Arlen thought that he would never get used to the whiteness of the Dream shifting into curling blue patterns of reality every time he awoke.
His head still clearing, he didn’t get up from the bed, but instead thought about the boy. The man. His name. Their names.
Johnson. It had been Johnson. He tried to remember the names of those who came before Johnson and the boy, yet all he could remember was five, before he found himself reaching into a faded memory that lingered just out of his reach.
How stupid and meaningless was it, to learn the prisoners’ names just to show that he cared, and then forget it after only a few days?
He turned his eyes toward the window, or where it used to be. A few years before, the window was accidentally opened for fresh air, and on the very same day, two soldiers marched into the room to put wooden boards and a bucketful of melted metal over the window.
Closing his eyes, he thought about the blue prints all around the room and how much he would love to simply tear them off and burn them all, one by one.
His neck seemed to ache, even outside the Dream. Almost immediately, his thought flew like an arrow toward the thought of the boy who hadn’t told his name.
The door rang with three precise knocks, and Arlen caged his face with his forearms before standing up.
“Their names.” Arlen inquired quietly, attempting to keep his body from swaying. His head spun as he trained his eyes on a long row of lifeless bodies, varying in age, and gender.
A black-clad soldier among five of them shook his head. “There is too many.”
Looking down at his bloodied hands, Arlen shivered violently in revulsion for himself. His mind screamed for him to forget what the wrinkled and old woman’s forehead had felt like. It wanted him to erase from his mind how he had stolen the glittering, aged soul from a body.
Arlen swallowed a taste of vomit. It had been a long time since he had taken the soul of so many, that it felt like his brain was being toasted slowly while he made the souls sleep. He knew that after going back up to his room, he would sleep for a very long time.
“Why are you not telling me their names?” He protested weakly. The five black soldiers all looked down at him in unison. Arlen gritted his teeth, standing up on wobbly, pained legs. “Tell me who they are. Tell me why I have to take the soul of a child, or the one of an old woman.”
A soldier’s lips twisted under the black fabric that hid a good half of his face. “We all work for her majesty, boy.”
“I know, but I have the right… a name, that’s all I’m asking for, isn’t it?”
“Rebels,” another black soldier spat, a pair of icy eyes gleaming through a mask of black fabric. “They are dirty rebels. They don’t deserve names. They corrupt peace.”
Arlen’s voice caught itself in his throat along with all his breath. “Even the boy…” His voice came out small and weak. He coughed to clear his lungs. “Even the boy?”
No answer came back. The black soldiers gestured for him to go back up the stairs. Feeling a lump in his chest, Arlen half walked and half climbed up to his room.
Rebels, dirty rebels.
The children weren’t rebels. The old woman, he wasn’t allowed to judge about, yet children didn’t know what they were doing. They needed a second chance. His body felt heavier than before. Longing for his blue bed all of a sudden, Arlen quickened his steps up the cold stairway.
In an instant after he entered his room, he slammed the door behind him and staggered toward the bed. A second later, he collapsed into the bedding. It seemed like he was being brought forward, then back, in time, everything swaying all around him.
Arlen thought about what he would say, what he would do. He would wake the boy again. He would ask his name.
Slowly, he forced himself to breathe. In, out — slowly.
His consciousness closed its eyes gently, and opened them back up.
An invisible rush of a wave swept him back. Stumbling, Arlen violently retreated from the sight of howling and crimson bloodshed.
In front of him, a twitching hand dropped onto the bloodied, muddy ground. The sky was orange with the sun’s bleeding light. A woman screamed like a dying wild animal. A baby’s screaming cry pierced the winds. Cackling of torches and collapsing wooden houses roared in the salty air. Soldiers in black slashed mindlessly and brutally at everything; wives, husbands, children, babies, dogs, elderly men and women. Heads rolled on the ground, and bodies collapsed. Throats tore. Someone screamed something that got lost in a gust of strong wind.
No, Arlen whispered hoarsely. No, stop. He had meant to go to the Dream, not a massacre such as this.
A group of ragged, battered boys were fighting back with a fire in their eyes. Arlen watched them, his feet rooted deeply to the ground. A boy with a familiar face shouted something hoarsely, his blond hair matted with gore and a tickle of blood running down the side of his face. A sword was aimed straight at his almost blue eyes.
Arlen curled into himself and yelled, his eyes sliding shut tightly. His feet stumbled over something on the ground. He landed on the ground, back-first, and blinked slowly.
Over him, the scenery was melting. The boy’s face was folding in two. A sword dripped onto the ground. A woman’s face distorted until it became a messy blob, and dropped onto the ground.
A voice rolled over the crumbling images. It was faint, like a forgotten dream.
—If I save you… die.—
With a start, Arlen scrambled back on his elbows. The low voice was unmistakably his.
—If… you… I…—
The voice was getting fainter. The boy’s melting body formed a puddle with a soldier’s head. “No!” Arlen screamed with a certain desperation that he couldn’t quite reach. “Wait! Tell me!”
A whisper of boiling air found Arlen’s neck, brushing over it. A drop of hot liquid dropped onto his face. Arlen’s mouth moved by itself. His eyes were surprisingly dry.
“Please. …ai. Don’t cry.”