Tobias dreamed vividly.
First, his mother was standing on the balcony, gazing across at the rumbling grey skies. Her hair tumbled in thick brown curls down her back, which was turned to him, her lithe body swathed in a blue dress. He approached her to stand and clasp the railing beside her. It was cold, and the wind sliced at him like knives.
He remembered this night. I had chosen it particularly because of this: it was the night before his mother died, and a night where each memory of it came with an army of regret.
“Ma,” whispered Tobias. “Ma, you need to leave.”
His mother turned to him, her white face glowing in the flashing darkness, her features soft and familiar. In reality, she had smiled, but in this dream, she only stared with eyes cold like the air.
Panic started to rise in Tobias’s throat. He had to get her to leave – he couldn’t let her dissuade him like she had in reality – yet any words he hadn’t actually said got stuck in his throat, silently choking him. He wanted to scream at her to go, tell her of her awful fate if she didn’t, but I couldn’t let him, and held him back, locking his limbs in place. Even his thoughts were blurred, thick, gloopy, impossible to comprehend in his dream state.
“Why should I leave? Why shouldn’t I let them kill me, the ones who you ally yourself with?”
The sky illuminated again, lightning striking down and electrocuting Tobias’s mother. She yowled and hissed like a cat, clawing out at him through the smoke, her eyes quite literally alight. “They killed me, son, and yet you forgave them! You forgave your mother’s murderers!”
No, no, I didn’t! Tobias wanted to scream back. They punished the ones responsible, and they promised me vengeance!
“I am ashamed,” his mother squealed, writhing in painful delight. “You disgrace my honor, and my name!”
And then she became the storm, swarming towards him as one infernal mass, lifting him up with strafes of air and lightning, pushing him off the balcony twenty floors up, and then he would wink out from existence, and appear back at the railing, to be pushed off again, all to the screaming and sobbing and glee of his mother, telling him he was worthless, and no son of hers, and–
And Tobias kept dreaming, so I had no choice. The storm swirled and engulfed him; spat him out somewhere new.
When Tobias saw his mother’s limp body, he wailed and ran to her side, just like he had when he’d found her dead the first time. He cradled her head in his lap, cursing himself through heavy sobs. She was peacefully sleeping, he tried to convince himself. You only sleep to wake up again.
“She’s dead, mate,” came a soft voice. Tobias realised for the second time in this situation that he’d been thinking out loud.
He knew what would happen: he’d look up and see a kindly face, all sympathetic and selfless, wanting to right every wrong – the sweet face of Atticus James. Atticus would offer him revenge against those who had a hand in his mother’s and all the other innocents’ deaths, and promise him a chance to change the world. But when he looked up now, Atticus’s face was not kindly. Tobias could see the transparent mask of where it had been, but beneath he saw cruel expressions and betrayal, pleasure at all the death laid before him like a delightful picnic.
The mask became opaque again as he neared Tobias and crouched down beside him. “Did you know her?”
“You could say that.”
Atticus frowned sympathetically, his dark blond eyebrows furrowing. He looked a very delicate version of angry. “I knew some of the people who did this,” he murmured, but Tobias heard me whisper a translation over the top: I ordered the people who did this.
Tobias blinked at Atticus, and the other boy took it as a sign of curiosity, still gazing at the corpse before them. “They were my friends. We were planning to change the world. Improve it. They betrayed me. Did this.” They are my workers. We plan to ruin the world. They did exactly what I told them to. “There are a few of them left. Loyal ones. We plan to have vengeance.”
The blond boy now stood up, finally tearing his eyes from Tobias’s mother. He smiled, and Tobias could almost see the mask cracking under the falsity, shafts of true manipulation flickering through. He held out a lightly tanned hand and his honeyed words rolled sweetly off his tongue: “Join me. Have your revenge.”
Join the ones you want your revenge against. Aid the destruction of the world, and disgrace everything you’ve ever believe in.
The mask shattered, raining sharp sugared glaze. Atticus’s true face was a monster, lips twisted maliciously into a Cheshire cat grin.
And Tobias kept dreaming, so I tried a third time. Atticus rushed at Tobias, swift as a cheetah, his jaws gaping wide and about to gulp him up; Tobias – frozen in spot, his legs turned to lead, his own mouth sewn shut and his voice completely mute – found his gaze wrenched towards Atticus’s eyes as he was devoured by them instead. They darkened from blue to black, the reflection showing Tobias as a match, and then sparked, brightening to the red of a raging fire – no, they were a raging fire, literally…
Tobias looked around wildly, caught up in fire, fire, only fire that licked his skin, leaving him strangely unharmed but possessed by a mad fear. Through the blinding flashes of red, orange, yellow, and the heat that pressed in on him – even on his eyes, willing them to disappear into their sockets – he could just make out the world he knew being swallowed by flames. Everything he could ever love, ablaze. His lungs filled with thick smoke; it was so real he could feel it, taste the ash, smell the fumes. So very real, and so utterly petrifying.
But it’s just a nightmare, Tobias thought. That’s all it is. My imagination.
Impatience finally taking its toll, I came to him in the form of an undistinguishable face in the roaring blazes. “Is it?”
Tobias let out a yell of alarm and stumbled back into the fire, letting out another and stumbling back forward when this time it stung and smoldered his skin. He gasped and clawed at his raw blisters; eyes wide.
“Scratching at them will only make them hurt more,” I advised, hoping my voice sounded wise and important, not gritty like the ash, warped through the inferno. When this didn’t seem to comfort the human in front of me, I added more softly: “You’re right. This is a dream.”
Tobias didn’t seem convinced.
“Not the usual type, though,” I admitted, “as I’m sure you’ve realised.”
I looked at the boy cowering in the center of the firestorm properly. He was ordinary: easily manipulated as I’d noticed over the years, not exactly impressive with his looks, but not ugly, and caring and passionate in nature. I wondered if perhaps I had made the wrong choice out of the luckless few teenagers that blindly followed malevolent Atticus James. Maybe others would’ve been quicker to persuade. Tobias didn’t look promising, and to be honest, I thought the first dream alone would be enough; I didn’t think I was going to have to go to this measure – I was never supposed to speak to him personally. Theoretically, gods aren’t meant to interfere.
I looked him levelly in the eye: he was my only chance now. “Tobias, you need to wake up,” I said in a low voice. “You need to realize.”
“Why? How? Realize what?”
A second’s pause, and then his mouth formed a defeated “o”.
I smiled sadly, though it probably looked more like a fiery grimace. “What did you think they wanted, Tobias?”
“To change the world.”
I suppose in their own cruel way, they did.
When Tobias finally woke up, the world was burning.