He felt cold.
He found himself back in the sleeping darkness, trapped in a gloomy, icy wasteland. Twisted spikes of ice surrounded him shaped like a deadly crown, blood rushing down their tips. The shadows surrounded him, his breath empty and frozen by loneliness.
Mathias could have sworn he felt his mother’s warm hand brush against his, holding him in the dark, telling him he would be safe. Everything would be okay. He would open his eyes and the nightmares would end.
An unnatural, intimidating chill spread through his bones.
“I thought you made the darkness your weapon, sweetie.” The black lamb rested on a bed of snow, his crimson eyes shining like rubies. He had draped himself in shadows and cold rather than flames, yet his dreadful symbol remained written in blood beneath Mathias’ feet. “Why so afraid?”
“I prefered the fire,” Mathias replied.
“Silly, if you want fire, you only have to look inside yourself,” The lamb sounded joyful. “Everyone has a little star inside them, waiting to ignite. Come on, try.”
Suspecting that the creature controlled every aspect of the dream, Mathias willed a ball of fire inside his palms. A miniature star set itself alight within his hand, illuminating his fingers.
The deadly mark on his hand had vanished.
“See?” the lamb repeated. “Easy peasy.”
“You sound, pardon the joke, chill tonight.”
“It is not often I meet a man of their word. I have been playing this game for longer than most civilizations have existed, and most try to cheat their way out. They complain or try to bargain for more favorable treatment. They never get it. You? You did as asked.”
“I expect the same professional courtesy from you,” Mathias replied, his tone as icy as the dream world. “Leave me alone.”
“Oh, I will leave you alone in your dreams. You can sleep easy now.”
In your dreams… Very specific words. “And in the waking world?”
“Do not get greedy, Mathias. No one, anywhere, is ever safe from me.”
There was no empty boasting in his voice. The creature just stated a fact. “Who are you?” Mathias asked. “What are you?”
“Little old me?” The lamb cackled with an eerie, creepy laugh. “I am the patron saint of the lost and the damned. When people pray for blood and brimstone, it is I who answer. When they falter on their way to power, I pick them back up. I shepherd all those who seek chaos. I am the Maleking. I am the new God.”
Mathias frowned at the blasphemous words. “What happened to the old one?”
“Who knows,” the lamb giggled. “Do you seek strength, Mathias?”
“Everyone seeks more strength.”
“Ah, but so few are willing to pay the price for it. If you have it in yourself to make the necessary sacrifices to achieve your dream, to walk the way of the wicked, you will find a most generous friend in me.”
“I’ll pass.” Whatever the entity was, it spelled trouble.
“You shouldn’t. We share the same goal, the complete destruction of Concordia. You may find my methods, shall we say, heavy-handed, yet they work. I respect your wish of independence though.” The lamb tilted his head to the side, at an unnatural angle. “I can see a question burning on your lips.”
“The artifact. I absorbed it once I touched it, and I have no idea what it does.”
“Me neither. I never cared about it.”
Mathias froze. “You never did?”
“Mathias, Mathias, Mathias, you need to think long term. You struck fear in the heart of Concordia’s authorities on Earth, making them see enemies in every shadow. The more terror spreads, the more the dragons will feel insecure in their rule, and the harsher their measures.”
Mathias began to see the big, ugly picture. “Driving resentful people to you?”
“Smart boy. The winning battle of any war is not waged for land, but for the hearts of people. Never forget this on your journey to power.” The lamb rolled on his back, looking almost adorable, if not for the cruel gleam in his eyes. “Oh, one last thing. Your friends have been released from custody, since your attack gave them an alibi. I thought you might like to hear it.”
Mathias clenched his fists on reflex, extinguishing his light.
“My, so cagey. You have nothing to fear, my beloved child. I will extend our terms to your friends out of goodness of my heart, unless they call me first. I never turn down new lambs wishing to join my flock.” The beast rose back to its feet, giggling at Mathias’ unhappy face. “I have another ambitious soul on the line, so I will leave you to savor your victory. I hope we meet again soon, though. You’re interesting.”
Mathias shrugged. “Don’t take it personally if I say I don’t want to see you ever again.”
The lamb let out a laugh, as the darkness swallowed Mathias whole. “Do not delude yourself, sweetie.”
Mathias’ eyes snapped wide open, as the doorbell rang. Glass Field kicked in, letting him see the person at his apartment’s door; upon recognizing her, he leaped out of his sofa and run toward the door.
Perse stood at the threshold.
“Hi, Matt.” Usually so vivid and lively, she looked drained, her skin bleached and her eyes creased. She looked like she hadn’t slept n\or changed clothes in ages. “I uh… I need a hug.”
Mathias didn’t need the invitation, squeezing her as tightly as he could. The two friends holding one another for a full minute without a sound, Perse giving him a light kiss on the chest before resting her head against his shoulder. Seeing her again made him feel warm inside.
“You’re out,” Mathias whispered. The dream lamb hadn’t lied about that, at least. “After so long, I thought I had lost you. I thought…” I thought they had taken you like they did with Mom.
“You look terrible too,” Perse teased him as she broke off their embrace.
“Yeah, I had a hard time sleeping.” The battle had exhausted him so much he had collapsed on his sofa the second he came back home, after hiding his costume at the church and checking up on the others. He hadn’t even looked at the time.
“Can I use your shower?” Perse asked, as he invited her inside. “Borrow some of your clothes?”
“You came here as soon as you got out?”
“Yeah. Ulysses went with Maggie, you dad picked my mom up… Sam wanted to be alone. She took it harder than me; being the custody.”
For an extraverted girl like Perse, who breathed social interaction, leaving a friend alone sounded abominable. Mathias didn’t push the issue. His friend would better put as much mental space between her painful past and the happy present. “Do you want something to drink?”
“Sugar. Fuck my diet, I need sugar.” She left for the bathroom, impatient to wash herself.
Mathias briefly looked at the time. It was well past midnight. He took two sodas cans in his fridge and waited on the sofa, listening to Perse putting on the water. He briefly canceled Glass Field to give her some privacy.
After using enough hot water to get steam spilling into the apartment, Perse returned with black pants and his prized orange Naruto shirt, her hair still wet. The shower had done wonders for her; she felt more relaxed, alive. She crumpled onto the sofa right next to him, grabbing the soda. “How can you still wear it?” she said, looking at her shirt which was a bit too small for her.
“Sentimental reasons. That was the first manga I read and I enjoyed it very much.” Before Concordia censored it. “I only wear it for conventions now.”
“I find it comfty,” Perse admitted, sounding guilty.
“You can keep it.” He had to address the elephant in the room. “How was — ”
“Bad. They put me in a white room without windows. A tiny room, that made me feel small and insignificant. I couldn’t hear anything outside, I couldn’t enjoy sunlight, I couldn’t even wash or change clothes. They took my phone and still haven’t given it back. I thought I would go mad.”
Solitary isolation had broken stronger people than her. “You had no human interaction?”
“Once a day a white wolf creature would question me. He always asked the same questions. Sometimes in different orders, or variables, but always the same. Did you know about the mayor? Was your friend in on it? Where is Jack Powells? And on and on.”
Maggie’s framing of her late brother succeeded well. “How did you hang on?”
“By thinking of music. I remembered my notes and I just imagined myself playing, blocking out the questions.” Her silent gaze told him to drop the subject. “I’m sorry.”
“For being mean about you returning home with Kari,” she said. “That was immature.”
He expected it to come up. “I didn’t. Bring her home.” Mathias clarified.
“Yeah, you’re too innocent to lie to me so I take you on your word.” If only she knew. “When they took my phone right after, it got me thinking. If I’m never getting out, would that be our last conversation?”
“It’s okay,” Mathias reassured her, putting a hand on her forearm. “You’re never going back there.”
Perse smiled at the gesture, and Mathias felt a jolt of electricity in his own fingers. And not the magical kind. “Thanks.” His friend bit her lips. “They asked questions about you.”
Mathias tensed. “What did they ask?”
“Where you went that night, if you behaved strangely, if you got smarter or had more friends. Very specific.”
Did they suspect him? At least not enough to put him in custody.
“I didn’t say much,” Perse said, sensing his tension, “I’m not ratting out friends. But I gotta ask, is something wrong? You’ve been acting very strange lately, even before… before…”
She was too sharp for her own good. “Is it so obvious?”
“A girl can tell. Especially one who knows you so well. You’re not doing dangerous stuff, right? Right?”
Mathias wondered if he should lie, even if Perse would probably catch on. He couldn’t bring himself to deceive his best friend, although he couldn’t tell her everything either. While Sol was discreet and had nothing left to lose, the more Perse knew the more she would be in danger. “There is something taking up much of my time, yes. I can’t tell more yet, but I swear, I will tell you everything in time.”
“I understand. It’s fine. I can live with it.” Was it relief, and a tiny amount of hope, that he noticed in her voice? “And Matsumoto? You haven’t answered my question.”
“We’re…” Coworkers? Co-rebels? Co-terrorists? “I guess we’re starting to become friends. She’s not my type and I don’t think I’m hers.”
Still, the way she phrased her question bugged him. He let Network’s information in, intending to tailor his answer in a way that wouldn’t hurt her.
— Perse looked at her phone, rephrasing the message on the screen again and again. “Hey, Matt, would you like to have lunch with me tomorrow without Ulysses?” No, no that would be too obvious… but she had tried subtlety and it didn’t work. But what if he reacted badly? —
“Wait, you’re jealous?”
He blurted that part out loud in surprise, and Perse fell silent for a few agonizing seconds afterward. “Yes.” The admission hit Mathias like a hammer in the face. “Yes, I was jealous that you left with Kari Matsumoto.”
Uh oh. “Jealous, like friend jealous?”
She gave him an exasperated ‘are you stupid’ look. “Jealous like girl jealous.”
As he had feared. Suddenly, Perse’s recent behavior made a lot more sense. Inviting him to that party as her date, the constant text messaging. On some level, he had already guessed, only to sweep it under the rug to avoid…
Well, the conversation they would have right now.
“Matt?” Perse misinterpreted his apprehension. “Oh no, I said it too soon, I said — ”
“No, no, no, it’s okay!” Mathias cringed to himself. Real smooth, Mathias, real smooth. “It’s okay. It’s just, you’re my best friend. I didn’t know you saw me as boyfriend material. Especially since you can have nearly anyone.” And had everyone.
She sighed sadly, crossing her arms in a display of vulnerability. “You’re pretty much the only guy that isn’t my brother with whom I’ve had a friendship lasting more than a month.”
That hurt. “Yeah, but me?”
“Matt, you’re super smart, you’re hardworking, you’re cute — ”
“Cute?” He felt his cheeks redden. First time a girl told him that, except for mom or Viviane, and they didn’t count.
Perse chuckled. “Yes, cute, and you’re funny, too! I’ve thought about it for some time and what happened with Sam convinced me to give it a shot. I don’t want to live out my life wondering what could have been, you know?”
“Isn’t the guy supposed to ask the girl out instead of the other way around?” Mathias had no idea how to deal with this kind of demand. Largely because he never had a relationship in the first place.
“You’re overcomplicating things, Matt. It’s yes or no, or maybe later.”
When she put it that way…
The choice was all his. Did he like Perse in that way? He was attracted to her – not as much as Samantha – and he knew her inside and out. Her notorious instability in relationships did bother him, though. Mathias didn’t want to risk jeopardizing their friendship for a short-term fling.
– Perse decided against sending a message, and instead decided to test out the waters. She didn’t want to lose her friendship with Matt for a short-term fling –
Strange minds think alike. For a second there, he had forgotten he had a social cheat code.
“Matt?” Perse put a hand on his forearm, in a reverse of their previous situation. “If you’re uncomfortable with this, it’s okay.”
“I’ve never dated a girl,” he admitted. “I don’t want to botch us.” Us. The word left a strange impression.
“I’ve dated…” Perse seemed to count inside her mind, before giving up. “I’ve dated a couple of guys, and I botched every single one. So you see, you can’t do worse.”
As he looked at her dead in the eyes, Mathias wondered what he was even supposed to do? A relationship would put her in danger — scratch that, being anywhere near him would put her in danger. Should he really try to build something with her?
However, Perse had a point. He couldn’t live his life wondering what could have been.
Suddenly realizing that she had been looking at him in silence, waiting for him to make the first move, Mathias’ stress built up. What should he do?
How could this be harder than fighting a giant dragon?
He tried to remember the romantic scenes in his favorite movies. What was the appropriate reaction?
The answer quickly crossed his mind.
More nervous than he ever was in his entire life, Mathias approached his face from Perse’s and kissed her on the lips.
The contact lasted but a brief instant, yet it sent a jolt of pleasure down his spine. He felt warmth fill his cheek, the blood rushing to his face. Perse closed her eyes, enjoying the moment as much as he did. She smelled of water and her lips tasted like strawberries.
“So?” Perse asked, a bright smile on her face as Mathias fell back. He only had one thought in mind.
Her lips feel good against mine.
So he kissed her again.
This time, Perse put her arms around his neck and held him close, refusing to let him go. His nervousness was gone, and he held her tight.
“So, uh,” Mathias trailed, as Perse purred against him like a cat. He tentatively put an arm around her, and it felt nice. “What next?”
“Want to make out?” Perse asked.
Sure. That sounded nice.