Chapter 7: Nightmare

As Leif's senses suddenly returned, the void before him quickly raced away from him, leaving level ground at the edge of a forest of evergreens behind him. It appeared to be just past dusk, and the foggy, somewhat cool air was ethereally silent. A slight, hushed zephyr crept across the tree tops. Leif found himself plodding slowly forward across the ground. The dirt path seemed to be free of loose gravel, as it too made not a sound.

Beyond the edge of the trees was a small streambed that ran perpendicular to the path. It looked long dry and the footpath simply dipped down the yard of elevation before rising back up to its original elevation. He felt nothing as he passed over it and after a few more seconds, a vast stone wall emerged from the fog. Leif's hand came out of the sleeves of his duster and went up by its own accord, and as it reached out towards the mortared grey stone, the obstacle proved no impediment as his palm easily passed through it. Leif sharply inhaled and pulled his hand back as the realization of the past second hit him. He pulled his hand out of the wall and looked at it. His complexion was unusually pale; in fact, it looked more like that of a specter than that of a human. "This dream isn't right. My dreams are lucid; I should be able to will myself solid." Leif's avatar focused and with his eyes closed, tried again. His hand did not meet the cold stone but again went beyond it. "What's wrong with me tonight? I know this is a dream, but I'm not a normal person. I should be able to control this like second nature. I've been doing it for years. I suppose there is one thing left." He closed his eyes, raised his right arm to his chin, and vocally counted to three. On three, he sunk his teeth into his arm. There was no pain; he did not wake himself. "So, I'm stuck as a ghost in my own dream. Fair enough. I wonder if..." Leif bent his knees and jumped upward. He stayed hovering perfectly still two feet off the ground. "Well, that explains the ditch." He took a step forward to find that he had advanced as far as he would have on solid ground. With a bit of thought, he floated forward through the stone wall as the stillness was replaced with the crackle of torches. He found himself staring at the back of a mostly red tapestry that stood mounted on front of the wall.

The giant textile was probably more spectacular on the front, but the silver and gold threads woven into it portrayed a scene of mounted knights that was probably based on a crusade. "So, what do you think of our position, then?" Leif heard a loud, gruff voice that sounded as if came from the end of the hallway. Another, somewhat lighter male voice responded. "Hard to say. Until our courier returns, we really don't know." Leif put his hand forward only to find that it stopped at the wall hanging, causing the tapestry to rock fore and aft. "Did you see that?" "See…what?" "Over there, by the wall, that tapestry just moved. Seemed too large to just be the breeze down these blasted corridors." Leif heard the sound of determinate, measured footsteps coming towards him. He held his breath. He glanced at his skin's complexion—he was still as pallid as a corpse. A tall man appeared at the left edge of the tapestry, wearing hardened leather over a short tunic. He stared right through Leif, and turned his head before scowling. "Nope. Nothing here. Damn it, I must be doing daft." Leif edged to the right and walked out around the tapestry. Except for the nearly-silent taps of his feet against the stone floor, he was silent, and thus, the two mean guarding the door at the end of the hallway didn't notice him. He walked to the opposite wall, and found his hand again found no obstacle. After a few moments' darkness, he found himself outside in the coming twilight, floating fifteen feet above the ground.

Leif stood motionless on the edge of a vast courtyard. The outer wall and the keep in general appeared to be built on a slight hill, with the downward slope before him. Slightly left and forward was a vast, square tower that sat at one edge of the three-story tall outer wall. He turned around, glancing back at the way he came. The fog appeared to be creeping further in; perhaps it was merely the limits of the dream. He suddenly found himself gliding down the hill towards the rest of the structure. He caught speed as he sped over a footpath, and went entirely through another of the castle's guards as he stopped in a covered pathway and found his feet touch solid ground again. Ahead of him seemed to be the tower, while to his right lay the front of the complex. He found himself jumping over the rows of terraced steps, landing effortlessly and continuing onward.

Leif actually found himself trying to open the door at the end of the courtyard when his hand vanished into the doorknob. Merely thinking himself through the door solved the problem. He stood in a corridor roughly parallel to the first one with the tapestry and the guards, and after floating down the hallway, he walked down a flight of stairs to find himself out in the open again. A single stroke of thunder signaled the beginning of rain, with the dark drops slowly and evenly plunging towards the ground. Leif thought nothing of it as he surveyed his surroundings. He found himself on the main road through the castle, with a similar staircase and a matching corridor in front of him. As soon as the rain actually hit him, it grabbed his attention. The rain passed through him as if he were not there, but it felt as if an army of minute icy spears was being run through him. Every time a drop went through him, a vague outline appeared around his pale form and his skin shimmered silver ever-so-slightly. "If this keeps up, someone might be able to see me." To his right was a giant gate that went into a covered area, probably the inner gate to the entire complex. Leif took the small access door inset into the gate building, and found that his situation had been reversed, and was blocked from floating through the door. "Is this the rain that's doing it?" He quietly opened the door, and walked inside.

As soon as he closed the door from the inside, his corporeality ended and his slight transparency returned. Four guards stood watch over the area, two on a side, guarding the large gate, while the stone awning stood in front of it, supported by massive pillars into the dirt floor. Leif paused for a moment and watched as his vision temporarily went grey before bursting back into the subdued colors of the evening. "Now how do I get out of this? I could wait for it to be over, but with the way things are going, I think I'll be dragged into what my subconscious is deciding. I could try to 'win', but I suppose that would difficult considering I'm lacking my usual abilities. Or, I could die here in this dream. It's certainly happened before, though I suppose taking that route makes it a nightmare. I don't recognize this castle at all, but this whole thing seems like it's the tiniest bit familiar." Leif's silent, lucid, monologue was interrupted by the sound of rapid hooves that slowed as a horse and cloaked rider came into view. The guards instinctively readied their halberds. A forced, choking voice emanated from beneath the riding clothes. "Please…message for our lord. Can't wait." One of the guards looked up, seeming to recognize the voice. "Hail Afton! Lord be praised, it's Afton the messenger! Good sir, we'd all thought you dead!" Leif's field of view suddenly appeared to suck itself to a singularity before him, and in a blink, he stood inside what could only be called an audience chamber.

Leif stood beside a dais that held the chair of what must be the lord of the castle. He was on the edge of elderly, with greyed hair, a short beard and mustache, and although his face was crossed with lines, they only seemed to make him more determined. Another pair of guardsmen stood flanking their master. The man before him was stumbling into genuflection. "My lord…I bring news…though it is unpleasant." The man, with bloodshot eyes and bloodied hair was clearly the messenger. Every word he said seemed to drain him ever further. The lord smiled. "By all mean Afton, please, say what needs be said." Afton nodded, took a deep breath, and began. "Ivan…Ivan the Necromancer…has destroyed four of the neighboring villages, burning…them to the ground this very night. I was sent by your son…" The guard closest to Leif started muttering to himself. "Ivan…that black-hearted shape-shifter uses so much black magic he makes Faust seem a saint. What could he possibly want with us?" "My lord…Ivan marches here, with his army of dark partisans and blacker things…this very night. Your son wishes that…you…protect the lady Sidonia…his daughter." The lord sighed slowly, closing his eyes breathing deeply. "No one… in all of the six kingdoms has ever stood against Ivan the Necromancer…every one resisting has been put to the sword in a night's time, and all those surrendering have met with fates much worse than death. I think the hour is upon this old man. Thank you Afton. I will protect the girl." Afton nodded, and without further warning, coughed up a large amount of his own blood. "I'm sorry…my lord…in escaping…one of his cursèd blades inflicted me with poison." Afton grimaced as grabbed his right sleeve, and with tremendous effort, ripped it off. A large, bloody gash was over his forearm. The wound was festering and instead of red, was deep ebony. The rider suddenly convulsed his right arm began twitching. "Please…stop this…you must…" The convulsions spread, and Afton fell forward, deep before his head touched the floor.

The lord stifled a sniffle as he tried soothing his senses. "Fogarty, tell Sidonia and her bodyguard to take what they need and leave immediately; tell them to take to take the forest path to the northwest and get as far away as they can." The guard on the lord's left nodded, quickly bowed, and jogged off into an adjacent room. The other guard, still standing a few yards in front of Leif, adjusted his armor, as worry crept onto his face. Afton's body seemed to twitch slightly. The guard stole a glance, and sighed moments before a cacophonous screech emanated from the late messenger. A horrible cracking of bones sounded from the corpse, and as Leif watched, the flesh from his extremities quickly melted into dust, leaving what was quickly becoming an ashen skeleton slowly reaching upward. "Forgive me, Afton." The man stepped forward and in one continuous motion, readied his polearm, and with the axe sundered the skeleton's head, before returning the weapon to its vertical position. The monstrosity crumbled to the floor and fell silent. Abruptly, the guard about faced and looked up at Leif, or rather through Leif. The latter noticed that the man's hazel eyes were sparkling brilliant orange and red, as if they had caught the reflection of fire. Dozens of sounds filtered through the stone walls of the building. The attack had begun.

"Bodyguard, it's about time. You surprised me though…" Leif looked down at himself to find that he had become completely solid. "…didn't expect you to fall out of thin air. Heck, with that sort of thing, we might stand a chance. I'm Stenson. The princess is already leaving through the northwest path with Fogarty, so I'm sure she'll be fine. You just missed Lord Arram, but I'm sure he wouldn't mind if you helped us out a bit before catching up with Lady Sidonia." Leif stared the guard in the face, who seemed several times more relieved than he had been just a minute earlier. "Sorry, I…was observing, I didn't bring any weapons with me." The guard grinned. "No problem. The double doors behind me and to the left of the throne…take it and take the stairwell down to the armory. Grab whatever you think you find useful." "Thanks." "Thank you, and good luck out there. Ivan's not backing down tonight."

Past the cherry woods doors was a short corridor with a dead end that had been converted into storage, and a large circular stone stairwell was set into the right wall. Numerous narrow (and thus, slightly perilous) steps later, Leif found a darkened room that had windows set high along one wall that danced with the flaming shadows of the grounds, but was otherwise entirely underground. He shivered and watched his skin go semi-transparent again. The walls were lined with wooden racks and cases. The wall across the room from the stairwell had racks half-full of halberds that seemed like the standard armament for the castle. Other racks were filled with light lances, pikes, and broadswords. Leif lifted one of the swords and found that it stayed solid although he wasn't. "Darn it. That would be a dead give-away. Isn't there anything that…" Leif's eyes rested on wooden box resting on a nondescript table near the center of the room. The lid, which slid on sideways, was removed, revealing a lined interior and a strange looking dagger—it was too large to be a dagger, yet it resembled a knife more than a short sword. The hilt was straight, finished in fine leather and ending in a pommel that curved into a half-crescent. The blade was slightly curved in direction opposite the pommel. It was double-edged, grooved in the middle, and stayed somewhat wide until the tip. Furthermore, the blade seemed to be covered with tiny ice crystals. Leif touched the handle. A shock of cold numbed his right hand before it slowly warmed, revealing that the dagger had instantly become semi-transparent and had gained the same small outline that Leif had. "This is it."

Leif spent the next several minutes backtracking, only to find that he had unexpectedly "jumped" only a few chambers away, where a lone guard was holding off two human assailants in chain, one zombie in plate armor, and some type of incorporeal being. Using careful sidesteps and constant "windmill" swings parallel to the ground, the guard managed to dodge the spirit's pointed fingers while keeping the rest of the crew at bay. The man changed one of his windmills into a thrust, and with the tip, impaled one of Ivan's mercenaries before lunging forward and decapitating the zombie. It was then that the other human, who seemed to be dressed indicative of a foot soldier higher in stature, sliced him open from behind down the spinal cord. The spirit caught wind of Leif's ghostly form, and when it charged him, Leif touched the dagger to the ghost, who screamed before dissolving. The backstabber looked up from his kill before relaxing his gaze. After floating a few yards forward, Leif flipped the dagger in his right hand, and he swung right. The dagger effortlessly pierced the man's skull through the left temple. The last of assassin's breath gurgled out of his mouth as he crumpled to the floor.

The next few skirmishes went similarly. The more threatening enemies couldn't see the acting bodyguard and the invisible dagger cut through almost anything cleanly. The castle's guards were more skilled than the attackers, but hopelessly outnumbered, even in the small rooms where they fought. Leif found a door outside, and reeled in how much of the complex was in flames. The majority of the troops had been fighting towards the center path, and both gates had been ripped from their hinges. Among the corpses was a set of footprints…an enormous set of footprints that led towards the castle's tallest tower. With a couple of short hops, Leif's feet left the ground and he flew with increasing speed towards and into the tower.

On the second floor of the tower was a throne room similar to the one above the armory, although more grandly decorated, and much larger. The Lord Arram was there, bloodied, holding a longsword while a group of five halberdiers stood in front of him. Between Leif and the Lord at the end of the long rectangular hall were a few of what looked to be like Ivan's best human footmen and the most undoubtedly evil creature Leif had ever laid eyes upon. The beast was easily nine feet tall, with stone gray skin and scraggly hair and two lank arms that ended in massive fists. It was an ogre. The fiend advanced forward slowly, and Leif heard what sounded like laughter, slow and deep from the ogre as its allied squad simply watched, a few of the men's faces showing maniacal grins while the others watched solemnly. Leif's dagger found its mark in the guard standing in the back corner. Two of the Lord's guards advanced at the ogre. The monster's left fist found one guard and flung the hapless man into the wall with enough force to crack his skull on impact. The other fist was clenched straight down and maimed the second guard. Leif's threw his dagger at the soldier. It rematerialized after leaving his hands and found its mark. The two armored men in front of him turned around just in time to see their comrade fall. One flashed a hand signal, and then they both withdrew their swords. Leif floated over to the body and retrieved his weapon as it again meshed with his invisibility. One of the soldiers did a horizontal swipe that gave Leif a sudden chill as the blade passed harmlessly through him. A quick glide forward and Leif went through the man, his dagger punching a hole through his chest. He followed it up with a diagonal slash on the remaining, bewildered man, and he fell as well.

The ogre had long disposed of the guardsmen and now effortlessly held the aged Lord Arram around the neck with one huge fist. The creature growled. "What do you want of me, monster?" The creature turned its head considering this. It grinned as its skin rippled and pulsed with a deep scarlet light and finally contracted inward creating the form of what could only be Ivan the Necromancer. Even as a human, he was nearly seven feet tall, with a long black robe edged in violet, raven-black hair, and unearthly red eyes. "I am quite the monster, now aren't I, Arram, you miserable old codger." Ivan's voice was as sweet as honey and as serious as his army's poisoned blades. "Contrary to what you hear, I do leave survivors from time to time, provided they cooperate. Now, tell me, good sir…where is the location of your foolish brother's secret treasury? I know that the little minx will be leaving this castle through one of your brother's old tunnels. I simply don't know which one. You could save me quite a lot of time." Leif walked along the carpet slowly towards the villain. Arram strained for breath under Ivan's fist, which was still large enough to clamp his neck by itself. "What does a young girl just a title, no chance of inheritance, and no fortune matter to a destroyer of kingdoms?" Ivan smiled without showing his teeth. "I don't need to answer that question. Now, I can either crush you like a grape, or perhaps do something more creative." "Do what you will. I was living on time borrowed, and I shall tell you nothing." As Leif approached within six yards, Ivan stood to attention. "Stop right there, bodyguard. It's a clever and well-built spell, but why don't we drop it right now? Oh, and as for you, foolish king of nothing, enjoy a few extra minutes of borrowed time." Ivan pushed out his arm and threw the Lord down, landing him on the throne in a jumbled mess of dislocated bones.

"You think you're too good for me, eh, bodyguard?" Ivan turned around and stared down at Leif's specter, revealing the polished ebony plate armor that adorned his chest. "Resconstre destrmo!" With a single, powerful gesture, the chill left Leif's bones and he stood, fully solid before the necromancer. "There's a window directly behind me, made of plain glass with no crossbars." Leif spun on right foot, and bolted. His speed seemed to constantly increase as he covered the length of the hall in mere seconds before he crossed his arms in front of him and broke through the glass. Time seemed to stop, and Leif found himself next to a damp wagon of hay that stood directly below the window. All around him flames danced and the screams of women, children and dogs filled the air. The men were already dead. "Damn it! Why am I so weak? This is my dream; I should be able to kill him by blinking!" Leif found himself running at the same blistering pace; crossing paths he had floated over as he reached the top of the hill and found a small side gate, broken open that led into the woods northwest of the castle.

At least after sprinting what must have been a good kilometer Leif didn't feel the least bit winded. As he approached the canopy of thick deciduous tree he shivered and on a hunch, looked down to see that he again transformed into his ghostly other self. Leif concentrated on floating and was soon flying forward at pace slightly faster that of his sprint. "Footprints?" On the soft dirt path was a pair of imprints leading on the further down the winding but wide path. Several minutes later, a soft trickle of sound filtered into the wind between the treetops. It soon grew into a low roar as the forest split into two distinct sides and the path widened.

A low wooden fence sat in front of the river. In front of was a girl. "She looks familiar…somehow." The girl's dirtied hair was a strange hue somewhere between purple and black, and the emerald eyes that looked a few steps above dead. Her dress was ornate, but just as soiled as her hair. Leif looked at her. "Sidonia?" The girl, who might barely pass at fifteen, lifted her heavy head. "Leif…you must…" The girl sighed as she sank into unconsciousness, or perhaps, worse. Suddenly the youth felt a pain in his chest, as if he was being drawn by a noose around his heart. Leif opened his eyes to find that against his will, he was being drawn forward slowly before his ghostly form suddenly was yanked forward and collided with Sidonia.

The fog soon cleared from Leif's mind. He was sitting against the fence, and every muscle surged with the burning sensation of lactic acid. A sudden gust more powerful than the night breeze blew his hair into his face. Leif took his hand and moved the long purplish-black strands off his nose. "Wait a minute…" Leif looked at the hair and then at the hand, which was slender, delicate, and fine-featured. "Crap." The voice was the girl's. "Okay, this is nice. How exactly did this happen?" Leif, or Sidonia, or whoever the person had become was answered by the distant sound of hooves. Ivan was coming. Leif found the nearest break in the fence at which stood a gravel ford. She ran across it, wincing at the cold water, but continued onward. The dirt path led to farmland.

The girl was already tired, but she continued on pure fear. She ran past rows of barley and millet, and ducked to her right through a high row of wheat. The hooves grew ever closer. The far edge of the field, Sidonia stumbled and collapsed; her left foot had found a rabbit's hole hidden by the stalks. She winced and looked at her ankle, which was bleeding profusely and a small bit of bone shone between the blood stains. She could only drag herself to a lone post and cringe in the pain that rocked her left leg. It was then that the Horsemen had arrived. Four black steeds with four black riders surrounded her. The lead dismounted. It was Ivan, grinning like mad under his unearthly red ears and raven hair. "Forgive me, milady, but I like my ends tied up." From underneath his black robe Ivan retrieved an impossibly large zweihander sword. "Please…don't." Ivan tilted his head and laughed his chilling laugh. He readied his sword, which now seemed to pulse and ebb with the same unnatural crimson light that sat anchored in the necromancer's eyes. The girl put up her hand as if to shield herself. Ivan was efficient. His horizontal slash effortlessly severed Sidonia's hand at the wrist before it took her head with it. Her headless body fell limp and wet onto the dirt at the edge of the wheat field. Ivan was smiling.

Leif awoke to find that his face had painfully copied the weave of the carpet. He was abnormally thirsty even before the drops of sweat ran down his face and into his mouth. He stood up in the darkened room, and found his travel alarm obediently reading "3:40 a.m." The boy found his way downstairs by hanging on to the railing and stumbled into the darkened bathroom where he feebly found the light switch. Leif ran his fingers through his hair, which was still relatively short and its usual flame orange hue. He reached out for the mirror and found his fingers to be solid. Finally he pulled down at his shirt's collar and found his neck free of slash marks. With his trio of concerns put to rest, he sighed and then took a deep breath. A rather dry voice asked, "What death wish do you have, exactly? Are you in the habit of waking people up at all hours?" He turned to see Nabiki, hair frazzled, in her pajamas, leaning against the doorframe. "It must have quite a good dream. You scream exactly like a girl." She smiled. Leif scowled. "Out of my way." Nabiki grinned, stepped back, and bowed as both her hands gestured towards the staircase.