Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.
Edwin Hubbell Chapin
Jason stood in the middle of the street, his mind struggling to accept a simple truth: this was not the world he remembered. It was as if Mother Nature, enraged by the senseless abuse of her creation, had unleashed her wrath upon the Earth she once cherished.
There was no wind, no sound, even the air Jason breathed seemed stale, somehow tainted by this place. If this was not Hell, it came a close second. Surrounding him on all sides, buildings torn from their foundations lay in ruins. Those left standing were little more than blackened, burnt-out husks of concrete, blighting the skyline.
The street was littered with vehicles that once had been an extension of their owner’s pride and desire for freedom, but now they were a rusting epitaph to their fall from grace. The shocking image of a world driven to its knees was only surpassed by the scale of human destruction. Everywhere Jason looked there were skeletons, their bones bleached by a sun blind to the reality that no one was left alive to appreciate its warmth. Shreds of clothing still clung to some of the bodies, giving a few of them, at least, a semblance of identity.
As Jason tried to discern any meaning from the horror surrounding him, something brushed against his leg. He leapt back, almost falling over his own feet, as several piles of bones rose up in front of him. Common sense told him to run, but he was overcome with the morbid desire to keep watching. A jawbone snapped into place with a sickening crack. Veins began to emerge out of the bones themselves, followed by intestines, then organs. Skin crawled across the bodies, even as the muscles and tendons formed underneath. Clothing was the last thing to materialise, like everything else, as if from thin air.
Jason now faced five men, their faces smooth, devoid of any features; the effect was terrifying. Their upper bodies were protected by chain mail, over which was draped a grey tunic that extended to their knees. Like the chain mail beneath it, the tunic was split at the front. Each man wore a sword strapped to their side, and a large, bright orange emblem of a bird, similar to an eagle, embroidered on the fronts of their tunics. The bird’s wings were unfurled, and grasped in its claws was a flaming sword. There was something about the emblem that confused Jason, it was as if he knew exactly what the emblem represented, yet at the same time, he was convinced he had never set eyes on it before now.
Where the hell am I? he thought.
I would think the where was obvious. You are dreaming; you are also in danger.
Jason did not know whether he was hearing his conscience, was going mad or if someone was communicating with his mind. None of the prospects thrilled him.
“Who are you?”
The men did not answer, but Jason began to hear a low-pitched humming. He opened his mouth to speak, but instead doubled over as the sound flooded his senses, overwhelming him. His view of the knights became blurred, appearing to shift in and out of focus.
Concentrate, boy, fight them! They must not enter.
Jason was fast accepting the idea that perhaps the disembodied voice was not his own.
Jason screamed as every thought, every emotion or memory from nineteen years of life was torn from his subconscious and held up for scrutiny. He slammed his hands against his ears and sank to his knees, begging them to stop. Alongside the intense pain was the anger that someone was stealing the one thing in his life that he had control over. Even though the images that flashed through his mind’s eye were a blur, he still felt the pain, the loss, the happiness that the memories evoked. He tried to hold back the tears, but the onslaught of emotions was too great even for the wall of cynicism he protected himself with.
At last, a calmness settled over Jason’s mind, easing the pain until it was little more than a dull ache, leaving him with the sensation of waking from a deep sleep. The emotional pain, however, was not so easily soothed. His memories had been violated, leaving him raw, his vulnerability exposed; a side to him that he struggled to keep hidden all his life.
He has what we seek. This time, the voice inside his mind was not one, but many. Jason found it impossible to tell if any of the voices belonged to the man who had tried to help him earlier.
The sleeper shall awake.
Jason had heard enough, his curiosity was swept aside by the thought of what they might do next.
If you run, we will find you… wherever you go, we will find you.
Jason turned and ran across the uneven pavement with no idea where he was heading. The direction was unimportant, at least for now; the only thing that mattered was putting as much distance between him and his faceless interrogators as was humanly possible.
Stay, stay and help us, Jason.
Jason tried to shut out the voices as he ran, terrified they might enter his mind again. He cried out as something struck him from behind, pitching him to the ground and into darkness.
“Jason, snap out of it!”
Jason’s eyes snapped open. The view greeting him was no longer of a desolate world, but the sight was no less daunting. He was sat on the second row from the back of a large lecture theatre. At least fifty pairs of eyes were watching him as the embarrassing realisation set in. The voice had been right; his entire experience was nothing more than a daydream gone bad.
A short, stocky man, his arms folded, stood at the front of the lecture theatre beside a table on which sat an overhead projector. He seemed oblivious to the patches of sweat that stained his white shirt. Jason, however, was not oblivious to the angry scowl on the man’s face, even from this far back in the room.
“Mr. Chen, if you wanted this much attention, you should have joined the circus.”
Jason fixed his brown eyes on the floor, allowing his thick mass of black hair to fall over his face, hoping the gesture would somehow lessen the rising humiliation.
“Damage control,” coughed Quincy, a skinny blond-haired teenager, who was sitting to Jason’s left.
Jason tried to regain some sense of composure. The dream had been so vivid, the horrors witnessed there so real. He glanced back at the exit, half expecting the faceless knights to come bursting through the doors. Perhaps the lecture room, the lecturer with a serious sweat issue were just another part of the dream. One look around the room shattered that idea. His imagination was not varied enough to construct so many subtle emotions to convey the same point: he had made a complete fool of himself.
Half of the class were trying not to laugh; a few others were either smirking or chuckling quietly. The rest, unable to contain the emotion, were laughing themselves hoarse. Jason needed to take control of the situation or he would still be living this down three months from now. The nightmare had been terrifying, there was no question of that, but he was awake now and there was nothing to fear except the destruction of his reputation, which had never been that great in the first place.
“Sorry, Professor, I must have nodded off.”
Jason wondered if everyone else thought his words were as lame as they sounded. Quincy leaned towards him.
“Told you not to reheat that curry last night,” he said in a hushed tone. “But would you listen?”
Jason shot his best friend and roommate a ‘not now’ look. Quincy fell silent, instead opting for unleashing his charms on an attractive Asian girl sitting three seats to his left.
Jason knew the next few minutes were crucial to his short-term academic and personal survival. Professor Ivanov was notorious for humiliating a chosen student in front of their peers. Jason had often heard Ivanov sharing his deluded belief that his methods aided the learning process. Jason wondered if the inquisition had gone about their work with a similar mindset to Ivanov.
“Perhaps you would like to summarise the report I asked everyone to prepare for today.”
So much for treading carefully, Jason concluded, sighing to himself.
“I trust you have the report with you, Mr. Chen?”
No, Mr. Sweaty, it’s up your ass. If the report had been lodged in Ivanov’s rectum, at least, thought Jason, it would be here and not sitting half-finished beside his games console.
“Dreaming again, Mr. Chen?” Ivanov’s grating voice conjured images of violence in Jason’s mind, all directed at his lecturer. “I wonder if your parents realise how seriously you’re taking the education they’re paying for?”
Like they cared. Jason had barely spoken to his adoptive parents, the Carsons, since starting university over eighteen months ago. To be fair, the lack of communication was more his fault than theirs. He was supposed to be striking out on his own, but all that the token phone conversations with them did was remind him that he was still tied to them, even if that tie was only a financial one.
“We’re waiting, Jason.”
Jason ignored the patronising inflection Ivanov always added when using his first name; he was trying to provoke a reaction. He got to his feet, steeling himself against his inevitable fate. Ivanov was beckoning him down with a wide grin: this was not going to end well.
If you run, we will find you.
Jason froze, his head snapped round. There was nothing.
“It was just a bad dream,” he said to himself, continuing down towards the front.
Wherever you go, we will find you.
Just a bad dream.