|He hovered over the city, high enough so that no being, dreamkeeper or nightmare, could detect him.|
He watched as the legions under his command positioned themselves to attack the city built for war.
They would not be expecting him.
The dreamkeepers of Kor-Ban would never expect to fight the great and terrible Nightmares that, a millenium and a half ago, had been called Archons by the conquered rabble.
The civilization of Kor-Ban would fall. The Archons, resurrected anew, would feed.
But he, the Winter King - the most powerful dreamkeeper ever to exist - would remain.
|Chapter 1: Reavings|
| Theris hurried along the road, dimly lit even despite high noon, panting out a word to take her mind off the stitch in her side.|
"Late, late, late, late, late..."
She wasn't, of course. As if. But she still hurried along, mouthing her mantra, and cursing the winding streets of the Outer Ring. In a city built to withstand any attack, a warren of streets that the locals know and invaders wouldn't actually helps defenders quite a lot. But it isn't pleasant to navigate in any case, and especially not with the living crush of noonday foot traffic.
She rounded a corner and slowed to a walk, wheezing out a deep breath of relief as she spotted the barracks ahead of her. She unslung her pack from her shoulders as she walked in the door, breath starting to return to normal.
"Hello, Theris!" She smiled as the sprightly voice rang out across the lobby.
"Hi, Ellie. Is the commandant in yet?"
"You know the answer to that one, dearie." The elderly receptionist, a kindly-looking lizard with a simple ankle-length dress and muted green skin, came up to Theris and hugged the slight girl. "Even if those crusted old veterans he's meeting with right now weren't so catankerous, you couldn't get that curmudgeon to show up early to anything if you promised him double his salary!", she joked. "Now you come right over here and sit down; you're sucking wind - what did you do, run all the way from the Academis?" The sheepish grin Theris gave made an answer unnecessary, and she allowed herself to be led across the lobby and seated in a cushy armchair.
Once there, Ellie settled down in the next one. She produced a small tin of homemade saeric cookies and offered them up, but Theris declined, laughing. In answer, Ellie shook the tin almost right under her nose in mock disapproval. "I insist! I know how you like these, and journeyman rank at 16 or not, you're going to need something to settle your stomach for the interviews! Everyone does."
"All right, all right! I give in, have mercy!" Theris laughingly threw her hands up and took a few. They relaxed into their chairs and chatted.
Soon the tin was empty.
|Not so far away, someone else was racing to the barracks as well. The boy nicknamed Kerry knew the streets, though, and he dodged in and out of alleyways fit to shorten travel time by half. That knowledge was one of the reasons so many merchants gave him deliveries to make, such as the very heavy metal ingots in his bag right now, soon to be made into weapons at the barracks' forge.|
Left. Right. Through an abandoned building. Right again. At this speed, anyone else but Kerry would have injured themselves on some unseen obstacle by now. If even the streets were dim, the alleyways, much narrower and even twistier than the streets, were nearly pitch-black. He still saw the figures in front of him, though, and he cursed to himself and skidded to a stop.
One of the figures stepped forward. "Hey, powerless." The voice was surprisingly young, and as it's owner stepped forward, a halo flickered to life over him, revealing a bearlike head, and a uniform so incongruous with the filthy alley that Kerry almost cracked a smile. Except, of course, that the guy in front now had some brutish, glowing, purple claws growing out of his hands.
Kerry composed himself. "Hey, yourself, caddy." He deliberately used the less than polite nickname for a student of the Academis. "Nice school uniform... Your kind don't usually get seen out here. What's the occasion?"
The bear's eyebrows lowered slightly, but otherwise, the insult didn't seem to have effect. He looked at Kerry's pack. "That looks heavy. Contents probably worth a lot, too. Powerless swine like you shouldn't be trusted with goods like that; they tend to lose them. Perhaps we should stop that from happening..."
So they were looking for him specifically? Could be. He gave a derisive laugh. "You guys don't really seem very smart. You're talking to a guy who hasn't 'lost' a delivery since he started, on purpose or otherwise. In fact, that's probably why you stopped me. Go on, try your luck-"
The bear suddenly attacked. Kerry deftly twisted out of one of the straps on his pack, and slung it at his assailant with the other. Startled, the bear tried to catch it, but it was much too heavy. The pack full of iron ingots dropped straight down, and landed squarely on the bear's foot. He emitted a high-pitched screech of pain and fell over, his halo winking out. Without its' light, when the other goons started forward, they promptly tripped over the prone body of their leader and went sprawling. Laughing, Kerry hopped over them, grabbed up his pack again, and sprinted away.
He made it to the forge around the back of the barracks without any further trouble.
| Theris looked at her watch. Ten - no, fifteen minutes had been and gone. The Commandant was now late.|
She told Ellie so. Ellie let out a sigh. "Theris, of course he's going to be late. That's just how he is. You know that. He shouldn't be late for too much longer, though. He'll be wanting to get out of that meeting he's having right quick. Why don't you show me what you brought to pass the time?"
She considered it. "All right," she acquiesced. Leaning over, she dug through her backpack and removed a long, wide strip of leather. It had many tube-ish sheaths stitched along its' length, and each sheath had a knife in it. The knives were of a rather strange model, though; they were long and thin, with very small handles. Obviously throwing knives, but they didn't look like very good ones to Ellie, who dealt with merchants trying to get contracts for weapons almost every other day.
Theris noticed, and grinned. "Don't write these off at first glance; I wouldn't be here if I didn't think they were really... something..."
She trailed off as a door at the other end of the lobby burst open and disgorged the Commandant. A great big fat hippo of a man with prominent tusks and thick, wiry whiskers, he was one of those people who just can't help talking loudly. He was also quite jolly - until you put him in front of an opponent. Or stubborn people. Theris shot to her feet and snatched her things, suddenly nervous. Ellie saw, twisted around. "Ah, there you are. I was just entertaining your little interviewee here while you got away from those dried-up old bats."
"Bats, indeed!" the Commandant ground out, his face hung with a dark look both murderously vexed and pleading as he stomped across to them. "I don't think I've ever met such obstinate people; their sense of altruism must be as shriveled as their teeny little-" He stopped abruptly as Ellie gave a decidedly loud cough, arched her eyebrows at him, and indicated the teenage Theris. He flushed, starting to visibly deflate, and started harrumphing. "Ah, yes, um, of course. Uh..."
Ellie took the opening. "How about those bureaucrats from the Warriors' Council we had over last winterfell, who wanted that monetary audit?"
He swelled right back up again, almost grateful for the memory. "Now those are people who'll go to the Nethers, if I've ever seen them." Then he turned on Theris, a delighted smile lighting up his face. "Miss Dysselva! My favorite Candidate! How are you, my dear?" He enthusiastically pumped Theris' hand up and down. "You're just the ticket to get me cheered up again! We're all set up in room 12, so, whenever you're ready..."
Theris nodded and smiled, turned and hugged Ellie. She returned it, whispered, "Are the cookies helping?"
She couldn't help smiling. "Of course." Her gut was admittedly churning, but she could tell that they had.
"You'll do fine." The receptionist smiled as she watched the slim girl follow the portly Commandant through the doorway he'd come through. Then she glanced out the window, and the smile vanished as if it were mist in midsummer morning.
That was clearly a merchant headed for the door. Dressed in unusually flamboyant clothes, too. She sighed and went back to her desk.
| Kerry hummed to himself as he raced down the street. The exchange at the forge had gone off without a hitch; the ingots were gone, replaced by bright, shiny coin. Not much, but delivery boys had to expect that, after all. Still, it was more than he'd gotten in months, enough to keep him for a while yet. Grinning to himself, he slowed to a walk, turned into Medley's Pub, and made a beeline for the bar.|
The place was a simple one-story affair, named after the proprietor, who had an apartment up top, and was currently bartending a big cluster of people come in with the lunch hour, carrying over a dozen bottles back and forth in his flipperlike arms. Kerry went behind the bar through the fold-down door.
"G'afternoon, Kerry," Medley grunted, "can't chat, too busy. You gonna help?"
"Yeah. Need to grab a couple bottles for old Jules, too, 'kay?"
"Go 'ead. Be sure to pay. See those three by the end? They need a C'n'S Effey pitcher an' two shots o' reed Essey wi' G. Phbbt!" That last was the balding walrus spitting out a tuft of his enormous, overgrown mustache, which had wandered into the corner of his mouth. Kerry nodded, decoding Medley's shorthand barspeak for cherry saeric forreyd and fire-reed shayed with ginger, grabbed an apron, and reached for the bottles.
The next fifteen minutes were a whirlwind of customers, awkwardly held fermentae bottles, and sweeping up money left as payment on the bar.
He didn't even notice the bear student and his cronies as they came into the pub, went for a table at the back, and ordered a meal from one of the serving-girls. They were only there to eat, but...
One of the cronies, a short rat anthro with brown and black fur, glanced at the bar, glanced away. Then did a double-take.
"Hey, Arjos - take a look at that guy. He look familiar?"
The bear looked around. "Huh? What you... hey. Hey guys, will you look at that." That was definitely him. Wolf anthro, check. Light purple fur, check. Low ponytail, black patterns on the arms, black hair and tail, green eyes, vertical scar on the snout - check, check, check, check, check.
"Oh no way. What's he doing here?"
"You're kidding me. That's-"
Arjos cut them off. "Definitely that stupid powerless. I'd know him anywhere. We got a second chance, boyos - let's see when he goes out." They waited, taking their time with their meal, as Kerry was gruffly shooed into the kitchen by Medley ("You've done enough; go on, grab yourself a bite") with an extra two coppers for his trouble. Then Kerry burst out, one sandwich fuller, with six fermentae bottles in a crude wooden case with a handle. He sang out "Be back tomorrow!" and vanished out the door. Kerry thought, I'll just take this to to old Jules, then go home.
Arjos sat back and rubbed his hands, smiling grimly. "Nice of him to tell us where he's gonna be. C'mon, guys; let's get back to the Academis."
| Theris surveyed the room before her.|
She was standing on a podium or stage of sorts, about a foot off the floor, with a table on one side and a lectern on the other. There were about fifteen feet of space between them. There was even one of those expensive black-boards behind her, complete with those chalky writing sticks. She was facing a semicircular, polished wood table with nine chairs arrayed around the curved edge; both the flat side of the table and the chairs were turned toward her.
The center chair held the Commandant. The others held the barracks advisors - the high-ranked strategists, tacticians, suppliers, and so on. The Commandant heaved himself to his feet.
"Gentlemen, may I introduce Miss Theris Dysselva. This remarkable young lady has attained journeyman rank at the Academis, along with numerous awards, and I have agreed to review her presentation today for consideration as a possible masterwork, and as a Candidate for enrollment in the Supply or Support departments. Miss Dysselva, you have the floor." He sat down to a few perfunctory claps, and considered her thoughtfully as she inclined her head in acknowledgement of his words.
There was a lot to consider. She wasn't tall, and rather unusually slim. However, she carried herself with the type of upright carriage and perfect, relaxed posture that some women would kill to get. A pretty cat anthro with clear, intelligent blue eyes, she had a demurely down-held tail, pearly gray fur with soft blue stripes and white down her front, mostly obscured by a freshly ironed, light green, button-down shirt with a collar, neatly tucked into a pair of light pants. It was an impressive sight, especially considering the calmness with which she faced him and the advisors.
She was finding it hard to appear calm, though. She'd been preparing for this moment for months, to present her project to the Commandant and the advisors, and she felt more nervous than ever. Sure she'd sound terrified, she glanced at her notes and started in on her rehearsed routine. But to her surprise, the words that came out of her mouth were smooth, and well-assured.
"Thank you very much, Commandant. I am honored to appear before you today. What I have to present will suffice to be demonstrated, and I will answer questions as they come. Are there any before we begin?" There were not. Theris nodded. "Then let us begin."
She walked over to the lectern, picked up a sheaf of papers, and stepped down off the podium to had them to the adviser on the left, who proceeded to distribute them down the table. "That is the Academis' record of my power use and characteristics." She climbed back up, and proceeded to start setting up two targets, made of cloth and filled with tough fibers to mimic flesh, mounted on tripods, talking as she went.
"Described as 'material transmission', it allows me to impart large velocities to certain objects within minimal amounts of time, at some moderate cost to myself. What I have done is to find a way to bind this effect to items across arbitrary time intervals, to be activated by anyone else." She took the belt of knives and unsheathed one. It made a sharp hiss and briefly glowed blue as it came free. She put the rest on the table. "Feel free to examine the rest of those." She went back to the lectern, and picked up a regular throwing knife. "For comparison, here's a standard-issue throwing knife. I am reasonably proficient at using these."
She turned and hurled the standard knife at one of the targets. It hit with a 'thwack' and knocked the target over. "That was a regular knife. Here's the effect of my modified one; notice how I do NOT use my power when I throw it." She threw it at the second target.
There was a sudden, jarring concussion, like a muted thunderclap. As the knife left her hand, it dissolved into a blast of blue light, which slammed into the target and resolved itself into the knife, buried hilt-deep. The target shot off the table and smashed into the wall. Startled, the advisors jerked upright, sat stunned for a second. Then the room exploded with incredulous questions.
She grinned. It was definitely going well. Before, she had had their interest. Now, though, she had their undivided attention.
| The nightmare captain crouched in a tree, hidden fifty meters off of the huge wall that formed the outer edge of the city. It peered towards the battlements, made out a few figures atop the wall.|
Fifty minutes past high noon - right on schedule. It had wondered why the commander had chosen this particular time to attack. Usually it would be something like dawn or late afternoon. The commander had explained, though. The vast majority of dreamkeepers in the city would have just eaten lunch; if an attack were to come just then, the undigested food would render them sluggish, and much less able to fight. It had to admit, it made sense - and the unorthodox time just might take the dreamkeepers by surprise, anyway.
It hissed a command down at the lesser nightmare waiting at the foot of the tree, and it dashed back into the woods. Minutes passed. Then the hundreds of other nightmares assigned to the attack began to slip through the forest, massing right in back of the tree it was sitting in. The nightmare captain glanced down at the rigid glove of dismal grey ice coating its' clawed right hand. A little gift from the commander, to help bypass the walls. It grinned savagely. The ice did other things, and singularly unpleasant things they were, too. Perfect for an assault. It wouldn't last forever, but then, it didn't want its' right hand to be frozen in place forever, no matter how powerful the ice might be.
It looked back one more time, to make sure they were all there. They were. Time to attack, then. It raised the frozen claw, and the nightmares responded with a low growl in unison. Then it sprang out of the tree, and punched the ground as it hit.
A bridge of translucent ice shot from the earth where the glove struck. It arched across to the palisade, and hit it with a silent impact. The few dreamkeepers on that section of wall died instantly, frozen solid.
A crack inched its' way across the ice of the glove.
"Get the guard towers, then down to the streets!" the nightmare captain roared, and it led the charge up the roughened ice bridge.
| Theris came back into the lobby, grinning from ear to ear.|
The interview couldn't have gone better; they were completely sold. She'd had an answer for every question, from supply to tactics involving the new weapon.
She started towards Ellie's desk to tell her the good news, then paused. The receptionist had her 'old tough biddy' face on, and was hotly arguing with some fat guy in horribly bright and foppish clothes. Theris almost laughed out loud at the sight of him; what fashion did he think he was following? It was the most garish and clashing outfit she'd ever seen.
Then her stomach growled. Theris decided to leave Ellie to it and go get lunch. She'd heard nice things about the food at someplace called Medley's Pub, and now that she had business outside the Inner Ring, she thought she'd stop by. Stepping outside, she accosted a passerby and asked directions. He told her; she thanked the fellow and walked away, at a much more leisurely pace than the run she'd come at. The directions didn't help, though; she promptly got herself hopelessly lost.
Retrace her steps, or keep going? Nothing for it, she decided. She'd have to ask somebody else directions. She turned, reaching out a hand...
And the deep tone of the largest bell in the central keep boomed out, followed by a discordant series of other bells. Everyone in the city knew that pattern - it meant a NIGHTMARE ATTACK.
Theris turned and tore back toward the Inner Gate, as fast as she could run. Behind her, the crowds started seething with panic. She knew that the Academis maintained a safe house in the Inner Ring for the students; if she could only reach it in time...
Kerry also heard the bells, but unlike Theris, he didn't have a place reserved in any official safehouse. He thought furiously. His hideout was nice and hidden, but Jules' place was much closer...
A roar reverberated around him, cutting through the panicked screams. Jules' place, then. He sprinted off, still clutching the box with Medley's fermentae.
| There was a fierce battle going on at the gate when the nightmare captain got there. It had gotten sidetracked dealing with a particularly tenacious squad of soldiers. It had won, but now time was more important than lives taken. The sooner the gates were broken, the less time the dreamkeepers would have to defend from the relative safety of the palisade, and the easier it would be to defeat them.|
Would they be able to surmount the inner gate the way they'd done with the outer? No, definitely not; there were too many defenders on the wall, and there was an entire flock of isaro riders harrying the nightmares trying to swarm up it. It would have to deal with those devilishly huge air-fire ryuu-neko hybrids first, and then break the gate the hard way.
It held its' free claw under the glove. Mist curled off the ice, collecting in a ball in its' palm. It threw it. It arced high above the battle, almost invisible in the sky, and hit an isaro dead on. The ball exploded, and coated the ryuu's wings in ice. Shrieking, it fell out of the sky and smashed a house in, crushing its' rider under it. Simple. It disposed of three more in the same way before the rest took cover.
It spotted one of its' lieutenants hanging back from the battle. The captain loped over and grabbed it by an arm. It pressed the lieutenant's huge hand into the glove; part of the glove dissolved, and then reformed, pinioning the lieutenant's fingers. The captain yanked what was left of its' glove free and hissed, "When I break the gate, stay out of the Inner Ring. Roam around, do some damage, and keep the dreamkeepers off our backs. Protect our rear." The lieutenant saluted awkwardly, but the captain was already taking up a position squarely in front of the gate.
It breathed in the scent of blood, and raised its' glove. It howled, and the glove emitted a mighty blast at the gate. Water wormed into all the little cracks and crevices that had accumulated in the gate over the years and froze, expanding, and breaking the gate apart. With several painfully loud, cracking concussions as big sections of stone split all at once, the gate crumbled into rubble.
A scream of triumph from the nightmares mingled with cries of fear and despair from the defenders, and all the nightmares at the gate, save the lieutenant, flooded into the Inner Ring. The captain's glove was only half gone.
Nightmares clashed with the lines of soldiers inside the gate as the lieutanant turned and loped back into the tangled streets.
| Old man Jules ran an inn of sorts near the outer edge of the city. He'd fixed up an empty house in one of the seedier parts of town; it picked up a fair amount of business, enough to keep the old man out of poverty.|
He was also the closest thing to a father that Kerry had ever known. He'd taken Kerry in when he was little more than a kid, begging to stay alive, and had supported him ever since. Kerry had so many memories of the blind man staring mesmerizingly at him with those blank eyes of his, regaling him with wild and impossible, lighthearted tales about the antique items he collected for his hobby...
Kerry spotted the inn, and his heart leapt into his mouth. The front door, usually barred with two thick wood beams and a chain, was hanging, splintered, off its' hinges. He managed to run even faster as he streaked across the last ten meters and burst through the door.
There was blood everywhere. Two corpses lay on the floor of the common room. There was a nightmare at the top of the stairs, munching on what looked like the leg of one of the corpses. He couldn't even tell who the corpses had been, even more improbable when considering the unique phenotypes of dreamkeepers. Blood roaring in his ears, Kerry shot up the stairs in the blink of an eye and swung the box of fermentae bottles at the nightmare's head. It connected, and shattered to splinters. Kerry barely even felt it when a shard of glass gashed his head on the right side of his face. The nightmare squawked in surprise, recovered, and lunged at him faster than Kerry believed was possible...
It was the sheer amount of blood on the floor that saved him. As the nightmare lunged, Kerry planted his foot square in a particularly large pool of it, his foot shot out from under him, and he fell down faster than the nightmare could account for. Claws slashed the air where his throat had been. He did not avoid its' flailing tail, however; it smashed him in the face, sending blood spurting from his nose. The blow sent Kerry tumbling into the fireplace, wrecking it. His eyes teared up.
He rolled away blindly. The whack from the fermentae box actually had affected the nightmare; it missed him completely this time. Kerry heard another crash as it hit the fireplace as well. He desperately scrabbled around, blindly searching for something, anything at all; his hand closed on something loose and moderately heavy. He rolled back over and swung, and was rewarded with a loud shriek. He saw a smear of black moving across his blurry vision as he staggered upright, and he swung again. An even louder shriek split the air.
Then he lost his balance, slipping in the blood again. He went down, cracking his head heavily against the arm of an overturned chair. Stars exploded behind his eyes, and he lay stunned, face-down, waiting for claws to sink into his back.
| None came. As the stars and tears blocking his vision slowly faded, he managed to get his elbows under him, and levered himself up. He peered around.|
There was the nightmare, dead, its' purple blood draining out of it from two deep gashes. It had been impeded by a table with a newly broken leg. Then he saw the thing he'd been swinging.
It was a sword. Specifically, an antique short sword that had been mounted above the fireplace. It must have fallen off. Kerry would have grinned, but he was too much in shock. Laboriously, he got to his feet, picked up the sword again, and went downstairs; he propped the door upright in its' frame, and barricaded it with furniture. After heaving one last chair into the pile, he stood for a moment. Then his knees buckled, and he sagged against the barricade, unable to ignore his pounding headache any longer. He'd eventually be ready to go again...
Theris pounded down the street, lungs burning. She'd been running more today than she'd ever done in her life, and it was showing. She'd thrown all her knives, she was almost exhausted, and the nightmares were still hot on her heels.
Then they cut her off, as three nightmares raced into the street ahead of her. She skidded, slowed, swiveled frantically. There! An alleyway! She dashed through it, and came out into a courtyard. The building across from her had a door that looked broken; if she could get in before the nightmares came through the alley after her, she could hide!
She ran for the door.
Kerry jolted upright, startled and groggy. Something had hit the door, hard. Then he froze, as a sound drove all fatigue away. A girl's voice was screaming in despair.
Kerry lunged at the barricade, realizing even as he did so that he couldn't possibly pull all of it away fast enough. He snatched up the sword, mind racing furiously. He couldn't get through the front door, the back door would be too slow, he couldn't get through the walls; and crazy blind Jules hadn't even had any windows put in below the third floor!
No. There was a window. A small one, on the first floor, in the kitchen, over the oven, for ventilation.
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