Solas pushed open the swinging wooden doors of the tavern and immediately discovered he had no idea where he was. The building's layout was similar to that of the Herald's Rest, but the details of its cool, smoky interior were far removed from anything he had ever seen on the waking side of the Veil. Brightly colored images moved within their frames upon the walls. In one corner, scruffily dressed humans hunched over a velvet-covered table, jabbing at illusory balls with long wooden sticks. He felt the weight of the patrons' eyes on him as he searched the crowd. In this dream, he was an outsider. Despite the power he had regained, he would have to be cautious.
He quickly identified the dreamer whose mind had called this place into being - a fair-skinned, brown-haired human in tight trousers and a brown coat. The human sat with his dusty boots propped up on the rickety table and sipped a glass of liquor while he stared at the flickering screens. His consciousness seemed brighter and coarser somehow than the spirits and illusions that surrounded him, and Solas could tell that he had little experience with the worlds beyond the Veil. How had he ended up here? It didn't matter. Solas's plans were at a crucial and delicate stage, and would not tolerate any intrusion well. This man needed to leave the Fade, and soon.
The gritty, grimy floorboards creaked with each light step Solas took as he crossed to the table. He cleared his throat loudly, and the man looked up. Confusion blossomed briefly on his face before he forced it back into a calm and neutral mask. "Am I in your chair or something, pal?"
"Not exactly," said Solas. "Do you know where you are?"
"What kinda question is that? It's a saloon. On Persephone, I reckon. Don't tell me you ain't never seen a saloon before?" The man smirked and took a swig of his beverage, but Solas knew he must have just realized that he couldn't remember entering the tavern. Judging by the sudden clench of his jaw, the thought troubled him, too.
"You are dreaming," said Solas.
The man paused momentarily, his brow creasing with thought. Then, abruptly, his eyes widened. "Gorram if I'm not."
Solas imbued the words with a firm pulse of magic that should have been more than enough to force any non-mage out of the Fade and into the waking world. It wasn't. After a few moments, the man shook his head. "Can't. Sorry."
"This is not normal."
"You're telling me?" The man glanced around the room again. "This is a boring dream if you ask me. You'd think my brain would at least spice things up, add in a dancing girl or two."
Solas was too disturbed to respond to the other man's attempt at humor. There was little in the Fade that confounded him anymore, but whatever magic had brought this man through the Veil was completely unfamiliar. He needed to get to the bottom of this, for his own safety as well as for the sake of this hapless stranger who had blundered into something he could never hope to understand. "Think back to what you were doing before you came to this tavern. If you can tell me how you ended up here, perhaps I can help you to return to the waking world."
The man kicked his feet down from the table's scarred surface and leaned forward. He stroked his chin, squinting thoughtfully. A few moments later, a realization stole across his features and he let loose a long string of words in an unfamiliar language. Judging by the tone, it could only be profanity. "Gorram bluehands. He put the whammy on me. That's the last time I let River tell me there's an easy payday to be found in a Blue Sun warehouse."
Solas had no idea what most of those words meant, but he thought he grasped the basics. "Do you mean some other mage sent you here?"
"Mage? What's that?"
Is he joking? No one could be so ignorant. "A user of magic."
"Ain't no such thing." The man turned his head and spat on the floor.
Solas tried not to reveal how profoundly he was taken aback. "Whatever you believe, if you are here because of somebody else's actions, it makes sense that they might be what is preventing you from awakening."
"Huh. So you're saying while we're having this conversation, my body's still sacked out back in the real world? And the bluehands is stopping me from going back to it?"
"That seems likely, yes."
"Well, that's good, I reckon. Last I recall, I had Zoe and Jayne along with me on the job. They won't just leave me there snoozing. All I've got to do is wait for them to wake me up." With a satisfied smile, the man crossed his arms over his chest and slouched in his chair again.
"You would leave your fate in the hands of your companions?"
"Why not? I'm their captain. They're my crew. More than that, they're my friends. I wouldn't work with them if I didn't trust them to help me out. Sounds like it would be a hell of a lot easier to let them field this one. Wouldn't you do the same?"
I don't have any friends who would do that for me anymore, Solas thought, but he didn't say it. Instead, he tried a different approach. "I don't doubt your crew would do everything in their power to help you if they were able. But if they ran afoul of the same person who sent you here, they may be in no condition to rescue you. If you refuse to act, you may put them in danger."
"All right, you got a point there. You volunteering to help find the guy who brung me here, then?"
"Yes. He has intruded on a realm that is rightfully mine. I intend to evict him and ensure that they do not return."
The man stood up. "Then I'm coming with you. Soon as you tell me your name, that is. Something tells me calling you 'pointy-ears' ain't gonna fly."
"You would be correct. My name is Solas."
"Malcolm Reynolds, captain of Serenity. Call me Mal."
"Very well, then, Mal. This dream is yours, so you will have to lead the way. Please do as I ask, and I will guide you. Focus. Clear your mind. Close your eyes."
"This is weird," grumbled Mal, but he did as he was told.
"Think of the one who sent you here. Your memories will draw us to him. We must find and defeat him if you are to escape." Solas felt the Fade shifting around him, the sounds and smells of the tavern melting away into nothingness. If nothing else, Malcolm Reynolds was a fast learner.
A few long, silent minutes passed before Mal spoke again. "Did it work?"
Solas cracked his eyes open. "It appears so, yes." The interior of the tavern had been replaced with a vast, arid wasteland, reminiscent of how the Hissing Wastes might have appeared by day. The hot sun beat down relentlessly on the cracked, dusty ground. He squinted against the blinding light, trying to get his bearings. His sense of magic soon told him that he was in the presence of another dreamer - a sapient, aware, physical being, not a spirit or a figment of the Fade. The mage. Or the bluehands, as Mal called it. "You should be aware that-"
"We've got company. I know." With a quick jerk of his neck, Mal indicated a humanoid figure in the distance. The captain's hand was at his belt, hovering above an unfamiliar, polished metal object that Solas guessed had to be a weapon. "I reckon he's the one did this to me."
"That would be a logical conclusion." Solas raised one arm to shade his eyes, but the other dreamer's form remained indistinct, a shimmering mirage of darkness against the blurry line of the horizon. In the distance, energy began to coalesce around him. Despite the unfamiliarity of the matrix into which it was solidifying, Solas understood exactly what it was meant to do. "Be careful. He is reshaping the substance of the Fade."
Mal blinked rapidly. "See, again with the weird, not so much with the sense-making. Care to run that by me again?"
"He will try to turn the dream against us." Solas's hands were already beginning to trace the outline of a counterspell.
"And what am I supposed to do about that?"
"You? Nothing. Leave it to me." The other dreamer's magic was creeping toward him, unraveling and reweaving the Fade around it as it moved. He cast his own enchantment in its path -
And nothing happened.
At least, nothing happened that Solas could control. He could think of no reason that his spell should have failed, yet the other dreamer's will washed over it as if it were no more difficult to overcome than an inept apprentice's feeble cantrip. The Fade shifted once more, so violently that he had to close his eyes again to keep his bearings.
When he opened them again, he was inside a nightmare.
It had been years - millennia, really - since he had last thought about the battlefield upon which he now stood. The conflict that had raged there had just recently ended. No, he reminded himself, it ended long before this world ever came into being. Yet the corpses of the People strewn across it were warm and fresh, the landscape dotted with smoldering spell-fires. The Fade itself was scarred and tainted by the dark magic the Evanuris had unleashed upon their own subjects. He gazed upon the dead and dying of Elvhenan and knew this scene for the illusion that it was. All the same, the carnage was no less disturbing in its vividness. His stomach clenched and rolled at the memory of the war, of the atrocities that had impelled him to do all that he had ultimately done.
Beside him, Mal cursed again in his unfamiliar language. Solas glanced at him and saw that he had gone suddenly pale, his mouth pinched, his brow furrowed. "It is a dream," Solas said softly, in what he hoped was a kind and understanding tone. "A memory from thousands of years ago."
Mal's lip curled. "Thousands of years? More like eight. This is the Battle of Serenity Valley."
"I'm afraid I don't know what that is."
"You mean you see something different?"
"I see the aftermath of a battle from my own past. I suspect it was not so different from your Serenity Valley. I begin to understand what our enemy wishes to accomplish. He is trying to manipulate our emotional reactions, to use them against us trap us within our own past. If we allow ourselves to break down and become vulnerable, then he will strike and defeat us. We must not allow him to distract us."
"Won't be a problem. I do it every day." I know what you mean, thought Solas. "But I can't rightly say as I want to just hang around here forever, either."
"Nor do I. Our enemy hopes that evoking difficult memories will impede and entrap us. I suspect he will be found on the other side of this battlefield."
"Finally you're making some sense. Let's move."
Solas and Mal walked slowly through the field, picking a cautious path through the scarred terrain. The dead and dying were all around them, lying amidst the ruined fortifications like broken and discarded dolls. Mal's gaze flickered toward one whimpering, moaning young elf, and his face filled with recognition and sorrow, as it had for almost every wounded soldier he had passed. It is as if he knew most of the combatants in his own war personally. That must have been...difficult. "This is a memory," Solas reminded him. "It has already come to pass. You cannot change it."
"I know," Mal muttered. "Doesn't make it easier to see all over again."
"I imagine not." Solas could tell that Mal's attention was slipping, his mind sinking into a mire of past tragedies from which there would be no easy escape. I need to keep him focused on the task at hand. "Earlier, you said something that made it sound as though you had faced this foe before. This…'bluehands,' I think you called him. What do you know of his capabilities?"
Mal, to his credit, replied immediately. Perhaps he, too, was eager for a distraction from the carnage that surrounded him. "I ain't rightly sure what he can do. Only seen his like a time or two before, when my crew pulled a job on Blue Sun. They seem mighty tough, though. I reckon they're some kind of special security guards, or something."
"Guards? Are you and your crew pirates?"
Mal let out a short, sharp laugh. "There's Alliance bigwigs who'd call us that. Me, I'd rather say we're just plain folks trying to survive."
"That sounds like something a pirate would say."
"You think? Maybe I should get me an eyepatch and a parrot, go around saying 'avast' and telling folks to walk the plank. Think I'll skip the wooden leg, though. I bet getting that would smart."
"Indeed," Solas said drily. "Is there anything else I should know about this individual? What are his weaknesses?"
"If I knew that, I wouldn't be here. You sound like you know more about him than I do, what with you claiming he knows magic and all."
"And you sound as if you doubt my assessment of the situation."
"I told you before, ain't no such thing as magic. At least I ain't never seen no evidence of it where I come from. And I ain't the sort of man makes a habit of believing in things I can't see."
"Then what is life like where you come from? I am so accustomed to magic I have a difficult time imagining a world without it."
"What can I say? It's a world. Or a bunch of them, I suppose."
"What do you mean?"
"We settled more than one planet when we came from Earth-That-Was. Now we live on a bunch of them. Core worlds, Rim worlds, everything in between. Some folks stay in one place their whole lives, but me, I prefer not to be tied down. With my ship I can go wherever I please."
"Fascinating. The people of your world must have an incredible amount of freedom."
"They don't always. Rich powerful folks still wanna get richer and more powerful, while the folks like me just do what we can to survive. You give those bastards an inch, they'll take what little you've got away from you like they think they have a right to it. A man's gotta grab what little freedom he gets, hold tight to it with both hands."
"I understand. I, too, value freedom."
"My world's not for you, then. Besides, right away you'd notice there ain't no…" Mal frowned and raised one finger as if trying to remember something. "You know, what you are."
"No. Blast it, it's right on the tip of my tongue. That's gonna bug me all day."
"In any event, existence without magic sounds difficult as well."
Mal shrugged. "We get by. A man can't miss what he's never known. I've got a crew I trust to have my back and enough credits to make ends meet and keep food in all our bellies, most of the time. More than that, I know I'm free, that I've done the right thing when it mattered. Mind you, I've buried friends, made mistakes, seen plenty of things get shot all to hell. It ain't a perfect life. But I'm still flying. That's enough."
"I suppose you're right." Solas felt a sudden, familiar pang at the thought of Arlathan, just as lost to him as it had always been. Would he really be happier if he had never known anything other than the Veil, like the friends he had made in the Inquisition? Was there truly greater happiness to be found in the simple life that Mal described so affectionately? Should he have abandoned his plans and stayed with them, as he had imagined doing so many times before? Even after all this time, he was not certain he had made the right choices.
The presence of familiar magic tugged at Solas's senses and startled him out of his increasingly self-pitying thoughts. He halted and held up a hand so Mal would know to do the same. "Our enemy is nearby." He scanned the battlefield until his eyesight honed in on the same hazy humanoid shape he had seen before. The bluehands peered over the top of a nearby earthen barricade, then ducked behind it again. Since their last encounter, Solas had been holding a prepared enchantment in reserve, waiting for the perfect moment to deploy it. This time, he would not fail.
The next time that his enemy's head poked out of cover, Solas unleashed his spell. It was meant to stop the bluehands in his tracks, to freeze him behind an impenetrable barrier to buy time for Solas and Mal to figure out what to do. It accomplished nothing. The energy dissipated into a shower of ineffectual green sparkles as soon as it got within a few inches of the bluehands. "This cannot be possible," Solas said through gritted teeth.
"Seems plenty possible to me," said Mal as he readied the weapon he wore on his hip.
Of course, thought Solas. This is his dream, and he knows now that he is dreaming. If he does not believe there to be any magic in his world, why should he believe there is any here? He is no Dreamer. He cannot overcome his preconceptions so easily. I should have realized this before.
Using his free hand to steady his wrist, Mal aimed his weapon at the bluehands and squeezed the trigger. There was a deafening bang as a projectile lanced out of its barrel in a puff of stinking smoke. Solas flinched uncontrollably at the noise, and at the thought of the destruction that such a weapon could cause. Even without magic, Mal's people found no shortage of creative ways to kill each other messily. Mal attacked again, and again - but if he struck the bluehands, he did not appear to cause his opponent any harm.
The bluehands reached into his coat, groping for some concealed object. Now Solas could see the thin blue gloves he wore that must have given him his name. "Uh, that can't be good," said Mal. Solas's heart sank as he weighed and discarded the limited possibilities of how to defeat the bluehands without the use of any spells. Mal's weapon did no good. He was not at all convinced that the two of them would prevail in a fistfight. He should never have been this helpless in the Fade - but without magic, constrained by the limited worldview of Mal's dream, all of his power was lost to him again. He cast about for cover, looking for anything that might shield him from the attack he knew was coming -
And then, without warning, the bluehands and the battlefield and everything around them blurred and shifted into indistinct darkness.
Mal laughed. "You see? I told you my crew would come for me."
"Do you think that's what just happened?" Solas asked as he straightened up, more relieved than he wanted to admit.
"Well, hell, I don't see what else could have. I sure didn't do anything different. Did you?"
"Has to be my crew, then. They pulled me out just like I knew they would. I'd like to see any bluehands screw up my brain with a whole gorram planet's atmo 'twixt me and him." In Mal's voice, Solas heard the same unshakable faith that the Dalish mistakenly placed in the Evanuris. What might it be like to trust in anyone or anything that fully?
"I suppose it's possible," Solas said weakly.
"I know it is." Mal extended one empty hand out in front of him. It took Solas a moment to understand that Mal expected him to grasp it, and he did. Mal's grip was strong and steady, his palm warm and dry. "Thanks for your help, Solas. Don't take this personally, but I hope we don't ever see each other again."
"As do I," said Solas. "Be safe."
A lopsided grin spread across Mal's face. "Easier said than done."
"I know what you mean."
"Anyway, I reckon I'm ready to wake up now," said Mal, and the last remnants of the dream evaporated around them.
* * *
"Elves," said Mal as he woke up on the examination table in Serenity's sickbay.
"Beg pardon?" said Zoe, frowning as she leaned over his supine form.
"What the guy who helped me in my dream was," said Mal. "An elf. I couldn't remember 'til now. Good gorram, that was bugging me."
"Are you sure the captain didn't hit his head when he fainted?" asked Simon from the other side of the table.
"Don't bother none, Doc," said Mal. "I'm right as rain." He tried to sit up, but a sudden wave of dizziness swept over him.
Zoe pushed Mal firmly back down onto the table. "You had us worried for a while there, Captain. All that bluehands did was look at you, and you passed out cold."
"Good thing I slung you over my shoulder and drug you back to the ship," Jayne, who was leaning against the hatch to sickbay, added. "Don't worry. Ain't no need to thank me or nothing."
"Just like I figured," said Mal. He heard the white noise of Serenity's engines and felt their faint rumble beneath him, and knew that all was right with the world at last. "We're underway, then?"
"I told River to take off as soon as we got you on board," said Zoe.
"You done good," said Mal, and Zoe nodded.
"So you was off in slumberland while we was doing all the work?" Jayne grumbled.
"Wasn't exactly like that, Jayne," said Mal. "The bluehands was in my dream too, and he was chasing me, and the elf came and got me at the saloon and he told me…" He shook his head. Already the details of the dream were evaporating as swiftly as dew by morning's first light. "I forget. It ain't important anyhow. I woke up, right? That's what counts."
Mal looked around at the faces of his crewmates - Zoe's grateful, Simon's studious and serious, Jayne's scowling but not entirely concealing his relief - and thought, They came for me, just like I knew they would. "We also gotta find a new job now that we skipped out on this one," he said. "Let me get vertical, then we'll go see if River has any more bright ideas for how to earn our pay."
"Glad you're back, Captain," Zoe said as she pulled him up from the table.
"Glad to be back," said Mal. He spared a final thought for the strange, lonely elf who had helped him before Serenity's day-to-day duties squeezed the last of the details from his mind. Here's hoping his next dreams are happier than the nightmare we shared.
* * *
Solas waited amidst the crumbling fragments of the dream until he was certain that both Mal and the bluehands were gone and not coming back. Then he pulled away from Mal's section of the Fade, rapidly and violently, until he was sure that he was safely back in a realm where he and his own magic held sway. He found the pathway he had followed to reach the strange tavern and erected a thick, impenetrable barrier to wall off Mal's world from his own. He did not dare to return to a place where he was so powerless. More importantly, he had to ensure that no one from that place could inadvertently stumble into his own reality and complicate all the plans he still needed to carry out. He simply could not afford to pass this way again.
As he put the finishing touches on the barrier, he thought back on everything that Mal had said and done during their brief alliance. Mal had been so certain that his friends would come to save him, and in the end, his faith had not been misplaced. Solas could not help remembering the time he had spent with the Inquisition and everyone he had met there. He thought of the people who had fought alongside him, who had defended him against their shared enemies time and again, who had shown him countless small kindnesses even when it profited them nothing to do so. He thought of the Inquisitor, who had called him "friend" despite their many disagreements. Had he sacrificed even more than he had known he was giving up when he left the Inquisition in pursuit of his own mission?
He shook his head and retreated farther into the Fade. Mal put his trust in his crewmates and friends, but Solas had decided long ago that he could afford to trust only in himself. He knew he had chosen to follow a difficult and lonely road, but it was one that no one else could walk. Even so, as the nightmares he inhabited deepened, there were times he wished there were still someone waiting to wake him from slumber on the other side of the Veil.