Chapter 24
The Dream

Arita, Byrn?

"Have you ever wondered how your life would change if you had taken a different step at a critical juncture? The possibilities are endless. You make your circumstances and your circumstances make you. Dwelling on what can never be is a waste of life. Instead, you must make the most of what you have. That is the path to true happiness."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

Mark's withered hand meticulously copied the penstrokes of the old manuscript onto new parchment. It was tedious work, but it was the only way to preserve the ancient texts for future generations. He heard the footsteps of someone entering the library. A young novice stood beside him.
"Brother Mark, supper is about to be served."
Mark nodded.
"I'll be there shortly. I want to finish this page."
"Don't push yourself too hard, Bother Mark," the novice said. "You know how the Father Abbot worries about you."
"I said I'll be there soon," Mark insisted, making a dismissive wave of his hand. "Now off with you."
The novice scurried off without another word. Mark leaned back in his chair and massaged the aching joints of his hand. He had been the head archivist for fifteen years now, a long while but only a fraction of his time at the abbey. The abbey had become his home and he had found a place for himself, but he could not help feeling incomplete. It was a feeling that had nagged at him all these years, but he never paid it much heed. Perhaps he was wrong to ignore it.
You are denying your true self, but perhaps this will be good for you.
The words echoed in Mark's mind. It was part of what Catherine had told him back when he was still a novice, two years after they had defeated Kyrios. What had happened to her? It shamed him to admit it, but he had lost track of her many years ago. Was she even still alive?
I urge you, do not allow your training to falter, for you will need it again one day.
Catherine expected something to happen that would force him to take up the sword again. Part of him had believed it. He would sneak some practice in here and there, whenever he was sure no one was watching, but that drive quickly faded. He could not even remember the last time he ran through to old drills his uncle made him repeat ad infinitum.
When you are ready to accept your true destiny, I will be by your side.
What was this 'true destiny'? If it was anything different than the life he was leading, it never came. Still, a little corner of his heart ached when he recalled the promise. In spite of his years of self-denial, he wanted Catherine to be by his side. He had trouble remembering her face, but he could never forget those first and only stirrings of boyish infatuation. Had it been love? Could it have been love? He did not know.
He felt a hand touch his shoulder, its touch soft, comforting. He had felt it before, but he knew it was only an illusion. He rested his hand on the hand that was not there. He could feel her presence. It was like she was there.
But I am here, my dear Mark, the familiar voice said. And it is time for you to wake up. We do not have the leisure to entertain these illusions.
Giving the imaginary hand a squeeze, Mark sighed softly.
"Deep down, I knew this wasn't real..." he trailed.
This is Brenok's doing. If we reach Darkwall before everyone is awakened, it will be too late. He is overconfident. He could easily transport us one at a time, but he intends to send us all at once. The spell will take him time to prepare. Now is our chance. We must act quickly.
"What must I do?"
We do not have the means to fight his magic on its own terms, but we can undermine it from within. You simply need to be made aware of the dream and the spell loses its hold on you. The bond we share allows me to touch your mind intimately enough to rouse you, but the others are more difficult.
I need your help. I will send you into their minds and you must find a way to make them realize they are in a dream. I will do what I can to help, but I am afraid I cannot give you my undivided attention. There are other problems I must attend to as well.
What I am asking of you is no small task. It will be difficult and you may be exposed to a side of your companions you would rather not see. Are you still willing to do it?
"Of course," Mark said resolutely. "This is no time to hesitate."
Very well then. Brace yourself for the journey. I wish you luck, my beloved.
The room was awash in blinding light, burning away every last trace of the dream world and the false future it represented.

* * *

By the looks of it, the next dream he had entered was set in Gladius. Looking at his hands, he saw he was no longer an old man but his real age. He was dressed just as he was when he first came to Gladius, almost as if someone rolled back the clock by six months.
Once he had his bearings, he recognized the place as the decoy village on the outskirts of Rowan Woods. Mark walked to the nearest house and knocked on the door. The door just barely cracked open and a blond boy about eight years old peeked out, eyeing Mark suspiciously. Mark was not sure whose dream he was in, so he had to improvise.
"Are your parents home?" he asked.
The boy did not look like he was going to answer. While Mark was trying to think of a different approach, the door was opened all the way by a woman carrying an infant in her arms with a little girl clinging to her dress. At first, Mark did not recognize who he was looking at and had to contain his shock when the realization hit him. It was Sonia, but not the Sonia he knew. Her expression was calm and mild, showing no sign of the warrior's fire that had blazed in her eyes. Instead of the lean body conditioned from years of training, her figure had actually gotten a little plump. She was a completely different person, but not in body alone.
"May I help you, traveler?" she asked, her voice softer and more polite than he could ever imagine.
"Sonia? Is that really you?"
She looked at him with surprise. "How do you know my name? Have we met?"
"It's me," he said, "Mark, your cousin."
She put her hand to her mouth. "Oh my!" she gasped. "It's been nearly twenty years! There was no word from your family. I feared you died during the King's purge." Her eyes began to well up in happiness. "It's so good to see you alive!"
"What happened to you?"
Sonia looked down at the children. "When King Randwulf won the throne from the Mountain King, my mother fled to this village. She was taken by sickness and perished when I was still young. The mayor was kind enough to take me in. I married one of the local men ten years ago and started this beautiful family." She paused for a moment and bowed her head. "Sadly, he died in a hunting accident a few months ago."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
Even though it was only a dream, Mark could not help offering his condolences. Remembering her lost husband, Sonia fought back the tears with little success. Wiping her eyes, she looked back up at him.
"Is there anything I can do for you, cousin?" she asked.
"You haven't taken up the gear of your father and become the next Defender?"
Sonia gave a weak laugh. "Heavens no! I appreciate what you're trying to do, but you don't need to go to such lengths just to make me laugh. Honestly, who's heard of such a thing? Women aren't meant to be warriors. My brother was the only one suited to succeed Father and he died before the war. Besides, the gear of the Defender's was lost when Eagle was taken. I'm just an ordinary woman and my children are ordinary children. This world doesn't need the Elemental Knights. There's no need for my children to bear that burden."
Mark was at a loss. He had no idea how he was going to break her from the dream. She was so different from the Sonia he knew. How was he going to get through to her? What could he say to break the illusion?
He then felt something placed in his hand. Opening his hand, he saw the ornament Sonia usually wore on her forehead. When Sonia saw the ornament, her body froze and her arms went slack, dropping the infant she was holding. Even though he knew the child was not real, Mark instinctively reached out to catch it. Before he could reach, it and everything surrounding them dissolved into blackness.
Sonia had fallen to her knees, clutching her head as if she were in great pain. The scene changed to the interior of the forest. A man in Romany clothes knelt before a teenage Sonia. The young Sonia held up her fist in determination.
"Master, if Randwulf's men have come for me, let's take them together. I've passed the Rite of Succession. I'm ready! I want to fight!"
The man rested his hand on Sonia's head.
"Sonia, your fight is still on the horizon. I'm going alone..." He looked aside briefly. "And I probably won't be coming back. You mustn't use your powers until the time comes. With any luck, that warlock won't be able to detect you. The Eagle in the East will come and when he does, you'll have your chance to set things right."
He removed something from his neck, the same ornament Mark held in his hand.
"Remember me by this. Remember me and all your training. You've come a long way. I'm proud of you and I know your father would be proud of you, too. Become the warrior you are destined to be."
Tears began to well up in the young Sonia's eyes and the man brought his hand down to her cheek.
"What did I tell you about crying?" he asked. "You have to be strong."
"I'm going with you!" Sonia shouted insistently.
The man sighed and bowed his head.
"I didn't want to do this..."
With a swift movement, he drove his fist into the girl's stomach, dropping her to the ground. The man stood up.
"I'm sorry, but this has to be done." He looked to another man standing nearby. "Headman, take her back to the house. You've taken care of her for a while now. I trust you'll continue to take care of her after I'm gone."
A younger version of Ridley nodded. "I'll keep her safe," he said. "Try to take a few of those dogs with you."
The man grinned. "My pride as a warrior would permit nothing less."
As the man walked away, Sonia struggled against the headman's grip in spite of the painful blow she received.
"Master!" she screamed. "You can't leave me like this! Master!"
Her screams broke into sobs as the man vanished into the shadows. The adult Sonia next to Mark rose to her feet. Even if her physical appearance had not yet reverted, he could see that the warrior's fire had returned to her eyes.
"What's going on?" she asked harshly.
"Everyone is under a spell," Mark replied. "Catherine is taking me from mind to mind to wake everyone up."
"This is the work of that magician that killed Felix, right?"
Mark nodded. "Catherine says so, and this is something he would do."
Sonia took the ornament from Mark's hand and tied it around her head. The angry resolve on her face was clear.
"I'll kill him for this."
Before Mark could say anything, the blinding light returned to whisk him away to the next dream.

* * *

Mark found himself in a barren landscape with jagged rock walls all around him. A quarry. There was a castle on the northern ridge, nestled in the mountains. He recognized where he was. He had seen this place once before. It was hard to make the connection at first. He had only seen it at a distance from one of the nearby mountains and the castle had long been in ruins. There was no doubt in his mind that this was Greystone, the home of the Mountain Kings.
Before he could react, a patrol on horseback swooped down on him and held him at spearpoint. Mark did not resist, hoping he would be led to the dreamer.
Edward had kept the group from getting very close to the ruins the last time they were in the area, but even looking at it from a distance was enough for Mark to appreciate how far it had fallen from its former glory. Although it was smaller and simpler than Castle Byrn, it was still an impressive sight to behold.
After scaling the narrow, winding path up the ridge to the castle, he stood before gates as the patrol called out to the guards in the gatehouse. The heavy gates creaked open and the patrol handed him over to a compliment of palace guards. He was led to the keep and then to the throne room. Apparently they meant to present their captive to the King.
About halfway to the throne, a guard struck Mark's knees with the butt of his spear, causing him to fall. When he tried to look at the throne, the guard struck him in the back of the head. He kept his head bowed to avoid any more blows. Using his peripheral vision, he could see the guards kneeling before the throne. Their leader spoke up.
"Your Majesty, this man was found wandering near the castle. We think he might be a spy. What would you have us do with him?"
The voice from the throne was a mix of disinterest and irritation.
"You have rank for a reason, Lieutenant. If you cannot handle your responsibilities, surely I can find someone to take your place."
How typical, Mark thought. He could not resist grinning.
"You really can't help being unpleasant, can you, Edward?"
Mark could hear the guards around him pick up their spears. He did not want to get hit from all sides, so he somersaulted forward, pivoting on the ball of his foot the moment his boot touched the floor. The four shafts clacked against the granite floor in unison. The miss made the quartet angry, but anger has a way of making you sloppy and they could not afford to fight sloppily against an opponent of Mark's skill.
Because Mark's dodge counted as an 'escape' as far as they were concerned, the guards no longer tried to attack him with the butts of their spears. Mark did not know what the consequences of suffering a fatal wound would be in this dream world, but he did not intend to find out. With little effort, he disarmed the nearest guard and used his new weapon to deflect the other three attackers.
Even though they were only figments of Edward's imagination, Mark made a point not to kill them. They were not particularly talented fighters, so it was easy to subdue them. A few good blows were all it took to leave the four guards sprawled out senseless on the floor. This did not, however, account for the six bodyguards posted around the throne, all of whom had crossbows at the ready and aimed right at him. Edward motioned for the guards to hold their fire.
"You have skills, stranger," he said, rising from the throne. He descended from the dais, walking past the line of bodyguards, and picked up one of the spears the guards dropped. "But just how good are you?"
Mark remembered the time he had to save Jasper from Edward. That was the closest he had ever been to facing the Prince in combat. Whatever Edward lacked in finesse, he made up for in brute strength. Because they were in a dream, there was no telling how close the balance of power would reflect real life. Still, Mark had to keep him busy until Catherine presented the trigger to snap him out of it.
Edward charged forward with a roar, throwing all his weight behind a forceful thrust that would have easily skewered the swordsman had it not been so slow. Mark had no trouble side-stepping it. Speed and technique were on his side, but was it better for him to drag out the fight until Catherine intervened or should he move to defeat Edward as quickly as possible? Which was the better path?
For the time being, Mark decided to stall him by going on the defensive. He could not meet the Prince blow for blow, so most of his energy was spent dodging the Prince's slow but powerful strikes. Edward was enough of a warrior to see through Mark's strategy, though.
"This is no dance," Edward said. "If you do not mean to kill me, you should never have picked up that spear."
"I don't have any intention of killing you," Mark replied.
"Then you are a damned fool." Edward made another thrust at Mark, but missed. "You may not mean to kill me, but I certainly mean to kill you." He swung wide and Mark deflected it. "The only way you can survive is if you kill me." He then made an overhead swing with such force that the spear nearly shattered against the floor. "You have to kill the man who seeks your life. It is the only way to stay alive. Any fool knows this, but you seem to be an extraordinary sort of fool."
"There is more strength in staying your hand," Mark argued. "The man with true strength can win without killing, even without fighting."
"Rubbish!" Edward balked. "Strength means nothing unless it is used. I will prove how wrong you are."
With an even louder roar than before, Edward whipped himself in a near-berserker rage. His strikes became stronger and faster, but he sacrificed control in the exchange. A lesser fighter would have panicked, but Mark kept his cool. Edward's loss of control would be his undoing.
No longer playing for time, Mark moved in to bring the match to an end. Edward had damaged his spear earlier, a weakness the swordsman could easily exploit. Intercepting one of Edward's wild swings, he guided the Prince's spear to the ground and before Edward could break free, he gave the shaft a good kick that split it in two. While Edward was still off balance from the breaking of his spear, Mark rushed in and used his own spear to force the Prince to the ground. Edward landed hard on his rear, and before he could move to stand back up, Mark steadied his spearhead at the Prince's neck.
Edward glared at Mark. There was no room for fear, only anger. Mark could hear all the bodyguards raise their crossbows once more. Although Mark did not show it, he was not particularly comfortable with the way things had turned out. It did not seem to help things any. What on earth was Catherine doing?
"I will not beg for my life if that is what you want," Edward growled. "Nor will I pay any ransom. You may as well kill me now, because no matter what you do, you will not leave this room alive."
His options were few, but for Mark, there was only one answer. He threw his spear away, letting in clatter harmlessly on the floor, and turned to walk away.
"I told you," he said, "there's strength in staying your hand."
This answer did not go well with Edward. As Mark began to walk away, he could hear the Prince blustering.
"How dare you!" Edward bellowed. "Treating a king's life like a trifle! Giving back as if it were nothing! I won't have it, or your lily-livered ideals! I will show you! The strong man has power over his destiny!"
Mark heard a blade come out of his sheathe. He suddenly remembered the dagger hanging off Edward's belt. He turned back around and scrambled to Edward, and not a moment too soon. The Prince had his long dagger pointed right at his heart. The swordsman nearly tackled him, grabbing at the Prince's arms to hold back the dagger.
"Don't try to stop me!" Edward howled, abandoning formal speech in his desperation. "If this life is some cheap thing that can be handed back so easily, I don't want it!"
Struggling against Edward's strength and monomaniacal purpose, Mark snapped back, "What are you saying, you fool!? What good does it do anyone if you kill yourself?"
Just as Mark thought he might fail, their surroundings melted away, much as they had in Sonia's dream. In its place was a back alley of Stormtree. There, Siegfried Martel, much younger than he was when Mark met him, was on his knees before a black-haired youth. It took a second for Mark to realize it, but it was Edward as a young man. The kingly Edward Mark was struggling against was frozen in place staring wide-eyed at the scene before them.
Siegfried was hunched over with one hand planted on the ground and the other covering his face, as if he were weeping. In sharp contrast to him, the young Edward looked rather pleased to see the Captain.
"I feared you would never return to me," the youth said. "When you were captured, I had nearly abandoned hope. Tell me, Siegfried, what did the barbarians do to you? How did you escape?"
The grief-stricken Martel struggled for words. "Your Highness, I would gladly suffer any pain, even death, for your sake. But instead of my life, the barbarians robbed me of my honor. They made a mockery of me, giving me rank and authority over this city. Now all our comrades think I am traitor like that accursed Cadmus and his dogs." A single tear ran down the Captain's cheek as he lifted his hand off the ground. "I only have one choice left..."
Siegfried drew a knife from his belt and was about to drive it into his heart when Edward seized his arm.
"Stop this at once!" the youth demanded, struggling to wrench the knife from Siegfried's grip. "I believe in your faithfulness. That should be enough for you. In time, our comrades will see it, too. Think, Siegfried. You can still turn the barbarians' arrogance against them. You mustn't give up!"
Siegfried appeared stunned for a moment before looking up at Edward. His eyes were filled with admiration for his Prince.
"Yes, Your Highness. For your sake and for the sake of this land, I will bear this dishonor and bring ruin upon our enemies." He rose to his feet and saluted the young Prince. "Long live the Mountain King!"
The scene faded away and the king Edward slumped to the floor, dropping his knife. Removing the crown from his head, he stared at it glumly.
"So it was a dream..." he said. "A dream beyond dreams... That's all it is..."
"That's not true!" Mark exclaimed. "Look at how far we've come! We're back in Gladius even now. All we have to do is break free of this spell. Then we can bring Randwulf to justice once and for all."
Edward sighed and shook his head.
"We'll die is all. Honestly, how can the son of Luther be such a fool?"
Before he could say anything in reply, Mark was once again consumed by the light that would take him to the next dream.

* * *

Nothing could prepare Mark for the next dream. The earlier dreams were all rooted in reality, extensions of the world they knew, variants of what they could have become. This was nothing of the sort. There was no ground under his feet, no sky above him. There was nothing but empty space awash in a maddening mix of lights and colors that swirled wildly about. There was no logic behind it, no pattern. It was pure, unadulterated chaos.
Mark tried to move, but it did not make any difference. Time and space counted for nothing here. In the midst of such alien, chaotic surroundings, the swordsman could barely think straight. What mind could create such a place?
Just when he thought things could not get any stranger, something appeared on his shoulder. It was the most curious thing, a small winged creature unlike anything he had ever seen. The word 'imp' came to mind. He could think of no other way to describe it.
"What are you doing in my mind, mortal?" the imp asked in a squeaky voice. "Hmmm? An interesting little spell that amateur cast, isn't it? He'd be in for a surprise if he knew what he was dealing with!"
The funny creature sprang from Mark's shoulder and hovered in front of his face.
"Aha, I know you!" the imp squealed in delight. "You're the nice guy who saved me from that big oaf." It grinned broadly. "You're one in a thousand, buddy. Nah, make that ten thousand. Real stand-up fella, you know? Don't ever change." The imp sighed wistfully. "If we had met when I still had my powers... Ah, what fun that would be!"
In a puff of smoke, the imp turned into Catherine, but the voice did not change.
"She brought you here, didn't she?" it asked. The imp scratched its head, a gesture that was an ill fit for Catherine's form. "It takes some serious skills for any mindwalker to get in here. I don't think I've ever seen one this powerful and she's getting even stronger!" It held out its hands and looked at them. "At the rate she's progressing, I wonder how much longer she'll keep her fleshly chains."
The imitation of Catherine went back to imp form.
"Since you've come all this way, I guess I need to wake up." Looking up, it yelled, "Hey, mind-lady! I know you're pretty fond of this guy, but could you make him, you know, forget this ever happened? He's not ready for this sort of thing." It looked back at Mark. "If she doesn't do this for me, try not to dwell on what you've seen here. You'll go crazy if you do, and we don't want that, now do we?" The imp smiled and gave Mark a thumbs-up. "I'll see you on the other side. Take care, buddy!"
The wild colors flooded together, merging into flash of white light that sent Mark to the next dream.

* * *

For a moment, Mark's mind was a complete blank. Then came the questions. Where am I? What am I doing here? Who am I? It came back to him slowly. He was Mark, son of Luther. He and his companions were under a spell and Catherine was sending him into the minds of each of his companions to free them from an illusory dream world. He had already saved Sonia and Edward. It felt like there was something else, but he could not remember for the life of him.
He was in a forest clearing. It took him a moment, but he quickly recognized it as the heart of Rowan's hidden city. Unless Sonia had relapsed somehow, this had to be Jill's dream.
Mark saw two young women sparring with short spears not far from where he stood. It was Jill and Sonia, several years before he met them. He did not stand watching for long before Sonia took notice of him. She motioned for Jill to hold.
"Come back for more, have you, Lovel?" the younger fencer asked.
Mark looked at himself and saw that he had been transformed. He was clad in Rowanite hunting garb and his skin now sporting the same tawny, leathery quality of the forest tribe. He did not doubt his face was changed as well, but it was not the time to be caught up in such things. Sonia tossed her spear aside and assumed a fighting stance.
"Come on," she challenged. "Bare-handed. See if you can take me."
Mark had no idea what was going on, but he was not particularly eager to get into a fight with Sonia.
"What's wrong?" the fencer jeered. "I thought you wanted this. Or do you think you'll get the advantage if I make the first move?" She laughed. "Sure, why not? I'll play along."
Whether Mark wanted to fight or not, it did not look like he was going to have much choice. Sonia charged forward, tackling into him and seizing him by the waist. It was clear that her goal was to get him on the ground from the beginning, but Mark managed to stay on his feet. Sonia continued to try to push him backward while hooking her legs around his to trip him up. Mark was not so easily taken and got out of each of her attempts to hook his legs, giving ground in the process.
It would have been all too easy for Mark to have gotten hung up on the awkwardness of the match, but his thoughts were fixed only on winning. While he knew nothing of the exotic arts Stefan excelled in, he was not without some measure of skill in unarmed combat. It was all part of his training, and he could hardly be called inept.
He put Sonia in a headlock with one arm, looped the other around her midsection, and fell back, sending the fencer head over heels. Before she could recover, he got on top of her, sitting one he hips to keep her legs from moving and securing her arms with his feet. Because the precarious distribution of his weight would not survive any fierce resistance on Sonia's part, he immediately put her in a cross collar choke. As proud as Sonia was, she would not risk dying in a sparring match from a misapplied chokehold and tapped out the moment Mark's forearms began to press into her neck.
Mark let go and got up off of her. He knew better than to expect a sneak attack from her. She lay there for a while staring up at the sky through the canopy.
"I guess it had to happen sometime," she said with a sigh.
The fencer got up slowly, not bothering to dust herself off. She glanced at Jill and then to Mark.
"Not now," Sonia whispered. "Meet me later, after midnight. I'll be at the old thunder-struck oak on the east side of the forest."
Mark did not have a chance to react. The scene melted away and a new one sprung up in its place. It was the dead of the night, deep in the woods beyond the limits of the hidden city. Before him was a large, ancient oak tree, long since dead, split by a cruel thunderbolt. There Sonia was waiting. Rather than her usual tunic, trousers and boots, she stood barefoot, dressed in a simple linen robe. She put on her usual brave face the moment she saw him, but before that, he noticed something else. Uncertainty, regret, even fear.
"I didn't expect to be the one waiting," she said. "I thought you wanted this."
Things were getting out of hand. What did any of this have to do with Jill? Why was Catherine letting it happen?
"You better know what you're doing," Sonia said, interrupting his thoughts. "It's your win, so you get to decide. How are we going to do this?"
She noticeably suppressed a shudder. It had nothing to do with the cold. Mark was no longer thinking about Jill or how to get her out of the dream. He wanted to get himself out. He wanted to shout to Catherine to make it stop. He had had enough.
"We're not doing anything," Mark said firmly. "This is a mistake."
At first, Mark saw a glimmer of hope in Sonia's expression, but it quickly died away and was replaced with something else. He knew what it was.
"A mistake?" she asked angrily, pressing her hand against her chest. "A mistake? Listen here, Lovel. Listen and listen good. Just because I don't wear dresses or act all dainty doesn't mean I don't have any pride as a woman. You've been after me for two months and now that you have me, it's a mistake?"
Mark was taken off balance by her reaction, and it caused him to founder. "I, ah... I mean, it shouldn't be like this. You deserve more than this. You shouldn't have agreed to the match in the first place. You should value yourself more."
"What are you babbling on about?" Sonia asked, as irritated as she was genuinely confused. "No Rowanite talks like that. What's gotten into you?"
"You shouldn't give yourself to anyone but the man you love, your lawfully wedded husband."
Judging by the look on Sonia's face, Mark's Wayfarer morality did not match his Rowanite guise.
"Now I know something's wrong with you," Sonia said. "Are you drunk or something? Is that it? Too afraid to face me sober? Had to have a little liquid courage first?" Grudgingly, she added, "I wish I'd thought of that." She shook her head, trying to stir up her resolve once more. "Let's just get this over with, Lovel, and we'll be even."
Rather than seeing the way out and taking it, Sonia's pride was forcing her to treat the situation as just another challenge for her to overcome. Short of physically subduing her, Mark did not know how he was going to stop her. He did not want to hurt her, particularly in the state she was in.
Mark paused. This was not Sonia he was dealing with. It was just a figment of the imagination. He had let the dream get to him. He had nearly gotten lost in Jill's mind. Jill... Where was Jill anyway?
Just then, Jill sprang from the bushes with a shout, wielding a spear and aiming it right at Mark.
"No, Jill!"
To Mark's astonishment, Sonia jumped in the way just as Jill threw the spear. As skilled as she was, the fencer could not possibly stop the spear bare-handed. She was knocked back by the force of the spear when it struck her, but she did not fall down, not right away. Jill stared dumbstruck as Sonia teetered backward with the spear hanging out of her gut. Her legs gave out after a few steps and she collapsed.
Frozen where she stood, Jill fell to her knees. All she could do was stare at her adoptive sister, mortally wounded by her own hand. Mark rushed to his cousin's side.
"Why?" he asked, nearly forgetting once more that she was not the real Sonia.
Sonia smiled weakly. "I thought she'd try something like this. You should know, Lovel. The penalty for murder is exile, and that's after they cripple you. I can't let that happen to her."
She showed remarkable resilience thus far, but a spasm of pain left her almost wholly transformed. She was now as pale as the linen of her robe, already on Death's door. With all the strength she had left, she gripped Mark's arm.
"Hide my body," she said in a low voice, straining to get out these last few words. "Keep it, uhn... keep it secret. If you... if you ever felt anything... for me... you'll do this. Please..." Letting go of Mark's arm, she looked up at the stars in the sky. Tears began to well up in her eyes. "I'm sorry... Master... Father... I won't be... avenging you... after, after... all..."
Sonia's body twitched briefly and then stilled. Snapped out of her catatonia, Jill screamed, a forlorn, bestial cry that echoed through the woods. Haltingly, she crawled on hands and knees over to Sonia. She touched the already cold face of her adoptive sister, but there was no response. The young huntress bent down and gave her a parting kiss.
"I'm sorry, Sis," she whispered. "It wasn't supposed to be like this." She drew the hunting knife from her belt. "Wait for me. I'll be with you soon."
Before Jill could put the blade to her neck, Mark was on her, struggling to wrest the knife from her grip. The interference threw Jill into a rage. With all the ferocity of a rabid beast, she fought him, kicking, biting and scratching. Mark did not give in. He had saved Edward from the same fate. He was not about to lose Jill.
Oddly, the curse touched the Prince and the archer in much the same way, for as he was struggling with her, the scene faded away. Mark was transformed back into himself. His change and Sonia's disappearance was enough to snap Jill out of her rage. She looked around in bewilderment just as the new scene presented itself.
The new scene was nearly identical to the one Mark had found when he first arrived. Jill and Sonia were sparring with each other when a young Rowanite man approached them. Like all Rowanite hunters, he looked like a wild animal just barely passing for a human. He was somewhat on the short side, shorter than Sonia and barely taller than Jill, stout of frame and boastful in demeanor.
"You girls play a good game," the man said, "but your time would be better spent doing your duty as women."
Sonia broke off the match to meet his words. "Ha!" she scoffed. "Big words from a man with no wife, Lovel. Perhaps your time would be better spent doing your duties as a man instead of badgering us."
The insult flustered the boastful Lovel, but he remained in command of his wits. "It isn't too late for Jill, but you, Miss Sonia, are getting along in years. Nineteen and still unmarried. You're well on your way to becoming an old maid."
"Now you've gone and done it," Sonia said, taking the verbal sparring in fairly good humor. "My training's more important than clinging to any man, but maybe I'd change my mind if I found a worthy match."
"How about me?"
Sonia laughed, which made Lovel angry. He was not the type who could easily stand someone making light of him.
"Don't laugh!" he snapped.
Sonia stopped laughing, but still seemed rather amused at his proposal. "Why not?" She wagged her finger at him. "Don't think it'll be easy, though." She nodded to her adoptive sister. "Jill, toss him your spear."
Jill complied, tossing the spear over to Lovel, who caught the shaft in midair. Sonia nodded in approval. She surely would have laughed if he had failed to catch it.
"I don't have much taste for beating around little girls," Lovel said.
"Neither do I," Sonia remarked, "but because you asked so nicely, I'm making an exception."
"You need a good man to put you in your place."
"Try it," the fencer challenged. "We'll see if you're it or not."
The two went at each other without further ado. Mark could tell by the way Lovel handled his spear that he was hardly lacking in skill. However, the swordsman quickly noticed the young hunter's two great weaknesses. Firstly, he was too arrogant, thinking too highly of his own abilities to fight at his full potential. The second and greatest weakness was his poor choice of opponents. Even at this younger age, Sonia was more than a match for any well-trained fighter. Even if Lovel went all-out, he would still be out-matched.
Sonia had Lovel disarmed in short order, but she did not stop there. She tossed her own spear away and goaded him to continue the challenge hand-to-hand. She was every bit as aggressive as the figmentary version of her Mark had encountered earlier, but unlike Mark, Lovel did not keep his legs free. The fencer tripped him and as he was falling, she took hold of his wrist and circled around, catching him in an armbar. She twisted his arm to force his surrender, nearly dislocating his shoulder before he finally gave in.
While he was rubbing his sore shoulder and nursing a wounded pride, Sonia picked up her spear and began to twirl it around in a victorious flourish. Mark was unsurprised to see that she was not above rubbing it in. However, she was not entirely without charity either. She offered him her hand and he was a good enough sport to accept it. Once he was back on his feet, Sonia spoke confidentially in his ear, not quite a whisper but not quite aloud either.
"Come back anytime," she said. "The terms stand. If you can best me, I'm yours."
This was undoubtedly meant to be between the two of them, but Mark noticed that the Jill in the scene heard every word and the Jill right next to him had not forgotten them.
The scene shifted again, this time showing Lovel in the woods by himself, apparently hunting game. He took aim at some unseen beast and was drawing back his bow when his ears were pricked by a faint rustling in the bushes. The barely audible noise gave him just enough warning to defend himself when something jumped at him from the underbrush. It was Jill, wielding her knife with bloody intent.
Although Lovel had proven that he was no match for Sonia, Jill was a different story. Her abilities were not yet fully developed at this point, and the skill she had was blunted by anger. The cooler head prevailed. Lovel deftly evaded her wild slashes and took the first opportunity to disarm her. This was, of course, not enough to stop the feral young archer. Her whole body was a weapon, but it was poorly wielded.
Had she not been so blind in her rage, the match might have been more even. Soon Lovel had both Jill's arms pinned behind her back, standing well clear of her flailing legs. Now that the threat was mostly neutralized, Lovel was free to get to the bottom of the ambush.
"What's going on here, Jill?" he demanded.
"You can't have her!" Jill howled. "I won't let you take her!"
It took a moment for Lovel to figure out what she was talking about. "You mean Sonia? I think that's between the two of us."
"I won't let you! I won't let you!" Jill shouted over and over again.
"What would you have done? Kill me? Do you think you could've gotten away with it? Just because you're the headman's daughter doesn't mean you're above the law." He twisted her arms a little more to make sure she was paying attention. "You know what we do to murderers. Now, we go way back, you and me, so I'm willing to pretend this didn't happen, but you better not try it again."
Lovel let her go, but she did not move. With her head bowed and her arms hanging loosely down her sides, she clenched her fists.
"Take me," she said in a low voice.
"What?"
Jill turned to face him. "Instead of Sis, take me."
"And why would I pick you over Sonia?" Lovel asked.
"It's like you said. I'm the headman's daughter. Once Papa passes into the Dark Forest, the next headman could be you."
Lovel shook his head. "You know we don't work like that. We elect only the fittest among us."
Jill stepped closer to him. "But we usually pick the one appointed by the headman before he goes. I'm all Papa has. If you continued his bloodline, you're sure to win his favor."
This gave Lovel pause. She had touched on a tender point. Simple man though he may be, the young hunter was not without ambition. He saw his chance in Jill's offer and whatever affection he held for Sonia was not enough to match it.
"Okay," he said. "I'll do it." He put his arm around Jill's waist and pulled her close to him. "We'll have the ceremony the first chance we get. I'll be your husband and you'll be my wife."
Jill only bowed her head in submission and the scene faded away, leaving only Mark and the blood-stained Jill beside him. Mark looked down to her. She was still on her hands and knees, staring into the empty space.
"That's why you got married?" the swordsman asked.
Jill looked down at the ground (or rather, what would have been the ground if there was anything besides the darkness all around them). "I couldn't let him take Sis from me," she said. "He wasn't the only one who tried, but he was the stubbornest." She bit her lip. "All men are alike. They all want to take her from me." The archer paused, and then looked up at Mark. "Just like you."
"What? Me?"
Her expression was hard, bitter. "Ever since you came, Sis has changed." She looked away. "It's because you two are different... better... There's no place for me in between..."
Although they had traveled together for months, Mark did not really know Jill at all. She had always kept to herself, showing a reserve that seemed to be the custom of her people. He knew that Sonia was important to her, but he could have never guessed the degree. Sonia was not just a dear sister; she was the very center of Jill's world. Realizing this filled Mark's heart with pity for the poor creature at his feet.
The swordsman knelt down beside Jill and placed a hand on her shoulder. "Jill," he said softly, "you've got the wrong idea. I don't want to take Sonia away from you and even if I did, I never could. She loves you, Jill. You're her precious sister. Nothing's going to change that. Tell me, has she ever given you any reason to doubt her?"
Jill shook her head.
"Well then, why should you? She's always going to be there for you."
Jill was quiet. Rowanites were not sort who let themselves be ruled by emotion. They did not concede defeat easily, nor were they likely to accept sympathy from friend or foe. It was only with the greatest difficulty that Jill was able to respond.
"Thank you..."
Now that Jill had faced herself, the curse no longer had any power over her. The light pierced the darkness, enveloping Mark and carrying him away.

* * *

Mark found himself in the main street of Cruz, but the city had changed greatly. Some patches of brown grass and a few withered trees were all that the parched ground could support. The air was filled with sound of weeping and wailing. The street was clogged with people in rags beating their chests with dust on their head. Among them were many lepers, paralytics and madmen. Mark had never seen such desolation.
The wretched people were stirred by shouting in the distance. A figure dressed in dazzling white appeared, its face obscured by the light radiating from it. Following the figure was a great multitude and everyone in the streets who was able rushed to be near it. The sick who touched the figure or were touched by it were instantly cured of their illness. With a word, the madmen were brought to their senses. The figure stopped by the mats of each of the paralytics. When the figure laid hands on them, they sprang to their feet and began to sing praises. The newly healed joined the multitude, raising up cries of joy that sounded throughout the city.
While Mark was watching all this, he felt something hit him. He looked down and saw blood spilling from a wound just below his ribcage. He knew this wound. It was the same mortal wound that killed Felix.
Mark's legs gave out on him and he fell to the ground. This was only supposed to be a dream, but he could feel the pain. He was getting light-headed from the loss of blood. What on earth was going on?
The figure stopped by Mark and knelt down beside him. He was struggling just to remain conscious at this point. The figure touched his wound, but unlike all the other sufferers, he was not healed. The figure placed both hands on the wound, but still nothing. The figure began crying out in a loud voice and still nothing changed.
Although Mark was only a half step from passing out, he saw a change in the multitude. Those who were lepers broke out in fresh sores, the paralytics collapsed and the madmen started raving anew. Robbed of their healing, the multitude became angry. Songs of praise turned to curses, shouts of joy into jeers. The figure stood up to calm them, but their hearts were hardened against the figure's words and began to pelt it with stones.
The figure shielded its face with its arms an fell to its knees. The light faded away. The dazzling white garment became a simple brown habit. The crowd vanished and the scene melted away. When the figure lowered its arms, it was revealed to be Teresa.
Mark suddenly felt his strength return to him. The wound was gone. He sat up and looked to Teresa. She was staring at something in the distance. It was a scene of her trying to save Felix. It was when Felix was saying his last words to Mark, but they did not hear that. Rather, it was Teresa's voice echoing in the empty space.
"Please, God, let me save him. Don't let him die. Please... I beg you. I'll never ask for anything. Just let me save him. I've strayed, I know. My heart has wavered, I know. Forgive me. Punish me, not him. He can't die now. Mark still needs him. Please, please..."
As Felix was coughing up blood in his death throes, both the scene and the voice faded away. Teresa continued to stare into the darkness with tears running down her face.
"I'm a failure," she said. "I'm not fit to be a healer, or a nun. That's why God forsook me that day..."
"God didn't forsake you," Mark said. "Not all prayers are meant to be answered."
"If only I had been more faithful..."
"What are you talking about? You're practically a saint."
Teresa bowed her head. "No, I'm no saint. I'm a sinner, a wretched, wicked sinner."
"We're all sinners," Mark replied, "but that hardly makes you faithless. And you're no failure either."
"Yes, I am. I couldn't save him."
"We've already been through this. You can't blame yourself for what happened."
"If only--"
Mark interrupted her, "No more 'if onlies'. Back when everyone saved me from Corinth, I could have died from my wounds, I could have lost the use of my arm, but I didn't. You brought me back to full health. Is that the work of a failure? You've treated all our wounds with loving care. Not one of us has suffered any infection or illness since you've been around. Is that the work of a failure?"
"But I--"
"No 'buts' either. God has blessed you with an amazing ability, but you're not all-powerful. You can't save everyone. You can't stop someone from dying at their appointed time. If anything, Felix's death was a lesson to you."
Teresa was silent.
"Is that why you dreamed this dream?" Mark asked.
The novice answered haltingly, "Who, what healer wouldn't want such power? I hear the stories all the time, but I don't see it. It is written, 'If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.'" She sighed. "Do I not even have the faith of a mustard seed?" She turned to Mark. "If we could wield such powers, who would doubt us? Who could persist in disbelief? Wouldn't the whole world believe as we do?"
"It's not meant to be that easy," Mark said. "Are we a brotherhood of magicians? Is our God a god of sorcery? We're supposed to lead people to the faith by living as an example to them. Like most people, you've got it backwards. You're focusing on works to the detriment of faith. Faith is greater than works. Works without faith are meaningless and faith without works is dead. We're called to live out our faith and the works will follow.
"Once more, look at what you did with me. I'm whole and hale thanks to you. Is that any less a miracle? Faith in God is the most important thing, but there's something you're forgetting."
"What's that?"
Mark smiled. "You have to have a little faith in yourself, too. Isn't that what your teacher told you when you left the abbey?"
Teresa nodded. She was quiet for some time, but then started to look around at the blackness all around them.
"What is this place?" she asked.
"We're under a spell right now, living in a world of illusion. Catherine is sending me to each of you to wake you up."
"I'm afraid to go back," the novice said, casting her gaze downward.
"I swore to protect you," Mark said. "Have I ever given you any reason to doubt that?"
Teresa shook her head. "No," she said softly, "it's not that. I'm not worried about myself. You're going into battle. More people are going to die from the fighting. More people are going to die because I can't save them..."
"Listen to me," Mark said firmly. "You do what you can. Nothing more, nothing less. The rest is in God's hands. Okay?"
Teresa nodded, but did not seem entirely convinced.
"You'll be fine," Mark said. "I'm not the only one looking out for you. You know Jasper always has his eyes on you."
Teresa blushed and hid her face. The light appeared to take Mark away. He left hoping that she felt a little better.

* * *

Mark found himself in a land unlike anything he had ever seen before. The architecture was beyond compare to anything found in Gladius, Byrn or Arma. The people and their attire were completely alien to him. It was like a whole other world.
After a little thought, he recalled a few rare volumes he had once read in the Archives and realized he was somewhere in the Eastland. He was suddenly reminded of an offhand comment from ten years ago when Stefan said he had lived in the Eastland for a time. There was little doubt that he was in Stefan's dream.
An armored warrior on horseback rode up to him, pointing his polearm at the swordsman. He spoke in terse, accented Bannish.
"What do you want here, foreigner?" he demanded. "Your kind is not welcome here."
Although the warrior's face was obscured by a scarf, Mark could recognize those angry eyes anywhere.
"Stefan?"
"You are mistaken," the warrior said. "I am Zhou Bai-hu, a patrol-scout of the warlord Li Zheng. I do not know how you snuck into port, but I suggest you find away to sneak out before I skewer you."
Mark wondered what the trigger would be. It seemed that the best thing to do was stall Stefan's alter-ego for the time being. With anyone else, the idea might have worked. Unfortunately, the patrol-scout's limited patience had already run out.
"You had you chance!" he barked. "Now die!"
Stefan charged forward. Mark dove to the side as Stefan's horse raced past. Expertly controlling his steed, Stefan turned and was in the middle of a second charge when a procession appeared in the street. It was a palanquin flanked by a dozen soldiers and twice as many servants. The procession stopped, the palanquin was set down and a man in fine robes stepped out while the members of his entourage on horses promptly dismounted.
Stefan jerked back on the reins, bringing his steed to halt and hastily jumped off as a servant presented the robed man with a scroll. Upon unfurling the scroll, Stefan and the entire entourage were on their hands and knees, bowing their heads low to the ground. The robed man read aloud what was written.
"His Imperial Majesty, the Son of Heaven, Lord of Ten Thousand Years, declares thus unto his people: 'All with the blood of foreigners up to the fifth generation in their lineage will be purged from the land. Their presence is an abomination before Heaven, a plague upon the earth and a corruptor of the people. Any subject found harboring such a creature will be put death.' So speaks His Imperial Majesty, the Son of Heaven, Lord of Ten Thousand Years."
The robed man and his escorts vanished with a gust of wind. The scene melted away. Mark and Stefan were now inside a simple hut with the sound of the ocean waves nearby. A middle-aged couple knelt by a child Stefan.
"Forgive us, my son," the man said regretfully, "but we cannot defy the Emperor. You must stow away on a boat and leave this land." He rested a hand on the boy's shoulder. "In the little time we shared, you have shown much promise. I only wish I could be there to see the man you become."
Stefan the patrol-scout removed his helmet, allowing it to fall to the ground.
"Why are you here?" he asked in a detached voice.
"Brenok put us under a dream spell," Mark said, "and Catherine has sent me to wake everyone."
Stefan frowned up hearing this. "Why did Lady Catherine send you? She would have been enough for me..." His tone became accusatory. "You think you can just show up and play hero when it's convenient, don't you?"
Mark was about to say something, but Stefan interrupted him.
"Realizing it's a dream is all it takes, right?" He turned away from him. "We can settle the score later. After I deal with Brenok. One traitor at a time."
Mark did not get the chance to protest. The light enveloped him, pushing him ever-forward.

* * *

Mark found himself in the streets of Dragova. He had not even taken his first step when a blast of flame and heat nearly knocked him off his feet. When he looked up, the entire city was in flames. Townspeople were running around in a panic while soldiers from the garrison and a number of civilian men struggled to put out the fires. Amid all the carnage, the roaring flames, the screams and shouts, Mark could distinctly hear someone laughing.
Ignoring everything else around him, Mark headed toward the source of the laughter. Atop the gabled roof of the mayor's mansion was a lone, red-haired human figure. Ignatiy. But it was not the pitiful skin and bones wraith that escaped from Darkwall. Rather, it was an older version of the plump Ignatiy Mark knew ten years ago. He was laughing in delight at the blaze, even as his perch was burning as well.
Even though he did not know how to stop the dream, Mark knew that he had to get to Ignatiy somehow. The only choice was to get on top of the roof, and that meant going into the burning mansion. In his mind, he knew the flames were not real, but nevertheless, he could still feel the heat. Teresa's dream had proven to him that he was not immune to sensation, or at least the illusion of it. Taking the same precaution he would in the real world, Mark jumped into a nearby fountain, thoroughly soaking himself before barreling into the mansion. The first two floors bathed in flame, but the fire had yet to reach the third floor and, by extension, the roof. There was still time.
If there was a way to make it through the flames without getting burned, Mark would have done it, but his option was to go through as quickly as possible. Telling himself over and over again that the flames could do no real hurt to him, he charged through, forcing himself to ignore the blistering heat and choking smoke.
It was not easy, but Mark finally found his way to the roof. When he got up there, Ignatiy was still laughing. Mark had to do something, but what?
"Ignatko!" he shouted.
Mark's voice startled Ignatiy. The firebug did not seem to recognize him.
"It's too late!" Ignatiy boasted. "No matter what you do to me, you can't stop my beautiful flames!"
"Why are you doing this?"
Ignatiy looked out to the sea of flames. "I'm punishing this city," he said. "And I'm saving it. That's the wonderful thing about fire. It destroys everything that's nasty and rotten, it melts away impurity, wraps everything in its beauty so something new can be born out of the ashes." He set his sights on the horizon. "Why stop here? This whole kingdom, no, this whole world needs to be touched by the cleansing, saving beauty of the flame."
"This is crazy, Ignatko," Mark argued. "You're not creating anything. You're not saving anyone. You're only destroying."
"Bah," Ignatiy scoffed, not bothering to look back at him. "He doesn't see it. He's blind like all the others. Just like them." The firebug paused. "Just... like..."
Ignatiy clutched his head with both hands and began to rock back and forth, whispering, "No, no, no" over and over again, faster and louder until he finally howled out a long, tortured "Noooooooo!" At that moment, the flames vanished. For a brief moment, the scene hung in place, as if to emphasize the flames' disappearance, before melting away.
In its place was the interior of a prison, the same one where Catherine was held ten years ago. It was one of the upper levels, used to hold common criminals. A couple soldiers of the Dragon Guard threw Ignatiy into a cell. The Ignatiy here was younger, about the age he was when Mark met him.
While the soldiers shackled Ignatiy to the wall, an officer stood in the doorway with his arms crossed. He did not look particularly happy.
"I warned you," the officer said tersely. "And you didn't listen. I know you're responsible for more fires than the one we caught you making today. Once we get the reports in from the other cities and the estates, I'll personally see that you get your due. You won't get off so easy this time."
One of the soldiers growled some curses and kicked Ignatiy in the gut. As the soldiers exited the cell, the officer turned to give Ignatiy some parting words.
"Get used to it," he said. "You're going to be here a while."
The scene faded away. The current Ignatiy had shriveled into the same wasted, skinny form as in the real world. He was hunched over, his face buried in his hands. Mark knelt down by Ignatiy and rested his hand on the firebug's shoulder.
"Ignatko..."
With his face still buried in his hands, Ignatiy sobbed, "Nobody understands. They can't see it..."
"Ignatko, you've got to pull yourself together," Mark said. "We need you."
Ignatiy only continued to cry. "Why, why, why, why, why..."
Mark grabbed Ignatiy by his collar, turned him around and gave him a good shaking. "That's enough!" the swordsman shouted. Ignatiy cringed fearfully, causing Mark to soften his expression. "Ignatko, we don't have time for you to lie around feeling sorry for yourself. You've got to get up."
"Get up?" the firebug asked. "What do you mean?"
"This is a spell, Ignatko, Brenok's spell. You need to wake up."
Although Ignatiy could not get loose of Mark's grip, he nevertheless tried to withdraw. "They'll catch us," he whispered. "They'll throw us in the dungeon. Back there, with the cold... and the dark..." Ignatiy shivered.
"No they won't," Mark said. "We're going to get out of this and then we're going to take the fight to Randwulf. Think of it, Ignatko. You'll be free to go all-out on this one. All the fire you could want."
Ignatiy's eyes brightened at the thought. "You mean it?"
Mark smiled. "Of course."
"Oh, thank you!" Ignatiy exclaimed gleefully, hugging Mark as tightly as his skinny arms could manage. "You do understand! You really do!"
Mark returned the embrace. Ignatiy was going to be all right, he was sure. The light returned, shining in the darkness, carrying him on the next dream.

* * *

In contrast to the burning city he had just left, Mark now found himself in a dark, cold place. Within the darkness were dozens of tiny lights. Fires. In the center was a larger light, a bigger fire. Yes, he had been before. This was the home of the Inkari Tribe, in the bowels of Mount Vulcan. He had never truly gotten over what had happened there, but he had no choice but to go forward.
Ignoring the little fires and the families huddled around them, Mark walked to the heart of the chamber. Around the central bonfire, the hunters were absorbed in a war dance. Presiding over them was a chieftain who looked oddly familiar. It was not Mar Kurin, the man Mark had fought and killed for his ancestral gear, but Giles.
Mark suppressed the unpleasant memories of his captivity by the Inkari and approached the bonfire. Banging his spear on the rock floor, Giles brought the war dance to a halt. The hunters brandished their weapons, but held their ground with tenuous restraint.
"Who you?" Giles demanded in the same broken Everardian Mark Kurin had used. "Interlopers in Sacred Tunnels, sacrifice to Great Dweller."
Mark did not even have the chance to speak when Giles hurled his spear at the swordsman. Guided by some unknown force, Mark intercepted the spear, breaking it in two. Giles recoiled in shock, although not from the simple act of Mark breaking his spear. At first, Mark did not know how he had stopped it, but then he saw in his hand a halberd, the same kind wielded by the Gladian Guard. Looking down at himself, he saw that he was wearing all the gear of Guardsman.
The scene melted away, leaving only Mark, Giles and the spear. A booted foot stepped on the broken spear contemptuously. Three Guardsmen appeared, surrounding a young Giles, who had been badly wounded from fighting the soldiers.
"I thought the mountain savages were just a story," the first Guardsman said.
"He put up quite a fight for a kid," the second said approvingly. "Imagine what he could do with a little training and some real weapons."
"I think the King would appreciate a catch like this," the third said. "At the very least, we could pawn him off as a slave in Corinth."
The soldiers then cast their nets, ensnaring the young Inkari. In spite of his wounds, the wild youth struggled desperately to free himself, even going so far as to gnaw on the ropes, but to no avail. He was dragged away by the Guardsmen, an experience Mark knew only too well.
The scene faded away to the throne room of Darkwall. The young Giles, with manacles on his wrists and ankles, was presented to Randwulf. Mark tried to get a good first look at his enemy, but the shadows around the throne obscured his face from view.
"I am not opposed to the training of savages," Randwulf said. "Hand him over to Lieutenant Grimson. See if he can make a Marauder out of him."
The scene faded more slowly this time, now with only Mark and Giles remaining. The adult Giles plucked a feather from his headdress and looked at it.
"I was trying for my first kill as a hunter," he said. "Most hunters my age would go for easy prey like an animal or a miner, but I had to be better than them. I told myself I was going to be chieftain one day." The pikeman flicked the feather away. "I guess I did become a chieftain of sorts. That's what a general is, isn't it?" After a moment's pause, he looked at Mark. "Let me guess, this is the work of the warlock's apprentice, that Byrnan. They must be close. The Five Stalkers are going to be out for blood after we took down two of their men. It may be too late for us already..."
Yet again, the light dragged Mark from the dream before he could say anything in reply. He only had one mind left, but he was almost afraid to go there. What sort of dream would the icy dhampir have?

* * *

Mark was unwilling to open his eyes, lest the terrors of Adrienne's mind drive him mad. Needless the say, he was taken completely off guard to find himself in a well-lit, lavishly decorated mansion. An elegant patrician woman was sitting in a chair and reading to two children, a black-haired boy and an auburn-haired girl who looked nearly identical to one another. Mark did not believe they were hers because she looked far too young to be their mother.
The woman noticed Mark out of the corner of her eye and turned to face him. "Nephew, is that you?" She rose up from her chair. "My, my, what a surprise, that Lord Luther would grace our humble abode. My husband is at the castle if you came to see him, but where are my manners? I should at least offer you tea. Would you like some?"
Mark nodded.
"Very well then," the woman said as she clapped her hands. A maidservant hurried to her side. "Prepare tea for the four of us and do not tarry." She looked back at Mark. "Shall we go to the parlor?"
Mark followed the woman to the parlor, where he took his place at the end of an intricately carved oak table. The woman covered her mouth and gave a faint laugh.
"You men of House Aran are so humble. Your father was the same way."
"You knew my father?" Mark asked, forgetting that she was under the impression that he was Luther.
After staring at Mark blankly for a moment, the woman covered her mouth once again to laugh. "You tease me, nephew. I may not have been very old when he passed away, but how could I forget my own brother-in-law."
Mark then realized that the woman was his great-aunt, although he was not sure which one. Besides his grandmother, old Lord Flavius had nine daughters, but his uncle had never gone into much of the details of his extended family.
The maidservant arrived with the tea. There were two pitchers. One was used to serve the woman and the children and another was used to serve Mark. He could only guess that it was against their custom to serve a non-patrician from the same vessel, even one related by blood. He chose not to be offended by it, as there was nothing to gain by taking offense.
After serving to the four of them, the maid scurried off. The woman took a sip of her tea and watched the children closely to ensure they followed proper etiquette.
"Have you met my children, nephew?" she asked. She gestured to the boy. "This is Marcus Adrian." Gesturing to the girl, she added, "And this is Adriana."
The children responded with a slight bow that Mark returned. He could hardly believe the woman was their mother. The children looked like they were five or six and she not even twenty. She had to have been rather young when they were born, far younger than the usual marrying age.
The woman interrupted his thoughts, saying, "You never did tell me why you came here. Perhaps you are not here for my husband after all. Could it be that you have finally decided to forgive your mother?"
Mark remembered his uncle telling him that his grandmother went back to her father's household in Corinth after his grandfather died. She had abandoned her children. There was no other way to say it. His father was only ten when it happened and held a grudge ever since.
"I can't stay angry forever," Mark said.
The woman smiled, pleased at his answer. Perhaps his father did not feel the same way, but at least he knew his mother and could have seen her just by traveling to Corinth. Mark was not so lucky. He did not know his mother and he desperately wished he did. He could not imagine what it would be like to bear a grudge like his father's.
While he was dwelling on thoughts of his family, he remembered why he was here. He had come to doubt that he was really in Adrienne's mind. Where was she? She most certainly could not be the woman. The girl then? Could that little girl really be the cold-blooded monster he knew?
Adrienne had claimed the name Flavia Adriana in Scotia. The mother was definitely a Flavian and she had introduced her daughter as Adriana, but if that was Adrienne, she would have her father's name, not her mother's. An alias? Who was her father that she would find the need to hide his name?
The maidservant returned to replace the water in a vase when she tripped and spilled her pitcher on the girl. The girl screamed as blotches of red appeared on her skin and smoke rose from her body. She flailed wildly in pain, knocking over her teacup, spilling a red liquid that was not tea at all. It was blood.
The scene violently shifted to a dank dungeon cell, where the girl, now in her early teens, was strung up in chains. She was covered more in grime and dried blood than the tattered rags that were all that was left of her clothes. A torturer was busy flogging her with a cat o' nine tails, but the wounds would seal almost as soon as they opened. Watching the scene was a bald, muscular man with a boy Mark identified as the girl's brother. Growing tired with the ineffectiveness of his whip, the torturer picked up a bucket of water and splashed her. She screamed as smoke filled the air.
"Father!" the boy cried. "Stop this now! Leave Adriana alone!"
"Shut up!" the large man barked, cuffing the boy with the back of his hand. "This is the price of treason. Your sister is no exception."
The torturer splashed her again. Mark could see the boy's suffering as he listened to his sister's screams. Finally, he snapped, drawing a stiletto from his belt and thrusting it into the torturer's back. The torturer howled and fell to the ground, clutching the wound in a vain effort to stop the bleeding. A couple of guards rushed up to help their comrade and bind his wound. Meanwhile, the large man gave the boy a swift kick to the stomach, dropping him to the ground. His eyes blazing with anger, he continued to kick the boy.
Kicking all the while, the man howled, "Do you want to join her!? Is that it!?"
Abruptly, he stopped. With one hand, he picked up the stiletto and grabbed the boy's collar with the other. Walking around to the front of his daughter, he lifted the boy to his feet and held the stiletto in front of him.
"Do you want them to stop?" he asked the boy with a wicked smile. "Cut her! Cut her and I'll make them stop. You don't have to kill her. Just cut her."
He forced the stiletto into the boy's hand and stepped back. The boy looked into the dull eyes of his sister with clear agony.
"Adriana," he said softly, "forgive me."
Closing his eyes, the boy made a quick upward swipe with the tip leaving a gash that ran up her right cheek. Unlike the wounds of the lash, it did not close. The man only laughed as tears trickled down the face of his son.
"You didn't need to see that," a voice said.
It was the younger version of the girl from earlier. Her skin was still red from where the water had burned her and her cheek was bleeding from the same wound as her counterpart.
Mark managed to connect the dots. "That boy, your brother... He's the one who attacked Sonia in Arma, the Dark Knight... When you said you'd deal with him..."
"Don't get any stupid ideas," she said icily. "He's not that boy anymore. We only live to kill each other now. You'd better stay out of it when he catches up to us."
"Adrienne..." Mark trailed.
"Enough!" the child snapped. "I don't need your pity!" Mustering all the contempt she could, she growled, "Especially from you. You're just a puppet. Your beloved mind-witch is using you. She didn't want to get her hands dirty, so she sent you. You're no better than her pet dog, the one that hates you so much. He's probably not the only one who hates you after this. Be sure to thank her for that."
For the last time, Mark was taken away by the flash of light. Were Adrienne's words true? Did the others resent him for violating their innermost thoughts? He had to do it to save them. Surely they could understand that. Surely...
He pushed such thoughts aside. Now was not the time for that. In all likelihood, Brenok and his companions were close at hand. The moment he woke up, he would have to be ready to fight.