Summary: Sara and Ian find themselves slipsliding between dream and reality.
Author's Note: Although this is a crossover with "The Sandman" by Neil Gaiman, you do not need to have read that to follow this story.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to my beta reader, Jessica, who is too keen for words. Any mistakes you see are mine.
The Preface is a short "primer" about The Sandman which contains all I think you need to know about that work in order to understand the tie-ins to this fic. (It will open in a new browser window.)
Part I - Destruction
He sits at the top of the hill, the gentle breeze cool against his skin. He looks at the sword lying across his lap...a large broadsword, the quality good but not exceptional...
“Englishman!” a voice booms from below. “Englishman!”
He smiles. He is not English, but that is what Cathain’s army calls him. The insult has become an accepted nickname among their ranks -and only their ranks. Of course, calling their group an ‘army’ is probably an exaggeration. The troops who had gone with Cathain to Connemara have returned with her, along with a small group of Conchobar’s men who followed Cathain. They are not legion, but they are all, undoubtedly, loyal to Cathain.
That loud, deep voice belongs to Sean - a large, red-haired bear of a man who now makes his way up the hill. The first impression of Sean is that of a brute - tall, bulky, loud and destructive. But he iss always of good humor (unless he is on the battlefield) and always very aware of the damage a man his size can do. Sean is a warrior and, like the Englishman, a member of Cathain’s inner circle. The Englishman likes and respects Sean, but there is something...preternatural about him. The Englishman has never quite figured out what it is; he had mentioned this once to Cathain but she had dismissed it.
Sean promptly plops himself down beside the Englishman. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere, lad.”
Usually, the Englishman would have made a joke, but he can guess why Sean was looking for him.
Sean says, “The Bastard sent another messenger.”
Those five words trigger a cold anger in his heart. ‘The Bastard’ is the other nickname used by Cathain’s army, one used exclusively for His Royal Bastard, Conchobar. He finds himself gripping the sword so tightly that his hand starts to cramp.
“How did she reply?” he asks. He dreads this answer. Perhaps Cathain has forgiven The Bastard, and if she has...
“She hasn’t. Not yet.”
The anger in his heart is immediately replaced by a physical tightening of his chest. If she is going to say no, she would say so without hesitation. He cannot look at Sean, for fear of revealing his emotions, and instead focuses on the patch of grass in front of him.
Sean says, “She wants us to counsel her. To give her an unbiased assessment.”
The Englishman closes his eyes. Impossible...
“But I see that is impossible for you.”
He looks up at Sean, the sincerity of Sean’s smile reflected in the crinkle of his eyes. The Englishman grins briefly then lets his eyes wander to the valley before them, looking for Cathain among the camp. “Why is she hesitating? What has he offered this time?”
“It was more of a threat than a offer.”
His hand tightens on his sword again as Sean continues, “If she doesn’t return, he will call upon the gods to intervene - a ritual, three sacrifices to force her to return.”
Now, he can understand Cathain’s dilemma. He doesn’t think it is possible for him to hate The Bastard more, but he does. Finally, he says, “Wherever she leads us, I will follow. My life is hers for the taking.”
“As is your body.”
That earns Sean a sharp look. No one is supposed to know. One night...one night she asked him to help her forget and he obliged. He had been foolish enough to think that one night could lead to another and to...something more. But it had not. The intimacy they shared that night was more than physical. He knows the depth of their connection had scared her; it had scared him, as well.
Sean laughs then sighs. “You are a tortured soul, my friend, and your emotions are as plain as the beard on your face.”
After a long moment, the Englishman says, “She still loves him. She will return to him.”
Sean moves his head side to side. “Oh, I don’t know about that.”
Cathain sits on a log, watching the flames of the campfire before her. Everyone -except for the sentries- has gone to bed, but she cannot sleep. That last message from Conchobar has rattled her. If her army supported his, the defeat of his enemies will be swift. If she denied him, he will go into battle anyway. Without her army providing a backbone of leadership, his army will battle long and hard -chaotically. That can become a long, drawn out war. All that death, all that destruction...she does not want to be responsible for it.
She hears a clinking of metal and glances up. Sean. He sits on the ground next to her. “Can’t sleep either, eh?”
Cathain smiles. “I am deciding our fate. What is your excuse?”
“The Englishman is entertaining a lady from the village. I’m surprised you don’t hear them all the way over here.”
She loses her smile. She has no claim to him, but...
Sean chuckles. “I’m joking with you, lass.” Very gravely he adds, “Since you, he has not shared his bed.”
“Is that why you are here? I do not need to justify myself to you. Or him.”
“No, no, Cathain,” he says apologetically. “But now you can understand why he refuses to counsel you on this matter. Luckily, I am still here to offer you unbiased advice.”
Cathain grins a little. Sean has a unique way of making a point sometimes. He is forgiven. For now. She stares at the fire for a long time. “I feared I was being petty...letting my pride guide my actions. The truth is that he will still go into battle without us just to spite me. You know as well as I do what that means.”
“That would not be your fault.”
Cathain shrugs. Then she says, “If I do not return, he will murder three people to force his will on me. I hate him even more for that. And the more I hate him, the more I want his army to fail - for him to lose his crown and be destroyed. I can deny him my army and my self, but I find it difficult to let him...perform that ritual.”
“That is what he is counting on.”
Cathain looks at Sean, waiting for him to continue.
“He knows you, Cathain. He knows your weakness is your heart, your sense of justice. He might be bluffing or not. It doesn’t matter. He is manipulating you.”
In his tent, The Englishman lies on his side, propping himself up on an elbow. Cathain stands before him, her back to him, and is saying quietly, “I do not wish to hurt you...”
Cathain turns, then suddenly looks confused. “Nottingham?”
Nottingham? Cathain never calls him by his name in these dreams unless... “Sara?”
Ian Nottingham bolted up in his bed.
Across town, Sara Pezzini awoke with a start.
Part II - Despair
“Why have you abandoned me?!”
This dream is one that Sara knows all too well. First is the Rialto. She’s standing on the stage, hands raised in surrender, Gallo pointing a gun at Danny then pulling the trigger...
There’s a moment of total darkness and then Sara is looking at Danny’s grave. She’s freezing but she doesn’t care. Her father was dead, Maria was dead, and now Danny. All the people she cared about - gone. The scene melts and shifts around her again - her father shot in the alley by Gallo... Maria shot in the hotel room. The scene changes to the warehouse - Nottingham jumping up in front of her, the arrow meant for her piercing his chest. And again the scene shifts - at the mansion, Gabriel lying on a couch...Jake’s lifeless body before her... Danny bound and gagged as Daniel plunges a knife into his chest... Gabriel strapped to his favorite electric chair, sticks of dynamite attached to his body and then the blinding flash...Jake in a patrol car, shot point blank in the face...Nottingham pelted with bullets...
The images assault her over and over - everyone that cared for her was dead and there was nothing she could do. The blood pouring out of Danny’s body, Gabe’s head at that odd unnatural angle, Maria splayed on that couch, Dad slumped over those steps...
And just when she thinks she can’t stand it anymore, the scene shifts again. She is tied to a stake but Sara knows this is Jeanne, not her...
“Why have you abandoned me?!”
There is nothing she can do...the Witchblade does not -will not- help. They will all die because of her...because they cared for her... She is abandoned. Alone. She always will be.
The cycle starts again - Danny in the Rialto, her father in the alley, Maria in the hotel room...over and over, image after horrific image, faster and faster...
Sara sat up in her bed, drenched in sweat and panting as if she had run a 3 minute mile. Faint afterimages from the dream still ran through her mind. She forced herself out of bed, went to her bathroom and washed her face with cool water. As she dried her face, she paused long enough to glance in the mirror. She’d had the dream before, but it had never been so intense. She looked at the Witchblade. “What is up with you?”
On the way back to bed, Sara stopped to pick up the phone and started to call Nottingham. If anyone would know what these dreams were about, he would. She hung up after the first ring. She wasn’t that desperate -not yet, anyway.
Part III - Delirium
Ian jumps off a building, flies through the air, and lands in a perfect crouch to absorb the impact. The ground begins to shake, crumbling into an infinite blackness...
This is the dream Ian Nottingham hates.
Every time he has it, he tries to direct the dream, to make it less of a nightmare, but the effort is always in vain. And soon he falls into the abyss - a chaotic, frenetic reality that is so frightening because it is so possible -and so easy to accept- to stay there forever.
At the bottom, the usual suspects await him in an unnerving kaleidoscope of his life: Father, Sara, the Wielders, Moby, Immo and the Witchblade...always the Witchblade...
Moby speaks, “You will kill us all, brother.”
He grows tall and large, morphing into a giant black dragon. He rears back and Ian is sure he will be scorched in Moby’s next breath...
Ian is in his childhood bed, his ankle injured, his Father at his bedside, happy to have balloons and a new bike, sure as only a little boy could be that a bike was better than a pony...
He rides a horse in battle, the power of the Blade flowing through him...He feels mighty, invulnerable, invincible. He raises the Witchblade in triumph, catching the eye of the Wielder Banrighinn, smiling at her jealous look, liking that she is jealous of a hunk of metal and stone...
He walks into Immo’s lab to see the Others in their stasis chambers. Their eyes open and he is suddenly seeing himself through their eyes - himself from five different points of view. Disoriented, he stumbles...he hears their voices in his head - the ones in stasis, the ones who had come before him- all of them with his voice, each with something unique to say. Their voices are loud, cacophonous, maddening, until they start to synchronize, to repeat the same message over and over, and at last in perfect harmony they all say...
Ian remained in his bed, staring at the ceiling, for what seemed like hours. He focused on his breathing, trying to get it under control and to calm his racing pulse. He hated that dream, and this time it had been frighteningly vivid. The tiny fragments he remembered would quickly fade into vague recollections, but that madness -and the comfort in the madness- he could not forget.
His cell phone rang once. Ian’s hand reached over to the night stand where the cell phone sat recharging, but when it didn’t ring again, Ian ignored it and laid back to stare at the ceiling again.
His unease about the dream soon turned into restlessness, and, despite the early hour, he decided to start his day.