I – pro. Dream a little dream of me
Today, I dream of her sitting under the gnarled, leafless oak tree, feet tucked neatly under, serenely leafing through the bible held on her lap. She is dressed in the blue overcoat over white blouse that she has worn the first time we meet. Her white blonde her seem to gleam with its own light, her porcelain-white face a pale beacon of radiance in the perpetual night of the Graveyard. A lone raven perches on top of a marble tombstone a stone throw's away, watching us with its single beady eye.
I walk through the still, heavy mist that hide the gravestones, smoky tendrils reluctantly swirl and part before me, damp fingers caressing my hair and face. The mist tastes of damp earth, crushed grass, wet moss on slick stone. A slight stir in the dead air brings with it a knife-sharp, ammoniac tang of rot, accompanied by the rich organic smell of torn open grave.
The Graveyard is in fine form today, taunting with the more vivid recreations of reality. Or perhaps, more accurately, recreations of memory, since all of these come from within the depth of my own twisted mind.
Another day, I would have been more appreciative. Today, I have eyes only for one thing.
I kneel in front of her, feeling strangely timid, afraid that she will disappear when I touch her, turning into another phantom in a graveyard full of them. So I don't.
Barely more than a whisper. But she hears me, looking up at me with a sweet smile that make my heart ache with bitter longing. She places the ribbon marker across the page she has been reading and closes her bible with care, every movement as graceful as I remember.
"Yuri," she says, placing her clasped fingers neatly over her bible, and gods… one word is enough to close my throat, strangling me with all the remembrance of her saying my name – in kindness, in anger, in laughter, in tears…
God damn it, this is not fair.
Her warm palm against my cheek startles me badly enough to rock me where I kneel on the hard ground. Warmth. I turn and press my face against the soft skin, drinking in the living warmth like a man freezing to death. My hands have apparently bypass my brain's control entirely and I find myself clinging to her, grasping her wrist and trapping her hand against my face.
She wasn't warm the last time I held her, seven days and a life time away. I am afraid… so afraid that my twisted psyche will remember it in time and choose to correct the mistake. I think I will go stark crazy if it does. Or rather, crazier than I already am.
But this time, my subconscious seem to be in a lenient mood. Maybe it's tired of self-flagellation too. In any case, the hand stays solid, and it stays warm. I'm not complaining.
"Yuri," she breathed, "don't cry."
"… am not." Stubborn pride and old habit make me say it. Stupid, when I can feel the wetness on my cheek, too warm to be mist. But no one's ever accused me of being smart. Stupid old Yuri, too dumb to know a treasure dropped in his lap, too slow to figure out what was wrong, too late to do anything to stop the priceless gift from crumbling into dust in his hands.
Did I say self-flagellation is getting old? My conscious mind is perfectly capable of getting on with it without the help from my subconscious.
"Are you real?" My voice sounds like it should belong in a church, not in the middle of my own god damn dream. But I know why. Don't we petition the gods too, all the while wondering if they are real, being afraid that they're not, but hoping despite it anyway? Alice has been the guiding light in my life, more so than any so-called gods have ever been.
The raven lets out a single hoarse caw. I am pretty sure the damn bird was laughing at me.
She smiles. "I'm as real as you want me to be."
"What does that mean?" I sound grouchy even to myself, but I hate riddles.
Her laugh is like a breath of fresh air, as incongruous in the nightmarish setting as a ray of sunshine at midnight. "I should tell you to figure it out yourself, you lazy oaf. But what it means…," and here she pulls on me gently and keep pulling until I am lying down with my head on her lap, staring up at her face, "… is that I will be here for as long as you need me." She leans down and I feel a light, fleeting pressure on my forehead, like the flutter of butterfly wings.
"Until you are ready…" She whispers to me, the warm puff of her breath on my ear sending a shiver down my body.
"Ready for what?"
She smiles and it seems to me that there is sadness shadowing her face, but a flapping of heavy wings take the words away from her lips and I see the damn raven flying straight at us. I have time only to raise my hand before the raven fills my sight and the dream bursts apart in a flurry of black feathers.
I – 1.
6 months later…
Zurich, winter 1914.
There was something, Yuri thought grimly, distinctly unfair about having to suffer cracked ribs and mangled arm, just to drag yourself home on a broken leg in time for your own birthday.
But he had made the mistake of revealing his date of birth to their band of friends, on a truth or dare game liberally supplied with intoxicants Margerete had managed to filch from somewhere. It had been Alice who had asked, Alice who had gone red as a tropical sunset when Margerete had coyly suggested 'dares' that Yuri had wholeheartedly agreed with, Alice who had promptly gone for her book in a fit of Yuri-bashing when Yuri had attempted to… persuade… her of the merit of one of the more interesting 'dares'.
Yuri winced through a stab of pain, not all of it physical, as he forced his broken right leg to shuffle forward. He could see the gleam of his belt buckle, pulled taut around his thigh, and below it the glistening, jagged edges of broken femur. Come on, feet move… lift, step, lean on hand, shift… lift… The uneven forest trail was not helping, and the occasional roots and undergrowth were a real hazard. He did not want to even think how a fall would feel right now, with his cracked ribs. As it was, he was leaning like a drunk against the pine tree on his right, his arm balancing and half supporting his weight as he struggled on with only one whole leg.
A sudden tug on his coat, snagged by one of the myriad hidden tangles, pulled him off balance and nearly sent him sprawling to the ground. He staggered and jarred his wounded leg on the ground, the sudden grinding pain nearly blacking him out. Yuri barely felt the roughness of the pine bark as he sagged against the tree. "Fuck…," he whispered, breathless from the pain, and feeling the beginning of true fear.
He was in a very vulnerable position right now. All it would take was one fiend infesting this forest sniffing his trail and tracking him down. With his luck, it would come in a pack, like all the weaker cowardly kinds tend to do. Or if he was really unlucky, he would get to face off with one of the forest guardians, driven mad by all the killings and twisted beyond recognition. One good blow would probably kill him at this point.
His body was trying to heal itself, as evidenced by the painful sensation of bones grinding and coming together and flesh re-knitting itself, but it was doing so slowly. Far too slowly.
Too many fusions in too many nights, with way too little rest. His body was really busted up, and his mind was not much better. A dull, pounding headache occasionally erupted into splinters of razor-sharp pain. His brain felt taut and stretched thin to tearing point, and behind the fragile barrier of consciousness, his demons waited with eager hunger.
A light fusion could have healed his wounds in an instant, but he doubted that he could have hold on to his fragile control even over a relatively benign low-level light fusion.
If only he had some meds left. But the people he had been with had precious little to spare, and in any case he could not have asked without revealing what he had been doing during his frequent little jaunts into the bordering woods. The idea of stealing had been briefly considered, only to be promptly dropped and stomped to death. Only two years ago and he would have done it without too much twinge to his conscience. But then, two years ago he would not have any place to return to either. No one waiting for him to come back and celebrate his birthday with.
"Celebrating a birthday is when you tell someone you are glad he is born into this world."
Gods, that had to be the sappiest line he had ever heard. It was also the kindest thing anyone had ever said to him in a long time.
A high-pitch yipping drifted faintly to his ears, and Yuri stopped breathing, tilting his head towards the direction of the sound. Only the quiet susurration of the leaves broke the silence, but he had heard enough. He was familiar with the creature that made that sound, and it was no natural animal. A hunting call from one of the hell-hounds, akin to those he had left in pieces in the last killing ground. Still far off, but he knew how fast those damn things can move. He had five minutes, ten minutes tops, before the whole ravening pack would catch up to him.
It would seem that the choice had been taken from him. There was only one way left, if he wanted to stay alive.
Yuri forced himself forward with renewed urgency, clenching his teeth against the spiking pain, towards where he remembered passing a small cliff-face on his way in. It took five minutes, one of the longest five minutes of his life, before the looming shape of the cliff-face could be sighted from between the breaks in the foliage. Another two minutes, another fit of yipping much closer to where he was and getting closer, and he finally stumbled the last few meters down towards the cliff face. The stone face rose almost ten meters into the air, another eight to ten meters wide, making up one side of an outcrop too small to be called hill. The vertical surface was made of smooth, moss-covered stone, looking like all the world as if a giant had wielded an axe and hacked off a section of the earth.
Yuri stumbled the last few meters towards the cliff face and finally stop with his back supported by the cool stone.
Now his back was more or less protected. It was not ideal as they could still flank him, but it was the best he could do under the circumstances.
Much closer, now. He imagined he could hear the sound of their panting breaths as they ran, the faintly wrong smell of their musk carried by the night wind.
Yuri took a deep, somewhat shaky breath. "Ok," he muttered to himself, "all right, you've been here before, lots of times. Still alive and kicking. No problem. Come on, Yuri, one more time. If a god can't kill you dead, no way you're gonna lose to this…"
He gritted his teeth and closed his eyes, shutting out the rest of the world. He reached back inside him, and in his mind's eye the black breach at the furthest end of his consciousness shuddered and yawned open, tearing itself wider as he concentrated on it. Then he threw himself into the breach.
He did not dive in completely. The Graveyard of Souls was the last place he needed to be at this time. Instead, he held himself just at the edge and turned his attention towards the congregation of auras swirling just beyond the breach. He carefully ignored the two that shone the strongest and brightest. It was like trying to ignore the moon in favor of looking for a random star in a night sky. They pulled at him, a luminous disc that shone almost as bright as the sun and a lightless maw that sucked all aura into it and gave back none. In his current state, even expressing an interest would have doomed him, giving them the power to pull him into their orbit and swallow him whole.
He picked one mass, a white dwarf that was outshined by others, but nonetheless remained distinctive to him. It was one of the few that he actually found a sneaking fondness for, and he always felt that it never fought his fusion as much as it could have. Right now, in his weakened state, it was the only Fusion that he could trust.
The white dwarf flared into nova brilliance and engulfed him like a tidal wave. For a shivering, heart-stopping moment, he felt control slipped through his fingers like reins wrenched by the bucking of a horse, but once again, the Light fusion soul rewarded his faith in it and settled down around him, like a warm embrace, without demur.
The familiar tingling sensation of change swept over him, goosebumps rushing over his skin even as they changed and hardened into tough, reinforced exoskeleton1. His back arched back in an impossible angle for a human spine and wings thrust out from below his shoulders, unfurling into their full five-meter wingspan. The tingling increased in intensity, almost like pain, to what he thought how being born must have felt like, and he opened his mouth to gasp in breath into a lung that expanded beyond what his should have been capable of. A keen squeezed itself out of narrowed oesophagus, and Heaven's Fiend/Yuri opened his eyes to a brighter, multi-faceted night sky.
He floated several hand-spans above the ground, but the light fusion was not capable of true flight, the reason why he had not simply flown away. The part of him that was purely human took a few seconds to sort out the dizzying view of a world through compound eyes. It was like a case of extreme fish-bowl vision, or fun-house mirror, where every straight line became curved and everything instantaneously swelled in size. The field of vision almost doubled, yet anything beyond several meters away blurred out of focus. On the other hand, colors were so much more vivid and alive, and the night sky shone with dustings of dark violet star clusters all but invisible to human eyes.
Experimentally, he reached out inside him for the mental strength to cast a healing spell. His exhausted mind moved sluggishly and he could barely scrape up enough strength to cast a weak healing spell. The cooling breeze of the healing spell bathed him and he could feel his natural healing process sped up a little. But all too soon, the quickening died down. There was simply no reserve left. Gaps in the fusion soul's white flesh showed here and there where it reflected the damage to his physical human body. Thankfully, fusion forms feel the hurt less, something that he did not understand but was not inclined to question further.
He threw off his disorientation with a full body shiver and settled down to wait for his enemies to find him. The hunters were about to find out that this prey had much bigger claws than them.