Donning the hood of her cloak, a young woman submerged herself in the darkness of a sleeping city. She befriended the shadows and creeped through a dark alleyway, silently stepping over littered glass bottles that stunk of old alcohol and broken wooden crates thrown carelessly onto the cobblestone.
With only her eyes peeking out of her masked face, she quickly pulled out an old map that had cost her more than it looked to be worth. It was stained with the rot of time and barely visible underneath the faded ink, but she carefully unfolded the piece of paper and tilted it under the glare of the moonlight. As she feared, the jagged scribbles outlining a path through the slums of the Theolos Empire did nothing to remedy her disorientation.
She cursed under her breath. The scrap of junk was all she had to find her way through the foreign realm.
Shoving the worthless scroll into the pockets of her cloak, the woman clenched her jaw in frustration, trying to suppress the urgent panic running through her veins. She had come all this way to find it. She agreed to that wretched marriage proposal just for a chance to step foot in this very place.
And, she had nothing.
Click, click, click.
At the sudden sound, the woman plastered herself against the nearest wall, praying the shadows covered her in darkness. When she peered past the crumbling bricks, her eyes made out three hooded figures gliding through the streets. The sound of their hushed whispers and clicking boots echoed through the air as they walked past, unaware of the hidden woman watching them with sharp eyes.
At the glimpse of a bejeweled mask under the hood of the tallest figure, a spark of interest flared within her suddenly pounding chest.
A mask. This was her map now.
With discreet steps, she slinked through the dark, tracking their path as they traveled deeper into the heart of the city. For the first time in a long while, she felt the thrill of adventure flicker through her.
After countless minutes of sneaking behind the hooded figures, she stopped behind a quaint store and carefully sneaked a look as they gathered in front of an old, battered door. The one with the jeweled mask looked around in caution before raising a hand to knock. The woman’s heart galloped in anticipation as she memorized the odd rhythm tapped against the wooden surface.
A secret code of entry, she thought in triumph, letting a small smile appear under her cloth mask.
As the door creaked open in time with the last ringing beat, the figures rushed through before it banged shut again. Despite her impatience, the woman hung back in the shadows. When the only sound in the death of night was the chime of singing crickets, she secured her hood and mask — ignoring the sudden nerves unsettling her — and made her way to the secret entrance.
As she reached up to mimic the knocks she had observed, however, the sudden, ominous feeling of being watched raised the hairs on the nape of her neck. The woman snapped her gaze around, inspecting every nook and cranny of the surrounding buildings and corners, but there was nothing amiss.
She shook her head to clear the feeling of unpleasant apprehension and quickly ran through the rhythmic knocks. When the door creaked open, a breath of relief escaped as she scurried through the opening. But, her relief was short-lived. Because, before her was a spiral of steps leading down into an unknown abyss. Torches flamed in golden sconces spaced distantly on the walls, but it didn’t ease the anxiety clinging to the feeling that she was making a mistake continuing this wretched journey of hers.
"I will save you, Mother. I promise."
The vow she made rang through her mind. She had to do this. No matter the fear or danger, she would find a way to save her.
Wrapping her fingers around the black stone necklace her mother had placed around her neck to protect her, the woman descended into a long journey that took her deeper underground. She knew she was nearing her destination when the air grew colder and the lights burned brighter. Chanting voices and flickering flames resonated through the cavernous space as she stepped through a circular threshold carved out of gray stone.
She gasped at the sight before her.
Against the backdrop of an underground waterfall and hanging stalagmites from a towering ceiling of rock, hundreds of hooded, masked individuals circled a colossal bonfire burning in the center. Humming a chant in a tongue she couldn’t decipher, the scene looked more like a cult than what she had hoped to find.
She heard of the Dreamers of Theolos all the way back in her own kingdom. From whispered rumors in the black markets, it was said they were secret practitioners of magic in a world that denied it ever existed. And, magic was the only thing that could help her mother live. So, she came to find these Dreamers of magic, but what she saw before her now was something that inspired fear rather than hope.
But with her thoughts trapped on the image of her dying mother, she walked further into the crowd.
Every kind of mask was displayed around her. Simple cloth ones similar to her own. Extravagant adornments with embellishments of gold and gems. Masks covering eyes. Masks covering mouths. Every kind existed to protect the identities of those who were a part of something as visceral as this.
She couldn’t deny the allure of it. No one knew who she was. Under her mask, she could be whoever she wanted to be.
It was strangely freeing.
Amongst the growing chants and the blazing fire she could have sworn danced along with the moving bodies, a tingling buzz vibrated through her body. As if in a trance, her surroundings grew hazy and she felt intoxicated.
The ground thundered with the stamping steps of twirling figures shouting out in determination.
Yes, her mind whispered in triumph. More.
All at once, everything went dark, and silence fell. With the raging fire swiftly extinguished, the room quieted in dismay. Then, she felt eyes on her. Not a single pair, but every masked face turning to the back, where she stood in shock.
Under the glow of crystallized stalagmites — the only source of light now — she saw the ominous gleam of curious eyes settle on her chillingly. Out of pure instinct, she backed away, fighting the urge to run.
A few bodies stumbled toward her in return, and a scream began to escape.
I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t —
A rough hand yanked her into a concealed alcove. Pressing her against a cold wall, a hooded man with a single banded mask covering the top half of his face towered over her.
“Who are you?” his deep voice rasped.
Startled, she couldn’t speak, her throat closing up in alarm.
The man’s hands squeezed her arms as he drew closer to her. “Who are you?” he repeated darkly.
“Who are you?” she choked out.
His grip on her tightened until she could feel the imprint of fresh bruises she was sure would be sore by tomorrow. At the sound of disordered commotion outside the small, hidden space, the man cursed under his breath and swerved his head around towards the exit leading back up the stairs.
“You need to go,” he ordered. “Now.”
She blinked, frozen in shock and unease as the chanting voices started to crescendo.
The man pushed her towards the waiting stairs, but she resisted. She came here for something, and damn it all if she left empty-handed. “I need a magical healer,” she blurted. “And, I’m not leaving until I find one.”
The masked man turned, his mouth twisted in a grimace. “There is no such thing as a magical healer,” he said, impatience clear in his voice.
“Are you a Dreamer?”
"What? Of course not,” he seethed.
She narrowed her eyes. “Then you know nothing to tell me what exists and what doesn’t."
“Listen here, sweetheart. You have no idea what you just walked into. Dreamers are deluded fools that practice nothing more than trickery and misguided obsessions. Something is stirring, and believe me when I say you don’t want to be here right now,” he grated out.
His dark warning sent chills down her spine. “I need a healer,” she stubbornly repeated.
Even with his eyes concealed, she could sense his vexation with her. Stepping into her body, he leaned down until the scent of charcoal and wood wafted into her senses and the heat of his proximity caressed her skin. “You either leave now, or stay here forever.”
The threat in his tone drew real fear until she felt defenseless remaining enclosed in such a small space with a man that now screamed peril and menace. Reaching into the depths of her cloak, she grasped the handle of her dagger, but before she could even think to respond, haunting shrieks of delight overwhelmed the chanting voices.
“GO,” he shouted, pushing her blindly.
Taken aback by the panic in his voice, she looked up to find that they were no longer alone. Hooded bodies moved into the darkened alcove, newly-lit candles lighting up their reflective masks. Whispering indecipherable words, they moved closer, gliding through the air like possessed vessels searching for a source.
The man stepped in front of her, shielding her from their view. “Please. Leave before you make things worse,” he pleaded under his breath.
She hesitated, but unable to supress the fear that now held her firmly in its grasp, she bolted.
Blindly, like a frantic coward, the woman ran towards the stone threshold, climbing the endless steps so quickly she didn’t even notice a group of cloaked men descending the stairs with sharpened knives.
Choking on her own breaths, she never stopped running.