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Embracing Destiny

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TITLE:  Embracing Destiny

AUTHOR:  Tiffany Park

CATEGORY:  Dark Fantasy with Horror Undertones, Angst, Drama, Prequel, Probably AU

SERIES: The series is still untitled. The stories should be read in the following order: "Embracing Destiny," "Choosing Priorities," "Cooking Magic," "Like Sunshine."

SPOILERS:  Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle Chapitres 150 through 172.  References to xxxHolic and RG Veda.

RATING:  PG-13

CONTENT WARNINGS:  Mild language, violent imagery (but nothing worse that what is already in the manga)

SUMMARY:  It is King Ashura's destiny to destroy his own country.  Every choice he makes to defy his fate only leads him farther down that tragic path, even accepting the wish that brings him his heart's desire.  The unwilling prophet fulfills his own prophecy.

STATUS:  Complete

ARCHIVE:  Please ask first

DISCLAIMER:  Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle, xxxHolic, and their characters (King Ashura, Fai D Fluorite/Yūi, Original-Fai, Princess Tomoyo, Fei Wang Reed, Maru and Moro, and Yūko Ichihara) belong to CLAMP, Del Rey Ballantine Books, Random House Inc., Kodansha Ltd., Funimation, and probably a whole bunch of other people and companies I know nothing about.  RG Veda and its characters (Lord Ashura, Lady Kendappa, Lord Taishaku(ten), and Lord Bishamon(ten))  belong to CLAMP, TOKYOPOP Inc., Shinshokan Publishing Co., Ltd., and probably more people and companies that, again, I know nothing about.  This story is for entertainment purposes only and no money exchanged hands.  No copyright infringement is intended.  The original characters, situations, and story are the property of the author.  This story may not be posted elsewhere without the consent of the author.

AUTHOR'S NOTES:   This story plays heavily with the revelation by Princess Tomoyo that King Ashura was a dreamseer, although in this story he's nowhere near as good at dealing with it as characters like Tomoyo and Yūko.

I stuck with English and tried not to use any Japanese titles, honorifics, or terminology because, quite frankly, I don't trust myself to get them correct in context.  I kept "hitsuzen" rather than using "inevitability" (which may have been a mistake), but that's pretty much it.

The dialog and actions in the final chapter of this story are adapted from a scene in the Del Rey translation of Volume 20, Chapitre 157.

If any of this is going to bother you, you'd probably be better off just skipping this story. 

Thank you.

Chapter Text

He felt cold.

Cold and numb, and so very tired that he couldn't even lift his eyelids.  A frigid wind swept over him, and tiny ice crystals stung his exposed face and hands.  Was he outdoors?  He should go inside.  Only a fool would stand witlessly in the elements when one of Seresu's ice storms threatened.

A peculiar lassitude held him motionless, captive to the shroud of numbness over his thoughts.  What was wrong with him?  He fought to move, to reason, and yet he feared it, too.

He inhaled the freezing air.  Instead of the clean scent of snow, a metallic tang assaulted his nostrils.  He opened his eyes—

He woke, screaming in horror.

Chapter Text

Alone in his office of state, King Ashura of Seresu sat at his desk, staring down pensively.  He didn't see the official papers before him, or anything else in the large, ornately decorated room.  Instead, he was caught up in an overwhelming mixture of the sorrow, longing, and horrors bred by the latest dreams to trouble him.

Dreams?  More like nightmares.  And horrible reality, because once foreseen, an outcome could not be changed.  He knew, because he'd tried.  He'd tried so many times, so many times, and always failed. 

The longing wrapped gauzy tendrils around his heart.  He always failed when it really mattered.  Like his family.  He'd failed his own wife and children.

He didn't know why, but the latest dreams of catastrophe brought it all back:  How he'd foreseen his wife's death in childbirth; her death and the deaths of the twin sons she bore.  The same recurring nightmare had tormented him the entire nine months of her pregnancy.  He'd become frantic, pushing the healing mages, the court wizards, even ordinary physicians, to monitor her for any abnormality, no matter how slight.  To seek a solution before a cause was even identified.  They had thought him an over-nervous expectant father.  Their answers were always the same:  There was nothing they could heal before the birth, no apparent problems they needed to correct.

Then she went into labor and it was too late.

Every bloody detail was exactly as he'd dreamed.  She had screamed every horrific, agonized scream he'd heard in his nightmares for so long.  He had clutched her hand, weeping and begging her to hold on, to live, only to hear the screams silenced, to see the light fade from her eyes, to feel her hand go limp–just as in his dreams.  And then, bowed with unbearable misery, he had heard the learned physicians pronounce the babies' deaths again, just as they had pronounced those same deaths over and over in his dreams for nine terrible months.

He'd buried his family in reality, finally, as he'd buried them so many times before in the prophetic visions that filled his nights.

He was King of Seresu, one of the most powerful mages in the land, yet nothing he had done had prevented that tragedy.  No power in the faithless universe could have changed foreseen destiny.  Ultimately, he was forced to live through the inevitable, immutable chain of events that he knew so well.  But still he'd tried to fight the uncaring tides of predestination.

So many years ago, but now he remembered it like it was yesterday.

He felt old.  He appeared young, but he was at least a decade older than he looked.  Magic had a way of arresting physical aging for a time.  Only of the body, though.  Nothing could stop the long, slow buildup of weariness and despair, the accumulation of pain and grief and hopelessness, as the trials of life that battered a person through the years mounted higher and higher.

His most recent dreams added to the burden.  Cold destiny was not finished with him yet.  He knew that this time, at long last, the inevitable flow of events would utterly break him.  He had foreseen it.

His dreams of prophecy only ever brought him sorrow.

Over the course of his lifetime, he had cultivated a mask of placidity, to hide his knowledge of coming tragedies that could not be prevented, or his own powerlessness against the currents of time.  After his family's death, he perfected the façade.  Every day he displayed a lie to his subjects.  None could know the pain in his heart.  From the highest nobles and courtiers, to the myriad of commoner classes, none but his closest companions would ever see more than a hint of his true face again.  Some suspected that all was not well with him.  All knew of his personal tragedies, for the life of a king is rarely private.  But few spoke of such matters to him if they could avoid it.

The people's faith would be shaken if they knew the truth, if they knew of his haunted dreams, the unbearable pain in his soul, his fears for the future and his dreams of disaster.  They needed faith to survive in the harsh climate, and to face the harsher, bitter future of Seresu.  There was no room for weakness, in the people or in their king.

And so he lived within his own lie.  His words were always measured and calculated, his damaged spirit covered with a false smile, false confidence, false calm.  He let nothing of the truth show through to the public.  All his subjects ever saw was a perfect, perfectly serene king.

And the people were reassured.

His practiced visage of peace and serenity should serve him well in the coming years.  But he was so tired.

Chapter Text

It was late, a few hours after the evening meal.  Kingdom affairs finished for one more day, Ashura wandered the castle, lost to thought.  He wasn't paying much heed to where he was going, and only noticed enough of his surroundings to keep him from running into a wall or a closed door.  Guards proudly snapped to attention whenever he happened to idle past them, and out of ingrained habit he waved them back to their positions.

Recently, he had taken to walking the corridors at night.  He would do anything to avoid sleep, and dreams, for even a little while longer.  Perambulations through his castle, where he could safely blank his mind and indulge in inattentiveness, seemed a desirable alternative to his bedchamber's dread promise.

The liquid strains of a harp, skillfully played, flowed into the hallway. The music was peaceful and soothing. He followed the sound, knowing who he would find at the end of this quest. He came to the entrance of the music room and stood there silently, resting one hand on the doorframe.

At the far end of the chamber by the roaring fire, Lady Kendappa leaned into her harp, eyes half-lidded and dreamy, running her fingers over the strings with a master's confidence.  Her flowing, mink-trimmed sleeve slipped down as she played, and a sour note rang out.  She stopped playing, muttering under her breath.

"That's a lovely gown," Ashura said, "but you really should wear more practical sleeves when you practice."

"Oh.  Your Majesty!"  Startled, she rose to her feet and bobbed a little curtsey.

The formal manners she always used in public places, something he barely noticed under normal circumstances, made him feel unaccountably weary.  "Please, none of that tonight."  He found a well-cushioned chair near her and settled into it, propping an elbow on the armrest and letting his head sink into his hand.  "None of any of it."

She studied him with her canny, discerning gaze.  He knew he should square his slumped shoulders, lift his head and straighten his spine, but it would take more energy than he currently possessed.  Even his false smile wouldn't come.  It was too late for such deception, anyway.  Kendappa always saw too much, too quickly.

"What troubles you?" she asked softly, taking the chair next to his.

"What do you mean?" he responded, deliberately obtuse.  He could still manage some small deception, at least.  Words didn't take much effort.

"Forgive my bluntness, but you look tired."

Ashura was well aware of the dark shadows beneath his eyes.  "I haven't been sleeping well," he admitted.

"What serious matter weighs on your heart this time?"  She gave him a gentle smile.  "The raiders from the south?"

"No, they've been quiet this winter.  Things are peaceful right now."

"A particularly tangled trade agreement, then?"

He shook his head.  "I have no present concerns with matters of state.  Perhaps," he mused, "that is the problem.  The calm routine leaves my mind free to brood on things I cannot control."

"Like the weather?" she tried again, laughing this time.

Lady Kendappa was his first cousin and childhood friend.  She was a high-ranking courtier and a modest wizard.  In addition, she possessed a shrewd mind and was very beautiful, as well.  Her major flaws were a near obsession with strength and her tendency to view kindness in others as weakness.  Those traits often proved an advantage to the kingdom, so Ashura accepted them in the same spirit that he accepted her other talents.

In almost all things she was a trusted advisor and counselor, and his closest confidant.  But true dreams demanded silence of the dreamer.  He could not unburden himself to her, not now, not ever.

"If I work at it," he said, "I can control the weather."

"You forget, cousin, I've seen you attempt it.  You only manage to alter the weather a little bit."  She held up her hand, pressing her thumb and index finger together.  "A teensy, tiny little bit."

He finally smiled.

"That's better.  You had me worried," she said.

"You needn't worry about me," he lied.  After so many years of kingship and true prophetic dreams, he was an excellent liar.

"Everyone worries when the king is ill."

"I'm not ill."

"Sick at heart, then."  She got up and moved back to her harp.  "Would the king like me to play anything in particular?" she asked demurely.

Closing his eyes, Ashura leaned back against the cushions.  "Something soft," he requested with a sigh.  "Something tranquil.  Please."

Lilting music filled the room, falling upon his ears like the gentle snowflakes of an early spring shower.  The delicate sounds were relaxing, the comforting heat of the fire warmed him, and he started to doze off.  Perhaps that was her intention, to lull him to sleep.  He accepted her gift, and did not dream that night.

Chapter Text

His blood sang.

He slashed with claws of dark sorcery, reveling in the rending of flesh, in the screams of pain and terror.  Hot liquid spattered him, bathing him in its glorious essence.  Power and strength surged through him, ecstatic, addicting.  With each tearing strike, his magic grew, every cell in his body tingling with burning vitality.  He had never felt so alive, so free.  He could do anything.  Anything.

He wanted more.  He needed more.  More.  Moremoremoremoremoremoremore—

He felt cold.

Cold and numb, and so very tired that he couldn't even lift his eyelids.  A frigid wind swept over him, and tiny ice crystals stung his exposed face and hands.  Was he outdoors?  He should go inside.  Only a fool would stand witlessly in the elements when one of Seresu's ice storms threatened.

A peculiar lassitude held him motionless, captive to the shroud of numbness over his thoughts.  What was wrong with him?  He fought to move, to reason, and yet he feared it, too.

He inhaled the freezing air.  Instead of the clean scent of snow, a metallic tang assaulted his nostrils.  He opened his eyes—

—And barely held back a scream of horror.

He stood in the center of some nameless village.  Bodies lay strewn around him, ripped to pieces.  Crimson stained the snow, defiling its white purity, the warm blood melting ice and mingling with the liquid flows to create vile, pink pools.

He turned in a circle, scanning with his eyes, reaching out with mystical senses.  Death hung over everything.  In the entire village, not one person still breathed.

His eyes turned downward, to the corpses at his feet.  His gaze fell on his hands, and his heartbeat faltered.

His hands were covered with blood.

Shredded skin and wet strings of tissue clung to his nails.  His robes and greatcoat were splattered with gore and gelatinous gobbets of flesh.

No, his mind denied.  It can't be.  It can't.

Wildly, he checked the nearest body, a shopkeeper's apprentice by the looks of him.  He held his right hand over a collection of gashes on the young man's back.

They matched.  They matched perfectly.

Another body, he needed to check another body.  An elderly woman, her belly ripped open and a basket of onions spilled nearby.  It was the same.

No matter which corpse he checked, it was always the same.

Shock took his senses.

He fell to his knees, holding his blood-covered hands out before him, unmindful of the snow melting beneath him and soaking into his clothes, uncaring of the impending storm, the howling wind, the sleet and ice.

He had done this.

He had murdered this village.

He buried his face in his hands.

Chapter Text

Ashura woke up weeping.

"No," he murmured, dragging a shaking arm roughly across his eyes.  "Please, no."

The dreamscape faded; the real world asserted itself.  Ashura stared blindly into the darkness of remorseless night, waiting for the transition to complete.  It was an old, unpleasantly familiar routine.

At last he felt grounded again.  Absently, he conjured a small magelight for illumination.  The circle of fiery spell-glyphs coalesced into a phosphorescent ball of light.  He got out of bed and pulled on a thick, warm robe.  Tendrils of the dream still clung to him.  He needed to free himself of the dream world's influence before he could think clearly.  Fortunately, after long years of experience, he had a tried and true method for that.

A flicker of thought, and the softly glowing orb moved to hover near his right shoulder, providing just enough light for him to navigate his private rooms to the spacious bathroom.  He avoided looking in the mirror.  He knew what he would see, and he wasn't ready for that.  Instead, he poured water into the basin, not bothering to heat the liquid first, and splashed his face.  Tonight the water served a double purpose:  The cold shock forced him the rest of the way to normal consciousness, and the remaining tearstains were washed away.

That done, he leaned on the smooth marble counter, his head dropped almost to his chest, letting the water run down his face and drip where it would.  He breathed slowly to get his body under control.  In.  Out.  In.  Out.

After a few minutes, his heartbeat slowed, the sweat on his skin cooled, and his mind cleared.  He could examine the dream without hysteria.

Not that he wanted to.  But it was a necessary, unavoidable part of this long-established ritual.  Hiding from the future did no good.  Then again, as far as Ashura could tell, knowing the future also did no good.

And this time...  This time...

For the past two weeks, it had been the same.  Not every night, but many of them.  Always visions of himself as a murdering monster, consumed by insanity and bloodlust and dark, dark magic.  Enjoying the pain and death he inflicted on his innocent people, the very people he has sworn a sacred oath to govern and protect.

How could this happen?  What would drive him to commit such atrocities, to forsake his country and responsibilities, his honor, his sanity, his very soul?  Thus far, he had seen no trace of any dream paths leading into that horror.  Instead, his dreamscape seemed eternally frozen in that moment of future time, trapping him with madness and its aftermath.

And worse, the strange, sad longing had also crept back into his heart, along with painful reminders of his family's demise.  Ashura didn't understand that at all.  He couldn't tell how these things could possibly be related.  It made no sense.  He hadn't run mad when his wife and sons had died in childbirth.  The grief had been overwhelming, yes, but it had faded with time and he had grown into acceptance.  Certainly it hadn't turned him into a mass murderer back then, so what was the connection now?

He finally lifted his head and stared into the mirror, into his haunted, despairing eyes.  The magelight's pale luminescence cast eerie, shifting shadows over his face.  If he stared long enough, hard enough, he could discern the visage of a demon, waiting to be released.  Waiting...

His sole consolation was that this was an event in the distant future, perhaps as much as two decades.  It gave him some breathing room, some time to find a reason.  He had to locate the path into the nightmare.  He had to discover the twisted turns his life would take, that would drive him to become a ravening beast.  If only he could know how these things came about, maybe this time he could change them, maybe this time he could defy fate.

He couldn't warn anyone, or ask for help.  It would be pointless.  No one would believe him.  He had learned that harsh lesson in his childhood, before he had accepted the twin necessities of secrecy and silence.  No one had ever believed, not even after he was proven correct.  They always wrote it off as coincidence or a lucky guess.  It was ironic, that in a land of magicians, no one could believe in prophetic foresight.

He would cope alone, as always.

Perhaps if he courted the dream, clung to it, allowed it to play out to its ugly conclusion instead of fighting to wake and escape – perhaps, then, he could pull his consciousness above the future, back into the infinite dream space, and finally, truly see the pathways leading into and out of that terrible moment of time.

But not tonight.  He didn't plan on sleeping any more tonight.

Chapter Text

He buried himself in his work.

It was Ashura's usual response to the horrors in his dreams, and the occasional bouts of depression that afflicted him.  Work didn't eliminate the pain, but the preoccupation with complex matters of governance eased it for a while.

He ran his hands through his long, black hair and stared fretfully at the innocuous papers on his desk.  Working wasn't solving his problems this time.  There was nothing that really required his undivided attention, not even any simple cases of justice to deal with.  The kingdom was in the midst of deep winter, with a massive blizzard approaching.  Throughout the country, people were putting their energies into preparations for the coming storm, even the usual troublemakers and ne'er-do-wells.

Normally this would be a restful state of affairs.  Today, it was a shame, because it left his mind free to obsess about what he planned for tonight.  He got up and paced the length of the office.

He rarely chose to embrace his dreams.  Usually it was the reverse:  they swept him up and possessed him as he struggled to break free.  But he had resolved to find the reason why he would become a monster.  The answer would likely break his soul, but he had to know if there was even a slim chance of turning aside from that evil path.

Ashura didn't know what rituals he needed to do to prepare.  He wasn't sure if there was any formal way to prepare.  His researches in the castle library had turned up nothing.  That hadn't been unexpected.  In the past, he had never found any records, any hints or indications that his affliction was known to the mages of Seresu.  Any others who might have possessed the ability to dream true must have kept silent on the matter.  Like him.

He didn't really know why he'd bothered looking this time.  Hope, he supposed.  Hope that he had missed something during his previous searches, that some past dream seer might have left a long forgotten record, something that might help Ashura through his coming ordeal.

He would have to escape the dream the way he'd always done it in the past.  Identify a trigger point that he would recognize as part of the dream.  Make certain it was something that wouldn't swallow him whole so that he failed before he even began.  A difficult task, given the nature of this dream, but after some meditation he thought he'd found one he could use.  A pity it was embedded so deep in the nightmare.

Painful and unpleasant though it would be, he would have to suffer most of the dream before he could trigger it to release him into the dream space.  He would need to meditate and focus before he slept tonight.  He always had difficulty making this capricious technique work, but he thought he could manage it if he was sufficiently motivated and focused.

What he needed right now, he decided, was a nice cup of tea.  That should help settle his nerves.  He rang for a servant, told the man who arrived of his desire, then returned to his desk.

The castle staff was efficient, and only a few minutes later there came a knock on the office door.

"Come in," Ashura said, waving a hand absently.  The door opened at his mental touch.

He was surprised to see Lord Vainamoinen walk in with the tea tray, and leaned forward against his desk.

"What brings you here, my lord?" Ashura said warily.

Lord Vainamoinen was Lord of the Council of Nobles, their voice to the king.  Carrying tea trays around the castle wasn't usually part of his job, unless he needed an excuse to speak privately of some matter that troubled him.  Ashura had learned the hard way that such matters usually had to do with the king, or, more accurately, the king's vagaries and aberrations.

Too astute by half, Ashura thought.  Just like Kendappa.  Naturally, Ashura discussed with Lord Vainamoinen all things pertaining to the kingdom, the courtiers, and the servants.  Sometimes even his own behavior when that was in question, but never the prophetic dreams.

Vainamoinen bowed his graying head, placed the tea tray on the desk, then stood stiffly and looked Ashura in the eye.  "Your well being, Your Majesty."

"Oh?"

"You seem..."  He hesitated, then said carefully, "Weary."

Ah.  Ashura thought he knew where this conversation was going.  "You've been talking to Lady Kendappa, haven't you?"

"And your body servants," Vainamoinen admitted.  He stroked his neatly trimmed beard, indicating his current discomfort.  "They tell me that of late your sleep is disturbed."

"They should stop gossiping.  How I sleep is no one's affair but my own."

"Your Majesty, you wake up screaming at least twice a week."

"My servants are spying on me?" Ashura asked coldly.

"Not deliberately.  Majesty, no one in the vicinity of your chambers could fail to hear you."

Ashura slumped back against his chair.  "I often sleep poorly.  You and Kendappa both know that."

"But not usually like this," Vainamoinen told him.  "Not in a very long time.  The last time you had nightmares this bad...well, the queen was pregnant and..."  His voice trailed off.

Ashura eyed him with a dark, intimidating smile.  Vainamoinen knew he was straying into forbidden territory.  He must be very worried, indeed.

Vainamoinen busied himself with the tea tray, pouring two cups of the steaming beverage.  He held one out to Ashura, eyes imploring.  "Please, my dear king, have some tea."

Ashura's anger evaporated at Vainamoinen's honest concern and entreaty.  Defeated, he accepted the teacup and took a small sip.  The tea was perfect, just the way he liked it.  "It's very good," he murmured, his way of making amends to his friend.

"Your staff takes pride in their skills and service," Vainamoinen replied in return, completing their old, familiar ritual.  He pulled up a chair and sat on the opposite side of the desk.

"Majesty, I know of the current kingdom affairs, and there is nothing that should provoke such a response from you," he said.  "All is quiet."

Wind rattled the diamond-cut windowpanes.  The promised blizzard would arrive soon.  Ashura stared through the windows, at the light snowfall that would soon be increasing by the hour.  "Perhaps all the peace and quiet is what troubles me."

Vainamoinen scowled.  "Lady Kendappa told me of your theory, and we both agree it is nonsense," he stated, bluntly and far too accurately.  "You usually enjoy peaceful times."

"Until it gets boring," Ashura said with deliberate flippancy, just to provoke the council head and, with luck, end this tiresome conversation.

But Vainamoinen wouldn't be distracted.  "I have given it some thought myself, and I believe there is something you haven't considered, or that you refuse to consider."

Ashura's heart clenched.  Something he hadn't considered...something he didn't want to consider.  The back of his mind tingled with knowledge that he would rather flee.  He lifted his eyes to Vainamoinen's and affected his most unconcerned, serene visage.  "And that would be?"

Vainamoinen bowed his head.  "Forgive me, Majesty, but—an anniversary approaches."

Ashura froze in the act of lifting his teacup to his lips.  This was why Vainamoinen had broached the forbidden subject earlier.  He should have seen it, he should have realized it himself.  It was next month.  The anniversary of his family's death was next month.

He asserted rigid control over himself and carefully set the cup on his desk.  Keeping his mask of false calm in place, he asked, "Why should that matter?"

"Majesty, surely you know of what I speak?"

"I know."  He traced designs on his desktop idly with his fingertips, watching the patterns glow and fade.  "What I don't understand is why you believe it to be an issue.  This particular anniversary has come and gone six years before without affecting me so."

"This is the seventh year.  An auspicious number, wouldn't you agree?"

Auspicious?  Not for him.  It might account for the strange longings and resurrected memories if they were taken by themselves.  However, it couldn't explain the visions of his dire future, nor why the dreams and the longings were interconnected.  "Indeed, my Lord Vainamoinen.  It is a number of great, good fortune.  Tell me, wise lord, what has such a fine number as that to do with my nightmares?"

"There is no need for sarcasm, my liege."  Vainamoinen visibly checked his temper.

"Then explain yourself," Ashura said reasonably.

"Perhaps your subconscious is trying to tell you something, Majesty."

"Like what?"

"Perhaps...perhaps that it is finally time to move on."

So Vainamoinen wasn't simply concerned about his king's restless nights; he had an agenda, as well.  An old, well-worn agenda, something Ashura's council occasionally harped on.

Vainamoinen continued delicately, "As you know, Majesty, there is the matter of an heir."

"Is there?  I thought I took care of that."  Some months after his family had died, and he had finally recovered the emotional stability to trust his own decisions, he had designated as his heir a competent young nephew.  The choice had pleased his government, or so they had said at the time.

"Your nephew is a fine choice," Vainamoinen acknowledged, echoing the king's thoughts, "but wouldn't you prefer your own issue to succeed you?"

"I take it the council would so prefer."

"It would secure the succession and the country's future," Vainamoinen insisted.  "Your own son's right would not be challenged, as your nephew's might be.  Such complications ignite civil wars."

It was a reasonable argument, but Ashura wasn't inclined to worry about it, given what he knew about the future.  The child of a mass murderer was as likely to be challenged as a nephew.  Perhaps even more so.  "I gather that the council has a recommendation for me?"

"Yes, Your Majesty."  At least Vainamoinen had the grace to pretend embarrassment, even if this discussion had been his aim all along.

"And that is?" Ashura prompted.

"There are many eligible princesses and high-ranking noblewomen of marriageable age available in neighboring kingdoms.  A blood bond formed with one of them would be invaluable."

Not to mention politically expedient, both internally and internationally.  He refused to saddle some poor, innocent woman with a mad, murdering beast for the sake of politics.  He'd probably tear her throat out right in the bedchamber.  Maybe not now, but if he couldn't determine the trail to madness and find a different path, it was inevitable.  He gazed out the window, seeing not the falling snow but a dark, dark future.  "I assume you have a list with you?"

"Yes, Sire."  Vainamoinen again bowed his head.

"Leave it on the desk and go."  Ashura rubbed his forehead.  This conversation was futile.

"Majesty?"

"You heard me."

"Majesty, please—"

"It's all right.  I promise to look it over, and give your proposal all the consideration it is due.  Now leave me, Lord Vainamoinen."

With a deep bow, Vainamoinen left.

Ashura lifted his cup for another sip, grimaced with disgust and set it back down.  The tea had gone cold, and he couldn't muster up the will to reheat it.

Outside, the blizzard grew.

Chapter Text

He stood in the center of some nameless village.  Bodies lay strewn around him, ripped to pieces.  Crimson stained the snow, defiling its white purity, the warm blood melting ice and mingling with the liquid flows to create vile, pink pools.

He turned in a circle, scanning with his eyes, reaching out with mystical senses.  Death hung over everything.  In the entire village, not one person still breathed.

His eyes turned downward, to the corpses at his feet.  His gaze fell on his hands, and his heartbeat faltered.

His hands were covered with blood.

Shredded skin and wet strings of tissue clung to his nails.  His robes and greatcoat were splattered with gore and gelatinous gobbets of flesh.

No, his mind denied.  It can't be.  It can't.

"It's not!" Ashura roared.  "It's just a dream!  A dream!"

And just like that, he slipped outside himself.

"Nothing but a dream," he whispered.  It had worked; he was free.

He floated above the carnage, above the half-mad Ashura who was drenched in blood and surrounded by murdered common folk, above the gory streets, above the entire village.  It all fell away like a neat little scene of stagecraft, boxed up and frozen in time.

The infinite dream space surrounded him now.  As always, it appeared to him as utterly surreal.  Uncountable bubbles of dreams drifted all around him, some so distant they looked like glittering stars.  Glowing pathways connected some, were obscured in others.

Lights flickered on the paths and in the dreams.  Other dreamers, from other worlds.  Sometimes, if two dreamers encountered one another, they could speak and even share their dreams.  He usually tried to avoid the others, not willing to share his own nightmares, but sometimes it happened anyway.  From those encounters he had learned that everyone perceived the place-not-place differently, each in their own way.  To him it was a remote, unknowable abyss, but some welcomed it like a favorite lover.

Ashura disliked the dream space only slightly less than his own bad dreams.

Fortunately, it was malleable to a dreamer's whim.  The best way he had found to deal with the dream space was to create a safe, well-known location from which to operate.  On the rare occasions he visited—or was unwillingly pulled in—he usually created a facsimile of his private chambers.  From there he could return to the waking world simply by exiting through the main door.  He could also hide for a time, or, if he were feeling curious or self destructive, open the doors to the spaces where his dreams lurked.  It gave him a measure of control that normally he lacked.

He wouldn't do that, not this time.  He allowed himself to float free, and concentrated on the small stage he had just departed, searching for the pathways that led into it, that led into madness.

But there were no such paths.  Ashura cast about wildly with all his senses.  How could there be no paths into the dream?  Monsters and murderers weren't created out of nothing.  At the very least, he would somehow journey to the village.  Why was there no path showing his travels?

He drifted back in, closer to the bloody scene.  Closer.  He sensed that the pathways did exist, but were somehow shrouded from him, as though by some malignant, alien power.  Strange.

Could it be his own power, that vile, dark sorcery he had sensed his future self using?  That unfamiliar magic had tasted ancient, almost primeval, as though it had been long forgotten until the future Ashura had resurrected it.

His future self might have used this rediscovered power to hide from his present self, to cover his path and prevent any alteration of future events.  After all, if he discovered what he needed to change destiny, this particular version of himself would never exist.  And certainly his future self knew what he was doing now; he'd lived through it, hadn't he?

Ashura really, truly despised the infinite dream space and all that it implied.  Yet, he also rejoiced in it, because that same infinity of possibilities might contain an alternate destiny for him, one not filled with blood, murder, and madness.

Focus.  He needed to focus, if this wasn't to be a pointless exercise in self abuse.

He noticed a thin thread leading out of the nightmare.  Wispy, elusive, but definitely there.  Just the one.  The other paths out were veiled just like the routes into the dream.  He debated whether to follow the trail.  Any path exiting that dream would surely lead to worse dreams.  But perhaps he could learn more about the dark magic that would defile his soul and destroy so many of his people.  It was worth the risk.

This path, too, was shrouded, although not totally.  It faded in and out of the dream space in unpredictable patterns.  He managed to keep track of it despite that.  Finally, it strengthened, as it approached another dream.

Ashura trod the path with trepidation.  The dream brightened as he neared it, but he felt only dread.  The way beneath his feet grew slick and wet.  He looked down, and saw that it had become a river of blood.  With a terrified cry of "No!" he stumbled, lost his balance, and fell into the dream.

At the last moment he caught himself, before the dream could consume him.  He floated, inside it yet also apart from it.  At first, nothing appeared out of sorts.  He saw the snowy landscape, and in the distance his beautiful, winged castle.  Home.

A closer inspection revealed a small group on a mountain outcropping, two men and a youth.  They gazed at the castle.  The one-eyed man wore the garb of a royal wizard.  A highly favored one, at that.  Ashura looked him over, but didn't recognize him.  Inexplicably, that feeling of longing returned.

The others were obviously foreigners.  On the youth's shoulder perched a little white animal, with long ears and a red jewel embedded in its forehead.  A strange creature, radiating an aura of magic and intelligence that indicated it was much more than a simple beast.  Because of that, he was not surprised to see it speaking with the men.

Ashura drifted nearer to this odd group of people, near enough to eavesdrop on their words.

The royal wizard pointed and said, "The only signs of anything living are coming from that castle."

The little creature exclaimed, "Aren't there other people in this country?" and the wizard lowered his head silently.

No people?  In all the country?

The path into the dream—the path he trod was a river of blood...

Ashura panicked.  He shot out of the dream, unable to listen to any more.  There weren't any people left in the country!  Seresu was empty, but for the castle?  Him?  He couldn't have killed them all!  He couldn't have!

He must have.

He hovered in the dream space, just above the dream.  It wavered, and split in two.  The second drifted a little aside.  Within the first was a still life image:  the group eternally looking toward the castle.  Without, there were several paths leading away.  A short path led to the new dream.

He couldn't do this.  He couldn't re-enter that dream, face the truth, live through it and see how it turned out.  He couldn't.  He just couldn't.

He came to rest on the new outbound path, and crumpled.  His body shivered as tears ran freely down his face.  Heaving sobs took him.  He did nothing to stop them.  Somehow, in the tumult, he managed to consider his life, his future, the future of his people.  What would he become?  How could any one man wipe out an entire country single-handedly?

He had thought that first nightmare bad, but it paled to insignificance compared to this.

He let himself cry as he hadn't done since he was a young child.

"What is wrong?" a light voice spoke to him.

He lifted his head and beheld another dreamer, a young, highborn girl.  Her black hair was elaborately styled with many graceful ornaments, and she wore a set of fine silk garments, wrapped around her like a bed robe and belted with a wide, heavy sash.  She knelt beside him and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder.  "It's all right," she soothed with childlike innocence.  "It's only a dream."

"Who are you?" he asked.  His voice quavered, shaming him.

"Don't you know?  My name is Princess Tomoyo."

"I am Ashura," he returned, unwilling to more fully identify himself.  She seemed unsurprised by his response, and so calm.  True calm, not the false serenity he cultivated.  He felt envious.  "What are you doing here, Princess?  This isn't your dream."

"I seek a path through dreams for one I love.  And you?"

"I think I am seeking an end," Ashura said, still lost to his grief.

Her dark eyes widened.  "There is always a path."

"Not always," he said bitterly.  "Dreams end."

"Dreams end," she agreed, "but they create more dreams to continue on.  The future always moves forward."

Ashura didn't reply.

"This is your dream," she said.  "The path you chose.  Yours and the wizard's, to create a new future."  She studied him, and comprehension darkened her eyes.  "I see.  You don't understand yet.  Oh, I am so sorry."

How could she know of what would happen, of what he would do, and still be so kind to him?  Ashura wiped the tears from his face.  "It is what it is.  I hope to find a way to avoid it, though the more I see, the less hope I hold.  I'd rather you didn't share it.  Please, leave here."

"Knowledge of this dream and the next are necessary for my purpose.  It's all right, though.  I'm done here for now."  She gave him a sad little smile.  "We will meet again, King Ashura of Seresu, and by then you will feel a little better about what is to come."

And she was gone.

He blinked.  How had she known who he really was?  From the dream she had invaded?  He pondered her last words.  Why did she think he'd feel better about wiping out his entire country?  The misguided princess must have been trying to spare his feelings out of kindness or pity, that was all.

Still on his knees, he stared hard at the new path.  A strange compulsion took hold of him.  He needed to see the next dream, the inevitable continuation of this one.  His self-destructive streak, no doubt, asserting itself again as it sometimes did when he walked the dream worlds.

He stood and stepped forward.  At least this path wasn't filled with blood.  There was none left to spill.  The encounter with that kindly princess gave him the strength to touch the new dream and know its secrets.

This wasn't one of his; he could tell that right away.  But it took him inside the castle, past the Great Hall, even beyond the throne room.  Death and destruction were everywhere.  Bodies lay haphazardly in every room, every corridor.  Walls were scored and scorched, columns toppled.  Some rooms had been half collapsed.

Somehow, he knew he'd done all of it.  It seemed his future self didn't even cherish his own home.

This dream, though, held no real resonance for him.  He looked at it dispassionately, as though his emotions were deadened.  He did feel sorrow for the dead, and self loathing for what he would become, but thus far the dream did not try to engulf him as the others did.  He moved on, journeying down age-old stairways to the heart of the mountain.

He came to a great set of double doors, used magic to open them, and entered the ancient shrine that the castle had been built to protect.  He moved through innumerable rows of columns to the exact center of the shrine, the sacred pool, and he saw why this dream hadn't tried to swallow him.

He was dead in this dream.  His bloodied body lay motionless amid the ruins, a gaping wound in his chest.  Oddly, he was dressed in his most formal ceremonial robes.  Worn properly, they resembled a butterfly enfolded in its chrysalis, the symbol of transformation.  He had only donned that very special garb twice before in his entire life.  It was as though he had prepared to take part in an important, transformative event.  But transformative for who?  Had he known what would happen here?  Had he expected to die?

Had he planned to die?

It should horrify him, encountering his own death like this, but the veil shrouding his emotions held firm and he felt only relief.  How unseemly, and yet how fitting, that his soul-lost self should join his ancestors and his countless victims here, his death defiling this most numinous place in the country.

That group of people he'd seen in the last dream was here, too.  The royal wizard looked traumatized, his sole eye reddened as tears streamed down his face.  Ashura felt waves of longing, utter heart-pain, and an intense need to comfort the distraught young man.

Alien magic suddenly erupted from the wizard, a bizarre scrollwork of energies:  loops and whorls of power that held terrible beauty and a stranger's malign purpose.  Ashura's thoughts went blank when he tasted it and learned what it meant.  Shock sent him upward, above what was happening.

The stark patterns of power expanded, threading throughout the entirety of the castle, reaching every hidden corner, filling every nook and cranny.  The royal wizard couldn't stop it, though he tried.  The relentless magic flowed ever outward, throughout the whole of Seresu.

A surge of knowledge and horror tore away the veil that muted Ashura's emotions.  He fled to the very edge of the dream.  There he stopped, unable to leave, to even look away.  The dream finally owned him, forcing him to witness the event it foretold.

This magic would eat the whole world.

That was its sole purpose, and it fulfilled it with a blind, inexorable flood of malignancy.  It even reached for him, mindlessly intent on capturing all objects, all beings, all things that existed in this world.  Not even a dreamer was safe.

Ashura flittered out of its reach, far above Seresu.  The castle was the merest speck against the mountains and wide expanses of snowy lands, but the alien magic surged out and engulfed everything.  And when it had consumed all, leaving no tiny patch of earth, no piece of sky, not even the merest crystal of ice untouched, the magic—the trap—closed.

It collapsed in upon itself, shrinking down, swallowing Ashura's world into nothingness and taking with it his mind.

His soul was screaming, screaming...screamingscreamingscreamingscreamingscreaming—

Chapter Text

Ashura screamed.

"Your Majesty!"

He couldn't stop.  He could never stop.  He couldn't wake up, and he couldn't stop screaming.

"Majesty!"

Hands grabbed him and shook him.  He struck out with fists and magic, sending the intruder flying back. 

Another voice yelled out garbled words, unintelligible words.  More voices, more faces, came into the nightmare.  Too many, too much.  Bedlam surrounded him.  Ashura threw back his head and howled out all his anguish, all his pain and misery and sorrow, until his lungs felt as though they would burst.  The world filled with rumbling tremors.

"Cousin!" a new voice joined the din.  One that made him hesitate for a bare instant, before more shouts battered him with pandemonium.  The shaking intensified; intricate spider webs of fine cracks crazed the glass windowpanes. 

"Ashura!"  That same voice, but now it was just more clamor.

Chunks of masonry crashed down.  Flaming spell-runes escaped him, burning the air before his scorched eyes.  He shoved them away violently.  Something exploded; shrieks stabbed his eardrums.  He clutched his ears and lashed out with more spell-runes.  The walls burst into a conflagration of intense blue flames.

Someone screeched hysterically, "Get the wizards!  The wizards!"

More people flooded into the chaos, their shouts and frantic motion a cacophony that hurt him almost physically.  He summoned a whirlpool of magic and unleashed it to drive them away.  The windows blew out.  Wood splintered and swan's down tore through the air as furniture burst apart.

Then everything went white and he knew no more.

When he drifted back to the world, he felt numb.  Lethargic and enervated, with heavy limbs and body.  It was too much trouble to even try to move.

Harp music played gently in the background.  A cool, wet cloth glided over his forehead.  He lay still, eyes closed, breathing deeply.  The cloth was pulled away.  Still he didn't move.  He heard someone wring the cloth in water, then felt it reapplied, this time to his left cheek.

Hushed voices across the room, ebbing and flowing with the harp.  A man said, "This is my fault.  I shouldn't have approached him so soon.  I should have waited until the nightmares passed."  He sounded familiar.  "I should have waited until after the anniversary—"

A woman said, "No one could have known this would happen.  I know him better than anyone, and even I never suspected it was affecting him this deeply."  Her voice was so sad, and so dear.  But he couldn't place it.

"What can we do?"

"We can only wait until he wakes.  Then we shall decide if anything need be done."  The music stopped briefly, then resumed.  "The court wizards are prepared?"

"Yes."  The man sounded grief stricken.

"Then go get some rest," the woman said.  "I will send for you if anything changes."  A door opened, closed, and then there was only the liquid music and the soothing touch on his skin.

He floated for a time, content to allow the harp's sweet, light melody to carry him where it would.

But no contentment, no peace of heart, survived long in him.  Already the pleasant tranquility pulled away from him.  Letting it go with regret, he opened his eyes.

A maidservant softly dabbed his face with the cloth.  He stared at her blankly.

"Your Majesty?" she queried, keeping her voice so low he could barely hear her.  He felt he should know her, but her name eluded him.

The harp music ceased.  Footsteps approached his bed.  The maidservant moved away; another woman took her place by his bedside, picking up the cloth and bathing his skin.  A beautiful, well-loved face peered into his own.

"Ashura?  Ashura, love, are you well?"  Her voice was very, very gentle.  "Do you know me?"

He whispered, "Kendappa."

A brilliant smile lit her face, and her eyes filled with shining moisture.  "Ashura.  Oh, thank all the gods."

"I feel strange."  His voice was hoarse, and his throat hurt so very much.

"It's all right, dearling.  It's normal.  Don't worry."  A single tear trickled down her cheek.

He wanted to reach up, touch her face, but couldn't make his limbs obey.  "I can't move."  Oddly, this didn't trouble him as much as it should.  "Kendappa, what's wrong with me?"

"You've been ill, love."

"Ill?"  Although his voice was raspy, he didn't remember being ill.  His thoughts were sluggish, his emotions blunted.  A blank, white wall barricaded him from himself.

"Yes, love.  Very ill."

"There's something there," he murmured, focusing inward.  The white wall contained him.  "Something inside, something that's not me."

"Ashura, it will be fine.  Everything will be fine."  She sounded as though she were trying to convince herself.

He pushed on the wall.  Crinkles appeared, then cracks, marring the perfect white surface.

"Ashura," Kendappa implored.  Her voice was strained.  She dropped the cloth and grasped his upper arm, her fingers digging into his flesh through his sleeping robe.  "Ashura, don't.  Please don't."

It didn't take much.  Just another push against the biggest crack, and the wall crumbled to dust.

With the wall gone, his thoughts were his own again.  The numbness vanished as though it had never been.  He lifted his hand, stared at his palm.  "The wizards—they did this?"

Kendappa said nothing, but the grip on his arm tightened.

He now recognized the barrier his court wizards had put on him.  A healing block meant to quiet patients and keep them calm.  The wizards had used a much stronger version to hold him, to subdue his mind and body, and make him passive and pliable.  Why?

With that question, memories flooded into him.  He sat up abruptly, eyes wide, as mental turmoil whirled violently.  Murder and alien power and a river of blood.  Seresu wiped out of existence.  Raging magic, out of control.  Screams, his own and those of others.  Explosions, fire, destruction...

"No," he whispered.  "Oh, no."  He covered his face with his hands and shook.

"Ashura, don't think of it," Kendappa begged.  "Don't."

"Help me, Kendappa," he whimpered.

"I am, love, I am."  She enfolded him in her arms and stroked his hair.  "I'm here.  It's all right."

He held her tightly, marveling at her fearlessness.  Having seen what she must have seen, knowing what she had to know, she still stayed with him.  She was safe with him.  She would always be safe with him.  He could never hurt her, never hurt Kendappa.

Except, he might.  Someday in a dark future, maybe fifteen or twenty years from now, he might tear her to pieces without even recognizing her—and enjoy it.

He pushed her back, holding her at arm's length.

"So that is what it's like to go mad in the real world," he whispered.  Sudden fear raked through him.  "Kendappa, did I hurt anyone?  Did I ki—"  He faltered, horrors flashing before his eyes.  He swallowed hard and forced himself to ask the dread question, "Did I kill anyone?"

"Everyone's fine," she said.  She touched his hair again, shifting aside a stray lock that had fallen into his face.  "You vented your rage on the furniture.  We had to move you to these rooms.  Yours were destroyed.  There were some injuries, but nothing serious.  Just a lot of panic."  She grasped his shoulders and stared him squarely in the eyes.  "You did not kill anyone."

He searched her face, looking for the lie, the deception meant to becalm him, but all he found in her was complete honesty.  He looked away.  "You should have just locked me alone in my chambers and let me rave," he muttered with self loathing.

"We couldn't do that.  You were in so much pain."  She sighed.  "I won't lie to you.  You terrified everyone.  You were so far out of control."

"I'm sorry," he said.  "I'm so sorry."  He could hear the fear in his voice, and in hers.

"If these dreams of yours can trigger such outbursts...  Ashura, if this should happen again, or worse...  Next time we might not be so fortunate.  We might have to..."  She trailed off, not finishing the thought.

But he knew.  He remembered how she had asked Vainamoinen if the court wizards were prepared.  Prepared to deal, finally and irrevocably, with their mad mage king.  Perversely, that thought gave him comfort, that his nobles and wizards were prepared and willing to perform their ultimate duty.  It was a duty that hadn't been asked of a royal court in over two thousand years, and even then only in legend.

And yet, he knew they would be too late, they wouldn't realize the truth until he was too strong for them, until he was too far gone to care or hold back.  They would fail against him.

"It won't happen again," he said, trying to reassure her.  This was her worst nightmare, as murdering the country was his.  "I think...I think I've finally seen the worst of the dreams."

"How can you be sure?" she whispered.

"There's nothing left, nothing left to destroy."

"What do you mean, there's nothing left?  Ashura, it was just your bedchamber.  It'll be fixed and refurnished in no time."

There was nothing left—for him or his country.  No hope for Seresu.  He shuddered.

"It doesn't matter.  It won't happen again," he repeated, pulling her into another fierce hug.  He buried his face in her shoulder.  There was no hope, unless he found a way to change destiny.  "I swear, Kendappa, I won't let it happen again."

He looked up when he heard someone discreetly open the door.  Lord Vainamoinen warily poked his head in.

Ashura gazed at him with deliberate, calm sanity.  "Lord Vainamoinen," he greeted, forcing his abused voice to sound as normal as he could.

"The maid brought me the news that you had awakened, Your Majesty," Vainamoinen said, cautiously.  "Is everything all right?"

Kendappa pulled back from the hug and turned toward the door.  She smiled happily.  "Everything is perfect, my lord."

Vainamoinen slumped with such utter, visible relief that Ashura wanted to laugh.  He didn't, but he did smile, an honest smile for once.

This apparently relieved Vainamoinen even more.  "Welcome back, Your Majesty."  He nodded to them both.  "I'll see you later."  The door closed.

Kendappa said, "You know he's going to want to talk about this."

Ashura nodded.

"What will you tell him?" she asked.

Ashura rubbed the blankets between his fingers, careful to avoid discharging any magical energy.  Everyone was upset enough already.  He didn't need to add to it.  "The same thing I told you.  There's nothing more I can say."

She stood.  "I hope you're right, and the worst is past.  Are you truly certain?"

"I think so."  What could possibly be worse than the outcome he'd foreseen?  "I'll still have nightmares, Kendappa.  That won't change.  They're a part of me.  They have been my whole life."  He owed her some warning, even if couldn't explain why.  Not if he wanted any hope of changing the future.

"I know.  I wish they weren't."  She walked to her harp and sat down, pulling the instrument into position.  "Does the king have any requests?" she asked playfully.

Ashura's lips twitched into another honest smile as he remembered the time her playing had lulled him to sleep.  He had been blessed with a dreamless night.  He wouldn't sleep now, but Kendappa's harp always soothed his nerves.  They especially needed a balm at this time.  "Anything is fine."

As his cousin's skilled fingers moved over the strings and soft music flowed into the room, Ashura closed his eyes and relaxed against the pillows.

Strange, he mused, that a person who so often despised kindness as weakness in others should always be so kind to him.  Especially when he didn't deserve any kindness at all.

Then again, she had been ready to order him put down like a rabid dog.  Perhaps he was mistaking guilt for kindness.  Perhaps she wasn't so kind to him, after all.

Chapter Text

Ashura spent the next two days in seclusion in his temporary quarters.  There wasn't any kingdom business of particular import to deal with, so he had no need to put in an appearance any earlier.  In truth, he suspected his court was relieved that he stayed out of sight for a time.

The only people he admitted were Lord Vainamoinen and Lady Kendappa, who both came to not-so-subtly assess his mental condition.  The intense experience of the other night seemed to have dampened his affliction for the time.  He was able to get some ordinary rest for a change and, as a result, was decently composed and coherent.  Kendappa also played her harp for him, so despite their purpose, her visits didn't lack for charm.  Not that anyone but an ungrateful, uncouth boor of a cousin would even suggest that Lady Kendappa lacked charm, or so she told him.  More than once.

The discussion with Lord Vainamoinen went about as well as Ashura had expected.  Vainamoinen wanted answers; Ashura couldn't do more than give vague reassurances that the worst was over.  Both Vainamoinen and Kendappa still believed that the nightmares and resulting outburst were due to the coming anniversary of Ashura's family's deaths, and Ashura did nothing to dissuade that line of thinking.  Ultimately, the Lord of the Council left the meeting feeling as satisfied with the king's explanations as Kendappa had been.  In other words, not at all.

Ashura spent the rest of his solitude in meditation and contemplation of the dreams that had triggered such chaos.  It wasn't a particularly pleasant way to pass the time, but was necessary.

He breathed evenly, thinking of nothing, putting himself into a calm state of mind.  When he felt centered and grounded, he gazed into his focus stone, a large, polished sphere of flawless fluorite, letting his sight go blank and allowing his thoughts free range.

He first considered the other dreamer he had encountered, that strange Princess Tomoyo.  She had behaved as though she already knew him, even though he had never set eyes on her before.  Perhaps she did know him.  In that case, their first meeting hadn't yet occurred for him, but already had for her.  That meant she had met a future version of himself.  When she met him for the first time, he would already know her.  Time was meaningless in the abyss of dreams.  One could not rely on it to enforce order upon events, as one could in the real world.

It gave him a headache.

Even more unsettling, not to mention terrifying, were the pronouncements she had made, the worst of which implying that he would deliberately choose the path of madness and murder.  Her words were branded into his memory:  "This is your dream.  The path you chose.  Yours and the wizard's, to create a new future."  What future could anyone desire that required such horrors?  What possible future could he want so much, that required the murder of all his subjects and the annihilation of his whole world?  And the wizard she spoke of, who was that?  Ashura needed to make certain he never had anything to do with such a person.

Maybe...  Could this mysterious wizard she had spoken of be the royal wizard he had seen in the second and third dreams?  But that wizard had seemed so sad and regretful about the situation.  Ashura didn't believe the young man had desired that future.  He regretted even more the panic that had flung him from the dream space and erupted into uncontrollable hysteria when he woke.  Had he remained in the dream world, he could have seen further dreams, dreams that the wizard would live out, and attempted to discover just what was so important that it required Seresu's destruction.  He might still try.  Princess Tomoyo had sounded as though there was more than mere chance at work, but she hadn't shared and he had been too upset to ask.

Her conviction that he would eventually feel better about it simply repelled him.

Perhaps she would first meet him after he went mad.  That could account for her peculiar statements.  A madman might very well want to create such a nightmarish future.

He needed to examine the dreams themselves, determine if they held any answers.

He dismissed the contents of the first dream.  They were old now, and well known.  Of more interest was the malevolent power that had shrouded most of the paths leading into and out of those horrible events.  At the time he had thought it merely something his future self had done, but now he wasn't so sure.  He knew the flavor of the dark, primeval magic his future self utilized to such horrific effect.  The power that hid the ways into the dream was different, he was sure.  He had no basis for this belief other than his own memory.  But he would file it away for investigation the next time he walked the dream worlds.

The second dream he took to be little more than the inevitable result of his descent into madness.  He had fled it too soon to glean any truly useful knowledge about the events it predicted.  There were those mysterious travelers he had seen on the mountain outcrop.  An intriguing group, that was certain.  The royal wizard with them had been of the highest rank, a favored member of his own court.  Probably that wizard's purpose had been to deal with the insane king.  While visualizing the young man, Ashura again felt a surge of longing.

Now that he had the luxury of time, he tried to analyze the feeling.  But it just didn't make any sense that he was so affected.  Ashura had never met the man.  Besides, he certainly didn't feel like that about any of his current wizards, no matter what their rank.  He should have stayed and observed what would be, but he was rather glad he hadn't.  The longing might simply be some hidden aspect of the dream, or an unconscious perception from some other dream linked to this one.  Sometimes that happened to him, and he had an emotional reaction before knowing the actual cause.

There was a touch of dark magic on that wizard, but it was too well disguised to permit identification.  In addition, there was something else about him, some strange essence foreign to Seresu.  It was indefinable, and made chills run down Ashura's spine, made him think that the wizard wasn't quite human.  He couldn't identify what the wizard might be, though, and wondered how the young man had ended up in the royal court.

As for the wizard's companions...  Ashura called them up in his mind's eye.  The largest man had appeared unarmed, but had possessed the bearing of a warrior.  The youth had seemed unarmed as well, but had also carried himself like a warrior.  In addition, he had had the scent of magic about him.  And then there was that little white creature...

Ashura couldn't even begin to guess what that creature was, or why it had been there.

He continued on to the third dream.  That one required real consideration, though he quailed at the task.

He began with the only aspect of the dream he thought even remotely positive:  The consolation of knowing that he had ultimately been killed, probably by that group of travelers he had seen before.  The warriors, one of whom had likely been responsible for that hole in his future self's chest.  And the wizard...

No.  Now was not the time to dwell on his inexplicable feelings about that wizard.

He needed to move past that, to focus on Seresu's ultimate fate, find the connection between his coming madness and the sealing—the annihilation—of his world.  It was tied to that wizard.  He firmly repressed the now familiar emotions the young man evoked, and instead examined the sensations of the magic that had flowed from him.  How the wizard had attempted to stop that outpouring of power, and failed.

Another will had been on that magic.  A will that the royal wizard hadn't been able to counter.

A curse, then, Ashura decided.  An extremely powerful one.  That was the touch of dark magic Ashura had sensed before on the young man.  It didn't explain why the wizard hadn't felt human, though.  That continued to elude him, but he didn't believe it made any difference in this case.

Ashura started to tremble as the full ramifications of his vision became clear:  Someone wanted Seresu wiped away from all the worlds in all the realities.

Why?

Who could want such a thing?  Himself?  In those dreams, he had ultimately depopulated the entire country.  Perhaps some of his subjects had escaped, but he knew—knew with the implacable knowledge of a true foreseeing—that he had killed a large proportion of them.  Would he also curse that royal wizard, and finish what he started?  After killing all his subjects, would he desire the end of everything?

He shook harder.  A jumble of emotions rose up, threatening to drown him.  With an effort, he called upon long years of experience and forced some calm back into his mind and body. 

Could he really do such a thing?  And if he were capable of it, why put it on the wizard with a curse?  Why not just perform the spell directly?

But even he didn't have such power, the power to seal away an entire world.

Not yet, a hateful, cynical voice whispered in the back of his mind.  Not yet.

No, not yet.  But maybe someday, after he embarked on the path of blood.  He vividly recalled the first dream, the dream that had started it all.  How alive he had felt while murdering the village, how his magic had grown stronger with each killing, how glorious the dark power had felt, and how addictive.

Addictive...

Perhaps...  Perhaps the addiction was the answer.  He would have wanted, needed to feed that dark power.  He remembered how he had needed more.  Had craved it, had been obsessed with all-consuming hunger for it.  More and more and more, until his consciousness had failed and he had returned to sanity.

When all of Seresu's citizens were murdered or fled, would he feed that addiction with the death of his whole world?

Chapter Text

After he finally abandoned his seclusion, Ashura spent every spare moment of his free time in the castle's main library researching spells of control and subjugation.  Despite what he had told Lady Kendappa and Lord Vainamoinen, he couldn't be completely certain that he wouldn't wake a raving madman again.  He couldn't imagine dreams any worse than those which had triggered the fit, but, as he had discovered recently, his imagination about such things was lacking.

In two fragile, age-tattered texts, he found several spells that he thought might do for another such outburst, plus one that could be useful for the coming horror.  They were ancient magic, not a standard part of a modern mage's knowledge or training, and they had a significant drawback:  They all required tremendous, almost impossible amounts of raw power from the magician who cast them.  Ashura believed he could pull them off, but knew that very few others could.  He hoped at least some of the court wizards could manage them.

They were old, old spells, with the very oldest requiring the most power.  He had never really noticed before that the most ancient of spells often required vast amounts of magical power from the caster.  The records didn't explain why, and it troubled him.  Why had such spells been required in the distant past, and why weren't they in use anymore?  As far as Ashura knew, no one had cast any of these spells in over two millennia.  It was a miracle they had even been preserved.  According to the authors, the spells predated the books that contained them by some significant but unknown amount of time.  Equally miraculous that the grimoires themselves survived, as they were only held together by the care and enchantments of the librarians who preserved them.

Along with the spells, he'd also found hints that there was some magic that could only be manifested by his family house, the Royal House of Vanir.  That troubled him even more, especially since he had discovered no specific details about what such magic might be like or what its purpose could be.

No matter.  He had what he needed; he'd have to be content with that for now.  He sent a servant to fetch the chief wizard to him.

Then he took his books over to a large window to wait.  He settled down on the window seat, leaning against the sill and staring outside at the falling snow.  Such a peaceful sight.  Restful.  It calmed his restless mind, and he allowed it.  He needed some respite from his own thoughts.

It seemed like he always needed respite from his thoughts these days.

At last he heard the library door open, and turned his head away from the peaceful snowfall to see who had entered.  He frowned when Lady Kendappa came into the library.

She dropped into a graceful curtsey.  "Your Majesty."

This library was accessible to all the courtiers and wizards, although in general they avoided it when he was present.  His cousin's public manners in such open places were always impeccable.  He could do no less.  He sat up straight and acknowledged her.  "Lady Kendappa.  What do you here?"  He didn't try to hide his annoyance with her.

"I'm just looking for a book, Your Majesty."  Unfazed, she bobbed her head to him and disappeared into the stacks before he could tell her to leave.

Then he saw that she had not come alone.  A dignified, older wizard entered behind her and came to Ashura's seat.  The chief wizard.  He bowed deeply.  "You sent for me, Your Majesty?"

Ashura cast a fulminating look in the direction his scheming cousin had gone.  He was rather vexed with her.  Clearly, she wanted to keep an eye on the exchange, and her presence would certainly be a moderating influence.  On the heels of that thought, he reconsidered.  Perhaps it was just as well she had come.  He turned his attention on his wizard.

Lord Suhail D Bhagat was the head of the court wizards, and had earned the highest honors possible for a mage of Seresu.  The old wizard possessed arrogance commensurate with his achievements.  He had also been one of Ashura's childhood tutors.  Ashura didn't care for him personally, but trusted him absolutely in matters of kingdom magic.

Now Ashura wanted some information from him, as well as to impose a new task.

The chief wizard was a bit on the short side, and a touch sensitive about it.  Ashura rose, deliberately using his height as an advantage, forcing Lord Suhail to look up at him.  Ashura wanted answers and obedience, not arguments.  Suhail could be contrary when the mood struck him or if he took offense.  The chief wizard took offense easily, especially if he thought his knowledge, skills, or abilities were being impugned.  He might very well feel slighted by the topic Ashura intended to broach.

"Yes, Lord Suhail," Ashura said.  "I would like to discuss the healing block you put on me several nights ago."

Lord Suhail looked alarmed.  "Majesty, I assure you that it was necessary."

"I don't dispute that."  It had been more than necessary.  Ashura had more sense than to deny the facts.  He continued, chiding, "But it was too gentle or ill-made given the circumstances.  I broke your spell far too easily."

The wizard became less worried about royal displeasure over the magical bondage, but he frowned at Ashura's last words.  "It was a group effort, and we were pleased to have succeeded as well as we did," he stated, as though it should be an obvious truth.  "It is no light thing to subdue and bind the most powerful mage in the land."

"One of the most powerful," Ashura corrected automatically.  "There is no need for gross flattery."

Suhail gave him an impatient look.  "No, Your Majesty," he said, very deliberately.  "The most powerful.  No one else can match you."

Ashura stared at him.

Suhail sent a quick glance at the direction Kendappa had taken, and dropped his voice so low that Ashura had to strain to hear him.  "Forgive me, Majesty, but recent events make it imperative that I speak bluntly.  I don't know how you came to hold this opinion of yourself, or how you have kept to it for so many years.  Perhaps it's something your father drilled into you to prevent you from abusing your power, or perhaps you are so frightened by the implications that you deny the truth, but it is inaccurate and you must disabuse yourself of the notion."

Trust Suhail to speak his mind.  Ashura raised his brows thoughtfully.  Both reasons seemed to apply.  Modesty and humility were part of the royal family's traditional upbringing, though how well those lessons took was often disputed.  But frightened?  That fit his state of mind perfectly.  Every time he dwelled on the future, he became terrified.  "An interesting speculation, Lord Suhail," he said neutrally.

"Yes, Your Majesty," Lord Suhail said with a bow of his head, recognizing that the subject should be closed.  He let his voice return to its normal volume, and made a final point, "Perhaps Your Majesty should give this matter some serious thought and reassess your place in the magical hierarchy."

"Perhaps His Majesty should," Ashura said irritably.  Foolishness on his part, to be so annoyed by the very answers he had been looking to obtain.  They might be unpalatable and disruptive to his peace of mind—such as it was—but he would survive.  He would ponder them later.  "Now, about the matter of how easily I broke the healing block..."

Suhail blinked.  "It hardly matters, Majesty.  It served its purpose in stopping your rampage.  We left it on you only as a palliative; something that we thought would help you rest easier for a time."

"You weren't worried I might wake still raving?"

"We weren't concerned," Lord Suhail said.  "You weren't truly awake during your outburst, and were still caught up in your nightmare.  I knew you would be fine after it released you."

This was also something new.  Ashura pointed out, "Lady Kendappa and Lord Vainamoinen didn't seem to think so.  Why didn't you tell them this?"

Suhail cast another nervous glance at the bookshelves and their hidden listener.  Ashura cleared his throat meaningfully, and the wizard hastily answered, "I did, Majesty.  I told them several times.  They were just afraid."

"Afraid of me," Ashura muttered.

"Afraid for you," the wizard corrected him.

Now Ashura also looked off at the bookshelves where Kendappa was lurking and, presumably, eavesdropping.  Served her right, to be made as uncomfortable as he presently felt.  He returned his attention to the chief wizard.  "Be that as it may, it seems to me that you need some stronger spells for dealing with this sort of thing."

"I was given to understand that it was unlikely to happen again."

"Unlikely, but not impossible."  Ashura did not let himself sigh.  "I'll do everything I can to prevent it, but there is a chance..."

"Very few can master all their dreams and nightmares, Majesty.  Don't be so hard on yourself."

Ashura didn't need Suhail patronizing him as though he were still a youth.  He said abruptly, "Come with me."  Ashura collected his books and led the wizard to a work table.  He set the books down, and opened the oldest one to a marked page.  "Let's start with this spell.  It should do for any—" he glanced at the wizard "—any fit I might throw, no matter how severe."

It should do quite well for the scenario Ashura really had in mind.  Let Suhail believe it was just to quell the king after a violent nightmare; the old wizard wouldn't accept the truth of foreseeing now, any more than he'd accepted it when Ashura had been a child.

The Spell of Enchanted Sleep was the oldest and most powerful of the spells Ashura had selected.  He had thought long and hard about this particular seal, about whether he really wanted to pass it along to his court wizards.  It would trap him with his dreams for as long as he was held under its power.  The thought made him shiver just a little.

"Majesty?  Are you all right?" Suhail asked, eyes narrowed.

"Just a chill from a draft," Ashura murmured.  This was necessary, he told himself; he could not shrink from his responsibilities.  "Please examine these pages."

Suhail read for a minute, then inhaled sharply.  "Majesty," he protested, "this is what I was talking about before.  Perhaps you could cast this spell without incurring significant harm, but—"

"Are you saying you can't?"

Affronted, the chief wizard drew himself up.  "Your Majesty!  I say that it might be done, but it will take great effort and drain so much power that it would surely maim or even kill the spell-caster."

That stopped Ashura cold.  He hadn't considered that possibility.  Again he wondered why such spells had been created in the first place.  "Is there no one among the court wizards who can cast this spell safely?"

Suhail's silence was eloquent.

"I see," Ashura said softly.  This was unexpected, but maybe there was a way.  "You mentioned earlier that you and the other wizards worked as a group, in concert, to subdue me during my nightmare.  Could you and the others pool your power to cast this spell?"

Suhail gnawed his lip, staring down at the open pages with something akin to horror.  "Perhaps..."

Ashura had never heard the chief wizard sound so doubtful about anything.

The wizard finally looked up.  He swallowed hard.  "Majesty, don't you think this particular spell is, well, overkill?  I hardly think it necessary for an incident like...like..."

Was he actually stammering?  "Maybe it is too much," Ashura conceded, a little alarmed by the reaction he'd unintentionally provoked.  "However, I still require you and the others to find a way to use this spell.  Think of it as a last resort, in case nothing else works," he added when it looked like Suhail would object again.

"As a last resort, Majesty," the chief wizard reluctantly agreed.

"Now, I have found some other spells that are not quite as drastic, nor do they take as much power.  Please look here."  Ashura directed Suhail to the second grimoire.

The chief wizard also protested these enchantments, although not quite so strongly.  Ashura bullied him relentlessly, and at last Suhail agreed that they were workable and that he would pass them on to the court wizards.  Suhail picked up the texts and, with another deep bow to the king, departed the library.

Ashura went back to the window and watched snowflakes float down from the clouds.  It was growing darker outside as day wore into evening.  "You can come out now, cousin," he said quietly.

Kendappa emerged from behind a bookshelf.  She curtsied again.  "Your Majesty."

Ashura tsked.  "A little late for that, don't you think?"

She moved to stand next to him and smiled.  "I knew you'd be annoyed, but I had to come anyway.  Forgive my presumption."

"Don't I always?"

They both stared out the window in silence for a few moments.  At last, Kendappa said, "That was an intriguing conversation you had with Lord Suhail."

"Indeed it was," Ashura agreed.  "I was most interested to hear what he had to say about you."

"Bah."

"People who eavesdrop seldom hear good of themselves," Ashura scolded her.

"I only heard that I was a little too worried about my king and cousin," she said, nose in the air.  "That's hardly an insult."

"Why did you decide to monitor us, Kendappa?  Did you believe we would come to blows?  You should know better by now."

"I expected you to have words with Suhail," she said.  "I just didn't expect those words."

"And what did you expect?"

"I expected you to flay him verbally for the ineffectiveness of that healing block, in that cold, unemotional way you have when you are displeased.  You never did get along well with him, despite the polite manner you use in public.  I thought my presence would keep you both from saying something unforgivable."  She clasped her hands behind her back and gave him an arch look.  "Anyone who's spent much time with the king knows he can sometimes be a stubborn idiot when he puts his mind to it."

"Thank you, cousin.  I can always count on you to keep my head from swelling too large."

"Imagine my surprise when you remained so civil."

"I am always civil."

"True."  She gave him another look.  "It might do you good to vent your spleen on occasion, Ashura."

"No, I don't think that's a very wise idea," he murmured.

"So you say."  She sighed deeply.  "I confess I don't understand what you think you're doing this time.  I expected you to take Lord Suhail to task.  Instead you handed him some spells that frightened him half to death.  What is in your mind, cousin?"

"The safety of my people," Ashura replied absently, staring out the window at the falling snow.

 

Chapter Text

"Suhail is right," said Kendappa.  "You're overreacting.  Ashura, you blew up your bedchamber during a nightmare.  How did you make the mental leap from damaging a few rooms to being a danger to all your people?"

"You were worried about that yourself at the time," Ashura reminded her.

"We were all upset in the heat of the moment," she said reasonably.  "I can view what happened more objectively now.  You should, too."

"It's not that simple, Kendappa."

"Yes, it is.  Your problem is that you think too much.  Sometimes it overcomplicates things."

"A few precautions will help put my mind at ease."  He gave her a long look that revealed nothing of his true concerns.  "Humor me, cousin."

"If it makes you happy."  She shook her head fondly.  Taking his arm, she said, "Come along, Your Majesty.  It's almost time for the evening meal, and you know the household won't begin without you unless you send word that you won't be attending.  Take pity on all those poor, starving people staring at their plates, unable to taste even a morsel until you arrive."

Ashura smiled and let her lead him out of the library.

The next day the weather finally cleared.  While everyone cheered the blue sky and the sun, the improved conditions created a great deal of work that needed to be completed as quickly as possible.  No one knew how long the good weather would last.  Roads had to be cleared, buildings damaged by the weight of snow and ice repaired, and supply chains reopened so food and other essentials could be restocked.  Preparations also needed to be made for the next major storm.  There was certain to be at least one more before deep winter ended.  There were innumerable administrative tasks involved for the royal court, a great many of which required input or approval from the king.  Ashura kept happily busy and didn't have time during the daylight hours to dwell on the long future.

In the evenings he did ponder the future, although the urgency seemed lessened.  He was always pleasantly tired from the day's work and slept well at night.  For a wonder no dreams troubled him or drove him to frantically seek solutions to something that hadn't occurred yet.  It gave him some time to sit back and consider things more rationally.  And rationally, what he needed was more information.  He still had no idea what would set him on that fateful path.  He dedicated at least two hours every evening to crafting a spell for this purpose.  By the end of the week it was ready.

Its statement of intent was deceptively simple.  Basically, it just stated that he wished to know why the future he foresaw would come to pass.  He didn't particularly care how the information came to him, so he left that part ambiguous.  With this type of spell, it was best to let the magic find its own way to fulfillment.  He had put most of the week's effort into tailoring an appropriate sigil and determining the power and technique required for the best chance of success.

It was almost midnight.  Almost the appointed time for the working.  Ashura spared a glance for his golden wizard's staff.  Its focus stone of colorless fluorite glimmered like a perfect ice crystal, outshining the other jewels set in the stylized, outstretched wings.  He decided to leave it behind.  He rarely used it anymore, considering it a ceremonial prop at best and a crutch at worst.  Tonight he would either succeed on his own merits, or he wouldn't.

He conjured a magelight to light his way, and went to the shrine beneath the castle.  No one had ever dared give this most hallowed of places a formal name.  It was known simply as the shrine.  The entire cavern was carved from the very bedrock of the mountain.  It was immensely old, and contained the greatest source of natural magic in the kingdom.  In days lost to history the castle's original foundations had been constructed over and around it.  Succeeding generations had built upon the structure, so that the various parts of the castle were an eclectic jumble of architectural styles.

Within the cathedral-like shrine stood many concentric circles of columns.  They supported the carved arches and vaults of the smoothed rock ceiling that soared overhead.  Ashura passed through them to the very heart of the structure, to the sacred pool.

It lay in the shrine's exact center.  He stood next to it and gazed into the impossibly blue depths.  No one knew how deep it ran.  No one had ever mapped it out, physically or by esoteric means.  It would have been too sacrilegious an act.  The water was pure, so terribly pure it was almost antithetical to ordinary, mortal life.

On impulse, he knelt down and rinsed his hands and mouth, a small purification rite that he usually didn't bother performing for spell-casting.  But this time was special, and the simple ritual felt right.

Then he rose and walked to the spot he had selected for the working.  He had chosen this place to perform the spell because it held the most resonance with his dreams.  It was here that he would die.

He stood at the precise location where he had foreseen his own death, where his body would one day lie.  He felt no different.  Ashura had half expected to feel something.  A chill, a foreboding, anything.  But there was nothing strange at all.

He looked up at the ceiling, but the cold stonework told him nothing.  It provided no impulses to correct action, triggered no hidden instincts that might guide him.  He could only begin his spell, and see where it led.

Ashura took a moment to marshal his power, focusing and concentrating all his mental and magical energies.  When he was ready, he used his index finger to draw the elaborate sigil in the air while sending all his power into the design.  The pattern of his magic took shape, accepting his will and desire for knowledge.

He traced over the glyph repeatedly, charging it with more and more power.  It glowed brighter and brighter, until the shrine seemed filled with midday sunshine.  When at last he was satisfied, and the sigil was full to bursting with esoteric energy, he clapped his hands sharply.  The glyph exploded in a shower of multihued sparks that faded and vanished.

It was done.

At first, it seemed that nothing had happened.  Then he felt a slight breeze, a tiny movement of air that fluttered his hair and caressed his skin.

A voice whispered his name.  "Ashura..."

That was unexpected.  "Who's there?" he asked, turning in a circle.  No one else was present.

The voice whispered again, breathy and drawn out.  "Ashura..."

The sound of a single drop of water echoed throughout the shrine.

Puzzled, Ashura returned to the sacred pool.  The preternaturally blue surface rippled, small waves flowing out from the center in a series of perfect concentric circles.  Ghostly gray and white images danced in the disturbances, reflections of the arches and columns overhead.

As he watched, the water calmed and became still.  Once again, utter silence surrounded him.  Ashura frowned, pondering his experiences.  He assumed his spell was at work, but these signs weren't clear.

He'd just have to wait and see what eventually manifested.  It might be a while.  There was nothing more he could accomplish this night.  He decided to leave the shrine and go to bed.  Perhaps the spell would reveal something of interest later.

He stepped through the great doors, emerging not into the castle passageway, but instead a wintry landscape.

He stood in the center of some nameless village.  Bodies lay strewn around him, ripped to pieces.  Crimson stained the snow, defiling its white purity, the warm blood melting ice and mingling with the liquid flows to create vile, pink pools.

He turned in a circle, scanning with his eyes, reaching out with mystical senses.  Death hung over everything.  In the entire village, not one person still breathed.

His eyes turned downward, to the corpses at his feet.  His gaze fell on his hands, and his heartbeat faltered.

His hands were covered with blood.

Shredded skin and wet strings of tissue clung to his nails.  His robes and greatcoat were splattered with gore and gelatinous gobbets of flesh.

No, his mind denied.  It can't be.  It can't.

"No!" Ashura shouted.  "I will not live through this again!  I will not!"

The trigger worked, and he was able to step outside himself.  He stared at his future self, who stood frozen in time and horror, and wondered what had gone wrong.  Why was he dreaming?  He didn't recall even falling asleep.  Was this the spell's doing?

He turned sideways and left the dream.  Assuming this was an effect of his spell, he should be able to finally determine how he would become a madman.  He quickly identified the darkness that shrouded the paths into his future.

It was a thick miasma that reeked of evil and malign intent, definitely something that had been placed deliberately.  Ashura touched it with tentative fingers, trying to get a sense for who could have put it here, and why.  A sorcerer, and a powerful one, far more powerful than any Ashura had ever encountered.  The veil held the kind of immense potency he had only read about in myths and legends.  He hadn't really believed before that this kind of power could even exist.

He couldn't get the slightest hint, though, of the sorcerer's identity.  It was too well disguised, the concealment far too strong for Ashura to break.  Despite the immensity of the power involved, he thought it might still be something his future self had done.  He knew that once he started murdering his subjects, his own power would grow immeasurably.  But this strong?

Perhaps.  Perhaps he might gain this kind of strength.  The thought was terrifying, and yet somehow exhilarating.

He didn't dare let himself think like that.

Ashura pushed on the veil.  It gave just a little, then a little more.  He put all his will, focus, and magical power into it, and managed to press one hand inside the darkness.  It felt cold, colder than a moonless winter night in the midst of a monstrous blizzard.  Ashura had never felt such cold.  For an eternity he stood there, his hand trapped inside that terrible blackness, the cold radiating up his arm and into the rest of his body.  He gritted his teeth and pushed harder, despite the pain still determined to see inside.

He got his arm in up to the elbow when the veil suddenly rebounded.  The violent force flung him away, away from his living nightmare, away from himself, and far across the abyss of dreams.

He couldn't stop falling, falling, falling...

Flailing, he reached out, seeking any lifeline, and touched a thread of pain, full of misery and fear that matched his own.  Not quite the same, but similar.  So very, very similar.  He let the thread draw him in.

It took him into another dream, but not one of his own, nor one he had ever encountered before.  It was of another time, a time in the past, he believed.  It held a strangeness, a sense of the alien, that marked it as a world different from his own.

He beheld a royal court in a place called Valeria.  Standing for judgment before a grim man on the throne were twin boys with blue eyes and blond hair.  A pair of young princes.  They couldn't have been more than five or six years old, only a little younger than his own children would have been by now, had they lived.

Would his sons have been blond and blue eyed, like his beloved queen?  Or would they have taken his own, darker coloring?  No dream path ever showed him, and he would never know.

No one in this foreign court dreamed true dreams.  No one here could share this dream, communicate with him or even detect his presence.  He was nothing more than a ghostly shade, intangible and impotent, an unwilling witness to events that had nothing to do with him or his kingdom.

There was nothing to be gained here.  He should leave.

But the twins' pain, so much like his own, called to him.  They were the source of the misery that had drawn him here.  He couldn't resist them.  He gripped their thread tightly, and followed their path to see something of their fate.

For all their short lives, calamity and tragedy followed the two children.  No one loved them, not even their own mother.  No one could.  In this world any twins born were an ill omen, the cause of misfortune and disaster for all those around them.  As such, royal twins were an abhorrence and source of evil to the entire country.

Great suffering afflicted these twins, and great despair, and so much pain that it tore open Ashura's heart.  He saw that only one boy would survive, but not the reason for the other's death.  Ashura didn't permit that to trouble him too deeply.  Children often died young, of disease or injuries, or sometimes for no apparent reason at all.  Even in a land as steeped in magic as his own, it happened.

What did trouble him was the horror that dogged the twins' lives through no fault of their own; the misplaced condemnation, the nightmarish choices, and the unjust punishments.  This alien world held powerful magic, and magicians to make use of it, yet none would even attempt to ameliorate the damage.  No one did anything except passively suffer misfortunes and cast blame.

The twin princes clung tightly to each other, as though they were two halves of a single whole.  They faced their tribulations with great courage, but in the end Ashura believed they would both be destroyed.  Worse, no one in this land would grieve.  Instead, there would be rejoicing.

Poor, unfortunate children.

They were both born magicians, he could tell.  The one who would survive might become very skilled and powerful someday, were he allowed to reach adulthood.

Ashura doubted that he would be allowed to reach adulthood.

These children didn't belong in this place.  Ashura instinctively reached out, seeking a path through the dream worlds, one that he could follow in body, not just in spirit.  If he could only mark them, he might traverse reality once more as he had done in his youth, before he had become King of Seresu and weighted down with responsibilities and sacral oaths, and take the twins away from here.

Their dream slipped away, beyond his reach.  He cast his mind about, searching, searching, but they were gone.  He had lost them.  Just like he'd lost his own sons.

Chapter Text

Ashura opened his eyes.

Overhead, the high stone ceiling loomed, the carved arches and vaults disguising the weight of the mountain.  The graceful columns of the shrine rose around him, and silence filled his ears.

He sat up, and ran his hands through his long hair.  Somehow, he had fallen asleep in the shrine, and dreamed.

But futile dreams, ultimately, bearing much pain but no useful information.  He had failed to pierce the darkness that hid the paths into madness, and knew little more than he had before.

And then there was the dream of the alien world and its cursed twins.  It had been even more useless and served none of his goals or interests.  It shouldn't have affected him so profoundly, that he had been tempted to interfere in such foreign affairs.

Foolishness, to imagine he might fetch those children away from their own world.  The events in that dream had occurred in the past.  He might be able to physically journey to other worlds, but he could not cross time.  And truly, those twins had been born under the shroud of an ill omen.  Where could he have taken them?  What place would not be affected by their bad fortune while they both lived?  It would be heartless to separate them, even in death, and utterly irresponsible to bring them to Seresu.

It had nothing to do with him.  That dream had been an accidental encounter, an artifact of the darkness that had flung him haphazardly across the dreamscape.  So why dwell on it?

Perhaps he should account his spell a failure.

He stood up.  Taking a sense of how long his magelight had been burning, he determined that only an hour had passed.  He could still get some decent sleep tonight.

He felt a slight breeze, a tiny movement of air that fluttered his hair and caressed his skin. 

A voice whispered his name.  "Ashura..."

A single drop of water echoed throughout the shrine.

Ashura walked over to the sacred pool and stared into it, eyes narrowed with suspicion.  The preternaturally blue surface rippled, small waves flowing out from the center in a series of perfect concentric circles.  Ghostly gray and white images danced in the disturbances, reflections of the arches and columns overhead.

The water calmed and became still.  The voice whispered his name again, breathy and drawn out.

"Ashura..."

He turned.  As before, no one else was present.  He wasn't sure what was going on.

More whispers hissed.  He couldn't locate their source; they seemed to emanate from everywhere, and nowhere.  Some called his name, some spoke words he couldn't quite make out.

The voices gathered.  He listened, focusing all his attention on them.  They formed a knot of sighs and susurrations around him, barely audible, light, caressing.  Slowly, they moved toward the great doors, taking Ashura with them.

He followed them up the ancient stairway, through the castle hallways, then down again on innumerable, spiraling flights of worn stone stairs.  They led into the very bowels of the mountain, into far different, less attractive depths than those which held the shrine.  Ashura created a second magelight to illuminate the dark corridors so he wouldn't take a misstep and break his own neck.

The whispers guided him ever further down, down through the castle, down beneath the storage areas, even beneath the ancient dungeons, and Ashura suddenly knew with dread their destination.

At last the voices stopped traveling.  Ashura stood before the entrance to the royal crypt, where the bones and ashes of his ancestors lay.  He hesitated to enter.  The voices gathered around him, murmuring his name, whispering, encouraging and compelling him.  Ashura took a deep breath, waved a hand, and the vault's ponderous doors swung open, the heavy marble scraping against the stone floor.

He stared through the doorway.  Even with two magelights providing illumination, the cavernous interior was shadowed and intimidating.  The whispers intensified, hissing his name, urging him forward.  He gathered his courage and stepped inside.

The crypt smelled of dust and cobwebs.  Rarely did anyone come here.  There had been no royal funerals since his family's, and no remembrance ceremonies in two years.  There would be another soon, though.  He should have this place cleaned.

The whispers took him through the catacombs, past tombs, urns, and monuments.  He paused before his family's tomb, just for a moment, but the voices demanded he keep moving.

He followed his invisible guides until he reached the most remote part of the crypt.  His earliest forebears rested here, their names and deeds lost to time.  Here, the walls and ceiling were elaborately decorated with carvings of archaic runes and glyphs, relics of the long-forgotten period in which they had been constructed.

Language such as this hadn't been used in over two millennia.  Ashura had cause to thank his over-excessive education and his childhood tutors, who had insisted he learn to read the ancient tongue.  His skill was rusty, but still functional.

He spoke the words aloud as he made them out:  "The Luck of the King is the Luck of the Land; The King and the Land are One."

Ashura was struck with recognition.  It was an age-old belief, going back to prehistory, when the kings of Seresu had actually been priest-kings.  The ancient oaths remained, and that statement was still a part of a king's investiture and consecration.  He had sworn those vows at his own coronation, but the religious duties required in this age were primarily ceremonial.  In that long-gone era, though, the people had honestly believed that the king was the lifeblood of the country and inextricably bound to the land, rather than just a man with the birthright to govern them.

Gazing at the wall, Ashura felt frustration.  The whispers pressed against him, impatient, but he wasn't sure what he was supposed to do next.  There was nowhere else he could go, and aside from an important line from an archaic consecration oath, the runes provided no clues.

The whispers melted into the wall before him.  They spoke his name almost as one, a long, soft caress of sound.  "Ashura..."

One by one, the carved glyphs began to glow strange colors, deep red tinged with black and an oily green iridescence.  A series of nine.  The glow faded, then began again in the same order.

This was impossible.  It couldn't be happening.  Ashura went numb at the sight in front of him.  He had to watch the sequence through several times before his mind started working again. 

What was here, that had been hidden for so long that no records existed, that there was no hint of any function for this place other than the royal crypt?  What required the protection of the bones of his ancestors for uncountable generations?

With a trembling hand, he touched each glyph as it glowed, and felt the carvings drain magic from his fingertips.

From within the wall came an ominous, grinding noise.  Ashura took a single step back.  His skin crawled, and he felt an almost uncontrollable need to turn and flee.  He should leave this place and its secrets, let it stay buried and lost to time.  Forget he'd ever seen any of this.

He didn't move.

A section of the wall shivered, then with excruciating slowness slid open.  The stink of mold and aged dust wafted out of an utterly black void.

Ashura stepped closer and peered into the portal.  A tiny speck of dim red light appeared, smoldering somewhere at the bottom of the infinite depths.

 

Chapter Text

Ashura opened his eyes.

Overhead, the arches and vaults of the carved stone ceiling loomed, disguising the weight of the mountain.  The graceful columns of the shrine rose around him, and silence filled his ears.

He sat up and rubbed his forehead, perplexed and exhausted.  Dreams within dreams.  Could he be certain that he was truly awake now?

He waited.  No currents of air moved.  No drops of water fell.  No disembodied voices whispered to him.

But the memories of everything he had seen lingered.

Perhaps this night's spell wasn't a failure, after all.

He stood up.  Taking a sense of how long his magelight had been burning, he determined that only an hour had passed.  He had plenty of time to seek out the hidden passage his dream had shown him.  Assuming he really wanted to do so.

He wasn't sure that he did.  Overlaying all even now was a sense of fear.  Even in his own dream, he had felt as though he were seeking something dreadful, something that should remain dead and buried.

And yet, this was his only clue.  Thus far, he had discovered nothing else that could help him change the path of his future.  Could he afford to ignore the only possible source of information he'd obtained?

He needed time to think, to absorb and understand everything he had experienced this night.  But was comprehension possible without following the path his dream had shown him?  Without knowing what it had tried to tell him?

Deeply conflicted, he beckoned his magelight and left the shrine, intending to head for his bedchamber.  His decision could wait until morning.  He felt his mind drift as he traced the steps back to his temporary living quarters.

He was at the royal crypt's massive entrance before he woke from his trance and realized what had happened.

He cursed himself for a stupid, complacent fool.  He had cast a spell for knowledge, and deliberately allowed the magic find its own way to completion.  Usually that was the easiest and most effective method for this type of spell to play out.  However, as his dreams and actions this night proved, the spell and its results had manifested within his own person.  His own enchantment bound him, compelling him to finish what he had started.

Though he knew it was futile, still he struggled against the geas he had unwittingly set upon himself.  Against his will, his hand waved and magic flowed.  The crypt doors swung open for him, and without hesitation he walked inside.

The compulsion forced him to the very ends of the crypt, the most remote location possible.  For the second time this night he stared at a wall covered in ancient runes and glyphs.  His eyes unerringly went to the nine that would unlock his ancestors' secrets.

His hand reached out, shaking as he fought against his own spell.  His fingers pressed the first glyph, and he felt it drain magic from him.  The carving radiated red light tinged with black and that grotesque iridescent green.  He staggered at the pull on his being, so terribly strong and ravenous.  He tasted the spells set here and knew them, spells that could only be detected and activated by the most senior member of the Royal House of Vanir.  Spells that demanded the king's magic, and only the king's.

He touched the second glyph, and swayed.  Then the third and the fourth.  The drain on his power was enormous, and he felt dizzy.

Five glyphs now glowed balefully at him.  Then a sixth.  Ashura's skin became sweat-sheened and clammy.  Nausea churned in his gut.  His breath came in harsh pants.  He wondered if he would stay conscious long enough to complete the sequence, and fervently hoped he would not.  He couldn't open the portal if he collapsed into insensibility.

But the spell's compulsion was relentless and did not permit him to faint.  He barely brushed the seventh and eighth glyphs, and bolts of pain flashed up his arm into his core.  Ashura gasped through teeth clenched so hard he feared they would shatter.  They didn't, but he would pay for it later.

Assuming there was a later for him, and the draining didn't kill him first.

His hand hovered over the final glyph.  Ashura fought the coercion with every tiny scrap of power he had left.  For a long, shuddering moment he held firm, but the spell's compulsion was too powerful for him to overcome.  He touched the ninth glyph.

Ashura screamed as indescribable agony engulfed him.  The massive hemorrhage of power drove him to his knees.  His magelight went out and he was plunged into pitch blackness.  He could only sit there, wheezing and with his head fallen to his chest, while the portal's guardian spell bled him dry of all his remaining magic.

He heard the ominous grinding, and knew the gateway was opening.

He didn't lift his head; he just sat shaking on the stone floor, eyes tightly shut, his body doubled over and his arms wrapped around his stomach.  He had never felt so weak, so helpless and vulnerable.

The stink of mold and aged dust wafted into his nostrils, making him gag. A yellow glow penetrated his eyelids. He opened his eyes and saw that there was light coming from the now open doorway. He struggled to his feet. Leaning heavily against the door frame, he stared into the exposed void, which was lit from within by a series of flaming torches bolted to the walls.

He felt the magic that sustained their esoteric fires and knew it for his own.  For a moment he was irritated.  Then he gave a mental shrug, accepting the necessity.  Without that illumination, he would be utterly blind.

Through the newly opened door, he saw that a long, narrow staircase spiraled down along the cylindrical walls into the ebon depths.  Everything looked carved directly out of the granite foundations of the mountain.  An immense job, it must have been done by magic.  Along the curved way shadows played eerily, cast by the torches' flickering, eldritch flames.

"I'm supposed to go down there?" he muttered resentfully.  He could barely stand, let alone make such a difficult descent.

He had no choice.  His feet already moved forward, taking the first, trembling step down.  He kept both hands on the rough-hewn wall to steady himself.  After the first two turns of the stairs, he caught his second wind, although he wasn't sure how.  He assumed it was the geas at work.  Either that, or being surrounded by his own stolen magic helped to buoy him along.

The way down turned out to be every bit as long and arduous as he had assumed, even though he punctuated it with frequent rest breaks.  He estimated it took over half an hour to make the descent in his current condition.  He assumed he could do it more quickly if he were rested.  Not that he planned to ever do this again.

The stairway ended at a small antechamber whose only feature of note was another closed, stone door.  Above the door he saw again the runes and their ages-old message:  The Luck of the King is the Luck of the Land; The King and the Land are One.

He staggered forward.  He didn't even need to do anything more this time, the door opened just at his proximity.  He unwillingly stepped inside.

He stood within a single, large chamber with nine sides.  More mystical torches burned brightly, lighting the room as though it were bathed in sunlight.  Preservation spells, newly refreshed with his own magic, suffused everything in the room.  One wall held the door, the other eight were lined with elaborately carved niches, about a quarter of which held archaic, vellum scrolls and even stone tablets.  The rest of the niches were empty.  Fluorite and hematite jewels decorated the carvings:  The guardian stone of Seresu, and the stone which had once been called bloodstone, because it bled red when ground and shaped.

In the center of the room stood a round table and a single chair.  The table held a polished sphere of fluorite, another of hematite, and two scrolls, one thick and heavy, the other narrow and just a few turns long.  The smaller one was unrolled to its first page.

He felt the geas move within him, forcing him to sit at the table.  This was what he had been meant to see.

He didn't want to see it.

He caught a glimpse before he closed his eyes against it.  The language was as ancient as all the other runes, dating back over two thousand years.  He fought to keep his eyes tightly shut, to deny what was before him like a frightened child.  It was stupid, he had wanted to know, had created and cast a complex spell specifically for this knowledge.  But now fear consumed him, fear of what he would learn, that had been lost for two millennia and that required such extraordinary safeguards against unauthorized witnesses.

Despite his struggles, his eyes opened, his hands took hold of the scroll, and he began to read:

To the luckless King who now reads this scroll, know that you are doomed.

You have been born with the curse of Prophecy through dreams, and your own dreams have led you to this chamber.  It cannot be otherwise, for only those Kings who bear this curse can ever find the key to entering this room.

Be aware that by virtue of your curse of Prophecy, you are not merely King, but Sacral King, destined by the Gods to Sacrifice and in turn be Sacrificed for the sake of Holy Seresu.  You are God-Touched, and as such are irrevocably bound to this preordained fate.

Whenever Seresu must face an ultimate Peril, an overwhelming Threat that cannot be overcome by its own arms or magics, a prince is born who will be Sacral King, the King who Sacrifices and is Sacrificed, the One who stands in the place of the Dying God.

For sealed within the blood of the Royal House is the bane and the blessing of Holy Seresu, the Divine Spear of Madness.

One day the Spear will quicken its Divine Madness within you, compelling you to commit acts that you now consider heinous and irredeemable.  You will murder most viciously your loyal subjects, and water the earth with their blood.  A minimum of nine people must be sacrificed, and the seal in your own blood will be broken, and your power will increase with each new killing from that time on.

You think this cannot be, that you will not permit yourself to act so, but you will have no choice.  Your fate is inescapable.  You will be ensnared, body and soul, by that which both taints and beatifies your royal blood.  You will not be able to stop yourself from killing for more than brief lengths of time, not until death mercifully embraces you and frees you from that which binds you.

And when enough sacrifices have been made, and your power has grown a commensurate degree, you will stand alone against the Threat to Holy Seresu, and prevail.  It cannot be otherwise, for the future will guide your actions, and the Madness will come upon you early enough for you to gain all the power required.

Then your loyal Court will do what must be done.  Your Chosen Wizards will subdue you, and your Chosen Successor will sacrifice you, for when the Threat is gone you will briefly become sane again and will allow it all to save our Country from your own undying bloodlust.  And when it is over, Holy Seresu will be safe and free to prosper once more.

I say these terrible things to you because I myself have witnessed and participated in these matters.  For my own beloved Father, King Donal, was Sacral King before you.

Like you, my Father was born with the curse of Dream Prophecy.  In his dreams, he foresaw the coming destruction of Holy Seresu, the result of a concentrated attack by a great Evil from the Northernmost Wilderness.  He foresaw that the Frost Jötnar, or Frost Giants as they are sometimes known, would come to devastate our land and annihilate our people.

The Frost Jötnar were unstoppable predators, great Gods-cursed monsters with hideous forms, fearful magics, and brutal weapons, and possessed of a ravening hunger for the flesh of men.  They destroyed many Northern Kingdoms throughout antiquity; none could defend against them.

In his forty-eighth year, the twenty-third of his reign, the Madness took King Donal.  Many citizens were butchered before he held enough power in his hands to save us.  But when the Frost Jötnar came down upon us, prepared to eat our flesh, drink our blood, then break our bones and suck the marrow, King Donal stood ready on the very Northernmost border of our Country.  And when the day was done, no Frost Giant still lived anywhere in our whole world.

The Madness is a curious thing.  It comes upon a Sacral King so suddenly, and he knows little but the joy of bloodletting and the exhilaration of power gained.  It departs just as abruptly, leaving the King in abject misery and utmost grief.  But the cycle never ends; the Madness always returns.  A Sacral King left alive would ravage the entire Country just as surely as the Threat he is preordained to battle.

And so, when my Father triumphed and regained his Soul, he laid himself open for his Chosen to perform their Sacred duty.  The Chosen Wizards cast the Spell of Enchanted Sleep, so that King Donal might be contained long enough for the Final Sacrifice.

That spell is among the most dangerous to invoke, but it is the only one that can restrain a King so consumed by the Divine Spear's Blood Magic, even one who is temporarily sane.  Three strong Wizards perished in that casting:  Okinna D One-Eye, Suresh D Worldwalker, and Ashant D Tor.

Their deaths brought the King down, and his Court laid him upon the hallowed ground that he had successfully defended.  And upon the soil of Holy Seresu, his throat was cut as he slept, and his blood fed the earth.  I myself held the sacrificial blade, as my Father instructed many years before, when he had selected his Chosen Executioners and confirmed me as his Chosen Successor.  My sole consolation for this terrible act is the knowledge that my dear Father never knew or felt what was done as it was done, although I know he must have Foreseen even this.

And the remaining Wizards sang the Final Rite of Consecration, and Holy Seresu embraced my Father, and his body was taken into the earth until nothing of his mortal form remained.

Thus died King Donal, Blessed and Accursed, and he became One with the Land.

You wish to understand why all this must be, I am sure.  You wish to know how it began, and why.  I have no answer for you, nor do any of the records contained within this chamber.  I know only that it has always been this way, and will continue throughout the untold ages, until the Royal Bloodline is extinguished or Holy Seresu itself is destroyed.

I know not what horrific challenge you must face for the sake of Holy Seresu, that calls for the Blood Madness to be reawakened once more.  That is for you alone to discover in the fullness of time.  Be guided by your dreams, for they will not lead you astray.

As only a Sacral King may find and open this chamber, so only his Chosen Successor, the next King, may seal it again.  As my predecessors did before me, I have left this account of what has transpired so that you, the new Sacral King, may understand and accept the tragic role which has befallen you.  After this record is complete, I shall follow the Ancient Way and seal this chamber so that it cannot be located or entered by any but you, the next Sacral King.

All contents of this chamber are available to you for your use.  Seek what you need, but neither remove any item nor attempt to destroy it.  The spells that guard this place will not permit such acts.  I do but warn you, for the guardian provoked metes out harsh penalties.

Have courage, doomed King, and take heart from the knowledge that, despite how hopeless matters may appear to you now, your future deeds and sacrifice will be neither pointless nor in vain.  It cannot be otherwise.

Written this eighteenth day of Frermánuðr, the Frost Moon, in the twenty-third and final year of the Reign of King Donal, and the first year of the Reign of King Ronnsha, by Ronnsha of Vanir, King of Holy Seresu, Son of Donal the Sacrificed.

 

When he came to the end of the tale, Ashura at last felt the geas release him.  He was free now, to do whatever he wished.  Stay, leave, it didn't matter.  His spell no longer held him.

He didn't move.  For a few long minutes, he just sat staring at the scroll.

Then he lowered his head to the table and shook.

 

Chapter Text

After a time, his shaking ceased and turned into a kind of blank numbness.  Ashura didn't know how long he sat huddled over the table, nor did he care, but finally he forced himself to lift his head.  He looked again at the scroll that had just devastated his life.  He believed every word.  His dreams of his own future confirmed the scroll's veracity.

How could such a thing have been forgotten?  Granted, it had been a very long time since this curse had last manifested, but some knowledge of this horror should have survived.

He breathed deeply, calming himself.  As his mind started functioning again, he realized that there were still remnants of the old knowledge, even now.  But they were just that, remnants, incomplete fragments preserved in ceremony and tradition that no longer held the original meaning and purpose.  The coronation oaths, the structure and oaths of the royal court, certain ritualized duties, well-known myths, fables, and superstitions, the oldest spells that required such vast amounts of power...  All were holdovers from that ancient era, when the royal court had taken for granted that they might be called upon to sacrifice their king.  Ashura was certain that if he dug deeper, he'd find even more such hints and lore, now that he knew what to seek.

How ironic, that even in his ignorance, he had given his court wizards the Spell of Enchanted Sleep to use for its designated purpose, to subdue a mad king.

He reached for the second scroll.  This one also was intended to be read by him, or it wouldn't have been left waiting like this.  He unrolled the thick vellum and skimmed over the first few pages.  This, he quickly realized, was King Donal's diary, written in his own hand.  It chronicled the king's prophecies and his descent into madness.

The earliest entries were eerily familiar.  The late king, still sane and clearly horrified, had written of his visions of doom and his coming murderous insanity.  The major difference was that Donal wrote from the perspective of understanding and awareness; he had already known of the monstrous transformation that Holy Seresu's priest-kings sometimes underwent, and he believed with all his heart that it held a greater purpose, designed by the gods themselves.  For those reasons, he could accept and even embrace his destiny.

Ashura had no such consolations.  There had been no priest-kings in Seresu since the country had been called Holy Seresu two millennia ago.  No learning or long custom had prepared him for this fate.  He sighed and gazed into the fluorite sphere, attempting to draw strength from the pristine crystal.  He supposed this first-hand account had been left for him so he would recognize what would happen to him, what was already happening to him.  He schooled his mind and set to studying King Donal's diary in earnest.

Several hours later he put the scroll aside.  The tale it told was incomplete; King Donal had simply become too deranged to keep diary entries throughout his ordeal.  That didn't matter because Ashura already knew the ending to the nightmarish story.

The progression of Donal's dreams and his madness had begun slowly, then escalated drastically as the threat of the Frost Jötnar drew ever nearer, until at last the king began to murder his subjects.  Donal told of the horror that filled him when he became sane after a kill, and how the madness always returned to drive him to kill again, until finally he had committed his ninth murder and felt the rush of power.

He even described that amazing sensation the same way Ashura had experienced it in his own dreams, as though he had never felt so alive, as though he could do anything, anything at all.  Even the hungry craving for more and more and more was there in Donal's writings, and the mad king had gone on to satisfy that addiction with many gruesome deaths.  And then, after a passage about a particularly bloody rampage, the resulting surge of incredible power, and the utter horror when sanity returned, the diary ended.

How depressing.

Despite the horrible subject matter, one truly notable thing stood out to Ashura and gave him a glimmer of hope.  This curse, this blessing—both Donal and Ronnsha had been unclear as to which it was, and wrote of it as though it were both—when it appeared the foreseen future was changed.  King Donal's dreams had been of Holy Seresu's destruction at the hands of the Frost Jötnar.  He had written vividly of the devastation his dreams had shown him.  And yet, by the manifestation of this curse, that disaster had been averted.  It had taken a regrettable number of deaths, but the country as a whole had endured, and now the Frost Jötnar were just one more legend that no one believed had ever really existed.

Ashura's problem here was that he foresaw Seresu's destruction, not by an outside threat, but by himself, consumed by the very madness that these two scrolls spoke of as the country's salvation.  Either the true nature of the threat had not yet been revealed to him, or the mechanism by which this curse operated had somehow been broken.  He had no idea which theory was correct.

He needed to go through the documents this chamber contained, determine if any of the afflicted priest-kings had encountered the same quandary he now faced.  However, he had been down here for many hours already.  The night wouldn't last forever; for all he knew, day had already broken.  He had to leave, to return to the main part of the castle and take on his regular duties.

With great resignation, he admitted that he would have to brave this place's guardian spells once more and return here again.

He heaved a deep breath, got up, and left the chamber.  As he did so, the torchlight went out and the door closed behind him.  That was interesting.  He turned to reenter, and the door reopened, the chamber's torches relit.  Curious.  He returned to the antechamber, and again the torches were snuffed and the door closed.  It appeared the guardian spells knew him now, and were responding to him.

He climbed the long, curving stairs, noticing with interest how as he passed by them the torches flared then guttered, so that only the passage ahead of him was lit.  This was like something out of the fairy tales of his childhood.  Perhaps those, too, were actually based on old, forgotten facts.

He was winded when he reached the royal crypt.  All the torches had gone out, so that he was entirely blind.  He heard the secret portal's door grind closed behind him, and then realized that he felt much better than he had some hours before, when he had first activated the guardian spells.  Experimentally, he conjured a small magelight, and smiled when he succeeded.  Then he turned to face the ornately carved wall, careful not to touch it so he didn't accidentally reactivate it.  He could still taste his own magic powering the spells there.  It gave him a small hope that he wouldn't endure such a complete draining when next he returned.

With that optimistic thought in mind, he headed back toward his quarters.  When he got there, it was almost dawn.

Chapter Text

Ashura spent the next three nights in the hidden chamber of Seresu's ancient priest-kings.  As he had hoped, the spells which guarded that sacrosanct place knew him now, and he could activate them without pain or loss of his power.  He felt the barest tingling as he touched the glyphs that opened the secret passage.  His own magic, stolen that first night, still empowered the ancient enchantments easily, and they did not drain him again.

He learned a great deal inspecting the other scrolls and stone tablets which, while intriguing, was not particularly useful to him.  Most accounts told a similar tale as Ronnsha and Donal's scrolls, and chronicled some overwhelming threat that required heavy sacrifices of the country.

It seemed to Ashura that these so-called "Great Threats," many of which he recognized as myths and legends, had occurred relatively frequently in the past.  That was not to say they had been terribly common, but there had never before been such a large gap between them as two thousand years.  Their frequency also seemed to have tapered off over time.  The earliest documents recorded a higher number of incidents, on the order of once every century or so, while later records showed the curse manifesting only every few hundred years.  Until the last, which had been the final occurrence for over two millennia.

The high numbers of early incidences made him wonder if the curse hadn't been manufactured deliberately in the royal bloodline, to combat and tame an environment filled with hostile magics, supernatural species, and sorcerous enemies.  However, he never found any records to corroborate that idea.

The "Great Threats" to Holy Seresu were always overwhelming magical or supernatural problems.  This made sense to Ashura, since normal inter-kingdom hostilities could be solved with diplomacy or, failing that, military might, rather than the chaos of massacred citizens and a sacrificed king.  It seemed likely that these magical threats became fewer in number because each was disposed of permanently over the centuries.  It was possible that Seresu had been spared for two thousand years simply because there were no more such threats to worry about.

Until he had been born with a broken curse, and for no fathomable reason would create his own "Great Threat" and wipe out his own country.

For the most part, the royal courts of antiquity had understood their duty in those times of need.  But there was a record that told of one deluded court unwilling to perform the final sacrifice, deceived by the king's temporary sanity, hopeful that it was permanent.  It was not.  That king had had to provoke them into killing him, before his returning madness had fully consumed him and his amplified powers overwhelmed them all.  Ultimately, they had been forced to finish him, even though their own desires opposed his to die.

It was something to consider.  His own court was likely to be every bit as reluctant.  Kendappa could make that kind of decision, but the others would hesitate and dither until it was too late.  Hadn't he already foreseen the results of their failure?  This might be something he could change, in much the same way that priest-king had, by forcing their hands.

He also discovered some interesting trivia, such as how the wizards' D honorific had originated.  Currently, the title was awarded to the most important wizards in Seresu, those who had the most power or were of the most service to the country.  But in the ancient past, it had been both an honor and a burden, for it had only been offered to those wizards powerful enough to subdue a mad king, and acceptance of the title made it their obligation to do so when necessary.  For many it was a death sentence, and they knew it. 

According to an early stone tablet, the D stood for the first king known to be sacrificed, one King Domalde.  That priest-king had lived so long ago that even the tablet's author had no idea if Domalde had really existed or was just a myth.

The meaning of the D title had certainly been lost over the past two millennia.  It was now simply a way to acknowledge a wizard's power or service.  It allowed the king to elevate the status of a highborn wizard, or to ennoble one who was common born.  No one now alive, save Ashura, realized it also designated a king's Chosen, his executioners.

However interesting all that was, nothing Ashura found helped him with his own problem.  He could locate no records of any priest-king whose curse had gone so wrong as his own.  It seemed no other king had ever been the preordained "Great Threat" to Seresu that had activated the curse in the first place.  None of them had ever foreseen themselves destroying their own country.

On the fourth night since he had discovered the hidden records, he finally acknowledged the hopelessness of his quest and left the chamber early.  Then he walked the castle halls, as he had done when all this had started.  Just walked, with no destination in mind, no purpose other than to stay awake, and avoid dreaming.

He couldn't avoid thinking, though.  And what he thought about only depressed him further.

More than one author had stressed the need to sacrifice the king immediately upon some magical threat's dissolution, lest he destroy the country himself in his madness.  Presumably, there had been at least one bad experience with this undesired effect, although Ashura never found any substantiating tale of such an event.  Surely something like that would have warranted its own tablet or scroll?  It must have occurred in prehistory, before these things were written down, with the dangers passed along in an oral tradition until the participants had finally started keeping formal records.

Despite how the ancients had dressed the situation up in ritual, ceremony, and flowery words, the simple fact of the matter was that they had deliberately kept a line of dormant monsters on the throne.  His forebears had been useful monsters, that was true, although the people who had suffered a mad king's depredations had very likely held a different opinion.  However, in this day and age it seemed to Ashura that the curse carried by the Royal House of Vanir was nothing but a liability.  There were no more supernatural threats left in the northlands that required such drastic measures to overcome.  He could see no purpose for what was happening to him, and worse, no way out.

"The King and the Land are One," he muttered bitterly.  They certainly were; they would both be destroyed together.  It seemed to Ashura that what the Land needed was a different King, one not predestined to annihilate everything he held dear.

After four nights with no sleep, he was light headed and exhausted.  He had caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror, and knew his haggard features and the dark, purple shadows beneath his eyes were impossible for anyone to miss.  During the days he functioned with the aid of alertness spells and sheer obstinacy.  Kingdom business came to him with the ease of long practice, and during the deep winter season there weren't many issues that required swift thought or action, so he managed to get by.

But physical efficiency spells came with a price, and he was paying it now with mind-numbing fatigue.  He was aware that he wasn't thinking clearly; he knew he should get some sleep and then ponder what he had learned, but he couldn't bear any more prophetic dreams.

So he kept walking.

Before he knew it, an icy wind woke him to a more alert state of mind.  He had come to a fortified tower and gone outdoors onto the ramparts.  It was a beautiful moonless night, silent and peaceful.  The stars glowed like brilliant jewels, framed by the castle's translucent, illusory wings.  He could see clearly the Road of Souls, a shimmering ribbon of starshine that passed through the sky to the Land of the Dead.  He gazed at it for a long time, barely noticing the cold, and wondered what it would be like to journey on that hallowed path.  On the distant horizon, the sky was just lightening from black to soft gray as a new day arrived.

A flickering light approached him, a lantern carried by one of the sentries on night watch.  "Who goes there—?" the sentry began, then recognized Ashura.  "Your Majesty!  What are you doing out here at this hour?"  He suddenly looked nervous, realizing that he'd taken the liberty of challenging the king.

Ashura waved the sentry's concern aside and merely answered the question.  "I think I'd like to see the sun rise," he said, surprising himself.

"Yes, Sire," the sentry automatically responded.  His face took on an odd expression, made uncanny by the shifting play of light and shadows.  "Majesty, it's freezing and windy this morning.  You should have a coat.  I would be honored if you would take mine."  He moved a hand to unfasten his greatcoat.

"Thank you for your consideration, but it's not necessary," Ashura said.  The cold was bracing, and he found it helped clear his head a little.  "I'd prefer to go without.  Sometimes it's good for me to feel our country's weather."

"Are you certain, Majesty?"

"Yes.  Return to your duties."

The sentry looked doubtful, but he accepted the dismissal.  With a bow, he obeyed and left Ashura in peace.

Ashura moved toward the battlements, gazing out over the dark landscape through the gap in the stone fortifications.  The wind picked up, blowing chilled air through his hair and fur-trimmed garments.  He inhaled deeply, taking in the bitter cold and the scents of the country, as the first traces of pink appeared low in the east.  He leaned on the wall to watch the dawn.

As more of the dark sky gradually brightened to gray, the Road of Souls faded from view, and the stars became dimmer.  The pink and orange streaks on the horizon grew brighter.  The mountains became visible, jagged black and white silhouettes against the dove gray sky.  The pink light reflected on the glaciers, giving the mountains mysterious, surreal depths. 

On impulse, Ashura climbed up on the outer wall and stood between two merlons for an unobstructed view.  Another gust of wind struck him, and he spread his arms wide and let the biting currents of frosty air beat against him.  He looked down at the snow-covered earth so far below, brightened with tinges of pink and yellow.

He closed his eyes, feeling his cares blow away with the wind.

He only had to take one step forward, and Seresu would be safe from him forever.

One step, and he could walk the blessed Road of Souls.

Just one step...

Distantly, he heard frantic shouts and pounding feet.  He turned around, opening his eyes, and beheld every guard and sentry on the wall-walk racing toward him.  The closest slowed their pace and halted upon seeing him focus on them.

"Majesty—" a senior guard commander approached him cautiously, holding out a hand.  His voice wavered.  "Please, Majesty, come down from there."

Dispassionately, Ashura gazed out over the crowd.  At its rear, he saw Lord Vainamoinen hurrying forward, his eyes wide and his face drained of color.  He still wore his nightclothes and clutched a bed robe around his shoulders against the cold.

"Please, Majesty."  The guard commander edged forward.

Ashura lifted his head and looked up.  The first hints of blue had appeared in the sky, and the stars were barely visible, the brightest among them now bleaching into pale, insignificant specks that would soon surrender to daylight and vanish.  The thought depressed him.  The icy winds of Seresu pounded against his back and whipped around him.  He wanted to lean backwards, let the wind embrace him, let it carry him away.  The wind could save him...

Through his calfskin boot, he felt a vice tighten around his right ankle.  He looked down.  The guard commander had a strong grip on his leg with one hand.  Rigid and stiff-lipped, the man fearfully gazed up at him.  "Majesty," he groaned, "please forgive me."  He wrapped his other hand on top of the first, getting a secure hold.  Two guardsmen grasped their commander about the waist and braced themselves.

"Ashura!" Vainamoinen exclaimed, pushing to the front.  "Majesty, please," he said more calmly.  He had a strange, haunted look on his face.  "Please come down, my liege."

Ashura stared at the Lord of the Council in silence, considering the foolishness of the request.

Vainamoinen reached out a hand as though to take the king's, and pleaded softly, "Please, Ashura."

Ashura finally found his voice.  "Let go of me," he ordered the guard commander.  His voice sounded rusty, as though he hadn't used it in years.  The man hesitated, and Ashura said more firmly, "Let go."

With a panicked expression, the guard commander released his grip, finger by painful finger.  He and the two guardsmen backed away.

Ashura stood very still, watching everything with detachment and a peculiar sensation of numbness.  Vainamoinen's eyes were fixed on Ashura's, silently imploring.  The Lord of the Council kept his hand extended in mute offering. 

Ashura bent over and took his councilor's hand in his own, holding on tight.  After a moment, he jumped down, using Vainamoinen's strength and support to regain his balance.

Chapter Text

"This is what you meant when you said you wouldn't let it happen again?!?"  Kendappa was literally screaming at him.  His normally elegant cousin looked as though she had thrown on whatever clothes had been at hand, and her uncombed hair streamed down her back.  "You thrice-cursed fool!"

Ashura sat quietly and watched her vent.  His placid expression only seemed to enrage her further.  She paced the floor, waving her arms and yelling all kinds of interesting maledictions aimed squarely at him.  It was a good thing they were in the privacy of the main room in his temporary chambers.  The lack of decorum would no doubt shock the castlefolk and the sheer volume might even bring guards running to separate them.

Ashura rubbed his forehead.  His cousin was giving him a dreadful headache.  And what was she going on about, anyway?  "When I said I wouldn't let what happen again?"

"Oh, for the love of—  When you said you wouldn't allow another magical outburst after a nightmare, you idiot!"

"Oh.  That."

"Yes, that."  She whirled on him.  "Don't you think suicide is a complete overreaction?"

That comment roused him out of his apathy.  "Please, cousin, spare me your show of concern," he returned, his voice dripping with cynicism.  "You were prepared to order my death that night, remember?"

"Only if you stayed out of your mind and only if you became too dangerous for the wizards to handle!" she shrieked.

They both stopped and stared at each other.

"If I was deranged and too dangerous for the wizards to handle, it would be too late to do anything about it," Ashura pointed out reasonably.  The words had barely left his mouth when he realized he probably shouldn't have said that.  He wondered if she would get violent.

But instead of erupting again, Kendappa only threw him savage glare.  She took a deep breath and composed herself.  "Be honest with me, cousin.  For once in your life, just give me the plain, unvarnished truth.  Were you planning to kill yourself when you went to the ramparts this morning?"

"No," he said simply.  She gaped at him.

"No?"

"No.  When I went up there I did not intend to kill myself," he elaborated.  It was the truth.  The idea hadn't occurred to him until he'd actually climbed up on the wall and gazed out at his beloved country.  "I needed some air.  I just went walking, and ended up there.  I didn't really even plan to go outside."

Kendappa eyed him with more than a little suspicion.  "Yes, that last part might be true, at least," she allowed.  "You didn't even have a cloak or a coat with you."

"It is the truth, Kendappa."

And because it was the truth, he thought she might believe him.  But she wasn't about to stop haranguing him yet.

"Ashura," she said slowly.  "You are not an ordinary person.  You are the consecrated King of Seresu.  That's not just a secular position, even if everyone acts like it is.  You have sacred obligations that cannot be abandoned for personal reasons, no matter how important or overwhelming those reasons may seem to you."

As if he didn't know that.

She continued, grinding out the words, "You do not belong to yourself!  Your person and your soul belong to Seresu!  You are Seresu!"

"Kendappa, that's enough."

"It's not enough!  You can't leave Seresu!  You can't leave us."  She choked back a sob, and suddenly bent and threw her arms around him in a fierce embrace.  "You can't.  Please, don't.  Don't leave me.  Please."

He recalled a time seven years past when he had made that same plea.  It tugged at his heartstrings.  He hugged Kendappa tightly, but stared over her shoulder, considering the bleak options before him.  "Is it not my duty to sacrifice myself, should it benefit Seresu?  Just as it is the royal court's duty to remove me, should I become a detriment?"

"You're not a detriment.  I don't know why you're talking like this.  Just because of one stupid nightmare!  What's wrong with you?"

He rubbed her back and shoulders, taking some comfort from her warmth.  "It's not just because of one stupid nightmare," he murmured absently.

"Is it your—" she faltered.  "—is it your family?  I know the remembrance ceremony is next week, perhaps that...?"

"Is it?"  Ashura thought on that.  He'd been so wrapped up in the horrors of the future and the curse in his bloodline, he'd lost track of time.  "No, that's not a problem."

"You're lying to me again."

"I'm not.  It's just..."

"What?  It's just what?  Talk to me, Ashura.  Please.  Let's finally put this private trouble of yours to rest.  It's plagued you long enough."

He shook his head, remembering too much.  Visions of blood and carnage, the joy of murder, the exhilaration of power, the death of the country, the taint in his blood that he could not escape without dying himself...  Caught in memories and despair, he spoke softly, without thinking, "I fear there is not much time until the path I walk becomes irrevocable."

Assuming it wasn't already too late.  Everything he'd learned so far indicated that the curse in his blood was unstoppable and already at work, even though he wouldn't commit his first murder for many years.

"What path?  You're not making any sense."  Kendappa pulled back and inspected him, her eyes narrowing shrewdly.  "In fact, you haven't made much sense at all this morning.  You look beyond exhausted.  Ashura, when was the last time you slept?"

He cast his mind back and frowned.  "Three nights ago?  No, four—"

She stared at him with a shocked expression.  "No wonder you're confused," she breathed.  "It's a miracle you aren't hallucinating."

"I'm neither confused nor hallucinating."

"You're not rational, either.  You stay put right there," Kendappa ordered.  She got up, went to the door, and spoke to a servant waiting outside.  Then she turned and glared hard at him, silently daring him to defy her.

Even sleep deprived, he had more sense than that.  "What are you planning, cousin?"

She scowled at him.  "You are going to get some sleep if it kills us both.  Then we'll finish this conversation later."  She folded her arms.  "I'm certain you will be just as appalled by your behavior as I am right now, once you've had some decent rest."

The servant returned with a cup.  Kendappa took it and dismissed him.  Then she turned back to Ashura and approached him with the intent purpose of a snowcat stalking its prey.  She thrust the cup under his nose.  "Drink this."  Her tone brooked no opposition.

"What is it?" Ashura asked mildly.

"A sleeping draught.  You drink this, and then I'll put you to bed.  The court physician guarantees you'll stay there for at least six hours.  You need it, Ashura."  Her voice softened a little.

He hesitated.  Because of his dreams, he had always avoided sleeping potions.  He didn't know how the drugs would affect him.

Kendappa's patience with his megrims was at an end.  "Drink it, or I swear by the Eternal Flame I'll have the court wizards use that damned sleep spell you gave them!"

"Lord Suhail doubted their ability to make it work."  Once again, he regretted his words the instant they left his mouth.

Kendappa spoke with deadly intensity, "If I have to, I will order the servants to pin your miserable carcass to the floor and pour this draught down your ungrateful, misbegotten gullet."

She would do it, too.  The mood she was in, no one would dare disobey her.  And Vainamoinen would undoubtedly back her up.  Ashura considered his actions this morning and how haggard he looked, and understood immediately that no one would utter so much as a single word of protest about manhandling him in such a way.

Kendappa said, "Ashura, I know you're too tired to think straight, but do at least try to be sensible."

Ashura surrendered with poor grace.  "Give it here," he growled, taking the cup from her and draining it.  He slammed it on the table next to his chair.  "Are you happy now?"

"Very," she said evenly.  "Can you walk?"

"Of course I can walk."  To prove it, he stood up.  Unfortunately for his dignity, he swayed and stumbled.  He wasn't sure if his lack of balance was due to his dreadful weariness, or if the sleeping potion worked that fast.  Kendappa took his arm to steady him.

"Yes, I see that you are just fine.  Come along, cousin."

She had barely gotten him to his bed before unconsciousness claimed him.

Chapter Text

 

His blood sang.

He slashed with claws of dark sorcery, reveling in the rending of flesh, in the screams of pain and terror.  Hot liquid spattered him, bathing him in its glorious essence.  Power and strength surged through him, ecstatic, addicting.  With each tearing strike, his magic grew, every cell in his body tingling with burning vitality.  He had never felt so alive, so free.  He could do anything.  Anything.

He wanted more.  He needed more.  More.  Moremoremoremoremoremoremore—

He felt cold.

Cold and numb, and so very tired that he couldn't even lift his eyelids.  A frigid wind swept over him, and tiny ice crystals stung his exposed face and hands.  Was he outdoors?  He should go inside.  Only a fool would stand witlessly in the elements when one of Seresu's ice storms threatened.

A peculiar lassitude held him motionless, captive to the shroud of numbness over his thoughts.  What was wrong with him?  He fought to move, to reason, and yet he feared it, too.

He inhaled the freezing air.  Instead of the clean scent of snow, a metallic tang assaulted his nostrils.  He opened his eyes—

—And barely held back a scream of horror.

He stood in the center of some nameless village.  Bodies lay strewn around him, ripped to pieces.  Crimson stained the snow, defiling its white purity, the warm blood melting ice and mingling with the liquid flows to create vile, pink pools.

He turned in a circle, scanning with his eyes, reaching out with mystical senses.  Death hung over everything.  In the entire village, not one person still breathed.

His eyes turned downward, to the corpses at his feet.  His gaze fell on his hands, and his heartbeat faltered.

His hands were covered with blood.

Shredded skin and wet strings of tissue clung to his nails.  His robes and greatcoat were splattered with gore and gelatinous gobbets of flesh.

No, his mind denied.  It can't be.  It can't.

"No," Ashura said, forcing himself to stay calm.  "It's just a dream."

By all the gods, he was tired of this dream.

At least the trigger worked again.  That was his third success in as many tries in this particular nightmare, Ashura realized.  Unusual.  He wondered if he would be able to do it the next time he dreamed, as well.

He parted company with his future self, now locked in an eternal moment of anguish.  He turned away from the scene and didn't look back.

His consciousness did a little sidestep, moving him outside the dream and into the surreality of the dream space.  By all rights, he should use this opportunity to do some more investigation.  At the very least, he should again examine the dark power that shrouded the paths leading into and out of this dream.

But it was too soon.  He just wasn't up to it.  Not tonight, not with the memories of his last dream journey still so fresh and raw, and the truth about his own bloodline eating at his soul.  He couldn't face any of it again.  This cowardice would be his undoing, he knew, but he gave in to it anyway.

Instead, he visualized his safe place, his own quarters in the castle.  Not the broken, charred mess that existed in the real world, but his rooms as they had been before he had destroyed them, a comfortable private refuge.

He went into the main chamber and sat down in the chair by the fire, leaning his head back.  He inhaled deeply, shut his eyes, and took a moment to enjoy the respite.  From here, he should be able to return to the waking world.  Just go through the main entrance and be done with dreams for the night.

That was a perfectly wonderful idea.  He got up, walked to the entryway, pulled open the door, and stepped through...

...Straight into his blood-drenched throne room.

Grotesquely ravaged corpses lay scattered everywhere.  Butchered courtiers and guardsmen sprawled on the polished marble floors and the steps leading up the dais to the throne.  Every one of them had had their throats torn out.

Several wizards lay with the dead, their staves of power shattered, the fluorite focus stones in each staff nothing more than powder and a few charred splinters.

Formerly elegant columns were broken and scorched.  Blood had splashed over everything in the room.  Bright crimson fluid ran down the walls, dripped from the torch holders and the firepots.  It trickled down the dais stairs to pool on the floor.

The firepots' mystic flames still burned brightly, casting eerie, flickering reflections among the glistening, wet surfaces.

Other than the sound of slow drips plopping wetly into puddles of thick liquid, and the crackling of the burning fires, the throne room was quiet, so quiet.  Ashura had never heard it so quiet before.

The scuff of a footstep broke the grim silence.  Ashura turned, saw the back of a tall man dressed in the king's most formal ceremonial robes heading out the grand entryway to the corridor beyond.  A man with long, straight black hair, whose clothes and hands were stained with gore.

Shaking his head, Ashura backed out of the throne room, moving into his private chambers.  With unsteady hands, he closed the door and locked it.  Then he backed to the center of the room.

For a moment, he just stood there, one hand covering his mouth, trembling and staring at the door.  Why had he entered another true dream?  He should have simply woken up.  It should have worked.  He should have exited the dream world.

He hastened to a window and flung it open.  Another nightmare vision greeted his eyes.  The castle town itself, the streets full of dead bodies, the buildings splattered with blood.  Crows and vermin picked at the shredded flesh freezing into the ice.

He slammed the window shut and ran to the small, private library he maintained.  Inside he beheld not shelves of books, but again the throne room, again too quiet.  Quiet as the first vision, but not blood-soaked or full of corpses.  The throne room was empty but for himself.  He sat on the throne, looking distracted, even dazed, wearily resting his head in his hand.  He saw himself pull his hand away and stare at it, saw that it was covered with blood.  Saw his own blood-smeared face fill with shock and horror.

Would every portal lead to psychosis and murder?

Wild-eyed, he returned to the main room.  He didn't know what to do.  He was trapped; he couldn't leave, couldn't wake.  Why couldn't he wake? 

He finally remembered.  The sleeping draught.  That was why he couldn't wake, why his control was so lacking, even more so than usual.  He truly was trapped.  There could be no escape until the drug wore off.

His prophecies wouldn't release him.  They were encroaching into the safe area and he couldn't stop them.  He had escaped the first dream only to be ensnared by more dreams of the monstrous abominations to come.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the bedchamber door glow with strong reddish light.  He'd seen too much of the color red, yet this seemed different.  Slowly, he approached the glow.  Slowly, he opened the door.

Living, groaning corpses crowded the opening, their decaying claws reaching from him, their blackened flesh falling from their bones, their emaciated faces twisted and grimacing.  He gagged at their fetid breath.

Relief flooded Ashura.

The dead never returned to life, not even to exact revenge upon their murderer.  Tormented spirits were never this corporeal.  Corpses did not walk.

This was nothing more than an honest nightmare, a phantasm conjured up by his subconscious in response to the strains of the past weeks.

Here was his way out.  An ordinary nightmare was a thousand times preferable to the other dreams that waited for him.  He stepped through the portal, letting the illusory dead drag him into their hell.

The door slammed shut behind him.

Chapter Text

Ashura rather enjoyed his hallucinatory nightmare, simply out of the sheer relief of knowing that nothing about it would ever become real.  That, and the fact that it kept the true dreams at bay.  He was never sure when or even how it ended, but when it was over his sleep had been deep and dreamless.

The court physician's estimate that Ashura would sleep for six hours had been conservative.  In fact, Ashura slept the rest of the day, waking in the evening long enough to have a light meal and take care of personal needs.  He then slept through the night, and mercifully without any dreams.  In the morning, he woke feeling refreshed for the first time in over a month.

The significance of the true dreams that had plagued him while he was drugged did not escape him.  Somehow, the sleeping potion had freed him from the shackles that bound him to one horrible moment in his future.  The dreams he had witnessed were every bit as bad, but they had at least been of different, yet still related, events.  They had all been on the same twisted path.

He thought he might be able to seek an alternate path, after all, if he could only find a way to access a related dream that preceded the recurring one.  He wasn't hopeful, though.  He wished it didn't require drugs to accomplish.  They had stripped him of what little control he had over his dreams, and that was unacceptable.

He broke his fast in the solar with Kendappa and Vainamoinen, knowing full well their conversational agenda.  He already knew exactly what they wanted to hear from him.  He'd have known even if Kendappa hadn't made it perfectly clear the previous morning when she'd learned how long he'd gone without sleep.

Still, no one wanted to broach the topic.  An uncomfortable silence reigned while several servants buzzed around the table, slicing portions of cheese and brown bread, preparing tea, pouring watered wine into goblets, and laying out a selection of cured meats and winter vegetables.

Finally, Kendappa sent the servants away with a languid wave of her hand.  "Everything is fine.  Please leave us."

Ashura smiled as he sipped his tea.  Despite her impatience, obvious to him because he knew her so well, Kendappa was always unfailingly refined and polite in public.  He could only recall a few times when her public manners had failed her.

"What are you smirking about?" she snapped at him after the servants had gone.

"I take it you're still vexed with me."

"Vexed doesn't begin to cover it."  She took a slice of smoked venison and shredded it into tiny pieces with vicious strokes of her fork and knife.  It wasn't hard to imagine who she really wanted to shred.  "At least you got some sleep."

Vainamoinen cleared his throat.  "I interviewed the night sentries on the eastern part of the wall."  He visibly recoiled when two pairs of eyes fixed on him, the masculine ones calm, the feminine irate.  "They agree with Lady Kendappa's assessment yesterday that Your Majesty was, uh, not exactly behaving normally.  One guard in particular claimed he spoke with you."

Ashura nodded in confirmation.  "He offered me his greatcoat.  I refused."

"So he told me.  He said you didn't look well.  He thought something might be wrong and came to fetch me."

"Yes, I recall that he did look oddly at me."

"Your Majesty...  Ashura..."  Vainamoinen hesitated, and stared Ashura full in the face.  "Ashura, just what were you doing up there at that hour?  You were acting so strangely.  Were you...?  Did you really plan to...?"  He didn't seem able to finish the sentence.

"Did I plan to kill myself when I went to the ramparts?  Is that what you're asking?"  Ashura made sure to phrase the blunt question exactly as Kendappa had the previous morning.

Vainamoinen nodded.  Kendappa rolled her eyes and sat back, chewing and watching her cousin with sharp interest.

"I thought that Lady Kendappa had already explained."

Kendappa huffed.  Vainamoinen said, "Yes, she did, but, well..."

Ashura said, "But you want to hear it from me."

"Yes, Sire."

"I did not intend to kill myself when I went to the ramparts yesterday before dawn," Ashura stated with precise honesty.  "As I told Kendappa, I didn't even plan to go outside, but once I was there I wanted to see the sun rise."

"So you climbed up on the outer wall?"  Vainamoinen sounded baffled.  "Why?"

"It afforded an unobstructed view."  Ashura smiled ruefully.  "As you are already aware, I wasn't thinking clearly."

Kendappa slammed her knife down.  "You went four nights without sleep, you fool!  Why in the name of the Dying God would you do that to yourself?"

The Dying God...  His newfound and undesired association with that particular deity was one of the reasons why he had done that to himself, though he couldn't offer that explanation.  There were others, however, that were equally honest.  "You may recall that I have been having nightmares."

"Are they still so bad, cousin?"

"Bad enough."  Also the plain, unvarnished truth.  With Vainamoinen present, Kendappa wouldn't probe deeper into Ashura's troubles, as she had attempted the previous morning.  Ashura looked down at his untouched food.  Mechanically, he picked up his bread and cheese, and took a bite.

"So you're just going to act like nothing's happened?" Kendappa snapped, out of temper with him.

"Nothing did happen," he returned evenly.

"You have the gall to say that to me, and yet you are surprised that I am vexed with you."

"I am sorry I made everyone so upset."  Another truth.  "That was not my intention at all."  That was why he had not simply brushed the guardsmen away with magic and allowed himself to fall backwards off the wall.  Not with Vainamoinen watching.  He wouldn't do that to Vainamoinen.  Not yet, at any rate.

"Yes, the whole castle was in an uproar," Kendappa told him waspishly.  "It's a good thing that guard had the sense to go to Lord Vainamoinen, or who knows what might have happened.  Have some consideration for the rest of us and think before you do something so stupid again."

"Of course I will."

"Feh."  With that eloquent comment, Kendappa speared another piece of meat and applied herself to her breakfast.

"Does that mean you are done yelling at me?"

She shook her head.  "We'll see.  I'm not making any promises."  She glared at him.  "I won't ask you for any, either, because I know you won't give any.  Just...don't do it again."

And peace was restored.

Ashura chewed thoughtfully, considering his two most trusted advisors.  Denial and wishful thinking were powerful motivators.  They both wanted to believe that his aberrant behavior had simply been caused by lack of sleep.  His nightmares made a most convenient excuse.  Kendappa and Vainamoinen clung to that explanation like drowning victims would to any lifeline, even one made of straw.  Disorientation and confusion on Ashura's part due to exhaustion were infinitely preferable to the idea that their king would knowingly choose to kill himself.

However, Ashura was coming to believe that suicide might very well be the only possible answer to his problem.

With his usual adroit wisdom, Lord Vainamoinen had stayed quiet until it appeared that the royal cousins were finished bickering.  Of the three of them, he had actually managed to consume a decent meal.  Now he pushed his plate away, and said, "I trust Your Majesty will take your gracious cousin's advice."  He paused and eyed the pair, but neither saw fit to add anything more.  "In that case, there is other business that requires Your Majesty's attention."

Ashura became alert at that statement, as he always did when kingdom affairs came up.  "What has happened?  All was quiet two days ago."

"The weather has been remarkably clear and fine for over a week now."

Ashura knew what that meant.  "The raiders from the south."

"Yes, Your Majesty.  A messenger arrived yesterday.  The Lord of the Southlands reports increased activity along the border with Arimaspea.  Several food warehouses have been despoiled and looted.  Some farmers were killed, and a few women raped.  Additionally, the raiders appear to have their sights set on the Borean gold mine."

The Southlands were the only area in Seresu that could sustain large-scale agriculture, and even that was limited to growing the hardier varieties of fruits, vegetables, and grains.  Only plants with short growth cycles, or that could weather harsh conditions, were cultivated.  Most other regions in the country made do with gathering and farming a few native plants, hunting game, fishing in Seresu's multitude of lakes, and raising livestock that could thrive in the cold.

Additionally, Seresu possessed a number of gold mines.  The wealth helped feed the people during the deepest winter months.  Imported food was always expensive.  The mine in the Southlands was among the most productive and, unfortunately, the most exposed and therefore the most difficult to defend. 

"And may I assume that the Arimaspi government denies knowledge and complicity in the raiders' actions?" Ashura guessed.  It was the usual pattern, despite a complex treaty with the Arimaspi king that kept the two countries from open warfare.  Arimaspea had long coveted Seresu's mineral wealth.

"So Lord Taishaku reports."

"Has he requested assistance?"  Ashura was surprised.  It wasn't like Lord Taishaku to be unable to handle a few raiders.

"No," Vainamoinen admitted.  "He was only reporting on the current state of affairs.  However, considering that the mine is involved, I think it advisable that we provide some troops and monitor the situation."

Ashura nodded slowly.  "All right.  I doubt Lord Taishaku would object to some reinforcements."  Then again, he might take offense at the implication that he couldn't deal with a handful of brigands on his own.  It was hard to predict how Taishaku would interpret this particular mark of royal interest in his activities.  "Since Arimaspea denies knowledge of the raiders, we are free to do as we please as long as we stay inside our own borders."

"Do you wish to convene a war council, Sire?"

"This matter hardly requires a war council," Ashura said, amused at the way the threat was being overblown.  "Have Lord Bishamon select some men and go assist in quelling the border.  He's had little to do of late.  Send a war wizard, as well."  The wizard would provide swifter and more efficient communications.  It hardly mattered, as Taishaku had several wizards of his own.  In fact, the situation couldn't be of much real urgency, since the Lord of the Southlands hadn't bothered using that means to report on the border troubles and had only sent an ordinary messenger. 

Perhaps Vainamoinen had taken to heart some of Ashura's comments about things being too quiet.  Ashura thought the Lord of the Council might be exaggerating the threat, to give his king something to think about other than bad dreams and dead relatives.  It would have been a good ploy, had simple, ordinary nightmares and much-delayed mourning been the true problems.

Ashura tapped his chin thoughtfully.  No matter how misguided his motives, Vainamoinen had the right idea; some exercise in a few minor battles might be just what Ashura needed right now.  "I'm tempted to go myself.  It's been a long time since I've wielded a sword or used combat magic outside the practice field."  It also occurred to him that men died in battle, even in minor border skirmishes.  All it took was a lucky arrow or sword strike.

"You cannot go," Kendappa remonstrated quickly.  "It would give the raiders too much consequence.  Imagine how they'd crow, that they were so fearsome and formidable that the king himself had to oversee the defense."

"While I think the distraction would do you good, Lady Kendappa is correct," Vainamoinen agreed, just as speedily.  "Any matter that does not require a war council certainly does not merit the king's attendance.  Your presence on the border with a war party might also heighten tensions with Arimaspea."

"Besides, the weather is not reliable," Kendappa added.  "Do you really wish to be caught in the Southlands when another blizzard comes through?  Bad enough Bishamon and his men will be forced to stay, but the king as well?  That would do nothing for the country's security."

So.  They wanted him preoccupied with a minor issue of border defense, but they also wanted him here, where they could keep an eye on him.  They'd had all day yesterday to cook up this plot.  Lord Taishaku's timely report must have seemed like a gift from the heavens.  Ashura knew there must have been such a report; it would be too easy for him to verify otherwise.

Ashura wondered how long they'd keep up the pretense that this was some serious matter, rather than just a routine border skirmish.  "Very well," he said, agreeing to all their terms, both spoken and not.  "I will stay.  Let us send Bishamon south, and then wait and see how the situation develops."

Chapter Text

As it happened, over the next week nothing of note transpired in the Southlands.  It took Lord Bishamon almost that long to march his troops south and meet Lord Taishaku at the border.

After they arrived, Ashura received a terse message from Lord Taishaku thanking the king for the reinforcements, and assuring him that matters on the border would be dealt with as swiftly as possible.  Ashura read between the lines and decided that Taishaku sounded slighted at the implied lack of faith in his ability to handle a few raiders.

"It seems we have managed to offend one of the great lords of the land.  An excellent way to ensure loyalty, don't you think?" Ashura remarked to Vainamoinen and Kendappa at the high table that night during the evening meal.

On his right, Kendappa sniffed.  "He should be pleased at the mark of royal favor."

Vainamoinen sat to Ashura's left.  He finished reading the note and handed it back to the king.  "Perhaps he merely thinks we are just so bored this winter that we are reduced to meddling in any kingdom affairs."

"That is the best possible interpretation he could have taken," Ashura said.

"A pity that another winter storm is already moving in.  Now Lord Taishaku will have to feed and garrison Bishamon's troops until it passes."

Ashura said, "Another fine way to test his loyalty."

"Better him than us," Kendappa remarked without sympathy.  "He's rich enough that he won't notice the extra cost, and the Southlands always have an easier time than the rest of the country during deep winter.  Unlike you, cousin, he doesn't bear the cost of supporting the rest of Seresu in emergencies."

"We will still have to find a way to make amends."

"Invite him to court when this business is done and deep winter is at an end," was Kendappa's advice.  "Invent some fancy new honor for him, and his wounded pride will be mended."

The remembrance ceremony for Ashura's family was held the next day.  At his request, it was a small, private affair.  Only Kendappa and Vainamoinen stood with him while a single priest intoned chants for the deceased souls.

Ashura had worried that he might react poorly to being in the royal crypt and so close to the secret portal, but he was able to stand at ease and mostly ignore the siren call of his ancestors' ancient chamber.  However, it did prevent him from focusing all his attention on the service as, by all rights, he should have done.

Not that it mattered.  The priest's rote words had no power to move him.  In fact, he had come to believe that the gods had been quite merciful to his wife and sons.  They would never witness his metamorphosis into a monster.  That divine mercy had, in a twisted way, extended to him as well.  He would be spared the horror of tearing them apart with his own hands.

He left a small token on the tomb, a rock crystal carved fancifully in the shape of rare butterflies, the symbol of transformation.  Death was surely the ultimate transformation.  With that, the ceremony concluded.

A few days later, Ashura stood in his office of state, gazing out the window.  The latest storm rattled the windowpanes and blew harsh ice pellets against the glass.  The sleet glazed over everything, reflecting the dark gray skies and casting a terrible pall over all the land.

This winter storm seemed worse than most, somehow more ominous.  He couldn't help but feel that things had been going too well for him lately.  His dreams had deserted him since the morning Kendappa had drugged him, and he had avoided the hidden chamber since then, as well.  He could almost believe that life would go back to normal, that the past month had been nothing but...a dream?

Utter stupidity.  No matter how much he might wish it, his dreams were not mere phantasms.

He sighed and listened to the storm howl.  Its bleak cries echoed those of his soul.

A knock at the door broke his dark reverie.  "Yes?" he called.

Kendappa entered the office and curtsied.  "Your Majesty," she said demurely.

"What is it, Kendappa?" he said with a resigned exhalation.

She gave him a sharp look and came over to him.  "What is wrong?" she asked, honest concern in her eyes.  "You've been so much better since the ceremony.  Have you started having bad dreams again?"

"No, I haven't had any nightmares lately.  This storm just depresses me," he said, opting for honesty, however incomplete.

"The storm?"  She blinked at him, then stared out the window.  "It's bad, certainly, but nothing we haven't seen before."

"Yes, I know.  It's nothing, just an odd fancy."  He gazed at her.  "Did you come here just to comment on the weather?"

 "I came to tell you that the repairs and renovations on your quarters are completed.  The servants are moving furniture and your personal effects back in, even as we speak."

He had been wondering what excuse she would use.  She and Vainamoinen had been taking turns stopping in, just to keep an eye on him and keep him company.  He hadn't expected such a valid reason, though, or one so welcome.

He smiled at her.  "That is most excellent news.  Although, in truth, the temporary ones were fine.  I was quite comfortable there."

"Well, now you'll have your own rooms back.  That should be a relief, I would think."  She wandered over to his desk and idly flipped through some loose papers lying on its surface.  One, half hidden under several others, caught her eye.  She picked it up and read it, raising an eyebrow.  "Have you even looked at this?" she asked.

He moved to stand beside her and glanced at the paper.  He sighed.  Vainamoinen's list of marriageable princesses and noblewomen.  "Oh," he said inadequately.  "This."

"It's not a bad list," Kendappa said, considering the names.  "I think you'd get on quite well with several of these ladies."

Naturally, she knew what the list was for.  She had probably helped compile it, Ashura reflected sourly.

He wasn't in the mood for this.  "This doesn't seem an appropriate time for this discussion," he temporized.  "Perhaps next month."

She looked up at him.  "Have you considered remarrying?  Not because the council wants you to, but for yourself?"

"It's not exactly at the forefront of my mind."

"You've been alone for seven years.  That's not healthy for a man with your responsibilities.  A wife might do you some good," she said delicately.

Her implication amused him.  "Did you imagine I've been celibate all this time?"

"I know you've had mistresses.  That's neither the point nor my meaning."

"Yes, I know," he said.  "But it's really not a good time right now."  He cocked his head at her and redirected the question.  "What about you?  You've been widowed a few years, yourself.  Have you considered taking a new husband?"

Silvery laughter gurgled from her throat.  "Marriage didn't suit me at all, as you well know.  You wasted so much time listening to my complaints, I'm surprised you even mention it now.  I've been quite happy here, running your household for you without any other demands on me.  The independence is nice."

"And yet you would play matchmaker for me?"

"Marriage did suit you.  That was obvious."

Ashura smiled, a little sadly.  Yes, it had suited him.  But now it wasn't an option.  How could he take another woman to heart, just to savagely murder her?

And Kendappa...  He would murder her, as well, if she stayed in Seresu.  But now that he thought on it, perhaps he could arrange a political marriage for her that would take her out of the country.  Considering what she'd just told him, she would be very angry with him.  But at least she would live.

Until the world was sealed.  Then she would die just as surely as if he had killed her with his own hands.

His lack of response didn't seem to surprise her.  She placed the list back on his desk, saying, "Well, you should keep it in mind.  Someday you'll want to share your life again."

"Maybe someday," he said to humor her, not committing to anything.

She treated him to one of her brilliant smiles.  "Why don't you take a break?  We can go see your quarters and annoy the servants while they try to arrange the furniture around us."

"That sounds like a splendid idea," he agreed.  He offered her his arm.

She took it cheerfully.  In perfect charity with one another, they went to inspect his renovated rooms.

Chapter Text

Amplified by her magic, the queen's screams rang throughout the entire castle.

Ashura rushed to her bedside, pushing blindly through the frantic crowd of midwives, physicians, and healing mages.  There was blood, so much blood, too much blood.  It was everywhere, staining the hands and clothes of the doctors, drenching the bedding, even splattered on his wife's sweat-streaked face.  He dropped to his knees beside her and clutched her hand.  "What's happening?" he demanded of the attendants.  "What's wrong?  Do something!"

He never heard the reply.  His wife let out such a horrible, groaning cry that he almost fainted.  Her bloodshot blue eyes were wide in her ashen, contorted face.  He looked into her eyes and repeated, over and over, "It's all right.  I'm here.  It's going to be all right.  I'm here, I'm here..."

Her free hand lifted to touch the tears on his cheeks.  "Ashura..." she whispered, before her whole body convulsed in a wrenching spasm.  She screamed again.  The massive bloodstains on the coverlet grew even larger, hot crimson liquid pooling in the bedclothes.

"No! Don't..." he begged her, gripping her hand tightly, so tightly, as though he could hold her to this life by that pressure alone.  "Don't go...  Don't leave me.  Please, please, don't—  Don't!"

Then she went utterly, terribly still.

"No..." he whispered.  "No..."  The hand he held was limp.  He clung to it with both of his.  He looked to the attendants.  "Someone, do something.  Please, do something..."  His voice broke on a sob.

A physician spoke, his tone grief stricken.  "I'm sorry, Your Majesty..."

Ashura turned away from him.  Trembling, he gazed at his wife.  Wet with perspiration, her long, golden hair spread out across the pillows.  Her eyes were still open, wide and blank and cloudy blue, staring at nothing.  He reached out a hand and gently closed them, then kissed her slack lips.

"Your Majesty," one of the midwives spoke hesitantly.

"What is it?" he ground out, barely holding himself together.

"Your Majesty, the babies..."

He froze.  "Ba—babies?"

"Majesty..."  A man, that time.  One of the physicians.  "They were stillborn, Majesty."  His voice held so much sorrow.  "Twin sons, Your Majesty.  I'm so very sorry..."

Twin sons...  He stared down at the lifeless face of his dearest love.  His dreams, it was all just as in his dreams.  It had all come true.  Why had no one believed him?  Maybe this could have been changed; maybe his wife and sons would still be alive, if only someone had believed.  Why did no one ever believe?

He threw back his head and howled his denial and anguish to the uncaring universe.  Then he collapsed over his wife's still form and wept.

The world dissolved into flurries of snow.

He was huddled over the body of a woman, weeping bitterly.  He felt cold, so cold.  Frigid wind cut through his clothes, and snowflakes clung to his hair and skin like cobwebs.

Another gust of freezing air tore at him, and he finally looked up.

A gasp escaped his lips.  Corpses surrounded him, uncountable numbers lying at grotesque angles in the snow.  The woman beneath him was not his queen, but a total stranger, with waxy skin and lifeless features.  With revulsion, he wrenched himself away from her and climbed to his feet.

He wiped his tears away and looked around.  "Where am I?" he said aloud, bewildered.

Drifts of snow blew across the barren earth.  A lofty, colossal wall made of stone blocks rose up around him in a great circle, defining the boundaries of a deep, gigantic pit.  The sheer height was dismaying.  In the center of the pit, an unsightly tower reached into the forbidding sky.  No vegetation grew anywhere, no bird called, no insect chattered, and nothing but snow and tiny ice crystals moved.  It seemed nothing lived here at all.  There was just unnatural silence, and the wind, and the snow.

And the corpses.

Overhead the sky loomed gray and ugly.  Bodies of all ages dotted the desolate landscape, dressed in unfamiliar styles of clothing.  But for that, the strange surroundings, and that fact that these people hadn't been torn to shreds, he might almost believe that this place held another of his future killing sprees.

But when he reached out with magical senses, and failed to detect anything, anything at all, he knew he no longer stood in his beloved Seresu.  This place was foreign, alien—and worse, magic didn't work here, not at all.  He could feel nothing of the mystic, not even the power at his own core, and it frightened him.  There was no place in all of his world like this.

He considered the pit's steep, curving wall and its brutally ugly tower, and wondered if, perhaps, there might not be anyone else alive in this bleak place.  From where he stood, he could see no way out.  He thought that if there was any way to escape, it had to be on the other side of the tower.  He started picking his way around the pit, trying not to stumble over any of the countless dead, irrationally hopeful of finding another living soul somewhere along the way.

He walked for what seemed like hours, although he didn't think he traveled very far.  Time seemed confused in this place.  The wind pushed against him, and ice pelted him, as though the elements were trying to bar his way.  He passed innumerable bodies, of adults young and old, of children, even of infants.  Many bore varied marks of murder and formal execution, but a large number showed no visible injuries.  Perhaps they had died of sickness, or even poison?  Yet, however they had died, they displayed no signs of rot or putrescent flesh.  In fact, none of the corpses appeared to have decomposed at all.

The whole situation mystified him.  By all rights, this foul pit should reek with the stench of decay and putrefaction, even in this cold, but all the bodies appeared as though they had only recently become deceased.  Closer to the tower, the dead grew even greater in number, piled atop one another in grisly jumbles of limbs, heads, and torsos.

Finally, he reached the opposite side of the pit.  At the base of the tower, surrounded by repellent heaps of corpses, he at last beheld another living human being, a blond child.  A young boy, barefoot, dressed in filthy rags.  He was horribly emaciated, with crabbed, pinched features and bulbous, protruding eyes that proclaimed him the victim of starvation and unimaginable poverty.  His stringy, unkempt hair reached past his ankles.

The boy scrabbled at the tower, attempting to scale it.  "Fai!" he screamed desperately.  "Fai!"

Ashura looked upward.  High up, near the very top of the stone column, he could make out a barred window.  Was someone else up there, imprisoned at the pinnacle of the tower?

A thin, reedy cry drifted downward, answering the boy on the ground:  "Yūi!"

Ashura shifted his gaze back to the boy clawing at the tower's stone blocks, and knitted his brows.  He moved closer for a better look.  There was something about the child that gnawed at him, something he should remember...

Sudden recognition jolted him.  He fell to his knees in the snow, just staring at the boy.

This boy was one of the twin princes he had seen before, in another dream.  The princes who were cursed, who had been standing before a harsh, immovable sovereign for judgment in a country called Valeria.

One of the very princes he had been tempted to steal away from their own world.

It seemed so long ago.  He remembered that twins in that world were an ill omen and brought great misfortune to those around them.

He stared up at the barred window.  The other twin?  Was that who was up there?  Did that mean both were here, but eternally separated?

Why were they here, abandoned in such a hideous place, imprisoned in such a horrible manner?  He looked around at all the corpses, and wondered just what had caused this much death.  Could it have come about because the twin princes had been born and allowed to live?  He wanted to reject the idea.  He wanted to believe it was absurd.

But it wasn't absurd.  His own curse would eventually force him to deal this kind of massive death to his own country.

Was abandonment in this hellish place the children's punishment for bearing their curse of being twins?  No matter what had happened, this treatment was inhuman.  How could their own kinsman have done this to them?

It would have been far kinder to have just killed them outright.

The boy appeared much older now than he had in the previous dream, an eternity older, but Ashura knew that his appearance was deceptive.  His cracked and disfigured skin, his ragged hair and nails, his emaciated body, all gave him the appearance of a gnarled old man.  But the boy was still just a young child.  Horribly abused and traumatized, damaged almost beyond recognition, but his height and frame gave his true age away.

As Ashura watched, appalled and sickened, the child clambered atop a pile of corpses heaped against the base of the tower.  He dug scratched and bruised fingers into cracks in the stone blocks and climbed up, handhold by bleeding handhold, until his grip failed him.  He tumbled back to earth, crying with pain and despair.

Ashura couldn't bear to see any more.  He turned his head aside, closing his eyes, and berated himself for his lack of action before.  This dream, and the last, both had been sent to him as punishment for his failure, for all his failures in the past, and the inevitable failures to come.

He should have found a way to make someone believe in his prophetic dreams, to save his queen and his sons before they had died in agony.  It was his fault they were gone.  He had foreseen their deaths and failed to prevent them.  It was no one's fault but his own.

He should have sought out the cursed twins when he had first encountered them.  He might have discovered a way to free them of their ill fortune, if only he had searched hard enough.  Instead, he had abandoned them, and now they were trapped in an obscene hell where no magic worked, where no spell of his could ever find them.  He was as much at fault for their fate as the kin who had condemned them.

Just as he knew he would fail to save his country.  Instead, he would destroy it.  Seresu's death would be on his own head.

He forced himself to look first at the child crying at the base of the tower, then to the barred window so far above.  Mercilessly, he committed the scene to memory.  It would be his penance for all his failures, past, present, and future.

And he felt longing, too, heartbreaking longing for these two doomed boys who under other circumstances might have been his own.

"Ah, children, you were born to the wrong world," he sighed regretfully, feeling moisture gather at the corners of his eyes.  "You should have been born in Seresu.  I would have cherished you."

As he reached out to the poor, sobbing child, the dream faded away.

Chapter Text

When Ashura woke, he wasn't surprised to discover that his face was wet.  It had been a difficult night, provoking terribly strong emotional reactions from him.  He'd only been back in his own bedchamber a few nights, and already dreams tormented him again.  He had known the recent drought of dreams had been too good to last long.

Dawn had broken, and soft light glowed from the windows.  He lay in his bed, staring at the ceiling, recovering from the arduous experiences.  This pair of dreams had been an unusual combination.  They had shown him of happenings in the past, and in times he couldn't determine.  He couldn't fathom their purpose; they couldn't be warnings or even benign advisements.  Perhaps he had been correct in his irrationality during the last dream, and they had been sent to punish him.

The first dream hadn't been of prophecy; it had simply been a replay of a traumatic experience.  It had forced him to relive the events of seven years past; events that at the time had broken his life.  Until now he had always believed he had recovered from the tragic deaths of his family, and the scars his dreams prior to those deaths had left on his soul.  It seemed he had been wrong, and had merely been in denial all these years.

The other dream...  When would that occur?  Had it occurred already, was it occurring right now, or was it a future event?  Were the cursed twins trapped in the pit and tower at this very moment, or were they long dead?  He couldn't tell.  He had initially thought their judgment had taken place sometime in the past, a point in time he couldn't ever touch.  But now...  Time flowed differently in that pit.  Maybe they were there still.

The connection between the two dreams was glaringly obvious, even to Ashura at his most obtuse.  There was no possible way he wouldn't have linked them.  It was unfortunate that he had ever dreamed of the ill-omened twins in the first place, but at the time he had been floundering out of control in the dreamscape.  And now that his mind had found those children twice and made the unavoidable connection with his own deceased family, it seemed inevitable that his dreams would continue to seek them out.

Perhaps he should seek them out in reality, as well.

As soon as that forbidden thought appeared, he ruthlessly crushed it.  The twins, assuming they still lived, were in a place no magic of his could ever reach.  Any effort would be futile.  Aside from that, he couldn't bring them to Seresu, to wreak the same havoc he believed had afflicted their own homeland.  His heart cracked a little, and some small part of his soul cried out that he was abandoning them yet again, but what else could he do?

In any case, he had other, more pressing issues to contend with, more significant problems than the unknown fate of two condemned children from another world.  Especially children who had no real tie to him, and who might not even still be alive.

He had to find a way to save his country, and with it his world.  If Seresu survived, if the path he walked could be changed, the world would never be sealed.

The bedchamber brightened as the sun rose.  He got up and pulled on a robe.  The workmen had done an excellent job repairing his quarters.  He couldn't tell that they had ever been damaged.  The décor his servants had selected was different from before, that was inevitable, but everything looked perfect.  He would have to make sure they all received some reward for their hard work.

He went into the bathroom, poured unheated water into the basin, and splashed his face.  As always, the bracing liquid shocked the last, clinging tendrils of his dreams from him.  This time he felt as though he needed to immerse his whole body, but he didn't go that far.  It was enough.  He returned to the bedchamber and dressed simply, without calling for any servants to assist him.  That would annoy them, but he didn't want them hovering while he tried to think.  They could fuss over him later.

Aside from issues of family, the predominant themes in these latest dreams had been his own failures from inaction, or perhaps more accurately, wrongful action.  There might be something to that.  Lately, it seemed that no matter what actions he took, no matter what decisions he made, he only further entrenched the nightmare future he sought to avoid.  Clearly, he was doing something dreadfully wrong.

There was also that curse in his blood to contend with, the Divine Spear of Madness.  It demanded to be released, and through its connection to his dreams it likely directed him along paths he should instead avoid.  He had no idea how to thwart it.  From everything he'd learned, it might not be possible to defy it.  But he had to try.  He couldn't just sit still and allow the future to destroy him and his kingdom without doing something to stop it.

His ancestors' writings might be confused as to whether the Divine Spear was a curse or a blessing, but as one they agreed that dream prophecy was rarely anything but a bane, helpful only when dealing with the Sacral King's destiny.  Ashura disagreed that it was even of that much benefit to him.  Most of the time it was useless, and when the events it foretold mattered, he couldn't do anything about them.  He was no priest, to immerse himself in spiritual matters and passively accept whatever fate the gods doled out to him.  He was King of Seresu, and his duty was to take any action necessary to benefit his country.

He just couldn't manage to find the appropriate actions on his own.

He was too close to his problems to see the answers.  The Divine Spear pressured him, and his own dreams confounded him.  He needed advice from an objective source, from someone who could look at the situation without becoming lost in the small details and all the metaphysical influences.

With that thought, he realized he was setting himself on a rather drastic course of action.  He needed to find a way to explain his real problems to Lord Vainamoinen.  He considered including Kendappa in his confessions, but thought she might not react well if by some outside chance she actually believed him.  After all, her blood also bore the Divine Spear.

This idea posed unique difficulties all its own.  What, exactly, did he plan to tell Vainamoinen?  He saw it vividly in his mind's eye:  "Oh, by the way, my family line has been carrying a curse for thousands of years that no one has ever heard of before.  Someday it's going to cause me to go insane and murder everyone in the kingdom.  What do you think we should do about this?"

He didn't need prophetic dreams to predict the reaction to that.

He had already given Vainamoinen enough cause to doubt his mental stability in the past month.  No one, not even Vainamoinen, had ever believed Ashura when he'd been young, that his dreams of prophecy were real phenomena.  Why would Vainamoinen believe in the existence of a previously unknown royal curse, either?

He needed to show Vainamoinen proof.  He daren't take his advisor to the secret chamber.  The guardian spells were keyed only to the Sacral King and his Chosen Successor.  He knew first hand how strong the magic was, and how targeted.  He believed it would kill anyone it wasn't designed to recognize.  Ashura had no wish to murder Vainamoinen.  Not in the future, and certainly not now.

He might possibly take his heir there, although that was uncertain.  The records all specifically mentioned a Chosen Successor, rather than simply an heir designate.  In all the writings Ashura had examined, the term Chosen always referred to a Sacral King's personally selected executioners.  It also implied a strong bond of love.  Although fond of his nephew, he had in no ways prepared the young man for such a terrible role.  How could he have, when he himself had been so completely unknowing for his whole life, save this past month?

Besides all that, his nephew's relative youth would work against his veracity in telling such an outrageous story.  There was no other purpose in showing the place to the teenager, since Ashura didn't intend to leave any records of his own.  When the curse played out, Ashura knew he would leave no one alive in Seresu to read them.  And ultimately, the whole world would be sealed and collapsed down into nothingness, so what was the point?

His only option was to remove one or more of the records to show Vainamoinen.  King Ronnsha's scroll wasn't the only one to warn against such an act, but he had no choice except to try.

Chapter Text

 

The weather had finally eased, so Ashura spent the better part of the next two days on the practice field, working himself to physical exhaustion sparring with any guards willing to cross swords with the king.  This turned out to be a surprisingly large number, which made him wonder which guard commander he had irritated recently.  Usually, the guards tended to be reluctant, or would take it too easy on him when he wanted to spar, but now they pressed him as hard as he could desire.

Some overheard remarks among a few watching guardsmen about "restlessness" and "getting him good and tired out" led him to suspect it was their commander:  the senior guard commander who had been on the eastern wall the night he had almost killed himself.  That indiscretion had been almost two weeks ago, but obviously it wouldn't be forgotten for a long time.  Ashura wasn't surprised by the reaction; that particular commander certainly wouldn't want to deal with another such early morning encounter.  Ashura also heard a comment or two that implicated Vainamoinen, as well.

When Ashura tired of swords, he switched to staves.  When he tired of sparring with other people, he practiced with throwing knives.

The only thing he avoided was combat magic.  He didn't want to be reminded of how destructive his magic could be.  Ashura was very, very good at combat magic.

Everyone in the royal family trained in the martial arts, even the distaff members.  When she bothered to practice and work on her upper body strength, Kendappa's skill with sword and shield was quite formidable.  The royal family only rarely utilized those abilities, however, as their presence on a battlefield was reserved for major conflicts, which fortunately were not common.  Even then, they usually utilized combat magic rather than honed steel, as the family regularly produced some of the most powerful mages in all of Seresu.

Despite that, or perhaps because of it, Ashura enjoyed working with weapons.  The exercise was immensely satisfying.  It did a great deal to soothe his soul; while not healing his inner pain, it at least distracted him for a time.  He worked out so hard that he didn't notice the freezing temperatures and light snowfall, and even stripped off his outer layers of clothing.  At night, the resulting tired muscles and physical lassitude ensured he slept deeply and dreamlessly.

He knew he was procrastinating.  He had made his decision, and now he was putting off actually implementing it.  Sooner or later, he would have to enter his ancestors' secret chamber and attempt to remove some of the records it housed.

He couldn't decide if he was more worried about stealing the documents and triggering whatever defensive spells guarded them, or about Vainamoinen's reaction to what Ashura planned to reveal.  It was a combination of both, he knew, but he didn't fear them equally.

The chamber's defensive spells would be powered by his own magic, and he would be highly vulnerable to it.  He didn't know if he could shield himself against his own esoteric energies.  He'd never attempted such a thing before.

And as for Vainamoinen...  Ashura feared that even with corroborating evidence, this attempt would merely be a repeat of all the times in his childhood when he'd tried to explain his prophetic dreams.  He admitted to himself that he was scarred from those experiences, so much so that he felt inhibited about speaking out.  Even with the survival of the country at stake, he hesitated to break his long habit of silence.

Vainamoinen, Ashura decided.  He was more worried about Vainamoinen.

So he again picked up a sword, found another willing guardsman, and worked himself until he could barely stand.

On the third day, Vainamoinen caught Ashura before he could go out and lose himself in weapons practice again.

"A messenger has arrived, my king," Vainamoinen said.  "Lord Taishaku sends word that he has captured the raiders."

"That is good news," Ashura replied, pleased that the matter had been resolved so quickly.

"He has already hanged them."

"Why am I not surprised?"

"They were despoiling his lands," Vainamoinen said reprovingly.  "It is the usual method for dealing with such brigands."

"I only object to the speed with which he disposed of them," Ashura said.  "Please tell me that he questioned them first."

Vainamoinen grinned wolfishly, displaying a fine set of teeth.  "Indeed, he did.  Unfortunately, not much came of it."

"They divulged nothing that implicated the Arimaspi government, I take it?"

"No, Your Majesty.  The raiders gave no indication that they might have had unofficial encouragement, as it were.  From all accounts, they were nothing more than routine outlaws."

"I can't decide if that is a pity or not," Ashura mused.  "I suppose it is just as well."

"Majesty?"

"I'd rather not escalate hostilities with Arimaspea right now," Ashura explained, "and evidence like that could not be ignored.  It's bad enough their unacknowledged raiders are already dead, but at least the Arimaspi king won't be able to protest."

"Deep winter would be a terrible time for a war, even a minor one," Vainamoinen agreed.  "There would be a good many hardships with the harsh weather, and supply lines would be difficult to maintain.  There's good reason things are always so peaceful this time of year."

"Yes," Ashura said.  Let Vainamoinen believe the pragmatic explanation for his reluctance.  It was true, just not the full truth.

The conversation only brought home to Ashura how badly he had been procrastinating.  He needed to explain everything Vainamoinen soon.  That meant he needed to brave the hidden chamber's guardian spells.  With luck, his councilor would believe him, or if not him, at least whatever scrolls Ashura could procure.

Tonight, he promised himself.  He would go tonight.

He kept his promise.  During the day, he gave some thought to exactly which documents to take.  Ronnsha and Donal's, as the most recent examples.  At least one of the oldest stone tablets.  A few other scrolls that provided more detailed descriptions of what would happen.

Then he pondered "the guardian provoked," as Ronnsha's scroll had named it.  None of the old records offered more than oblique references to the guardian spells woven into the chamber, although many of them warned against triggering those enchanted protections.

He wondered how many others had attempted what he planned, and what had happened to them that had kept them from reporting the actual consequences.

He shrugged.  They couldn't have died; the protective spells couldn't have been designed to kill the king or his heir because then the curse could not be fulfilled, and that seemed to be forbidden.  Perhaps the repercussions of "provoking the guardian" were simply part of the oral tradition that had been lost, or there had been some religious taboo against writing them down.  The ancients had dressed up the whole miserable, stinking mess in flowery religious ardor and devotion.  The lack of information might simply be a part of that destructive piety.

Ashura knew that all of the vault's spells were now maintained with his own magic.  He felt it every time he went down to that hidden room.  The enchantments had been resurrected the first time he'd keyed open the portal, resulting in the draining that had all but crippled him that first night.  Subsequent activations always drained a little more from him for continued maintenance, but it was never debilitating.

He knew his own power better than any other.  The open question was whether he could protect himself from it, or if, because it was his own magic, it would cut through his defenses with little or no resistance.  He could only assume that in the past, the ancient spells had been powered by other kings' magic as they now were by his own.  Failure seemed the likely result for him, since so many of the records warned against even making the attempt.

But he would still try.  He had no choice.

At midnight, he once again ventured to the royal crypt.  His fingers tingled as he activated the portal and a small amount of magic was pulled from him.  The esoteric torches lit, just as they always did.  He descended the staircase to the depths of the mountain and entered the hidden chamber.  Its door opened to him, just as usual.  The vault lighted up.  Nothing unusual happened.  So far, all seemed normal.

He quickly gathered the materials he had preselected.  Then he hesitated.  His eyes found the hematite sphere on the center table.  Bloodstone, to the ancients.  Now it seemed ominous.

He inhaled, centered himself, and created his first shield, a simple energy filter.  It settled in place over him with comforting familiarity, pulling in close like a second skin.  The next shield he constructed was a barricade designed to be impenetrable to anything of magical origin.  Over that he put a mirror shield, to deflect attack magic.

Clutching the documents to his chest, he approached the door.  It opened obligingly.  Nothing else happened.

That alone made him wary.  Surely there should have been some warning?  Shouldn't the door have stayed closed, refusing him a way out?  He put out his free hand, reaching toward the open doorway.

The air felt heavier, tangible, almost like a thin gruel.  His palm warmed as he pressed further.  The thickened air gave slightly, then firmed as he pushed against it, like an invisible barrier.

This couldn't be all.  He believed he could push through with the right amount of force, but there had to be larger effects after all those warnings he'd read.  He strengthened his shields even more, especially to his front.  Then he took a deep breath, and rushed forward.

He knew he'd made a mistake the instant he entered the threshold.

The guardian spells hit him as though his shields didn't exist.  Sudden agony engulfed every part of him.  The air constricted, holding him fast, while lightning crackled over his body.  He felt his magic flow outward, inward, whirl around the doorway in chaotic patterns of pure force.

Then he was expelled backwards.  He hit the floor and everything went black.

Chapter Text

He stood in the center of some nameless village.  Bodies lay strewn around him, ripped to pieces.  Crimson stained the snow, defiling its white purity, the warm blood melting ice and mingling with the liquid flows to create vile, pink pools.

He turned in a circle, scanning with his eyes, reaching out with mystical senses.  Death hung over everything.  In the entire village, not one person still breathed.

His eyes turned downward, to the corpses at his feet.  His gaze fell on his hands, and his heartbeat faltered.

His hands were covered with blood.

Shredded skin and wet strings of tissue clung to his nails.  His robes and greatcoat were splattered with gore and gelatinous gobbets of flesh.

No, his mind denied.  It can't be.  It can't.

Not again.  Ashura didn't even bother speaking the trigger this time.  Through sheer anger and force of will, he wrenched himself free of the dream.  The shock of the displacement jolted him, throwing him off balance, almost like a poorly executed teleport spell.

However, he had achieved his objective.  He had escaped into the dream space, and now stood near the dark miasma that cloaked all paths into the dream.

He glared at that shroud, as though his fury could burn a hole through it and allow him to see in, see the paths to avoid, even see who had set it.  There must be a way to pierce it.  There must!

Its magic was too strong for him under normal circumstances.  But this situation wasn't normal.  Ashura remembered that his body lay within the secret vault of his ancestors, a place whose guardian spells were currently powered by magic taken from him.  In theory, he could tap into that magic, draw some of it back into himself.  He could combine it with the power residing within his core, and increase his own strength.

If he were skilled enough, and lucky enough, to establish a wide enough siphon, he might possibly even double the magic available to him.  It was dangerous, though.  He didn't know if he could contain that much extra power without harm or triggering the insanity that drove his future self.  Also, if he took too much, the next time he activated the hidden chamber it would drain him to hideously low levels again, just as it had the first time.  But it was worth the risk.  The power gained might be enough to pierce the veil.

First he had to reestablish contact with his unconscious body.  That was an intriguing proposition.  He needed to dream of himself, already dreaming.  Then again, everything around him was nothing but a dream.  It should all be malleable to his will.

He focused, visualizing every detail of the hidden chamber.  Nine walls, shelves of scrolls and tablets, esoteric flames illuminating every corner.  Ornate stone carvings and runes, all studded with fluorite and hematite jewels that glimmered in the torchlight.  A central table, with twin spheres of fluorite and hematite, light and dark.

The dream abruptly took on its own life.  He saw himself, sprawled motionless face down on the floor, a stone tablet and several scrolls scattered about him.

Stay apart from it, he told himself.  He felt the new dream's pull, and couldn't allow it to suck him in.  He'd lose everything he'd gained were that to happen.

He reached out into the room with mystical senses.  There.  He could taste it, could perceive the currents of power, the fabric of the spells woven into every wall, every scroll and tablet, every jewel.  Even the furnishings were imbued with spells, and his own magic.

He drew on that power, felt it flow into him.  Felt his magic grow to levels he'd never experienced before.  It hurt, oh, how it hurt.  His body had never before accommodated so much power, and felt as though it would blow apart.  Yet, it also felt magnificent.

He fought the dangerous intoxication of exhilaration and pain, so much like the dark exultation he experienced in his dreams as he murdered his subjects.  He couldn't let it take him, not now.  Not when he finally had a chance to change that future.

He narrowed his focus, denying and dismissing his own being's ecstatic reaction, aware only of the great intake of power.  When he couldn't absorb any more, he returned his attention to the dark veil that hid the paths into his recurring nightmare.

He unleashed everything in a single, colossal blast.  "This is none of mine!" he screamed, with purest rage and white-hot agony at the massive outrush of energy.  "Who are you?  Show yourself!"

The veil trembled against his assault and tore asunder.

Through the rupture, he at last beheld the sorcerer.  An older man, with a solid form, a square jaw, and a cruel mien.  His hair was black with white framing his face, and cut in a wolfish style that emphasized the widow's peak over his forehead.  He wore a strange circle of glass over one eye.

The sorcerer radiated power, impossible power, more power than Ashura would have attributed even to the gods.  He lounged with supreme arrogance in an ostentatious chair or throne, and gazed into a large, round mirror standing upright before him.

Ashura peered into it, wondering what held the sorcerer's attention.  With a start, he realized the mirror displayed not a reflection, but an image of himself, looking at the sorcerer, who was looking in the mirror, which showed the same scene again.  The images repeated endlessly, until Ashura couldn't resolve details anymore.

The sorcerer leaned forward.  He chuckled and made a careless gesture.

A violent force flung Ashura away from the sorcerer and sent him tumbling helplessly far, far across the dreamscape.

He plunged through dreams.  A kaleidoscopic maelstrom of visions flooded him, faster and faster, sweeping him along an unstoppable current, drowning him...

A river of blood.  The ill-omened twins.  The Valerian sovereign, gone mad and murdering all his people.  A river of blood.  One twin living, the other dead.  Crows and vermin, picking at the dead in the castle town.  The living twin clutching his dead brother to himself.  The blood-drenched throne room.  Himself, reaching out and taking the living twin's hand in his own.  In his hand.  His bloodstained hand.  A river of blood.  Himself on his knees, surrounded by corpses.  A pit and a tower, where time was confused.  The sealing of the world...  The ruined shrine and his own dead body...  The one-eyed wizard...  A river of blood...  Kendappa's dead eyes staring up at him, accusing him...  His dead queen, her blood-spattered face, her dead eyes—his dead sons—teaching his foster son magic, and how to be human again—his first curse-driven kill, a man from the valley—a river of blood—taking the living twin's hand—himself gone mad and murdering all his people—a river of blood—a river of blood—a river of blood to save his child—

Ashura folded in on himself, clutching his head, tearing at his hair.  "Stop it!" he screamed.  "Stopitstopitstopitstopitstopit—!"

And it stopped.

He was on his knees, surrounded by darkness and silence, utter silence, preternatural silence.  Transcendent silence.  His mind had gone numb with shock.  He stayed very still and wrapped his arms around his middle, catching his breath, his body trembling uncontrollably.  After a while, when he could breathe again, when he could think again, he lifted his head.

"Where am I?" he said into the silent void.

Around him was a dark, mist-filled emptiness.  Before him rose up an enormous growth of vegetation, with roots embedded in the depths of the earth and the underworld, like the World Tree itself.  Thick branches and tendrils twined, rising skyward to support the heavens.  At its heart it embraced a human figure—a man or a woman?  Adult or child?  Ashura wasn't sure which.  The being was both young and old, and strangely androgynous.  The uncanny tree and the being it held seemed to be one, growing into each other, merged in an unfathomable way.

He became aware of murmuring.  A tall man with long black hair stood with his back to Ashura.  He was dressed in heavy jewels and loose robes of silk.  The man faced the eldritch vision of the World Tree and its captive heart, gazing up at it.  He spoke softly to it, addressing it as his child, apologizing for some wrong that Ashura couldn't comprehend.

It sounded like Ashura's own voice, and yet not.  It was more than his own:  more resonant, more pure.  The hushed tones, so quiet yet so commanding, resounded throughout the entirety of empty space.

The voice of a god.

Ashura stayed on his knees, cowering.  He was dreaming, dreaming of the Realm of the Gods.  Shivers ran up his spine at the realization.  This being before him was a god.  He could feel the deity's aura now:  heavy, powerful, dangerous.  It beat down on him, bowing him before this god of fire, of destruction, of blood and death. 

The deity had complex seals placed on his full power, seals that he had set himself.  This god would destroy the whole world, would destroy all the heavens and hells, until nothing was left anywhere in all of creation, but for those fragile seals.

Ashura wanted to turn away.  He wanted to run from here, to escape this dream, this most terrible and terrifying of dreams.  But he couldn't move.  He was frozen in place, like a rabbit suddenly confronted by a hungry wolf, unmoving in the instinctive, vain hope that the predator would overlook him.

The god became aware, and turned.  Ashura beheld the god's face, and it was his own.  His own, and yet different.  Like the voice, it was his, yet also more.  His own face and form had never held that harsh, impossible perfection.  His own ears were rounded, not pointed and all-hearing like the god's.  His own hair had never been so thick and glossy, nor his own body so idealized.

The god's eyes were golden, piercing, all-seeing, all-knowing.  They stared at him, through him, into his very soul, and Ashura wanted to curl up and die.

He was nothing before this Being, just an echo, a mere simulacrum.  Truly, here was the template, the archetype of all that he was.  He was but a pale reflection of this deity, born to mortal flesh in some horrible cosmic joke.

"So alike," the god said, his voice terrible, and beautiful.  "How unfortunate."

And in that instant, Ashura saw a flash of vision:  The god, resplendent in gold-washed armor, pierced through the chest by an enormous sword.  His actions and his death setting horrific, bloody events into motion that would bring cataclysmic change to everything in his world.  All for the sake of a wish:  a wish to change the future for his most precious person, his child.

—a river of blood—a river of blood—a river of blood to save his child—

"The Dying God?" Ashura whispered, tears gathering in his eyes.  Was this the Dying God, whose role he would be forced to assume by the Divine Spear?  The god Ronnsha's scroll had specifically named?  Did all his doomed ancestors mirror this god, or did this god mirror them?

Everything about this awful divinity frightened him, but most especially the similarities to himself.  Not merely the looks, but the more visceral, deep-seated ways:  the desires of heart and soul, the energies of blood and destruction that swirled around them both.  But for the seals the god had set upon himself, he would kill and kill and kill, and never stop until everyone around him was dead.  Laughing, he would drench the world in blood.

Was that the truth of Ashura's family line, of his own curse, the Divine Spear of Madness?  Was it always there, in the blood of every member of the House of Vanir, always waiting to wreak havoc upon the world?  Was it not simply a curse that sometimes afflicted a king, but instead a true nature merely kept in check except for the rare occasions when a mystical seal was broken?

So similar to himself.  So many echoes.  He truly was this god's reflection, however dim and faded.  The deity's true nature condemned his counterpart Ashura, perhaps it condemned all his counterparts in all of creation.  Here in the dreamscape Ashura's curse and the Dying God's true nature appeared so very much alike.

They were the same.

Even in their desires to change the future.

Surely a god could change the future.

The dream wavered, dissolving into the mist and the darkness.  The god and the World Tree fell away, becoming distant visions as the Realm of the Gods retreated from Ashura's consciousness.  He couldn't stop the currents of no-time and the dream space from dragging them apart, and in despair he cried out to the god, "How?  How can I change the future?"

The god gazed back at him, divining his soul's desires even across the infinite gulf separating them.  What did this terrifying, glorious version of himself see that Ashura did not?  Then, before he vanished into the abyss of dreams, the Dying God gave the unwelcome answer that was already in Ashura's heart.

"Sacrifice all."

Chapter Text

Consciousness returned in painful increments.  Ashura lay on the hard, cold floor.  Cramps wracked him, locking his muscles with agonizing spasms.  Gradually, the aftereffects of his disastrous encounter with the vault's protective spells faded to mere twitches.  He stayed motionless on the ground, waiting those out as well, exhausted and bewildered.

He felt he had the answer, if only he could comprehend it.  The dream was true.  The god himself had said it was possible to change the future.

"Sacrifice all," the Dying God had told him.

But what was there to sacrifice?  Ashura had wealth, but it was meaningless in this context. The only things of real value he held were his honor and his kingdom. 

Those things would buy nothing; both would be sacrificed anyway when he finally succumbed to madness.  What difference would it make if both were destroyed sooner rather than later?  In this case, later was better.

But still his counterpart's words captivated his heart and imagination.  "Sacrifice all."  They resonated in Ashura's being, touching something he could not define, defining something that he could not understand.

He stood on the precipice of some soul-deep revelation, but it was too much and he couldn't yet grasp the knowledge...

His dreams were incomplete pieces of the puzzle, hopelessly fragmented and jumbled.  No vision thus far had offered even the slightest hint of a route to possible salvation, neither for his kingdom nor for himself.  He had no guide, except for a broken, half-hidden dream path that led only to a river of blood and utter damnation.

—a river of blood—a river of blood—

Shadows gathered in his heart once more, his brief ray of hope smothered by the ever-present morass of despondency.  He could see no positive outcome to any action presently available to him.

That other sorcerer had made certain of that.

The memory of that sorcerer caused his blood to burn.  Who was that man?  What right did he have to manipulate Ashura's dreams in such a way as to virtually guarantee that he would destroy Seresu?  Without the cloaks the sorcerer had placed, Ashura might see a different path, one that didn't lead to madness, blood, and destruction.  Why did that sorcerer desire Ashura to destroy himself and his kingdom?

Ashura dragged himself to his feet.  He leaned heavily on the table, and his gaze fell upon the hematite sphere.  He saw his reflection, gray and distorted.

At last, he understood the significance of all the hematite in this room.  As hematite bleeds when it is ground and shaped, so a Sacral King bleeds his whole life as he is ground and shaped to fit the role that fate demands of him.

But in his case, it was a purposeless destiny.  It existed only to satisfy the bloodthirsty desires of some stranger who didn't even live in this world.

Ashura stared at the hematite sphere, the symbol of everything that was wrong with his existence.  Breathing hard, letting his rage boil up.  Rage at that bastard of a sorcerer who was manipulating him and his curse for some twisted game of his own.  Absolute fury that he would be forced to murder his own country for someone else's amusement.  Anger and helplessness at the curse that made the manipulation possible.

He couldn't beat that sorcerer.  He couldn't defy his curse.  But he still had one option, one drastic way to take back control.  The encounter with his godly counterpart had confirmed what he already knew.

"No more," he said through clenched teeth.  He turned and swept out of the room.

He rushed up the stairway, taking the steps two at a time.  Fury and determination lent him strength and energy.  He passed through the royal crypt, took more stairs to return to the castle's main corridors.  He knew exactly what he had to do, and where to do it.  He knew how to change the future.

He'd always known.

He only slowed his pace when he reached the castle armory.  It was over an hour before dawn, and already the metal smiths and armorers were hard at work.  Weapons and armor always needed repair, if only due to damage from training and practice sessions.

He flung open the wooden door and stormed into the main workroom.  "Everyone out!" he ordered.

"Majesty?" the chief armorer queried, looking confused.

"Get out!" Ashura shouted.  "Now!"

Alarmed, the armorers began to set down their tools and walk toward the doorway.  They didn't move fast enough for Ashura.   He summoned a whirlwind of magic that caught them all and shoved them out of the armory.  The door slammed shut behind them.

He glowered at the door and put up a magical barricade.  Then he turned and faced the room's contents.  Axes, arrows, spears, shields, chain mail, plate armor.  Tools for construction and repair.  Furnaces and fuel.  Quenching vats.  A million other things he recognized but didn't know the uses for.

Swords.

He selected a short sword and admired it.  The craftsmanship was superb; the flawless steel blade glittered, sharp, honed, and keen.  Perfect.

He placed the tip just under his breast bone, the blade angled up toward his heart.  His hands clutched the grip, his fingers contracted with harsh rigor.  He inhaled, closed his eyes, and shoved upwards with all his might.

The blade slid harmlessly to the left.  It didn't even nick the fabric of his clothing.

Ashura held the sword before him, staring at it in confusion.  Was he such a coward, that he had turned the blade aside at the last moment?

"Fool," he berated himself.  Surely Seresu's survival was worth his own life.

He tried again.  This time the blade slid to the right.

Ashura dropped his head.  He really was such a coward.  He must be, even if he didn't save himself deliberately.  He hadn't consciously changed the direction of the sword blade, and yet he had done it.  He must have.  His mind didn't even know what his own body was doing.

Fine.  There was more than one way to do this.  He got down on his knees, and braced the pommel of the sword against the floor.  Again he put the blade's tip against his breast.  He leaned in, so it pressed against him uncomfortably, so it tore the fabric of his tunic and cut into his skin.  A drop of blood trickled down the blade.

He steadied the hilt with his hands, and let himself fall forward.

He heard a sharp snap and a clang, and felt the wind knocked out of him as he landed sprawled on the stone floor.

For a moment, he just lay there, his mind blank and confused.  He realized he was still breathing, and in no pain at all, and that was wrong.  There was no possible way he could have escaped injury after falling on a sword.

He pushed himself to his hands and knees.  The sword lay beneath him, its blade broken in two.

Had it been defective?  Ashura sat back on his haunches and picked up the pieces.  He examined the edges.  It looked like a clean break.  Perhaps there had been some internal flaw in the steel.

He tossed the broken sword aside, and got to his feet.  He went to the sword racks and selected another.  This one was a two-handed longsword, meant to be used against armored attackers.  Mere flesh and blood would not break it.

There was no other choice but to fall onto this sword.  Its blade was too long and unwieldy for any other method.  Once again, he positioned the weapon and his own body carefully, gripped the weapon to steady it, and pushed himself forward for extra momentum.

The snap and clang resounded in his ears, even as he slammed face first into the floor.

No, he thought.  This wasn't possible.  It couldn't be.  One sword might be flawed, but two?  How could a heavy, double-handed longsword be broken so easily?

He broke a third sword before he gave up in defeat.

With disgust, he removed the barrier on the door and left, ignoring the questions of the armorers who still waited outside.  He brushed past them and strode away.

His next stop was the apothecaries' workshop.  Like the armorers, the apothecaries were also up before dawn.  Ashura grew even more aggravated.  Did no one in this entire castle ever sleep?

His actions would cause a great deal of talk, he knew, but he still ordered the apothecaries out.  It didn't matter.  If he were successful, the gossip would have no power to harm him, and a great good would be accomplished.  This time he waited for his people to obey him on their own, and did not use any spells to hurry the apothecaries on their way.  However, he didn't neglect putting a barrier over this door, as well.  After a moment's thought, he extended it to cover the entire room, so that no entry was possible at all from any location.

Then he searched the shelves until he located the poisons.  His fingers found a thick, glass container of hemlock.  With a grim smile, he got a good grip on it.  It suddenly took on a greasy feel.  It slipped out of his hand and fell off the shelf, shattering on the floor.

"What was that?" an older female voice said.  The senior apothecary entered the workshop.  Her eyes widened when she saw Ashura, and immediately she sank into a low curtsey.  "Your Majesty, are you all right?  I'm sorry, I didn't want to disturb you, but there was a crash..."

Ashura gaped at her.  "How did you get in here?"

She stayed bowed, but lifted her head.  "I came in through the door, Your Majesty," she said, looking surprised that she had to state the obvious.

"The main door?"

"Yes, Your Majesty.  I came in when I heard the crash.  Majesty, what have we done to anger you?  Why did you want us to leave?"

Ashura focused his senses on his barrier.  It was still in place, and from all indications preventing entry as designed.  And yet, it hadn't worked.

"Majesty, are you well?" the senior apothecary asked, staring at him with undisguised concern.

"I'm fine," he lied absently, pondering his frighteningly ineffective barrier.  With a mental shrug, he dissolved it.  Useless thing.

The senior apothecary was still bent in her deep curtsey, waiting.  Ashura broke out of his abstraction and addressed her.  "I'm not angry.  Please, get up.  Just looking at you in that pose makes my knees hurt."

She smiled at him and straightened.  "Thank you, Your Majesty."

"Tell the others they may return to work."  Ashura again resorted to running away from his own people, rather than face the inevitable questions.

There could be only one explanation for his repeated failures, and it was magical.  It seemed even suicide was denied him until the curse ran its course.

There were other ways he might try.  But he wondered if they would all result in failure, as well.  He remembered the morning on the eastern wall, when he had almost leapt to his death.  The way the guards had arrived just in time to distract him.  Vainamoinen's equally timely appearance, and how the councilor's mere presence had made him reconsider.  Had that all been chance, as he had believed at the time?  Or was something else at work?

Had he taken that fatal step off the wall, would the very wind have borne him up and prevented him from falling?  It seemed ridiculous, but equally ridiculous were six failed suicide attempts in an hour that had resulted in three broken swords and a shattered bottle of hemlock.

Would circumstances always prevent his death?  Could it be his own magic at work?  Did he use it to do these things unknowingly?  Or was it used against his will and wishes, by the curse or by something external?

He couldn't tell, but he wondered if this was what his ancestors' scrolls had meant when they said there was no escape until the curse played out.  It must be.  Surely others had tried to evade or stop the curse as he had.  They couldn't all have passively accepted fate.

It seemed that even his own actions were not under his control, but instead under that of a power greater than his conscious will.

He could try world-walking, leaving Seresu with the intent to never return, but that method was too uncertain and left him vulnerable to the demands of his curse.  Deep down, he knew that he would be drawn back home when the curse manifested.  Perhaps in the madness he would even desire to return to shed the blood of his people.  Simply running away was no answer.

Was there no way open to him?  Was he reduced to impotent wishing?

Wishing...

There was something...something about wishing.  Memory teased, tantalizingly out of reach.  It was something from his childhood, a fairy tale, a fanciful fable.  Wishing...

He suddenly remembered, and rushed to the castle library.

Chapter Text

Ashura wasn't halfway to the library before Vainamoinen waylaid him.

"Your Majesty!" the chief councilor called, jogging to catch up with him.  "A word, please."

Ashura had no choice but to stop.  "Yes?" he said coldly.

"Majesty—" Vainamoinen paused to catch his breath, then gave a perfunctory bow.  "Your Majesty, what's wrong?"

"What makes you believe anything is wrong?"

"A representative from the armorers came to me."

So quickly?  There were times when Ashura had cause to curse the efficiency of his staff.  Probably one of them had run to Vainamoinen the moment he'd thrown them out of their workplace.  No doubt the apothecaries would be next.

Vainamoinen continued, "Majesty, what were you doing in the armory?"  His eyes pleaded for a rational, benign excuse.  "Why did you force the armorers to leave?"

"It doesn't matter," Ashura dismissed the questions.

"Majesty, you broke three swords."

"They were flawed."

Vainamoinen's eyes dropped to Ashura's chest. "Your Majesty, is that...is that blood?" he asked weakly.

Ashura looked down at himself, saw the tear in his tunic and the small bloodstain. "It's nothing.  An accident."  More than ever, he regretted his inability to retrieve any documents from the hidden chamber.  Without them, nothing he said about the curse would be believed.

"In the middle of your chest?"

The combination of fear and suspicion in Vainamoinen's voice made Ashura go cold.  "I don't answer to you," he said harshly.  Ignoring Vainamoinen's gasp, he strode away.  Vainamoinen did not try to follow him, to his relief.

He made it the rest of the way without further incident.  Once in the library, he headed straight to the section that held old myths and children's tales, and started perusing the books.

It was tedious work, going through old fairy tales.  He couldn't remember which book contained the stories he sought, so was forced to scan through all of them in the hopes of finding something he recognized.  Rather than sit on the floor, he collected a large stack and went to a work table.

After about half an hour, he felt a touch of familiar magic questing for him.  He brushed it aside and continued with his own search.

When Kendappa arrived ten minutes later, he was not surprised.  It had been her probe he'd felt.

He didn't call to her.  He didn't want to speak with her at all, but it looked like he would have no choice.  She had already found him, and came straight to him without hesitation.  Not bothering to rise, he gave her an unfriendly look.

"Cousin," she said gravely, without offering her usual public courtesies.

Interesting.  She had abandoned or forgotten her formal manners.  She must be quite worried.

He couldn't deny that she had cause.

She said, "I understand you've had a busy morning."

"I suppose Vainamoinen sent you," he said.

"He's very upset.  You were rather brusque with him."

Ashura didn't reply.

Kendappa inspected him and his books. "Why are you reading old fairy tales, cousin?"

"I'm reliving my childhood," he said flippantly.

"Indeed?"  Both her brows rose.

An uncomfortable silence followed.  Ashura focused on the open book before him and ignored his cousin's presence.

Kendappa spoke again when it became clear that Ashura intended to remain silent.  "Ashura, why did you go to the armory?"  She paused.  "What happened to your chest?  How did you cut it?"

"That's none of your concern."  He really should have changed clothes before coming to the library.  The small amount of damage was attracting entirely too much attention.

"And the apothecaries' workshop?  Is that none of my concern, as well?"

"That's right."  He refused to look at her.

"The apothecaries said...  They said..."  Her voice quavered.  "You broke a bottle of hemlock.  Ashura, what did you want with hemlock?"

He sighed and finally looked at her.  "Kendappa..." he began, then hesitated.  He couldn't think of a lie that would satisfy her.

In response, she sank into such a deep curtsey that she almost seemed to be sitting on the floor.  He stared at her, speechless.

"Ashura, you promised," she said with quivering lips, unshed tears glistening in her eyes.  "You promised you wouldn't...  Wouldn't..."

"I didn't promise anything," he grated out roughly.

"Please, Ashura, please..."

"Kendappa..." he repeated, softly.  He almost relented.  Almost.  Then he looked into her eyes, into Kendappa's eyes...

...Kendappa's dead eyes staring up at him, accusing him...

He hardened his heart against her pleas, stood up, and loomed over her.  "Leave me, Lady Kendappa," he commanded in his most remote and pitiless tone.

She gasped.  Her curtsey wobbled.  "Ashura..."

"Leave.  Now.  And do not trouble me again today."

For a moment she gaped at him, her lips parted in shock.  Then she lowered her head.  "Yes, Your Majesty," she said, very quietly.  She rose and left the library without a backward glance.

Ashura wearily sat back down, hating himself more than he'd thought possible.  It was for her own good, he told himself, trying to convince himself.  It was for everyone's good.

Of two minds about his own behavior, he returned to the books of fairy tales.

Chapter Text

Not long after Kendappa left, he found the book he had been seeking.  It contained a collection of wonder tales about an eternal, undying witch-woman who ran a magical shop and could grant any wish for a comparable price.  Much of that, he hoped, was hyperbole for the sake of making an entertaining story.  Otherwise, were she a real person, such power would make her a god, or even more powerful than a god.  He didn't want anything more to do with gods.

The Witch of Dimensions, the stories named her.  Nothing else.  The tales were laden with cautions and outright warnings, the gist of which were "be careful what you wish for" and "be careful of what you offer to pay."

Ashura thought they also might contain a less obvious warning, one about being careful of the Witch herself.  Wishes she granted often twisted into nightmares, and reneging on an agreement with her always had dire consequences.  One needed to be precise and not keep hidden motivations from her, as according to the stories she could read human hearts as easily as Ashura could read words on a page.

Equally important was absolute honesty with her.

He considered the stories he'd just reviewed.  Only a month ago, he'd have said the Witch of Dimensions was nothing more than a myth.  Only a month ago he'd also have said the Frost Jötnar, the Svartálfar, and the Illvättror had been myths, as well.  Now he had no choice but to acknowledge that they had, in fact, once existed, before his own cursed ancestors had wiped them out.

Why shouldn't the Witch of Dimensions be as real as those other legends?

A character from a book of children's stories, he admitted, was an extraordinarily thin thread to be pinning his hopes on.

Perhaps he was being foolish.  Perhaps the Witch of Dimensions truly was nothing more than a fantasy created for the amusement of children.  But did it really matter?  He was at his wits' end, and desperate enough to try anything, anything at all.

Several of the stories even offered clues on how to locate the Witch.  In them, Ashura recognized certain, pertinent elements of world-walking spells.

The fact that the stories contained authentic aspects of world-walking magic lent them veracity, and gave him encouragement that the Witch of Dimensions might, indeed, be a real personage.

World-walking was an unusual talent.  It required not just great magical power and knowledge, but also a certain inborn knack that could not be defined in any rigid terms. 

As far as Ashura knew, he was the only living person in Seresu capable of performing world-walking spells successfully.  He had discovered and made use of his ability years ago, long before he had become king and had pledged that his first priorities would always be to his country.  He had sworn sacred and dreadful oaths, ancient oaths that he now understood fully, that he would never abandon Seresu, and that he would do his utmost to live—and die—for and upon its soil.  He had kept those vows, and had not gone world-walking since then.

He didn't deny that he had been sorely tempted this past month, or that his restraint had nothing to do with any solemn coronation oaths.  But no matter the reason, he had stayed in his own world.

Now he confronted a special case.  If he did nothing, he would destroy Seresu himself.  That must take precedence above all other promises and considerations.

He believed he could reconstruct the spell to find the Witch.  The basic elements were the same as any world-walking spell he had previously performed, with a few additions of intent for traveling to the Witch's location.  From what he could determine, she existed in a place that was set apart from all reality, a place that might be best described as somewhere in no-space and no-time.  A place that seemed not unlike the dream space, when he thought on it.

This no-place on occasion intersected with reality, perhaps with many realities, to allow customers access to the Witch's shop.  It was not necessary to know exactly where she existed, but to have a certain feel for her, and both a need and a desire to arrive at her wish-granting shop.  That was the knack required for any world-walking endeavor, but especially for this particular spell.

Ashura considered the possibility of failure.  The worst that could happen was that the spell simply wouldn't work, and he wouldn't travel anywhere.  So why not give it a try?

He already had a basic framework for the spell in mind.  He picked up the book and exited the library.

Outside the doors a small escort of six castle guards waited.  "Your Majesty," their captain said, bowing.

"Captain," Ashura replied.  This would be Kendappa and Vainamoinen's doing, he knew.  They must be very, very worried.  It didn't matter, though, how many guards they assigned, since he was only going to his own quarters, and from there to a place no one else could follow.

The guards waited.  Their rigid posture and impassive, stony faces were most impressive.

"I am returning to my chambers," Ashura announced.  It was a needless gesture, since clearly the guards intended to follow him anywhere he went.  Without waiting for an answer, he set off.

His escorts weren't quite bold enough to insist on entering his rooms with him.  That was just as well, because Ashura was fully prepared to expel them with magic if necessary.

"Please have someone send in some tea," he told the captain, to establish a semblance of normalcy.  Then, with a certain crude satisfaction, he shut the door in the man's face.

The first thing he did was extend his senses.  There.  He detected a wizard monitoring him.  It was a very light touch of supervision, which would only tell the wizard that he was calm and performing no alarming acts.  Ashura knew that once he got started with his actual spell-casting, he would need to be quick.

He then changed out of his damaged clothes.  Though the tear and bloodstain were small, they obviously worried people, and he was tired of the hassle.  The cut on his chest he ignored.  The wound had already crusted over and didn't trouble him, and his clothes hid it admirably from overanxious eyes.

He had barely finished when the tea arrived.  He directed the servant girl to set the tray on the table.  Through the open door, he could see his guards still waiting. 

She poured out a cup and handed it to him.

"Thank you," he said, taking the teacup from her.  "You may leave me now."  She curtseyed and scurried out the door.

He addressed the guard captain just outside.  "Please see to it that I am not disturbed," he said, and again shut the door, locking it this time.  He could tell that his last order had not been appreciated, but so far no one protested.  It occurred to him that either Kendappa or Vainamoinen had probably had all sharp objects removed from his rooms.  Any apportation spell he might use to obtain a knife or other utensil would alert the wizard who was monitoring him.  That was very likely why he was being granted the illusion of privacy, however small.

Normally, the entire situation would irritate him enough to do something about it, but now he appreciated the over-worried gestures.  They should ensure that he would be left alone, and allowed to finish his undertaking in peace.

He took his tea to a side table and sat down.  After a few sips, he set to working out the details of his new spell, taking thorough care to cover every minor, seemingly insignificant contingency he could imagine.

It turned out to be a surprisingly easy task.  There really was little more to it than a normal world-walking spell with the extra additions from the storybook.  Surprised, he examined his work closely.  No flaw came to his notice.  He'd added a few safeguards, but he didn't believe they were necessary.

Then again, he considered, locating the Witch of Dimensions couldn't be too terribly difficult or no one would ever find her.  It seemed to him that she and her shop had been set up in such a way that those with a true need couldn't help but find her, even by accident.  The peculiar way his spell had worked out certainly attested to such a nature.

He then considered what, if anything, he should take with him.  All the stories indicated that the Witch demanded payment for her services, payment commensurate with the wish desired.  He had no idea what price she would exact for the wish in his heart, but whatever it was, whatever compensation she wanted, he swore he would find a way to pay it.  Unfortunately, he had no way of knowing in advance what payment would be acceptable.  He could only trust that she would allow him the opportunity to obtain whatever she might want from him.

All that remained now was to try the experiment, and attempt to perform the spell.

Ashura supposed there was no time like the present.  He'd procrastinated on so many things lately, but this he shouldn't put off.  He had no idea how long his watchers would wait patiently for him to emerge from his lair, and once he began spell-casting in earnest, his eavesdropping wizard would certainly take notice.  The last thing he needed was for Kendappa and Vainamoinen to summon the court wizards to stop him, and if they got wind of even the smallest hint of what he planned...

He needed to go now.

He immediately set to work.  Doing his best to minimize the noise, he used physical labor to move the furniture, rather than risk any magic that might betray his intentions.  He quickly pushed all the pieces back against the walls to clear a wide, open area in the main room.

That done, he stood in the exact center of the space he had created and faced west, the cardinal direction of the setting sun.  The symbol of his family House, the phoenix, ascended into new life with the rising sun, but always descended into death with a burst of flames in the setting sun's final moments.  It seemed appropriate.

Closing his eyes, he breathed deeply and marshaled every tiny iota of magical power at his command.  Distantly, he felt the watching wizard become alert.  He ignored that worry, and settled into a familiar, altered state of awareness.

He opened his eyes and extended his hand.  Turning and using his index finger, he quickly drew the prescribed series of spell-runes in a circle around him.  They burned brightly in the air as he fed them more and more power, and imbued them with his desire to visit the Witch of Dimensions, with his need to have a heartfelt wish granted.

The years fell away, and he again experienced the long-remembered rush that signaled the beginning of the transfer between worlds.  It had been so long since he had last done this, so terribly long.  He had not realized just how much he missed it.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, he registered that the watching wizard had detected the sudden burst of magic and was calling on his fellows.  But they were all too late. 

They would always be too late.

—a river of blood—a river of blood—a river of blood to save—

Ashura murmured something incoherent, something that came from the depths of his soul but that even he didn't understand.  He pushed more power, more desire and need, into the spell-runes, and threw back his head in pure exultation and transcendent joy.

A flash of light filled his vision and swept him away.

Chapter Text

Ashura materialized in a small, rather modest courtyard that was bordered by a simple wooden fence.  However, only the size of the courtyard failed to impress him.  He felt the space around him, and knew it was set apart from reality, apart from time.  He had truly arrived at the Witch's abode.

He took a few minutes to examine his surroundings.  An elegant, jewel box of a house stood before him.  It was constructed in a fanciful, attractive style, but nonetheless of unfamiliar architecture to him.  Crescent moons topped its curved roof and minaret, and an interesting sliding doorway gave entrance from the portico into the house.

All around him great, brutish buildings boxed in the courtyard.  Ugly constructions of metal, smooth stone, and glass, they soared to dizzying heights and almost, almost blocked out the sky.  He turned, gazing up at those marvels.  They were part of a different world, though, a world that the Witch's home merely intersected in this current moment of no-time.

Overhead the heavens were blue, without even a single cloud to sully their purity.  The courtyard was bursting with grass, flowers, and the variegated green of myriads of growing things.  The sheer variety of colors and scents was a revelation that he hadn't experienced in many years, not since he had last gone world-walking.  He could only wish that his homeland would grow such luxuriant vegetation.

The air was warm, too warm for his fur-lined cloak and heavy winter clothes to be comfortable.  He didn't remove his cloak.  He was here as a supplicant, and such loose, uninvited behavior in the Witch's home would be too rude to even consider.

Despite the wonders that surrounded him, a dark, fearful reality seeped into his awareness and set his heart to pounding.  This place in no-space and no-time was completely artificial, maintained with power so great it was humbling.  No, more than humbling—it was absolutely terrifying.  The stories had not exaggerated the Witch of Dimensions' magical potency.  If anything, they had understated it.  Like the Realm of the Gods, the power here was unimaginable and overwhelming, and could crush him utterly if he made a single, inappropriate move.  He was less than the most insignificant insect compared to the being who resided here.

The Witch of Dimensions, he realized, was another like the sorcerer who manipulated Ashura's dreams, a magician whom even gods would fear.  Had it been a mistake to come here, to bring himself to her notice?

Somehow, some way, he had become entangled with the great powers of the universe.  Gods, magicians more powerful than gods...  He had encountered both, and now they would grind him and his country to dust.  He should leave quickly, give up this mad quest and find another way, one that didn't involve magicians greater than gods...

The sound of girlish laughter made him turn back to the house.  A pair of young girls came running toward him, gamboling lightly like happy foals in springtime.  Their hair colors were very strange; one had long blue hair, and the other's was short and pink.  They giggled at the sight of him.

"The king is here!  The king is here!" the girls chorused as one, clapping their hands and dancing with childish excitement.  Abruptly, both dashed to the house.  "Mistress, mistress, the king is here!"

It seemed he was expected.

Ashura stared after the girls as they disappeared through the entryway, and suddenly wanted to get down on his knees and thank them.  They had handily interrupted his destructive thoughts and broken through the paralyzing state of fear he'd been working himself into.  He wondered if that wasn't one of their functions, to help distract the Witch's magically aware visitors.  If so, they performed their task admirably well.

A moment later, the girls reappeared, calmer now, and accompanied by a beautiful, statuesque woman.  She had piercing brown eyes and raven black hair that hung to her knees, and she wore strange garments of silk and lace that fit her so tightly they embarrassed him.  With effort, he kept his eyes on her face.  She strode toward him with panther-like grace, carrying herself with the supreme dignity and confidence of a queen regnant.

Even from a distance, he felt her staggering power, how it surrounded her and permeated every inch of the space she occupied.  There's still time to run, a small voice whispered in the back of his head.  He could still escape, before he had any dealings with her.

Her overpowering presence filled him with both dread and a curiously hopeful anticipation.  For the first time since he'd begun this insane course of action, he truly believed there was a chance for success.

She stopped a few feet before him and regarded him with what he could only describe as amusement.

"Are you the Witch of Dimensions?" he asked cautiously.

"I have been called that," she confirmed.  "And you are?"

It seemed a redundant question, as it was obvious by the girls' earlier reaction to him that everyone already knew who he was.  Knowing that complete honesty was essential with this terrifying being, he politely said, "I am King Ashura of Seresu, my lady Witch."  He gave her a courtly bow, acknowledging her superiority to him.

"Oh, my.  You're very formal, aren't you?  I suppose that's only to be expected."  She turned her face aside slightly and muttered out of the corner of her mouth, "I sure hope he doesn't grow up to be an uptight prig."

The two girls picked up on this peculiar statement and sang out gaily, "A prig!  A prig! An uptight prig!"

Offended, Ashura straightened and winced, but then his brain caught up with his ears.  "He?  Who are you talking about, my lady?" he asked the Witch, but she ignored the question in favor of laughing with her young servants.  Ashura was rapidly coming to believe that despite her immense power—or perhaps because of it—the Witch of Dimensions was quite an eccentric individual.

He feared that very eccentricity might also make her dangerously unpredictable.

As though to reinforce his worries, her mood abruptly shifted back to seriousness as she again addressed him.  "Do you know where you are?" she asked.

The question seemed part of some ritual formality that could not be forgone.  Ashura nodded.  "Unless I did something very wrong when I came here, this is a shop where wishes are granted for a commensurate price."

"That's correct," she said.  "And you, of course, have a wish that must be fulfilled.  You could not have found or entered this place otherwise."

Ashura blinked.  His wish must be fulfilled?  He hadn't known that fact.  He doubted the Witch made such statements lightly.  By his coming here had he bound them both to his wish, even before he bargained with her?  Could he even leave at all without making a contract with her?

"Your servants," he said to delay the inevitable, just for a little while.  How foolish of him, to be having second thoughts now that fulfillment of his wish seemed imminent.

"Yes?  What about them?"

He nodded to the girls now standing quietly by their mistress.  They mirrored the Witch's mood with absolute perfection, and something about them bothered him.  "They seemed to already know who I was when I arrived.  Were you expecting me?"

"Your coming is hitsuzen," the Witch of Dimensions said, as though that confirmed something important.

"Hitsuzen?" he repeated, mulling over the unfamiliar word.  He had no idea what it meant.  "What is that?"

"A state in which any other outcome is impossible.  You could not have failed to come here, King Ashura.  We had to meet here, at this time.  There could be no other result; it is the present culmination of all the events that have made up your life, and mine."

"Predestination?"  To his everlasting regret, he was very familiar with that concept.  It didn't surprise him that the Witch could also see the future.

"More a matter of the inevitable choices made by all parties concerned which bring them together."

It sounded like semantics to him, but the distinction was obviously important to her.  He wasn't about to contradict such a powerful woman, especially not when he wanted to ask a dreadful boon of her.

Needing an excuse to look away for a moment, he again glanced down at her two servant girls.  With a start, he realized for the first time that they were soulless constructs, so perfectly created that he hadn't noticed before that they weren't living beings.  Shocked, he returned his attention to the Witch, who gazed back at him with a knowing smile.

"What is your wish, King Ashura?" the Witch of Dimensions asked, and waited expectantly.

He swallowed.  "I wish to die."

She gave him a look filled with a strange sympathy and understanding, almost as though she identified with him, but that could hardly be true.  Gods and their ilk did not relate to mere mortals.

She said, "This is an unusual and weighty wish.  Most can accomplish such an end without my help."

He said quietly, "I bear a curse, my lady, which prevents it.  Nothing I have tried so far has succeeded.  I need not die at this present moment.  I only desire to obtain a means to achieve my death."

"And you do not have any particular means in mind?"

"No.  I will accept whatever you offer."

"Indeed?  Perhaps you should not be so trusting of me, King Ashura."

"I have little to lose," he replied evenly.

"On the contrary.  I believe you have a great deal to lose," she contradicted him.

Ashura said nothing to that.  She was correct, of course.  That was why he wanted to die, after all.

"Very well," she said after a moment.  She locked her gaze onto his with unwavering focus. 

He felt as though her eyes were tearing him asunder and seeing straight into his soul.  He refused to let himself quail under that intense scrutiny, and stared back, even though it was like looking into an unending abyss.

The Witch of Dimensions said, very precisely, "I will provide you with the means to your death, and in doing so realize your heart's greatest wish."

Ashura frowned.  That had been a very strange way of putting it, but he wasn't in a position to quibble.  What unpleasant conditions did she plan to attach to this unholy bargain?

"However," she continued, "as you are aware, there is a price for my services."

"I know."

"It's high."

"I know."  Ashura breathed in, keeping his eyes fixed on her impassive face.  "I will pay it.  Whatever it is, whatever you ask, I will pay."

She suddenly smiled, like she'd just won some important point.  Perhaps she had.  He wondered with trepidation what she would now ask of him in return for his wish.

"Then we have a contract," she said.  "Do you agree?"

"I agree," he said, questioning his own sanity.  It felt like he had just made the greatest mistake of his life.

At his consent, he felt something empyreal, something beyond even the Witch's power, settle over him like the lightest, most clinging silk.  The gossamer net bound them both on a multitude of mystical and spiritual levels that he barely comprehended.  The consequences of breaking this contract were unimaginable to his poor, mortal mind.  He suddenly wanted to escape it, but there was no going back now.

Then the ethereal sensation vanished, leaving behind only a fragile memory of its existence.

The Witch of Dimensions nodded, as though she had known what his response would be all along.  "The price of death is very heavy.  So heavy, in fact, that there is only one payment I can take from you.  I demand your life, King Ashura of Seresu."

Chapter Text

 

Ashura's brows furrowed, and he stared at her in confusion.  Wasn't that what he had just requested?  She gazed back evenly, waiting for him to work it out.  Was this some kind of test?  He didn't see the point.

Slowly, carefully, he said, "I understand the weight of death.  For that reason, I had not planned to ask that you kill me yourself.  However, if that is your price—"

A trill of laughter interrupted him.  "You mistake my meaning," the Witch told him.  "I do not intend to kill you.  Instead, your price is to continue living for a set amount of time, a period that will be measured in years.  During this time, you will perform a very particular task for me."

Ashura listened to this with growing horror.  He had thought he could die quickly, not draw out the misery and waiting for year after year, always with the threat of his curse hanging over him.  "How long?" he managed to say.

"Seventeen years."

"Seventeen years?"

"That is how long your task will take to complete."

"It is too long," he protested breathlessly.

"It is a lifetime, for some.  It is your price."  She stood motionless, remote to his concerns and as unmovable as a fortress wall.  "It is the only payment possible for this particular wish."

The air felt too thick to breathe.  He inhaled, forcing his lungs to work.  "I don't understand.  What task takes seventeen years?"

"I will give you the location of a special place in another world.  There you will find a child.  He possesses great magic, far greater than anyone who has ever lived in your own world, but his experiences have damaged him.  You will take him and raise him to adulthood.  You must give him a conscience and the ability to form emotional bonds with others, for he cannot survive without those things.  When all this is done, he will provide you with the means to your death."

"If this boy is so important to you, you could raise him yourself."  Ashura was very confused.  What the Witch was asking of him didn't resemble any conceivable method for a successful suicide.  It sounded like a recipe for failure.  And yet, and yet...there was something desirable about it, something he couldn't identify that spoke to him...

The Witch shook her head.  "No.  This is your price, the only equitable and commensurate price I can take for what you ask.  I do but grant your heart's true wish."

"There is nothing else you can tell me?  It is foolish to move forward with this without more knowledge."

"Spoken like a responsible king."  She smiled, but there was no kindness in it, only a strange hint of regret.  "However, you have no choice but to accept my conditions.  You have already agreed to a contract with me, and there is no other way for this particular wish to be granted.  The bonds of fate are tied, and now all either of us can do is maintain the proper balance of things."

She was moving too fast for him.  He felt rushed.  "Wait..." he began, stalling for time to think this bargain through.  He had so many mixed feelings about it.  It seemed ineffective and dangerous to him, but he also found it strangely alluring.  He didn't want to fight it; he wanted to grab onto it with both hands and hang on tight.  His own reactions perplexed him and made him hesitate.

"Come now," she said in a mildly derisive tone.  "Is this really such an awful task?  I only ask you to raise a child, after all.  Do this, and in seventeen years you will die, I promise you."  She looked off into the distance, her expression vague.  "Now.  You can go now."

Before Ashura realized what she was doing, the Witch lightly touched his forehead with the first two fingers of her right hand.  A shivery sensation flowed through him, then a sense of direction.

"There," she said.  "Now you know the location of your desire."

He swayed, dizzy for a moment.  "Where is that place?" he said, lifting his hand to his temple and blinking rapidly.  "I can't quite see it, but something about it feels familiar."

There was something else, too, a sense of mingled fear and longing...  The same fear and longing that he had experienced in so many of his recent dreams.

"Yes, I'm sure it does," she replied with a sly smile.

"What have you done?"  But he already knew.

"I have fulfilled my part of our contract," she stated, confirming his thoughts.  "You must now fulfill yours by obtaining what you came for.  I suggest you leave immediately.  Trust me, the sooner you go, the better."

Her last words sounded like casual advice, but Ashura knew a dismissal when he heard one.  He moved away from her.  Her two child-servants stood by her side, watching him solemnly.  He thought about how they reflected the Witch's emotions, and took to heart the grave expressions on their little faces.  The Witch herself kept her own countenance closed and slightly mocking, to goad him to leave swiftly, he assumed.  She had what she wanted.  But did he truly have what he wanted?

Something deep inside him said yes.

So be it.  He would trust his instincts.  There was no more he could do here.  Ashura cast the common form of the world-walking spell.  He didn't need the special enchantment he had created to find the Witch of Dimensions for this new journey.  As he drew the spell-runes in the air, he infused them with the direction the Witch had set into his mind.

Power surged; the spell-runes flared.  Ashura surrendered to the transfer, and left the Witch's domain behind.

Chapter Text

Ashura arrived in a frigid world, with blowing wind and snow.  The sudden change from the heat of the Witch's home to piercing iciness jolted his system, and he was grateful for his warm clothes now as he had not been just a few moments earlier.

Ruins and broken stone blocks littered the area in which he now stood.  Dust swirled in the air, as though the devastation had only recently occurred.  And there was something else, a feeling of recognition that Ashura couldn't quite identify.  Like the sense of direction the Witch had implanted in him, this new world felt eerily familiar.

Then he saw the child.  The child the Witch of Dimensions had entrusted to him to raise, and had insisted would grant Ashura his death when that task was complete.  Shock held him frozen for the barest moment.  He knew exactly which world he stood in, and who he now faced.

These ruins were all that remained of the pit and tower, the place where time was confused.  The place which held innumerable corpses that never decomposed, and where magic failed.  This boy was one of the ill-omened twins of Ashura's dreams.  One of the very children he had twice considered finding and claiming for his own.

At last he comprehended the Witch's promise, and the strange way she had phrased it.  The Witch of Dimensions had, indeed, granted him his heart's greatest wish.

The child looked even worse than the last time Ashura had seen him.  He clutched a broken, bloodied body tightly to himself.  An emaciated corpse that wore the same hollowed face, the same straggly blond hair:  the body of his twin.  His brother must have fallen—or jumped—from the tower, and the remaining twin was now all alone.

With one twin dead, the curse of misfortune was gone, but that was no balm to the survivor.  The living twin appeared defeated and bowed, and even more emotionally injured than the Witch had intimated.

A child so abused would almost certainly grow up to be a monster, utterly self-absorbed, totally lacking in compassion or care for others, should the damage not be corrected.  Ashura understood the Witch's concern, and why she had deemed his appointed task commensurate compensation for the weight of his death.  This would require many years of work and understanding.

Magic flowed in this place now, the destruction having freed it from whatever had bound it before.  Through it, he could feel the magic that filled the child to the point of overflowing.  The boy held more raw power than Ashura had expected, despite the Witch's warning.  It dwarfed his own.  The only beings he had encountered with greater power were the Witch of Dimensions, the sorcerer who manipulated his dreams, and the Dying God.

The child's power was untutored, but that was easily addressed.  And it would have to be addressed, along with the boy's emotional problems, for that magic would only grow greater in the coming years.  That much power, untrained and unrestrained, in the hands of an adult monster without empathy?  It didn't bear thinking about.

There was a touch of dark sorcery on the boy, as well.  Highly disguised magic, but Ashura knew it all too well.  It carried the same stench as the veil that shrouded the paths to his dreams.  The sorcerer had been here—and had left his mark in the form of two curses.

The first, to compel the boy to kill any mage stronger than himself, didn't matter.  No one in Seresu was stronger than this child.  No one even came close.

As for the second...  Ashura felt his soul stutter when he understood what it meant.

This boy would become the one-eyed wizard, the royal wizard whose curse would destroy Seresu, sealing Ashura's world and crushing it into nothingness.  For what reason did that deviant, twisted sorcerer hate him, his world, and this poor child so much, to make such a terrible curse?

Knowledge of the boy's curses brought Ashura inescapable clarity, showing him how everything came together, how destiny looped back on itself like the Ouroboros devouring its tail.  At long last he understood his forewarnings of Seresu's fate, and his own.  His dreams of the one-eyed wizard and this child finally made sense.  He had sought answers and had been granted them all along, but he had been too blind, too obsessed, to see the truth—to see all the preordained truths.

Here was the threat he was destined to face; the threat that had already wakened his own curse and would one day drive him to become a ravening, bloodthirsty murderer who would destroy his own country.  He would bring the threat to Seresu himself.

His own prophecies had foretold it.

There was only one way to win, only one blood sacrifice that could save his world...and his child.

—a river of blood—a river of blood—a river of blood to save his child—

His ancestors' writings promised that it was possible for a Sacral King to change the future when utter destruction loomed, to gain the power to stop the relentless march of predestination.  It only took enough death.

There wasn't enough innocent blood in all of Seresu to defeat the second curse, not through any magic he would ever wield.  But the first...  The first curse provided an opportunity to eliminate the second.  And his own curse was already active and unstoppable, no matter what he now did.  Even if he risked breaking the Witch's contract, even if he returned home empty handed, he and his country were still doomed.  If he had no choice but to become a mass murderer anyway...

He gazed forlornly at the boy, lost in that sad little face, those haunted blue eyes.  This child of his dreams would, indeed, be the means to his death.  For the sake of his whole world, this child must be the means of his death.  He wondered if he was already insane, already a monster, to be considering such a reckless and cold-hearted gamble with so much at stake.  But he couldn't give up the boy.

Even if he weren't bound to the Witch's contract on spiritual levels he could barely imagine, he knew he would never give up his child.

"I've come for you," he said, willingly accepting all the consequences of the terrible and unholy bargain he had made with the Witch of Dimensions.  He already loved this child, had loved him from the very moment he had first seen the twins in dreams.  Nothing else mattered so much.  He would sacrifice anything, anything for this most precious of all people.  Like the Dying God, he would sacrifice all to change the future...for his child.

The boy wavered, then said with a faltering, ravaged voice, "From Gehenna?"

Gehenna?  The fearful way the boy uttered that name made Ashura think it wasn't a pleasant place.  The child's face, his very posture, spoke of his misery and his dread of this Gehenna.  Yet he also seemed horribly resigned, as though he believed he deserved such a fate.

Ashura's throat closed.  He corrected the child brusquely, "From another world."

There was a long pause, while the boy simply hugged his dead brother tighter and stared at Ashura.

His silence worried Ashura.  Was it possible the boy might refuse to leave here?  Ashura had assumed he would want to escape immediately, but given his experiences, perhaps...perhaps he felt he deserved his punishment.  And some monster of doubt inside Ashura wondered if that might not be for the best, but it was a very small part of him.  The rest of him wanted to sweep the child up and fly away.

Ashura said, "Is this where you want to be?"

The boy stammered, "There is something...  That I have to do...  So I..."

So he didn't really want to stay, but there was a great conflict within him.  He needed some encouragement that it was all right to leave this abyss of horrors behind, to move forward with the business of living.  Ashura had to save him.  He had no other choice.  His contract, his curse, and his own heart compelled him to it.  "If so, then you must not stay here.  You must live."

"To remain unhappy?"

Poor child.  He didn't seem capable of even conceiving that life could be something other than one long series of tortures.

Ashura shook his head.  "To grant me a wish."  He might as well start this relationship with honesty.  Ashura already knew there would be too much deception in the coming years.  He wasn't sure if it was his prophetic talent warning him or just mundane paranoia, but he knew life with this child would not be simple, and neither would the end of their time together.  The boy might never offer forgiveness, but he might also survive his second curse.  And if Ashura managed it properly, so might his world.

The boy looked shocked by that statement.  He had been unloved and unwanted his entire life.  Probably he had never considered the idea that he might have something desirable to give, that he might be able to do something for another and not be reviled for it.  A rush of grief flooded Ashura's whole being.  How could he ask this wounded child for the terrible thing the Witch of Dimensions had promised and the sorcerer's curses demanded?

How could he not?

"Shall we go?" Ashura said, mustering up a tiny half smile in an attempt to reassure his new charge.  He was feeling none too steady, himself.  He held out his hand.  "This isn't the only world in existence."

The boy visibly shook, he was so afraid.  But then something in him changed.  Ashura saw courage lighting his eyes, firming his small form with resolve.  It gave Ashura hope that the child had a chance to heal, that he was salvageable, that he could someday have a real life.

At least one of them could have a future.

The boy reached out, still trembling, and took Ashura's hand.

"What is your name?" Ashura asked gently.

The child hesitated a moment, then said, "Fai."

 

~ end ~

 

September, 2010