Chapter One: TempestThey told us we would be back by the summer solstice.
The snow is driving on.
It blinds us, divides us, chilling us to the bone through armour and uniform, taking its toll on the weak and the injured. We've lost more to the cold than we have to the enemy. They are stirring the storm, the Nightmares, and they are breaking our ranks one by one. Just a week ago we stared as the snow cleared for the briefest of seconds, and we saw the last of the forward rank alive and fighting, struggling through the snow… but our hope was ripped to shreds, as we saw a Nightmare reach him. It was a huge creature, skittering upon hundreds and hundreds of legs, two claws like a mantis curled and ready to strike.
And it did.
Even the veterans hid their eyes as a claw ran the soldier through, kicking and screaming weakly as he was lifted into white oblivion. The creature held him close to its many eyes, his terrified, bloodied face reflecting in the empty blackness. It seemed almost curious of him, tipping its head to the side like a confused child as the young man went limp in its grasp. He had given up his hopeless struggle, whimpering as he waited for the end.
The Nightmare creature held up a crab-like pincer, curling it around the soldier’s head, one pointed barb at each temple.
I looked away.
There was no scream, on that day - nothing but the silence of the snow and the soft, sickening crunch of a skull. From then, we dreaded the day the Nightmares would notice our presence - we were the next rank. We were the next dead. Fifth Division, the Blue Wings Battalion, part of the North Wall defenders, all due to die within the week. And today, seven days since the last attack, it looks like luck is shining on us. It’s only the cold that’s killing us now-
A shout rings through my headset, deafening me with its urgency. I turn, fiddling with the volume dial as I do so, towards the voice I know well - a fellow soldier of my battalion, who is pointing out into the white wastes. There is a blackness on the surface, swirling and coalescing with the powdery snow, taking form into the canine Nightmares we knew far too well.
The snow is driving on.
I catch the eye of one Nightmare by mistake, and a jolt of terror rushes through me, visions of death and blood and ice and claws and scars and horrible, horrible things-
One howls, and they start the chase.
Terror turns to panic, and panic turns to desperation. I shout above the clanking of armour, the crack of warboots upon ice, and we ready ourselves. I drop the visor on my helmet as I take up my blade - if I'm going to die, I'm going to die bathed in the smoke of the Nightmares I kill first.
“Ready, soldiers! If we’re gonna’ leave this Second Earth, we’re gonna’ do it fighting!” I yell, and a cheer passes along the fortification - half with defiance, half with dread. We’re crouched behind a simple wall of planks - bits and pieces cobbled together from scattered debris - creaking and shifting from the weight of the blizzard. It wouldn't hold for long.
And then there is a silence. The wind drops. The snowflakes fall to join their brethren upon the floor.
One young soldier begins to stand - Private Michaels, I think - and I signal him to stop, to sit, to wait. He barely looks thirteen, and is shaking in his boots. I never really got to talk to him much: he was a quiet boy, but he had real potential. Sad, really. I place a gloved finger to my lips, ensuring the quiet: as if it will prolong our survival. It won’t. We’ve all seen these Nightmares, we’ve all seen the Hunt, we’ve all seen them tear apart our comrades - what’s the point of fighting back? What’s the point of trying to survive this?
Behind the wall I defend, there is a person waiting for me - a real, flesh and blood person, a Dreamer - my Dreamer. He imagined me on the day of his sixth birthday, and for twelve years since, I have been fighting to protect him. It is my duty as an Imaginary, to defend my Dreamer at any cost, even if it means I fade away to nothing. It is my purpose, to ensure his safety, even if he stops believing in me. I may become invisible to him, but I have a loyalty to him - something unbreaking and infallible. If I die, he becomes vulnerable. If he dies? I no longer exist.
So I fight on.
A long, drawn-out creak breaks me from my thoughts, and my whole battalion tenses in unison. Some nervously adjust their hold on their blades, and others load magazines into their guns with a soft and terminal click. The final few, unarmed from the forward struggle, lower their visors, tears of dread glittering through the glass. I hear breathing directly above my head. An animal pant.
Slowly, I raise my head, looking through my now orange-tinted world to what is to come.
My nightmare stares back at me.
“Captain!” comes that yell again, and the Nightmare is blasted off its feet by a gunshot - it scrambles to its paws and runs back to its pack, shadowy tail between its legs. I salute the gun’s owner quickly, looking up to see a panicked Michaels, hand shaking with either cold or adrenaline. It was a miracle he shot so accurately, but I had no reason to complain. My battalion stands, turning to escape our hiding place, lining up before it to meet our foes head-on. Unarmed behind, gunners second row, swords first row. We spread out to cover more space, to fulfill some strange thought that the bigger we appeared, the more fearful our foes would be of us.
But they feel no fear. We’re the frightened ones.
The Nightmare pack advances, claws crunching into the snow, growling and snarling at their newest prey - us. Their Alpha leads them, a massive, hulking beast, far taller than its brethren. Its eyes are locked on me, I just know it: the Nightmares seem to know the ranks. My gold-trim jacket makes me an easy target.
In the blink of an eye, they are upon us. Left and right I see my fellow soldiers fighting back, a flurry of slashes and gunfire and claws as the endless charge continues. The Alpha Nightmare is holding back, watching intently as I fight off two, three of its kin, the black death-smoke choking me as it rises into the air.
There is an opening, and it lunges.
I jump back as it tries to reach me, serrated teeth just grazing my clothes, and I lash out with the hilt of my blade - maybe, just maybe, it will wound it.
I catch it, somehow, on its head, and it staggers back for just a moment.
It surges forward again, clamping its teeth around me, shaking its maw and tearing at imagined flesh - toying. It knows I'm not gone yet. The pain, the pain of it makes me cry out, drop my weapons, struggle in its grip, but I will never beg. All of a sudden, it stops shaking me, and through agony’s tears, I think it will grant me one last reprieve.
But it rears its great head back, and throws me away like a ragdoll. In the air, I see my battalion falling, dying, just able to see the flickering, paper-like light rising into the sky. I count the colours, some pale pastel, some bright and bold, but all heralding demise.
All but one. And then I see it.
Private Michaels is limping to the top, shooting down Nightmare after Nightmare, his quickly-blurring face locked in a determination to survive. The black smoke is still swirling around him, obscuring the outer reaches of the battle, but he is fighting, and his potential is finally shining through-
I hit the ground, a hundred feet away, beside the next rank’s defense. A couple of soldiers rush out to meet me, haul me to my feet, and carry me back, and I turn.
The last colour is rising into the sky. A bright, aquamarine blue, full of defiance and sharpness and light, following the last of its brethren colours.
And as my sight fades from me, tendrils of the Nightmare crawling up from my stomach to my chest to my neck, I want to scream, and cry, and do all the things I could never have done as a Battalion leader.
But the blackness consumes me, and I am lost.