"How did I get here? More important, how do I get out?" Hiccup asked himself, fighting a shudder.
A scratchy gray image, fuzzy around the edges and frayed through the middle came into view. In the distance he could see the outline of a dark forest. A dim violet light radiated through the arrangement of thin black trees.
"You're here because I brought you," he said. "So you will know this place."
Startled, Hiccup whirled to see him just within the perimeter of the clearing, draped in his armored tunic like before, the shoulder pad spiked with dragon teeth, and the weapons belted to his waist.
"It's a mid-region. A place seldom consciously reached. Once that lies in the space between dream and all realities."
Hiccup took a step back, his eyes trained on him. Amid all the phantom trees, he cut an even more menacing figure than he had before. He even seemed taller, if that was possible.
What was worse, he didn't like not knowing if "here" really existed. Being in a dream meant that you were inside your own imagination, right? Then why did this feel so real?
Uncertain of what else to do, Hiccup continued to walk backward slowly, his feet crunching over the brittle ground cover. Hadrian shifted slightly, as though there was something about him creating distance that bothered him. His eyes remained unblinking.
"What do you want?" Hiccup said, his tone stern.
Hadrian scowled. "I want what you have."
Hiccup felt a cold shiver run through his spine. He didn't like it here.
It seemed t be the response he was looking for, though, because Hadrian took a step toward him, then another. His feet made no sound against the patchwork blanket of dead leaves and cinders.
"Though you should know, you have as much to do with this as me."
"Stop right there!" Hiccup ordered.
Hadrian obeyed only as his heel came in contact with a dried twig, snapping it. They both stood frozen then, listening to the echo. The forest seeped whispers. Stifled laughter rang in the distance.
Hiccup felt panic rise within him. He glanced around, searching for a place to run. Every direction looked exactly the same, though, and as far as he could tell, there was no exit.
"You must understand, that your only hope of navigating this realm is to know it for what it is – to know that it is within a dream that you stand." Hadrian said.
"You're making no sense." Hiccup snapped.
"Just figured I'd give you advice on how to live here." Hadrian replied.
"So that you can at least survive, when I take control." He says with a lick of his tongue on his upper lip.
Hiccup's stomach knotted and back flipped three times before sinking to the very bottom.
"Look around you," Hadrian said. "And you will see how you actions have already begun to strip the veil." He held out a hand. Ash floated to light on his fingertips. "It weakens, and the night where it is at its thinnest in your world fast approaches."
"What is it with the way you talk?!" Hiccup asked frustrated.
Hadrian held his hand toward him, palm up. Hiccup hesitated, staring at it as though it were the hand of death. "You need to go. Now."
Hiccup stumbled forward. He grasped his hand tight and pulled him straight through the line of trees, the sound of his steps absorbed into silence by the powder-soft ash.
They sped through the maze of dead forest, taking sudden twists and quick turns.
You're dreaming, he told himself as they ran. It's just a dream. Any second now you'll wake up, and it will all be over.
A cool breeze filtered through, stirring the curtain of his hair.
From somewhere within the woods, Hiccup heard a rustling sound and then the whisper of his name. His head snapped up. In the distance, a bright light radiant and ethereal, broke like a beacon through the dimness. Long and slender, the light fluttered beneath the cover of a billowing white shroud, taking shape.
Hiccup could not help but steal backward glances as they ran. He saw a figure emerge from within the ebbing light – a woman, angelic in form, though her features remained lost in the distance, buried beneath yards of floating gossamer veils.
Hadrian stopped, yanking Hiccup to face him. "You will surrender, Hiccup. I will break free."
The figure drew closer, and while Hiccup didn't know who it was, it felt safer than being with Hadrian. Hiccup yanked himself free and bolted for the angelic woman.
He ran faster. Behind him he could hear Hadrian on his tale. He didn't look back and he didn't stop. He could hear him following him, but if he looked back now, he'd lose his will.
"You are his only threat and therefore the only hope," she said hastily.
Suddenly, a hand clamped around his mouth. Hiccup muffled a sound as close to a scream as he could manage. Hadrian yanked him back with harsh movements. Hiccup tried to fight him, but he froze when he felt Hadrian's lips by his ear.
"And once you're out of the way, Astrid will be all mine." Hiccup could just hear the grin in his tone. Hiccup wanted to kill him.
Out of this air, Hadrian grasped a doorknob that appeared just as his hand clasped it. It was as though the door had been painted to blend in with the forest. Pulling the door open, it revealed chestnut wood floors and a bedspread with a simple quilt.
Hadrian shoved Hiccup through and he stumbled over the threshold, into his bedroom. There, in his bed, he saw himself – asleep.
"Just you wait, Hiccup." Hadrian called after him.
Behind him, the door slammed shut.
He stood at the farthest edge of the cliffs, boots caked in ash.
Like clawed fingers, the black rocks jutted out over the torpid waters far below, pointing toward the distant horizon. A vast motionless sea, canvas white and still as death, spread itself wide and long before him. It met, in the distance, with the think black line the separated it from a torn violet sky.
At his back stood the skeleton ruins of the forest.
Hadrian closed his eyes, allowing the dead nothingness around him to numb his mind and still the rhythms of his body until all he knew was the buzz of static, that dull vibration, as familiar to him now as breathing. His concentration drew to the cool, soft sensation of the sword in his hand, held tight in his fist.
"Why do you force him to return to this place each night?"
At the sound of her voice, musical and deep, Hadrian opened his eyes, though he did not turn. If he looked, then he would only be trapped again, lured by that ivory seraphim face.
His gaze narrowed on the horizon. He held his silence as the winds stirred. Brushing his hair from his eyes. It flicked cold fingers at the skin of his arms.
"But do not forget that it was he who left you here."
Far below, the frost white seas began to churn. The waves turned choppy until restless waves lapped at the rocky cliffs, as though to test their resolve to stand.
There was a billow of white gossamer to his left as she floated to stand beside him. The gales picked up with yet more speed, whipping her hair wildly about her face.
Below them, the sea's vice rose from a whisper to a roar. Waves crashed, throwing themselves as though in suicide upon the pointed rocks. The wind howled past them, lifting her veils into a violet dance. The sword's surface rippled in the reflection of the gleaming light. Hadrian gripped it tighter.
"Standing here, so alone for so long . . . Do you not grow cold?" he heard her ask.
He stared forward, unblinking, as a knife of blue lightning sliced the sky.
"No," he said.