Some stories are easy to tell. Dream’s story had been like that. It wasn’t really a complicated one. At first, it had just been him and the forest, and then it had been him in the forest, and his three friends, (who were also trying to kill him; it had been a weird friendship), and his enemy, a rival spirit of the neighboring city known as Technoblade, who was trying to kill him as well.
But then Dream and his friends, Bad, George and Sapnap, (who didn’t want to kill him anymore, they’d decided to choose friendship over money or something like that) left the forest. And suddenly Dream’s story got a lot more tangled. A lot of things changed. There were more people, more places, more moments in time, all mixing up into a convoluted tale of hope, freedom, vengeance, adventure, and friendship.
It was hard to know where to start.
Maybe it started with the chilly winter morning when the stablehand borrowed a horse and cantered out to the coast to see the sunrise.
Like a lot of people in the small seaside kingdom, the stablehand was afraid. But, with the cold winter air stinging his cheeks, and the quiet road flying away beneath him, it was hard to feel anything but free.
He reached the road that wound frighteningly close to the edge of a cliff and watched as the sun rose over the sea. Pinks and purples and oranges stained the sky, turning the world into a breathtaking stained-glass cathedral. It was glorious.
Beneath him, the horse stirred and stamped unhappily, breaking the silence with a disquiet whinny. The stablehand patted the broad, warm neck comfortingly, but his eyes were fixed on the horizon.
“Yeah,” he said, “I feel it too. Things are about to change.”
Maybe it began when two boys scrambled down the alley in a dirty city. One was clutching a loaf of crusty bread under his arm, while the other pushed him forward. “Tommy, go faster!”
“I’m going as fast as I--” his voice was cut off by a shout, and the pounding of footsteps from behind. They darted around a corner, leaving their pursuer in the dust.
The taller of the boys breathed a sigh of relief, slumping against the dirty brick wall, and split the loaf into careful halves. “Shit man, we should probably get out of town soon. That was close.” he handed over a portion of the food to his friend, who began to cheerfully scarf it down.
“Yeah,” he said between bites, “that’s because you don’t have any finesse.”
“I don’t even know what that means.”
“You’re not very smart, are you?”
“Tubbo, you are a bitch.”
They were too busy enjoying their bread and keeping an ear out for approaching footsteps, but if they’d been paying attention, they might have felt the coming change too.
Maybe it began in an ornate hall, in the royal palace, where the Emperor was saying. “Cut to the chase, man. I’m getting bored.”
The General didn’t bat an eye. He must have been used to this. “To put it simply, sir, we are too short on both manpower and funds to continue a frontal assault. We must pull back until spring.”
“We need more soldiers? I don’t know about you, sir, but that seems like a fixable problem.”
The Emperor stood, and all across the long marble hall, counselors, soldiers, and servants exchanged glances tinged with fear. His heels clicked against stone floors like an unspoken threat. “General, what is the current age for the draft?”
“All citizens over the age of eighteen or younger than the age of forty-five,” there was a long pause. “Sir.”
“Well, let’s lower it. Two years, that seems fair. Draft now begins at sixteen. Next order of business? Come on, I don’t have all day.”
The Emperor rolled a lazy eye to the figure who was suddenly standing a few chairs down. “Yes, Counselor Quackity? You have something to add?”
The Counselor swallowed nervously, hands braced against the oaken table. “Your majesty, the people aren’t, uh, going to like this. Morale is already low--”
“Oh, shut up Quackity. Who do you think I’m doing this for, huh? The people. And if the people aren’t fucking grateful after all I’ve done to win this goddamn war--” he advanced across the room, watching with blistering satisfaction as the cowed man shrunk back into his seat, muttering an apology.
“Anyone else? Or can we finally move on?”
Across the table, a young man with orange hair clenched his jaw, face carefully neutral as he scanned the averted faces around the table. How long, he wondered, will this go on before they realize things have to change?
Maybe it began in another place, a city by the edge of a forest, where a different kind of king sat on a rooftop and watched the sunrise over a smoky skyline, and wondered why he suddenly felt so empty.
Maybe it began with the soldier lying by the roadside, wrapped in a thin brown coat, staring up at the stars as he tried to catch some sleep despite the cold that felt like it was penetrating his bones, and the ache in his wounded leg. He wished he had a fire. Or that he was already back with his dad, having never left for a war he couldn’t win.
He turned on his side, shivering, and thought of the limping walk that awaited him before he was home.
Maybe it began when a spy consulted a map and tried to crush the nagging fear that they were making a terrible mistake, before choosing a road and pushing onwards.
Or maybe it began with the morning when four mercenaries, known collectively as The Dream Team, walked into a city and saw the flyers hanging off the gate.
George pulled one off as they went past, and stopped suddenly. “Guys.”
They turned back to him, seeing his face. “What is it?” Bad asked, steeling himself for a poster declaring that one of the four was wanted for some crime or another in this town. It was a risk coming to a city like this, big enough that they might be recognized, but he had thought--
George passed the paper over, and Bad immediately forgot what he had been thinking about. “By decree of the Emperor the-- he did not.”
“What? What?” Sapnap said impatiently, trying to look over Bad’s shoulder.
“Schlatt lowered the draft age. Again. It’s sixteen now.”
“What the-- what the muffin!” Sapnap was trying to be obliging, but he said muffin with enough passion to make it sound like a swear. “He can’t do that, can he?”
“He did,” George’s voice was grim. He glanced over at Dream, who he knew must be frowning beneath the wooden mask he was wearing. “When the war started, the draft age was twenty.”
Dream noticed his look. “I’ve only ever heard you mention this Emperor guy twice, and it’s never been anything good.”
Bad began to steer them farther into the crowds, away from the guards at the city gate. Sedition was illegal after all, and few publicly spoke out against Schlatt without some form of consequence. “That’s because there isn’t much good to say. At this point, everyone knows he stole the crown in the first place. And then immediately declared war on Calestria.”
“For ‘land that’s rightfully ours’” George put air-quotes around the words. “It’s been eight years and we don’t have any land, just a lot of dead people, and he’s never even considered stopping. And now he’ll go kill some kids too.’
“Oh, alright,” his voice dropped to a less noticeable volume. “I guess it’s hard to understand, but things didn’t use to be like this.”
“Like what?” Dream asked. Someone pushed past him, knocking into his shoulder, and then started away when they saw the mask. He felt bad for scaring them-- most people found the mask rather intimidating--- but he needed it. Out here, there were just too many eyes, too many people. It felt overwhelming. With the mask, he felt safe and hidden from their stares.
George gestured around the dirty market, the squalid buildings, the tired faces, the abandoned buildings on the street corners. “Like this,” he paused, reflecting. “Not that I remember before very well.”
Eight years is a long time when you are not very old.
They wandered through the market, looking for the handful of essentials they’d come to buy. Bad sidled up beside George, glancing left and right for guards or prying eyes. “I hate to say it, but keep the document close. You have it?”
George nodded. In the four months since they’d left the forest, they’d had enough successful jobs to afford a forged document that explained that George’s absence from his military duties was due to a serious injury from which he was still slowly recovering, rendering him unfit for service. Anyone who saw the hunter swing a sword or shoot a carefully aimed arrow would immediately know exactly how much of a farce the paper was, but it should be enough to keep him from being dragged back to the front lines-- or shot as a deserter.
But Schaltt was clearly getting desperate. Which meant that paper might not be enough.
He prayed it would be enough.
Sapnap tugged at his sleeve. “Dude, snap out of it. We’re having fun.”
“I hadn’t noticed,” he said dryly, but he dutifully followed after him. “What kind of fun?”
Sapnap pointed across the market to a dingy cart with a roughly painted sign that announced ‘firEwoRks’ could be bought there for a ‘resnable’ price
Bad’s eyes widened. “Oh no.”
“You are not--”
“It’s my turn to pick the treat!”
Money was tight among their group, not due to the lack of work, nor to their lack of skill, but because they were saving their coins to pay off the debt Sapnap owed to an official back in his old hometown. Until the debt was gone, there was always a chance that other mercenaries would be hunting their friend down. But life without a chance to spend their hard-earned coin on something fun seemed dreary, so they took turns choosing something to purchase. Dream had gotten a local carpenter to make a rough wooden replacement for his old porcelain mask after he’d found his first city a bit...overwhelming. George had gotten a spyglass, mostly because it looked pretty. Bad, ever practical, had replenished his old sewing kit, and gotten a dozen muffins, which he’d eaten six of single-handedly. Now it was Sapnap’s turn, and both Bad and George looked like they regretted introducing the idea in the first place.
“What are fireworks?” Dream asked. Four months was a long time, but there were still things he didn’t know. They’d grown used to explaining the various bits of their world they’d always taken for granted, though Sapnap tended to make up things when he didn’t have the answers for Dream’s constant curiosity.
Sapnap bounced with excitement. “You’ve never seen fireworks? Oh man, now we have to get them. Come on, Bad. You can’t tell me no, you can’t.”
The older hunter sighed and graciously relented as Sapnap dragged Dream by the arm to the rickety stall.
If he had been paying more attention, he might have felt it.
Eyes, watching him.
The hunters didn’t know it, but they were being followed.
Dream lay by the dying fire and stared up at the stars.
Even here, miles outside the city, camped out in a frozen-over field, the sky was less clear, the stars not nearly as bright as they had been in the forest.
He turned over, restless, and heard George shifting beside him. “You awake?”
“Yeah. It’s too cold. We’re gonna be exhausted in the morning.” George sat up and pushed a piece of wood into the campfire, sticking his hands out to the flames to warm them.
Exhausted. Before, in the forest, he’d never felt tired. He’d slept when he wanted to, but his body didn’t really need it very much. He wasn’t human, wasn’t constricted by human needs. But that had been changing. He felt sleep pull on his eyelids and stifled a yawn. George was right. Tomorrow he would have a hard time waking up, and he’d carry the fatigue with him all day.
He had been changing.
It was a little frightening.
He scooted over to where George was sitting and draped a blanket over both of them. George curled close to him, head resting on his shoulder, and he laughed. “You really are freezing.”
“It’s not my fault.”
“No, it’s not. Smaller creatures get colder more quickly because, they uh, can’t conserve body heat as well.”
“Are you calling me short?”
Dream released a breathless snort of laughter. This, at least, was a change for the better. He thought he’d spoken more words in the last four months than he had in the entirety of his existence. It made him feel real. “Yeah, ‘cause you are.”
George simply huffed a frustrated sigh, chuckling a bit despite himself. “So what’s keeping you awake?”
“I…” Dream shrugged. “It’s still a lot to get used to, you know? You’d think I’d feel normal by now, but every time I try and fall asleep, everything feels wrong.”
“What feels wrong? Like, specifically.” George peered up at him like he was trying to read his mind.
He thought about it. “I miss trees, I guess. It’s too open out here. I feel… is there an opposite to claustrophobic?”
George stifled a yawn, leaning back and stealing the rest of the blanket. “I mean, it makes sense. You’ve been in the forest for...how long?”
Dream had no idea. Longer than his memory lasted, at least. “Forever.”
“Forever, huh. That’s kind of a long time. You’ve got to give yourself time to get used to this, y’know?” he sat up suddenly, looking a little panicked. “You don’t regret leaving, do you?”
Dream laughed and pushed him over again. “Go to bed, idiot.”
“You’re an idiot.” but he curled up dutifully, eyes closed.
Dream laughed softly. “I don’t regret anything, you know. I feel like I just started living.”
George was already asleep.
The spirit leaned back and looked up at the stars. He wondered if the others could feel it too, the shift in something, whispering at him, tugging at his mind.
Things are about to change.