Their supplies were long gone, vanished with the foot soldiers and the camp followers and everyone else. The temperature on the moor was as nondescript as everything else about it, though, and so the survivors moved to the top of the slope, set Leonnatus and Peucestas to guard (and Bucephalus to discontented grazing), and arranged themselves in a loose half-circle for the impromptu strategy meeting. No one questioned it when Waver moved to the center rather than sitting down.
Glancing around at the expressions of his fellows—worried, frustrated, grim, and Rider above all simply expectant—he took a breath he hoped not too many of them would notice and began speaking slowly, organizing his thoughts as he went.
"All right. First off, I need everyone to remember that the stories mortals have about the gods don't usually reflect the whole truth. So no one ask me about Hypnos or Nyx or anything like that. Morpheus isn't quite a god, anyway, more like—a part of the way the world works. You could say he's a function of the universe. There are seven of them in all, but—"
"Which seven?" Ptolemy broke in. He looked fascinated in spite of himself; beside him, skepticism and intrigue warred across Thaïs's features.
"—I only know the ones I ever crossed paths with, I was going to say," Waver finished, thinking ruefully that being a teacher had spoiled him for having audiences that didn't interrupt every thirty seconds. "Dream, Death, and Destiny."
"You have met Death?" Lysimachus asked interestedly, leaning in. "Thanatos? I've never heard of Thanatos actually appearing to anyone."
"Nor have I," Thaïs chimed in, a dangerous glint in her eyes, and it belatedly occurred to Waver, Next time don't start the lecture by telling the woman who burned down half of Persepolis over a temple desecration to ignore everything she knows about her religion. "Do tell us more, Lord El-Melloi II."
He strove not to backpedal. "She just called herself Death. She was waiting for me as soon as I realized I hadn't survived that prana drain." Seeing the attentive expressions around him, he sighed and elaborated. "She was—"
"A white-skinned woman with black hair and a curious smile?" Rider rumbled, face inscrutable. When Waver blinked at him in surprise, he simply nodded fractionally, declining to speak further. The companions glanced around at each other for a moment before finally one of them spoke again.
"But what has this to do with our army?" Perdiccas, long legs propped awkwardly against the rising angle of the ground, frowned with displeasure.
Waver, still looking at Rider in concern, reverted to his earlier line of discussion and went on. "You all know about the Throne of Heroes, right?" A round of nods answered him. "All right. I don't know all the details here, but from what I understand it's like this: the Throne of Heroes can hold all of the people it needs to, but the Ionioi Hetairoi is different. It's got something to do with the fact that we're all together there. It's not just a memory; it's a shared state—and an idealized one at that. The Throne could hold all of us individually and to a certain extent it does, but for all of us to be together like we are needs something less"—he looked for alternatives to the word "programmed" and settled for—"rigid. So we as we are exist in the Dreaming—Morpheus' realm."
As the questions came at him in a flood, Waver focused on Rider, who had closed his eyes and breathed out slowly.
When they had passed the waters of Oceanus and the rock Leucas, they came to the gates of the sun and the land of dreams, whereon they reached the meadow of asphodel where dwell the souls and shadows of them that can labor no more.
Waver had read The Odyssey to students, to the tenth Archibald heir and her children, and more than anything to himself, and he could imagine very clearly what Rider was thinking. You are dead, he thought at his king, heart aching, you just don't realize it very often. I'm sorry I had to remind you.
"I have a question. Why is it that you know this and we don't?" Hephaestion's voice cut through the flurry, catching Waver in an intent, searching stare. The others fell silent and Waver cursed the heat rising into his cheeks. But dammit, it wasn't like he'd been intentionally keeping it a secret for this long.
"Death told me a bit," he said uncomfortably, "and Dream a bit more. But after that first night it slipped my mind." He looked at Rider, ignoring Oxyathres's muttered Well, we drank enough, and Phillip's faint snort of agreement. "It seemed like he was worried about what you'd do if you knew."
Honestly he talked like it was a headache he wanted to avoid, added a considerably more truthful internal voice, but by that point Roxana had begun grinning slyly and nudging Rider's broad hip.
A smirk teased up one side of Rider's mouth, showing teeth, and he nodded.
"This Morpheus knows the king well," he said, tone rueful with a twist of ominous pleasure. "So, what's befallen him, my magus?"
Waver really hated it when Rider acknowledged him in the same breath as saying something guaranteed to give him a huge headache. He shook his head.
"There's no telling from here, and it's not like I've got an encyclopedic knowledge of how he works anyway. But if I had to take a guess I'd say he's missing or dead, if you can kill an anthropomorphic personification of dreams. Aristander said the center was missing-I can't think of a likelier explanation."
Rider rubbed his chin speculatively; his magus, feeling the headache setting in, knew that there wasn't a single person in circle who didn't see the next words coming—a grinning Hephaestion was bloody mouthing them!
"Leaving an unattended throne, then."
Waver sighed hard.
"Well," he allowed, "we won't know until we check."
The expanse of the moor lasted for almost a week, by Calanus's reckoning. Everyone else lost the sense of time after about the third day of sunless, unchanging pall. The sage kept mostly to himself through the small bickering over direction and intent that followed, himself content to walk until weariness—they didn't need supplies or even much rest, but it had always taken the others longer to adjust to such things.
On the seventh day, though, a mist began to thicken, first only ankle-high but rising like an oncoming tide until they walked through a gray sea. It clung to the skin and hung wetly in the throat, reminding him too much of the racking cough and weight in the lungs that had brought his travels to an end in Persia so very long ago.
Not so long, though, that he wasn't relieved to see the great hulking shape slowly emerging from the fog. Details resolved as they grew closer: a wooden home of ornate craft, old and dark, pointed at the top; windows broken and sieving in fog through the glass; decaying steps up to a door hanging loose in the frame.
"Just like out of a storybook," Waver muttered cynically somewhere on the far side of Bucephalus's bulk. "Well, don't ask me," he went on in annoyance as heads turned his way. "About the only thing I ever dreamed about was him, anyway."
Alexander chuckled, deep and approving. "We shall explore it," he pronounced. "Any change will be favorable at this point." He glanced around at his depleted followers, then commanded, "Hephaestion, Lysimachus, Calanus, Waver—and Eumenes. Go and rout the place out and see what there is to report."
A chorus of assents answered him and the five men made their way up the stairs. Lysimachus took the lead, easing the door back with his sword arm and slipping in, shield raised. At his signal the others came on and spread out across the room.
A small area, for five grown men, and that was to say nothing of all the cobwebs. They hung limp, sad and empty in the half-light, spun across chairs, cabinets, and low tables draped with faded lace. Spaces in the walls opened to other areas of the house; the bottom of a stairway was visible through the one at the back. Without speaking, Hephaestion gestured Calanus and Lysimachus though the rightward doorway. Eumenes joined them silently, while Hephaestion and Waver moved for the other opening.
Through the doorway was a bedroom, similarly gray with accumulated time. A large wardrobe dominated most of what space was not taken up by the ancient, wooden-framed bed. Eumenes methodically searched through the heavy, drab coats and shoes in the cabinet while Lysimachus moved along the wall to the small door at the back of the chamber. He paused before opening it, glancing at the others. Calanus crouched, swiftly passing first his gaze then his arm beneath the bed, finding only a chill emptiness and more dust. He straightened up and nodded.
Peering around the door as Lysimachus opened it revealed a tiny room with a tiled floor and raised tub. The white-haired soldier shrugged and stood aside for Eumenes, whose cool gray eyes moved calmly about the room noting details. Calanus lingered in the bedroom, running his hand across the fading design on the papered walls—small handfuls of flowers knotted with ribbon, the soft blue of it the only color left in the fuzzy gray edges and amorphous brown of the rest of the room. Outside the sole window, he could see Perdiccas and Roxana shadowing Leonnatus in a circuit around the house's exterior.
The king's secretary emerged from the inner room looking faintly pensive and the three of them returned to the front room. At Hephaestion's questioning look, Lysimachus shrugged and shook his head.
"Keep alert," the blond said softly, breaking the silence for the first time. "We'll take the hall; the three of you check upstairs."
They nodded, and the group moved into the hallway, a long stretch of emptiness with a side room and a door to the outside at the far end. Calanus followed his companions to the upper floor, listening to the creak and groan of the stairs as they climbed. Portraits lined the wall, men in clothes similar to what Waver wore, women and children sitting beside them in dull foreign attire. Water stains and discoloration mottled the surfaces of the images, gray bleeding into old ivory yellow running into leathery brown, and in every one of them the faces were obscured completely save for the odd staring eye or tight-set corner of lips.
Like a storybook. He reflected on Waver's words. But whose story? Whose nightmare? Ones who visited or one who lived here?
The upstairs room was small, the rafters coming to a steep point overhead. The shadows hung thicker as well, little dispersed by the pale, hesitant light passing through a circular window little wider than a man's head on the far wall. Muted colors stood out here and there in the gloom—a long blue and yellow box on one side of the room, a matching rug in the center, a child's bed in the corner covered in blue with red stars. Red letters inscribed a short word on the box—Waver's letters, Calanus thought, though Eumenes would know with more certainty, and the secretary indeed moved towards it as they made their way in behind Lysimachus. The soldier turned a circle at the center of the room, looking bemusedly at the ceiling. He shot Calanus a glance, received a noncommittal look in return, and sighed.
"With luck they're having a more interesting time downstairs. Or outside," he said, moving to the window and peering out of it.
Calanus made no comment, crossing over to the bed and dropping to one knee, lifting up the edge of the blanket. Movement across the room caught his attention: Eumenes running a purposeful fingertip across the edge of the box and rubbing it against the pad of his thumb. Frowning, the secretary turned to his companions, mouth opening to speak.
He froze, eyes widening sharply, in the same moment that Calanus felt the whisper of moving air across his skin.
The world jerked sideways as the thing pulled him off-balance, his sword cracking loudly on the floor as he threw out his arm for purchase. The grip on his wrist and ankle tightened, glossy black claws digging into his skin with pinprick sharpness. The arms, fleshy but studded with clusters of small scales, receded into invisibility beneath the bed, but at the center of the void one bloodshot eye, huge and round, stared back at him with an atavistic hunger that stopped his breath.
The clarity of training stepped in, slowed time, asserted itself before everything else. He perceived:
Lysimachus behind him, voice raised with outrage and alarm.
The rustle of cloth as Eumenes shot to his feet.
The rough edges of the floor beneath him, jagged but weak, splintering rather than offering any handholds against the strength of the creature beneath the bed.
And, still arresting, the raw desperation embodied in the single staring eye.
I see, Calanus thought. But that is one thing; my life is another.
He planted his free foot on the frame of the bed and pushed back, propelling the Hand of Kāla, his black blade, into a heavy swing even as Lysimachus's bright sword slashed towards the monster's other limb.
The scream of something young and animal rattled the window, but if the thing was a child, its skin was still tough and unyielding as a veteran crocodile's. Lysimachus tore his weapon free of the monster's hide and raised it to try again, but Calanus had no such leverage, heaving futilely at his stuck blade.
Three more hands joined the first two, one whipping out to seize Lysimachus's elbow, lengthening and cracking, breaking new joints in itself as it angled upward, pulling the soldier off his feet. The others seized Calanus's calf and began jerking downward. Above him, his student cursed and kicked defiantly, yelling.
"Hephaestion, dammit, we need help up here!"
Calanus gritted his teeth, struggling and twisting to keep the weight on his leg as another monstrous hand clawed its way from beneath the bed, and another, both closing over his shoulders. With a final jolt, the creature pulled his foot free as Lysimachus cried out in denial. He slid forward two feet in an instant, legs vanishing beneath the bedframe, before Eumenes caught his wildly flailing arm and tried to pull back, only to himself be dragged forward one staggering step at a time.
Footsteps came pounding up the stairs; out of the corner of his eye the Indian could see the swirl of white and red as his other two companions finally arrived.
"An armhold!" Eumenes snapped breathlessly, and Hephaestion ran forward as Waver began to chant.
His Noble Phantasm, Calanus thought as his hips sank past the bottom of the bed. May it be more effective than the swords. A numbness had begun to crawl over the bottoms of his feet and up his legs, and the grasping things down there in the dark were less human, brushing feathers and smooth lengths of ropy flesh, but all with the same inexorable strength. He would not stop fighting nor let his mind be clouded, however; that was the result of all his years with his order of Naga sadhus, one of his own abilities as a Heroic Spirit.
"—perils of waves and war. Let this be added to the tale of those," he heard from near his ear in Waver's grim, resolute voice, and the wizard planted his hand down on the dark flesh of the creature. "Tidal Flux."
The current of power washing out of El-Melloi and into the monster passed over Calanus completely, but there was no mistaking the spasms and wailing of a spirit that had just had its prana flow so completely disrupted. Calanus threw one freed hand back out of the dark, catching at the edge of the bed with his forearm. Instantly he felt it seized by the others, and inch by slow inch, they hauled him back out of the maw.
"Flip the bed," Waver commanded, voice clipped. Hephaestion nodded and pulled his spear out of the floor. With a clean whirl, he drove it beneath the bed and, crouching to set the shaft beneath his shoulder, pushed it up, bearing the bedframe on it.
All five of them stared and backed away as the gray half-light burned away the miasma, revealing the squirming tangle. It hid the eye at the thickness of its center, wailing and thrashing before its limbs finally quivered and stilled. Already, it cast a fainter shadow in the room. The men looked at one another for several silent seconds until Calanus patted Lysimachus's shoulder to be let down. His student acquiesced reluctantly and the sage trotted over to his sword.
"Well, you look all right," Hephaestion sighed. "Check with Philip anyway. We'll finish up here."
"It looks like a haunted house. Or a creepy one, anyway. The kind of thing you'd visit as a kid and get scared of."
Rider nodded intently at Waver's words, looking around the assembled group. Hephaestion spoke up next.
"No supplies, no equipment worth taking," he said, shrugging. "The thing under the bed was it, and it disappeared not long after we flipped the bed over."
"It was starving," Calanus volunteered, sitting cross-legged and attentive. "I could see if very clearly."
"But how does a dream creature starve?" Lysimachus pondered, leaning on the edge of his shield.
"Not enough kids to snack on?" Waver suggested acidly. "Or it's the same as the desert and it can't survive whatever happened to Dream indefinitely."
Eumenes cleared his throat. The others looked his way, and Rider nodded for him to go on.
"That would be consistent with the rest of the house," the secretary said quietly. "It isn't simply that it's empty. What was more noticeable was how little it seemed a place that had ever been lived in at all. Even what was there was degrading. Everywhere that there was a picture, the faces were blurred. Everywhere that there was writing, it was indistinct. The rooms had only large furniture, no smaller details or decoration. There were places in the corners where the walls were coming undone completely. I believe it is as Lord El-Melloi II says—it is a memory of a place, not a place in itself. It may well have only been the creature upstairs holding the place together at all. With it defeated, I think the rest will fall to ruin all the more quickly."
Alexander absorbed the report then sighed, planting his hand down on one folded knee. "Make camp," he ordered levelly. "We'll spend at least a few hours resting by something we can see before we have to trek back into that murk."
The others obeyed: camp was struck, and sleep had in rotation. No one was surprised to find the house gone when they woke.
They marched on, the moor and even the ground itself lost to the fog, leaving everyone on edge. The monster under the bed had been a close call; the voices in the forest were worse. Sourceless and faint in barely-visible tree boughs, they called and hummed and nibbled away at memory. They almost lost Ptolemy and Waver both before Alexander called for waxen earplugs and a marching train. He rode at their head, burning with a purity of purpose that had outlasted death itself, which would be the same without body, without memory, without even a name.
The spirit of Alexander, Waver thought muzzily as they all followed in their king's wake.
On and on, until even Calanus shook his head when asked how long they'd been travelling, through places where size and geometry seemed to lose all meaning, and all they could do was follow one another's colors, through the memories of caves and swamps where glowing eyes and teeth gleamed at the edges of their vision, through rooms they each described differently, as familiar as their bedchambers and as terrifying as the waking gasp of uncertainty.
Until, finally, they reached the mountains.
"It's thin. And it'll only get thinner farther up," Roxana advised, squinting through the mist at the path winding up into the distance. "Steeper, too."
Leonnatus nodded. "But it is the only path we've found in three days' march," he replied quietly. Alexander will take it."
"I'm sure he will. I just wonder if the horse will."
"Bucephalus will do anything out of sheer spite. I wouldn't worry."
When the pass was reported, the company, as predicted by Leonnatus, headed up into the higher terrain, spirits lifting as they went. Gradually the fog began to thin out until they broke through into clear, cold air.
Hephaestion turned back to look as the others emerged from the fog bank in ones and twos. He whistled lowly, causing Alexander to look away from his contemplation of the peaks. The two of them stared for a while at the view, the mountain walls climbing the sky behind them looking like nothing so much as a long breakwater line against the tide.
"It's a bit of an Ôkeanos itself, isn't it?" he asked his friend, who huffed derisively.
"A thin excuse for it, maybe," Alexander responded. "But I'm tired of wading through fog. Look ahead, Hephaestion!"
Arm over his friend's shoulders, he turned them to face the cliffs. The other companions were picking their way up the path, a laughing Roxana in the lead, raking her windblown hair out of her face as she surveyed mountains again for the first time in millennia. All the same…
"I'd like a future with more pitons in it," he quipped.
"Hah!" Alexander laughed, and Hephaestion grinned, feeling his heart lighten even as he saw the smiles on the faces of the others. "No luck there. But we won't need them."
"Oh, will we not?"
"No thunderstorms, no defenders—I'd be very disappointed if we did!"
The two of them turned at the call from Lysimachus and looked up to the swift, dark shape of a raven against the bright sky. It angled on a high breeze, circling overhead as the companions grouped together.
"Another omen?" Oxyathres asked, shading his eyes as he peered up.
"Ravens have meant well for us before," Ptolemy recalled, and quirked a grin at Thaïs's murmured, We've certainly fed them well enough.
"But we're not in our home dream anymore," Perdiccas countered, frowning upward. "Who knows what it could mean out here?"
"It's coming down, whatever it means," Peucestas pointed out, and the bird certainly was, whisking down in slow, easy circles.
"It's a bold one." Lysimachus's tone was admiring as the raven landed on a nearby outcropping, fidgeting and twitching its wings closed.
"Handsome," Thaïs echoed, putting her head on one side. Pulling a ring from one finger, she held it towards the visitor, tilting it back and forth in the light. "And either too well-trained or too intelligent in itself to snatch at anything with a shine," she concluded when the raven only croaked and preened one shoulder in response.
"It wouldn't be strange to see one as a familiar," Waver said with a critical stare. "And they're not exactly foreign to the human imagination. But I agree that we can't assume anything just from that."
"Let us not assume, then," decided Rider. He stepped forward and held out one arm. The bird gave it a long look, blinking its bright eyes, then flipped its wings out and fluttered noisily into the air to land on the proffered perch. Cheerfully ignoring the sharp, intent stares from his followers, Alexander laughed and brought his arm up to look his passenger in the eye.
"Do you have a master, or are you your own?" he asked it, all sincere curiosity. "I am Alexander, the King of Conquerors, and these are my friends and allies!" With the characteristically boastful introduction, he turned in place and swept out his free arm to indicate the remaining members of the Hetairoi, voice raised with pride. The volume made the raven croak in displeasure and hop up to his shoulder. From there, it surveyed the group one at a time as Rider went on.
"You can see we're a handsome company. Just now we're looking for the house of the king of dreams." Roxana cleared her throat and he added dutifully, "Or the gates of horn."
Finished with its examination of the company, the visitor sidled closer to Alexander's neck, talons kneading at his broad shoulders. With a quick twist of its head, its beak closed on the king's ear; it was airborne before Rider's retaliatory cuff landed.
Grunting, the king rubbed at his ear and scowled at the raven, which had landed on a rock well out of reach. It seemed to come to a decision—it cawed down at them, fluttered to another perch a few yards further along the path, and repeated the call.
The companions looked at one another.
"It's too smart not to be taking us somewhere," Lysimachus opined, smile stealing across his features.
"I'm curious," said Thaïs, which Roxana followed with, "I'd like to explore some, now that we're out."
Rider grinned in spite of the more dubious looks from most of the others. "Very well. Then let us see where the cheeky thing would take us."
They formed back into a loose column. As usual, Leonnatus moved ahead, watching the bird's path with sharp eyes. The others fitted themselves in, Rider atop Bucephalus in the center, while Peucestas and Waver dropped to the back to keep a cautious vigil over the procession. Before long, Roxana was clambering among the rocks like one born to them, sighting ahead and gaily calling back turns and low cliffs. Her husband kept a gaze on her that was too pointed to be only affection; the grin on his face spoke volumes as he watched her move about, her hair and bright garments tossed about by the wind.
Ptolemy and Thaïs strolled behind the king, trading all the folklore about ravens their extensive educations had afforded them, sometimes pausing to listen to Oxyathres narrate a similar anecdote from the Zoroastrian traditions. Eumenes, walking ahead of Waver, slowed to knot his long hair, expression mildly annoyed after the fourth time the breeze had teased it from a carefully gathered banner over one shoulder to a snapping, contrary mess of strands. Sparing a rueful thought for elastic hairbands of a bygone age, Waver followed suit.
As Roxana had predicted, the path grew harder, winding along steep drops and across stone bridges carved with ancient, unsettling symbols none of them could identify. Still, even as the road narrowed, forcing the companions into single file, their nature held true.
If I'd been able to jump like this when I was alive, maybe I wouldn't have almost given myself a heart attack every time I had to get up to Ryuudouji Temple, Waver thought as the group leapt one at a time up to a higher path after their last one dead-ended at a sheer drop. Still below, Alexander dismounted and stroked Bucephalus's neck before jumping up to the others of the Hetairoi.
As the charger pawed at the ground, tail snapping, they all backed away to clear space—all save Alexander, who only laughed loudly, calling, "Come up to me, partner!" and whistling piercingly.
Bucephalus's ears flattened back in what Waver recognized as vicious annoyance. The mare dipped forward onto her forelegs then pushed herself back into a carefully balanced stand as she looked upward. The massive curves of the musculature in her back legs extended suddenly, and Alexander's unmatchable horse drove herself upward on a kick that raised dirt and pebbles on the ground she'd left and cracked the surface where she landed.
Rider slung an arm around his mount's broad neck, laughing and praising her. Roxana shot Leonnatus a glance, suppressing laughter and he, for once, deigned to smile.
They found the cave near nightfall, the sun as it sank behind the mountains casting shadows of the peaks out like advancing armies across the fog far below. The tireless raven cawed a final time and plunged past the opening. Still in his place near the front of the column, Perdiccas halted, looking back at his approaching king.
"We don't have torches," he said as the group peered towards the dim entryway, still a good thirty yards away and atop another cliff wall to boot, conspicuously overlooking the path as it continued on through the mountains. Alexander hummed thoughtfully, shading his eyes to gauge the angle of the sun.
"I can make us light if we need it." Perdiccas looked back at the words from Lord El-Melloi II. The wizard frowned up at the cave, finishing sarcastically, "But this 'finding shelter just as the night's coming on' thing is pretty thin. I don't trust narratively-timed sunsets."
"He has a point," Hephaestion agreed ruefully. "Scouting party?"
"Monsters for children live under beds," El-Melloi cut back in forcefully as the king opened his mouth. "God knows what we're going to find in there. I don't we should be splitting up anymore."
Why the king has not rebuked you yet for your insolence is beyond me, Perdiccas thought, frowning at the other man—but it was an old, well-worn thought, familiar enough in shape that the thinking of it was as fulfilling as the saying would be. He let it bide, watching Alexander for orders.
"Yet in an enclosed space, we lancers will be more constrained," Oxyathres pointed out. "Separated or no, some will have to go ahead."
"And the longer we talk about it, the farther ahead our raven could be getting." This from Lysimachus, with an understanding of animals that came of having a legend shaped by them—a concern which Alexander only chuckled at.
"It means to show us something," he said with certainty. "It won't go without us. But let us decide on our disposition at the summit, not here beneath it. Our best defenders shall guard our climb."
At his gesture, Leonnatus and Peucestas bowed and went ahead, the former reaching the mouth of rock in but a dash and three leaps, while the latter slid his arms through his shield's straps and followed nimbly after.
The king had barely turned his attention back to his other companions when a hoarse raven cry and Peucestas calling, "My king! We are greeted!" drew every eye back to the summit and the shape of a woman half-emerged from the gloom of the cave, broad-shouldered and with a tumbling flood of black curls. Alexander gestured at El-Melloi without looking away as he shouted up in answer.
"Oh, excellent! Convey my relief at finding one who can speak and I'll be with you shortly!"
The wizard's circle flared, the silver familiar within rippling and changing form as El-Melloi commanded, "Equus!" Mercury flowed and curved, shaping itself into the likeness of a horse—the likeness of a specific horse, Perdiccas noticed, because you didn't spend weeks watching a young Alexander train a filly that had been the talk of the horse market and not recognize Bucephalus's build.
"Waver, bring the rest up after," Alexander ordered, voice dropping to a murmur. El-Melloi nodded as the king changed mounts and rode the false horse up through the air and over the ridge. After a few moments of intent staring, he withdrew his familiar. The quick gesture of circling one hand palm down at his side flattened it out into a broad silver disc as it settled a few inches above the uneven ground. The remaining members of the Hetairoi trooped over.
"All right, then—everybody on that can't clear the wall in three jumps or less." El-Melloi, with a forthrightness about the relative frailty of his body that Perdiccas could only assume was common to the men of his later time, walked straight to the middle of the disc and crossed his arms. Overhead, Alexander's voice boomed forth in greeting, the echoes obscuring any response.
Roxana had already sprung halfway up the cliff and was pulling herself up the rest of the way in silent, graceful lengths. Calanus followed suit and Perdiccas moved to the wall, beginning a swift climb. The others gathered on the mercury's surface, Hephaestion taking his place at the front of the group after coaxing Bucephalus on as well. When everyone had settled, El-Melloi crooked a finger up and the disc began rising slowly towards the summit.
There was, Alexander thought, something of his mother in the woman Eve—the arc of her eyebrows, perhaps, or something in the quirk of thin, expressive lips. He found it vaguely off-putting but thought himself owed at least that liberty, as politely as he was overlooking the way her age galloped wildly between that of a maiden no older than Roxana, skin soft and fair, to a doyenne of over seventy, heavy and beleaguered with long years. Thaïs had told him once, however, that to comment on a woman's age was unrefined, and he did pride himself on his etiquette.
"Arthur tells me you're looking for Dream?" the woman asked. A touch of pity colored her voice as she spoke, and her eyes were grave.
"…So, something has happened to him," Alexander concluded.
"Yes," she nodded, "but there's no one here who could tell you what. He went missing, some…" She trailed off, gaze averting as she thought. "Twenty years ago, the last I heard."
He heard a murmur from his followers and asked politely, "Is he very missed?"
Eve reached up to stroke the raven on her shoulder, which chuffed and opened its wings, gliding back into the cave. She watched it go, then shook her head and turned back, answering ruefully. "By some more than others." She paused, then, giving him a penetrating stare. He realized he was halfway through stroking his beard and the thought, There may be dissident factions, then. She went on as he dropped his hand.
"The realm misses him. It's limping on, but it decays without him here to support it."
Alexander frowned. "You must have sent some to look for him?"
"They come back with nothing or they don't come back. But most dreams don't have the power to leave in the first place."
The king hesitated before he spoke, looking over the woman standing before him, now in her thirties, but moments ago a long-legged girl. No matter her age, to him her dark eyes seemed ancient—but therefore level and composed. He asked, bluntly.
"Would you know? If he were dead?"
"Of course we would," she replied on a softly exasperated breath. "Aside from what it would do to the Dreaming, his family would have come—Death and Destiny and the rest of them."
And then what? he wondered, tilting his head in consideration and crossing his arms.
"As I understand it, if he were dead, there would be a new Dream. It's happened before, to one of his siblings." She sighed again—an old woman, weary. "I'm told it's their opinion that twenty years isn't enough time to seriously worry about, and they may be proven right yet." She shrugged, somewhere between philosophical and resigned.
Anger sparked in Alexander's chest again, indignant and restless. And what of my army? he thought, perturbed. What is their opinion on my men and women who vanished?
"The place we lived is gone." Impatience hardened his voice, rumbling in his throat. "Many of my followers disappeared with it. What can you tell me of that?"
"Nothing factual," she replied, uncowed. "I would tell you to go to his castle. They'll be more up to date there—and there's always the chance the librarian will have something archived on whatever terms were agreed to when you first came here."
"I agreed to—" He paused and glanced back at Waver, whose expression of fixed attention took on a more cautious cast when Alexander caught his eye. He pursed his lips, then shook his head faintly. A few drops of mercury detached themselves and zipped up to float over Waver's shoulder, forming into the shaped of a high-backed chair.
The Throne of Heroes. The king turned back to Eve, scowling.
"What will happen if Dream never comes back?" he demanded, though in truth his decision was already made. (He would, later, tell Eumenes to remind him to reward Aristander when they recovered their seer.)
"Everything that dreams will go on dreaming," she answered, the clear chimes of an initiate's voice passing through the wrinkled lips of a high matriarch. "What does a dream give you, that can be tangibly counted?"
Waves crashing on an eternally distant shore, the salt of the sea coursing through the chambers of his heart every day of his life—he could still hear it, even here. He glared down at Eve, who gazed back calmly.
"You know the answer's 'everything.'"
She smiled, inclined her head in acquiescence, and gestured to the cave behind her.
"Would you like to stay and rest? We're very close to Nightmare here—when the sun goes down it's going to get very strange."
With the ease of long practice, he hushed the part of him that itched—now and always—to press on. There was, he expected, a great deal here yet to learn, and others who could ask questions he might not think of on his own. He grinned purposefully and bowed.
"With all the royal gratitude."
Such an ill-humored place, this, Leonnatus thought as he watched the lower reaches, hands laced together over the pommel of his sword. The fog below, such a constant up to now, slunk nearer and nearer to the ground as the moon rose, a purple-tinted silver globe gliding amid unfamiliar stars. In the lavender cast of its pale illumination, tall figures roved along the slopes. Spindly, long-limbed things, like young fire-blackened willow trees, they scuttled over the cliffs with an eerie, gravity-defying fluidity, sometimes upright, sometimes laid out like centipedes at their full length. White cloth hung in tatters over their center trunks, pierced through and pinned out by the charred bones of their appendages.
Somewhere in the scratched lines of them Leonnatus thought there had to be faces, for at times when they would turn and crane towards the cave, orange flames winked and blinked to life: five ember-like lights each time, gathered near the top in what he supposed to be a ghoulish smattering of eyes. Each time he looked directly into the array, a loud wooden clattering sounded directly behind him. It had been an ugly, terrifying shock the first few times, whirling with horror and the certainty that somehow one of the things had gotten around behind him, but each time there'd been only the cave, warmly lit from within, the only sound that of muffled talk and sporadic laughter.
Now he just avoided eye contact. None of them had yet tried to scale the last wall up to the cave, in any case. Whatever sort of being Eve was, it seemed the creatures gave her a wide berth.
Footsteps behind him raised his head, but as they were of the normal human variety, the soldier kept his vigil until Philip had joined him at the precipice, close enough that Leonnatus could see him with only a glance to the side.
"I am officially making the rounds, so no evasion," Alexander's physician opened with wry frankness. "Are you well?"
Leonnatus considered this quietly, short hair moving faintly in the breeze. He'd yet to be exposed to any physical danger, insomuch as there was physical danger to be found here. Neither had he lived so long away from Alexander that the voices in the woods had been too harrowing. Still, if complete honesty was the request…
"Unsettled," he allowed. "But in no danger yet of being unmanned by it. If it matters to you, my council would be to save your strength. His Majesty will be wanting to press on far sooner than the sun will rise, if the night here is as long as the day. And then we'll have those to fight past, or something like them."
He nodded at the creatures below and watched sideways as Philip followed the gesture down into the low mists. As if feeling the attention, one of the tatterdemalions thrust itself up from a crawl, the amber lights of its gaze fluttering to life. Philip's breath caught raggedly in his throat and he spun around, the blue chlamys he preferred to armor flying. Leonnatus gave it three seconds before he turned as well, putting a light hand on the older man's shoulder.
"There's nothing there. It doesn't even make a sound outside your own head." He paused, meeting the other's gaze levelly as he turned back, rattled. "But it is…"
"Unsettling," Philip finished. "Yes."
Leonnatus turned back to his guard. "How are things inside?" he asked quietly.
"…Well, the bird talks," Philip answered dryly after a beat to gather himself. "It's quite full of itself, actually."
"Who provoked it?" The soldier permitted himself a faint smirk.
"Who else?" As always, Philip hid laughter very poorly. "Lysimachus kept prodding at it. The last I saw, it was trading barbed quotations with Ptolemy."
We may never escape, then, Leonnatus thought, but aloud asked simply, "And the others?"
"Trying to chart our course ahead," his companion replied. "The lady Eve says that the way to the center is a spiral, but without maps or reliable landmarks, only knowing that is less than helpful. It seems we will know our path is correct when we find the houses of two brothers."
Leonnatus nodded fractionally.
"And Alexander." This question he could speak only as a whisper, a breath on the night air and no more, too reluctant to summon any memory of the king's weakness or failing.
The desert has been too kind to us.
At his side, Philip sighed softly. "Angry," he murmured, "and grieving. Yet so long as we've still Hephaestion, I think it will bide. He has ever been the surest balm for the king's tempers."
The shorter man dipped his head in another shallow nod, replying with a clipped, "Gods willing, we will keep him this time."
"Our powers are stronger here than they were," Philip affirmed. "No mortal sickness will take him, that I can promise."
Leonnatus made a noncommittal noise, eyes not straying from the nightmares below. Perhaps Philip guessed at his thoughts, for he too fell silent, observing the movement of the decidedly-not-mortal creatures wandering the cliffs.
"Still," he said after some time. "Perhaps the outside world will be safer."
Leonnatus glanced up at him without surprise.
"You also think we will be leaving, then."
"I think that our king will not be whole again until he has restored the others—and if there is only one thing I could say of Alexander, it is that such wounds only drive him harder."
"Will we be able to exist there as we are now?" That was the only real concern Leonnatus had, though he would follow Alexander regardless of the answer.
"That's a better question for our wizard than for me, I would say," the doctor answered, wry again. "But the lady Eve did not contradict Alexander about sending Dream's vassals to search for him, so I think we will be able to. For a time, at least."
Leonnatus hummed in agreement and the two fell quiet again, keeping an easy, wordless company until Peucestas and Oxyathres came to relieve them.
They bid Eve goodbye when the morning came, some eight guard rotations later—about a day and a half, Calanus estimated. The monsters of the night had passed with it, to everyone's relief, and the path out of the mountains lead them into milder but stranger climes—empty theaters, classrooms of students rendered identical in dark-lensed gas masks, joyful expanses of sky piled with downy white clouds, underwater realms of cloying languor. Waver named what he could, and really, Lysimachus thought, the only thing more entertaining than seeing what future-folk dreamt of was watching the wizard's reaction to it. The candy floss forest expression had been, he felt, especially put-upon.
Delicious stuff, too, though not worth the days they spent lost in it amid ever-increasing fears of sharing Persephone's fate. Eumenes finally spotted the pattern, though, and so they emerged into monochrome bustle and the humming of crowds.
"Tube station," Waver pronounced as everyone stared at the high arcs of the walls, the broad stairways and stained glass, the gray wash of stone and darker strata of metal, and the hordes of colorless travelers, their features phantom blurs in their busy self-absorption. "People come to catch trains, which are like the fastest wagon trains you can imagine, only you don't need horses or oxen to pull them. If we're lucky there'll be a route map around here somewhere."
"My king, if I may…" Beside Lysimachus, Peucestas shifted and spoke up. Alexander, holding Bucephalus's reins in one hand and looking around in interest, hummed for him to go on. "Why are we the only ones colored?"
"We aren't, though! Look!" Lysimachus hiked one foot onto a low brick wall and bounced up, gold armor clanking. He pointed down the new dream's broad length to the massive flight of stairs at the far end. In the ascending flow of people, one point of color bobbed in and out of view—the bright yellow gloves of a child being tugged along in her guardian's wake.
Roxana hopped up beside him, red skirts swirling, and scanned the chamber. "They aren't many, but they're there."
Here and there, Lysimachus picked out the others—a woman in an ornate purple dress coming out of a tunnel, a young man in drab greens and browns folding a helmet in his lap as he sat and brooded on a bench, a man in crisp black that stood out far less than the wreath of flowers growing around his head and the whorls of woodgrain on his thin cheeks, and various others more or definitively less human.
"Dreamers, perhaps?" Ptolemy suggested. "Or dreams themselves?"
"We might ask them," Roxana suggested. "Eve did say there were other things living in dreams that were self-aware."
"Mm," the king rumbled. "Let us take advantage of the walls. Waver, take Calanus and Peucestas and try to find a map. Thaïs, Ptolemy, Lysimachus, Oxyathres—see if anyone here will speak with us about our journey. The rest of you spread out a distance and watch for trouble."
Lysimachus raised his shield with the rest of the companions' assent then turned to face the crowds. Thaïs was already headed towards the youth on the bench, and the other two men glanced at one another and headed out into the press of travelers. The woman in purple had seated herself on a bench just visible past an arch on the left side of the room, which let out onto a platform and darkened tunnel.
None of the gray folk in the crowds have even looked at us since we arrived, so best to talk to others like us, he reasoned as he hopped down from his perch and set off in her direction. As he'd thought, though his path across the chamber was much-jostled and he apologized politely each time, the colorless ones never seemed to acknowledge him beyond a glance and a distracted nod. He pressed on.
As he arrived, she lowered the small circular box she had been peering at while making minute adjustments to the hat pinned into her swept-back auburn hair. Closer up, her dress was multi-layered, the skirts full and round, a silver and pearl brooch pinned at the high lace of the collar, the waist pulled so tight that Lysimachus thought he—and if not him, certainly Alexander—could nearly touch fingertips around it. She was blue-eyed, and the laughter lines at the corners of her mouth were balanced by the girlish upturn at the tip of her noise. At her expression of polite expectance, he pulled off his helmet and stood to attention.
"Lady, I've come on behalf of my king, the great Alexander of Macedon, Hegemon of the Hellenic League, Shahanshah of Persia, Pharaoh of Egypt, and Lord of Asia. If you will assent, he would have words with you regarding the journey he now undertakes."
By the time he'd done speaking, the woman's eyes were sparkling merrily.
"That's quite a mouthful, sir," she said, smiling broadly. "Is your name also quite so long?"
"Lysimachus of Pella is my name," he laughed. "Somatophylax of the king, which is my only title that matters anymore. May I ask yours?"
"Alyssa Fredinham," she answered, standing up to curtsy, "explorer and speaker for Vendavale Heights. What is it your king wants to discuss?"
"He means to seek out the king of dreams so that our home may be restored. We lost many of our number when…" He trailed off, abashed. "Well, others could explain it better. The dream we lived in came apart; he will see it restored. But until these last weeks, we didn't know where it was we lived in truth, and so we easily become lost."
"So it's a guide you need?" she surmised. "As it happens, I'm headed the same way—and for much the same reasons. I am sometimes an emissary to Dream's castle myself, and of late my people have been conferring about taking action before our home meets the same fate as yours has."
"Are you also Heroic Spirits?" the soldier asked curiously. "Or do you only live in the dream country, like the lady Eve?"
"We made a bargain with Dream a few ages back and have lived out in the skerries ever since." The woman tweaked the folds of her skirt straight and gave him a bright smile, thrusting her hand towards him. "Charmed to meet you! If we're all headed the same way, I don't see why you shouldn't come along with me. Lets go see your king and give it a good chat, shall we?"
Taking her extended hand, he nodded.
"Then please come with me."
He escorted her back across the station floor, up into the alcove where Alexander waited, talking animatedly with Hephaestion and pointing to where Waver stood talking to a shrouded figure in a smaller room, its barred opening facing the floor. The wizard gestured emphatically then looked to the side and nodded, stalking off in the new direction with Peucestas dutifully flanking him and Calanus trailing amicably behind.
Hephaestion saw the two coming first and nudged the king, who turned and blinked in startlement before grinning, a proud look that made Lysimachus beaming back in triumph. Even above the murmuring hum of the hall, he could hear Leonnatus's name called in Alexander's enthusiastic bellow. The dark-haired soldier appeared at the king's side, listened and nodded, and slipped easily into the crowd.
"My king!" Lysimachus greeted as he ushered the lady traveler into the alcove. "I introduce to you the speaker of Vendavale Heights, Alyssa Fredinham, explorer and envoy to the Dream King." He stepped to the side and dropped to one knee respectfully, ceding the conversation to the king.
"I see!" Alexander boomed. "And an envoy can certainly tell us if we're headed right!" He crossed his arms and leaned forward in interest. "Well? Are we on a good course?"
"Indeed you are, Your Majesty." Alyssa curtsied deeply and smiled back up at Alexander. "And more than that, you're on the same heading I am. Your man here said you were in need of a guide? I'd be happy to take you on."
The king laughed at this and fixed the woman with a keen stare.
"And what would we be repaying you for this service, speaker?"
"When you leave to find the Dream King, take one of my people with you," she replied promptly, straightening again. "Dream will have a great deal to reorder when he returns, and Vendavale would like very much to be high on his list of priorities."
"Why not send someone of your own?" Hephaestion put in, brown eyes watchful.
"No searchers have ever returned," she answered, shrugging. "But you look like a stronger lot than most, and a coalition will look good—and the better a showing we make of it, the more likely Dream's servants are to outfit us with any of their master's articles of power."
Better words no one could have spoken, Lysimachus thought, hiding a grin against his helmet as Alexander rubbed his chin appreciatively at the mention of treasures.
Behind the soldier and Alyssa, the crowd parted around Leonnatus, returning with Waver and the others in tow. The wizard scowled.
"I'd just found the map," he complained, looking between the king and the newcomer. "What is it?"
"We may have found better," Alexander answered. He looked back to Alyssa. "How long will your way take us?"
She glanced back at Waver, nodded to him with a minimum of apology, and answered Alexander with, "From here? Hardly any time at all. The station is a waypoint—you can go on taking the scenic slog if you like, but the quickest way is to just order a ticket and go by train."
"And how much do these tickets cost?" Waver asked, crossing his arms.
"Tickets to the heart of the Dreaming cost something close to your heart, of course." She winked. "If you make the trip often, there's nothing to do but learn to love everything."
"A physical thing," Hephaestion wondered, "or something else?"
"It could be something physical," she allowed, "though you all look like you travel light. It could be an important memory, or a clever thought, or something of your self. Something that matters to you, but not so much that the losing of it will kill you."
At this, silence fell. The members of the Hetairoi glanced at one another, suddenly ill at ease. Lysimachus's grip tightened on his helmet as he watched his king frown.
"The long slog's probably another ten years," Alyssa added before he asked, "though it won't seem that long. Maybe three, the way we'll experience it—time in the Dreaming's funny that way."
"…I think we'd like a few minutes to talk it over," Hephaestion told her after a long moment. "If you don't mind…?"
"Of course, of course! I'll need to get in touch with my contact at the castle anyway, and let them know I may be coming with a group." She curtsied to Alexander again. "Take your time; I'll be waiting on the bench by the ticket booth."
"Bring back the others," Alexander rumbled as she retreated; Hephaestion nodded and strode off into the crowd. The others drew in closer, uncertain.
"…She is correct that we don't carry much," Eumenes said quietly after an awkward silence. "And the physical things we do have are as much a part of us as any memory—"
"For memory is all they are," Calanus finished.
"Then what are we willing to lose in exchange for this?" Philip murmured, eyes downcast and grave.
"Is the speed worth the loss, my king?" Perdiccas frowned, looking after Alyssa distrustfully. Alexander patted Buchephalus' nose distractedly, not immediately answering. Roxana chimed in instead, unhappy but brisk.
"You know it is, Perdiccas. We can't leave the others lost for that long—we don't even know if we'll last for much longer." She moved to Alexander's side; he wrapped one arm around her waist and looked down at her sadly. She shook her head fondly and reached up to press one hand to his cheek, voice comforting and steady. "We have a great many memories and all of time to make more. It is the virtue of a king, to be generous to the faithful."
He sighed, low and grumbling in his chest.
"Generosity is not the same as cost," he complained half-heartedly.
"Maybe not, but they both tally in the same column," Waver said, also watching their prospective guide with a displeased stare. He sat down heavily in one of the rows of chairs in the alcove and leaned forward in thought, elbows on his knees.
Calanus sat down as well, folding into the lotus position as easily as breathing. He looked contemplative.
"Memory is important, but still, not one of the four great knowledges," he mused, looking up at the king. "So long as the memory is chosen with care not to unseat one's own foundations, it should be just a momentary imbalance, and one that can be recovered from in time. And the queen is right—we have all the time that there is."
"Assuming we survive this escapade," Perdiccas said sourly, to which Calanus only shrugged in acceptance of the point.
"Must it be a memory, though?" Peucestas asked, fingers tracing along the edge of his shield. "The lady did tell us other options."
"But what does it mean, 'something of your self?'" Lysimachus asked, looking around at the others helplessly. "Did she mean to say that we could pay for the travel with—with something like a hand? An eye?"
"Probably more metaphysical," Waver muttered, adding under his breath, "This is a dream, not a slasher movie." He drummed his fingers on his elbow for a long moment before continuing. "Something like your voice or the color of your eyes. They might take a hand if you offered, though. There are stories out there like that too."
"That's something everyone will have to decide." Alexander spoke again, solemn. "I can't order you on what to give up." He kissed Roxana's temple lightly and told her softly, "I must talk with Hephaestion. Do you—?"
"It's fine; go on," she answered, kissing his chin while it was in reach. "I want to decide this on my own anyway."
"Decide what?" They looked up as Ptolemy returned with Thaïs, Hephaestion and Oxyathres not far behind.
Lysimachus looked down at the floor again as the others filled the three in on what they'd missed, Alexander quickly taking Hephaestion aside and sitting down with him in a corner.
What can I give up? he wondered, running his hands over the ornate golden shell of his helmet, a gift from Alexander years ago after a lion hunt. I have no belongings to spare, and I'm too important in the front lines to maim myself. But what, then? Memories of my family? My friendships? I don't want to give up those good things—the end of my life was too bitter.
He wracked his mind, thinking of the view from the top of the castle at Pella, where he had stood with Alexander and the others, promising to follow him to the end; of sparring with his brothers; of the faces of his children.
Of all the things they could have asked for as a price—! Why this?
"I have a proposition."
He looked up, surprised, as Thaïs spoke; at the curious looks from the group, she stepped forward into the middle of their loose circle, surveying them all before turning to Waver.
"Waver, can we get wine here?"
He stared at her incredulously for a moment, then rolled his eyes in disbelief as some the others chuckled or smiled. "I might have known," he grumbled, but went on. "Not in the station, no. But probably on the train."
"Pity," she remarked. "My friends, I think we are looking at this from the wrong perspective. We are about to make a sacrifice for the sake of our journey. Such things should be celebrated." She turned again, warming to her subject, a radiant smile spreading over her fair features. "One does not make sacrifices by brooding over how painful the loss will be! Sacrifices are given in gratitude and hope! The gods were kind to us, and we give back with joy, thankful for the bounty!" Her raised fists opened demonstratively as she exhorted them.
"I propose that each person speak of what they are giving up so that everyone can remember and appreciate its warmth and precious value. Then, knowing that those things have been justly honored, we resolve to give them up without regret, knowing that they are the proof of our loyalty and determination, and we have no need to grieve for them.
"And then, once we are on our way, we drink until we believe it!" she finished, voice bright with abandon.
Her husband laughed, as did Hephaestion, and there was a snort from Leonnatus that would have been a guffaw from anyone else. All around the circle, the companions nodded slowly or smiled in approval.
"Will you begin, my darling?" Ptolemy asked. "And afterwards we can speak as our resolve comes to us."
"Is this acceptable, my king?" Thaïs asked in turn, looking to Alexander, who grinned ruefully.
"It's a fine idea; as usual, your wisdom outshines everyone's, hetaera." He half-turned to face her, tugging Hephaestion into a loose embrace and falling silent to listen.
"Then, my king, listen to me as I tell you of my mother." Thaïs spread her arms in a low bow to Alexander, then whirled upright. "A slave and the daughter of slaves, she was but a foreign flute player in the home of a statesman, but the sweetness of her playing and of her demure glance caught the attention of many a visitor during symposiums. She had several suitors, yet she was provided for, so what need had the girl Hagne to assent to being some guest's mistress, neither to be on his arm for all to admire as his companion nor to provide citizenship for her children as his wife? Gifts to her meant little enough until she was given a necklace, golden and filigreed with flowers."
Thaïs laid one hand over her breast; Lysimachus's blinked in realization as he spotted the chain of apple blossoms laid over her neck.
"Flowers for a wedding, sacred to Hera," she went on, shaking her head. "Can it be a surprise that she thought he meant to wed her? But perhaps it too was only a thing that had caught his eye in passing, for in the end, he turned her away, and she returned with me to her father and the house he served." She smiled archly. "Luckily for all of us, I was a charming girl, and one to whom our childless master took a fondness. Ever amused by my questions, and still fond of my mother, he encouraged my education, and so in time I was able to make my own way.
"The day I left the household, my mother passed the necklace on to me. The words she told me then have guided me ever since. I shall not give them up, but they would be the same whether or not the necklace had survived her grief or my own travels—it is but a symbol, though a precious one.
"This, then, is the price for my travel." Reaching up, she deftly unfastened the clasp of the necklace and held it up; it shone against the gray walls of the station. "The only physical thing I have left of my mother, Hagne, whose words and whose example have shaped me so much. I give it up gladly, and know that I was blessed to have had it for so long as I did."
A woman's story, without a doubt, Lysimachus thought as he joined the others in their applause. And even if she lays herself bare with it, she's used it to avoid having to sacrifice a memory. Would that we could all carry such tokens.
Ptolemy welcomed his wife back into his arms and kissed her temple before taking her place at the center of the circle. He looked around at the gathered companions and grinned lopsidedly.
"For my own part, I will sacrifice a small triumph of my later years. It is no great victory for the ages, perhaps, but it was meaningful to me, and therefore I hope it will suffice." He pressed one hand over his breastbone and bowed slightly to Alexander, who leaned closer in interest.
"There is an anecdote written of me in some of the histories, regarding my sponsorship of education and my pursuit of knowledge. Some years after our adventures with our king, I founded the great library of Alexandria and welcomed all who would come to learn and teach there. No stranger was I to those lectures myself, but there was one man whose work presented me with great difficulties—Euclid the mathematician, to whom I myself was patron!" The old general's voice sharpened with indignation, at which the other survivors grinned or called out with mock pity.
"His work Elements was too difficult! Postulates and propositions and proofs; it was maddening! And when I asked him if there was not some simpler way to understand it, the brazen man dared to tell me that there was no Royal Road to knowledge. It drove me to distraction."
"It did," Thaïs put in, smiling broadly. "It was all he would talk about for months."
"As she says," her husband affirmed, nodding. "Though I had other duties, I was still determined to master it. And with the patient explanation of many teachers and my wives' gracious forbearance, after two years, I finally managed to make proper sense of the damned thing, which everyone was calling a masterpiece, a seminal work." He sighed again, this time with deep pleasure. "Such elegant logic, such simplicity when grasped—truly, it was one of my most satisfying moments.
"And yet," he went on, the rueful smile returning to his lips, "I cannot say that my understanding of his works was instrumental to my governance or my victories at war. It was pride that drove me, and while my epiphanies were of great value to me, it would do my legacy no terrible harm to lose them. Trusting, then, that our guide has spoken true of surrendering intangible things, this is what I give: the sweet vindication of understanding Euclid."
The group applauded again, laughter rising again and talk breaking out as Ptolemy returned to Thaïs's side. After a few moments of chatter, Oxyathres took the floor; as he did so, Calanus rose and slipped over to Lysimachus.
"You still look very troubled," he observed in an undertone, sitting down by the soldier's side.
"Yes," Lysimachus conceded reluctantly. "The end of my life was misery—full of vanity and treachery. I prize my memories from before Alexander's death highly. I can't bear to give any up, yet I must in order to go on with all of you. Advise me, Calanus—how can I possibly find gladness in this?"
The sage listened quietly, watching Oxyathres speak of the coronation of his brother Darius, and finally responded, "Pride is a weight on the soul. Ptolemy is wise to realize this." He looked over at his student, whispering. "You are more than one moment of your life. We are all here because of the bond of loyalty shared with Iskandar—and that too is stronger than any one moment. Whatever you decide, choose it confidently—peace of mind will last you longer in any case."
"What are you giving up?" Lysimachus asked unhappily.
"My teacher's understanding, I think."
Lysimachus stared at him.
"You've already decided?" At Calanus's nod, he sighed enviously. "You're always so quick with these things…"
The Indian smiled and reached over to ruffle the other man's white hair. "You only have to know yourself. You'll think of something."
They fell quiet again as Philip moved to the center, and Lysimachus watched, brooding and distant as his companions took their turns, speaking of family and their homes. Some of them laughed to share the memories, some, though smiling and unrepentant, spoke with tears hanging unshed in their eyes, and others murmured their offerings in voices low and brief, solemn but resolved, and it was in the last that Lysimachus's own pain gave way to admiration and humility.
Pride is a weight on the soul, he thought as stoic Eumenes spoke quietly, eyes cast to the side, of the rare laughter of young Alexander, Roxana's child, a sound all the more deeply precious for how undeserved it had felt. If they can give up such treasures, how can I do less?
As Eumenes finished and heeded a beckoning gesture and a proud smile from the queen, Lysimachus took a breath and stood, all but the last to take the floor.
"My king," he said, smiling to Alexander with a heart that might at any moment burst with joy or pain, the feelings too mingled now to separate. "I still carry the scar from the first lion I slew for you. The second, you protected me from, reminding me of the injury. We laughed of that for months but secretly it stung my pride, and each time I anticipated the day I could prove myself. But I have fought monsters in the desert with you for hundreds of years now, and I no longer have any fear that failing in battle will cause you to think less of me." He bowed and finished, voice uneven and heat gathering in the corners of his eyes.
"My king. For you, I give up the third lion."
Alexander smiled at him proudly and nodded acceptance, lifting one hand and gesturing him closer. He came gratefully, submitting to the rough embrace.
"I know how much it means. Thank you," said the king into his ear in a voice like far-off thunder.
Lysimachus nodded, a jagged drop of his chin, and released an uneven breath.
"Anything you need," he said plaintively, resting one arm against his friend's own as they turned their attention to Leonnatus as he stepped into the circle.
Waver stood at Rider's side on the edge of the platform as the king looked down the tunnel. In one hand, the magus held a train ticket, running his thumb over the rough-grained surface and trying not to linger on his nagging sense of loss. As it turned out, telling each other what they intended to give up had not enabled them to cheat the system—though he remembered the group's pride and resolution, their prices had been forgotten as soon as they'd uttered them to the veiled ticket seller. A moment of crisis over Bucephalus's fare had been averted by Alyssa Fredinham pulling off a ring and passing it through the bars with a handwave about favors and teamwork; the mare now stood at the at other end of the platform with Hephaestion, ears flicking in annoyance.
"There will be drink on this train, you say?" Alexander rumbled.
"There should be," Waver confirmed. "On a real train they'd probably complain about all fourteen of us wanting to get howling drunk in their dining car, but if they're like the ticket seller I don't think they'll say anything."
"Good, good." The king smiled—not as enthused as usual, but calm at least. "As Thaïs said, a sacrifice should be drunk to."
"For once I—" Waver began, only to be cut off by Rider straightening suddenly and leaning farther out over the lip of the platform.
"Is that it?! That light!"
Waver hauled futilely on the back of the bigger man's cape, glancing down the tunnel at the point of yellow that had appeared in the darkness.
"Yes, it is! Now get back from the edge or it's going to splatter you all over the tracks, you big idiot!"
Rider leaned back infinitesimally as other members of the Hetairoi crowded around them, looking curiously down the railway. Metal clinked and hissed on every side as the long wail of the engine whistle spiraled out ahead of the oncoming behemoth. Waver flapped a hand at his companions.
"It's just the train whistle! Put the swords away!"
There was a contralto chuckle from behind them as Alyssa made her way up to the platform through the waiting crowd of travelers. Waver gave her an aggrieved look and she raised a politic knuckle to her mouth, studiously looking away to watch the train pull in, which prompted a round of impressed noises from the Hetairoi. Unlike the rest of the monochrome station, it gleamed with black and gold, Midnight Express painted on the side in gilded lettering.
As the doors opened and an owl-headed conductor stepped out, Alexander strode to the fore, brandishing his ticket. The dream creature chirped something at him unintelligibly, but he was already ducking in through the door.
Waver joined the flow of the crowd in, glancing at Alyssa as she fell in beside him. Her outfit had a Victorian flourish to his eye, which was at least a clue about what year it was outside, and while she didn't carry an obvious weapon, he strongly suspected that her purse contained a good deal more than makeup and loose bills.
"If I might ask, my lord," she began, "how is it that you seem so much more knowledgeable about this than the others? Your dress is more modern too, I see."
"It's a long story about a mage war using summoned spirits as proxies and Alexander's charisma," he answered shortly, only to be reminded by his inner nineteen year old—and there was an impulse he hadn't heard from in not-damn-long-enough—that Rider would want the story told.
Rider would tell it himself if he knew it yet. God, that's going to be embarrassing.
He sighed and flashed his ticket at the conductor, who reminded him obscurely of one of his more senile primary school teachers, all white feathers, curiosity and round-eyed, faintly-mad staring. As he entered, he could see Rider waving at him down the length of the car.
"I'll tell you more about it once we're settled in?" he offered Alyssa as he waved back.
"I'll hold you to it," she warned, grinning, but nodded.
He returned the gesture and headed on down the car to the king. Other members of the Hetairoi crowded around Alexander, looking at their tickets and examining compartment doors. Gray dream folk slid and edged past obliviously.
"What's up?" he asked, making his way to Rider's side. His king held up the ticket.
"We are to be separated?" he asked, pointing at the number on his pass. Waver glanced down at his own—not only were they not consecutive, they weren't even the same number of digits. He looked up at the compartments around them. The plaques above the doors showed numbers, letters, symbols…
He scowled at them in annoyance, then looked back up at Alexander.
"We could just sit in the dining car the whole time?" he offered with a shrug.
The subsequent drunken revelry did not, as Waver had worried it might, break down into moping or mayhem. The bar taps, the window mechanisms, the spaces between cars, the viewing platform at the back; all of it fascinated Rider and a happy Rider made depression all but impossible, as Waver well knew. It left him feeling nostalgic, which the train itself seemed to suit, so he didn't complain when asked to explain whatever he could about their transport.
He told them about steel machinery (what he knew of it, which wasn't much, though their guide proved more familiar with the topic), about the whistle, about cowcatchers and tracks.
He told them about coal-powered engines and harnessing steam, about economies powered by the fleetness of the trade, the hundreds of miles you could cross in a single day.
He tried to tell them, at least a bit, about taking the train out to the sea as a boy, crisscrossing leylines and listening to his father and grandmother debate about the efficiency of technology versus magic, and which had the lower cost over time. That it was the fastest he'd ever travelled at the time he hardly needed to tell them, for that they could feel on their own. The topic of speed got him onto airplanes, though, and so it all started again.
The gray folk came and went, sometimes without the train even stopping, gradually decreasing in number. Night and day ceased having any meaning at all as they barreled onward through dreams—clubs and courthouses, hellscapes and battlefields, crumbling brick towers and alien silver spires.
"I wouldn't have expected there to be so much of it, with Morpheus gone," he commented some hours (or days or years) into the journey, nursing a whiskey on the rocks as he watched the worlds pass by outside.
"Dreamers don't stop dreaming, Lord El-Melloi II," Alyssa returned, nibbling restlessly at a speared olive from her martini. "But without him it won't last. And none of it has the weight it should."
Waver snuck a glance at her; she stared out the window with a distant gaze, a troubled line on her forehead.
"We'll find him," he said quietly. "Whatever has him doesn't have a chance."
She shot him a rueful smile and nodded, tipping up her glass in toast.
"I'm quite sure you're right."
Not long after, they finally pulled into a station.
END DREAMING, PART 1
The second chapter arrives! I'd hoped to finish the Dreaming arc in time for a one-month-since-posting update, but it didn't quite work out. In the future, I think my plan will be to update the major sections once a month while filling the time in between with short stories (which I will have at least two of in the month to come).
Thanks to Megkips for the suggestions, pre-readings and encouragement; she is as ever my enabler in all things Fate/Zero. In particular it was her catch that Oxyathres could not have been Muslim because Alexander the Great's lifetime was about 300 years too early for that; he should be Zoroastrian. There has been a slight change in the prologue to correct this, but apologies if it threw anyone. You'd think that would be the sort of thing I would have noticed when researching the history of the practice of facing Mecca during prayer, and yet.
I've added Noble Phantasm names and notable Abilities to the cast list linked from AO3's posting of this, if anyone's curious. For now I'm leaving the details to be touched on in the fic as and when they become relevant, though, so feel free to ignore it as desired. Thanks for reading!