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these bones remember

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The dreams began just after Hunter turned thirteen.

 

It had been an ordinary day, an ordinary night, five months after Hunter had been appointed the Golden Guard. Morning patrol. Lunch. Afternoon patrol. Dinner. Evening patrol, late-night paperwork, then to bed. Rinse and repeat, the care-worn rhythm of familiar days blending together. They were all the same, except for the dreams.

 

The dreams.

 

The first time it happened, on that ordinary night, Hunter had thought he was dying. It was a nightmare - there was no doubt about that, as intimately familiar with the malicious imaginings as he was. In the dream, he was the Golden Guard, but not himself. The title belonged to him; the body did not. It had been an ordinary day in the dream, too - patrols, meals, time spent with a half-remembered apprentice. Ordinary, too, was the pit of anxiety in his stomach. This Golden Guard knew something he shouldn’t. 

 

He was just outside the throne room doors. He was not pacing; could not pace, frozen in indecision, robbed of fight and flight. The Emperor was expecting him, and nothing good would come of it. The decision was taken out of his hands as a coven scout exited the throne room swiftly, just shy of running, and he had no choice but to slip inside. He knew from the air, stale in his lungs, that the Emperor was not pleased.

 

“Golden Guard.” The Emperor sat on his high throne, watching, waiting. “This is the third time you have failed to capture the wild witches plaguing our cities.” His voice was hard, toneless. More than anything, it was tired.

 

“My Lord.” Not-Hunter kneeled before the throne. He, too, was watching, waiting. He had played this game before, recalled rules that Hunter did not.

 

“Explain yourself. Why now do you fail, when you have proven so effective before?” 

 

“It was an accident, my Lord. Next time, I will be successful.”

 

“Liar,” the Emperor hissed. “Once, an accident; twice, perhaps coincidence. But three times now you have defied me - three times our own scouts return injured while you remain unscathed. Explain yourself.” Not-Hunter’s breath burned in his chest. He exhaled, and with it came his confession.

 

“I believe you are wrong. I believe that the Titan does not want magic to be controlled in this way - I believe that you do not speak for the Titan at all, I-“ He wasn’t given time to finish. Neat as a surgeon’s scalpel, a viney tendril impaled Not-Hunter through the slit in his mask and into his eye socket. As easily as that, he was dead.

 

Hunter woke with a gasp. Just a dream, he told himself, and thought nothing more of it. It was far from the worst dream he’d had. He did not think of it at all until two weeks later, when he dreamed again.

 

He was the Golden Guard again, but not in a body he recognized. Not Hunter, not himself, though he was someone eerily similar. This time he was scouring through the Emperor’s study, because he had been on patrol at the Night Market, and a seedy, three-eyed demon had said something very, very odd.

 

Not-Hunter tore through the sanctum, ripping away any plausible deniability as to what he was doing. Something - something was wrong, so deeply wrong, and he had to find out if it was true. He found his answer in an unmarked, leather-bound tome, dusty and pages barely bound to the spine. It fell open to a well-worn page, the one its owner opened to most often, host to a dark figure with scarlet eyes.

 

He never got to read what was on the page, what words had made Not-Hunter’s heart beat so frantically. There was a spear through his gut, then two, then three, blood staining the tanned vellum pages of the book - and the Emperor’s clipped voice, oh, what a pity. Then Hunter woke up, choking and clutching his stomach in phantom pain.

 

The dreams didn’t happen often, but Hunter could always tell them apart from his usual brigade of night terrors. They were more vivid, firstly - they felt more like memories than dreams, and he could do things in dreams that he usually couldn’t, like make out people’s faces and read the hands on a clock. The dreams followed a pattern, too - in every dream, he was the Golden Guard, but he was not Hunter. In every dream, he died in some way, usually by the Emperor’s hand. He had about two dozen dreams in all, each one unique. He was never quite sure what to make of them. Usually they were several weeks apart - though once there was a gap of six entire months, and once he dreamt twice in two days. Hunter tried not to think about them often, and doing so felt traitorous,   because he knew the Emperor would never harm him on purpose.

 

He died in a dozen different ways, in the dreams. There were dreams where he was burned alive by a fire he set, thick with the scent of smoke and gunpowder. There were dreams where he was killed by assassins and wild witches, dreams where he was speared through by the Emperor in every part of his body, or struck dead by a blast of magic from his staff, or strangled by the earthy arms he conjured, and sometimes even petrified. There was one dream where he was cold, so cold, and he died freezing and shivering at the top of a mountain, and another dream where something inside him broke, and he died just like that. There was one dream where he stole a coven scout’s pike and stabbed himself in the lung, with the utmost conviction that he couldn’t go on, and he died choking on his own blood. That was one of the dreams Hunter thought about the most, because of course, he was tired, but surely he wouldn’t betray the Emperor and resort to that?

 

The last two dreams were the worst.

 

In the penultimate dream, he woke in a pile of sludge and muck. He had no skin. He had no face, no eyes or ears or nose or mouth. His bare, glistening muscles and sinew burned as shimmering scales sloughed off his charred bones. He couldn’t breathe, because he had no mouth, and his lungs were made of stone, of ancient, weathered stone, but he gasped anyways. He gasped and gaped like a shark eviscerated of its tail and fins and left to die bloody and bloated and rotting on the deck of a ship. There was a voice, too, one he recognized, that said what a pity it was, and how he would have to try again. In that dream, Hunter was swallowed by the mud. He had no mouth and could not scream.

 

Hunter had several nightmares about the mud dream, after that, but none of them had the same terrible, visceral, weighty reality to them. They were dreams, not dreams.

 

The last dream he had was the one that terrified Hunter the most.

 

In that dream, it was night-time, and he wasn’t himself or the Golden Guard. The Emperor was there, but he wasn’t the Emperor, just…someone. He wasn’t sure who. The brush was on fire, greedy flames devouring the dry heather, and he held an old, nicked knife in his shaking hands.

 

In the dream, he begged for his life. “Don’t do this, brother. You know in your heart that these people are good!”

 

“There is no goodness in these creatures of Satan,” Not-the-Emperor snarled back.

 

In the dream, Not-the-Emperor, his brother, somehow, tackled him. Not-the-Emperor stabbed him with his own dull knife. Not-the-Emperor stabbed him thirteen times, until he finally punctured Not-Hunter’s heart. He wiped the bloody blade on his torn pants leg, and ran from the wrath of the ones he hated.

 

When Hunter woke from that dream, he tore off his-night shirt in terror, because he remembered something. He remembered the thirteen, tiny, pock-marked scars on his chest, the ones he had had since he was little. The ones he thought were from - were from when the rest of his family died. And he curled up, knees to his chest, and cried choking, heaving sighs for the grief of something he hadn’t even known he had lost. 

 

Hunter was never able to make much sense of the dreams, neither head nor tails. After the dream where not-his brother stabbed him, he never had another. He put them firmly out of sight, out of mind, put his trust in the Emperor he adored. They did not resurface again until, years later, Hunter was dragged into the depths of the Emperor’s mind and faced a hook-nosed man with thirteen bloody holes in his chest who lay claim to the marrow in his bones.