A Two-Edged Sword

Chapter One


It required all his skill to avoid the branches as his horse galloped through the ruins of the once-burned forest. Relentlessly the muffled hoofbeats of the Morvir followed -- he mustn't let them catch him. He leapt a fallen, vine-covered tree and turned his mount to the left. New saplings whipped his horse's flanks as he charged ahead.

Unfortunately the dead, ivy-shrouded trees offered little concealment while still impeding his progress. He could not imagine how the Morvir had managed to conceal themselves here.

He risked a glance behind, catching a brief glimpse of ebon-armored riders racing past on the trail he had just left. They wouldn't be misled long, he was certain.

He circled back to the east, toward Quarin. If he could but reach the limits of the forest he would be within sight of the city's walls. Surely they would not pursue him past that point.... Horn-blasts from behind told him that his pursuers had discovered their error. He leapt another fallen tree, desperately seeking a path through the jumbled ruins of the forest. The chase had already driven him far from familiar areas of the woods.

Ahead, however, a small ridge rose from the forest floor. It seemed clearer than the surrounding terrain and ran in the desired direction. They would undoubtedly realize that he had followed it, but it might take him far enough before they found it.

The warhorse stretched into a full gallop along the ridge, foam coating her golden flanks. The horse wouldn't last much longer -- he hoped she would last long enough.

It was not the horse, however, that betrayed him. As he topped a small rise he saw, with horror, that the ridge ended in an abrupt drop to the forest floor. Without thought he threw himself from the saddle -- his only chance.

The breath burst from his lungs as he struck the stony ground of the ridge. He tumbled several yards before falling down a steep slope. Desperately, he attempted to slow his plunge down the side of the ridge.

He came to rest amid a shower of gravel. The screams of the wounded horse told him that she had not fared as well in the fall as he. If that didn't bring the Morvir, nothing would. He had to kill the horse and escape before they followed her screams to him. Surely, he must not be too far from Quarin.

He pulled himself to his feet, using the steep, earthen wall of the ridge for support. For a moment the world spun about him. He took a few deep breaths and allowed his senses to settle back into place.

He looked up quickly when the horse's screams came to an abrupt end. One Morva stood by the dead animal, wiping his sword with a cloth. The young warrior doubted that the Morva had slain the horse out of mercy. More likely, the screaming had irritated him.

Five others sat astride their mounts. The breath caught in his throat -- he wasn't ready to die.

Grimly, he clenched his jaw, regathering his courage. He would die well. He owed Erelvar that much, at least. Slowly he drew his sword and retrieved his shield from the ground. He doubted that he would be given the opportunity to use either.

Then again, perhaps he would. With some surprise he watched as the other five Morvir dismounted. Their steeds, superbly trained, stood where the reins had been dropped as if hitched there. The six men approached him, slowly and cautiously as he placed his back against the ridge.

They stopped in a half-circle well beyond sword reach. For a moment they merely observed him, silently.

"Will you surrender to us?", one of them finally asked. So...they wanted him alive.

"To Morvir?", he said. "Hah! I might as well fall on my sword."

Two of them stepped forward. He blocked a powerful side-swing with his shield as he used his sword to deflect a thrust aimed for his throat.

They gave him little chance for attack. The opponent on his shield side maintained a rapid, battering barrage of blows that threatened to numb his arm, while his sword was kept busy defending against his second opponent. Eventually one of them would penetrate his guard if he could not gain the initiative.

His sword-side opponent seemed to prefer the thrust. Very well, he could work with that. His other opponent had already settled into a monotonous, bludgeoning rhythm. Now if he could just match the other to that....

Slowly, he maneuvered his opponent into the rhythm; thrust, parry, return -- thrust, parry, return. Once satisfied that he had lured him into the trap, the young warrior allowed the point of his sword to drop, ever so slightly.

As he had hoped, his opponent was skilled enough to notice the slight falter in his defense. The Morva replied with a vicious thrust to the side, but was met with more speed and strength than he expected. The momentum of the thrust embedded the Morva's sword deep in the earthen cliff.

The warrior thrust into the gap beneath the Morva's arm. The light chain protecting that weak spot gave easily to the strong, Delvan blade. His other opponent landed another heavy blow on his shield, still locked into the fatal rhythm.

He absorbed the blow with his shield high, but, instead of allowing the shield to be driven in as he had before, he slammed it down and to the side, catching the Morva in the midriff. The Morva's sword glanced from his helm, most of its force spent.

He pulled the blade from the armpit of his first opponent and spun quickly to the left, thrusting his sword through the Morva's visor. He felt the blade bite into bone before his second opponent fell.

He continued the spin, barely bringing his shield around in time to catch the blow aimed at him by yet a third of the Morvir, stepping in to fill the vacancy he had just created. He heard the remaining Morvir laughing.

They appreciated skill, or perhaps the laughter was merely derision for their former colleagues' clumsiness. He didn't care which, only that he now had two fresh opponents to face.

He swung low, at the legs of his newest opponent, exhausting the last of the momentum from his spin. It was blocked easily. Once again he found himself trapped between two enemies.

These were more cautious, refusing to fall into rhythm. He had gotten lucky with the first two -- his new opponents were not going to allow that.

So he would simply have to make his own luck. With all his strength, he threw himself against the next blow that landed on his shield. His less than conventional tactic had the desired result, the Morva ended up flat on his back.

He didn't take the time to dispatch his downed opponent, however. Instead he broke from the cliffside, running for the ground-tethered horses. He could hear the other Morvir pursuing him. Whatever lead he had gained from surprise was likely to be lost when he reached the horses.

He hurled his shield directly behind him and was rewarded with some unintelligible Morvan curse and the sound of crashing armor. The others were after him as well, but his lead was too great. With ease that would have made Erelvar proud, he vaulted the leanest horse's back to land smoothly in the saddle.

His feet instinctively found the stirrups as his hands gathered up the reins. Viciously, he kicked the horse in the ribs, eager to be away from the approaching Morvir.

The beast squealed in anger and bit at him, refusing to move. Shocked by this unexpected development, he kicked again. The horse snorted, derisively it seemed, as strong hands grabbed him by the elbows.

He struggled in vain as the Morvir hauled him from the saddle. He began to curse as they pinned him to the ground and brutally removed his helmet. The words died in his throat....

Before him, filling his field of vision, a horse's shank ended in a cloven hoof. A thin wisp of smoke curled up where the hoof touched the ground.

"Greetings, Master Wilkinson," a dry, rasping voice said.

"What do you want of me, Belevairn?" He knew who that voice belonged to. Already he could visualize the mummified, skull-like face and the burning eyes that hid behind the jewelled demon-mask. He would rather face an army of the Morvir than the undead monster that sat before him on its demon-steed.

"As if you did not know," came the chuckling reply. "Bind him."

The Morvir hastened to obey. Soon he was firmly bound to stakes driven into the forest floor, stripped of his armor and clothing. He watched, horrified, as the Dread Lord filled a small, brazen bowl with various leaves, powders and oils. This he placed near Wilkinson's head. With a snap of desiccated fingers the contents of the bowl burst into flame. The thick, sweet smoke from the bowl enveloped Wilkinson's face.

The surviving Morvir left, taking up position about the small clearing. It seemed that they were more than happy to have nothing to do with the proceedings.

Runes were drawn in paint on Wilkinson's chest and forehead. He shuddered at the touch of Belevairn's oil-covered fingers. The smoke from the brazier seemed to sap his will and he found himself unable to offer the slightest resistance.

Apparently satisfied that the preparations had been completed, the undead sorceror knelt behind him and briefly placed his hands on either side of Wilkinson's face. He leaned over, locking his gaze with the young warrior's.

Wilkinson could not look away. The red, burning eyes held his like a bird's helplessly locked in the gaze of a viper. He was vaguely aware of a black, polished dagger in the monster's hand, but the eyes seemed to fill his vision completely.

A guttural chant weaved through his drugged mind as the burning eyes expanded to fill yet more of his vision. Suddenly, he was aware of a burning in his chest as the red orbs engulfed him, drawing him into a twisted and evil presence. He began to scream in horror....

* * *

A cold December wind blew across the darkened campus. Steve stared up at the Life Sciences building momentarily. He hoped Frank knew what he was talking about -- this dream research thing still sounded hokey to him. Still, he needed the money, and, with Dead Week just a few days away, and finals right after that, he didn't need the hassles of a full-time job.

He slammed the door shut on his Firebird -- the chief cause of his current financial problems. Perhaps he should just let the bank come and take the damned thing away....

He hurried toward the building, anxious to get out of the cold wind. The normally busy campus was deathly silent. Stark shadows lurked at the corners of the building. He quickly stepped inside.

The glass door closed behind him, sealing out the cold. With a shiver he removed his gloves to let his fingers thaw in the warmer air.

He glanced up the darkened halls. Only the lights at the entrance were lit, casting the rest of the building into half-lit gloom. Where had those stairs been? They had actually been easier to find earlier, when the building was full of students.

He found them again, though, and soon was on the second floor. Doctor Engelman had told him that they were going to set up in room two-oh-three. That turned out to be easier to find than the stairs, however -- it was the only room on the second floor that was lit.

"You're early," Doctor Engelman said, approvingly, as Steve walked into the lab.

"Yeah. I wanted to make sure I got here on time."

"My assistants aren't here yet. If you like, though, I can go ahead and get you hooked up."

"Sure. Here are your forms."

"Hm? Oh, yes." Doctor Engelman took the forms from him and glanced through them. Steve still couldn't get over how young the professor was. When he had first come to sign up for the project he had expected some distinguished-looking, old scientist.

Instead Doctor Engelman was almost young enough to be a student himself. In fact the professor had only received his doctorate last year.

He wore his light brown hair at the same just-below-collar length that Steve did. His build was only moderately heavier than Steve's own slight frame and his blue eyes still had a youthful spark in them. If someone had seen the two of them drinking in the campus bar together they might have mistaken them for brothers.

"You've had nothing to drink for the last five hours now, correct?" Doctor Engelman asked, as if reading Steve's mind.

"That's right," Steve lied. In truth, he hadn't drank for a little over four hours; it was easy to lose track of time around Frank. However, half an hour shouldn't make much difference.

"If you'll step over here please," Doctor Engelman said.

"Sure," Steve replied. The professor led him over to three cots and instructed him to lie down. Steve watched as Doctor Engelman prepared a small array of test instruments.

There was an electrocardiograph to monitor his heart, an electroencephalograph to record his brain activity and a REM counter to track his eye movements. Doctor Engelman explained the function and purpose of each as he attached them to Steve's person.

"Comfortable?" he finally asked.

"Oh, sure," Steve replied. "I always sleep wired up like a Christmas tree."

"Well, this ought to help," Doctor Engelman said, smiling as he inspected a syringe.

"What's that?"

"Just a little something to help you sleep and make you dream. Didn't you read the forms?"

"Yes. They didn't say anything about shots, though. I thought you were going to give me some pills to take."

"I'm afraid not. It doesn't bother you, does it?"

"No...of course not," Steve replied.

"Good."

Steve winced a little as the needle penetrated his arm. At least the medicine didn't burn.

"All done," the professor said, laying the empty syringe on the tray. "You'll start to feel a little drowsy. Don't fight it, just relax and you'll be asleep before you know it. You'll probably have some very vivid dreams."

"Okay."

"Well, looks like I've got another one to prep," Doctor Engelman said as another student walked into the lab. "I'll be back to check on you in a few minutes."

Steve nodded. The injection was already making him drowsy. Sleepily, he watched as the professor and his recently arrived assistant wired up another victim. He didn't remain awake long enough to see the end of the preparation.

The professor glanced over at Steve once subject two was prepped; he was already asleep. Doctor Engelman frowned -- the drug should not have worked quite that quickly.

He stepped over to the instruments. Everything appeared normal; pulse, respiration, brain activity. Oh well, most students kept themselves in a state of near-exhaustion this close to Dead Week. Maybe he'd just been tired.

His third and final subject arrived. He left Steve in order to attend to the new arrival. He'd check back again when he was finished.

By the time he returned Steve was already in REM. He glanced at his watch. It had only been half an hour since he'd administered the injection. The subject should not be in REM for some time yet. He scribbled a note on his clipboard prior to leaving for the observation room.

"Well, Mister Wilkinson," he said softly, "you're full of surprises tonight, aren't you?" The sleeping student gave no response.

* * *

"Where are we?" Susan demanded.

"We're...uh -- I don't know," Steve replied. Susan snorted, disgustedly. Great. He'd been trying to get her to go out with him all semester and, now that he'd finally succeeded, something like this had to happen.

The funny thing was, he couldn't quite remember how they'd gotten here -- wherever 'here' was. There were no signs to tell him the way back to familiar territory. There didn't seem to be any houses either.

"Are you sure you're really lost?" Susan asked, suspiciously.

Steve felt his face flush. Before he could answer, his headlights illuminated something on the road ahead of him. The figure quickly resolved into a man on horseback. Salvation!

"Maybe we can get directions," Steve suggested, desperately. He stopped the car and rolled down the window. Ahead, the horse began to canter toward them, it's eyes eerily reflecting the glow from the headlights.

The lights finally illuminated the man's face. However, it was no man. Empty eye sockets glared out at them from a death's head covered with taut skin stretched into a permanent leer. Susan screamed beside him -- the horse began to gallop.

Steve threw the gearshift into reverse and pushed the gas pedal to the floor. The roar of the engine and the squeal of tires did not quite drown out the sound of Susan's screams.

The Firebird roared backwards down the narrow country road. The galloping horse followed, sparks flying from its hooves as they struck the pavement. Ever so slowly, the Firebird left the nightmarish rider behind.

Steve didn't see the bend in the road behind them until much too late. The car flew backwards over the narrow ditch beside the road and flipped as the rear-end struck the ground. Steve, too, began to scream.

* * *

He awoke lying on the ground. At some point he must have been thrown from the tumbling vehicle. By the light of the burning wreck he could see Susan lying face-down on the ground. Of the rider, there was no sign.

He crawled over to where Susan lay, unmoving. The flickering firelight cast odd shadows over her. God, he hoped she was all right.

"Susan," he said, weakly. "Susan, are you okay?" He gently rolled her over. Green, cat-like eyes gleamed up at him from a face hidden entirely in shadow. Steve's breath caught in his throat.

"Who is the Dreamer?" a husky, feminine voice asked. "Which way shall his Sword strike?"

Steve leapt back, away from what he had thought to be Susan. She rose gracefully, cloaked in shadow despite the flickering glare of the burning car behind her. She held out a darkened hand to him. He screamed and fled into the woods behind him. Her laughter seemed to follow him forever....

* * *

Steve had no idea how far he had run. He leaned against the rough bark of a large tree, gasping for breath. The silver moonlight filtering through the branches above lent a dreamlike quality to the forest.

This whole experience had been like a bad dream; a nightmare. Perhaps he would wake up and -- he blinked in surprise at the thought. Perhaps he would wake up and Doctor Engelman would tell him that the experiment was over, that he could go home now.

He slid to a sitting position. He leaned back against the tree, sighing in relief. It was just a dream -- nothing more.

He glanced up, suddenly. Had someone called him? There it was again. A...call. But he had heard nothing. Slowly, he stood, his back pressed against the tree. Maybe it was her. He shuddered.

"Just a dream," he told himself, "just a dream."

* * *

The other two subjects had not yet entered REM sleep. Doctor Engelman sat down by the monitors for subject number one again. He took a sip from his coffee and glanced at the EEG monitor.

What he saw made no sense at all. He glanced over at the REM counter. It was still dutifully recording Wilkinson's sleeping eye movements. The EEG, however, showed what appeared to be a conscious brain wave pattern. A glance through the observation window into the sleep room verified the presence of the rapid eye movements. Perhaps the device was broken?

He sat the coffee down and examined the printout. The transition point was about a minute back on the tape. The alpha, beta, delta and theta waves had changed from REM proportions to a conscious pattern within one second. One second! Meanwhile the REM counter continued to report eye movements. The cardiac and respiratory monitors also reported data consistent with REM sleep. Only the EEG claimed otherwise.

"Mary," he said.

"Yes, Doctor?"

"Help me hook number one up to another EEG. This one may have gone bad on us."

"Yes Doctor." As she walked away to get another monitor Doctor Engelman absently scratched his chin. He hoped they hadn't lost several hours worth of data here. If these readings were accurate, however, subject number one was proving to be very interesting.

* * *

Steve stood against the tree, listening. He heard it again -- a muffled sound similar to a horse snorting. Had the rider returned? The small night sounds of the forest abruptly died away. In the sudden silence he could hear the sound of leaves crunching from somewhere behind him.

He decided that he didn't want to know what it was, dream or not. Cautiously, he stole from his hiding place to the shelter of another tree. A twig cracked loudly underfoot and he froze into immobility.

The sounds of movement behind him stopped as well. Steve could imagine the ghostly rider casting about for another sound, waiting for Steve to reveal his position. After a brief silence the sounds behind him began again. Steve released his held breath as quietly as possible and made his way to another tree.

A small game trail wound past the other side of the tree, disappearing into the thick forest ahead and behind. Steve debated following it. The rider might assume that Steve had taken it and pursue him. However, Steve could move much more quickly and quietly on the trail.

He stepped onto the packed dirt of the narrow trail. Which way should he go? Left seemed a better direction, although he wasn't certain why. He began a silent, slow-paced trot down the trail.

The trail gradually widened as he followed it until there was almost enough space for two people to walk side by side. Or one horse. Again, Steve questioned the wisdom of following this trail.

He had almost decided to leave the trail for the greater cover of the forest when he saw the shack. Ahead, in a small clearing, stood an old, dilapidated house. In the moonlight the house looked as white as it had probably once truly been. An old, decaying barn in even worse repair stood behind the house.

Should he try to hide here? Or, perhaps he should hide in the barn? No, there was something about the house that suggested safety. Besides, it was probably safer than the crumbling barn.

He ran quickly across the small clearing to the wooden front porch. Cautiously, he climbed the rotting steps. The front door stood wide, inviting him to enter. He stepped into the house. The room seemed empty, filled only with decaying furniture. With one last look out at the clearing to insure that he had not been seen, he closed the door.

The old-style deadbolt lock still worked, thank God. He breathed a sigh of relief and turned to survey the room again. A fireplace sat on the back wall, by an open doorway. Something long and slender leaned against the wall by the fireplace. It almost looked like a rifle.

He walked over and picked up the object. It was a shotgun -- twelve-gauge pump like the one his father owned. Steve ran his hand along the blue, steel barrel. It felt slightly oily.

A quick glance in the breach showed that it was loaded. What was it doing here? Perhaps it was here because he wanted it to be. He glanced at the stock, near the butt. In the moonlight he saw his father's initials etched into the wood. The hair at the nape of his neck prickled. Just a dream....

Steve glanced over to the black doorway. Perhaps he should check to see if there was a back door and if it was locked, too. He slowly approached the doorway.

The blackness of it was absolute. No stray beam of moonlight penetrated into it. It seemed colder near the door, too, but it was not really a physical coldness. If a door were back there, open, he would see it from here.

He found he could not turn away from the door. Some yearning, some...fascination seemed to hold him there. Some...thing wanted him to enter its lair.

Frightened, he took a step back, leveling the shotgun toward the door. After a few more steps he found he could finally turn away.

"Just a dream," he whispered. If the clearing were empty, though, he would leave. The house no longer seemed the haven it had before. He turned toward the front door.

Green, cat-like eyes watched him from the darkness in the corner of the room. Steve gasped, aiming the shotgun at the eyes.

She rose from the rotting chair she had been sitting in. As before, he could see nothing of her but her eyes.

"I...I'll shoot," he stammered.

"What is the power of the Dreamer?" she asked, stepping forward, lithely. Her voice lured him towards her even as he tried to step away.

He pulled the trigger. The shotgun roared and kicked against his shoulder, forcing him back a step. Her hair blew, as if in a gust of wind, and the window behind her exploded outward in a shower of shot and glass.

The front door crashed open. Framed in the silvery portal was the rider, now afoot, his empty gaze aimed at Steve. They both advanced toward him.

Again he pulled the trigger. The blast drove the rider backwards, out the door.

"Which way shall his sword strike?" the woman asked, taking another step forward. Her outstretched hand caressed his bicep.

With a cry of horror he turned and leapt through the doorway that had terrified him so earlier. Darkness and cold engulfed him as he realized there was no floor beneath him. He screamed as he began the long fall into the bottomless abyss.

* * *

Doctor Engelman glanced sharply at the EEG. All four lines on the paper record had just gone to zero magnitude. His eyes widened in surprise.

The second EEG showed the same impossible data. Subject number one showed no brain activity whatsoever. Heartbeat and respiration were still present, albeit reduced; REM had stopped. Brain activity should be present if the heart and lungs were still working.

Two EEG's weren't likely to simultaneously fail in this manner, however. For some reason, subject one had become comatose.

"Mary!" he said.

"Yes, Doctor?"

"Call an ambulance!" he shouted as he ran into the sleep room.

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