1/31/14 - This post now contains Chapter One in its entirety. For more details, see previous post. Thanks!
~ Lysandra James ~
CHAPTER ONE (CONTINUED)
To Frank Romero, nothing was better than settling into his favorite perch after a long day of listening to men talk trash and complain how bad they had it. It had taken months of determination and practice, but he now arrived in the Dream World exactly where he wanted, alone and undisturbed. The nearest town was hours away and if anyone made it out this far, the massive oak he called his “home away from home” deterred unwanted visitors. Its snakelike branches stretched nearly a thousand feet from one end to the other, intimidating all but the bravest of souls. It reminded him of the hydra from Greek mythology, but friendlier and less poisonous. It was a good tree.
He stretched his legs out along a thick serpentine branch and gazed out across the valley.
“First Dreamer, I beg audience.”
The sarcasm was barely veiled as Darius spoke Frank’s formal title. Frank glanced down and swore under his breath.
The Eldest of Damali was down on one knee, head bowed. His long hair and twice-knotted beard, black streaked with gray, were all Frank could see besides the knee-length embroidered deerskin vest Darius wore to mark his exalted rank. Frank suppressed the urge to ‘accidentally’ drop his boot on Darius’ head. The pompous jerk must be in dire straits to have resorted to the ceremonial approach. The proper response would be to descend and give Darius permission to speak.
Frank didn’t feel like being proper. “What do you want, Darius?” he asked without moving.
Darius’ shoulders stiffened at the slight, but he didn’t break form. “First Dreamer, I come as Eldest of Damali to ask for your help.” Anger and shame tinged his words.
The situation must really be serious. Frank slipped down a few feet, expertly navigating the maze of thick, snake-like branches. The simple red wool shirt and tan trousers he had taken to wearing in the Dream World mimicked those the Damalians wore, but were more comfortable and allowed for freer movement. The soft leather boots and gloves, black rather than the natural color the natives wore, gripped the branches. “What happened?”
“Dark Dreamers have come again.”
Frank descended a few more feet. Maybe he could shake a couple of small branches loose. Not on purpose. Of course not. “They’ve come before.”
“They’ve taken some of our people this time. They’re to serve Lady Kyra.”
Only one branch remained between Frank and the ground. He stopped, pride keeping him from descending further. “They’ve asked for volunteers to serve the Nightmare Queen before.”
Darius lowered his head further. The heat of anger resonated through his voice. “They’ve never stolen them.”
The branch Frank rested on vibrated. Whether it resonated from Julena’s spirit within the tree or from Frank himself, it didn’t matter. Frank knew what she would have wanted and he couldn’t do it.
“I’m sorry, Darius, but you’ve wasted your time.”
Darius leapt up, fury twisting his features. “It’s your duty, First Dreamer! I know you’re fallen, but my people need you. You must help!”
Frank prepared to Travel away, but movement caught his eye.
A slim girl in a dark blue skirt, pale blouse, and short brown cape strode to Darius’ side. Frank had missed spotting her. He was getting lazy in his old age. Well, older age.
She spoke with gentle authority. “Uncle, you shouldn’t speak to the First Dreamer in such a manner.”
Frank leaned forward to better see her. She was young to wear the red sash of Speaker – a seer and Damalian emissary to the Dreamers. Only thirteen, if her beads read correctly. The beads also named her an orphan. Only one orphan in Damali called Darius “Uncle.”
His voice cracked as he said her name. “Alora?” Fiery images flashed through his mind, memories best forgotten. “Since when are you Speaker? The last I saw you, you were sucking your thumb and playing with dolls.”
The child he knew would have giggled around her thumb and pulled her dark curly hair. The young woman before him still wore her hair loose except for a long thin braid hanging over each shoulder, tied with red ribbon – another mark of her rank. She reached for a braid, but quickly lowered her hand. “A lot has changed since the last time you visited Damali, First Dreamer.”
“So I see.”
Alora looked up at him. Her silver-blue eyes, unusual even among the people of the Dream World, studied him intently. “You’ve changed as well, Dreamer. There was a time you wouldn’t have shamed the Eldest.”
“How the mighty have fallen,” Darius sneered.
Alora whirled on him, her voice no longer gentle. “The First Dreamer deserves our respect even when we feel he’s wrong, Eldest. He was sent by the Great Dreamer.”
“As was Lady Kyra! Does she deserve our respect as well?” He glared up at Frank. “I knew he would refuse to help.”
As Darius stomped away, Alora spoke softly. “Forgive him, Dreamer Frank. The Dark Dreamers took Kegan.”
Shame washed over Frank. Kegan was Darius’ only son and the only reason Darius would force himself to beg. Frank dropped down next to her. “He didn’t say.”
“He shouldn’t have to.”
“I can’t help.”
“You choose not to help.”
It was easier to believe the lies he told himself than to accept the truth. “If I interfere, innocent people will die.”
“If you don’t, we may never see our people again. What will happen then? What more will Lady Kyra ask of us?”
Frank sighed and went to shove his hands in his pockets, except there were none in his Damalian pants. He didn’t often wish for things from the Waking World, but a good pair of jeans would be nice.
He had to set her straight. “I’m nobody’s savior and most certainly not a True Dreamer.”
Her answer was unexpected. Many Damalians once believed him to be a True Dreamer, one powerful enough to save them all. Some, like Darius, believed Frank had failed to live up to his potential. Maybe they were right. “Then why bother me?”
The young Speaker placed a hand on his arm, her eyes contradicting the smile she wore. “There’s no one else.”
Frank started to protest, but a resonating boom - felt, rather than heard - interrupted him. Alora’s eyes grew wide. “Did you feel that?” he asked her, his voice quiet. Speakers sometimes felt what only Dreamers could.
She nodded. “What does it mean?”
“It means we have company.”