Noah's last dream
Noah’s dream changed a little each time he had it – twisting from something sad and somber into what he wanted it to be. The first time he had that dream it was something minor – the priest was wearing a brilliant red tie instead of the boring grey one he actually wore as they prepared to lower his father into the ground. Then he kept himself from crying the next time. Next the entire procession was held outside – in a meadow his father had loved to take them to. Then there were four bodies: Noah’s two sisters and the mother he never knew, all being laid to rest at the same time next to his father: a morbid, twisted version of the funeral that never happened. In a way, he was fond of this dream – it was his eternal funeral for the family that had been torn from him.
Tonight, his imagination had taken him to a slightly altered version. He stood once again in the meadow that always seemed to be the apology that almost made up for his loss. The pyres were there, but Noah found himself frowning as he watched. Tonight was wrong: the sun had set already, the stars were wrong, and a thick fog crawled across a dark ground, inching forward towards the fires that were his family’s bodies. The feeling of dread crawled up the back of his throat.
This time was different. This wasn’t the sad dream that Noah had learned to love. This was a nightmare version.
Noah stood stock still, watching the pyres burn, his pride and reason refusing to let him give into the fear. After all, it was only a dream – and he refused to let a dream allow him to disrespect the burial. Let the nightmares come: he’d face them.
“They’re not here you know.” The little girls accent caught Noah off guard almost as much as her presence caught him by surprise. She stood there beside him, holding a little antique teddy bear and staring at the bonfires as they burned. Noah flinched but did not move as the thing that looked vaguely like a little girl in a pristine white nightgown walked towards the flames.
“This is nice though – that you built this for them. Come, let’s go throw ourselves in the fire!” The little girl turned to look at Noah as if to smile, but the two pits where her eyes should have been made Noah stumble away from her instead. “It’ll be warm!”
Noah gagged in revulsion, and then found himself retching on phlegm and coughing uncontrollably. Out of the corner of his eye, he could sense the girl-creature stepping towards him. Doubt swept his mind as he tried to control both his cough and the little voice in his head screaming at him to run.
And then the voice wasn’t just in his head.
The crow swept down on the little girl, its voice somehow familiar as it screamed the command before its attack. The little girl screamed now, swiping at the bird unsuccessfully. Noah stopped coughing long enough to look on in disbelief.
“_RUN_!” The crow screamed again as the little girl finally grabbed the bird out of the air. Noah caught a glimpse of black feathers being shoved into a razor toothed maw that should have been too big to fit on a little girl’s face.
Noah turned and ran.
Somehow, it didn’t surprise him at all to find that he had been standing with the treeline just a few feet from his back. He stumbled for a moment, spotting a great black stag running not far off. Years of hunting and camping told him everything he needed to know: Noah was on the path it was running on shortly after, brambles on the forest floor giving way to a game trail in short order. Noah began to outpace the screaming, gnawing thing that had chased him from the clearing just seconds before.
The stag stayed ahead of Noah, just slow enough for him to follow as he charged through the underbrush. The faintest smell of rot reached the frantic survivalist as he ran, but Noah ignored it. It wasn’t trying to eat him, and the thing behind him was.
Noah ran until he couldn’t run any further, his lungs burning dangerously as he layed in every drop of adrenaline fueled sprint he could muster. Finally, when the brush behind him was silent, he allowed himself to slow and try to catch his breath, only to start a fit of coughing again.
Thankfully, the forest around him was mercifully silent when he managed to contain his choking. The stag was gone now, the little girl still tangled mercilessly behind him in the thick underbrush. Noah turned and examined his surroundings: finally alone.
A dense forest like this was not easy to navigate at night. Noah took in the barely visible game trail he was on and considered his situation. Sullenly, he wondered why the nightmare kept going: wouldn’t this be where the nightmare should have ended?
He looked at the terrain in the darkness: a death wish for even the most seasoned survivalist. Normally, he wouldn’t have dreamed of trying to follow such a trail blindly, with only the stars to light his path. Now, with no large loping creature just ahead of him, he was hopelessly lost.
“Well, now what?” Noah said in a quiet, defeated voice. His throat hurt even as he said it.
The light appeared almost in response to Noah’s question: a flickering little thing off in the distance like a candle held by someone just off the path. With nowhere left to go, it was his best option. He set off at a quiet pace to approach the only light he could see.
The unmistakable clinking of chains met his advance, and Noah soon found the source of light: a single lit covered lantern hanging from a chain attached to a low branch. Feeling dizzy, he approached the outer ring of light, staying just outside of its reach so he could get a better look.
The lantern and the area around it stayed quiet and undisturbed, save for a gentle flickering in the cool breeze. Eventually, Noah’s cough caught up to him again and gave away his position in the trees, but no monsters jumped out from the lantern to trap him. Noah lurked for nearly ten minutes before getting the nerve required to get a closer look at the lantern.
Noah stepped into the circle of light around the tree and stopped dead as a hooded figure mirrored his movements from the other side of the circle. It too stopped at the edge.
“What do you want?” Noah’s voice came out raspy, but he kept it even as he spoke.
“What is it that you desire?” The figure’s voice replied, it’s voice even more raspy – like a bitter wind had somehow formed words.
“For this nightmare to be over?” Noah said truthfully. Some voice in the back of his head panicked a little as he actually vocalized the desire. The suspicion that this wasn’t a dream like he assumed dawned on him then, but it didn’t make any difference. “I just want to wake up.”
A long moment of silence passed before the figure responded again. “You know, I wouldn’t have led you here if it were that easy.”
Noah looked tiredly at the figure and then the lantern. Suddenly it wasn’t just a light – some instinctual memory told Noah that taking the lantern was an agreement. “You… led me here?”
“You called me,” The figure replied with it’s willowy whistle. “Again and again, with this tribute of fire and loss. Each time more elaborate. The dead cannot help but hear your call, and I cannot help but notice how lost you always sound. Perhaps together we can find the path that so eludes you.”
Noah stepped forward towards the lamp, knowing only that he was accepting this creatures bargain by taking it. Noah hesitated only a moment: but he was cold, and tired, and terrified of this place. He took the chain in his hands and yanked it roughly from the bough.
Noah retched once again, woken violently from his sleep in the freezing tent he had fallen asleep in. With surprise, he looked at pale white, frost bitten hands as the first slivers of sunrise hit his tent and began to warm him. As if in response to the sunlight, his skin began to pink up and the roughness in his throat began to soften. He stretched and stood up – a length of chain attached to the top of an unlit covered lantern falling to the ground as he did so. Noah stared at the thing dumbly.