Her gentle chatter hardly stretched beyond the clearing, swallowed up by the dark underbrush that surrounded them. Hern sat lumbering over the fire, his leather armor reflecting a menagerie of distorted, blurry, fiery shapes. Anyu sat on her knees across from him, incessantly wringing her fingers.
“Anyu,” Hern whispered.
She pulled her lavender cloak tight against her body, cowering in the fabric. A squeak escaped her throat as the flames left their stone prison. The spirits flickered in and out of existence, taking the shape of the ancestors, or rather, the future bodies that would one day house them.
The flames licked the sky, burning bright with the blood of the sacrifice. Hern closed his eyes. It was almost time.
Anyu scooted around the fire to sidle up next to Hern, but he instead took her shoulders and pressed his forehead against hers.
They breathed in time, though he felt his muscles quivering. It was already taking hold of him. He could see the fear in Anyu’s eyes as he laid back, his body no longer able to support his weight. He closed his eyes.
The sound of crickets was overtaken by synthetic birds. Hern sat up, clutching his head. His body felt inconsequential against the ground. The world seemed unfamiliar, foreign.
He felt uncertain as he crested red hills and kicked up fine particles of tinted dust. The ground was hard, the trees had dissolved, the chirping birds were nowhere to be found.
Hern stopped, realizing: this was the remote dream.
He heard her, everywhere and nowhere, the voice of Anyu back in the real world—or, well, his world. He shook it off. He was a phantom in this world, and had to move quickly.
The moonlight was strong here. Through an endless desert he walked, until he saw it: the figure encased in glass.
He approached the tinted glass, studying the figure closer. Its arms rested by its side and its head was slumped against its chest. Hern raised his hand and placed it on the glass, something he had been told to never do. The figure’s enormous proportions and green-tinted skin were alluring, mysteriously, and Hern could not resist.
However, upon touching the glass, energy increased. The wind picked up, and gravity seemed to vanish in favor of allowing the dirt, dead leaves, and rotten foliage to dance freely in the air.
Hern scrambled as he was lifted as well, his tough feet kicking wildly in the air as he lost contact with the solid ground below. The sky opened up, a technicolor maw that enveloped him. It swallowed him effortlessly, and he was sent spiraling end over end inside an infinite tube.
He caught glimpses of his future world, of marching feet and cracked hands holding weapons, of dilapidated buildings and scantily-clad women dancing atop the corpses of the enemy. It was a glorious, visceral world that awaited.
Hern had seen enough. He closed his eyes, bidding it all to leave him, waiting for the virtual moonlight to release its grasp. He waited to once again return to his body.
Unfamiliar clicking of predacious creatures watched him as he fought to escape the vision. The remote dream did not want to give him up; consorting with spirits was a dangerous game, and one he had played one too many times. He flexed his fingers, feeling them dissolve into ethereality, continuing to exist in a form not completely whole.
Anyu sat beside his still body, bathed in the unnatural light of the spirit fire. The smell of burnt skin and singed hair entered her nose, though she tried to altogether ignore the scent. She kept her hands placed on Hern’s chest, silently muttering a blessing over his still body.
And then it happened - her hands fell through his chest, resting on the ground below. She pulled back, stumbling onto her rump, and shivered as her heart pumped adrenaline into her system. “Hern?” she breathed.
He opened his eyes and looked at her, but already, they were losing focus. Anyu could see through him, to the dark, flickering forest beyond, catching tints of the fire and swallowing the color before it could spread to the world beyond.
“Put it out! Put it out!” Hern urged, but his voice was already distant and broken, like the sounds from a dying crystal radio.
Anyu jumped to her feet and ripped her cloak off, tossing it atop the flames. They hissed and cracked at the sudden lack of oxygen, and only managed to consume half of the cloak before sputtering out of existence.
The clearing was dark, only illuminated by the waxing moon and glowing pink crystal in Hern’s chest. She rushed to his side and sat with him as he regained his wholeness. They breathed carefully, unsure if the ritual had fully been extinguished.
Hern comforted her and said he had seen all he needed to see, that they could return to the city and report their findings. No longer would they be outcasts. She was excited, and hastily packed up their belongings to get on the move. Hern, however, lagged behind. His movements were sluggish, his mind distracted. The gem in the creature’s chest was familiar, too much like his own.