“Jacob lied to you” the wind told the water thief. “Jacob lied to you and now you will die.”
Hassan shivered despite the humid warmth. Above him the night sky split into a serpentine twist of sickly aerori. Hassan half crouched as he saw movement within the malignant stream, his breath escaping him in a hiss of fright. Already the new generation had developed their stories, filling in the gaps in their parents' knowledge of the Great Collapse. Despite his age, Hassan could not prevent the shudder of fear that seized his spine.
His eyes fell once more to the edifice before him. There, a mere kilometer across the wasted landscape it sat, a crooked crown at the base of the hill. Hassan shivered at the sight of the building, his eyes roving the crumbling walls, the protruding masonry blocks. Here, baked within a land of powdered buildings and ash, the tower stretched into the sky, shattered windows glaring towards him like diseased eyes.
It cannot be, Hassan thought, his mind racing. It cannot be, it cannot be.
And yet it was there. The tower stood, haloed by the bend and twist of malignant aerori above. It stood, jagged, monstrous, a lone sentinel leering up from the base of the valley. Hassan rubbed his fists together in agitation, feeling the rheumatic grind of aging joints beneath frail fingers.
Jacob must have lied, Hassan thought desperately. He must have lied.
But the old prisoner had not lied. The malignant tower sat within the ashen death of its brother buildings, just as the old prisoner had said, just as Hassan had seen within his twisted nightmares. The jutting tooth of rotting masonry leered down there, just as the fevered dreams had told them both.
If it is real, Hassan thought with frightened intensity, then the dream itself is real. And the one within…
The water thief hissed, one hand falling to the battered blade at his hip. The weapon was poor, old, riven with rust and marked at the edge by myriad desperate actions. The knife had always been there though, always with him since the Great Collapse. It offered Hassan a lone instant of confidence in the still humid air.
There! Hassan ducked, darting his body behind the rise of shale from the ground beside him. His hands pressed against the shattered stone tooth as a whimper escaped his lips.
There had been movement in one of the windows, he was sure of it. Hassan hissed through gritted teeth, eyes wide in the shifting light of the flawed night. Every shift of shadows made him start, every roiling cavort bringing his head around. The night was alive with threat.
Why did I come here? He asked himself. Why have I risked this nightmare?
He cursed aloud, his voice shivering. He cursed the arbitrary thugs that lorded over the wasteland, cursed their savage justice for water thieves in this new desert.
He breathed deep, eyes still flitting from shadow to shadow. Everything was alive like the dream, a perfect representation, a reflection of what his mind had shown him. His mind shuddered, remembering how the nightmare played out, how it all ended.
How do I know the reality would be any different?he thought, mind racing like a deer in flight. He turned slowly, risked a glance over the lip of the rock. Close shale gave way to the meagre distance to the tower, its rotten hide a mottley of shifting un-colours that did not seem to match the aerori that spasmed within the sky.
No motion betrayed itself. Nothing sat within the yawning maw of broken windows. Nothing stood in the open door way.
He is here! Hassan felt the thought spiral through his mind, defying the evidence of his eyes. His eyes locked on the shadows within the open windows, watched them shiver and spasm just within the crooked portals. Something was watching him, something only the animal part of his brain could detect, something coming from that awful tower. Hassan suddenly started, his eyes locking on a portion of the building before him.
That window wasn't there before! Hassan felt his eyes lock on the sudden alteration of the tower's face. His mind continued to spiral, a shiver passing uncontrollably down his spine. Did I miss it? Did I not see it before? Is that all? Oh, God! Why did I follow the nightmare here?
Hasan felt his limb grow cold, his stomach churn. He leaned forwards, head pressed against the shale rock, as if he could steal the last vestige of strength from the crumbling stone.
The dream played out across his mind's eye, a twisted play of steely images and over powering sensations. The flash of the tower that was not a tower, the building seeming to grow in spasm-flashes. The man, the thing, within the tower, the watcher, the keeper of-
Hassan watched, paralysed, affixed to the stone just as the dream portrayed. His body grew heavy, sagging as his mind burned with the desperate desire to run.
Something spasmed in his arm. Hassan turned, the jerk of his neck inhumanly fast in his fright. He stared at his arm, feeling the muscles twinge and shake. His eyes grew wide as he watched, the tugs of rebelling muscles matching the drum beat of his heart.
His leg jerked. First one step, then another. Hassan tried to scream just as the muscles around his jaw began their own rebellion. A pressure swelled at the back of his head, increasing to a migraine brightness.
-Come to me-
Hassan half gurgled a scream as his body jerked in a sudden stagger crawl of motion. A sudden spasm of the legs fired him forwards several steps, his limbs quaking as he staggered over the ash field. He felt his head fall back, bereft of his own motor control, leaving the tower to swell within his view.
The thing swelled up before him. Jagged masonry blocks seemed to swell and constrict, morphing like the twisted dance of rebelling muscles. Shadows danced within the yawning windows, coiling with the impression of twisted black smiles.
-Come to me-
Hassan tried to scream, tried to wail, tried to rebel against the puppet march of treacherous limbs. Drool flecked his lips, foaming at the corners as a strangled gasp escaped through clenched teeth. The water thief felt the migraine presence within his mind build, swelling grew within his field of view.
Hassan shuddered, wretched, collapsing as the migraine build up in his rear skull vanished. He gasped, feeling the slow growth of sensation within his limbs. The water thief shivered, reaching out a numb hand to steady himself as he looked around-
Hassan gasped. The tower door yawned open before him, the long darkness of its throat exposed like a hungry beast awaiting its meal. Hassan felt his limbs freeze his mind race. Images from his shared dream with Jacob flooded his mind, overlapping with the twisted view he saw before him. The hammer beat of his heart wretched out a desperate drum beat in his ears.
He tried to pull away, to leave the nightmare overlap at the tower's porch. Exhausted muscles struggled, spasmed, failing at the last, leaving him gasping at the crooked doorway.
Aerori spasmed above him, the sudden flash of cancerous light shuddering across the open portal. Hassan felt his heart stop at the sight.
A figure stood, hunched, a blank mask staring through him from just within the doorway. The thing shivered, snarled, its head hidden behind the rise of a vast hood of almost-yellow fabrics. The thing came forward, hooded head raised in his direction, its hidden face lifted as if sniffing the air. Dark fluid seemed to run from the creature, dampening its fabrics as it left a snails trail across the ground. Hassan gritted his teeth, trying desperately to awaken deadeened limbs to run.
-No- the migraine presence said, returning to swallow the back of his mind. -Come to me. Come to the Tower-
Hassan felt his limbs twitch as he tried to run. Exhaustion flooded his senses. When had his mouth become so dry?
The creature tilted its head, the motion twistedly human. The thick folds of its hood shifted, giving Hassan a glimpse of a mask beneath the raged hood. The thing seemed to listen for an instant, ear raised to the humid silence of the desert. Hassan gasped, gumming his dry tongue within his desiccated mouth.
The thing shifted, reaching within its robes with ganly too-long arms. It rooted around for an instant, searching for something hidden within the swell of its sickly robes. Hassan watched, eyes wide, fright stealing the drum beat of his heart to yet higher pitched.
-Water thief- the presence within his head hissed. Hassan could not be sure where the voice came from. The hunchback shifted awkwardly as if it too was compelled by the voice. The creature reached forwards, its hand still lost within the folds of its sleeve, holding out the item of its apparent search for Hassan to see.
-Water- the migraine voice croaked. -Water for a water thief-
Hassan stared at the vessel before him. The hunchback seemed to retreat with the odd sound of a squelch-hiss. The water thief staggered forwards as the vessel moved away, eyes locked on the filthy glass vessel in the creature's paw. He passed his tongue across his lips, feeling the scale dryness, driving his exhausted muscles forwards. His hand touched the rim of the door way before him , feeling the peeling away of rotten wood under grasping fingers.
Water! His mind screamed as he clawed bodily towards the retreating monster. The thing shuffled slowly, almost sluglike, keeping the outstretched vessel mere inches from his fingers. Inside Hassan screamed, the dryness of his mouth flaring to take over his thoughts.
Water, he gasped internally. Water! Water- water for the water thief.
He clambered forwards, heedless, filthy nails seeking the dark fluid before him. Dream images seared across his mind, twisted after images that tore at his sanity. Aurori danced a fever pitch above, dark unlight haloeing the crooked doorway as it sealed shit behind Hassan’s crawling ascent.