“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.” - Edgar Allen Poe
A wisp of a little girl wrapped in a tattered blanket huddled up in the dark corner of the ramshackle apartment. She tried to block out the screaming from the only other room in the shack. Her body still cried in protest at every movement from her last beating, preventing her from moving. Eventually, the screaming stopped, signaling that her drunken father finally passed out. Her dark-haired mother appeared before her after drying her own tear-stained cheeks. After embracing her small daughter with her own skeletal form, Dalia bid her child goodnight and promised to appear the food in the morning. The girl heard the old door creak open as Dalia vanished into the night. The girl didn’t have drink to warm her as her father did. Instead, she shivered herself to sleep.
Her mind went to the dreamworld she kept from her parents. She left her own dream room to wander the winding paths until she came upon a door that hadn’t been there before. The imposing, black door looked too heavy for her to open. Curiosity made it possible as she wrapped her small, thin fingers around the silver knob and pushed the door inward. A gaso escaped her as she drank in the lush garden and lake. A tug in her head told her to enter, and so she did. There, the cool grass eased the pain in her body. Her bruises and cuts no longer pulsed like a painful beat to a song of horror. Instead, she felt calm in the starry sky and lapping waves. A feeling washed over her of a cool breeze carrying a refreshing scent and mist on her face.
“Who are you?”
She turned and saw a raven-haired boy not much older than her sitting on a bench she hadn’t noticed.
“I’m Lea...” Her nose scrunched. She could never get the last bit. She sounded it out like Dalia taught her. “Lay-ann-der-uh.”
“What are you doing here? This is my spot.” The boy’s steel blue gaze narrowed on her.
“I’m sorry. I did no mean to...” She stood up quickly. “I was walkin’, and-. I go.”
“Did not,” he muttered. “Did not mean to, you were walking not walkin’, and it’s ‘I will go’. Are you stupid or something?”
The question was a familiar one, and her answer was always the same, a lowering of her gaze to her bare feet. Her hands rung at her repurposed potato sack dress. She felt his mist colored eyes look her up and down before sighing and moving his gaze back to the garden.
“You’re already here. I guess you might as well stay.”
She beamed at him and sat back down. “So what’s your name?”
“Nikolai.” He watched as her face scrunched again. Somehow, he felt as if he knew what she was thinking. “You can just call me Nik.” Her relieved expression told him that his guess was correct. “Where did you get all of those from?” He nodded to her bruised legs. She shuffled them under her ragged dress.
“I’ve always had legs,” she replied, a smile covering her face.
“I mean the bruises.” Her sad expression made him regret asking.
“Fell.” The lie was obvious, and he grit his teeth at it. Nikolai had seen similar bruised on the servants after his father ‘disciplined’ them. He didn’t push any further, though. The girl was grateful.
She returned to enjoying the garden’s beauty. Flowers she didn’t know the name of grew by the bundle around the area where they were sitting. Moonlight reflected off the lake in front of her. For some reason, it felt right to be here. Her dark eyes slid to Nik. Her mother had always warned her away from strangers, but she got the same feeling from him as she did from the garden.
After a few minutes, they started conversing again. She found out he was from a noble family and loved apple tarts, whatever those were. He learned she was living in conditions that disgusted him and liked bread and ‘mystery meat stew’, which also disgusted him. Nik decided then and there to find her one day and make her his apple tart buddy. Eventually, the both felt it was time to wake up and promised to meet the next night. The two became quick, close friends, and continued their visits for almost three years.
Meanwhile, her father’s drinking grew to match his dissatisfaction with life. Eventually, it came to a head while he was taking out his rage on his frail wife. Rohling nearly beat Dalia to death in a drunken fit. Most seven-year olds are busy playing with real and imaginary friends. Little Leandra was defending her mother with a broken glass bottle that was in her hand one minute and in her father’s neck the next. All she heard was white noise before her mother crying ‘what have you done’ jarred her out of her trance.
Leandra ran out the front door one last time. She sprinted through the streets with tears streaming down her face. The tears blinded her from the Relic Hunter’s oncoming horse, and she fell unconscious from the impact.
In the dreamworld, she ran to Nik’s garden and found it empty. She sat there and cried, waiting for him to come. He was smart. Surely, he would know what to do. For the first time since they met, Nik never arrived. Leandra could only curl up in the flowers and cry as the stars watched.
Leandra awoke days later in a room she didn’t recognize. Though it was modestly decorated, it was a far cry from the two room shack she grew up in.
“Relax, child.” The warm voice came from her bedside. An older woman with kind eyes was watching over her. “What’s your name?” The girl whimpered it out. “Leandra, is a lovely name! You can call me Maud. May I ask what caused you to run through the street in such a terror?”
Leandra’s eyes immediately welled up with tears. She babbled out her parents’ fight and the stabbing of her father. Her emotions completely overwhelmed her, and she was soon sobbing into her hands. The woman’s brow creased as she rubbed the girl’s back. “Don’t worry, dear. We’ll sort it out.”
True to her word, the woman spoke to, Nathair, the man who nearly trampled Leandra and would become her mentor. He looked at Leandra, passed the bruises, the scars, the cuts, and the rags, and felt the burning ember of magic and potential. He decided he would talk to the guard on the girl’s behalf and take her in. Maud decided to follow them to ensure the girl’s safety. Her plan to stay on as a healer was a temporary one at best anyways.
The guard cared little about a poor seven-year old killing her drunken father in self-defense. Her mother, despite her faults, knew that the Relic Hunters could provide a better future for her daughter than she ever could. She allowed them to adopt her but sent a letter every birthday and holiday until her death. All the while, Lea saw neither hide nor hair of her dream-friend, even as her magic strengthened under Nathair’s tutelage.
During this time, tensions between the two neighbor nations of Telawyn and Pralok only grew. Both nations bolstered their powers by forming groups dedicated solely to the recovery and understanding of ancient magical artifacts. However, neither group had the knowledge or inherited skill of the Relic Hunters, a small, ancient order focused on the recovery of lost knowledge. Another decision was then made to recruit the few Hunters, whether they were willing or not. Open war was stirring, and luck favored those who were prepared.