by Charles Matthias

The walls were purple in the predawn twilight and the edifice appeared to those young eyes to be stirring. Wessex peered vaguely at the masonry, noting the buckling and the clawing behind it, unable to do naught but stare and shake, his pants already soiled, and threatening to do so again. The monstrous horror before lasted but moments, yet those precious seconds trickled by as slowly as a stone is worn away by water drops.

Then , with a gasp of stale air, putrid with the scent of his own urine, the wall was still again, as it had ever been. There was a preternatural quiet about him, his mind as silent as a tomb. Standing upon his quivering legs, the young boy returned to his quarters, the images of his dream gone, as intangible as a gust of wind blowing through a thatch of reeds. His room was upon him before he even realized he was there. Stepping through the simple archway, he sat down upon his bed, removed his nightclothes, and retrieved another pair.

For hours, Wessex sat like that, unmoving, unblinking, his tired eyes dry as bones. The songs of birds chorused from his windowsill, and the sound of the blacksmith rang up from the bailey. Yet none of those snapped him from his emptiness, devoid of any thought, only of the black void that had reached out for him, and screamed into his mind, obliterating all that was there. Until the knock rang loudly against the wooden frame of his door. Jerking his head to the side at the sudden noise, he called out in a surprisingly strong voice, "Who is it?"

"Jessica, master," a harsh squealing cry returned. "It is Jessica!"

Pulling himself to his feet, the boy crossed the threshold to his door, and pulled it wide. The deep mahogany of her eyes peered back overtop the hooked beak, one that seemed creased in a frown if it were possible for her avian face to do so. "Master Wessex, are you alright? It smells rank in here."

Though her sense of smell was not what it used to be, there was little that the boy could hide from his most talented apprentice. Most talented since Dorson's death anyway. Shaking clear the fog that swelled at the back of his mind, he waved her in. "Please, come in."

She stepped forward, a bit hesitantly on her long black talons. Like most avian's, she did not have arms, though the tips of her wings did have claws that she made use of from time to time. Before the curse had struck, Jessica had been training to be an enchanter, but since they needed to write delicately and prolifically, Nasoj had taken that from her nearly seven years ago. He had nursed her through the inevitable depression that came, and had steered her talents in other directions, that of conjuration and divination, and while she seemed content with that, he could not help but notice the glint in her perfectly round eyes that bespoke of envy as the other apprentices imbued mundane tools with great power.

"What can I do for you?" Wessex asked, as he tried to straighten out the mess caused by his somnambulism. "Your lessons do not start till this afternoon."

Jessica stared down at the gold scales adorning each of her toes. As a hawk, she was very pretty, her brown feathers mixed with a dash of red at the wingtips, yet exuded a wildness that made many about her uncomfortable. She fluttered the wings folded against her back a moment as she appeared to be collecting her thoughts. Her voice was as always scratchy, but there was a simple quality about it that caused others to listen to what she said.

"I was hoping that I could help you," her golden eyes gazed across his tender flesh. Wessex had always thought of hawks as ruthless predator's, and at first, when she had stared at him, he had felt his skin crawl with fright. Now, he knew that look for what it was, one of tender concern. "You've been rather distracted these past few days. You are terribly pale, and your cheeks are white." His hand flew up to his face, as if to cover the evidence. "I don't know what is wrong, but I know that something is, and I'm worried about you."

Taking a deep breath, he could feel the claws of darkness reaching up to snare his mind back into the oblivion, but he tore it down, holding it at bay as he escorted her into his private chambers. "Please, take a seat, I need something to drink."

She found a small stool, and perched upon its rim even as he brought a small stein filled with milk from underneath the cupboards. Sitting upon the damask longue, he sipped at the cup, and his eyes trailed across the masonry, phantom hands clawing at the drapes, and then just as quickly vanishing. He nearly started at the sight, but held his composure, chalking it up to a trick of the flickering candle set upon the stanchion.

"Can I get you anything?" He asked, though she calmly shook her head. "Well, I suppose there is no use in denying it anymore, I do need some help. I just am not sure what you or anyone else can do for me. You see, I'm having these dreams -- no, nightmares -- and they are coming more and more often, and they seem to last longer each time." Wessex took another drink, staring up at the timepiece on his mantle, noting that it was not even seven o'clock yet. "What day is it?"

"The eighth of July," she replied, folding her wings behind her back once again.

Nodding his head slowly, he brought the cup once more to his lips, and finished it off. "Well, I am tired, yet I do not want to sleep. Those dreams have been plaguing me since late April. They started shortly after Dorson was killed. You remember that day, don't you?"

Slowly, her eyes closed, and she breathed heavily into the air. "Yes," she screeched softly, if ever the cry of a hawk could be said to be soft. "I was flying, sick with worry over what you two were doing. I saw something black on the side of the Keep. It was horrible, and then it faded as I circled closer, trying to get a better look. I know you said it was because of that censer, but is that all that happened? This evil wizard that was there, is he the one behind that?"

Wessex nodded shortly, setting the cup down on the side table where he kept his work. "I believe so. He is in my dreams, with one other..." The boy stared into space, his face slowly dropping, as if from a very high height.

"Who?" Jessica asked, breaking the sudden silence.

The boy jerked his head at the sound, and the moment was past. "I dare not say, at least not yet. I am not quite sure what it means. The nightmare though, it only took on this new element in the last fortnight." And here he paused yet again, but this time, his own voice broke the stillness. "And I have been sleepwalking."

Her gaze was unsettling now, more rigid, almost like she was hunting. "Why don't you just tell me what this new element is? And what have you been doing while wailing in your sleep? I want to help you master, you know very well I can divine the answers from your clothes if you continue to be obstinate."

Wessex coughed back in shock. "You would take my nightclothes and perform augury on them?"

"If I thought it would help you, yes." Her voice was clear, crisp, and clearly not to be denied. "Wessex ard'Kapler, you will tell someone what is wrong, it might as well be me. I can help you, my gifts are... prodigious."

With a smirk, the boy nodded his head, picking up the cup and walking back to his counter to refill it. "I can think of no greater punishment or curse that I could weigh upon your shoulders than entry into this personal hell of mine."

"Do you doubt my abilities?"

"No," he said as he titled back the pearl jar, the milk gently flowing into his waiting cup. "I think you are quite capable. I simply do not want you to suffer as I. This nightmare seems to be something more than just a bad dream. There is something tangible about it, some unearthly reality reaching forth to drag me down into its blackness. I cannot risk bringing anyone else along with me."

Jessica preened at her chest in agitation. "All the more reason for you to reach out to somebody who could pull you back from the depths! You need the help, master. You really do, by yourself you will not be strong enough to fight it, but perhaps together we can stop this. Maybe it isn't I who should help you. Have you ever considered asking that priest Hough, or the Lightbringer for any advice? If whatever it is that is coming to you in your sleep is not of this world, maybe they ought to help."

Wessex shook his head. "I want no help from their gods. But you are right in a way, I do need some help. I just don't know who yet."

She leaned forward, almost as if to put her talons on his leg to comfort him. "Then trust me, tell me what is wrong."

Taking a deep breath, the boy gazed over Jessica's avian form, across the beak and through the golden orbs, and atop the crested head, feathers nestled gently against the down. "Alright, you win. If at anytime, you want me to stop, just tell me, and I will."

"You needn't worry about that."

A smile crossed his face, giving it that childish appearance she had grown fond of in the past seven years. "I didn't think you would want me to stop. Well, the man's name who killed Dorson is the best place to begin, and the awful road it has taken me down..."

The dark paneling in the Deaf Mule was as it had been for the last fifteen minutes, unchanging. The mercurial decorations along each wall, red and gold, blue and silver, each in their kind, and each in their place. Jessica perched on a modified stool towards the back, a small wide-mouthed mazer before her, her gaze settled upon a dark oil stain beneath a brazier just next to the counter, and had been such for quite some time. The bar was mostly empty, it was still morning, the real crowd would not begin to wander in for a few hours.

Her conversation with Wessex was the last thing on her mind. At least it was the last thing she wanted on her mind, for in her silent meditations, it poked its diseased head into view at the oddest and most peculiar moments. Now, she had wandered into the Inn, with hopes that a stiff drink might rid her of these fantastic images. The mazer sat before her beak, untouched, and still frothy from the tap.

At the sound of approaching boot heels, she finally broke her gaze from the oil stain, a black mark that seemed to creep along the crevices and ridges of the wall like a parasite. Striding towards her, with a oddly bent hand carrying a plate of eggs and bacon, was a tall man dressed in a shadowed blue tunic, whose heraldry of unicorn and field was unfamiliar to her. His nose was rather long, almost pointed, while there was an odd stirring in his mop of unruly red hair. It also appeared that his boots were rather tight, almost uncomfortably tight.

"Can I help you?" she asked as the man approached. Her voice was not one that engendered trust or set others at ease, but it was one that she had grown accustomed to.

A grin flashed across the man's narrow blocky face, a rather tight grin in fact, as if he had trouble stretching his skin. "I was wondering if you would like the company. I saw you come in earlier, and have been watching you from the bar. You look like you need it."

She nodded her head, indicating the opposing seat with her beak. The man lowered his plate to the table, taking a moment to offer her some. The meal was half-eaten, but she was more inclined to catch her own food, and so declined. "I have to admit, I am rather new here, and was quite taken by the beauty of your form."

"Thank you," was all she could say. Others passing through had also mentioned that. She was not really looking at him though, her thoughts had once again strayed.

The man continued though, taking the response as invitation to continue. "Well, there is another reason I was interested, for you see, just this morning I was told that I would become a hawk as well."

At that, she did peer at him, curious if nothing else. As he scooped the eggs into his strangely bent mouth, she could see that his lips were tight, almost solid like a beak. His nose was not so much hooked s it was joining his upper lip. And that strange mop of hair turned out to be caused by the appearance of red-tipped feathers, much like her own. His uncomfortable gait was no doubt in part to his emerging talons and tail feathers. For her, the transformation had been instantaneous, so was not sure exactly what the man was going through.

"Ah, it will be nice to have another hawk around. You've missed molting season at least."

"So the healer told me," the man gave her that tight grin, his sharp eyes passing over her avian appearance. "I am wondering, I do not hope that this is too forward, but what shall I call you?"

"Oh, forgive my manners, my name is Jessica."

"And I am Weyden," he replied, nodding his head much the way she did. "I've been told I am going to lose the use of my hands."

Her head bobbed, the wings against her back stretching slightly to show him. "But, you will be able to fly. It is a small price to pay."

"Do you think you could teach me, Jessica?"

The hawk dipped her beak finally into the frothy mug and sipped at the cider. "I suppose, though you must remember that you are not allowed to hunt anywhere near the Keep. The mouse you may catch might not have always been a mouse."

At that he chuckled and spooned the last of the eggs into his waiting mouth. "Has it ever happened before?"

"No, the rodents are quite well organized around here, I doubt you could catch one of them anyway."

Again he laughed and then set down his knife and fork, and let his arms rest at his sides. Soon, they would be folded up against his back like any other bird. "Lived here your whole life then?"

"Yes, I was born here over twenty years ago. Where are you from? I think it is safe to assume that you just recently made the Keep your home."

Weyden rubbed his long stiff nose with one rather long finger and nodded. "I am the Captain of the Ceremonial Guards for his lordship, the Ambassador Yonson of Marzac. I assume you have heard of the ambassador?"

She stared for a moment, breathing deeply, her eyes passing back over the unicorn insignia upon his azure tunic. "I had heard that he was here, I have not met him though." Though she screeched, she was able to communicate some sense of tone in her voice. Jessica just hoped that the man recognized it as interest! Finally, something to think aside from her mentor's nightly activities.

"He has stayed mostly to the castle for now. He's waiting for the curse to finish taking him you see. Though I've heard him say he would love to see the lands of Metamor, the business of the Marquis takes precedence. Thankfully, the people here are wonderful folk, I do not think that my role will be much more than ceremonial."

"I've heard some strange things about the Chateau," Jessica admitted, then wished that she hadn't. So that he might not see her embarrassment, she dunked her head into the mazer and drank more of the smooth liquid.

Weyden chuckled lightly. "Honestly, I've never been there myself. The Marquis still maintains his holdings in the Pyralian Kingdom, though most of his other soldiers have accompanied him to that ancient edifice. Truth be told, "and suddenly his voice lowered, and he took a moment to gaze back at the bar and the other patrons a bit uncomfortably, "I am not particularly keen on the idea of my Lord going to that place. I know about the rumors circling the Keep about my master's demesnes. I've heard far worse."

And then, in a louder more conversational tone, the sort of voice one reserves for old friends that one has not seen in years, he continued. "Still, I've never met a more gentle man than this Yonson. Do you know that while we were riding up through Pyralis, that he made us stop along a road because of a single flower? The man won't hurt anything, not a plant, not a bug, not even a rock as far as I can tell."

Her interest now piqued, she could not help but inquire further. "What happened to the flower?"

"The hyacinth? Oh, he made us camp for the night, dug it up, and brought it with him. I do not know what he did with it though; I presume he replanted it somewhere along the journey, I certainly never saw it again."

"I've heard he is a mage of some kind. Something to do with the weather."

Weyden nodded, stretching his arms behind him, much the way she extended her wings before flight. "Weathermonger is what he calls it. He doesn't talk about it much though, and being a simple soldier, I would not understand even if he did!" Taking a moment to gaze across the simple bandolier she wore, he regarded her for a moment. "Jessica, I am curious. You seemed rather distressed before I sat down. Do you mind if I ask what is wrong?"

Jessica plunged her beak into the decanter once more, slurping the last of the cider down her throat. "Somebody I know was just telling me about a few bad dreams, that's all."

Leaning forward slightly, he grimaced knowingly. "Nightmares?"

She nodded. "Just some nightmares."

He leaned over a bit further, his long hands reaching out for her own, till he realized that she no longer had arms, but wings instead. Weyden sat back then and motioned with a jerk of his head towards the door. "I know how to get one's mind off of nightmares. I'm free for the day, and was hoping that you could show me around. Maybe introduce me to a few of the other avians whom I will be joining before much longer."

She laughed silently, her eyes tracing his aquiline features and blue tunic. "I would like to do that."

Suddenly, he stopped and waggled a long finger before her beak. "Just one minute, I forgot to ask, what is it that you do at the Keep?"

"Oh, well, I am a mage as well. In training still, but I do not think I have far to go," she replied modestly.

"Well then, mage Jessica of the hawks, lead on!" And Weyden fell into step beside her as she strode gingerly across the timbers, leaving the Keep before the noonday crowds could arrive. Thoughts of her mentor Wessex were small, but she would not forget him. However, his dreams were left behind for another day.