The Soldier ---&RPaward

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The Soldier ---&RPaward

Post by Vaen » Tue Dec 27, 2022 10:40 pm

Template to use when awarding stories/ other entries:

Ely edit 28 Dec 2022

1-6 qps, depending on length and quality: x

Potential +1 qp: if part of a series: o

Total: 7 qps


The Man crouched on the low hill, surveying the scene before him. The patrol of Shienaran Lancers did not see him where he waited, but, more importantly, they did not see the pack of twisted ones led by a neverborn where they waited in ambush in a copse of trees parallel to their eventual path.

He had been tracking this raiding party for days, curious by their movement and actions. They had displayed a subtlety that he had not seen in two lifetimes of fighting Shadowspawn and drawn his curiosity. The neverborn in particular seemed unusually cunning and calculating for a creature that often displayed the former, but rarely the latter.

Preoccupied with these thoughts, he almost missed it. It was subtle, but it was there. As the wind kicked up, one of the several faceless and nameless soldiers, with their two legs and top knots, glanced up and paused. The Man’s brows raised slightly above golden eyes as he very distinctly, from over a distance of hundred yards, saw the Soldier’s nostrils flare as he glanced around, obviously confused.

The Soldier’s hands reached for his sword and his vision shifted upwind. He saw it.

We have watched you Dream, Little Dreamer.

We have seen through your eyes as you've hunted. You've stalked your prey and, even if for just a moment, thought you could smell their fear and uncertainty in the wind. In the Dream, you hunted too. But the price of the Hunt, both in the seen and unseen world, comes due if you do not Remember. You must Remember. When you have Remembered, seek us out.

The Soldier stared at the note before committing the words to memory and throwing it into the fire. Peering into the flame for proof of the ashes -- a figment of his imagination should not produce any -- the Soldier's mind summoned a memory from years ago. An Aielman had arrived just outside the walls of Fal Dara, where the Soldier had been patrolling before spotting his campfire. Just one man with fiery red hair. When the Soldier ordered his patrol to stay behind and approached the man, the Aielman glanced up and wearily related he was dangerous but meant no harm. He also warned that he could not guarantee no harm might come to the Soldier if he kept approaching. Despite himself, the Soldier sat down next to the traveler and looked him in the eyes.

He looked bone tired, the look of a man fighting on two fronts, inside and out. He was stopping to rest on his way up to the Blight. When the Soldier asked him why he was going there, a gentle smile played across the man’s face and, finally, a small glint of something strange – some sort of madness – shone through his calm exterior.

“To spit in the Dark One’s eyes, of course.”

I don't know why I am bothering to reply. We haven't met. I think I don't know who else to tell and, if this is all just a dream in my fracturing mind, then I guess it’s the least amount of harm to talk to myself.

I am just a soldier. I was raised to do my duty. To die with a sword in my hand defending the world from Shadowspawn. But the dreams. The dreams are haunting me. There is something more. You called me a "dreamer." Maybe that's why I am writing. The dreams are growing stronger. They are changing. I am changing.

For example, I told my commanding officer I was headed to Andor on a diplomatic mission. I didn't really know why I was leaving.

That's not true.

Your message pulled on a thread. That's why I left. I had never left my post before. Never shirked my responsibilities.
Peace! It was the first time I had left the fight behind to focus on myself.

As I traveled, I found a riverbank to rest by. There was a passageway there, to a glade. I rested there and my mind went back to the Dreams.

They are not like the dreams of my childhood, no armor, no swords, no glory. I fell asleep in that glade. And I dreamt there as I never had before.

I was...something else. I saw something and everything in my mind screamed for me to wake up, turn around, and run. I smelled death like an abattoir.

And then I awoke – or thought I did. But the stars did not look right. A man. He was carving a piece of wood, in the shape of a cactus common in the deserts I had visited as a child. He told me I was within his dreams now, whatever that meant. He warned me that something was beginning. That I might go mad. He told me I would change. That I would experience new things. And then I awoke. I was back on the riverbank. Everything was normal, but nothing was the same.

I left this note to sit for some time. Time to think. I remember what the carving man said to me.

The Man was there, but not there. He slipped in and out of the Dream, traveling towards a destination, until he arrived.

“Is it done?”

The other man paused his carving and glanced up, eyes gleaming in the setting sun. “Now, really, not even a hello, old friend?”

The Man grinned. “I left the picnic basket behind, but I promise next time we will sit down for a meal. I think we both still owe Jorran a drink.” He paused, grin fading. “But things are moving quickly now. Are you sure about what you saw and who is meant to stand up against it?”

The carving man stood up and dusted wood shavings off himself. “I am sure of very little, but it does seem like the seals are weakened and Heartfang was able to re-weave the Butcher.” He shifted slightly, pocketing the strange shape he had been carving. “And it seems like your Little Dreamer was the first to see him in several Turns. I managed to move him out of the Dream, but you know what this means.”

The Man nodded. He did not like it, but sometimes this is how it was written. He could go himself to dispatch the Butcher, but the Hunt had greater stakes now.

We dreamed with you, Little Dreamer.

The carving man saved you, but the Hunt has already begun. There are two paths in front of you: Might or Madness. I know you are feeling the madness now, like little eddies of light floating at the edge of your consciousness. Your movements and thoughts seem arbitrary and difficult to manage, but listen: you must not give up. You must finish the Hunt. There is a way back yet.

The Soldier’s journey was almost complete. He had tracked the abomination deep into the ruins of what was once Malkier. Based on a dream and words on parchment that may or may not exist. But still, the tracks did not lie. The trail of death and destruction was too much for him to have imagined. The bodies rent apart and half consumed in ways that he hoped[ he was not capable of simply conjuring from the depth of his mind.

He steadied his breathing, gripped the hilt of his sword and trudged forward.

After I wrote to you, I wasn't sure the Dreams were real. They felt real. But I wasn't sure. I wasn't sure your letters were real, either. The Dreams felt more real than real life. Patrolling the border, fighting the trollocs. Life or death balanced on the edge of a blade. That used to feel real, used to make me feel alive. Now I am distracted. Thinking there might be something else. Something more. Like the Dreams. Like the pack. I feel like there is somewhere else I belong. I swore an oath to the King, to serve until I died. Is that old me dead now? I do not feel like the me who swore that oath. Did I die on the riverbank?

The Man looked on, unseen. He felt a small pang of sympathy, but there were some roads you could not walk for somebody else. He watched as the Soldier stumbled away, dazed, bloody, and confused. The Man briefly wondered if the Soldier realized he was slipping in and out of the Dream as he trudged on in his confusion.

When I sleep, I dream. I feel like I am dead, but more alive than ever. That feels real. It must be real. I think you are real, that these letters are real. But when I wake up I worry I am mad. Can a man be…not-a-man? A man cannot be an animal. Am I going mad?

I went to Deception Pass. I there. I went to their Keep. I swear I could smell it, the Butcher. I knew its scent from the Dream by the riverbank. I slew it because it had to be done. I thought about sinking my teeth into its neck and ripping out its throat. I have never thought about that in my life. Never wanted to bite or tear at something, to taste its blood. I wanted to then. I struggled for control, in their keep I could have been lost. But I wasn't. I am still a man.

I took his head. Proof of vengeance. For those who fell trying to take him before. I would die to protect them, but I was too late. I don't know why I feel that way, but I do. Is this what going mad is?

The Man was not alone. As he observed, others joined. As much as they wanted to join the Hunt, they were all acutely aware that the Wheel sometimes demanded an order of things. If a thread was severed to never be rewoven, well, then that was the course of things.

Little Dreamer -

The Dreams are a question of when not if. You witnessed the past in the previous Dream, there is a chance you witnessed the future this time. But the future's not set in stone.

The old you is not dead, but dying. You feel it now; as you said, you are dancing on the edge of the blade, but a different one. You feel both the pull of madness and solitude and the promise of might and kinship, two different outcomes of the very same path. You are fortunate to be of this Age, where the old times walk and there are more of us who find ourselves. Not all turns of the Wheel guarantee anything but lonesome madness.

In your confusion, you thought the start was the end. You must continue the Hunt. The only way to tip the balance towards might and away from madness is to prove your worth. For each prey downed, you will gain clarity until you are finally ready. Seek us out and provide us with trophies of your hunt and we will help you find some clarity through the fog for each trophy. I would say you will get through this, but there are no guarantees where you now tread. Fail the Hunt and the madness will remain and spread.

The Soldier wondered why his feet were carrying him in one direction when every fragment of his being wanted to head in the other. This was happening more and more often. It was hard to focus on The Hunt, but it was no longer a choice, it was either that or an eternity of this.

Thank you. Burn you.

You give me hope where there might not be a silhouette of light. Some days there is clarity and I simply feel alone and I do not know what it is I am. Neither a dreamer nor a man. Not a soldier, but still born to hunt. Other days, I simply lose and wake up elsewhere. I see now I am going mad, but I do not have to BE mad. That is the choice before me. I do not feel like myself, because I am no longer myself. I am becoming.

I met with a strange man alone in the woods. Or, I thought he was alone. Now I see he is not alone, because I am sure he also sees what I see. He has the pack surrounding him, eyes gleaming in the trees just out of the periphery.

I Dream of my own pack. Of chasing prey in the woods. Of snow falling in forests and the scent of a rabbit. Of biting the hamstring of a Twisted One so that my sister may bite out its throat as it fell.

The Soldier started awake and looked at the letter he had stopped writing. He shook off the dream he had been having and continued to write.
I have never heard the term "Twisted Ones" before. I do not know how I know it. They are trollocs. Trollocs. That's the word I have used for them my whole life. But now I think of them as the Twisted Ones. I am not going mad. I am not. I can’t be. This isn’t how it happens.

But the Hunt…there’s the Hunt. The one point of steady light. I will chase that light until I find it or the last embrace of the mother has welcomed me home. I am going mad. I am an animal. I am a man. I am not dead but I am dying to be reborn. I –

The Man frowned. This will be a close one, he thought ruefully. He looked at the Soldier, who stood before him, but not seeing. He is speaking but does not know it…he does not see us anymore. The Soldier only saw the Hunt.

I was born to do this. Born to hunt. I’ve waged war before. I blew the horns and stood in formation. Followed the tactics of the generals. But now I hunt. Tooth and claw. Eschewing tactics for the old ways of pack against prey or predator. I want to chase the light.
The Man found the note somewhere it did not belong, but he knew exactly where it would be. This was a good sign.
There is more. Was this who I was before? In a past Age? Did I run with wolves then, find a home in the pack? I am not animal. But I am not a man. I am something different. Something old, you said. I am coming to believe you. Things are becoming clearer. The lines are blurring into focus. It's like I was blind but never knew. I am learning to see.
The Soldier swung his blade. Body and mind superimposing into one entity once again. Clarity. Clarity at last.
Am I awake now, or am I going deeper into the Dream?

I am not mad. I am a man, but I am also not a man. The Hunt has saved me, but has shown me my purpose. The Wheel has set me on a path that is greater than serving a Lord or country, but also simpler. I would find a pack and find my place within it. I have lived the life of a man, and I have Dreamt the life of a wolf. Both were real. Now I look to what comes next.

I am not mad, I am seeing something that has always been there.

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, an age where old things walk, a wind rose in an unknown valley nestled within a well-known mountain range. The wind traveled through the valley and to a clearing, where it shook the leaves of evergreen trees, causing the snow to gently drift down and blow in all directions around two figures. The Man knew it was time.

Across the clearing, the Former Soldier finally opened his eyes.