Dreams of the Dying - An Enderal novel Chapter 1: Prologue - My Judgment Is

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SILENCE FILLED THE COURTROOM. All eyes were on Jespar: judge, jury, and spectators. Arched windows lined each of the side walls, allowing slivers of evening sunlight to fall into the otherwise dark hall.
"...I'm not here."
"Speak louder, boy," the Corpse on the judge's bench said.
"I'm not here," Jespar repeated, his voice trembling. He forced himself to meet the Corpse's eyes. "This is a dream."
The Corpse smiled faintly. A maggot crawled out of his right ear, disappearing down the side of his neck. "It seems you're as cunning as rumored. Yes, boy, you are in a dream. Does it matter?"
Cold spread in Jespar's gut, worms of ice hatching from their eggs. He was sick with fear.
A little taste of what's to come, a voice in his head said. The narrator—he knew him well.
Like most recurring dreams, this one had a structure. Jespar thought of it as an abandoned theater, showing the play the recesses of his mind had written for him. In this place, however, "him" was a loose term, since his consciousness had split from his body the moment he entered the dream. Within it, Jespar was a puppet, with no control over his physical actions, but still he felt it all: every emotion, every sensation, from the steel shackles cutting into the puppet's ankles to the horror that would inevitably follow. Second was the narrator, a voice that commented on the events as they unfolded, speaking all the truths and thoughts that, in waking life, his mind tried to bury. Finally, there was the prisoner—the fragment of himself that remained aware throughout it all, knowing it was a dream but unable to change its course.
"Why does it matter?" the Corpse repeated.
Jespar swallowed. "Because it's not- Because it's not real. None of you are real."
The audience chuckled.
"Is that so?" the Corpse said, still smiling. "Then tell me, why don't you leave? Why don't you simply snap your fingers and propel yourself back into the reality you came from?" He snapped his fingers to illustrate the point. His nails were so long they curled.
Jespar tried to reply, but all that came out was a croak. This evoked more laughter from the audience.
Fool.
Useless fool.
Even here, you're making a fool out of yourself.
"Correct," the Corpse said. "Because you can't." His gaze drifted as he rubbed his chin with thumb and index finger. Though everything else about his appearance suggested rot—the greasy hair, the snot and dirt in his beard, the flies circling about him—his skin was strangely intact, clean and smooth except for the deep frown lines. And still, something about it was off, wrong, as if some madman had dug his skull from a grave and stretched someone else's face over it in a bad attempt to disguise what was beneath. As if to underline the thought, the Corpse's fingertips left dents in his face when he withdrew them, like they would have on a warm candle.
"Our minds decide what's real, boy," he said. "That is why we love, hate, hope, why we believe in gods that do not exist." His eyes again snapped to Jespar's. "So, Jespar Mitumial Dal'Varek, let me repeat my question: Do you know why you're here?"
"You're not—"
He didn't finish the sentence, as suddenly the cold shot up his esophagus, into his chest, his neck, the bones of his skull. Suddenly, everything seemed too bright, too loud, too intense. Bile rose in his throat at the ubiquitous stench of decay; the sunlight through the windows burnt his cheeks, the stares of the audience bore into his back.
Pathetic.
Gods, you're so pathetic.
With a sob, he covered his head with his hands and shut his eyes, waiting for the feeling to subside. When it finally did and he dared to look up again, the Corpse's eyes, the color of dirty ice, were locked with his.
The Corpse shook his head.
His expression had changed—the disgust was still there, but there was now something else. Disappointment. Shame. Contempt.
"It appears you need a reminder," he said, gesturing to to the guards at Jespar's sides. Both of them were identical to the Corpse. The left one drew a blue piece of cloth from under his armor and tossed it at Jespar's knees.
Look at that.
"What do you see?" the Corpse asked.
The only memory you didn't bury.
"Not real," Jespar whispered, his breath coming in fits. "You're not real."
The Corpse's mouth smiled, but his eyes didn't. "Maybe not. But my judgment is." He pointed at the cloth. "This, boy, is a scarf ... as you well know. It's the one she gave you only months before you abandoned her. Was it easy for you, I wonder? Turning your back on her only a year after you found her in those bloodstained sheets, the knife still in her hands? Yes, I suppose it was—you've done it before, as we all can testify."
The audience booed. Someone from the jury spit on Jespar, the spittle hitting his left cheek. His throat drew tighter, the cold sunk deeper. It paralyzed him now, his neck, his lungs, his tongue. He tried to speak, but the words wouldn't come. The boos went on. When Jespar glanced up at the judge's bench again, something was happening to the Corpse's skin, something that changed the way it stretched and contracted over the muscles of his face.
Softer, Jespar realized. It grew softer.
Malleable.
"Well, it seems like this is going nowhere," said the Corpse when the noise had finally abated. "You leave me no choice." He turned to the two juries, seven Corpses each, sitting on two raised aisles perpendicular to the dais. They all looked like him.
"Guilty or not?"
"Guilty!" they shouted. The audience joined in, all of them sharing the Corpse's face, repeating the word over and over. Their voices filled the temple-like hall like an incantation.
The Corpse stood. The skin on his cheeks had now begun to melt, oozing down his face like wax. "Jespar Dal'Varek!" he shouted, his voice drowning the chanting. "You are hereby found guilty! Guilty of being a coward! Guilty of being a failure! Guilty of being a traitor to your own flesh and blood!"
He slammed his gavel onto the stone bench.
The crowd went mad. Deafening cheers shook the hall; people jumped up from their seats, applauded, screamed, hurled insults like stones.
No, he tried to whisper, but his vocal cords, frozen stiff, wouldn't oblige. He pressed his hands against his temples and shut his eyes like a child wishing the monsters away. Please, no.
Yes, Jespar.
This is how it ends.
How it has to.
When the cheers died down, the Corpse slowly descended the dais, the skin still dripping from his face. "As punishment," he said, "your body will serve to carry out the justice you've denied us."
He halted only a few steps from Jespar and studied him for a breath. Then he stooped down and grabbed him by the hair, yanking his head up so their eyes were level. By now, half the Corpse's face had dissolved, leaving behind a mask of muscle and bone, droplets of skin gathering on his jawline like mildew.
"Do you know what that means, boy?"
You're not real, Jespar tried to say. You're dead.
Though he hadn't spoken, the Corpse frowned. "Well, that is precisely the point, isn't it? We are dead, so we can't carry out the justice you've denied us. We can't because our bodies are useless."
There was a long pause.
"Unlike yours."
In a sudden motion, he drew a knife from under his robes, and sliced off a patch of skin from Jespar's face. Jespar screamed, kicked, convulsed, but the two guards pinned him down, their grip ironclad. The Corpse held up the bloody piece of skin in triumph, then slapped it onto his cheek where it stuck and conformed to his flesh like paper pulp. The Corpse smiled.
This is how it ends.
"See? It's simple. If you won't do your duty, then we will just borrow your useless skin and do it ourselves."
How it has to.
He turned to the rest of the room. "He's all yours."
With his last word, everyone leaped to their feet, and barged towards Jespar. Knives flashed in their hands.

Because you deserve it.
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