In his dreams the sun did not shine. Light filled cracks between buildings and glanced off spires, but Anto could not determine its source.
In his dreams the destruction became endless. The towers fell, over and over, and the buildings crumbled and rebuilt themselves. The people walked through it unheeding, passing through the rubble like ghosts.
Rays of light slashed down, sky full of shooting stars. Flames swept up life. His pounding heart woke him.
They never grew out of normal dreams. Sharp shadows, sudden and violent, struck him. A future of fire and destruction filled his eyes, and a constant cycle of things breaking down and building up.
He pushed the covers aside and dropped to the floor. The boards creaked as he went to the window and rested his head against it. A multitude of spires. Hundreds of sharp points rose and fell, like immobile ocean waves. The bigger and more important buildings sporting the most, the biggest, the sharpest. Below the spires people filtered through the cracks between the buildings. A man pulling himself along on a cane, an old woman wrapped against the morning chill, a brother and sister walking hand-in-hand. They dawdled, not wanting to arrive anywhere.
A spire cracked off above them, falling through the golden morning. When it reached the children, it passed through without harm or notice.
He brushed the dream out of his eyes and found his way downstairs, passing through the spider webs around the trapdoor. His mother and father ate at the table. His mother smiled without using her eyes.
“Good morning. I have a few things for you to fetch from market,” she said. Anto’s father ate quietly.
Anto nodded and sat at the table as his mother put a bowl of porridge in front of him.
When he did nothing but stir it around. “Your dreams again?” his father asked. “Be strong, Anto. Soon you will dream of different things.”
Anto nodded and looked back at his breakfast, and his parents resumed eating. When he inspected them, he found identical expressions. His mother gave him a short list, and a bit of money, and sent him on his way. Nothing but shadows greeted him at the bottom level of the city; the spires reached too high to let any light in. People shuffled past, their faces the same as his parents’. He moved through them, heading for the market.
A bright haze filled the open market square. The sun took the chance to beat down on them between the gold spires. The market had barrels of fresh fruit, cold boxes of fish, racks of vegetables. It also had people, though the fish smiled more. Each person’s limp hand pointed out purchases as their faces read if only things were different.
Anto read his mother’s list. Chicken, peppers, cloth, flour, nails. He started walking along the lanes. Shadows hid faces, hands shook, talk went quick. Anto craned his head up at a spire over the square.
It fell, crumbling from the base up, spinning to glide through the market point-first.
Anto blinked, and the tower grew its spire back. A man shoved past him.
Under the eyes of drooping vendors he hunted the items from his mother’s list. The sun hung high over the square when he finished.
A commotion blocked the exit. A man shouted, not caring who listened. His face squirmed.
“Once more! Once more,” the man said. He swung his fists. “The great evil is coming once more! To tear down out city! To burn our land of us! You feel its growing presence, I see it in your eyes, in your haggard cheeks! The oppression beats! us! down!” At each word he rained a fist into his open palm. “And when it finally arrives we have no strength but to lie and wait for the pain to pass!”
People stood around him as he raged, and their faces changed. They whispered to each other. “And as the light rains down on us, and the spires topple and fall, we know our time is at an end, and a new time has begun!”
“The great evil!” another man joined in. “Is it returning?”
“It is always here!” the first man said. “Just waiting until we are finally broken down!” At this, he spotted Anto, and his eyes widened. “Child! Boy! Your face!”
People backed away from Anto, and he put his hands to his face. “Where is your worry? Your fear?” The man ran up, and took Anto’s skull in his hands. “Why don’t your eyes droop as all of ours?” He moved away. “A child’s resilience! They don’t know the world is just horror upon horror, and so they smile!”
“Why?” a woman shouted, hunched under invisible weight. “Why do we look up at the sharp points in fear? Why can’t I step outside my home without feeling I am walking through death?”
“Because of the evil!” the man shouted. His fingers scrabbled at his scalp, pinching the skin. “It twists us until we snap! It is the double-edged sword, the light keeping us in the darkness! It is the lie, the wool over our eyes as we are led to the slaughter, the master keeping down the slave!” His speech halted. His teeth ground and hands clenched around his head. “We’re going to die!”
He whipped toward Anto. “Child! Seek the painter, and she will show you the sunless sky!” Anto gasped. “Under the tallest guard tower, under the earth, in the dark!”
Uniformed men approached, having listened long enough. They twisted the man’s arms behind his back and removed him, though his waning rant continued. The gathered people looked around as the madman’s influence disappeared.
But a madman we all agree with, Anto thought. Seek the painter. He spun in a circle, looking around the market, and found the tallest guard tower, set against the city’s outer wall.
Anto walked through a maze of stone buttresses, archways, and metal grilles over sewers. He stood in front of the highest guard tower around the edge of the city; a spire hundreds of feet tall topped it. Sharp mountains peeked over the city wall.
A few steps cut into the road took him to a small door, on which he rapped his knuckles. He waited for a minute, then knocked again.
The door opened; the woman wore a tattered dress. Her hair caught in snarls. Her hands clenched around brushes. Her face had the kind of look one gets when trying to fix something broken, but it only becomes more damaged. It shifted through wonder and into resignation. Her hand, resting on the door, fell to her side. “Well, come in then,” she said in a low voice.
Anto shut the door behind him and the darkness took him, held him safe away from the light. A half-dozen candles, sputtering around the edges of the room, provided tiny bubbles of orange light. Paintings leaned against every surface. A thin cot waited against one wall, and a canvas on an easel stood against another.
Color burst on the paintings–gold spires, green trees, white skies. Some of them had a city full and alive, others had the city broken and crumbling. None of the paintings had the sun. Anto’s breath caught in his throat, and his fingers hovered an inch above the canvas of a painting depicting a glow of light shining behind a distant spire. The woman sat in front of the canvas and raised her brush to it. “Your name, then.”
Anto lowered his hand. “Anto.”
“Edy,” the woman said, facing away from him. Her hand made steady strokes. “Named after a famous warrior. What does your name mean?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then why are you here?”
Anto swallowed as she painted. “Your paintings…why don’t they have the sun in them?”
“You just can’t see it,” Edy said. She let the brush fall from her hands. It clattered on the stone floor. “You will soon.” She took another brush from a cup near the canvas and dipped it in paint.
“Your paintings look a lot like my dreams,” Anto said. She continued painting as if he hadn’t spoken. Her painting had a great deal of darkness in it. “I see them all the time. The spires fall, over and over, but nobody notices.”
She nodded. “And there are so many,” she added. “They could fall for years.”
“Do you have the same dreams?”
She paused, looked at him, and laughed, paintbrush flying out of her grasp and striking off the wall, leaving a smear of paint. “Dreams! Boy, they are not dreams; if only they were.”
“What could they be, then, if not dreams?” Anto looked around the room. In the paintings around the room, the same sunless light and destruction shone. Splatters of paint covered every wall, like the smear from the paintbrush she had just thrown. “Visions of the future? A man in the market today said the great evil does it.”
“I know of no great evil, just normal ones.” Anto waited for her to go on. After a minute of silence, she looked at him from a corner of her eye. “Why do you think some force comes to tear us down?”
“Everybody feels it. Everybody is afraid. Everybody looks over their shoulder. Everybody watches their feet as they walk. Everybody knows the spires will fall down.”
“Will something push the spires? Or will they crumble under their own weight?” Edy asked. She held the end of her paintbrush between her thumb and forefinger. She smacked it against the canvas, leaving a splotch. “They’ve fallen before.”
“I don’t remember any of them falling.”
“Why is it you think I live far under it all? The people living at the top will fall with them. I’ll ask it again: why are you here?” She stood up and looked at him, brush in her grasp like a sword. “Was it fate? Was it luck? How did you find the one person who sees the same thing you do?” She sat, turning toward her canvas, showing him her back. “Find your way to the top of the tallest tower in the city, and you will learn how you know.”
Her brush scratched a colorful rhythm again.
Anto closed his eyes to picture the city. His vision swept over the towers, all pointing up at him like spears, and they crumbled. The castle keep’s tower fell the longest. They fell over and over and over. Every time they built themselves back up.
Edy painted his cheek. His eyes popped open; she stood in front of him. “You fell asleep on your feet.” He touched the paint and found it black. “Go, leave an old woman to her last painting.” She sat at the canvas and resumed painting dark shades over it.
“You’re going to stop painting after this one?” Anto asked. She said nothing, so he left her small room, stepping back into the hot afternoon light.
He entered the guard tower, and after hand over hand on a huge ladder he wrapped his arms around one of the pillars at the top. Wind screamed through windows and the tower shifted under him.
The city burned. Stones and metal points rose and fell; he cast his eyes to the ground and it rushed up to meet him. He threw himself back. The vision broke–the city no longer crumbled–instead, a pale, green-white light crawled over the city toward him. It covered everything, like a fibrous creature had eclipsed the sun, and instead of the sun itself burning over the mountains past the city walls an orb of the same pale green hovered, beating like a heart.
It fluttered over the walls, halting before him and gathering into the orb once more. It hovered level with him, pulsing out and in. He could not close his eyes.
A heavy ray of light. A transparent mirror. It drew the points of the spires toward it, bending everything into it so they pierced it a thousand times.
The blast it released as it burst knocked Anto from the edge. He opened his eyes to find himself looking up at the inside of the spire, the sun’s natural light still inching across him. The spires stood resolute. The pale green sickness had washed away.
He craned his neck up at the highest spire of the castle’s keep, a shining point in the center of the city. Anto began to work his way back to the ground.
Sun kissed the tops of the mountains by the time he reached the castle. Any light not halted by the far-off peaks turned the spires to fire. Shadows darkened the streets. Tired, armed men stood at every entrance to the castle, and for a moment Anto wanted to go home, until the whole of the castle collapsed under an invisible boot, every wall and tower and shining spire bearing down on him.
He looked to his right and found a wall in disrepair, handholds leading up. The sun had already dropped far enough to keep the wall dark; he worked one foot into a hole and reached up.
The top never got closer, and soon his shoulders burned, and their weight increased as he hoisted himself. His stiff legs argued every time he wanted them to move. He glanced down by accident and even the minor height he’d climbed squeezed his stomach.
He lifted his left arm straight up, searching for the next handhold, and it found nothing but emptiness. He glanced up and put his hand on the lip.
It melted under his touch. The wall turned to bogwood, sloughing away. It began to sag toward the ground, groaning and dripping.
The cool stone snapped his eyes open. His hand rested on the top of the wall, again solid and strong. He boosted himself over the lip and then rose to a crouch, searching for guards. A pair walked away from him at one end of the wall.
He followed them, and before he got to the corner of the wall, he discovered a dark set of stairs leading to the ground. A guard could stand right next to him and not know to grab his arm in the shadow. The keep had a door, twenty feet ahead of him.
The highest spires caught the sun’s light. The rest of the city sat in night, and when Anto pulled open the door he found a single sputtering candle playing shadows against the wall. The room held mops leaning against corners, buckets of water, and drying rags.
Another door led to a hall. Tapestries and fraying rugs covered floor and walls. Candelabras provided light.
He stood paralyzed. The keep roared to full size before him, and a future of fumbling around in the increasing dark until he gave himself up the guards–lost, tired, starving, confused–reached certainty. He stepped out of the doorway, and the stone echoed; he winced. He went to the rug and the noise abated.
If he could get to the tallest tower, in the center, he might be able to reach the top. He went to one end of the hall, peered around the corner, and found a single guard standing outside a door. Anto crouched, scanning the floor. Maybe he could find something to distract the guard away from the door. Maybe he could even waltz right past. The guard couldn’t run faster than him, under heavy armor, shield, and sword. Anto stood, trying to appear like he belonged there, and started walking.
In a blink, his body turned to silk, drifting across the guard’s vision without even tickling his nose. Anto reached a translucent hand forward, small fragments drifting away from his fingertips like cottonwood.
He looked behind him, still drifting forward, legs motionless. The hallway unraveled as he passed, coming apart like so much tapestry hanging on the walls. The guard stood motionless as the floor dissolved under his feet, and the roof over his head peeled away without sound, and the walls turned to dust. Stars streaked past the endless darkness.
Only the tower remained of the castle. Its monstrous tip still caught the last sunlight before full dark, turning it into a lighthouse for ailing ships, for dreams, for boys lost in castles. A path assembled itself, out of the torn-down sections of the hallway, and the starlight behind it blurred. The path became brighter and brighter, burning itself into Anto’s eyes even as it disappeared, and the rest of the castle came back into being.
Around the corner, a guard waited. A door down the hallway on his left still held the light from the vision.
It drifted open, and inside suits of armor leaned against walls, and a ladder rose into the ceiling. He climbed it in the castle’s quiet, reaching the next level. He exited a similar storage room into a hall identical to the one below, though darker. His feet led him past a window, and he glanced out.
His dreams looked back at him, tearing down the spires and building them up in the same instant. Pale green light covered them. The stars streaked across the sky as if the world itself rolled free. Darker sections of the pale light, like clouds, passed over the city. He shut his eyes and tried to forget, but the vision remained.
A premonition, as he had thought? A picture of the future? Were they instead pictures of the past as Edy had said? A memory the earth held? He looked out the window again and found the city tall and motionless spires, creeping darkness, the sun tucked behind the mountains. No longer tearing down to sparkling bits of stardust.
The next ladder led him up two levels, and the third three levels. He rose above the city inch by inch. The path he’d seen led him unerring; he moved without pause. Soon the castle started to fall away. The towers continued stretching up, but soon even their spires came into view through windows, reflecting meager moonlight.
Anto found dead center of the castle, and a ladder leading into the sky. His tired arms grasped the rungs.
Thoughts rang his ears and stars rang his eyes. He reached for the next rung blind. His chest burned and his shoulders melted like burning stone, hard, cramped, weak.
Wind rushed through the windows of the tower, drying his sweat. He closed his eyes, knowing well the spire he climbed fell to pierce the ground, trailing stones like wisps from fingertips.
It took longer to climb the ladder than it did to scale the outer wall of the castle. It could have been midnight when he reached the top. The starlight wrapped him, and the cloth hood of darkness covered him. His hand brushed through air and his heart jumped, but then he touched the stone landing. He climbed up and fell onto his back, gasping.
Levering himself up, he reached the top of the tower, a square room. Pillars supported the long spire. The wind blew through, clutching at him. The city spread out in every direction, running past the walls. He had never looked straight down on all the spires; nothing more than tiny spears to defend against the sky, like twigs against cavalry.
Tiredness squeezed him, and he fell asleep, toppling among the spires, and rose back to their height as well.
The vision replayed, soundless. The city rose and fell, crashing through the people on the street unending. A light grew, a pale milky green spreading discoloration as the great evil washed across everything he’d known, changing it from an eternal process to a disfigurement upon the world. The light grew brighter, shining like tiny suns from falling spires, until it spoke his name.
He snapped awake. He turned.
A heavy ray of light. A transparent mirror. Water he could breathe. A star he could hold. A sound he could see, and it spoke his name again.
“What are you?” Anto asked. The milky green light poured through the spire, ghouling his skin.
“I am the darkness pointing the way through the light. I am the healing lie, the comforting deception, the master that raises up the slave,” the circle of light in front of him told him. “I am the unending destruction you see in your dreams. I am the held star. I am here for you.”
Anto flinched back, raising his arms to shield himself. He closed his eyes and the city’s spires rained down on him, passing through him. The great evil drew closer.
“Open your eyes, dreamer,” it said.
“My dreams,” Anto said, his eyes still shut, “what are they? Are they prophecies or memories? The future or the past?”
It waited a moment. “They are neither.”
Anto opened his eyes. Unending beams of lights spiraled through the dark sky beyond the mountains, coming down like meteors. Towers tumbled. People continued through the destruction, their backs bent and their eyes at the ground. The mountains cracked and groaned and shivered like trees. The city walls fell, crushing buildings. The green light covered it all, and then it rewound until the city grew whole. The cycle replayed. It breathed, out to destroy and in to rebuild. It pulled the breath from Anto’s lungs.
“Is this how it really is?” Anto whispered.
“This is how it has always been. This is how it will always be.”
“You keep us from noticing? From being affected?”
“It is better for you.”
“They think you are coming to destroy us!”
“They are already being destroyed. I don’t care what they think. I only want them to be happy.”
Anto could not look away. His heart and mind broke when he imagined everyone on the ground struggling against reality. They broke when the light continued: “Do you not see your true foe? Why everyone feels pain, and fear, and worry? Why everyone dreads the great evil coming to smite? The world is against you and looks to break you down. You live, so you feel fear, worry, anger, and hate. The world hurts you, and if you knew how the world really looked, you would perish.
“Now, dreamer, climb down from your falling tower and live so the world does not defeat you. Live so you can find the good, the pure, the beautiful, the happy. Live and fight the evil of the world; there is no greater fight.”
Daniel lives in Minnesota and writes for work and fun. His work has appeared in nearly twenty publications, including ‘Havik,’ ‘White Wall Review,’ ‘Castabout Literature,’ ‘Defenestration Magazine,’ and ‘Ripples in Space.’ His book “The Woman Who Walked Among the Stars” is available on Kindle. His twitter is @Danny_Deisinger, and his website is saturdaystory-Time.weebly.com.