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. This begging of his body was his most formidable opponent; the other was the current sucking water past him, pushing him back. His body convulsed with its need for air, but he did not yield. He refused. He defied himself. He raged in the watery silence and struggled mightily against the opposing current.
I must save her, he thought. I must do as I promised: I must return. If I die, I die knowing I did all I could.
He could see her glowing face, the reflection of light off her blond hair, and her sad eyes. 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 so 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 stalled, then slowly reversed, accelerated, and ejected Daniel forward from the lava tube’s watery enclosure into a pool surrounded by high rock walls. The water in the pool was still for a few moments before the current made a leisurely turn and began pulling him back into the lava tunnel through which he’d come. His head was barely above water, his mouth open wide to take in the life-giving air his lungs desperately craved. Splashes of salt water touched the back of his throat and sent him into a coughing spasm. He did not pause for it. He swam against the current, and soon his feet touched the rough bottom of the pool. This gave him some purchase, and with short difficult steps and awkward strokes of his arms, he made his way toward the shore. The current steadily lost its power over him.
The pool glowed an eerie green, supplying enough light for Daniel to see he was in a grotto with a high dome ceiling. He heard the sound of someone clearing his throat.
“Who’s there?” he demanded.
Instantly the light of fifteen wands appeared along the shoreline before him, each wand balancing a ball of bluish-white light at its tip. The cloaked figures holding the wands took one step forward in unison, then paused. From the center of the rank, one of the men advanced toward Daniel. The man pulled back the hood of his black robe as he approached. He was not holding a wand.
Daniel’s eyes widened as he took in the man’s shaved head, dark brown eyes, and pockmarked face. He followed the long, ugly scar that cut across the man’s right temple and down his cheek.
“Croft!” Daniel hissed.
“Of course,” the man replied casually. “Did you really think we would not meet again?”
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 down Daniel’s spine. “Back for whom,” he croaked.
Croft’s image shimmered and became unsubstantial, like a ghost. The grotto seemed to change. It too seemed less real, but only for a moment.
“Back for the girl, for Breeanna, McConnelly’s very pretty daughter—or should I say once-pretty daughter,” Croft sneered, “and for the Dyrisian, of course.”
Daniel felt paralyzing dread wash over him.
Croft chuckled. It was a harsh, brittle noise like the sound of shattered glass being ground into pavement. “If you hurt her, I swear . . .”
“Swear what?” Croft taunted. “There is nothing you can do. You are too late.”
Croft’s thick lips curled upward unevenly to form a twisted smile. He closed his eyes as though recalling a particularly pleasurable experience.
“She begged for mercy at the end, and being my kind and compassionate self, I complied.”
Daniel felt like he was being enveloped in a dense fog of poisonous gas. He struggled to breathe.
Croft droned on. “As for the Dyrisian, she did not last long under the skillful questioning of my men. But she was near death even before they started. Most unfortunate; she could have provided much-needed intelligence.”
Croft’s eyes bored into Daniel’s. Daniel backed away, retreating into the pool. The glowing green waters had turned black, and they were rising—now at his knees, then at his waist, then his chest.
Croft’s smile broadened. “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 fifteen wands changed from bluish-white to red as the men chanted the terrible incantation.
Daniel screamed in pain as the spell ripped through him. All the sounds, all the images, his entire existence came together in a dazzling ball of white light, and then . . .
He lurched upright, gasping for air while gripping the sweat-soaked sheets of his bed. He scanned the dark, searching for Croft and his men. They were not there. 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 Byrnhelen, the castle of the Guardian. He had found Alexandra here; she was safe. But not the others, not Bree or Alea or Jonas. The nightmare was right about them. They were not safe. They were at Durnakk, Lord Aedan’s fortress, and subject to his sadistic whims and those of Ennis Croft, his most ruthless general.
Daniel pushed back the feather duvet, swung his feet over the side of the bed, and planted them firmly on the cool stone floor. On trembling legs he walked to a window on the far side of the room. The window’s sheer white curtains glowed with light from a full moon hanging in the dark sky above Byrnhelen. He parted the curtains and gazed down on the lush gardens below.
Nothing moved. The expansive lawns and impeccably pruned hedges and shrubs radiated peaceful stillness in the muted light of the moon.
Daniel shook his head to clear away the last vestiges of his nightmare. The dream was over, but fear and guilt remained. He clinched his teeth.
I have to get out of here. I must find my way back to Durnakk. I must free my friends before it is too late. Bree, Alea, and Jonas . . . they are counting on me. They made my escape possible; now I must do the same for them.
Steely resolve replaced fear. He would abandon the safety of Byrnhelen and return to the life-threatening perils of Durnakk. Of this there was not—indeed had never been—any doubt.