Your waking hours are for choosing; your dreaming hours are for seeing what you chose.
From "The Awakening" by Elizabeth Shaw
Down, down, down he dove into the watery darkness—down into the airless cavern, his lungs screaming for air, for a breath, just one little breath. He fought against the begging of his body, struggled against the growing current sucking the water past him, pushing him back. His body convulsed with its need for air, but he did not yield. He refused. He raged in the watery silence. He defied himself. He had to save her. He had to return as he had promised. If he died, at least he died knowing he had done all he could. He could see her glowing face and the reflection of light off her blonde hair. Her sad eyes looked at him. He heard the musical quality of her voice, unique to her Dyrisian heritage—it was as though she was present, standing before him. “Alea,” he pleaded, “I don’t know if I can make it. This is hard.” Her response echoed softly through the chambers of his mind: “I know Daniel. It would be easy only if we meant nothing to each other.” The current shifted, pulling instead of pushing. Daniel felt it accelerating, sucking him into blackness. Just when he felt himself drifting away, the current ejected him out of the airless cavern and his head cleared the surface of the water. His mouth opened wide, questing for the life-saving air his lungs demanded. Water splashed into his open mouth, causing spasms of coughing to wrack his body. The spasms subsided. He stood. He was in another covern, one with dry walls surrounding an emerald green pool. The only light in the cavern came from the eerie green glow of the pool, and its glow came from the cavernous tunnel he had just swum through. Daniel took a few steps forward. The water splashed against his knees. He heard the sound of someone clearing his throat: “Ahem.” “Who’s there?” Daniel demanded. Instantly the light of fifteen wands appeared, each balancing a ball of bluish-white light at its tips. The cloaked figures holding the wands took a step forward in unison, emerging out of the shadows and surrounding two-thirds the pool. Daniel’s eyes widened. One of the figures approached and pulled back his black hood. Daniel gazed at the shaved head, dark brown eyes, and cruel thick lips. Daniel’s eyes followed the long, ugly scar that cut across the man’s right temple and down his cheek. “Croft!” Daniel gasped. “Of course,” the man replied. “Did you really think I would permit you to escape?” Daniel’s throat felt dry. He could not speak. “I knew you would come back for her . . . for them,” Croft said. “I’ve been expecting you. A shiver raced up Daniel’s spine. “Back for whom?” Daniel croaked. Croft’s image shimmered and became unsubstantial, like a ghost. The cavern seemed to change. It too seemed less real, but only for a moment. “Back for the girl, for Breeanna, McConnely’s very pretty daughter. Or should I say once pretty daughter,” Croft sneered. “And the Dyrisian, of course.” Daniel felt a sense of dread wash over him. Croft chuckled. It was a harsh, brittle noise like the sound of shattered glass being ground into pavement. Daniel saw Bree, or his memory of her, and remembered why he was here . . . wherever here was. “If you hurt her, I swear . . .” Daniel recognized his own voice, but had no sense of forming the words. It was as though someone else had spoken them. “Swear what?” Croft roared. “There is nothing you can do. You are too late.” Croft’s thick licks curled upward into a sick smile. He closed his eyes as though recalling a particularly pleasurable experience. His eyes opened and he stared into Daniel’s. “She begged for mercy at the end, and I complied.” Daniel felt a cloud of darkness descending over him. He could not breathe. “Unfortunately, the Dyrisian did not last long under the skillful questioning of my men. But she was near death even before they started.” Croft’s eyes bore into Daniels. Daniel’s knees buckled and he sank into the pool. Except it wasn’t glowing green as before; it was an opaque black. The black water lapped at his chest. “And now, being the merciful man I am, I will free you from your guilt for abandoning your friends—your friends who risked so much for you and yet you ran away and left them behind for me to deal with.” Croft gave a curt nod to his cohort of robed men. The lighted tips of the fifteen wands surrounding the pool changed from bluish-white to red as the men chanted in unison the terrible incantation. Daniel screamed in horror as the pain of the spells ripped through his body, jolting him back to reality. He jerked upright, gasping for air. He gripped the sheets of his bed and scanned the dark, searching for Croft and his men. Slowly, his breathing calmed and his eyes focused on the nightstand near the head of his bed, then on the tall dresser in the corner, then on the high-backed leather chair in front of the fireplace. He recognized his bedroom at Brynhelen, the castle of the Guardian. He had found Alexandra here; she was safe. But not the others, Bree and Alea. The nightmare was right about them. They were not safe. They were at Durnakk, Aedan’s fortress, and subject to the will of Croft, one of Aedan’s generals. Daniel pushed back the feather duvet, swung his feet over the side of the bed, and planted them firmly on the floor. On trembling legs he walked toward the square of light on the far side of the room. Bluish light from a full moon shone through the window, causing the sheer white curtains to glow with a similar hue. Daniel stared down at the darkened grounds of the Guardian’s fortress. Nothing moved below. The light of the full moon illuminated the lush grounds of Byrnhelen. The wide, expansive lawn and perfectly pruned hedges and trees radiated peaceful stillness. Daniel shook his head as though to clear his mind of the remaining vestiges of his nightmare. The dream was over, but his feelings of fear and guilt remained. He clinched his teeth. I have to get out of here. I have to find a way back to Durdakk. I must free my friends before it is too late. Bree, Alea, and Jonas . . . they are all counting on me. They made my escape possible; now I must do the same for them. Steely resolve replaced fear. Come what may, whatever it took, he would not rest until his friends were safe. it.