Byrday, 3 Drannym, 1007 KR
That night, Ceph closed the bar early, kicked the patrons out, poured himself a drink. The crow watched him, head cocked, as he made his way to his bed.
The sheets needed cleaning; they were browning from sweat. He hadn’t been sleeping well.
The crow could feel it. Could hear the uncanny sounds of a low, soft voice, speaking indistinguishable words that are at once calming and terrifying. The sounds were far away, indistinct, as if they didn’t quite belong.
The Dreaming came as Ceph dozed off. The crow saw it. Saw the creature appear, straddling Ceph as he tossed and turned, a hideous hag, a woman with a drawn and gaunt face, rotted teeth, wild hair, wilder eyes.
A nocnista. A bringer of nightmare. She held Ceph down with clawed hands, feeding off his fear.
The Dreamscape wasn’t a kind place to him.
A large doorway in the darkness. A sign declaring it Larilla’s School of Reclamation.
Teenage students sit in rows of old desks. A teacher, a youthful man of about thirty, stands at the front of the class by a slate board and a desk. Windows look out onto the streets of Theore City.
“Can anyone tell me about the Twelve Day War?” the teacher asks.
No one in the class responds.
“Anyone? Anything at all?”
“‘Twas the bloody elves did it, weren’t it?” one boy shouts out.
“Can you be more specific, Morrit?”
“The bad ‘uns, Master Carver.”
The teacher snorts. “The elves of Enlanuin, the kingdom to the north. But not all of them—a general called Tholandar Ilterquess acted without orders. Does anyone know why?”
In the back row where Master Carver is looking, Ceph slouches in his seat, staring at the floor. He is pale, unhealthy.
But he ignores the teacher.
A dorm room. Ceph sits on one of two beds, staring out a window. A few items of clothing and a book are strewn about one half of the room—the other half lies empty.
An empty bottle that reeks of alcohol lies on the floor.
The door opens. “Ceph?” says a woman. She’s older, with steely hair wrapped in a tight bun. A film of hair sits conspicuously on her upper lip.
Ceph doesn’t respond.
“Master Farns, I am addressing you.”
Ceph looks at her. “Matron,” he says.
“We’ve accepted a new pupil. He is moving into this room with you.” She steps aside to let a boy enter the room.
He’s about Ceph’s age, maybe fourteen. Short, thin, and shy, he holds one arm with the other in front of his body. He’s looking at the floor, then glances up at Ceph—and his eyes are caught there.
“Ceph, this is Rye. Make him comfortable. And clean up this mess!” The woman bends to pick up the empty bottle, sniffs it, and scowls. “I’m keeping an eye on you, Ceph.”
She turns and leaves.
Silence reigns over the room for a moment, then Rye says a timid, “Hi.”
Ceph turns to look out the window again.
Ceph and Rye sit in the back row of the classroom, stifling giggles. It’s a couple years later. Rye looks more confident, Ceph much healthier.
“The Quiet War,” Master Carver says, standing at the front of the class. “Anyone? Come on, people, this is current, this is important. Angor? No? Rye, is something funny about Angor?”
“No, Master Carver,” Rye says, trying to calm down.
Ceph covers his mouth with his hand, and glances at Rye. Rye and Master Carver are looking at each other—then, Master Carver sighs.
“Can anyone tell me about the Quiet War?” He sits in the chair at the front desk—and the chair collapses.
The whole class bursts into laughter as Master Carver falls to the floor, Ceph and Rye loudest of them all.
In the midst of his laughter, Rye begins to cough. He doesn’t stop. Ceph calms down after a moment, looking at Rye, as Master Carver stands and nurses his rear.
“Rye, you okay?”
Rye gasps for breath as he is seized by a fit of coughs. Blood spatters on the desk.
Rye lies in his bed, his skin almost as white as the bed sheets, sweat beading on his forehead. He looks gaunt, frail. He shivers constantly. Ceph sits in a chair beside Rye’s bed.
A cough racks Rye’s body, and Ceph clutches his thin hand.
“I got a message from the priests of Nioth,” Ceph says. “They don’t know what’s wrong…”
Rye tries to say something, but another fit of coughing hits him. He looks up at Ceph, and whispers something.
Ceph leans closer. “What?”
Ceph shakes his head. “She tried getting a potion, but you know it didn’t help last—”
Rye puts his hand over Ceph’s mouth. “A ring,” he whispers. “She has a ring from when I came here. I was always told—” He stops, catches his breath. “—it was magic. Protective.” He can’t go on, and his hand drops to the bed, exhausted from the effort of holding it up.
Ceph nods. “I’ll get it. I’ll find Matron.” He stands to go, then looks at Rye. “Just—don’t go anywhere.”
Rye manages a smile, and Ceph leaves.
Then, the half-elven woman Lona is in the room. Tattoos over her face and arms in twisting, vine-like patterns, in the style of the dark elves of the Thron Sea. She watches, but doesn’t move.
The crow is there. They watch each other.
Lona drops a ring on the ground.
The crow picks it up. Places the ring in Rye’s hand, which closes reflexively around it. Rye coughs once, then forces his eyes open to look at the bird.
They are clear. There is an understanding there. He nods, and closes his eyes again; his body settles back into the sheets, and he becomes completely still.
There is no more rattle in his throat, no more ragged breathing. No breath at all.
The door opens, and Ceph runs in. “Rye, I found it—”
He sinks to his knees beside the bed, and grabs Rye’s hand.
Everything fades to blackness.
Ceph woke with a start, staring into the eyes of the hooded crow, standing at the foot of his bed. “Damn bird,” he muttered.