Author's Note: I apologize profusely for the unexpected hiatus this story took. For anyone still interested, I'm going to try to get onto either a weekly or biweekly update schedule with this as we power through to the end. My beta and I are also starting up the characters Dreamwidth journals again (agentofagency or artistwithoutacause should lead you to everyone's). I also apologize for a section later in this chapter that ffnet's making more confusing than it's supposed to be by stripping away formatting-where there are single "X"es as scene breaks, there should actually just be an extra space. I hope that people enjoy the update and the upcoming climax of the story.
Part Thirty-One: To Walk In Dreams
"It's because of what it's been doing to us, I think."
There's eager excitement in Con's voice, the scientist finally making headway after being given a strange and seemingly intractable problem. Cori smiles to hear it, making a non-commital noise in the back of his throat to encourage Con to continue.
"It's spent the last four months trying to dig down to our souls so that it can harvest that power. It's been trying to get us to leave the power undefended—to break our minds so that it can steal our spirit." Con's body is constantly in motion, his fingers typing and drawing on air, his foot tapping, though he doesn't move from his spot by Cori's air mattress.
"Stay quiet." Cori makes the admonition in the softest murmur. Grant and Eric are asleep already—Cori's still not completely sure Grant ever woke up entirely and wasn't just sleep-walking through Eric's requests, and Eric can apparently sleep any time he desires, a skill that Cori desperately wishes he had right now. Finny had taken longer to drop off, but there haven't been exhaustion-slitted eyes staring at them from that bed for at least two minutes now, so hopefully he's asleep.
Just like Cori needs to be asleep. He needs to provide another distraction for the Shadow in case it has the nerve to come back again tonight.
But he can't, his pulse jumping every time he closes his eyes, shadows seeming to move in the corners of the room, his shoulder aching underneath Con's bandaging job, and he needs Con's voice or he's going to go stark raving mad.
The others don't, though, and Con's voice drops in volume until it's barely audible. His left hand lowers, his fingers teasing through Cori's hair, though his eyes are still fixed on something far away. "The power's there now, and it's a matter of whether we use it or whether the Shadow uses it and, of course, figuring out what happens to us when it's used. I'm guessing if we ever used all of it—if we ever drained ourselves dry—that we'd die. Possibly of hemolytic anemia, since blood seems to be the physical representation of the spiritual damage we take. We'll have to be exceedingly careful with Eric and Erin, make sure that they don't overdo things."
There's a slight break in the flow of words, a stilling of Con's hand, and Cori opens his half-lidded eyes. "They'll be careful. Neither of them is particularly suicidal."
"And maybe it's less painful if we do it ourselves—after all, it is us, it's the basis of us, we're meant to burn that energy, to use it to change things, change the world, though usually we're stuck doing it in more mundane methods." Con's fingers resume their dance. "And it hurts the beast, when we throw our power at it, even though that's what it wants. It's trying to steal it from us, but it has to… prepare it first, maybe? Wrap it in pain and anger and then it can take it, then it can use it to change the world—to make the world burn. But in its pure form, wielded by its owner, our power is anathema to the beast. We just have to teach everyone else how to use it. We have to learn how to use it ourselves. We have…"
Con's words start blurring together, and Cori allows it, his eyes closing again, relishing the feel of Con's fingers teasing through his hair. He's certain that by the end of his watch Con will have worked out some theory as to what happened tonight and how they can use it to their advantage—and since both Con and Eric think it will be an advantage, Cori accepts that hypothesis, no matter how much his shoulder aches.
Which means it's just a matter of his getting to sleep.
Which he isn't going to be able to do, he's sadly certain, but making little grunts and small noises of acquiescence at the right moments will help Con out.
It's the last conscious thought he has before exhaustion drags him under.
"There are some men who observe the rules of honor as one observes the stars, from a great distance."
They aren't the last words he hears before the charges begin in earnest, but they're the ones that echo in his mind, and the small, bitter smile that Combeferre had given when he spoke the words is etched into Courfeyrac's soul.
They had expected betrayal, in a way—for even Combeferre to have that grim, knowing smile, they had all expected it—but the knowledge that there are those on the opposing side who had pledged their word as allies burns in his belly like fire. That they should make this one of the last things Feuilly discusses—bright, eager, hopeful Feuilly, everything that is good about humanity despite having so much reason to be bitter—and Combeferre—ah, Combeferre, every inch the doctor, the man of peace and progress, and at least he saw Enjolras and Combeferre talk after the sorry business with the artillery-man, at least he arranged that much—that their last conversation should be about betrayal…
He cannot even find a clever witticism to wrap the burning, chilly anger in, not amidst the waves upon waves of attackers that he faces. There are only brief moments, short, chopped thoughts, connected by the vaguest of notions, as he attempts to keep himself and his small contingent alive as long as possible.
That order, there, won them another thirty seconds, reversed the flow of the oncoming soldiers for at least that long.
That missed shot will cost him dearly, shave precious moments off his life, but he cannot take the time to mourn them, for he must make every second he is alive count for something.
And then he sees Feuilly die, surprise and pain twisting the man's face, and even that level of coherency leaves him.
He started fighting for a better France, for a better world, for a world where his friends could not just survive but thrive, where the law that he studies would at least bear a shadow of a semblance to true justice. He still believes in that, on some level, can still draws those words to offer to those standing next to him, but it is not that desire which burns highest in his heart, and he hopes that Enjolras and Combeferre will forgive him for that.
He fights, now, because that is what they agreed to do.
He fights because there are men charging up the barricade, and he told those precious to him that he would hold it as long as possible.
He fights, and there is blood streaming into his eyes from a shot or a blade wound to his scalp, he doesn't remember which, and his arm doesn't want to lift his weapon but he must and—
He freezes, blinking in the artificial twilight created by the haze of weapon's fire, panting, and he doesn't know if the tears in his eyes are from the grit and dust and smoke or because he has watched his friends die, knows that there are others dead, knows that he himself will shortly die.
Courfeyrac, it's over. Cori would be crying, if he were in control of their body, though he doesn't know, either, exactly who his tears would be for. There are so very many good options to cry over now. It's two hundred years over. Don't let it put you through this again.
The beast, the Shadow, the monster that feeds off this hell, that is twisting something they willingly gave their lives for into a weapon to use for their destruction.
For Enjolras' destruction.
"No." He says the word to the soldier charging at him, a word loaded with all the certainty in his heart, and it causes the entire world to shift.
Time runs backward.
For a moment there is peace, camaraderie, Combferre's arm around his shoulders, Feuilly's laugh ringing in his ears.
Oh, no, little morsel. The words are barely discernable, a terrible hiss in the cold wind that caresses his ear.
The world lurches, a nauseating, terrible sense of displacement, and he is standing alone, trying to think around a shard of blinding agony and disorientation in his mind. He spreads his feet slightly, trying to balance himself better so that he can focus on the terrible events unfolding before him.
The end hasn't come yet. There is quiet, horrified silence, all eyes fixed on Enjolras, standing over the body of the man that he executed, and Courfeyrac can see how much the single act cost Enjolras even before he hears Enjolras' words proclaim condemnation on himself for doing what had to be done.
Combeferre is there, though, as he should be, his voice raised to carry just as Enjolras' had done. "We will share your fate!"
Courfeyrac smiles to see the transformation in Enjolras' body that the words bring, the lessening of the burden that he carries as their leader. Not absolution, for there can be no absolution for what they have to do, but a sharing of the crimes, a sharing of the guilt, and it means they will all be able to come through this trial with their souls intact.
Except none of you come through it. The words are a bitter, angry whisper, trying and failing to mimic his own voice. You saw it; you will see it again; you will live it again.
And before he can move he is once again on the barricade, choking on smoke, pain in his shoulder and his head and soldiers charging at him, and he is going to die.
No. Cori's voice, sharp and determined, and the world shifts backward once more.
Further back, and they are not on the barricade, preparing to fight and possibly die for their beliefs. They are in the back room of the Musain, all together, and for a few glorious seconds Courfeyrac has his arms linked with both Enjolras and Combeferre, and even Enjolras is smiling at a rather terrible pun and—
No! He has never heard so much rage contained in such a quiet whisper. This is my world, you are my prey, you will see what I wish!
He drops to the ground, his pistol clattering to the dirt-packed street in front of him as both his hands rise to press against his temples. His head is going to split in two at any moment, dumping his brain out into the street, and he wonders half-hysterically if it will bounce as the brain that Combeferre dropped in his apartment once bounced and—
"Courfeyrac?" Bossuet's hand is on his arm, hauling him upright. "What's wrong?"
"I…" Squinting, Courfeyrac wills his friend to come into focus. Taking a deep breath, he focuses on the feel of the wind against his face, the smell of fire and gunsmoke that is still detectable even after the rain early this morning, the clasp of Bossuet's fingers on his arm. The pain fades away as he grounds himself in the present, and colors slowly take on a sharper cast. Letting out a breath as he massages his temples once more, Courfeyrac smiles at his friend. "I don't know what happened. I would say I overindulged last night, but the only drink we've had has been the draught of just revolution, so I must declare myself as confused as you. I feel better now, though."
"Well enough to lead your men?" Grabbing the fallen pistol, Bossuet holds it out butt-first to Courfeyrac. "Because if you can't, if we need to change commanders—"
"No." Grasping the weapon firmly, Courfeyrac turns resolutely back to the barricade that they will be defending shortly. "I'm fine. We've neither the time nor resources to change our plan. No need to worry, truly. I will do my duty."
How could he do less? He will offer all that he has, for Enjolras, for the Amis, for the men settling in again behind him, ready and eager to follow orders.
Ready to shed their blood so that hopefully, one day, others will not have to bleed.
They don't have long to wait. He's barely back at his post when the charges at the barricade begin. He directs those standing with him, holding the center, but it's soon clear that Enjolras' assessment was right and it's only a matter of time before they're overrun.
It makes every second precious.
It makes every decision important.
It gives him the strangest sense of déjà vu, and he hesitates just for a moment, trying to decide—
"Courfeyrac!" Feuilly's voice, carrying over the madness of battle. "On your left, watch out, there's—"
There's a terrible silence, the silence of interruption, the silence of a thought incomplete, and Courfeyrac slays the Guardsman who was attempting to slide through the opening Feuilly had spotted even as his eyes frantically search for his friend.
Feuilly lies at the base of the barricade that he had directed the building of. His right hand is pressed to a wound in his chest that gushes blood; his left, blood-slicked as well, he holds up before his eyes, staring at it in seeming incomprehension.
"No!" Courfeyrac throws himself into the fight with even more wild abandon, trying to stem the unstoppable flow.
Where is Combeferre? Where is Joly? They have been treating the injured, pulling those too hurt to fight into the Corinth. Surely they will see what's happened. Surely—
Surely they will be too late. The voice is coldly gloating, a demon surrounded by the bound souls of sinners that it can devour. Always too late. Always pointless.
"Never pointless!" He doesn't know who he's addressing, what he's addressing, whether he's waking or sleeping, and his head hurts again, a thousand knives stabbing through his thoughts. He has to fight, though. He has to help his friends. He has to reach Feuilly.
Why? So smug, so satisfied, so happy to be observing the wanton slaughter, and a flicker of hatred runs through Courfeyrac as the gunsmoke swirls around him, thick and gray and choking. You have seen them die; you will see them die. Over and over and over, Courfeyrac, Cori, in the waking world, in the darkness of the in-between, you will see them die, until you give yourself to me willingly.
(Never. Never have us. Never, Courfeyrac, never, reach for me, together we'll get through this, together—)
Something strikes Courfeyrac's head, another layer of agony added to the pain. If his skull won't split under the assault from within, some kindly Guardsman will apparently help him split it from without.
His vision blurs, washed away in a steady drip of red. His weapons are gone from his hands, somehow, and he is kneeling on the ground, the dead and dying for company, the living swirling around him in patterns that move too quickly for him to track.
Give me your pain, your grief, your fear, your rage. Give me your will. Claws sink into his shoulder, cold as shards of ice. Give me your soul as you watch him die.
(Courfeyrac, it's not real, reach for me again reach for me reach—)
The creature turns them, and Courfeyrac's eyes find Feuilly's across the mad battlefield. Feuilly reaches for him with one blood-coated hand.
And that is all that Courfeyrac needs to rip himself free from the ice-cold claws.
"Feuilly!" He screams his friend's name, lurching forward, away from the demon-red eyes and the pain in his head and the pain in his shoulder.
Even if he has no weapon, even if he cannot turn the tide of battle, he may be able to staunch the flow of crimson from his friend's wound.
(Fight fight get away get to Feuilly get away get to—)
Courfeyrac stumbles and drops to his hands and knees, barely keeping from crashing all the way to the wooden floor. His head is pounding again, fit to burst, pain enough to squeeze tears from his eyes. He doesn't have the strength to stand, his arms and legs shaking. He hardly has enough energy to keep from collapsing entirely, to hold his head up, to take in his surroundings.
His surroundings that are most certainly not a barricade.
Feuilly stares at him in obvious confusion. His friend is sitting at a low table, paints arrayed before him in a spectacular display of color. A variety of brushes fly around him—quite literally fly, some darting high and some low, some zooming by quick as swallows, others dawdling like gulls. The paints, the worktable, the fans, those could all be from Feuilly's workroom, though the variety of colors and shades seems somehow too vast. Other things, though, have no place in the world. Since when do brushes fly? The jungle mural painted on the wall is beautiful, taller than Courfeyrac, but the lion that stalks through it—a lion whose hair is a strangely familiar shade of bright blond and who has the most striking blue eyes imaginable—is actually stalking, moving through trees covered in shivering vines. There are birds flittering through the south wall, almost as though this were a—
Dream! This whole thing has been a dream. Cori's voice comes to him clearly again, though each word seems to thrum the throbbing pain in his head up another notch. But this feels… different. This doesn't feel so… sensible and real. This—
"Courfeyrac?" Feuilly's voice is quiet, his tone somewhere between apprehension and confusion as he stands slowly, holding the brush in his hand out toward Courfeyrac as though it were a ward. "What's… you… oh, no. Well, I guess this makes it our turn, Finny."
Feuilly straightens, the hand that is holding the brush dropping to his side. The birds and the mural and the flying brushes all disappear. The edges of objects seem to become darker, sharper, take on more depth and weight. Splinters prick Courfeyrac's bare palms as he pushes himself into a kneeling position.
Feuilly's eyes scan the room, meticulous and thorough, as Feuilly's fingers tighten on the brush in his hand. Even as Courfeyrac watches the brush grows, becomes longer, thicker, transforming into a sleek stave that Feuilly stares at in pleased confusion. Giving the weapon an experimental twirl, Feuilly nods to himself. "Should work well enough, at least until we learn to channel fire or lightning or whatever other element we may get."
A smile pulls at the corners of Courfeyrac's mouth as he watches the image of his friend. "You're a very talkative dream-Feuilly. And I like your studio. We did a pretty good job designing this, don't you think, Cori? Almost feels like something that the real Feuilly would dream about. Unless this wasn't us. The Shadow knows the barricade well—so well. Too well. But would it be able to make something like this, and if it did would it think to instill qualities that were so wondrous and fantastical?"
"You speak like Courfeyrac." Any hint of pleasure disappears from Feuilly's face as he takes up a defensive stance, weapon pointed toward Courfeyrac. "But we know that it can't be him, right? Just another of the beast's cruel tricks, showing us an injured friend."
Cruel trick indeed. Courfeyrac watches the image of Feuilly, knowing that he won't be able to defend himself properly if he's attacked, not with his pounding head and steadily-oozing shoulder. Having a shadow-version of one of the Amis beat him to death while blaming him for it would be a properly horrifying nightmare.
He should have tried to make a weapon. He should have focused on defeating the monster as soon as he felt Cori's thoughts touch his the first time, rather than allowing it to tease him into this game of cat-and-mouse through the dream-world. He had acted on instinct when he should have tried for cold logic, and now he's going to regret it.
Hopefully Combeferre will wake him before the beast eats too much of his soul.
The shadow-Feuilly hasn't shifted his stance at all, though a puzzled, hesitant expression is starting to steal across his face. "Show yourself, shadow! You've played your hand too quickly this time. You'll have to face me directly, because I refuse to engage with your puppets."
Courfeyrac watches Feuilly, an uneasy doubt starting to rise. Would the Shadow's puppets look and sound so much like their real-life counterparts? They have on the barricade, but he's dreadfully, painfully certain that most of the deaths he's seen there have been shadows of their true deaths. If it can be this creative, why isn't it, usually? Why does it twist true events instead of making all-new hells for them? Why—
He had thought things felt and looked real.
Apparently there are levels of real that he hadn't been aware of before.
As shadows fill the corners, dim the light pouring into the room from outside, he realizes that the prick of the splinters had been merely a hint of its normal self, that the colors had been only half-right, washed-out shades or too-bright primaries that aren't quite accurate.
Only two things stay constant—the pain in his head and arm, and the sharp, clear image of Feuilly before him.
It's him oh god it's really him—
"Feuilly!" Courfeyrac tries to scramble to his feet and instead only lurches forward, ending up back down on one knee. "Feuilly, it's me, it's really me, Cori and Courfeyrac, and I don't know how I got here but I'm here and that thing just followed me and—"
Feuilly darts forward, and Courfeyrac allows his body to drop completely to the ground, hands over his head.
This is going to be so embarrassing.
How is he going to explain to the others that he got his soul beaten up by a fellow Ami? How is he going to make Feuilly understand that it isn't his fault? How—
A burst of light, so bright that even though Courfeyrac has his eyes closed it's blinding, and a sound like nothing Courfeyrac has ever heard before that rakes across his ears like fire. Another flash of light, another scream, and how can a sound hold so much rage and so much pain at the same time?
Courfeyrac forces his eyes to open and his hands to work, hauling himself up until he's halfway vertical, his stance wide, his knees shaking.
Feuilly stands in front of him. Blood slides down the side of Feuilly's face, trickling from both his ears, but his expression is one of pure determination as he keeps the stave leveled at the Shadow.
The beast rears up in front of Feuilly, carefully out of weapon's reach, shadows swirling and dripping around him. Its claws dig into the floor, and its eyes burn viciously, dark red slashes in the murk of its face. No! No. You are mine! This is my world!
"Come closer, then." The slightest grin touches the corners of Feuilly's mouth as he raises his chin, meeting the shadow's gaze evenly. "Let's continue this."
You do not dictate terms! Again the creature's claws rend the floor, and the shadows spread out, encircling Courfeyrac and Feuilly. He does not control this world, and you do not control me.
Feuilly's response is silence and a quick jab of the staff toward the creature's face. A spark of light starts at Feuilly's hand, travels up to the tip of the staff, and bursts, pure white brightness that washes away the world. Another scream from the Shadow, rage and pain personified, and Courfeyrac finds himself pressing his hands to his ears, trying and failing to lessen the pain that it brings. Something warm and slick slides between his fingers, and he knows that he is bleeding from his ears like Feuilly.
When Courfeyrac can blink the multicolored stars from his eyes, he and Feuilly are alone in the room. The place where the Shadow stood is empty, though there are still deep gouges in the floor and on the walls.
Feuilly staggers, leaning hard on the staff, and then folds gracelessly to the floor. "Well. I… think that went about as well as it could. Are you all right?"
Staggering to Feuilly's side, Courfeyrac collapses beside his friend. Placing a hand to his own shoulder, he winces at the slick feel of blood and the uneven edges of torn skin. "I've been better. Been worse, too, though."
Cori laughs. We've also been dead, so I'm not sure that's saying much.
"But we're not dead now." A fierce grin breaks across Courfeyrac's face as he raises his eyes to meet Feuilly's again. "A fact which I am extremely grateful to you for. When you were coming towards me with that staff of yours… well, I thought things were going to get very painful and very awkward. How did you know that it was me, really me, and not a shadow-puppet?"
"You were acting like yourself. I could see no benefit the Shadow could gain by showing me a bloody friend that wouldn't be doubled by showing me how you came to be in that state." Feuilly turns away, the faintest hint of red creeping into his cheeks and ears. "And, in all honesty, I would rather guess wrong and take a knife in the back a hundred times than risk actually hurting any of you."
"And that, my friend, is one of the many, many things that makes you amazing." Courfeyrac pulls Feuilly into a quick embrace, dismayed to see how much his hands shake.
So much for protecting Eric and Enjolras. Cori's sigh causes Courfeyrac's breath to rush from his chest. We couldn't even protect ourselves. At least it didn't get too much from us, I don't think.
"Not too much. Hopefully not enough to hurt any of the others." Courfeyrac reaches out and turns Feuilly's head first one way and then the other, finding no signs of injury other than the blood trickling from his ears. "How are you feeling, Feuilly?"
"My head hurts and my ears are ringing." Feuilly opens his mouth wide, gently moves his jaw side to side, and then grimaces as he closes his mouth, tentatively poking at his right ear before shaking his head and wincing. "Otherwise doing well, though. It didn't actually manage to land a blow. I think… I think it was afraid of me."
"Afraid." Courfeyrac pulls Feuilly into a fierce embrace once more. "Afraid of us, finally! You, my friend, are incredibly impressive. You not only made a weapon, you managed… I don't even have a word for what it is. Soul-fire? Soul-power? You hurt it, without being hurt yourself."
"I had warning." Feuilly's eyes drop, the faint blush climbing into his cheeks again. "And I had someone important to defend. Given the same information and preparation, I'm sure everyone else could have managed just as well."
"Given the same…" Courfeyrac pauses.
Do you think we could? Cori's all eager attentiveness in his mind, ready and willing to act. I mean, we found Feuilly…
"Perhaps. It's certainly worth a try." Courfeyrac pulls away from Feuilly. "How bad does my shoulder look?"
Feuilly's fingers are gentle as they pry away the blood-soaked fabric. "Give me a minute to bind it, and I think you'll be fine. There are some nasty deep gouges there, but nothing immediately life-threatening."
"Good. Let's try to get me patched up, then." The smile Courfeyrac gives to Feuilly's puzzled frown is half-feral, fierce with excitement and determined possibility. "You and I have some visits to make, I think."
This wasn't how things were supposed to go. They are supposed to be easy prey now, worn down, hurting, desperate. It can taste the pain and desperation on them still, a constant thrum of anxiety and uncertainty.
So how have they managed to hurt it? How are they managing to continue on despite all? How are they managing to learn, to do things that it has never seen others do?
Perhaps it should retreat entirely. Perhaps it should simply sit here and lick its wounds as they slowly lace back together, using the agony and anger that it has lapped from them to stitch closed the rents they have dared to carve in its very being. Perhaps it should simply revel in the small morsels that it has snatched already, savor the despair-riddled devotion that it took from the lover and the fury-wrapped compassion that it wrested from the smiling man and be done with these little revolutionaries.
It's so close, though. How often are men born whose souls continue to bleed into the dreaming despite the events that caused the wound being wiped from their memory? How often does it have an opportunity to wrest power, true power, the power to change all of reality, from those that it feeds on?
How often does it have a chance to destroy, utterly, those souls that it most hates?
It has waited centuries to find creatures such as these. It has been patient, so patient, in preparing the meal.
It will not give them up so easily—it will not give him up so easily, not when it's wrested a taste of his damned soul.
It has tricks that it can use, still. There are plans set in motion already that will see their band of idealists scattered, separated, and disheartened—see him alone and beset.
All it has to do is remember patience, and in time it will have all of their souls for its own.
He wakes to the word and the touch of a hand on his forehead.
Again the simple command, in a voice that could be male or female, young or old, and he obeys it without conscious thought. The fingers pull away from him as his eyes open slowly, and he blinks the world into focus.
He doesn't hurt.
Why is that a strange thing? Why does he expect waking to hurt?
He doesn't waste time considering the question, allowing it to process in the back of his mind as he takes in his surroundings. He is in the Musain, but there is something… strange about it. The tables are familiar, the chairs are familiar, the floor that he lies on has a familiar smooth, well-traveled feel to it, but there is something… absent.
Sound. There are no sounds in this place save the ones that he makes, the rasp of his breathing, the scuff of his hands and feet against the floor as he levers himself to a standing position. His companion, the one who woke him with the quiet commands, now makes no sounds at all, standing facing away from Enjolras, his hands in the pockets of his trousers.
There is something wrong with the colors surrounding them, too, a muting of all shades toward a cool gray that matches the man's tunic and trousers and even hair color.
"Who are you?" Enjolras manages not to flinch at the sound of his own voice breaking the silence, though it's difficult, as though he's breaking some taboo. "Where are we?"
"Always straight to action. Always straight to the heart of the problem, scalpel or sword in hand, ready to do all that you can to improve the world." The man—surely a woman would wear something that betrayed her femininity, though there is nothing distinctly masculine about the man's build or features—smiles as he turns to Enjolras.
His features are as difficult to read for age and gender as his voice had been, a strange amalgamation of traits, and Enjolras has the oddest impression that if he looked away he wouldn't be able to describe what this man looks like.
The man's smile is kind, though, and there is no hint of mockery or disdain in his voice when he speaks. "Good. Right now action is better than words. We've little enough time without risking your life or sanity, anyway. Who I am doesn't matter; what matters is the creature stalking you."
He remembers, now, why he should hurt. Where are his improvised bandages? Where are the wounds that the beast gave him?
Where is the beast, and how is this gray man related to him?
"Eric." Enjolras reaches for his other as he calls his name, taking up a defensive position, waiting for a sword to appear in hand and Eric's fire to flare alongside his.
Instead there is nothing.
It should be a relief. It should be a return to normalcy. He should relish having his body and his mind to himself again.
Instead he feels as though he's lost someone.
"He's fine. He'll awaken when you return to the physical world… or to the higher levels of the dream-world, if they find you before you're awoken. Such a determined little band." A smile touches the corners of the gray man's mouth. "I wanted you focused, not distracted and hurt, and I thought you would be the calmer of the dominant minds."
"Eric is quite capable of being calm and rational. I do not appreciate your interference in our arrangement, and I will not listen to slights against him." Enjolras stays warily back from the man, out of arm's reach. He continues to call Eric's name silently, hoping that if this is another of the Shadow's traps they will be able to overcome it.
Pain twinges through his chest and neck, and he takes another step back from the man, his left hand pressing against the side of his neck.
Something flickers in the colorless gray eyes of the strange young man, but he makes no move toward Enjolras. "There are two parts to all humanity, the body and the soul. The body is the physical shell for the soul, something that exists in only the physical world. The soul is the core of all entities. It cannot survive in the physical world without a body; a body cannot survive without a soul."
"How do I know I can trust you or anything you say?" There is no reply to his desperate reaching for Eric, and again pain twinges in his chest and neck, deeper and harsher.
"Bodies die, though, while souls do not. Souls continue on, body to body, life to life. The mind can be thought of as the bridge between body and soul, created during each life, crafted to best fit each life, but always reflecting the underlying soul—always marking the underlying soul, helping it to grow and change." A wince that could be sympathy, quick as a flash, crosses the man's face. "Please stop. If you insist on pushing past my suggestion, there's a very real chance you'll wake all of them. That would be fine if you were dead, your soul is quite capable of handling all of the input, but I would hate to see the effects it would have on your body."
Enjolras freezes as another stab of pain cuts through him. "If you really want to help, why won't you answer my questions? Why won't you tell me who you are?"
"I'm telling you what you need to know." An intensity that's almost frightening crosses the man's face. "The thing that you are fighting is a rogue soul. It has no body. It survives by leeching off of those who still follow the proper flow of the world. And it hates you. It is determined to destroy you."
"We had determined that part on our own." Enjolras shivers, hand still against his throat. Reaching behind him, he surreptitiously leans against one of the tables. He feels… odd. Shaky. Vulnerable. He wants Eric here—he wants the others here. Combeferre would know what questions to ask. He cannot call Combeferre, but he will not give up on reaching Eric. "But who are you? What are you? Why—?"
The agony is like a knife in his chest, heat and fire that spreads out and drops him to his knees.
"I can't stay. Even in the dreaming, even with as much protection as I can give you, it puts too great a strain on your body." There is honest regret in the man's voice. "But I couldn't let it continue to hunt you without trying. Without giving you some scraps of knowledge."
Enjolras doesn't see the man move. He is simply there, in front of Enjolras, his hand once more touching Enjolras' forehead.
"Peace, Enjolras." The man's voice seems to echo, a resonance in each syllable that their surroundings couldn't give. "There are very few things that can hurt a soul. Rarely, very rarely, something happens to the body or mind that cuts so deeply it damages your very essence. The only other thing that can hurt a soul is another soul. What the beast wants is the very thing that can destroy it."
"The fire." Enjolras' left hand stays against his neck; his right presses against a wound he still can't see but can feel on his chest. "Our fire."
"Your essence, purified and sacrificed at your will." Again the gray man smiles, a flicker of an expression that seems equal parts sorrow and affection. When he continues, voice still resonant and echoing, only grim determination shows in his features. "To destroy a soul is a terrible thing. The creature doesn't care—he has learned to feed on pain and grief and destruction. He has learned to shield himself from the damage it should cause. But sometimes, very rarely but sometimes, destroying a soul is necessary."
Enjolras forces himself to breathe around the stabbing agony in his chest, forces his eyes to meet the gray expanse of the stranger's. How can eyes seem so deep, as though one could fall into them for eternity? "And who are you to offer judgment or absolution for such a crime?"
A heavy sadness pulls at the young man's mouth and eyes. "I am the one he's running from."
("Will you accept this?" The beautiful, indescribable, young-and-old, male-and-female voice is familiar; the words are familiar; and there can only ever be one answer.
"Yes." Such a simple word, to carry so much weight, Enjolras' voice certain on the French syllable. "Yes, I will do it again.")
("I need an answer, child. Yes or no."
He should answer that calm, determined voice, needs to answer, has to answer, but there is blood on his hands blood on his face blood blood blood—)
Combeferre's voice, but there are more than two hands hauling him upright, prying at the makeshift bandages tied around his neck and chest.
"God, Enjolras…" Combeferre's voice is almost a sob on his name.
"Is it here?" Feuilly's voice, and one set of hands pulls back. "What was it doing to you, Enjolras? Where is it?"
"Give him a moment to figure out what's happening." Courfeyrac's voice, and Courfeyrac's face swims into focus slowly as Enjolras blinks repeatedly. "I know this is going to be terribly confusing, Enjolras, but it's really us. Courfeyrac and Cori, Combeferre and Conlan, Feuilly and Finny, we're all here and we're all going to help you. All right?"
Enjolras? Eric's tired voice rises above the sussurus in their head, tamping it back down to a dull murmur that they can ignore. What happened? What were those… flashes? Where were you… or maybe where was I…? A hint of panic rises in Eric's voice. What happened?
"I don't know. I swear, it wasn't me who sent you away. This is your body, your life, and I do not want to interfere with that. I just… I don't know. I don't understand." A brief laugh rises in Enjolras' throat, though he forces it down. "Ah, Combeferre, I'm really starting to hate those words."
"I know. We all are." Combeferre's hand is blessedly calm and steady as he begins peeling away the bloody bandages. The fear and worry have faded from his voice, replaced by his calm doctor's collectedness as he apparently decides that Enjolras isn't going to die in the immediate future.
A calm that fractures slightly as a hiss slides between Combeferre's teeth when he pulls away the blood-soaked rags.
Enjolras looks away, trying not to shiver as blood begins trickling down his neck again. "I know my neck and chest look terrible, but as I told Eric, we're clearly not going to die from it or we'd have done so already. Not that I'd be averse to you doing a proper bandage job."
"So the Shadow's not here?" Feuilly stands just beyond Combeferre and Courfeyrac, a black staff in hand. They're in the upper floor of the Corinth, the pale light of dawn filtering through the window.
"I'm… not sure what was here." Enjolras stays seated, allowing Combeferre to begin rebandaging his injuries. "We've a great deal to talk about once we're—"
He wakes in utter disorientation, a sense of déjà vu frighteningly strong as he once more squints and tries to bring the man who is shaking him into focus.
"Eric, please, wake up, Enjolras, wake up, wake—" Grant's terrified babbling trails off, and he lays one hand against Eric's face. "Are… are you awake?"
I think we are. Enjolras' voice is dry, his accent thick again. But this has been a most lengthy and confusing night, so I'm not sure I'd trust my judgment.
Eric turns his head first to the left, which only shows him the wall of their apartment with very faint scorch marks just visible in the dawn light, and then to the right, where he sees Cori, Conlan and Finnegan all struggling into wakefulness. Then he looks back up at Grant. "Are you awake?"
Grant nods, eyes wide, breathing still too quick and panicked.
"Then I think I am, too." Eric sits up, groaning as his chest aches in strong protest at the movement.
Before he can do anything else Grant's arms are around him, Grant's lips pressed hard against his in a desperate kiss.
We don't have time for this right now. Enjolras' exasperation cuts through Eric's own confusion. You can indulge your curiosity when we don't need to focus on, yet again, trying to determine what everything means.
He's scared. Like Combeferre was scared. Eric returns the kiss for one brief moment, and then pushes gently at Grant's shoulders. He just needed to be certain we're all right. Now he'll—
Now he'll push Eric back down on the bed, his hands cupping Eric's face, his lips once again striving to mesh with Eric's.
Turning his head away, Eric pushes on Grant's chest. "Grant. Enough."
For one disorienting second he thinks Grant isn't going to listen to him. Grant's hands continue to caress his cheeks and run through his hair, and Grant's half-wild eyes burn into his as Grant's body vibrates minutely.
"You're all right?" Grant finally pulls back. "You're really all right?"
"I'm fine." It's a lie—perhaps the first outright lie he's told Grant, and it makes the nauseating murmur in his head flare up again. "I'm still sore, but I'll be fine. The Shadow didn't come after me again… I don't think. There's just… there was just a lot that happened. Again. Still. Things we need to talk about. So why don't we get up and get dressed and contact the others, all right?"
"All right." Grant scrambles off the bed, his eyes still wide, and grabs his cell phone. "You want the others to come here again?"
"Yeah. Sure. Or if it's easier we could—" Eric blinks as Grant ducks out the bedroom door, phone already to his ear.
"As much as I love Grant and Courfeyrac loves Grand R…" Cori holds up two fingers with dark clotted blood on them. "We're going to have to talk to him about what keeping the watch means. While it's great that he noticed you were bleeding—"
Eric puts a hand to his face, depressingly unsurprised to have his fingers come back scarlet.
Finny scratches below his ear, dried blood crumbling away at the movement. "It would have been nice if he noticed Cori and I, as well. Though I suppose it's easier to notice when you're bleeding down the front of your face as opposed to the two of us bleeding from our ears."
"And my shoulder." Cori pulls his T-shirt away from his body, grimacing as he cranes his neck to study his left shoulder. "Guess now I'll match—electric burn on the right shoulder, Shadow-delivered scratches with accompanying bruise on the left. Not quite the fashion statement I usually go for."
"I'm sure you'll make it look phenomenal." Con offers Cori a smile, just slightly strained, though his expression after is hard to read, a combination of anger and pensive uncertainty. "Let's get up, compare stories, and see if we've actually gained anything tonight."
Having no better suggestion, Eric forces his aching body up, hopeful that the others will be able to help him make sense of the night's events.