DREAMING THE DEAD MAN
A prequel to the Dagger Saga
Dreaming the Dead Man
Copyright © 2017 by Walt Popester
Edited by Sheryl Lee
Artworks by Silvio “Simbio” Costa
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored
in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means,
electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without
prior permission of the author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, and places are the product
of the author’s mind or are used in a fictitious way.
The dead man stared at her. In a world of shadows, there was no denying: he was looking at her and her alone.
“What do you want of me?” she asked.
He took a step.
Aniah woke up in a pool of sweat, and turned to her husband lying next to her. Crowley was asleep. She wanted to shake him awake. She wanted someone to hug her close and soothe the dreadful fear which still made her hands tremble. Instead, she lay back on her elbow and stared at him. Her King. Her husband. Her only friend in the world.
“What troubles you so much?” he asked, before opening his eyes.
“You never really sleep, do you?” She ran a hand through his raven black hair. “I just…”
“…dreamed the dead man, again.”
He closed his eyes, and for a moment it seemed he was back asleep. But Crowley never really slept. “We’re all dead,” he said. “So what’s the matter.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You’re always that optimistic?”
“No. I think that’s my Blessed Angra, who woke me up in the dead of night? mood.”
She tried to pinch his nose, but that never came easy. He pinned her down on the bed, under his naked, muscled body. “Never touch a King!” He was clearly offended. “I should take your head for that!”
“Oh. Are you going to do that, my lord? Please. My parents are old and they need me.”
“Uh-uh,” he said as his hands slid down her soft, pink body. “Do you think that’s an excuse?”
She tried to wrench free, laughed and then let a fake fear fill her eyes. “They have no one else in the world. Please. Please spare my life—Ow.”
His ring finger found the shrine of her femininity. As she clenched her thighs, he pushed harder. “Maybe this time I’ll spare your head. But you can’t get away with that so easily. So what will my prize be?”
Crowley laughed. “Come on, you’re ruining all the romance.”
“Oh, do what you want of me, my King. I was really, really bad.”
Dove eyes. He loved that. He always did, and Aniah knew it.
Dawn found them hugging each other. He stood up and went to the balcony of his tower—the Pendracon tower, high above the whole Fortress of Golconda. Aniah watched him in silence, pretending she was still asleep, even though she was sure he knew he was being looked at. That was a game that never bored them. Crowley poured some wine into a glass, a very poor breakfast, then looked at it. The glass slid from his fingers, falling over the edge. The tower was so high she didn’t hear the glass breaking.
Her King, her husband, just stared at the wide emptiness before him and she could almost hear the sense of subtle death which pervaded his mind and body.
She walked next to him and lay her head on his shoulder.
At the feet of the mountain lay the city of Agalloch, a perfect circle of black streets, black houses, and black walls—and beyond the walls the desert, and the Tankar army that seemed to hunt their world.
“What are you thinking about?” she asked.
“What do you suppose I’m thinking about?”
“Death,” she answered, and by the look in his eyes she realized she was right.
“My people are hating me.” He looked down to the vast emptiness below. “That’s a new feeling for me, you know?”
“You can’t help that.”
“I moved them from the houses where they’ve always lived, turning this whole city into a battleground. Hay bales soaked with pitch is all that remains of the places where children played. And all of this for what?”
“To save their lives when the Tankars strike.”
“And all of this for what?” he repeated. She didn’t understand, and as she always did when she didn’t understand, she held him closer.
Is he afraid to lose? Is he afraid to win?
“He’s up to something,” Hamon, Crowley’s older brother, told Aniah the day after as they were walking through the woods. The rare, enchanted beauty of the Glade never failed to ease her nerves and make her think about better times, which she usually identified with a past she had long fought to forget.
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t know.” Hamon Nightfall kept on walking, looking down. “These ages are not short of changes. Something great, and scary, is rising in the East. And reading my brother’s mind is getting harder than usual.”
She walked at his side. “Last night I dreamed about the dead man again. He was there on the threshold and he stared at me.”
He looked down at her. “Don’t bother about nightmares when you sleep. The ones you have when you’re awake are much worse to handle.”
Indeed, the battle came. The Tankars had placed their base camp at a safe distance from Agalloch’s walls, but Aniah was on the battlements with her King and life at her side and she could nearly see them. Striving like ants, Tankars were digging long underground tunnels. They were the unconscious side of their world, the east, coming to the surface when they least expected it and then digging down again in the intimacy of their world.
“Is this the end of all?” Crowley wondered aloud, in a tone of voice that could nearly mean, Is this deliverance?
Aniah looked around, and saw no one had heard their Warrior King’s whisper. He had talked for her, and her alone.
They retreated to the Fortress, the core of their resistance.
Nights followed days. Days followed nights, spent sleeplessly under the cruel vigilance of the red and yellow moons. The Guardians’ sorties were merely desperate attempts to fight a too well-deployed enemy, and crueler than any nightmare they had ever faced.
The beasts had risen from the unconscious of their world, and wouldn’t stop.
The reason for the tunnels became clear in a fearsome sonic boom when Agalloch’s walls crumbled. They came down fast, like their hopes of survival.
When Tankars poured into town, they gave free rein to their wildest instincts, enjoying the pain they considered the only reason a war was worth fighting.
When Crowley’s men went out to attack them they always ended up massacred, or worse, captured. Some maternal sense of horror filled Aniah’s mind as she saw the parades of bodies sewn together, men and women whose pain was destined to become a warning for the living.
The sense of Tankars for art…
“All is not lost,” Crowley merely said, donning his helm and kissing her goodbye. Or was it a simple, See you later, love of my life?
Her King, her best friend, the man who had taken her hand to lead her away from a life of suffering and abuse went away in a cruel night, his armored shoulders gleaming in the wicked light of the moons.
Blood, blood and more blood. Agalloch’s citizens were spared nothing. Crowley and his men seemed to have disappeared, when Tankars were caught between the hammer and the anvil. Old tunnels connected the Fortress to the city walls. Crowley had decided to use those to come out at the back of his enemies, cutting off their escape.
The hay bales caught fire. The city caught fire. Street by street, house after house, their beloved city turned to a ferocious furnace where dreams and nightmares burned together. Their memories, their future. Wood cracked and buildings crumbled as the Tankars died.
At the end of their longest night, nothing remained but a pitiless expanse of ashes and ruins.
Agalloch had died to survive.
Aniah found her life again at the far end of death. Crowley stood among the corpses, among the ashes, looking desperate, destroyed. What he had seen, the death he had dealt this time had dug a deep burrow in his soul.
She knew. A woman always knew.
“Crow…” she said.
He raised a hand and she was silent.
“It’s not over,” he replied. “It never is.”
Long war councils followed the Tankars’ massacre. And nightmares, whole nights of nightmares. Aniah dreamed of the dead man again and again, his black, soulless silhouette standing against the dark.
[_Do you feel like suicide? _]was the only thing Aniah could wonder, when she heard Crowley say, “We’ll march. In the dead of night, when no one will see me, or follow me.” He stared at her. “[_I _]will march and kill them to the last.” He looked down, the weight of responsibilities on his shoulders. “No child killed before the eyes of his father shall be unpunished. No woman raped. No house burned. Can you understand that, Aniah? Those could be our children. That could be our life, burning in the night.”
There was no reply to the words of a Warrior King. His Faithful Twelve gathered at the city door of Agalloch and—far too soon and too simply—they went away.
She was probably the only witness.
Thirteen men, Aniah thought. Bad omen.
“They took the Sword of Angra with them!” Hamon said as he burst into her room.
“You’re not serious,” she answered, old and new tears drying in her eyes. “You know it’s forbidden. The soul of a god is locked inside it!”
Hamon nodded. “He did. He took the soul of Skyrgal with him. Please, Aniah. Don’t tell anybody.”
She knew he was right. The chill she felt in her bones told her so. They were carrying something with them, but when Crowley left she hadn’t realized it could be so bad. Or maybe she didn’t want to see.
Thirteen men. Too small a squad to cause any trouble to a broken Tankar army. But if Crowley really took the Sword with him…if the worst has really happened…
She knew the worst had really happened when she heard her god scream in the heart of the Fortress—Angra, Lord of Creation, come to earth to watch over them all. Everyone provided with a pair of ears should have heard him.
But their god had let Crowley go, and so did she.
“Follow him, Marduk,” she told her brother. “Please, do that for me.”
The Delta Dracon, her beloved brother, the one who had survived the winter of their childhood, heard an unexpected note in her voice. “How bad is it?” he asked.
She didn’t answer, but he read the answer in her eyes. Marduk spun, gathered his Faithful Guardians and followed his King.
Something’s happening. Something will go wrong, she thought over and over again.
So began her long waiting. The clan Nightfall was all the time around her, comforting her. She was happy about that. She was happy with the family she had acquired when she married Crowley.
She came from a desperate loneliness, the one of a woman who had fought on her own since always against the big, scary world. But her childish fears soon came back to the surface. The fear of the dark, of the shadows lurking everywhere around her in the silence of her cold bedroom where as a child she had lain, broken. They seemed to be inside the Fortress again, plotting against her.
She felt she was going mad. She couldn’t speak. She wanted to scream.
Nights followed days. Days followed nights. There was something chilling in that long, endless waiting. It was the fear of the big nothingness looming over her.
She slept in the Nightfall mansion in the heart of Agalloch, in the citadel, spared by the horrors of war, where the clans had ruled over the fortunes of the Guardians since the dawn of time. She couldn’t suffer the Fortress itself, the high, impregnable Fortress standing above the miseries of the world.
Is this deliverance? she thought over and over again. Was that what she had seen in her husband’s eyes, before the battle, before the end? She was scared to think about it. Her brave heart couldn’t understand the longing for death, for the end of all sufferings, not in him, not in Crowley.
Her King. Probably the only man she ever cared about, and the only one who hadn’t striven to make her wish she hadn’t ever been born.
She was playing with the children of the clan. She had them all around her in the shadows of a moonless night, when she heard the broken window, and the scream.
She hugged them as fear rose in her heart. “Come with me,” she said. She ran in the corridors and the sounds of agony and sudden death reached her ears as well as those of the children.
“What’s happening?” one of the twins asked. “I think I heard Mommy cry.”
Something’s happening. Something has gone wrong, she thought.
“Nothing. It’s nothing,” she said as she ran. She came to a door, and locked the children inside. “Stay here,” she said. “Stay here and don’t utter a word.”
They were scared to death. She looked at them. She knew fear. “I will come back.” Something in her told her she was lying to them even as they nodded, trusting her.
She closed the door and turned around. Come once and for all, shadows. Now it’s just you and me, she thought.
She entered the dining hall, following their screams. She saw death everywhere she went. Gutted bellies and opened throats, severed limbs, bodies torn in half. Is this the end? she thought. All we went through, all our life together? Is this the end?
She heard their childish screams, and knew all was lost. She spun and ran, ran like she had never done before. She found the children, the softness of their broken bodies immersed in blood.
She heard him breathe behind her, like in her dreams, and turned around.
The dead man was staring at her. In a world of shadows and suffering, there was no denying: he was looking at her and her alone.
“You? Is that really you?” she asked.
One of his armored fingers unrolled, then rolled up again.
He was beckoning her.
“…We don’t really know what caused the end of the clan Nightfall, what homicidal energy spread in the Fortress. At the end of the night, at least two witnesses swore they had seen Aniah Nightfall following a man, who looked dead. Why was she following him?
Why could she trust him so much?”
Ismah Gordon. ‘Uncompleted works’.
Out in the desert I saw a man
He was dead, he was dead
Out of the darkness into the shadows
He was dead, he was dead.
Jeremy Violence – The Ballad of Aniah and Crowley
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