Dream raised his head slowly, opening his eyes to take in the scenery around him. As ever, it was shrouded in the dim shadows of night, the altar illuminated silver and black in the single pool of moonlight that filled the far end of the chapel. He found himself kneeling upon a cushion before the altar itself, alone in the silent chapel. Above him was a towering window of stained glass portraying a slender woman in dark garments, the colors of the glass muted with the moonlight beyond it. The architecture was ancient, consisting of slender columns leading to flying arches high above with huge windows of stained glass set into the recesses between them. Each of those windows portrayed a period of his own past, from the first day of his realization of what he was. The moonlight gleamed through the muted hues of those windows, casting silvery images of his history across the marble floor.
He was a dreamer, one of the very nearly unique few who could walk the realm of dreams as conscious entities, not bound by the constraints of dreaming. He was a scion of Nocturna, the goddess of the night, dreams, and the first plane of hell. She was one of the daedra, gods frowned upon by the worshipers of nearly every faith of the known realms. Her ethos was the night, which many portrayed as evil, the purview of the sinister, the secretive, the honorless and dishonored. When he was young he did not understand the power that he had been born with, fearing the dark chapel and everything it meant. His family were devout followers of the Way, a faith that disdained every teaching of the Lightbringer order. They had no consideration that there were both gods of light and darkness worshiped by the Lothanasi, only the fact that they did not follow the Way.
That made them the enemy; heretics to be slain at every turn. Dream was raised into such teachings, despite that he knew he was cursed by the darkness of the Daedra and could never seek solace in the idea of a bright heaven waiting for him upon his eventual end. As the scion of a noble family, he could never voice his fears and torments to the clerics of his household. They would have considered him tainted, impure and cursed, and would have attempted to exorcise that darkness from his soul. Deep in the very core of his being he knew that such an exorcism would be death to him, and eternal damnation to a hell where there were no gods. Only darkness without hope of redemption or salvation, for all eternity. That he could walk the first hell, moving through the dreams of others as freely as a bird through the skies, did not mean that the evil had tainted his heart. He worked with great care to follow the paths as they were laid out for him by the clerics of his family's beliefs. He learned care, compassion, and honor; music, art, and dancing. All things considered to be skills of the bright, the free and followers of the true light.
Yet none of these teachings ever took the shadow realm from his dreams. They only drew him into deeper, more despondent fear that his heart would be rendered cold and lifeless by the touch of the darkness.
All the while, he sought to be the proper scion of his family, to learn all that his father would teach, holding close to his heart the secret that would forever doom him should they learn. Yet, as he learned how to care, to understand his fellow man either by witnessing their dreams or the actions of their waking moments, he had come to realize that his father did not care. Oh, he cared for Dream, his son, but he had no care beyond his own desires and ambitions. With ruthless brutality he had worked to spread the influence of his family across the upper midlands. Either through duplicity, conquest, or outright assassinations, the spread of their power across the midlands had been inexorably steady.
There came a time, not so long after Dream's birth, that his family name became a curse among the lower people. They were the ones to most often survive Handil Sutt's expansion, and they were the ones to feel the crushing weight of his bootheels upon their backs.
As a child Dream had missed the import of his father's actions, yet as he grew he found his soul torn asunder by the twin evils of his own curse, and the actions of his family. The third son in a string of five siblings, he had not been the last to be born, but was far from the primary heir of his family's rapidly growing barony. Looking into his own heart, he found that there was a goodness there despite the darkness, something which he found lacking in his brethren, who became as coldly, ruthlessly ambitious as their father.
Thus Dream had been more than willing to accept an apprenticeship far to the south and east, far from the depravity of his family name. It was there, in the distant port city of Asarn, in Pyralia on the southernmost edges of the Sathmoran Kingdoms, that he heard his first mention that the Lightbringer faith may be more than the worship of deamons. Curious, though there was great dangers so close to the boundaries of the two kingdoms, the young teen had sought a way across the border, and into a small church dedicated to the many gods of the Lightbringers.
Admitting the teachings of his past, Dream allowed himself to listen to the teachings of the three clerics of the alien faith, who called themselves Lothanasi. Immediately taken by their depiction of a benevolent group of many independent deities, Dream was drawn back time after time to hear their words, eventually casting aside the teachings of his childhood. The teachings he had received under the tutelage of his family priests had been toward intolerance and hatred toward any who were not of the Way, and a harsh stratification of the people into strict castes. Hatred was the water of their beliefs, war the bread of their ascendancy.
Dream eventually did learn that the Way was not so dark, its precepts not so depraved as he had been taught, but the inconsistencies that knowledge illuminated drove him even further from the religion he was born to. Added to that the taint upon his soul that denied him the final Peace that the faithful of the Way were granted meant that he could never be a true follower.
The Lothanasi showed him a different path, one that offered a direction, a belief and a cause to follow. For under that faith all went to one form of Hell or another, but none forever. A good soul would serve a brief time absolving the sins of their mortal existence before passing to oblivion, and thence to a realm no one knew. None would ever fear being barred from the realms of their respective gods should they follow the paths of their faiths.
It was then that Dream knew that the curse that he had hidden and denied in an attempt to banish was not a true curse. It was no blessing, certainly, for he knew then that he walked the realm of the Daedra Nocturna, one of the least of the darker gods, though her followers were considered Moranasi, or 'Shadowbringers', the diametric opposite of all Lothanasi. In despair, Dream once more sealed away that dark secret, but did not cast aside his new faith. Rather, he embraced it, secretly learning all he could of Nocturna, thence becoming her disciple.
None who taught him the light side of the faith knew of the final acceptance of his heart, though many remarked upon how his soul became lighter, his outlook far brighter.
Then she came.
In his dreams; another who could walk the darkness among the damned souls of Nocturna's realm. She assured him that she was a creature of that realm, one whose soul had passed into Nocturna's hands long, long ago, but who chose never to pass into Oblivion. Instead she served her goddess forever, watching over the damned souls and those mortals who could walk the Dream Path.
She was his true love, the one who revealed that goodness could reside forever bereft of the touch of light, yet never pass over to the side of evil. Through her he learned how to control his dreams, to communicate with souls who had passed beyond their mortal existence. He also learned how to hear the dreams of those closest to him, and act as one who could deliver omens through their dreams. She even revealed to him how he might pass words of warnings to the mortal realm, though couched in enigmatic phrases or riddles. It was never best to have one's future bluntly spelled out before them, she explained, but to let them work things out for themselves; even warnings.
Through his dreams he witnessed the final end of his family. He had watched the dreams that plagued his brethren, not stepping forward to ward away their nightmares. One by one he saw their dreams cease, their souls passing to whatever fate that their practices as mortals had doomed them to. As followers of the Way, Nocturna's realm was denied to them. For their dark deeds, even their own Heaven was denied to them.
The hell of the Ecclasia, she explained, was far worse than the Hell of the Lothanasi.
Then came the assassin, whose own dreams warned Dream of his intentions, and gave the young man many weeks to make his escape. Twenty at the time, he fled eastward, only to find the assassin doggedly keeping to his trail. For three years the two played a dangerous game of cat and mouse across the southern shores of Pyralia, north into Sathmore, even briefly in the dangerous cities of Sondeshara. Yet Dream could never truly escape the tenacious assassin.
Eventually he ended up seeking the vast expanses of the northland, where he might finally be able to ambush his attacker, who would never be able to hide in the frozen north. Trapped in the one pass that lead north through the mountains, he had been rescued by the odd residents of the vale in the middle of a bitter winter.
By spring the one he had been was gone, and the marten he had become had assumed a new name, a new life, and a new outlook on that life.
Through it all, she remained in his dreams, assuming the form of a marten herself to suit his altered dreams.
The assassin, likewise trapped, had also suffered the change, but had ceased his pursuit. What ever happened to him, Dream did not know, and forever feared that he would learn what the lad had become. Another great fear was that the Lothanasi dominated Metamor Keep might one day find out what path he followed, and banish him forever as a Moranasi, anathema to the intertwined faiths of the keep.
Yet in the three years he had been at Metamor, he had never been braced about his reclusive nature. No one had ever asked at his preference for the night, or the fact that he claimed to be of the Lightbringers, yet never attended any but the most important observances of their faith.
And she was always there.
As she was here.
He stood from the soft cushion, bowing toward the altar once, deeply, before straightening entirely and turning with a smile toward the quiet lady standing a short distance behind him. She was dressed, as always, in a simple dress of translucent black satin, her fur a similar hue of black. This eve she had chosen the form of a fox the meet his dreams, the highlights of her paws, feet, and tail in silver, as was the saddle across the bridge of her muzzle. After the curse of Metamor had changed him, forever, into a marten, she had accepted the change as well, and gone one step further. With each arrival, she seemed to have adopted another animal form.
Some, like the fox, she repeated often because she knew he liked that guise, while others she discarded at the first look of distaste warping his tapered muzzle.
"Mosha." Dream murred quietly as he stepped over and pulled her into a tight embrace, kissing the side of her muzzle warmly as his fingers dug into the fur of her lower back, dimpling the black satin. "You grace my dreams."
"As you grace my soul." She responded, their ritual greeting coming easily, yet with feeling, from the both of them. Dream held her close for several long breaths, feeling the heat of her body through fur and fabric, her soft, enigmatic scent filling his sensitive nose. "Your desire returns to you in the mortal world, my love." She observed, nuzzling his ear lightly with her long muzzle, her hands sliding down to his lower back, clasping there and holding him close.
"She returns, alive and safe, yes." Dream observed with a wry twitch of his whiskers, "Though her desire has found a new vessel."
"Ahh, yes." The vixen named Mosha rumbled quietly in his ear, "The scion of the archer."
"He follows Artela?" Dream pulled his head back to look into her eyes, which forever reminded him of the night sky; soulfully deep and glimmering with distant stars. Mosha nodded slowly, and licked his whiskers, smiling. "Joy does have a penchant for those not of her faith." He chuckled, and the vixen nodded slowly, her muzzle drawn in a happy smile. "Though it pains me that she no longer wishes to share her bed with me, I shall not despair."
"Why?" the vixen asked though she knew the answer, her voice a sultry coo, deep black eyes twinkling with mirth.
"I have you, and none can replace the dream within my heart, Love." He replied, his voice deep with the truth of his words, and kissed her; for a very long time. In no particular hurry or with no particular aim, they wandered from the massive chapel, each with an arm draped about the waist of the other.
Outside the church was a forest, though it was not the same forest he had seen the last time he had awakened within his own dreams. It never was, a fact that had for many years filled the dream walker with a great sense of fear and dread. Now the changed trees, these being of a hugely-limbed southern variety, were always intriguing to him. He paid them little attention, though, instead enjoying the night time walk with his love, the mate of is soul, if not his mortal flesh.
"Do you still love her?" Mosha asked at length, turning her head slightly to watch him from one star filled eye. Dream did not have to ponder his answer long, not turning to catch her eye.
"Yes, though it is the love of an intimate friend, dear one, which was what it had always been."
Mosha chuckled, snuggling a little closer as she walked at his side, her lush vulpine tail curving around to rest against his backside below the length of his thinner tail. "You know none you do not have some love for, do you?"
"Why hold hatred close to the heart?" He asked quietly, digging the short claws of his hand into the satin clad fur of her off side.
"Why, indeed." She responded with a soft, light chuckle, shaking her head slowly with some amazement. For his past and the family that had borne him, he was a remarkable soul. He no longer even woke in his dreams armed, which he had done for many years. It had taken her years to reveal that none could harm him in Nocturna's realm, not even the other daedra.
"Though no, Love, I do not hold all within my heart with love, I merely discard hatred for them." The marten explained, lifting a low hanging branch out of their path. He did not see the souls within the forest around him. Those were either dreamers not realizing that they were dreaming, or souls serving the penance for their mortal sins. Nocturna's was the least of all the Hells, reserved for those whose sins were minor, and would pass to better places in short order.
As the gods saw things, which meant that even the least of those souls could spend centuries or millennia serving to absolve themselves.
"Of the archer's scion?"
"Murikeer?" Dream asked, the corner of his muzzle drawn back as he pondered her question, "He's a bit rustic." He chuckled, for his training was quite a bit more worldly, in many ways, than the skunks, even if he was a mage. "But a good soul in the end, he tries to do things rightly."
"He steals away the mortal you desire?"
Dream had to laugh at that, "No, my love, I believe he was the one stolen, though he does not know it yet. Joy has strong appetites, and chooses her own."
"That she does." Mosha smiled, giggling lightly to herself. The mink had proven herself an apt tutor for the young Dream when she first took him into her charms two years past. Though Mosha could only witness her dreams, she knew the mink to be very strong of will, desires, and body. She would have made an ideal mate for the marten, had her charms not gone to another. Mosha frowned at that, but could do little to alter it that would not cause Dream strife.
Mosha was pondering the fate of her mortal lover when he suddenly came to an abrupt halt, his ears pricked up curiously. An otter had just fled across the pathway before them, tears streaking her muzzle and her body wracked with waves of pain. Drawing down his brows, Dream turned to follow, Mosha following though she knew better.
"You know this one?" she asked.
Dream shook his head, "Not well, though I have seen her about. She is the patrol master's mate." He parted the branches that the otter had smashed through unheeding, coming into a clearing shortly after the dreaming otter. "The fox." He clarified, his statement dying away at the sight he encountered in the clearing.
He had walked the dream realm for many, many years, witnessing the events that many others had gone through in their dreams. Some things never came easy for him, though he had grown somewhat inured to many events, even the most horrifying of nightmares. Yet one thing always caught his heart, due to his childhood teachings, and even the further teachings of the Lothanasi. Death.
Death, for followers of the Way, seemed to be a resigned thing, but feared. Among the Lothanasi it was a natural progression through the growth of a soul, but even then, death was feared. Not for what death was, but for the dying.
So when he found the otter collapsed in a bawling heap over a coffin, his steps were brought to a stop, his heart lurching sympathetically. She had lost someone, recently, through a very traumatic incident. Even as she wailed apologies, wondering why she yet lived and the other had not, her words echoed unheard and unspoken by her mortal voice. The otter lurched back drunkenly, heedless of the fox and marten quietly watching from the edge of the clearing, as the lid of the heavy wooden coffin jumped as if struck from within. The otter squeaked and quailed with each dull thud against the inside of the coffin, then the lid broke free to fall heavily to the leaf strewn earth.
A hand grasped the edge of the casket, the bones showing through shredded flesh, as the occupant of the coffin laboriously dragged itself into a sitting position. The creature had once been a rodent of some sort, a squirrel or groundhog, but its flesh was so badly mangled it looked more like a collection of white twigs than a body. The rents in its flesh had a clean look to them, made by weapons rather than decay, and many of its bones had a translucence that made Dream believe they may have not been recovered at all. He grimaced, turning his head away from the grisly sight.
"You left me." The rodent accused, pointing a shredded finger in the otter's direction, which wrenched a chilling wail from her and made Dream wince anew. The waves of pain that radiated around the otter suddenly flared, dark ripples in the fabric of her dream as if her mortal body was writhing. Dream's face was drawn in a sympathetic wince, his head hung low.
"She lost her companion." Mosha said quietly, leaning close, her own vision cast down. "And blames herself."
"I was captured!" The female otter wailed, tears streaking her broad muzzle, "I could not find you!"
"You left me to die!" The rodent shrilled brokenly. The otter fell to her knees, dropping her muzzle into her hands as she wept freely. Dream noticed another fox across the clearing from them, his body seeming solid within the wavering pain of the otters dream. Her hero, a manifestation within her dream of her mate, something for her to focus on. His solidity revealed that he was with her in the waking world, or at least very, very close to her heart.
Yet in this one he could get no closer than the edge of the forest, one hand thrust outward, livid scars tracing along his palm and forearm. The clearing wavered, fading, becoming a circle of stones lit by fitful, flickering torches of grey light. The otter was still upon her knees, wailing into her hands, her champion barred by the doors of the stone cell they all found themselves within. Dream's brows furrowed as he glanced around the chamber, then to the door, which was swung open. A handful of burly Lutins strutted in, removing the rancid rags that passed for their clothing as they advanced upon the terrified otter.
"This is too much." Dream said thickly around the bitter taste of bile in his throat. He found his flute suddenly in his hand, brandished tightly as if it were a weapon. In a way it was, for it could banish the deamons of nightmares far better than any illusory sword. Mosha rolled her eyes and let out a short sigh.
"You know she does not like it when you do that." The vixen murred, putting her arms around him from behind, not moving to block his actions. The 'she' that the vixen spoke of was their mutual goddess, Nocturna, whose purview was also nightmares. Grimly, Dream brought his flute to his lips and blew.
The first notes escaped crystal clear and light despite the harsh breath he sent across the opening, sending a rakish bent across the otter's dreams as the sleeper caught the discordant sound. The Lutins wavered, though their advance was unabated. Hands rose into the air, crashing down with hammering blows upon the otter, whose nightmare suddenly sprang into focus.
Dream's fingers moved swiftly upon the glimmering silver, the only source of true color in the dark hues of Nocturna's realm. The notes that he coaxed forth were light and soothing, a gentle waltz that filled the dingy cell with sound, causing the Lutin's blows to lessen, their actions slowing as they flung aside the last of their foul garments. Moving upon her, their actions became sluggish and unfocused, then ceased altogether.
The cell wavered and faded, replaced once again by the dark night forest, the pale moon hanging quietly overhead as the otter's champion moved to her side. Though Dream could only witness dreams in the stark hues of Nocturna's realm, he knew that color had once more returned to the otter's dreams, the fox lifting her into his arms and holding her close.
"How long can you keep her nightmares at bay, Love?" Mosha asked, her chin resting lightly upon his shoulder, breasts pressed gently against his upper back as she embraced him with a caring warmth similar to the other fox's.
"As long as necessary for the peace of a tormented soul." He responded quietly, the music drifting briefly away, then returning as he resumed his serenade.