I could feel her getting closer. She wasn’t seriously hunting me yet, but it was only a matter of time. At least, I assumed she wasn’t giving it her all to catch me. Her path had touched mine briefly weeks ago when I wasn’t being as careful as I should’ve been. That little bit of sloppiness had smartened me right the fuck up, and I was now moving around the dream world with a level of carefulness that bordered on highly paranoid. Given my mental state, that could’ve been worrisome, but I knew without a doubt that it would also keep me alive.
I expected somebody to be sent for me when I started to slip, but not someone of her calibre. I knew who Phaedra was by reputation, and I was flattered and horrified that the Shal-hazal Council felt I was dangerous enough to have her set on my tail. There was only one person better at Litch hunting than Phaedra, and if Litch Hunter Sunki had been sent after me, I was sure I’d already be dead.
Yes, I was the Litch Will of my House, making me one of the thirteen most powerful Litches around. Yes, I had forty-three sanctioned kills to my record. Yes, I’d been on active duty longer than any Litch in recent history. I really didn’t think that warranted sending someone like her after me though. I wasn’t that far gone. Yet. I was still in control of myself. The voices hadn’t won and taken me over. I could still let one of them use my body for brief periods of time without fearing I wouldn’t be able to wrest it back.
All Litches knew the names of the Litch Hunters. We also knew who were fresh off the training grounds and who’d been out in the fields doing their jobs. Phaedra was very, very good. She’d been trained by Litch Hunter Sunki, and that was both a very deep honour and something reserved for the best of the best. Litch Hunter Sunki personally picked the Shal-hazal Warriors she trained, and to her credit, none of the Litch Hunters she’d trained had ever been killed by the Litches they hunted, a record no other trainer could boast.
The only reason I could realistically come up with for having Phaedra set on me was that I’d pissed off somebody on the Council. For the life of me though, I couldn’t think of a single person that I’d offended to that level on the Council. My duties as Litch Will for my House and my seat on the Council had been suspended at the same time that the death order had been slapped on my head.
Thank all the gods above and below that my walking disaster of a sha-ter’bil, my half-brother through our shared father, Moswen, had caught me up in brawl the afternoon before we were to go to the Council for the regular monthly meeting. Fighting was commonplace on Awh’an and nobody cared much who fought whom or where it happened. Half the time, a crowd formed and cheered on the people who were fighting even if they had no idea who the fighters were or why they were fighting. Awh’anise simply loved a good fight whether they were watching it or participating in it. Fights are a good time for all.
Except when the fight sends you through a plate glass window and into a bakery. Every single piece of pastry, cake, pie and cookie ended up getting smashed, crushed, stomped into the floor and eventually involved in a food fight with a good dozen and a half other people. I smiled at the memory of grinding Moswen’s face into a four-tiered cake and stuffing a cream-filled pastry down his pants.
That little bit of fun had landed me and Moswen in jail for several hours for destruction of personal property to the tune of several thousands of dollars. Our nebil, Femi, the Warrior Will of our House, came and bailed our asses out while chewing us new holes for our stupidity. I let her do it because it would’ve been so much worse if my sho, the Healer Will of our House, had shown up.
But my sho was already at the Council meeting, and Femi had been running late when we managed to get hold of her just as she was heading out the door. It was the same Council meeting where my death sentence was handed down. The meeting where the Council planned to hold me instead of having to chase my ass down in order to kill me. Neither my sho nor my nebil were supposed to warn me and if it ever got out that they had, they’d be facing some serious discipline. But when I got the message on my comm that simply said ‘Run!’, I ran.
While I wasn’t thrilled with having to shell out that much money in fines and bail for something that wasn’t my fault in any way, Moswen’s utterly screwed up karma had saved my ass by getting me tossed into jail. His karma kept Moswen from going to that meeting, too, and he’d helped me get off Awh’an and to have a head start on Phaedra. If the Council ever found out he’d taken me to another world through dreams when he knew I had a death sentence on my head, they’d flay his striped ass. He’d taken a huge risk to help me escape, but we were family, and family stuck together, no matter what.
I was starting to go crazy and the Shal-hazal Healers that monitored the Litches mental health noticed and reported my deterioration months ago. No further contracts came my way once that little bit of information made the rounds. Instability was eating at my brain. I knew it, but there was nothing I could do to stop it. Just the fact that I had made it all the way to the ripe old age of twenty-eight was a testament to my mental strength. That strength was finally failing me now, and I was pissed off, frustrated and depressed that things had reached the point where they were now.
I closed my eyes, and my mind drifted despite my best efforts to stay focused. Tiredness pulled my mind into sleep between one breath and the next. I slipped through the dream world unnoticed by everyone. The exception to that would be Phaedra, of course, but I didn’t get the sense of her anywhere near me at the moment. She would be able to read my passage when she eventually found my tracks, and I had no doubt that she would be able to find them given time. I had no destination as I walked the dream world, but I was still trying to erase my presence as much as possible. There was no point in my running from her if I wasn’t going to take the steps necessary to stay at least a few leaps ahead of her.
**Run faster. She’ll catch you and kill you. **
**Stop and face her. You can take her. **
**Steal another’s mind, and you’ll have enough power to kill her. **
**Beg for your life. You didn’t choose this. **
I forced myself from the dream world, my eyes snapped open, and a growl was on my lips. The voices were stronger in the dream world, and there was only so much of that chatter that I could take without feeling like my grip on sanity was slipping away faster than it already was. To make matters even worse, the voices that taunted me were all in different languages creating a racket that made me want to stick knives in my ears to make it just stop - not that it would help since the voices were inside my head and not something I was hearing through my ears.
They were real and not a product of my mind. They were all that was left of the people I’d killed in my duties as a Shal-hazal Litch. They weren’t echoes or memories that tormented me either. As a Litch, I absorbed the actual minds of my targets into mine. I was privy to every single scrap of knowledge and memory they had. They remained aware and retained their personalities, too. They knew their bodies were dead, who I was and what I’d done to land them where they were. To say that they were unhappy with me and their current state of non-corporal being was an understatement of epic size.
The occasional whispers I heard when I first started working as a Litch became constant murmurs and eventually the regular tones of voices I now heard when I was in the dream world. In a few more months, I was sure they’d be screaming at me in the dream world, demanding I do what they wanted. Soon I’d hear them loud and clear in the waking world, too. From there, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I’d start listening to the voices, my resistance worn down from the constant battering of dozens of people all wanting control of my body.
Nothing good ever came of listening to the desires of those voices either. I wasn’t randomly sent out to suck away the minds of the average person. That was a waste of my abilities. Because a Litch had a limited amount of time before going insane, we were only sent to retrieve the top officials and leaders. So, I currently shared head space with some of the most despicable, slimy, evil, psychotic, sociopathic, tyrannical, megalomaniacs I’d ever had the displeasure to meet. My fondest wish was to be rid of the voices. I’d happily do my job as a Litch if there was a way to get rid of the person from my mind once the information I’d been sent to get was taken.
My head felt heavy with fatigue and my thoughts sluggish. Despite the tiny slide into sleep earlier, I wasn’t rested. It’d been weeks since I’d gotten a complete night’s rest. A few hours here and there were not enough, and my senses were becoming dulled. The Litch Hunter would find me through my own sloppiness and madness. Phaedra had almost ten years of experience on me. I had desperation on my side, but eventually, not even that would be enough to escape her. I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want to be driven insane either, but that was already in the works, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
I slumped into the captain’s chair and rubbed a hand over my face. I could feel the self-pity welling up and simply lacked the energy to batten it back down. Life just seemed so fucking unfair. I was of the Bloodline. For all their rarity in the general population of Awh’anise, Shal-hazal were plentiful in my extended family. There were currently six of us out of twenty-seven immediate family and that was a virtually unheard of number. Hell, there were even two Vi’deshron in my family tree and those were even rarer than a Shal-hazal. There were families that went for hundreds of years without a Shal-hazal being born. Some have never had one.
My family tended towards either the Healer class or Spirit class with a Warrior thrown in every now and again to add variety. When I’d been born with the Neksha on the back of my neck, there’d been hopes that I’d be a Warrior since my nebil, Femi, was the only one that’d been born in my extended family in almost a two hundred years. When I was old enough to understand the meaning of the mark I carried, I’d been excited to be able to follow in the footsteps of my sho and nebil.
I passed my novice training with flying colours, scoring the highest in my conclave the last five years. I studied hard and earned all kinds of praise from my teachers. I drove myself to excel at hand-to-hand combat, sure that I was going to be revealed to be a Warrior class Shal-hazal. I remember feeling excited and nervous about the fast and Dream-Walking encounter with the Fire Snakes to find out for sure what I was destined to become. What did I turn out to be?
A Litch. A gods damned Litch.
I was the only Litch in my family and the first Litch in my conclave in almost two hundred years. I know I was the only Litch to last over ten years in active service. And now, that service was done. Killing an insane Litch is the only way to deal with us. Despite all the efforts of Shal-hazal Healers and Awh’anise doctors, no one had been able to figure out how to prevent or cure our insanity. The obvious answer was to get rid of the voices in our heads, but we’d yet to work out how to do that without dying or going crazy even faster. The voices didn’t want to die either, so they did whatever was necessary to keep the Litch host alive until the time that they could take over the body and subdue the Litch’s mind.
I sighed heavily, my pity party moving into full swing.
Phaedra was letting me run. I’d be easier to take down if I was tired and harried. I knew that, but I ran anyway. I could boost myself temporarily by sucking up someone’s mind and be able to find and kill the Litch Hunter before she even knew what hit her, but that would speed up my approaching insanity and death. There was also the chance that I wouldn’t get to Phaedra before she realized what I’d done. The extra power was time sensitive, and if she found me after it was over….
It would also be a random killing, and I wasn’t that far gone yet. I still had some morals left, shaky as they were. Taking my own life was almost impossible. The voices of the people I killed that lived on in my head refused to allow that. They didn’t want to give up even the barest of existence they had or the possibility of gaining a body. They refused to die, and so I couldn’t die by my own hand. It was almost funny when viewed that way.
I needed sleep. I needed to rest and re-group. If I got some sleep - actual sleep and not Dream-Walking - I could better fight the voices. I could resist them and what they urged me to do a little longer. I was willing to do almost anything to slow my descent into madness. I couldn’t stop drowning in insanity but I could fight against it with everything I had.
But sleep wasn’t my escape anymore. My mental torment was stronger then. The Litch Hunter waited for me in the dream world. She hadn’t found me yet, but she was tracing my footprints, and every time I went to the dream world, I could feel her getting closer. Time wasn’t on my side, and I wanted to scream my rage at the unfairness of it all. I felt my eyes slide closed again as exhaustion finally overtook me. The space ship I’d stolen faded away as the dream world opened to me and the voices clamoured in my head.
A promise of peace whispered through my mind, calling me. I couldn’t quite make out exactly how that promise of peace would be fulfilled, but I wanted it with every fibre of my being. The soft voice was different from the caterwauling of the voices in my head. The whisper was gentle and soothed my frazzled nerves. The urge to find where that whisper came from was so strong; there was no way I could stop myself from trying to find the source.
I knew with rock-solid certainty that it wasn’t one of the voices in my head. I knew all of them intimately. This new voice drew me, hinting at things that I had no business wanting or deserving. My curiosity wouldn’t let me ignore it though. A feeling very much like a compulsion had me casting around the dream world for where that peaceful whispering was coming from. I caught a hint of it and I started to follow the whisper. I needed to find it. I knew wandering off after some random voice was stupid as hell and could allow Phaedra to find me, but that voice was compelling beyond all reason.
I felt that if I found that whisper, I’d find my salvation.