Alastair woke with a start. He was stiflingly hot under his wool blanket, his undergarments sticking to his back and legs, his face and shoulders slick with rapidly cooling sweat. He was breathing hard, and felt the chill of fear running down his spine, making him unable to move under the covers. Wan, lifeless moonlight grasped at the windowsill, a cool breeze blowing in from the north, the trees rustling gently outside. The silence was almost deafening; the only sound was his heavy breathing.
It was just a dream, he thought, and yet he could not shake the feeling of terror that suffused through his bones. With a modicum of bravery he slowly shifted onto his side, careful to be silent, lest some monstrous creature hear him move and seize the opportunity to strangle him in his own bedroom. This is silly, he thought. Edward is right outside the door, as he always is, and there are archers patrolling the ramparts. I’m fine.
The ache of terror began to subside, the sweat on his brow drying in the cool midnight air as he slowly and noiselessly slid to the right side of the bed, grabbing a piece of flint and steel from his bedside table. He sat up, putting his back to the ornate oak headboard, and put the flint and steel over a small bronze candelabra on the table, striking the flint to the steel several times; he was never quite good at starting a fire, something his father scolded him about on occasion. “Men always need fire,” he would say in his deep, gravelly voice. “It’s the only way to kill a troll.”
Finally the middle candle lit, and Alastair used it to light the other two, and the room was bathed in a warm golden light. Rich, colorful tapestries lined the otherwise bare stone walls, tapestries depicting various battles in Valwyr’s past: the Siege of Kag Baron; the Battle for Giant’s Pass; the grisly Beheading of Brann Takarog. Alastair’s father commissioned these to be made for his son, whom he hoped would be become a legendary knight in service to the Men of East Anor, but truth be told, Alastair was more happy in books than he was in armor.
Carefully, Alastair lifted an old book from the bedside table. It was poorly bound and falling apart, the glue along the spine long since dry and cracking. Beside it was an inkpen and a squat glass inkwell. He laid the book on his lap and grabbed the pen, sliding the inkwell to the edge of the table, close to him. He gingerly opened the old book, which was actually a journal, a dream journal to be precise, one his mother gave to him before she left. It contained the last years of her recounted dreams, followed by a few years of his own. He slowly flipped through the yellowed pages until he found the end, then dipped the pen in the ink and wrote the date at the top of the page: Third of Twelfth, 7980.
Then he stopped. Closed his eyes. Tried to remember the dream.
At first he noticed the cathedral. It towered over him, as broad as it was tall, so much larger than any building he had ever seen, larger even than Valwyr Castle. An enormous circular window of stained glass was in the wall, close to the roof, with vibrant colors and people and creatures embedded inside, people and creatures he had never seen before. The stonework on the building was masterful, no chips or cracks, each stone hewn perfectly and laid with expert precision. Below the window, a short canopy of stone, supported by two gray pillars with simple capitals flaring out into the bottom of the canopy. Under the canopy was the entrance: two enormous wooden doors, made of some kind of wood he had never seen before, a dark cherry color, seemingly lacquered into a sheen, but with threads of shimmering blue veins winding through it, like knots in the wood. It looked like the veins were moving, pulsating. The sight of these doors was burned into Alastair’s mind—he felt as though he would never forget them.
Alastair turned his head and noticed two things at once: first, that he was not alone, and second, that the ground ended abruptly, and beyond was nothing but stars and space. He realized—or knew, rather—that he was on some kind of rock, floating in the middle of the heavens. The thought calmed him.
There were four others, three men and a woman. They were somewhat in a line, facing the cathedral, but more of a semicircle. Three on his left side, one on his right, and they were all entombed in stone. Alastair glanced down and noticed that he, too, was entombed in stone, or at least a large section of him was. His head and part of his right shoulder were still free, but when he looked at his shoulder, he noticed a beautiful, glimmering ruby red with black trim pauldron attached to it, and when he looked at the others he noticed their armors and clothing outlined in the stone. Even in the stone they looked breathtaking, like mighty heroes known only in legend, and when he looked back at his pauldron and down his arm, he could tell that he was similarly dressed.
He looked ahead to the cathedral once again and noticed a figure in the entryway he had not seen before. It was standing, or hovering really, over the large stone steps leading to the entrance. At first it looked like nothing more than black smoke, like a dark, dense cloud shifting and undulating around itself. But Alastair could see the hint of an arm, the curling of fingers into a fist, as the black smoke was mixed with crimson red light that warped and seethed. He saw a face, briefly: two yellow eyes surrounded by gaunt skin. A simple black helm with two ram’s horns curled downward towards its chin. Alastair didn’t know when he began to be afraid but suddenly he realized it, as if the fear dropped a large stone into his stomach. He wanted to move, to run away, but he was stuck, half petrified in stone. The smoke creature began to descend the staircase. Alastair looked at the others, but they were completely petrified, their faces disturbingly calm. When he turned his head back, the creature was right there, in front of him, a pungent odor of sulfur and rotten eggs bellowing from its mouth. It was vaguely human looking, but Alastair wasn’t trying to remember its face. He was just screaming, and unlike other nightmares, where his screams were silent, this one was so loud, so piercing, that it shook the cathedral to its foundation. A long crack splintered up the stained glass.
Alastair tried to remember if there was more, but there wasn’t. That’s when he woke up. His hand trembled slightly as he completed his writing, and he felt fresh beads of sweat gripping his forehead. He stared at the journal entry, the fear laced up his spine like a corset. Why was this so frightening? he thought. It was just a dream. And still he had questions, questions that would fade from memory for other dreams. What was the smoke figure? Who were the others? Why did he scream so loud in the dream, but not when he awoke?
All of these questions were cut silent with a knock at the door. Alastair froze in fear. He glanced at the window—still dark outside. Another knock, and, thankfully, the familiar voice of Edward, his guard: “Lord Gersey,” he said.
“En—” Alastair started, but his voice cracked. He coughed quickly and said, “Enter.”
The door opened and Edward Tullesian, a large, broad shouldered man clad in studded leather that had seen more than a few battles, longsword sheathed at his side, entered. He seemed too big for the room, his shoulders stooped despite the ceiling being more than high enough for him. His face was squat and round, bristling with stubble, with two large brown eyes sitting atop a round, red, bulbous nose. He had a look on his face that confused Alastair, and the boy furrowed his brow attempting to decipher it.
Edward lifted his right arm; in his hand was a wax-sealed letter. His left hand went behind his head, and as he scratched at his neck, looking downward, Alastair figured out the look: Edward looked sheepish.
“What’s the matter?” Alastair said.
Edward licked his lips and swallowed. “I woke up and this letter was on me chest,” he said in his always surprisingly high pitched voice.
“You woke up?”
Edward nodded, his head low, eyes fixed on the ground. Edward never slept at his post. Never. He took great pride in protecting Alastair as the boy slept.
“How did you fall asleep?” Alastair continued.
Edward shrugged. He took a step forward, leaning a bit and gingerly placing the letter on Alastair’s bed. Alastair looked at the wax seal—it was unfamiliar, deep blue wax with the insignia of a left hand holding an eye. The detail in the stamp was exquisite; Alastair could distinguish the pupil of the eye from the iris with crystal clarity.
“Open it,” Alastair said.
Shaking his head slowly, Edward replied, “I can’t.”
“Of course you can, Edward, you open my letters all the time.”
“No,” Edward said, “I mean I can’t. I can’t get the seal off.”
Alastair stared at Edward, or more through Edward, as the baffling confusion of this situation took hold. He reached over and grabbed the letter, turned it over in his hands. On the other side was his name, Lord Alastair Lewis Gersey, written in flowing black ink, almost like calligraphy. Nothing else was written. The paper was thick and grayish, coarse to the touch.
With the name side of the unopened letter facing him, Alastair felt something small fall onto the blanket above his lap. He moved the letter away for better light, and saw the wax seal lying there, perfectly intact, as if it had just slipped off.
Edward noticed it too, and for the first time in his entire life, Alastair saw Edward look afraid. “I swear, Your Lordship, I tried and tried to get that seal off but it wouldn’t budge.”
“I believe you,” said Alastair, affecting a calm tone as deep down he tried to fight off the same fear that was gripping Edward so openly. Despite the circumstances, he must continue the decorum of an aristocrat. If his father saw him break, there would be no end to the reprimands.
Alastair turned the letter around in his hands, the outside fold now slightly open. He opened the letter.
Meet me at the Grumbling Pot at sunset. Alone.
And then, hastily written under the cryptic signature, as if an afterthought:
Frustrated at the brevity of the message, Alastair checked the letter, flipping it several times in his hands. Nothing new emerged. He looked up at Edward, whose fear was giving way to a catlike curiosity about the letter, his eyes transfixed on it.
“What’s the Grumbling Pot?” Alastair asked, more to himself than to Edward.
“It’s a tavern in the Low East Ward,” said Edward. “One of the grimiest places in the Low Ward, in my opinion. Not a day goes by some poor sod gets stabbed there.” Edward’s eyes narrowed. “Why do you ask?”
“Because I am to go there, tonight, at sunset.”