked ground, counting his steps carefully. There was no landmark, no star, no wind to guide his way. There were only instructions which had been carved into the base of the Green Mountain; when he had attempted to copy them, the mystic words vanished from every medium he used. He was left to memorize them completely. After the final step, there was a warning about the Desert’s only inhabitants, the Cannoi. It described them as ‘stretched men with no eyes,’ and, ‘cannibals from which there is no hiding.’
At the one thousandth step he stopped. After looking at his environment, he stopped attempting to orient himself. Doubt would kill in this barren landscape as easily as a blade gently slipped between two ribs. He could not falter now. Standing completely still, he became motionless.
It was a long, arduous process to reach the Compendium. Its existence had faded into myth and the last surviving route was the one he had memorized from words written with magic in a language long dead. Signs had reached across the realm of dreams into the physical world and The Sleeping Man knew reaching the Compendium was the only way to stop the Volto Empire. He silently rehearsed the words.
A thousand paces to wind, not one step more,
firstly between two trees, dead and dying.
A diurnal wind shall the traveler wait
before they step with foot nearest the land’s sighing.
A thousand paces to water, not one step less,
use the hand the water shall directly embrace
tarry not here traveler, the sky will not bless.
Through stone go, in the hard resting place.
A thousand paces to fire, not one step shown,
arms to flame, Brave One, but not of your own
He had begun between the two trees, one dead and one dying. Now he waited for the diurnal air. He would start a thousand paces off whichever foot the wind touched first. While he waited, he would gather what information he could through means unavailable to others. He consciously slowed his breath to match the pattern of deep sleep. He would enter the Dreamscape. This was only one of the secrets his people were capable of, dreamwalking. Gathering his energy around him like the first note of an orchestra, he visualized the harmony of his energy and pushed. His corporeal form remained locked in position, while his awareness had stepped into the world of dreams. It felt like freedom while his body slept. Prophesizing combined with projection aggregated all of his subconscious intuition into fluid symbols. Accurately deciphering the images brought to him from his travels in this hidden world took decades to study. He circled his physical form, frowning at the image which had inspired the latest of names given to him, The Sleeping Man. He would not say his true name. There was no language able to hold the concept.
He reached out with his projected arm and anchored some energy in his physical body like a sustained chord. There were many ways to get lost in the Dreamscape, the least of which was forgetting to return. He was free of hunger and thirst but his body was not. The presence he projected in the Dreamscape was unfettered and powerful, limited only by his understanding, imagination, and reaction. A familiar pang of loneliness sounded in his chest as he ached to ask someone, anyone else about this ability. He believed he was the last of the Dreamwalkers, a lost tribe of nomads characterized by their violet eyes. Before he could remember his people had traveled from town to city, acting as fortune tellers and traders while their real abilities were only rumored. The writings he had found allowed him to teach himself to control his innate abilities to some degree.
The Dreamscape through the lens of this hidden world was astounding. It was huge expanse of a thousand shades of shifting grey and never had the Dreamscape appeared so close the physical world. There were no dreamers nearby or echo of dreamers long gone. There was nothing other than The Desert. The flat grey of the world had come alive to a dynamic grey more vivid than any color. The color-less ground hummed with the energy of long forgotten worlds. The Sleeping Man felt an ever increasing sense of apprehension as his projection walked into the expanse.
Sound in the Dreamscape has different qualities depending on the intention of the dreamer making the sound. The mind patches together memories and parts of forgotten images which the dreamwalker can attune to and see a manifestation of symbols. When he heard dried leaves claw the parched dirt he turned towards the sound. A whirlwind of dead leaves and twigs crawled towards him with two arms scratching the ground. The study of images seen while dreamwalking normally took decades, however the image before him took considerably less time to decipher. Two thoughts jumped into his mind immediately; the direction the wind was coming and with it brought danger. Danger in The Desert could only mean one thing, the Cannoi.
He centered his energy and thought, this is a dream and I am the dreamer. The words written by one of his unknown forbears was not magical, but the sing-song tone completed the sustained chord his physical body held. The words tugged on the brain’s instinct which hid underneath language and he was pulled back to his body. The images he saw in Dreamscape served as a warning, but now he could smell them in the air. Ignoring the heated stench of unwashed bodies, he quickly crouched.
A moment later three of them were bounding towards him and once close enough to almost reach out and touch him they began to circle like sharks on land, their elongated limbs and canine knees gave them the eerie effect of a marionette running on all fours. The Sleeping Man remained crouched, waiting. He knew they would not attack otherwise they would not have appeared as leaves. Not until they had what they wanted and what they wanted was not for him to give. It was the first time he had been this close to one of the Cannoi and with ever a mind for detail he noticed they were nude with no visible gender. He saw they were covered with tattoos, intricate symbols across their chest and arms. Between the three there were some images repeated and he idly wondered if they were rank.
“I know why you are here.” The Sleeping Man said neutrally as he stood without moving his feet, the task on the ground complete.
One of the three Cannoi stopped circling, the image tattooed over his eyeless face reminded The Sleeping Man of a crow. “Do you, Sleep Wake Man? You do to know the reason?” The Cannoi’s lupine face matched their elongated limbs, and with no features to their faces other than a mouth dominated by nasty teeth, skeleton nose, and holes where a human’s ears would go, it was odd to hear them talk at all.
“Yes, I know. How is it you know me?” The Sleeping Man blinked slowly, checking the other realm.
A series of clicks and hisses issued from the Cannoi and he blinked again, seeing their life energy spark with burnt orange and mustard yellow. That must be their laughter, he thought. It’s ugly.
“We do know, Sleep Wake Man. He runs. He runs, no eye, does not see.”
“Vision is only one way to see,” he said evenly.
“We know! Have only dream way to see, proud Ca’noi!” The two circling figures clicked in agreement.
“You, you can see the Dreamscape?” Ignoring the danger he saw and felt, he needed any information he could find about the realm of his ancestors.
The Cannoi clicked and hissed at each other and whatever was said was stopped by the one with the crow on his face. There was a moment of silence. “You to give us the Twi-light Blade now,” each word out of his mouth was one syllable and guttural but high pitched at the same time. Looking at the Cannoi in front of him, The Sleeping Man understood the reason the Cannoi were the subject of so many horror stories.
“I cannot give you what does not exist.” The Sleeping Man blinked again, colors were changing, getting ready to act. He tried to recall what he had heard and read about these creatures.
“Blade on back is blade of song. You to give us.” The movements of all three became more agitated.
“This?” He gestured with his head to the handle of the sword visible over his shoulder, “This is no- Twilight Blade, is it?” He feigned ignorance , “As long as there are stories of a blade with infinite sharpness, there will be seekers of it. None of their seeking will make it any more real.” The Sleeping Man blinked and saw the colors of the Cannoi spark red. They were getting ready to attack and he thought it fair to warn them, “Besides, if one were to believe in the stories of my people…” There was a long pause.
Another series of clicks denoted their disgusting laughter. It was worth a shot. As he tensed the two circling and leapt at him in one motion from either side, one attacked high while the other attacked low. Having read their intentions, The Sleeping Man jumped as well, but twisted away from the one while tucking his legs away from the other. It was a sideways prone flip which he thought probably looked artful, but all of his best moves never had witnesses. As his feet touched the ground the Cannoi he had named Crow Face in his head had dropped to a crouch.
The Sleeping Man blinked, using the Dreamscape to read the intentions of his attackers. Crow Face had a burning red pulse showing anger but not violence while the two on either side were sparkling red and deep indigo showing impending attack. The indigo showed deception so they would feint. The Sleeping Man did not want them to change their strategy so he dodged again. The Sleeping Man threw his sword from his shoulder as he spun, killing the attacker on his right. It barked to the sky in pain for only a moment, the other keened a violent blue grey grief almost overwhelming the colors his dreamsight. Crow Face was waiting for this opportunity.
He allowed the attack to come. As much as he didn’t want to lose his feet’s placement, he rolled back with the attack and planted his feet on Crow Face’s chest. Once his body was inverted under his attacker, The Sleeping Man launched the Cannoi as far as possible. The grieving Cannoi clawed at The Sleeping Man as he kicked up to his feet. He dodged to the right. Grief made the Cannoi’s accuracy slightly less deadly and when the second attack was too high, The Sleeping Man caught it as he ducked under it. With a twist, the momentum of the attack caused the Cannoi to flip over The Sleeping Man’s hip. He decisively bent the long arm opposite the wrist then elbow, snapping both. There was more of the blue grey but this time it was streaked with a liquid purple red.
Checking behind him for the leader he saw the recovered desert hunter running towards him. With no other choice he stepped away from the arm he was holding and retrieved his sword. While unique, it was not the Twilight blade they sought, but rather a short sword common to his people. Other opponents jokingly called it a knife, until they lost the fight. He spun and pointed directly at the charge, “You will halt!” He spoke with the power of the dreamscape, a polyphonic tone used mainly for intimidation as it didn’t have any physical effect.
In this case it worked. He had dispatched one attacker quickly, subdued the other, and was now armed in a one on one fight. Even creatures such as the Cannoi had a survival instinct. There was a long moment where no one moved. Crow Face appeared to smell the air, listening to sound he could not detect. Not enough was known about them.
“You are fast, Night Wake Man, but you are lost in Sa Mac Mau Xam.” The leader spoke over the keening of his injured hunter, using their term for The Desert.
“You are to tell me your pur-pose.”
“Is this your idea of bargaining? “ Even if they somehow gave him permission to pass, he had only barely had time to get ready the first time.
“I do not trade with Wet Men!” There was another long pause, neither willing to back down. Suddenly there was a gust of wind. The immediacy of it distracted The Sleeping Man, as if he did not take note of this he would have to wait another day. The dust on the ground was kicked into the air, swirling around The Sleeping Man. The leader of the group of Cannoi used this opportunity to leap impossibly high into the air. The Sleeping Man was caught off guard and raised his sword to block. No attack came. The wind died as suddenly as it came and the injured and dead Cannoi had vanished with Crow Face. He blinked slowly and saw a hint of their trail going off into the distance and fast. He was alone, for now.
He knew the direction the wind had come; now he had to follow the prescribed instructions from the ancient text. It would take an entire day, but this place had no day, no night, and no other way to tell time or direction. The instructions were so precisely vague he knew he could not have one step’s error. The fight had moved his feet. Visibility was worse now. A single step to the side now would place him exponentially off track down the line.
He quickly looked down to see the marks he made when he had crouched being covered with dust. Carefully placing his toes where the vanishing marks indicated he stood in place. The wind had come from his right, the instructions told him to step with the foot the wind touched first. He took a step with his right foot and began to walk the rehearsed pace. Between the danger of being lost in this place and the Cannoi he wondered how anyone living had ever crossed this desert. He began to count his steps while focusing on his objective.
The Compendium was the sum of knowledge, said to have records of everything, including the present moment. There were scribes writing ceaselessly, getting constant streams of information from magical means. There was no way to know what The Compendium looked like or even its exact nature as most of the written accounts contracted each other. One said, “Appeared in the middle of a featureless desert as a massive stone castle, with silent monks navigating great tomes on carefully handwritten pages,” while another from the same era said, “The forest citadel known as The Compendium towers over a grey desert, with patterns that can be translated into knowledge seen only through sunlight streaming through the forest canopy.”
After five hundred steps he stopped, mentally calling up the directions he had so carefully memorized. He paused. From what he knew about the Cannoi, they did not flee lightly if at all. He centered himself, knowing to check the dreamscape so soon was risky and tiring, but fearing the consequences if he did not. Breathing with ever increasing slowness he forced his eyes into a rapid twitching motion of one in deep sleep. This was called the Sonno Forzato. It was not as prophetic as entering the dreamscape, but rather would show him anyone nearby even if they were awake. He expanded his energy in ever increasing circles from where he stood. Each pulse of energy had an echo which would tell him the locations of all dreamers nearby, but in this case there was nothing. Almost always there was residual energy of both living and dead but this place held neither.
Perhaps the three Cannoi he encountered were younglings testing their mettle. He felt a faint glimmer on the edge of his awareness and focused on it. Suddenly, hundreds of the Cannoi’s burnt orange specks appeared at the edge of his circle of awareness. They were much, much larger. The Sleeping Man briefly realized the Cannoi he had faced were, in fact, younglings.
A sharp keening sound yipped twice and a sickening chorus responded. He carefully but quickly made a ratio of how many walking steps went into one of his measured running steps. Checking the arithmetic in his head again was both time consuming and necessary. He was satisfied with the figure, but factoring in how close the Cannoi were with how efficiently they were closing in caused him to wonder whether or not he could escape their net.
The Sleeping Man ran.