When he finally stumbled out of his quarters, bleary-eyed and shaky, all the other apprentices had already started going about their daily routine. Atmah was sitting barricaded behind a huge pile of books, Hafnar was practicing Destruction spells, Elvali was brewing some suspiciously smelling liquid, and Takes-In-Light and Girduin were arguing over something in front of an arcane enchanter.
'Hey... Morning, guys,' he said with a meek wave of his hand, his voice failing him.
Hafnar, who had turned away from his target to replenish his magicka, caught sight of him and grinned, his eyebrows raised in a sly, understanding expression, 'Hiya, Savos! Rough night, eh? Told you it was a bad idea to test that potion on yourself'.
He shook his head, gulping loudly, 'It... It wasn't that. I had this horrible nightmare...'
Hafnar laughed, 'About failing your exams? Don't tell me you are becoming like Atmah!'.
'I heard that, you wise guy!' came the indignant response out of the book fortress.
'Touchy-touchy!' Hafnar called out mockingly, 'That's life, you know - if a fellow has a crush on an egghead, he turns into an egghead himself... Okay, okay, mate, don't blush,' he added, giving Savos a friendly pat on the back, 'Let's hear all about this nightmare of yours, then'.
'Well, it's kind of like this,' Savos began falteringly, 'I dreamt that all of us had finished the College and become sorcerers...'
'Doesn't sound like a nightmare to me,' Elvali remarked, looking up from her bubbling, gurgling and smoking alchemy reaction.
Savos forced a small, crooked smile, 'There was much more to it than that. In my dream, we went on an expedition to the Labyrinthian... And there were things in there... Horrible things... All kinds of undead, and...' he shuddered, 'A skeletal dragon!'.
'Skeletal dragon? Pretty nifty! Wish I had dreams like that!' said Girduin, setting aside his soul gems and preparing, arms crossed leisurely on his chest, to listen to the continuation of Savos's story.
'And as we went on and on, deeper and deeper into the ruin, some of you guys got killed...'
Takes-In-Light snorted, 'Goes to show your real attitude towards us'.
'No, no, you don't understand!' Savos protested, 'It was... It was torture for me to see you go, but... but I felt I just had to press on, because there was no going back! And then... when there were only three of us left - Atmah, Hafnar and me - we reached the final chamber, and there we awoke the most terrifying undead creature of all! It was immensely powerful, and we couldn't overcome it, and...' he covered his face with his hands, choking on tears, 'I dreamt that I... that I turned on you, Hafnar, and on Atmah... and I used your souls to bind the monster in place, because I saw no other way of stopping it... And...' his voice was now no more than a whisper, and the others, including Atmah, much as she pretended to be absorbed in her revision, had to strain their hearing to make out his next words, 'I... I abandoned you there... and I fled... back to the College...'
There followed a tense, brooding silence, broken at length by Atmah saying, in an extremely exasperated tone, 'Oh please, Savos! Don't you realize how immature it is to have a breakdown over some silly nightmare when there are so many other things you need to worry about? Like exams!'.
'The teacher's pet does have a point, old man,' Hafnar winked encouragingly, 'Don't be such a wimp. It was all a dream, after all. We are all here, together, alive and well, and my soul is just as firmly attached to my insides as ever... Not sure about Atmah's soul, though - she might have lost it in the ocean of homework'.
This time Savos's attempt at smiling was more successful.
'That's the spirit!' Hafnar exclaimed, throwing his arm around his best friend's shoulders, 'Remember: it was all a dream. Just a dream! Now, everybody, come over here - let's give Savos a great big group hug!'
Exchanging looks that were warm with hidden laughter, Takes-In-Light and Girduin were the first to join Hafnar in the living circle that closed in round the sheepishly grinning Savos; then Elvali came up, dragging the seemingly reluctant Atmah behind her by the hand. For a few moments there was nothing but arms intertwining, and faces pressing against one another, and hearts beating at each other's side. All of a sudden, Savos felt strangely warm and elated, ecstatic almost, hanging on greedily to this precious moment when all six of them were one.
'I love you guys,' he whispered into an ear which he could not identify. Somewhere behind his back, someone's voice murmured, soft and reassuring, 'It was all a dream... All a dream...'
Of course it had been a dream! There had never been any expedition to the Labyrinthian, there had never been any monster, any sacrifice... And there never would be! This was the reality - him and his friends together, and it would never change, never! And to think that for a moment, he feared... Savos laughed at his own stupidity - but somehow, it hurt him to laugh, as if his ribs were dislocated and pierced through his flesh with each breath taken. He wondered if Hafnar, with his Nordic strength and warm-heartedness, had squeezed him in his embrace a bit too tight - but Hafnar was gone, and so was everyone else. He was all alone, lying awkwardly in the College courtyard, his body warped by burning pain, and snow was falling noiselessly round him in large soft flakes, which melted in the white wisps of his hoarse, gasping breath and in the billowing steam that rose from the scorchingly hot pool of his blood. The truth flooding his dying mind like a tidal wave, he moved his eyes, blinded by tears, towards the indifferently grey sky, and gazed unblinkingly at the falling snow, till finally his face stiffened into a twisted mask - the mask of horror at wakening to reality.