1

I came to the shores of Aqua Magna once in my life – back when I had a life. And a tribe, friends, and love. I was there to scout a trade route. Coming from the mountains, I had never seen so much water before. Even though the shoreline was rocky and desolate, it still looked like the most amazing – and in some ways, terrifying – thing I had ever seen. Since then, I have seen my people wiped out, my planet shattered, and a thousand other things that would make most people’s nightmares look like idle daydreams. But I had never seen anything quite like what I was seeing now.

Annona, all crimson, fiery brilliance of it, was in agony. Spears of rock had suddenly erupted from the ground and pierced the energy being, and it writhed in pain. How mere rock could affect someone so powerful, I didn’t know. But it might have had something to do with who it was fighting. The golden being didn’t have a name, at least not one I knew, but I had learned a great deal about him in the last few moments as he watched his enemy fading. He was made from other beings, species whose names I had never heard before. Kept referring to himself as “we” and “us”, which was kind of creepy. But his argument with Annona was easy to see.

“The dreams of my people give me life,” said the golden being, “and in return, I make their dreams real. And they dream of your death, Annona.”

“I know all this,” Annona replied. “Why do you think I sought you out, creature? Dreams are my meat and drink. With them, I am power. Without them, I am nothing.”

The golden being shrugged and turned away. His followers – warriors who had been fighting empty images conjured up by Annona – followed. Evidently Annona was too busy dying to be able to keep his illusions up.

“It makes little difference to me what you are,” said the golden being dismissively, “as long as you are dead.”

For just a moment, I felt satisfaction. The creature that had destroyed my tribe was going to die, and if it wasn’t by my hand, it still felt like justice had been done. I should have known better.

All around the golden being, his warriors began to collapse. Some sank to their knees, some babbling insanely, others drew their weapons and started advancing on their leader. Taken off-guard, I guess the golden being’s power weakened. Annona wrenched himself free of the spikes, a peal of laughter coming from its core.

“I have always preferred to eat my meals slowly,” it said. “I have never before tried consuming all the latent dream energy in beings all at once. But I see the result is the same: madness. Now, my friend, I believe the topic at hand was imminent death?”

The golden being actually looked scared. I didn’t like that at all. Behind him, his fortress was starting to waver and blur. Worse, there were…things appearing in the windows, others slithering or crawling across the landscape.

“You imbecile!” the golden being cried. “You don’t understand. I bring dreams to life, even the dreams of the mad. Do you realize what that means?”

I did. All of a sudden it was like going for a walk through the head of my pal Telluris. The ground was buckling, the fortress was melting, and as for the warriors…I don’t get sick easily, but the dreams of the deranged are pretty horrible things.

Annona was growing brighter. I doubted it ever had so much energy inside it at once. As if it wasn’t dangerous enough before, it looked about ready to incinerate anyone who got too close. I wanted to run back to the ocean and swim across the planet, but I knew there was no place on this world that was safe. A few of the warriors reacted to Annona’s approach by raising their weapons and charging. It was the last bad decision of their lives. The fortress was completely gone now. The horizon was full of gibbering things, some practically formless, some with forms you could still see even when you closed your eyes. The golden being was retreating back toward them, but he was off-balance and rattled. It was going to be over in a matter of minutes.

That’s when Telluris broke. He bolted out of our hiding place, screaming and waving a branch he had picked up from the beach. He headed right for Annona. If this were a tale, Metus or I would have risked our lives to try and stop him. But it’s not a tale – not that kind, anyway – and neither one of us was going to die for Telluris. He wasn’t worth it. I’m not sure anyone is. I’ll give him credit, he got within striking distance of Annona, but that was all he got. He died in mid-scream. It was a stupid, reckless, idiotic way to go, and I was about to repeat it – but I didn’t plan on dying today. Then again, there’s an old saying: “If you want to make the Great Beings laugh, tell them your plans.” I was banking on the golden being having the power to take out Annona if he got the chance to use it. That meant getting my enemy off his back for a few moments. I thought I saw a way to do that. The only things the golden being had created that were still intact were those rock spikes. I didn’t know why they had been able to hurt Annona – maybe someone dreamt they could – but they had. They were about to hurt him again.

“Come on,” I said to Metus, “we need to break off one of those spikes.”

“Are you crazy?” he predictably answered. “I’m not going out there.”

I put a firm hand on his shoulder. “Do you remember when you were a snake?” I asked. “Remember how that felt?”

“Sure,” said Metus.

“Well I can make you feel a lot worse, and I don’t need a magic sword to do it,” I growled. “Now come on.”

Together we made a run for it, dodging crazed warriors and hoping Annona was too drunk with power to notice us. We made it to the nest of spikes all right, but then cheerful old Metus pointed out a little problem.

“They’re solid rock!” he said. “What are we supposed to use to break them?”

I was tempted to suggest that we use his head. Instead, I noticed one of the spikes had been weakened when Annona wrestled itself free. With Metus’ help, I snapped it off. It wasn’t a very long weapon, but the pointy end was intact and that was all I cared about.

“You stay here,” I told Metus. “If I fail, try to break off another piece and try yourself. What am I saying? You’re going to run as soon as my back is turned. Alright, if I die, don’t tell anyone how. I don’t want people thinking I was quite this insane and idiotic in my final moments.”

I hefted the spike and I ran. As I got closer to Annona, I realized I had to close my eyes or be blinded, so I did. As soon as the heat became unbearable, I knew I was a close as I dared get. I reared back and threw the spike as hard as I could.

I heard a sizzle. Then I heard a scream. You know, a scream can be a delightful sound, if the right person is doing it. I stumbled backwards until I couldn’t feel the heat anymore. I took a chance and opened one eye. Annona had stopped moving forward. The rock spike was buried where one of its energy tentacles joined its main body. It was positioned just right, so that its tentacle couldn’t reach to pull it out. It wasn’t a fatal blow, far from it – but it had slowed him down.

That was when I saw the golden being. He was looking right at me. Somehow, I could hear what he was saying, even from so far away. Then I knew what I had to do. Both of those powerful entities thrived on dreams. Annona fed off the kind you have at night, good or bad. The golden being took the ones you had in your heart or the darkest parts of your soul – the aspirations, hopes, wishes – and made them real. There were a hundred ways he could attack Annona, but only one that would really hurt. I closed my eyes again. I dreamed a dream. And in my dream, no one on Spherus Magna, no one on any world anywhere near, could dream or wish or hope. I dreamed that there were no more dreams.

I opened my eyes again and I felt it, the emptiness, the void left behind when dreaming stops. This was how my tribe had felt just before they died. But this time the energy had not gone into Annona, it had not gone anywhere. It had just ceased to be. The golden being had made the last dream real.

I saw him falter. I saw Annona flare up. Suddenly it knew that even if it won today, there would be no more meals. It would be trapped on Spherus Magna as its inhabitants went mad and died, but it would starve long before the last Agori perished. I expected Annona to rage and scream. Instead, it just hovered in the air and spoke directly to the golden being.

“You did this,” it said. “Why?”

“Perhaps because monsters belong in dreams, rather than dreams in monsters,” the golden being replied. “Or perhaps… I just want you dead.”

There was a long silence. Then Annona said, “A deal.”

“What sort of deal?”

“A dream… of another world filled with other beings where I can live and feed. Your empire will be safe, and I will be sated.”

The golden being pondered the offer for a while, and then said, “Agreed.”

I started to protest, and then something made me stop. I realized that I could have dreamed Annona out of existence before, but didn’t. Maybe because somehow I knew it wouldn’t work. If the golden being could have eliminated Annona that easily, he would have done so. Yet here was a second chance to do the job, and do it with some style.

“Sahmad will dream the dream,” the golden being said.

“No!” Annona answered. “I do not agree!”

“I have given my word to you,” the golden being said. “Sahmad will not dare to violate that.”

He was right – I had no need to violate it. I was going to give Annona just what he asked for. I closed my eyes. I imagined a lush, green world, a paradise. I imagined Annona there free to feed to its heart’s content. And I imagined a population for it to feed off of, each and every one of them a being just like Annona. They would feed off each other and within a year, not one would be left.

I opened my eyes and looked at Annona as it faded away. “Got you,” I said.

When he was gone, the golden being approached me. “You could have dreamed me out of existence as well. I am surprised you did not.”

I looked him up and down. He was a weird one, and probably too clever by half, but for right now…

“You’re not my problem,” I said. “That thing was and now it’s not. So we go our separate ways.”

“For now,” the golden being said. “After you give the world back the gift of dreaming.”

“And give you back your power,” I said. “Alright, done.”

“You will hear from me again, you know,” the golden being said. “I will not be content to stay on this spit of land forever.”

“Let me know when you and your army are coming,” I answered. “Maybe I’ll join up.”

I could have had him make me a boat, but I decided to walk. Annona was as good as dead, and there was a lot going on in Bara Magna worth seeing these days – not that I would be welcome to any part of it. Metus either, wherever he had run off to. But that was all right. If I was right, they were going to have more trouble than they knew how to handle pretty soon, and I’d enjoy watching their misery.

As for me, I was heading north to the mountains. There were people I lost a long time ago that I could finally say goodbye to. After that… well, that will be another tale entirely.

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